The photographs in Annie Griffiths Belt's memoir, A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel, are stunning, which is no surprise given her 30 years as a National Geographic photographer. Interspersed among her images - of a farmer struggling against the frigid North Dakota wind, women in Jerusalem worshipping during Ramadan, her own children snuggling with Bedouins - are stories about her life, taking her family on assignment (her husband, Don Belt, is a writer for the magazine). "I love that the camera has become my passport to other realities," she writes, "an excuse to go behind the scenes, arrive early, stay late, or simply follow someone home."
To celebrate 20 years of marriage (and the accumulation of thousands of frequent flier miles), cook- and guidebook authors Cheryl and Bill Jamison planned a three-month foodie dream itinerary. Avoiding (for them) overly familiar Europe, they concentrated on several Pacific Rim nations, South Africa, Brazil and India. In Around the World in 80 Dinners, they devote a chapter to each stop, concluding each with listings and a recipe. While the insertion of snatches of conversation or exchanged comments doesn't quite work, the couples' detailed descriptions of their many meals are sensory delights referencing aromas, textures and flavors (this is not a book to be read on an empty stomach); and their honesty about their experiences is a rare treat.
SETTING THE MOOD
Bold, beautiful images of Africa - its landscapes, wildlife and people - abound in The Africa Book: A Journey through Every Country in the Continent by Matt Phillips. Part of Lonely Planet's coffee table-sized Continents series, this color photo- and information-packed book (no lodging, restaurant, attractions or vendor listings included) takes you into Africa's heart, offering fact and reflection (plus six recommended, regional journeys) on every country from Egypt to Swaziland. The combination of overview/thematic essays and fact-packed sidebars is expert, intelligent and wry; it's a must-read before traveling to this dynamic area.
If the Orient entrances, browse through the equally gorgeous and knowledgeable The Asia Book, by China Williams. This backgrounder on everything Asian - history, geography, peoples, cuisines, customs - includes eight suggested journeys. With the same well-organized format, evocative photography and clear, witty style, the book concludes with an entertaining essay on Asia's "hippie trail."
ACROSS THE PACIFIC
Frommer's Beijing Day by Day, by Beijing insiders Jen Lin-Liu and Sherisse Pham, is a pocket-sized guide to the famous Chinese city. Frommer guides are generally a cinch to use, and the Day by Day series is no exception, offering highly structured tours, walks and excursions tailored to any timetable, and to every interest and budget. This portable resource lists Beijing's "best of the best" entertainment, arts, dining, lodging and shopping and includes a guide to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games and a sturdy foldout map.
The portable Insight Guides series is touted as "the smart way to navigate," and the Hong Kong Smart Guide, by Teresa Machan, introduces travelers to city areas, then follows with an "A to Z" collection of facts, attractions and amenities, which is cross-referenced to related sections and a handy city/street atlas. Small, evocative color photos and short, well-written entries and sidebars give a fine sense of Hong Kong and everything necessary for an enjoyable stay. While this guide does not include itineraries, it proffers a banquet of information for planning your time. The city map on the inside cover provides general orientation only; the back cover features a public transportation map.
The Sydney Smart Guide is your alphabetical list to this fun-loving and cosmopolitan city Down Under. Unique to the Sydney guide is city-specific information on aboriginal life, the gay scene, beaches and walks. The maps are useful, the text is enticing - clearly, the authors (Ulte Junker, Gabi Mocatta and Kenny McCarthy) want you to experience their city's delights, from Bondi Beach to Botany Bay.
DESERT HOT SPOT
If you long for Arabian desert glam, two savvy pocket-sized guides to Dubai will have you bar-hopping (really!), shopping and dune-bashing in short order: Lara Dunston and Terry Carter's hip, lively Dubai Encounter and Gavin Thomas' more traditional, text-heavy Dubai Directions. Dubai Directions orients visitors by introducing activity ideas and the neighborhoods in which to do them, followed by sections on accommodations, travel practicalities, Dubai chronology and a phrase book. The color photos are small, mostly shots of interiors or exteriors with no people visible, which lends an impersonal quality. Dubai Encounter is more intimate: Reading it is like being escorted on a personal tour. The authors give a general intro to their city and its highlights, a diary of yearly events and itineraries, then delve into the neighborhoods with "snapshots" of activities and amenities. There's a great backgrounder on Dubai history and culture, and photos are of landscapes and people, enhanced by interviews with locals. Though both guides address travelers with diverse budgets, know that Dubai is a high-living destination that will challenge your wallet!
Eyewitness Travel: Brazil reviews Brazil inside and out with pages crammed with high-quality color photography, illustrations (cut-away, floor plan and overview drawings of sights and towns) and maps. With the series' usual glorious photography, maps and illustrations, this guidebook grounds you in the history, cultures, wildlife and environmental wonders of the world's fifth largest nation, the largest in South America. The introductory section, "Portrait of Brazil," is remarkable; the series format - acquainting readers with a central city (Rio), then branching out into lesser-known regions - is logical and effective. This hefty guide is worth the price for a one-stop shop Brazil compendium.
Pauline Frommer's Costa Rica, by David Appell and Nelson Mui, is an excellent, all-bases-covered guide to this eco-wonderland. Informal, hip, fun and aimed at "the next generation," it emphasizes an authentic travel experience, getting the best bang for your buck, and recommends creative strategies (e.g., using the Internet) for saving money on flights, lodging and eats. There's a "best of" Costa Rica list, suggested itineraries, information-packed, north-to-south regional coverage, a top-notch travel essentials section and intriguing sidebars. The guide's trademark is "spend less, see more," and that's a promise.
DON'T FORGET EUROPE
If more traditional destinations beckon, head to Europe - specifically, Spain. Another in the Frommer daily series, Barcelona Day by Day by Neil Schlecht, will have you gawking at Gaude; before you can say "gazpacho." The guide's format, coverage and features are identical to the Beijing version (see above), but there's an extra section, "The Best of the Outdoors," that highlights the parks and waterfront areas of this quirky, vibrant city. Often, travel guides are only as good as their authors' enthusiasm for the destination; Schlecht's affection for Barcelona shines here.
Travel + Leisure's Unexpected France focuses on Paris and the French countryside in affectionate, vivid first-person essays (from Travel + Leisure magazine) about Gallic destinations, hostelries, cuisine, arts and culture. Gorgeous color photography enlivens the text; included are travel guides to the places, attractions and amenities featured in each story. This up-market guide sparkles with first-rate writing: an entrancing read for real-time and armchair travelers.
Eyewitness Travel: Hungary guides you through the land of gypsies and goulash a la the Brazil edition. Hungary won't fit in a pocket - it's a dense, information-rich resource - but is worth packing for the road trip you'll want to take through this diverse country. Well-written, detailed text and beautiful images illumine the history, arts, culture, cuisine, sport, sights and festivals of Budapest and Hungary's five regions. Emphasis is on Hungary's rich roots and cultural offerings; those desiring photos of lodging and restaurants will be disappointed - these are text only. Also included are highly detailed sections on traveler survival and phraseology.
FATE IS FOOLISH
"As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods," muses King Lear. Scott Huler (Defining the Wind) would likely agree, especially after vowing (on-air) never to read James Joyce's Ulysses—a challenge to the gods if ever there was one. In a twist of fate worthy of a mythological hero, Huler sets off to retrace Odysseus' famously long trip home from the Trojan War, calling it his last great adventure before settling into middle-age and fatherhood. His chronicle of that journey, No-Man's Lands: One Man's Odyssey Through The Odyssey, is an entertaining, conversational travelogue as well as an in-depth analysis of Homer's epic. Huler mixes in popular culture references (The Wizard of Oz is a favorite), humorous encounters with people and places, and tales of lucky coincidences and stupid mistakes. Along the way he also engages in an Aristotelian debate over Odysseus' character: "Is Odysseus the clever rascal who gets his men out of the tight jam? Or is he the pigheaded moron who gets them into it?"
LOST IN TRANSLATION
Laugh-out-loud moments fill Lori L. Tharps' Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love; Spain, which begins with a recounting of her adolescence as the "Only Black Girl In . . ." a suburb of well-heeled whites, told with witty sarcasm akin to that of Gish Jen's narrator in Mona in the Promised Land. Later, Tharps heads to Salamanca with the aspirations of any student: mastering language, soaking up culture and having fun. She hadn't planned on becoming the "Ambassador of Black," perceived as easy sex object on one hand and threatening freak on the other, but she gets over it, finds cool roommates and even falls in love with the cute guy in her German class before returning to the States to get on with her life.
Except she doesn't leave Spain behind, or rather, it comes for her, yet after marriage and a son, Tharps is still at odds with a culture that doesn't seem to have a place for her. Once she begins a quest to find a history of black people in Spain - interviewing professors, visiting hole-in-the-wall churches - even the language in Kinky Gazpacho changes; gone are the choppy, journal-like sentences, the humor is restrained. When Tharps finally finds hidden traces of Africans in Spain, she also finds peace of mind and sees things she'd missed in all her years of excursions.