I’ve been in Vancouver for three months before I find my favourite sushi place. It isn’t on any of the “best of” lists. It’s never Instagrammed and it doesn’t get a lot of press. I only find out about it because I’ve been asking locals to tell me their favourite places to eat—and one of them brightens up at the question.
“It’s in a strip mall,” he says, “but I promise it’s the best in town.”
And it is. Sitting at shabbily dressed tables crowded together next to a fast food restaurant, I’ve found the best sushi I’ve had in years. The kind of sushi that melts in your mouth. The kind that forces you to order just one more roll even though you’re stuffed. The kind of sushi you have to tell everyone you know about.
In that moment, I offer up my gratitude for the lovely local who sent me here. And for the art of slow travel—the reason I’ve found this hidden, flavourful gem.
Whenever I mention slow travel, most people assume it means staying in one place for an extended time. And it’s true that I was in Vancouver for almost four months that year. But that isn’t always the case. Finding that sushi—and almost every one of my best travel finds around the world, from Canada to Paris to Scotland to Arizona and beyond—has actually been the result of following a set of principles. A way of approaching travel. A commitment to some simple guidelines.
1. Don’t Over-plan
I had just two days the summer I visited Winnipeg. So, I only made one plan: spend an afternoon at Thermëa—a Nordic-style spa. There were certainly other things I wanted to see in this prairie city, but, in the tradition of under-planning, the spa was all I booked—a fact I was glad of once I stepped onto its well-manicured paths surrounded by leafy trees, log cabin-style sauna buildings, and three tubs with different temperatures: cold, hot and warm.
In true Nordic style, the spa operates on a cycle pattern. Warm yourself in a sauna or steam room for 15 minutes, douse yourself with a cold shower under the waterfall or a dip in the plunge pool, then stretch out on a heated lounger. Rinse. Repeat. You need at least three cycles to get the full benefit, so the spa turned into a leisurely afternoon of hot-cold-rest cycles broken up only by a massage and a spell in the café for a Scandinavian-inspired lunch of carpaccio (raw bison tenderloin with mustard and chives) and baby arugula salad.
I had nowhere to be. No dinner plans to rush off to. No appointments to force me out of the tub. I could stay as long or as short as I wanted to, slowly wander back to my vacation home and choose to do more with my day—or nothing at all.
2. Ask Locals
In Ottawa, I had less than a week to explore. But, luckily, I’d made a friend who’d offered to be my guide. She took me to visit the quirky Mackenzie King Estate in Gatineau Park—about a 20-minute drive from downtown. Created by Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, the gardens and the grounds of Moorside cottage on King’s 231-hectare estate are scattered with pieces of buildings from Ottawa and Britain, including the British Houses of Parliament. We hiked through the lush, green forests of the Canadian Shield. We tried foods I’d never heard of—fiddlehead ferns and birch syrup and BeaverTails.
“I felt like I had been handed the key to Paris’ under-the-radar food scene.“
Even in places where I don’t know a soul, I slow down and set out to find local gems. I join local Facebook groups. I ask my friends for introductions to their friends. I also offer to take locals out to their choice of restaurant—my treat. This is how I found my favourite restaurants in Paris—Philippe Excoffier with its airy souffles, Frenchie Bar à Vins with its flavourful menu of seasonal small plates. I felt like I had been handed the key to Paris’ under-the-radar food scene.
3. Be Yourself
I’ve been to Paris many times, but have never seen the inside of the Louvre or climbed the Eiffel Tower. I spent a month in Edinburgh and never visited its namesake castle. There are a lot of places people say you need to see. But, you know yourself best. If your perfect day in Paris is visiting every cheese shop, well, Fromagerie Chez Virginie on rue Damrémont in Montmartre, Hemingway’s iconic neighbourhood, will win you over more than the Louvre.
I often whiled away my days in Paris writing and reading in cafés in Montmartre, where—along with cheese shops—you’ll find the most well-known vineyard in the city and the cabaret (named Au Lapin Agile) where Picasso once settled his bar bill with a painting.
Slow travel isn’t just about pacing. It’s about meeting your own expectations, not trying to live up to anyone else’s. Slow travel is about realizing nobody else’s bucket list items but your own.
“Leaving space in my schedule is largely about allowing time to wander until I find something wonderful.”
So much of my travel time is spent simply wandering. Wandering along the river in Saskatoon and up to the colourful Saskatoon Farmers’ Market where I tasted deep-purple saskatoon berries for the first time. Wandering through North Vancouver’s suburbs until I stumble upon a café that serves up crunchy, organic homemade granola. Wandering the quiet lanes of New York’s Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn until I find an art installation that invites visitors to bury their secrets by inserting notes into a stone obelisk labelled, “Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors to Green-Wood Cemetery.” Leaving space in my schedule is largely about allowing time to wander until I find something wonderful.
5. Take the Detour
When that local in Vancouver told me about his favourite sushi place, I changed my plans to check it out. When a waitress in Page, Ariz., whispered directions to a quirky canyon full of rusty old classic cars (known to locals as Car Canyon), I followed her instructions to an unmarked path and continued on until I arrived at the edge of the canyon filled with abandoned cars half-buried in orange dirt, like a scene from an apocalypse movie.
Some of the best travel experiences, for me, come from serendipity. They come from leaving room for detours and then taking them when the opportunity arises. I’m always so very glad when I do.
Top Slow Travel Trends
Define what art means to you: The big museums might be on everyone’s list, but what’s on yours? When it comes to the art that appeals to you, there is no wrong answer.
Seek out unique art experiences: Is there an alley known for its street art? A scavenger hunt in a museum? Find what calls to you and then immerse yourself in it.
Hit pause: Don’t rush from piece to piece. Give yourself a full 10 minutes to soak in the angles of light, contours and colours of a piece.
Who doesn’t want to linger for hours over a luscious 10-course meal? But slow food also means searching out local and seasonal ingredients.
Visit fresh markets: If you want to know about a region’s food, visit its local farmers’ markets. You’ll know exactly what’s in season and what’s unique to the region.
Get cooking: There’s no better way to meet locals and discover a destination’s cuisine than joining a cooking class and preparing and sharing a traditional meal.
Make time: I keep at least an hour before and two hours after I am expected to be at a restaurant free. This keeps meals from being rushed.