Ask anyone who’s traveled enough and they will tell you that exceptional & memorable travel stories begin exactly where popular lists stop. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that a trip to Westminster Castle, Louvre Museum or Statue of Liberty are not important. They are, but let’s face it – when was the last time you were left awe-struck because a friend posted a selfie against a backdrop of hoards of people and a distant Mona Lisa? Silly picture, don’t you think. Well, you’re right and in that lies the trick – seasoned travelers don’t just see things, they define how they see them.
Whether it is the city-vibes of a large metropolis, highs of an adventure, depths of deep-sea diving, quiet luxury of a high-end resort or simplicity of a meditation retreat, the key to memorable travel is to make it personal and unique to who we are and what truly matters to us.
A Zen Packer’s guide to travel
I’ve been traveling close to 100 days a year for almost 15 years and through all my travels across hundreds of cities and countries, I’ve come to believe that the best kind of travel is the one which nourishes the soul. I don’t mean a yoga vacation, spa visit or a hike in the mountains. It can equally be spending a day chasing history in London neighbourhoods, or sipping a signature blend of coffee in a local cafe, camping under a desert sky or visiting offbeat museums.
For years now, I arrive at a destination with little or no agenda. It doesn’t mean that I haven’t done my research – all it means is that I don’t believe in fixed plans. I am happy to change directions because a random road looks much more interesting than the one which leads me to my destination. Or for that matter loose the Mona Lisa at Louvre to find a quieter gallery and in the process end up in front of Statue of Ain Ghazal or Hammurabi Code.
I refer to this brand of travel as ‘Zen Packer’s style‘ – an abstract term I created to describe traveling for the sake of discovery and ending up with moments which leave us both nostalgic and richer for the experience. I also think of Zen Packer’s style as a hallmark of authentic luxe – what can be, after all, more luxurious than be able to break-free and do exactly what the heart desires, right?
Pico Iyer captured Zen Packer’s travel beautifully when he wrote “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again- to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”
Top six tips for traveling in Zen Packer’s Style
Be Spontaneous: Have a broad plan for the day but in case a quaint street or an interesting cafe / window catches your attention, walk over and discover it. I remember ‘discovering’ The Back Room on Lower East Side New York and Mr Fogg’s in Mayfair in London even before either my friends or even the ‘know-it-all’ concierge of my hotels in those respective cities had ever heard about it! Or this grand old ruin of Winchester Palace in Southwark, London where I ended up thanks to a fortunate detour.
Winchester Palace, Southwark was built in 12th century by Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester at the time. The palace not only became the home of the Bishop every time he traveled to London for state business but also a place for entertainment for his guests. This huge palace included a Great Hall, tennis courts, garden, bowling alley, wine cellar, brewery etc. It even had its own prison. . It remained in use as the London home of the Bishop of Winchester for almost 500 years until the 17th century when the building was divided up into warehouses and tenements. Interestingly the palace over the centuries was surrounded by rather insalubrious establishments and Southwark filled it's streets with breweries, tanneries, laundries, taverns, theatres and brothels – all of which were licenced by the Bishop of Winchester who happily collected both rents and fines from these unsavoury businesses. . The palace was destroyed in the great fire of 1814 and the existing ruins were partially re-discovered in the 19th century and others during the redeveopment of the Southbank in 1980s. All that remains of this palace is the stunning rose window and the gable walls leading to the pantry, butchery and kitchen.
Great things lie on the other side of fear: Whether it’s participating in a local festival, fair or walking that extra length on a mountain hike are often rewarded with great views and memories. Needless but important to add that adventure should never get the better of caution.
Interact & Engage: Locals have the best stories to tell. And in my experience the best stories (and lessons) come from the most unlikely places and people. Including finding some of the best gin to drink when in Amsterdam or finding the perfect place for some Salsa moved in Cuba
Bring up the volume … Ended up this evening at Casa de la Musica – an open to air music and dance affair that congregates on a sweeping staircase beside the Iglesia Parroquial off Plaza Mayor. A good mix of tourists and locals come here every evening and dance away until late at night. And while the Mojitos were terrible, the energy of this place was everything I'd ever imagined Cuba to be. This was the most perfect ending to a perfect week in Cuba.
Local lifestyle magazine: One of the first things I do when I get to a destination is pick-up a local lifestyle magazine – preferably not the glossiest one. They are often the best resource for what’s currently happening in the local scene.
Use Social Network: In the age of Instagram it’s great to explore the lesser known sites and insider-tips at your destination. I also use Small World and other such communities to ask locals to recommend favorite local haunts or day trips. People are usually helpful (definitely a lot more than we assume) – so go ahead and ask. My instagram friends told me about the Garden of Lovers in Merano when I was visiting the Italian Alps during summer last year.
The second pavilion at the Garden of Lovers is ablaze with a bouquet of red tulips representing the next stage of love : "Promise". Tulips, even though are neither fancy nor grand, have been historically considered a symbol of perfect, enduring, passionate love just as much as of abundance, prosperity and indulgence. It's interesting how the artist used two symbols of passion and abundance – the flower tulip and the color red – to represent second stage, the promise of love.
May your 2017 travels be filled with Zen-packer’s travel moments, immersive experiences and authentic luxe…