How to Have a More Authentic Travel Experience

Author Penny Watson gives us the lowdown on the benefits of laidback travel.

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HIKER AT WATERHOLE Photo © Penny Watson

We asked Slow Travel author Penny Watson to share her thoughts and tips on how to have more authentic and meaningful experiences on the road. The first step, it turns out, is taking the pace down a notch when we travel to deeply immerse ourselves in a destination.

How would you define slow travel?

Slow travel embraces more immersive, curious, authentic and interactive travel experiences – it is travel to transform mind and body through connection with people and places. It’s the antidote to overcrowded tourist hot spots and tired checklist experiences; rather, it emerges from our longing to seek connection with ourselves and our lives in more intense and meaningful ways.

How differently do you travel than 10 years ago?

Ten years ago, I wanted to see the world, now I want to experience it. Slow travel really is a guiding principle for doing this – from booking venues and experiences with sustainably minded operators and avoiding overtourism, to building wellness, me-time and cultural experiences into an itinerary. I’m also far more interested in the people who inhabit the destinations I go to. I want to live their lives for a day, week or month.

What motivated you to write a book about slow travel?

I have been a travel writer for 13 years and I’ve spent much of it happily ticking off bucket lists. But in the past few years I have felt myself drawn toward travel that embraces concepts like wellness, mindfulness, sustainability and even happiness, because that’s where I’m at in my personal life. Slow Travel was a natural progression from this mindset.

Are people seeking more meaningful travel experiences?

Definitely. I think this is the modern zeitgeist. Our connectedness to the digital world is driving a need for more downtime, more me-time, more time to connect to something other than our screens. Sustainability, mindfulness, wellness – these trends are all responses to this.

What are your favorite things to do when you travel?

I lived in Seville, Spain, for a year and I used to frequent an authentic bar with a mosaic-tiled façade and wine barrels for tables. I’d eat my fill of little pepito rolls stuffed with prawns and garlic mayonnaise and wash them down with a cold can of beer. This kind of immersion in a foreign city is what makes me tick. 

What should travelers do in a destination to have more authentic travel experiences?

I love to treat myself to a foot massage or a natural therapy that’s specific to a destination – like a hot stone massage in Bhutan or a blind massage in Thailand. Track down walks that immerse you in the natural world or find the quietest space possible in a big city. Leave your smartphone in the guesthouse every now and then and arm yourself with a map and journal instead.

Is getting out of your comfort zone important on a trip?

Absolutely. One of my guiding principles is: do one thing each day that scares you. It doesn’t need to be anything big. It could be anything from testing out a foreign language on a stranger or walking through an unknown neighborhood solo to landing in a foreign city without a plan.

How can travelers connect with locals on the road?

These days I insist on getting local rather than ticking off a check list of experiences. This means eating and cooking local foods, riding local transport, buying homemade souvenirs from the artisan who makes them, avoiding tourist hot spots and hanging out in local neighborhoods. Sign up to a cooking class or join a yoga session in the local park. Tap into your own interest in a foreign place to find connection.

Is slow travel gaining traction as a movement? What’s driving it?

The reaction to my book has been overwhelmingly positive, which leads me to believe I’ve really tapped into contemporary needs, desires and urges. Certainly, the slowtravel hashtag on Instagram has grown exponentially since I first tapped it into the search engine.

What are the benefits of staying in one place longer?

The opportunity for true immersion through people and place: getting to know the barista at the same coffee shop each day, having actual conversations with the lady who owns the guesthouse, connecting with fellow travelers, getting orientated in local neighborhoods, eating as much local food as possible … it all adds to the experience.

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