In a Winter Wonderland
Travel in the Off-Season
Maybe it's an aberration, but we love stormy weather. And the stormiest place in all of the British Isles is a tiny fishing village by the name of Porthleven on the south coast of Cornwall.
For anyone who has spent a winter in Britain, this is no insignificant claim. The Ship Inn on the harbor is plastered with notices from a recent squall, when its clientele was stuck all night in the pub before they could safely crawl home. There's a breakwater of sorts, but nothing you'd want to rely on through more than a mini-tsunami. So we storm-lovers consulted our calendars and weathermen and wandered in on a gloomy, bitterly cold January afternoon.
As it happened, apart from the temperature, the weather gods were in an unreasonably good mood. But we secured the nicest room at the oldest inn on the harbor without calling ahead. With most of the restaurants shuttered for the season, we were treated like pretend-royals at the handful still open. And everyone we met had nothing better to do than chat with the only oddball strangers in town.
Had we shown up in the summer high season, we would have been swarmed and battered and elbowed aside in the sweat-stained lunge for the latest iPhone photo op.
If that doesn't roll your motor about off-season travel, try (what Albert Einstein might have called) this thought experiment: Imagine you're the only gondola-crazed tourist on all of San Marco Island in Venice. If only to keep warm, your gondolier belts out his finest Enrico Caruso arias, one after another, while you pass from canal to canal and bridge to bridge without crashing into a single competitor. In between, Enrico tells you his life story and his father's life story and his grandfather's life story (all gondoliers, of course) and so on.
When you ask for restaurant suggestions, Enrico doesn't just pass you off to the gaudy, shuttered tourist traps on the nearest Piazza. Instead, you end up with a few relaxed locals at the best little seafood diner in the neighborhood, secure in the smug knowledge that everyone is being so nice because you're the only unfamiliar game in town. Probably not logical, but it feels like a peculiar kind of power.
We didn't set out to travel in the off-season.
It just worked out that way. Our employers crowded holidays into the Christmas weeks, and that coincided, not surprisingly, with our slowest personal workloads. Our children were grown, so there were no school vacations to match up to. The result: For a good twenty-five years, we took off the three weeks from Christmas through mid-January to go a-wandering.
And yes, the off-season in Telluride or Salzburg, much less in Hawaii or southern India, doesn't match up to the off-season in London or Peoria. But generally, our winter migrations have produced cold weather travel in unusual circumstances. And those circumstances have included:
As in an utter lack thereof. You hardly need an appointment for anything, including hotel rooms and especially restaurants. The line into the Louvre or the British Museum evaporates. And when you do find tourist crowds, they normally consist of locals taking advantage of the shortage of foreigners to visit their own capitals and monuments. There's something truly refreshing about being jostled around the Trevi Fountain without a word in any language but Italian.
Silk and cashmere long johns, cashmere sweaters and scarves, ski jackets, hats, and hoods. LL Bean and Meindl boots (from Maine and Germany respectively) are a godsend. So are Uggs and Mephistos. Lots of thin layers are the secret, easily peeled off when necessary. After a while, you hardly notice the weight, and when you shed them at night for bed, it feels soooo good. You sleep like babies.
Any vendor who depends entirely on the tourist trade closes in the off-season—and good riddance to them! Anyone who remains open has to deal with the same customers year-round. They can't throw a bad, over-priced meal or service at you just because they know they'll never need to face you again. And with fewer customers hounding them, the staffs are more than happy to make everything perfect. Just for you, of course.
People have time on their hands, even people in the restaurant trade. They'll explain what that odd purple sauce is on your fish (understanding them is another matter, of course—'tis the season where languages might come in handy). They'll explain why you want the chicken dish today, rather than the lamb or the veal. Civilians and police will sometimes even walk you to your next museum, instead of just vaguely pointing off into the ether.
We can't deny that there are drawbacks. One winter night in Bruxelles, the blizzard grew so fierce, that the city closed down not just the roads and buses, but the entire underground Metro. Around 11:30PM, we still had four miles to go, when the guards apologized profusely and booted us out into the empty streets. Fortunately, we'd dressed for the worst (see above). But the best thing was, by the time the authorities got around to kicking us out, the storm had nearly vanished.
So if you've ever walked through a major world city when it's utterly shut down—when every sane human being has already taken to bed—when the packed mountains of snow drown out the slightest peep of urban life—when the white, high-rise streets resemble vast, empty canyons of silence—then you'll understand the meaning of "magic in the air".
No, we can't deny there are drawbacks. But in twenty years, we've been stranded exactly once—in a storied village called Mutters on the slope of a postcard-perfect Austrian alp. Three days of wandering about from spa to Bierkeller to spa to sumptuous country cooking from our lovely hostess. We probably could have escaped sooner, but who wanted to take the chance? The working world was still there when we got home.