Several weeks ago I took a business trip to Toronto. Business trips are rare enough for me that I don't approach them with the ennui of the seasoned executive, but as a gift better than gold, frankincense, and myrrh put together: a paid vacation.
As someone whose idea of hell is eating hotel food and watching cable TV, I made a few mistakes. I let my clients book me into a hotel near their office in a suburban business complex rather than downtown. Even after figuring out how to make the 40-minute bus trip downtown, I found I'd little time for exploring before I had to get back. Of course, I should have known all this before getting on the plane.
So recently, I did some virtual traveling to see if any of the city-guide sites spreading around the Web like fungi could have helped me make more of that trip -- and whether they're good enough to rely on in planning future ones. The quick answer: There's too much information if you're interested in the big cities like New York, L.A., Seattle, or Boston, but not enough if you're headed just about anyplace else. And most city guides, despite a few fancy opening pages, boil down to that most abominable creation of the Web: lists of links to lists of links to lists of links, with hardly anyone creating solid information in between.
STARTING POINT. I began with America Online's Digital City (on AOL, Keyword: Digital City) because an advertising campaign on New York City buses has burned the AOL logo into my optic nerve. Digital City is a hodgepodge: No two sites, from what I could tell, are designed similarly, and the quantity and provenance of the content in each varies tremendously. But with at least some coverage of more than 40 U.S. cities and several abroad, it seemed a logical place to start. The opening page for Toronto left me with the impression that the biggest goings on in Canada's biggest city for the week I checked were a marathon, a bridal show, and a skateboarding expo.
Since I really dig food -- a good restaurant city is basically a good city -- I clicked around the site in search of feeding tips. A button labeled "Your Restaurant Reviews" -- presumably, member-contributed comments -- looked like just the meal ticket. Alas, all I got was a message saying, "There are no listable subjects in Favourite place to dine. Would you like to post one?"
At least there was a link to the Toronto edition of Zagat Survey, but since I already know and trust Zagat's, I think I could have found that information on my own. Links to city magazines also helped. One told me about some tasty-sounding bistros I might have tried had I known about them sooner. But I can't say AOL added much value by creating a screen with the words "Digital City" on it, then stuffing it with links.
SIDEWALK SIDESTEP. Now for a more precise challenge. Let's say I have one night free -- let's pull Thursday, Sept. 24, out of a hat -- in someplace I've never been -- Anchorage, Alaska. According to my horoscope, I'll be in the mood for something fun but classy that night. What's playing?
Microsoft is always asking me where I want to go, and at last I have an answer. Surely they can help me? Alas, Microsoft's Sidewalk guides somehow missed Anchorage.
Something called Anchorag e City Guide sounds promising -- gotta love a simple, self-descriptive title like that. What it actually is, though, is a Lycos City Guide -- a guide not to a city, but to Web sites about a city. Lycos claims to have a crack team of editors scouring the Web looking for great sites. Forgive my curmudgeonosity, but it would be a lot more useful -- maybe even cheaper for Lycos -- to send one of them to the nonvirtual Anchorage for a week and write the place up like in the old print days. I didn't even bothering clicking through this (I assume) clunker.
Never let it be said that I endorsed the idea of mindlessly uploading print content to the Web. I live just a few miles from Silicon Alley in New York City, after all, and I don't want to be spit on when I go out for milk. But sometimes, print sources come to the rescue on the Web. Rough Guide is a name I know from the local bookmonger, so why not sneak a peek at its Anchorage title?
Now, I'm onto something. I have it on good authority that the city of Anchorage has at least one institution that could make me happy: the Center for Performing Arts. How about a schedule?
IT'S THE PIPS. E xcite does something similar to Lycos's so-called city guide, and at first glance it's similarly unexciting. But then I hit pay dirt: a schedule for the arts center! (Provided -- again, the print connection -- by a music-industry trade magazine.) Gladys Knight is playing there Sept. 17 and 18, and Loudon Wainwright III on Oct. 10. I'm out of luck for Sept. 24. But now, armed with advance notice that two of my favorite singers are going to be in Anchorage, with the potential to turn a boring, lonely overnight into first-class fun, maybe I can change my travel dates.
So far, the lesson is: The Web is basically a really fast courier service delivering content normally found in books and magazines. Next, I purposely tried to get the Web to do stuff print can't do. I'm overdue for a visit to my brother, his wife, and their kids, and being the generous father and uncle that I am, I'll volunteer to watch the wee ones for a day -- if I know I have something lined up for them to do first. A puppet show within two blocks of an ice cream parlor would be ideal. Any Web site that can help me find something that specific gets onto my hot list for keeps.
I started with CitySearch Portland. Eureka! The page loads slowly, but when it does, good news arrives. According to these guys, Portland has 40 ice cream parlors, including many branches of my favorite chain, Baskin Robins. Wanting to support a local merchant, though, I think I'll take the kids to the Tillamook Ice Creamery and Restaurant.
Next, I need to find a puppet theater and plug both addresses into an online mapmaker or address finder. The CitySearch arts listings has plenty of children's events, but I can't find a puppet show. And I really want a puppet show! But that's O.K., because CitySearch isn't the only game in town.
You probably already know what I think of companies that claim to make an honest living by sorting and listing Web sites, but there's one I haven't tried yet: The Mining Company. Turns out that I like it, somehow, and it gets me oh so close to my goal: listings for the Oregon Children's Theater. But as I think I mentioned: I...want...puppets!
Two hours later, after searching what must be every Portland city site, I think I can say with confidence that there's no puppet theater to be found on the Web in Portland. Still, it was worth the exercise because now I know the strengths -- and the limitations -- of electronic city guides.