I have never understood the fixation of the mainstream travel press on "hot destinations." For one thing, they're often more like reheated destinations -- Tuscany has a lot to recommend it, but the last time it was underrated it was during the 13th century. Or else they're wild exaggerations -- every year several medium-sized Eastern European cities are pronounced "the new Prague."
I'm not sure travelers actually pay attention to these things. And what would it say about us if we did? Are we so afraid of being alone, or are we so shallow that it is just about following the nightlife? But still we need to find some way of selecting new places, when we're tired of our usual destinations. And there must be someone we can turn to, if not the magazines and the newspaper travel pages.
In my opinion the people to watch are the surfers and the early backpackers. For some reason nature sees fit to put the best waves on the most beautiful and hard-to-find beaches. And the pioneer backpackers don't care about buzz -- when you're sleeping in a hostel you're simply looking for a location with drama, with soul, a place to make some memories.
Of course there comes a point in life when you're no longer in the market for a backpacking adventure. At some point you want a little more comfort, and start looking for the kind of hotel experiences that are Tablet Hotels' specialty. I am talking about hotels which contribute to making a destination memorable - I'll talk about hotels which are destinations in themselves another time.
This is where the issue of timing comes in. All of these magical places start out completely unspoiled -- this is the early backpacking or surfing stage. And eventually, all of these destinations will become victims of their own success -- in the long run they all end up looking roughly like Cancún or the Costa del Sol. In the span of 15 years I have seen Boracay, in the Philippines, change from what felt like my own personal island paradise to an endless expanse of resorts. Playa del Carmen changed from a fishing village, with one bar and one hostel, into a suburb of Cancún. It's probably OK if it's your first time there. After all, Boracay and Playa del Carmen at now "hot" destinations for a good reason ... the party! But if you're back after many years -- and I strongly recommend against doing that -- you'll feel like Bill Murray in Broken Flowers, especially if the bar that you liked so much is still there.
The key is to catch a destination around the time when there's enough traffic to support about three outstanding small hotels -- I don't know why, but three seems to be the magic number. It usually means there is more than one really good local restaurant, and there are just enough intriguing places to keep a smile on your face through the whole trip. (Note: you'll know you're a little behind the curve if you find a place where you can order food from another continent.) These destinations are a long way from becoming "hot" in the traditional sense, and for lack of a better word I call them "sweet" destinations. (If you have a better name, by all means please share it.)
Today, my entry for sweet destinations is Trancoso, a little seaside town in the Brazilian state of Bahia. When I first went to Bahia, Trancoso was not even in Lonely Planet. Now, it has a thriving modern art scene, a bunch of charming little pousadas, and a couple of very well crafted stylish hotels. I'm starting with this one because you have a window of 2, perhaps 3, years before the big hotels start taking a look. The clock is ticking.
What about you? Will you share destinations that fit this description? And while we're at it, what is a better word for them than "sweet?"