Lonely Planet's hidden passion

Guidebook pioneer publishes Eric Newby collection, prepares to launch three new series.

Published April 7, 1999 7:00AM (EDT)

I was sitting with Tony and Maureen Wheeler -- the founders and heads of Lonely Planet Publications -- on a moonlit terrace in Marin County two summers ago, drinking Sierra Nevadas and swapping travel tales, when Maureen suddenly turned to me. "Do you like Eric Newby?"

"I love Eric Newby," I said. "'A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush' is on my short list of the great travel books of all time."

"Exactly!" she said, flashing a blinding smile at me and then shooting a sage look Tony's way.

Tony sipped his Sierra and winked at me. "We've had another one of our inspirations," he said. "We want to re-issue the collected travel works of Eric Newby."

"What do you think?" she asked. "Isn't it brilliant?"

And three brown bottles rose toward the moon, clinking in honor of a laudable dream.

The amazing thing about Tony and Maureen Wheeler is that they remember their dreams the next day -- and then make them come true.

Last September, barely a year after that conversation, Lonely Planet published five of Eric Newby's wonderful works of travel literature -- "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush," "On the Shores of the Mediterranean," "Round Ireland in Low Gear," "A Small Place in Italy" and "Slowly down the Ganges." And this month it's publishing the remaining two -- "Love and War in the Apennines" and "The Last Grain Race."

Eric Newby is a travel raconteur in the great British tradition -- worldly and witty, plucky, trenchant and beguilingly self-deprecating in the face of extraordinary adventure and adversity. For anyone who loves travel writing, it's a joy to have Newby's accounts collected in this way -- in an eminently readable, affordable and handsome paperback series. And so I raise a verbal brew to Tony and Maureen for their inspiration and determination to republish one of the travel world's literary treasures.

This effort is entirely in keeping with the spirit of LP's excellent literary series, "Journeys," which it launched three years ago. "Journeys" encompasses a mix of works -- some original, some translations, some reprints. To date, the series numbers 26 titles in all, including Alex Kerr's "Lost Japan," Jeff Greenwald's "Shopping for Buddhas," Isabella Tree's "Islands in the Clouds" and Andrew Stevenson's "Kiwi Tracks." In addition to the Newby books, this month "Journeys" will also publish "The Blue Man," by Australian writer Larry Buttrose. Next up, in October, is a compilation of horror stories from LP authors, "Lonely Planet Unpacked."

Of course, if you've been in a travel bookstore recently, you know how brutally competitive the guidebook world has become, and the protean people at LP aren't simply resting on their literary laurels. This fall the company is planning to launch three new series: Healthy Travel guides, Out to Eat restaurant guides and Read This First guides, which are tailored to first-time visitors.

The Read This First guides -- this must be a niche whose time has come; Rough Guides recently published "First-Time Europe" and "First-Time Asia" -- are kicking off with titles on Asia (in October) and Africa (in January). Next up is Central and South America in February, to be followed by the Middle East. According to an LP press release, "Each aspect of preparation is discussed and explained in a succinct and no-nonsense fashion, from budgeting and arranging a visa to planning an itinerary and staying safe and healthy along the way." In addition to travel basics, the guides include discussions of broader issues such as ecotourism, cultural sensitivity, on-the-road romance and dealing with poverty. The books also offer book, film and Web site resource references, and lists of embassies, voluntary work organizations and other useful organizations.

So how do these differ from the publisher's traditional country guides? Says spokeswoman Carolyn Miller: "These are meant to be essential pre-departure guides. They'll hit on sightseeing highlights and offer some hotel and restaurant information, but they won't offer the specific town-by-town descriptions and recommendations of our traditional guides. They're overviews, and they don't get into the nitty-gritty details of our other books."

The Out to Eat series is launching with guides to three popular cities -- LP's home base of Melbourne, plus Sydney and San Francisco. The guides are organized by neighborhood and by cuisine, and offer cultural contexts for the cuisines, in addition to opinionated reviews. In keeping with LP's backpackers-turned-boomers audience, restaurants reviewed cover the cost gamut, from backpack budget to four-star splurge. One more distinctive touch: A special emphasis is also placed on vegetarian offerings.

The greatest departure of all is the Healthy Travel guides, written by a world-wandering Australian doctor named Isabelle Young. Covering the four regions of the world with the highest health risks for travelers -- India and the rest of Asia, Africa, Central and South America and the Pacific -- the guides are each 192 pages long and slip-in-your-pocket size. Written as complements to the company's country guidebooks, these books offer listings of key local hospitals and clinics and guidelines on injections and blood transfusions in developing countries, plus information sources for reference before you go and when you're on the road. Other topics covered range from first-aid basics for cuts and sprains to dealing with diarrhea, fever and malaria.

The Wheelers have come a long way from those wide-eyed days 26 years ago, when they were going door to door selling a handwritten guide to Asia. Today LP has offices on three continents -- Australia (Melbourne), Europe (London and Paris) and North America (Oakland) -- and a globe-girdling list of 189 guidebooks, 47 phrasebooks, 14 walking guides, 14 atlases and 50 diving and snorkeling guides, as well as non-print products such as videos and an intriguing and informative Web site.

Yes, they've come a long way -- but happily, as their new Eric Newby collection demonstrates, the ideals and the passions that drew them into this business in the first place have never waned.

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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