Society of American Travel Writers Foundation Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition Awards for Work Published in 2011-2012

September 13, 2012 By SATW

Faculty members of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication, coordinated by Monica Hill, judged the competition. There were 1,163 entries. For questions, contact Mary Lu Abbott, SATW Foundation administrator, 713-973-9985, or The results, along with judges’ comments, also may be viewed online at the Foundation website,

Category 1: Grand Award — Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year

Gold: Jill Schensul, travel writer, The Record, northern New Jersey

You can almost hear Jill Schensul’s voice while reading her travel columns. In “Bus Tours Take Flight,” she is pleasantly surprised on a bus tour that literally takes to the air, rather than the road. With conversational style, Schensul tells of driving up to the aircraft hangar to find a small plane that would transport her on a three-night East Coast tour. And she knows how to spin a yarn: “I was checked in. No scanning. No stripping. No bare feet or wanding. No waiting. No sweating. No being looked at like a criminal … Welcome to the world of the privileged.” From Niagara Falls to Hershey’s Chocolate University, Schensul is treated like royalty. One of the best parts of the tour she admits is … “Being treated like a jetsetter, or at least like someone who can afford to get around by private plane.” What a wonderful flight into fun and fancy by a writer who is a gifted storyteller. In “Colombia: Casting Off the Shadow of Fear,” Schensul braves the usual warnings about restricted travel. She takes in beautiful sights, exotic cuisines and meets Colombians. “Like most people, when I heard ‘Colombia,’ I’d been conditioned into immediately thinking drugs, violence and Pablo Escobar. And the country is still on the State Department’s Travel Warning list … but as a Lonely Planet guide to South America said, ‘Forget everything you’ve ever heard about Colombia — especially when the people telling you have never been here.’” With spirited writing like that, readers are ready to visit Colombia, too. Schensul recommends a “strong suits” list of things to do, including meeting Colombia’s indigenous people, exploring beaches, observing exotic butterflies, birds and orchids and of course visiting the Coffee Triangle. In a series of adventures, she chooses colorful words and just the right phrasing to hold us captive. Jill Schensul proves that she’s a professional storyteller and earns the gold in the Grand Award category.

Silver: Marcia DeSanctis, freelance writer

Sometimes a writer can get into your head describing scenery and people as if you were seeing it yourself. Marcia DeSanctis does just that in “A Grand Return,” about a 20th-anniversary trip to a legendary Paris restaurant, and again in “One Day, Three Dead Men,” sharing her return visit to Moscow after 28 years. But the brightest jewel in a crown of remarkable stories is “Green Pastures and the Ghosts of Rwanda,” where again DeSanctis is one with her readers. Of airports she writes: “They are my hello and goodnight, the place I cross with an exhausted shuffle when I arrive and impatiently want to ditch when I leave.” After arriving in the country and retiring to a guesthouse, DeSanctis begins to tell the story of Rwanda’s ghosts and mass killing that took place there. “I repaired to my too-quiet room and fell back on the bed. … Sensing something more akin to mortal sickness rather than terror, I imagined the thousands of people who were killed in the neighborhood I slept in, and pictured their souls swirling around in the windy night.” It is reflective writing at its best. During a conversation with a night clerk she inquires about his heritage.

“Oh,” I said. “Are your parents…I mean your family…”

“No, they are all dead,” he said. “I never knew them, really.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s not your fault,” he said. 

We are treated to a harrowing encounter when DeSanctis is side kicked by a charging 500-pound gorilla during a jungle trek. Afterwards, in conversation with a soldier, the following exchange occurs:

“I think the gorilla liked you.”

“I’m not actually sure that’s a compliment,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “But you will surely remember him.”

Later that day and no worse for the experience she drinks a tonic water and lime on a beach. The narrative of what Marcia DeSanctis experiences vacillates from current-day scenes to past Rwandan horrors whose memories she cannot shake. For a tour de force in writing excellence she earns the silver in the Grand Award category.

Bronze: Aaron Teasdale, freelance writer

The bike riding adventures of the Teasdale family make for big time reading in a series of remarkable stories about cycling through Montana, Canada and remote regions of Vietnam. Family outdoor vacations can make for dull copy, but not so with Aaron Teasdale. He knows how to spice up things with exciting encounters and detailed observations. In “Father Knows Quest,” Teasdale comes upon a grizzly bear while riding with his 11- and 7-year-old sons on a special-rigged three-seat mountain bike. “I grab the brake levers of our rolling 200-pound behemoth and, in a motion practiced countless times, whip bear spray out of my pack’s side pocket the instant my feet hit the ground. As the boys would later revel in telling friends and family members, ‘Then dad said the S-word!’” Well, it turns out that the grizzly was actually a small cub. However, Teasdale holds the tension as he looks around in near panic for the cub’s mother. It’s a heart-pounding narrative that is both concise and visual and you will want to read from start to finish. In “Flathead by Bike (with kids),” readers join Teasdale on another adventure, this time in “the last uninhabited major valley in southern British Columbia.” He describes the beauty of vast landscapes and the unromantic annoyances of traversing through wilderness. “We collapse into our sleeping bags that night, our bodies heavy with fatigue. Dense constellations of mosquito bites speckle our limbs. The wet trail has also left our shoes soaked, and my feet smell like rotting fish.” Lovers of air-conditioned hotel rooms, restaurants and museum tours may find it hard to go cycling in the great outdoors. But be warned — the wonderful storytelling narratives of Aaron Teasdale may entice you to do just that. For great writing, Teasdale bikes his way to the bronze in this year’s Grand Award category.

Category 2: Newspaper Travel Sections

2A — Newspapers with 350,000 or more circulation

Gold: The Washington Post, Joe Yonan, Travel Editor

In this highly competitive division, The Washington Post’s breadth separates the best from the very good. It isn’t the provocative locations (Russia, Egypt, Honduras, Korea), but the well-planned historical angles that make the stories relevant right now. Complementing all of this is a design that stands back and allows as much as a full page for a spectacular photo. The section uses almost surreal photos of strange places to draw us into its stories. Intelligent design shines in myriad ways: What a perfect time to visit deserted Egypt. Don’t visit just Moscow: take in Estonia, St. Petersburg and Romania (all for different reasons). Get out of Seoul and meet the lost prince of the Joseon Dynasty, the last and longest-ruling on the Korean peninsula. Perhaps the most fascinating was Michael Alison Chandler’s “The Prince’s Tale,” luring the reader from the shimmering South Korean capital to a remote village and “a time before neon.” Yi Seok, 70, recounts in hesitant English his journey from palatial upbringing to sleeping in an all-night bathhouse. Closer to home, Steve Hendrix finds a hideaway from the TMI of Disney World: a group of cabins in one corner of the Fort Wilderness Campground, where families can find peaceful respite from all the glitz.

Silver: The New York Times, Danielle Mattoon, Travel Editor

The Times’ sections skillfully blend the practical, the whimsical and the meaty reads you hope will never end. Well-crafted tales are enveloped in sweeping half-page or larger photos that take us to Cambodia, Moscow and Switzerland, to name a few. The section sticks to its New York Times’ roots with traditional design, but uses catchy headlines and white space to give a breezier look. Michelle Higgins’ engaging, enraging primer on modern air travel, “Are We There Yet?,” opens with an (almost) unbelievable anecdote: During a Newark-to-Maui nonstop, a flight crew refused a cup of milk to parents of 18-month-old twins. Higgins offers plenty of “Survivor” tips for traveling with children. “Moscow in the Snow” encourages us not to fear notorious Russian winters or “pushy crowds, confusing signage and surly ticket sellers.” Rick Lyman and his wife found the frozen capital “alive and energized, a city in the giddy grip of really enjoying itself.” Did you hear the one about Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her “alluring stepsister, Claire Claremount,” at Lake Geneva? It involves a peacock, a monkey and a dog. Tony Perrottet uses the famous Bohemian gathering in 1816 to weave an entrancing portrait of the resort area on the French-Swiss border.

Bronze: Los Angeles Times, Catharine Hamm, Travel Editor

The Los Angeles Times is a visual treat. Its designers devote virtually the entire front page to a single story, leaving plenty of space for arresting art. Two of the five submitted displays showed people in motion (literally, a boy in mid-air and a blur of harried airline passengers). The well-crafted tales tell us why exotic places matter, not just why we should go there. The June 12, 2011, section catches us with this tease: “Airline security suddenly occupied everyone’s mind. The year: 1961.” The tale of the first U.S. hijacking launches a serious look at where security is 50 years later. Jane Engle’s work is emblematic of the Times’ consistent quality. Beverly Beyette’s “Rough Seas Ahead?” critiques the cruise industry’s response to the Costa Concordia disaster in Italy. Cruise industry experts offer only a qualified “yes” to whether today’s megaships, some carrying as many as 6,000, can manage emergencies effectively. “Conflicts of Interest” educates us about the Civil War, not just from familiar Virginia but from lesser-reported Arizona, where more than 15,000 Californians led the Union’s effort to keep gold, silver and copper mines out of Jefferson Davis’ hands.

Category 2: Newspaper Travel Sections

2B — Newspapers under 350,000 circulation

Gold: The Oregonian (Portland), Alex Pulaski, Travel Editor

The Oregonian reflects its city’s reputation: different. Watch out —it’s insidiously informative. Alex Pulaski’s Snow Issue Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011, kicks off with an otherworldly visit to “Three Sisters Yurts.” Laurie Robinson describes the path to central Oregon’s yurts — wood-heated huts with a sauna — in personal terms:

“My husband Dave and I opt to ski in the six miles to the yurts with our packs, wearing our heavy telemark skis and blistery boots, because we are stubborn. And cheap. And independent.

            “And dumb.

            “And freezing.”

The Oregonian offers variety — “Las Vegas On Sale”; “Secrets of the Graves,” a tour of forgotten cemeteries across Oregon; and “Meeting Romance Halfway in Centralia,” about a charming dating spot between Portland and Seattle. Most impressively, The Oregonian stands out for hard journalism. In “Unexpected Journey,” travel blogger Erik Gauger goes activist in a development battle — coral reef vs. golf course — in the Bahamas. The coral is losing (stay tuned), but Gauger reminds us: “Travel blogging is more than hotel reviews; it is the latest incarnation of the oldest form of storytelling, and it can change the world.”

Silver: The Record (northern New Jersey), Marc Schwarz, Travel Editor

Among all entrants, The Record makes the most of reader-generated content. We see New Jersey folks all over the world, always fun, and this speaks to The Record’s outreach. The section makes good use of catchy visuals — a staff illustration of the Travelers’ Bill of Rights resembling the Declaration of Independence; ancient murals and sculptures of Colombia; delightful design for “The ‘Jersey Shore’ Experience” (six photos seemingly tossed about, arranged around a cheesy studio still of the cast). Among many highlights: Jill Schensul dismisses the weak Passenger Bill of Rights with a helping of proposed amendments. She draws us in with humor: “Hey, how about those passenger rights, huh? Gosh, talk about a case of ‘man bites dog’.” Then she offers practical, useful commentary. Schensul’s “Monumental Memorials” is a shock: sites around the world memorializing man-made catastrophe. Pegged to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the somber piece covers Gettysburg to Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima to Manhattan, Poland to Oklahoma City. The arresting package includes tips on visiting all sites. In a New Year’s destination guide, try Schensul’s lede: “A flock of ravens is called a murder. But what’s a flock of mavens called? How about a cacophony? “Her word play segues into a different New Year’s package: a 2012 calendar featuring major openings, best values, special events and Schensul’s personal favorites, many of them close to home.

Bronze: San Francisco Chronicle, Spud Hilton, Travel Editor

With crisp writing and clever visuals, The Chronicle gives readers reasons to leave San Francisco. Each week Spud Hilton devotes virtually the entire page to eye-catching art and illustrations to draw us into his destinations. We see a breathtaking aerial view of sun-splashed London or a cartoon of a baseball nut from the Bay Area looking east to the sight of lizards and airborne baseballs for spring training — the fan is a stylized cactus. David Armstrong recommends “an advance strike” on the British capital before it is overrun by the Olympics. It’s the old city’s most complete makeover since World War II. Peter Hartlaub’s “Secret Tips to Cactus League Life” takes us on a joy ride to spring training. His lede guffaws at baseball snobs: “This document was not supposed to go public.” With “The City of Peru’s Present,” Hilton urges readers to save time for the city when visiting the ancient Inca must-sees. His lede says it would be easy to write only about the history, “but the plate in front of me wouldn’t allow it.”

Category 3: Magazines 

3A — Travel Magazines 

Gold: Afar, Julia Cosgrove, Editor-in-Chief

This is a stunning magazine, with every page a treat for the eye — full of vivid photography and bolstered by good first-person writing. Particularly striking is the magazine’s See section, which beckons to the curious traveler in multiple ways: Compelling images show the reader faraway people and places; features like Curious Planet satisfy the reader’s appetite for travel trivia (both entertaining and helpful); and Postcards offers another way to showcase captured “snapshot” moments during travel. Importantly, the Afar Foundation demonstrates this is an organization that puts its money where its mouth is, by reaching out to young people who might not otherwise have an opportunity for exposure to foreign travel and new ideas and lifestyles. The magazine’s matte cover sets it apart from many other travel magazines on the newsstand and allows the cover shot to stand out. While it wasn’t always easy to identify the content inside that corresponded to the quantification on the cover (12 surprising journeys, 8 trips that will change you, etc.), the Destination Index on the TOC page is a nice way to communicate to the reader the breadth of an issue’s content.

Silver: National Geographic Traveler, Keith Bellows, Editor-in-Chief

This magazine has so much to recommend it that I hardly know where to begin. The range of destinations is impressive and truly offers something for everyone (age, budget, interest, etc.). What sets this publication apart from other travel magazines is the writing, particularly for the main feature articles. The tone is pitch perfect, and the authors avoid generalizations (and thus, stereotypes) and place the destination into a compelling, broad context — they seek to understand a place as it understands itself. Or, in the case of Carl Hoffman’s heart-rending piece (July-August 2011), the writer seeks to understand Chiang Mai, Thailand, the way his father does. It is a sentimental article, but not overly so. The Taste of Travel issue (October 2011) satisfies gastronome-readers, but the approach — what we can know about a place by its food — appeals to a wider range of readers/travelers including armchair travelers.

Bronze: Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, Marc Peyser, Editor

This magazine is a great value, as it offers readers so much between its covers. The design allows for maximum content without overwhelming the page or the reader. The photography is impressive, and the writing is compelling. In addition to substantive feature articles, the content provides practical information (from readers, as well as magazine authors/contributors) and insider tips that allow travelers to make the most of a trip (for example, “The Grand Canyon 3 Ways”), maximizing their budget but without feeling short-changed.

Category 3: Magazines

3B — Travel Coverage in Other Magazines

Gold: Midwest Living, Kendra L. Williams, Senior Travel Editor, and Hannah Agran, Assistant Travel Editor

The graphics are appealing and the writing is lively. Destinations go beyond the “usual suspects” but stay within the geographic boundaries of the magazine’s base. Photos and descriptions suggest a much-pampered reader, although the recommended hotels and restaurants appear to be priced reasonably — great for putting travel in reach during an economic downturn — but never “on the cheap.” Agendas offer highlights for day-long and weekend trips and range from restaurants (lots of these, in fact) to museums, parks and shops. 

Silver: Southern Living, Jennifer Cole, Features Editor, and Travel staff

Photos and layouts are very appealing. The destinations always look so, well, fun, and the writing manages to keep things fresh no matter how repetitive (Route 66, Savannah, Atlanta) the places are. The Around Your South Calendar feature is nice and suggests unusual events in addition to those that are more well-known. The magazine caters perfectly to its target audience — no doubt readers dog-ear these pages and make plans to visit the wonderful restaurants, shops, museums mentioned.

Bronze: Westways, Elizabeth Harryman, Travel Editor, and Leslie Yap, Editor-in-Chief

This magazine is a bit of a sleeper — attractive but not ostentatious, featuring upscale destinations (Singapore, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef) but also those off the beaten path (love the “5 Worth the Drive” feature). The layout allows for loads of content without overwhelming the reader; articles are concise, for example. The magazine offers its readers plenty of practical tips such as how to use (misuse, or avoid) social media while traveling. The magazine gets high marks for its piece on traveling with a disability (“The Best Therapy”), demonstrating a commitment to inclusivity that so many travel magazines lack.

Category 4: U.S./Canada Travel Article 

Gold: W. Hodding Carter, “57 Feet and Rising,” Outside

You don’t expect a travel article to emerge from something as horrific as the Great Flood of 2011. Nor do you expect a travel writer to have to risk being shot to gather information for a story, but that’s what happened when W. Hodding Carter illegally paddled 300 miles from Memphis to Vicksburg to see the effects of the devastating flood. A native of the delta, Carter grew up with a healthy respect and fear for the Mississippi River, and his story illustrates through description and interviews just how devastating the flood was and just how resilient the people who live along the river have to be. This is a thrilling story that puts the reader (safely) in the middle of one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in U.S. history.

Silver: Ryan Knighton, “Riding Blind,” Outside

This is a story about a deaf man teaching a blind man how to surf, but it’s also a more universal story of man’s need to take risks. Ryan Knighton sums it up succinctly: “… white canes and Braille can’t cure the most dangerous side effect of my condition: the terminal malaise of keeping safe. Blindness is so bloody boring.” He takes us along for the ride, literally, and we laugh and catch our breath as he actually learns to surf. It’s a great mix of personal accomplishment, travel writing and humor. A joy to read.

Bronze: David Lansing, “Living with Kapu,” Islands

The teaser subhead —“This rock in my pocket is ruining my life. Taking it was kapu, forbidden. I’ve come to Kauai to get rid of it, to break its curse…” — really got my attention, and I felt compelled to read on to learn how a stolen rock could cause so much trouble. The writer doesn’t disappoint. By recounting his own tale of returning the stolen volcanic rock that he believes caused him to lose his mojo, he also beautifully captures the spirit — and spiritual side — of Kauai. This is an excellent example of a first-person travel feature.

Category 5: Foreign Travel Article 

Gold: Eric Hansen, “The Killing Fields,” Outside

“The Killing Fields,” by Eric Hansen, takes us to current day Nepal. It is a trip that Hansen carefully researches, seeking to separate rumors from facts while preparing for multiple visits into the Lost Valley. He follows the mysterious death and suspected murder of seven young men in the remote Nepalese village of Nar. Additionally, he looks into the two-year delayed trial and evidence surrounding a turf war over a rare mushroom known as yarchagumba, which “looks like a shriveled brown chile pepper and is coveted as an aphrodisiac and medicinal cure-all.” He helps readers visualize this “summer grass, winter worm” mold writing that “it forms when a parasitic fungus invades the burrowing larva of a ghost moth, transforms the vital organs into a cobweb-like mess, and then sends up a wispy sprout through the dead insect’s head.” Before you think this is more akin to science fiction than a Peter Falk Lt. Columbo detective scene, think again. Hansen travels the Himalayas highlighting the questionable judicial system, world market legal trade and black-market deals to smuggle yarchagumba. He traces the trade in it from the villages in Tibet, India, Bhutan and Nepal to … “high-class dinner parties in Beijing (where) yarchagumba has reportedly replaced Champagne as the preferred gift.” During the six-week harvesting season, a Nepali can earn upwards of $1,500. Hansen writes, “Thanks to a spike in global demand, mostly by Asian men looking to enhance their virility, a pound of yarchagumba now sells for as much as $50,000 — more than the price of gold.” Eric Hansen earns the gold for taking readers along on this magnificent journey to Nepal while demonstrating excellence in reporting and writing.

 Silver: Ryan T. Bell, “Comrade Cowboy, Part 1,” Western Horseman

“Comrade Cowboy, Part I,” by Ryan T. Bell, is an excellent mix of travel, adventure and foreign relations. It also gives new meaning to post-Cold War cattle ranching in Russia. You might wonder what the writer has been drinking when you read that Montana rancher Darrell Stevenson is taking 1,434 cattle, five quarter horses and a team of cowboys to start a ranch in Russia. Continuing, you realize it’s a true story about a Black Angus cattle breeder coming to the aid of a former enemy suffering from a beef crisis. Bell writes that Russia “imports 40 percent of its red meat, a steak costs $75 in a Moscow restaurant, and the beef in village grocery stores is, as Darrell put its, just one step above boot leather.” Beyond diplomacy, it is the logistics that keeps you on the edge of your seat. First, there is a laundry list of vaccinations and two Russian veterinarians must fly to Montana to oversee the cattle quarantine process. Next, readers are introduced to a modern-day Noah’s Ark. A group of 550 cattle and horses is transported on a cargo ship departing from Delaware en route to Russia’s Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. The remainder of the herd board 747 cargo airplanes. Montana veterinarian Craig Moore plays the role of Noah when the ship, during a 26-day, 7,500-mile trip, runs into storms at sea. Bell writes, “Monster 30-foot waves rocked the boat, pummeling both man and beast for several days. Moore, between bouts of seasickness, went below decks to check on the animals. They were woozy and filthy, shellacked in a concoction of mud, wood shavings and manure.” They make it through the storm, get hit by another one and run into a Russian blockade with “tensions building by the minute.” Ryan T. Bell earns the silver for taking readers on a foreign and biblical arklike trip that keeps them begging for more.

Bronze: Marcia DeSanctis, “Green Pastures and the Ghosts of Rwanda,” Overnight Buses Travel Magazine for iPad

“Green Pastures and the Ghosts of Rwanda,” by Marcia DeSanctis, takes travelers through the hellos and goodbyes that are part of transiting airports. She describes them as “miserable, inhuman places, churning people in and out like an automatic dishwasher, offering lattes to the unthirsty and warm water in the restroom, if you can figure out that country’s faucet mechanics.” By the second paragraph she has prepared readers for a deeper story, one wrapped in the harsh realities of the genocide that took place in Rwanda. While in the country to do pro bono consulting for a small NGO, DeSanctis navigated the streets, spent days in remote villages and trekked up muddy hillsides. Through most of her visit, it was difficult to see “Rwanda’s beauty, hope and promise.” She writes, “Everyone seemed to bear a mark of the country’s recent terror. Each man was a perpetrator, each woman was a survivor, each teenager was a victim, and everyone was a witness.” It is only when she visits the Akagera Game Preserve that she finds comic relief with a team of baboons. Later she travels to Virunga Park, near the border of Uganda and the DRC, to hike and take a 60-minute gorilla tour. Suddenly, after 30 minutes of visiting and snapping pictures of gorilla families, a 500-pound male gorilla heads straight toward DeSanctis, strikes her, spins her around. After recovering, she conversed with the guide: “‘I think he wanted to show me who was boss,’ I said, trying not to look as weak and scared as I felt.” By the time she returns to the airport to depart, she understands that while she wasted time thinking too much of Rwanda’s tragedy, everyday Rwandans were moving on. Marcia DeSanctis passionately and deftly writes her way to the bronze.

Category 6: Photo Illustration of Travel

Gold: Brown W. Cannon III, “Mauritius: The Smallest World,” Islands

An explosion of culture and beauty, the photos draw you in. Brown Cannon really knows how to capture the essence of a travel destination as he weaves the reader through an exciting journey with his masterful photography. The various ethnicities of the inhabitants and expressions on their faces cause you to want to immediately find out much more about this little-known locale. The photos capture the diversity of the landscape, people and way of life. This entry, like no other, inspires the reader to look beyond the pictures and the words to begin a personal search to discover what else there is to offer in Mauritius, and why you never knew about it before. Cannon’s photography brilliantly “takes you there.”

Silver: Piotr Redlinski, “Lost Cities, Found Anew,” The New York Times

Beautiful scenery, culture and spectacular landscapes are inspiring, and Piotr Redlinski obviously understands how to illuminate a subject with his artful photography. The photos capture the interest of the reader in a beautiful, dramatic and eye-catching way. The images are excellently shot and really bring life to a lost city.

Bronze: Gary Arndt, “The Canary Islands,”

The Canary Islands photo-essay is well done, with a mix of architecture, landscapes and people to show readers the abundant beauty. Diversity of photos shows that there is much to offer in the destination. This presentation makes me want to pack my bags and go today!

Category 7: Special Package/Project

Gold: Kim Cross, Erin Shaw Street and Rick Bragg, “What Stands in a Storm,” Southern Living, print/online/video

“What Stands in a Storm” is a meditation on the soul of Alabama following the historic wave of devastating tornadoes in 2011. In moving prose, the prologue of this Southern Living special package paints a scene of destruction and tells the tale of human survival. In one paragraph, we are drawn in: “But the same geography that left us in the path of this destruction also created, across generations, a way of life that would not come to pieces inside that storm, nailed together from old-fashioned things like human kindness, courage, utter selflessness, and, yes, defiance, even standing inside a roofless house.” A tale in three parts follows this prologue, focusing on the faith, the food and the fellowship that kept standing once the winds blew by. This package demonstrates that sometimes the social, spiritual and culinary architecture of a place remains intact when the physical architecture of a space has been wiped away by disaster, and this is what makes a place like Alabama worth visiting. The story’s online content builds upon the theme, featuring a reflection from a veteran Alabama meteorologist on the unusual strength of the storms and a series of videos of ordinary citizens telling their tales of survival. The writing is engaging, the video stories are intimate and the content hangs together in a well-curated exhibit about human strength. This multipart, multimedia coverage of the cultural revival following the Alabama tornadoes is what good travel writing is all about.

Silver: Christopher Reynolds, “Machu Picchu,” Los Angeles Times, print/online/video

Marking the 100-year anniversary of Hiram Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu, Christopher Reynolds embarks on a voyage to the great ruins of Peru, noting along the way how the recent surge in tourism has changed the travel experience while offering sage travel advice. As Machu Picchu becomes an increasingly popular destination for travelers, Reynolds writes of skyrocketing prices and a booming souvenir and restaurant business in town, and he predicts a time in the near future when up-close access to Machu Picchu’s ruins may be limited for preservation’s sake. This jewel is thus both booming tourist destination and endangered relic from an old world, and Reynolds writes of this juxtaposition masterfully. Two videos of the writer during his travels accompany the written piece online, and to mark the centennial of Bingham’s expedition, the Los Angeles Times rolled out a gallery of 100 photos of Machu Picchu and 100 factoids online. These multimedia features add richness to the story Reynolds tells, making this package both a joy to read and a practical guide to your next Andes adventure.

Bronze: Jerry Soverinsky, “Bambino on Board,” AOL Travel/Huffington Post

Traveling with an infant is an adventure, with plenty of joys and plenty of headaches. In his series “Bambino on Board,” Jerry Soverinsky documents a spontaneous month of travel through Europe with his wife and infant. He captures the highs and lows of traveling with an infant with a dose of humor and a self-awareness that he must be just a bit crazy to attempt this kind of thing: “Were it not for death stares from fellow passengers, ear-piercing cries during descent, and diaper changes punctuated by turbulence (the most daring Mile High Club, to be sure),” he writes, “flying overseas with a baby would be completely stress-free.” There are tender moments, too, such as baby Max’s first steps on a hard terra cotta tile floor in Tuscany, and Soverinsky writes of these travel memories in an effortless and personal way that lets readers see themselves there too, with the whole family. “Bambino on Board” is a funny, sweet, and practical bit of travel advice for anyone who thought they had given up spontaneous getaways with the onset of parenthood.

Category 8: Cruise Travel

Gold: Margie Goldsmith, “Antarctica: Following Shackleton’s Footsteps,” The Affluent Traveler magazine

What a great opening — “The rufous-chested dotterel sits low in the diddledee. …” This is an interesting, informative article that draws the reader into the cruise. It has great reporting in all areas, especially the use of experts and the history of legendary explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men. The detailed descriptions are outstanding: “ … I looked at the seagull-looking bird with neon pink webbed feet. It was my second day on an Antarctic expedition cruise, and I was having trouble focusing on the screen because out the window was the azure South Atlantic Ocean which the sun lit up like an undulating carpet of sapphires.” Or “The penguins were like children. Each of the species had its own personality. The Rockhopper Penguins (‘the rockies’) were like little whirligigs, jumping on and off the rocks again and again, raising their beaks to the sky to bray, moving their little heads up and down, and flapping their flippers as though any second they expected to fly. With their spiky black crests and bright yellow feather-like ‘eyebrows,’ they reminded me of Keith Richards.”

Silver: Barbara Ramsay Orr, “Discover an Explosion of Colour on This Dutch River Cruise,” The Globe and Mail, Toronto

The use of detail and people here enriches the story, starting with the opening: “I spent the night in a room that was once full of sugar beets.” And the next paragraph begins: “Drifting in through the small open window above my bed is the sound of ducks circling in search of breakfast. Soon, little white furry legs will scuttle past the window — Teddy, the barge dog, out for his constitutional — and the smell of fresh coffee will seep under the door from the galley.” The writer shares her experience in a way that makes the trip enjoyable for the reader while also weaving in history and information so smoothly that you hardly realize how much you’re learning.

Bronze: Barbara Ramsay Orr, “European River Cruise,” West of the City magazine, Ontario

The writer makes great use of the Rhine — its history through the ages and its route through cities and countries — informing the reader not only of the trip and sights but also the changes in the ships that now offer river cruises. Today’s fleet reflects the enhanced accommodations once found only on large cruise ships. She doesn’t overlook the amenities of river cruises that take you to the doorsteps of the cities found in history books and make the trip all the more enjoyable. To paraphrase the old slogan, getting there is half the enjoyment. Now.

Category 9: Adventure Travel

Gold: Bill Donahue, “Are We There Yet? Six Guys in a Capsule,” Wired magazine

For 520 days, six men did not leave their stationary cubicle, but their impact on what may be man’s most adventurous journey someday might be immeasurable. Bill Donahue writes of six volunteers in a Moscow institute who spent 17 months simulating a round trip to Mars. Their adventure did not involve mountains or deep seas — it was in overcoming boredom and loneliness.

Silver: Mark Jenkins, “Big Cat Diary,” National Geographic Traveler

Of all the entries, this contains the best descriptive writing, a detailed account of lions stalking Cape buffalo one morning in Tanzania. This is also a story of a father’s relationship with his daughter and of the things we learn both as adolescents and as parents. Mark Jenkins exhibits great skill in weaving all of this together.

Bronze: Alex Hutchinson, “Avoiding the Crowds on an Everest Trek,” The New York Times

The path from the Lukla airstrip to the Mount Everest base camp is well-worn, Alex Hutchinson reports, by as many as 30,000 hikers a year. The same might be said of Everest adventure stories written for publication. But in this very engaging read Hutchinson goes off that main path to report on a less-traveled route, providing a new perspective on reaching base camp.

Category 10: Travel News/Investigative Reporting 

Gold: Gary Stoller, “FAA Limits Emergency Oxygen,” USA Today

In this stunning, succinctly written and fully detailed story, Gary Stoller reports that the FAA fears it is too dangerous to allow emergency oxygen in airplane bathrooms, so the agency told airlines to get rid of it. If nothing else, this should shorten the lines outside the loo, eh? It’s a head-shaking story about airline safety/anti-terrorism policy in our day. (Note: Recently the FAA reversed its decision and has given airlines more time to design a tamper-proof oxygen system.)

Silver: Ellen Creager and Jennifer Dixon, “Hub Premiums Cost Delta Fliers Plenty at Metro,” Detroit Free Press

In case we need another reason to hate the airlines, the authors provide a well-documented, almost laughable case of price gouging by Delta Air Lines. Choose to fly from a regional airport into Detroit and then abroad and a traveler can save thousands over the fare charged to the same places if flown directly from Detroit. Solid reporting nailed down the lunacy here.

Bronze: Gary Stoller, “Fliers Refuse to Turn Off Devices,” USA Today

We can’t prove that our refusal to turn off smartphones during takeoffs and landings has caused an airplane mishap, but that doesn’t mean it is safe to ignore warnings to do so. In his thoroughly documented report, Gary Stoller confirms that airline passengers themselves have become a flight hazard and that they are playing with fire by refusing to cooperate.

Category 11: Service-Oriented Consumer Article

Gold: Hannah Sampson, “Renting a Vacation Home? Beware Scams,” The Miami Herald

Hannah Sampson’s article is what service-oriented travel stories should be — in this case, alerting travelers about scams when renting a vacation home. Sampson takes the readers through what to watch out for and has a great example to lead off her story, enticing readers into the topic. There’s also a helpful box with tips.

Silver: Scott Mayerowitz, “Now Arriving in Alabama: Your Lost Luggage,” The Associated Press

This is a great article explaining what happens to lost luggage that can’t be reconnected with its owner. If you have ever traveled and lost your luggage, this is a story that you want to read, and Scott Mayerowitz tells the tale with great flair.

Bronze: Jean-Francois Legare and team, “One’s Company,” enRoute

In a nontraditional story format, this article does a great job of dispensing advice to people who travel by themselves, offering the pros and cons. From an Ask the Expert section to Reader’s Tips, it presents handy information in a package of short copy blocks focused on flights and hotels, food and drink, and social connections.

Category 12: Environmental Tourism

Gold: Joshua Hammer, “Shark Bait,” Outside

This is SATW’s Year of the Shark, at least in this category. Of the entries about sharks, Joshua Hammer’s piece about shark attacks worldwide is the best combination of reporting, writing and appropriate topic. He is thorough with in-depth reporting of the causes and effects of the attacks, the environmental angles and their impact on tourism. His experience in South Africa and those of others he recounts also make excellent adventure reading.

Silver: Andrea Sachs, “Clean the World: Hotel Soaps That Care,” The Washington Post

There’s a time-proven technique for generating story ideas: If you ask yourself a question, get the answer. It may be a story. Who hasn’t wondered what happens to the soap we don’t use in hotel rooms? It’s being repackaged and shared with children in parts of the world where it is a luxury. This well-reported, nicely written story explains how your hotel stay can help children and the environment at the same time.

Bronze: Tim Neville, “Over the Alps on a Bike With a Boost,” The New York Times

Tim Neville has found a way for us all to experience the Tour de France, or a tour of the Alps at least, the way Lance Armstrong did, sort of, and without most of the training or sore muscles. We can ride a battery-boosted bicycle as he did over the Alps. Sure, it’s cheating, but the scenery, fresh air and mountain stops are no less fun, maybe more, and Neville tells us how to do it.

Category 13: Cultural Tourism 

Gold: Michael Luongo, “Ground Zero as Dark Tourist Site,” Miller-McCune magazine (now Pacific Standard)

Written on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, “Ground Zero as Dark Tourist Site” is a poignant story about the ground that once was home to the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Events of that horrible day are made fresh again and woven into the narrative with eyewitness accounts. It is a cultural tourism excursion like no other — filled not with descriptions of fine food or art but instead with the language of loss, deep reflection and reverence. In the opening, Michael Luongo sets the stage today: “Chaos mixes with normality, pilings are driven into the ground, steel clatters as new structures rise. Bicyclists whiz past briefcase-toting commuters, both groups oblivious to curious onlookers straining to see through slits in the construction fences. These are the ground zero pilgrims, numbering daily in the thousands, many never having seen the towers when they existed.” Visitors from around the world are drawn to Times Square, Wall Street and Broadway to take in the hustle and texture of life in New York City. Visitors to ground zero are drawn by what happened there — unimaginable destruction and death. New York University professor Brigitte Sion calls it “dark tourism.” On the edge of darkness is where Luongo masterfully informs us of what is rising from the ashes of our memories. He takes us to the Tribute WTC Visitor Center and offers glimpses into the National September 11 Memorial and Museum scheduled to open in 2012. How the towers fell on 9/11 and what happened to the people who perished that day is a story that will be recounted time and time again. Balancing a fine line, Luongo tells the story word by word of ground zero tourism with reverence on the way to earning the gold. 

Silver: Joshua Cooper Ramo, “Reimagining Hangzhou,” Departures

In “Reimagining Hangzhou,” Joshua Cooper Ramo travels back in time to the serene capital of the Southern Song Dynasty. Taking readers along with him, Ramo paints the scene using perfect prose: “At the very moment I arrived in Hangzhou more than a decade ago, I was struck by a feeling that still grabs me each time I catch sight of the famous silvery disk that is the West Lake. It is, for an instant, as if time has been suspended. … Hangzhou is an entire city that feels, as it has for centuries, perfectly balanced, pulled neither forward nor back.” We are reminded that many cities in China are experiencing building booms with construction cranes blotting skylines everywhere. Hangzhou on the other hand, with nearly 10 percent of its surface area water, is the perfect balance of yin and yang. Ramo recommends a list of calming excursions — hiking Baoshi Hill to watch the sun on the lake; a visit to China Academy of Art to unlock “the oldest ideas of Chinese design;” or a tour of Guo Zhuang, a villa built during the Qing Dynasty. Like Venice, Hangzhou boasts world-class restaurants and cuisines, which with the water, help quiet the noise of urban chaos and upheaval found elsewhere. Ramo writes, “But what will strike you most here is how Hangzhou balances and absorbs all that, how the lake’s deep yin depths dissipate every jarring shock of the new. It’s a great gift for a city to possess, and one we probably each ought to covet for ourselves.” For splendid writing and reader relaxation Ramo earns the gift of silver.

Bronze: Don George, “Japan’s Past Perfect,” National Geographic Traveler

Occasionally a writer describes a place and its people so accurately the setting comes to life along with the voices of the characters far away. “Japan’s Past Perfect” by Don George is such a story. Close your eyes and imagine this: “I’m sitting on the polished wooden steps of a 300-year old farmhouse in Japan’s Iya Valley, looking out on a success of mountain folds densely covered in deep green cedars. Skeins of morning mist rise from the valley floor, hang in wispy balls in the air, and tangle in the surrounding slopes. … The only sound is the drip of predawn rain from nearby branches and from the farmhouse’s roof of thick thatch.” We are on the island of Shikoku, far from Tokyo. George introduces us to the farmhouse-inn manager who comments: “There are mornings when I wake up here and wonder what century I’m in.” Given the tragic memories of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor crisis that rocked Fukushima, it is reassuring to be reminded that the Land of the Rising Sun is still a magical place of ancient traditions and rustic pristine settings. Shikoku Island boasts of 88 temples, straw and clay farmhouses, serene fishing villages, hot spring spas and bowing Buddhist pilgrims. George reveals that the most treasured facet of life on Shikoku is the “wide spirit and heartfelt hospitality” of its residents and earns the bronze for taking us to a part of Japan that remains untouched by industrial modernization.

Category 14: Personal Comment 

Gold: Andrew McCarthy, “The Cycle of Life,” National Geographic Traveler

Travel’s richest experiences usually involve our interaction with strangers. Andrew McCarthy’s tale involves a young man who offers a moto tour of Saigon for a preset price. At day’s end, pleasantries dissolve into distrust, however, and McCarthy intimates enough in his last paragraphs to remind us of the numerous levels of friction that would exist between two people in their respective situations. The conclusion is expertly written and leaves the reader shaken.

Silver: Marcia DeSanctis, “Masha,” “The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011” (Travelers’ Tales) and Recce: Literary Journeys for the Discerning Traveler

Some people we never forget, even when they were with us for a relatively short time. In another wonderfully written, rich tale of human interaction, Marcia DeSanctis tells of a kind young woman who cared for her while she was ill in Moscow many years ago and, maybe telling us more about herself than about the woman, how she has never forgotten that act of kindness. It’s the type of story that makes us feel good about people.

Bronze: Kimberley Lovato, “Lost and Liberated in the Dordogne,”

Some people can be jerks, and sometimes it’s best that we call them on that. Kimberley Lovato runs into a jerk in France — some of us would find nothing newsworthy there — and tells a multilayered and delightful story of ice cream, poor directions and conciliation. This is a read that will leave you smiling at the end and, maybe, with a new strategy for traveling in France.

Category 15: Special-Purpose Travel

Gold: Clinton Etheridge, “What Is Africa to Me?” Swarthmore College Bulletin

In this remarkably insightful memoir, retired California banker Clinton Etheridge recounts two trips to Gambia, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1970, then 40 years later with his family on a mission to connect his children with their African roots. His gentle, wisdom-laden prose slides us through the lessons he learned while telling the story of those journeys. A wonder-filled read.

Silver: Ryan T. Bell, “Cowboy Comrade, Part 3,” Western Horseman

It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely business relocation. Ryan Bell transplanted a major cattle operation from Montana to Mother Russia and recounts that story in a flowing, engaging narrative. Part 3, which wins this medal, tells of two horses, one lost and another ill, and the extent to which those involved worked across international borders and cultural divides to rescue both animals.

Bronze: Christina Rexrode, “Volunteering in Haiti: Good Intentions Not Enough,” The Associated Press

This is a slap in the face. Christina Rexrode, who has volunteered twice to help earthquake victims in Haiti, reports on why some of her fellow volunteers should just stay home. Don’t go to Haiti to make yourself feel good, as she reports in this terse first-person piece. Go there with a definite plan of how to help Haitians in ways that are needed. This is a compelling piece of journalism.

Category 16: Short Article on Travel

Gold: Bruce Newman, “Trains That Won the West,” Via

The writer offers a magnificent blend of railroad history and the museum’s attractions here, resting on the firm foundation of good reporting. But it’s the writing that lifts this story out of the usual account of a museum and its contents. It begins with the opening line: “Among the majestic iron horses pastured at the California State Railroad Museum … .” To use pastured with iron horses catches one’s attention and suggests the reader is in for a treat. And the reader is. A bit later, writing about one of the engines, the writer notes, “Nine days later, C.P.1’s maiden trip set in motion an enterprise that would knit the nation together with strands of steel.” Strands of steel — a superb image. “The men who put down vast sums of money to build the transcontinental railroad ‘couldn’t be sure anybody would want to go where the tracks went,’ says Paul Hammond, the museum’s director. Soon enough, they were making vast numbers of people want to go. Train travel and settlement of the West rode into the future along parallel lines.” Parallel lines is another vivid image. Nice detail about the dining cars and Pullman sleeper cars enriches the reader’s knowledge of travel in an earlier time. Wonderful story.

Silver: Larry Bleiberg, “Selma, Ala: Crossing a Bridge Into Civil Rights History,” Los Angeles Times

What happened at a place is often why a story is written about it — Waterloo, Gettysburg, Omaha Beach — and then the writer must evoke the place, the history that makes it something to remember. That is done beautifully here. It’s a nice opening to talk about bridges the writer has crossed, and that each bridge “inspires.” Then the writer turns to the subject, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. “… hardly the prettiest span: a 1940s era bridge arching over the muddy Alabama River.” But the writer makes clear, “It’s not what you see. It’s the ghosts that linger from nearly half a century ago. This is where hundreds of unarmed men, women and children marched in the face of an overwhelming police force on March 7, 1965, a day now known as Bloody Sunday.” And, after reporting what happened and how it changed history, the way we live in this country, the writer concludes with this description of the bridge: “It’s hard to imagine anything more beautiful.”

Bronze: Susan Farlow, “Sex and the River: Male or Female Waterways,” San Francisco Chronicle

The idea of rivers being male or female is intriguing, and the writer uses it to the hilt, right from the start with a quote: “The fellow passenger chortled, then quipped: ‘Like men and women, I guess some rivers are from Mars, some from Venus.’” The writer goes on to quote experts on the topic, which grows out of how “rough” or “smooth” the rivers are — an interesting subject that is nicely developed. It closes with a great line following a quote from one of the experts, a river explorer and adventure expert: “Names ‘vary by culture, geography, history, discoverers, and characteristics.’ Moreover he [the expert] added, ‘many rivers have no gender at all.’ And the writer concludes, “Maybe those are from Mercury.”

Category 17: Travel Book 

Gold: Kimberley Lovato, “Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves: Culinary Adventures in the Dordogne,” Running Press

Kimberley Lovato’s joyous “Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves” has everything one could want in a travel book: a deep appreciation of the culture of the Dordogne region of France, insight into how the people live and think, fascinating information about history and geography, practical tips for visiting there and outstanding photographs by Lou Lesko. And then there’s the bonus: chef Laura Schmalhorst’s recipes for re-creating the exquisite dishes Lovato sampled on her culinary adventures. The reader does not have to be a chef or even try the recipes to enjoy this book. Lovato uses food as the unifying theme for her exploration because food is so important to the culture — food, and a lifestyle that suspends time in order to fully appreciate the bounties of nature, the culinary arts and the human society that gathers at the table.

Silver: Scott Wallace, “The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes,” Crown Publishers

Part of what makes “The Unconquered” so compelling is the reality, documented with a journalist’s care, that the existence of the world Scott Wallace visited is precarious. If things go wrong, no one in the future will be able to make a journey like Wallace’s, because the unspoiled world he glimpsed will no longer exist. Wallace tells a suspenseful, true story of an expedition into the remote reaches of the Amazon — where the borders of Brazil, Peru and Colombia blend into the jungle — to document a wild, primitive tribe. The goal is to protect the Indians without contacting them. The dangers are great, to the tribe and to those on the expedition. Wallace deftly combines gripping narrative and informed, detailed description, enriching the book with insight into ancient history, current politics and the tension between the two.

Bronze: Anne Elizabeth Moore, “Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh,” Cantankerous Titles

What a deceptively small, apparently simple book! Anne Elizabeth Moore packs a great deal of information and inspiration into “Cambodian Grrrl,” her improbable account of several months at an all-women’s university in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, teaching young women the liberating power of writing and self-publishing their stories. Moore depicts the essence of a country that has suffered so much repression, war, violence and injustice. She shows us the hope and spirit of the girls and the larger society. As a travel adviser, she’s the best: She relates what the guidebooks say, and then gives us the real scoop, in unsparing detail, laced with humor.



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