Going Off the Itinerary and Finding Lifelong Memories

The best travel moments are almost always unplanned. But going off-script often requires risking the most valuable commodity a traveler has: time. We need to give up a sure thing (a major museum, a picturesque waterfall, a buzzed-about bistro) for the unknown (turning down a dirt road, approaching a stranger, stepping through a door).

I travel with a more unwieldy to-do list than most, one that I gather from friends, colleagues, readers, Twitter followers, Web research, travel apps, guidebooks, etc. There’s invariably more on my agenda than I could possibly hope to accomplish.

Yet when someone mentions a place I’ve been to, even if was months or years earlier, without fail the first image my brain churns up — the cover picture on the photo album in my head — doesn’t come from that list. It’s something I saw or someplace I went or someone I met after I summoned the courage to abandon my plans.

The truth is, I wish I did that more often; I often chicken out. But when I do improvise, something amazing always happens. At least, that’s the way it seems. In reality, I’m sure I’ve turned down a lot of dirt roads that led to nowhere and have been blown off by many strangers. Selective memory, I guess.

Luckily, sometimes there’s a real photo to match my memories of a risk that paid off. Here is a selection. Share your off-the-itinerary stories in the comments section below.

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An Adriatic view on the Albanian coast is just one experience found by getting off the planned path.Credit Seth Kugel

1) I was driving a low-end rental car along the mountain roads that skirt the Adriatic, eager to reach the next beach town on the “Albanian Riviera.” But a sign that seemed to point to a monastery down a turnoff caught my eye. I went past it, thought again and, after a U-turn, headed down a rocky road. It soon became too treacherous for my subcompact, so I started walking. Around a curve, the sea came into view far below, and soon I realized the road (by this point more of a path) was descending not toward a monastery but a semicircle of white sand at the mouth of a canyon. It was a perfect beach – and, apparently, all for me. (As it turned out, an Austrian couple had also found it, but I didn’t notice them until I had stripped naked and dived into the water.)

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Credit Seth Kugel

2) At the end of a 41-mile hike along the coast of the far-off Brazilian state of Piauí, I had heard that the only way back to Parnaíba (the regional center),…

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