Swapping package holidays for magical mystery tours

Greece was responsible for a radical rethink regarding how we planned our precious breaks from work.

I was Mr Package Holiday arguing that, with only two weeks to spare at a go, I didn’t want to waste time trawling around a destination trying to find accommodation. Package holidays were all neatly wrapped and ready for us to slip into with little effort required. Having already travelled with a friend around the USA by Greyhound when she was 21, Andy was the more adventurous traveller and far keener to DIY it.

Crete harbour
It’s Greece, it’s Crete, but this one wasn’t on a package holiday.

Greece changed my way of thinking. To be more accurate, it was the six to eleven-hour flight delays that came as standard with any Greek Island package holiday in the late 80s/early 90s.  Those and tour reps who would herd customers through security in order to wash their hands of them, knowing the plane hadn’t even left Britain yet.

After a few of those unpleasant experiences we decided to stray from the path when we booked a package holiday to Lesbos by arranging our own transfers to and from the airport. We arrived at our hotel overlooking a postcard type Greek harbour in Molyvos an hour before our fellow package passengers. On departure, whilst they were herded through security to find their flight delayed, we sunbathed on a beach opposite and ate a leisurely mezes lunch at its taverna, not shifting until we saw our plane come into land (it was only a small airport). That experience was a catalyst for change.

Typical village street, Peneda Geres, Portugal
Checking out a traditional mountain village in Peneda-Geres.

Magical mystery tour travel in Peneda-Gerês
Jump forward nearly three decades and in early March this year we drive into Peneda-Gerês National Park in the north of Portugal. We have no accommodation booked and no fixed plan to do anything. What we have is a remit to take a look around to see if it has the potential to be a suitable destination for an Inntravel walking holiday.

View across Peneda Geres, Portugal
We were hooked from the moment we saw Peneda-Geres.

It’s an approach to travel at the completely opposite end of the spectrum, and one we’re not only entirely comfortable with but which has become a travel preference. The world has changed dramatically and technology/social media has made it a doddle to be able to roll into a place with the minimum of pre-planned arrangements. It’s given us the freedom to chop and change plans on a whim. There are certain ingredients we have to be on the look out for – is there what we call an ‘Inntravel hotel’ (it has to have a specific character) in the area? Are there sufficient dining options? Is the walking up to par? Are there taxis/buses to get customers to and from walks if required? How we find these things out and where we stay and eat is flexible, it has to be.

The bridge, Peneda-Geres
Scenes like this sealed the deal.

We drive up dirt tracks, explore sections of walking routes, check out hotels, talk to various people, and eat wherever is open that appeals. We can research all of these things to a certain level before we step foot in a place, but that’s never the same as experiencing them for ourselves. Subsequently, we visit some hotels and file them in the unsuitable folder. Sometimes hotels which look the part have no available room, that’s the risk with this type of anarchic travel, and we have to consult Tripadvisor, Booking.com etc. to find somewhere else to lay our hats for a night.

Hotel in Geres
We really liked this hotel. It was friendly, clean, comfortable, had a nice enough style and was cheap as chips. But we didn’t think it was right for Inntravel.

It might sound like messy travel, but there’s an exhilarating, magical mystery tour element to it– we are following a framework, but we often don’t know exactly where it will lead. That in itself is exciting.  Talking to local people reveals unforeseen opportunities; a restaurant owner who has the sort of accommodation we’re looking for and who has loads of useful other contacts. The hotel we want to stay at has no available rooms, which leads to us discovering other potentially suitable hotels which lie below the radar. It’s another one of those areas known to the Portuguese, yet not so much by British travellers.

View from Sao Bento, Portugal
One hotel having no vacancies led us to another we hadn’t considered before… and it was in a super location.

As we drive, walk, talk, sleep and eat we develop a better feel for place, gain little insights to Peneda-Gerês. In doing so we succumb to its charms. The long-horn cattle and wild horses which have priority on the country roads and who wander freely through villages; the welcoming hospitality of locals like Pedro, a Portuguese restaurant owner with a New York accent; a wild and wonderful walkers’ landscape unlike any other we’ve encountered in Portugal; and accommodation which is eclectically diverse and quirky – from a hotel where goat is described as lamb on the English version of the dinner menu to another where we arrive to find rose petals scattered across the bed and a bottle of cava on ice. Who knows why? It was just a standard booking on Booking.com.

Cow on the path, Peneda Geres
Encountering a local on the trail.

By the end of our visit to Peneda-Gerês we have an additional three locations and three hotels to consider, none of which were included in the original plans for the potential holiday. This is evolutionary travel in a way.

Over two subsequent visits Peneda-Gerês moves from being a potential location for an Inntravel walking holiday to being a fully formed itinerant Slow Travel holiday which has pride of place in a brochure about to wing its way to customers as I write.

A scene Inntravel customers will be enjoying from spring 2020.
Mountain lake, Peneda

It is an immensely satisfying form of travel to visit an area with no preconceived notions of what to expect, and then to take time get to know it to such an extent you can share that knowledge with others who are like-minded.

Rolling up to new locations where we have to ostensibly fit together jigsaw pieces on the hoof definitely wouldn’t have been for the younger me. Now I wouldn’t want it any other way.

About Jack 797 Articles
Jack is co-editor, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a Slow Travel consultant and a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Facebook for more travel photos and snippets.

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