March 3, 2013

How travel writers see Sacramento

In the past five years, outsiders' views of Sacramento have changed. Most travel writers, from as close as San Francisco to as far-flung as Australia, have weighed in mostly with praise about our city's charms.

Mirrors reflect, of course, but they also can distort. We see what we wish, try to edit out the rest.

So even when Sacramento takes a long, hard look at itself, it tends to minimize the blemishes – the crow's feet of musty Old Sac, the saggy jowls of K Street, the wrinkled brow of homeless dotting the American River Parkway – and emphasize the fine cheekbones of the midtown restaurant scene, the square-jaw visage of the Capitol building, the flowing mane of tree-lined streets, the distinguished gray temples of Old Sac.

A truer reflection, perhaps, comes from hearing what others think of us, the unvarnished truth we tend to gloss over.

For too long, it seems, Sacramento's municipal self-image has at once wallowed in its deficiencies and dreamed big for a makeover into, in Mayor Kevin Johnson's phrase, a world-class city. We have been needy and insecure, glomming onto any scrap of praise and clutching it dearly to our collective bosom, while stewing amid the swirl of cutting remarks others hurl.

But in the past five years, outsiders' views of Sacramento have changed. Most travel writers, from as close as San Francisco to as far-flung as Australia, have weighed in mostly with praise about our city's charms. We may not be a beauty, but they think we have a great personality. So, yeah, they'd come a callin'.

The latest kudos tossed our way came a scant few weeks ago, when a writer from the Toronto Star gushed about the Tower Bridge ("glowed golden day and night"), the Delta King ("one of the most unusual hotels we've found in the United States"), Old Sac ("captures Western history at its best"), the grounds of the Capitol ("a lovely park to wander in the centre of the city, in any season") and midtown ("a foodie destination").

Lest we get carried away, remember, that praise came from a Canadian, and they love everything.

Turns out, though, an exhaustive Bee database search of travel articles about our fair city found that the praise far outpaces the pans. They like us, they really really like us!

That doesn't surprise Nick Leonti in the least.

Leonti, director of tourism for the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, naturally presents Sacramento's best face to the world. While Leonti stops short of saying there's a huge buzz about Sacramento as a tourist destination, there is a steadily growing murmur of affirmation.

Travel writers still express surprise that there's good times to be had halfway between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, but Leonti is willing to accept the backhanded compliment of surprise over being ignored.

"We love to hear that," Leonti said. "That means we're doing our jobs and word is slowly spreading. We work with tour operators, and it's a matter of getting their project managers out here and convincing them they need to spend a night.

"With some people, especially in the international market, I'm still having to tell them where Sacramento is, let them know they aren't going to be surfing in Sacramento."

The most glowing recent praise for Sacramento, sans wetsuits, comes from writers across the pond. London, apparently, is infatuated with our town.

Martin Symington, writing in the Daily Mail in August 2011, even went so far as to favorably compare Sacramento to one of the world's top tourist spots.

He wrote of strolling "along the Sacramento River quayside on a balmy evening, listening to open-air jazz while people danced on the street. Sacramento reminded me of New Orleans; I even spent the night on a moored Mississippi paddle steamer, the Delta King, now converted into a hotel."

Whoa, Sacto the new Big Easy? Martin may have had beer goggles for our town. You could picture him waking up the next morning with Sacramento next to him in a Delta King cabin, wondering how he could disengage and get to San Francisco to cruise for choicer hot spots.

But, no, the Daily Mail's praise of Sacramento was reinforced by London Sunday Express travel writer Jeffrey Taylor, who in 2011 also waxed enthusiastic.

"On my way to the hotel," he writes, "my taxi crossed Sacramento River and my driver said: 'Look to your right and you'll spot it.' There was the hotel Delta King, a converted riverboat, straight from Jerome Kern's Fifties film 'Show Boat.'

" Sitting at sunset on my own bit of deck at the blunt end where the gigantic paddle is now motionless, was one of the most romantic moments of my life."

High praise. But, again, not surprising to Leonti.

"We've worked hard on that," he said. "We have representatives in the UK. We're a member of Visit California, the state tourism office, and they have a marketing company in the UK that specifically markets California. So we do have people on the ground in the UK, spreading the word about Sac. In Australia and Germany, too."

International writers are not unanimously laudatory.

In 2008, New Zealand Herald writer Graham Reid began his 1,000-word screed by mentioning homeless in Old Sac "who sleep under the nearby flyovers" and who "emerge, shaking their milkshake containers as they look for handouts."

After setting the mood, he went on to dismiss Old Sac for its "chintzy stores" selling "cheap souvenirs" and lamenting the area's traffic and "jostling" by "school groups."

Moreover, he wrote that the Sacramento River "flows thick, brown and fast." Looking beyond Old Sac, he called Sacramento "a shapeless city" that "conspicuously lacks a centre" and "could be anywhere in anonymous downtown America." Even at a site he liked, the Governor's Mansion, Reid couched the praise by writing that a visitor must "look beyond the suburban sprawl and the nearby Econo-lodge to get a feel for what a grand three-story home this must have seemed to those who passed by on horseback or in carriages."

Outright pans are rare in the travel-writing genre. After all, why waste the ink or bandwidth writing about somewhere you wouldn't recommend to readers? But others have, how should we say, paid Sacramento backhanded compliments and only faint praise.

The Los Angeles Times, in 2009, included Sacramento in its list of "Places Underrated." Writer Jane Engle praised Old Sac, Sutter's Fort, the Delta King and the Crocker Art Museum but not before this writing disclaimer: "Saddled with hot summers, a dysfunctional Legislature and, earlier this year, a Depression-style tent camp, California's capital hardly seems like a weekend getaway."

And here's the lead of Spud Hilton's story in the San Francisco Chronicle last May about Old Sac: "As settings for state capitals go, Sacramento probably is not the most glamorous or grand although it certainly beats out Trenton or Tallahassee, but what it lacks in scenery it makes up for in simplicity."

Hey, that could be city's new branding campaign: "Sacramento: Grander than Tallahassee!"

Travel writers seem obsessed with Old Sac, which might make locals roll their eyes. But Leonti begs to differ.

"Here, people might get tired of that," he said. "But we have to remind ourselves, to the rest of the world, they've never been here before and seen Old Sacramento. It's a fantastic destination. And it's new to them."

What really is new is that midtown's resurgence has been noticed and documented by several out-of-town scribes.

The first recognition came in late 2008 in Via magazine, published by AAA of Northern California, Nevada and Utah.

The magazine called midtown "a stroller's paradise of shops, galleries and balmy alfresco dining." Acknowledging that Sacramento's reputation "as a cow town persisted long after the herds had actually left," writer Bruce Newman dares to paint midtown as hip.

He extols the boutique-cum-cafe and performance space Bows and Arrows, raves about Waterboy's sweetbreads, Zocalo's pozole verde and the Tower Cafe's "delicious blueberry cornmeal pancakes," and praises midtown thusly: "Sacramento has become what many cities aspire to be: a great walking town."

In 2009, the New York Times featured Sacramento in its "36 Hours" feature, and much of its recommendations were centered in the Grid, which includes midtown. Writer Beth Greenfield touted the city's delightful new restaurants and a vibrant art scene, giving shout-outs to Ella Dining Room and Bar, the Grange at the Citizen Hotel, the B Street Theatre, Harlow's and the "eclectic collections of objets d'art" at the Tower Cafe.

Leonti said Sacramento tourism staff are pushing midtown to out-of-towners.

"Definitely regionally, midtown has a good reputation," he said. "We're obviously trying to spread the word about it, especially restaurant-wise. Now that we're officially the 'farm to fork' capital of America, we've been spreading the word about that."

What Leonti doesn't take so seriously are the multifarious "lists" and rankings of cities that the media cherish. In the past year, for instance, five Sacramento restaurants earned the "coveted score of 29" in the Zagat survey, and Imbibe magazine listed Sacramento in its top 10 list for cocktails, wine and local coffee. Then again, Business Travel News ranked Sacramento as the nation's 13th most expensive for food and 28th for hotel stays.

"You have to take those things with a grain of salt," Leonti said. "One day you're on the list of the most terrible places in the world; the next you're the best city to live in.

"We latch on to the ones we like and ignore the ones we don't."

Selective mirror gazing at its best.

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