July 2015

Farewell to the Fanny Pack: How to travel like a local

Author: Denise K. James

I have an obsession with public libraries. Whenever I venture to a new town, I purposely seek out the library, usually the main branch in the center of the business district, if possible. After inhaling the stacks and hanging out in the foyer scouting out local publications, I find a no-frills restaurant for lunch, or I wander into a grocery store, grab a sandwich and keep walking.

Growing up in the Southeast along the coast has taught me a thing or two about tourism. And while we can’t always help (or want to help) visiting “the big sights” of a new place, I try to make it a point to enjoy the local flavor most of the time.

For example, last summer I took a drive to St. Augustine, Florida, and met up with my childhood best friend for a couple of days. I arrived before she did, and I puzzled about how I should spend my morning. I finally decided on a drop-in yoga class, where the ladies of the neighborhood welcomed me heartily, even though I had left my proper yoga clothes at home.

Although my friend and I had a great time doing all the things that St. Augustine visitors do—ghost hunts, wine-tasting tours and strolling around tacky gift shops and fudge shops—I also managed to fit in 5 p.m. Mass at the Cathedral Basilica, the yoga session and even a poetry reading after I found the independent coffee shop by happenstance, and they had just started their weekly open mic. As a poet myself, I was more than happy to participate.

Some might call my penchant for traveling like a local a form of snobbery or hipsterdom (Is that a word?), but for me it just comes naturally; I want to check out how the people of the town live in their own culture. Tourism is a separate culture with no real source. I mean, the people carrying maps and paying $20 to park somewhere in South Carolina don’t do that in their own towns, right?

Because we live in a destination area of the United States, we should be nice to visitors in our towns; they provide a boost for the local economy and keep things interesting. That said, I believe we should also learn from their behavior and become better, more versatile travelers ourselves. Think about it: How many times have you scoffed when a tourist asked for directions to the same ol’ restaurant where all the tourists want to eat? There’s a lesson to be learned here. Thus, I’ve compiled a list of tips for gleaning more local flavor when we travel:

Befriend the locals. On my last vacation, I went to St. Petersburg, Florida, and I made a one-night stopover in Crystal River, a small town not far from the Gulf of Mexico. I downed a couple of beers at a bowling alley bar and struck up a conversation with the locals. I learned a few things about the area, plus they paid for my drinks. Not bad. When you make friends with the locals, you’ll learn the stuff that only they know about.

Print out a few non-touristy guides. The standard guides for wherever you are will probably give you a pretty good idea about all the tourist traps you shouldn’t miss, so try something off the beaten path instead. One of my personal favorites is the collection of Literary City Guides on the website Eat This Poem (EatThisPoem.com). They’re perfect for a writer who’s obsessed with food, like yours truly. (How do you think I find all the bookstores and libraries?)

Even if you can’t find a ready-made guide, you can create your own agenda with a little Internet sleuthing. Just get creative with your interests.

Think about how you normally live. A lot of people go on vacation and completely ignore what they do during their everyday life, which is fine. But for a taste of what living is like elsewhere, try to stick to some of your favorite activities, like I did when I went to yoga and church.

Check out the smaller surrounding towns.
My uncle lives in Concord, which is right outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. Every time I visit him, I’m struck by how quaint the downtown area is, and I love eating brunch at their favorite little restaurant. Plus, when I went to Nashville, I had the good sense to check out Franklin, the adorable neighboring town. Don’t discount the smaller places around the hubs. They have their own offerings.

Avoid the crowd. A few years ago, I went to New Orleans to visit another childhood bestie, and we were craving oysters one night. I had read about the place to get oysters in the NOLA guidebook that I plucked from the library, but my friend told me to forget it. “We’re going to a different oyster bar,” she said. “The one you’re talking about is overrated.”

She was right. The oysters were big and juicy at our chosen restaurant—and, just across the street, ill-informed visitors were waiting for God knows how long at the “other” oyster bar. But even if you don’t have a savvy pal where you’re visiting, the moral of this story is to try something different.
Happy summer travels to all! 

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