How do travel writers do it? How do they come up with 1,000 concise words about what to do in a given town in a set period of time, all of it picturesque, unique, special in some way? Before nearly every trip I take – whether it’s a weekend trip or a three-week, multi-city expedition – I try to do at least a little reading. Between blog posts, Bon Appetit, Atlas Obscura, Conde Naste, Thrillist and The New York Times, you can find something to read about almost any town. I devour as much as I can in a reasonable period of time, printing snippets and saving other bits on my phone for future reference.
I take the recommendations I find online and, if I’m trying to really get it right or to impress my in-laws, cross-reference the travel writer’s take with Yelp and Google Reviews. If I’m just going for myself, I usually skip that step. Although the extra measure helps weed out unnecessarily pretentious or overly scene-y stops, usually. These days, you can’t be too careful that a blogger’s review is based on an actual experience more than a place’s Instagram-worthiness.
Then I go. On most trips, the research pays dividends. We have a great meal. We tour a historic home that’s totally empty so we have an expert guide all to ourselves, and he takes us to the basement to view the Prohibition-era wine cellar because we were clearly interested (Woodrow Wilson’s post-presidency Washington, D.C., home). We hike down a narrow, treacherous pathway whose entrance looks exactly like every other crevice in the rock wall along the highway, and end at a picture perfect, practically private beach (the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” in La Jolla, Calif.). We stay on a family-run bull farm and help with the morning chores, which includes temporarily kidnapping baby bulls to tag their ears (El Anadio in Jaen, Spain – animal rights questions aside, sharing a brisk morning in a four-by-four with the madrina whose family worked that same land for generations remains one of the most magical mornings I’ve ever experienced. It is truly amazing how pride, dedication and pure delight transcends the language barrier).
Other times the research simply serves as a conversation starter. An informed question about a hike leads the hotel bartender to draw out a map to his favorite watering hole. Or you can hand off your folder about hiking The Caminito Del Rey to the family that flew to Spain with nothing but a hotel booking, and are desperately trying to save Christmas for their very unimpressed teenage children.
All this preparation though, and I still hit some duds. Over this past weekend in Maine, the brewery I picked out was in a beautiful building on Bath’s Main Street. The staff was terrific. The beer? Mediocre at best. The haddock? Really, really average.
Afterwards, we drove to Doubling Point Lighthouse. The drive over from Bath included an awesome view of Bath Iron Works’ massive shipbuilding warehouses. Across the river we went into a forest, where we wove around and around bends following handwritten signs for “Lighthouse.” Right after we lost phone service, we came upon a strikingly beautiful white lighthouse.
The lighthouse is approximately the size and height of an average one-bedroom home. Surrounded on all sides by private property. With no signage, and an empty brochure slot, and a locked door. So much for my plans to learn a little bit of history and take an easy walkabout the wetland area.
My less-than-perfect six hours of exploring this weekend made me realize that for every 36 hours a travel writer describes, they must spend at least 72 hours experiencing less-than-perfect activities and meals and hotel rooms.
For all my planning for our brief Bath adventure, the best thing I did this weekend was something I hadn’t planned at all. I arrived early to a hair appointment on Washington Street, so I sprinted across the street to a taco joint for a fifteen minute treat. I scarfed down a tangy, fresh, delicate ceviche, chatted up the bartender and enjoyed a really memorable fresh margarita.
That “fast food” at Terlingua was the meal of the weekend, and those fifteen minutes prepared me for the next fifteen hours of family time. After ceviche, Kristen at Lavender Hair Salon twisted my hair into a great chignon that withstood two ferry rides and a hard night of dancing. Sorry about the ceviche breath, Kristen.
While sprint-walking with my hair did to our Airbnb on Munjoy Hill to change and make the 2:00 family ferry, I realized that perhaps I should go with the flow more often. Or at the very least, trust that sometimes, going with the flow will work out just fine.
But then I realized Terlingua was familiar to me because it was in fact in my Notes app, in the Portland note under the header: “Casual / Trendy Restaurants.”
Recovering journalist who discovered a life outside of news leaves you time for things like getting angry, cooking and traveling. Plus, hopefully, writing. I’m a wife, dog mom and Washingtonian.