What Makes Something Truly ‘Unique’ In Travel Anyway?
Unique Places and People
Nisreene Atassi: When I think of the most unique and memorable accommodations, two places come to mind for me. First, was a vacation rental, which was an old home in Seville, Spain. It was off a very small cobblestone street, where you couldn’t even drive a car, and had these gigantic heavy wooden doors. And the second I stepped in, it felt like I was instantly being transported back in time and absolutely immersed in the local culture. The second was a riad that I stayed in, in Marrakesh, Morocco, which I booked just like an ordinary hotel. If you’ve ever Googled or stayed in a riad, you know that it’s actually nothing like a hotel. It was absolutely impossible to find as it was in the labyrinth that is the medina in Marrakesh. Medina is the Arabic word for city. But once we found it, we realized just how special it was and just how much it was going to enhance the overall trip experience.
Today, we’re tackling the hot topic of unique accommodations and how the place you choose to say can make or break your trip. I’m Nisreene Atassi, and this is Out Travel the System.
It’s a big topic, so we have not one but two guests with me today. First, I’ve got Nathan Lump. Nathan is Expedia’s vice president of customer marketing. He’s also the former editor- in- chief of Travel and Leisure. He’s a familiar voice for many of you, as he was on season two’s Winter Staycation episode. Nathan, hi. Welcome back to the show.
Nathan Lump: Thanks so much for having me back. It’s great to be here.
Nisreene Atassi: I’ve also got here with me Drew Binsky. Drew vlogs on YouTube and also at drewbinsky.com. You may have seen him before in some of his viral videos about traveling to North Korea. Welcome to Out Travel the System, Drew. Great to have you on.
Drew Binsky: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Nisreene Atassi: All right. Well, Nathan, let’s start with you. I know you are a major, major fan of hotels, but it feels like lately locations that sort of really take you and immerse you into the great outdoors, like yurts, cabins, tree houses are becoming very, very popular. Have you actually ever stayed in any sort of alternative accommodations like those, and if so, what was it like?
Nathan Lump: Oh yeah, a whole bunch. It’s funny, I was just remembering the other day that the first time I stayed in a yurt was actually 20- odd years ago in northern Minnesota.
Nisreene Atassi: Of all places. So absolutely random. Okay. Go on.
Nathan Lump: I was on a dog sledding trip, a four- day dog sledding trip in the deepest, darkest winter. It was so cold. You got your own team of dogs and you mushed through the countryside and you stayed in yurts along the way. They get heated by wood- burning stoves, and so you fire up the stove and you load it up with wood before you go to sleep. And it’s nice and toasty when you go to sleep. But by the time you wake up in the morning, it is so cold in the yurt. And I learned something really important on that trip, which is that toothpaste can freeze.
Nisreene Atassi: Oh, my gosh. Yeah, who knew?
Nathan Lump: In the years since, I’ve upgraded significantly in this kind of accommodation, but I’ve had some really, really awesome stays on the kind of tented side, particularly in Africa, safari camps. I also stayed at a wonderful place called Dunton Hot Springs in Colorado, not so, so long ago. They were miner’s cabins, but now they’ve been made into super comfortable spots. And the one that I stayed in has the hot springs get pumped directly into your tub. And there’s like another tub that was a cold water plunge, copper, that you kind of have to climb into like a old miner.
Nisreene Atassi: That’s amazing.
Nathan Lump: They do put you in nature and you really feel like you’re a part of the natural environment in which you’re positioned. So whether it’s rustic or whether it’s not, I think the benefit that you get out of it is that you feel like you’re in it.
Nisreene Atassi: So it sounds like you’re a bit more of maybe a glamper. I think a lot of people feel like you can’t have the best of both worlds on that one. Glamping doesn’t immerse you into the outdoor nature experience, but it kind of feels like based on what you just said, that it does.
Nathan Lump: I grew up actually camping in tents. That was the thing that my family did and I have definitely graduated to glamping. And I think it’s every bit as good, except that you get a toilet and you get room service, and I will take that any day. When you’re in Africa, the lions are still walking by your tent at night and I think you still get a lot of the benefits, just with the creature comforts attached.
Nisreene Atassi: Drew Binsky, are you a glamper, or are you more of a rustic camper kind of guy?
Drew Binsky: Much like Nathan, I’ve kind of evolved into a little bit more nicer accommodations as time has gone on. I was in the Serengeti for New Year’s and I was glamping with my girlfriend and we did wake up to the sound of elephants rubbing against the tent. There were no fences around, where we were. I’ve stayed in yurts in Kurdistan, and Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. I loved the remoteness of them, and as you guys talked about being out in nature and just kind of experiencing life in the purest form, and that’s why I like to travel so much.
Nisreene Atassi: You are on a mission to visit every country in the world, and you’ve made it to 194 of them, is that right?
Drew Binsky: That is correct. I’m missing three. Jamaica, and everyone’s like, ” Why did you save Jamaica?” And the answer is there has to be a last three and Jamaica is one of them. Saudi Arabia, which I have the visa, but they’ve been closed. And then Palau, which is a small Pacific island nation of 18, 000 people. So I’ll be heading there as soon as I can and that’ll be my final country. So yeah, I’m really excited.
Nisreene Atassi: Amazing. I can only imagine some of the places that you’ve stayed in, Drew, but I hear that you stayed in a tree house village in the Dominican Republic, that sort of stood out to you. Tell us a little bit about that.
Drew Binsky: I was in the Dominican Republic traveling around and I went to a little peninsula called Samana, and that’s where the really good humpback whale watching is. There’s a guy named Bart, he’s from Idaho, but he’s been living in the DR, and he married a local woman, and he’s been there for 15 years, I believe. It’s a tree house hotel now, but it started out as like one little tree house and then it evolved, there’s a dozen of them and there’s like a no- phone policy and there’s no internet. And he does that on purpose because he wants it to be a total detox, which is what it was. And it literally is a tree house. I guess it’s more of a glamping- style tree house, so it’s a nice bathroom and a nice bed, but you are climbing up the ladder to get up there. And there are huge trees up there, it’s like a forest, so you’re hidden away. Yeah, if you ever get the chance to stay in a tree house, I recommend it.
Nisreene Atassi: I love, by the way, that you’re staying in all of these really unique and alternative accommodations, but also in really unique and different destinations, that people might normally feel more comfortable, I think, staying in a more traditional hotel. Tell me about what it’s like to stay in tents in some of these more remote destinations.
Drew Binsky: It’s all about the experience for me. I do love staying at hotels and they’re fun, but a hotel is a hotel is a hotel. Generally speaking, of course, there’s boutique hotels and different kinds of flavors there. But tents are just, when I think about the memories of the countries I’ve been, those are the ones that stand out the most, when I have slept in tents and unique accommodation. So for me, it’s a no- brainer if anyone ever offers me the chance. When I was in the Philippines in Caguas, my girlfriend and I, she’s from the Philippines, and she mentioned to me that you can stay on this remote island where there’s no other people. I mean, you could bring a tent and sleep there. And that’s exactly what we did and it was an incredible experience. So, highly recommend it.
Nathan Lump: And in some places, it’s really almost your only option. We’ve both been to places in Africa where that’s what you got, and whether it’s high- end or not, it’s the only way that you can be in some of these environments and not impact the flora and fauna of the place. So it’s sort of a requirement for getting access to these incredible places.
Nisreene Atassi: And I do think that a lot of people when they think about maybe glamping, they do often associate it with safaris and things like that. I want to pick on that one a little bit more. But before we do that, I want to create a little bit of ambiance first. (music, singing) So, Drew, you head to the Central African Republic and decide you want to spend some time with a local pygmy tribe. What happens?
Drew Binsky: We met a local guy the day before on Instagram, his name is David, a great guy. He had never visited the pygmy tribe. It’s a good seven- hour drive out from Bangui, which is the Capitol. So we get in a car, hire a driver, get out there, pick up some locals on the way who speak the dialect. And the pygmy tribe, I heard about them when I was in Gabon. They live all around central Africa. They’re genetically the shortest in the world. So I get there, we have to hike through some forest. And all of a sudden, where you heard that sound that you just played, they’re dancing around the fire and they were sleeping in little huts. And I had brought a mosquito net, thankfully, because there were so many mosquitoes and I was taking malaria pills, but I don’t even know if that would have helped. And I spent 24 hours with them.
One of the coolest moments that I’ve ever witnessed in my travels was seeing the chief go out and he hunted a gazelle, which is a small antelope, with a bow and arrow. I watched the whole thing, and he brought it over to cook it over the fire, and within 20 minutes he had cooked the whole thing. And there were about 40 people living in this really small community, the most satisfying thing to witness that whole scene happen within 30 minutes. It was so cool. Once I finish all the countries in the world, I want to find stories like that and retell them.
Nisreene Atassi: Nathan, I’m curious, do you have any sort of travel memories or unique places that had this lasting impression on you?
Nathan Lump: Listening to Drew talk, I was reminded of this time also in Africa when I was in Namibia. I spent a couple of days, there’s a tribe that lives up there called the Himba, and they’re sort of one of the last true nomadic tribes in Africa, although increasingly less so. I spent the better part of a day with an old woman, she was a grandmother, in her dwelling talking to her about her life and the changes she had seen and they are increasingly modernized and less nomadic, and their way of life is changing. And what was so great about that experience was just being able to spend time with someone and get those kinds of stories. Then she started to ask me about my life, having to explain concepts like apartment buildings and that you don’t keep livestock. She was a touching character who reminded me of my own grandmother.
This has always stuck with me. It was a really wonderful day, and at the end of that day, there were two little girls who basically wanted to go visit some friends of theirs in the other community, and normally they would walk and it would take them forever and ever to get there. These two little girls, they hitched a ride with us, and night had fallen and the stars had come out, and suddenly they started to sing as we were driving along. And I’ll never forget that moment of freedom and expansiveness and joy.
Nisreene Atassi: That sounds beautiful. All right. Well, when we come back, we’re going to hear more about these far- flung travel opportunities and how to go about finding unique accommodations for yourself, so stay with us.
You’re listening to Out Travel the System, and I’m your host Nisreene Atassi. Join us this season. As we deep dive into destinations like France and Spain and take you inside what makes a lake vacation so special. As always, we’ll share tips and tricks to make sure you’re getting the most out of your trip. Don’t forget to share your travel hopes and dreams with us anytime on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. We’re @Expedia.
Nisreene Atassi: All right. We are back on Out Travel the System with travel vlogger, Drew Binsky, and Expedia’s very own Nathan Lump. All right, Nathan, let’s start back off with you. I know you’re quite the connoisseur of hotels and other forms of accommodation, and you’ve probably stayed at, I don’t know, thousands of them, I would guess. How would you recommend someone go about finding the right unique place to stay?
Nathan Lump: Sometimes it does come out of a particular destination that you’re interested in. You start looking into the options and things appear. But if you are looking for these kinds of things, yeah, you can search for them specifically. Sometimes they’re very helpfully named, like there’s a fantastic tree house hotel in Sweden that’s called the Tree Hotel, and the original ice hotel in Sweden is called Ice Hotel.
Nisreene Atassi: Oh, nice. Okay.
Nathan Lump: Sometimes it’s quite easy to find them in that sense, from a pure semantic search, but it’s worth asking if there are particular things that you’ve heard of or types of places, you know you want to stay in a castle, you can search for that stuff and find them and they’re out there.
Nisreene Atassi: Drew, what about you? How do you go about planning where you’re going to stay in a destination? Do you plan ahead or are you more of a, I’m going to get there, meet the people, talk to people, and then take their cues and figure out where to stay and just sort of see what experience awaits me?
Drew Binsky: The latter. Yeah, I literally don’t plan anything.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, I figured as much. (laughs)
Drew Binsky: It’s obnoxious in the sense compared to some of my other travel friends where they will have a spreadsheet and they will be like, ” Hey we’re staying here, and we’re doing this on this day and this and this day.” And that just gives me crazy anxiety because I just really like to go with the flow. It’s just my travel style. It’s my preference. Even if you don’t use social media, you can still make local friends and they can give you recommendations because at the end of the day, you’re a visitor in whatever place you’re going to and you’re pretty naive. And it’s okay to be naive. It’s okay to not know what’s happening. That’s the reason why you go somewhere, so you become wiser and you, you can learn about things. So people love to share their culture and they’re so proud of their city or their town or their village and they want to get to know you. So it’s really a win- win.
Nisreene Atassi: I love what you said about people should feel comfortable and it being okay about asking questions. Because I think so many travelers don’t want to do that because they’re so afraid of being marked or labeled as a tourist. Ask questions and explore and meet people because I think that is a fantastic way to figure out a new city. And clearly, you’ve been able to uncover some really amazing places.
Drew Binsky: Yeah.
Nisreene Atassi: Nathan, what do you think makes a property or wherever you’re staying more unique? Because I think if we went and asked a bunch of hotels, they would probably say, ‘Yeah, we’re a very unique place,” or this, that, and the other. So what would it be something that you would advise travelers to look for if they want to stay in a place that is a little bit more unique or different?
Nathan Lump: That’s a good question because there are a lot of different … different things might matter to different people. For me, a lot of it does sort of begin with location. Accommodations of whatever type are a way for you to be in a place that you don’t live all the time. And so, so much of what the best accommodations do is they give you access to an environment that otherwise you wouldn’t be able to be in. I love hotels that make really inventive use of design and create a feeling of interest and specialness through that. Some of my favorite places, like a super fancy place in Vermont, called Twin Farms, that I love, it’s a sort of a cottage hotel basically. And every one of those is different and really special and super thoughtfully designed by different interior designers. And they’re just gorgeous and so perfect. But for other people, it might be something else that gets them going.
Nisreene Atassi: So Nathan, you obviously, you like luxury hotels as well. So when you’re going to go and splurge on a place to stay, what’s going to make an accommodation splurge- worthy?
Nathan Lump: So what’s your purpose? What is the thing that set it apart for you? One of the things I was thinking about, there’s a ultra- luxury property on the island of Saint Lucia in the Caribbean called Jade Mountain. And Jade Mountain was designed by this architect, it has amazing views of the Pitons and the Caribbean Sea, but it feels like something out of Star Wars, basically. Like you found yourself on one of these planets and this is the village where people live. It’s all these kinds of platforms and everything is raised off the ground. And the thing that I love about it is that the rooms have these incredible indoor- outdoor pools, private pools. And basically, the pool goes into your room, up to your bed, essentially.
Nisreene Atassi: Cool. Yes.
Nathan Lump: And then it goes out onto a cantilevered balcony, overlooking the sea. And it’s such a wow feature. And if you are looking for a romantic getaway, it is hard to do better than that. And so if that’s what you’re looking for, if you want, this is an impress my loved one moment, that is going to deliver. And so a lot of times too, it’s about that there’s a wow feature.
Nisreene Atassi: That’s your love language, is an indoor- outdoor infinity pool. Okay. Drew, what about you, when you’re not staying in a tent in a remote village in Africa and you decide you want to splurge on something …
Drew Binsky: I’m really big on reading reviews because they’re just people like you and me who have honest things to say. And for me, honestly, the biggest priority at the end of the day, the number one priority for me is good wifi because I’m working all the time and I’m uploading videos and I’m taking really important calls. And so if I see one review, that’s like, oh, yeah, the wifi cut out or there’s a problem with the internet, I don’t care what the hotel is like, I won’t stay there. Definitely, I want a place with a really nice good breakfast buffet and some other cool options.
Nisreene Atassi: What I liked the best about both of your answers is that they’re so different but so right. You know what I mean? There’s not a wrong way or right way to choose an accommodation. One thing that always comes to mind for me is managing people’s expectations, especially when it comes to unique accommodations because just because it’s expensive, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to have all the bells and whistles. I mentioned at the top of the show, the old home that we stayed in, in Seville, which was quite expensive. My parents wanted to splurge. My whole family went. But when we got there, it was very rustic because it was very, very old, which was the charm of it, which made it so unique. But for my mom, she had this sort of different expectation in her head. So, Nathan, you probably spent a decent amount of time in your past career reviewing hotels. How do you manage balancing the uniqueness with the price and what travelers should expect going into it?
Nathan Lump: When I used to do a lot of writing about hotels and other types of accommodations, it was always really clear to me to try to put myself in the traveler’s shoes and understand what are the kinds of things that people might not like or might not be comfortable with. I think an ice hotel is really cool, but some people don’t want to sleep on ice-
Nisreene Atassi: I mean, weird. Why wouldn’t they? (laughs)
Nathan Lump: … and aren’t going to enjoy, even though you’ve got a cozy fur blanket. For me, it’s always about being really clear about what the trade- offs are. And then, of course, people themselves when they’re looking around have to be honest with themselves too about what they’re interested in. We’ve stayed places and people aren’t happy for one reason or another. And I mean, I’ve definitely as a fellow guest sometimes had that moment of saying, ” Why did you come here? You knew you were going to be nowhere near civilization, right?” Sometimes things that are really unique are somewhat less comfortable perhaps, or they do involve some kind of trade- off like that. There are those kinds of things that just exist.
Nisreene Atassi: And so I think that’s probably where reading reviews, like what Drew does, probably really comes into play because you’re going to get hopefully, a decent well- rounded perspective on all of the different opinions. So, Drew, I want to come back to you a little bit because you’ve traveled all over, places that people wouldn’t necessarily put at the top of their list for safety reasons and things like that. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and safety, in general, is really top of mind for people in a sort of a different sense. How do you navigate the safety piece in general?
Drew Binsky: Right off the bat, I will say the world is a lot safer than you think and that you hear about on the news. There are some countries like Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, I’m sure the average viewer is not dreaming to go to those countries. I love going to those countries because once again, there’s always another to the story. What precautions do I take? Having a working phone is the most important thing because there’s a couple apps, one of them is called maps. me. You download the country map in wifi before you get to the destination, so when you are offline, you can even zoom in and you can see everything, like every supermarket, every street corner, and there’s a little GPS tracker that follows you around.
I also have pretty good instinct. I think, trust your gut. I’ve picked that up from traveling. And I think it’s almost a little bit of common sense to kind of see what it feels like and then I just trust my gut. I don’t know if that’s really the best tip, but that’s maybe coming from experience.
Nisreene Atassi: What about during COVID times? Because you’ve traveled a little bit during the pandemic. What are you researching or looking at before you travel to a place to make sure that you’re covered pandemic- wise?
Drew Binsky: The biggest things were keeping up- to- date with border closures and airlines and COVID tests. Because a lot of times, if you don’t have it 24 hours before you get to the airport, they won’t let you on the plane. And it happened to me. I had it 48 hours before, in Panama, and it was like, no, it’s 24 hours. I’m like …
Nisreene Atassi: Oh, gosh.
Drew Binsky: That’s been the biggest challenge. But on the flip side, I went to Egypt and I had the pyramids all to myself. Local economies, they rely on tourism as the main source of income, so kind of nice to be able to contribute in those ways. I’m fully vaccinated now and I think that things are starting to get better. Hopefully, we’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel.
Nisreene Atassi: Absolutely. Absolutely. Nathan, what about you? How have you been thinking about re-engaging in travel? Any words of inspiration for our travelers about getting back out there?
Nathan Lump: I have been doing some, limited, careful travel. And I do think a lot of people have some trepidation around it, even once they’ve been fully vaccinated. And I think people do have to kind of go with their own speed. And I know some folks who are really nervous about it, and I advise them to like do something small, get in a car, do a weekend getaway if that’s what feels like a good place to start. I know other people who are like, ” Get me on a plane to as far away as I can go.” I feel a little bit like that myself, to be honest. And to them, I say, ” Great, go for it.” Make sure that you’re mindful of the various rules that you need to pay attention to, but also you want to be respectful of other people and how they might feel as well.
I mean, Drew makes a really good point that aside from obviously the personal joy that travel gives those of us who love travel, it’s also a huge economic driver, and there are so many communities, places, people around the world that have really suffered from the lack of tourism and travel. So if you feel comfortable, what a great time to start getting out there because you’re not only giving something to yourself, you’re also really helping a broader social and economic recovery. And that may not matter to everyone, but I think for someone like me, that’s a good impetus.
Nisreene Atassi: Yeah, for sure. Well, thank you so much, Nathan, for coming on the show. Nathan ump is a vice president of customer marketing for Expedia. It’s been such a pleasure having you back on the show, Nathan. Thank you.
Nathan Lump: Thank you. It’s always fun to be here.
Nisreene Atassi: And, Drew Binsky is a travel vlogger. You can find his videos at drewbinsky.com or on YouTube. Thank you, Drew, for bringing all of your amazing stories and adding to this fantastic conversation. Your perspective is awesome to have, so thank you for coming on the show.
Drew Binsky: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. We’ll have to do it again, and thank you everybody for tuning in.
Nisreene Atassi: All right. This is Out Travel the System, and I’m your host Nisreene Atassi. In our next episode, we’re going to give you the inside scoop on travel related to July 4th, so please make sure you tune in. Until then, happy travels.
Out Travel the System is brought to you by Expedia. Our showrunner and executive producer is Claudia Kwan. Our associate producer is Katie Doten, with sound engineering from Jill Constantine. Additional production support is provided by JAR Audio.
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