Gasping for breath, I painstakingly pedaled my bike up the steep, winding mountain road, elevation well over a mile above sea level. I was pushing hard to reach Logan Pass, the stunning high point of the famed Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park. The sun beat down on my body, the breaths came short, my legs burned after 25 miles on the road, but I was almost there. Then a voice shouted: “Why ... are ... you ... doing ... this!?”
A woman leaning out the window of a passing car shouted her question, not unfriendly, just inquisitive, wondering why in the world I was working so hard when I could have just driven up to the pass. She had a valid point, one that gets at the very purpose of leisure travel: Is the goal of traveling to see as much as you can and to get from place to place as fast as possible? Or should travel be more about appreciating the journey itself, and diving deep into the destination once you arrive? For those considering the latter, a slow travel trip may be right for you.
What is slow travel?
Slow travel is an offshoot of the slow food movement that began in Italy in the late 1980s, a response to fast-food franchises running rampant in the country. The slow food philosophy is to have people appreciate the overall experience of dining, to sit back and savor a relaxed culinary experience rather than rushing through a restaurant visit to maximize calories and minimize time.
Similarly, with slow travel the goal is not to quickly load up on passport stamps for bragging rights, or check off bucket list destinations like they were part of a drive-through menu. Instead, slow travel encourages you to see more by moving less, seeking depth and breadth of experience rather than mileage. “We encourage our guests to slow down to truly see the world,” says John Lansdell, product development manager at Butterfield and Robinson, a Canada-based travel company specializing in slow travel, often by bike or on foot. “But it’s more than just moving slower,” he adds. “It’s about interacting with the place while you’re there.”
To that point, guided slow travel trips often include experiences like cooking or language lessons with locals, and longer time spent in one destination to allow for more in-depth activities.
It can be even better to do it on your own, giving yourself the time to meet locals in serendipitous moments as you stop and have a chat at a café or in a village square. “Anyone can carve themselves a slow travel itinerary no matter where they visit,” says Lori Sorrentino, 58, who lives in Naples, Florida, and writes a slow travel blog, travlinmad.com, with her husband, Angelo. “It’s sort of a mindset. It’s just a matter of resisting that temptation to explore an entire country in eight days, and really immersing yourself in a place, talking to the locals about their families, their communities, their traditions.”
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Why slow travel is particularly appealing now
Covid-era restrictions, rules and regulations have added exponentially to the logistical challenges of trip planning, particularly if you’re thinking of visiting multiple countries that may have different requirements. Rather than spending time navigating complicated and changing border-crossing protocols, many travelers are choosing to drop anchor at a single location and explore it in depth, using a hub-and-spoke model like a home rental accompanied with multiple short regional excursions.
Recent information shows travelers are indeed lingering. Misty Belles, vice president of public relations for the Virtuoso travel conglomerate, says its network saw travelers increasing their average length of a single hotel stay by 43 percent in 2021 compared to similar pre-pandemic visits in 2019. When polled, nearly half of Virtuoso travelers said they plan to visit only one destination on their next trip.
“Slow travel is in indication of the times we’re in,” Belles says. “Before, it was a lot of collecting of passport stamps, but now people seem to have a desire in general to slow down and appreciate what’s around them more. Maybe it’s something people have learned while being tied close to home for a year.”
Johanna Bonhill-Smith, travel and tourism analyst at GlobalData, says many people now are looking for longer travel experiences. “Consumer trends suggest that slow travel could take off post-pandemic. A trip longer than 10 nights is more highly desired (22 percent) than a day visit (10 percent) or short break away from one to three nights (14 percent), according to our live poll.”
And with travel staffing issues causing many restaurants and attractions to reduce hours or days open, a longer stay in an area means you’re more likely to be able to see everything you want — versus passing through on a day where your favorite restaurant, winery or museum might happen to be closed.
How to slow travel
Choosing a slower mode of travel is usually the first step of slow travel — often a literal step as you take a leisurely walking tour at a destination. Biking, as my trip in Glacier Park demonstrated, is also a great way to truly gain a visceral feel for the landscape (as long as you stop and savor experiences along the way). It’s one thing to admire a scenic viewpoint that you took a bus to see, another altogether to look back down the trail and say “I did that,” combining a feeling of accomplishment with the view. “Slow travel is about more than just getting the photo op,” says Butterfield’s Lansdell. “It’s about getting an education about a place.”
Bike Odyssey, an Australia-based tour company, has added a historical spin to slow travel, with cyclists pedaling the route of European military campaigns ranging from Hannibal’s route through the Alps to Patton’s World War II march to the Rhine. “On a bike you can really feel the terrain,” says Sam Wood, the company’s founder and director. “You’re moving at the speed of horseback troops or infantry, and you can really appreciate the challenge of attacking through the Alps, or the strategic advantage of invading on flat roads.”
But slow travel doesn’t have to be about suffering your way through a long slog. “We know the expression ‘An army marches with its stomach,’ so we make sure our guests get the best food on the journey, with luxury lodging at night,” Wood says. “Plus, with our average guest age being in the early 60s, we’ve incorporated e-bikes into our fleet, making these trips accessible to anyone.”
Walking tours have long been a popular slow travel option. Monica Valeri, from northern Italy’s Emilia Romagna Tourist Board, touts strolls along some of that region’s 19 pilgrimage routes, which you can do at your own pace. Among the benefits: “meeting with locals and discovering their traditions — including the thousand different food and wine variations that vary from town to town.” The walks (self-guided or guided) are designed for guests of all ages, she adds, “but with particular attention to seniors who have an interest in gaining a deeper understanding of culture, art, history, food and wine.”
Sorrentino suggests road trips for slow travelers, “because you’re forced to travel through the small towns, and anything that catches your eye, you can stop and explore. You end up seeing things that even locals may not know about.”
Where to slow travel
While Italy has long been a hub for slow travel, many other destinations can provide a similar variety of unique food, history, nature and cultural experiences based within a small region. Tour operators are increasing their slow travel offerings across Europe in particular, with Butterfield’s Lansdell citing the popularity of destinations including Greece, Spain, France, Portugal, Great Britain and Ireland.
The U.S. and destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean are also increasingly popular slow travel destinations. Virtuoso’s Belles says pandemic-era remote-work opportunities have had many customers booking extended stays in traditional resort destinations, but “people are going beyond the usual ‘fly and flop’ vacation — they want to explore more of the area while they’re there, to get away from the beach and do more.”
South American destinations also are embracing the slow travel experience. The Galapagos Islands were doing it before slow travel was even a thing, with visitors making like naturalists and being still to study the islands’ unique flora and fauna. Farther south, in Peru, Chile and Argentina, visitors are stopping to put down temporary roots at vineyard estates, staking down tents or extended cabin stays across the Ruta de Los Parques ecotourism route, and engaging with communities.
But really, the destination is not as important as your attitude, slow travel’s proponents say.
“Anyone can be a slow traveler anywhere, even in their own town or city,” says Jenny De Witt, 50, who started a slow travel blog, jennyintransit.com, from her home in Florida in 2016 and is now (slowly) exploring London. “The best way to slow travel in your own town is to take a walk,” she adds. “Choose a new neighborhood or one that you don’t normally visit and make a point of going to a local shop there. Ask questions.” Most important? “Turn your phone off and be present.”
Bill Fink is an award-winning travel writer who has covered cultural travel for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, the San Francisco Chronicle and many other outlets.