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Friday, May 2, 2008

Top secrets of travel writers: #2 the art of parachute artistry

Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler said in a 2005 New Yorker story ''The Parachute Artist': "To research a big guidebook, you need some people who live in the country, but you also need some parachute artists, someone who can drop into a place and quickly assimilate, who can write about anywhere.” The skills and tricks of a parachute artist are one of the secrets of travel writing. In much of the Thomas Kohnstamm media coverage, online reader comments and discussions on travels forums, travel writers were criticized for not living or staying long enough in a destination they're researching. Because few people recognize or appreciate the art of parachute artistry. So how do travel writers quickly assimilate to a city? And how can you do so too?
1) visit the tourist office: don't just leave with a map and bundle of brochures and let the staff get away with circling "we are here" on your map. Interrogate them. Ask what's new, what's not in the brochures, what's recently opened in the way of sights, museums, galleries, shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, whatever it is that interests you, then press them for their preferences. Also ask where the interesting neighborhoods are, where locals go out, hang out, shop etc.

2) consult local experts: when you eat somewhere you like, ask the manager, waiter or chef for places similar to where you're eating at and where they eat on their night off; ask the sommelier where he/she likes to drink and eat, where there's a nice little wine bar specializing in local wines; if you like a bar, find out where the bartenders drink after closing; art gallery managers can suggest other galleries; music store staff can tell you where they see live bands; fashion boutique sales staff can direct you to hip areas to shop; hairdressers can recommend the best dance clubs.

3) talk to locals: if you're at a museum, gallery, restaurant, cafe or bar you like, strike up a conversation with locals and ask them where they like to go to see similar shows, eat, drink, hang out, shop, etc. Ask local surfers for the best beaches or people walking in a park for tips on other places to stroll. Don't ask them where they think
you should go, but where they like to go. Big difference. Ask people where they think you should go and they'll often name the usual tourist traps, even if they haven't been themselves.
4) 5-star hotel concierges: whether you're staying at the hotel or not, there's nothing stopping you from going to chat to the concierges and get some tips. A 5-star concierge always knows the best restaurants, bars and shops, what's showing at museums and theatres, where to get tickets and the best times to go. Their guests may be discerning but don't think their tips will always be out of your price range if you're on a budget. Not all rich people enjoy throwing their money around, but they tend to expect quality and good-value, whether it's a cheap ethnic eat or a Michelin-starred place.

5) read local publications: buy a local newspaper or magazine from a news stand and pick up those free entertainment, music and clubbing papers, leaflets and postcards, that you often find on the floor in music stores and boutiques. If you're in a city for a while head to a bookstore and look for locally-written guidebooks that you won't find outside the country. For instance, whenever we go to Bangkok we immediately buy the excellent
Chic Restaurants and Bars Bangkok book written by local food critics.
So, are you ready to jump? And how do you quickly acquaint yourself with a new place?

5 comments:

TravelMuse said...

I read local blogger's websites and chat them up. It's amazing how helpful people are. I had a great guy in Philly give me tips before my trip. I also talk to friends of friends who are locals. They will steer you away from the super touristy stuff and into the local haunts.

laradunston said...

Hi travelmuse, good tip, thanks! It's definitely something I include my pre-trip research now, but I didn't include it here as it hasn't traditionally been part of our 'parachute artistry' and way of quickly acquainting ourselves with a place. And even now, I guess I wouldn't spend a lot of time trawling through blogs - because there is a lot of crap out there too and a lot of content regurgitated from guidebooks. (I've even seen our own Dubai city guide content on a blog!) But if I knew of a blog and was going there, say Pret a Voyager in Baltimore, I'd definitely want to talk to the blogger.

Terry said...

Travelmuse, you must have a lot more time than us, it takes a lot to really narrow down a good blogger (or three) who has simpatico tastes. But it is interesting how things are changing in terms of how we research our travel especially when it comes to friends of friends like you mention -- the internet has hooked us up and kept us in contact with people in our favourite cities so that all we need to do when we go back is email them before hand or give them a call to meet for a drink to discuss what's happening along with our research about new hotels, restaurants and bars.
Of course, when they visit one of our pet cities, they email us and Lara will make them a 'bespoke' itinerary...
Win win.

Terry said...

Travelmuse, you must have a lot more time than us, it takes a lot to really narrow down a good blogger (or three) who has simpatico tastes. But it is interesting how things are changing in terms of how we research our travel especially when it comes to friends of friends like you mention -- the internet has hooked us up and kept us in contact with people in our favourite cities so that all we need to do when we go back is email them before hand or give them a call to meet for a drink to discuss what's happening along with our research about new hotels, restaurants and bars.
Of course, when they visit one of our pet cities, they email us and Lara will make them a 'bespoke' itinerary...
Win win.

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