From Argentina to Adelaide, a band of passionate volunteer tour guides are aching to show you around their hometowns – for free. Deborah Vernon signs up
"Let’s go Dumbo!”
It wasn’t exactly the term of address I’d expected to hear from David, my new best friend – a volunteer city greeter with whom I’d been acquainted for just two hours. Had that high-cal bagel abruptly endowed me with Disneyesque elephant proportions?
“It stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass,” he clarified, melting my momentary mystification, “New York’s newest hot neighbourhood, known for its artist colony and fabulous views.”
Dumbo is barely a frisbee throw from bustling lower Manhattan but its cobbled streets were virtually deserted – even though they afford panoramas of New York’s glittering skyline that would rouse even the most jaded traveller.
Little wonder that this urban backwater has attracted generations of photographers, film directors and fashion stylists. Perhaps that’s why the place felt so familiar even though I’d never been before. But, of course, in a way I had, through the opening shots of a thousand movies. The difference was that this time, thanks to David, I had stepped through the screen onto a bohemian set of speciality stores, art galleries and trendy warehouse conversions.
It was my second day in New York and, as well as cricking my neck at super-structures, I was keen to get off the beaten track and see the city through the eyes of a true New Yorker. After all, meeting the locals is one of the most enjoyable aspects of travel, and provides a healthy dose of reality beyond the reach of brochures and guidebooks.
Our meeting had been arranged by the Big Apple Greeter scheme, a not-for-profit organisation that puts travellers in touch with vetted don’t-call-them-a-tour-guide volunteers who are eager to show visitors around the ’hoods they know and love.
Brooklyn-born David, a retired English teacher, met me at my hotel. Any niggling reservations I’d held about spending time with a complete stranger shifted faster than a roller-skater in Central Park and straight away we were chatting like old friends.
As our morning’s mooch around Greenwich Village unfolded, David revealed his favourite coffee shop, landmarks, confectionery store and shopping street. But most of all it was his recollection of Times Square’s seedy past and his moving personal account of 9/11 that gave me an inkling of what it is to be a New Yorker.
After sharing such intimate information it seemed only natural to spend a couple more hours browsing Brooklyn and Dumbo.
Big Apple Greeter is just one of a raft of dedicated services dotted around the world that help bring independent travellers closer to the people and places they visit. They’re a fabulous – and free – way of getting the inside track on unfamiliar destinations with an instant friend. Whether it’s introducing Chinese tea-drinking rituals or explaining the difference between one sort of sushi and another, this laudable band of volunteers can help you penetrate the heart of a place.
You need to stay within the boundaries of New York’s five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island) for a minimum of two nights to use the Big Apple Greeter service. Submit an online visitor request form around four weeks before arrival, specifying which district you would like to explore, or – if you’re willing to be open-minded – pick Greeter’s Choice; you may be pleasantly surprised.
Film, fashion and Ukrainian American heritage are among the impressive array of special-interest greeter visits offered in Chicago. You’ll receive complimentary public transportation as your city-wise local spends up to four hours sharing their favourite spots. If you’re short on time consider InstaGreeter, a whistle-stop downtown trip that doesn’t require advance notification.
A visit to the world’s largest rodeo, exploring Middle Eastern grocery stores and sampling the local zydeco scene are among the diverse activities offered in Houston. Equally eclectic are the bunch of greeters: an industrial psychologist, retired chemist and a renowned artist feature among the volunteers who promise to show you a Houston beyond the myth of tumbleweed streets.www.houstongreeters.org
Energetic Torontonians are ready, willing and able to show you the hidden nooks and crannies of To, as locals call their hometown. It’s one of the world’s most multicultural cities (about 100 different cultures are represented), so expect local insight into its vibrant neighbourhoods and themed districts. Give the Toronto Ambassador Program at least one week’s notice of your impending visit. www.toronto.ca/tapto
Don’t be surprised if you’re whisked off to your host’s backyard to meet the folks after signing up for Jamaica’s Meet the People programme. Whether you fancy a personalised hometown tour, checking out the reggae scene or baiting ‘the big one’ with a new fishing buddy, the scheme teams you up with a volunteer who shares a common passion. Meet the People can also introduce your little ragamuffins to local playmates.
Discover quarters away from the tourist circuit with an amigo in Buenos Aires. Proud porteños can show you everything from their favourite tango joints to local markets and parrillas (grill-houses).
People-to-People promises to show you another side of life on the islands by linking you up with someone who shares a mutual interest or profession.
You can also arrange for your children to meet their Bahamian counterparts at a local school. For a taste of the island before you even know what a conch fritter looks like, sign up to the pre-visit E-pal programme.
The Association for Independent Tourist Assistance aims to help you ‘discover Japan through different eyes.’ Select a guide from the intriguing online profiles, email your request and await a message from your newfound Japanese friend. Navigating the subway, karaoke, taking a side trip or enjoying a natter over a pot of green tea are just some of the options. Visitors are expected to cover expenses (admission fees, meals, travel costs) but these needn’t be ruinous.
Alternatively, try the Systemized Goodwill Guide Groups. Some offer pre-set walking tours while others concentrate on meeting individual visitor requests.
Mr Ip reveals the finer details of tea-drinking etiquette and Mr Kim Wu shares the secrets of traditional Chinese medicine as part of the Cultural Kaleidoscope programme operated by the Hong Kong Tourism Board. Mooncake-making, Chinese Opera, feng shui and t’ai chi classes also feature.
My favourite is Kung Fu Corner in Kowloon Park where, every Sunday afternoon, locals gather to practise their Jackie Chan moves. It’s a shimmering vision of magenta and turquoise satin, Zen-like focus and precision movement. After the formal sessions, visitors are welcome to join in the fun – satin pyjamas optional. The scheme operates on a first-come first-served basis and many class sizes are limited.
Almost 1,000 volunteers offer a warm welcome to travellers through the Goodwill Guide scheme operated by the Korea Tourism Organization. Expect festival visits, practical information and an insight into your host’s life and locale. They can even help with pre-trip advice and double as interpreters if necessary. Apply ten to 30 days before your trip.
Why pay for a tour of Adelaide’s Central Market – the largest fresh produce market in the Southern Hemisphere – when you can discover nut-studded nougat and rocky road muffins in the company of Rita the Greeter? Give at least three days’ notice.
Melbournians are intensely loyal to their neighbourhoods – and they’re happy to share. Click on ‘Getting around the city’, then ‘Visitor assistance’.
Think you know Paris? Think again. Join a Parisian for the day and you’ll see the City of Light in a new... well, light. Expect stories, sights and secret addresses.
Taking its lead from New York, Thanet has launched the first greeter scheme of its kind in the UK. Get the inside track on life in Ramsgate, Broadstairs, Margate and surrounding villages.