What separates a tourist from a traveler?
I like to think it has a lot to do with who you meet on your journey. A few years ago Amanda and I traveled to Mexico. We decided to try the resort thing and hated it. We felt cut off from the country we had flown to visit. I mean, who needs a private beach packed with big Russian men in little Speedos?
The time we felt most connected to Mexico was the evening we spent in walking the streets of Playa del Carmen. The meal we had in the town was the best of the trip by far and the beach looked beautiful at sunset.
I’ll admit Playa del Carmen caters to tourists, and it’s probably still difficult to make a true connection to the culture there. Fortunately I have another example with similar conditions.
The sunny island of Saint Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands is another perfect example of a place you might think beyond the capacity for an authentic connection.
You might say “Saint Thomas? Don’t like a thousand hula shirt and sunscreen-wearing suburbanites invade the island daily?” To which I respond, “Yes! It’s all in where you stay.”
When we’re in Saint Thomas we like to stay in Frenchtown, a small community on the outskirts of Charlotte Amalie. The neighborhood is filled with restaurants packed with locals, some of whom – if you listen carefully enough – still speak a French dialect. We stay at the Villa Olga hotel, a locally-run business with managers who live on-site. Staying away from the throngs of tourists gives us the opportunity to mingle with locals at the bar or the deli counter and get to know the people and the island better than through the pages of any guide book.
The places you stay and the connections you make with people are what make you a traveler and not a tourist. You can even look at more exotic options than a locally-run hotel; you could stay in a room to rent in a private home or in a convent or a monastery, all recommended by travel author and world-renowned expert Pauline Frommer.