Saturday, May 9, 2009

Travel 101: The Well-Researched Vagabond (is that allowed?)

What do you want to do today, Scruffy? I dunno, want to watch the people walk by again?

Let me start by saying my first big solo vacation, the one that defined my concept of relaxation, was a simple one. I stayed in a studio apartment by a beach, went rollerblading every morning along the ocean, studied or wrote for two hours over a smoothie and scone lunch, and then went on random outings around the city to see what I could see. Come sunset, I took a sunset walk. Come darkness, I took a book to the hot tub.

This vacation – of a month – now propels my vacation research. Ideally, I’d like a relaxing and beautiful place to exercise (swim, skate, run, hike, surf…), a café with perfect food (it’s not so much to ask), basic knowledge of the area to furnish exploration ideas, and pretty sunsets or starry nights. A good gelateria wouldn’t hurt either; did I mention there was a Coldstone Creamery down the street from that studio apartment by the beach?

You might say that to project my routine onto a new destination is to cheat it of its individuality, but to this I say, with dignity, phbbbbbbt. I enjoy each destination in its full glory, but I know what I like, and I like to feel safe and happy. Going into a trip prepared to find my comfort zone just gives me internal space to relax, which will probably lead to more spontaneity and adventure in the long run.

So. How to find all this, in, say, Budapest? Or any other location to which there is a cheap flight on an upcoming weekend? Well, I’ve discovered if you’re willing to devote two lunch periods to surfing the internet, you can go prepared into practically any European destination, assured of many (planned) pleasant moments as well as surprising ones.

Here are a few tried-and-true steps to follow when planning your next vacation:

(I will use Santorini as my example, as I write this from a rooftop terrace in Oia.)

1. Search Google images for “Tourist Map, Santorini (insert destination of choice).” Choose a colorful and clear version and print it out.

2. Go to the “Ex-Pat Blog” website ( Choose a few blogs located in the country – or ideally, city – you will be traveling to. Peruse them for fun recommendations, cultural norms, and warnings.

3. Visit travel warehouse sites like and and type in your destination. Read others’ tips for favorite activities and restaurants. Jot down names and addresses to cross-reference on the map you printed out, or draw the line here and enjoy a good chuckle at the very word “cross-reference.”

4. Search the New York Times travel site for your destination, browsing through articles highlighting local color, new restaurants, and history. Here, again, you can read reader recommendations and comments if you wish. 

5. Search the internet for the activities or types or restaurants you want, i.e. “Best running routes on Santorini” or “Best bakery in Oia.” Take notes. You’ll be amazed at what you find.

6. Browse your destination’s Wiki-travel site. Here you will find clear information on the cheapest ways to get to and from the airport, which can you save you fifty dollars (or Euros, lev, dinars, pounds, etc.).

Six simple steps, but will they work? Well, I’m currently staying in a Cliffside studio apartment with endless ocean views that costs just 60 Euros a night, recommended highly on Trip Adviser. I just finished a slice of deep dark chocolate cake that comes for desert of breakfast at Melenio Bakery, the result of my “Best bakery in Oia” Google search. This morning I ran the route a friendly local recommended online, accompanied by the relatively friendly dogs another visitor warned of – online.

Later on, I look forward to visiting Atlantis Books, a cute little English bookstore five minutes from my villa, recently featured in The New York Times. Why “Atlantis”? Well, as I read on Wiki-travel, many people think the tale of the lost city of Atlantis refers to the side of Santorini wiped out by its volcano centuries ago. I am looking at that volcano’s crater right now, and it seems pretty peaceful these days.

Happy Travels! 

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