"Overseas guides get you where you want to go Unusual travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." Thus spake the avatar of post-modern cool, Kurt Vonnegut, in his weirdly prophetic novel Cat's Cradle. These eight words have become my credo, my mantra. I try to get out of my home state at least once a month, and out of my country of domicile at least once a year. Armed with my trusty guidebooks, I venture forth upon the road less traveled. A truly intrepid soul would shun the use of travel guides, I suppose, but I like to have a bit of foreknowledge about the dangers and pitfalls that await me (the pickpockets of Prague, the leeches of Borneo, et al). Moreover, it would irritate me no end to visit, say, Cambodia, and miss Angkor Wat because I was too cool to consult a reference book beforehand. A wealth of diverse guide books vie for the traveler's dollars: lavishly illustrated coffee-table tomes replete with full-color pictures by the world's finest photographers; counterculture booklets printed on natural fiber paper, offering suggestions of where to forage for vegetables and/or thrive on $20 per month; and, of course, every possible variation in between.

Tried and true

No discussion of travel books would be complete without a mention of Rick Steves, an expert on European destinations, and my personal favorite series, the Lonely Planet guides, which were redesigned this year (a recent example is Italy). With a weekly public television travel show and the top-selling European guidebooks in the U.S. market, Steves steers the travel plans of millions of Americans. The cornerstone of his series is Europe Through the Back Door 2004, a budget travel guide that, like his other books on specific European countries and cities, is updated every year. Where Steves' illustrations are in black and white, the Lonely Planet guides are in color; that said, the illustrations are not the strong suit in either book. Where both series shine is in leading you to places that you might well not find on your own, then helping you locate food and accommodations to fit your budget. Steves takes the unusual approach of reviewing and recommending other guidebooks, including Let's Go, Rough Guides and the evergreen Michelin series. Both series are much-loved by budget travelers of all ages; well-thumbed copies show up in hostels and java joints from Vienna to Venice.

Comparing the classics

Fodor's Gold Guides and DK Eyewitness Guides offer two divergent approaches to travel books. I was able to compare back-to-back Fodor's Montreal and Quebec Cityand DK Eyewitness Top 10: Montreal and Quebec City. Fodor's is all business: no pictures, no chatty anecdotes, just useful information and lots of it. The layout is intuitive, and the books are geared toward travelers of all budgetary disciplines. DK Eyewitness Top 10 Guides, by contrast, are packed with thumbnail-sized color pictures and full-page maps. The top 10 city highlights, historic sites, events, children's attractions and so on are presented, with brief descriptions of each. The "streetsmart" section toward the end of the book suggests the top 10 things to avoid (airport taxis, wearing high-heeled shoes in Vieux Montreal), places to stay and budget tips. Used in conjunction with one another, these two books offer everything the traveler could ask for when visiting North America's most European cities.

Exploring nature's bounty

Author, photographer and lifetime nature-observer Hannah Robinson offers Australia: an Ecotraveller's Guide, a profusely illustrated guide to the flora and fauna of the Land Down Under. If you have ever had an urge to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, seek out a platypus in its lair (be careful of the poison spur!), or listen to the sheep-like bleating of Uluru's burrowing frogs, this is the book for you. A lengthy appendix provides useful information about national parks, ecotours, lodgings, and dives (the sort of dive where you go underwater, as opposed to the dives where you go under the table). Should Australia prove too far afield, Robinson has also done a similar guide to Costa Rica.

An epicure's delight

If you are like me, one of the major delights of travel is unusual food. Haute cuisine or street eats, shortly after the plane touches down, I'm scrounging for taste sensations unavailable to me at home. Although English cuisine has been roundly dissed for centuries, the fact is that some traditional Brit food is quite tasty: the ploughman's lunch, fish and chips, and of course, the traditional afternoon tea. Where to Take Tea, by Susan Cohen, offers suggestions for this most wonderful British custom. Whether you prefer a small family-run establishment, a museum cafe or a posh Victorian tearoom, these and more can be found in Cohen's book. (I'll have mine with cranberry scones and Devonshire clotted cream, thank you very much.) If you're traveling farther north, The Best Tastes in Scotlandsheds light on fabulous small pubs, bars and restaurants serving up some of the best Scottish standards. Meanwhile, across the English Channel, two other books offer some great suggestions for dining in France, arguably the culinary capital of the world. Coming in May, DK's Eyewitness France: Best Places to Eat & Stay takes a mouthwatering look at 3,000 of the best restaurants and hotels across the country, with full-color photos and maps.

Paris by Bistro by Christine and Dennis Graf (Interlink, $17.95, 262 pages, ISBN 1566564743) is chatty and informative, peppered with anecdotes about James Baldwin, Chester Himes and the fictional Inspector Maigret. Lots of black and white illustrations and a great glossary of French food-related words are the icing on the gateau. (Deed you know zat zee pamplemousse eez really zee grapefruit?)

So, happy trails; if you run across a gray-bearded fellow in jeans and a T-shirt on the road to Lake Atitlan or hiking in the Cotswolds this spring, it might well be me. And I guarantee that I'll have the appropriate travel guide in hand.

Bruce Tierney writes from Nashville.

 

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