Today more than ever, we need to get out and see what the rest of the world is up to, and maybe even do what we can to dispel the stereotype that Americans make spoiled, incurious tourists. Certainly, it's good to learn as you go (you can hardly help doing so), but to show respect for your hosts, it's even better to learn before you go. These guidebooks and travel narratives will set you off in the right direction.
The very name of Zanzibar prompts exotic imaginings. In the Rough Guide to Zanzibar, author Jens Finke provides an intelligent, succinct introduction to this long-troubled archipelago, which explorer David Livingstone half of that famed "I presume" encounter described as "an elusive place where nothing is as it seems." While outlining the islands' tragic history as a prominent slave trading post right up until 1897, Finke also elucidates its rich Islamic culture and explores its enduring pleasures, such as the mama lishas "literally, feeding ladies'" who dish out "Zanzibari pizzas" (stuffed chapatis) and fresh-grilled seafood at sunset at the Forodhani Gardens, an open-air market within the labyrinthine maze that is historic Stone Town. Complaining that Unguja Island's northeast coast has been "swamped by monstrous, all-inclusive package resorts" (it's always reassuring to encounter a guidebook author willing to take a stand against homogenizing over-development), he steers visitors instead to such treasures as the Chumbe Island Eco-Lodge near a protected coral park.
This pocketable guide is essentially an out-take from Finke's full-size Rough Guide to Tanzania, a work of staggering breadth and detail. Other areas recently added to the Rough Guides series are the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Bolivia and Cambodia. Offering deep background as well as practical pointers for travelers of every budget level, the series, initiated in 1982, isn't just for backpackers anymore: the 200-plus titles are certain to suit anyone seeking a more meaningful experience abroad.
Fodor's Gold Guides, though less attitudinal than the Roughs (they'll list Holiday Inns alongside tiny pensions, in a bid for universal appeal), have begun to reflect a growing intercultural sensitivity as well. The introduction to the first edition of Central America includes the directive "Walk lightly, with a sense of humility, and try not to disturb the cultures and landscapes that brought you to Central America in the first place." The warning, and publication, couldn't be timelier, given that the area finally recovering from centuries of political strife experienced a 69 percent jump in tourism between 1994 and 1999. Thirteen knowledgeable residents and/or frequent visitors contributed to this compendium covering seven countries. They'll tell you why Panama is better for white-water river rafting than Costa Rica (less overrun), and where you can enjoy a bioluminescent nighttime dip in Belize.
It's odd to see the Time Out guides 40-plus offshoots of the hip London and New York City listing magazines assaying Patagonia, which would seem to be the very antithesis of urban chic. But perhaps not for long, what with jetsetters like Ted Turner snapping up estancias. This exhaustive compendium, set in crisp if tiny type, is packed with insider information: not just where to pursue 30-inch rainbow trout and view glaciers "calving" with a sonic crack, but how to tap into "gay Patagonia" (yes, it exists) and why you should be very careful when inquiring about preservatives in your food. Also new to the series are books on Andalusia, Milan and Stockholm. The latter two benefit especially from the photo-rich format. The series' only flaw is a penchant for puny headings and the occasional snarky caption the downside, perhaps, of the imperative to sound smart.
Time Out also offers a series of scaled-down "Eating & Drinking" guides ($11.95 each), thus far covering London, New York, Paris and most recently Barcelona and Rome. Informed, impassioned and opinionated, these booklets are ideal for repeat visitors and residents intent on tracking down the latest hot spots; they're also invaluable for galloping gastronomes.
The National Geographic Directions series aspires to peer past the touristic facade and unveil the deep soul of a region. Francine Prose does just that in Sicilian Odyssey. Prose has visited Italy often enough to know her way around, yet she retains a lover's fresh joy in discovery: of the "austere and lovely" medieval town of Erice, for instance, "set high on the mountaintop like a diamond solitaire in an antique ring." (She's just as deft at describing places you might want to skip, like Gibellina Nuova, a town destroyed by an earthquake in 1968. Reconstructed with disturbing architectural results thanks to the help of local artists, the new version of the village "makes the loneliest, most haunted de Chirico painting look like one of those cheerful small-town dreamscapes painted by Norman Rockwell.") Follow in Prose's footsteps and you'll be treated to rich mythological glosses, sensual descriptions and provocative philosophical musings.
New Hotels for Global Nomadsby Donald Albrecht (Merrell, $39.95, 160 pages, ISBN 1858941741) is more than the catalog for a fascinating show mounted this winter at New York City's Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. Documenting 35 real and conceptual cutting-edge examples of the hospitality trade, it serves as both explicator and prognosticator of that odd and relatively recent custom whereby we blithely bed down among strangers. The richly illustrated survey begins with Boston's neoclassical Tremont House, which dazzled Dickens and introduced the odd notion (for 1829) of private, lockable rooms. Encompassing Japan's cheapo "capsule hotels" and Dubai's gold leaf-lavished Burj al-Arab (set offshore like a massive spinnaker), the study extends to the "Lunatic Hotel," a technically feasible pipe dream set where else? on the moon. Sandy MacDonald is the author of Quick Escapes Boston: 25 Weekend Getaways from the Hub (Globe Pequot).