Weekly Travel Scorecard [07.11.10]
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.
Move over LA and New York, this week’s top travel sections ran in the D.C. and Boston papers. For my money, the Washington Post has the best travel section going right now, and I’m happy to see that the section appears to be growing, with four solid features in this week’s section, and five in last week’s, a jump from the paper’s usual three travel features. Meanwhile, the Boston Globe came out of nowhere with a large and very solid section this week, devoted almost entirely to France.
The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, is still struggling to recapture its former glory, although the section did include a surprisingly good story on, of all places, Gilroy. To be fair, the good outweighed the bad in this weeks LA Times’ travel section; aside from the Gilroy story, there was a well-crafted piece on a castle being built in the Burgundy region of France, using 13th century materials, tools and processes. Unfortunately, one bad apple can often spoil the bunch, and the lead feature on Scotland left such a bad taste in my mouth it was hard for the other two stories to erase it. Given that I’m married to a Scot and have spent a ton of time in Scotland, I admit I can be overly critical of travel stories that focus on the land of Braveheart. Nonetheless, cramming references to the Loch Ness monster, scotch (which, by the way, is just called whisky in Scotland), ghosts and castles into the opening paragraph of a story on Scotland qualifies as a hack move in most books. Ditto the mention of the writer’s own “Scotch-Irish heritage”. If I had a dollar for every time someone told my husband that they had such heritage, and every time he rolled his eyes, I’d have at least $200 this year alone.
Had the writing been excellent, I might have been able to overlook the cliched content, but unfortunately that just wasn’t the case. “I’d love to take a month off and hike the high mountains and walk the deep green glens of the Highlands, then cap that off with a month of island hopping, sailing to as many of the Scotland’s windswept isles — there are more than 700 — as possible,” one single-sentence paragraph reads. It’s followed by a clunky transition: “Who has that kind of time or money? Not I. So I went for a week instead, taking in as much as possible.”
The Gilroy story, on the other hand, while touching on the garlic festival that the tiny town is known for, paints a picture of the place that goes beyond the handful of known facts about it. Having only ever stopped in Gilroy to pick up something from the Le Creuset outlet or grab something from In-n-Out Burger on my way someplace else, I was delighted to read about the charms that wait should I one day decide to venture further off the freeway. “Side streets off the main drag are lined with heavily shaded, century-old wood-frame houses, many with broad porches that make you think of hot afternoons and glistening glasses of iced tea,” writes Scott Martelle. “The main drag, Monterey Road, has too many vacant storefronts in these recessionary times, but the charming Lizarran Tapas has taken over the former City Hall anchoring a downtown stretch with a bowling alley, a handful of small and busy Mexican restaurants and a fun cluster of antiques malls.”
Martelle includes a visit to a local flower seed farm, the local museum (housed in an old Carnegie library) the garlic festival, and a fruit-stand-turned RV park to his trip. He also ties in some of the area’s past and present politics, reflective of so many California farming communities:
And there aren’t as many farms that still grow garlic, Gilroy’s contemporary raison d’être. Some gave it up under pressure from Chinese imports — even garlic can fall victim to globalization — and because of the peculiarities of growing garlic, which drops in quality if it is grown in the same soil more than once every four or five years.
But one of the key factors is the urbanization of the Santa Clara Valley, which has reduced available farm space. The city has grown from about 31,000 people in 1990 to an estimated 50,000 in 2008, according to the U.S. Census. Guerriero, who moved to Gilroy from San Jose around 1980, witnessed the shift as small roadside motels gave way to chains, particularly near the exits off U.S. Highway 101. On the city streets, familiar faces have been swallowed by the influx of strangers.
“You used to be able to go and see everybody at Nob Hill Market,” a local supermarket, Guerriero said as Alexis spun around her legs. “Now there’s not that much farming being done any more…. In some ways, it’s sad. In other ways, that’s progress.”
And what’s not to love about a French castle? In her feature on Guédelon castle, in France’s Burgundy region, writer Susan Spano does a great job capturing both the history and the quirky modernday plan for this place, which, as so many quirky plans do, link back to a single eccentric character. “The idea was considered crazy at first, but Guyot and co-owner Maryline Martin persevered, raising money, getting permits, buying a site and finally breaking ground in 1997,” Spano writes. “With the castle half-finished and attracting 300,000 visitors a year, it no longer seems like a harebrained scheme. Now it answers the question visitors inevitably ask at marvels such as Nôtre Dame de Paris and Chartres: How did medieval workmen do this without cranes, bulldozers, power saws and drills?”
SCORE: 7/10 carry-ons (minus points for the terrible Scotland story)
It might be that reading about the castle Guédelon got me into a French frame of mind, perfect for reading the Boston Globe’s Sunday travel section, but I think I would have enjoyed the section regardless. Sure, it’s focused on a single destination, and I automatically deduct carry-ons for that, but the Boston Globe editors made up for it by choosing stories with such different angles they combined to paint a layered, detailed picture of the country.
Stephen Heuser starts by giving readers a nouvelle entree to Paris. Having opted to stay in a sublet apartment rather than a hotel, he and his girlfriend stumbled upon a charming and entirely un-touristy arrondissement, which he is only too happy to share with readers. I loved the casual way in which he leads us there:
Imagine a forest of 1960s apartment towers parting to reveal a tiny neighborhood of gabled houses and cafes. Imagine a bright-red cobbler’s shop wedged between buildings, walls populated with quirky street portraits, the flashes of briefcases and bicycles as Parisians rush home from work before the cheese shop closes.
If you have never heard of La Butte aux Cailles — well, I can’t pretend I had either. My girlfriend, Carolyn, and I were visiting Paris for a week; we wanted to stay near friends who live near the southern edge of the city, and I thought we might have a more genuinely Parisian experience renting a short-term apartment than booking a hotel. When I searched the bulletin boards online, the most promising place I found was a corner flat located next to this little seven-pointed intersection well southeast of any neighborhood I had ever heard of. The owner’s description called it “romantic.’’
Heuser goes on to describe the inevitable anxiety that comes with booking lodging in such a way, the sigh of relief when he and his girlfriend discovered that the owner’s description was a fair one and all of the additional reasons that La Butte aux Cailles is worth a visit.
Next up is a story on Provence, of course, with a somewhat interesting twist: the writer toured the area with the author of French Women Don’t Get Fat. I haven’t read that book, but my grandmother was a French woman, and she got fat a few times in her life (sorry, Nana), so I don’t really know what to think of it. Nonetheless, a story of Provence vis a vis its local markets and cafes sounded like a good read, especially since the book author also happened to be the former CEO of Veuve Cliquot. As writer Sarah Hearn takes us readers on a culinary tour of Provence, complete with chocolate, wine, olive oil and, thankfully, not too much lavender, it’s hard not to be annoyed that she gets to be friend with this woman who has a beautiful house in Provence and takes her to all the best places, but that doesn’t make the story any less fun to read.
The third story in the package, focused on a small mountain region that produces the country’s best cheese, was my favorite, and not just because the lead dairy farmer in the piece–one Jean-François Marmier–names his cattle and picks favorites. What won me over was the great story-telling, combined with the focus on a not-so-common destination in France: the Jura mountains, in the east. Marmier is adorable and he provides a great window into the Franche-Comte region, home to the country’s best-selling hard cheese (Comté), but writer Patricia Harris does a good job of moving seamlessly from Marmier’s story to that of the larger region:
Marmier speaks English with an Aussie accent he acquired during a sojourn in Tasmania, but his roots are in the Jura Mountains of eastern France, where his family has been making cheese for so long that he has lost track of the generations. “Their milk is very cheeseable,’’ Marmier says of his soulful-eyed brown-and-white Montbéliarde cows. By morning, that milk will begin its transformation into Comté, the largest selling hard cheese in France.
You would think that only a big factory could produce enough to satisfy the appetites of the fromage-loving French. But it turns out that the process is small scale and personal. And that human touch is what makes this obscure corner of France — less than three hours by train from Paris — perfect for Slow Food touring. Sandwiched between Burgundy and Switzerland, Franche-Comté not only has its signature cheese and some distinctive wines, it is also dotted with rustic inns where Michelin-starred chefs offer complete tasting menus for the price of a main dish in Paris.
SCORE: 9/10 carry-ons (minus one for the country focus, but a great section nonetheless!)
The other stellar section this week was produced by the Washington Post, which continues to churn out one of the best weekly travel sections in the country. This week included a “Coast to Coast” package focused on coastal getaways in Rhode Island and Oregon, as well as a feature on the Dolomites in Italy, and on Ottawa suddenly getting hip. Every single piece is excellent, from lead to finish.
In her piece on Rhode Island’s beach towns, Becky Krystal starts by comparing her hunt for a hat that’s more suitable to the laidback vibe of the area to her exploration of the place in general. Not wanting to commit to the first hat she finds, Krystal tells the shopkeeper she’s going to look around and come back, to which the shopkeeper responds, “You have to see what else is out there.” Krystal uses that simple phrase as a theme for her trip in general. “I had three days to sample coastal living in Rhode Island, and while I’d already been charmed by what I’d seen in a half a day of the longstanding resort villages of Watch Hill and Narragansett Pier, there was still much more to explore,” she writes.
Explore she does, and us readers get to reap the rewards in the form of fascinating bits of history (who knew Block Island’s past was so lurid?), charming tales from fellow travelers and expert advice for those interested in touring the area.
On the similarly rocky and picturesque Oregon coast, Andrea Sachs begins her story with a tip, blurted out by a fellow traveler.
The tip came from a man with no hair on his head and plenty of insulation on his body,” she writes. “He was standing at a viewpoint in Cape Meares, a panoramic detour along the Oregon coast whose natural beauty typically lulls visitors into hushed reverence. But not this guy, who was pointing out a pocket beach tucked between colossal rock formations to a friend. He blurted out its whereabouts for all within decibel range to hear.
“That’s Hidden Beach,” he said, making its name now obsolete. “You have to hike down a trail that zigzags about a mile, a mile and a quarter. Most people won’t make the trek, so you pretty much have it to yourself.”
Sachs goes on to explain that Oregon’s beaches–all of them–are public and that the state’s legislators have squashed any attempts to privatize the state’s beautiful coast by passing laws that give the public “free and uninterrupted use of the beaches” between the low-water mark and the vegetation line.
It’s an insight into what makes Oregon great, above and beyond it’s beautiful coast, and I appreciate how Sachs is able to illustrate the state’s famed independent edge without resorting to some hackneyed reference to its pioneers or hippies.
As great as the two coastal stories are, by far the best piece in the section is Emily Langer’s tale of visiting the Dolomites in Italy. Langer makes the trip, and thus the story, personal by linking it to her dreams as a child of visiting the mountains depicted in her great grandmother’s painting, a souvenir from a 1955 trip. After describing the painting and introducing her great grandmother as a girl from Ohio who found herself touring Italy in the 1950s when her Army husband got stationed in Germany, Langer gives us readers some insight into her obsession with visiting the mountains depicted in her great grandmother’s painting:
But there was always the fact of the painting, which was actually the larger and more striking of two mountain landscapes that they bought at the end of the trip. You might not pause over such a purchase. But my great-grandma turned 16 two days after Black Tuesday and had her first child at the height of the Great Depression. She was not the type of lady who toured Europe collecting artwork. Even after I was born, when she had no financial worries, she used pencils to knit me a blanket instead of wasting money on knitting needles.
So why did they buy two paintings instead of one or neither? And why, when my great-grandma moved into a retirement home, did she hang the paintings so that her recliner gave her a better view of the mountains than of the TV or the window, her other outlets on the world?
There was something about those mountains.
It’s a fantastic introduction to the story, and it only gets better as Langer goes on her quest to find the magic of the Dolomites. After seeking the help of an Italian friend and the author of several Dolomites trekking guides, Langer discovers that the mountains in her great grandmother’s painting are the Catinaccio with the Vajolet Towers, all seen from Tires, a small village in the Dolomites. We get to tag along on Langer’s trip there, and I defy any reader not to be touched when she buys a tablecloth to commemorate the trip, and writes, of her great grandmother, “I think that she would have been pleased to know that the simple act of sitting down to eat reminds me of the dining table in her apartment, and of all the times I hid underneath it and looked to her mountains.”
Thought not quite as touching, Michael Kaminer’s piece on his home town–Ottawa–is pleasantly nostalgic. Noting that during his formative years he and his friends called Ottawa, “The City that Never Wakes,” Kaminer details a recent trip in which he found his hometown to be surprisingly transformed. “When I read that this summer, the National Gallery of Canada would be the only North American stop for the Tate Modern’s blockbuster “Pop Life” show — an ambitious three-decade survey from Warhol to Hirst to Murakami — I did a double take,” he writes. “Was it possible that the parochial Ottawa of my childhood had actually become hip?”
He soon finds that Ottawa has, in fact, gotten much hipper over the decades, and is now characterized by what Kaminer describes as an “unselfconscious cool.” That cool factor extends not only to the local music scene or groovy touring art shows, but also to the city’s food scene. “Locavore-fueled creativity here arguably rivals that of San Francisco or Chicago, albeit with less ego, zero attitude and gentler prices,” Kaminer writes.
It’s always fun to discover a city through the eyes of a local, and in this case, given Kaminer’s genuine surprise and excitement over the changes in his home town, that’s doubly true.
SCORE: 10/10 carry-ons ( a perfect section!)
The New York Times just wasn’t really doing it for me this week. The story on Madeira–a favorite island escape for old English farts, now suddenly trendy with young tourists–seemed like it would be a good read but ended up just being a little dull. Whereas some stories are made better when the writer makes them personal (the Dolomites story mentioned above is a good example), in this case it just felt like the writer was rattling off the details of his trip–a flight from Lisbon, a bus tour with some Germans, a cool James Bond-like hotel–all are described well enough, I just don’t know why I should care.
I coupled a visit to the island, my first ever, with three days in, less than two hours away by plane,” one paragraph begins. “Once on Madeira, I first stayed at the Estalagem da Ponta do Sol, a wonderfully hip, James Bond-like aerie 25 minutes outside the island’s capital, Funchal. Perched on top of one of the island’s soaring sea cliffs, the 54-room hotel is accessed by means of an outdoor elevator that leads to a suspended catwalk: as I entered what appeared to be the evil Blofeld’s volcano lair, I looked for masses of orange-jumpsuit-wearing movie extras, but found none. After touring the hotel’s immaculate grounds and minimalist buildings, I repeatedly availed myself of the hotel’s infinity pool and nearby honesty bar; I was honest about gin and orange juice, but slightly less honest about an almond-covered ice cream bar.
Blah. It’s the literary equivalent of looking at the slideshow from someone’s recent vacation. Another story in the section similarly begins with an interesting angle, but doesn’t quite deliver. The story is focused on the small Swiss village if Engelberg, which receives a large number of Indian tourists because scenes from a famous Bollywood film were shot there, but the writer merely takes us readers on a goose chase through the village with two visitors hoping to find a particular church that was featured in the film.
The story about Borocay Island in the Philippines becoming “the next Phuket” is interesting enough–more of a news story it focuses on the social and economic impacts of the island’s sudden popularity. After noting a shift in the island’s previously laid-back vibe, and the fact that some of the rough-and-tumble local establishments that used to be emblematic of the island have now been forced to close or move, Lionel Beehner describes the “new” Boracay Island: “For better or worse, this part of Boracay has embraced its inner , with barking masseuses, all-you-can-eat buffets and resorts with more waterfalls than the Amazon. The rising population and frenzied pace of development have put stress on this fragile island. To ease roadway congestion, a new byway is under construction, and plans are in place to clean up the sewage-tainted waters farther offshore.”
The Journeys section, focused this week on guest ranches where visitors can get a real glimpse of life in the Old West (without the spas or high threadcount sheets of many of the more glamorous ranch retreats), provides a pretty straightforward round-up of such establishments. It’s a trend that both fascinates and disgusts me: Have we, as a culture, gotten so far away from actual labor or anything resembling peace and quiet that a day working the ranch is a welcome respite? What does that say about city folk? How patronizing is that to actual ranch hands?
The trend is crystallized in one paragraph: “The property is one of a small but growing number of ranches where guests are willing to pay a premium to experience Western life in a far earthier way than at a standard dude ranch. At the J Bar L, there’s no spa, no room service and few amenities, except a gorgeous backdrop of seemingly endless grasslands and mountains. And there’s plenty of work to be done. The payoff: a feeling of authenticity that comes from experiencing the West as few but ranch hands ever do.”
There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, or with this story–it’s well researched and well-written–it’s just that the larger social and cultural issues it implies sort of turns my stomach. So much so that I finished the piece wishing the writer had addressed those drivers more, but I realize that’s a completely personal gripe. For those interested in planning such a trip, it’s a nicely done and very informative piece.
The one truly great story in the section is Alexis Okeowo’s account of his recent return to Kenya. Having been there three years ago when civil war was breaking out, Okeowo offers a unique perspective on the country.
Three years later, I was back to see how the valley had changed,” he writes. “I was glad to see that there was both a revival of calm and an upswing in tourists. But now I was facing a different kind of potential danger: hippos.
As we walked on Crescent Island, in Lake Naivasha in the Rift Valley, my tour guide, Mumo, began to tell me about the hippos that wandered onto the island at this time of the day, especially when it rained. The hippos would crash into the bush, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. And not just vegetation: they kill more humans than any other animal.
The danger of hippos aside, the Crescent Island Okeowo describes sounds like an amazing place, and one well worth visiting. “I was on a journey to follow the strikingly diverse wildlife — giraffes, impalas, even hippos — on Crescent Island and the surrounding lake,” he writes. “Overlooked by tourists for the more popular Lake Nakuru National Park, renowned for its pink flamingos, and for Hell’s Gate, a nearby safari park, much of Lake Naivasha is still off the beaten path, uncrowded and serene.”
SCORE: 6/10 carry-ons (minus points for some duds)
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