Off-beat travel guides for those who travel off the beaten path
Each year as the dogwoods come into bloom and the first green peach fuzz of grass sprouts in the front yard, I begin to emerge from the winter-long seasonal affective disorder that plagues my waning youth. Conveniently, television is going into rerun season, so there's no need to stay at home to see whether Ally McBeal will finally find undying love, or if Law and Order's Lenny Briscoe will outlive yet another partner. It is time to board the dogs, leave the office in the capable hands of the people who were there before me (and who will likely be there long after I am gone), leave a hold all mail notice at the post office, and strike out for parts unknown. I start planning over the Christmas holidays, gathering together the guidebooks and travel literature that will help me choose a destination, and with any luck, smooth out some of the rough spots when I arrive there.
For many years I have used the budget traveler's bible, Let's Go. Let's Go: Europe is now in its 40th edition, the world's best-selling international travel book. This year, I'm having a look at Let's Go: Middle East. This 2000 edition by Zahr K. Said, Ankur N. Ghosh, and Katherine R. Unterman covers Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Oman, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates. The book is stuffed with information, completely updated each year by a staff of some 250 students. It is geared toward those traveling on the cheap, my preferred mode of travel. Each dollar saved on airfare, food, and lodging is a dollar that can be used to extend my vacation.
Another favorite of the budget traveler is the Lonely Planet series. These fine folks have guidebooks for virtually every destination on earth, and will likely be the first to offer a guide to the moon. In their guide to Berlin, a destination high on my short list, they offer a foldout transport map showing train, tram, and bus lines, as well as numerous color photographs of the sights of the city and its environs. All of the traveler's common concerns are addressed: necessary documents, exchange rates, business hours, ATM locations, etc. In addition, should you find yourself with the pressing urge to go ice skating or use a public restroom, information on those pursuits may be found in the Lonely Planet guides as well. New this year from the same publisher is Lonely Planet Unpacked, often uproarious (but sometimes sobering) stories of travel disasters from several staff members (a great book to assist in talking yourself out of adventure travel, and into spending the money on a new set of speakers instead).
While The National Geographic Traveler guides don't offer much information on the day-to-day life of the tourist, they do have the best photographs in the industry. Picture a several-hundred page issue of National Geographic magazine devoted to one particular destination, and you begin to get an idea of what their guidebooks are all about. Books in The National Geographic Traveler series are available for Australia, the Caribbean, Canada, France, Great Britain, and a number of other popular destinations.
Eyewitness Travel Planners are unique, or at least unusual, in the world of travel guides. Open up the cardboard cover, and you will be greeted on your left with a booklet that includes a comprehensive index and survival guide, and on your right with an enormous folding map. The index lists every city, town, and hamlet; every cathedral, park, and beach; every golf course, battlefield, and ruin. In the guides to Great Britain and Ireland, there are actually symbols for Viking and Roman sites (little horned helmets and gladiator headgear, respectively). A general (and somewhat limited) survival guide completes the booklet, offering information such as a metric/English conversion chart, local electrical voltage, and speed limits. In a pocket in the right hand side of the cover is a huge foldout national map with numerous smaller city maps and the like. There is a mileage chart, a calendar of sporting and other events, a guide to historic sites, and much more. Not intended as a stand-alone guide, the Eyewitness Travel Planner is a great supplemental tool for the planning stage of a trip. Destinations include Thailand, Australia, and a number of European countries.
Travelers' Tales Guides offer a quirky-yet-insightful look at the many faces of travel. In Testosterone Planet, we get to walk the Appalachian trail with writer and gifted amateur linguist Bill Bryson; to visit a New Guinea longhouse with humorist Tim Cahill; to experience a terrifying thunderstorm from the cockpit of a light airplane with Antoine de Saint Exupery, author of the beloved children's book The Little Prince. Testosterone Planet's sister volume, as it were, is entitled A Woman's Passion for Travel. Included are tales alternately humorous and horrific. One entitled "Toiletopia" chronicles Kathleen Meyer's trip to Japan to deliver the keynote address to the Japan Toilet Association. In "My Lai, Thirty Years After," Rachel Louise Snyder chronicles her conflicting emotions upon visiting the site of one of the darkest moments in American military history.
For those desiring a longer stay abroad, John Muir Publications offers Live Well in Mexico, a comprehensive guide to retiring (or at least spending a significant chunk of time) in Mexico. Interested in retiring in comparative luxury to a subtropical coastal village? Perhaps a tile-roofed mountain retreat far from the noise and smog of (fill in your city here)? How about an adobe hacienda under a starlit desert sky? Best of all, this can be accomplished for a fraction of what it would cost in the U.S. (If Mexico is not to your taste, a similar volume is available for Ireland, with more in the works.)International travel can be significantly less expensive than its domestic counterpart, particularly for longer duration stays. Armed with one or more of these guidebooks, you can take the first step toward a lifetime of memories. (If you make it to Cuba, the Greek Islands, or Turkey, keep an eye out for a bearded guy on the beach, highlighter in hand, a stack of travel books alongside his beach towel.)