Adventure travel and the beaten path

Posted: Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Like many travelers, the first time I went to Switzerland I read Rick Steves "Switzerland Through the Back Door". His guidebooks often have suggestions you don't see in others so they're always worth looking at. In the Lauterbrunnen Valley he recommended staying in Gimmelwald rather than Murren, both car-free villages perched high on cliffs above the valley floor. Gimmelwald, he said, was an unknown gem, off the beaten path, much less crowded than Murren. We walked through Gimmelwald on our way to Murren and what quickly became apparent was that there was nothing there - maybe a restaurant that closed at 5, a self-service store for cold drinks and souvenirs, a hotel or two. But the hikes out of the village were very limited and frankly, there wasn't anything to do. We stay two nights in this area on Hiking the Swiss Alps Alpine Pass Route and there is no way we would choose Gimmelwald over the much livelier town of Murren with its restaurants, shops, and multitude of hiking paths. It's interesting that Rick Steves' tours don't either.

Just  the phrase "the beaten path" conjurs up a destination mobbed by hordes of tourists who have been delivered by big busses, long lines, human noise, pushing and shoving -  crowds that make appreciating the destination incredibly difficult. Especially in adventure travel circles, getting off the beaten path is what we should all want to do - there is even a guidebook series called "Fill In The Blank off the beaten path". And there is always the intimation that if you are a sophisticated and discerning traveller, these are places you want to avoid like the plague.

There's only one problem with this mindset: you're going to miss seeing some pretty cool things. There is a reason crowds beat a path to certain places or sites. Do you really want to visit Rome and not see the coliseum or the Vatican? Skip the Grand Canyon, the most visited National Park in the US? Avoid the Louvre in Paris? Of course not. What you want to avoid, if possible, is having such a crowded experience that you can't appreciate whatever it is that you want to see.

Sometimes that just isn't possible, particularly if the event is time-limited. For example, if an art exhibition is going to be in your city for 6 weeks, you know its going to be mobbed the entire time. There's not really much choice here (unless you're a major donor or have another inside connection). Nope, you just have to decide how much you want to see it.

But often there are steps you can take. So the next time you are thinking about a visit to some place on the beaten path, consider whether any of these strategies can work.

  • Can you go in the off season? Every destination has a time of year where there are far fewer visitors. Reservations are easier to get and prices are often less. Generally the weather is not as good and some attractions may close in the off season. For example, some countries' low seasons coincide with their monsoon season. But I remember going to see the Crown Jewels in London in February. It was clearly set up to whisk large crowds of people quickly by. When we went, it was virtually empty and we could linger as long as we chose.

  • Can you go either the moment it opens or shortly before it closes?These are almost always the quietest time. If you go as soon as it opens, see if you can start at the most popular part of it - particularly if it isn't the recommended order of things. For example, in Rome we met our tour guide at the Vatican before it opened and she took us immediately to the Sistine Chapel; we got there before any of the other groups arrived. Or go at the end of the day. In some places they shoo you out the moment it closes, in others they simply stop letting people in. Make sure you know what the policy is so you have at least some time.

  • Can you get off the beaten path at the beaten path destination? At the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the average visitor stands on the rim and gazes at the Canyon for 15 minutes before going to eat at a restaurant. If you hike below the Rim, particularly if you avoid the Bright Angel and South Kaibab, you will see very few people and experience the true wilderness nature of the Canyon. Alternatively, avoid the South Rim and go to the North Rim that has many fewer visitors and still offers amazing vistas and great hiking.

  • Can you mix a little beaten path with a little off the beaten path? Just like I don't think you should visit Italy without seeing Florence sometime in your life, I also don't think you have seen Italy if you only go to the cities. Walking the countryside of Italy will give you a completely different perspective on Italy's history and culture.

The bottom line is that the beaten path leads to some pretty amazing places. Using these strategies hopefully you can enjoy them without the crowds!

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