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Off the Beaten Path: Where Aren't You?

"We've been found," Jean-Pierre Vandelle explained, with an apologetic lifting of the hands. I had finally gotten back to my favorite little-known restaurant—El Olivo, off the Plaza de Cuzco in Madrid—and encountered teeming masses waiting to sample Vandelle's magisterial cuisine.

"People come in with tattered clippings, wanting to experience everything they've read about," Vandelle said. A native of Bordeaux, he long ago fell in love with Spanish olive oil and sherry—not to mention Beatriz Font, now his wife. "Just this week, two American couples nearly came to blows over the table that critic Patricia Wells had raved about in a review."

Off the beaten path, that hoary catchphrase, still describes where a lot of us want to eat, sleep, and travel. But this poses a growing problem: How do you find it?Short of going tilapia fishing in the midst of a Congolese war, or sunbathing topless in Kabul, you can expect a lot of company.

Once, things were easier. Back in 1971, I met a San Francisco travel agent in Tonga. "I'm exploring," he told me. "You can't imagine how many people want to visit a place that they can name-drop without some cocktail-party boor saying, 'Yeah, isn't it great?'" Now the path to Tonga is beaten, big-time. The International Dateline Hotel in Nuku'alofa was booked solid long ago for the millennium.

But, really, it was never all that easy. In 1972, in Indonesia, I heard about a grand finale to a three-year funeral in Tanah Toradja, on the island of Sulawesi. Getting there took me two plane changes, eight hours in a jeep, and a predawn trek. As I moved in to photograph a gruesome buffalo sacrifice, I felt like John Hanning Speke discovering weird rites on the upper Nile. Then a woman's voice trilled behind me: "Monsieur, monsieur…" It seems I was blocking the view of a busload of touring French senior citizens.

These days, when you can direct-dial the Net from Timbuktu and watch your stocks plummet as the sun sets on the Niger, I set my sights a little lower. I'm happy enough to ditch the crowds even if the locale is no more hors-piste than Paris. In big cities the trick is to finesse the timing. For instance, the monster Parisian flea market at Clignancourt is mayhem between breakfast and lunch. But at 5 a.m., when the pros paw over merchandise coming out of vans and car trunks, it's entirely an insider scene. And there's still time to catch the Seine at its best, when pink light plays off water unruffled by boat traffic. Later in the day, all of France offers a window to travelers between 1 and 2:30 p.m. With everyone else at table, get out and meander—if you don't mind locked doors. You can fire a cannon down most city streets at lunchtime without spilling a drop of French blood.

I checked with my traveling pals and found we all follow the same two rules: Ask questions, and go on foot. Interrogate friends who've been where you're going. Plot routes on a map with a local or a lifer who knows every alley. Then follow your nose. That's how you'll find the fresh herring wagon by the Amsterdam train station or the no-name trattoria in Venice that only the neighbors know about.

Discovering escape routes off the beaten path is easier, and usually more fun, when the destination is broader than just a city. Bali, for example. I returned recently, after 25 years, expecting to hate it. Driving out of the airport I passed a sign, antiQues, made to order, and wondered how long I'd last. Everyone had warned me that Kuta Beach—beyond a noxious traffic snarl and restaurant marquees threatening AUSSIE FOOD—is toes to shoulders in pink flesh. They were right: in high season, the Mother Temple had all the charm of a Tokyo subway stop.

But at the Tiing Gading Bungalows in Ubud, manager Gusti of the Serene Smile set me straight. I should have more faith in Shiva, the beloved Destroyer God. Gusti took me to a tranquil little temple in the hills, not far from the Monkey Forest. In the Hindu trinity peculiar to Bali, Gusti explained, Brahma is the Creator God. He made the island and peopled it. Vishnu, the Protector, sees that everyone is well fed and comfortable. And then there is Shiva. "Shiva is the one who makes sure a lot of us die," Gusti explained cheerfully, "so there is plenty for those who are still living."

True enough. Tourism blight and atrocious overdevelopment have destroyed much of the island's southern end. Visitors who fail to get beyond the Denpasar-Sanur-Kuta triangle tend to leave in disgust, warning off others. But for those who take the trouble to find it, the rest is timeless Bali.

As everywhere, a little language knowledge helps. Kuta may no longer be an empty strip of magnificent sand, but satu lagi still brings another beer and a smiling face. Harga orang puteh—loosely, "Yo, don't gimme that ridiculous tourist price"—will usually crack up a jaded Balinese bargainer. And common courtesies—please, thank you, good-bye, and may-your-fighting-cock-triumph-and-your-kids-achieve-nirvana—are, as always, expressed by palms placed together at chest height, and a gentle dip of the head.

Nancy Harmon Jenkins, a Tuscany-based food writer and a terrific traveler, swears by the language rule. "Learn the most simple words, and that opens all the doors," she says. "In northern France, utter five syllables and they'll start to correct you—but that's the exception. Most people are so proud of their culture that if you show interest, they'll take you in hand." It works for Nancy. In minutes, she is usually invited into strangers' homes. Within the hour, she's in the kitchen showing them how to improve pasta or couscous or rendered yak butter.

Nancy also swears by classic guidebooks. Popular new guides are great for hotel phone numbers and such, but the old Guides Bleus and the Italian Touring Club books can tell you where arcane painters stashed their mistresses. With, say, a Michelin Green Guide, all you need is a rental car and time.

And, in the end, so what if the path is beaten?Something must be attracting all those people. Publicity may dilute the undiscovered quotient of a place, but it's seldom a death knell. In the particular case of El Olivo, stand in line for however long it takes. And sit anywhere.

Mort Rosenblum, Paris-based special correspondent for the Associated Press, is the author of Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

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