Published: May 2009
The quest for the authentic experience is one of the greatest seductions of travel—just look at the ads for resorts and cruise lines promising to transport you to the exotic and the real. But how much authenticity travelers actually want is the question. I'm especially interested in Bob Morris's excellent portrait of "cultural villages" in Zululand, South Africa, where visitors witness "traditional" tribal activities, from fire-dancing to making sorghum beer, stopping short of virginity "testing days" (I will not burden you with a description here). Having just returned from an authentic experience of my own—looking for my mother's family roots in Ukraine—I speak with some knowledge about the considerable rewards of visiting places with an absence of telephone lines, television antennas, and fiber-optic cables. I can recommend not only the hospitality of people who live far removed from modern forms of communication, with all their threatening depictions of strangers, but also these villagers' long memories. Although I would not like to repeat one particular overnight train journey to Kiev—for no more significant reason than the incessant bucking and pitching—I would wholeheartedly enjoy another chunk of Olga's apple cake in her immaculate house behind a barnyard.
Preserving authenticity is a major challenge for destinations as they become increasingly attractive to travelers. In Baja California, the days of finding "more signs of life in the tidal pools than on land," per T+L contributing editor Shane Mitchell, are long gone since John Steinbeck's visit in 1940. But being rooted in time is not necessarily a requirement for the authentic (one can speculate that even new expressions of authenticity—including beaches layered with tourists, à la St.-Tropez—are being spawned every minute). In Miami, as local writer Tom Austin points out, the Latin neighborhoods that grew up in the last half of the 20th century have maintained their flavor in spite of, or maybe because of, the booming hotel development in South Beach—and they've become part of Miami's reality. In a city like Thessaloniki, Greece, described by classicist and contributing editor Daniel Mendelsohn, you see the overlay of civilizations, from ancient Greek to Byzantine to modern, blending genuinely, without the intervention of urban planners.
As far as I'm concerned, there are different types of authenticity for different moments—I don't mind massages under thatched-roof palapas at five-star resorts in the least. But I'm very happy in places that are what they are, and remain so without legions of people like me trooping through.