Canadians love their all-inclusive resorts. And what’s not to love? There are many destinations to choose from with fabulous beaches and great inclusions.
Sometimes, however, there’s one thing lacking: the opportunity to have a more authentic travel experience by socializing with locals. Just as tourists love Vancouver’s eco-friendly Granville Island Public Market and the rock festival vibe of drum sessions in Montreal’s Mount Royal Park, there are equally fun opportunities to get to mingle with locals under tropical skies.
Your encounter with local culture could be as simple as visiting a supermarket. Marvelling at the picture-perfect pastries in French St. Martin, checking out the eye-watering displays of jalapeño peppers in Mexico, and buying coffee and vanilla in the Dominican Republic all offer a nice little peek into daily life in your host destination.
When you’re planning your next trip, keep an eye out for programs and opportunities that will allow you to hang out with the local population.
Founded in 1968 (when tourism was still a fledgling industry), Meet the People provides a chance for visitors to spend a few hours or even a full day with locals. Visitors and hosts are matched according to their interests (music, gardening, hiking, golf, etc.) or profession (you could meet, say, a fellow doctor or a teacher). You could also just be matched with a host who will take you to a local market, church service or school. This program provides a nice option for both a solo traveller and families who’d like to spend time with a local
family. Even better, there is no cost to you as everyone volunteers their time. You can learn more and register (a few weeks’ advance notice is suggested) at visitjamaica.com.
The Bahamas offers a similar program. People-to-People is a free program that matches like-minded families and individuals with Bahamians. One of my most memorable dinners in Nassau was with a handful of local journalists whom I met through People-to-People. Needless to say, the conversation was as spicy as the food! The program is offered on nine islands, from Nassau to the smaller family islands such as Eleuthera. Find out more at bahamas.com (advance notice is preferred).
Cuba has two unique ways of connecting with local people: you can dine in a Cuban home or stay in a Cuban B&B.
Both concepts have been around for about 20 years, when the Cuban government loosened the rules for would-be entrepreneurs. Today, there are literally hundreds of private homes known as paladares (which means “palates”) where you can
enjoy a three-course meal for $5 to $10 per person (tipping is not expected). “Initially, running a paladar offered Cubans the chance to make a little money while giving visitors the authentic experience of eating in a local home,” Nieves Ricardo of the Cuban Tourist Board told me. “Meals were simple and sign language was the main method of communication.” Today, she says, some are incredibly sophisticated. The food is prepared by chefs who used to work at high-end hotels, the wine lists are impressive and the experience rivals that of any fancy restaurant – complete with uniformed staff.
Because paladares are forever popping up and there are so many, says Ricard, your best bet is to ask your tour operator’s destination rep or concierge for a recommendation. He or she can also arrange round-trip transportation.
Another authentically Cuban experience would be to stay in a casa particular or private home (B&B). As with the paladares, there is a wide range of options (some have private baths, some shared), but at around $25 for a night, it is an affordable way to genuinely connect with Cubans and experience a slice of local life. For more information, visit gocuba.ca.
The Dominican Republic is, of course, another huge destination for Canadians. “Dominicans are by nature very warm and friendly,” says Barbara Polanco, who recently returned to Canada after working in the Dominican Republic for 25 years. “And they love to practise their English!” One great way to meet Dominicans is to take in a baseball game. There are games all over the country and the stadiums in Santo Domingo and Santiago are, says Polanco, state-of-the-art. Many major-league-playing Dominicans go home to compete between mid-December and mid-February. “And the crowds go wild!” Polanco laughs.
“Winning, losing, foul ball or home run: they all go crazy.” Even better, tickets are only about $4 and include lots of on-field entertainment. Visit godominicanrepublic.com to find out more.
To arrange an outing, speak with your tour operator’s rep or the hotel concierge for recommendations. They can also arrange for transportation and give tips on remaining safe and sound – while having a fun time. You never know, hanging out with locals may end up being the highlight of your holiday!