Like many travelers, the first time I went to Switzerland I read Rick Steves "Switzerland Through the Back Door". His guidebooks often have suggestions you don't see in others so they're always worth looking at. In the Lauterbrunnen Valley he recommended staying in Gimmelwald rather than Murren, both car-free villages perched high on cliffs above the valley floor. Gimmelwald, he said, was an unknown gem, off the beaten path, much less crowded than Murren. We walked through Gimmelwald on our way to Murren and what quickly became apparent was that there was nothing there - maybe a restaurant that closed at 5, a self-service store for cold drinks and souvenirs, a hotel or two. But the hikes out of the village were very limited and frankly, there wasn't anything to do. We stay two nights in this area on Hiking the Swiss Alps Alpine Pass Route and there is no way we would choose Gimmelwald over the much livelier town of Murren with its restaurants, shops, and multitude of hiking paths. It's interesting that Rick Steves' tours don't either.
Just the phrase "the beaten path" conjurs up a destination mobbed by hordes of tourists who have been delivered by big busses, long lines, human noise, pushing and shoving - crowds that make appreciating the destination incredibly difficult. Especially in adventure travel circles, getting off the beaten path is what we should all want to do - there is even a guidebook series called "Fill In The Blank off the beaten path". And there is always the intimation that if you are a sophisticated and discerning traveller, these are places you want to avoid like the plague.
There's only one problem with this mindset: you're going to miss seeing some pretty cool things. There is a reason crowds beat a path to certain places or sites. Do you really want to visit Rome and not see the coliseum or the Vatican? Skip the Grand Canyon, the most visited National Park in the US? Avoid the Louvre in Paris? Of course not. What you want to avoid, if possible, is having such a crowded experience that you can't appreciate whatever it is that you want to see.
Sometimes that just isn't possible, particularly if the event is time-limited. For example, if an art exhibition is going to be in your city for 6 weeks, you know its going to be mobbed the entire time. There's not really much choice here (unless you're a major donor or have another inside connection). Nope, you just have to decide how much you want to see it.
But often there are steps you can take. So the next time you are thinking about a visit to some place on the beaten path, consider whether any of these strategies can work.
- Can you go in the off season? Every destination has a time of year where there are far fewer visitors. Reservations are easier to get and prices are often less. Generally the weather is not as good and some attractions may close in the off season. For example, some countries' low seasons coincide with their monsoon season. But I remember going to see the Crown Jewels in London in February. It was clearly set up to whisk large crowds of people quickly by. When we went, it was virtually empty and we could linger as long as we chose.
- Can you go either the moment it opens or shortly before it closes? These are almost always the quietest time. If you go as soon as it opens, see if you can start at the most popular part of it - particularly if it isn't the recommended order of things. For example, in Rome we met our tour guide at the Vatican before it opened and she took us immediately to the Sistine Chapel; we got there before any of the other groups arrived. Or go at the end of the day. In some places they shoo you out the moment it closes, in others they simply stop letting people in. Make sure you know what the policy is so you have at least some time.
- Can you get off the beaten path at the beaten path destination? At the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the average visitor stands on the rim and gazes at the Canyon for 15 minutes before going to eat at a restaurant. If you hike below the Rim, particularly if you avoid the Bright Angel and South Kaibab, you will see very few people and experience the true wilderness nature of the Canyon. Alternatively, avoid the South Rim and go to the North Rim that has many fewer visitors and still offers amazing vistas and great hiking.
- Can you mix a little beaten path with a little off the beaten path? Just like I don't think you should visit Italy without seeing Florence sometime in your life, I also don't think you have seen Italy if you only go to the cities. Walking the countryside of Italy will give you a completely different perspective on Italy's history and culture.
The bottom line is that the beaten path leads to some pretty amazing places. Using these strategies hopefully you can enjoy them without the crowds!
"You know all those things you've always wanted to do? You should go do them."
Ever since I saw that quote, I've been pondering it. Specifically, why do we not do things we say we want to? So often women have told me that they really want to go on a trip, sometimes a specific trip and sometimes just any trip, but...
So the end of the year seems like a good time to really sift through our bucket lists and consider each item. I've written this about travel but most of it is applicable to non-travel bucket lists too.
Generally, there are one of three reasons why we haven't done something we say we want to.
1. It genuinely isn't the right time. Maybe it's an issue of time, money, health etc. But the situation will be different in the foreseeable future - we'll graduate from school or retire from our job, our kids will leave the house, we'll recuperate from an operation or our partner will finish chemo. Put those things in your Future Travel Bucket List, with a definite date attached to when you'll do each. Otherwise they may just stay on the To Do list forever.
2. We realize we no longer want to do it. Maybe 10 years ago we wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail or climb Mt Kilimanjaro. But now when we're honest with ourselves, we realize we don't want to camp that long or commit that amount of time and money to one goal. That's OK, we all change. Maybe it's hard to give up something you always thought you wanted to do, but once you make that leap, you'll feel better. And you'll have both mental and physical space to make other things happen.
3. There is some underlying fear that is holding us back. The first thing is to recognize that that is what you're feeling, and then try to articulate that fear as clearly as possible. Often just saying it out loud helps give you clarity about it. For example, maybe you are interested in a specific trip but you are afraid you will hold everyone back. This is a common fear, incidentally. So then it's a question of looking at whether you have any evidence that your fear is true, e.g. you always arrive an hour behind your hiking group. If that is the case, then maybe you need to plan getting in better shape and getting more hiking experience on hiking trips with shorter mileage- both of those will help you pick up your pace.
But often the fact is that we're scared because it's something we've never done before - and doing something for the first time is always scary. You can do an excellent job of researching all the details but there will always be unknowables. What will the other people on the trip be like? The guides? The food? Will it be well organized? Will you be the slowest or oldest person on the trip? In addition you will be allocating two limited resources - time and money - and you want to know that it will be worth it.
But you can't. And nothing you can do will give you enough information. You really only have one of two choices: you can admit to yourself that you'll never do it and find things that aren't as scary; or you can feel the fear and do it anyway. Imagine yourself on your deathbed and think about how you'll feel if you never do whatever it is. If you feel no regrets, then let it go. But if it feels like it would be a loss, then this is the time to get over the hump.
One thing I've found helpful here is to think through what the worst case is. When I started Adventures in Good Company, I had a well paid very secure job with great benefits - that I didn't love. The idea of leaving it to start a businees (with no previous business experience) felt pretty terrifying. So I thought about what I was really scared of. The major fear was that the business would fail. Once I articulated that, I knew that the worst that would happen is that I would have to go back to my previous work, but that ending up bankrupt and homeless was not a real risk. And then I knew that trying and failing was infinitely better than not trying.
It's OK to decide not to do something - just make sure that it's a decision, rather than waiting until you really are too old or infirm to do it.
Happy New Year!!
The first time I started to realize what a difference hiking experience made was about 20 years ago. I was in my early 40s and guiding a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon. We were a small group of 5, including another woman my age and three women who were in their late 20s, one of whom ran marathons. And of course I wondered if I would be able to keep up.
The first afternoon we left our packs at the campsite and 4 of us hiked to a spring for water, about a mile downhill on a very primitive and rough trail. We picked our way down, filtered water, and headed back up with me in the lead. I kept a steady but not a fast pace back up. At the top, the marathon runner said "Well that was humbling!" It took me a minute to realize that she meant she had struggled to keep up with me - not because I was more fit (which I wasn't) but because I had more experience hiking that kind of trail.
When I first started guiding hiking trips for women, I thought that a woman's level of previous hiking experience didn't really matter in choosing the best trip. I thought it was more an issue of her fitness level and of her deciding what kind of trip she enjoyed. And certainly that is still true - if what you enjoy are leisurely hikes with time for taking pictures and identifying wildflowers, then signing up for a trip where the average mileage is 10 to 12 miles a day will not be ebjoyable no matter how many hiking trips you've taken.
But I have also come to realize that regardless of how fit you are, starting your hiking experience with a hike described as "for novice hikers" is the best idea. Why is that?
There are some things you want to have totally wired before you set off on a challenging trail. You want to know how to dress and when to take your layers on and off, so that you don't get too sweaty or too chilled. You want to know how to pace yourself so that you can hike without ever stopping to catch your breath. You want the use of trekking poles to be second nature, so you don't put any effort into thinking about where to place them. You want to know when to snack and when to drink so you don't become dehydrated or hit a low blood sugar wall. All of these are things that become instinctive with experience, but take energy to think about and keep track of when you're new. Think about when you first started driving a car - it's exactly like that.
But there is another equally important reason, which is best described as footwork. By that, I mean knowing where to place your feet without thinking about it. You can tell if someone has much experience by watching them hike on uneven or rough (i.e. lots of rocks and roots) terrain. An inexperienced hiker is watching her feet, uncertain about whether a rock will be stable or how placing her foot at a certain angle will affect her balance. Especially going downhill, this takes alot of focussed concentration. An experienced hiker will constantly be glancing at the ground but then also looking up at the trail to see what is coming up and looking around at the scenery. The difference between me and the marathon runner that day was the 25 years I'd been hiking.
But that's the great thing! As long as you have your health, you are never too old to start hiking. With experience, your body and mind will learn how to move comfortably over a variety of terrains and you will have more energy at the end of a hike because you haven't had to focus so much on where to put your feet or how to stay comfortable on the trail. At that point, if you want to try hikes that are challenging in terms of length and terrain (and for many women this is not something they ever aspire too), you can consider yourself ready.
If you're interested in reading more hiking tips, download our new tipsheet.
Sometimes your adventure vacation goes wrong all by itself - your flight is delayed or cancelled, you get sick just before you were supposed to leave, there is a flood or fire in the area you were supposed to visit, etc. These are all things you can't control that you just have to accept. But if you want to make sure that your adventure vacation doesn't live up to your hopes and expectations, here are five methods you can use to guarantee that you won't come back as refreshed and rejuvenated as you might have.
- Wait until the day before you leave to pack. This works particularly well if you have an early morning flight, or if you are doing something that is quite different from what you usually do so you may need new clothing or equipment. There is nothing quite like starting off your trip already stressed and tired!
- Bring an electronic device that lets you check email (SmartPhone, IPad, Ipod etc) and then be sure to check it at least once a day, if not two or three times. This method works particularly well if there is some difficult issue at home or work that you can do absolutely nothing about while you're away.
- Pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV in your hotel room and watch the news. This works particularly well if you are someone who follows current events closely and frequently finds yourself upset by what is going on in the world.
- Look at your packing list and then take twice as much as it suggests. After all, if 2 t-shirts are good, 4 are even better. Or better yet, don't even look at the packing list and just bring everything you could possibly need. This method works particularly well if you are frequently changing lodging and/or are taking public transportation from the airport.
- Bring a book you really need to read for work. For example, if you are a computer programmer, what better time could there possibly be to learn a new programming language? The only rule here is to make sure that it isn't a book you would read if you had a different career or job.
Of course you may do all these things and still have a great time. But next time- just try doing any or all of these things differently and see what a difference it makes.
The question of whether you can trust TripAdvisor for planning overseas adventure travel, or domestic travel for that matter, is an important one for anyone who regularly plans her own trips. The central issue is whether "reader reviews" of a hotel, tour company, or attraction are real. B&Bs have been known to offer people discounts on future stays in exchange for favorable reviews; some hotels have paid people to trash their competitors. A recent Cornell study suggested we might not be very good at detecting fakes and a computer can do better. TripAdvisor has tried to deal with this issue by making more information available about reviewers- how long they have been a member, how many and what reviews they have written etc; and by banning any hotels that clearly manipulate reviews.
There are clearly some red flags to watch out for: excessive use of exclamation points, superlatives, and gushing reviews; reviewers who have only written one review; badly written reviews by someone whose name and location indicates they are from an English speaking country; one poor review among many good ones or vice versa. But the truth is that you can never be completely sure and at best you may be able to get a sense of what people like and dislike about a particular place.
But where TripAdvisor truly shines is their Travelers' Forum. Over the weekend I was planning a hiking trip to Switzerland - this year it's my vacation but I am also scouting it for a new trip next year. I was struggling with the question of needing to book everything in advance and could not find a clear answer on the internet, so I posted a question in the Travelers' Forum. Within 24 hours I not only had an answer, I had a spreadsheet that Stephen (English, living in Switzerland) had put together for his Alpine Pass Route hike plus a link to his blog; and a 20 page mini-travel guide that Kim (American, has visited Switzerland 15 times in 15 years with husband) had put together for her friends. Many of the forums have "Destination Experts" - passionate travelers or locals whose major motivation is sharing their passion.
I'm never going to be a Destination Expert but from now on, I'm going to make sure I post reviews of any hotel or restaurant that stands out - for good or bad. Because in the end, the only way to crowd out fakes is for all of us passionate travelers to share our experience.
I'm thinking about the topic of training for hiking trips right now because in less than 2 weeks I will be heading for Austria and our hiking trip in the Austrian Alps. And I am not feeling in quite the same physical condition as I was last year. I came to this realization yesterday when I hiked Sugarloaf Mountain, the only hill with any decent elevation change in a 90 minute drive of where I live. My aerobic capacity was fine- I didn't get winded going uphill at a decent pace. And my endurance was OK - I hiked for 3.5 hours with only two short stops to drink water. But I just didn't have that feeling of being able to hike forever that I have when I'm in really good hiking shape. Why is that? I've been working out at the gym 30 - 45 minutes on the elliptical 5 to 6 days a week pretty consistently and going on (fairly flat) walks as often as my dogs will take me.
And then I realized that in contrast to last year, I have been doing very little actual hiking. Although hiking in Maryland is limited (at least any real hiking i.e. not flat), I had guided our trips in Utah, Alaska, and Bulgaria in the four months before the Austria trip. This year life got in the way and I haven't hiked since Death Valley. And that has made a huge difference. While the fitness gained during those trips might not be completely maintained, the muscle memory and the specific stress placed on the muscles during those activities, does carry over. So here is the lesson and the corollary.
Lesson: The best training for hiking is hiking. This is also true for paddling, kayaking, rock climbing etc. But if you just can't do it before, get in as good shape as you can and then expect to just be a little stiffer the first few days.
The corollary: Don't wait until you're in good enough shape to start doing an activity. If your goal is to hike 8 miles comfortably, don't just go the gym- start with 1 or 2 miles and gradually increase. Gyms are great for giving yourself a base level of preparation but they can't completely get you ready for a big endeavour.
Now if only I had started climbing Sugarloaf in June....