Routes and leaves: See how a series of guidebooks is reimagining offbeat travel

Ojai is a 90-minute drive out of Los Angeles, California. But it’s far from the busy big-city energy of La La Land. Time slows down in Ojai. Tucked in the troughs of the Topatopa Mountains, the city has Spanish casita-style houses and vintage American cars. A blush-pink filter appears magically at sunset.

The five Where To Now guides released so far seek to replicate the experience of revisiting a cherished photo album. (Photos: Zara, Wallpaper*)

The town is home to a bohemian commune of artisans, farmers and makers. It rarely appears on Instagram. Its mystical energy is, however, captured in an 80-page travelogue produced by the London-based Wallpaper* Magazine in collaboration with the fast-fashion label Zara. It is part of a travel series titled, Where To Now. Ojai is among five rather oddball destinations that include Bruton (United Kingdom), Galicia (Spain), Naoshima (Japan) and Namibia.

Produced between 2020 and 2022, the coffee-table books were published in May. At £17.99 each they’re not quite the kind of guides that can be thumbed through with grubby fingers and stuffed into a backpack. But they have a familiar ancestor. For 20 years, Wallpaper*, has been producing pocket-sized City Guides covering destinations such as Prague, Kyoto, Berlin, Edinburgh, Athens, Vienna and Cape Town.

“For this collaboration, Zara wanted to acknowledge that the inspiration for the way that we dress comes from all over the world,” says series editor and London-based travel writer Simon Mills. “We wanted to entertain travellers who are discerning, intrepid, curious, but are sitting in their homes; so, they can travel without moving. It’s aimed at engaging those who like to let travel leave its mark on them, rather than the other way around.”

Working around lockdown restrictions, Wallpaper* editors, based around the world, zeroed in on locations that they’ve loved over the years, and which wouldn’t involve extensive travel. There are no must-do bucket lists. The visuals do most of the talking. Each edition is anchored by an essay by that guide’s editor, walking readers through the location. A flipbook of photographs follows, zooming into little details: a leather studio owner at work in the market town of Bruton; symmetric arches on a façade in Galicia; a granite granary in Combarro, Galicia; artistic number plates on bikes in Tsumuura, Naoshima; a mushroom hawker in Namibia.

The visual storytelling, Mills says, is inspired by Instagram’s influence on the visual nature of travel. “When you travel, it’s the little details — of the road, people you meet, marketplaces — that remain with you. We wanted the guides to hark back to the good old photo albums we all had and kept going back to,” he says.

Every guide also weaves in recommendations from locals, including artists, moteliers, wine bar owners, architects. The locals like oryx or beef fillet in Namibia. The Galicians love boiled octopus and the region’s wine. There’s a playlist to accompany each vicarious trip. There’s even a recipe at the end of the guide. Try pacific halibut aguachile from Ojai, or fig annin tofu from Naoshima. “We live in a world of information overload, so we didn’t want to offer long checklists to readers. We simply wanted to capture a sense of the spaces,” says Mills.

Off the map

In a sense, the books raise and answer the very question that ails travellers today — in a world where everything is constantly mapped and shared, where to now? Chennai-based travel writer Kalpana Sunder says “we’re flooded with videos and posts about different places; the magic of travel lies in a sense of mystery about the place, which is lost.”

Sunder recommends allowing for spontaneity when travelling, especially when a trip can now be planned down to the minute. And tapping into insider knowledge to avoid tourist traps.

Food and travel writer Smitha Menon says locals offer a fresh perspective. “As French novelist Marcel Proust said, the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. For travel that immerses us deeper in the place, we need to see someone’s home from their perspective, and not from the perspective of a content creator who has parachuted in for five days and created five Instagram guides,” she adds.

Last year, Vietnam witnessed a surge of Indian travellers. From January 2019 to mid-May this year, hotel and flight searches by Indian travellers increased 390%, data from travel website Agoda revealed. If Instagram Reels are any indication, most of the visitors crafted identical itineraries, too — cruising in Halong Bay, lighting lanterns in Hanoi, trekking to the Golden Hands Bridge in Da Nang. Menon, on the other hand, went on a cycling trail in rural Vietnam, ate semi-fertilised duck eggs, and drank snake wine.

Sometimes, though, the road less taken might be right under our nose; all we need is to readjust the lens. That’s what Nupur Joshi Thanks, a former lawyer and founder of Paper Planes, which runs an eponymous digital magazine, believes. The Webby People’s Voice Award-winning magazine traces the influence of design in everyday life, including travel. Their popular section, Local Attractions, digs into design that shapes cities, towns and neighbourhoods, while doubling up as a travel guide. Think exploring Goa through the history of oyster shell-encrusted window-panes, or rediscovering Lucknow through onion-shaped domes. “We want to remind people that wherever they go, they can find new experiences in the details around them,” she adds.

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