Every guidebook is part love letter, part Yellow Pages. The ratio depends largely on the latitude allowed by the prescribed format, but also on the publisher's skill as matchmaker. Find the right writer, and the result is a love affair shared. The following titles our picks to help you plan a summer vacation are proof that the perfect match makes great reading for travelers.
For its bountifully illustrated Compass American Guides, now covering some 40 regions, states and cities, Fodor's seeks out solid credentials and an insider's edge. Nick Jans, a contributor to Alaska, now in its third edition, spends his winters 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 200 miles from the nearest road teaching school in an Inupiat village. He knows firsthand the mania that comes with 24-hour sunlight in the summer ("You can't blame me," he muses, "for shooting my alarm clock full of holes.") and its obverse, long, dark stretches where the mercury never rises above 40 below. Primary author John Murray, who has taught at the University of Alaska and written two dozen books on nature, grasps the scope of this "last great frontier." "In Alaska," he promises, "you will see North America in its morning freshness when the rivers had no dams and the trees had yet to feel the ax, and not one animal had ever heard a human voice. You may feel that you've gone back in time, that you're seeing the world as you did as a child when everything was still new, and wonderful, and incredibly big." While helping the newcomer make sense of this vista, Murray never forfeits this sense of bedazzlement.
Lesley King, a weekend ranch hand, also draws on childhood as a metaphor in her new Frommer's Great Outdoor Guide to Arizona & New Mexico. "These states," she says, "are like a creative, somewhat tortured child who grows up to be an amazing artist. They are windswept, flooded, cracked, trampled by history, burnt by the sun . . . They've seen great conquests and natural abuses, and through it all a tender strength has developed, a richness of character, a fathomless depth." Having divided the territory into 11 distinctive areas, she assesses their resources in terms of 19 activities, ranging from easy "Walks & Rambles" to caving, climbing and even scuba diving on Lake Powell, which visitors might otherwise want to avoid, as it tends to be overrun with powerboaters and Jet Skiers. She issues a similar warning regarding the airheads of Sedona. It's a good guide who tells you where not to go, and an even better one who can convey with such palpable firsthand enthusiasm her love of a region and its peoples.
A capital idea
The Lonely Planet guidebooks are known for their cultural sensitivity, so it's especially interesting to see Laura Harger an Iowa Writers' Workshop-trained member of the LP "posse" tackle the corridors of power in Washington, DC, where grandiosity and chicanery appear to go hand in hand. Pierre Charles L'Enfant's original plan for the city, she points out, never quite came to fruition because he was "a diva . . . running afoul of local politicians, and doing unpopular things like knocking down people's houses while they were out of town." You don't have to make the actual tour to enjoy her tongue-in-cheek summary of "Sites of Scandal, Seduction & Skulduggery." Odds are good that further stories will unfold as you make the rounds of this "company town" equipped with a glossary of "Washingtonspeak." (Just try not to "do a Barry.") Practical info abounds, all colorfully couched, along with ample photos and colored maps.
Finger Lake-in' fun
In The Finger Lakes Book, Katharine Delavan Dyson studies a sleepier region a virtual backwater marked by "fleets of sailboats tacking from shore to shore; endless fields of tasseled corn, alfalfa, and wheat; flashes of goldenrod, china blue chicory, purple horse mint, and buttercups . . . ." Slow me down, as this seventh-generation resident succeeds in doing, and I'm sold! Some remarkable bits of history took place in this little, 11-lake swath in western New York State. Seneca Falls, for instance, was the site of the first Women's Rights Convention in 1848 and now hosts a historical park and several museums. Mostly, though, it's a place to sample antique shops and farmers' markets, charming B&andBs and unique eateries (such as the Moosewood Restaurant, a vegetarian mecca in renascent Ithaca). Like the book's widely traveled author, occasionally I just like being reminded "that back home, there too is a place where the hills soothe, lakes dazzle, and the people are warm and comfortable with themselves and where they live."
Love on the run
Boston writers David Lyon and Patricia Harris, neighbors and friends with whom I have sometimes worked, have lived in the Hub for 20-odd years as have I, but some of their suggestions in the third edition of Romantic Days and Nights in Bostonstill managed to surprise me. Thirty-one themed itineraries, including day trips and overnighters, should convince anyone that, as generations of students and other transients have discovered, "Boston is a great city for falling in love."
Even in Boston, their latest book for the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide series, Lyon and Harris' passion shines through in a more straightforward compendium of the city's sights and history. The British-born publishing house of Dorling Kindersley gained fame for its lavish visuals, and they're everywhere evident here: photos dot each glossy page (there's even a full spread on typical Bostonian foods, from baked beans to sushi), along with nifty charts, floor plans and of course maps. Amid all the Attention Deficit Disorder-inducing but brilliant info-glut, it's reassuring to come upon something so useful as a working definition of the fabled Boston Brahmin: "someone with an old family name, whose finances derive largely from trust funds, and whose politics blend conservatism with noblesse oblige." With text as sharply focused as the illustrations, this handsome little book possesses that rare gift; it makes you see a place anew.
Sandy MacDonald is the author of Quick Escapes Boston (Globe Pequot). She lives in Cambridge and Nantucket in Massachusetts.