Learning how to identify bush tucker and track animals with an Aboriginal guide at Monkey Mia, how to be an elephant-training mahout in the Golden Triangle, and learning about Bedouin culture over glasses of tea with a family in their goat-hair tent at Jordan’s Feynan Eco-Lodge are some of our most memorable and meaningful travel experiences of the last few years.
Along with learning about ancient rock art from an indigenous artist in Arnhem Land, how to cook Thai food with a Thai chef in Chiang Mai, how shirts and leather bags are handcrafted on a bespoke walking tour in Rome, what it takes to be a ‘Master Chef’ in a Michelin-starred kitchen, strolling with a shepherd watching his flock and making bread with the village baker in Northern Cyprus, bird-watching from an airboat in remote Bamurru Plains… you get the picture.
What all of these experiences have in common is that we were actively doing things and learning stuff from locals. Rather than just looking at sights, we were interacting with people to learn about their history, country, culture, language, traditions, customs, art and crafts, cuisine, and everyday life. And we came away feeling all the richer because of the experience.
One of the most frustrating aspects of working as guidebook authors has been not having enough time to do more of these things – especially when part of our research for books has been to identify these kinds of experiences, classes, courses and tours – which is another reason why we’re so excited that experiential travel is going to be one of the key focuses of our Grantourismo Project.
For us, the thirst for more authentic local experiences is partly a response to a growing materialism we’ve witnessed on our travels in recent years, and partly the result of our frustration with the globalisation and the homogenization of the world. The more we’ve travelled the more we’ve witnessed things becoming the same, and the more we’ve wanted to search for and experience what’s different and unique about places.
Experiential travel is a growing trend. So much so that even mainstream tours are including something more active in their itineraries, from cooking courses in Venice to flower arranging classes in Tokyo. Further evidence is the rise of specialised travel businesses such as Viator, Travel Muse and Context, which specialize in offering more meaningful tours, learning activities, and ‘walking seminars’. Not to mention superb magazines such as Dutch publication Ode, about “the people and ideas changing our world for the better”, and San Francisco’s Afar, a new magazine we’ve only just discovered, whose mission is “to inspire and guide those who travel the world seeking to connect with its people, experience their culture, and understand their perspectives”.
We share their goals. Like the Grand Tourists who went to Europe to learn how to speak Italian or French, how to draw or paint, how to fence, play boules or do archery, we’re going to spend our Grand Tour learning and doing things. We’re thinking anything from cooking tajine in Morocco to flamenco guitar in Spain, anything that’s local, that’s special, that gives us an insight into a culture and its people, and helps us in getting under the skin of a place.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on what else we should learn, and find out how you feel about experiential travel. Do you think it’s a growing trend? When was the last time you learned something on a holiday? And have you thought about learning something while on vacation in the coming year? And if so, what? We’d love to hear from you.