Avoiding Hotels and the Art of Slow Travel

French bakery - By Julie Kertesz via Wikimedia Commons

It’s the woman in the bakery who clinches it.

The build-up is pure Paris. In a smart boulangerie off the Boulevard Saint-Germain, I am waiting to buy breakfast for the third morning in a row. Levitating on the aroma from the baking ovens, I ogle the exquisite pastries and eavesdrop on a couple arguing in stage whispers in front of me.

When the moment comes to place my order, the woman behind the counter interrupts me. “Bonjour, monsieur,” she says, with a triumphant smile of recognition. “If I’m not mistaken, you would like a croissant and a pain au chocolat, n’est-ce pas?”

Et voilà!

Suddenly I am not an anonymous tourist anymore. I am a local. Well, not quite a local (I’m not chic enough ever to be a true Parisian), but I have become a character in the morning drama at this boulangerie.

I am now the Man Who Always Orders One Croissant And One Pain Au Chocolat.

To anyone who aspires to be a traveler rather than a tourist, this is delicious vindication. It is like a Parisian version of Cheers: walking into a bakery where everybody knows your name, or at least what you eat for breakfast.

Such moments are rare in this world of Fast Travel. We are often too rushed to connect with local people or cherish the small details that make each place thrilling and unique. Result: everywhere ends up feeling the same as everywhere else.

This is particularly true if you use hotels. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve stayed in some wonderful hotels and enjoyed myself immensely along the way. But lately the charm has worn off. More and more, I find myself waking up in well-appointed rooms and wondering: Is this Taipei, Toronto or Torino?

Hotels everywhere trade on the same formula: walls painted in safe, restful shades; crisp white sheets and black-out curtains; flat-screen TVs at the foot of the bed; clock radios with iPod docks; desks with ethernet cables; organic toiletries in the bathrooms.

And don’t forget that perennial fixture: the trouser-press. Who uses those anyway? And how?

Even the little touches – that soapstone sculpture by the sofa, those art-books on the coffee table, the original watercolour above the bed – that are supposed to be the USP of boutique hotels can have a contrived air. Like something left behind by a designer or consultant who has already moved on to another project.

That is why I often avoid hotels these days. Slow Travel is about engaging with local people and experiencing a place from the inside. Renting a private apartment is the perfect way to do that.

And it’s easy to arrange now thanks to a gamut of websites. My favourite is Airbnb. In recent months, I have used the site to stay in the apartment of a choreographer in Bologna and a designer in Bogotá, a mini-mansion on Venice Beach in Los Angeles and a stylish bachelor pad in Mexico City. All cost less than a standard hotel.

More importantly, each one had its own character and allowed me to experience the city like a local. While grappling with jet-lag, I hung out with the guy selling tacos at the crack of dawn outside that loft in Mexico City.

Even rentals that don’t work out so well – the cramped flat owned by the chain-smoking fortune teller in Paris springs to mind – deliver a rare glimpse into local life and add vivid stories to my traveling database.

The boulangerie moment happened during a recent stay in a charming apartment right on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Plucked from the Haven in Paris website, which specialises in boutique rentals in the French capital, it was the sort of pied à terre that dreams are made of: Oak parquet floors. Chocolate-coloured silk curtains. High ceilings with tall windows looking out onto a statue of Danton. A sweet little kitchen for cooking up the fresh produce on sale at the market round the corner.

To my delight, the owner of the apartment keeps a bookshelf stocked with tomes you might actually want to read. I even found myself leafing through Jean-Paul Sartre for the first time since university. Can you imagine that happening at a Marriott?

But the main appeal was the way the apartment plugged us into neighbourhood life. A strike on our first day meant there were no newspapers at the kiosk across the street. For the rest of our visit, the vendor and I kept up a running joke about how industrial action is practically the national sport in France.

And then, of course, there was the food. Every morning, we brewed our own café au lait and went down to the boulangerie to buy the pastries for our petit déjeuner. We shopped in the local marché, picking up cured ham from the boucher, a glorious medley of cheeses from the fromagerie and a bottle of burgundy to die for.

By the end of our stay, the apartment felt much less like a rental and much more like “chez nous.”

Will we return in the future? It’s hard to say. Part of the appeal of staying in private homes is that there are so many to choose from.

But if one day we do go back to “our place” on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, I know where I’ll be buying breakfast.


NB: The woman in the photo is NOT the same woman quoted in the blog post.

Slow Rocking

Love how there are wooden rocking chairs sprinkled randomly round the departure lounge at the airport in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Good slow.

Slow Travel debate (Part 2)

In 2011, the Southbank Centre in London hosted a panel discussion on the art of Slow Travel. The panellists were:

1. Ed Gillespie, head of a sustainability consultancy and one-time Slow Traveller columnist in the Observer.

2. Harry Eyres, a poet and author of the Slow Life column in the Financial Times.

I was the moderator.

This video is broken into three parts. This is Part 2.

Slow travel debate (Part 1)

In 2011, the Southbank Centre in London hosted a panel discussion on the art of Slow Travel. The panellists were:

1. Ed Gillespie, head of a sustainability consultancy and one-time Slow Traveller columnist in the Observer.

2. Harry Eyres, a poet and author of the Slow Life column in the Financial Times.

I was the moderator.

This video is broken into three parts. This is Part 1.

Speed Demon

I have seen the future of the automobile – and it’s sleek, sexy and fast as hell. It’s also environmentally-friendly.

On Monday, I took part in the annual Eco-Rally from Brighton to London. It’s a showcase for the new technologies that are greening automobiles of all shapes and sizes.

On a day of wind and patchy sunshine, fifteen of us drove a convoy of state-of-the-art sedans, sports cars and vans from the south coast of England to City Hall beside Tower Bridge in London. Our vehicles were powered by everything from solar energy to electricity to vegetable oil – with petrol and diesel often playing a part, too (think hybrids). Many of the cars were built using green materials and methods.

What does all this have to do with Slow?

Quite a lot, actually. We have allowed traffic to blight our towns and cities. A central plank of the Slow revolution is to take back the streets from the automobile.

That means a lot less driving and a lot more walking, cycling, scootering, rollerblading, street football and parties, road hockey, etc. Building a strong public transport network should be a top priority for every politician. As should cutting carbon emissions.

When it comes to cars, less is more.

But let’s be honest: there will always be a need (not to mention a desire) for private automobiles that can shuttle us from A to B. The key then is to make these vehicles as green as possible. And that is were the Eco-Rally comes in.

On Monday, I drove the Lotus Eco Elise. It’s a zippy, no-nonsense roadster with an engine that growls like an irked lion. The interior is lined with hemp and eco-wool.

My passenger was the clever and rather beautiful founder of a green consultancy. So picture the scene: hot car, hot blonde, heading-for-middle-age me at the wheel.

I felt like I’d stumbled into someone’s mid-life crisis. Possibly my own.

But the highlight of the day was taking the Tesla for a spin. There is only one word for this car: Wow! It is totally electric and almost completely silent, which means zero air and noise pollution. It also looks like something James Bond would drive, neatly obliterating the old saw that eco-friendly means boring and worthy.

And did I mention that the Tesla is mind-blowingly quick? We’re talking 0-60 MPH in 3.9 seconds. I have never felt acceleration like it. This is the kind of G-force you experience in a souped-up supercar, or a jet fighter.

The Tesla is a breakthrough. Okay, it costs a small fortune. But it shows that we can build zero-emission cars without sacrificing style, performance or sex appeal. And already a cheaper four-door model is coming to market.

But what about all that speed?

As an advocate of Slow, I certainly felt a pang of guilt climbing into the Tesla. But I have to admit that the unease didn’t last long. After the first surge of acceleration, I was whooping like a teenager on a rollercoaster. It was a bit terrifying, but also hugely exhilarating.

Can drivers be trusted with that kind of power at their fingertips? Can I be trusted? I have my doubts.

Which probably means I should stop fantasizing about getting a Tesla for Christmas …


Just back from nine glorious days in a cottage in a forest by the sea in Sweden. Swimming in the Baltic, soccer on the sandy beach, eating under the stars. It was heaven.

A big part of the charm was that we never once looked at a screen of any size: no email, no Internet, no phones, no TV.

Which made me wonder: is unplugging now the ultimate luxury?

Of course, being online can be wonderful. We are hardwired to be curious and to connect and communicate. The problem is that in a world of limitless information and constant access to other people, we often don’t know when to stop.

Being “always on” is exhausting and superficial. It erodes our producitivity. It locks us into what one Microsoft research called a state of “continuous partial attention.”

That’s why a backlash is gathering steam.

Consider the rise of the Slow Technology movement.

Or the response to news that more airlines are planning to allow travelers to use mobile phones and surf the Internet during flights.

You would expect a roar of applause from passengers desperate to stay connected in the air.  But the opposite is true. A recent survey of business travelers – the Crackberry demographic – found that 91.2% were against wiring up flights for phone and Internet use.

Why? Because the plane is now the final frontier, the last place on earth where you can completely disconnect, where you can forget about your inbox and voicemail. A place to doze, doodle and daydream. A place where your time is truly your own.

One frequent flyer I know puts it this way: “I hate flying but I look forward to flights now because it’s the only time when no one can bother or interrupt me. These days I do some of my best thinking on planes.”

And of course there is another compelling reason to resist the wiring up of flights: Can you imagine anything worse than being woken by someone in the next seat shouting ”I’m on an airplane!” into a handset?

For more thoughts on this, check out my piece in the current issue of Vodafone Receiver.

Slow Travel debate (Part 3)

In 2011, the Southbank Centre in London hosted a panel discussion on the art of Slow Travel. The panellists were:

1. Ed Gillespie, head of a sustainability consultancy and one-time Slow Traveller columnist in the Observer.

2. Harry Eyres, a poet and author of the Slow Life column in the Financial Times.

I was the moderator.

This video is broken into three parts. This is Part 3.

Slow down South

I’m in Buenos Aires at the moment. It’s amazing how the Slow philosophy strikes such a powerful chord here. I have a theory. Well, actually, I have several theories but here’s the one on my mind at the moment. Like others in the developing world, the Argentines feel that drive to catch up with the West as fast as possible, perhaps without even asking whether everything we have is really worth striving for. But Buenos Aires is also a very cultured city, a place where people read books and talk about ideas, which means they are more open to cultural shifts like the Slow philosophy than are other places. Result: a fascinating paradox and an ardent desire to make sense of it all. Just a thought.

Travel slow

Hardly a week goes by these days without a journalist from somewhere in the world emailing me to talk about the rise of Slow Travel. And no wonder. The fast-forward approach to travel and tourism is taking a heavy toll. The environmental damage caused by our penchant for globetrotting in airplanes is well documented, but it is just the start. When we travel in roadrunner mode, we miss the small details that make each place thrilling and unique. We lose the joy of the journey. And at the end of it all, when every box on our To Do list has been checked, we return home even more exhausted than when we left. That is why Slow Travel is gaining ground. It’s about savouring the journey (traveling by train or barge or bicycle rather than crammed into a middle seat on an EasyJet flight); taking time to engage and learn about the local culture; finding moments to switch off and relax; showing an interest in the effect our visit has on the locals. The current issue of Newsweek Internationalhas a cover story devoted to Slow Travel and its title says it all: Slow is Beautiful.