5 Reasons Why Voluntourism Should Be The Way You Spend Your Next Vacation

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5 Reasons Why Voluntourism Should Be The Way You Spend Your Next Vacation

Voluntourism, for those of you who haven't heard of it, is a combination of volunteering and touring; the idea being that while you're traveling wherever you may be traveling, you also take the opportunity to invest time, energy, and volunteer hours into doing a bit of good in said location. Because while it's certainly easy to spend tourist dollars at local establishments, it's often more meaningful and effective — to both you and the community you're helping to serve — to connect on a one-on-one, grass-roots level. I had the chance to do just that when I visited the San Juan Islands (Orcas Island is one of them) off the coast of Washington for one of their annual state park clean-up volunteer weekends. But before we get to that, let me hit you with a bit of trivia about the San Juan Islands and San Juan County, in general:

  • There are no traffic lights anywhere on the islands. People hardly even honk.
  • The San Juan Islands are just a 30-minute seaplane flight from Seattle or a scenic ride on a Washington State Ferry (I opted for the ferry by picking up a rental car from Seattle-Tacoma Airport and driving the 1.5-2hr drive to Anacortes).
  • San Juan County is the first county in the country to ban jet-skis.
  • Washington State Ferries is the largest ferry system in the U.S. and also connects the Islands to Canada.
  • San Juan County has more marine shoreline (and yes, orca whale watching, the Orcas Island name is a coincidence!)— than any other county in the country.
  • San Juan County is highly ranked nationally and statewide for quality of life, longevity, physical and mental health, according to recent national studies.

The weekend I visited was the 'Friends Of Moran State Park Annual Clean-Up,' an all-day volunteer event with the purpose of cleaning up areas of Moran State Park — the fourth largest state park in Washington State — that were hit hardest by winter storms. Think: raking, clearing branches, scooping, dumping, etc; basically a good ole' backyard clean-up ... but imagine a backyard that's really, really big. 


A post shared by @travelingbearcat on Apr 17, 2019 at 7:54pm PDT

The day of the event, which is one of two major volunteer opportunities on Orcas Island, was windy, blustery, and rainy — not exactly ideal conditions for manual labor, but nonetheless, our dedicated group persevered (no weather would stop us!) and put a major dent into restoring the extremely special Moran State Park into its pre-storm condition. By the end, we may have looked worse for the wear, but the park sure didn't. My entire visit to the Orcas Island was something out of a storybook — there's a reason locals steer tourists away from coming here; they don't want to give away the secret! — but my time spent bonding with the community in an event that benefitted the entire island was undisputedly the highlight. Here are a few more reasons to consider voluntourism for your next vacation, whether it be on the San Juan Islands or somewhere else in the world — there's almost always a need for a helping hand.

1. It broadens your worldview. 

They say all travel broadens your worldview, and I suppose that's fair, but there's something vastly different about checking off various Instagrammable locales and taking the requisite selfie vs. getting your hands dirty (and nowhere near the forward-facing camera) to make a positive change, no matter how small.

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2. The best way to understand and appreciate a place is to experience it. 

Unique experiences are something we all seek when we travel. Voluntourism certainly gives you that — but the beauty is that it doubles as a gift to those who've generously welcomed you into the place they call home. 

3. It may inspire you to volunteer long-term or at home.

Perhaps voluntourism sparks a newfound interest or purpose that you take home with you. What a win for your local community — and yourself, too.

4. It feels more purposeful and fulfilling.

Traveling is often about you, even though we may not want to admit it to ourselves. There's nothing wrong or shameful about serving our own needs, finding the best food, the best photo spots,  and seeking out activities to appease and enjoy ourselves — in fact, it's half the fun of traveling! But if you can somehow balance your inner 'me, me, me' with time spent beyond thinking about more than the next meal you'll be devouring, you'll leave feeling that not only you visited somewhere, but you contributed — and at the risk of being cheesy, that's a one-of-a-kind souvenir. 

5. It allows you to become part of the community.

One of the best parts of voluntourism is the chance to meet and chat with the local community. As a tourist, we all try to imagine what it might be like to live in the particular place you're visiting. But guess what? You don't have to imagine when you meet people who are actually doing it! I had the chance to talk with a few very kind people who call the Orcas their home; having a first-hand conversation allowed me to both confirm and shatter any illusions I may have had coming in. I got the real story and SPOILER ALERT: It's a good one; the folks who call Orcas home love their island and are fiercely protective of it. The point being: You don't truly know a place, even if you've done all the online research in the world until you've struck up a conversation with someone who does.

Have I convinced you yet? Hopefully so. Should you decide voluntourism is for you (and I hope it is!) and plan a visit to the Orcas Island, here are a few more things to do/see/eat while you're there:

RELATED: 15 Travel Quotes To Appease Your Wanderlust & Inspire You To Go On An Adventure

1. Pebble Cove Farm  

This waterfront inn and organic farm are situated on four beautiful acres overlooking a private, peaceful cove. That's the website's description — but it doesn't do it justice. The farm is more like Narnia. Early hints come from the sign adorned next to the welcome gate: 'Please press the button after you pass gate. Our pony likes to escape!' Yes, the farm is home not only to Buddy, a senior pony, but also to Herman and Bernie, two mini Juliana pigs, and a menagerie of other farm animals. All the animals are rescues — and incredibly friendly and happy to greet visitors. You're welcome to feed them or just watch them graze and wander the property while you sip sparkling cider (provided en-suite, along with other local goodies) from the hot tub overlooking the water. It's quite surreal to share a space with such beautiful, free-range creatures. 


A post shared by @travelingbearcat on Apr 17, 2019 at 7:57pm PDT


A post shared by @travelingbearcat on Apr 17, 2019 at 7:59pm PDT

In addition to the magical animals — and magical is truly the only way to describe Pebble Cove Farm — the owners, Lydia and John (who are lovely by the way, and bought the property in 2004, transforming it from an abandoned barn into a contemporary farmhouse) are committed to an eco-friendly, organic lifestyle that's quite commendable: Guests are encouraged to feed food scraps to the goats and chickens instead of trashing them and the entire farm abides by the following: no pesticides or chemicals; natural, non-toxic toiletries; organic grain for the animals, organic and fair-trade food, and recycling and composting.


A post shared by @travelingbearcat on Apr 21, 2019 at 8:10am PDT

(Pebble Cove Farm, rates vary per season)

2. Island Hoppin' Brewery

Island Hoppin’ Brewery produces quality beers using only the best ingredients on Orcas Island. I tried the taster flight — no turbulence, smooth as can be — paired with Willapa Hills pickled-pepper cream cheese. The whole vibe is low-key, casual, and cozy. And if you ask nicely (and if the brew schedule allows), they'll be happy to give you a quick tour. If not, the bartenders are friendly, welcoming, and eager to chat about beer, the brewing process, or what it's like living on Orcas.

(Island Hopping Brewery)

3. Doe Bay Café

The waterfront Doe Bay Café is dedicated to celebrating the unique seasonality, flavor, and freshness of Orcas Island farms, foragers, and fishermen with every plate that comes out of their kitchen. (For brunch, I chose the Belgian waffle with summer berry compote, whipped ricotta, and maple syrup — divine; I was all too content NOT to share.)

And in case you haven't picked up on the local, organic mission of the entire island, all of Doe Bay's products utilize only locally-produced (they list their vendors on a colorful board at the front of the cafe) organic, sustainable, ethically-raised animals and their menus vary, highlighting what they grow in their own Doe Bay garden. 


A post shared by @travelingbearcat on Apr 20, 2019 at 8:39am PDT

(Doe Bay Cafe)

4. Girl Meets Dirt

Girl Meets Dirt Archipelago Preserves specializes in single-varietal preserves made from local heritage orchard fruit which are grown by small family farmers and homesteaders — many varietals come from trees that have been producing bounty for over 100 years, and some are exclusive to Orcas. Audra, the owner, spent 10 years on Wall Street in New York before relocating to a farmhouse on Orcas Island. I didn't have a chance to stop by but I brought home the Orcas Pear preserves, which are all classically prepared by hand in copper pots, and let's just say: my cheese pairings won't ever be the same. (You can see more of Audra's favorites here.)

(Girl Meets Dirt)

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Andrea Zimmerman is the editor-at-large at Yourtango. She enjoys reading, traveling, and reading while traveling. She lives in Chicago with her husband and three-legged cat. Follow her @angiecat86 on Instagram.

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