At first sight, the concept of 'high season' seems easy enough to grasp. Surely, we think, it must be the best time to visit a place. Then we look a little closer and realize that this is far from invariably the case: that often, in fact, 'out of season' can be a lot more agreeable, with fewer crowds, lower prices, and even, in many places, better weather.
At bottom, there are two things that define 'high season' and 'out of season' (and, if it exists, the intermediate 'shoulder season'). One is, indeed, the weather, though our 1910 Malta (A&C Black) says, 'The season generally lasts from November to March . . . In Valetta, the English visitor may obtain good apartments and the best living, perhaps in the palace of some long-forgotten knight, at little more than the expense of a Bloomsbury boarding-house'. In those days, the rich went south to escape the rigours of a Northern European winter, and 'the season' in the south of France never encroached upon the summer until the 1920s.
This illustrates the other factor, usually far more important, which is when people take time off from work: their holidays. Or, in American, 'vacations', though historically this applies only to universities, possibly schools, and the law courts, the premises of which are periodically 'vacated', hence 'vacation'. Then again, a holiday is in origin a 'holy day' and that doesn't bear close examination either.
Semantic considerations aside, the concept (and timing) of a 'summer holiday' arose in three ways. One came with the rise of universal compulsory education. Children were still needed at harvest time, when everyone was working as hard as possible, so the long summer vacation became firmly implanted. The second was that in the industrializing countries of Northern and Western Europe, many people took their holidays at home. As the summer was (and is) the only time of the year that is reasonably reliably warm and dry, and thus suitable for relaxation, in those climes, this was a natural time to take one's holidays. The third was that in Southern Europe (and indeed much of the United States), there was not a great deal to do once the harvest was in, and that often, it was too hot to work anyway.
A further advantage of taking one's holidays in the summer is that the days are longer. On the other hand, given that sunrise and sunset are often the most beautiful times of day, we see certain advantages in a sunrise that does not arrive too early for us to get out of bed, and a sunset that arrives before we are tired out. Also, if you are spending your time in towns and (especially) cities, the evening may be the most interesting time of day.
Admittedly it is increasingly fashionable (and practicable) for Europeans in particular to take more than one holiday way from home in each year, though Americans normally have far less time off and are therefore much more constrained. But if you don't have to travel at the conventional times -- for Americans, between Labor Day and Memorial Day, plus the Christmas holidays -- you can often get to more interesting places, more easily, and enjoy yourself more.
There is also a separate article about how to adapt short-notice package tours to semi-adventurous travel.
Ejea de los Caballeros.
The mass-migration aspect of holidays is perhaps seen most clearly in France, where basically, most of the country takes August off. Then, the vast majority of the people you see in Paris are tourists (mostly Americans) and those whose livelihoods depend on fleecing those tourists. Yes, there is a skeleton service of police, firemen and the like, but even they take the month off if they can. Then in September comes la rentrée, the 're-entry' or going back to work and to school.
This well illustrates the double-edged nature of 'the season'. In rural France, August is indeed The Season, as every gite (holiday let), chambre d'hote, camping site and caravan park and hotel is jammed solid at peak prices. In Paris, it is only 'high season' because so many tourists fail to realize that it is possibly the worst time of year to go there.
Or take Malta. August is vile. It is stinking hot, and the island is stiff with pale northern Europeans on package holidays, trying to get sunburned and staying in hotels that have much of the attraction of cattle feed lots. And yet, this is 'high season' because so many people take their holidays then -- especially if they have children, and are constrained by school holidays. The same is true of coastal Spain, Southern Portugal, much of Greece, and indeed the greater part of the Mediterranean basin, and things are often made worse because the drink is a lot cheaper than in northern Europe, and a distressing number of northern Europeans (especially the younger ones) tip it down as if there is no tomorrow.
Easter and Christmas are the other peaks, not so much because there are huge numbers of Christians desperate to celebrate the holiest and second-holiest days in their religious calendar, but because those are the times that people have off. Even in non-Christian lands, these can be important times, partly because of the influx of Christian tourists, partly because Christians take time off anyway, and partly because everyone likes a bit of time off. Another factor is that Christmas tends to mark the beginning of the skiing season in most countries, while Easter marks the end. Much before, or much after, there is not enough snow at most ski resorts to render skiing feasible.
Of course there are other peaks in other countries -- Japan's 'Golden Week', or various Hindu festivals in India, for example -- but precisely because they are confined to one country, their impact on world-wide travel is limited. There are also small local peaks that seem inexplicable until you realise (for example) that a school half-term can double prices for that week-end as compared with the week-end either side.
This is mostly a site about Europe, though there are also sections on India, the United States and China. The site is likely to be of most use to fellow-Europeans visiting Europe; to non-Europeans visiting Europe; to visitors to India; and to those who want to drive across the United States, or visit certain specific areas, most notably Civil War battlefields.
Throughout most of the world, and most certainly in Europe, the spring is the most agreeable time. It is a matter of personal preference whether you go for the cooler, earlier spring, when everything is fresh and new and the winter is a recent memory, or the warmer, later spring with its more reliable sun; but few, surely, would find the spring disagreeable.
Likewise Autumn, the 'season of mists and mellow fuitfulness', can be a wonderful time to travel. The German Goldener Oktober is not totally reliable -- it can be cold and rainy in Oktober, too -- but September is often one of the best months in most of Europe, and the further south you go, the better your chances of good weather. We have reported elsewhere how in November 2007 we cut a trip short because the weather was too good: perfect sunny days and gorgeous locations, so that after 10 days we had all the pictures we wanted and were ready to go home, despite having originally planned to be away for 14 days.
There is an enormous difference between the seasons as they exist, and the seasons as they are labelled on the calendar. Indeed, Roger was never really aware of the idea of calendar seasons until we were married, and learned that Frances had been taught that January, February and March were winter; April, May and June, spring; July, August and September, summer; and October, November, December, autumn. This struck him as patent nonsense. Slip them by a month (Dec/Jan/Feb winter, Mar/Apr/May spring, June/July/Aug summer, Sept/Oct/Nov autumn) and they may make slightly more sense, but only slightly: spring comes a lot earlier in Rhodes than in Scotland, and while November is pretty wintry in most of northern Europe, it can be delightful in the south.
We have a wonderful book called The World Weather Guide from The Times Books and we would recommend that you find something similar. You can see from the state of our copy, below right, that it is much consulted.
There is at least one other book that is even better, in that it gives hours of sunshine as well as temperature maxima and minima and rainfall figures for each month, but unfortunately we do not know what it is called (we consulted it several times in a library and then moved away without ever writing down the title or publication data). Or, of course, you can find similar figures on the web, though you need to cast a jaundiced eye over them for accuracy: some seem to owe as much to the local Chamber of Commerce as to actual weather statistics.
Look at weather statistics, and you will see that often, the peak season (in the sense of the most expensive) is far from the best weather: you will have at least as much sun, and quite possibly more agreeable temperatures, either side of the peak.
What is less immediately obvious is that 'iffy' weather, where you take your chances, can often be the most beautiful. Blue skies every day are delightful, but there is something magical too about a spring day when a rainstorm rips through in an hour or less, and the rest of the day is bright, sunny and fresh-washed, and the air is especially sweet-smelling. Likewise in autumn. Even an overcast day can have its own magic, kicking through drifts of leaves, smelling the leaf-mould and the smoke of the first fires.
Minas de Cobre, Santos Domingos, Portugal.
Nor is it a question only of variety on the trip itself. Go far enough from home, and the chances are that the weather will be very different from where you live. We sometimes go to the mountains in winter, not to ski -- neither of us has the slightest interest in it, though when Frances was a girl she used to ski cross-country in upstate New York -- but simply because snow, bitter cold and blue skies can be a welcome change from overcast winter skies, the sort of thing that Bill Bryson memorably described as being like living under Tupperware.
One problem with out-of-season travel is that hotels and restaurants may not be open. Once in the French Pyrenees we ate in a pizza parlour twice in three days (they were very good pizzas). On our second visit, we learned from a couple that we met there (and who lived in the town) that it would be closing the following week for the winter, not re-opening until the spring. One of the three hotels in the town was already in winter hibernation, with its associated restaurant, and although the hotel where we stayed was very good value as far as the rooms were concerned, the restaurant was rather more expensive than we usually care for.
You can never tell, though. The cheaper restaurants will close if they rely on tourists for their revenue, but not if they rely on the locals. In Ejea de los Caballeros in Spain we were caught out in November when we returned to an excellent restaurant to discover that they had just switched to their winter schedule and would only be open at week-ends. So we went to a rather less dignified establishment that catered mainly to younger locals and had a superb meal at maybe half the price.
It is however very likely that a lot of tourist attractions will be closed, or operating restricted opening hours, once you are well away from the peak season. Usually this doesn't matter to us, but sometimes there are castles or museums or other things that we would have liked to see, but cannot. A good example is Hungarian spas, many of which operate only from May to September or thereabout, though there are plenty of others that are open all year.
Attic, Chateau de Berrie
If you have a clear idea of where you are going, you can usually find a web-site for the attraction itself, or for a local tourist board or chamber of commerce, that will tell you when they are open. If not; well, that's part of the down-side of semi-adventurous travel, if you want to do it too far out of season. Though if we get around to it, we hope to do a reasonably comprehensive article on Hungarian spas, complete with hours of opening. Click the link and you'll get an abbreviated version of what we hope to deliver eventually.
We know this sounds a bit weak to lump together the rest of the world, mainly because it is. All we can do is apologize. Although between us and together we have lived in the United States for many years (Frances for almost 40, Roger for 5), we have have spent comparatively little time travelling in most of the country except California and some of the Civil War battlefields (coming soon), though we have driven across the country seven times. Once again, the weather guides tell you a lot.
Mexico and Florida, being sub-tropical (and indeed tropical too in Mexico's case), are rarely cold; in Mexico, a very great deal depends on altitude.
Most of India is ideal in December, January, February and even March, but even in March the lowlands can begin to heat up (though you can still get snow as low as 2000m, 6600 feet, in the Himalayas in March) and from then on it just goes on getting hotter until the burst of the monsoon. In some ways the monsoon season is quite fascinating -- very heavy rain, interspersed with bright sun -- but it is very humid and nothing ever dries out properly, so we prefer to wait until the end of the monsoon.
Actually, we have only been to the north of India during the monsoon (late May/early June to October); in the south, the heavy rains of the monsoon fall from October to early December, but reputedly it is still very humid from June onwards.
Roger on the Enfield Bullet.
Apart from that, we've not been to many places. Roger lived in Bermuda in his 'teens and he went to Libya as a boy. Together, we spent a few weeks in China. That's about it. When we started this site, in 2008, we were flying less than we used to -- not through fear of terrorism, but because it is too much hassle -- and we had resigned ourself to the likelihood that there were many places we would probably never see, even though we would like to (the South Seas for Roger, South America for Frances), and other places we would probably never see again, simply because of constraints of time or money. And, for that matter, the fact that there are a lot of places we do want to go, and will go, that are less hassle, less expensive, and in many cases at least as much fun.
Crowds are for the most part anathema to the semi-adventurous traveller. So, as a general rule, are high prices. A good part of semi-adventurous travel is 'sweat equity', a combination of intelligent research, independent thinking and getting off the beaten path, as distinct from just buying a trip off the shelf.
The one time when you may want to be part of a crowd, though, is during some kind of festival or gathering. Easter in many Catholic countries can be fascinating; Roger once went to Tso.Pema (Rewalsar) in the Himalayas for the Guru Rinpoche (Padmasmabhava) festival; we once spent a few days by accident at the Theatre Festival in Avignon; we often attend the Rencontres Photographiques at Arles; Festa San Giuzepp in Malta (Frances's birthday) used to be great until the sheer weight of tourists overwhelmed the local religious festival; and the only things that have stopped us attending more Lhasa Uprising Days (March 10th, the Tibetan national day in exile) are lack of funds and (latterly) the hassle of obtaining Indian visas.
Whether for historical or religious reasons, many such gatherings fall 'out of season', and, of course, there are plenty of newer, secular festivals that are deliberately set 'out of season' in order to bring people in at what might otherwise be a slow time of year. The result is, yes, high prices and crowds.
An important thing to remember at such events is that many of the people are there because they are passionate about whatever it is that brings them together, be it religion or national sentiment on the one hand, or theatre or photography on the other. If you are just dropping in because you think it might be interesting or (worse still) picturesque, you have two potential problems.
The lesser problem is that you will find it boring. Unless you understand why people are there, and respect their passion (even if it seems silly to you, such as a photography festival), you may simply miss the point.
The greater problem is that you may offend people who are there for something they believe to be important and who see that you are not really interested: you think it's quaint, or photogenic, or whatever. Of course there is a mirror image to that, which is that you are so worried about offending them that you don't enjoy yourself. Either way, it is worth thinking hard about it.
It is also worth remembering that very often, the carnival atmosphere which prevails at such gatherings is to a large extent independent of the actual reason for the event, so most people are pretty relaxed and open. If you are the same way, you may be surprised at what you can be sucked into. We were welcomed to a Jain religious festival in Mulund just outside Bombay (Mumbai), where we happened to be as part of a factory visit to an Indian photographic manufacturer; we picked up an entire troupe of Transylvanian folk-dancers and singers at a folk festival in Hungary (and subsequently ended up at a student-style party in Romania at the invitation of one of them); and at a Tibetan wedding in the south of India we were reminded of the old saying that some people can pour you a heaped glass. Then there was the fiesta in Spain where Roger ended up photographing some teenage girl dancers at about two in the morning. The local boys must have been a spoiled crew: as Roger said to the girls, if he'd been a local teenage boy, he'd certainly have been there to talk to them!
Red saree on the Ganges
The real problem with special events -- even quite small ones, like the fiesta in Spain -- is that you usually have to book well in advance, or there will be no rooms available. We did not know about the fiesta -- all the villages for miles around shared the same patron saint, and had their fiesta on the same week-end -- and we had therefore been wondering why we couldn't find a room. Eventually we found one, for one night, and had to move the next day to another hotel.
A still worse example of the same thing, and the only time we had to sleep in the car, was in Florida during one of the big race weeks at Daytona. If we had checked the web-sites of either local tourist board, we should have been warned. With Daytona, there was no real excuse: we simply didn't think of it. With Isaba, we were just wandering and didn't really know where we would end up anyway.
There is more about this sort of thing in the article about doing your research before you go.
Most of our travelling is done out of season. Partly this is because the weather is often better, at least in the places we like to go (mostly Southern and Central Europe). Partly it is because we travel as much as we can afford and you couldn't fit it all in during 'the season'. Partly it's because it's a lot cheaper, so we can affort to travel more out of season than in. Partly it's because we live in la France profonde, so August really is the season with a lot of parties given by friends who are here for the month and are relaxing and enjoying themselves. Partly it's because we don't like crowds, though quite honestly, it's hard to imagine big crowds in some of the places we like anyway. Add together all these parts, and you have the simple truth that we find it vastly more enjoyable and (which matters more to us than to most) vastly more photogenic.
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© 2008 Roger W. Hicks