Misadventures in travel writing
Published: April 6, 2009 at 6:45 PM
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.