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Commentary & Opinion

The unambitious tourist

Big Sur, California
Ralph Gardner Jr.
/
Big Sur, California

As we’ve made our way up the California coastline into Oregon and now Washington State friends and strangers have expressed their admiration for our adventure but also trepidation affecting their own travel plans. After two years of a pandemic they’re eager to indulge their wanderlust but some people are rusty and intimidated by the prospect of traveling to new places. It’s not just fear of catching Covid. They’re afraid they’ve lost their touch.

Fortunately, we have a solution for that. A full-blown philosophy, actually, honed over decades of travel in the United States and abroad. We call ourselves The Unambitious Tourists. Our mode of travel is heavy on sitting in cafes, light on history and guided tours. If I had to sum it up in a few words I’d say that we do everything possible to recreate our everyday low stress life at home wherever we happen to be in the world.

One of the secrets to pulling off this sleight of hand is by convincing yourself that there’s not need to rush around and see everything because you’ll be back sooner or later. Doesn’t really matter whether it’s true or not. But it alleviates the pressure to accomplish anything.

There are certain risks involved, of course. For example, you may walk right by the local church harboring a Caravaggio masterpiece. Or miss the world famous botanical garden because you failed to do your research, or almost any research, for that matter. We’re not big on maps and guidebooks.

But isn’t the ultimate goal when traveling, to get an authentic sense of a place and even more importantly to relax and enjoy yourself? I find you can glean as much about the local culture and customs by visiting one of their supermarkets or loitering in the Tuilleries or the Luxembourg Gardens as you can by visiting the Louvre. But as a public service I’ll lay out a few tenants underpinning our psychology of low impact travel, in no particular order:

@ Walk wherever possible. It’s good exercise, free, and gives you a better sense of the cadences of a place, whether a small town or a major metropolis.

@ Observe cocktail hour. Your life requires reassuring structure and nothing provides it better than following the same rituals you do at home.

@ Do a lot of sitting. Watch the world go by. We’re social animals. Nothing fascinates us as much as our own species. The Europeans are onto something with their emphasis on cafés and pub life. There’s no shame in admitting that in certain discreet areas they’re more civilized than we are.

@ Engage nature. The beauty of the natural world is everywhere, even as the topography and flora and fauna change. When you look back on your trip months or years later you may discover that the memories that remain the most precious and indelible are those that involve interactions with the environment. Also, unlike people, trees and rivers and sand dunes are nonjudgmental. Find nature and you find home.

@ Instead of planning, or as a partial substitute for it, seek out the advice of trusted friends that have already visited the place. Trusted being the key word here. Perhaps you can’t afford to stay at the same places they do or harbor doubts about their taste or priorities. But it’s a start.

@ Return to places you’ve been before. You’ll know the lay of the land, be welcomed back at favorite hotels and restaurants, and visit places you overlooked on previous trips. The destination becomes part of your own personal landscape and biography.

@ See local friends and relatives. Nothing can make you feel at home as quickly, and elevate you above the tourist rabble, as tapping into the lives of people who live in a place full time.

@ Bring a good book. As with cocktail hour, nothing grounds you as fast and lends a sense of security as a good story you can return to while sitting on a park bench or in bed at night.

@ Embrace nap time. My definition of a successful vacation is one where I take not one but two naps a day, both morning and afternoon. It’s proof you’ve more than shed the stress of travel.

@ Don’t stress out over the weather. That’s easier said than done, and I do. The difference between a sunny day and a dour one is the difference between day and night. But there’s something to be said for rain, even if you’re not in an area mired in drought. It’s also an excuse to visit a good museum.

@ Mornings are key. Breakfast is vital. Not solely for nourishment but because it allows you to establish the rhythm of the day.

@ There’s no shame in turning in early. Nightclubs and concerts are great. But you’ve only got so much energy, especially as you age. Marshal your resources. Stay healthy.

@ Cook at home occasionally or often. Especially with the advent of AirBnBs, making your own meals saves money. It also creates a sense of home and gives you an excuse to go food shopping, one of the best ways to get to know a place.

@ And finally, be available to serendipity. Some of the best moments come from unplanned detours or interactions with friendly strangers. The most important aspect of travel is that it refreshes and perhaps even alters your outlook, creating new neural connections. Nothing better lets you be in the moment than experiencing something new and wonderful for the first time.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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