Weekly Travel Scorecard [07.04.10]

Weekly Travel Scorecard [07.04.10]

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 to say, I’m a tiny bit shocked that only the New York Times really embraced the whole Fourth of July thing this year. It reminded me of the Memorial Day I spent in New York this year, being surprised in every neighborhood I visited by parades that seemed better suited to small town America than the big city. Apparently, New York is the most patriotic city in the country.

Granted, the paper’s nod to American independence came in the form of an online roundup of great US historical trips, and sure, of the 12 destinations that made the list, a few seemed suspect, but still, it was a nice gesture. Elsewhere in the section are an absolutely fascinating story about staying in the homes of former mafiosi in Sicily and a fun read about the introduction of fancy cocktails to Copenhagen.

First, an objection, and I know I’m going to sound like a complete twat right now but bear with me: Mafioso is an Italian word, and in Italian the plural is made by changing the “o” or “a” at the end of a word to an “i”, so the headline “Mafiosos’ Retreats, Peacefully Repurposed in Sicily,” grated on me.

Fortunately, I got past it and now I’m obsessed with staying in the B&B that once housed one of the maffia’s most brutal members. Writer Joshua Hammer’s transitions, taking us readers from a seemingly innocent and beautiful home in Sicily to the grizzly acts undertaken by the home’s inhabitants to its present-day life as a coop-run B&B with an organic garden, are a thing of beauty. My favorite part of the story is when it moves from a mobster strangling and then dissolving an 11-year-old’s body in a barrel of acid to B&B land:

Mr. Brusca’s son, Giovanni, now 51, detonated the bomb that blew up the Italian prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, in 1992; the next year, he kidnapped the 11-year-old son of a Mafia informer, held him for 26 months, then strangled him and dissolved his body in a barrel of acid. The younger Mr. Brusca later turned state’s evidence and went into a witness-protection program. Bernardo, a member of the Mafia old school that swore by omerta, organized crime’s code of silence, was captured in the 1980s, sentenced to multiple life terms for a string of murders, and died in government custody in 2004.

Acting under a law passed in 1996, the Italian government seized his properties and turned the farmhouse over to a consortium of municipalities in the area. Cooperativo Placido Rizzotto, named after a labor leader who was shot dead by the Mafia in 1948, was given the house six years ago. The cooperative now runs the property as a bed-and-breakfast and has turned Mr. Brusca’s neglected, overgrown fields into an organic farming commune.

Although less grizzly, the Copenhagen story is similarly character-driven, which makes it equally interesting to read. Writer Seth Sherwood introduces us to an unfortunately named London transplant, Gromit Eduardsen in the first line, and it is Eduardsen who carries us through the city’s cocktail revolution. He’s a terrible snob, but it’s his tone that makes the story great, particularly when he’s turning his nose up at the “80s drinks” that once dominated Copenhagen’s bar scene.

It was all ’80s drinks,” Mr. Eduardsen said of the options he found when he first arrived in the city. “In the best bars in Copenhagen, where the high society would drink, you’d have people drinking strawberry daiquiris made with strawberry syrup and bottled lime juice and bad rum, all put through a blender — an alcoholic slush to get drunk on.

Eduardsen is largely credited with starting the modern Copenhagen cocktail craze, but we soon find out that he was followed by a steady stream of hip British bartenders, and that the Danes soon took note as well. Now you can find elderflower liqueur everywhere in Copenhagen. Thank God.

SCORE: 8/10 carry-ons (minus points for a slight lack of diversity; the vast majority of stories were focused on Europe)

I like Janis Cooke Neuman–she’s one of, if not the, best travel-food writers out there at the moment, in my opinion. And I love Healdsburg, a well-designed burb of Sonoma that’s equal parts country charm and wine snob. But I hate it when stories claim that something is “new” or “up and coming” when it’s just not. I suppose there are people who would consider a five-year-old trend “new,” but I think LA Times readers can be given more credit than that.

In this week’s travel section, the paper ran a feature on the “new” foodie scene in Healdsburg, a once sleepy little town in wine country. It’s a great idea, except that Healdsburg has been heralded as a foodie destination since about 2005. In fact, the LA Times itself mentioned the town’s blossoming food scene as part of a larger article on Sonoma county restaurants in June 2005.

To be fair, it could have been an editor or an underling charged with headline writing who introduced the error. In the actual meat of the piece, it’s clear that Neuman is writing not about a new trend, but about enjoying the best of an established food scene. “These days, when I come to Healdsburg for a weekend of wine tasting, I bring my bike (amazing how a little riding works up an appetite) and a game plan, honed over five years of thorough research,” she writes. ” I still don’t get to try everything, but I do come close.”

What follows is a pretty straightforward, ho-hum round-up of good restaurants in Healdsburg.

The section includes two other service pieces–one focused on planning a budget RV vacation and the other a roundup of the best state fairs in the country–leaving only one spot for travel narrative, in the form of a first-person piece about kayaking around Crete. Thankfully, it’s a great story and an easy read, most notably when writer Heidi Fuller-Love is describing a scene that all urbanites on vacation can relate to:

That night I drowse uneasily, fazed by the lack of orange street lights and rattled by strips of eucalyptus bark dragging ghostly toenails along the beach. The next morning I’m awakened by someone throwing sand at the tent. Staggering out to pick a fight, I come face to face with my adversary: the wind.

SCORE: 5/10 carry-ons (minus points for lack of narrative stories, and for that Healdsburg thing, which Istill find irritating)

Before reading this week’s Washington Post travel section, I would never, not in a million years, have thought I’d enjoy reading a story about a highway. Nancy Trejos brought me around with her excellent piece on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a road that spans 469 miles, connecting Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Trejos begins telling the story of the road through the eyes of a woman who is just five years older than it, and has lived by the parkway her entire life.

Ellen is 80 now, only five years older than the parkway itself,” Trejos writes. “Her father was a park warden, and her brothers were parkway maintenance workers. She has waited tables at Bluffs Lodge for 61 years, and she’d like to keep doing so for many more. “It’s the closest thing to heaven there is,” she told me, pointing to an old picture of the parkway hanging above a table of diners digging into country ham and buckwheat pancakes.

The two other features in the paper’s Highway Issue, do an equally fine job in making the story of a road interesting. In keeping with the section’s “it’s about the journey, not the destination” theme, both stories meander along the history and the routes of two famed roads: Route Nationale 7 in France and Highway 101 in California. For those of you who have driven on the 101 in or around LA, this is not the same road. Writer Andrea Sachs focuses on the northern stretch of the highway, from Northern California into Oregon, which is, I can assure you, one of the prettiest drives in the country. While Sachs’ takes readers on a leisurely trip up the West Coast, writer Robert Camuto brings us along on a slightly more stressful drive. So committed is Camuto to sticking to Route 7 the entire way through the country, that he sticks to it even through Parisian suburbs, and is rewarded for his efforts by a traffic accident.

Camuto discovers that it’s worth the trouble, and it’s worth it for readers, too. It’s fascinating to read about the rise and fall of France’s Numero 7 alongside the twists and turns of Camuto’s drive.

Just as Route 66 became the Main Street of America, N7 became France’s main vacation road, memorialized in French popular culture, notably by French singing legend Charles Trenet in 1955,” Camuto writes. “And like Route 66, the N7 went into decline with the construction of larger highways at the end of the ’60s.

It was an especially large and great WaPo travel section this week. In addition to the three Highway Issue features (and really, they could have done better than that name), the section included a review of a farmstead inn in North Carolina and a fun, quick read about biking around Manhattan.

SCORE: 10/10 carry-ons (the variety in types of stories made up for the lack of variety in destinations–nearly all were in the US)

I’m not sure if the Miami Herald was always planning to run a story on Uruguay this weekend, or if it dug one up after the World Cup quarterfinals, but it’s good timing either way. It’s also a good read, if not amazingly well-written. Maria Elena Martinez notes right off the bat that Uruguay probably isn’t on most people’s must-visit list, which helps her establish cred immediately, and got me into the story just as quickly.

A lover of big cities, I arrived in Montevideo, Uruguay with low expectations,” she writes. “I wasn’t sure Uruguay could offer anything different than South American spots more popular with tourists — Chile, Argentina and Brazil. When a Brazilian friend recommended this tiny country as a destination that would deliver just as completely on beauty, history and flavor, I bit. But still, I was skeptical. Uruguay?

The writing unravels a bit after that lead–one paragraph starts, “Art deco confections like the 26-story Palacio Salvo, once the tallest building in South America, loom.”–but Martinez still manages to hold on to readers’ attention via a host of unexpected facts about the place: same-sex marriage is legal in Uruguay, literacy rates are at 97 percent, Montevideo fights Buenos Aires over a claim to be the birthplace of tango, the city is dotted with Art deco masterpieces, cafes and boutiques, and yerba mate is the national drink of choice.

SCORE: 7/10 carry-ons (minus points for shoddy writing in parts and a small section)

Amy Westervelt is a freelance journalist based in Oakland, Calif. She writes about tech, health, and the environment for a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. In 200 ...read more

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