This week, we sat down with Carol, the Director of Not In The Guidebooks. We chatted about ‘Authentic, local experiences’ and why she’s so excited by them, as well as why she loves travelling with grown-up kids, and her recent trip to Sri Lanka.
Hi Carol! So for the next couple of weeks we’re talking about local travel experiences and why they’re so exciting. First off, could you tell us why you think those kinds of experiences are important?
Definitely! I’ve loved travelling for as long as I can remember, but something that I hate is when you get taken from place to place in a big bus, missing places we are interested in or staying too long somewhere I do not want to be, without any real connection with the local culture.
People have changed in how they find and book holidays, there is much more DIY, create your own itinerary and a desire to really get to experience the culture of the places you visit. Whether you are travelling with your older kids – or on your own or with friends, people are looking to do interesting stuff on their travels and really get to experience different places and cultures.
So I set up NITGB to help people create their own holiday, their own way, whilst supporting local businesses. On the one hand, we’re giving local businesses a platform to celebrate and showcase what makes their culture so great, and on the other, we’re connecting tourists with these businesses to build truly unique and local experiences.
Is that what inspired you to set up the business then?
Kind of yes – specifically, I visited Sri Lanka with my family a couple of years ago, and that really set the ball rolling. We were looking for things to do and we didn’t want to be part of a tour group. We had a great experience with a guide recommended to us by a friend. He took us all around the island and showed us some incredible places that I’m certain almost no-one else knew about. One day we were just driving along the road and he pulled over at this small temple. When we asked what he was doing, he said that he just had to lay down an offering before we continued our journey – while he did that, we went inside and saw a stunning temple that I imagine most people would never have got to see.
But more important than that, the way we viewed the temples in Sri Lanka was totally re-aligned by that moment. They came alive as buildings that are elaborate and beautiful, but are also a real part of everyday life in Sri Lanka – something which is easy to forget when you’re being dragged from temple to temple without any real time to question why they’re there and what function they serve.
We have been on group tours before, put together with other families on a set itinerary. This trip was special because we were able to create our own itinerary and still get to experience interesting things to do catering for all of us and really getting to see the place we were visiting.
On a wider scale, it made me realise that we often don’t have a lot of time when we’re visiting somewhere new, so it can be hard to find the best local things at the time we are there, to really immerse yourself in the culture, and see things from a new perspective. NITGB is about making authentic, local experiences accessible, giving everyone the chance to do just that, and make the most of their holiday time.
Okay, so a bit of a tough question now. How do you define ‘local’?
Oh that is a tough question. Well for me at least, local is all about the people and way of life that makes a place different, that makes it unique. The idiosyncrasies of a specific region that you wouldn’t find anywhere else in the world.
I actually think food is a really great way to explain that (although, of course, the term covers a whole host of different things). So if I’m in Thailand for example, first off I want to make sure that I’m eating as much Thai food as possible – but then it goes deeper than that. If I’m in Chiang Mai in the north, for example, I want to eat Lanna (northern Thai) food – spicy meat dishes, lots of soup, sticky rice. If I’m in the East towards the border with Laos, I’m eating Isaan food with it’s clear, brothy curries. If I’m in the south, I’m ready for everything to be a little bit more creamy and a lot more spicy.
But it goes deeper still than that. Chiang Mai isn’t just famous for Lanna food – it has an incredibly diverse culinary heritage, if you know where to look. This article by Deepti Kapoor (in which he is equally enticed by traditional sai ua sausages as a portion of fish and chips) explains that perfectly. You might not expect to eat some of the most amazing Chinese food you’ve ever tasted in Sydney, for example. But we know it’s there (our Taste of Chinatown tour says so).
In that sense, local goes one step further than celebrating the national culture – it celebrates a region in all its diversity and unexpected-ness. It reveals things that we couldn’t possibly have guessed. And it’s about celebrating those small differences.
Great answer to a tough question! Following on from that, what was the most amazing local experience you’ve ever had.
There was another experience in Sri Lanka that was really amazing – we visited a plantation, where they grew lots of plants, some used in traditional cooking and others for medicinal remedies. We were taken on a tour around the whole plantation, and they even showed us some of the products that were from the plants they grew there. I remember my son was very sceptical about the idea of herbal medicine – they had some hair removal cream made from one of the plants and, as a sceptic, he volunteered when they asked if anyone wanted to try it. Within about thirty seconds, it had removed a strip of hair from his leg – which remained bald for the rest of the holiday!
After that, we went up to the top of the plantation where a small stove was set up – we were taught how to make Daal, the traditional lentil curry that they eat all over Sri Lanka. Of course, we used ingredients that had been freshly harvested from the plantation, and enjoyed the fruits of our labour afterwards.
It was a truly authentic, local experience in that we discovered so much about Sri Lankan culture and history, we met local people, engaged with a local business, and learnt to cook some traditional everyday food. It was a day we did our way, together as a family! We have since met some amazing people in Sri Lanka who are committed to create the most amazing and authentic experiences who are working in partnership with us to help make these experiences accessible to all independent travellers.
What’s the next country that you’re looking to get on the NITGB list?
For us, it’s not really about the country so much as it’s about the person we’re working with. So rather than looking for great places in which to expand, we start by looking for great people to work with. Our ambassadors are probably the most crucial part of this project – they’re the ones who are so passionate about their local region that they will spend hours, day and night, curating a list of all the best authentic, local experiences in their area. Rather than picking a country, we find the best people to work with, and then we go from there.
I can say that we’re aiming for ten regions by the end of next year (exciting stuff) but we’re not looking to roll anything out – we take our time with developing new regions and locations, so it may be less than ten, but we do know that everywhere we do expand in to will have a hand-picked selection of all the best local experiences, thanks to our amazing partners.
We do have one more question Carol, what’s your top local tip from where you live?
I live just north of London in Hertfordshire at the moment, but I grew up in North-West London. If you’re looking for a local’s tip in Hertforshire, I would say check out the River Lee – most people don’t know that the river flows through Hertfordshire, but it does towards the beginning of the course. I love the walk that follows the river up through Brockett Hall, starting in Ayot Green. Check it out if you’re looking to get outside this weekend! Alternatively, if you want to see the Lea in all its glory, the Lee valley park is actually the largest park in the Greater London area, and has an incredibly diverse selection of wildlife, so it’s worth seeing as well.
And if you’re looking for a top local tip in London, you absolutely have to check out the crêpe van in Hampstead. It’s become somewhat of a local institution since it was set up in 1980 – if you are driving through Hampstead after dinner, you will almost certainly see people queuing up around the block. Join them, if you have the time – it’s survived almost 40 years on Hampstead high-street for a reason.