The East-Coast-in-Seven-Days tours are the stuff of my nightmares: traipsing from monument to monument at the crack of dawn, shoveling in food at all-too-crowded restaurants with the entire entourage, and learning about dead people rather than meeting live people.
Enter Serena Bartlett, a seasoned traveler from Philadelphia who has lived in and visited over 25 countries and currently resides in Oakland, California. Like many other travelers, she had trouble getting the bigger picture from the regular travel books – so she decided to pen an original series of urban eco-travel guides, GrassRoutes. The first two in the series, Oakland & Berkeley and Northern California Wine Country, will be released July 7. The Grassroutes San Francisco guide will hit bookstores August 1.
For travelers looking for the real deal, these books introduce local eats, shops, and more for a dynamic experience. Barlett’s creative and engaging activities are organized by states of mind, like “Up Early” and “Learn.” The idea, as Serena tells Traveler, is that “there are lots of ways to be on vacation no matter where you are” without much environmental and social cost.
Here, Serena reveals the inspiration behind her guidebooks and gives Traveler readers tips on how to discover authentic culture.
Tell me about what inspired you to create GrassRoutes.
After living abroad and exploring many countries, I realized that there wasn’t a guide out there that really spoke to the complete city. Then I came to Oakland, just for a visit, and thought, “I came to know and love a city blighted by repeated negative media stories and almost entirely disregarded by travel guides.” I had to do something about it. I found so many businesses and activities that were not only exceptional, but also cared about the effect they had on the local community, economy, and environment – I just had to put all my notes together and write a guidebook.
I wanted to make a guide that was more fun to read, that reflected people’s creativity and dynamism, and my values of living more lightly and more cooperatively on the planet.
Unlike most travel guides, GrassRoutes doesn’t include photographs. Instead, it showcases a few drawings. Why?
I grew up going to a Waldorf School where each time I learned about a new species, or geography, I would write something in my own words and draw it. I kept this up in journals throughout my travels, and when I saw Daniel’s drawings I was certain they would be a good match. They added an artistic voice, and meant taking a little longer to look around at the people and places. You can’t “snap” a drawing – you have to take in all the details. (Turns out we were a good match too – we just got married.)
What else makes GrassRoutes very different from the typical eat-see-do manuals?
I rarely found other travel guides useful because things weren’t intuitively organized, and a lot of categories were missing, so I came up with my own style. GrassRoutes Guides have chapters like “Stay Up Late,” “Get Inspired,” “Volunteer,” “Dress Up” and more. Each is diverse: the ”Listen” chapter has hip-hop, classical, and where to hear native birds; the “Get Active” chapter has roller hockey teams, climbing walls, and secret running trails; the “Do Lunch” chapter has Polish, French, Eritrean, and Japanese food. Essentially it assumes that people are smart and multi-faceted.
I love that you include options for taking a variety of classes, from cooking to music to welding. How do you think engaging in these kind of activities enhances a traveler’s cultural experience?
It is the difference between bringing home a jar of jam from a vacation and bringing home not only the jam, but also the ability to make more. I’ve got an insatiable urge to learn from passionate locals, and the “invisible souvenirs” I’ve brought home have made me who I am.
How do you find the non-commercial activities and places you write about in your series? What is the best way for travelers to uncover a destination’s locality and chart their own adventures like you do?
I find places mostly by talking to people and observing, but also by checking RSS feeds of fun local blogs and the city newspapers and volunteering – it’s a great way to get the locals’ tips while giving back.
You write in your introduction that GrassRoutes “champions local businesses and their corresponding contributions to the greater good of the community.” Why should this be important to travelers?
The local, independent businesses and organizations best represent the ideas and people of the city or town – in a way, they are a window into a place. As a consequence of being ingrained in the community, these businesses usually have a number of positive ripple effects, so when you patronize them, you are doing a good thing for the place you’re exploring.
Tell me the highlights from your most memorable trip.
I was in Basel, Switzerland and figured out that Mother’s Day meant free travel for all females – even on a speedy train into the north of Italy. A friend and I hopped right on, stopping for a perfect crema in Trieste and bussing into Croatia, where we rented a room from a family we met vending goat cheese at the open-air market. We ate anchovies fresh from the ocean, stuffed with lavender-infused goat cheese, and learned many new
words and new skills. This rewarding impromptu adventure made me think anything was possible, and the more I traveled, the more I realized anything was.
Then when I got to rediscovering America I had tons of memorable experiences that I chronicle in the series. You don’t have to go far to get away.
What is the first thing you do upon arrival at any travel destination?
Either go up to the highest point I can, or go to a central intersection and just sit and watch the view for a few minutes – then I look for a great après-travel snack, especially if biked there!
What is the last thing you do?
I hit the farmer’s market or a special shop that carries something perishable and local to carry away with me and share en route at whim, or to gift someone with at home.
You’ve created a wonderful and genuine travel guide from your notes. How do you suggest travelers document their own trips?
I would say be creative – document your travels in cheeses by trying local ones everywhere you go, photograph or film your encounters, make huge journals like I do and tote around scissors, tape, and colored pencils with you. Open-mindedness is the most important part of the puzzle – putting aside preconceived notions about cities large and small will help you get better acquainted with them. They each have a character unique and all their own. When you aren’t looking for anything in particular, you’ll find all kinds of gems.
Photo: courtesy Serena Bartlett