Like sex, travel is one of the hardest things to write about well. If you’ve had a good time, translating your joyous experience onto the page can prove a daunting task. If things haven’t gone so smoothly, the minutiae of travel mishaps are as tedious to read about as any other personal setbacks. For better or worse, though, there are some descriptive phrases that any travel writer should avoid like Ebola. A glance at the glossy mags and weekend travel supplements shows, sadly, that many don’t.
Awesome. There are a few things in the world that genuinely inspire awe: seeing the temples of Bagan, Burma, from a hot-air balloon at dawn, perhaps; or coming across the cave frescoes of Georgia’s Davit Gareja for the first time. But not, please, a mere bar, hotel, or ski-run.
Best-kept secret. Even if it was before, it ain’t now, after you’ve shared it with your 4.2 million readers.
Breathtaking. Ask yourself when you last really had your breath taken away. For me, it was when I fell off a horse in 1991. So don’t use it about sunsets, mountains, etc. Especially if you still have enough puff left, apparently, to enjoy that delicious glass of the local hooch.
Bygone age. Why does being abroad bring out the archaic in so many writers? Ditto bedecked, atop etc.
Chilled-out. This would-be-hip expression brings with it the suspicion that the writer is compromised, perhaps because she was on a press trip and wants to keep in with the PR. The resort was actually boring as hell, with not even a nice view...
Crumbling. Often attached to castles, ruins, mansions, this describes no specifics and always reminds me of cake.
Eatery. Agh. When, in real life, do you ever hear anyone talking about visiting an eatery? Ditto hostelry.
Friendly locals. Of course they’re friendly, if you are their sole source of income. More interesting is when they’re not friendly (as in the Seychelles). Ditto welcoming hosts.
Gem. Especially if it’s a hidden one. Ditto jewel.
Hubby. Leave him out. We want to know about the place, not your family dynamics, which are never, in any case, honestly described. (‘Hubby had diarrhoea, and was in a filthy mood ...’)
Immortalised by. Cue the name of a famous writer who once described the place better than you ever will. Unless you have the space to quote illuminatingly, this kind of literary name-dropping is worse than useless.
Land of contrasts. Everywhere, if you look at it for more than three minutes, is a land of contrasts. Except possibly Monaco.
Leafy. If the district had trees, let’s hear what they were. A few cypresses, oaks or eucalypti can work wonders for a dreary landscape description.
Mecca. Is a place in Saudi Arabia, to which Muslims make annual pilgrimage. It is not a popular destination for skiers, hikers, shoppers etc.
Nestled. If a place is half-hidden please tell us by what exactly.
Oasis (of calm, tranquillity etc). Generally used to describe somewhere quiet in a busy city. But think about it: a desert is the opposite of busy, so the metaphor is duff one anyway.
Ornate. This word tells the world that you know absolutely nothing about architecture.
Perched. Do you really want to make that castle sound like a giant bird? Which might at any moment fly off, crumbling as it goes.
Picturesque. So what was in the picture? Do tell.
Ramshackle. Often used about bars for some reason. If it really was falling down it might be interesting to hear how.
Shrouded. In mystery or mist, and sometimes both. If you must use it, remember that shrouds completely cover a corpse.
Stroll. If you insist on strolling up the hill, please don’t stroll back down again in the next paragraph. There are other words for walking. Like walk.
Spartan. Another word that smells strongly of compromise. So you had a free trip, only to discover that the mattresses were one inch thick and the single toilet was a hole in the ground. If you’re not obliged to be polite let’s hear about the horrors.
Unique. Even if your hotel was, by some miracle, the only one such in the world, it can never be somewhat, quite, truly or very unique.
I could go on. There’s a fab destination out there full of vibrant locals with an innate sense of rhythm preparing hearty but rustic fare in verdant, sun-dappled, unsullied slices of paradise rich in history that bears no relation whatsoever to the real world and its challenging complexity.
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Photographs © Mark McCrum 2013