Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Top Five TV Travel Shows

Michael Palin surveys Bombay in Around the World in 80 Days.
Photo Credit: Julian Carrington, Prominent Palin Productions, Ltd.

Over the last two weeks I’ve been enjoying Discovery Atlas, the new series on Discovery Channel that explores different countries by telling the stories of individuals who live there. The first episode, China Revealed, followed the lives of a Buddhist monk, a traditional rice farmer, a gymnast, a window washer and a millionaire construction mogul. It requires a bit of commitment due to its two-hour length and can seem self-consciously grandiose in its presentation nevertheless, I cannot tear myself away. Last week’s episode was about Italy, next week is Brazil. I will be watching.

Because I found myself enjoying that show so much, I thought of sharing my selection of the top ten travel shows ever on television. Upon reflection, I couldn't think of that many quality shows. The Travel Channel, ostensibly created to fill this void, is the most disappointing network on TV for me. Its programming is mostly crap, especially their leading program, World Poker Tour. So, instead of ten, I give you my top five:

1. Around The World In 80 Days
The BBC produced this seven episode series in 2001 that followed Monty Python star Michael Palin in an attempt to duplicate the feat of Jules Verne’s literary hero and circle the globe in 80 days or less. Palin sets out to match the route of his fictional predecessor and avoids using modern air transportation. The journey is delightful for the viewer because of Palin himself. He is sensitive, intelligent, guileless and hilarious as he makes his way and having fascinating encounters with the locals on his journey. This show is the gold standard in travel television.

2. Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations
This show has partially redeemed the Travel Channel for years of stupid programming. Bourdain is wickedly funny as he visits disparate destinations like Iceland, Vietnam and New Jersey giving his unfiltered take on local foods and atypical typical tourist activities. This is a personality-driven show filtered through the lens of America’s leading punk chef novelist.

Rick Steves on location in Salamanca, Spain.
Photo Credit: Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door, Inc.

3. Rick Steves’ Europe
For many Americans, Rick Steves personifies travel in Europe. His little show on PBS has transformed the mild-mannered pot smoking Lutheran into today’s leading travel guru. In the past 10 years he’s produced over 70 quality shows based on his philosophy of packing light and digging deep into the local culture for a rich rewarding experience. If you don’t subscribe to his budget style, his shows and guidebooks are still among the only ones that give honest opinions, and are particularly strong if you share Rick’s passion for art.

4. Full Circle
Michael Palin makes another epic journey, this time around the Pacific Rim from the Arctic, coastal Asia, Australia, Antarctica, South America, North America and back to the Arctic. Again, it is Palin the host and traveler that makes the series so memorable, an everyman exploring for the rest of us.

5. Going Tribal
This incredible show follows adventurer Bruce Parry, a former Royal Marine, as he seeks knowledge from so-called primitive peoples around the world. He sets out to live with a tribe for at least a month, learn their language and live as they do. This is true armchair travel for me, because I can’t imagine doing what he does. Parry has profound respect for the people he lives with, I can imagine that this premise could have easily come off as exploitative or insensitive, but he pulls it off. At the end of each show there’s genuine regret and often tears as he parts with the tribe.

Honorable Mention: The Amazing Race
This is the best network reality show on TV, in my opinion – especially interesting because the contestants have existing relationships they bring into the show. They have covered the globe and race through both famous and offbeat locales. I love to imagine myself on the show, outdistancing the others with my encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s travel infrastructure. I know that will never happen because there’s no way I will ever bungee jump or hang glide.


Pam said...

What, no Ian Wright/Globe Trekker? Ian is my favorite TV travel host by far, totally self deprecating, not snobby, game for anything, not all hopped up on testosterone, just (it seems) a genuinely nice guy up for an adventure.

pat johnson said...

Dear Chris: You might want to Check out the PBS travel show Grannies on Safari. Its second season debuted a few weeks ago and the old broads (me being one of them) have had some very interesting travels around the glove.
Pat Johnson

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more with your Travel Channel comment of it being mostly c--p! Very disappointing. We find Bourdain a bit egotistical and self-centered, and didn't know that Steves with a big hop head . . . (suddenly, his somnambulant demeanor makes sense -- now I know why the guy puts me to sleep!)

And as for "Grannies on Safari!?!?!?!" C'mon! Rather have a rat in my mouth . . . but, power to ye, as long as you bring in the "pledges."

Tim Wilson said...

It's a few years old now but I found a TV series called BACKPACKERS a huge inspiration that gave me the kick up the arse to go travelling. Easily my favourite show. It's definitely not your average travel series though... It's quite low budget (shot and edited by the three presenters) but you can tell a lot of heart and sweat went into making it. Ridiculously funny and honest window into the life of a backpacker...


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