Want to experience a tranquil rural destination like a local? How about this? We’ll meet with friends at about 8pm. Have a couple of glasses of wine before heading to a backstreet bar where a single female friend fancies the barman who has a bit of a drug problem but is roguishly good looking. We’ll stay there all night singing, dancing and drinking too much whilst she flirts with him and a group of itinerant construction workers get increasingly smashed. It’s all good fun until one of them takes offence at something the roguishly good looking barman says, storms outside to get the chain from his moped and then proceeds to smash up the bar.
How does that sound?
That was us experiencing one destination, known for its ‘get away from it all’ charm, like locals.
One of the travel trends predicted for this year is an increase in people wanting to experience the destinations they visit like a local.
The sentiment is admirable; it’s about getting under the skin of a destination. Seeing something different, having local experiences that are personal rather than mass produced ones. It’s not a new idea by any means, but social media has made the concept of ‘going local’ more accessible than ever.
However, just as I would if I was browsing online for any holiday, I treat some ‘local’ experiences/advice on offer with caution. I don’t see travel advice on any social media platform as being any more valid than travel advice given on Tripadvisor. Some of it’s good, a lot of it’s not. It all depends on who’s doing the advising.
Similarly, any local experience depends very much on which ‘local’ you experience a place with. Hook up with a local vegan, teetotal, pilates teacher and you can bet the experience won’t be the same as if you’d hooked up with a local poker playing, whisky guzzling, indie rock musician.
When we travel we like to enjoy authentic local experiences, but I’m a pragmatist. I’m never going to have quite the same experience as a local for the simple reason I’m not one. I’m not really a local in the destination I’ve been living for the last decade, even though I specialise in writing about it. If I were to rough it with a Berber family in a mud house in the Atlas Mountains, the only person likely to be under the misguided impression I was anything other than a tourist would be me.
Like any other working people, we have limits as to how long we can be away. There’s no luxury of open ended rambling. Deadlines have to be met, projects completed.
However, we do want juicy authentic travel experiences when we touch down somewhere new. We crave experiences that are different from the norm, that delve beneath the surface to show us the true personality of a destination. To make sure we have them we use, or work with, reputable professionals just as we would with any business transaction we undertake.
In Cape Verde we travelled with specialist tour operator Archipelago Choice who use local guides and agents. The guides, all young Cape Verdean women and men, opened up a world we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. It was my idea of really experiencing aspects of local culture without being naïve enough to think I was in any way part of it.
We work a lot with Slow Travel specialists Inntravel. We love working with them because of their philosophy, we also like them on a personal level. What they produce is exactly the sort of holiday we’d have booked before our career change. One of the collaborations we have with Inntravel involves helping put together walking/cycling/discovery packages, so we regularly meet the people they work with in various destinations; small family run businesses which usually involve individuals who are immensely knowledgeable about the place they live and passionate about what they do. These people are keys to unlocking authentic experiences. It might be work, but it is wonderfully rewarding in terms of uniquely personal travel experiences.
If it’s a city we’re visiting, we often use Airbnb and book an apartment in the heart of wherever we want to be. Again we don’t kid ourselves we’re becoming locals by doing so, but it does feel like a way to experience the real city and not just the popular tourist side of it, which we will take in as well.
When we want a tip for a good local restaurant, we don’t ask any random local on social media for the same reason I treat travel sites like Tripadvisor with caution – I don’t know personal likes or whether the person giving advice is a fussy eater who thinks MacDonald’s is the place to go for local eats (I’ve actually seen that suggested on a travel blog). We ask someone who is interested in or involved with gastronomy. For this reason we are big fans of specialist food tours such as Eat the World whose guides, as well as introducing people to great local nosh, put the fascinating meat on the bones of whole neighbourhoods.
Basically, when it comes to ensuring an authentic local experience, we want it to be arranged by someone who has an all round knowledge of their destination; the culture, traditions, history and the food etc. There are plenty of individuals and ethical businesses of various sizes who offer this and who have done so for quite some time. Like I said before, it’s nothing new. The only thing that might be new is how some local experiences are being packaged, presented and sold to to a new audience hungry for authentic local experiences.
Going local in one way or another is an illuminating and rewarding way to experience destinations.
But research carefully before deciding who to ‘go local’ with, otherwise you might end up in a bar with some drunken brickie swinging a motorcycle chain around his head.
Jack is co-editor, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Google+