When I was living in Japan and working as an English teacher, I had a lot of free time since I had to be at school for a full workday even though some days I had just one or two classes to teach. The rest of the time I kept myself busy scouring the web for places to visit and ways to make my travel budget go further. Should I have been preparing lessons instead? Maybe. Probably.
Over one winter holiday, I vacationed on the Ko Phi Phi islands (pronounced ko pee pee), a small archipelago of six islands off the coast of Thailand where the movie The Beach was filmed. It was after the tsunami of 2004 and the islands were still being rebuilt but despite this, they were idyllic and picturesque, with serene, turquoise waters, still as a swimming pool, only more clear. For the first eighteen years of my life, the “beach” was the Texas Gulf coast. I’d never dreamed that beaches like these were even real. I made it my mission to discover more of them – the more secluded, secret and undiscovered, the better!
It’s tricky to ask the web for advice about anything “secluded” or “secret” since putting it on the internet, kind of by default, makes it not so secret anymore. Likewise, forget about getting advice from a travel book or magazine. Any article is bound to have been read by a million other people and in some cases, may have been colored by a bit of bias. If the writer was treated to something extra special by a hotel or a tourism board in a particular area, they might feel more inclined to sing its praises.
Instead, I relied on these 3 things to find my secret getaways, the ones that hadn’t yet been overrun by commercial tourism. There’s legwork involved, but if you’re like me, you won’t mind – planning a vacation is half the fun.
1. Get Off Google’s First Page
I always start a search with a few key words of what I’m looking for: “secret beaches” or something. You’ll find a ton of info from guidebooks, travel websites, traveler blogs. I read everything but the trick is to just keep going. Once you’ve dived into the first one and been sucked into every page’s vortex of associated links, take a breath and then crawl back out to the original search. Click the link at the bottom for the next page of results and jump right back in. Buried in those oft forgot “next pages” will be nuggets of information just waiting to be excavated.
I have found some really interesting tips from personal blogs hiding in the depths of my google search. I love personal blogs because you get information with context. You may not get all of the nuts and bolts that a guidebook would include, but you’ll get an overview of other things: activities, atmosphere, snapshots of life. You can glean information about the person writing the blog and be better able to understand if their viewpoint meshes with yours. Are they raving about a particularly amazing beach but their blog is called “Adventures of a Surf Addict”? If all you want is calm waters, you’ll at least know that their great beach find can be marked off your list. And sometimes, knowing where you don’t want to go is an important step in figuring out where you do want to go.
There’s a reason these pages aren’t at the top of google’s list. The sites aren’t as popular, or not as relevant, or perhaps haven’t been updated in a while. There will be a lot to wade through and not every link will bear good fruit, but if the information is too easy to find, chances are everyone else has found it also.
2. Read Forums
Forums are a great source of information but they require a lot of reading and a lot of wading through answers that aren’t useful. Forums will come up often at the top of a web search and I love to follow these out all the way to the end. You may not always find what you’re looking for, but the best things I’ve ever gotten from a forum are the things I didn’t even know I was looking for. The trick is to read them, take notes, and then make your own follow up searches based on things you’ve discovered. That could be anything from mention of the perfect place to stay, a tip about getting to or from the destination, another location that’s around the corner, advice about where to get the best beach rental. Forums will paint a fuller picture for you, coloring in the spaces left around the broad strokes of your search.
TripAdvisor has some great travel forums. When I started using it in the mid 2000s it was a relatively small community but has since exploded into a wealth of data, photos, and “best of” lists.
Don’t forget to check out user profiles. Is this poster a seasoned traveler? Have they said the wintertime is “pleasantly warm” but you see that they live in Toronto where anything above 20 degrees fahrenheit might be construed as pleasantly warm? Like personal blogs, the information you get from a user profile will give you more context for understanding the advice that you’re getting.
3. Look at a Map
This is one of those ideas that’s kind of hiding in plain sight. After all the searching and sifting through blogs and forums and articles from other people telling you where to go, there’s some basic research that you can still do all on your own. Open your browser and pull up a map. Pinpoint areas of interest and zoom in, then keep zooming in. Find places that look like they’re situated where you might want to be. Then find out if they’re worth visiting.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but when I visited the Phi Phi islands in Thailand, I didn’t actually know what side of Thailand they were on. (They’re at the western side, on the Andaman Sea.) Sometimes you get so caught up in booking flights, finding hotel bargains, researching where to eat and what the exchange rate is, that you fail to literally, see the big picture. Just taking the time to find a location on a map will give you insight into other places nearby that maybe haven’t gotten the royal write up treatment, yet still have the same attributes that make it a worthwhile destination. Be thorough in your follow up research though. In some cases, there might be a good reason why your new discovery is still as yet undiscovered.
I hope you found these ideas useful. Good luck researching and happy traveling!
You’ll need to get a passport if you don’t have one already. Also, check to see if you need a visa (which varies by country), and look at the Travel Warnings at the US Department of State for any travel advisories and to find a list of recommended vaccinations.