A discerning guide to interpreting online reviews of restaurants & other things…

The tables at Gaylord's in Kauai are arranged around the inner courtyard of the plantation house under the porch awning. As the sun sets, the soft light of the torches begins to glow.

Call it social media, web 2.0, the inmates taking over asylum or whatever other terms (laudatory or derogatory: take your pick), but call it here to stay.   And less than a decade has passed since everything has changed for us discerning travelers when it comes to making travel decisions.  When we first started globe-trotting, we relied on two important sources of information: travel brochures and a trusty travel agent.  These days, although both of these are important (brochures that have morphed into glossy magazines because it feels so darn nice just to turn the pages in an evening with a glass of wine, and our travel agent, Angela because we rely on her for getting us into and out of complicated trips), there is such an array of other information that it boggles the mind.  So, why don’t we just ignore all those new sources of information?  Well, that would be just dumb.

But the question still remains: how do you wade through all of the information?  Our main concern is how to interpret the user-generated reviews; in other words, how do you discern the truth from reviews posted by fellow travelers?  Not easily as it turns out.  Here is our story.

Patty actually teaches social media to graduate students in communication studies at a local university.  So, in our case, we do need to keep up with what’s happening.  Over the past year or so, we’ve become regular reviewers on TripAdvisor, one of the largest (perhaps the largest at this stage) traveler-based review site for hotels, restaurants and travel experiences.  That usually means that we also use reviews posted by others to get a sense of location, hotels and restaurants.  The trouble is, after we’ve been to some of them and we go back to post our own reviews, we often see discrepancies that are not so much a function of differing points of view, rather they seem to be based on some reviewers not actually reviewing the right property at all!  Here is our case in point.

The entertainment at Gaylord's.

In February we headed out to Hawaii in search of some warmth and relaxation in Kauai and the big island.  While we were in Lihue on Kauai, we chatted up the concierge at the hotel to find dining options and decided to take a taxi to Gaylord’s.  Located on the ground floor of a wonderful period plantation house on the outskirts of Lihue, this restaurant is a real step back in time.  With top-notch service, wonderful food and evening entertainment in the open-air restaurant, the evening was memorable.  And so on our return home we decided to post a review of the spot on TripAdvisor.  As we usually do, we browsed other reviews before writing ours so as to add something that might have been overlooked by others.  Much to our surprise, we noted several reviews that said things like this:  “The show is stunning with beautiful music and stunning fire twirling. Food was buffet cafeteria style and not A+ quality…”  Huh?  Where were they?  They certainly didn’t dine at Gaylord’s.  However, they were on the property.

Be sure to visit the rest of the plantation house after dinner -- here is the great room.

At the Kilohana Plantation which is where Gaylord’s is located, there are luaus twice a week on the back lot.  In fact, the evening we were there was a luau going on, but other than the cars parked out front, the crowd at the buffet-style luau didn’t interfere in any way with our own experience.  However, this person who wrote the review (and this one was not the only one) certainly didn’t eat at Gaylord’s.  This suggested to us that there might be many other mistakes like this one.  Obviously, our review attempted to clear this up.  But it begs the question of how to interpret what you read.

Here are some of the things we’ve learned about interpreting travel advice on the web.

  • Know what kind of site you’re on.  There are many different kinds of travel sites.  Among them are review sites from travel guide companies (www.frommers.com; www.fodors.com) where the reviews are written by professional reviewers ; there are travel review sites where the reviews are written by travelers (www.tripadvisor.com, www.virtualtourist.com);  there are travel  sales companies (www.maritimetravel.com),  there are traveler blogs that are monetized (read: supported by specific commercial interests), and there are personal travel blogs like this one that are stories from travelers like you who simply want to share experiences).  Each of these kinds of sites has a different agenda and each has something different to offer you.  Remember, though, that each of them has a frame through which they see the travel industry as a whole, and specific experiences in particular.  And each one wants something different from you.  Armed with this information, you’re ready to move on into the sites you choose.
  • Get a feel for the kinds of reviews posted on the site.  Before you hone in on the specific places you’re looking for, read as many reviews as you have time for.  Look at how many there are for any given place and how often each is reviewed.  There would be no point in you reading a review from us of a cruise we took on the Seven Seas Navigator three years ago because she has been completely refitted since then.
  • Examine who is doing the reviewing.  This is particularly important in user-generated reviews.  If you see a review that you think is useful to you, read the reviewer’s profile to find out if the reviewer might be looking for something different than you are.  If you read our profile on TripAdvisor, for example, you can see that we are not interested in family-oriented places and seek the best of everything.  If you’re searching for budget accommodation, our reviews will not be helpful to you.  On the other hand, if you are an astute, discerning traveler, you just might find what you’re looking for.  It’s also important to be aware that there have been some scandals involving property owners or someone working for them posting glowing reviews.  Early this year the British Advertising Standards Authority censured TripAdvisor for suggesting that all reviews on the site are unbiased.  (Read the story here.)This is a hazard of social media.
  • Beware of the one-sentence review.  Anyone can slap up a sentence or two without really thinking about what made the experience good or bad.  If someone says that a place was wonderful or terrible without details – telling you rather than showing you – move on to another review.  These are not helpful.  At least if someone relates their actual experience to you, you can judge for yourself.  Some travelers consider places over-priced when what you really might be looking for is value for your money and be willing to pay more to get more.  A review that simply says the food was over-priced without any details is useless.

So, now we need to get ourselves to a review site to search for wonderful restaurants that we haven’t already experienced in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Ten days and counting!

Kaua’i by helicopter: Working down that bucket list!

A helicopter is the only way to experience the magnificence of the Napali Coast in Kauai in this expansive way.

The lure of the Hawaiian Islands was never stronger than when Patty was nine years old.  Her grade five teacher returned from Christmas vacation with slides and stories from her Hawaii trip, and one awe-struck little girl was hooked.  So began a childhood obsession with travel advertisements and brochures.  In those days – long before we could click our way to information – Patty filled out those little forms that were invariably included in travel advertising.  In due course the brochures and posters arrived, and Patty began her collection – all the while creating a kind of childhood bucket list.  These days, as we move ever closer to those retirement years (a few years yet, though), together we’ve created our own list of places to go and things to do.  Hawaii was on Patty’s early bucket list – and seeing the islands by helicopter was on our current one.  Check off Kaua’i by helicopter!

Up in the clouds over Kauai, the 'garden island'

This was our second trip to Hawaii.  The first one was some fifteen years ago when we whisked ourselves and our then eight-year-old son Ian off to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary.  Oahu (Waikiki and Honolulu) and Maui were our destinations then – Oahu, Kaua’i and the ‘Big Island’ (Hawaii) were on the agenda this year.

When you head to the islands, you usually have some things that are must-do’s on the list.  Fifteen years ago a luau was on the list (we accomplished that and found our little family threesome to be the only ones not on their honeymoons at a table of some 20 or so revelers that evening!).  As more seasoned and discerning travelers at this point in our lives, we decided to forego the pig roast this time in favor of a few other delights – among them was the desire to do Kaua’i and the Big Island by helicopter.

The Blue Hawaiian staff prepare the helicopter for our embarkation! Yikes, they're not even turnng off the rotors!

Art has been in the offshore medical business for almost thirty (!) years at this stage.  That means that over the years he has been required to undergo helicopter-ditching training.  Among other things, this involves being strapped into a chopper’s seat while the training cockpit simulates an emergency landing on water.  The general course of events in that kind of scenario is that when the blades touch the water, the helicopter flips so that the passengers are now under water.  The situation is simulated in the training, but the water is very real.  Art was actually required to be able to unfasten a seatbelt and shoulder harness and push open a window while the cockpit rapidly filled with dark, murky water, and then swim to the surface.  It would be enough to make most people run screaming from offshore activities all together.  But he didn’t, although he never did have to put this part of the training to use (thankfully).  He did have occasion to fly in choppers to remote locations, however.  Patty on the other hand, had never set foot inside a chopper.  Blue Hawaiian Helicopters was to provide her with her first experience.

Like a well-oiled machine (pun intended), the Blue Hawaiian folks have their system down to a science.  For us it started with buying the tickets (yes, it’s expensive) through the hotel’s concierge who asked us our weights.  “They need it to calculate fuel etc.,” said the concierge.  “Then they’ll weigh you again when you get there.  It’ll flash up on a screen…”  What horror!

She laughed and told us that she was joking.  But when we arrived at the Blue Hawaiian office a few days later, they did, indeed, weigh each of us.  It did not, however, flash up anywhere much to everyone’s relief.  We’re an odd bunch about our weight, aren’t we?  It’s a bit like asking someone how much money he or she makes – but we digress.

The weights were used to determine total weight for the individual choppers and the seating arrangements so that weight could be distributed.

We chose the bigger and nicer of the two types of choppers they offered.  We flew in an Eco-Star that takes a pilot and six passengers with individual seats rather than bench seating.  After the weigh-in, we watched a safety video and were then helped with our inflatable life vests that we were required to wear around our waists.  Then, we were off to board the helicopter.

In Kaua’i (the office is in Lihue) we were loaded into a van and driven the five minutes to the airport where we awaited the return of the helicopters and were assigned our numbers.  We would board without the helicopters even turning off their rotors and we each needed to be in the right place for boarding.   We followed the instructions and were off.

The Discerning Travelers came home from Kauai with some extraordinary memories etched in their brains!

The Blue Hawaiian pilot was extremely capable and personable as he expertly lifted the chopper from its pad and began his narration of the tour.  It was clear that he loved his job and we were the happy beneficiaries.

They call Kauai the ‘garden isle’ and as you soar above the magnificent Napali Coast the reasons are clear: breathtaking mountains, verdant valleys, awe-inspiring waterfalls.  There really is no other way to get any real sense of the island.

If you have five minutes, join us on our tour…