In recent weeks, we have shared a lot of tips about how to use modern travel tools so not to lose time, effort, money and your bearings. But even Columbus was probably stone lost when he reached the New World — and many of the greatest thoughts about travel touch on losing your bearings, rather than maintaining them.
Some examples: Andre Gide wrote, “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Lao Tzu opined that “a good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving” — and, to cite a more contemporary voice, Paul Theroux wrote that “tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.”
I asked this question of my favorite brain trust of veteran globetrotters, and the variety of answers and approaches they offered suggests there are as many ways to solve this conundrum as there are committed, serious travelers. At a time when the science of travel is always accessible on a glowing screen in your pocket, how do we make sure we don’t lose the art of travel?
Just Say No
One bold approach is to put on the blinders, purposefully; there is no rule that says you have to read any reviews, tailored itineraries or tips at all. Interior designer Laura Rauchfuss told me, “Just because the information is out there does not mean it’s necessary to read it. Travel makes people discover both differences and similarities in the world, but I would caution people to let go of trying to recreate the comfort of what is familiar while traveling and let go, get lost in it and enjoy.
“Some great travel memories I have are from exploring Switzerland by train,” she said. “I stopped over in many towns [without] knowing anything about the place or where I would end up staying. It was liberating to fend for myself and discover all things with new eyes.”
I had a similar experience years ago driving cross-country; in the morning, we would pick out a spot on the map some reasonable distance from where we were, and try to get that far before the sun went down so we could pull in, have a look around and find a place to sleep, even if it was in the back of our van. An old Rand McNally map is all you need to get lost while still knowing, more or less, where you are.
Bob Borberg, a restaurant owner in Kansas City, believes that reviews, especially negative reviews, can lead you astray — so he uses the Internet mostly to get accurate addresses! “While a useful tool, the sites with reviews on anything can really make you miss out,” he said. “Nasty people are usually the most vocal and I would have missed out on too many tastes, sights and sounds if I used the Internet for anything other than addresses most of the time. I use it to try and stay away from cooperate chains and tourist traps, and my travels usually work out very well.”
Get Lost Before You Travel — on the Internet
Japan-based teacher and U.S. ex-pat Dan McLaughlin leans on the Internet to pre-visualize, in a sense, noting that a “heavy pre-trip briefing on Google Maps can open up some chance for discovery in a different way. Before the Internet a lot of independent travelers used Lonely Planet or a similar guide, and because of that, well-defined trails were formed. Many folks ended up sleeping and eating in the same places since that’s what was in the guidebook. But now there really isn’t much need for a ‘bible’ sort of guidebook and the influence of such books is much less.”
So Dan finds backroads and byways on the Internet that might feature information you wouldn’t find in the most heavily trafficked Web sites.
“On a recent trip to Budapest we ended up eating at a little place off on some side streets because I had found it mentioned on an obscure page on an obscure side street of the Internet. It wasn’t in any guidebook and the chances of us just happening upon it were slim to none due to its tucked-away location. The place was really great though. The food was delicious, the service was outstanding and everyone in the kitchen came out to say hello, since an old gringo and his Japanese wife were none too common a sight. We never would have found it without pre-trip scanning through heaps of Web pages, and wandering through the dark side streets of Budapest to get there was a fun little adventure.”
Take These Recommendations and…
Mike Sullivan of Lakeport, CA, uses a contrarian approach — he figures out which places have the most reviews and recommendations, and then goes elsewhere. On a business trip to Portugal last month, he set aside a few days for himself, and put this tactic to work.
“When I went to Portugal I wanted to surf every day [in addition to sightseeing]. I Googled Portugal surfing, got a map out and looked at the places that had tourist surf camps, then picked a town to stay in that DIDN’T have camps. There were towns in the region that did, so I could go find a wetsuit to rent while there, but then stay in a town where I’d be assured of no crowds (not knowing whether or not Portugal surfing was crowded).”
Sully has used this tactic since the days of printed guidebooks: “While in Geneva a few years ago, I wanted to take a trip to northern Italy, as I’d never been. I looked up some history of Italy, knew there were some great places, then asked my collaborators where I should visit in northern Italy. They mentioned all kinds of really cool places but not Genoa. I went to Genoa; it was an amazing place to visit, not touristy though.”
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How I Stopped Worrying and Learn to Love the Yelp
Airline executive Liz Wray, who just moved to Hong Kong from her longtime London home, uses connectivity like a trail of breadcrumbs when she wanders. “God bless Google Maps mobile for emergencies,” she says, “but that doesn’t stop random wandering; rather it encourages it, because you know you can always work out roughly where you are and get back to base should you get ‘lost’ during explorative forays!”
New Jersey-based lawyer Karl Piirimae goes a bit further (bagging a few hundred dollars’ worth of lottery winnings in the offing, talk about having good luck while traveling): “I just did a weekend hit and run in Savannah, Georgia, and Yelp got me to good food, primo coffee, unique shopping and a yoga class with efficiency that maximized my experience for the short trip to a cool town. … Also hit the South Carolina MegaBall lottery for $600, but that had nothing to do with Yelp. I had the same experience for trips to Vermont and Maine; the bottom line is that Yelp and Google are tools, nothing more.”
He acknowledges that there’s a time and place for these tools: “If you want to enjoy a place and truly explore, put the tool back in the box. I would not go to the Montmartre and fire up Yelp because that is a travel experience that is by definition intended to be immersive.”
It’s How You Use It
E. McGrand, who combined a little advice from some friends with a bit of Internet research and a knowledge of her own preferences to craft an exquisite nine-day visit to Paris recently, believes we are only at the mercy of our tools if we permit it to be so: “When travel is approached with the Great White Hunter ethos, I think it gets reduced to a trophy. Internet, guidebooks, advice-collecting … it’s what you do with the information, not how you collect it.”
“I’d have to say that, yes, some of the sense of discovery is lost,” McLaughlin chimed in. “But overall I think the Internet is a boon to independent travel and provides chances for discovery all the same.”
Or Do as Your Elders Did: Follow the Hand-Painted Signs
Tre Horoszewski offers this short travelogue from a time that is really not so long ago: “I used to travel to Europe for work frequently, up to a month at a stretch. One of my top experiences was the result of following a hand-painted sign for a festival in the mountains of Italy. My project partner and I wound up at a pretty much locals-only community picnic with live music, dancing, local wine and food being cooked outdoors. We were warmly welcomed by the locals and spent the afternoon under tents in a sun-drenched mountain meadow, dancing and drinking wine. Lesson? Don’t be afraid to follow those hand-painted signs.”
Have any great stories or tips on how to lose yourself in your travels in the age of Google Maps, Yelp and TripAdvisor? We want to hear them — share them in the comments!