Elizabeth HansenElizabeth Hansen discovered that the Third World and the Four Seasons Hotels are not mutually exclusive. The writer, photographer and consultant helps luxury travelers plan custom itineraries that are off the beaten path without sacrificing comfort and convenience.

I spoke with Elizabeth about becoming a professional scribe, ‘glamping’ in Zambia, exploring an exclusive New Zealand farm and more. This is a transcript of the interview first aired on The Gathering Road podcast on the Womens Radio Network. You can also listen here:

How did you become a traveler?

My first job out of college was teaching school and I had long, lovely holidays – two weeks at Christmas and three months in the summer. My inclination was to use them to travel. I found immediately that I was more interested in the people that I met along the road than the specific tourist highlights and landmarks.  That’s been my nature all along. I have a natural inclination to want to know what makes people tick, so eventually I was able to stop being a teacher and hit the road as a travel writer. Now I’ve written travel guide books and for lots of travel magazines. I’m the Travel Editor of Ranch and Coast magazine in San Diego and I have three travel blogs. I’m really busy.

Your love of travel and people has led you to found Authentic Luxury Travel. How do you define that?

It’s really about traveling to a new destination, which could be a hundred miles away or on the other side of the world, and wanting to meet local people, wanting to experience their culture, wanting to understand what makes them tick and perhaps learn something about their culture that you can bring home and integrate into your own life. Maybe just understanding why they do things a certain way based on their history and cultural patterns. I think that Authentic Luxury Travel is about traveling without discomfort. It may involve five star hotels. It may involve some really nice meals but it’s really luxury travel with an emphasis on meeting local people and understanding their culture.

And not perhaps staying in the American chain hotels or eating at American style restaurants?

Yes. I think that the cookie cutter hotels don’t have a lot to offer Authentic Luxury Travelers. I try to steer my readers to boutique hotels. For instance in New Zealand, there’s some beautiful farm stays that have been in one family for three to five generations and they’re gorgeous farmhouses with oriental rugs, crystal chandeliers and grand pianos. You can stay in your own suite with your own bathroom on a farm in New Zealand and learn from the backbone of the country.

Is the research for this kind of travel much more difficult?

I think it is. I’ve never been a backpacker. I’ve always wanted my creature comforts on the road and I’ve always been really interested in meeting people. You can sign up and go on a two week bus tour of any country in the world, but you won’t have a personalized, customized experience and you won’t have any opportunity for spontaneity. The true luxury for Authentic Luxury Travel is the opportunity for spontaneity, to get to a place and say ‘Wow, I didn’t know I was going to like it here so much and I’m going to stay three days instead of one, or being able to customize your itinerary around your own interests. On a package tour you’re really committed to the highlights, the tourist traps, the landmarks.

What’s one of your favorite places in terms of being a luxury traveler?

I really do love New Zealand. I’ve lived there and it’s one of my very favorite places to visit. I just keep discovering. I went to Zambia a few years ago, I had no expectations but I wanted to go to wildlife preserves and national parks. Some places in Africa are less safe than Zambia, which is a really good place to visit for lots of reasons.

I found in Zambia that you could get off the beaten path easily and I really like to do that. In Zambia they haven’t had a decade’s long tourist industry that has created cookie cutter properties. For instance, we went to Victoria Falls which is, I guess, the highlight of a lot of people’s trips to Zambia. It was not in fact our highlight. We preferred being out with the animals in Victoria Falls, in Livingston, on the Zambezi River. We stayed at the Tongabezi River Lodge, where we heard hippos in the river at night. We had to be careful not to leave our toothpaste out because the monkeys would get into our room and eat anything sweet.  We had this wonderful, authentic experience even though we were near Victoria Falls which is a huge tourist attraction. One day, just to see what it was like, we went to the big, Royal Livingston hotel. It could’ve been anywhere – Las Vegas, Hawaii or Palm Springs. Everybody was sitting around the pool drinking Margaritas. It was such a night and day experience for me. I was so glad to get back to the Tongabezi River Lodge and go to sleep listening to the hippos in the river and not the Mariachi band.

Sometimes leaving the comfort of home can be challenging. How would you encourage someone to try the kind of travel you specialize in?

For one thing there’s nothing like a good guide book. I wrote about ten or twelve books in the Frommers Guide book series and I’m not saying that’s the only one to buy, but equip yourself with a good guide book and read it from cover to cover. The more knowledge you have the more confidence you’ll have. There’s tons of websites like Trip Advisor to study. I also support reading historical novels that are set in a country to get a sense of place, so when you get off a plane and see things you know what’s happening and how it fits in with the culture. Go to Netflix and look for movies that are set in your destination. The more knowledge and familiarity you have with a place the less anxiety you’ll encounter there.

There seems to be a trend to have an experience in the places you visit. Is this something you’ve seen developing?

I think it’s really funny. I just read a report from the United States Tour Operation where they were talking about the 2012 trends and how everybody wants the E factor. I was reading this wondering what the E factor is. About the third paragraph down they explained that everyone wants the experience of a place. Travelers don’t want to sit on a tour bus. They don’t want to go on a cruise going from port to port and not meeting any local people. They don’t want to be in a self contained resort where you never go outside and into the local community. For me I wondered why is there any other reason to travel.

One of the first travel stories that I sold was to the LA Times. It was called, Going to China, Go for a Walk. This was in the early 80’s when all tourism to China was run by the government and you had to be part of a tour group. My story was about how to escape from your tour group and walk down alleys and little side streets. Maybe it was charades, but I suggested that travelers have conversations with local people. See how families live and interact. In those days the party line was we’re a communist country, we don’t have any free enterprise here. We’re all working in communes. But every time you went around a corner, you’d see some woman with a sewing machine where she was making a few coins by sewing for people. There was one man I remember with a table in front of his house and he had about half a dozen books laid out. People could come put a coin in his hand, pull up a stool and read for a few minutes, so he was basically a paid lending library. I could see that free enterprise was right around the corner but at that time, the party line was – you wear a Mao suit and ride a bicycle everywhere.

There was a lot of reaction to the LA Times piece because people said that going away from your tour group was fool hardy or something. I’ve always wanted to find out what makes people tick and you don’t find that looking out the window of a tour bus.

You almost missed your calling and should’ve been an anthropologist!

Actually, if I were going to school today I’d probably major in cultural anthropology. I think that getting to meet people and experience other cultures is ultimately going to create a safer, global community. It’s very difficult once you’ve shared a handshake, a glass of wine or a cup of tea with people to go ahead and hate that country. I think that Authentic Luxury Travel is ultimately really good for the world, because when people experience foreign cultures and realize how we’re all very basically alike; it’s wonderful for the global community. The other thing that happens when you have a spontaneous itinerary and you want to make a difference, you can.

When we were in Costa Rica, we had a car and a driver. We were going down a highway one day and I saw all these kids at school. As a former elementary school teacher I asked our driver if we could possibly stop. He said that if we passed a school where the kids were at recess, he’d stop, but he wouldn’t interrupt any classes. I thought that was a good idea so we found an elementary school with the kids outside and asked the head master if we could visit. I speak a little Spanish and some of the kids practiced their English with me as we sat on the floor in a classroom communicating. On the way out I asked the head master if there was anything I could do for her school and she explained that they had a long distance learning program that some of the older kids were doing by computer but all the computers were broken.  She told me how much it would cost to get one of the computers fixed and I was so happy to give her the money. For Americans in a third world country, our money goes so far.

Authentic Luxury Travel can help create a larger global community and make a difference in the developing world. Now whenever I’m going to Africa or any developing country, I pick up fifteen dollars worth of crayons, notebooks, erasers and pencil sharpeners. I just throw them in my suitcase and because I can travel more spontaneously, I often go in to visit with school teachers and give them whatever I’ve brought with me. I just think that Alternative Luxury Travel can put money in the hands of the providers as opposed to some big international tour operator.  I don’t want to go to some third world country and stay at some foreign owned hotel and have that money go to an affluent nation.  I want to contribute to the country.

If people want to find out more how do they find you?

www.ElizabethHansen.net is my website. On that site are links to all three of my blogs. I’m also easy to find on Facebook and Linked In.

You’re really a citizen of the world. Thanks for joining us.

Copyright 2012, Elaine J. Masters, travel writer, award-winning author of Drivetime Yoga and Flytime Yoga books, audio and other travel ease products. Get where you’re going feeling great!