How to Live on the Edge

I’ve never been to Club Med. Not that there’s anything wrong with going there. For me, a great trip has never been about sitting on a beach with an umbrella in your drink, reading a cheap paperback. I can do that on my couch with a nice, Italian red. Travel is about finding yourself in unexpected places with unexpected people. It is about discovering a window into another culture without following a guidebook. It is also sometimes about going places you don’t belong. There’s no tried-and-true formula for a great trip, only a philosophical willingness to open your mind. Here are 5 ways I do that.

Love it When a Plan Falls Apart

With apologies to my A-Team hero “Hannibal” Smith, let yourself ramble. Years ago, my wife and I rented a car to tour Tuscany and we spent a couple days following our guidebook until we had a revelation. The homegrown street festivals, the spiciest bowl of wild boar stew, the violin trio in the stone church at the top of a hill … they don’t do TripAdvisor. In North Carolina, Carlene and I spent one of the best musical nights of our lives at a barn in the middle of an otherwise-dark stretch of the Appalachians. A local tractor dealer had outfitted the space with a sound system and stage and brilliant amateurs showed up to play. What a lucky stumble.

Go Off-Season

Don’t fight the fanny-packed faithful when you can carve out your own path. Ever been to Cape Cod, MA, in the winter? The sand blows over the road, the beaches are covered in huge, glacial ice clops and you get treated by restaurant owners and shop keepers as something special. And no sharks.

Vacation With a Purpose

For my birthday a couple years ago, my wife registered me to run a 20-mile race in Martha’s Vineyard, MA, in February. A gift? You bet. The race kept me motivated through the winter and we capped off my run with a couple nights at an inn. Same for a marathon in Tampa a few years ago. Why running? For me, these events are the ultimate tour guide. You can go for a walk, rent bikes or hop on a bus. But there’s no better way to see a place than to run a marathon away from home.

Beg to Get Into the Back Room

I know I’m cheating. I’ll be in Paris, for example, at the Musee Rodin and I’ll let the folks who run the place know that I’m an arts reporter and … “is there any way I can get into the basement?” After some nagging, I’m there, looking at endless shelves of molds crafted a century ago to create some of the most iconic works of our times. Not everybody can talk their way into Jackson Pollack’s studio. But when you go to a gallery or a record store in a strange town, ask around. See if there’s a house concert going on. Ask the artist if his or her studio is open. Try to get behind the paintings hanging on the wall. The beauty is that you’ll be surprised by how much people often want to share and let you in. You might even find yourself in Rodin’s basement.

Take Adventure Trips

Ever hear of a llama trek? I hadn’t. Until I showed up in the woods of North Carolina with my wife and found she had hired a guide with 2 llamas to take us on a rigorous mountain hike. I’ve been on hundreds of trails since. But 15 years later, we still laugh as we remember the moment I stared too closely into my llama’s eyes and he did what came natural. He soaked me in spit.