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For most vacation destinations, a guidebook will deliver a list of must-see sights and must-do activities: historical places to visit, museums to explore, restaurants to try. And, surely, no one would suggest skipping a spectacular castle in Europe or the Great Wall of China. But there are some things that the average guidebook doesn’t deliver, like ample encouragement to step off the beaten tourist path and insight into connecting with a place through its natural landscape. Adding an experience that takes you away from the bustle of popular tourist sights and into the natural setting of your destination can make your trip extraordinary – and unforgettable.

Leap the Language Barrier

There is a reason it’s called a language “gap.” When visiting a country where you don’t speak the language, you can feel as though you’re held at a distance from the place and its people. You can’t ask questions, make small talk or even eavesdrop on passersby to get a read on the region’s vibe. But a shared outdoor experience can help bridge the barrier.

That’s what my husband, Jon, and I discovered on our trip to Austria last summer. By the time we’d been in the country for three days, it was abundantly clear that the German I’d learned back in college was not cutting it. We met several friendly Austrians who tried to converse with us, but the language barrier was simply too great, and we began to feel disconnected from our surroundings.

We’d tasted strudels and strolled cobblestone streets, but after a day in Salzburg where we spoke with more Americans than Europeans, we felt like mere museum-goers, looking at the place and its people through glass.

Frustrated, we decided to skip a day trip to Vienna we’d planned and instead stay in our vacation’s home base of Klagenfurt, where we’d focus our attention on what had brought us to Austria in the first place: Jon’s upcoming Ironman triathlon. We rented bikes and rode to the public beach at Lake Wörthersee, the site of the triathlon’s swim.

The beach’s long, wooden pier was lined with dozens of people enjoying the sunny June weather and the spectacular setting. We plunged into the spring-fed lake’s unexpectedly warm blue-green water (who’d have guessed a lake surrounded by snow-capped Alps would be 70 degrees so early in the summer?), and soon enough, we found ourselves racing and laughing with a group of kids on the course laid out for the upcoming event.

Suddenly, speaking German wasn’t necessary. As the group streaked along, I paused to take in the glorious Alpine views that surrounded the water on all sides and realized that we had finally arrived in the Austria I’d imagined. We went on to see many of the country’s legendary historical monuments, but that moment was the most vivid and satisfying of the trip.

Very often, the most memorable and meaningful traveling adventures occur as the result of just this sort of off-the-track outing – the kind that simply can’t be found en masse. Read about some other people’s experiences and then decide: What might move you onto a road less traveled?

Connect With the Exceptional

Luxury resorts have a powerful appeal. They take a naturally gorgeous place and create an oasis of convenience and tranquility for travelers in an unfamiliar setting. But making a place vacation perfect can sometimes polish off what was truly special about it. By going beyond a destination’s developed areas into its natural environment, you can see what made your vacation spot a paradise in the first place.

Because the lush natural features of Maui – its glorious beaches, sunny skies, towering volcanoes and tropical green countryside – are its main draw, it’s difficult to imagine a trip that doesn’t include an authentic natural experience. But in 2003, magazine editor Lisa Milbrand, 33, discovered she needed to move beyond the busy, manicured resort area dotted with tourist shops and chain restaurants to enjoy Maui’s legendary natural wonders more intimately.

A highlight of her 10-day trip, she says, was a morning hike in the wilderness. She and three other hikers explored private lands with a guide who had obtained special permission to enter. That experience transformed her visit into a more meaningful memory of Maui. “We’d seen so many beautiful sights when we drove the Road to Hana,” she says about the spectacular road that winds up a mountainside, passing waterfalls and groves of fruit trees. “But it was all from a distance. The lush tropical settings felt so much more real during the hike.”

Along the way, their guide picked fresh fruit and peppers for the group to taste, explained the history of the trees that dotted the trail and even showed them the remnants of an ancient sacred site where Polynesian birthing rituals had taken place. “There were no crowds, no rush – we just relaxed and took it all in,” she says. “For the first time on the trip, all of our senses were engaged and open to the island.”

When Milbrand returned to her hotel, she realized the excursion had been the true getaway experience of her vacation. “Hotels make an effort to be unique and to give a sense of location, but on some level, all hotels,?even luxury ones, are similar. That trail, with those sounds and smells, was a place you could find only on Maui.”

Get on Local Time

In an effort not to miss a single thing while vacationing in a new place, people tend to squeeze in as many must-see spots as possible. But a rigid timeline can distract you from the people you meet along the way. Slowing things down can create an opportunity to get to know locals who can show you sights that you won’t find in any guidebook.

As a travel writer and editor for nearly 10 years, Susan Moynihan, 38, has explored much of the world. “When I’m traveling, I want to take in everything, and I try to stay open to opportunities that present themselves,” she says.

That spirit of adventure spurred Moynihan and a friend to take a driving tour of Ireland in April 2005. While the pair was driving through the Killarney National Park, located in County Kerry in southwest Ireland, they spotted a crowd of people along the side of the road. They stopped to check it out and discovered local guides offering horse-and-buggy rides (or pony-and-trap rides, as they’re known in Ireland).

Not interested in a ride, they were about to continue on their way when a man offered to give Moynihan and her friend a tour on horseback. They jumped at the chance. For the next several hours, they rode horses amid the pristine land dotted by the homes of the few families who live in the Gap of Dunloe, a scenic area that cuts through the park. They took in the views, savoring the details revealed by their slower gait. “The pace was better for soaking it all in – we could really see and smell everything around us,” Moynihan recalls.

Even better, the two Americans had a chance to get to know their Irish guide, a friendly farmer with a thick Irish brogue. “Since we were riding alongside him, we could talk. We became fast friends, and we’d never have had the chance otherwise,” she says. He even took them to his home in the Gap so that Moynihan could hold a lamb that had been born the night before. “We’d seen the little lambs – just tiny white specks from the road – but to actually hold one was incredible,” she says. “That normally wasn’t part of the tour. He showed it to us because we’d told him that we were interested. When I think of Ireland now, my favorite memories are of the people, like my guide. His kindness and generosity made the trip unforgettable.”

Going beyond the typical tourist attractions does more than provide good stories to share with friends upon your return. The authentic sights, sounds and smells of a place take you beyond the realm of mere spectator and into the arena of active participant.

Exploring a setting with all of your senses and genuinely connecting with the characters you meet along the way is a profoundly satisfying experience. And that, in the end, is the best souvenir of all.


Get Out and Play!

Experiencing the natural setting of your vacation’s destination doesn’t mean you have to spend your entire trip roughing it (unless, of course, you want to). Explorations can be accomplished in just a few hours. All it takes is a spirit of adventure, and the willingness to seek out experiences not always obviously accessible to tourists.

Look for signposts – literally. Many of the best great-outdoors experiences aren’t advertised or mentioned in traditional guidebooks. Look for roadside signs touting parks, trails and historic areas. Ask your hotel’s concierge for suggestions, or talk to locals you encounter as you sightsee.

Learn the region’s do’s and don’ts. You should get a general idea of how to stay safe in a new place through a local guidebook. If the hotel you’re staying in is noted for amazing wild-predator sightings, for instance, a solo jog is likely not a good idea.

Try something new. You don’t have to be a rugged outdoors-person to explore a country’s natural setting – most guides are happy to tailor a trip to people of all skill levels. Tell your guide what your skill level is, and be open to trying something new.

Reach out. Once you’re out in the field doing something interesting, don’t be shy about meeting and greeting the locals you encounter. Express an interest in your surroundings: Ask an older person about the local history; ask a shopkeeper if there are any off-the-beaten-path sights you shouldn’t miss. A single question may be all that’s standing between you and an experience you’ll remember forever.

Making Tracks in Lanai

Lessons you can take with you.

Obviously, going on vacation isn’t an everyday experience, but the great outdoors moments you have on holiday can become activities you enjoy at home, too. During 33-year-old copy writer Mike Dabaie’s 2003 trip to Lanai, Hawaii, he tried mountain biking for the first time. A road-bike enthusiast, he’d never before ridden on a trail. Presented with an opportunity to take to two wheels on the sleepy Hawaiian island of Lanai, he leapt at the chance. Not only did his outdoor journey show him unexpected sights, it allowed him to try out skills he’s used on his road bike ever since.

The trip started near the hotel where he was staying, along one of Lanai’s many beaches. As he rode upward along the narrow trail, the temperature dropped and the foliage changed from tropical to pine. “It was totally unexpected,” he says of the quiet, remote landscape he discovered as he rode. “It looked more like how you’d imagine Colorado to be than Hawaii.” At the end of the trail, however, was a view that was quintessential Aloha state: A cliff fell away to reveal the deep blue Pacific and the islands of Maui and Molokai in the distance. The scene felt special, he says, because it wasn’t something that a typical tourist would see. But it was an amazing sight for those who’d made the effort to get there under their own power.

In addition to vivid memories, the mountain bike trip taught him lessons he continues to use at home on his road bike. Riding on a much heavier bike on much rougher terrain, he got a great workout and used skills he’d only read about (like shifting his weight farther back to steady the bicycle) to control his descent on steep trails. These days, when riding down a tricky hill near his New Jersey home, he remembers his ride in Lanai and knows just what to do.


Taking Nature’s Path in South Africa

Savor a moment alone.

By Susan Perry

In general, tourists travel in groups, so the average traveler doesn’t get much time to reflect on his experiences. But sometimes, getting outdoors and exploring on your own can give you the chance to mull over what you’ve seen and experienced and more fully appreciate the journey.

South Africa is a destination that offers amazing opportunities to take in natural landscapes. But many of them involve a certain amount of danger — great white sharks in the water, lions and other wild animals on land. That’s why running along the beach stands out as a singularly happy memory of 33-year-old criminal defense attorney Jon Iannaccone’s trip in 2004. “In most places, we had to have a guide, but at the trail along the shore in Port Elizabeth, I could just follow the path and take in the view. Because we were in an urban area, I didn’t have to worry about being attacked by an animal, so I could head out on my own,” he says.

Away from the influence of fellow travelers, he had a chance to think about what he’d seen and to etch his experiences into memory. Iannaccone says the view of waves crashing against the cliffs where two oceans meet at the bottom of the continent filled him with a sense of awe. He says of the moment’s significance, “It was that first run along the shore when I realized, ‘I’m really in Africa.’”

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