The seaplane is bobbing on its pontoons in the choppy South Pacific Ocean like a plastic duck in a toddler’s bathtub. “You’ll have to wade in from here,” the pilot shouts over the propeller’s rat-tat-tat. I look down doubtfully at the restless sea, the swaying ladder, then take a deep breath and start pulling off my sandals.
“Welcome to the island!” Talk about dramatic arrivals: I half expect the waters to part as he strides to the beach through the roiling foam with me balanced precariously, and ridiculously, on his shoulders.
We draw near to the shoreline, and I see my next two weeks spread out before me like a glossy brochure: cute thatched cottages, bright yellow kayaks in neat rows on the shining sand, pink tropical drinks topped with paper umbrellas.
I’m not sure what makes me more uneasy, the thought that I might fall off the Fijian’s shoulders or the knowledge that once the airplane flies away I’ll be stranded for days on this resort island.
Resorts are a staple of the travel world, but I’ve always had an uncomfortable, double-edged relationship with them.
I know that these man-made destinations — the grand hotels, the all-inclusives, the seaside, countryside, and mountaintop retreats — are protective bubbles. Yet I fell in love with travel because it offered freedom, serendipity, and a way to break out of my comfort zone.
Traditional resorts wrap their guests in a cozy blanket of the familiar, filtering out risk, chance, surprises — in other words, the very things that draw many to travel in the first place.
For those of us who plot our travels to maximize contact with real people and places, the idea of squandering precious vacation time in curated, controlled surroundings feels almost like a felony.
Guilt kicks in: Really, I should be booking that guesthouse with the shared bathroom in the undiscovered neighborhood. Or kicking back in a string hammock by a beach shack in that little fishing village.
Yet there are times, I’m embarrassed to admit, when I don’t want my travel to be so real. Browsing the Web, I’ll stumble on a hotel and, instead of continuing my search, I’ll linger and allow the resort sirens to whisper in my ear: “Space! Quiet! Privacy! No decisions!” Then I bargain with myself: If I start my trip with a lazy, insulated week, won’t I have more energy to do serious traveling the next?
The truth is, sometimes after working hard at travel, it’s nice to have travel take care of you. The first trips I remember taking with my family were to resorts —not the sleek all-inclusives of today but old rambling countryside manors in New York and Pennsylvania surrounded by acres of farmland and forest. Long before the word “sustainable” became a buzzword, these resorts were.
The staff were local students or members of the owner’s family, and the activities were low-impact things like swimming in the nearby lake, playing tennis and badminton, walking in the woods, and devouring three home-cooked meals a day (remember the “American Plan”?). My sentimental attachment to these mostly vanished hotels of my childhood probably explains my taste in resorts today.
What seems to make all the difference in my resort experiences is local character. Even a bubble can lead to a sense of place.
My resort “Big Fails” have been hotels like the concrete compound in the Bahamas I booked as a quick getaway package one cold New York winter. The setting was beautiful but the property so anonymous and anodyne that after three days, dying of boredom in my beach chair, I slipped out the gate and walked to the nearby town. After inquiries at the local conch-fritter joint, I met up with a lady who had a room for rent. I returned to the hotel, packed up my things, and fled to the other side of paradise.
Then there are the resorts I enter and never want to leave, like the loopy beach hotel in the Dominican Republic. Architecturally, it was as anonymous as the Bahamas hotel. But the owner, a middle-aged Italian expat, had found himself a local girlfriend and become a well-known character in town. Every night he would host a party by the pool for his guests and invite all the neighborhood musicians, who would pass beers and guitars around and sing Dominican merengues and bachatas under the moon. In his resort, you never forgot where in the world you were.
Quirky owners, landmark old buildings, fellow guests who don’t speak your language—when a resort has one or more of these wild cards, you can embrace your craving for an escape while still feeding your traveler’s sense of discovery.
Perched on the bronzed shoulders of the Fijian man, I felt I had “tourist” written all over me. But not for long. It turns out my porter and the other workers at the resort hailed from the only village on the little island — and the village controlled the island’s land, leasing it to the resort’s foreign owner. The workers were the bosses, which meant the bosses, ultimately, worked for the workers. I swam in the ocean, went to church in the village, and one night even played the ukulele with the man who’d carried me to shore.
I was in a bubble, I know, and not exactly traveling. Yet I felt like a traveler still.