In this age of instant Internet access, do we really need guidebooks at all? The book publishing process, with its nearly year-long lead time, guarantees that even the best are less than timely by the time they come out. For the hard facts (schedules, prices, etc.), nothing beats well-maintained Web sites, tiresome as they may be to track down. Good guidebooks, however, offer more than minutiae. They can show the soul of a country how its culture keeps it unique in an increasingly homogeneous world. To get an insider's view of a given country, what you travel with can be as influential as whom. No one likes being led by the nose by a know-it-all who'll natter on ad nauseum about arcane details. What a newcomer craves is context not so much history as "backstory," the tales of human longings that led to a coup or a craze, an archaeological curiosity or the latest restaurant-du-jour.
For years, Fodor's has set the gold standard for guidebooks, and a new release, the first-edition Fodor's Puerto Rico, exemplifies why, with knowledgeable overviews by experienced on-site journalists, plentiful maps and selective yet thorough coverage of worthwhile sites, hotels and eateries, from haute to down-home. Some guidebooks take a bemused or even superior stance in regard to their subject; reading this one, you'll feel reliably guided by writers whose primary motivation is to share their enthusiasm, and you'll understand why the country is beloved. Thoughtful additions include an excerpt from Esmeralda Santiago's enchanting childhood memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican, and a more-than-adequate Spanish vocabulary crib sheet complete with failure-proof pronunciation guide.
Fodor's Pocket Arubaby Karen W. Bressler and Elise Rosen is the first in a new line of diminutive "Pocket Guides." It's a cutie: at four by six inches, just compact enough to stuff in the pocket of cargo pants, if not khakis, and light in tone as well the perfect in-flight read. Lively sidebars explicate such local curiosities as the djucu, a good-luck sea stone that warms to the touch and presumably comes in handy at the island's many casinos. If this guide falters at all, it's in the hotel coverage, which exhaustively lists facilities and amenities but skimps when it comes to personality. Then again, perhaps that's a flaw of the resorts themselves, which, despite their varying degrees of showmanship the Aruba Sonesta, for instance, harbors white Siberian tigers and a private 40-acre island beach feel somewhat interchangeable.
When it comes to calibrating the chemistry that certain destinations are endowed with, Karen Brown along with her team of co-writers, Clare Brown (her mother) and June Brown (her sister-in-law) has impeccable taste; she's like a portable Martha Stewart, only appreciative rather than prescriptive. Brown's philosophy, embodied in a series of guides covering New England and California as well as Europe, is that "where you stay each night matters . . . the memories you bring home should be of more than just museums, landmarks, and palace tours." Organized into congenial itineraries (by car or rail), the 2001 edition of Karen Brown's France: Charming Inns & Itineraries and its companion volume, Charming Bed & Breakfasts, are so packed with memories-in-the-making, they'll leave you longing to hop the next plane.
Little-Known Museums in and Around Rome is the latest in a series geared to sophisticated travelers who've already covered the basics. Author Rachel Kaplan, president of the cultural tourism company French Links, has written similar guides to Paris, London and Berlin, and we can only hope she'll continue to wander. Not all of the 30 repositories described in this new volume will be to everyone's taste (I plan to steer clear of the Rome Museum of Criminology, which was rough enough to read about); however, all are given the benefit of extensive, well-informed descriptions. Hopping from place to place an olive oil museum with contemporary art installations housed in a 14th-century palazzo, or a once-moated castle where private tours are led by the resident principessa one painlessly picks up a great deal of Roman history. Kaplan makes a dream docent, spinning stories and mapping out cultural movements with deceptive ease. Giovanna Piemonte's photographs, though limited in size by the format, meet Abrams' art-book criteria.
If Fodor's has secured a niche as gold standard-bearer, National Geographic Books is clearly aspiring to platinum. A recent release, The National Geographic Traveler: Japan by veteran correspondent Nicholas Bornoff, is a marvel of erudition it's hard to imagine a culture more complex than Japan's and a hefty little objet d'art in its own right, with heavy, glossy stock and, as could be expected, dazzling photos. Whether covering Tokyo's ultra-trendy Aoyama-dori or the wild recesses of northerly Hokkaido (which sprouted a volcano less than a century ago), this book has it all: depth, breadth and a wealth of practical information sequestered as marginalia so as not to interrupt the narrative flow. If I ever go to Japan (having glimpsed its subtler allures, I can't see how I could not go), this is just the company I'd want to keep.
Sandy MacDonald's latest guidebook is Quick Escapes from Boston: 25 Weekend Getaways From the Hub (Globe Pequot).