Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Travel Section Blues

Posted on Columbia Journalism Review ( - Sept. 8, 2010

By Steve Daley

Paris is a puzzle. San Francisco is an affront. The west of Ireland is a slap in the face.

The travel sections of magazines and newspapers are at once a favorite getaway and an IQ test at which I am not doing so well.

Manhattan Island is a riddle. Santa Fe, New Mexico is a mystery. London is an enigma.

My traveling life has slowed a bit in recent years and the truth is I’ve never gotten around the planet like Arthur Frommer or John Glenn. But on my own and with my wife, Jane, we’ve hit some high spots. A honeymoon in Wales. How about that?

So when the travel sections of fine newspapers and periodicals offer to tell me where to go and where to stay and where to eat and where to rent that bike, I’m all in. And if you’re writing about Kiev or Karachi or Ketchikan – places I will never, ever go – I’m easy to please.

But when I survey the tick list of restaurants, hotels, saloons and museums in places I have actually visited, I begin to feel like a young George Orwell, down and out, drinking out of the bus pans of legendary pubs, boites and four-star restaurants.

Travel writers have given me a geographic inferiority complex. When the New York Times offers “36 Hours In…” Nantucket or Copenhagen or St. Louis or Edinburgh, well, you’ll generally find me in the wrong part of town.

From coastal Maine to La Jolla, from Key West to Toronto to Big Sur, it seems there is always a perfect family-owned restaurant I missed, or a lively up-and-coming neighborhood I took a taxi through without stopping, or a can’t-miss folk art museum I went just one subway stop beyond.

I was eating in Montmarte and le tout seasoned travelers were fine dining on the cheap at least an arrondissemont away.

I was at having a pint in McDaid’s pub on Harry Street in Dublin and the smart set was drinking Pinot Grigio and bunking down in swell, if tiny, Euro digs in that city’s Temple Bar neighborhood. I’m touring London’s Portobello Road and the New York Times is picking through antiques in Budapest.

Truth is, when marooned amongst the travel writers, even Washington, D.C., a place I call home, often seems as alien to me as Bratislava.

(Except for Ben’s Chili Bowl. Apparently it is not possible for an English language publication to write about visiting Washington, D.C. without mentioning Ben’s Chili Bowl).

The whole experience is enough to give a fellow a dose of travel section agoraphobia. I’m always a day late – metaphorically – and a guidebook short.

Consider London. Been there, and more than once. Never had a bad time. But every visit to a travel section convinces me that I am a lost soul, an incidental tourist, that guy in Bermuda shorts and a porkpie hat emblazoned with “USA,” stumbling around Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square with three maps and a pocket filled with strange coins.

My wife and I have a list of places in central London that we enjoy revisiting, but not long ago the Washington Post, told me I should be surveying neighborhoods on “the city’s edge… “where the pace is slower, and the prices lower…”

Sure, St. Paul’s Cathedral is a nice stop and you could go to a play in the West End one night, but it turns out I should be in Stoke Newington or Crouch End. These are places I thought you passed through on the Tube in from Heathrow Airport.

There are pressures on the traveling scribblers. I get that. From Milan to the Meatpacking District, it’s hard to keep up with the drinking and dancing whereabouts of the 26-year-olds.

Boutique hotels open with the frequency of new airline baggage fees. Sushi fusion restaurants with optional truffle fries must be celebrated.

On my last foray to New York City, I stayed in a perfectly acceptable hotel on the far West Side in a neighborhood where a decade ago you were more likely to find a methadone clinic than a taxi.

It’s a new world. And I’ve got the wrong map.