During 30+ years of personal travel and 15 years of professional travel, most of the richest experiences we’ve had were completely unexpected and unplanned. The serendipity of travel is one of the great reasons to actually get out and explore this fabulous planet. Any regular traveler will report the same – the best experiences are those that happen spontaneously. The truly unquantifiable element is why serendipity seems to happen so regularly while traveling. We have no explanation, only the assurance that it is true. Somehow the universe seems to reward the intrepid spirit of exploration. On my very first trip abroad, in 1978, I had one of my most memorable travel encounters. I was hitch-hiking in Belgium, on my way to Ostende to catch a ferry to England (no Chunnel or cheap flights in those days). I was picked up by a friendly Belgian man in a modest car. He spoke almost no English but somehow was able to communicate that his wife did speak English and he insisted I come home with him. My only reservation was that I wanted to make sure I made it to Ostende in time to make the last boat of the day. He seemed to understand this concern, and by hand gestures and much smiling was able to convince me not to worry. My host’s wife was surprised to see an extra face at their door (no cell phones either) but did not miss a beat in welcoming me into their tiny home. She did speak some English and I was treated to lunch. After lunch I happened to mention that all I knew of Belgian culture was Belgian waffles. That prompted a discussion in Flemish followed by the couple (plus their dog) piling into the car and taking me into the nearby village where I was treated to Belgian waffles – with strawberries and whipped cream. Eventually we got back in the car and the charming couple drove me about an hour to Ostende, dropping me at the boat dock. They drove away smiling and waving, having devoted the better part of a day to my comfort and leaving me with a warm and happy travel memory.
In December 1992 Julie and I had returned to Switzerland to work a winter season in Arosa, where I had worked in my twenties. After procuring jobs we had 2 weeks of free time and decided to go to France. We arrived in Paris and got an inexpensive hotel in the suburbs. We did some of the usual sight-seeing but the sun was gone by 4:00PM and so the evenings were fairly boring. On about the third night of sitting in our room after dinner we decided we had to venture out. We opted to head to the Champs-Elysees, knowing there is a lot of energy and activity there. Additionally, we could potentially stay warm by going into shops. Our first clue that something unusual was happening was our arrival in the Charles DeGaul/Etoille metro station where masses of people were being funneled to a single exit. We had no clue what was happening but were simply swept along by the tide of humanity. It turns out the Olympic torch for the Albertville Winter Olympics, complete with parade, was scheduled to arrive that night. We joined the massive crowds lining the street (plenty warm!) and were feted to a fabulous parade.
We have experienced travel serendipity at Imprint Tours as well. Some of our best tour experiences originated in chance encounters and some of our excellent travel partners were discovered in a similar fashion. On our most recent tour of Bali one of the highlights was a lunch visit to an out-of-the-way guesthouse, Kebun Impian, and a scenic drive along the rugged eastern edge of the island. At the guesthouse we were treated to one of the best meals on the tour. And since the owners, John and Wayan, are sponsors of the local children’s dance troop we were able to observe a classical dance class. Additionally, John provided a serendipitous surprise for even Julie and me by bringing in a master dancer, a graduate of the local troop, to perform for us. Such authentic connection experiences are exactly what we strive for at Imprint. We had discovered Kebun Impian on our research trip, completely by accident. We were driving the rugged coast road and had left late in the morning and without any food. There were no opportunities for a meal on the remote route and Maia was getting very hungry. We promised we would stop at the first place serving food, no matter what it was like or what it cost. Kebun Impian was the next opportunity we encountered and we certainly would not have stopped there under other circumstances. What a find!
Sometimes travel serendipity emerges or evolves from some great problem or challenge. On our 2006 Greece tour we were traveling on Orthodox Easter Sunday, the biggest holiday on the Greek calendar. Our challenge was finding some place to have lunch as virtually the entire country shuts down and people spend the day with their families. We stopped at a seaside town, gave our tour members some free time for lunch, and encouraged them to try to make connections with any families they found celebrating Easter. I found a family roasting a lamb on a spit (the typical Easter meal), asked if I could take photos, and was invited to join in. I had a wonderful cultural connection experience, but that paled in comparison to the experience that was to come. About a dozen of our group had walked along the coast seeking an open taverna for lunch. Eventually, they knocked on the door of a closed taverna to inquire. Though closed, the owner was preparing a lamb for his family and invited them to join. After lunch the rest of our group was invited to share in the wine and our entire tour group ended up celebrating Easter with the taverna owner and his family.
Some of Imprint’s travel partners were found through seemingly chance encounters. Our Thai ground agent was discovered after reading an article in a travel magazine. We found our India partner through a chance meeting at a St Patrick’s Day party here in Seattle. And now this spring, while escorting a Rick Steves group through Switzerland, I made the acquaintance of a South African living in Germany, running a paragliding service near Neuschwanstein Castle. He operates adventure tours, has been involved in tourism his whole life, and is anxious to assist in organizing a tour of southern Africa should Imprint decide we want to tour there. Based on our past track record with these “chance” encounters, we have a lot of faith in them and are inclined to follow where they lead. Some of you have expressed interest in traveling to Africa and there is certainly a buzz about South Africa with the current World Cup Championships taking place there right now. So we are currently taking a look at developing a southern Africa tour. It would certainly take in the Wine and Garden Routes, Robben Island, Capetown highlights, Kruger National Park, and Blyde River Canyon of South Africa, plus Victoria Falls and probably the Okavango Delta in Botswana. If a trip of this nature excites your travel imagination, please let us know. We would target 2013 or 2014. We will start a designated mailing list for a southern Africa tour. If you are interested please send us an email.
Certainly many of you have had serendipitous travel experiences yourselves. We’d like to hear about them! Please send us an email recounting your own story. We’ll publish 2 or 3 of the best stories and the author of the best travel serendipity tale will be awarded $50 off on any Imprint Tour.