Don’t miss the places in between


Guest posting -Allan Herle

Laura and I agree on many things (key to staying married). But we value certain experiences differently – more on that shortly. We both love travel and seeing new places in an ‘authentic’ manner. Until recently, I didn’t know that “authentic” was code for avoiding tourist schlock and seeing things like a local, but I do now so let’s go with that.

Valuing the journey

My latest trip reveals a different aspect of travel authenticity – how your mode of travel affects your authentic experience. I went by motorcycle from our home to a place with the catchy name of Deadhorse, Alaska –and back.

Al and his riding buddies Ian and Andre

It amounted to just over 10,000km in 3 weeks through all kinds of weather and over all kinds of roads, 500 km north of the Arctic Circle and right to the Arctic Ocean. For some reason this did not appeal to Laura, so she chose to sit this one out. Chacun son gout, as my Francophone friends say.

Aside from it bringing me to Deadhorse, why was my motorbike trip authentic? And why should you care? Because it’s a chance to reflect on another aspect of authenticity: how we first access a place impacts the fullness of our experience with it.

Let me explain.

Of course air travel is often the easiest, and sometimes only, way to visit a faraway place. But it can make arrival jarring. I’m not just talking about jet lag, but the cultural shock of boarding a plane in the familiar surroundings of your home town, and disembarking hours later into a different world with maybe a different language, different climate, different food, different customs, etc. Your first human encounters on the voyage are with professionals who specialize in handling travellers like you. They tend to be courteous, efficient, and – well, bland.

Quirky local business encountered on the road. Photo by Allan Herle, August 2016

But with self-guided overland travel, you have human interactions when you buy fuel, eat at a café, or stop for the night. People you meet are living their normal daily lives –and you get a window into that. A short chat with a server or hotel clerk reveals regional insights which may never arise in the heart of the city and certainly not in the airport. You glimpse the daily lives of the people who don’t live in the shadow or the Eiffel Tower or the Roman Colosseum but do have other, richer local community ties.

The pace of overland travel also lends itself to appreciating the context of the destination. As you approach, things change gradually from the familiar to the novel. Your perspective shifts once you realize the obvious – the surrounding countryside affects the big city, and vice versa. What do you see along the way? Picturesque, prosperous towns surrounded by productive agriculture? Imposing mountain ranges that isolate your proposed destination from its neighbours? Reminders of past greatness? Abandoned factories and boarded up shop fronts? When you cross a border, does the language and culture change immediately or is it more gradual? All these things will help you understand your destination and its inhabitants.

The places in between

This became vivid a few years ago when I read The Places In Between, by Rory Stewart. It documents his trip walking across Afghanistan in 2002. Amazingly, he walked across the entire country –a country without any tourist infrastructure– relying on zakat (charity, one of the five pillars of the Muslim faith). Among other things, zakat requires all devout Muslims to provide food and shelter to travellers. Stewart would simply approach a house anywhere, knock on the door, and ask to stay the night. This is expert-ninja-level authentic travel. Not surprisingly, his experiences were authentic and entirely different from any other traveller to that troubled country. By the time he arrived in Kabul (his destination) his cultural immersion was complete.

So back to my trip. Deadhorse, Alaska, isn’t anyone’s idea of a holiday getaway. It’s a collection of prefabricated industrial buildings thrown together to serve the Prudhoe Bay oil fields at the start of the Alaska Pipeline and to house the workers. If you aren’t in the oil biz , the main draw is that Deadhorse is the furthest north that you can drive in North America, and the only place where you can drive to the Arctic Ocean.

Crossing the Arctic Circle -still 500km away from Deadhorse.

And so it attracts a motley collection of adventurers, including long-distance motorcyclists, German tourists, retirees, and a surprising number of eccentrics starting or ending epic journeys from Deadhorse to Tierra del Fuego.

You could fly in to Deadhorse, have a quick look around, dip your toe in the Arctic Ocean, take a selfie, and fly back to whence you came. Tick that item off your bucket list and move on to the next one.

Or, you can drive the 800km north from Fairbanks and experience the changes as you move north – the trees shrinking then disappearing entirely, the temperature dropping, the space between signs of habitation increasing. The wildlife changing from deer, moose, and black bear to caribou and muskoxen. The traffic on the road changing from family cars and motorhomes to purposeful transport trucks carrying oilfield machinery.

The Alaska pipeline. Allan Herle photo, August, 2016

And the camaraderie you share with fellow travellers and locals alike that you meet along the way. When you finally arrive, the destination is all the more special. You feel an understanding and kinship with the people who live and work there – and isn’t that what authentic travel is all about?

My trip was by motorcycle. Compared to travel by car, bus, or train you have yet more immediate contact with your surroundings. But even that level of contact isn’t enough for some people. Some of the aforementioned eccentrics on epic journeys were doing it by bicycle or even on foot. I can only imagine the experiences they must have, taking in even greater detail –thanks to the slower pace and even more interactions with people on the way.

The next time you want to experience a new destination, consider travelling at least part of the way by your favourite overland means – car, train, bicycle, local bus, or (my personal favourite), motorcycle. It may take a little longer but that’s okay – it’s all about the journey.




Landscapes of Commitment

via Daily Prompt: Together

I recently celebrated a wedding anniversary, honouring an important pledge to another human being.  It’s gotten me thinking a lot about commitment –how and why humans work together to express it in landscapes and buildings.  In today’s complex and networked society, commitment can get a bad rap, as it suggests entrenchment in something complicated and inflexible.  For example, how many of us have struggled to change /get out of the wrong phone plan?  Perhaps in reaction to this, we have come to prize flexibility to an inordinate degree.

Sometimes flexibility translates into transient products and affiliations.  And it impacts places, i.e., city landscapes: pop-up markets and stores; food trucks, and low quality buildings or even high quality buildings torn down before the end of their useful lifespan for the sake of redevelopment that seems more upscale.  Yet, in an interesting contradiction, many North American travellers crave encounters with what I call the committed landscape.  Often this takes the form of a building, garden, museum, streetscape, or other feature whose life in a given place has spanned centuries.  Read on for three short reflections on committed landscapes and their appeal.

1. Committed landscapes that freeze power and make it tangible.

Historic mansions, disproportionately large cathedrals, museums, and donated parks that were once part of someone’s estate fall into this group.  These efforts to freeze power may or may not have involved oppression.  But power even back then had its upside too.  Power was, and is, the ability to act, and to mobilize a large number of resources in support of a goal. So historic landscapes attached to empires (commercial and/or political) remind us of this activity component of power.

Landscape of power intended to educate- the Natural History Museum in London, Author photo 2006

Seeing how it’s been used in a city you don’t live in can be particularly thought-provoking.  In the large cities of Europe, such landscapes were created by families and empires whose exploits and use of power were legendary.  The Medicis in Florence made a clear imprint on that city –responsible for the reconstructed Basilico of San Lorenzo, and building the Uffizzi Gallery and the Boboli Gardens, for example.

The amazing spiral tower church in Copenhagen, built under Danish King Frederick V,  Author photo 2011.

You can also enjoy these reflections closer to home.  I’ve mentioned my own volunteer work at Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria.  This heritage landmark was a strong symbol of the power of a Scottish immigrant family on the landscape of my city and province.  (For example, besides the castle, they built an entire north-south railway travelling Vancouver Island.)

2. Commitments to aspects of a city’s way of life.

This type of committed landscape can include everything from historic ports (think of the Docklands in London symbolizing Britain’s trading links to the rest of the world) to bridges that encapsulate patterns of movement across local rivers and canyons. They can even include water and sewage systems (think of aqueducts built under the Roman Empire, or even the infamous sewers of Paris.)  These landscapes are an effort to fix particular ways of life without having to reinvent them on a daily basis.  And yet even the most committed or seemingly fixed features of the urban landscape won’t last forever or remain unchanged.  Even an historic bridge that seems to look the way it did when first built has actually been re-invented through the process of maintenance over the years.  But a certain commitment to keeping the integrity of that structure has remained in place. Those commitments also require that resources be mobilized.  They can and should astonish us.

3. A commitment to love and community

These landscapes don’t necessarily exclude the other two -landscapes of love also need power to come into being; and may also represent service and a particular way of life.  But landscapes of love are longstanding places whose design features and /or history somehow make us think of love first.  One of my favourite cathedrals in Rome, Santa Maria in Trastevere, is an example of this.  It’s smaller and more modest than the Vatican.  When I spend time in the Vatican, I think more about power and force, because its size and design are so overwhelming and intimidating.  When I sit in Santa Maria in Trastevere, the intimate design, the lighting, and the artwork make me think more about love and supportive community relationships. A more contemporary example, while sometimes transient, is a community or neighbourhood garden in any city.  These gardens express love for a hobby (gardening) and a desire to share that hobby with passers by.

This post has discussed three different landscapes of commitment, as one more effort to unpack why people seek out certain landscapes, and deem them authentic. There are many others that I haven’t discussed today (including quests for immortality through building).  I would love to hear other people’s thoughts or suggestions for reasons that landscapes of commitment contribute to our sense of a place’s authenticity.


Building design and mental wellness

Building design is hotly contested for many reasons, including its impact on human mental health. Mental wellness matters to us all, both at home and when we travel.  For people seeking more authentic travel experiences, it’s worth reflecting on what destinations will and won’t positively effect this aspect of well-being.

Below is a link to one of the most thoughtful articles I’ve seen yet on current debates in this arena. Of particular note -green open space can do a lot to compensate for ugly building design (see my earlier post on forest bathing to appreciate why).  Here is the Guardian Newspaper article .

Watch for another post from me soon!


Joy of Place

Needing a break from too many sad things in today’s news?  It’s time to reflect on features in places that make people happy.  In no particular order, here are ten things that inspire me both abroad and at home:

1. Dancing outdoors

Dancing can be a powerful and fun form of human expression.  The image behind this blog post title is from outdoor area on the banks of the Vltava River, in Prague. Many cities bring dance to their streets in summer months.  The spread of this activity does not detract from the pure enjoyment people feel from watching, or being part of, the dance

2. Parks where old people and children feel welcome

These are where people can be themselves and relax.  The elderly and the very young are typically more vulnerable than young and middle-aged adults.  Places that make our most vulnerable welcome are truly charming.

While it includes many commercial aspects, the outdoor space on the waterfront side of the Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver embodies that for me.  I can spend way too much time watching excited toddlers chase slightly bored looking seagulls away from stolen French fries, while their parents and grandparents gaze out at the boats in the water (or try to make it up to the seagulls by feeding them more).

3. Surprising public art.

Surprises don’t have to be dramatic, but they do need to represent a break from the status quo.

Author photo, July 2015
Author photo, July 2015

Many cities have active programs to promote, and add to, their inventory of public art.  But it’s also about balance –too many surprises detract from each other.

4. Sunny (and shady) spots

Some of the best outdoor public spaces are those with southern exposure, or full sunlight during active parts of the day.  Who doesn’t love the kiss of warm sun on their cheeks?  That said, in some climates there is more joy to be found from delightfully shady spots with seating.  See note above re: balance.  The key is climate-appropriate comfort.

5. Accessible music

Music reaches a very primal part of the soul for many of us.  It’s wonderful when you encounter a talented busker outdoors, and equally wonderful when it is easy to hear music in more formal venues too (see earlier post on classical music opportunities).  I was also thrilled when the City of New Westminster included a giant outdoor screen, broadcasting what was likely the final concert of The Tragically Hip, as a public part of its local food festival.

Author photo, August 2016

6. Buildings with whimsy

Whimsy can come from gargoyles, interesting murals on the side, or other features like the astrological clock in Prague

Author photo, 2015

7. Enjoyable transit

This is not an oxymoron.  Some transit experiences can be fun, especially if they involve direct connection with water.  It’s what Venice is known for- as are cities like Seattle and Vancouver.

8. Animal-friendly spaces.

This can be challenging in larger cities, where an imbalance of animals elicits sanitation concerns.  At a minimum, an ability to have positive encounters with local dogs, cats, and  birds can help make a place- and even an entire trip- memorable.

9. Things worth looking down at

Some places do a remarkable job of making their sidewalks and manhole covers look beautiful.  The next time you travel, challenge yourself to find at least five beautiful sidewalk features.

10. Beautiful trees and plants

If you’ve ever visited Lahaina (Maui) in Hawaii, you’ll remember the large banyan tree, which never ceases to amaze me.  Each place that I’ve visited has had a special tree, or type of plant that has delighted me.   The photo below includes the tree, and my husband (another thing that both surprises and brings me joy).

Author photo, February 2016

This post has brought you ten random things that can bring joy to people when they are out and about in public places.  Phew! I feel better now.  And I would love to hear about the places and features in cities that you have visited and which have brought you joy.

Authentic Staycations?

Authentic travel opens us up to fuller travel experiences through several approaches.  These include avoiding deserts of the real, enjoying cultural experiences that resonate with people of that culture and finding ways to be present in the moment.  So an authentic staycation is actually possible.  Here are five ideas for creating one for yourself.

1. See a place in your town through a child’s eyes.

This is especially refreshing when you enlist a child not in your daily life.  We don’t have children, but when we host friends or family with kids, it’s fun to anticipate,and explore, what will interest them.  And if you do have children or grandchildren, the perspective of another child might offer new insights and experiences.

It always surprises me how much fun adults have in places geared to the young.  And from a city planning perspective, playgrounds and other child-friendly locales are critical to livable cities. If your staycation planning reveals a shortage of these in your town, consider what might be done differently and  bring it to the attention of your city council.  Other child-friendly spots include beaches, lakes and rivers with child-friendly facilities; local pettting zoos or other places to encounter domestic animals; and local museums with child-friendly exhibits.

2.  Attend a Fall fair and/or local farmer’s market

Make it a fresh experience by choosing one in a neighbourhood or adjacent community where you seldom visit.  Not long ago we attended a local fair in Cobble Hill, a community an hour north from our home.  It’s also in the Cowichan Valley, a region becoming known further afield for its great produce and wines.



Cobble Hill Fall Fair


Farming district, Salt Spring Island

Turkeys at Ruckle Park Historic Farm

More recently we were back on Saltspring Island, which was Canada’s number one exporting region for apples 100 years ago, and still grows beautiful heirloom varieties. It also produces wonderful goat and other milder cheeses popular outside the region. The link to authenticity?  As urban scholar Sharon Zukin notes, authentic culture includes a distinct terroir, or regional food culture with its own traditions.  Wherever you live, consider voting with your wallet by rubbing shoulders with, and buying directly from, local food producers.

3. Volunteer at an historic site in your town.

I’m a big Downton Abbey fan and I work from home, which means I need to get out more.  Eventually, I figured out how to meet both needs: volunteering at an historic site.  For me, this was a mansion designed like a castle, built in 1890.  This type of volunteering allows you to spend time in a beautiful destination, and to meet other people with shared interests.  Plus it exposes new layers of your city’s history with each shift you work.  As a local you are less likely to view historic sites through rose-coloured glasses.  And understanding the past can help clarify certain aspects of the present. For the record, I volunteer at Craigdarroch Castle, owned and run by a non-profit preservation society.  I highly recommend it to visitors and locals alike.

4.  Google your town and find out what are the biggest tourist attractions.

Choose an activity tourists seem to like and which you consider inauthentic. Do it yourself -and see if you still feel the same way. If you don’t, why not?  In our case, this would involve a tour on the local Hippo bus (an amphibious vehicle that lets you tour on land and from shallow waters at sea). I feel a bit like a hypocrite (pun intended) in admitting that we have not yet done this -but we will!

5. Spend the day at a spa in a local hotel.

Okay, this isn’t really an authentic travel experience.  But if you’ve followed the other four suggestions, you’ve earned the right to some R & R.  Look for local hotels that you consider attractive and have sparked your curiosity.  Many hotels also let you use their pools with a spa service purchase.

This post has suggested five ideas for creating your own authentic staycation.  They are also a great way to deepen your own community connections.  There are other ideas for autentic staycations out there, just waiting to be discovered. I would love to hear yours.

Urban Classical

In my teens and early twenties I was convinced I would become an opera singer.  Even after reality sank in and the melody of my career path changed, I remained a classical music fan.  This conditioning was no doubt strengthened by seeing too many Merchant Ivory films that matched vistas of pastoral countryside and intricately designed heritage buildings with soundscapes from Mozart, Bach and Beethoven.  And maybe, just maybe, Bugs Bunny had an influence in there somewhere.   Whatever the causes, I am inclined to want classical music whenever I encounter these landscapes.  If you also crave classical during trips with historic settings, read on for four ideas to access it, in places locals also frequent.

1.  Seek out major places of worship for secular concerts (i.e. -not associated with worship).

Often churches and other places of worship have a gorgeous accoustic-and they know it.  As a result, many  high-calibre professional and amateur groups will rent the space for Friday and /or Saturday night concerts.  Sometimes the church will even make this part of their community outreach agenda, like St. Martin-in-the Fields in London.  Connect with these events through local entertainment listings (e.g. Time Out Magazine), or the venue’s website.  An alternate approach is to google the city name plus the word “cathedrals” to get a list of prospective venues, and then visit the website for some of those cathedrals to see if it is posting any concert listings.  In many European cities, just walk by a few and, chances are, they’ll have a sandwich board advertising tonight’s (or an upcoming) concert.

2.  Check out local universities,  colleges, and conservatories  that have music programmes.

Many of us know the theory (popularized by Malcolm Gladwell) that you need 10,000 hours to become truly proficient. This is certainly true for musicians.  And so universities and conservatories do what they can to provide performance opportunities for their students,  knowing that performances require their own skill set.

By watching a student concert (usually but not always for a modest fee), you support the arts and get to hear some truly gifted young people perform.  Here again, the Internet is your friend, and you can access performance schedules just by searching for the music department page and looking for concert listings.  This is less of an option in Summer months, although depending on the city, there may still be some offerings on a more limited basis.

3.  Churches -music in that spiritual tradition.

Taking in a service can help you connect with the community you are visiting at a deeper level.  And some congregations even offer music-themed services.  For a few years when  I lived in Vancouver I sang in the Christ Church CathedralChoir.  I especially loved the Compline Service, now held at 8pm. It still happens every Sunday, January through November, consisting solely of prayers and (mostly) early music like Gregorian Chant .  Music Director Rupert Lang is an incredibly gifted Canadian-born, Cambridge-trained conductor.  This service is worth hearing, even if you aren’t Christian/ of that denomination.

4.  Music festivals -yes there are some focused on classical music.

Some ideas for finding these:

Find festivals through Bachtrack for classical music, opera, ballet and dance event reviews

Other ideas in North America:
Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival
St. Augustine’s in the Woods – Whidby Island Music Festival

Bannf BISC Festival

Carmel Bach Festival-July 15-29 in 2017

Whether you’re a died-in-the wool classical fan, or someone who just likes its atmospheric benefits, there are many ways to get a dose of it on your next trip, in settings that also appeal to locals.


Revel in Red

Authentic travel involves being present wherever you are– and taking in as much as possible of what the community wants to show you.  I’ve posted before about using a colour to guide you in aimless urban strolls (for purple, click here ).  Today’s post shows what I saw during a red-themed ramble back in late June.  Consider this approach yourself, inspired by Keri Smith’s The Wander Society.