Off the Beaten Path Destinations – How to find the highlight of your trip

Ask anybody who has backpacked for any amount of time what the highlight of their trip was and they’ll likely tell you about a place that you’ve never even heard of.

That’s right, I’ve never met anybody who said the Eiffel Tower was their favorite part of their trip to Europe.  Nothing against the Eiffel tower, it’s wonderful, but often the small, out of the way places that you never planned on visiting are what really make your trip.

For me, it was Cinque Terre, Italy in 2004.  It was my first backpacking trip and I was all by myself.  Made my way from Paris to Venice and met three Americans who were studying in England.  They were in my hostel and we decided to go out for dinner.  We ended up spending the next day together exploring the neighboring islands before heading to Florence which so happened to be both of our plans.

After a couple of days in Florence they invited me to Cinque Terre.   “Where?” I asked.

I looked it up in my Lonely Planet.  At the time, there was just one paragraph that said that the olive farming villages of Cinque Terre had no hotels and you had to find a local to rent you a room.

It sounded interesting, but the last thing I wanted to do was be stuck in some place I didn’t know with nowhere to sleep.  I was also convinced I needed five days to explore Rome.

Somehow they talked me into it, and after a brief obligatory stop in Pisa, we ended up in Vernazza, one of the villages of Cinque Terre.  It was there that an old lady met us at the train station and offered us a room.  Thanks to my Pimsleur Italian level I audio tracks and a lot of body language, we secured a room for the night.

The village was beautiful, located right on the water and offered the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen (keep in mind I live at the beach in Southern California and it’s hard to beat our sunsets).  We had an amazing and affordable dinner at a restaurant up on a cliff that overlooked the ocean.  The sky was lit with nothing but bright stars.  No lights from any nearby metropolis polluted the sky.

View from above of Vernazza, Cineque Terre, Italy
View from above of Vernazza, Cineque Terre, Italy

The following day we hiked between the villages along a path that had previously been used by the olive and grape farmers.  Some of the hillside had been carved specifically for the harvesting and that way of life hadn’t changed for many of the residents of Cinque Terre.

These days many Cinque Terre has become quite the hot spot.  Located on the Italian Riveria, it’s surprising that it took this long for it to become such a great spot for tourism.  Now, nearly every body I speak to who has backpacked Italy has told me they stopped in Cinque Terre.  I haven’t looked at the latest Lonely Planet guidebook for Italy but I would bet that there is MUCH more than the same short paragraph that I took a leap on five years ago.

I had a similar experience in Morocco when I visited Chefchaouen.  While I had read a bit about it in the guidebook, it certainly wasn’t the destination that bigger cities like Casablanca, Fez, and Tangiers were made out to be, but it ended up being the highlight of my trip for both its beauty, and the wonderful locals who invited me into their home for a great meal.

My point is that you never know what is out there when you are traveling.  Your guidebook is a necessity but you can never expect that the author visited every square mile of the country.

There are still many of places that have yet to be bombarded with tourists and in the case of Cinque Terre, they soon might be, so go see them while you have the chance!

Chefchaouen, Morocco
Chefchaouen, Morocco

Talk to other backpackers at hostels or ask a local their opinion on places you can visit to get a real feel for the culture.  You’ll be surprised with what you may find.  Just because a guidebook doesn’t listen a place, or doesn’t provide you with a lot of information, doesn’t mean it won’t be the highlight of your trip!

Have you found a great off the beaten path destination in your travels?  If so, post a comment and let us know where and how you came across it!