I’m not a beach girl. Maybe it’s because of my incredibly fair skin, but I’ve always associated beaches with big hats and repeated sunscreen applications rather than sexy tans and good times. My personal travels usually focus on monuments, museums, and general wandering. The thing is, my work assignments typically involve visiting beach destinations (I know, it’s a tough life). Here are a few ways I try to bring my culturally-focused travel style to the beach.
Get Away from the Beach (Sometimes)
Every beach destination has at least a few inland attractions, so make time for them. There are some seriously stunning beaches in the world, but even as I admire them, I notice that there’s not much to distinguish the white sands and palm trees of a beach in Mexico versus one in the Philippines. For the most part, the things that make a country unique are found away from the sands.
Check out a museum, a historic religious building, or a local market. Rent a bike and cycle along the region’s back roads, or just go for a walk around the nearest town. Join an organized day-tour to see some of the highlights, and then decide which areas you want to explore further on your own.
Eat the Local Food
It’s almost always remarkably easy to go for an entire beach vacation without eating any local cuisine. I wasn’t always an adventurous eater, so I can sympathize with travelers who drift towards comfort foods when they’re visiting an unfamiliar place. But honestly, I think you miss out on a huge part of the experience if you don’t push yourself to try all those new, exotic dishes (most of which are probably tastier than you might expect!) Because I don’t think there’s anything else that provides quite as much insight into a culture as its food.
Food reveals so much about the country’s history and the other cultures that have shaped it. For example, Laos’ roadside baguette stalls, French restaurants, and bakeries reflect its time as part of French Indochina. Likewise, Aruba’s Dutch heritage is evident in its widely-available cheeses and Dutch pancakes.
A country’s dining customs provide equally interesting insights into its culture. I’ve often reflected on how food is usually served communally and shared in most Asian countries, highlighting the importance of collectivism in this region. Compare that to the West, where diners typically order their own plates and individual achievements are emphasized culturally.
I’m not claiming to be a Sober Sally when I’m traveling (or on weekends at home, for that matter), but it’s kind of embarrassing that so many North Americans seem to associate beach vacations with all-day drunkenness. I’ve been embarrassed by smashed backpackers trashing beaches in Asia, and I feel similarly when I see vacationers unconscious on Caribbean beaches with half-empty cocktail glasses resting at their sides.
Not only does constant intoxication, of course, negatively affect how other countries view us, but it impairs your ability to experience the country you’re visiting. When you’re drinking, are you going to bother seeking out good local restaurants or just grab something quick and greasy? And there’s nothing like a combination of alcohol and excessive sun exposure to completely drain you of any motivation to discover what the region has to offer beyond the beach.