My Love Affair with Travel Guidebooks

The sad remains of my trimmed-down collection.

I recently culled my library of travel guides.

I set myself the goal of halving the shelf-full of books I’d accumulated. It was hard going. Some were guides to places I have been and so represented good memories. Some were for destinations I still hope to visit and so protected cherished travel dreams. Others sat on the shelf to remind me of places on my B list.

I must confess that a few were published in the previous millennium. <Blushing.> Yet I still clung to them and hated the thought of tossing any. What is more useless than an out-of-date travel guide? I told myself firmly. But (whispered another voice) who could let go of Insider’s London, a guide to delightfully quirky hidden spots and sights—even if it is over 20 years old? 

In the end, I achieved my goal. I started by arranging the books in date published order, then started cutting from the “written before cell phones were invented” end. Sometimes—as with Insider’s London—I took down the book with full intentions of heaving it into the bin, but after looking at it, I put it back. I had two old guidebooks purchased for a Galapagos Islands trip that never happened. I hesitated, then let go of the one with more time-sensitive info and kept the other.

As I said, difficult choices because, despite the huge amount of travel information available online, I still love my travel guides.

I enjoy the feel of a book in my hands and I like to get away from my computer when I can. I respect and understand the order that information is presented in a book. I like the fact that books are text-heavy, whereas websites tend to be image-heavy. I don’t mind that hard-copy content is not perfectly up to date—the things that interest me usually don’t change much over time and I can always use the Web to get recent info when I need it—things like opening times or ticket prices.

As soon as I start to consider a destination, I open the library website and order in two or three guidebooks for that place. Once I have them in my hands, I browse through them to get a general sense of whether the destination is going to make the A list. I read the “must-see” lists. Are these things that interest me? I look for special sections that might discuss niche topics like birding or lesser-known museums or regional foods. I stare at the maps of suggested scenic or themed driving routes. I might browse through the local customs sections

As I scan the guidebook(s), I insert Post-Its next to items that catch my interest. Eventually, I’ll transfer the info and any relevant URLs to my file of notes for that trip.

When possible, I try to check out a guidebook to take with me on the road. It seems somehow fitting that a travel guide should get the opportunity to visit the country it describes in such detail.

As a side note to using the local library resources, it’s always intriguing when I realize that someone else in my neighbourhood has taken out all the guidebooks for an area. I like the idea that this anonymous stranger—perhaps the fellow behind me in the grocery store line-up—is also dreaming about visiting my chosen destination. I wish I could sit down for tea with him/her and trade information: So what made you choose Argentina? When are you going? Where will you stay? Which tours are you thinking of taking? Maybe we’d even arrange to meet up and trade stories after our respective journeys.

Perhaps I should leave a note hidden in a library travel guide, prompting the next reader to get in touch. Hmmm…I think I see a future movie starting Jude Law and Helena Bonham Carter….

PS: FYI, all those guides on my shelf with library call numbers are not purloined copies. They are ex-library copies that I bought for 50 cents.

Am I the only crazy person with a collection of travel guides? Let me know in a comment.

Calidris Reads: France

City of Darkness and Light

Rhys Bowen
4 knots Recommended
First sentence: “Like many Irish people I have always been a strong believer in a sixth sense.”

One in a series of light mysteries set in the first years of the 20th century that centre on the adventures of an Irish woman. This installment has the protagonist in Paris among the artists and philosophers of the period, trying to track down some missing friends and solve a murder. It’s fluffy stuff, but takes you into the fascinating neighbourhoods of Paris and drops lots of famous names. A good plane read.

Five Nights in Paris

John Baxter
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from Chapter 1): “Some years ago, as a change from spending all my time writing, I began taking people on literary walks.”

This book is a mash-up of essays on a wide variety of topics loosely connected to the idea of “Paris at night.” I found the arrangement of the essays baffling and odd. There’s a prologue, followed by five pieces on random subjects. The rest of the book is organized by the five senses: sound, taste, touch, scent, and sight. An intriguing premise, especially when you consider experiencing each of these by night. However, the essays often seem to have little or no relation to the sense they are grouped under. Despite this, I found myself enjoying the book. Baxter’s writing conjures up little-known and fascinating aspects of the famous city. I found the best approach was to simply savour each essay on its own without attempting to make it fit a larger pattern.

Loire Valley:
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide

5 knots Highly recommended

This travel guide series focuses on presenting information in visual formats: maps, site and building plans, photos, sketched-out comparisons between architectural styles, etc. Smallish bits of text are balanced by lots and lots of images. Comprehensive, no, but the format makes for a quick and fun introduction to the chosen area. We used this guide extensively because it is very specific for the area we were covering. Being an old-school bookie, I admit partiality for the thick, glossy pages and high-quality image reproduction.

Portraits of France

Robert Daley
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from the prologue): “There are a thousand years of French history in this book, but it is not a historical treatise; there is much about France’s wars, but only the one battle that changed her forever is described in detail; there is much about religion, but it is not a catechism; much about food and wine, but it is not a cookbook; much about places of interest, some of which may be worth a detour or even a journey. However, it is not a travel guide….Each portrait had to bear on France as a whole. Apart from that I would write about places, things, and people I had stumbled on or gone looking for that had seemed notable to me, that had impressed or in some cases shocked me.”

Confession: I didn’t actually read the entire book but not because I didn’t like it. I simply ran out of time during the trip. However, I did scan sections and read parts of it, really enjoyed the writing and would definitely return to it to get “in the mood” for another trip to France.

12 Steps to Obsessive Travel Planning: Part 1

Are you one of those spontaneous, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants travelers? The kind who books a flight, throws a few things into a carry-on bag, and takes off? If so, this is not the blog for you. I admit to being a careful—many would even say “obsessive”—travel planner. I have every night booked long before I leave home and I usually have a general idea of what I’ll be doing each day. Having plotted out many trips over the years, I find this works for me. I find decision-making one of the most stressful parts of travel, so I like to have the bulk of that out of the way so I can relax and enjoy the actual trip.

I have friends who like nothing better than to hop from one bed and breakfast to another, never knowing where they will lay their heads that evening. To me, that would be a nightmare; I would spend far too much of my precious vacation time worrying about finding a place to sleep.

Yes, there are disadvantages to my method: I can’t decide on the spur of the moment to stay another night somewhere or tear off across the country when I hear there’s a great festival happening “up north.” I try to mitigate those disadvantages with detailed research that allows me to make good choices in advance. Besides, I tell myself, I can always return in the future if a particular spot warrants a longer visit or I miss an event.

The process I use for planning is the same whether it’s a long or short trip, but I find that the longer the trip, the more difficult the logistics, so the itinerary becomes even more crucial.

1/ Get the biggest map of your destination that you can find. There are map stores or travel specialty stores in most large cities, or you can buy online.

2/ Research as much general information as you can about the destination. What is the climate like at different times of the year? Are there times you need to avoid e.g., hurricane season, hot season, local school holidays? When is high season, low season, shoulder season? Will you need to take health precautions? What are the different areas of the country? Which city(ies) are you likely to arrive in and depart from? How much will the major flights cost? What is the standard of accommodations in city and country? How far apart are the accommodations in the country? What are the roads like? How difficult will it be to travel if you don’t speak the local language? Will you need to fly between areas or will you drive? Are there trains, buses, ferries? Are there safety issues e.g., carjacking, kidnapping, conflict zones?

I’m still old-fashioned enough to do most of this research via travel guidebooks, but I also consult online trip reports, blogs, Tripadvisor, and forums like Thorn Tree (Lonely Planet’s site) for specific and timely information.

3/ In simple list form, note the dates of any specific events you would like to experience, such as festivals, holidays, natural events (e.g., animal or bird migrations, flowers blooming, trees in fall colors). Based on the time of year you can or want to visit, which events might you be able to attend?

Note the names, general locations, and points of interest of specific towns or areas. For example, you might write:

Mindo (1.5 hr west of Quito) – excellent birding, zipline, Sunday market, Milpe Lodge

4/ Start to build a calendar. I use a table in Microsoft Word with seven columns (one for each day of the week) and as many rows as I need for the weeks I’ll be travelling. I fill in tentative dates for each box. Here’s what it looks like (far left column is Sundays).

Sometimes, I’ll have two of these tables at first with alternative sets of dates. This lets me build a couple of itinerary options based around specific flight dates, for example (April 18 and May 16 vs May 3 and May 31) or travel season (high season vs shoulder season).

5/ Transfer over to your calendar those event dates and the points of interest from #3 above. If an event stretches over several days, include it on each calendar day that it runs. You may only want to attend one day, but at this stage, you don’t necessary know which day that will be. Also include where you’ll need to be for each item.

6/ Research flights for best routes and cheapest options. Now that you’ve got a general idea of when and where you want to be, you can start looking at flights. Unless you’re bound to a very strict timeline, always check several departure dates and return dates, as prices can vary quite significantly depending on which day of the week you fly. You can also research airport options. For example, most people fly in and out of Costa Rica through San Jose. We found that arriving at and departing from Liberia worked better for our itinerary and gave us better routing. As it turned out, the smaller airport was a real breeze and we were more than happy with our choice.

More next week on finalizing your plans.

Is this all waaaaay too fussy for you? Do you think spontaneity is the essence of travel pleasure? Tell me your opinion in a comment.