Misadventures in travel writing
It's been a lousy day; I feel miserable, so I'm gonna rant. Forgive me. But I will try to make it fun.
I guess since this website has become my primary job, this has made me into a professional travel writer. Unfortunately, much travel writing drives me nuts. Here's the latest example that set me off, a feature in Travel + Leisure magazine this month on Discovering the Baltic Islands:
At the outskirts of Ventspils, gray Soviet-era housing blocks rose from the fields. One of them, an unfinished skeleton, looked almost archaeological, a ruin from the previous empire. We drove past little houses, each with a fastidiously tended garden out front. They made the town seem house-proud and tidy. Ventspils is an ice-free port where Russian oil and minerals are loaded onto ships. It is bisected by the Venta River, over which rises an elevated bridge that swept us up and then gently deposited us in the center of the sleepy old port town. Our room that night, in the Hotel Vilnis, was modest and clean. Only the convention of attack-dog trainers, whose dogs were barking in cages outside the lobby, made the visit the slightest bit unsettling.
Allow me to translate: In the midst of gray, Soviet-era housing blocks in an industrial port city, they're staying in a crappy hotel hosting a killer dog convention.
What more does one need here for the writer to come out and say this night of the vacation stinks: Hannibal Lechter delivering the room service?
I hate to pick on T+L here, because you can find this type of writing everywhere, from the Sunday newspaper to dozens of titles on any large bookstore's magazine rack. (Plus, T+L had the good sense to name us the best theme park site on the Web not too long back....)
This style of writing drove me to start this website in the first place: reporters gushing about the ordinary, "writing around" the contemptible and pretending that every moment on even a lousy trip represents the finest experience your money could buy.
Because that's what this style of travel writing is really about - encouraging you to spend your money. Look, I love theme parks. I spend thousands of dollars visiting them every year. (FWIW, some travel writers accept free flights and hotel rooms - I never do.) But I don't want you to spend a dime of your money on a lousy trip.
With two weeks, and often less, to get away on a trip, and a limited supply of cash to pay for it, you deserve better than reliving a scene from "The Usual Suspects."
That's why I beg readers not to forget that they can, and should, rate some attractions on this site as "average" or below. And to penalize attractions for excessive wait times, and restaurants for inattentive service or mediocre food. If you can get the same experience elsewhere, at the same or a better price, then it ain't "perfect."
Not all travel writing need be prescriptive. But even literary travel writing ought to be honest. Some trips stink. Sometimes, it's not the destination's fault. A relationship falters. Someone gets sick. There's an attack dog convention in town.
But some places just aren't meant to be vacation destinations. That doesn't mean those locations do not have compelling stories to be told - just that those stories ought to be told in a different venue than a leisure travel publication, whether that be in print or online.
So if I ever recommend that you sleep with the pit bulls, please, send me to sleep with the fishes instead.
It's good to know that the staff of Travel and Leisure took numerous creative writing classes, and it's great that they all keep their thesauruses on their desks, but none of that means anything if you're not passing on any information worth reading.
Sorry you had a bad day, Robert, but at least you got me to laugh because of it!
I used to rarely give attractions less than a 6 or 7, but I recall you mentioning to be more constructive a while back. I've changed my ways. Very few attractions now get higher than a 7 in my system.
In all fairness for the lesser ridden attractions like the Tilt-a-Whirl probably get a lot less ratings, so a few people rating it around a 6 or 7 and no one else rating it will leave it there. Now, I also must say that even though they may not be the biggest or most amazing rides in the park, I judge them on a completely different basis, and they may be deserving of that number on that basis. I actually enjoy riding things like Monster or Tilt-a-Whirl while I'm at Cedar Point, and if were to rate them, I would probably give them a 6 and 7 respectively (keep in mind I'm judging differently than large flats/coasters).
Seriously....this place sounds like paradise. I'm booking a flight right now. Does it come complete with the hookers that sell you to the torture chamber like in Hostel? I wonder what drives a writer to cover that trip, much less report good news.
Oh, the irony of someone railing against mediocrity ending their post by admitting to watching Heroes...
^^You're right... and I did almost give up on it, but it has improved. What's the alternative, though? American Idol? Dancing With The Stars? Oh Dear God no! They are the Eli Bridge scramblers of the TV world! Heroes tries to be different - at least.
I figure I should give props to at least one example of prescriptive travel writing that I love and respect: The
For me, nothing compares to the Unofficial Guide series. They are completely indispensable and I have used them to plan my trips to various cities. Well written, sensibly organized, and in-depth.
Great points Robert. It seems people's reviews on things are either all bliss or total disaster. Reading about restaraunts, hotels, or theme parks on Trip Advisor can be like watching Psycho, you go from BEST TRIP EVER! to HELL ON EARTH just because one person had great weather and another didn't like their flight attendant.
I've noticed with a lot of people that they either rate "all or nothing" or "never gets a nine or ten". It's somewhat of a reflection on their personality ya know? Kinda like everything's either "EPIC" or "CRAP"... or the other end "nothing satisfies me". It's like a movie review site that never gives out 5 out of 5, vs the site that only gives out 10 out of 10 and 3 or less.
Steve, I enjoyed the stroll down the Geauga Lake midways one more time. It's little clips like this one that can hang around for a while. I have a bunch of home video stuff like that in my collection, the earliest being Coney Island footage from the turn of the century.
Thanks for sharing this post! I love to read travel articles too. I've been searching over the internet for this kind of articles. I been reading also some travel guide sites to http://explorertravelblog.co.uk. Thanks for posting this, now I have some ideas on how to travel and other travel stuff.
"FWIW, some travel writers accept free flights and hotel rooms - I never do."
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.