Getting off the beaten track. Or path, if you’re American. It’s at once the holy grail of travel, the kernel of truth at the core, and simultaneously a phrase of disdain or a cliché as overused as a hand sanitizer pump in an infectious disease ward (side note, I used to work as doctor.)
But how do you get off the beaten track? And then how do you get back on?!
Is it a state of mind? Or a checklist of places that no traveller has ever been before. Is it even possible in the age of travel in the 21st century?
What is it? Where is it? And how can you have some more of it?!
That, dear reader, is what we’re going to address today. Hand sanitizer at the ready.
I’ve read plenty of articles deploring the use of the phrase all together. Editors are tired of seeing it and, let’s face it, some people deploy it in such an obnoxious way that the only response is to run full pelt into a Disneyworld milkshake-fuelled photoshoot, belting out “it’s a small world after all,” grabbing a six-string whip and slapping down every path you see with furious abandon.
Then again, the naysayers aren’t much better. Live and let live, I say. Track, path, on, off, there’s room for us all in this world (for the time being.)
Personally? I LOVE getting off the beaten track.
Why? Because I hate being beaten. Figuratively and literally. Literally.
I’m not a particularly patient person (although I can be if needs be) and despite my British accent, I really don’t like queues. To me, nothing sucks the soul out of a situation faster than trudging at a glacial pace through a tetris-shaped cordon walkway, hearing orders barked from staff who’ve lost the will to live and wondering where the toilets are.
I mean. That’s what airports are for. And immigration.
But once I’m on the ground, I like to feel free! Free, free I tell you!
I like to see the world as though I’m not there. I want to taste food as it should be, not how it’s been “repackaged” for foreigners. I want to see the mist rising up as the mountain reaches the morning sky, not a forest of selfie sticks and a member of the non-short blocking my view. I want to speak to someone who still feels their story is one to be told, not simply rehashed for the sake of a quick buck.
And, if I’m honest, but it’s not going to make me sound good, I want that subtle thrill of adventure, that hint of unsteadiness and newness that makes me feel like an explorer.
So, with all that said, for me, getting off the beaten track is more about losing the crowds and finding an alternative that means something to me.
It’s not better in a moral sense. I’d no more recommend skipping the Eiffel Tower and the Sistine Chapel than I’d suggest swapping a face towel for sandpaper and flicking salt in your eye for funsies.
But there is, as it turns out, a hidden benefit for trying to get off the beaten track a little more.
Just as the world would not go hungry, even with its population of 7.7 billion, if we all shared our food today, so many problems of overtourism would melt away if we all spread out a little more.
Residents of cities like Amsterdam, Venice and Barcelona have moved beyond the “off the beaten track” debate. They’re actively trying to lay down tracks to move people away from their cities. Because the funny thing is, you really don’t have to go far from any of these three to find incredibly beautiful, authentic, fascinating places. Places where residents will be pleased to see you!
So, from travel musings to travel action, let’s talk about how you can get off the beaten track more often.
Off the beaten path vs off the beaten track. What’s the difference?
Mm. Well, path is the American version and track is the British English. But who wears it better? At first, I thought a track sounded wilder. But then railways have tracks and they go in one straight line. Whereas, a path can swivel and swerve. So... over to you!
From the curious Eiffel Bridge in Girona (yes, it's the same guy) to the sandy beaches and powerful Peace Palace of The Hague, some of the best trips I've been on have involved the smaller cities near the big ones.
So, Girona instead of Barcelona. The Hague instead of Amsterdam. Chiavenna instead of Milan.
You can extend the idea to regions as well. Visit Ras al Khaimah instead of Dubai, for example. Or Sharjah.
Easier said than done before you get somewhere, right? Not always! People are SO helpful online if you know where to look. Ask on Twitter, look out for Facebook Groups, ask in the blog comments or if all else fails, ask me and I'll see if I can direct you somewhere!
Check out apps like Spotted by Locals, where a few pounds will buy you a downloadable map with non-touristy recommendations. Disclosure - I once met the man who runs the app. He's a lovely guy and offered me free maps for review purposes. One day, I'll take him up on the offer!
Whether we're talking about hiring a car and planning your own route, hiking for days on end or just, quite literally, walking away from the crowds for the afternoon, the best way to escape the crowds is to...
... escape from the crowds.
The best memories I have from Venice, one of the most overcrowded tourist destinations on earth, are those when I just turned left when everyone else turned right.
"Lines of laundry stretch along the peeling plaster and painted shutters like flags on a village fete. Tanned men in loafers drive their speedboats too fast, sloshing foam onto the brickwork that looks as though it has seen it all. There’s the sound of a baby crying and the smell of freshly baked bread. And not a tourist to be seen."
Look, I know I’m starting to sound a little obsessed by this. But seriously. Chefs are passionate people, they have to be to follow that life. They’re passionate about food and, usually, where it comes from. They don’t just grab something from the local supermarket and sling it into the microwave.
They source ingredients, they know where to shop, they know how to talk to locals, they know the history of the dish. Again, by and large.
You’ll also get the chance to mix with other people, resident and traveller, and the whole conversation will feel a whole lot less creepy than trying to start up a conversation in the street.
By talking to other people, you’ll find even more up to date suggestions and (cliché alert!) hidden gems.
We found a blazing rust-red shipwreck on an unmarked beach in Greece, touristville itself, in this way.
As long you make sure that things are still open and running, travel in the off season can be hugely rewarding. For a start, the crowds are gone. But so, too, are a lot of the seasonal workers and the machine-line-production-feel of some parts of the world. The residents themselves will be more relaxed and willing to stop and chat and you will stand a fighting chance of experiencing the authentic side of your destination.
Are there any unexplored parts of the world left anymore? Possibly.
Are there beautiful, fascinating, hair-raising, seductive places left without hordes of tourists, tickets and queues? Absolutely.
What's better: many of them lie within easy reach of main transport hubs.
Completely seriously. If you want to get off the beaten track in any of the following places, check out these travel articles for inspiration. It's my handpicked selection, sprinkling in some famous names here, some obscure ones there. A dash of nature, a splash of city life and, er, a dollop (?) of under the radar UNESCO World Heritage.
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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