Bathing and nothingness: Druskininkai, Lithuania
The great joy of thumbing through travel guides is reading about the places tourists avoid. I'm not talking about off-the-beaten-track islands with pristine sands, but those perfectly ordinary places without a gallery or landmark between them. You can practically see the travel writer's sweat beading on their brow as they muster up phrases like "hidden charm", "busy transport hub" or "shaking off old perceptions" to justify including these humdrum towns between pages on glamorous capital cities and remote ecotourist yurt sites. You'll spot these destinations by the sparse "Things to do" section, which will be padded out with galleries that are really carpet shops, and a good long paragraph on that charming rusty fountain in the main square (cameras out, quick!).
But look past the strained prose kindly advising that the town "needs no more than a day to do it justice". (That's writer-speak for "there's one cafe, one bus stop, and a museum of postage stamps that opens every first Tuesday of the month. And you'll need to knock on a crabby old babushka's shutters to gain access.") When there's nothing touristy to do, you can't help but find what the locals get up to and get a glimpse into their world.
My favourite unsung gem this year is Druskininkai, Lithuania. Lonely Planet opines cheerfully that the city is "shedding its fusty old grey-haired image". The grand total of two readers who have clicked "like" on that destination page must be thrilled by this endorsement. But while grey hairs, and grey buildings, were in plentiful supply during my visit, the waterside views of this nondescript city are stunning, and its long-standing status as a spa town has given it a luxuriant life beneath the shabby skyline. While it is seldom on the travel wishlist of non-Lithuanians, Druskininkai's mighty waterpark is a neon palace of waterslides, saunas and whirlpools. That hearty practice of sauna birch flagellation is meted out with gusto, and the poolside bar seems to be a mecca for lovers and gossips. And I can vouch for the buoyancy of the floating cocktail cups -- easy to let them slip after a gin or two (hic), so the innovation was appreciated.
The fewer the must-sees, the better the people-watching. And while we all pretend that eight hours admiring classical sculptures in the Louvre is the very reason we jet overseas, who doesn't enjoy a free pass to rekindle the childhood pleasures of an entire day of waterslides? Don't obey the guidebook top ten, just dive in!