Q & A with Grantourismo round-the-world slow travel bloggers

Lara Dunston Grantourismo travel round the world bloggersWith all the holiday travel madness just beginning, sometimes it’s nice to take a breath and think about taking travel more slowly. I recently had a chance to meet up with blogger Lara Dunston and her photographer-writer husband, Terence Carter, of the round-the-world travel project and blog, Grantourismo while they were traveling through Istanbul. Lara and Terence hosted me at their fabulous terraced apartment with glasses of Turkish wine, travel chat, and views of nearby Taksim Square and the nostalgic tram.

Grantourismo is a yearlong grand tour of the globe to explore more enriching and ‘authentic’ (and they get how those words have been debated and abused by travel bloggers!) ways of traveling, which began in Dubai this February and will wrap up in Scotland in January. In order to slow down and immerse themselves in each place, they are staying in vacation rentals (rather than hotels) in one place for two weeks at a time.

Read on for more about their slow travel philosophy, tips about renting a holiday apartment, and how they found Austin’s best tacos.

What’s the essence of Grantourismo?
We’re attempting to get beneath the skin of the places we’re visiting and to inspire other travelers to do the same. We’re doing very little sightseeing and if we’re taking tours, we’re doing small group tours with expert local guides ran by sustainable companies, such as Context. Mostly we’re experiencing places through their food, markets, music, culture, fashion, street art, sport, etc, and doing things that locals do in their own towns rather than things tourists travel to their towns to do. We’re trying and buying local produce and products, and seeking out artisanal practices we can promote. We’re also highlighting ways in which travellers can give something back to the places they’re visiting, from planting trees in Costa Rica to kicking a football with kids in a favela in Rio. And we’re blogging about this every day at Grantourismo!

How did you make it a reality?
Our initial idea was 12 places around the world in 12 months, learning things like the original grand tourists did. Terence, who is a great musician and a terrific cook, wanted to work in a restaurant kitchen and learn a musical instrument while I was going to enroll in language classes and learn something different in each place. But we couldn’t figure out how to fund such a project. We were lucky in that I saw an ad from HomeAway Holiday-Rentals (the UK arm of HomeAway) looking for a travel journalist-photographer team to stay in their vacation rentals and blog about their experiences for a year. I presented Grantourismo to them, they loved it, and here we are! We’re in the 10th month of our yearlong trip, we’ve stayed in 27 properties in 18 countries, and we have a ski town and five cities to go! We’ve written 369 stories on our website – and only 27 of those have been about the properties, the rest have been about everything from winetasting to walking – and we’ve done loads of interviews with locals we’ve met, from musicians and chefs to fashion designers and bookbinders.

Terence Carter Grantourismo travel round the world bloggersWhat’s the biggest difference about staying in an apartment vs. a hotel?
The biggest difference and best thing is that when you’re staying in a vacation rental you’re generally living in an everyday neighbourhood rather than a tourist area, which means you can meet people other than hotel cleaners and waiters. You can pop downstairs or down the road to a local café or pub that’s full of locals rather than other tourists. You can shop in local markets or supermarkets that are significantly cheaper. Sure if you’re staying in a hotel you can go and look at the markets, but your hotel mini-bar probably won’t hold much, whereas we go with a shopping list or we simply watch what the locals are buying, and we go home and cook.

You can generally get off the beaten track far easier than you can when you stay in a hotel. If you’re relying on the concierge for tips, you’re going to see other hotel guests eating at the restaurant he recommended. Then there’s the beauty of having lots of space, your own kitchen so you don’t have to eat out every meal, and a refrigerator you can fill that doesn’t have sensors going off when you open it. There might be shelves filled with books or a DVD library – in Cape Town we even had a piano, which Terence played every day! The privacy – we got tired of housekeeping ignoring DND signs, people coming to check the outrageously-priced mini-bar, and the phone always ringing with staff asking, when were we checking out, did we want a wake-up call, could they send a porter up. It became so tedious, especially as we were spending around 300 days a year in hotels on average. There are downsides to holiday rentals too of course. If something goes wrong the property owner/manager isn’t always around to fix it, whereas in a hotel, you phone the front desk to let them know the Internet isn’t working and they’ll send someone up.

What should travelers consider when renting a holiday apartment?
Location first. What kind of neighbourhood do you want to live in, how off the beaten track do you want to get, do you want to walk into the centre or are you happy to catch public transport or drive, what kind of facilities are in the area if you’re not hiring a car, and is there a supermarket, shops, restaurants, café, bars in walking distance? After that, the quality of accommodation – in the same way that people decide whether to opt for a budget hotel if they just want somewhere to lay their head, or a five-star if they want creature comforts, they need to think about how much time they intend spending at the property and the level of comfort they want. We stayed in a budget apartment in Manhattan, which was fine as we were out a lot. In Ceret, France and Sardinia, Italy we had big charming houses with terrific kitchens, which was perfect as we stayed in and cooked a lot. If it’s a family reunion or group of friends going away together and they want to enjoy meals in, then it’s important to ask detailed questions about the kitchen and facilities, as we’ve had some places that only had the bare basics, while others like our properties in Austin and Cape Town had dream kitchens.

Favorite destination/apartment?
We’ve been to some amazing places but my favourites have been Tokyo and Austin. We’d only visited Tokyo once before on a stopover, stayed in a cramped hotel and just did the tourist sights. This time we really saw how people lived by staying in an apartment, we discovered different corners of the city we didn’t know existed, and we made new friends. In Austin, it was all about the people, who must be the USA’s friendliest and coolest. We spent a lot of time seeing live music and met lots of musicians, and we also got into the food scene – locals take their food very seriously in Austin! We even hosted a dinner party there with Terence cooking up a multi-course tasting menu for our new friends. In terms of properties, I’m torn between the rustic traditional white trullo set amongst olive groves that we stayed at in Puglia where we had our own pizza oven and bikes to ride in the countryside, the penthouse in the historic centre of Mexico City, and the two houses in Costa Rica, one set in the jungle and the other on the beach, literally within splashing distance of the sea!

Funny story about one of your stays?
The funniest moments weren’t funny at the time but we look back at them and laugh now. At our the Puglia trullo we had terrible internet access. It barely worked in the house because the walls were so thick, yet internet is crucial to what we’re doing so we had to work outside, which wasn’t much fun in the rain. Terence discovered that he could get the best access in the middle of the olive grove next door; you can see him working here! The monkeys that visited us everyday in our houses in Costa Rica were also hilarious. One morning I was enjoying a rare moment reading in the sun when I saw a rare red-backed squirrel monkey run across the fence, and then another leapfrog that one, and then another join them! I quickly got up and raced into the kitchen to make sure there was no food left on the bench, turned around and there was a family of 30-40 monkeys trooping through the house. These guys are endangered, but it didn’t look like it from where I was standing in the kitchen in my bikinis and towel, trying to protect our food as the property manager had warned us that they know how to open the cupboards! The manager also told us to leave the lights on at night, because otherwise the bats will think the house is a cave. She wasn’t kidding.

How is social media playing a role in your travels?
We decided not to use guidebooks this Lara Dunston Grantourismo travel round the world bloggersyear and rely on advice from locals, many of which we come in contact with through social media. We’ve met many locals via their blogs or Twitter. We use Twitter every day, as a research and networking tool, to make contacts ahead of our visit and get tips from people when we’re there. We’ve had some amazing advice from our followers, from restaurant recommendations to suggestions on things we should do. When we were in Cape Town, loads of tweeps said we had to do the Township Tour offered by Cape Capers and we did and they were right, it was life-changing.

Terence learns how to make the quintessential dish of each place we visit and often asks tweeps what he should make. We’ve had great tips from food bloggers who use Twitter such as Eating Asia and Eat Mexico. We’ve ended up meeting loads of tweeps, including a bunch of New Yorkers – bloggers, writers and travelers – we met for drinks one night, including Gadling’s own Mike Barish and David Farley, while in Austin we had lunch with ‘the Taco Mafia‘ from the Taco Journalism blog and got the lowdown on Austin’s best tacos. We also use Twitter to share our own travel experiences and let people know when we have new stories on the site and we run a monthly travel blogging competition which we promote on Twitter (with very generous prizes donated by HomeAway Holiday Rentals, AFAR, Viator, Context, Trourist, and Our Explorer); the aim of that is to get other travelers to help spread our messages about the kind of traveling we’re doing.

What’s next?
As far as Grantourismo goes, we just left Istanbul (where we were delighted to meet another fascinating Gadling contributor!) and are in Budapest. After this it’s Austria for some fun in the snow, then Krakov for Christmas, Berlin for New Year’s Eve, and our last stop is Edinburgh end of January. After that? We’ve been invited to speak at an international wine tourism conference in Porto, Portugal, about Grantourismo and wine, as we’ve explored places through their wine as much as their food, doing wine courses, wine tastings, wine walks, and wine tours, and really trying to inspire people to drink local rather than imported wine. Then we’re going to write a book about Grantourismo and our year on the road, and later in the year – after we’re rested and energised – we’re going to take Grantourismo into a slightly different direction.

All photos courtesy of Terence Carter.

TripAdvisor picks the top ten most expensive vacation rentals in North America

You think finding a sub-$200 hotel in the summer is a challenge? Consider the challenges for the rich and famous – do you go with a 12 bedroom mansion, or can you settle for a mere 10? Will the kitchen be large enough to feed all 250 guests at your poolside soirée?

And then there is the pool itself – is one pool going to be enough, and will the fitness room be large enough? Yes – the world of luxury vacation rentals provides a level of luxury not found at many hotels, which is why their rates are as high as $150,000 for a single week.

Our friends at TripAdvisor put together a list of the most expensive rentals in North America – but if they seem to be a little above your budget, check out their entire list, with many more affordable options.

  1. Aguajito Rd – Carmel, California Weekly Peak Season Rate: $150,000
  2. MIT PED – Punta de Mita, Mexico Weekly Peak Season Rate: $112,000
  3. 17 Mile Drive at the Lodge – Pebble Beach, California Weekly Peak Season Rate: $100,000
  4. Casa Fryzer – Cabo San Lucas, Mexico Weekly Peak Season Rate: $70,000
  5. Over the Edge – Steamboat Springs, Colorado Weekly Peak Season Rate: $50,365
  6. Highlands Manor – Telluride, Colorado Weekly Peak Season Rate: $52,500
  7. Camelback Vista – Phoenix, Arizona Weekly Peak Season Rate: $21,000
  8. Admiral’s Treasure – Key West, FloridaWeekly Peak Season Rate: $11,760
  9. The Bellagio – Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Weekly Peak Season Rate: $9,320
  10. Kona Shangrila – Kailua, HawaiiWeekly Peak Season Rate: $7,700

[Images and property descriptions courtesy of TripAdvisor]

Want more luxury news? Get your daily dose of pampering right here.

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7 day vacation rentals for $199 through Wyndham Worldwide

Looking to vacation on a budget? Wyndham Worldwide has some hot deals on 7-day vacation rentals for just $199. The availability is obviously limited, and there is a bit of fine print involved, but I was able to find several properties for the advertised price.

To clarify – the $199 price is for 7 days – and since many hotels retail for the same price for just one night, you’ll understand why this is a real bargain. There are even several properties in the Orlando area, though given their high demand, you’ll be paying $399 for a 2 bedroom for the 7 day period.

Vacation rentals are perfect for families – because they come with their own kitchen, and most properties have a decent assortment of on-site amenities. So – browse through their properties and see whether you can find yourself a hot $199 deal on your own vacation rental for the week. The locations, promotion details and rules can be found here.

LetMeGo to pit hotels against each other directly

Normally, I’d think that a website inviting hotels to beg for bid on the insane and detailed requests of travelers would be a nonstarter. But, we’re in the middle of a brutal travel market recession. And, this decade has been awful for airlines and hoteliers alike. So, if the industry is going to learn any lessons from this turbulent decade known as [well, nobody really figured that out what to call it], the first should be that it needs to make a regular practice of going every extra inch to pull in a new guest.

So, the success of new business LetMeGo.com, which will create a marketplace in which travelers can indicate the specific amenities they want – from bunny slippers to cheese plates – will depend on whether the travel and hospitality industry has figured out that it will always be prey to a fickle economy. If the service providers in the hotel business realize this, they will understand that the extra effort is necessary, even when the travel market is on fire.
Using LetMeGo.com’s website, which is still in beta, companies peddling hotel rooms, vacation homes and other forms of lodging will be able to view the itineraries posted by prospective guests. They can bid for the affections and dollars of these travelers, with this data being used by the traveler to make a decision. The process is completely transparent to the participants – every bidder can see each other’s bids, and the user, of course, can sell all bids on his itinerary. But, it isn’t open to the public, as nobody needs to know what you’re looking to spend on your vacation. Since everyone can see each other’s offer, there’s incentive to cut further to attract your interest cash.

According to VentureBeat, “a good number” of lodging companies have signed up for the service and there’s already an affiliate program in place to drive traffic to the site. Could this be the future of the hospitality business? I can think of worse. If the site takes off, it will be easier for hotels to identify exactly what their guests want, deliver on it and use it as a way to differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive market.

So, the future of winning online travel cash will involve head-to-head competition, with everything out in the open. If I were one of the competitors, I wouldn’t be thrilled about this, but there’s no better experience for travel buyers: it’s designed to help us win.

Pay to sleep on a stranger’s couch with AirBnB

I recently came across the website AirBnb.com, which promises to connect “adventurous travelers” with “nice folks” willing to let strangers stay in their apartment, spare room, or even on their couch – for a fee. Basically, if VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) and CouchSurfing had a love child, this would be it.

At first I thought it was just a way to get money out of people who (somehow) still haven’t heard of CouchSurfing. Some of the offerings are downright laughable – why would people pay $70 to sleep on a couch when they can get their very own room at a major hotel chain for $10-$20 more? And if someone really wanted to stay with locals and make new friends, wouldn’t they just CouchSurf?

Despite some of the clearly deluded potential hosts offering to allow you to squat in their apartment for a ridiculous fee, I still wouldn’t write the site off completely. A few of the options listed are actually pretty great, like an entire apartment to yourself in Chicago, tastefully decorated and ideally located, for just $80 a night. There are even established B&Bs and pensions using AirBnB as another outlet for advertising their available rooms. Luckily the site does allow you to set search parameters like “private room” and “entire place” so you can easily find what you want. You can also look at reviews from previous guests and see plenty of photos of the place before you book. You’ll take on more risk than if you book with a traditional hotel, but you could score a great deal.

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