In this day of the internet and bucket lists is there any place left in the world that can be described as ‘Off the Beaten Path’?
Certainly back in the 50s there were hundreds of stunning places that nobody seemed to know about. I remember one summer road trip to Long Beach and the town of Tofino that followed a logging road with potholes big enough to swallow our little car. But when we got there we were the only ones there, you could drive along the beach and plunk a tent down anywhere. Last week, mid-September, the same trip only took a few hours BUT everything was booked up completely, apparently months in advance and the prices were horrendous – Booking.com had ‘places in Tofino starting at $199/night’. Ouch.
All the campsites were full, both the camper van ones and the tent ones. We were lucky in that we had booked months in advance. However, when we got there it turned out that all the restaurants were fully booked as well, and although the waitstaff went out of their way to try and find a last spot for hungry customers, several times we were the customers that were just behind the people that had gotten the last spot. A couple of times we almost went hungry. What ever happened to travelling on a whim?
According to Trip Advisor, Tacofino’s unglamorous food truck is the No. 1 restaurant in Tofino – down on the highway aways in a surfer’s village, and with no shelter for inclement weather. But no reservations were required and the food is delicious in a town famous for delicious food – that’s what probably makes it No. 1! There were some cheaper places to stay in Tofino – across from our pricey hotel was a little yellow house advertising $35/night. Tofino is also a surfer town with an upcoming Women Surfer’s Competition at the end of September and not all surfers are rich. Or are they? At any rate these smaller places were all booked up too and I’m not sure how you find them – none of them appeared on any website that I could find so I suspect it’s all word of mouth.
On this trip we also visited a place further down Vancouver Island from Tofino that is perhaps less travelled: Port Renfrew. This is the village where the famous West Coast Trail ends and the Juan de Fuca Trail begins (or visa versa). Nearby Botanical Beach with its endless rock formations and tide pools is fun to explore — although only when the tide is out.
If the tide is in you can head off to Avatar Grove and the Gnarliest Tree in Canada. If you want to go further (and don’t get heart attacks from fully-loaded double-trailered logging trucks barrelling down the rough roads straight at you – something I vaguely remember from that first trip to Tofino in the 50s) then there are a number of huge trees one can commune with. There still were a lot of people hanging around in Port Renfrew when we arrived there early September resulting in most accommodation putting out their ‘No Vacancy’ signs by early afternoon. Surprisingly, considering the number of visitors, the place was shutting down for the winter – the two breakfast places already had reduced hours and one was shutting down completely on September 15th. Port Renfrew Pub may be the only place that’s open in the ‘winter’, so maybe be prepared to starve at breakfast time!Which brings me to a point about semi-untrammelled places in the world. Nowadays they all seem to be trammelled with tourists during the season, and off-season you risk bad weather along with most everything being shut down. Fanad Head in the north of Ireland had its main hostel shut at the end of August, and at the same time all the pubs in the region stopped serving food except on the weekends. We arrived on a Thursday, September 24 and spent a couple of hours going from village to village to village trying to find a place that served food – we finally found a restaurant in the fifth village we tried. Here is the sign that led us to Conway’s Pub – it didn’t serve food either nor were there any restaurants or cafés in the vicinity. Breakfast was another nightmare at Fanad head – a overly sweet supermarket muffin and tasteless takeaway coffee downed in the car had to suffice. Nice view though.Another way to find places off the beaten track is to rent a four-wheel drive and go down roads no one else is willing to drive. In Costa Rica we found Playa Blanca and saw a wild jaguar on the way but I wouldn’t want to repeat that bone-jarring drive! And it wasn’t totally deserted either – the coast guard was there and a few boats out in the water. Later we went to Ostional on the Nicola Peninsula where we were the only tourists. There wasn’t any place that served food except by special request and only a tiny market in the next town – most of the locals obtained their food from the local fishermen and farmers and a truck that came by once a week with groceries.Places that used to be off the beaten path only a few years ago now have lotteries to decide who gets to pay for a permit to go there. This is ‘The Wave’ in Arizona. It’s had a lottery for a fairly long time (and we won!). But that particular day there were so many people applying for permits that some of the other hikes in the region were also put to a lottery. The Playa de Catedrales near Ribadeo in Spain were permit-free when we visited them in 2014 but now a limited number of passes are handed out.
I have found this Back Road Series by DK to be good at finding places fractionally less touristed – especially if you go off-season like Spain in October. This post is somewhat rambling but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for awhile now – how much travel has changed since that first trip to Tofino in 1959. How there are so many people everywhere now.
Sometimes it’s for the better – people in Vietnam rave about tourists and how much they’ve helped make the locals more prosperous. But in Costa Rica, normally a nation full of friendly people, there was at times a dark undercurrent – the guards at gated communities built for foreigners were cutting the locals off from their own beaches. Traditional industries like logging and gathering turtle eggs were being phased out, but the new tourist industry hadn’t replaced them with alternatives except for low-level construction jobs, contracted out by foreigners.
Some of the countries we’ve visited in their early days of tourism had very little infrastructure and were often difficult to travel around in. Myanmar in 2013 (cash only, no ATMs, etc) stands out but not as much as Laos in 2007 (almost impossible) and even Thailand in 1993 (all signage in Thai script, very confusing to get anywhere).