The VIP Lounge with Audra McDonald

Audra McDonald with her husband, Will Swenson, on the Amalfi Coast.
Audra McDonald with her husband, Will Swenson, on the Amalfi Coast.

Audra McDonald is one of today’s most celebrated performers, having won six Tony Awards (the most ever for performance), two Grammys, and an Emmy. In 2015, not only was she named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people, but she received a National Medal of Arts — America’s highest honor for achievement in the arts. On June 24, McDonald, 47, will bring her talents to Tanglewood to perform songs from American musical theater with the Boston Pops. “They’re one of the country’s greatest orchestras,” she said in a recent phone interview. “My concerts are very informal affairs. I like to talk to the audience, let them know who I am. . . . There’s lots of storytelling, whether it be through song or me just running my mouth as it were. It will be a very relaxed, informal, joyous afternoon.” The mother of two daughters — one 17 years old, the other 1½ — is married to Broadway actor Will Swenson. Born in Berlin, Germany, and raised in Fresno, Calif., she and her family now call Westchester County, N.Y., home. We caught up with McDonald to talk about all things travel.

Favorite vacation destination? I have so many, but probably Italy — specifically the Amalfi Coast. The beauty of it . . . the Mediterranean Sea sparkles. It looks like someone has dusted gold flakes on it. I lived in Siena for a summer when I was 19. I lived with an Italian family, went to school, and learned to speak the language. I just feel a deep connection to the Italian people. It feels very familiar and familial to me, so when you couple the gorgeous Mediterranean Sea, beautiful cliffs, countryside, and the people, it’s just paradise. It’s hard to leave.

Favorite food or drink while vacationing? The salt rock encrusted fish at Il Pirata — a family-owned restaurant right on the water outside of Praiano. It’s the most amazing dish and they likely just fished it out of the sea sometime that afternoon. That with any bottle of wine; it doesn’t matter.


Where would you like to travel to but haven’t? Africa. Specifically I want to go to Kenya and Nairobi and visit an elephant sanctuary. Also, it’s just someplace on my bucket list. I recently did the thing, and being African-American, there’s a part of me that would like to go to the area where my DNA says I’m from. I’d like to see the people and the land.

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One item you can’t leave home without when traveling? Some part of an old, discombobulated teddy bear, Gloria, that I’ve had since I was 6. I used to travel with her whole body until my dog sort of decapitated her. It was about three years ago, and he decided her head didn’t need to be attached to her body. So I started traveling with her head, then accidentally, when I was traveling with a newborn, I left her head in New Orleans on a Delta plane and I called [the airline] and desperately tried to find it, but couldn’t. So now I only travel with a piece of her body. It was so traumatic — and I was in my 40s.

Aisle or window? Window. I like to see what’s going on out there.

Favorite childhood travel memory? Probably going to Las Vegas when I was 6 or 7 with my parents and extended family — including tons of cousins — for a weekend. We just had the best time and drove the neighbors at the hotel crazy because we were so loud. I lost my first tooth on that trip. My Aunt Irma yanked it out at an A&W Root Beer [restaurant] and I bled all over everything and everybody. Then the tooth fairy came and I got this huge silver dollar and I had never seen anything like that before. My guess is it was because my parents were probably gambling.

Guilty pleasure when traveling? Room service. Not leaving the hotel and not feeling guilty about not leaving the hotel.


Best travel tip? Pre-check. Pre-check. Pre-check. Then if the airport has it, Clear. You just zip right through and I’m telling you, that, for me, is everything.