Weekly Travel Scorecard [06.13.10]
As print newspapers fight to stay alive, travel sections lose pages and steadily increase service journalism while operating under more scrutiny than ever. In support of our paper/e-ink colleagues, here’s the Sunday print travel news that’s fit to post about.
The New York Times travel section was back to its usual self this week, with excellent stories on following in Jefferson’s footsteps while wine tasting in Bordeaux, clubbing in Belgrade, and boating through Berlin more than making up for the section’s concentration on Europe.
Wine fans, history buffs, and lovers of the book The Billionaire’s Vinegar will all find something to love about Anne Mah’s story, which traces the route taken by noted oenophile Thomas Jefferson on his one trip to Bordeaux. I especially love the introduction of Jefferson’s sole guide to the region, Étienne Parent, and Mah’s meeting with the man’s descendants, centuries later.
Jefferson traveled anonymously and alone,” Mah writes when first introducing Parent. “But when he reached the town of Beaune, at the center of the region, he sought guidance, hiring a wine advisor, Étienne Parent. Like many men of the era, Mr. Parent dabbled in barrelmaking and viticulture, but his main income came from acting as a négociant, or wine merchant, blending wines from various producers to create and sell a sufficient commercial quantity.
And later, avec the great-great-granddaughter of Parent (or some such–Mah only tells us she’s a direct descendent, not exactly what relation she is to Étienne), in the winemaker’s celler, Mah wonders: “Might Thomas Jefferson and Étienne Parent, I asked, have crept around damp cellars together, tasting young Burgundies in the same manner?”
“I am absolutely sure,” Parent answers.
Moments later, upon finishing the story, I bought a used copy of The Billionaire’s Vinegar (it’s about the sale of the world’s most expensive bottle of wine, a selection from Jefferson’s cellar, which may or may not have been a scam), and then I emailed my friend in Bordeaux to see if she has a spare room.
The story on Belgrade compares Serbia’s capital to Berlin, after the Wall came down. In drawing the comparison, Rachel B. Doyle writes: “Like Berlin immediately after the Wall fell, Belgrade has become a bohemian free-for-all that attracts Serbian creative types and young travelers more interested in night life than in museums crowded with antiquities. And as in the German capital, there is very little that is quaint about Belgrade, which has not had the face-lift that many European capitals have.”
Coincidentally, the section also includes a story on a particularly charming… some might even say “quaint”… aspect of Berlin: its numerous bridges (more than Venice!), which span vast systems of waterways.
Contradictions between stories aside, the comparision between the two cities strikes me as quite clever, and given that, like Berlin, Belgrade’s unpleasant past has given birth to a fascinating arts and music scene (I can’t wait to get a listen of what Doyle calls “turbofolk”), it’s now on my list of cities to visit soon (tied with Cartagena), before too many hipsters find it.
That point has long since passed with Berlin, but I nonetheless found it fascinating to read abou the city’s more than 100 miles of navigable waters, which writer Charly Wilder tells us eventually connect to the Baltic Sea, the North Sea and the Rhine. The story itself is essentially a list of practical information and tips for those interested in exploring Berlin and its surrounds by boat, but the subject matter is so interesting, I won’t hold the lack of narrative against it.
SCORE: 9/10 carry-ons (minus one for lack of diversity in destinations, but otherwise a great section)
After several great weeks in a row, the Los Angeles Times backslid this week, with all four stories focused squarely on service of the “how to travel with kids and dogs” variety. Blech. I suppose a list of the kid-friendliest pit stops along route 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles might be very useful to a small percentage of the LAT’s readership, but it felt like more of a sidebar than a story. Ditto on the dog-friendly travel story–given that there are who knows how many books on traveling with dogs, and specifically on traveling with dogs in California, the story felt like filler. The other two stories in the section were at least slightly more inventive–one focused on visiting minor league baseball parks in Southern California and the other on summer camps for the whole family–both followed the same, tired formula: intro paragraph, followed by a list of 4 or 5 examples, each given one to two paragraphs, preceded by a lame transition like this one from the dog story: “So pack Rover’s toys and leash and jump in the car. Then join us on our excellent summer vacation.”
None of the stories offered a sense of place, which is one of the key differences between a travel story and a map or guidebook.
SCORE: 2/10 carry-ons (two points for still having a travel section, but I know the LAT can do better)
I was less enthralled with the Washington Post’s travel section this week than I have been in the recent past. The story on whether or not people are still traveling to the Gulf coast, despite the oil spill, felt like the result of someone, somewhere saying “we need to find an oil spill angle for the travel section.” And though WaPo staffer Andrea Sachs tried valiantly to turn it into a real story, passages like this one made it feel like a stretch:
This impassioned commitment to traveling to the beleaguered area may be unusual, but some think it hints at an incipient brand of oil-inspired tourism. Just as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina attracted waves of volunteer travelers eager to assist the communities affected by those disasters, the gulf could eventually attract its own form of sympathy travel.
Also, I just can’t get excited about visiting Simsbury, Conn. It sounds about as exciting as spending a Sunday morning reading the J. Crew catalogue, National Trust for Historic Preservation Distinctive Destination or not. To her credit, Sachs, pulling double-duty, works hard to cover up a boring destination with great writing, but there’s only so much you can do to make Connecticut interesting.
Nancy Trejos’s story on house swapping and hosting strangers via a crop of new room-sharing sites, on the other hand, was illuminating. Having covered a couple of these sites, and tested them out once or twice, it was interesting to read about Trejos’s experience, and the comparisons between room-sharing and house-swapping, and between these new ideas in hospitality and a good old-fashioned hotel. Hearing about Trejos’s experience with one particularly lame houseguest who invited herself along to dinner with Trejos and a friend was not only entertaining, but a good reminder that these services can be risky because, well, most people suck. Or, as Trejos more diplomatically puts it: “Making new friends is a good thing. But just having somebody stay in your house for a few nights isn’t going to make that happen if the chemistry isn’t there, however much host or guest might want it.”
SCORE: 7/10 carry-ons (great writing as usual, but some not-so-great choices in subject matter)
I loved the witty tone of Meredith Goldstein’s piece on Nantucket in this week’s Boston Globe travel section… and I like that the section seems to be running more stories, too. Goldstein has a short attention span, she tells us readers, which is why she has never thought about taking a trip to Nantucket. “And that’s why I’ve never been interested in visiting Nantucket, a place where tourists are supposed to slow down and take deep breaths while looking at pretty beaches and lighthouses,” she writes. “I don’t want to relax on a dune near Cisco Beach. I don’t want to stop and smell the flowers on Pleasant Street. Most of all, I don’t want to tour a museum devoted to baskets. (No offense to the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum. I’m sure it is fabulous.)”
It’s the sort of real, down-to-earth take on a place that makes me feel like I’m going to get some insight into what a destination is really like. I also love that Goldstein actually asked the tourism bureau for suggestions of activities in Nantucket for someone with a short attention span, and that their suggestions clearly reveal the place to be better suited to those seeking leisure time. “When I asked staffers about places someone with a short attention span should visit,” she writes, “their recommendations included walking tours and collecting shells.”
SCORE: 8/10 carry-ons (would love to see more of these narrative-style pieces in the section)
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