Right now, I am planning a couple of trips to destinations that are more or less unknown to me, and it has gotten me thinking. Many proponents of sustainable/responsible/slow travel spend a lot of time telling people why this kind of travel is great (myself included; for one of my recent posts check this out). But each destination is unique, with its own challenges and issues, so how do you actually plan a slow holiday? I figured I’ll list a few of the things that I research before I go to a new destination, and what I look for once there. It’s not The Definitive List, but it includes quite a few useful tips for getting started on your next slow journey.
Food & Drink
One of my favourite subjects! I love exploring local fare, and pair it with local brews. I always make sure that I find out about the restaurants that serve classic, local food (not the touristy kind; the one where the locals go to eat). These places are usually not listed in the restaurant guides, so the best way is to ask a local. If you don’t know anyone, ask your taxi driver or someone at the hotel. Some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten have been in places like this. It probably won’t be fancy, but it will be the Real Deal. Check out my tips from Mauritius here for some inspiration. Next, I make sure I know if there are any good farmer’s markets in the area where I will be. I love buying local produce (meat, cheese, pates, jams and fruit), then get a loaf of fresh bread from the bakery and a bottle of wine (if it is a wine-producing country) and go for a long, lazy picnic in a beautiful spot. Another thing to read up on is whether there are any seasonal specialities that you shouldn’t miss (like the asparagus season in central Europe, or the crab season on the American east coast).
On the drinks side, find out what the local brews are. Wine would be an obvious one; try to narrow your search down to local varietals or specialities (in South Africa don’t miss the Pinotage, and if you are in Austria you must try the Gruner Veltliner). Also look out for smaller craft breweries of beer and cider. And in more tropical countries, look out for artisan rum breweries. Don’t forget the non-alcoholic options like coffee and tea, as well as juices and soft drinks. Supermarkets are often good places to start for the soft drink side, and small sidewalk cafes frequented by locals for other drinks. Check what they are having and order the same!
At the same time, make sure you find out what NOT eat. Are there controversial ingredients/products that should be avoided? Seafood is a good example as it is often overfished or produced in an environmentally unsustainable manner; in South Africa I always consult the WWF SASSI guide and I try to find similar guidelines when I research other destinations. Local Slow Food chapters and similar organisations are also good sources to find out about these issues.
People & Culture
Most of us like to take a souvenir or two back home from our holiday, and I am no exception. But rather than the cheap (often made in China) trinkets, I like to look for locally made, traditional art and craft. This is often a bit more expensive, but at least I return with an authentic souvenir (and quite frankly, the plastic thingys usually don’t look particularly good on in my lounge anyway). Look for less touristic, artisan markets or shops, and research what the local crafts are. Don’t just get stuck on the traditional; sometimes there is amazing modern takes on traditional techniques, raw material or fabric (the Watershed at Cape Town’s Waterfront is a perfect example – young designers are creating innovative pieces with traditional fabric and techniques).
I am not a fan of cultural villages, where people dress up and perform a little “staged authenticity” to tourists. I find them a bit like Disneyworld at best, and see bored locals dressed up like circus performers at worst. On the other hand, I have been on amazing walking tours that depict the history (or a specific theme, such as architecture) of the area in a very engaging way (my best experiences are from various European cities, like London and Stockholm). The best ones are often conducted by historic societies and/or groups of actors; people with a passion to conserve and explain heritage. If you are interested in music, research the local scene a bit. Perhaps there is a music festival on, or there’s a venue with live music by local acts. At the very least, make sure you buy a CD, or download (legally of course, so that the artists get their compensation) some local tunes. This works particularly well if you are going on a road trip!
Before you shop up a storm, make sure you know what the no-go’s are. These are often products made with natural material from protected species such as ivory or certain kinds of wood. CITES publish comprehensive lists of protected and threatened species.
The Unpleasant Issues
As much as I understand that researching, and going on, your holiday is supposed to be an enjoyable experience, make sure you know if there are any sensitive issues that you need to be aware of in the destination. Even if it is not nice to read about child labour, marginalized peoples or tourism denying locals of resources, it is better to know and be able to make choices that do not make the situation worse. NGOs campaigning about responsible tourism (such as Tourism Concern) often highlight particularly bad practice, but also look for organisations that raise awareness about local issues.
Make sure you select hotels that are mindful of their social and environmental impact, especially in sensitive destinations. If you are going to areas where distinct ethnic groups or indigenous peoples live, make sure that these peoples have not been evicted from their land or denied access to sites important to their culture because of tourism. The best way to experience areas like this is always with organisations that work with, or are run by locals. If tamed/trained wild animals are involved, don’t just take the information from the attraction at face value. Many people pet lion cubs in South Africa not knowing that most of them will end up as bullet fodder at canned hunting properties. Do your homework on this one! Finally, if you feel that you want to contribute more than just by being a responsible tourist, research local NGOs that work with vulnerable groups, pressing environmental issues or heritage conservation and give a contribution.