Friday, August 20, 2010

Off-The-Grid Travel

Recently, the New York Times ran a story about five neuroscientists who took a  trip to the Glenn Canyon National Recreation area in Utah with the goal of studying how the heavy use of digital services and other technology changes how we think and behave. At the end of the trip, all five scientists were singing the praises of Off-the-Grid Travel.

Great premise, I thought. Off-the-Grid travel just might be the next big thing. It’s exotic, exclusive, difficult to achieve. It won’t be long before Abercrombie & Kent will be offering Off-the-Grid safaris. I should do something about this for No Crowds.

Two days later, I am in Hertfordshire, what Wikipedia calls “a non-metropolitan county in the East region of England”. Hardly the wilds of Utah, but for a committed London girl, a great place to perform her first  experiment with Off-the-Grid Travel.

My ground rules were simple:

1)   Leave electronic devices at home
2)   Drop off daughter at Lacrosse Camp in Hertforshire at 9:00 to be picked up at 4:00
3)   Find something to do for 6 hours

And here’s the thing, without devices or any forward planning, I had an absolutely splendid time for the next 3 days.

On day one, I took a walk and stumbled on Rothamsted Research, a huge agricultural research center that is also the oldest agricultural research station in the world where scientists have been tracking environmental changes over the last 150 years. The center includes a beautiful 17th century manor house that is used to house the scientists and students.

On day two, I ended up at the home of the playwright George Bernard Shaw in the tiny village of Ayot St Lawrence. Run by the National Trust, Shaw’s Corner  (pictured above) is a great time warp. Much of his books and papers are there, including his Oscar for My Fair Lady. About that he had this to say. “I won’t say I’m insulted because no doubt they meant well, but I don’t work for competitions.” Who knew?

On day three, I pulled out all the stops and followed a sign to Hatfield House. For the last 400 years, the estate has been the home of the Cecils, one of England’s foremost political families. It’s a grand Jacobean place filled with inspiring stories and objects and one of the finest houses I have ever visited.

For three days, just like the neuroscientists in Utah, I wandered around and discovered things. It was fun. I paid attention to what I was doing. Twitter, Facebook and No Crowds did fine without me and I without them.

Off-the-Grid Travel. It really could be the next big thing.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Great Fakes?

We are off to Cadaques in Spain made famous by Salvador Dali. We’re going to the real one.  Not the official recreation that is being built in China for holidaymakers looking for a 'taste’ of Europe and not the unofficial real estate development, Cadaques Caribe, a reconstruction in the Dominican Republic.

“How surreal” I thought when I read about all those fake Cadaqueses in the Guardian newspaper but how fitting.  As one of the most forged artists in the world, aided by the habit of signing and selling off blank sheets of paper, Dali would most likely have enjoyed the whole thing. But it does raise an interesting question about authentic versus fake experiences, and whether we should or can embrace 'the real deal'.

On one end of the spectrum is Las Vegas. According to the website Without Baggage, it’s the fakest place on earth with a fake Rome, Venice, Paris and even a fake Treasure Island – a fake of a fake. OK, Las Vegas is an obvious and in some ways funny if not a bit ridiculous example but what about Colonial Williamsburg. I LOVE Williamsburg and it too is a complete reconstruction, perhaps a worthier reconstruction, but a fake just the same. 

So what makes a travel experience authentic? A trickier question than it first appears. Mark Jones a travel writer and frequent contributor on the BA Highlife website answers it this way:

“My definition is this: authentic places are those which are comfortable in their own skin. An authentic travel experience is when you get under the skin of that place. An authentic tourist is someone who is changed by a place and doesn’t seek to change it. Let’s celebrate them.”

A pretty good definition. You can read the entire article here and check out BA Highlife’s list of the 50 most authentic places on earth here.

The No Crowds definition, which borrows heavily from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart regarding obscenity, is this:

Authentic? I know it when I see it, and the recreation of Cadaques on the coast of main land China is definitely not that.

So what’s your definition?

Monday, August 09, 2010

Will Travel Make You Happier?

The business section of the New York Times ran a major story on consumption and happiness this weekend.  To sum up the findings of a number of prominent psychologists quoted in the article, spending on an experience provides more lasting happiness than spending on stuff.
According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor at the University of California, Riverside with a grant from the US National Institute of Mental Health to study the possibility of permanently increasing happiness, spending on travel experiences is a happiness ‘best buy’. She claims that travel provides longer-lasting happiness because unlike a new jacket or a TV, it cannot be consumed in one go. Travel enhances social relations.  It creates memories that can be savored. Most importantly, Lyubomirsky argues, we edit those memories to put a positive spin on the past. “That trip to Rome during which you waited in endless lines, broke your camera and argued with your spouse will typically be airbrushed with rosy recollection.”
I’m not so convinced about the ‘rosy recollection’ part, I remember a lot of terrible trips very vividly, but I am sold on the idea that travel experiences create the best emotional bang for your dollar – or pound, euro or whatever. I’m thinking, in fact, about this year’s summer trip to North Carolina. I’ve been back in London for almost a week, but I am still happier than when I left. Why? Because I am emotionally satisfied. It’s not so much what we did in North Carolina. In fact, we do the same things every year. We eat barbeque, go to the beach, play tennis and visit Chapel Hill. The reason I am emotionally satisfied is the simple but invaluable pleasure of doing those things with the same people every year, a collection of friends and relations with whom I hope to be forever connected. Whatever it cost to get to North Carolina this summer was money well spent and a much better buy than the new chairs I was considering. I think the New York Times is right. Spending on experiences, particularly travel experiences, does make you happier.