Weekly Travel Scorecard [09.12.10]
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.
This week’s travel stories illustrated an ongoing issue with travel narrative: How does one write a personal narrative and create a story that a reader can immerse him- or herself in at the same time? It’s not easy, and that’s why really good travel writing stands out. Judith Shulevitz’s story on exploring Ein Gedi–an Israeli oasis on the Dead Sea–with her children, for example, managed to pull both off splendidly. And I say that as someone that has a really hard time making it through most family travel stories. Not because I hate families, children or travel, but because such stories tend to be the ones that most often fail to balance the personal with the universal. Put another way, parents are often hard-pressed to see beyond their children’s noses, and travel writers who are parents are no exception. Which makes Shulevitz’s accomplishment all the more rare. “There are many reasons not to travel overseas with small children, and, as far as I can tell, only one reason to do so,” she starts off. “Unfortunately for my children, who’d probably be just as happy to stay home, that reason is what keeps me slogging through the less glamorous parts of motherhood. When you travel you get the chance to prove to your children that life is at least as interesting as their bedtime stories. And if you can get them to believe that, then you can believe it too, at least for the duration of the trip.”
Now, an example of the opposite type of travel writer, one for whom the first person becomes a way to alienate, rather than embrace, the reader. This is one of many such lines in the NYT piece on Batumi, which it heralds as a newly glamorous getaway in Georgia (the country, not the state). After leading off with the description of a building that could be a mosque, a library or a museum, the writer informs us readers: “But, as I discovered when I entered the marble-floored lobby this summer, the building was a much more unexpected cultural treasure: an $80 million, 203-room Sheraton hotel, which opened in June and became Batumi’s first international brand hotel.”
It’s hard to put oneself in the writer’s shoes at this point, much less care about where she will lead us readers next. The new NYT series “Getting Lost” has plenty of potential for combining both personal insight and universal appeal, provided columnist Matt Gross (formerly the paper’s Frugal Traveler) can steer clear of too much personal background. In the debut column, Gross goes a bit heavy on the “I”, but hey, he has to set up the purpose of the column and he can’t really do that without explaining that, as a frequent traveler, he misses the joy of being lost in a new place.
SCORE: 7/10 carry-ons
Like the New York Times, this week’s LA Times travel section was dominated, for the most part, by first-person narratives. And again, the struggle between the individual and the universal was on display, this time contained within each story. In a piece on eating one’s way around Charleston, for example, the writer starts out with a good blend of the personal–she and her husband shocking a waiter with the amount of food they’re ready to sample–with the universal–they’re just two of several tourists currently visiting the area for its food. But in some passages she delves perhaps a bit too far into her own experience. “But a quick tip: Before embarking on a venture of this kind, it is crucial to don comfortable shoes, so as to be able to walk off what you do to yourself,” she writes in one unnecessary paragraph. “This is not the time — believe me because I know — for the new sandals purchased at said thrift shop, no matter how cute they are.”
In a companion piece on Edisto Island, a short drive from Charleston (is the South Carolina tourism board advertising with the LA Times?), writer Madeline King Porter uses her personal connection with the place to draw readers in. She’s describing a place she’s been dozens of times, and her excitement for the spot is contagious. “I’ve driven this 17-mile stretch of narrow highway over decades — at the wheel, or in the back seat with my parents in front, or piled into a car with teenage friends — on the way to Edisto Island,” she writes. And later: “Of the many Edisto trails, my favorite leads to Botany Bay Beach, two miles of uninhabited oceanfront that can be reached only on foot or by bike.”
In this case the writer’s experience is important: It’s what clues us readers into the fact that she knows this place well and that we can depend on her advice. Similarly, Catherine Watson’s experience of other parts of Polynesia make her story on Samoa that much more interesting. Watson starts off transfixed by the open pavilions she sees driving through the streets of Samoa. They’re a sight she hasn’t seen in other Polynesian destinations, like Fiji or Tahiti, and Watson is intent on finding out what they’re for. “In some small ones, families were watching TV, as if the pavilions were open-air living rooms,” she writes. “In the largest ones, men were sitting as still as cross-legged statues, one at the base of each pillar. A church service, perhaps? But we were passing dozens of churches. A ceremony, then?”
Later she tells us readers that if her hunt to uncover the mystery behind the pavilions seems strange, the purpose of her visit is equally so. “Most tourists come to the Samoas in search of the picture-perfect South Seas paradise — green mountains sloping to white beaches, coconut palms framing deep-blue ocean, and friendly people with flowers in their hair. And all that is here,” she writes. “But I’d come for a house — an old house and a long-dead hero. I wanted to see Vailima, the carefully restored Victorian villa that was Robert Louis Stevenson’s last home.”
The introduction of another character, and his experiences, elevates the story to a truly great travel narrative.
SCORE: 8/10 carry-ons
Contributors to the Washington Post’s travel section consistently pull off excellent blends of personal and universally interesting narratives. Despite using one of the travel buzz words that makes me most likely to vomit on my keyboard–glamping–and using it about two years after it emerged on the scene, no less, the story on upscale camping in North Carolina’s mountains nonetheless maintained this tradition. “‘There’d better be a Four Seasons at the end of this road,’ said my friend Rebecca as our rented Kia struggled down a steep hill. (Mental note: Don’t take a Kia camping in the mountains.), ” WaPo staffer Nancy Trejos begins. “We’d been going in circles for an hour, taking the wrong exits and searching for signs to our campsite.”
After taking us readers along on her camping trip, Trejos pulls back and puts her story in the context of the larger upscale camping trend, and successfully switches between these modes throughout. Similarly, Anne Glusker’s piece on Montreal as a sort of ideal blend of North America and France benefits from her intro, in which she explains that she has recently moved back to the United States after living in France and is looking for a hit of la vie francaise without the pricey plane ticket. Voila. A great story on Montreal is made. “No place I visited in the city so perfectly encapsulated the melange of cultures as the Cochon Dingue in the Lower Town portion of Old Quebec,” Glusker writes. “Inside the atmospheric cafe (the name translates as “Crazy Pig”) you could almost think you’re in Paris. Coffee: strong and aromatic. Croissants: properly light and flaky. Newspaper-reading patrons: appropriate air of studied nonchalance. But one bite of the delicious, buttery toasted pain aux canneberges (cranberry bread), and you know you’re not anywhere near the Eiffel Tower. Cranberries just aren’t a French thing; they’re a North American crop.”
The piece on the new Sofitel in Philadelphia falls just short of using the first-person to good effect. The writer lingers just a bit too long on the similarities between her name and the hotel chain’s. “How could someone with a name like Zofia not adore a hotel chain with a name like Sofitel? I mean, it’s named after me!” she begins. And had the intro ended there it would have worked–a lot of personality, sure, but she pulls it off. Unfortunately, what follows is a paragraph-long explanation of the lede, and not one that benefits readers in any way: “Well, not really, but I’ve always thought that it sounded that way. (Just read that “z” at the start of my moniker as an “s” and you’ll get my drift.),” the passage starts. And there’s actually more. “In fact, when the luxury French chain started popping up a couple of decades ago, my first thought was that it must be Bulgarian,” the piece continues. “You know, as in the capital, Sofia. (I was wrong, thank goodness.)”
Look, it wasn’t that great of a joke to begin with, and we got it after the second line. I’d love to tell you that the piece gets better from there, and it probably does, but honestly, I couldn’t keep reading.
SCORE: 7/10 carry-ons
If the WaPo Philadelphia story leans a little too heavily on its first-person intro, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Molokai feature goes the opposite route. When the writer does insert herself in the narrative it’s about two-thirds of the way in and comes as somewhat of a shock. It’s a great story, regardless, an interesting blend of the island’s history and its ongoing struggles in recent years. There was a time there where it seemed like Molokai might lose its place as the slowest and most Hawaiian of the Islands to encroaching tourism–a luxury tour there, a high-end ranch here–but the drop-off in tourism in recent years has hit the island hard, and in the last year it has been hit with problems of both the man-made sort (rampant vandalism and theft) and the natural variety (fire, high winds and landslides). After introducing some of these more recent struggles, and describing the island’s history as a leper colony run by the now-sainted Father Damien, Jeanne Cooper takes us along on her hike to the former colony–currently the number-one tourist attraction on the island–Kalaupapa. “In Kalaupapa, among other sights, we view the grave of Mother Marianne Cope, a selfless nun who continued Father Damien’s mission; heart-rending photos of former patients and artistic tributes to Damien in the St. Francis parish hall; and, in the park service’s pocket-size museum and bookstore, spoons and other utensils modified by and for disabled patients,” Cooper writes. She later ends with this: “I don’t have the patience of a saint, but I quietly resolve not to whine so much on the hike back up.”
It’s a bit of a hokey ending, but her description of the experiences that precede it make it work.
SCORE: 7/10 carry-ons
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