Crowds have never been my thing, even before COVID-19 became the uninvited and incredibly destructive guest of 2020. What is my ideal type of vacation? Definitely a remote stretch of sand, wide-opened plains, and all-season mountains. But I also enjoy a more populated destination where I have found a quiet space to savor its charms. These are often my most satisfying travel-planning successes!
The first time I walked the Great Wall of China, it was covered in snow and I was covered in people, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder on a college trip. The next time was meticulously (obsessively) planned by me, pre-travel advisor days but mindful of “doing it the right way.” My goal was to have a unique experience at one of the world’s most famous attractions. The reward for the research and preparation? My seven-year-old daughter Kate had blissful room to run. And run she did! Up, down and around the Wall and its forts… dancing, saluting and sitting wherever she fancied. It was just us and our guide, thanks to the time of day, time of year and section of the Wall. Planning can make all of the difference and not only for instagrammable photos. You can have a quality experience worthy of flying halfway around the world. And having space is good for your health, as we all can appreciate now!
The Great Wall excursion ended at a small property that had the feel of a luxury guesthouse. It was Thanksgiving Day 2014, and the hotel was hosting a traditional turkey dinner for expats and locals. I had discovered the menu and invitation on their website, and they welcomed us to join the otherwise non-touristy event. The entire evening felt like an intimate wedding or rehearsal dinner. Kate kept asking how we made the guestlist. This little girl who didn’t eat rice was absolutely thrilled to have turkey, broccoli and dinner rolls in Asia. We had one of the Seven Wonders of the World in splendid isolation, a home-cooked turkey meal, and new friends telling stories of everyday life in Beijing = a winning trifecta!
We went from conquering the Chinese crowds to visiting another country with 1.3+ billion people. India is “an assault on the senses” place that captivated me in my two visits. Is the Taj Mahal worthy of the adulation and cover photos? Yes, it is breathtakingly beautiful. But was it my favorite experience in India? No, it is not even in my top 5! What I loved most about exploring India were the off-the-radar sites. Like Bhangarh Fort, a remarkably well-preserved 17th century medieval city in the Aravali hills. You can wander through and climb up temples, palaces and havelis with only a handful of other people. Legend has it that the complex is haunted; otherwise, it would be a star attraction instead of deserted. An added incentive to visit: one of my favorite boutique hotels is nearby, nestled in its own lush oasis of fruit trees with pool-side monkeys, a two-acre organic garden and Udaipur green marble bathtubs. With a name meaning “peaceful garden” and inspired by Moghul architecture, this majestic palace offers a sanctuary from the major tourist sites.
We found another stunning surprise on a nondescript road in a dusty village between Agra and Jaipur. Hidden right off the street is a remarkable engineering and architectural feat: an abandoned 8th century “step well” (water source) called Chand Baori. It is both eerie and magnificent, and you can stroll its 3500 steps and 13 levels in silence and for free. When you edit out the chaos, there is a different dimension of India that will make you want to return.
My list of uncrowded travel highlights spans several decades and touches many countries. These are the places and memories that stay with me. It gives me joy to share them… as long as it is not with too many people!
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All you have to do is focus on the joy of the journey… from the excited anticipation to the memories that linger well after you return.
Hi, I’m Kristin Henley
TRAVEL ADVISOR WITH DEPARTURE LOUNGE AND OWNER OF KRISTIN HENLEY TRAVEL