The next morning, I opened my laptop and fired up Google Earth, punched in the address of the hotel, and parachuted down from outer space. If you watch a dog in an unfamiliar place, it may loop around in expanding concentric rings, sniffing at everything, to orient itself. With some variation—less sniffing, more fretting about where to get a good cup of coffee—that’s pretty much how I explore a new place.
And that’s why I love Google Earth. A traditional travel guide—as heavy as a brick and requiring tedious consulting of an index—feels like 15th-century technology, which, of course, it is. Once you put yourself in the crosshairs on Google Earth (it always looks as if you’re about to be hit by a guided missile), you can explore what’s nearby simply by toggling various overlays. Click on dining, and the map is suddenly aclutter with knife-and-fork symbols. Click on coffee shops, and little coffee cups bloom like algae. Then dig deeper: click on the symbols, and brief reviews pop up.
Some of these data sets are licensed from professional providers—the American Institute of Architects list of the 150 most-loved American buildings is one—but I stuck with user-generated data, mostly from Wikipedia, Google Earth communities, and Yelp. (I used the Yelp overlay extensively, only to discover two weeks after I returned that its cheerful Partridge Family–like icons had vanished from Google Earth because of licensing issues. They may or may not return, but the 1.7 million reviews posted to date are still accessible at www.yelp.com.) While toggling around the neighborhood, I discovered that I was a short walk from the proto-Starbucks, the very first in the chain. I set off and minutes later stood gazing at an unassuming storefront, vaguely aware that something was amiss. Then it dawned on me: the original Starbucks sign was brown, rather than the ubiquitous green. Freakish! But isn’t this what travel is all about—discovering that the familiar is suddenly unfamiliar?
The biggest downside of Travel 2.0 is the surfeit of information—how do you sort through all this detail and random advice? The number of social-networking sites catering to travelers is staggering. Among them: Ning.com, VirtualTourist.com, IgoUgo.com, Wayfaring.com, and TripWiser.com. I visited many, looking for ideas on how to fill my day; most offered tidy graphics but little or no content for Seattle. Other sites—among them RealTravel.com, MyTripJournal.com, and 43Places.com—encourage travelers to post trip diaries, in part to keep friends and family apprised of their journeys. Feeling slightly voyeuristic, I looked at these for ideas, too.
After a mere three or four hours of clicking, I mapped out an itinerary, which included Smith Tower and its 35th-floor observation deck and the outdoor-equipment retail behemoth REI (“Your [sic] first greeted by an amazing waterfall that truncates next to the outdoor hiking trail that the employees and customers use to test out mountain bikes”). I caught a bus to the Fremont neighborhood, lured by the prospect of seeing a statue of Lenin, a Cold War–era rocket attached to a restaurant, and, under a bridge, a squat concrete troll crushing a Volkswagen. Everything lived up to its billing, and then some.
The most useful site was Chowhound.com, a discussion board for the food-obsessed, which I’ve used for several years. (A new interface added in 2006 makes it much easier to search past posts.) It was launched with an emphasis on cheap eats but now hosts a diverse, committed, and generally knowledgeable community of foodies, who post fewer maddeningly uninformative comments of the sort found elsewhere. (Like this one, from a review of a Seattle restaurant on IgoUgo.com: “The elegant decor tips you off that you are about to have a food experience.”)
For travelers, as for so many other Web users, the Internet is great for finding the needle in the haystack. But it’s not so good at finding the haystack—at culling infinite possibilities into a manageable list of options. What I like most about Chowhound is the propensity of reviewers to provide a cluster of choices—the five best seafood restaurants, the best bars for a cocktail. (The latter, incidentally, led me to Zig Zag Café, easily one of the best bars for a serious cocktail fancier that I’ve found anywhere—classic drinks, no attitude.) Chowhound, like many of the Travel 2.0 sites, is in fact best approached like a cocktail party: you can learn more by eavesdropping here and there than by tracking any one conversation. There’s rarely a consensus, so it’s best just to skim through. At the very least, you’ll come away knowing which restaurants have recently changed chefs and may be on unsteady legs, and which new places might be worth a gamble.
My adventures weren’t without glitches, of course. In Fremont, for example, I looked forward to lunch at El Camino, a Mexican restaurant that several of my virtual friends had recommended. But it wasn’t open for lunch. Nobody’s paid to add the essential minutiae on Travel 2.0, such as when establishments are open. Or even whether a place still exists—I came upon a few phantom restaurants, making me wonder whether amateur traveler sites will eventually become boneyards of failed enterprises unless paid updaters occasionally police the neighborhood.
Near the end of my stay, I wandered down to the Seattle Public Library, Rem Koolhaas’s 2004 glass-and-steel structure famous for its exoskeleton. Not only is it one of the AIA’s 150 most-loved buildings (OK, I peeked), but several travelers had suggested a stop there. (“I highly recommend visiting the library if you come to Seattle, even if you think libraries are big yawn-factories,” wrote Corry on Real Travel.com. “The reading room was rad because it was giant, beautiful, and every single desk had a multitude of outlets so you’d never have to worry about not being able to plug-in.”)
Outside, the building looked like a Transformer unfolding into something as yet undetermined; inside, it was a beautiful soaring cathedral of information, with sherbet-colored escalators and elevators and vertigo-inspiring interior vistas. “Rad” might even be an understatement.
I sat down at a desk, took out my laptop, and plugged in. It was as perfect a spot as I could imagine to set out in search of a place for dinner.