This holiday season, armchair travelers and active trekkers alike can revel in Planet Earth’s marvelous destinations with an eclectic collection of big, gorgeously photographed and finely penned travel books. From Kenya’s magical island of Lamu to the dusty expanses of the American Southwest and on to exotically mapped places that exist only in the imagination, the world, dear reader, will be laid at your feet.

Worth a thousand words
In Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town, filmmaker, photographer and writer Douglas Gayeton has created an unusual visual foray into Pistoia, a small Italian town near Florence where he went in search of a soulful connection with the culture, the people, the land—and his own life. With introductions by Carlo Petrini (founder of the Slow Food movement) and renowned chef Alice Waters, Gayeton’s personal photographic journey comprises sepia-toned images of Pistoia’s people, places and food—pictures that are layered composites of multiple photographs taken over minutes and hours. Compressed in this way, Gayeton’s insightful pictures form a timeline and tell a story more effectively than any single still photograph could do. The images are made even more powerful and memorable through the author’s moving, often amusing anecdotal essays and the captions, quotes, commentary and recipes that are hand-scrawled upon the photos. Slow celebrates an intimate connection with a rural Italian landscape and the people living upon it, who are engaged in the timeless pleasures of growing, preparing and eating good, wholesome food.

Many roadside icons of rural American life—the rusting relics of old cars, abandoned motels and storefronts, gas stations, signs and billboards—are rapidly vanishing from the national landscape. In photographer Rob Atkins’ vibrant  yet strangely haunting book, Neon Mesa: Wonders of the Southwest, we get a ghostly glimpse of the American Southwest of yesteryear. The subjects of Atkins’ bold color photographs—neon signs, crumbling building facades, odd larger-than-life objects such as arrows, missiles and totems—are juxtaposed to poignant effect against the presence of the Southwest’s natural wonders and omnipresent ocean of blue sky. From the perceptive and poetic introduction by filmmaker Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi) and the brief, story-like captions that contain enticing tidbits of local history and lore, to the book’s penultimate image (a stop sign fashioned in the form of an Indian thunderbird), Neon Mesa is an intimate homage to what Atkins feels is “a very special place.” To pick up this book is to be transported into a regional patchwork of America’s indigenous past, studded with portents of its atomic future.

The publishing house of Rizzoli, with its reputation for visually stunning, high-quality books, never fails to please, and their new offering, Lamu: Kenya’s Enchanted Island, by George and Lorna Abungu, will definitely not disappoint travelers in search of a glimpse of paradise. The UNESCO World Heritage site of Lamu Archipelago, off the northern Kenyan coast, is the cradle of the Swahili culture and “a crossroad of civilizations.” With sumptuous color photography by Carol Beckwith, Angela Fisher, David Coulson and Nigel Pavitt, Lamu outlines the history of this slice of Africa in seven chapters (each introduced by couplets of Swahili poetry) that offer essays on its Indian Ocean environs, architecture and arts, weddings and festivals and its traditions and modernity. A glossary of African terms is included, along with a comprehensive African bibliography and a contact list for visiting Lamu’s distinctive mansions and houses.

Clive Limpkin, a British photojournalist who has logged more than 35 years as a staff photographer for such U.K. papers as The Sun and the Daily Mail, has now turned his lens and considerable wit toward India in India Exposed: The Subcontinent A–Z. Limpkin initially was not keen on the country, but after a first trip there in 2005, he returned with a different view—definitely not in denial about the country’s drawbacks and hassles, but realistic about the “chaotic mishmash of languages, religions, philosophies, tribes, castes and people that somehow works.” Limpkin shows the “mishmash” of this multiethnic and often puzzling society through superlative color photographs and accompanying short essays on iconic Indian topics from A to Z. There are entries on everything from India’s army and auto-rickshaws to cremation, overload (one of the wittiest entries), poverty, snake charmers, yoga and zebu (you’ll find the definition on page 213). For both the faint-hearted, who might wish to view India through the framework of the printed page, and the lion-hearted, who wish to walk its dusty valleys and crowded streets, Exposed is just the ticket for a fully informed passage to India.

Remarkable: That is my one-word review of Galápagos: Preserving Darwin’s Legacy, edited and (mostly) photographed by Tui de Roy. This book on the flora and fauna, geology, history and culture, ecosystems and conservation of the Galápagos Islands is an incomparable collection of breathtaking photography and essays on the wonders of these islands. Beginning with resident Tui de Roy’s heartfelt essay and an introduction by Charles Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter, Sarah Darwin, Galápagos encompasses the “newest knowledge, recent discoveries and breakthroughs in applied conservation science.” The islands, a World Heritage UNESCO site, are a model site for conservation efforts, and nearly every essay speaks to the need to preserve this world-class treasure. Appendices include an excellent “further reading” resource as well as a list of all of the Galápagos fauna (vertebrates). This fervent, passionate collaboration between photographers and scientists makes an indelible portrait of a wild, unique place that we must cherish and protect.

The roads less traveled
Writer-journalist and trivia-lover Frank Jacobs, creator of the popular Strange Maps blog, is a map geek. As proof positive, consider Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities, a truly out-of-the-ordinary collection of maps both real and imagined (and sometimes a combination of the two). This is an atlas of sorts—one that presents and explains more than 100 unusual maps that reflect mankind’s centuries of endeavors, ideas, artistry and struggle for sovereignty. From the depiction of Brazil as an arugula-garnished steak-on-a-plate to literary maps (the world of Orwell’s 1984), parody maps (“Jesusland”) and downright puzzling cartographic inaccuracies (one of which shows California as an island), Jacobs wittily, often eruditely, explains his collection of “curiosities”—a narrative that makes for smart, hip and often bizarre social commentary.

With a foreword by the inimitable Bill Bryson, the bold and beautiful Off the Tourist Trail: 1,000 Unexpected Travel Alternatives is a superlative guide to Earth’s less-sullied sights and destinations. Of the many options listed in the book, Bryson reports, somewhat woefully, that “there are more fantastic things in the world to see than you can ever possibly hope to get to. You are just not going to live long enough. Sorry.” But with this book on your coffee table (it is not a packable guide), you may be tempted to visit many of these more uncharted destinations. Organized into nine categories, including historical sites, natural wonders, sports, arts and cities, Off the Tourist Trail lists the iconic destinations and gives comparable alternatives. Why go to crowded, touristy Niagara Falls when you can go to South America’s stunning Iguacu Falls instead? Tired of battling the lines at the major city sights in Paris? This book has the more secret sites. Each chapter features eye-popping color photography, small inset maps and excellently written descriptions and practical information for planning your trip (and even includes information on the more-visited sites, should you decide to brave them). Off the Tourist Trail is an absolute must-have for anyone who longs to put on traveling shoes and amble around where (almost) no man has gone before.

Alison Hood writes from Marin County, California.

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