Travel Experiences That Aren't What They're Cracked Up to Be
Listen, nobody loves travel more than we do. We’ve established that in our six decades of pumping out guidebooks, right? Leaving home to encounter different cultures, meet new people, marvel at natural wonders, and throw yourself into adventure is a uniquely rewarding pursuit that even airport security lines, resort fees, and cell phone roaming charges can’t ruin.
But let’s face it: Not every travel experience is as rewarding as advertised. Plenty of things guaranteed by friends, tour guides, and travel websites to send us into raptures of joy may end up being dull or difficult. Journeys that are supposed to nourish the soul, à la Eat, Pray, Love, may feel more like a dark night of the soul, à la Dante’s Inferno. On the following pages, Frommer’s staffers share our own notes on travel activities that we expected to be enjoyable and enriching—but then weren’t.
You may disagree. In fact, we even disagree with each other on some of these. But since we know that one person’s letdown is another’s emotional pick-me-up, feel free to drop us a line to let us know why we’re wrong or what we missed.
Through dance one experiences the soul of a culture. Or so I’ve been told. But too often, the cultural dance performances I’ve seen—in Hawaii, in India, in Taiwan, in Spain—leave me fidgety and bored. It may be the sneaking suspicion that no native would be caught dead at this performance of "native dance." Or perhaps it’s just my inability to engage with pure movement. I need a story. And a compelling one at that. —Pauline Frommer, Editorial Director
Boarding a flimsy inflatable raft and launching into Class V rapids is the vacation equivalent of flipping off Mother Nature and daring her to drown you. Foam in your face, guides bellowing instructions, muscles burning, and getting bucked out of the boat and held underwater by an eddy—riding the rapids can be as harrowing as a beach invasion scene in a war movie. I first tried it on the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe, where the ordeal was preceded by a crocodile warning. A calm, meandering float down a placid, concussion-free river with plenty of hours to soak in the views? That's what floats my boat. —Jason Cochran, Editor-in-Chief
Do you love the cringing-with-embarrassment feeling you get while staying overnight in the home of a friend you’re visiting—wondering throughout your entire stay if you’re using too much hot water or if you may turn on the TV in the living room or if it’s impolite to mention that you’re deathly allergic to the cat your host keeps encouraging you to pet? If so, then stay at a cute little bed and breakfast! The only differences are that your hosts will be strangers instead of friends and you’ll have to pay them for the privilege of sleeping in their home, which I promise you will be as quiet as a tomb starting each evening at 7pm. That might sound restful, but the way everybody tiptoes around could put you on edge or give you a case of uncontrollable Sunday School giggles, depending on your personality. I don’t know how these lodgings gained a reputation as ideal for honeymooners—in the eerily noiseless B&Bs I’ve slept in, everyone could have easily heard the slightest romantic overture made at any point during the night. The spell of silence is only broken at 5am, when french toast is prepared by what sounds like the percussion section of the Ohio State marching band. —Zac Thompson, Associate Editor
There’s no doubt that Porto’s Livraria Lello & Irmao, “the most beautiful bookstore in the world,” is magnificent. Its turn-of-the-last-century serpentine staircase and intricate plaster tracery reportedly inspired J.K. Rowling when she lived in Porto in the 1990s, and you can easily imagine Harry, Ron, and Hermione casting spells under the stained glass ceiling. Unfortunately, the magical interior is now attracting every Harry Potter fan who ever apparated. Tourism brochures call the style neo-Gothic, Art Nouveau, or Art Deco. I call it post-Potter. After buying admission tickets at an adjacent storefront packed with Potterworld souvenirs (savvy travelers get time-stamped vouchers online for €5.50/US$6.50), you’ll still line up on the sidewalk in the hot sun—and it might be even sweatier inside. Though the fee is applicable toward your purchase, most of the books are in Portuguese, and it might be easier to catch the golden snitch than to actually reach a tome through the vast scrum of Muggles choking the aisles. As for the famous undulating staircase, its red steps standing out like literary Louboutins? You’ll have to battle hordes of selfie-seekers blocking your ascent. I say it's a miracle all the clerks haven’t turned into Death Eaters. —Dika Lam, Social Media Editor
You'll get on a surfboard-like slab—but you won’t get the rush of a catching a wave. You'll paddle here and there, but you'll find none of the thrill of steering a kayak in white water, where there's wind whipping your hair and currents tossing you to and fro. They're now common at coastal resorts across the world, and they make for a good workout, but so do burpees—and who would want to do burpees on vacation? What’s S.U.P.? Not me. —PF
Traveling by myself can give me a whole vacation’s worth of time for quiet contemplation—a chance to be alone with my thoughts, such as, “How much longer ‘til this sojourn in Lonely Town is over?” and “Have I said anything out loud today?” To be fair, the success of a journey for one depends on the itinerary. While aloneness might be tailor-made for meditating in an ashram in India, for example, it’s less rewarding when I'm doing research on rural Ireland and take a day trip with a bus full of happy families who look at me like, Who’s the weirdo taking notes on sheep? I’ve never done the ashram thing, but I can say from personal experience that the weirdo-with-notebook scenario leads to very few spiritual insights. —ZT
Camels, fascinating though they may be, can be ornery and revolting creatures. If they're not refusing to kneel for boarding or loudly groaning in petulant protest, then they're regurgitating their stomachs, which dangle from their gurgling mouths in a foamy funk redolent of month-old limburger cheese. Even if you finally get your beast slogging in the right direction, a few minutes in the saddle atop this wide, sandy animal can make you feel like you're giving birth to it. It's fun for about half an hour, but multi-hour treks (like the one I took in Jaisalmer, India) will leave you sore, stinky, and dehydrated. No wonder the Bedouins prefer to sit on the ground—after a day of camel-driving, a chair would be too painful. —JC
Hot springs caused by geothermal activity are said to have restorative properties benefiting circulation, joints, skin, and even internal organs. Whether those claims are true or not, many would dub a dip in hot springs a relaxing activity—because, really, what could be more relaxing than lowering yourself into a pool of scalding water that smells like rotten eggs? At a hot springs facility I visited in Rotorua, New Zealand, there were pools of various temperatures, from simmering to lava, so that you could acclimate yourself to hotter and hotter waters. It made me think of that old proverb that says a frog will jump out of a boiling pot of water, but won’t notice if you slowly raise the temperature. Which makes me wonder: 1.) Why would you want to put yourself through a similar experience? and 2.) Why were the people who came up with that proverb trying to find the best way to torture a frog? —ZT