Weekly Travel Scorecard [06.20.10]
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.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Amtrak hired a publicist recently. How else to explain the unending stream of recent “see America by train” articles? The latest example is this week’s LA Times Sunday travel section, which is devoted entirely to riding the rails and follows essentially the same formula as the train coverage that precedes it, tapping into the history of train travel and the allure of taking a “slow travel” approach to seeing a region or country. Not that there’s anything wrong with train stories, it just seems odd that they seem to be cropping up rather regularly lately.
But if the theme for the section wasn’t exactly original, at least the writing was back up to par this week with a great mix of stories, including a service-y piece on riding Amtrak across the United States, two narrative pieces–one on exploring Turkey via the Orient Express, the other on hopping classic steam trains in West Virginia–and a newsy piece about whether or not there will ever be a train connecting LA to Las Vegas. Now that’s a travel section, LAT. Welcome back.
Self-professed train lover Karl Zimmerman wrote both the Amtrak across America and Western Virginia stories, and his obsession with trains shines through in both. I don’t know for sure, but I think Zimmerman might just put on a conductor’s cap and visit the model train set in his basement from time to time.
“Other than loggers going to work, passengers were not the business of the Mower Lumber Co. or of West Virginia Pulp & Paper, its predecessor,” Zimmerman writes of the historic locomotives he’s riding in West Virginia. “Thus, the passenger cars used by the Cass Scenic Railroad are rudimentary, although most are roofed, because the weather at the high elevations to which the line ascends can be changeable. They are not historic, but the eight potentially serviceable locomotives surely are. Shay No. 5 has plied the same line since 1905. No. 6, the last Shay built and one of the largest, also worked in West Virginia, as did three other Cass locomotives. Others have been collected from as far away as California and British Columbia.”
It’s a story for train geeks and history buffs, to be sure, but Zimmerman’s excitement is contagious, making the story a fun read for anyone (although I do take umbrage with his use of the word “historicity,” which has always seemed like a made-up word to me).
The Turkey story is great in that writer Peter Kupfer really captures that moment when travel dreams butt up against reality. “Conjuring images of the old Orient Express, I envisioned lounging under a silk-shaded sconce in my plushly upholstered, wood-paneled compartment as the Mediterranean coast glided past my window,” he writes. “There were, it turns out, a couple of problems with that picture. Turkish passenger trains didn’t travel along the Mediterranean. Second, most Turkish trains are relatively modern, with interiors appointed with molded plastic, chrome and fluorescent lights — more evocative of Amtrak than the Orient Express.”
Yes, it’s weird to use “Second” when one has never used “First,” but I’ll give him a pass.
For all my talk in this column about paying homage to narrative travel writing, I have to say the best read in this week’s section, for me anyway, was the short Las Vegas train news story written by Jay Jones. Perhaps because I’ve done the drive from LA to Vegas myself, I really empathized with the couple Jones starts out with, who say they get up at 3 am to leave for a Vegas trip, in order to avoid the horrific traffic. And when Jones gets into the specifics of what is being proposed, there’s a great blend of train geekery and politics that makes the story very easy to read. Jones also reveals Amtrak’s current marketing strategy: Make America fall in love with trains again. “Spending that sort of money — much of it tax dollars, of course — to encourage Americans to forsake their beloved automobiles is going to take one heck of a sales pitch,” Jones writes, referring to the money required to build a new route from LA to Vegas, rather than using the existing Victorville to Vegas tracks. “One on which Amtrak’s already embarked with a simple slogan: “The Road to the Future Has Rails.”
SCORE: 9/10 carry-ons (almost perfect; minus one point for the themed section, which made it hard to get a real mix of stories)
This column is devoted to travel writing, but I’d like to take a minute out here and talk about the photo the Washington Post chose to run with its New Orleans story this week. Really WaPo? You couldn’t find a cooler picture in the Treme than one of a dorky Eurotrash guy in an Ed Hardy knock-off groovin’ down to some horns? C’mon!
Otherwise, I like the idea of the story a lot–I have to admit that, having only heard about and not yet watched Treme, I didn’t realize it was set in New Orleans, or even that there was a part of Nola called “the Treme,” so this story had me intrigued from the subhed. [Also, I thought it was pronounced Treem. That's how I've been saying it in my head, and this story stopped me from ever saying it that way out loud. Apparently, it's Tre-MAY.]
While I appreciate the knowledge sharing, I didn’t love this story as much as I’d wanted. Part of it has to do with the switching between third and second person; it’s hard enough to get away with addressing the reader as “you” without shifting between tenses.
As evidence, I give you the first two sentences of the story: “On a Friday night in May, the bar at Snug Harbor, a jazz club along New Orleans’s storied Frenchmen Street, is packed, filled with the warm thrum of chatter. You sip your post-dinner coffee to summon that second wind for the night as jazz beats, firm and soulful, seep through a doorway at the far end of the room.”
Emphasis is mine and I put it there because this is how it read in my head. That aside, while the writer tried to capture the feeling of the place, it just didn’t work out. I finished the story less interested in going there than before, and I love New Orleans, so that’s saying something. The problem is that the story reads a bit like a cliche and since it’s clearly trying to avoid that sort of thing, it’s even more clear that it fails. Also, despite the fact that the Treme tie-in is a nice hook, the constant references to the show feel heavy-handed.
“Even without the live jazz, it’s clear from sitting at the bar that this little place with festive candy-colored lights has been the setting for some hefty musical moments,” one paragraph begins. “One wall is filled with framed pictures of boldface-name visitors. Mick Jagger is one. Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. have been known to swing by to check out Ruffins in action. And in the first episode of “Treme,” the bar is the backdrop for a funny scene in which Ruffins doesn’t recognize a famous face in the crowd who has come to check out him and his band, the Barbecue Swingers. Ruffins is unfazed when told that Elvis Costello is in his audience.”
By the end I felt like I had just had a couple of episodes of Treme recounted to me.
The story on Hangzhou, on the other hand, is masterful and subtle, describing this fascinating ancient capital in such a way that I am envious of the writer’s trip there. I love the way it begins, with writer Peter Mandel having to push a button indicating his satisfaction with the customs officer before he can enter the country. From there, the first thing Mandel (and us readers) learns is that Hangzhou is experiencing an economic boom that is moving farmers from rural villages to the city, and bringing a wave of “modern” stores and buildings that the locals don’t necessarily understand.
I soon find out that Hangzhou is jumping and wiggling with new wealth,” Mandel writes. “Full of former tea farmers used to green space, the area is sprouting apartments built for Beverly Hillbillies, with bok choy fields right in back.”
On an introductory tour, Kevin pilots me around in a car with other tourists. Along a busy boulevard, we pass a flickering sign: “CITY,” it blinks. “CITY . . . OF CARTOON.” When I ask about it, Kevin shrugs. “New,” he says. He doesn’t know what it means.
Same goes for a glittery, floodlit store called Trendy Way. A mystery, as is the multi-story I Feel hotel. Kevin smacks his forehead apologetically. He could be a tourist just like us.
When WaPo debuted its month-long series focused on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Distinctive Destinations for 2010, I applauded. It seemed like a neat idea, one that would allow for stories about less-obvious destinations. That is true, but I’ve found it difficult to get interested in those destinations. This week, the series focused on Huntsville, Ala. and by the end of the story I still couldn’t figure out what had won the town a spot on Distinctive Destinations list. Most southern towns have some street or another lined with antebellum homes. Otherwise, the only landmarks mentioned are the mansion of one early Huntsville resident, which can now be toured, the local museum and the rocket parked at the Huntsville airport. I finished the story thinking I was glad that the month is almost over.
SCORE: 6/10 carry-ons (a down week for WaPo, minus points for so-so writing on the Treme article and boring content on the Huntsville story)
Thank you, New York Times, for introducing a “not touristy” seaside village to the world. I’m glad I know about it now, but unfortunately so do a million other people, so there goes its charm as a not-so-visited town right next to Cinque Terre and every bit as beautiful. Sigh.
What I loved about this story was that it tapped into all my great memories of Italy. The town of Lerici, although not on tourists’ radar just yet (according to the NYT), is a popular vacation spot for Italians, and writer Ingrid Williams does a great job of capturing what that means.
Lerici (pronounced LEH-ree-chee) is a jumble of pastel buildings that jockey for attention with its beaches, crescent-shaped coves and rocky cliffs that melt into the sparkling sea. And in July and August, the town is bustling, the beaches filled with local residents, vacationing families from northern Italy and a loyal crowd of in-the-know Milanese.
Around town, young couples flirt at waterfront cafes, children kick soccer balls beneath palm trees, and groups of white-haired men stroll along the beachfront promenade. Very few are speaking English. In Lerici, unlike many other Riviera towns, the lingua franca is still poetic Italian.
The new (to me anyway) “Personal Journeys” section featured a story this week from Helene Cooper, who takes readers on a trip home to Liberia, and then on a fascinating culinary tour of Monrovia. The best food-themed travel stories are those that use the food to reveal the culture, and Cooper does a masterful job of that in this story.
Liberian food is my weakness,” she writes. “Hearty, spicy and influenced by the immigrants and settlers who have over the years made this tiny coastal country home, it incorporates the best of West African cooking with traditions from the American South, where enslaved Africans brought their recipes, refined them and then took them back to Africa when Liberia was colonized by freed American blacks in the early 19th century. The result is Creole cooking with a coastal African twist…”
My favorite passage is the one in which she describes how, in Liberian cooking, it’s the vegetable, not the meat, that is the star:
Instead of, say, steak with two sides, it’s a given that a typical Liberian dish will have all manner of meats in it, with dried fish adding a kick,” she writes. “(That can be a sore point with some foreigners, especially Americans, who don’t like fish that tastes fishy. “Why would anyone use fish as a seasoning?” my American sister-in-law, Pieta, asked. )
But the vegetable is what differentiates each dish, and Liberian cooks are masters at extracting every drop of flavor from our tropical greens. Hence the reason no Liberian would ever say, “I’m having chicken with bitterleaf” for lunch. Of course you’re having chicken (and beef and pork). It’s the bitterleaf that’s special.
I loved the great mix of stories in this week’s NYT travel section. In addition to the stories on Lerici and Liberia, the section featured a piece on a collection of painted monasteries in Romania. Collectively listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, the monasteries dot a 25 square-mile region of forest that creeps over the border into Czechoslovakia. The monasteries were built and elaborately painted five and a quarter centuries ago by Moldavian prince Stephen the Great, who had one built and painted each time he won a battle. “What started out as Stephen the Great’s war trophies have become some of the world’s most stunning works of art,” Peter Wortsman writes.
And, while I’m getting tired of the literary tourism articles, the short piece on Stieg Larsson fans tracking down landmarks from his books in Stockholm’s newly hip Sodermalm district was short and breezy enough to make for a fun read. Ditto the service-y roundup on affordable boutique hotels in New York City, which will no doubt be searched and printed thousands of times this year.
SCORE: 10/10 carry-ons (great writing, great mix of stories, a perfect section)
I am not a man and I don’t know how to fly-fish, but I still loved the “Man Up in Wyoming” story in this week’s Chicago Sun Times travel section. Writer Frank Main’s casual tone makes the story fun and lighthearted…a vacation for the mind, so to speak. In describing his three-day guys’ adventure trip, Main doesn’t wax poetic or try to get fancy and that’s what makes the story work so well–it moves as quickly as Main and his pal down a mountain biking trail.
And it all starts with a great lead: “On the flight home to Chicago, I realized both of my thumbs were blistered,” Main writes. Then explains: “From casting a fly rod. Gripping golf clubs. And white-knuckling a mountain bike down jagged rocks and twisty paths that cut through pines and aspens. In other words, they were good blisters. Reminders of three perfect summer days spent playing in the shadow of the Teton Mountain Range.”
SCORE: 7/10 carry-ons (great story, but the section needs more solid features to bump up its score)
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