Burn your Guidebooks – 2 Authors Explain why Human Beats Paper

GuideAdvisor’s Susan McCarthy recently mediated a Q&A with two well-travelled authors and asked their opinions about how tour guides differ from guidebooks. The authors included Oakland, California, resident Serena Bartlett and GuideAdvisor’s own editor Vince Hempsall, who lives in Nelson, British Columbia.

Serena has written nine guidebooks about West Coast North American cities for a series called GrassRoutes Guides. She also co-owns Localite Tours, a company that takes people on walking excursions around neighbourhoods in and near San Francisco.Vince has helped pen two guidebooks, a rock climbing guide for southern BC and a mountain biking guidebook for the state of Vermont. He’s also done a number of magazine articles for Canadian and American publications featuring “where to go/what to see” for different cities and regions.

Tell us about the most recent guided experience you’ve had.

SerenaJust this morning! I took a group on a tour of Temescal Alley in Oakland.

Vince: My partner and I hired a mountain biking guide to show us around the trails of Bend, Oregon. And are we ever glad we did. That place is a rabbit’s warren of singletrack!

What about an especially memorable tour experience you’ve had?

Vince: I hired a guide, a former Buddhist monk, to take me to a hill tribe village in Laos, over a decade ago when the country was just opening up to tourism. It was only the second time the villagers had had a caucasian person visit their homes – which were really just shacks built near the peak of a mountain. The chief let me sleep in an honoured spot in his hut, on a ceremonial mat (that just happened to be by his pig), but it was awesome. I’ve never had an experience like that – of meeting a culture so profoundly different that just the colour of my skin was considered unique. And I never, ever, would have had that without the help of a guide.

Serena: When I was in England, I was guided to the Western part of Shropshire and into rural Wales – not an area I would have ever known was so worthwhile. Because I found a tour that looked interesting and wanted to get away from the cityscape, I happened on what is now one of my favourite places. The rich community, the incredible Shropshire blue cheese, the jaw-dropping views and mystical ruins – I’m smitten, and I even learned about thatch and some of the oldest beer brewing methods.

Of the two experiences (writing or guiding) what would you say was more satisfying?

Serena: Leading a tour is like giving a live performance of the city. I get to show people so many behind-the-scenes spots that my guests become intimate with the neighbuorhood and feel like instant locals. The interaction allows me to read my guests and dive deeper into areas about which they’re especially interested, and I’ve had that experience taking tours, too.  Plus, you get to go to so many more spots than you’d otherwise visit in, say, an afternoon. I love jotting down notes and writing – whether I’m reading or writing a guidebook – but interacting with people brings the place to life in a completely different way. It’s always more powerful when you’re coming together with other people.

Vince: Yeah, I agree with Serena. Writing is definitely a passion of mine but when it comes to the best way to experience a place, it’s not walking around with your nose buried in a book.

Has a guidebook ever saved you from falling off a mountain, cooked you a dinner on a secluded beach or held your backpack for you while you photographed wildlife? What can a tour guide provide you that a guidebook can’t? In short: human interaction. And isn’t that what life is about?

So people shouldn’t buy guidebooks?

Vince: God no! What are you trying to do, end my writing career?  Of course I want people to buy guidebooks (especially mine) but I think they should be used as tools for research. If you truly want to experience a place you have to meet a local or hire a guide. I can’t tell you how many times during my travels I’ve seen people quickly stroll past, studiously reading copies of the Lonely Planet while I’m sitting with a resident learning about all the secret spots to check out and having an amazing cultural experience at the same time.

Serena: Taking a trip with a guide is just the best way to get to know a neighbourhood – you see more, know more, and experience more. Guidebooks are great to get a sense of the overall city and create a must-do list, especially for longer trips, but once you’re there, finding a guide to show you around that must-see neighbourhood is ideal. To use an analogy, guidebooks cover the whole solar system of an area while the guides take you on intimate tours of the planets. You get more info and, more importantly, it’s entertaining, from a guided trip.

What’s a tour guide provide that a guidebook can’t?

Serena: There are a few key differences. With a guided tour there is more room for back stories. There are chances to go out of your comfort zone, safely – some of the things I’ve loved most on my travels I never would have learned about from reading a guidebook. Also, guides reduce all that time spent planning. Think of the effort involved in listing the places you’re interested in visiting, figuring out the timing, syncing it all up with your travelling partners – that’s valuable adventure time you’re wasting! I’ve especially noticed how beneficial it is for families to hire a guide – no one person has the pressure of researching everything, and everyone can be involved. It’s a tactic that’s prevented plenty of wasted time and family tiffs for sure.

Vince: That’s a really good point about the family trip, Serena. Definitely better to hire a guide for those. But even for single people or couples, guides can make all the difference. I mean, when was the last time your guidebook bought you a latté and then invited you back to his house to meet his family and eat local delicacies? Has a guidebook ever saved you from falling off a mountain, cooked you a dinner on a secluded beach or held your backpack for you while you photographed wildlife? What can a tour guide provide you that a guidebook can’t? In short: human interaction. And isn’t that what life is about?

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