When less is more
Increasingly, Canadians are foregoing see-everything, do-everything vacation junkets for micro travel: focused, less-frantic itineraries that concentrate on limited locales and activities. Barbara Ramsay Orr explores how to find a deeper, more rewarding appreciation of each destination
Sitting in the lobby of the Standard in downtown Los Angeles, I fell into conversation with two other members of the business group I was with. Like me, they had one free day to see the city.
Unlike me, they had determined to see everything before they left – the Hollywood sign, Grauman's Chinese, the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus, Rodeo Drive, the film studios, Koreatown – in short, the whole enchilada in a day. "We're heading out early in the morning," was the explanation, "because we need to see everything!"
For some travellers, that kind of schedule checks all the boxes and allows them to say, "Yep, I've seen Los Angeles" or wherever they find themselves.
I'm not judging, but just thinking about an itinerary like that makes me stressed. In the end, for me, it would all be a blur.
I'm a devotee of small, personal and concentrated travel. For me – and increasingly for more and more people – travel shouldn't be a chore. Too often, ambitious travel plans end up as a confusing hodgepodge instead of the enlightening experience we had hoped. With the fast pace and ever-present "chatter" of modern life, it isn't surprising that we want our leisure time to be calmer, more meaningful and more digestible.
Welcome to micro travel (as opposed to macro), a move to more personal and curated adventure that is focused, manageable and illuminating.
You see less but you see more. Seemingly contradictory but true.
There is a noticeable swing toward finely targeted itineraries, either self-designed or put together by a specialized tour company, aiming to make travel more personally rewarding, rather than a race to tick off items on a list.
Cari Gray, of Gray & Co., sees this move in her clients. "All our trips feature the micro. In fact, our tours rarely stay less than three days in one place and savvy clients want experiences that are as unique and in-depth as possible."
Canadians are avid travellers – according to Statistics Canada, we made 12 million trips overseas in 2016, a number that has been increasing every year. But, we are also evolving as tourists, seeking to get under the skin of the cultures we visit. With companies that are specializing in curated travel, and several new travel apps (see sidebar) making local cultural connections easy, those setting out on a journey today can choose the small, individual trip.
My micro travel day began with breakfast in the hotel, and a copy of the Los Angeles Times. My waiter noticed me reading the museum reviews and assured me that the Arts District was well within walking distance, and gave me a quick review of his favourite shows. "Don't miss the Broad," he advised.
Because I was on my own schedule, I had time to chat up the docent at the Broad Museum, take a self-guided tour of the Walt Disney Concert Hall and enjoy a leisurely lunch at Otium Restaurant. Getting there and back led me past some of the unique architecture in the Arts District and allowed time to slip into Grand Central Market for coffee, and to end up, at sunset, at a cool rooftop bar for dinner. All on foot, all self-curated, and all things I personally value doing.
I saw a very small slice of L.A., but I saw it well. I will come back some time for Rodeo Drive.
Tour companies are responding to the move toward tailored trips. Gray sees the trend toward more focused travel as the natural result of an increasingly well-travelled population. "Many of our clients have been to places a few times and now want to visit in a private, micro-travel style, with a bespoke itinerary.
"It's not just about seeking cocktail party bragging rights," explains Gray, a Winnipeg native whose organization was named the best tour company of 2016 by Travel & Leisure. The company creates curated custom tours for the luxury traveller, designing experiences for those who desire new adventures but with all the details carefully overseen by an expert planner.
Luxury, however, can have different meanings and today it is more likely to be self-defined.
It may be a private tour of Cape Town's Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, before it opens to the public in September, as Gray & Co. can arrange. Or it might be a challenging hours-long trek to a Byzantine chapel only accessible on foot, such as Peter Sommer Travels specializes in.
His small-group, culturally immersive tours are carefully crafted explorations. Archeology is often the focus, but history, gastronomy and art are intertwined. Guests can arrange private boat charters along the coast of Croatia or through the Greek islands. Many of his itineraries feature walking tours.
Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures, sees the same trend in the adventure-based travel his firm specializes in. "Vacations have evolved from a week on the beach-type holidays to incorporating learning into holiday experiences. This ultimately brings people closer to their interests and the creation of more boutique-style experiences. Previously it was activity-based (bird watching, biking, scuba diving) but now people want to incorporate their hobbies such as food, art, agriculture et cetera."
Visitors to Britain now often look for nuanced travel experiences that focus on particular neighbourhoods instead of whole cities, or to explore architectural styles or take targeted walking tours. They can embrace their love of fine china with a visit to the country's famous potteries or hike through Bronte country.
"Once you've visited the icons and landmarks, then it's time to explore a little more deeply, maybe based on specific interests like food or walking and hiking," says Cathy Stapells, a spokesperson for VisitBritain. "Maybe it's a neighbourhood in London like Hampstead, or the Northern Quarter in Manchester. While London is the crown jewel, Canadians love to explore beyond the British capital. In fact, while 58 per cent of Canadians visit London, a combined 61 per cent of Canadian visits are to the rest of England, Scotland and Wales. They want to see other cities such as Edinburgh, Bristol and Cardiff. The food scene in Glasgow is outstanding. And Liverpool and Manchester offer an incredible music scene."
A journey today can be a very personal sort of pilgrimage.
Julie Hatfield, a Boston native and choral music aficionado, will travel anywhere for classical music. She's gone to the January music festival in Cartagena, has visited Dresden and Leipzig to experience places where Bach composed and loves to sit in on choir practices in churches throughout Europe. "In St. Mark's Square in Venice, the crowds go there just for the visual atmosphere, while I go into the church, which is historic in that it was the first place in the world, I believe, where antiphonal music was practised. Antiphonal music is where two separate choirs stand on opposite sides of the church in the balcony, and sing to – and against – each other."
Tony and Bernie Monaghan, Vancouverites, are planning a trip to Dubrovnik to explore Croatian culture that will find them staying in a local hotel in the central part of the city, shopping in the local markets, walking the old city streets and getting a carefully paced and personal acquaintance with the texture of life in this ancient city.
Besides seeking out museums when I travel, I look for indigenous culinary experiences that will take me beneath the surface of a culture. In Puerto Vallarta, with six other women from different countries, I learned from chef Ruben Iniguez how to make different Jalisco salsas. He showed us how to fill and pinch little sopes, (small thick tortilla-like circles, grilled and topped with meat or vegetables). He shared the recipe for Mama Guadelupe's peanut salsa, his mother's specialty, and spuma de jalapeno, a foamed spicy pepper salsa. We bonded so well that we named ourselves the Salsa Sisters, and talked into the wee hours. (There may have been tequila involved, but it was artisanal.)
Today's traveller may sometimes be chasing a beloved literary figure – Charles Dickens, Sherlock Holmes, Kafka – or maybe it's a journey to visit the dozen most historic pubs in London. Perhaps it will be a small-group kayak trip on the Dordogne instead of the usual wine tour of Bordeaux.
Whatever the motivation, the trend is toward less-cluttered experiences that will move into long-term memory and resonate.
Think of it as the difference between a smorgasbord and a prix fixe meal.
In the smorgasbord, you have a portion of this, a slice of that, a dollop of something else and a taste of whatever. In the end, you have a plate full of interesting things, but no real idea of what you are eating.
In the prix fixe, you receive each crafted course separately, with time to appreciate the plating, experience the layers of flavour, maybe even discuss the origins and history of the dish. In the end, you may not have eaten a lot, but you know intimately what you have been served.
It's micro as opposed to macro, focused instead of scattershot. Artisanal tequila and handmade sopes instead of commercial margaritas and burritos.
Both good. Just a smaller menu.
Made for Millennials
For millennials, micro travel comes naturally. They want their travel self-controlled, seamless and relevant. To make it even more attractive and doable, there are some great new travel apps. Sidekix, which I used in L.A., is an urban route planner curated by locals. Cool Cousin, Walc, Localeur, Memrise and the new Google Trips all help the independent traveller to connect with locals and design a tailored travel experience.