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Group trips to places like Tiananmen Square can lead to rich experiences.

By Daisann McLane

Can a (shudder) package tour actually deliver an authentic travel experience?

At 6:30 on a Sunday morning I stood in an alley in Guangzhou, China, wearing a bright orange baseball cap. I look really dumb in baseball caps, and orange is my worst color. But my new friend, Mrs. Chu, stuck it on my head with a warning: "You must keep this on so the bus driver and the tour leader can see you easily. Otherwise they may drive off without you! Do you want to be left behind in Jiangmen or Chikan?"

My tour group and I, all 50-odd of us, were waiting expectantly in the alley, munching on the free breakfast provided by the travel agency—a box of soy milk and a puffy white pork bun sealed in cellophane. I would have killed for a coffee, but I knew that at this hour, in a tea-drinking country, I could forget about it. A bus idled at the curb, spewing thick exhaust fumes into the smoggy air of this ancient city once known as Canton, now dubbed the capital of "China's world factory."

The tour leader blew her whistle sharply. The bus doors swung open, and we all pressed forward, scrambling for a seat. Soon I was settling into mine—and into my new role as a "Chinese" tourist.

With China's economy booming, the Chinese have transformed themselves into tourists. China's tourism board estimates that Chinese citizens took more than 1.8 billion domestic trips in 2009. So when I signed on for a Chinese bus tour last winter, I wasn't just going on a day trip. I was joining the world's largest travel community.

As I sat on a bus wearing a silly cap, eating pork buns, and being serenaded by a karaoke-singing tour guide, I had to laugh at myself. Not that many years ago I was so allergic to anything remotely "touristy" that I even refused to carry a camera when I traveled. I kept a list of "not for me" places—popular attractions, neighborhoods, even nations, that I refused to visit because I thought they'd be "too full of tourists." I considered myself a class apart, a traveler, and that meant going places nobody else did, and going, mostly, alone. Tour groups? No way.

Then one summer I was in Slovenia, figuring out what to do with an empty week before my flight back to the U.S. The travel agent at my hotel offered me the last space in a charter group leaving the next day for a mass-market sea resort on a Croatian island. The word "group" made me nervous, but the deal was too sweet to pass up: airfare and a week of hotel and meals for only $200, all-inclusive. I figured if it was awful, I'd bail and still come out ahead on the airfare.

Then I hooked up with Mila, a Slovenian filmmaker who took me under her wing when she saw me, the lone American among a hundred Slovenes, waiting for the charter flight. Mila introduced me to Vlado and Marija and Andrej, and pretty soon I forgot I was on a package tour and got into the Slovenian tourist swing. In the cafés of Brac island, I learned the refrains to old folk songs (one of our fellow tourists, it turns out, was the "Slovenian Bob Dylan") and how to sling back shots of slivovitz, the local firewater. During long afternoons on a pebbly Adriatic beach I got a crash course in the twists of turbulent post-Yugoslavia politics.

"It is not so bad to be tourist, is it?" asked Mila, laughing, at the end of one of those perfect afternoons. She had a point. This trip with the group was more enjoyable—and culturally enlightening—than my earlier, carefully researched solo forays to the area.

My stint on a Slovenian charter holiday forced me to reconsider what had been, till then, one of my basic assumptions about travel: that one should never, under any circumstance, be a "tourist." Playing tourist on another culture's bus is, in fact, a real treat. To experience a place with the people who know it best is about as authentic as travel gets. And it's lots of fun, too.

I'm not about to abandon my solo travels for a lifetime of following guides with bright yellow flags. But now when I travel, especially to countries where tourism is a big part of the culture, I consider putting in time on the bus. During my last trip to Japan I ignored guidebook warnings that Hakone hot springs was touristy, and went.

I'm glad I did, for I would have missed a charming weekend among hundreds of happy Japanese following the well-worn Hakone circuit of walks, cable car rides, and dips in sizzling pools. Trailing alongside families negotiating the steaming paths in the volcanic Owakudani area, I ate the famous black eggs boiled in the sulfurous pools. At each attraction I scoured the gift shop for the best Astro Boy mug, the most perfect Hello Kitty key chain. And, of course, I took pictures of everything and everyone. My tourist day in Hakone was every bit as authentic a Japanese experience to me as a stay in a traditional Kyoto ryokan.

The day on the Chinese bus? Well, to be perfectly honest, it had its ups and downs. The unbelievably cheap price for these tours—$7 for transportation, a guide, and a free lunch—is offset by the commissions from the many roadside stands that the bus stops at along the way. Even without the orange cap I need not have worried about being forgotten in Jiangmen, or Chikan, or at the factory that processed a rare fungus used in medicinal soups. The bus driver waited patiently until every last passenger had purchased something—a handful of sweet dried plums, a brown paper bag filled with farm-fresh cashews. As a result, by the time we reached our tour's advertised destination we had no time left to explore. Stuffed with nuts and sweets, half asleep under our heaps of red plastic bags, few of us cared.

"It was a very good trip," proclaimed Mrs. Chu as we staggered, 12 hours later, back into Guangzhou. "These tours are such a wonderful way to see China."

"Yes, Mrs. Chu," this "Chinese" tourist agreed, "they certainly are."

Contributing editor Daisann McLane sheds light on local ways in distant lands on her blog,

Travel's ultimate thrill may be that one special discovery—and sharing it with kindred souls

So, where are we going for dinner tonight?" I ask. My friend Mariko smiles. "It's a little place. I hope you will like it." We jump into a Toyota taxi with spotless slipcovered seats. Mariko instructs the driver in Japanese, and we zoom off.

I kind of know my way around Tokyo. I can ride the subway without getting lost, and I can tell when I'm in Shinjuku or Asakusa. But not tonight. Two or three turns into a labyrinth of side streets, and I have no idea what neighborhood we are in. Or even if we are still in Tokyo.

"Stop here," Mariko says after a bit. We face a shadowy, empty-looking building illuminated by a dim blue light over the entry door.

Suddenly that door slides open, revealing a warmly lit wood-paneled eatery. A woman in a perfectly wrapped kimono appears, bows, and motions us inside. As we settle ourselves, I notice there are no tables, only a bar. A very, very small bar. I count the seats: One, two, three, four.

That's when I realize what is up. Mariko, a new friend I've made through a mutual acquaintance, is honoring this occasion of our first meeting by presenting me with something special. Something that, as ardent travelers, we both can understand and appreciate, even though we come from very different parts of the world. What Mariko is offering me is the greatest travel gift of all: a secret place.

I've collected secret places since I could crawl—the cabinet under the bathroom sink, the quiet space beneath my bed. Of course my standard for specialness has become a little more sophisticated over the decades; what hasn't changed is the urge to discover marvelous and mysterious nooks around the world that somehow will "belong" to me, finds that I come across spontaneously or after a long and concerted quest.

Most travelers I know share this passion in some form. My friend Laura, for instance, keeps a stack of worn Moleskine books filled with scribbled notes: the address of the tiny café in Budapest where she tasted the ultimate walnut-cream pastry; the telephone number of the unlisted guesthouse in Cartagena, Colombia, where she fell asleep every night to the rolling murmur of the Caribbean sea.

I'm not much of a diarist, so I tend to keep my secret places in my head. To jog my memory, I hold onto pieces of travel ephemera: maps of Ljubljana, menus from restaurants in Shanghai, business cards, café con leche-stained paper napkins that I saved from out-of-the-way Buenos Aires confiterias.

In a world where everyone can—and does—blog about their favorite obscure noodle stall in Macau, collecting secret places may feel sometimes as obsolete as steamship travel. And yet I continue to make discoveries of places unknown to tourists, guidebook writers, and bloggers, and sometimes even to the people who live in the place I'm exploring. The reason: My definition for a "secret place" has an important qualifier. To get a spot on my list a secret place has to be special—to me.

Ko Samui, in Thailand, is a beach resort that is filled with tourists year-round; the Buddhist temple near the center of town is marked on every map. Yet it became my secret place early one morning when I wandered in and noticed, off to the side of the main altar, a device that looked like a pinball machine. Its main feature was an electrically illuminated statue of Buddha inside the glass case.

I stood in wonder before this pinball Buddha, then noticed a coin slot that read "10 Baht." I had some Thai change in my pocket, so I dropped a 10-baht coin in the slot. Instantly the Buddha's eyes began flashing red, blue, and green as a recorded voice thundered forth in rapid-fire Thai. Then, in a frenzy of flashing, whizzing, and whirring, the machine spit out a piece of paper: my fortune.

What did it say? That remains secret (even to me—most of the text is in Thai). But the next time any friends of mine go to Ko Samui they will certainly be carrying directions to my special pinball Buddha, along with operating instructions. Once you've found that secret place and added it to your collection, there is only one thing you can do to make the experience of it even better: Share it with special friends.

Tokyo is practically ground zero for secret places. There seems to be something about Japanese culture that maintains, even safeguards, a reverence for the hidden, for the spontaneous discovery. At Mariko's secret restaurant, we—along with the lucky patrons in those other two seats—eat one of the best meals I have ever had: course after course of the freshest fish, followed by servings of exquisitely shaped and perfectly steamed vegetables that I'd never heard of. The chef personally presents and explains each dish to Mariko, his regular customer.

Full of heady sake and delight, I ask Mariko if the restaurant has a business card, so I will be able to find it again some day. She laughs.

"It doesn't even have a name."

This secret place, I realize, "belongs" to her. Her traveler's gift is not the place itself, but the sharing of it with me, a like-minded new friend.

Contributing editor Daisann McLane sheds light on local ways in distant lands on her blog, www.therealtravelblog.com.

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