Favorite guidebooks old and new

A selective sampling of the gleaming books that beckon summer travelers.


Don George
June 9, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Summer is a-coming in, which means that the trickle of guidebooks that usually crosses my desk has recently frothed into a torrent. All the old standbys of the travel guidebook world -- the Frommer's and Fielding's and Fodor's, the Lonely Planets and Rough Guides -- have produced their (sometimes scrupulously, sometimes scantily) updated books, and the shelves in the bookstores are gleaming and glossy and groaning with all their new titles -- this reminds me of every fall semester back in college, when the whole world of literature seemed to beckon from the classics-crammed shelves of the university bookstore.

If you're not already familar with these series and you want to figure out which one is best for you, my advice is to go to a good bookstore, choose a destination you already know well and compare what the different guidebooks have to say about that destination. By comparing what kind of information the different books give and which hotels, restaurants and sites they recommend, you should quickly be able to determine which series best fits your travel philosophy, budget and style.

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This week I want to focus not on the standard destination guides published by the big-name publishers but on some of the smaller, quirkier books I've come to love through the years and on new titles that seem particularly noteworthy or intriguing to me.

I'll begin with two new titles in one of the series that I have come to greatly respect and trust: Sandra Gustafson's "Cheap Sleeps" and "Cheap Eats" books, published by Chronicle Books. This series first came to my attention in 1992, when I was looking for a good inexpensive hotel in Paris and a friend recommended the then-just published "Cheap Sleeps in Paris." I found Gustafson's descriptions accurate and her comments and recommendations extremely helpful, and since then I have been recommending her books to friends and readers. One of the most compelling facts in her favor is that Gustafson personally checks out each and every hotel/guesthouse/inn and restaurant/cafe she mentions in her books. Through the years, as she has expanded from books on Paris and London to Italy and Hawaii, I have come to trust her judgement implicitly. So although I have been to only one of the three cities featured in her new books, I still feel confident recommending Gustafson's just-published "Cheap Sleeps in Prague, Vienna and Budapest" and "Cheap Eats in Prague, Vienna and Budapest." Don't be misled by the title: These books are not about the cheapest places available, but about the best-value places -- the tucked-away treasures that combine comfort, cleanliness and charm.

Another book I have used happily in the past is "Pariswalks," Alison and Sonia Landes' lovingly informed and informative guide to seven walking tours of historic neighborhoods in the City of Light. The neighborhoods covered are some of my favorites -- Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, La Huchette, Saint-Germain-des-Pres, Mouffetard, Place des Vosges, Rue des Francs-Bourgeois and the Bastille to Eglise Saint-Gervais -- and are the kinds of places tour buses don't go (and wise travelers do). Each walk is limited to an area of no more than 10 blocks, and is packed with the kinds of intimate and illuminating details that bring a city to life and create a feeling of abiding connection. An elegant, historic city like Paris can be overwhelming, particularly to the first-time visitor; "Pariswalks" does an invaluable job of bringing that vast scale down to a more personal size. Published by Henry Holt, Pariswalks is the original title in a series of "Walks" guides that has grown to include 14 cities, from New York and Beijing to Jerusalem and Rome.

As publishers jostle for attention in the ever-more-crowded guidebook marketplace, they continue to target countries for new single-focus guides and to create new themed package books. An inspired example of the latter is Rough Guides' new "The Maya World," which crosses national boundaries to focus on the ancient world of the Maya, encompassing southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Among the new country guides, my eye was caught by Lonely Planet's "The Gambia and Senegal" and Rough Guides' "Syria." Do these portend a tourist influx to these areas -- or were they simply countries where no other publisher's flag was yet flying?

Following up on its successful "First-Time Europe," which was originally published in 1996, Rough Guides recently came out with "First-Time Asia," designed specifically for prospective new visitors to the region. Traveling in the opposite direction, Lonely Planet just published its first edition of "Europe on a Shoestring," complementing the mother of all backpacker guides, the now legendary "Southeast Asia on a Shoestring," which launched the LP empire more than 25 years ago. Completing the global circle, LP also recently published its first massive guide to the United States, titled simply "USA" (what, no shoestring?). Moon Handbooks has also embraced the American theme, including new guides to Virginia, North Carolina and Michigan.

One of the things I love to do when I visit a city is look for locally produced guidebooks. These often feature eccentric printing and design, but they can also open otherwise overlooked doorways into the heart and soul of a place. One such book that fell into my hands earlier this year is Ulrica Hume's "San Francisco in a Teacup," published by Blue Circle Press. Obviously a tea devotee, Hume has produced a passion-infused appreciation of 50 great places to take tea in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her choices range from the traditional, elaborate big-hotel teas served at the Palace Hotel, the Ritz-Carlton and other
grandes dames to offbeat treasures such as Chai of Larkspur, Berkeley's O Chame and the city's own inimitable Mad Magda's Russian Tea Room & Cafe. Hume also goes beyond the simple teahouse to include the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, the Urasenke Foundation's introduction to traditional Japanese ochanoyu tea ceremony and the Grace Cathedral Gift Shop.

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Another homegrown labor of love is Sidra Stich's "France: Contemporary Art + Architecture Handbook," published by art-SITES of San Francisco. In this intriguing guide, which art-SITES hopes will be a prototype for guides to other countries, Stich focuses on contemporary museums, galleries and architecture. Half of the book focuses on Paris; the second half explores the provinces, from Lille and Brittany to Bordeaux and the Côte d'Azur. If you are not a fan of contemporary art and architecture, you won't find much use for this book; but if you are, you'll feel like you've discovered a kindred spirit in Stich.

A less earnest -- though equally impassioned -- handmade production is Alan Davis' "The Fun Also Rises Travel Guide North America," published by Greenline Publications. The subtitle says it all: "The Most Fun Places to Be at the Right Time." If your idea of a good time is being crammed elbow to chin in a crowd of squealing, beer-soaked revelers, grab this book quick! It will tell you all the right places to be, week by week. If it's week 28 (the week of July 5), for example, you should be in Montreal for the Jazzfest. And if it's week 31, hie thee to Cheyenne, Wyo., for the Frontier Days. It's easy to make fun of a book that dictates where the most fun place on the continent is, but if you're a dedicated party-pursuer -- or even if you're just a sometime aficionado -- it's not bad to know where the biggest bashes are. And to Davis' credit, the list runs from the predictable -- Mardi Gras, the Kentucky Derby, the Academy Awards, Burning Man, New Year's Eve in Times Square -- to events such as San Francisco's Black & White Ball, Dickens on the Strand in Houston and Galveston and Key West's "Fantasy Fest" (about which the book says: "There's something perversely fun about dining at a four-star restaurant when the table to your left is occupied by a family of cone-heads and the one to your right includes a group of burly men in petticoats" -- who could argue with that?).

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Along with their destination counterparts, service guides also continue to proliferate. Travelers' Tales Guides has expanded its literary list to include "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel," which purports to reveal how you can travel first-class while paying discount prices. Laurie Borman's "The Smart Woman's Guide to Business Travel," published by Career Press, offers tips for businesswomen on everything from packing to airport, parking lot and hotel safety. The book also includes some areas that other such guides tend to overlook, such as how to make child-care arrangements on the road and etiquette when traveling with a male colleague or entertaining male business associates. Charles Leocha's "Travel Rights," published by World Leisure Corporation, outlines the rules and policies followed by airlines, rental car companies and credit card issuers -- and explains how and when consumers can use them to their advantage. And Kelly Monaghan's "Fly Cheap," published by the Intrepid Traveler, offers strategies and secrets to get you where you want to go for as little as possible.

Finally, if you're a cruise addict, a guide of an entirely different kind might be just the ticket. "Monarchs of the Sea," published by Tauris Parke, is a grand, glossy, coffee-table book that celebrates the history and highlights of the world's great ocean liners, from the Britannia and the Great Eastern to the sleek behemoths of the contemporary cruise scene. If your passion is sitting in a deck chair on a deep blue sea -- or in an armchair in an air-conditioned living room -- this 264-page tome, featuring bracing prose and a feast of photos, will take you around the world in comfort and the most sumptuous style.


Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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