Picture the last time you pulled into a new town, thirsty for adventure. After a quick snack at the local market, you ask the clerk for any cool swimming holes nearby. They politely suggest the popular one that’s been written about in magazines for 10 years. It’s the same spot your coworker mentioned, and where pictures online showed lines of people that reminded you of a water park. The lingering smirk on their face, however, poorly hides the reality you both know: this isn’t the spot you’re looking for.
Here’s how to get the good stuff, even from locals who seldom share it.
Find the Local Watering Hole
While this may not be the prettiest way to hear about the best-kept secrets hiding in the hills above town, it might be the most effective. Remember that time you texted your ex at 2am, declaring you still had feelings? What about the after-work party where your colleague shared his true feelings about the presentation? It’s a reality that you most likely learned during your first years in college: people tend to share more when they’re drinking. If you want to hear about the coolest spots for adventure outdoors, head to where the locals play indoors. They’re likely to be sharing stories about their favorite places, and not exactly focused on who may be listening.
Pro tip: This strategy should be carried out with caution to avoid waking up the next morning with no recollection of any cool spots, areas to explore, or answers as to why you’re sleeping in the grass next to the brewery.
Hide the kids…or at least pretend they aren’t yours.
“Those screaming monsters over there? Nope, they’re certainly not mine.” My wife and I once sat peacefully, eating lunch at a cascading waterfall in the backcountry, only to have three screaming kids emerge from the woods to test the slide capabilities of the cascade. Safe to say that the mood was quickly lost. Hidden gems of a popular area are often coveted for their quiet, peaceful beauty, away from the crowds. Kids have a tendency to disturb this peace, and no local wants to be known as the perpetrator who told a family of five about everyone’s favorite summit spot, trail, or swimming hole. If you want the best info, leave the kids in the car.
Do your Homework
Americans are frequently viewed as dumb tourists when travelling abroad. Few U.S. travelers seem to spend any time researching the culture, language, or traditions of where they are visiting. Whether the result of an unintended insult or general cluelessness, they quickly lose favor with the very ones most equipped to help: the locals. Just as learning to say a phrase in the local language will do when abroad, showing you’ve done some research on your adventure options in an area will put you in much better favor with the resident experts. It’s evidence that you’re not just there to check it off your travel list. You are genuinely interested in the place they call home.
Stay with a Local
With the rise of local accommodations available (think Airbnb, Homeaway, or bed and breakfasts) across the country, why not spend your trip with someone who knows the local scene well? If they’re willing to open their home, they’re probably willing to share the cool places to explore nearby. After all, they want you to have a good time. My wife and I once chose to stay at a bed and breakfast rather than a mainstream hotel during travel between national parks. Not only did our innkeeper whip up some mean fruit crepes the following morning, she gave us directions for a hidden path to a lighthouse that we wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Stay with a local; live and play like a local.
Lead with Conversation
I once walked into a bustling local outdoor store on the outskirts of Acadia National Park and struck up a conversation with one of the employees. After chatting about shore birds, tourists, and other island happenings for several minutes, I then asked about a place to go swimming. She grabbed a map, pulled me to the side, and noticeably dropped the level of her voice. She proceeded to point out a few of her favorite swimming holes, and a secluded beach that most tourists didn’t know about. While standing there with the map, another customer bluntly asked the same question. She politely pointed out the park’s most popular place to swim, well known to most visitors, complete with changing stations, a lifeguard, and lots of people. She hadn’t mentioned it once during our previously uninterrupted conversation, and she didn’t mention it again once the customer left. In that moment, it became clear…I had just been welcomed to the local’s only club.