Holidays that are the real deal

From foraging for food to dining with a family, travellers are seeking out authentic experiences during their travels

Earlier this year, as content and brand manager Tristan Jinwei Chan, 33, was descending from Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger's Nest temple, in Bhutan, he took a wrong turn and could not find his way back. Alone and unsure of where he was, he met a group of Buddhist monks. They invited him to join them for tea, then pointed him in the right direction.

On the way down, he met a security guard from the temple, who talked about the political pressures between China and India, and the changing life in Bhutan.

"I saw monkeys, deer and other wildlife. I picked mushrooms, saw landscapes and learned about life in Bhutan that I probably wouldn't have experienced otherwise," he says.

Authenticity is the latest buzzword in travel, with the promise of authentic experiences touted by everyone and everything from travel agents and tour operators to booking platforms and travel apps.

This year, the 2017 Expedia Millennial Traveller Report, which surveyed 21,000 consumers from 21 markets, including 1,000 respondents from Singapore, revealed that 59 per cent of millennials here think that experiencing the authentic culture of a destination is the most important aspect of travelling.

People are travelling more than ever before, says Ms Robin Kwok, country manager for Airbnb, South-east Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the way they travel is also changing as people - millennials in particular - place higher value on travel experiences over material possessions.

The manager of the booking platform for short-term lodging, homestays and vacation rentals adds: "When they travel, they want genuinely authentic experiences, the kind that allow you to get under the skin of a place, discover its hidden gems and understand its real character."

This does not mean one must venture completely off the beaten track, however.

Authenticity can be found everywhere, even in the heart of the city. "Authenticity isn't dictated by where you go, but the way you choose to experience it," says Ms Kwok.

The Thai countryside is not more authentically Thai than Bangkok, for example. Nor is the pad thai noodle dish from the night market more authentic than the one ordered at a hotel restaurant.

Mr Gabriel Garcia, Expedia's head of marketing and channel strategy for Asia Pacific, says authentic travel experiences can be found in many forms and price points.

"Authenticity can start with the place you are staying at and it continues based on the types of activities you want to pursue. Travellers need to think about what type of trip they want to embark on, then research and understand what is available to them," he says.

For some, an authentic experience of a destination means checking into an Airbnb in a residential neighbourhood, buying groceries at the market and taking a stroll through the nearby park with the locals. But getting to know a destination does not mean one has to live like a local, says Ms Stephanie Chai, founder and chief executive of TheLuxeNomad.com luxury villa and hotel booking portal.

Travellers can enjoy an authentic experience, such as cycling along the rice paddies of Ubud in Bali, Indonesia, and return to their villa with a pool and luxe bed sheets.

"I think people want to stay somewhere great while also getting a local experience. Not all of us want to share a kitchen with a stranger," she says.

For years, hotel brands prided themselves on providing a standardised experience for their guests. Customers knew what they would get when they walked into a Mandarin Oriental or a Novotel, for example.

Now, hotel groups and big chains are finding ways to cater to a growing demand for authenticity as more travellers look for accommodation which delivers a local experience.

The Hyatt Hotels Corporation is growing its Andaz luxury brand of boutique hotels, which reflect the unique cultural and design influences of each destination.

There are 17 Andaz hotels around the world, including the Andaz Singapore, which opens here this month. It is the brand's first hotel in South-east Asia, with decor inspired by its location in Bugis and the shophouses in Haji Lane.

The InterContinental Hotels Group is also growing its boutique Hotel Indigo brand. There are more than 80 Hotel Indigo outlets around the world, including in New York, Paris, London and Shanghai, with 83 more in the pipeline.

No two hotels are the same as each is a reflection of its surroundings.

The Hotel Indigo Singapore Katong, which opened in July last year, for instance, takes its inspiration from the Joo Chiat neighbourhood.

Located in East Coast Road in the former Joo Chiat Police Station, it features colourful Peranakan tiles, ceramics and wooden furniture in the lobby. Its 131 guestrooms are decorated with vibrant Peranakan-inspired fabrics, with murals of local scenes on the bedroom walls.

Besides accommodation, travel today is also more than visiting the expected tourist attractions. The experiences one has while travelling are what make travellers feel connected to the local culture and people, says Ms Kwok.

Airbnb's Experiences - launched in Los Angeles in November last year and in Singapore in March this year - offers 3,000 activities and tours designed by locals in more than 40 cities. There is a tour of Bangkok's underground music scene with a local DJ and a soon kueh-making workshop at one of Singapore's hawker centres.

Websites such as Withlocals.com, Vayable.com and Partywith.co also connect travellers with locals worldwide, while travel search engines such as TripAdvisor provide forums for travellers to get tips from locals.

Tour operators such as Trafalgar do the work for travellers by hiring guides with local expertise and curating unique activities for the group, such as meeting local farmers, dining with a family in its 17th-century farmhouse in France or foraging for wild seafood on the coast of Ireland.

Trafalgar's chief executive Gavin Tollman says delivering such experiences is what his customers want.

"We believe that 'tick-box tourism' is not what is fuelling desires to travel as much as getting beneath the surface of a destination and understanding the local way of life," he says. "We look for experiences that take our guests on an unforgettable journey, that tell a story and epitomise a snapshot of local life."


Melbourne


Get lost in Melbourne city’s unique network of laneways. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Get a sense of what life is really like for residents of the coastal capital of the south-eastern Australian city by booking yourself a room with an Australian family via Homestay.com.

They should be able to tell you about all the latest festivals and events and the best place to get a cup of Melbourne's famously good coffee.

Homestay.com offers hundreds of rooms available in homes in the suburbs and in the city, including a room in a Victorian bungalow with a family in the suburb of Glen Huntly (tinyurl.com/ycto75ec).

If you are a runner, book yourself on a private two-hour running tour of Melbourne (tinyurl.com/yc54hjsz), which includes pick up and drop off, a bespoke route, photos at famous landmarks and a coffee or beer when you finish, for A$90 (S$94).

A run is a great way to get to know a new city and tick local landmarks off your list quickly.

Then, head into Melbourne's downtown area to explore and get lost in its unique network of laneways. There are more than three dozen laneways lined with street art, top-notch galleries, hidden bars, tiny cafes and one-off boutiques where Melbournites love to shop.

Tattersalls Lane, Meyers Place and Hosier Lane are local favourites.

If you are worried about getting lost, you can book a tour with a friendly guide such as Jamie Murcia, an award-winning Australian photographer who leads Melbourne laneway photography tours (tinyurl.com/y8tkvfp7).

Melbourne has a smorgasbord of trendy restaurants representing the dozens of different ethnicities that call Melbourne home.

To sample most of them at a go, head to the city's iconic Queen Victoria Market Night Market (www.thenightmarket.com.au), held every Wednesday from November to April.

While the daytime market is more touristy and trades mostly in produce and souvenirs, the night market is popular with Australian city dwellers for its wide range of local products, as well as live entertainment and food stands selling tasty treats from Ethiopian and Spanish to Mexican and Italian cuisine.


Tokyo


Nakameguro is quieter with fewer tourists, but just as hip. PHOTO: JNTO

The Japanese are renowned for their love of the absurd, such as the famous Kabukicho Robot Restaurant, where the night's entertainment is a spectacle of LED lights and mirrors, robotic monsters, dancers and lasers.

But the robot restaurant has, over the years, become overrun with tourists. Visitors to Japan hoping for a more authentic evening surrounded by eccentric cosplaying Japanese, should go to the Kawaii Monster Cafe Harajuku (kawaiimonster.jp) in Shibuya instead.

This psychedelic candy land is a bubble gum-coloured cafe during the day, with rainbow-coloured food and waitresses dressed in costumes. At night, it morphs into a provocative and sexy cabaret designed to push the boundaries of Tokyo's entertainment scene through fashion, performance, music and dance.

If Zen is more your style, head to Vowz (vowz-bar.com), a bar in Yotsuya run by two Buddhist monks. They serve cocktails in a relaxed setting while occasionally breaking into sermon.

The upscale Daikanyama area of Shibuya, long known for its trendy boutiques and restaurants, is a favourite destination for locals and tourists.

The charming Nakameguro, a 15-minute walk from Daikanyama, is quieter with fewer tourists, but just as hip. A new Tsutaya bookstore - a world-famous Japanese bookstore franchise - has opened there, as have beautiful boutiques such as the minimalist fashion brand 1LDK (1ldkshop.com/about); Waltz (waltz-store.co.jp), a store dedicated to cassette tapes, vinyl records, old books and magazines; and Have A Good Time (shop.have-a-goodtime.com) for lovers of stylised grunge sneakers, T-shirts and hoodies.

Want a glimpse into the post-work life of a Tokyo salary-man? Join a three-hour Shinbashi Hidden Gem Evening Tour (tinyurl.com/y7hr6qkw) through BonAppetour.

The tour, led by a local expert, will take guests through a maze of the Shimbashi eateries, izakayas and standing bars, where salary-men love to unwind at the end of the day.


Brooklyn, New York


Nathan’s is a New York institution which has been selling its classic hot dogs at the corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues since 1916. PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

The growing gentrification of Brooklyn over the past decade has made the borough a hot spot for visitors to New York who want to experience its trendy restaurants, cafes and stores for themselves.

However, few venture beyond the stylish neighbourhoods of Park Slope and Williamsburg.

Travellers who want to see more than hipster moustaches and tattoos can head south-west of Prospect Park to Green-Wood Cemetery (www.green-wood.com).

Opened in 1838, the cemetery covers 193ha of park landscape with hills, streams, ponds and heritage trees spread across one of the country's largest outdoor collections of 19th-and 20th-century statues and mausoleums.

It is a beautiful park surrounded by residential neighbourhoods, so visitors can see what life in Brooklyn is like beyond its trendy bars.

Taking a walk through the grounds - using the cemetery's self-guided walking tour books and mobile app or by joining a guided tour (US$20 or S$27) - is an interesting way to understand the changing demographics of the neighbourhood over the past 180 years.

It is also the resting place of famous New Yorkers, such as artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and composer Leonard Bernstein. Admission to the cemetery is free.

Coney Island at the southern tip of Brooklyn, which has been New Yorkers' favourite seaside gathering spot for more than 150 years, is a great way to see a slice of native New York.

In summer, residents head to the beach - tens of thousands of people spend the day in the sun, frolicking in The Atlantic and hailing vendors selling ice-cold beers and sodas.

In the warmer months, visit Luna Park (lunaparknyc.com), the island's famed amusement park with dozens of carnival games, thrill rides and roller coasters, including the infamous Coney Island Cyclone, a wooden roller coaster which debuted in 1927.

A trip to Coney Island is not complete without a knish (a meat-or cheese-filled roll) from one of stands along the boardwalk or a hotdog from Nathan's Famous (nathansfamous.com).

Best known for the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest held every fourth of July, Nathan's is a New York institution which has been selling its classic hot dogs and lemonade at the corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues since 1916.

A couple of stops away on the Q train is Brighton Beach, also known as Little Odessa.

Few tourists venture to this beachside neighbourhood, which is home to the highest concentration of Russian immigrants outside the eastern hemisphere.

Russians and Ukrainians have been settling here since the mid 1800s; the streets are lined with Russian boutiques, bathhouses, cafes and restaurants and nightclubs all with signs in Cyrillic.

Here, Brighton Beach's Master Theatre (mastertheater.com) attracts world-famous Russian performers such as violinists Vladimir Spivakov and Yuri Bashmet - and this is where New Yorkers go when they are looking for a Russian food fix.

Stop at Skovorodka (skovorodkanyc.com), an authentic Russian restaurant serving Eastern European specialities with live jazz, modern and folk Russian music on the weekends.


Make friends, ask questions

Singaporean content and brand manager Tristan Jinwei Chan, 33, travels at least once a month and starts researching the destination about a month before his trip to ensure an authentic travel experience.

He asks his friends for recommendations and spends about an hour a week scanning his favourite travel forums, as well as websites such as BBC Travel, Cultureist and Atlas Obscura.

Once on the ground, Mr Chan makes the effort to talk to people. "Be open-minded and make friends with people who might show you around." The key is to ask them questions - how they spend their time, what they are interested in, what challenges they face and if the destination has changed a lot.

"It's a way to develop a personal and holistic understanding of the place for yourself. It gives you something deeper to dig into, rather than just relying on what other tourists have said," says Mr Chan.

Here are resources which can help facilitate authentic connections.

PEOPLE

Withlocals (www.withlocals.com) connects travellers with hospitable locals, mostly for food and tours of the destination.

Vayable (Vayable.com) offers a wider variety of tours hosted by locals catering to niche interests, including design, photography, shopping and cycling.

Most of the locals on these sites are not professional tour guides, but people who just enjoy showcasing their cities.

In contrast, ToursByLocals (www.toursbylocals.com) connects travellers with a carefully selected network of trained local guides.

Tripr (triprapp.com) is a social networking app for travellers. It alerts travellers if they have a friend in the area and allows them to connect with other travellers, as well as locals, in the destination where they are headed, so they have friends when they arrive.

Partywith (www.partywith.co) is an app that connects people looking for a night out on the town.

FOOD

Meet locals over a meal through Eatwith (www.eatwith.com) and BonAppetour (www.bonappetour.com) - platforms where travellers can connect with local home chefs and food entrepreneurs offering communal dining experiences.

Home cooks open their kitchens to strangers and prepare multi-course meals so they can break bread together and get to know people from all walks of life.

ALTERNATIVE GUIDES

Co-founded by Joshua Foer, science journalist and author of Moonwalking with Einstein, Atlas Obscura (www.atlasobscura.com) is a treasure trove of off-beat, hidden gems around the world.

Curated by "field agents", enthusiastic locals with an eye for the unique and absurd, the website and book are a collection of more than 11,000 quirky sites - such as the location of Galileo's finger and the Icelandic witchcraft museum - often overlooked by traditional guide books.

Spotted By Locals (www.spottedbylocals.com) publishes guides for 67 cities and offers travellers a fully offline mobile app.

The guides, which cost US$3.99 (S$5.40) a city, are created by local writers and photographers who have been handpicked by the company founders. They live in the city they write about, speak the local language and keep their tips up-to-date.

The Culture Trip (theculturetrip.com) is a hybrid of a trendy online lifestyle magazine and a travel search engine.

Search by destination for the best things to do, see, eat, drink and explore.


Correction note: The story was edited to reflect the correct honorific for Ms Robin Kwok. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 05, 2017, with the headline 'Holidays that are the real deal'. Print Edition | Subscribe