Travel Like You Mean It
Experts who have already traversed the world in search of the ultimate ways to travel reveal the best techniques for seeing locales like locals. Writers, guides and adventurers dish insider secrets.
LET YOUR STOMACH BE YOUR GUIDE
As travel and food writer David Farley will happily tell you, the best way to see a city is to let your stomach be your guide. Having a hearty appetite is somewhat of a job requirement for Farley. On assignment for magazines such as Bon Appetit, Afar and CondéNast Traveler, Farley has scoured the mean streets of New York City in search of the best microbrewery beer and tasted countless sugary morsels to pinpoint the best doughnut in the US. "I like to put myself on a quest for something," says Farley, who also teaches travel writing at New York University. "It's helpful to my writing because it creates tension and drama that make it more interesting for me — and for the readers. So when I'm traveling for a magazine assignment, I'll often try to position the trip in the form of some kind of mission."
After so many years on the road for his job, Farley says traveling with a specific goal in mind is like second nature. These days, he likes to adhere to the same principles he'd use on a work trip even when he's vacationing with his wife, just for fun. "It gets me to parts of a town or country that I wouldn't have normally ventured to and talking to people I wouldn't have had a reason to talk to," he explains. "It's led to some really great and unexpected experiences."
He had particular luck with this method during a visit to San Francisco last year, when he found himself on an impromptu taco crawl. "I used to live in the Mission District and had my personal canon of taquerias," he says. "But this time, instead of hitting up the old standbys, I decided to branch out and try something new. And rather than put the word out on Twitter or Facebook that I was looking for recommendations for great taquerias in the Mission, like I often do, I decided I'd do it old school and actually ask people face to face on the street."
A local first steered him in the direction of La Coronet, a neighborhood joint he'd walked by a dozen times but never dined in. "The al pastor and chorizo tacos were very good. On my way out, instead of accosting someone, I was the accosted. A woman handed me a pamphlet in Spanish for Jehovah's Witnesses. I wasn't interested but I was keen to hear where she eats in the neighborhood. She said Taqueria San Jose, another place I knew of but had never been."
Farley wound up visiting two other taquerias that day — each recommended by a stranger on the street. "All of them were off my radar before, and all of them served better-than-average tacos," he says. "I was able to eat at new places I'd never thought to try, and I talked to a lot of locals."
FAMILY VACATION... CAN ACTUALLY BE FUN?
On a recent trip in Northern California, Budget Travel deputy editor Robert Firpo-Cappiello and his wife made an impromptu stop at a skating rink to see if it would be a fun place to take their two daughters, ages five and nine. "It turns out the rink was built by Charles Schulz, the famous cartoonist," Firpo-Cappiello says, "and there was a Schulz museum across the street that was a total Peanuts paradise for my kids." The happy accident was one of many that have confirmed Firpo-Cappiello's vacation philosophy. "I'm a planner but with one major caveat: You have to stay open to surprises and be willing to change gears when you travel."
That kind of flexibility comes in handy, especially when you're on the road with kids. But a little structure goes a long way, too. "Build time into each day for familiar activities like visiting a playground or going swimming in a pool," he advises. "Even just a half hour a day of comforts like that will help counterbalance the excitement of seeing so many new things at once."
Another way to prepare the brood for adventures in a new land? "Prep your kids with novels and stories about your destination ahead of time," Firpo-Cappiello says. "Just as meeting locals will improve a grown-up's travel experience, meeting fictional locals, especially historical characters, will really help bring a child's travels to life."
Before their most recent trip to Northern California, Firpo-Cappiello wanted to introduce his daughters to the dramatic landscapes there, a far cry from their urban life in New York City. Together, they read The Call of the Wild, and his eldest devoured Rick Rior-dan's Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, in which modern-day Greek gods battle each other from the perch of San Francisco's Mount Tamalpais. "My nine-year-old was not all that psyched for our trip until she read about Tamalpais in the Percy books," Firpo-Cappiello says. "After that, she couldn't get enough of Mount Tam. We visited, of course, and it was a total thrill for her to see the home of the Titans in person. Her excitement was infectious for us all."
VACATION DOESN'T NECESSARILY MEAN SITTING STILL
For some, vacationing means rest and relaxation — a string of days in which the only energy you expend is walking to and from your towel on the beach. But for others, the best way to unwind on a trip — and to really experience the culture — is to get moving. That's the idea behind BikeHike Adventures, an eco-tourism company that leads trekking, cycling, rafting and other types of heart-rate-raising trips. "You have such a better chance of connecting with the local people, really getting at the essence of their lives, when you take part in one of the sports they love," says Trish Sare, who founded BikeHike in 1994.
That is a lesson Sare learned firsthand, during a five-year stint backpacking and working her way around the world. She was a sea-kayak guide, a fitness instructor and a tour leader. "All of my best memories were connected to multi-sport activities," she says. "Participating in something like that together makes people so much more willing, open and communicative."
You think a life of leading active adventures would leave her sipping Bahama Mamas on a steeply reclined beach chair when she gets time off? Sare's vacations are far from sedentary. "One of my favorite ways to meet people when I travel is to find the local running store and see if they have a weekly run I can join," she says. "It's such a great way to see new places through a local's eyes. I'm not one who's drawn to the big tourist attractions, and the group runs always lead me to interesting places. After running through Central Park, in New York, for instance, the group took me to the Boathouse, a great outdoor bar overlooking the Hudson — such a cool spot, and I never would have found it on my own." More often than not, she says, they also lead to new friendships. "The runners often meet up after-wards for coffee to socialize, too, and I usually walk away with at least a few invites to join them later for activities in the city."
And that's just it — the activities themselves can guide the trip. Along the way you're automatically immersed in new landscapes.
TRAVEL FOR ONE, PLEASE!
"Whenever I take a leap of faith and travel on my own, that's when I always seem to have the most interesting experiences," says Christine Maxfield, a travel writer and former editor. "But that's the key — alone. When you travel with someone else, that person becomes a crutch, and there's no need to interact with others. The most authentic experiences happen whenever you're forced to put yourself out there."
"There's always a fear in going off on your own," she acknowledges, "but if I had allowed my jitters — about sidling up to a blackjack table, solo in Vegas, then I never would have jumped in that plane and taken off. But I trusted in myself, and now I can say, I know what it feels like to gamble with the high rollers and party with the beautiful people in Sin City. It's very empowering."
But traveling solo doesn't necessarily mean being alone. "My favorite go-to method for meeting locals has always been to simply live with them," she says. "There's no better way to become instantly immersed in a culture, whether that's staying at a small, independently-owned bed and breakfast or arranging a homestay." Maxfield cites two organizations as particularly good resources: The WWOOF organization (wwoof.org), which helps arrange homestays at farms, wineries and ranches for volunteer workers, andcouchsurfing.com, which connects travelers with locals willing to act as hosts or guides. "The only way to really get to know someone is to sleep under their roof, to help out with the work they do and to eat the same food they eat, which is tricky, but doable. Even for me as a vegetarian! I've made lifelong friends this way, and now I know I have a place to stay in the most remote regions of the world and even in parts of the States I never thought I'd find myself."