In Praise Of Service Journalism

service journalism - travel magazinesMy career in the travel world started out by pure luck. I was assigned to work a temp office gig in the PR department of Condé Nast Traveler for two weeks, which turned into two years at the magazine, four more at a PR agency for hotels and travel providers and two more here at Gadling. Before and throughout my career, I’ve always been a major consumer of travel media, whether I’ve used it to inspire and help plan my personal travels, as a resource for how and where to pitch my clients, or for story ideas and to keep up with industry news. Some of my favorite stories to read or write have been service pieces, the much-maligned but reader-popular side of journalism.

Service journalism has been called the “fast food” of journalism, providing the reader with “5 of the World’s Sexiest Beaches!” or a suggested itinerary for exploring the city as in the New York Times‘ regular “36 Hours in..” series. While a narrative feature might probe into a culture’s essence, or try to evoke the feeling of a certain place in time, a service piece gives you quick tips, highlights the “best” of a place and may include lists, bullets and infographics. I like the definition of service journalism as “informational“: it tells you not just about a place, but how to get there, where to stay, what to eat, etc.At Condé Nast Traveler we promoted many different magazine articles from investigative stories on airline security to roundups of romantic getaways for Valentine’s Day, and it was generally the articles on how to save money booking your next cruise, or hotel packages involving chocolate-dipped strawberries that got an editor booked on the Today Show or a mention on the Associated Press. At Traveler, I worked with Consumer News Editor Wendy Perrin, whom I might call the Meryl Streep of service journalism: well-known and beloved in the industry, frequently honored but not as much as she deserves. Wendy publishes annual guides to the best travel agents, vacation rentals, cruise ships and dream trips. She was also a pioneer in social media, as one of the first “old media” editors to start blogging, and an early advocate of social networking platforms like Twitter as an essential tool for travelers. While a guide to the best credit cards for racking up frequent flyer miles may not sound poetic, Wendy’s writing regularly affects readers in a very real way, and she maintains an open dialogue to make sure readers are taking the best trip possible.

While I might read a travel narrative or even a novel to be transported somewhere else, a service piece helps me actually get going somewhere else. It was a L.A. Times article on the Corn Islands that got me to go to Nicaragua in 2007; of the few other Americans I met there, most of them were there because of the piece as well. A recent post from Legal Nomads might look like a standard list of travel tips, but it’s peppered with anecdotes, insights and links to other travel stories, and I was transported around the world with Jodi (and craving oranges) while I read it. A Nile Guide roundup of decaying castles has me plotting a trip to Belgium. Some of my favorite and most heart-felt articles I’ve written for Gadling have included finding the expat community and tips on travel with a baby. The Society for American Travel Writers’ annual awards have a category for service-oriented stories, but a few service pieces have snuck their way into other categories, such as the deceptively simple-sounding “Ten Reasons to Visit New Orleans.”

Looking through several of the major travel magazines, most stories are now accompanied by some kind of service information: a sidebar on farmers markets to accompany an essay on eating locally, or a back-of-book addendum of hotels and practical tips for a feature on a changing city’s political landscape. Perhaps all travel media should strive for this mix of inspirational, educational and doable. Our own Features Editor Don George explains that a successful travel narrative should describe a “quest that illuminates a place and culture.” A top ten list of summer vacation may not provide such a point, but a feature on visiting the Seychelles on a budget just might. Not all service pieces have to be fluffy, or recycled from press releases, or lacking insight. They can contain mini-narratives and discoveries, and at best, give readers the tools to create their own.

Ten Great Adventure Travel Destinations For 2011

Top adventure travel destinations for 2011With another holiday season behind us at last, it is time to start looking to the year ahead and firming up our travel plans. If you haven’t already made your preparations for 2011, and you’re looking for something a bit more adventurous this year, then perhaps we can suggest a few destinations that might meet your needs.

Last year, when we shared our list of top adventure travel destinations it was populated with a few countries that are commonly recognized as offering outstanding experiences for the adventure traveler. Places such as Nepal, Tibet, and Peru, which are widely considered to be classics of this type of travel. For this year’s list, those places have been sent to the Adventure Travel Hall of Fame, making room for some up and coming destinations to get some much needed recognition.

So, without further ado, here are my picks for the top adventure travel destinations for 2011.

The United States
This may seem like an odd pick to begin the list with, but hear me out before dismissing it. The U.S. is one big, diverse place, with plenty to offer any traveler, let alone those looking for adventure. No matter what your outdoor pursuit or adrenaline inducing addiction, you’ll find an excellent place to pursue it here in the States. Enjoy mountain climbing? Then head to Colorado where you’ll find 53 peaks in excess of 14,000 feet in that state alone. Is mountain biking your thing? Then make the journey to Moab, Utah, home to some of the best trails in the world. Into kayaking? Great! What’s your flavor? Whitewater? Flat water? Sea kayaking? It doesn’t matter, you can do it all right here in the U.S., where there are plenty of forests, deserts, mountains, and rivers to roam. If you’re coming from abroad, you may be surprised, and a little overwhelmed, with all the options. And if you’re from the U.S., perhaps you’ll be reminded of the magic of domestic travel too.

Ethiopia
Top adventure travel desinations for 2011Africa has always held a certain allure for the adventure traveler, with many headed to Kenya, Tanzania, or South Africa for the classic safari experience. But there are plenty of other fantastic destinations on the continent that are worth exploring as well, most of which have a lot less tourism traffic. Take Ethiopia for example. The country is rich in history and culture and offers plenty of options for the active traveler as well. I recommend trekking the Simien Mountains, where you’ll encounter packs of rock climbing baboons en route to the medieval fortress of Gondar or make the journey to Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. Stop by the holy city of Lalibela as well, where you’ll be treated to the amazing site of a series of churches carved from the rock. [Photo credit: Justin Clements via WikiMedia]

Argentina
For travelers looking to go to extremes, it is tough to beat Argentina. The country offers visitors plenty to see and do while exploring a diverse number of unique landscapes. For instance, visitors can go to the Iguazu Falls region to take in the tropical rain forests and then travel south to Tierra del Fuego for a taste of the Antarctic. Backpackers and climbers will find plenty to love in the incomparable Patagonia district and paddlers will be thrilled with the whitewater options as well. The truly adventurous can test their mettle on the 22,841-foot tall Aconcaqua, the highest peak in the world outside of the Himalaya.

Croatia
Over the past decade, Eastern Europe has gone from a very well kept secret to a popular destination for those seeking unique cultures, lavish history, and fantastic art. But the region has plenty to offer the adventure traveler as well, with Croatia leading the pack as the best destination for adrenaline junkies. Travelers who enjoy being on the water will love sea kayaking and sailing on the Adriatic Sea, while those who prefer to be under it, will love to dive the various ship wrecks that are just off the coast. Moving further inland, paddlers will find crystal clear rivers to run, replete with plenty of whitewater while trekkers and backpackers will enjoy the mountain trails that offer breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. Head to Ucka Mountain for a hike through dense forests that eventually give way to a spectacular view of Kvarner Bay.

New Zealand
Top adventure travel destinations for 2011New Zealand earned a spot on our list last year, but it is such a great adventure destination that it deserves another nod for 2011 as well. For many travelers, New Zealand is the adventure capital of the world thanks to its amazingly diverse terrain, which gives rise to some of the best mountain biking, paddling, and climbing options found anywhere. It is also home to what is quite possibly the greatest hike in the world in the form of the Milford Track, a 33 mile trail that runs through the heart of Fiordland National Park while surrounded by some of the best scenery on the planet. The winter months bring great skiing and snowboarding options as well, with Mount Ruapehu, an active volcano cone on the North Island, being amongst the most popular destinations. [Photo credit: Wikikiwiman via WikiMedia]

India
Another large and geographically diverse country, India can lure adventure travelers with a host of options. Want to spend some time on the beach or go diving and snorkeling? Then head to Goa for plenty of aquatic fun. Prefer a mountain trek? Then make your way to the remote northern region to gain access to the High Himalaya, along with its quaint mountain villages and Buddhist culture. For a different kind of hike head to the famed Valley of Flowers to experience more than 300 species of the colorful plants in one location. And for a truly unique adventure, explore the massive Thar Desert on the back of a camel.

Guyana
Often overlooked in favor of more well known South American destinations, Guyana is a great choice for adventure travelers looking to escape the crowds and get off the beaten path. Highlights include jungle canopy tours of the Iwokrama Rainforest Reserve and a visit to the 741-foot tall Kaieteur Falls, which is billed as the tallest sheer drop waterfall in the world. But no trip to Guyana is complete without a trek through the Rupununi region in the southern part of the country. This remote and isolated wetlands area is home to a dizzying array of wildlife including giant river otters, black caiman, anteaters, jaguars, tapirs, anacondas and more. Birdwatchers will find the place especially alluring with hundreds of unique species on display.

Botswana
Top adventure travel destinations for 2011Another destination that returns from our list in 2010 is Botswana, which offers its own take on the classic safari experience. Each year, seasonal rainfalls in Angola drain into the Okavango Delta, swelling it to three times its normal size. This conveniently occurs during the dry season, which means that the region draws vast numbers of animals in search of water. Visitors can take in this spectacular migration in a traditional safari vehicle of course, but the more adventurous will elect to go with a guide on foot or in a dugout canoe. Those two options allow you to get much closer to the wildlife, which include elephants, giraffes, hippos, lions, cheetahs, and so much more. And when you tire of watching animals, head to the Kalahari for a wonderful trek through the desert and a cultural experience with the famed Bushmen that inhabit that region.

Turkey
Straddling the border between Europe and Asia, Turkey has long held an allure for travelers of all types. It is yet another destination with a rich culture and history, and it shows in the variety of ancient ruins and unique structures that dot the landscapes. Trekkers who make their way to Turkey may be overwhelmed with all the options, with the Cappadocia region being the most popular thanks to its low degree of difficulty and unusual landscapes. Those looking for more of a challenge will want to check out the Taurus or Kackar Mountains, which offer much wilder terrain and higher altitudes to contend with as well. Mountaineers will find a variety of peaks to tackle, including the famed Mt. Ararat, the reputed final resting place of Noah’s Ark. Backpackers will love the 300+ mile long Lycian Way, which wanders along the beautiful Mediterranean coast. Sea kayaking, diving, and snorkeling in the waters of the Med will round out a very active visit.

The North Pole
Obviously not a country, but the North Pole is certainly a worthy destination for any adventure traveler, albeit one that requires deep pockets to reach. Make no mistake, going to the top of the world is an expensive proposition, but if you have the cash to do it, there are multiple ways to get there. The easiest way to reach 90º north is by taking a cruise through the Arctic Ocean aboard an icebreaker ship. But for truly adventurous travelers, the only acceptable way to reach the Pole is on skis. A number of adventure travel companies offer “last degree” guided expeditions that travel through the arctic on foot before culminating at the northernmost point on the planet, a place that only a few very lucky people ever have the opportunity to see. [Photo credit: NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Lab]

There you have it. Ten great destinations that will fill your travel itinerary with plenty of adventure in the year ahead. Enjoy!

The ten toughest castles in the world

Castles make a pretty backdrop to any vacation. They conjure up images of brave knights and damsels in distress, but the reality was less romantic. Castles were fortifications built to defend important cities, ports, fords, or mountain passes. The best military minds in the world devised ways to destroy them, when they weren’t figuring out better ways to build them. Here are ten castles that proved almost too tough to take. Some took centuries before they fell, or cost the lives of hundreds of attackers. A few never fell at all.

Crac de Chevaliers
One of the best preserved Crusader castles in the Middle East, it protected the pass from the lowlands of Lebanon through the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and into the rich Orontes river valley of Syria. It’s on the Syrian side of the border but its turrets afford fine views of Lebanon. Originally an Arab castle that was taken by the French during the First Crusade in 1099, it became the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller, a knightly order that protected pilgrims in the Holy Land. They protected themselves too, by strengthening the castle and putting up walls that were up to 100 feet thick. It withstood more than one siege and even the great Saladin couldn’t take it. It eventually fell back into Muslim hands in 1271 but remained the model for castle builders in Europe.

Masada
Facing the world’s biggest empire with only a ragtag group of dedicated fighters? Go to the middle of the desert, find a sheer mesa, and hold up in it. That’s what the Sicarii, Jewish resistance fighters, did when they rebelled against the Roman Empire in the first century AD. The location was perfect. The mesa had already been fortified by King Herod as a refuge in case of rebellion, but the Sicarii rebels got it instead. Sheer cliffs rise 300 feet (90 meters) above the desert at their lowest point, and in spots tower up to 1,300 feet (400 meters). The only way up are three winding paths that are exposed to arrows and rocks coming from above. The Romans, in their typical efficiency, built a rampart up the entire way so they could roll up battering rams to breach the walls. The Sicarii committed mass suicide rather than surrender. The Roman camps and walls used to cut Masada off from the rest of the world are still plainly visible.

Numancia
The Celts in Spain faced the same problem the Sicarii did. How to defeat the Roman Empire? Numancia was one tribe’s answer. This hillfort at the headwaters of the Duero River held out for twenty years until the inevitable end came. The defenders had run out of food and had been reduced to cannibalism. Like the Sicarii, the Celts chose death before dishonor and most of them committed mass suicide in 133 BC. Spain became a Roman province. Today you can see reconstructions of the fort and Roman siege techniques at the site’s musuem.

Osaka
The samurai were brave warriors ready to face death, but even they must have thought twice about attacking this castle. Completed in 1598, it was the base of operations for Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who made peace between Japan’s many warring factions by beating them into submission. It took 200,000 soldiers more than a year to take this place in 1615, and when you look at this photo of the bare face of the ramparts you can see why. The castle combines form and function and is beautiful as well as impregnable.

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Walls of Constantinople
OK, this isn’t technically a castle, but the massive walls of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) protected the capital of Byzantium for more than a thousand years. Byzantium was the eastern half of the Roman Empire and survived long after Rome fell. The Bulgars, Slavs, and Turks all failed to take the massive double land walls and moat. It took the invention of cannon to finally destroy them. The Ottoman Turks under Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 AD had a giant cannon that could shoot a 1,200 lb. stone ball a mile, backed up by an army that may have numbered as many as 200,000 men. The city still held out two months before falling and becoming the new Ottoman capital.

Sacsayhuaman

The Incas were master builders. Unlike most cultures, they didn’t build with regular blocks, but instead used irregularly shaped stones that fit together so precisely that not even a knife can be pushed through the cracks. Believe me, I tried. In the highlands around Cuzco, Peru, they built a series of temples and the giant fortress of Sacsayhuaman to protect them. The fortress has triple walls almost 20 feet (six meters) tall constructed in a jagged outline so the defenders could throw stones and spears at the attacking force from three sides instead of just one. It was finished sometime in the early 1500s, just in time for the Spanish to invade. The conquistadors were only able to take it after a fierce fight and the loss of Francisco Pizarro’s younger brother Juan.

Malta

Located smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean at one of its narrowest points, whoever controlled Malta controlled trade. This, of course, led to lots of wars. Malta changed hands countless times, but one of its biggest battles came in 1565 when the Ottomans tried to take the island from the Knights Hospitaller. The Knights were ready with not just one castle but three. The Ottomans had an estimated 20,000-50,000 troops. Barely 500 knights and 5,600 helpers stood in their path, but they had the castles. The Ottomans landed and started a heavy bombardment with a large number of artillery on the first fort on their list, Fort St. Elmo. The castle was reduced to rubble but its 600 defenders went down fighting. The Turks lost more than 4,000. The attack then focused on Forts St. Angelo and St. Michael, and the Turks ground up their army against the walls. After losing at least a third of their force, they called it a day and retreated. Cannonballs from the bombardment can still be seen in the fields.

Burg Eltz
This castle has the distinction of still being the home of the same family that owned it in the 12th century. Built upon a 70 meter (220 ft.) high crag next to an important trade route, it was perfectly positioned to assert power. A river flows around three sides of the crag, making it almost impossible to take. The castle is an architectural jewel and much of the fifteenth-century interior is preserved. Burg Eltz has one of the best settings of all the castles in this list. The primeval Eltz forest encloses the castle on all sides, and several historic villages are nearby. Because of its commanding position and the political skill of its owners, it was only attacked once. In 1331, Archbishop Baldwin of Luxembourg tried to extend his territory by attacking the castle with catapults and an early cannon. After more than two years of bombardment, the archbishop admitted defeat and went back to Luxembourg.

Carcassonne

The high walls that ring this strategic town did what many French castles could not–resist the English throughout the Hundred Years War. The Romans had a fort on this hilltop in 100 BC and some of the original stones can still be seen in the walls. Later it was a stronghold of the Cathars, a Christian sect that was destroyed in a crusade led
by the bloodthirsty Simon de Montfort, who killed anyone who he found in Cathar-controlled territory, whether they were Cathars or not. He’s the origin of the saying, “Kill them all, God will sort them out.” In 1209 he took Carcassonne, but the city stood firm against later sieges, including a long and determined one by the English. Nowadays it’s a perfect view of Gothic spires and imposing medieval walls.

Bamburgh
This Northumbrian stronghold is like many of the castles on this list in that the present structure covers up centuries of history. Bamburgh was the capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria and there was a castle here from the 6th century AD. It survived a number of sieges and that’s hardly surprising when you see it standing proud on a little peninsula jutting out into the North Sea. A massive gatehouse and walls protect the landward side. In 1095, the owner Robert de Mowbray was captured by the attacking Normans but his wife took over the defense and continued to push back their assaults. She finally gave in when the Normans threatened to blind Robert. The castle fell again in 1464 during the Wars of the Roses when it became the first English castle to surrender because of an artillery bombardment. Modern technology succeeded where generations of swordsmen failed.

Museum Junkie: London’s Science Museum turns 100

London’s Science Museum turns 100 this year, and as part of the centeniary celebrations they’re asking for your input on the world’s most important invention.

Their list comes from ten important inventions they have in their museum, like the first x-ray machine developed in 1895, or the Model T Ford that first came off the production line in 1908, or the V2 rocket pictured here, first launched against London by the Nazis in 1944.

Personally. I’d vote for something the techies at the museum didn’t think of–agriculture. Yeah, that was a while ago, but agriculture provided a surplus that allowed some people to do things other than gather food, such as invent all this other stuff. No agriculture, no complex civilization, no technology, and no Gadling. Now there’s a scary thought.

The Science Museum has a massive collection of machines, devices, and widgets for every conceivable purpose. There are a lot of interactive displays, including a mockup of a Japanese supermarket where you can experience an earthquake. It’s one of the best places to take kids in London, along with the Natural History Museum with its weird deep sea fish and animatronic T-Rex. If you want to waste some time at work, take their “What dinosaur are you?” quiz. Apparantly I’m a Baryonyx.

With all this talk about inventions, what about travel? What are the most important inventions for people on the road? The backpack? The airplane? The Internet? Passports? What’s your vote for the most important invention for travelers?

The Gadling Top 10 Top 10 lineup of 2008

Can you believe that the year is almost over? When I saw the first Christmas items pop up at my local Costco back in September, the Holiday season seemed so far away.

But now, with less than 2 weeks left in the year, it is time to slowly start looking back at some of the best Gadling had to offer in 2008.

So, please let me present (in chronological order), the top 10 of top 10’s posted here in 2008:

In January, Neil posted about the 10 most common cities where Americans are arrested. Number 10 is Hong Kong, but you’ll need to visit the top 10 to see where in the world Americans seem to misbehave the most.

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If you like travel and food, then this list by Iva mentions the top 10 foodie destinations. You’ll read where the best food is, and what is on the must eat list when you travel abroad.

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New York City has some of the worlds most impressive architecture, and this list by Anna talks about the top 10 must see building in the Big Apple.

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When you add the best roads in Europe, with motorcycles, then you end up with this list posted by Iva. The list mentions the best 10 roads to enjoy on your bike.

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British band Scouting For Girls had a big hit this year with “I wish I was James Bond“. If you share their wish to be the British Spy for a day, then this list of the 10 best Bond locations is a must-read. It’ll even tell you where you can find the Goldeneye hotel, which is the Jamaican location where Ian Fleming wrote most of his novels.

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Do you still book your trips using a travel agent? Chances are you might not be getting your moneys worth. Back in June, Aaron posted a list of the top 10 signs you have a bad travel agent. Don’t worry though, the list was written by David Letterman, and has some hilarious entries like “Your plane ticket is a post-it note”.

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This top 10 list was one of my favorites of the year – Annie dug up 10 of the most stupid laws you’ll find around the world. Thanks to the list, I learned that I can no longer be drunk in Scotland while in possession of a cow. If her top 10 wasn’t enough to entertain you, she added another 10 to the list in her followup post.

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In October I wrote down my top 10 ways to make cheaper phone calls when you are abroad. In the list, you’ll find tips like using a Blackberry to make free calls, or when to use prepaid mobile phone cards.

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Karen assembled this awesome list of the top 10 things you must pack before you go abroad. It is a must-read if you are leaving the country, and has some great tips, including my favorite – “an open mind”.

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And finally, in December I decided to vent, and list the top 10 things I hate about staying at a hotel. Check out my list, and decide for yourself whether hotels suck, or whether I am just a chronic complainer.

So there you have it. The top 10 top 10’s from 2008. If you have any suggestions for a new top 10 list, feel free to leave a comment below!