Travel Gems or Fool’s Gold?

by Keith Savage · 28 comments

Post image for Travel Gems or Fool’s Gold?

The term “travel gem” gets thrown around a lot in the course of conversation and within guidebook pages, travel blog posts, and tweets. Recently, I’ve seen the phrase used to describe everything from packing tips to blogs to recommended destinations. It’s this latter usage that’s the most ubiquitous, and the one that can be the most misleading when planning your trip.

I stumbled upon some folks berating a person for choosing to go to a town that “the locals would never go to,” and “why would they choose that place when there are so many travel gems nearby?” This triggered two responses from me: 1) A strong desire to call them a-holes, and 2) wondering if the chosen destination truly had no redeeming qualities, and what were the qualities that separated the unnamed destination of disdain from the so-called “travel gem?”

Given my propensity for analysis, I couldn’t resist breaking this down and sharing my thoughts with you.

Now with “Very Few Tourists!”

It seems a large part of recommending a place as a travel gem hinges on the perceived volume of tourists*. Words like “undiscovered,” “pristine,” and “unspoiled” get first billing as travel gem adjectives. The obvious irony is that by traveling to a place you are doing your small part to remove the travel gem moniker. You are a tourist and your presence detracts! But not just any old un-touristed town makes the grade for a travel gem. If that were the case, my home state of Wisconsin would be a tourist’s diamond mine.

No, there needs to be tourist infrastructure too.

And by that I mean B&Bs, hotels, parks, restaurants, museums, monuments, natural beauty, etc. Whether we like to admit it or not, these are important elements that contribute to the overall enjoyment of the place for most tourists. I’m not talking about Starbucks- and McDonald’s-ing the town, I mean locally-owned and operated infrastructure that highlights the unique qualities of the place.

The need for this infrastructure is a function of time – if we could all spend weeks and months in a town, perhaps we wouldn’t use tourist information centers and guidebooks as frequently. We’d have the time and luxury to flush out all of the fun quirks and memorable idiosyncrasies on our own. It’s not just about how few tourists there are, so think twice when someone recommends that tiny village off in the mountains opposite your travel path (Wait! Wait! Before you object, there’s more on this below). Will you have enough time to find the appreciation the place surely deserves?

It’s all about balance. I’ve been to cities where the tourist infrastructure overpowered everything else (I’m looking at you Venice) and places where it was so lacking I was bored to tears (hello Braga and Inverary).

The Local Fallacy

And that is, do not equate travel gems with locals’ vacation destinations. This is what happened in the conversation that kicked off this post. Think about it. As tourists, we want authentic experiences that feel foreign or different from what we’re used to in our daily lives. So do locals going on vacation – we’re the same. Local or foreigner, we’re often seeking the “different” when we travel. Some travel gems might sit at the nexus of these two paths, but a local’s vacation destination does not automatically become a travel gem for foreign tourists.

Weeds Are Flowers in the Wrong Garden

So your buddy just got back from a trip and he said you have to go to a certain town. He met the best people, the food was incredible, so much to do – it was “epic.” Mmmhmm. You were just there a few weeks ago and you hated it. What gives? Ultimately, and why the original conversation above left such a bad taste in my mouth, I think travel gems are person-specific. You know, the whole eye of the beholder idea. When you read about travel gems, think about whether you have the same goals and travel style as the person giving the recommendation. If you don’t know, think again. Don’t blindly book a ticket. That is, unless you’re just as happy with whatever may come, even if that’s the tourist equivalent of fool’s gold.

What are some of your travel gems? Have you ever had one turn out to be fool’s gold?

*Please note that I am not making any distinction between tourists and travelers.

Listening to: This Will Destroy You
Drinking: New Glarus Brewing’s Moon Man

Original photo by ToNToN CoPT via Flickr under Creative Commons

ShalabhNo Gravatar April 18, 2010 at 8:18 PM

Nice post Keith. I sometimes think its always a bad idea to ask anyone before going to a place. For that reason, I never see a guidebook. Both these things often limit your experience and you tend to see the place with someone else’s eyes, try to find what they found good about the place and the true character of the place is buried under the expectation of being a ‘cool place to be in’. Maybe its just best to experience it first hand, it often shows you what no guide book tells you about, what no other friend has ever seen in the place.

AndiNo Gravatar April 12, 2010 at 6:13 PM

Amen brotha! 🙂 I agree, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. . .
.-= Andi´s last blog ..Brasil: Day 9 =-.

KeithNo Gravatar April 12, 2010 at 10:48 PM

Thanks Andi. Really, how could it be anything else? The hard part is remembering this fact.

SHABLNo Gravatar April 11, 2010 at 11:54 PM

I’ve never had a guidebook, if I find out where I’m eating is in one, I go elsewhere. I think it takes out the mystery and mystique of traveling. I travel for to explore, if I wanted security and certainty, I’d of stayed at home.

Cool blog and even better theme.
.-= SHABL´s last blog ..Cammo Cargo Shorts, Eating Boiled Duck and Walking in Vietnam Sucks Compared to Biking, Seriously =-.

KeithNo Gravatar April 12, 2010 at 2:45 PM

I have some friends with the same devil-may-care attitude. It’s not something that comes naturally, though I’m trying to add more to my travel style. Glad you like the blog – hope to see you around here again.

Btw, I read about your accident. Best wishes to you in your recovery.

Walt F.J. Goodridge (Jamaican on Saipan!)No Gravatar April 11, 2010 at 3:13 AM

hey Keith,

Just came across your blog through the couchsurfing site, and wanted to reach out as a fellow nomad. After (finally) “escaping” from America, I found my own personal gem and paradise here on the island of Saipan. I got so immersed in the experience of my dream, that I delayed my nomadpreneur adventures for a bit, but now am resuming–hence my couchsurfing quest for vegans in Manila.

Anyway, yes, I agree with the person-specific “eye of the beholder” aspect of determining travel gems. Saipan does have all the elements of tourist infrastructure, a certain pristine quality to the scenery, etc., yet I know that the experience here can vary widely depending simply on personal preference.

I’ve learned, as well, that in any given region, the local inhabitants’ perception of and biases towards or against foreigners can flavor the experience, and hence the guidebook accounts of what a particular area is like. Had I not heard about Saipan from a good friend who shared a common background, and had I relied solely on what I had researched in bookstore guidebooks, I may not have made the trip. As it is, I’m exceedingly glad I did, and now rank the move here as one of the top three pivotal actions in my life (the top one being quitting my civil engineering job many years ago to be an entrepreneur).

Anyway, just rambling with a lot of time on my hands here overlooking the coconut trees from a balcony on a private travel gem called Saipan!

KeithNo Gravatar April 11, 2010 at 10:22 PM

Hi Walt, glad you found my site! Great insights and info here. Sounds like you’ve had some experiences that echo my own thoughts on the topic. Very cool. Wish I was chilling beneath some coconut trees.

Nomadic ChickNo Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 4:44 PM

I agree with Stephen, why does travel always have to equate to a “thing”? Sometimes it’s just existing in a place, and that’s okay too. Great post, Keith!
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog .. =-.

KeithNo Gravatar April 11, 2010 at 10:21 PM

Humans are “collectors” by nature. The majority seek to encapsulate experience in some tangible way.

Richard TullochNo Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 2:39 PM

Very nice post, Keith. Yes, I’ve found some of my best travel experiences have been in places with no tourist infrastructure at all – Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and the Riau Islands in Indonesia come to mind, but I couldn’t recommend them to other travellers because my enjoyment of the visit all depended on having local people as my generous, knowledgeable hosts.
.-= Richard Tulloch´s last blog ..GIRO D’ITALIA COMES TO HOLLAND – May 2010 is “Cycling Month”. =-.

KeithNo Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 11:54 PM

Hi Richard. It makes sense that having a local in would help you make the best of places with little to no tourist infrastructure. Thanks for the comment!

CandiceNo Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 1:47 PM

I hear ya man, awesome post. No matter what kind of marketing material we write/hear, it all depends on the person who’s living it.
.-= Candice´s last blog ..France in My Backyard: Some Words About St. Pierre et Miquelon =-.

KeithNo Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 3:24 PM

Well said.

Lauren QuinnNo Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 12:35 PM

Best heading of the week: Now with “Very Few Tourists!” Hahaha.

Great post.

(You’re tag cloud is trippin me out, maaan.)
.-= Lauren Quinn´s last blog ..Smog City Street Art =-.

Lauren QuinnNo Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 12:37 PM

“Your,” that is. Got me all grammatically disoriented…
.-= Lauren Quinn´s last blog ..Smog City Street Art =-.

KeithNo Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 1:49 PM

Be careful of the cloud. I’ve been known to lose hours simply staring at it in the dark of my office.

Jackie Rose (@letssitoutside)No Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 9:59 AM

Haha your posts always make me laugh because they are so honest and perceptive! I’ve given up trying to categorize places as travel gems, and tried to focus more on my experience in a place when I’m there and in conversation after. I’ve felt generally let down when I’ve followed other travelers to “this amazing town where the food was so good and I swear we were the only foreigners”, or places hyped up by guide books.

Most travelers I met didn’t like Venice because it was too touristy, but I was there for a week with my then-boyfriend and we loved it! We didn’t go to any of the sights, opting instead to spend every day meandering around the canals and exploring the nearby beaches. Only on the last day did we thumb through a guide book and decide to check out la basilica di San Marco.

One of my favorite destinations was Ouagadougou. In 2006 my two companions and I were the only foreigners I saw, and we got in trouble with the military police…I’m not sure I can call Ouaga a gem, but I did have an incredible, offbeat adventure there that involved lots of sitting with locals and eating local food (hard boiled eggs).

To each his/her own!
Thanks for another great post!
.-= Jackie Rose (@letssitoutside)´s last blog ..I am not my injuries. =-.

KeithNo Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 11:53 PM

Thanks Jackie. Venice seems to be one of those love it or hate it destinations. Glad to hear you enjoyed it. Interesting experiences you’ve had with “travel gems.”

StephenNo Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 9:29 AM

Why does their need to be something to “see” in a place or some kind of “redeeming quality”? Why can’t we just travel to see how people are living in a place?

KeithNo Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 9:59 AM

Hey Stephen, thanks for the comment. Traveling to see how people are living in a place is essentially my M.O. going forward. I think you also illustrate the point of this post, that the”travel gems” you dug up through that style of travel might be anything but “travel gems” to others.

SpunkyGirlNo Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 9:17 AM

Great post Keith 🙂 I agree 100%. I think the person makes their own travel gems. We’re all different, so it only makes sense that we have different opinions about travel gems. I know there are places I hated based on how I was feeling etc. that other travelers love. To criticize someone for their travel choices is wrong. I would have reacted the same way you did.
.-= SpunkyGirl´s last blog ..Backpacking the US- Hostels Aren’t The Only Option =-.

KeithNo Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 1:47 PM

Thanks Pam!

NeepsNo Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 6:58 AM

Bored with Inverary?! The George Hotel rocks!! And those Loch Fyne kippers! Mmmm.

KeithNo Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Well, in the scheme of that trip it wasn’t the most enthralling.

ChristineNo Gravatar April 8, 2010 at 11:48 PM

One of my absolute favorite travel gems: Cassis, France. Tiny town in the South of France with stunning cliffs and views of the Mediterranean. Not easily accessible from public transportation so it keeps out most travelers, but I went with a French family and it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been! I can’t wait to go back!
.-= Christine´s last blog ..How traveling cured a picky eater =-.

KeithNo Gravatar April 9, 2010 at 1:44 PM

Sounds wonderful. One of these days I need to get to France. It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been to Europe so many times and been to pretty much every place except France. Needs to be rectified, perhaps by going to Cassis.

ChristineNo Gravatar April 11, 2010 at 6:26 PM

In case you’re interested in a photo of Cassis–it’s beautiful!

KeithNo Gravatar April 11, 2010 at 10:19 PM

Thanks Christine, looks absolutely beautiful. Even on a throw-away camera.

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