Travel Blog: News and Briefs

47 Hours on the Sunset Limited

For its Voyages issue, the New York Times Magazine includes a long, lingering story about a long-haul Amtrak ride. Writer Nathaniel Rich rode the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to L.A., and he captured the spirit of long-distance train travel along the way:

Traveling coach on Amtrak is not exactly luxurious, but amenities are superior to business class on many American airlines. A person seated in coach on a Superliner—the double-decker train used on the Sunset Limited route—has access to a dining room with white tablecloths and waiter service and to seats with 15 inches or so more legroom than those in some first-class airplane cabins, as well as access to electrical outlets. But playing video games or watching movies on a phone or computer tends only to distract for several hours, and there is no Wi-Fi, so most passengers turn to a more traditional form of entertainment: conversation.

The cliché, familiar to air travel, of the nosy passenger who makes pestering conversation with his seat partners does not exist on the long-distance train. On the Sunset Limited, everybody is nosy, and no one seems to mind.

Elsewhere, Slate’s Matt Yglesias notes that routes like the Sunset Limited are not exactly moneymakers. I think Rich’s story can be taken as an argument for why they matter nonetheless.

R.I.P. The International Herald Tribune

The venerable newspaper isn’t going away, but it will be getting a name change. The New York Times Company, which owns it, announced Monday that it will change the name of the publication this fall to The International New York Times.

From the New York Times’ story, which quotes IHT publisher Stephen Dunbar-Johnson:

The renamed paper will remain based in Paris, where it was founded 125 years ago as the European edition of The New York Herald, Mr. Dunbar-Johnson said. It will also keep its sizable office in Hong Kong where the Asian edition is edited. Mr. Dunbar-Johnson said there also would be investments in other locations. Until the fall it will continue to be published as The International Herald Tribune.

Some of my best travel memories—especially pre-internet—involve sitting down at a cafe with the International Herald Tribune, catching up on the news and watching the world go by. So the coming name change feels a bit like the end of an era.

Though of course that era—when papers like the IHT were the only source of news from home—came to an end with the rise of smart phone and digital media.

An Atlantic Crossing on the Queen Mary 2

In the New York Times, Dwight Garner has a lighthearted dispatch from a January cruise on Cunard’s enormous QM2. He starts by outlining the ground rules:

The first rule about traveling between America and England aboard the Queen Mary 2, the flagship of the Cunard Line and the world’s largest ocean liner, is to never refer to your adventure as a cruise. You are, it is understood, making a crossing. The second rule is to refrain, when speaking to those who travel frequently on Cunard’s ships, from calling them regulars. The term of art—it is best pronounced while approximating Maggie Smith’s cut-glass accent on “Downton Abbey”—is Cunardists.

The third rule, unspoken, is to not fling your Champagne flutes into the roiling North Atlantic. My wife, Cree, broke this one. It was our second night aboard the ship. We were crossing, in January, from New York to Southampton. I was in black tie. She was in an extraordinary little black dress. We’d been flailing about, in the ship’s ballroom, to an adroit orchestra. We were happy, and tipsy.

We pushed open a door to the promenade deck. The icy wind heartlessly X-rayed us, but it was impossible to pull away from the railing. The North Atlantic in January is no joke; its heaving beauty is mesmerizing. It’s a volcano of sorts, one that seems to demand an offering. Better a Champagne flute than to leap over the railing yourself.

The piece meanders a bit, but it’s laced with funny and thoughtful observations about the cruise—er, crossing. (Via The Best of Journalism)

Travel Story Hall of Fame: ‘As Long As We Were Together, Nothing Bad Could Happen To Us’

The latest installment of the Travel Story Hall of Fame, an occasional series in which we honor the best in travel writing new and old.

Title: As Long As We Were Together, Nothing Bad Could Happen To Us

Author: Scott Anderson

Publication: Men’s Journal

Date: August 2000

Nomination Speech: I just plain love this story. I first read it in “The Best American Travel Writing 2002,” and then again (and again and again) in the excellent Men’s Journal anthology, “Wild Stories.” It’s an old-fashioned adventure story about Scott Anderson and his brother, fellow writer Jon Lee Anderson, taking a Honduran river trip on a makeshift raft, at the tail end of their decidedly unconventional childhoods, but the yarn is spiced up by the contemporary frame: The brothers, now adults and reporters specializing in conflict zones and high-risk stories, being drawn back into danger again and again. It’s a great story about family and trust and risk—oh, just go read it.


I imagine that everyone’s childhood, no matter how unconventional or exotic, seems absolutely normal while it’s being lived. By the time I arrived in Honduras, I was only beginning to comprehend the downside of how we had grown up, the hidden cost that comes with not being from anywhere in particular. Jon, it seemed, had figured it out a little bit sooner. In the years ahead, we would both be caught up in a seemingly endless cycle of trying to fit in, failing, moving on. In a funny way, I think we both drew a certain comfort in the other’s inability to settle down—proof that there was at least one more misfit in the family.

Men’s Journal doesn’t have it online, but you can read the rest via Google Books.

Introducing ‘The Introvert’s Way’ by Sophia Dembling

Nearly four years ago, we published Sophia Dembling’s Confessions of an Introverted Traveler on World Hum. The essay was a huge hit: It generated more than 100 comments and became our most-read story of the year. (A follow-up piece, Six Tips for Introverted Travelers, landed second on the most-read list.) It also launched what Dembling calls “the beginning of my career as a professional introvert.” She went on to blog about introversion for Psychology Today, and in December, Perigee published her book on the subject: The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World.

As a fellow introvert, I couldn’t be more (quietly) thrilled.

What’s on Paul Theroux’s Travel Wish List?

In the New York Times, he ponders all the places he has yet to see:

“You’ve been everywhere,” people say to me, but that’s a laugh. My wish list of places is not only long but, in many cases, blindingly obvious. Yes, I have been to Patagonia and Congo and Sikkim, but I haven’t been to the most scenic American states, never to Alaska, Montana, Idaho or the Dakotas, and I’ve had only the merest glimpse of Kansas and Iowa. I want to see them, not flying in but traveling slowly on the ground, keeping to back roads, and defying the general rule of “Never eat at a place called Mom’s, never play cards with a man called Doc ...”

...Places I have not been, that I would love to go to in my car include a trip north, starting in Cape Cod and taking in Quebec, and continuing until I run out of road, then turning west, seeing the rest of Canada, land of my fathers. I have seen only a small bit of it, but the rest of it beckons, the very names: Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife, Moose Jaw, down through Alaska—months of it, maybe a year, and why not?

You know, I think the Great Canadian Road Trip Memoir has yet to be written. I wouldn’t mind at all if Theroux decided to step up to the plate.

The Trouble With the Michelin Guide

In Vanity Fair, the always-caustic A.A. Gill offers a short history of the Michelin restaurant guide—and how it all went wrong:

The Michelin guide also created a new type of customer, the foodie trainspotter, people who aren’t out for a good meal with friends but want to tick a cultural box and have bragging rights on some rare effete spirit. Michelin-starred restaurants began to look and taste the same: the service would be cloying and oleaginous, the menus vast and clotted with verbiage. The room would be hushed, the atmosphere religious. The food would be complicated beyond appetite. And it would all be ridiculously expensive. So, Michelin spawned restaurants that were based on no regional heritage or ingredient but grew out of cooks’ abused vanity, insecurity, and fawning hunger for compliments.

Being French, of course the guide has always been the subject of conspiracy theories regarding the allocation of stars, the number of inspectors, and their quality and disinterest. Having made the hierarchy of chefs, the guide found that it was in its interest to maintain it. A handful of grand and gluttonous kitchens seemed to keep their rating long after their fashion and food faded. Michelin evolved from the wandering Candide of food to become the creeping Richelieu: manipulative, obsessive, and secretive.

Has Technology Killed the Tall Travel Tale?

In a recent issue of Outside, Ian Frazier offered a lament for the outdoorsman’s yarn. “A truth about the outdoors is that it causes people to lie,” Frazier writes. “Strange forces out there in the wild have always conspired to corrupt human honesty.” But nowadays, between satellite imagery and the ubiquity of digital cameras, between GPS units and cellphone tracking, everything, Frazier argues, is fact-checkable. He goes on:

A favorite word for the technological fishbowl effect is transparency. Anything you do in far places, and anything that exists out there, can, in principle, be seen. Transparency is one of those words whose real meaning is its opposite, the way that countries with ministries of culture haven’t any. Of course, all the technology known or yet to be known won’t see even a part of everything or stop people from making things up. It’s just that the realm of colorful prevarication has moved inside, where the heart does its sneaking. Most of the gods and demons and fairies and windigos who used to inhabit their own particular outdoor places died off long ago, and modern technology has zapped the survivors. If you want to spin a yarn, it will be about something inward and private…

I’m not sure I’m convinced, but—much like the questionable tales Frazier is worried about—it’s an entertaining read nonetheless.

Ian Frazier’s “Travels in Siberia” made our roundup of The Best Travel Books of 2010, while “Great Plains” landed on our list of The 100 Most Celebrated Travel Books of All Time.

Rick Steves on Legalizing Pot in Washington

A few days before voters in Washingston state legalized marijuana for recreational use, Rick Steves wrote an op-ed in the Seattle Times in support of the measure.

Initiative 502 is not pro-pot. Rather, it’s anti-prohibition. We believe that, like the laws that criminalized alcohol back in the 1930s, our current laws against marijuana use are causing more harm to our society than the drug itself.

Marijuana is a drug. It’s not good for you. It can be addictive. But marijuana is here to stay. No amount of wishing will bring us a utopian drug-free society.

Not surprisingly, in the days since the passage of these laws in Washington and Colorado, some have wondered if we’ll see the dawn of American marijuana tourism.

Welcome to Escobarland

The one-time home of notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar has been transformed into a theme park—and, says the Daily Mail, it’s “an attraction not to be sniffed at.” Visitors to the park can view Escobar’s private bullfighting ring, a derelict hovercraft, and a plane once used for smuggling drugs. Can’t make it to Colombia anytime soon? The Daily Mail story includes an array of photos. (Via @DavidGrann)

World Hum Writers Honored in ‘The Best American Travel Writing 2012’

The newest edition of the annual The Best American Travel Writing anthology was released last week (though I’m still eagerly awaiting my copy way up here in the Yukon Territory). This time around, it was guest edited by William T. Vollmann, and three World Hum stories were included in the notable selections: Our Own Apocalypse Now, by Haley Sweetland Edwards; David Farley’s Bad “Carma”; and Greek Paradise, Lost, by Dan Saltzstein.

Several World Hum contributors, writing elsewhere, were also honored in this year’s collection: Tom Swick had a story included, while Leigh Ann Henion, Pico Iyer, Daisann McLane and Tony Perrottet were among the notable selections. Congrats, all.

Video: Interview with Pico Iyer on the Joy of Quiet

Pico Iyer’s December 2011 New York Times essay The Joy of Quiet became an instant classic, making the site’s “most e-mailed” list, prompting debates and discussions and generally, well, making a lot of noise.

The author and World Hum contributor sat down with “Radio Shangri-La” author Lisa Napoli last winter in Los Angeles for Live Talks discussion on the topic. This video of their conversation was just published.

The Sociology of Greyhound Buses

Talk about legwork. Yale University PhD student Esther Kim spent two years criss-crossing the USA by Greyhound, studying the ways in which people create the illusion of solitude or privacy while crammed together in a public space. The Atlantic Cities has some highlights from her findings:

Kim says we distance ourselves from others by putting on a “calculated social performance” that lets strangers in a shared public space know that we don’t want to be bothered. This behavior is intended to keep us safe and undisturbed in an “otherwise uncertain social space.” ...Once passengers acquired a seat they began their performance to dissuade potential row partners. They avoided eye contact, stretched their legs to cover the open space, placed a bag on the empty seat, sat on the aisle and blast earphones, pretended to sleep, looked at the window blankly. They also contorted their expressions into the “don’t bother me” face or the “hate stare,” writes Kim.

Of course, we’ve all done these things—I’m a master of the fake nap with one leg stuck out into the empty space, myself—but it’s still interesting to see the same behaviors documented time and time again. I guess it’s a small, slightly anti-social world after all?

Team USA, Mapped

Where do Olympic athletes come from? As London 2012 winds down, The Atlantic Cities has an answer. Urban trend watcher Richard Florida mapped the 500+ members of Team USA, first by hometown and then by current residence. Here’s Florida on the hometown results:

The largest number - 9 percent (43 athletes) - are from Los Angeles; 3.6 percent (17) are from the Bay Area, 3 percent (14) are from greater New York; and 2.3 percent (11) from Dallas. Four metros claim ten athletes each (2 percent): Tampa, San Diego, Atlanta and Miami.

Smaller metros rise to the top when we control for population. Now, Rochester, New York, leads the way with 1.7 athletes per 100,000 people followed by Great Falls (1.2), Cheyenne (1.1), Fairbanks (1.0), and Boulder (1.0).

Big northern cities like Chicago and Boston are conspicuously absent from the top rankings. Don’t worry, Chicagoans and Bostonians—you can just take a page out of the Canadian playbook, and blame it on the weather.

That’s Not a Bible in Your Bedside Table

Today in “Not an Onion Headline”: A hotel in Britain’s Lake District has swapped all its Gideon Bibles for copies of the racy bestseller “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The hotel manager, when asked about the change, noted that the Bible is also full of sex and violence. (Via The Awl)