No-Nonsense Traveler: On Iconic Experiences vs. Serendipity

One of the most important things we’ve been trying to emphasize in our guidebooks for the past several years is the idea that travel is an experience rather than just a list of sights, hotels, and restaurants. And it surprises me how often people forget that simple fact when they travel. I have known people who actually travel with a list in hand, speeding from one sight to the next, so they can check off the top attractions and move on to the next place. Touring at breakneck speed, the most authentic experience they are likely to have is eating a wurst or an order of fish and chips.

Join the discussion: When you travel are you looking for that big, iconic experience, or is it the little thing that makes your trip?

Iconic Experiences Make Your Trip Memorable

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I will always remember the first time I walked up the steps in the Louvre and saw the statue of Nike (the “Winged Victory of Samothrace”). I will always remember standing at the base of the Great Pyramid of Giza and walking down to the beach between the Pitons of St. Lucia. I’ve treasured my visits to Stonehenge, to the top of the Sydney Tower, to the Grand Canyon, to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, to the Chocolate Hills of Bohol (Philippines). I’ve seen a lot of sights in my travels, but the memories that have stayed with me longest are the experiences.

I can’t imagine going to India and not riding on a train; frankly, I don’t care if it’s a congested commuter train in Mumbai or an air-conditioned first-class sleeper. But that’s one of the iconic experiences of visting the subcontinent. It’s like taking a cruise on the Nile, or riding the Trans-Siberian Express, or snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef. Yes, these are all touristy experiences, but they also help you connect to the place you are visiting just a little bit.

I just returned from a wonderful small-ship cruise in Costa Rica and Panama. One of the highlights of our trip was a full transit of the Panama Canal. But when you’re on a small ship, you usually do the transit at night. This time, we were paired up at the last minute with the Seabourn Legend, which had paid a huge premium to reserve a plum 8:30 AM daytime transit. Our chief naturalist had been through the Panama Canal over 100 times, but he’d never done the trip during the day. You could hear the excitement in his voice when he told us of our good fortune. This cruise was extra-special for him and, in turn, for us. Many people on the cruise had been dreaming of this experience for their entire lives.

But Serendipity is the Magic Ingredient in Travel

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I loved this cruise, and I loved going through the Canal, but one of the most delightful and unexpected experiences on the trip came a few days earlier. We were visiting Corcovado Conservation Area in Costa Rica and had stopped at a small seaside nature lodge that had been carved from the jungle; when we were getting ready for a hike, we were greeted by a crested gaun (which looks much like a small turkey). Apparently, it had befriended the property owner and has just taken up residence there. The bird did the entire hike with us, hopping up on fallen trees when we stopped to pull out our binoculars—and posing for pictures. Whenever Alex, our naturalist guide, stopped to tell us about a tree or bird he had spotted, the little bird was right there listening (or so it seemed). And he came all the way back to the beach with us, finally leaving us to play with the lodge owner’s mastiff.

The thing I most fondly recall from my trip to Morocco happened when I was laid up unexpectedly in a cheap hotel in Taroudannt in the Atlas Mountains because my traveling companion wasn’t up to driving (bad dates). I started talking to a couple of local school teachers in the hotel bar, and they invited me out for a walk. We stopped for some fava bean soup, bread, and mint tea from a little stall set up in the nearby square, and we wandered all over town talking and laughing until fairly late. Now that I’m older and wiser, I’m more cautious, so I probably wouldn’t wander off like that today. But I’m immensely happy I had this experience; it’s by far the most ordinary but genuine interaction I had with Moroccans during my entire time in the country.

For me, these serendipitous experiences are the reason I love travel. Don’t get me wrong. I do enjoy seeing the sights that I’ve read about my whole life. I won’t soon forget going through the Panama Canal. But the things I most like to take home are the memories of these little things. One reason I tend not to take too many tours is that it’s hard to have a delightfully unexpected experience when you’re being herded about in a regimented group of 50 (or even 15). If I’m going to spend a good portion of my hard-earned money on travel, whether it’s across the ocean or just across the state, I want to get something lasting from the trip. Now, I’ve entered a somewhat less adventurous phase in my life (and I’ll be honest enough to stay that I was never a real backpacker). However, it’s the surprises—even though they may come less often and may be smaller—that are the most pleasurable aspect of travel for me.

Now, I’d like to invite you to share your stories. What are your most memorable travel experiences and why? What have you always dreamed of doing but haven’t had the opportunity to try? What small but delightful things have you experienced when traveling, and how did they help to make your trip special?