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Rise of the Slow Travel Movement

Vacations should be more than a rush of flights, sights and fast food. All aboard for the Slow Travel movement

by Jay Walljasper

Published in Ode magazine

Barbara Haddrill was thrilled to hear of her best friend’s engagement, and happily accepted the offer to be a bridesmaid. But because of her growing concern about the effect of flying on the environment, Haddrill decided not to take a plane to the wedding. The only problem was that she lived in rural Wales and her friend was getting married in Brisbane, Australia. But with a little pluck and a lot of planning, she made it to the ceremony on time, thanks to bikes, buses, trains, boats, the Trans-Siberian Railway, her own two feet and a six-day voyage aboard M.V. Theodor Storm, a Russian freighter carrying cargo between Singapore and Perth, Australia.

The trip took 40 days, and was filled with wonders like watching the sun rise over Siberia’s legendary Lake Baikal and discovering new foods and friends everywhere along the way. “It has changed my life in many ways,” she wrote on her blog (babs2brisbane.blogspot.com), “not just in terms of the amazing things I have seen or the people I have met but more about what I have discovered about the generosity and kindness of complete strangers.”

Haddrill is at the extreme forefront of an emerging trend called “slow travel,” a modern impulse to follow the old wisdom that getting there is half the fun. Inspired by the “slow food” movement, growing ranks of people want to remember their vacations as something more than a blur of cramped plane rides, rushed sightseeing tours, gobbled fast food and long lines at the rental car counter. They’re motivated by an indefatigable sense of adventure as well as a taste for authentic experience.

“Slow travel doesn’t mean reigning in your curiosity about seeing the world,” notes Mark Ellingham, founder of the Rough Guides travel book series. “I would say just the opposite. It gives you a better chance to experience the world. On many holidays today, you feel like you are just being dropped off somewhere, like a package.”

And flying less often, Ellingham believes, doesn’t have to involve sacrifice in either comfort or fun: “If you live in London, you’d have to be partly insane to want to fly to Paris today. It’s not faster than the Eurostar train and it’s much more hassle.”

Of course no holiday can ever be zero-impact on the environment, but that plane ride from London to Paris pumps 244 kilo­grams (540 pounds) of carbon into the atmosphere, more than 10 times the amount of the Eurostar train at 22 kilograms per passenger, according to a 2006 article in the UK’s Observer newspaper.

Slow travel advocates like Ellingham recognize that trains, boats or bikes don’t work for every journey we want to take. That’s why he and Tony Wheeler, founder of the Lonely Planet travel guides, developed a travel campaign with the motto, “fly less, stay longer.” Treat yourself to an adventure, in other words, by spending a leisurely amount of time at just one faraway destination.

“Slow travel, like the slow food movement, is based around the idea of savouring what a local area has to offer,” points out Justin Francis, co-founder of the UK travel directory ResponsibleTravel.com. “The slow traveller visits fewer places but really gets to know each of them. It leaves you with a greater understanding of local people and places.”

Those places can even be close to home. “Part of the idea of slow travel is, at least part of the time, to visit places closer to home,” says Ellingham. “I think there’s growing interest in this. At Rough Guides, we started with foreign places like Greece and Spain and were surprised, when we finally got around to publishing books about our own backyard in England, how well they sold.”

Adds Brett Olson, “It can be as easy as pretending to be from someplace else and dropping in on a nearby town or neighbourhood in your own city.” Olson is the co-founder of Greenroutes.org, an innovative website that highlights little-known destinations in the countryside of Minnesota and North Dakota, ranging from ancient Indian rock paintings to rushing canoe streams to small-town diners with out-of-this-world pies.

“By slow travel, I am not suggesting people pull out their knitting needles, pour a cup of weak herbal tea and retire to the gazebo,” Olson says. “Slow is not the same thing as dull. It means that when you come back from a trip, you know you’ve experienced that place in a way that could not be reproduced in any other place—the taste, the smells, the feel. We think this can be done anywhere.”

Olson’s idea to highlight interesting spots hidden away in the rural Midwest, hardly a tourist mecca, was inspired by a slow travel experience in one of the world’s most frequently traveled destinations, Greece. “I was in a mountain town in Crete, far away from most other tourists. After a couple of days I began to feel the tempo of the place, hanging out in a café that was tucked away from the main road, discovering how the locals spent time, what their drink of choice is. (Ah, raki!) I came back with memories and stories I would never have had if I stayed with the crowds on the coast or just hurried through town.”