There's no faster route into a literary culture than a local get-together, writes Rosemarie Milsom.
A couple of years ago while on a one-day stopover in Adelaide, my mum and I were happy to discover our trip coincided with the biennial Adelaide Writers' Week, held in conjunction with the Adelaide Festival. Within an hour of disembarking, we were sitting in a marquee under the trees in the Pioneer Women's Memorial Garden listening to A Suitable Boy author Vikram Seth describe his peripatetic childhood. Among the casually dressed crowd in the laid-back late-summer setting, we felt as though we belonged.
And that's the appeal of attending a writers' festival while travelling - if you're a book-loving out-of-towner there's something welcoming about being part of a like-minded audience listening to a favourite author discuss his or her work or debate a political issue.
"All festivals are very different and have their own atmosphere reflecting the local culture," says the former director of the Sydney Writers' Festival, Caro Llewellyn, who is now based in New York as the director of the PEN World Voices Festival. "Almost no matter how much you read, there's really no better way - or perhaps quicker way - to get seeped in the literary culture of a country than by going to their festivals."
Writers' festivals are held from Jaipur to Vancouver, so if you're planning a getaway, here is a chronological guide to the most loved and respected festivals around the world. Dates may change slightly from year to year, so check websites for up-to-date details.
January in Jaipur
The Jaipur Literature Festival, January 21-25 If you managed to make it to this five-day event last month, which was held in the historic haveli-turned-hotel Diggi Palace, you would have been part of a festival bursting with award winners. Joint festival director William Dalrymple, himself a respected author, put together an eclectic program featuring the Queen of Bhutan, Alexander McCall Smith, Hanif Kureishi, Amit Chaudhuri, Louis de Bernieres, Vikram Chandra, Michael Frayn, Roddy Doyle and Anne Enright. They discussed topics such as the impact of the internet and the challenges of writing a biography.
Known for its inclusion of music and dance as well as its relaxed evening schedule, this festival has been described by author Pico Iyer as "the most carnival-like". "Where else would you go from Shakespeare to contemporary politics to V.S. Naipaul and then Sufi music - each in such a full-bodied way?"
The Diggi Palace has 50 rooms and offers a range of activities for guests, including camel safaris, yoga and ayurvedic massage.
April in New York
PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, April 26-May 2 For one week each northern spring, some of the world's leading writers gather in venues across New York to participate in panels, readings and discussions. Now in its sixth year, this festival is chaired by Salman Rushdie and directed by former Sydneysider Llewellyn. A highlight of last year's event was a near-riot at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to secure unreserved seats for a discussion about the economy with Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, financier George Soros and British historian Niall Ferguson.
"The crowd almost knocked over the mummies - truly - in a stampede when we opened the doors," Llewellyn recalls.
PEN is the world's oldest literary and human rights organisation so the program has a strong political bent. Many of the events are free and tickets are available online from mid-March.
May in Hay
The Guardian Hay Festival of Literature, Wales, May 27-June 6 With its bucolic setting and wealth of second-hand bookshops - almost 40 in a town of 2000 people - Hay is a mecca for book lovers and those with a passion for ideas and debate. Bill Clinton described the festival as "the Woodstock of the mind". Last year's event celebrated everything from outer space to the mysteries of the human heart, from macro-economics to the burlesque.
Sting, David Frost, Sophie Dahl, Stephen Fry and Grand Designs host Kevin McCloud were just some of the talent who last year entertained the 80,000 visitors over the expanded 10-day program, which now also includes film and music. There is also an extensive children's festival that runs parallel to the main schedule.
The festival operates a bed-finder service from February to help visitors find good local accommodation but be warned, rooms are best booked at least a year in advance.
August in Byron
Byron Bay Writers Festival, August 6-8 Ask publishing types to nominate their favourite Australian festival and Byron Bay tends to be the most popular pick - alongside Adelaide, which was mentioned earlier. It's the combination of the relaxed atmosphere as well as the lure of Byron Bay itself. The event's new home as of last year is Belongil Fields, about two kilometres from the town centre and known to those who've attended the annual Byron Bay Blues Festival.
Last year's bumper program included a panel entitled Certain Women: Midlife and Mid Stream, chaired by bestselling author Di Morrissey and featuring Gretel Killeen, Mary Moody and Kristin Williamson.
An extensive and popular schedule of workshops precedes the main festival, so if you've ever wanted to write your memoir or learn about the art of travel writing, keep an eye on the website for the midyear program launch. Early-bird passes for the festival are also available.
October in Bali
Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, October 6-10 The founder and driving force behind this ever-expanding event is former Melburnian Janet De Neefe, who has lived in Ubud for more than 20 years. The mother-of-four and her husband, Ketut, manage a guesthouse, cooking school and two restaurants in Ubud. She started the festival after the 2002 bombings as a way of encouraging people back to Bali.
Frangipanis, fine food and the tropical heat help create an exotic atmosphere and the festival features a strong contingent of South-East Asian writers as well as the big names in Western literature - it's a heady mix. Picture Muslim spoken-word performers who use hip-hop mixing it up with John Berendt.
The theme for this year's festival is Bhinneka Tunggal Ika - "harmony in diversity" - and will open up debate about religious dogma, political ideologies and nationalism. Writers from Bosnia, Cuba, Malta and Iran will be among those attending. There is also an extensive workshop program. Book well in advance.
October in Vancouver
Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival, October 19-24 Held since 1988 on Granville Island, the cultural hub of Vancouver, this festival manages to lure the often-shy literary greats into the spotlight. Think Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro for starters (it helps that they're Canadian). Other featured authors have included J.K. Rowling, Ian Rankin, Martin Amis, Peter Carey, John Irving and Carol Shields.
Last year's program featured An Evening with Douglas Coupland, Ian Rankin discussing his new character after moving on from Rebus, David Sedaris and Australian Debra Adelaide as well as literary brunches and children's events.
Granville Island is filled with galleries, boutiques, waterfront restaurants, cafes and bars and has a lot to offer the tourist who wants a break during the festival program.
Don't miss the popular seven-day-a-week Public Market, which sells everything from locally brewed beer and sake to fresh salmon and organic chicken soup.
Festival tickets go on sale about six weeks before launch and can be bought online.