Mandy McElhinney loves it all, from Africa to Paris, New York and beyond … even if there is a bit of Bali belly and issues with spare tyres to contend with.

What was your best holiday?

It’s a tie! Paris in summer in 2007 was stunningly beautiful: wandering along the Seine bathed in that infamous light clutching various pastries, I felt like I was living a fairytale. Christmas and New Year in New York in 2009 was also magical for a southern hemispherean: Central Park covered in snow and the city lit up like a Christmas tree brought out the little kid in me.

Best hotel you’ve stayed in?

The Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco; a historic hotel built in 1907 and designed by the architect of the extraordinary Hearst Castle. It had so much old-world charm and a Tiki bar that’s been there since 1945. The bandstand floats on an enormous pool in the centre of the room and you sit in wicker chairs enjoying Pacific Rim cuisine, sip drinks with umbrellas and wait for the artificial thunderstorms.

What do you need for a perfect holiday?

Good footwear. Wherever I am, I’m going to be doing a lot of walking and getting lost, because I always think you make the best discoveries when you just set out with a map and discover things along the way.

What do you always take with you on holidays?

Books. Fiction set in the culture I’m visiting and factual guide books. I’m one of those nerds who’s always researching the place I’m visiting. And maps, I love maps! Real maps that you can unfold and put markings on, that will wear away as the holiday goes on, and that you can keep in a box with your photos and retrace your steps years later.

Best piece of travel advice?

Make sure your hire car has a spare wheel before you head off into the wilderness! Recently my sister and I did a road trip from LA to San Francisco through Big Sur national park. The first night we stayed in the park in a yurt, which was wonderful, but at midnight a cyclone hit and it was terrifying. We couldn’t wait to get out of there the next day, so we headed off when it was still storming. There were landslides happening so we ended up driving over a rock and blowing a tyre, which is when we discovered we didn’t have a spare! We had to pay an extraordinary amount of money to get a tow truck to take us all the way out of the national park, so we didn’t really see any of Big Sur.

Where do you want to go next?

Everywhere! I’d love to go back to Africa, Japan is high on the list and I’ve never been to Tasmania. I wouldn’t knock back a yoga retreat in India or a cruise from Saint Petersburg to Moscow. But I think Scandinavia’s at the top of the list – I’d love to see that countryside, the tall trees and the volcanic rock – it’s very evocative and so different to our landscape.

What was your worst holiday?

On my first ever trip overseas when I was 23 I went to Africa for three months. One day in Nairobi I let some locals shine my shoes and gave them money, but then they wanted more and when I said no they pulled a knife on me and said, “You’re going to give us more money, we know where you’re staying”. I gave them the money and kept walking, but from then on I was paranoid I was being targeted. It was quite a wake-up call because I’d been expecting Out of Africa, but of course there were toddlers begging on the street and tribal conflicts.

And your worst experience on holiday?

Waking up one morning violently ill in a beautiful coastal town in Kenya called Tiwi. But it was an interesting insight into privilege, because we’d visited the local community hospital the day before and the lack of facilities and amount of people waiting to be looked after was overwhelming. Then, when I got sick the next day, I was taken to the local five-star hotel, which had this extraordinary blood test lab and hospital facilities in it just for white, wealthy people. They were able to get fluids into me so I eventually recovered, but they never figured out what it was and it took me a couple of months to feel right again.

Worst hotel you’ve stayed in?

Nairobi wins again; the room wasn’t dissimilar to a toilet. It didn’t have any walls but it was the best hotel we could find. The first one we were taken to actually had faeces on the wall. This one was like a dormitory and there were so many bugs crawling around that I didn’t sleep at all. It opened onto a hallway so there were people coming and going and screaming all night. It was like sleeping in an insane asylum.

Biggest packing mistake you’ve ever made?

Using one of those plastic security ties on my luggage, which my mother had bought me. I arrived home from a holiday in the early hours of the morning after a horrendous, long flight and realised I couldn’t get the tag off without scissors, and my keys were in my luggage. It was too early to ring anyone to help me so I just curled up on my front doorstep and slept until I could call a friend.

What do you avoid on holiday?

Organised activities. I’m not much of a tour joiner, I just find they take the fun of discovery out of holidays a bit. I also just like travelling with the people I’m with and I like meeting locals. I don’t necessarily want to hang out with a bunch of Australians.

What do you hate about holidays?

That they cost money; otherwise they’d never have to end.

As told to Nina Karnikowski

Mandy McElhinney plays Rhonda in the infamous Ketut and Rhonda AAMI ads, and recently played Nene King in ABC TV’s Paper Giants: Magazine Wars.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.