Chantae Reden is a surfer, free diver, and resident of Fiji, which already makes her one of the most interesting people I know. She runs her own travel blogs, contributes to another, freelances, and works for Skyscanner as well. She’s author of the newly released Moon Handbook Bali and Lombok guidebook, which you can pick up here.
You and I first met at TBEX Bangkok many years ago when you were just getting rolling as a blogger. Tell us how your growth as a travel writer has gone since then.
Hey Tim! I’m excited to chat about travel writing and how it all came to be. When we met in 2015, I wanted to start taking blogging seriously but knew nothing about the ins and outs of earning money from my blog. I’d type musings on my phone or from foreign language keyboards and hit publish without proofreading, doing any search engine research, or even checking that the URL was spelled correctly. I wince looking back on those posts, but there are some funny moments hidden in there as I wrote without any sense of self-censorship.
I wasn’t an aspirational traveler as I wrote about getting robbed multiple times, Couchsurfing horror stories, and other topics that Google AdSense refuses to place advertisements on. My early blogging life on Chantae Was Here often caused drama between family and friends as I was a chronic over-sharer and my tales offered little inspirational or practical value to readers.
Aside from these cringeworthy moments, my blog helped me solidify my niche in adventure travel and that specialization helped me pick up bylines and secure more regular freelancing gigs. Shortly after TBEX, I became a regular contributor for a few outlets like Skyscanner Australia, a website I still write for today. I also wrote regularly for SurfGirl Magazine and loved seeing my stories in print. Around this time, I also started working on the back end of Perceptive Travel and learning from writers who published regularly there. I wrote a story about how my body resembled a sea lion’s for The Standup Journal which also added wind to my sails during this time.
In 2017, I started an ocean sports website called The Salt Sirens. I focused on monetizing the website from day one and it took the pressure off Chantae Was Here to earn income. I’ve always wanted my blog to be a place where I can write freely and without wondering whether every hour poured into is going to give me a strong financial return.
In 2018, I submitted a guidebook proposal on Bali and Lombok for Moon Travel Guides and was given a contract a few months later. Since 2015, I’ve also published articles in Travel + Leisure, VICE, Forbes Travel Guide, Matador Network, and have sold images to Lonely Planet. I am hoping to pick up another guidebook project once the pandemic is over. Having a portfolio of surf, scuba diving, and freediving stories helps me stand out from more generalized travel writers. I make most of my money through freelancing for regular clients and affiliate sales through my websites. I try to diversify my income as much as possible, as you recommend in Travel Writing 2.0, and the Travel Writing Overdrive course I took because I never know if one part of my business will be impacted.
You’ve lived in California, Australia, and other places over the years and now you’re in Fiji. What has it been like being based on an island in the ocean and what have you gotten to do there for adventures?
Fiji is so different from anywhere else I’ve ever lived. I went from growing up in Southern California, a region where everything and anything is at your fingertips to living in Perth, Western Australia—one of the most remote cities in the world. In 2017, my partner and I moved to the capital of Fiji.
It is a strange feeling to be so disconnected from the rest of the world. It’s hard to get some items and the restaurant scene is limited. I have a new appreciation for big cities now where you can attend a live performance, shop at a department store, and dine on any type of cuisine whenever you like. It’s also made me appreciate spending time with family and friends from home.
My dream life would be spending most of my daylight hours in the ocean either scuba diving, freediving, surfing, or boating before heading home and writing stories that inspire readers to involve themselves in ocean conservation or pursue an ocean sport themselves. Of course, I’ve yet to truly craft my dream life. However, there are many days I surf for a few hours before heading home to work on the computer. I’ve found that living in Fiji has fostered a work hard and play hard lifestyle. On weekends, I spend as much time as I can in the water unless I have a pressing assignment that can’t be postponed.
I’ve gone scuba diving with tens of sharks, snorkeled with manta rays, surfed at amazing waves, and have met some inspiring people throughout my time in Fiji. There are also hiking trails that cross through villages around the islands. Fijians tend to be friendly and welcoming as a default. It’s easy to feel at home even though I’m obviously not from around here. During the pandemic, so many of our friends and acquaintances let us know that they’d be here for us if we ever needed anything.
Is there a time you can recall where being based on the other side of the world has helped get you a plump freelance assignment?
Being a travel writer in such a small location certainly has its pros and cons. When I first moved to Fiji, I struggled to land any Fiji-specific assignments and I was too far away to be considered for many press trips around the world.
However, leaning into the ocean and environmental aspects of the South Pacific has helped immensely when it comes to landing assignments. Assignments that deal with reviewing luxury hotels in Fiji are often handed to me on a silver platter. Travel websites and magazines often can’t afford to send a travel writer to Fiji to complete one or two assignments before making the long trek back to the United States.
I’m currently on an assignment to review at least 30 five-star resorts in Fiji! One of the resorts is so exclusive, you can only arrive via private seaplane or helicopter. Rooms start at $5,000 USD per night. One of the guests mused that they fancied a game of beer pong. Within hours, the staff painted a ping pong table white and gold and set up glasses of champagne to play with instead. As someone who usually writes about camping and budget adventure travel, it was a shock to see how the ultra-wealthy vacation.
I’m sure you’re not thrilled about the timing, but your book debut is out now: Moon Handbook Bali and Lombok. What was that writing process like and what did you learn about the life of a guidebook writer?
Writing Moon Bali and Lombok has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my career so far. In the middle of researching the book, Indonesia was rocked with a series of earthquakes that devastated large parts of mainland Lombok and the Gili Islands. I stopped working on the book while the islands recovered. I learned how resilient some communities are, as many parts of Lombok and the Gili Islands rebuilt within a few months.
On the road, I followed a strict routine each day to cover as much ground as possible without having just a superficial travel experience. The night before, I mapped out the sites I needed to visit the next day and had a list of photos I thought I could get. I’d wake up before sunrise to catch any sunrise images (beaches, rice terraces, hiking trails) before heading to the main attractions. Arriving at attractions before 10 am usually gave me the best shot at beating the crowds.
I devoted some days completely to scuba diving, freediving, surfing, hiking, or doing things I thought really mattered when it came to safety. I find that many guidebook writers recommend sloppy or dangerous tour operators because they don’t do any high-risk activities themselves. They simply wouldn’t know what to look for—much like I wouldn’t know what to look for when it comes to fine art or high fashion. If you recommend a bad restaurant, the worst consequence might be a night hunched over the toilet. If you recommend a bad scuba diving or trekking operator, the consequence can be much more dangerous.
I tried to be thorough in documenting data like opening hours, addresses, and phone numbers—all variable factors in Indonesia! Sometimes, a restaurant owner would tell me that their road doesn’t have a name, their opening hours are when they feel like it, and that their phone is lost so they will be getting a new number soon… Of course, this would be the best restaurant in town and had to be in the book. Nameless roads killed me. I felt bad for my amazing editor who constantly requested more detail on how to get from point A to B. Apparently, “Ask around and someone will eventually point you to the right spot!” is not an acceptable description for guidebook blurbs.
After I got the on-the-ground research done, I sat at my computer for marathon writing sessions. I learned I can write so much more in a single sprint than I thought possible. I loved discovering all the boutique homestays, restaurants, tours, and natural sights in Bali and Lombok. One of the biggest takeaways from writing the book is that in destinations like Indonesia, price and quality are not necessarily correlated.
I have so much respect for guidebook writers who need to work in countries with a high cost of living or areas where they aren’t fluent in the language. My mouth drops when I hear of writers who’ve completed 20 guidebooks in 20 different countries. Guidebook writing is not lucrative, and there are times where I struggled to differentiate one beach from the next without using clichés. I really admire guidebook writers like Marco Ferrarese and David Nikel who can describe seemingly mundane places in an interesting way. I bombarded them with guidebook writing woes and am thankful for the advice they gave me through the whole process. My friends in Indonesia also helped with fact-checking and interpreted poor translations scribbled into my notebook.
How did your editorial gig with Skyscanner come to be and what is your role there?
I met a representative of Skyscanner at TBEX in 2015, the same week I met you. I pitched the editor a few articles until I was given the green light to write them. Shortly after, I became a regular contributor. It helped that I had been using Skyscanner for years and could easily write how-to guides from my Skyscanner travel hacks I used in daily life. If you use and love a product, reach out to the brand and ask if they need content.
A few years later, I was asked to contribute to the social media accounts for the Australia and New Zealand market. It’s really fun to interact with fellow travelers every day. Today, I am the freelance market editor for Skyscanner Australia’s news section. I work with a team of editors and writers to publish content around practical travel tips, sustainable travel, and destination guides.
Along the line you started writing for me at the Perceptive Travel Blog. What are some of your favorite pieces you’ve published there?
The Perceptive Travel Blog is one of my favorite places to write as it’s truly one of the only travel outlets that allows for so much editorial freedom. Are we allowed to swear on the Travel Writing 2.0 website? If so, I still love this guide on how to use the C-word in the Australian Outback. One Perceptive Travel reader privately offered to buy me a drink after I wrote about my hatred of “Wonderwall” by Oasis.
So YouWant to Write A Guidebook? was my first article on the process of guidebook writing itself and my thoughts have held steady now that the book is completed. I don’t know what compelled me to write publicly about the time I got sick on a plane, but for some reason that’s a favorite tale on the blog as well. Maybe it’s a nod to my 2015 era of oversharing? For trip inspiration, dream of Sedona, Arizona or Taveuni, Fiji.
Chantae Reden is an adventure writer based in Suva, Fiji. She is the author of Moon Bali & Lombok by Moon Travel Guides. Her writing has been featured in VICE, Travel + Leisure, Escape, and more. You can find more of her writing on her personal travel blog, Chantae Was Here. She is senior editor of The Salt Sirens, a website devoted to ocean sports.