“So it is in travelling; a man must carry knowledge with him if he would bring home knowledge.”
— From “The Life of Samuel Johnson,” by James Boswell, 1791
I’ve always been fascinated by photography; by how one person’s vision and imagination frames an image in a way that is unique to that person.
You and I looking at the same scene would capture it differently with our cameras, depending on our vantage point and what our eyes were drawn to.
So, too, with travel writers, who visit places and try to capture their essence and then share the experience with others.
Sometimes, millions of others.
If the message is being delivered through the rosy prism of this province’s polished tourism ads or with the wink-and-saucy-nod portrayal of St. John’s that is “Republic of Doyle,” we’re on pretty safe ground. Both portray a ruggedly beautiful, colourful place populated with interesting, salt-of-the-earth characters.
Nothing wrong with that.
And there are some terrific travel writers out there, too.
But some of the messages circulating in the big, wide world are hokey, hilariously shallow or factually flawed.
Some of the depictions are somewhat distorted, as if they were created by someone who looked at the province through a funhouse mirror — there are elements that are vaguely familiar, but as a whole the image is off-kilter, stretched out of whack.
In a March 21 article published on the website technorati.com, author Kaleel Sakakeeny describes “the aching loneliness of the surrounding sea where Lilliputian villages snuggle against the craggy faces of mighty cliffs.”
In his Newfoundland, the population has increased to a staggering 530,000; the last official count was 509,239 — must be all those baby bucks.
He writes about a dark-haired beauty calling for a song from the doorway of a Celtic pub in St. John’s.
And, lo and behold, “a song was sung, a melody of lovers who this time triumphed over the unforgiving sea and the starkly beautiful land.”
In a video postcard accompanying the article, Sakakeeny intones: “NEW-fin-lind, Canada’s Atlantic province, gets under your skin, and stays there.”
And no wonder. It’s a place, he says, that “has more art galleries, pubs, festivals and celebrations than would seem reasonable.”
“Mostly they celebrate the summer and the blessed end of winter,” he writes, and then adds, inexplicably, “They celebrate with jigs, dinners and jazz best captured by Newfoundland artist, Christopher Pratt.”
Then again, Sakakeeny also directs travellers to “Portuguese Cove (about 20 minutes from downtown).”
Good luck finding it.
Now, to be fair, he has lovely things to say about this place, even though his prose tends towards purple and he could spend a little more time checking facts.
But some of the stuff out there is downright facile.
And that’s troubling in a place trying to market itself as a world-class destination.
Stuff like: “The island of Newfoundland … was first sighted by Italian explorer Giovanni Gaboto in 1497 … a.k.a. John Gabot.”
That’s courtesy of the U.K.-based Telegraph online, on March 1.
As is this gem: “An average day for a Newfoundlander? Try kayaking and hiking around fishing communities and through the famous ‘Iceberg Alley.’”
Yes, just another day in the life.
Careful, though, folks. Don’t paddle your kayak too close to “the huge turquoise flanks of the icy giants,” because they’re “The same kind of icebergs that caused the sinking of the Titanic!”
In the Sept. 11, 2010 issue of the U.K.-based Mail Online, the St. John’s that writer Alex Millson finds is decidedly sleepier than the place technorati.com profiled, with its colourful houses painted to match the fishing boats bobbing contentedly in St. John’s harbour.
Instead, Millson’s destination, with its wan dwelling houses, is inhabited by boob-tube loving couch potatoes.
“On a Sunday morning,” he writes, “the streets of St. John’s in Newfoundland are still and empty, the pastel clap-board houses that cling to the steep streets quiet. And where are the folk of St. John’s? Most of them are at home, behind closed doors, peering at their television screens … watching the weekly ‘Coronation Street’ omnibus.”
Luckily, Millson manages to find a little more life in Witless Bay, where he sees breaching whales but passes on a chance to eat raw sea urchin.
Before long, though, he was back “on the rock,” marvelling at the culinary oddities in the local supermarkets, and “drinking the local beers and Screech rum and chatting with the locals, whose Canadian accents veered with varying degrees towards Irish, and sometimes even Cornish, lilts.”
(For the record, Labrador was barely mentioned in the travel pieces cited here.)
He calls St. John’s a place where, “despite the occasional eyebrow raised at why we were there in the first place, revellers seemed pleased that we had bothered to visit.”
Both Sakakeeny’s and Millson’s junkets here were hosted by the provincial government.
Well, it was nice of them to bother. Next time, I might turn off the TV and venture outside to greet them myself, perhaps by trilling a song in my charming faux-Irish brogue and tossing my flaxen hair.
Until then, we might be wise to keep on top of the messages being circulated about this harsh craggy island in the sea, and consider setting the record straight from time to time.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.