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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Guides: a model guide from the Mulgana mob at Monkey Mia

For all my criticism of guides, there have been a few that have impressed us, and there has been one that changed our lives. Darren ‘Capes’ Capewell, an indigenous Australian from the Mulgana tribe, runs cultural walks through the bushland and along the shores of Monkey Mia in the Shark Bay World Heritage area on the north-west coast of Western Australia. Capes' father is from the Mulgana mob (tribe) and his mother from the Nardi mob, so he’s an expert on aboriginal country. We did a couple of walks with Capes while researching our Lonely Planet Perth and Western Australia guidebook. His walks are called ‘Wula Guda Nyinda’, which means ‘you come this way’, and after telling us that we were Mulgana mob for the day, he said: “Take soft steps. Today you’re going to learn how to respect country.” And he had us from that moment. After a few hours of stepping softly through the sandy scrub-land we learnt that what appeared to be arid country was in fact a "bush supermarket" and that the vegetation was a smorgasbord. Capes broke twigs from branches and picked berries from trees and we learnt to identify and taste bush tucker. We learnt how to find water and how to create it if we couldn't. We learnt that the supermarket was also a pharmacy. A plant Capes called ‘pigface’ could be applied to skin to soothe sunburn, and coastal myrtle, like Vic’s Vapour Rub, could be rubbed under the nose if you had a cold. So while we were 'shopping' and food-tasting, we were also learning valuable survival skills. Capes taught us "how to let the bush talk to you” by listening to the birdsong and rustles in the grass. We learnt how to identify animals by their tracks in the sand and how to tell the size of a kangaroo by the size of his poo! And along the way Capes taught us some of the Mulgana language. Keen for more, we joined Capes for a second walk to an aboriginal campsite where he told us dreamtime stories under the stars. As Terry said the next day "We walked a few kilometres in just a few hours yet we dipped our toes into thousands of years of Aboriginal knowledge of the land." We learnt about bush tucker, medicine and survival, but most of all we experienced firsthand that special connection indigenous Australians have to the land, to country. To me, it's the ability to share that special connection that makes a guide great and a walk or tour a memorable, if not life-changing, experience.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Guides: how to pick them

If you must hire a guide (well, you know how I feel about guides), whether it's simply to show you around a city you're a first-time visitor to, escort you on a day-trip, or lead you on a longer trek or journey, here are a few tips:
1) do your research: start with the guide, agency or tour company's website. Are the services, options and prices described? Is there a bio? Are there testimonials?
Compare the offerings with that of other guides and companies.
2) go with a recommended guide: nothing beats a recommendation based on first-hand experience. Read testimonials - and read between the lines. Google the guide's name. Consult traveller forums.
3) opt for a specialist: look at the guide's bio. Does the guide have relevant qualifications, skills, experience? If you're looking at art, architecture or archaeological sites you want an archaeologist, artist, teacher, curator, gallery owner, architect, or masters or PhD student. Not just someone who has an interest. If you're doing a cooking or wine course, opt for a chef, caterer, sommelier or wine-maker over a foodie or wine-lover. If it's a bush-walk or trek, has the guide had years of experience in the area and survival and first-aid skills? Are language skills required?

4) go for a local: was the guide born in the place, was his/her family/tribe from the area, or is the guide a long-term resident? You want someone with a connection to the place and is passionate about the destination. For me, the guide's first-hand experience, personal insight, and opinions and feelings can really make the experience special.
5) look for imagination: are any itineraries for walks, day-trips and excursions offered well thought-out, themed and focused? Has some creativity gone into their creation? Are they inspired and unique? If they're the same as other offerings and just like the one in your guidebook, give it a miss. You want to have a reason to pay for something that you could otherwise manage yourself.
6) consider the fee: remember, cheaper isn't necessarily better (you get what you pay for) while expensive doesn't necessarily mean 'best' (some guides over-charge because they know some travellers won't quibble over the price). Look for guides who charge a fee that seems fair for what's offered.
7) meet the guide beforehand: this isn't always possible, but try to meet before you agree to use the guide's services. You want someone who has personality, confidence, social skills, and can communicate well. Does the guide speak your language as well as you'd like? Does the person listen to what you want rather than simply telling you what they think you should do? Does the guide seem like a genuinely nice person? Is this someone you want to spend a day (or longer) with?
A guide can make or break an experience of a place, so make sure you choose well.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Good guides, bad guides: the good guides

While most of our experiences with guides have been terrible (see my last post), we've had a few great guides who've restored our faith in the human guide (sorry!). One worked for the same tour company our socially inept hill tribe guide did (last post again), but this guy was affable, full of energy, obviously loved his job, and his enthusiasm was infectious. His English wasn't great and we didn't leave his biking tour of local market towns feeling enlightened. But we did pick up a few interesting tidbits, got to try some tasty food, and his social skills and good relationships with the market stall-holders meant we were well-received wherever we went. And we had fun. As we were reviewing a few Four Seasons properties as part of our Thailand research (and paying media rates, I might add), we did the activities available to all guests, including a tour taking in the Mekong River, a local village, market and temple from the Four Seasons Golden Triangle Tented Camp, and in preparation for a Thai cooking course, a trip to the market from the Four Seasons Chiang Mai. Both guides were brilliant, which says a lot about training. They were friendly, charming, knowledgeable, smart, and sociable, and once again, had excellent relationships with the locals, opening doors for us in so many ways. Our first guide went in for the touristic experiences a tad too much for our liking, setting up cheesy photo ops, including an uncomfortable performance by a group of local kids in colorful costumes in front of a Mekong River vista, and - worse - corny ops where she could point the camera at us. She did this with such sweetness of spirit and charm, and with such good intentions - most people would love these souvenirs we imagined - that we forgave her. We also came away learning something about the local cuisine, culture and spirituality of the people. The Chiang Mai guide was even better, with a deeper knowledge of ingredients, dishes and eating habits of the locals, and she even revealed a few secrets we'd always been curious about. As our trip was partly in preparation for a cooking course, it was also knowledge that would soon be put to use. Better again. Although we couldn't help but feel we might have enjoyed the tour even more had it have been led by a chef or culinary expert. Still, we got to try lots more tasty stuff, and you can't go wrong with that.

Good guides, bad guides: the bad guides

There are good guides and there are bad guides. We've had varying degrees of experience with guides we've used (see this post), but on the most part they've been bad. So bad, I've sworn never to use a guide again. Until the next time, when we've had no choice, and a positive experience has made me re-think my policy. In Thailand last year we used several guides. One was particularly dreadful and all the more disappointing because he worked for an award-winning company that's acclaimed for its culturally sensitive hill tribe treks. Our guide was late to meet us, tripped over at the market, and took way longer than necessary to shop for a few things (and coming from me that's saying something). Not good signs. He turned out to be socially inept, continually behind schedule (largely due to his need to change his clothes three times a day) and spoke disparagingly and condescendingly about the villagers. The only stories he told us about the hill tribes related to their greed or laziness and the human trafficking, prostitution and drug dealing they resorted to over hard work. We were poorly received at villages despite the company claiming their guides were from the area, knew the tribes, and we'd be welcomed with open arms. Instead, the reception was hostile and we only ever communicated with villagers when we made the effort ourselves. Our walks through the jungle involved our guide telling us little other than pointing out poisonous mushrooms, plants and insects, none of which he could name. So when a red stain suddenly appeared on my wrist after I'd inadvertently brushed against something poisonous - and with it came piercing pain, followed by throbbing, then aching for 24 hours - our guide panicked, not knowing the cause or what to do. When he calmed down, he consoled me with: "at least it isn't close to your heart". He did give me his tiger balm, which soothed the pain, yet despite telling us we were an hour away from our destination, he continued to dawdle, muttering that we had plenty of time - as the sun rapidly sunk behind the hills. We arrived in the dark. It turned out our guide was from the south, not from the area at all, and years before had attempted to 'rescue' a young village girl from prostitution. She subsequently ran off to work as a prostitute in Bangkok anyway. That could explain the poor reception.

Friday, April 25, 2008

cool travel tips: an explanation

When interviewed for Instant Native recently I was asked for a travel tip and I admit my first impulse was to draw on the usual suggestions travel writers make like 'travel light', 'select your seats ahead of departure' and 'email the hotel with an ETA to ensure the champagne's on ice' (that last one's is mine). They're things I forget to do, am too busy to do, or simply can't do (I'm sorry, but it's impossible to travel 'light' with an array of technology, four seasons of clothes, and carry bags of research materials, the result of being permanently on the road with no 'home' other than a storage unit in Dubai). This time, I decided to give the topic some serious thought and in the process realized my travel tips were a little different to those I read elsewhere, a consequence of constant travel perhaps. Anne from Instant Native suggested I write a book called 'tips from the constant traveller', and although I appreciated her suggestion and I love the title, I'm not yet sure the world needs another one of those. You're probably thinking do we really need another travel blog offering travel tips? I'll let you decide. See my next post for the first of a series of cool travel tips.

cool travel tip #1: learn the 10 language basics on the plane

COOL TRAVEL TIP #1: learn the ten language basics of the country you're heading to while you're on the plane: hello, how are you? good thanks, yes, no, right, left, excuse me/sorry, thank you, and goodbye. I mean, how hard is it? Travelling alone on long-haul, memorize the words between meals. With a friend and travelling low-cost short haul? Play drinking games: whoever guesses right gets a drink and the other buys. Do whatever works, just do it. It doesn't take much effort and the pay-off is enormous. Just try it. If you're really ambitious you can also learn "I'm sorry, I'm a real idiot and I don't speak xxx (insert language here). Do you speak English?" That's far more polite than starting to speak English to someone who doesn't. You can also start conversations with locals by asking them how to pronounce a word, and by doing so, demonstrate that not all xxx (insert your nationality) travellers are ignorant lazy sods who are clueless when it comes to languages. You'll be amazed at what a difference it makes to your experience of the place and how locals treat you. And if you're really ambitious or just want to have fun you can learn silly stuff to get a laugh. Like: "how much for the goat?" or "did you get a good deal on the goat?" or "what's a good goat cost these days?" You get the point.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Top 5 destination essentials

So, you're going away and you're going it alone? I've convinced you to forget about the guide. You're definitely not doing a tour, because they're no good for you either. Okay, well, highly specialized tours are excepted. So let me dream for a moment: a musical journey through South America with David Byrne, a Middle East trip with Robert Fisk, a round-the-world-in-80-meals tour* with Anthony Bourdain, a global surfing safari with Kelly Slater (that last one is Terry's choice). Dream on.** So, how do you cope once you get to the destination? How do you find your way around, order meals, quickly get acquainted with a place? What are the destination essentials you need to take to guide you when you're there? And note that you should buy them before you leave home because they won't always be available when you arrive. Let's go for a top 5:
1) a phrase book - never, and I mean NEVER, go anywhere where English isn't the official language without a phrase book. Even if your guidebook tells you everyone speaks English. Think about it: how would you feel if someone came up to you in your hometown and started speaking another language? My guess is you probably wouldn't like it. If they at least began with a mis-pronounced and stilted "hello - how- are - you? - do - you - speak - Swahili? - No? - Ok.." you'd be more patient when they started miming. There's no excuse for not learning the ten travel language basics*** on the plane. And if you're travelling with a loved-one, the drinks are free and it's a long flight, it's even fun.
2) a dictionary - a phrase book is never enough. They're generally not very well thought-out and never, and I do mean NEVER, include the right phrases for the right moments, especially in emergencies. Like when you need to say to the Turkish-speaking vet: "The stray cat we've adopted has worms" and "Will the four kittens she has had on our terrace also get worms?"*
3) a good map - don't expect that the airport/hotel/tourist office/book stores at the destination you're visiting will have good maps. They almost always don't. Try to get a map that's as detailed as possible (compare it with maps available online) and one that has place names in English and in the language of the country you're heading to. If you're planning on hiring a car and driving at all, you'll need it.
4) a guidebook - even if you've booked all your accommodation online and organized transport, a guidebook still comes in handy. Don't treat it like your bible though; it's a guide, that's all it is.
Leave it in the hotel room sometimes. But guidebooks make a great starting point. (More on choosing guidebooks and what to look for in a future post.)
5)
a spare mobile phone - make sure it allows you to pop a local SIM card in and make that one of the first things you buy when you arrive. Load it up with lots of credit. So, who are you going to call? For starters, instead of heading to the first touristy restaurant you see on the square, you're going to do what the locals do and call a good restaurant ahead of time to make a booking... but let's save that - doing what the locals do - for another post.

* Only to casual beach-side places where you can eat with sand between your toes of course.
** More on our dream trips in another post.
*** Let's save these for another post too.
**** I'll save that post for another time also. Or maybe you don't need to know that story.

Dead Cities: reading the signs

In case you needed further evidence as to why you need to visit the spooky Dead Cities in Syria alone and not in the company of a guide (see my Doing it alone at the Dead Cities post), it's because it could take you some time to read the signs at the site. And the task will require all your concentration. Or you could skip the signs and follow my earlier suggestion to just take in the atmosphere instead. Who needs guides when you have great signage like this?

5 good reasons not to use a guide

I've been getting asked for recommendations for guides recently, not guidebooks but guides tourists can hire to show them around a place. Other than specialist guides, I don't recommend them, because I believe guides get in the way of a good travel experience and here are 5 reasons why:
1) guides lessen the impact of
culture shock: and a little culture shock is not such a bad thing. Cities like Shanghai, Cairo and Mumbai can be a crazy, chaotic and confusing for first-time visitors, but that's what travel is about - putting yourself in unfamiliar circumstances and embracing the exoticism. You don't want someone setting right your wonderful sense of disorientation.
2) guides get in the way of those assault-on-your-senses experiences: one of the coolest things about travel is visiting places where you're blown away by the sights, sounds, feels, and smells of the place, like a Middle Eastern souq and bazaar, especially a spice souq or fish market. These are places where you want to take it all in, listen to the strange sounds, inhale the fragrant aromas, touch the textiles, enjoy the play of color and light.

3) guides give you
their perspective on the state of things: whether it's a destination's history, society or politics, unless your guide was born in the place, is a long-term resident or holds a research degree, the guide's take on things is rarely that of an insider and not necessarily one that you want. You don't know the source of their information. Unless you can be sure you're getting a local perspective or that of an expert, you're better off reading books, talking to locals, and deciding for yourself.
4) guides ruin your chances of interacting with locals: because you're with a guide it's obvious you're a tourist for starters. Guides have their rehearsed lectures and schedules, and chatting to locals, accepting spontaneous invitations to a meal or into people's homes is generally not on their agenda. You also don't know the relationship the guide might have with locals; it may not be a good one.

5) guides make everything too easy: part of the fun (and frustration) of travel is figuring stuff out - deciphering signs, reading labels on packaging, learning how to buy a bus ticket or SIM card. There's a sense of accomplishment when you learn something for yourself and can do things that locals in that destination do everyday - there's a sense that you're fitting in. And you don't want anyone getting in the way of that.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Fraud or flawed?

Thomas Kohnstamm's book Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? was released yesterday, and despite Lonely Planet's author fraud scandal and the ensuing furor, very few book reviews or follow-up stories have yet to appear. Is everyone just over it all? Here are a couple worth reading: travel writer Robert Reid's The worst guidebook writer ever?' and The Independent's Travel Editor Simon Calder's Travel guide fraud? No, just flawed for the Belfast Telegraph. Also worth a cursory glance are the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age's Do travel writers go to hell?, the Los Angeles Times' Thomas Kohnstamm and the 'Hell' of travel writing, and the Boston Herald's Riddle me this: why do lazy cheaters get rewarded? While I'm a little tired of the controversy, and even more bored with most of the writing about it, I somehow get the feeling this won't be the last we'll hear of it. After all, Thomas is about to hit the festival circuit next month, attending the Sydney Writers Festival and the Auckland Writers Festival, where he'll be running writers workshops. About 'approaches to place' of all things. Hmmm.

Pictured? Mhmed, one of the last towns at the edge of the Sahara in Morocco, where a couple of guys are loading their camels for what will obviously be a very long and bumpy ride. Hmmm.

Doing it alone at the Dead Cities

If there's one destination above all else in the world where you want to explore alone, and don't want to be tagging along behind a blathering guide – or want a guide trailing along behind you (read this post for an explanation) – it's the Dead Cities of Syria. Serjilla, Al Bara, Jerada, and Ruweiha for starters, but there are more - up to 700 sites in total. The ruins of these ghost towns are sprawled about barren rocky hills not far from Aleppo. And they are spooky. We've visited them three times over ten years and the first time it was winter and they were especially eerie shrouded in mist. While many of the buildings have crumbled away – at first glance you’ll easily mistake their grey bricks for the natural limestone rocks that peek through the low grass – many are intact, which is what makes the place so mysterious. And it’s the fact that you can wander through these towns and villages, scattered over craggy moors, among olive groves, and set among fruit orchards, that makes the experience so moving. (Note that the cherries and apricots grown here are especially delicious.) It’s a bit like visiting Pompeii. As you clamber over the rocks and overgrown paths, wander between simple houses and grand villas, around barns, mills, grape and olive presses, taverns and hammams, it’s easy to imagine people going about their business and leisure, working in the fields, squashing their grapes, and having an ale of some kind in the tavern after work. While the ruins are intriguing and their history compelling – they are Byzantine villages which flourished especially during the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries, and they were part of the hinterland of the great city of Antioch – I don’t need a guide to tell me that as I wander around the site. I can read up on the history in a book on my way, sit on a rock and read about it while I’m there, and, with my curiosity sparked by the visit, I can do some more research later. But while I’m there I just want to take in the atmosphere, use my imagination, and connect with the place. Don't you find a guide gets in the way of that?

Guides: getting in the way of a good travel experience

Guides, as I wondered in my last post, who uses them? My aversion to hiring guides is largely due to the distance they put between me and my travel experience. I mean, think back to the last time you had a truly memorable travel moment. The first time you saw the Giza Pyramids, Palmyra, Baalbek or Uluru for instance. A museum you visited that was overwhelming (the Louvre perhaps?) or a view that was breathtaking (Iguazu Falls?). Think back. I don't know about you, but I like to savour those special experiences on my own. In silence. Or share them with someone dear to me. I want to take it all in slowly and imprint it in my mind forever. I don't want some tour guide blathering in my ear. The first time I saw Petra was ruined by a guide. (A-ha! I hear you say.) It was a visit that wasn't planned. We'd been on a Royal Jordanian flight from Casablanca to Abu Dhabi with a connection in Amman, when along with some other passengers we were bumped off the flight. We had 24 hours to kill before the next one and because we didn't have visas our only options were to take an escorted tour for the day or spend the time getting to know the drab Soviet-style hotel they'd put us up in. We took the private tour to Petra with a lovely Irish couple, just the four of us in the car. Then there was the guide. The guide was one of the most irritating people on earth. He talked incessantly, asked trivial questions he wanted us to guess the answers to, and told silly riddles. He drove me insane. So insane that as we approached the siq - the narrow gorge you walk through for a kilometre or so until you arrive at the opening to the Treasury and the magnificence of Petra is revealed (an act which in itself only adds to the sense of anticipation, thereby intensifying the experience) - I knew I had to do something rather than have my experience spoiled. My options were to either tell him to shut up, which would inevitably result in an ugly scene, ruining it for everybody. Or to wander off, quicken my pace, and leave the group behind. I chose the latter. Rude perhaps, but definitely the least damaging for all involved. As I arrived at the entrance and began to contemplate the beauty of the sight, I could still hear his distance chatter in the background. It was then that I vowed to never use a guide again.

The image isn't Petra of course. It's Palmyra. And don't let anyone tell you it's possible to experience the place alone. While there might not be another traveller around, there'll be several touts on foot and motorbike hawking postcards and 'ancient coins', guys on camels trying to sell you a ride, cheeky little kids asking for baksheesh, and of course a guide or two. Don't give in to any. Say "(k)halas" ('enough' in Arabic) as sternly as you can, and walk the other way so you can enjoy what must be the world's most sublime archaeological site.

Guides: who needs them?

Guides. How many people use them I wonder. Do you? And I don't mean travel guidebooks. Nor the guides who take package tour groups around. And not the specialist guides who lead treks through mountains, jungles, glaciers and other hard-to-get places we might not otherwise have access to. I mean the specialized personal guides who people hire to escort them around a city for a few days, walk them around a museum or archaeological site, and take them on walking tours, culinary tours, and so on. I'd never given the subject much thought, until recently. We've only ever used guides a handful of times and on all but two occasions they ruined the experience for me and I swore I'd never use them again. I keep reading and hearing about people hiring guides: the owner of a travel website we were consulting on was creating itineraries that inevitably involved using a guide in each destination and sometimes several specialist guides in one place; in a travel magazine I read the other day a reader asked the expert to suggest guides she could hire in a popular European city; and a trip planner recently asked if there was a guide in Dubai I could recommend. Dubai is the last place on earth anyone needs a guide. The city is easy to get around, people are friendly, and everyone speaks English. And surely they're the main reasons you'd consider hiring a guide: accessibility challenges, hostile 'natives' and language barriers? I've occasionally felt while researching a guidebook in a place where we only speak the basics that we could have benefited from a translator. And when we trekked the hill tribe villages in Thailand, we certainly would have had a warmer welcome if we would have had a guide from the area - as promised! A visit to an art gallery or archaeological museum can be enriched by a guide familiar with the work on display. But it baffles me when I see a guide bringing a tourist into a café in Damascus and I overhear an explanation which seems to come straight out of our guidebook (the one we wrote!) or I see a guide walking a couple around an easily-navigable city such as Paris, Milan or Madrid. Part of the fun of visiting a place for the first time is getting lost.

Pictured? The last place I'd want a guide - no way would I want anyone to get between me and the wonderful assault on all senses that is Aleppo souq.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Death of the (guidebook) author?

If you've been following the Lonely Planet author fraud scandal or the Thomas Kohnstamm Affair as some of us like to call it, and you've read the comments following online articles and visited Lonely Planet's travellers' forum Thorn Tree, then you may well think this spells the end for guidebook authors. Or at the very least you've now formed a bad impression of travel writers, that they plagiarize, treat the job as a paid vacation, don't visit every place they should, and trade freebies for positive reviews. The Thorn Tree posts have been especially unkind, even ugly, and often untrue (but then that forum is a monster), with criticism leveled at many LP books and accusations such as "I know xx xx (insert authors name) didn't even go to xxxx!" When in fact xx xx lives there, xx xx has a portfolio overflowing with published work on the place, and xxxx is the author's home! The impression seems to be guidebook publishers pay a pittance (when in fact, not all do), fees don't cover expenses (and some don't), and all authors are inexperienced 20 year-old hacks doing the job to travel for free. That's where I disagree. While there are a lot of hacks and a lot of 20-somethings partying around South America 'updating' guides (Let's Go writers are young), there are writers who are a whole lot older (some even ancient), who've been doing this work forever, consider it their profession, are married, have mortgages, have babies, grown-up children, even grandchildren (and whatever else communicates that not all writers make out on restaurant tables with waitresses in exchange for reviews). Thorn Tree members seem to think the industry should start with a clean slate and that they're just the ones to replace us, that travellers can get sufficient reliable travel information from Thorn Tree or Trip Advisor. Well, go for it, I say, because if there's no Lonely Planet, then there'll be no Thorn Tree. While some travellers might be happy to take advice from someone who knows their home town intimately but has never left it, or travellers who go on holidays twice a year and think that qualifies them to review hotels, I'm going to stick to recommendations by professional writers with travel expertise, who travel for a living. And I bet there are a lot of travellers out there who'll do the same. This isn't the end of the guidebook author at all, just a timely re-appraisal and re-appreciation of the role.

The image? A 'holiday' snap taken in Syria last year during 'research' for the Lonely Planet Syria and Lebanon guide. Just in case anyone needs proof that we were even there. Do you want to see my passport stamps too?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Death of the guidebook?

That's the headline of a story in The Age yesterday written by former Lonely Planet writer Chris Taylor who recounts his discovery that the author who'd updated the China guide before him hadn't visited places himself, but had sub-contracted a cafe owner (who subsequently recruited his cousin!) to do the research instead. Taylor argues that due to increasing competition, guidebooks can't generate the sales revenues to justify the high fees required to ensure the kind of legwork and first-hand research that results in personal recommendations. That Lonely Planet's fees aren't high enough is true, but good writers will still do the legwork. So, is the guidebook dead? Kind of. But this isn't the first time it's been suggested: see The Death of the Guidebook? (The Observer/The Guardian, 2006) and Guidebooks: RIP (The Times, 2007). And I certainly don't believe the Internet killed the guidebook. There are travellers who still prefer discerning critical information written by experts who travel for a living over 'reviews' by people who take holidays once or twice a year. And there are still travellers who prefer carrying a guidebook to printing reams of paper off a website. I don't think all guidebooks will die, just the Lonely Planet style, and by that I mean the mainstream, one-size-fits-all continent and country guides, although I think LP is on the right track with the Encounter guides, as they were with their 'Best Ofs'. As anyone with any kind of marketing sense knows, rarely does one book (or film or CD for that matter) appeal to everyone, and the ones that do, like blockbuster movies or airport novels, tend to be bland, flawed and lack complexity and style. One guidebook can't be all things to all types of travellers, whether it's budget, mid-range or top-end, old or young, singles or couples. When they try to please everyone, they don't do very well at pleasing anyone. However, guidebooks have been taking a different direction for a while now. Consider the success of niche series Wallpaper, for travellers into architecture, art and design, and Luxe, focused at a style-conscious set. Aimed at a narrow target audience, they contain travel content created with their readership firmly in mind. The phenomenal success of Cool Camping, one of the UK's top-selling guidebooks last year, and the outpouring of emotion toward the enchanting hand-crafted Love travel guides are further evidence that travellers want more from their guidebooks. They want guidebooks produced for them. Well, don't we all? What do you think?

Whenever I travel around the Middle East, I always find it interesting that tourists from the region don't use guidebooks. Admittedly, they're often pilgrims visiting sites of religious significance, such as these Iranian women in Damascus. But they still visit museums, go shopping, and eat out. They don't speak Arabic but somehow they manage, they find their way around, and they still seem to have a good time.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

An invitation to come to Marrakesh: to learn travel writing among the peacocks and enjoy picnics in the olive groves

I've been so busy I forgot to extend an invitation to you to join us in Morocco for a week-long travel writing retreat at Peacock Pavilions, the gorgeous guest house being built in Marrakesh by Maryam, of the enchanting My Marrakesh blog, and her talented architect husband. We're holding the retreat in early 2009, and as Maryam's beautiful guest house is not yet finished, we still have details to figure out. But we can tell you that the week will involve lots of little practical lessons in travel writing (from research and note-taking to observational writing and creating a sense of place), with plenty of excursions around exotic Marrakesh to inspire you. There'll be lots of time for writing and workshopping and editing your work in the company of the fabulous peacocks. And you'll be looked after splendidly with tasty Moroccan breakfasts to start the day, picnics under the olive trees, and outings to restaurants in the evenings. And, yes, Maryam promises to take us all shopping. But the snag is I'm going to make you write about it. In fact, you'll be writing about everything you see and do, so you'll leave Morocco with a portfolio overflowing with writing, and lots of tips on how to get it published from yours truly. And from Maryam too, of course. Because Maryam's story 'My Marrakesh is Better Than Yours' was recently published in Budget Travel. Take a read and see if it doesn't make you want to book your flight right now. Watch this space for more details and dates, or contact Maryam or myself if you'd like to put your name on our mailing list. And don't worry, we promise there'll be lots of fun along with the hard work.

Top secrets of travel writers: #1 hidden gems are kept hidden for good reason

This is the first in a series of posts on the top secrets of travel writers, partly inspired by The Traveler’s Notebook’s Top 5 Secrets Travel Writers Won’t Tell You, however, my posts won’t be devoted to the perks of the job but rather the stuff travel writers don’t tell you and the things we don’t always write about, and why. Let’s start with hidden gems. We've all seen stories like 'The Hidden Gems of Hawaii' or 'Barcelona’s Secret Spots' or 'Off-the-beaten-track Turkey'. Whilst those recommendations might not be places you’d typically see on the tourist circuit, they’re more likely to be popular local favorites rather than ‘hidden gems’, those wonderful out-of-the-way places that people don’t want you to know about. Why? Locals rarely reveal their secrets spots because they don’t want to see their secluded beaches overcrowded with tourists, beer prices go up at the local pub, or find that they suddenly need to reserve a table at a restaurant they’ve been casually dropping into for years. As for writers, they don’t want to start seeing travellers crowd their neighbourhood favorites or see charming backstreet eateries or bars they’ve discovered while researching cities overran with tourists one day. Because when that happens the very thing we found appealing in the first place – the relaxed charm, laidback style and local atmosphere – disappears. I’ll never forget a restaurant in Buenos Aires that's in all the guidebooks… the reviews suggested it was a local favorite, the food was fine, staff friendly, and atmosphere romantic. The night we went the food was hit and miss, the staff distant and inefficient, and while the place was moodily-lit, there wasn’t a single ounce of atmosphere. Bored-looking tourists and their guidebooks occupied every table. Like us, they were probably wondering if it was the right restaurant. Where were the romance, atmosphere, affable staff, and good food? Probably lost long ago, when locals stopped coming, and the chef and staff lost interest. We crossed it off our list. But as we were living nearby we walked past once or twice a week, to make sure we were justified in doing so. We were. This is why hidden gems are kept that way. Our favorite Buenos Aires restaurant? Sorry. That's our little secret. The beach pictured? Um… it’s on the west coast of Australia somewhere…

Friday, April 18, 2008

Fueling those feelings of anticipation

The anticipation of travel can sometimes be as pleasurable as the journey itself. Okay, well not quite. But for some of us, it comes close. And you've got to admit it can be fun, getting excited about the thought of going away, selecting the destinations, planning an itinerary, and making your bookings. If you read my blog you know I'm an admirer of Alain de Botton's writing and have posted about his thoughts on travel and anticipation before, about how a simple image of palm trees on a holiday brochure can have us longing to be on a beach. Australian travel writer Kim Wildman is also a fan and is currently preparing for a round-the-world-trip taking her to South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, London, Jamaica, Cuba, New Mexico, and Fiji! It's work, obviously - she's writing some guidebooks among other projects - but I love seeing people (even professional travel writers who do it for a living) getting so excited about the prospect of travelling. On a recent post, The Anticipation of Travel, on her blog Wild About Travel + Writing, Kim wrote a list of ways to fuel that sense of anticipation: buy a calendar (circle the departure date and countdown to take-off!), make a list (of must-do's, things to pack, what to buy etc), buy a guidebook (or two or three!), learn the lingo (the ten language basics are enough for starters), get cultural (immerse yourself in the place through books and movies), and read the local papers (It's something I do when I'm researching a book, but what a great idea to get us curious about a place for a holiday too). Take a look at Kim's blog out for the full list. I'm going to come up with a few more ideas in the meantime...

Travel writing and travel blogging: how and why we do it

I've recently been interviewed by a couple of bloggers about travel writing, how Terry and I got into it, what we do, why we like it, the joys, the challenges, etc. My first interview was with Liz at Write to Travel, a blog which looks at all aspects of the craft and profession of travel writing, along with the development of her own travel writing career. As I've mentioned before, Liz does an enlightening weekly interview series with writers, the most recent of which is with Angela K Nickerson, an art teacher, tour guide, and now travel writer, and author of 'Journey into Michelangelo's Rome', which sounds wonderful. I'm going to try and get hold of it for our trip to Rome in a couple of weeks. Check out Angela's blog Just Go! If you're interested in travel writing, as everybody seems to be lately (although not for the reasons we'd like), check out the recent post at Perceptive Travel investigating why travel writer's blog and you'll get a bit more of an insight into why they write. There's been so much controversy recently surrounding ethics in travel as a result of the Thomas Kohnstamm Affair, however, Julie Shwietert shares some of the secrets of the trade in the Top 5 Secrets Travel Writers Won't Tell You at the Travellers Notebook, including how those much-discussed discounts can help you. Anne at Instant Native has just posted an interview she did with me as well. Anne provides online concierge services, organizing trips and itineraries for people ('fun menus' as she calls them), and on her blog she provides travel tips, advice on what travel accessories to buy, suggestions for places to go, and stuff to see and do. I've always promoted the idea of becoming an 'instant native', of taking a long slow holiday in a place and living like a local, which I've blogged about before - it's the way Terry and I like to travel when we have time. I'm going to come back to that in future posts and tell you a bit about our time in Turkey, where we're working now.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Our latest travel writing: in print and online

The sun is shining here today in Antalya, Turkey. The sky is cobalt-blue, there's a clarity to the light, a crispness in the air, and bird-song everywhere. It feels like Spring again!
I've been so preoccupied with the Lonely Planet scandal, I've forgotten to share some things with you:
our 'Dhows, Dolphins & Cigarette Smugglers' story on the magical Musandam Peninsula, Oman (pictured), a favorite weekend getaway of ours, is in the latest issue of one of our favorite Aussie travel magazines Get Lost. While currently in store down under, I'll also pop a PDF in my media bistro portfolio (see link to right), along with recently published stories, such as my shopping-focused Dubai guide for Ritz-Carlton magazine, a feature on Dubai's audacious architecture for Canvas, and a Macau piece for MGM's M Lifestyle. The April issue of Gulf Life, Gulf Air's in-flight mag, has a special on Entrepreneurs for which we interviewed four young go-getters in Dubai, Sheikha Maisa Al Qassimi (a real life princess and fashion entrepreneur),
Shehab Hamad (a club, culture, life-style-setter) and Sunny Rahbar and Claudia Cellini (contemporary art gallery owner-curator-groundbreakers). The next issue features the Gulf's seven wonders of the contemporary world and a story on Abu Dhabi's Masdar initiative and Norman Foster-designed Masdar eco-city written by my co-writer Terry. We also have a 'Beyond the Beach' guide to Cyprus coming out in Jazeera's Airway's groovy J Magazine. Terry has written a three-day itinerary covering the Top Things to do in Dubai for Viator which just went live today, and there are more to come. We've also been doing destination guides to cities around the globe for Triporati. If you're planning a trip to Dubai, print off our exhaustive Best of Dubai guide which we wrote for National Geographic Traveller's Places of a Lifetime series, for which we spent several weeks collecting opinions, advice, tips, and even recipes, from chefs, sommeliers, food critics, cultural experts, DJs, music critics, shopping gurus, fashion experts, magazine editors, and other travel writers, on their favorite spots in Dubai; it's now up on the NGT website.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Decoding Lonely Planet’s explanation

BY TERRY CARTER*
Lonely Planet placed a statement on their website in response to Kohnstamm's claims. This is how I read it:
LP: “Thomas claims that during his time as a travel author, he skipped visiting certain destinations, plagiarised from other sources and traded good reviews for in-kind favours.”

Skipping destinations? Plagiarism? This is the first time this has ever happened! I do love ‘in-kind favours’, though, it’s a nice way of phrasing some of Thomas’ deeds. Lonely Planet states in its books that writers ‘don’t take freebies in exchange for positive coverage’, printing the message on authors’ business cards. I’m no lawyer and I don’t play one on TV, but the text is a loophole so big you could drive a Carnival Mardi Gras float through (well, unless Thomas has sold the driver of the float some drugs). The thing is, an LP title is not a phone book and in some ways a review is positive coverage, even if you say ‘the toilets could be cleaner’ or ‘the owner is a grumpy old sod’. It’s in the book and therefore a recommendation and for businesses can mean the difference between LP-carrying kids turning up at your doorstep or bankruptcy. LP has reiterated to writers that there’s a no-comps/discount policy but it hasn’t changed the print on the cards or books, so the loophole still exists. They could have tightened it but haven’t. Why not?

LP: “There are three titles in print to which Thomas has contributed on-the-ground research. The affected titles are Chile & Easter Island (7th edition), South America on a shoestring (10th edition) and Caribbean Islands (4th edition). We have sent out author teams to fact-check all his material in these books.”
I hope they wear rubber gloves and protective clothing. A hint for the intrepid ‘author teams’ (by the way, how many writers does it take to check a guidebook?), it’s probably not a good idea to eat at any of Thomas’ recommended restaurants, but if you do, wipe the tables down first. When one of the ‘author team’ accidentally drops their business card on the floor, it would be a little embarrassing to see one of the staff break down and confess, “I did not have sexual relations with that travel writer!”


LP: “Thomas talks most about his work on Brazil (6th edition). This book is now out of print and has been replaced by the current edition. This has been fully updated, and Thomas has not contributed to it at all.”

Thank God for that. We can all sleep at night now. Well, except the thousands of people still using the last edition wondering why the ‘table service’ isn’t as good as it was when Thomas wrote about the place. Or why someone keeps knocking at the door of the hotel room asking if they want ‘the Thomas special’. ‘Out of print’ doesn’t mean ‘out of circulation’. I’ve lost count of the bookstores I’ve seen across the world selling ancient editions of titles and travelers using guides a couple of editions old. ‘Fully updated’ also does not necessarily mean every review which Thomas the Sex Engine wrote has been replaced. How about a Brazil 6 amnesty program? Send in your old copy and LP will give you a new edition, untainted by the debauched, drugged-up writing of the only LP author ever to do bad things.

LP: “Thomas has claimed that he was not paid enough to travel to Colombia when he was employed as an author on our Colombia guide. The fact is that Thomas was not employed as an on-the-ground author on that guidebook. This means that he did not write any reviews - of places or establishments - in this book. His contribution was to the introductory chapter covering history, culture, food and drink and environment. Two on-the-ground authors wrote the reviews for the Colombia guide.”

While this is actually true, Lonely Planet had known this book was coming out weeks ago and could have avoided a lot of criticism by saying, ‘we never required Thomas to go to Colombia, we never budgeted for him to go to Colombia. He was contributing background material to a book that didn’t require him to travel and was paid adequately for this work. It’s a rather odd accusation and calls into question the rest of his of claims about his experiences working for Lonely Planet.’ Why didn’t they do this the moment the story appeared? The best defense is offense.


LP: “We are also reviewing Venezuela (5th edition). Thomas did not contribute destination information to this guidebook, but did act in a coordinating role during its production.”

What did that coordinating role entail exactly? Did he seduce one of the writers or get them hooked on drugs? I can see how that mentoring aspect of the role could lead to something more sinister.


LP: “Thomas claims he was not paid enough by Lonely Planet to do the job without shortcuts. While we ask a lot of our authors, we lead the industry in the fees we pay, and are committed to a yearly review of author fees.”

The statement that LP leads the industry in fees is not true. Either LP doesn’t know that or they know it and don’t think anyone will call them on it. I am. We’ve worked for many of the big publishers and while Lonely Planet pays experienced writers reasonably well, they are in no way an ‘industry leader’. Especially considering LP keeps copyright, doesn’t pay royalties, and re-purposes content as they see fit. And while “we ask a lot of our authors” is a little ambiguous, if you’re doing an LP gig in the time-frame they recommend (and pay you for) that translates to 18-hour days, seven days a week if you’re doing your job thoroughly. It’s little wonder that authors like Thomas admit they wilt under the pressure.


Wouldn’t it be better if Lonely Planet asked a lot of their authors, but rewarded them well for their hard work and emotional investment in a book by giving them a sniff of a royalty? While I know there are a couple of writers making a good living from writing for LP, we were never willing to use the methods they did to get ahead. Which is one reason we stopped writing for LP and started writing for other publishers.


Perhaps the best way to make money from working for LP is to be rushed off to South America to fact-check a rogue authors’ claims. I hear that’s paying quite handsomely…


* Terry is my husband and co-author of and contributor to around 25 books for Lonely Planet.

The Thomas Kohnstamm Affair continues

The Lonely Planet author fraud scandal has taken more turns than we did on the switchback riddled roads of Crete on our most recent research trip there. Now referred to as the Thomas Kohnstamm Affair by the Guardian, Gadling and others, the controversy hasn't yet begun to die the death some might have predicted. Google the topic and you'll get some 255+ articles and climbing, including blog posts. And the stories are still coming. While the mainstream media initially resorted to sensationalist headlines and regurgitating content off feeds, with little in the way of analysis, recent coverage is more considered, reflective and opinionated, and often coming from first-hand experience. Others are still resorting to attention-grabbing headlines to pull in readers and in those cases the discussion that follows in the comments is tending to be more insightful (especially from travellers) and the revelations more compelling (from guidebook writers). Those worth a look include Travel publishers slam Lonely Planet (The Bookseller); Which guidebooks can you trust (Times Online); Postcards from the edge of travel writing (The Independent); Why guidebooks have to lie (Sydney Morning Herald blog); The truth about writing Lonely Planet guidebooks (The Guardian); Writer's story rattles Lonely Planet contributors; and Guidebooks: don't believe everything you read (Times Online); and Derelict vs. Duty (The Perrin Post, Concierge). Readers have been asking me to write more about the travel writing process here and although that wasn't my intention in starting this blog, that doesn't seems like such a bad idea now, if just to show that we're not all like Thomas Kohnstamm.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Strange Planet (part 2): fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy ride

BY TERRY CARTER*
Those readers assuming that the form of
Jayson Blair journalism practiced by Thomas Kohnstamm (and we can call it ‘journalism’ now that Lonely Planet is part of the BBC, can’t we?) is rife at LP would be wrong from what I know of my ex-colleagues. Those readers wondering if LP’s two hundred or so freelance writers have moral compasses always pointing to ‘ethical behavior’ might have reason to occasionally doubt a glowing hotel review or the vagueness of the write-up of a particularly far-flung dot on a map. They might also be wondering how the commissioning editors know that the writer who they’ve underpaid isn’t accepting the hospitality of a five-star establishment or sitting down to comp’ed meals, or is, in fact, even in the country. And they would be right to wonder.

Most of the time, the editor has never met the writer they’ve commissioned, let alone be able to look for track-marks on their arms and odd twitches while fending off inappropriate sexual advances or being asked for a loan, you know, just to tide them over until the advance payment for the commission goes in their account. But it would be absurd to imagine that late one night on you way home from dinner in a South American town that the guy going ‘psst, want some drugs’ is in fact researching an LP title and just wanting to make some extra cash.


However, I’m still baffled at LP’s editing process on this occasion. This armchair author’s chapter went through and they couldn’t even spot the fact that the writer never set foot in the country? And what about spotting the plagiarism? There’s clearly a need for some checks and balances rather than relying on simple blind faith (in the cult of Lonely Planet) in the people you’re underpaying. This has always troubled us about LP and Lara twice proposed an auditing process to LP; she was never even graced with a response to her suggestion.

But here’s the sting in the tail. Lonely Planet’s Piers Pickard told
The Sunday Telegraph that the company’s ‘urgent review’ of Mr Kohnstamm’s guidebooks had failed to find any inaccuracies in them. Perhaps Pickard informed The Sunday Telegraph by email and they failed to notice the tags or the ‘wink’ emoticon.

This has me thinking that if a drug-dealing and debauched individual who never even sullied the soil of Colombia can turn in perfect prose on the subject (‘urgent’ review notwithstanding), perhaps LP could just save money on these pesky, needy, unfaithful, freelancers who are always crying poor and simply phone update all the books themselves from Melbourne? That could really save on those fees and author workshops.


Thomas, in the meantime, must be considering other career options (I doubt that the Travel Channel are keen) and the BBC must be wondering what the hell it just bought into. And the follow-up feature stories are going to make for interesting reading as journalists (particularly in Australia where LP is an Aussie icon) are already asking current and ex-authors some fascinating questions. The fasten seatbelt light is on.

* Terry is my husband and co-author of and contributor to around 25 books for Lonely Planet.

Strange Planet (part 1): an unusual tale of a travel writer who didn't have the itch

BY TERRY CARTER*
I don’t want to waste too much time on the new book Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm as I haven’t read it and have no interest reading it (the reasons will become obvious in the post), but there’s a couple of things that are apparent. Lonely Planet can still dodge a bullet here (they’re lucky that a travel writer didn’t really set out to destroy their credibility) and Thomas Kohnstamm, perhaps egged on by his publisher is clearly trying to be travel writing’s Anthony Bourdain. But failing.


Having completed over a couple of dozen contracts for LP, it’s no secret to me that Lonely Planet’s fees won’t make you a millionaire. I’m living proof. LP relies heavily on the moral compass of its writers to not cede to the temptations of accepting freebies and cutting corners while on the road. One of the ways that they attempt to keep the compasses pointing to ‘good’ not ‘evil’ is by keeping its team of writers close to its bosom by making them feel involved in the company. I never felt close to LP (never thought I fitted in with their writing ‘style’ either), with their stifling political correctness, holier than thou attitude, and disingenuous ‘LP family’ shtick, but regardless, when you sign a contract, you should honour it.


By claiming that he never even went to one of the countries he was contracted to write about (Colombia) because it didn’t pay enough, Thomas Kohnstamm sets himself apart from every travel writer I know. If LP makes you an offer that isn’t enough, ask for more (explaining how you worked out your budget and daily expenses) or reject it. If it’s a break even job, a newbie writer looking for their first gig will end up gladly accepting the offer, after all, travel writing is the ‘best job in the world’™. Besides, a good writer can make as much money as the contract (Lara and I have generally made much more) by selling feature stories and photographs to magazines off the back of the trip. I don’t know why this is news to Kohnstamm, but the time for figuring out whether you’re going to make any money from a gig is during contract negotiations. And hell, it was COLOMBIA he didn’t go to and given that Kohnstamm admits to dealing drugs, surely an enterprising travel writer such as himself could see the synergy there.


The thing that offends me most about this whole affair is that travel writers do what they do because they love travel – first and foremost. I’m not talking about newspaper journalists who are writing obituaries one day then get rewarded with a three-day freebie at the Burj Al Arab, and return to write the obligatory glowing ‘review’. I’m talking about the writers who get the travel itch when a jet flies overhead. The ones who have a carry-on bag ready to go sitting in the hallway of their apartment or house. The ones who never really unpack. The ones with story ideas that fill notepads or sticky notes on their well-travelled laptops. The ones who have AC adapters for every wall socket known to mankind – and can tell you which country they fit. By feel. In the dark. The ones who never get tired of getting up on the first day in a new city and hitting the streets.


To these writers the thought of accepting a contract and not going to the country is absurd – the journey is the reward, not the barely adequate funds that get you there.


And actually telling people that you didn’t go is even sillier than not going in the first place. And blaming LP for turning you into a drug dealer to make ends meet is simply pathetic. A well-traveled writer would at least know how to paint themselves silver, stand on a milk crate and mime, or do that eternal dreadlock traveller special, juggling fire sticks. Really Thomas, LP was not your baby-sitter. LP didn’t owe you a living.


* Terry is my husband and co-author of and contributor to around 25 books for Lonely Planet

Media reels: Lonely Planet author fraud

Am I outraged? Am I reeling? Am I surprised? No, no and no. But as a travel writer, and a former Lonely Planet guidebook author, it’s impossible for me to keep blogging away about luxury travel on a budget (my next post) and ignore the dozens of headlines in the global media over the last days following pre-publicity for Thomas Kohnstamm's book 'Do Travel Writer's Go To Hell? (Random House, due for release 22/4/08)'. Have you seen these? Confessions of a Travel Writer Rattle Execs at Lonely Planet (The New York Observer, 9/4/08); Journalism on a Shoestring (Outside magazine, April 08); Shocker: Lonely Planet Writers Accept Schwag (Guest of a Guest blog, 10/4/08); and this weekend: Lonely Planet writer says he made up part of books (Reuters); Lonely Planet reeling after author's fraud (www.news.com.au); Travel writer tells newspaper he plagiarized, dealt drugs (on CNN.com); Lonely Planet rocked by claims of free trips, plagiarism (Courier Mail, Australia); Lonely Planet rocked by author fraud (National Nine News/NineMSN); Lonely Planet's Bad Trip (The Daily Telegraph/Sunday Telegraph, Australia); Lonely Planet Rocked By Fraud Scandal (Sydney Morning Herald/The Age); A travel writer on a not so lonely planet (Telegraph, UK); and 5 Reasons to be outraged by the Lonely Planet fraud (Gadling travel blog). There was also a fascinating (for different reasons) discussion on Lonely Planet's online travel community forum Thorn Tree: Lonely Planet Author's Fraud and comments on the Colombia guide. As I haven't read the much-discussed book yet, I can't comment on the content. But like many writers I was initially thrilled to see a fellow author publish what some would consider to be a real book. After all, every travel writer dreams of writing travel lit. (Terry and I are also writing a book about our two years of continuous travel on commissions). But then there was the barrage of headlines and simplistic opinions. Such as the suggestion that one writer's wild behavior and "questionable ethics" imply all travel writers 'research' books this way. And the even more ludicrous claim that this will impact the credibility of travel writing and the integrity of travel writers. Let's face it: every industry has its equivalent of the gonzo journalist. And every industry has its workers who occasionally behave unethically on the job, just as there are organizations that make it easy for workers to abuse the 'system' and managers and staff who prefer to look the other way. Plagiarism? Accepting freebies? None of this is new. While Lonely Planet's policy doesn't allow authors to accept comps or discounts in exchange for positive coverage when on assignment for LP, travel writers from some of the world's most reputable newspapers and magazines frequently travel courtesy of airlines and hotels, and get food, drinks, tours, spas and other activities for free. It doesn't appear to compromise their work. (Or does it? There's a topic for another post.) Some writers are also lazy, writing about places they've never been, and cutting and pasting freely from other stories without acknowledgment; see my previous posts. But the actions of a small percentage shouldn't impact the whole travel writing profession, not publisher nor travel writer.

Okay, I admit it, there was one thing that was surprising - apart from the fact that Lonely Planet didn't find any errors in the Colombia guide (or any of Thomas K's other books), so we better make that two - why on earth would Thomas have accepted the Colombia contract and not gone there? The main reason we all work these long hours (12 hour days, 7 days a week, 362 days a year - and I'm not kidding!), for very little pay (that part is true too), is for the love of travel. To get an opportunity to travel and not do so is even more ludicrous than some of claims being made. If you didn't see this article A Job With Travel But No Vacation in 2006, take a read now; note that the story opens with a tale from Thomas' travels.

The image? Note-taking over a lunch break while researching in Ithaki, Greece, two summers ago. Terry is off taking photos of fishermen mending their nets. Now do you see why we do what we do?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Top 5 tips to planning a luxury escape: getting the most out of your hotel

After you’ve decided on your luxe hotel, or narrowed it down to a short list (see previous post), here's how to make the most out of your indulgent getaway:
1. Club access: check on the hotel site to see if there are ‘club’ rooms. While the rate may be slightly higher, you’ll be spoilt by the extras offered. Typically, they include transfers, complimentary welcome drinks, Club Lounge access where breakfast, afternoon tea and cocktails are served, luxurious toiletries, complimentary newspapers, Internet access, spa use, and private butler. Lazing around reading newspapers after breakfast in bed is preferable to waiting in line for cold scrambled eggs. Not to mention popping into the lounge for champagne and hor d’oeuvres before dinner.

2. Promotions: also check for special rates. Most hotels offer promotions that represent such excellent value you immediately become suspicious. This is because they’re taking advantage of quiet periods. It may be that a city hotel busy mid-week with business clients is dead on a weekend, so it offers ‘weekend city breaks’ or ‘theatre packages’ including sightseeing tours and tickets to shows. Or a beach resort relying on weekend trade offers fantastic mid-week deals.

3. Romance packages: if there are several offers, opt for the romance package, which may include flowers, canapés, champagne on ice, chocolates, a candlelit bath, in-room breakfast or champagne breakfast, spa treatment, and late check-out. Whether you’re rekindling a romance or not, just enjoy the lavish extras. Plus, if the hotel is really quiet they’ll probably upgrade you to a suite.
4.
All-inclusive packages: definitely not something I normally encourage travellers to do - it goes against all my beliefs about travel – travellers on all inclusives rarely leave the resort, don’t see much of a destination and don’t mingle with locals. But on a luxury getaway, you don’t want to leave the hotel! The reason you’re there is to enjoy the place. But not having to worry about money is a luxury, right? One thing you don’t want to be doing is calculating costs the whole time, so if you know up front all meals, drinks and activities are included, you can relax and just enjoy it all. The total figure might seem outrageous, but do the math, it’s generally cheaper than if you had to pay for everything separately.
5. Travel off-season: you’ll find even the most expensive hotels are affordable off-season, but keep in mind that while Venice might be romantic in winter, Dubai is sizzling in summer and few can handle it. This is when hotel rates are lowest though and even the seven star Burj Al Arab is a ‘bargain’ at only $1000 (!) a night over summer.

The pic above is of the plate of scrumptious
canapés that welcomed us in our Grosvenor Club Room along with champagne, chocolates, Arabic sweets, and a bowl of fruit at Grosvenor House, Dubai.