I’ve been to all 50 states (as well as ninety countries) and seen the “must-see” attractions. But for me, ferreting out authentic local experiences and out-of-the-way quirky places is one of the great joys of traveling.
Traveling near Knoxville, a friend and I visited the Museum of Appalachia. In one small cabin a guitar player sprawled on a hand-carved wooden chair as his sausage-like fingers flew. The fiddle player broke into a jig, playing all the while. A tall, stately woman played banjo and sang with a soft twang. Although there were only three of us in their audience, they played as if they were at the Grand Ole Opry.
At the end of each song, we applauded enthusiastically. My friend asked about their instruments and some of the songs. The fiddle player tipped his hat in appreciation and said, “You gals should go over to the Lake View Inn tonight.” He went on, “Every Monday they have a pickin’ session. It’s great fun.” That’s how we ended up at a free, impromptu concert, in a motel dining room. On stage (in front of the salad bar) amateur and professional musicians played for hours to an exuberant audience.
What’s the secret to finding unusual places and events? Be open to serendipity and be inquisitive. Talk with locals who share your interests. That can be jazz, firefighting, soccer, breweries or just about anything. I’m drawn to crafts, especially artists’ studios. I’m a sucker for gardens, puppets and anything that hints at bizarre. A smile and genuine interest usually gets people to open up.
Locals love to talk about their hometown and share their favorite haunts. I’ve had some of my most memorable meals at hole-in-the-wall places I’d never have found on my own. If you take the time to chat with locals, they may clue you in to a wonderful concert in a local church. Perhaps you’ll discover a pub with great music, a festival, or the most scenic walking trail in the area. If you ask specifically for tips, you may well discover something wonderful.
One of my all-time favorite trips was a kite festival in Wildwood, New Jersey. Set on a broad white sand beach, hundreds of colorful kites filled the sky. With the Atlantic Ocean and perfect blue sky as a backdrop, it was a perfect day.
At eleven, he wasn’t an adventurous eater, but I talked him into one of the local specialties, deep fried cactus strips. Before the dish was delivered, he worried about the potential for biting into a sharp thorn and was nervously imagining what cactus would taste like. We gobbled down a large portion, agreeing that dipped into mesquite sauce they were delicious, maybe even better than French fries.
If you’re a foodie, take a cooking class. You’ll learn from someone knowledgeable about the unique foods of the region. I’ve learned to prepare jambalaya in New Orleans, chiles relleno and tamales in Santa Fe, and have taken baking classes in Ann Arbor. You’ll get hands-on experience, a great meal and recipes to take home.
If you’re on a road trip, take it slow. Go on back roads and wander aimlessly. With GPS you may be lost for a while, but you won’t be lost forever. While I’ve been “lost” I’ve found pristine beaches, diners straight out of the '50s, a roadside stand serving a “flight” of ice creams, a vineyard and winery that wasn’t listed in any guidebook, plus some gorgeous scenery.
At one produce stand I got into a conversation with the farmer’s wife who insisted I sample every variety of heritage apple and tomato they grew, while she told me about the origins of the seeds. Be prepared to slam on the brakes and make U-turns if you spot something, you just never know what you’ll find.
Be willing to stay in unusual lodgings. I’ve stayed in a cave hotel in the Ozarks, the Queen Mary ocean liner in California, an airstream trailer, a yurt and more. A little searching on Google will point you to endless possibilities.
Pick up a local newspaper, especially the weekend section. You may learn about local events far off the radar of guidebooks. I’ve discovered artist studio crawls, a midnight bonfire complete with “true” ghost stories told by the town’s historian, a naturalist tour of local tidepools and more.
If you spot something out of the corner of your eye or hear something interesting, go investigate. A small sign in rural Pennsylvania led me to one of the outrageous salvage stores I’ve ever seen, complete with life-sized dinosaur and penguin sculptures.
When I arrived in Snohomish Washington, where I’d headed because it is billed as a center for antiques, I saw a sign for a festival, “Kla Ha Ya Days,” and went to see what it was all about. The centerpiece was a frog-jumping contest; each young contestant selected a frog from a large pail of critters, carried it to the starting line, then cajoled it to jump as far as it could go. The expressions on the kids’ faces as they tried to capture and hold on to the squirmy, slippery frogs, and then their excited attempts to make the frogs jump were priceless.
After you’ve seen the must-see sights, lose the guidebooks. Be inquisitive, be flexible and chat up everyone you meet. There’s a world of hidden gems out there waiting to be discovered.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karen Gershowitz, author Travel Mania: Stories of Wanderlust, has been traveling since age 17 when she boarded a plane to Europe and stayed there for three years. She has since traveled to more than 90 countries, experiencing countless bold, once-in-a-lifetime adventures: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, trekking atop an elephant in Thailand, hiking in the blistering heat of the Moroccan desert—and much more. While studying ceramics as an undergraduate at the Kansas City Art Studio, Karen proposed and received a grant to photograph ceramics studios, potters and their work throughout Japan. She later built a career as a marketing strategist and researcher with companies who sent her around the globe to conduct focus groups, interviews and meetings. She lives in New York City, but is a citizen of the world.