Who Needs Travel Guides

Berlin Food Truck

Ever noticed how most travel photography seems to be sometimes about the same old things? Not that the world’s most famous landmarks are not worth visiting, on the contrary, they are, and we should all be so lucky to have seen a few of them. Finding them is also rather easy, as every travel guide in the world points directly to their location and to the logistics of making it there during the best times of the any travel day. All this is good and well, but just like our own countries of origin, there is a whole new world of undiscovered possibilities in every country that are totally ignored by travel guides and tourists alike. To a large extent this is quite understandable, as time and resources are necessities that most of us don’t have in great quantities. One single trip to Italy in your lifetime? Then it is time to choose appropriately and wisely as to what to see, and the well-trodden tourist path is definitely the way to go. And as we all know, there’s a guide book for that.

But there’s also another world out there, and one that hardly ever makes it into any travel guide, but which is full of rewards and undocumented beauty. Yes, Madrid has the Prado, but it also has off-the-beaten-path cantinas where locals will treat us as family if we are willing to relax our western stiffness for a second. Same in Copenhagen, Berlin, and Kyoto. But these off-the-city-center experiences do take time and somewhat of a personal involvement. Like making friends in our own neighborhoods, we are required to sit, linger, and be willing to engage in conversation. These are things that are hardly, if ever, addressed by travel guides, and if it were not by some very creative bloggers and YouTube folks, they would remain unknown to the world. Alternative media is where it’s at, if your goal is to get off that beaten path. After all, who needs to be eating at the Ritz in Paris anyways when you can be having a great conversation with the locals at a German currywurst food truck. Ok, that’s a pathetic stretch, but let’s just say that if you cannot afford the Ritz, then that food truck is a great place to hang out while meeting the locals and dreaming of the Duck a l’Orange at the Ritz.

Charming Shepherdstown, West Virginia

The imposing Bavarian Inn with its panoramic views of the Potomac River is one of the landmark structures in Shepherdstown. Nikon D800, AF Nikkor 14mm f/2.8D ED.
The Lost Dog Cafe on Shepherdstown’s main street is one of the main activity hubs downtown. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED.
The eclectic Blue Moon Cafe at the corner of Princes and High Streets with its health-oriented menu and relaxed vibe is one of the best hangouts in town. Nikon D800, AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED.
The classy Bistro 112 on W German Street downtown will make you think you just drove out of Paris for a quiet meal somewhere at the French countryside. Nikon D800, AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED.

I have to be one of the first to admit that I didn’t know much about historic Shepherdstown, West Virginia before this past weekend.  Didn’t know it was the oldest town in West Virginia, or that it was around this area where a fellow with very little formal education named James Rumsey invented the steamboat and showed the contraption to none other than George Washington himself.  For me, Shepherdstown just sounded like a nice place to spend a long weekend with my cameras while discovering a part of America I had never seen before.  But to say that I was up for a surprise would be an understatement.  Friendly people, beautiful setting, fantastic food, and a relaxed atmosphere that couldn’t be more different than the hectic world that lies a mere couple of hours south at our nation’s capital.  Start your mornings with a down-to-earth breakfast at the incredible Betty’s Restaurant at E German Street, hit the quaint shops downtown while your feet hold up, and then treat yourself and your significant other for lunch at the classy, yet laid-back Bistro 112 down the street.  More shopping in the afternoon or a quick trip  a short 11 miles south to historical Harpers Ferry, followed by drinks and dinner at the Bavarian Inn’s Rathskeller, where the German decor, beer, and food will do wonders for your tourist aches and pains.  All these were great finds, but for me, the greatest revelation this weekend was that places like this continue to exist in America and that the people you meet in such quaint, little towns around the country continue to remind us of the simple work ethic that has made our country great.  It is comforting to know that somewhere, along these scattered, lightly-populated, small towns in America, the heart of a great country continues to beat in silent rhythm for future generations.  You can’t see it, but you can feel it, and that was good enough for me.