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dec 10 2009

Q&A with writer Greg Witt, on going "Off the Tourist Trail"

The writer, editor, and lead contributor of a new book called Off the Tourist Trail: 1,000 Unexpected Travel Alternatives allows us to pick his brain.

We first mentioned the hefty coffee-table tome when it was hot off the presses a couple months back, but seeing as it could be on the holiday shopping lists of many travelers, we've decided to do a Q&A; with lead contrib Greg Witt. Witt is the U.S. Editor of Off the Tourist Trail ($40, dk.com) and the author of Ultimate Adventures: A Rough Guide to Adventure Travel ($25, roughguides.com).

BT: How in the world did the editors and writers come up with the list? I'm assuming it was partly a balancing act of choosing places that were fairly unknown and yet somehow within reach and not too remote. But you tell me. What were the criteria?

GW: Off the Tourist Trail is a feast of delicious travel alternatives. Since no one person could know all of what's available to enjoy, we put together a team of 45 experts from all over the world, each with an intimate knowledge of a destination, region, or type of travel—natural wonders, beaches, ancient sites, festivals—and a challenge to introduce the reader to lesser known but uniquely rewarding finds.

We didn't muddy the water with a lot of rules or restrictions, so what you get are zealous travelers sharing what they know and love. And it's all decorated with some exquisite images—a real visual treat.

What's the thinking behind including some fairly well-known spots in the U.S., like Devils Tower and Yosemite's Half Dome?

Keep in mind, Off the Tourist Trail is written for a global audience, so while some Americans may view Half Dome as iconic—even overrun with tourists—a visitor from Australia or England would rightfully be rapt in wonder with the majesty of Yosemite.

Even well-traveled Americans can be stuck in a rut of visiting the same places repeatedly. Yes, Devils Tower may be well known, but it receives fewer visitors in an entire year than Las Vegas gets in 4 days—and less than 1% of the visitors ever attempt to climb it.

When we focus on big cities our aim is to spotlight the less-explored jewel nearby—Delft rather than Amsterdam, Fez over Marrakech, or Alexandria instead of Cairo. In cities like London or New York we offer up lively street markets, indie music venues, quirky museums, and hidden parks—places you'd never see as a stop on the tour bus.

Was it difficult to come up with good yet untouristed places to recommend in certain parts of the world? Where was it easy? And where was it difficult?

Surprisingly, we had very little difficulty finding an abundance of wonderful lesser-known destinations. What I found most challenging was advancing the merits of the alternative, without disparaging the popular or better-known site just because it's too crowded. After all, the reason places like Petra, Stonehenge, and the Acropolis are crowded is because they offer travelers an experience that can be had nowhere else. So in offering alternatives—Lalibela to Petra, Avebury to Stonehenge, Agrigento to the Acropolis—our intent was to expand the reader's field of view, rather than trash an icon.

Finding remote, golden-sand beaches to escape the crowds at Waikiki or Miami Beach was easy pickings. You'll want to check out Ihuru, Hulopo'e, and Kenya's Turtle Bay. It was also easy to find off-the-beaten-path waterfalls to beat Niagara, mountain treks better than the Inca Trail, and carnivals to best Rio de Janeiro.

There's a recurring feature in the book that offers an alternative to a super popular spot, like Iceland instead of Yellowstone for amazing geothermal attractions. What spots do you personally think are a bit overhyped, and what are your favorite alternatives?

I'm very much an "off the tourist trail" traveler, so I'm fairly jaded about big cities, resorts, theme parks, and cruise ports in general. But I can still be smitten by a charming village, distinctive local cuisine, and places that maintain a sense of history and a traditional lifestyle in the face of industrialization and popular culture.

I think for most people, going to the Grand Canyon and driving from viewpoint to viewpoint is an immense disappointment. The alternative is being among the less than 1% who hike below the rim to discover waterfalls bursting from rock, desert bighorn sheep, and sculpted stone that makes the canyon so breathtakingly beautiful.

Notre Dame de Paris is the best known gothic cathedral in the world, but just a few hundred meters away is Sainte-Chapelle which has more stained glass, all more delicately framed, and more inspiring than its better-known neighbor.

There is so much to experience in Latin America, but you'll have to escape the dreadful urban centers of Mexico City, Lima, San Jose, or Sao Paulo before you can appreciate the natural wonders of the Pantanal (Brazil) and the Mindo-Nambillo Cloud Forest (Ecuador), or the ancient ruins of Palenque (Mexico) and Machu-Picchu (Peru).

After seeing the book as a finished product, what places in the world are on your to-do, must-see list?

Even though I've traveled widely, Off the Tourist Trail has rekindled my travel fire for India and Southeast Asia, especially some of the ancient sites like Borobudur (Indonesia), Brihadishwara Temple (India), and Angkor (Cambodia). For natural wonders, a visit to the enormous caves, primitive jungles, and exotic wildlife of Borneo is at the top of my must-see list. So many places. So little time.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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