10 Travel Writers Share Their Scariest Stories From the Road

These seasoned pros do not hunt ghosts for a living. They do, however, have more than a few hair-raising tales from their globe-trotting adventures.

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October 17, 2019

Photo By: Lauren Oster

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Doug Wallace

Photo By: Alisha Bube

Photo By: Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort & Spa

Photo By: Getty Images/catedraleseiglesias

Photo By: Blair Hopkins, Wayfaring Photo

Photo By: Teri Didjurgis

Photo By: Kathleen Rellihan

Photo By: Rachael A. Jones

The Good, the Bad and the Spooky

Travel writers will happily tell you where to go, what to eat and which experiences are not to be missed. Their weirder and wilder tales are also perfect for late nights around the campfire. For Ghostober, we’ve rounded up ten trips that gave them goosebumps. (Louisiana’s Honey Island Swamp, pictured here at dusk, is not the home of a massive, mysterious monster locals have been spotting since 1963. That’s the official story, and we’re sticking to it.)

That Turned Dark Quickly

A few years ago I toured a wind cave in Italy’s Garfagnana region. The tour guide led us up a few flights of steep, wet stairs, then turned off the lights when we reached the top. No darkness is more complete or disorienting than a lightless cave, especially when you’re not standing on terra firma. Needless to say, I gripped the railing the entire time, even after the guide turned on the lights.— Meredith Rosenberg, Travel Channel contributor

Long-Term Resident

The Hotel Henry in Buffalo is one of western New York’s big landmarks and wow, it’s pretty, but boy, is it ever spooky. The Richardson Olmsted Campus opened in 1880 as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane and now, it’s the city’s hottest hotel, conference center and restaurant. The shabby-chic, paint-chipped support posts in my room gave me the willies — I couldn’t touch them — even though I thought that keeping some historic elements intact was a good idea. The hallways were eerily beautiful. A sign announcing an old stairwell made me give the door a shove, just to poke my head in. As I did, I came face to face with an octogenarian who scared me to death. We both screamed, then he said: "I’ve been in here for 50 years!" I peed with laughter.— Doug Wallace, travel writer and publisher of TravelRight.Today

Fortress of Solitude

Last fall I was on a trip in the Balkans where my first stop was in Kotor, Montenegro. Arriving at my hostel, I asked where a good location would be to catch the sunset and a couple hours after getting to town ended up at a derelict, abandoned WWI fortress on a ridge overlooking the coast with a couple of new friends.

We navigated a labyrinth of damp overgrown stone hallways by the insufficient flashlights on our phones and somehow found a narrow winding stairwell that led up to the roof of the structure. We sat for a of couple hours on the giant copper dome that used to be a 100-ton rotating Gruson turret, mesmerized by the 360-degree views of the Bay of Kotor cast in purple and pink hues that gradually deepened into an inky darkness.

It wasn’t until the stars began to appear in the sky that we realized we had to make the return journey out of the fortress at night. It may have been the jet lag, but it seemed like every ambient sound was some nefarious creature stalking us in the disorienting complex which seemed significantly harder to navigate with our own echoing footsteps setting our nerves on edge.

Thinking that our minds were playing tricks on us, we began to hear a murmur of voices in the distance muffled by the thick stone walls. Hearts racing, we quietly moved closer to the exit unsure of who or what to expect on this isolated hilltop so far from anything familiar. We reached the crumbling stone bridge that crossed a dried-up moat which marked our freedom from the fortress, but it landed us directly on the other side of a small hill where the voices, now clear, were coming from. We cautiously rounded the corner towards the car only to find another group who had driven up to watch the sunset and have a small campfire that we hadn’t noticed approach earlier. Even though the "danger" was nothing more than an overactive imagination, it still took a few minutes to regain control of my fluttering heart.— Alisha Bube, Travel Channel contributor

Cocktail Reception

A few years ago, I lucked into a stay at the Moana Surfrider, a gorgeous, turn-of-the-century Oahu property that was the first hotel in Waikiki. My group and I took a tour of the historic building (similar tours are available to guests), and our guide paused at a room a few doors down from my own: "Does anyone know who Jane Stanford is?" I did indeed, since she co-founded my alma mater, Stanford University. She’s also the star of Stanford’s Halloween season, as she suffered from two mysterious strychnine poisonings — once at her mansion in San Francisco, and then, in February of 1905, when she was a guest at what was then the Moana Hotel. Yes, Mrs. Stanford shuffled off this mortal coil under sinister circumstances just a few paces from where I would be turning in for the evening (and I was, naturally, the only writer staying anywhere near her room). While I am almost certain the mournful sound of the breeze outside my window was not evidence that Jane’s restless spirit coveted my room service nachos, I did spend my first night hoping she forgave me and my schoolmates for throwing yearly parties at her mausoleum back in California.— Lauren Oster, Travel Channel contributor

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Royal Welcome

Comprising a church, monastery, college, library and royal palace, the Monasterio del Escorial — a sprawling complex that’s an hour’s drive northwest of Madrid — was once home to the country’s kings. It is now the eternal home of 63 members of the Spanish royal family and counting.

As impressive as [the complex’s] architecture and artworks are, something special happens when you descend into the Pantheon of the Kings and Pantheon of the Princes. As you enter the first, you find yourself surrounded by 26 marble sepulchres stacked vertically from floor to ceiling. You are surrounded by an entire lineage of individuals. There is a certain thrilling energy in this room, which transforms into something truly otherworldly when you walk through to the Pantheon of the Princes.

As you set foot in the sprawling marble chamber, which acts as the final resting place of princes, princesses and consorts (the most recent burial took place there in 2015), you’re invited to walk between some of Spain’s most prominent figures, peek around columns and let yourself fall into history.

When I first entered the Pantheon of the Princes a decade ago, I suddenly felt something wash over me. As I approached various tombs, I had the very acute sense that I was not alone … a sense which I still remember vividly. It was a visceral response, not a cognitive one, and it could not be denied. No amount of common sense or very visible lack of fellow tourists could explain away the feeling of energy present in the air. It had an undeniable effect, searing itself into my memory, and I look forward to the day when I’ll visit again to chase that fleeting connection with centuries long gone but not forgotten.— Barbara Pavone, Montreal-based writer and editor

Foo Sighters

Years ago I was driving to Chaco Canyon National Historical Park in remote New Mexico with two friends. We were going out for a weekend of exploring after work on Friday, so we didn’t get there until late at night. It’s pitch black out there, and the stars are amazing. There’s a 16-mile dirt road to reach the park after a lonely highway drive on US 550 and absolutely no facilities. There are no nearby airports or cities. As we were driving, we all spotted at the same time a triangular configuration of lights seemingly very high in the night sky. I remember the sense that it was large but high up. The object was stationary, and a bright light moved from each of three points. It looked completely out of place against the Milky Way. It wasn’t a plane or satellite. It would have to be a helicopter to hover like that, but that didn’t make sense. I don’t think we used the term UFO at the time, and [we] chalked it up to some military craft. We were more curious than scared. But it definitely was something that looked out of place, and looking back we all still can’t figure out what it was. I’m glad I [had] two other people to witness it and check details against. It certainly wouldn’t be the first UFO to be spotted in New Mexico.— Steve Larese, Travel Channel contributor

Road Wraith

While working on my book, I had the pleasure of staying at the officially "non-haunted" bed and breakfast, The Dominion House in Blooming Grove, New York. It was a last minute decision, as the area had undergone a really rough storm and the other place [where] we were planning on staying had lost power. The whole thing turned out to be somewhat of a happy accident, of course — the B&B was really wonderful, and it even had an outdoor pool and an indoor hot tub that was fun to hang out in with a bottle of wine. But it's also situated down a very dark country road and I've just seen too many horror movies; I'll always have a twinge of anxiety over that. After dinner, my photographer and I were driving back to the property, chatting about how creepy and quiet the road was, and she said, "Just wait, a lady wearing all white is going to jump out from the shadows, I swear." At that very moment, her headlights flashed over a statue of the Virgin Mary that was somewhere in the road and we both shrieked! She slammed on her brakes and we backtracked where we realized that it was, in fact, just a road statue. But I still maintain that it was haunted! The whole house is essentially a well-preserved museum with original furnishings dating back to 1880, when it was owned by a local farmer. Until proven otherwise, I believe there's gotta be a spirit in that place! On the upside, if it turns out it isn't haunted, it still has a hot tub — so it's a pretty great place to stay."— Carly Fisher, author of Easy Weekend Getaways in the Hudson Valley & Catskills

See You in Hell

On a visit to Singapore, I wanted to discover the traditions and culture of the area and took a trip to Haw Par Villa, an Asian cultural theme park built in 1937. As I wandered the paved trails, the park highlighted Asian history, philosophy and religion with colorful statues and vignettes including Buddha, Confucius and popular historical fables including the Saga of the Immortals.

And then we walked into a large cave called the Ten Courts of Hell.

The structure has ten mini caves telling the tales of a combination of Buddhist Naraka and traditional Chinese beliefs about the repercussions for sins in the afterlife before reincarnation.

To say it was gruesome would be an understatement. This place takes Dante’s nine circles of hell to another level, literally, with ten dioramas of the consequences of your actions.

As we read the list of sins, we considered if the punishments displayed fit the crimes as we viewed depictions of people thrown into volcano pits, impaled with swords, crushed with rocks, and maimed, including one horrifying depiction of a tongue removal. Robbery and murder had the same consequence — head chopped off.

Most children growing up in Singapore in past generations visited this park. I can only assume they were as scared straight as we were. We ventured back into [the] modern city on our best behavior to avoid all "Courts of Hell."— Teri Didjurgis, travel writer and photographer, Blue Sky Traveler

Toasts for Ghosts

When you think of haunted places, usually wineries aren’t the first place to come to mind. But along New York’s Finger Lakes Wine Trail, ghost enthusiasts will find spirits of all types at Miles Wine Cellars. Housed in a Greek revival mansion built in 1802, the winery is unique in that it's not only boat accessible, but it also serves up a Ghost Wine. A blend of Chardonnay and Cayuga varietals, their signature wine is inspired by the spirits that haunt the mansion, believed to have been a young couple who may have died tragically at the house. Over a wine tasting, owner Suzie Hayes shared the encounters she and her husband have had with the ghosts⁠ — from feeling a touch on the back to seeing a couple standing on the porch only to disappear as they came closer. To my surprise, and what only added to the hospitable vibe of the winery, was Hayes telling me they wish to leave their ghosts in peace, on the advice [of] visiting clairvoyants.

So while you can stay at one of the two suites in the attached inn for a spooky wine-fueled stay, ghost hunting is strictly forbidden there. In fact, guests are required to sign a waiver saying that they will not perform séances or anything of the sort to stir the ghosts! You can feel their presence, so to speak, but let the spirits breathe there, as you do your wine.— Kathleen Rellihan, Newsweek travel editor

A Moment of Reflection

As a theme park journalist, I tend to stick to the light, bright and happy attractions. You know, rainbows and magic. But this year, I finally got up the courage to attend Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights. I tackled 10 haunted houses, five scare zones and two terrifying shows. And I still can't believe I did it! Hands down, the scariest haunted house is the brand-new Us experience that puts you right in the middle of Jordan Peele's thriller. I won't spoil it, but going through the creepy funhouse of mirrors is so scary!— Deanne Revel, Travel Channel contributor

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