This week, Meet the Travel Bloggers meets Toronto travel blogger, Natalie Taylor of Near Afar.
When, why and how did you start Near Afar?
After being lost as to what to do next career-wise, I found out about TBEX (a travel blogger conference) and realized that though I can’t travel everywhere, I could write about what I know, which was Toronto. So though I was going away from time to time, I could write about being a tourist in my city and I missed writing about it since my guidebook days for BlackBook magazine. Near Afar encompasses finding hyperlocal spots (those that you mainly have to find through locals) wherever you are. I really try to seek out similar things to those I’ve found home in my travels. I’ve also found the tactics I’ve learned to find people in the city work abroad as well.
How did you get that name and what does the name mean to you?
This kind of goes back to my answer in number one. I don’t currently have the funds or the time to travel abroad so I’m in Toronto most of the time. (That’s the Near part). That said, I do try to get away on my own or on press trips when I can, which explains the Afar part. It took at least 6 months to come up with that name. I wanted something that was memorable, short and sweet, and so far, it has worked out for me and it’s how many people on my social media channels know me (even if they meet me in real life!)
What is the thing that keeps you the most jazzed about blogging?
I really love helping others create memorable life experiences in the pursuit of pleasure. I’m quite practical when I travel as well, so if I can save someone time planning because they trust my suggestions, then that’s great. Someone told me that they planned a trip to Portland based on my blog posts and there’s no greater compliment or feeling than that. I don’t make any money of my blog. It’s a labour of love. Maybe one day I’ll monetize it or change it up but creating quality posts about the places I discover that others can use is my mission.
What do you see are the upsides and downsides to having such a niche blog?
People know Near Afar as the “Toronto blog.” I’m known as a Toronto expert and have been referred to for suggestions when people are planning their trips here. I absolutely love showing my affection towards the great things in Toronto. It’s a city which is constantly evolving, which has been really great to see over the years. As a result, I’ve been commissioned by outlets such as Toronto Tourism for my expertise. On the downside, I am not an expert on other destinations nor get considered by other outlets/tourist boards/PR companies because I’m so niche.
How do you decide what about the Toronto area to share with readers?
I really think about what I want to see in the city as a visitor — underground activities that those who are in for a weekend or a short period of time may not have the time to research otherwise. People know about the CN Tower but if there’s a twist to such an icon (like the Edgewalk), then I’ll write about it. There’s always something new happening in the T Dot so it’s a fun challenge to keep up to date with what’s new. Sometimes, I also get invited to events and if it’s special enough to me, I’ll write about it. I think it’s important to be particular and to write about something because it’s interesting or entertaining for your readership, not because there’s an obligation to write about it for a PR company. Concurrently, having good relationships with PR people help you find out about more interesting events in the city.
What are the top five, not to be missed places in Toronto?
Excluding restaurants, my top 5 spots in Toronto are:
1. Kensington Market It’s a bohemian escape full of fruit, meat and cheese markets, fun bars, vintage shops, graffiti and colourful characters. It’s my happy place.
2. Centre Island (I highly recommend paddling out to the islands and getting a picnic or doing a tour with The Culinary Adventure Tour Company).
3. The Junction
4. The CN Tower Edgewalk – it is such a thrill!
5. Depending on your interests, I would say it’s a tossup between the St. Lawrence Market and The Evergreen Brickworks (which is out of the way but definitely worth it if you love farmers markets on the weekend).
For people who are visiting Toronto for the first time, Queen Street West to Parkdale has some fantastic shopping and Trinity Bellwoods Park is a great pit stop along the way.
You have a lot of food guide posts on your site, are you a big foodie?
I absolutely love food and unique culinary experiences, so a lot of what I write about is geared towards that because people are interested in food and want to know the best places to go. They don’t want to waste their time so I try to give them as many of the best options that I can and think that I’ve honed “good taste” in the past 6 years.
Toronto is so special in the sense that you can get any kind of ethnic cuisine here that you want. I am a big fan of Mexican and Italian food so I’m usually always at one of these types of places. I’m usually always on the hunt for a great fish taco and you can find that at Seven Lives in Kensington Market. For Italian, I love Campagnolo and for a really unique experience, The Black Hoof (and its other restaurant, Raw Bar) and Bar Isabel are the best of the best (especially if you love meat).
How often do you travel away from Toronto?
It depends on the year. I probably travel around 5 times a year. I’ve been lucky to have been to Montreal, Chicago, NYC and to Niagara on the Lake (outside of Toronto) this year. I hope to travel more, however, and that the blog or my writing will give me those opportunities.
Do you travel solo or with others?
I mainly travel solo and prefer to travel solo but sometimes, a friend wants to join in on the fun. Usually when I’m alone that’s when I’ll meet the most people. Ironic! At the same time, as a loner, I can leave those people when I want to and have my solitude.
What excites you most about travel?
The element of surprise excites me the most. I’m an explorer at heart and I love discovering new things and meeting new people. Everyone has a story and I love hearing it.
On the road, do you seek out some experiences more than others?
I always make sure I have my ear to the ground for the best restaurants and bars in a city. I feel like people rely on me for those suggestions and I don’t want to let them down! I also like quirky, fun and cultural experiences like the Weird Portlandia tour I did last year or seeking out sugar shacks outside of Montreal.
In terms of budget, what kind of traveler are you?
I’m the “affordable luxury” traveler. I’ll mix it up depending on the city. If it’s a weekend trip, I may stay at a nicer hotel. If I’m traveling for a longer period, I’ll sacrifice accommodation for culinary experiences because I value those more. That said, coming home to a nice bed after a long day of running around isn’t something I take for granted! I think that’s why luxury hostels are so popular right now. People want the best of both worlds – a nice/chic place where you have the option to socialize that doesn’t break the bank.
What’s your favorite trip ever?
My favourite trip was the first time I went solo around Europe for 3 months and was old enough to appreciate it. I went to 13 different countries and did a mix having a planned itinerary for my three bucket list places (Greece, Italy, Paris) and went off the itinerary for the second part of the trip. It’s the trip that helped me create myself.
What’s your favorite place you’ve traveled to?
Paris is my favourite city, Italy is my favourite country and Toronto is home. There are many different reasons why, many of them for sentimental reasons.
What’s the biggest fantasy on your bucket list?
I have many! One would be to see every continent. Another would be to take at least one year abroad to try to get to that point. I love cities and another would be to live abroad in a fun city like Berlin or Buenos Aires to get some perspective. Buenos Aires is definitely a captivating city — there’s tango, steak dinner after 10 p.m. and lots of red wine. What’s not to love?!
Natalie Taylor is a freelance writer based in Toronto. She is a local expert and ambassador for AFAR. She has been featured in The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, National Geographic Traveler, BlackBook magazine and more. Her blog, Near Afar, focuses on hyperlocal travel from Toronto and beyond.