Weekly Travel Scorecard [08.08.10]
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.
Is it me or is the NYT travel section getting shorter? It’s not actually, there are about the same number of stories as usual … it just feels like there’s less to read, maybe less to really dig into. Then again, does the average reader want to really dig into the travel section? Probably not. As much as us travel writers would like to believe that, the reason service journalism has been on the rise in travel for years is that it’s basically what people want. Or what they’ve been conditioned to want in the digital age, where it’s assumed that no reader will pay attention for more than about 800 words and that’s pushing it. Sigh. The problem may also be that the Europe coverage is getting to be a bit much. In addition to two features on European destinations, this week saw the launch of Eurofile, a new column focused solely on the best tables and hotels on the continent. I suppose New York readers probably want to read about Europe more than most other destinations, but it makes things a bit dull week after week. Then again, how many other people out there read the entire travel section every week … two, maybe?
All of that said, the Grey Lady still sets the bar when it comes to travel writing, and this week’s section made up for anything it lacked in breadth with quality. The “Explorer” feature on surfing in North Carolina, for example, could have been a generic “learning to surf story.” It even sort of started out that way, with the writer narrating his first few moments standing up and the exaltation those moments brought. Then we find out that he’s in North Carolina, on the Outer Banks, and that, whereas in Hawaii or California the local surfers would be annoyed at the newbie taking their waves, here there’s plenty of space. “It’s not that the Outer Banks isn’t popular with tourists — far from it,” writer Ethan Todras-Whitehill explains. “It’s just that the Banks — a string of barrier islands more than 175 miles long that changes little from north to south — has enough room for every group of beachgoers, including surfers, to claim their sovereign territory.”
And Seth Sherwood did what he does best and painted the most incredible picture of Normandy. Forget World War II monuments (no offense, Uncle Bob), I want to go to Normandy to eat dinner in fabulous restaurants and party like a low-profile celeb. “Sure, the Côte Fleurie serves up film festivals (the Deauville American Film Festival in September is second only to Cannes), expansive beaches (particularly the golden sands of Deauville and Trouville), seafood-laden local cuisine (with excellent new spots in the port of Honfleur), artistic history (Monet and other Impressionists painted here), celebrity residences (the Rothschilds, Gérard Depardieu and Yves Saint Laurent are among current and former homeowners) and all-night casinos (place your bets in Cabourg and Deauville),” Sherwood writes. “But unlike its southern sibling [Cannes], it does so without fanfare. Mega-yachts with helipads are rare, the Lamborghini-per-capita ratio wows almost nobody, and local Calvados apple liqueur (made in the region’s famous orchards) finds far more favor than Cristal Champagne.”
Even the “Next Stop” and “Frugal Traveler” sections, which I usually just skim, were engaging and superbly written this week. I loved the story about the traditionally Argentinean province of Jujuy, where the old concept of Argentina being “European” gets thrown out the window in favor of rituals that pay homage to Pachamama (Mother Earth). “Here, pagan rituals overshadow Catholic beliefs, medicine men are sometimes preferred to doctors, and everyone, regardless of ancestry, embraces an indigenous heritage that dates back to the 10th century,” writes Paola Singer, after describing the Pachamama ritual that includes cooking lavish, gourmet meals and burying them in the ground as an offering. Sign me up!
And Seth Kugel’s Frugal Traveler bit, about taking his parents on a budget vacation in Nicaragua, was entertaining and hilarious. It’s hard to write a travel story that makes readers laugh out loud, so hats off to Kugel. The funniest bit is the story’s introductory graphs, where Kugel starts out describing dinner in a white-tablecloth restaurant.
My mother paused to sip her drink,” Kugel writes. “‘I’m really enjoying this fine orange wine,” she said. ‘What an aroma.’
O.K., it was a bottle of Fanta, and we were not in a restaurant, but at Bar de Choy, a charmless space whose concrete walls reminded my mother of an auto mechanic’s shop. Our host had decked the place out with the tablecloth, a nice touch, but one that didn’t quite mesh with the three stray dogs that sat patiently at our feet waiting for crumbs. Still, my parents both agreed that the food was superb. And there was no beating the price: 115 córdobas apiece (about $5.50 at 21 córdobas to the dollar), which included an escort by flashlight back to our lodging a few unlighted dirt roads away.
After that the piece becomes a bit list-y for my taste (we went here, we tried this, we like this but not that), but all in all it’s a good read.
SCORE: 9/10 carry-ons
Nicaragua’s tourism board must be doing its job because the destination is showing up everywhere lately. The LA Times ran a piece earlier this summer, and this week both the New York Times and the Washington Post went to Nicaragua. The Post piece differs a bit in its theme. It’s still adventurous — it seems you can’t really go to Nicaragua without being somewhat of an intrepid explorer — but it’s got very specific angle: Mark Twain. That’s what made it a fascinating read for me, not just because I love Twain, but also because I never knew he had traveled in Nicaragua. And what a trip that must have been in his day! “Things have improved in the nearly century and a half since Mark Twain arrived here by steamship, forced to spend an extra night on board because of a cholera epidemic onshore,” writes Julian Smith. That piqued my interest, and the following description of Twain at the time that he was visiting Nicaragua made me fall in love with both Twain and this story: “He was fresh off his first lecture tour, and his writing career was just starting to take off,” Smith writes. “He was still basking in the praise that his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” had earned the previous year. He didn’t know what the future held, but at 31, he had high hopes.”
I’m almost as big of a Faulkner fan as I am a Twain fan, but this week’s WaPo story on his hometown didn’t capture my interest nearly as much as the Nicaragua story did. It felt like a failed attempt to make Oxford, Mississippi sound like an interesting travel destination. A valiant effort, to be sure, but a failed one all the same. Perhaps the paper is running out of towns within weekend-trip distance?
In contrast, Zofia Smardz took her dud destination — Wildwood, New Jersey — and made it cool. She basically had me after the first few lines: “I don’t like the word ‘cozy,’” she begins. “When writers use it, I mercilessly slash it from their copy. But now I was flummoxed. Because standing in the middle of the little aluminum trailer where I’d be spending the night, all I could think was, ‘Wow, this is really … cozy.’”
From there she goes on to describe the retro Airstream trailer that made her use the offending word, and it sounds pretty awesome. I’m not planning a trip to Wildwood any time soon, mind you, but if I happen to find myself there, I will remember this story. And it kept me entertained for five minutes on Sunday. Job well done, WaPo.
SCORE: 8/10 carry-ons
If the NYT section feels like it’s shrinking, the LA Times travel section seems to be growing. I can’t tell yet whether that’s a good thing. On the one hand, given the shrinking column space of newspapers in general, more is probably always better. On the other, I can’t really get excited about reading more lists, or a feature on dude ranches that spends three paragraphs making an overworked reference to a 1990s movie (City Slickers, naturally) before launching into a cliche: Hey, dude ranches have gotten pretty nice lately – how about that?
Thank heavens for Christopher Reynolds, the paper’s one solid travel writer. Despite the fact that he appears to be living in, and only writing about, Wyoming lately, Reynolds and his work are a welcome break from the rest. First, a quick note to the LAT headline writer: Using the phrase “even a middle-class family can afford” is probably not a good idea in a travel section. In case you haven’t heard, there’s a recession on, and the travel industry is hurting (oh wait, so is the publishing industry). Toe the line, son.
Back to this week’s Christopher Reynolds-on-Wyoming story: It’s about Jackson Hole, which is, of course, a rich man’s playground. But where the headline writer handles that fact clumsily, in Reynolds hands it becomes charming. After waxing poetic about the aspens, the Snake River, and a little boy he spots riding a bicycle gleefully along it, Reynolds writes: “It helps, of course, if you’re rich. Even in the current slump, some fancy travelers spend $695 a night to sleep at the Four Seasons resort here, and others drop $875 for a suite at the Amangani resort. Even at the national park’s Jackson Lake Lodge — an ugly, brown box with a grand location — rates start at a daunting $224 for a room with no view, no TV and no air-conditioning.”
He follows that with this reassuring statement: “But I’m here to say there’s room for the rest of us too, especially if you book well in advance.”
The story then heads to service-ville, but Reynolds’ snappy tone keeps it interesting. To be fair, his isn’t the only readable piece in this week’s section. The feature on wine-tasting on horseback in Los Olivos (of Sideways fame) is a fun read, and the piece on soul searching in Ubud, Bali, although annoyingly full of Eat Pray Love references isn’t 100% awful.
I finished the section torn: I’m glad there are more stories, and I liked the mix, from dude ranch to Jackson Hole to Bali, but I can’t help thinking, surely there are tons of great travel writers out there who would love to write for the LA Times. Do they pay that badly?
SCORE: 4/10 carry-ons
Sometimes there are stories that just don’t resonate with me, but I know it’s just a personal thing. Similarly, there are those stories that I like purely because they remind me of a good trip, or are focused on a destination that I love. The latter was the case when I read the main travel feature in this week’s Detroit Free Press, about the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I wrote a guide to that region once, and while any travel guide author will tell you it’s pretty tedious work, that was one project I loved. The people in the UP are warm and friendly, and the place itself is beautiful. Mostly because, as the DFP writer points out, it’s basically a huge swathe of wilderness.
“There is no true wilderness left in the Lower Peninsula,” Eric Sharp writes. “‘Wilderness’ by definition means ‘roadless,’ and in even the least-developed woodlands below the bridge, there is some kind of road about every mile. Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park draws me back to the western Upper Peninsula several times each year to experience true wilderness, 60,000 acres where the only way to travel is on foot. Roads are something you leave behind at the trailhead parking areas.
The park is the biggest wilderness left in the Midwest and among a handful that survive east of the Mississippi River. I’ve visited the park maybe 30 times in 20 years in every season — and it never gets old.”
Those paragraphs took me immediately back to my time there and I loved the journey back. It’s impossible for me to have perspective on this story, but I can say that I’d recommend every American check out the UP at some point in their lives. Especially now, it’s nice to get a taste of what the country was like before we got here.
SCORE: 7/10 carry-ons
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