Monday, December 21, 2009

Choices, choices, choices

Last night Sarah and I had dinner with our friends Rob and Gloria who had some friends in from Australia (Roger and Kylie). They were starting a West Coast roadtrip to SF and LA then are catching a flight to New York (very jealous!) so we had lots of fun circling our favorites in their guidebook, suggesting good restaurants or scenic vistas. They had a couple of guidebooks, including a Lonely Planet USA West Coast, which got me to thinking about my experiences with guidebooks. Here is our random collection of guides that we have picked up over the years for different trips, at used book stores or garage sales, and ones that have been graciously gifted to us. So here's my question - which brands are the best? I'm going to run through my impressions of some brands I've used and hopefully people will let us know if you agree or have better suggestions.

Lonely Planet - - Roger and Kylie's guidebook for the West Coast seemed to have a lot of quirky spots (cafes, interesting restaurants, etc) as well as lots of detail on the low- mid-range options for housing/travel. It had Fig Cafe in Healdsburg, a favorite of my dad's, as well as Ikeda's in Auburn, a favorite of mine. They also have an option to build your own custom book out of chapters from other books, which Sarah and I are thinking of doing for the world trip, as well as a travel forum called Thorntree where I've gotten some helpful advice from in the past.

Will, Gabe and I used the Iceland Lonely Planet (brought by Will I think) when we were there a few years ago and I remember the same type of focus in that book. Lonely Planet seems to capture the age 20-40 traveler well, with a focus on authentic experiences over tourist traps. One particular adventure left me enamored with Lonely Planet. We were driving around the Ring Road that circles the island (there are no roads throught the middle) and on the northwest coast, started exploring the fjord north of the town of Hofstadhir. The book noted a natural hot spring called Gudrun´s Bath and we decided to take the couple hours to get up there. We had to open and close many fences so farmer's herds wouldn't escape and just when the road was about to peter out and we were convinced we were hopelessly lost, we found this tiny geothermal hot spring on the edge of the fjord overlooking the ocean towards the North Pole. As the book explained, the tiny island off the coast was where Gudrun, one of the heroes of the Icelandic Sagas, swam out to steal fire from a hermit (god? maybe? I'm dim on the details). When he finally managed to make it back to shore he found this spring and it saved him from hypothermia and allowed him to bring fire to the people. Will read it out loud as we sat in the spring and looked out over the wind-ravaged stone island sticking out the water. It's moments like that when I appreciate guide books the most, when they can connect you to the history of a place.

Fodors Travel Guides - But then again, there are lots of others that I have used over the years, including Fodors. Sarah and I used Fodors when we did our Southwest trip a couple years back, but it struck us as generally filled with activities and places that were out of our price range. It's recommendations seemed to favor exclusivity and cushyness to authenticity and experience. Though we did find a hike up Angel's Landing in Zion National Park, which ranks as one of my five top hikes. That's Sarah about to traverse the pencil thin ridge line and scramble to the final plateau.

Moon Travel Guides - I don't have much experience with Moon, but I hear they are from Australia and take a similar tack to Lonely Planet. On their website, they "ensure that travelers have an uncommon and entirely satisfying experience." Wonder if anyone has found them useful, I might try to pick up one at some point and give it a go. Maybe when we get to London next week.

Frommers Travel Guides - Frommers seems to walk the line between the upscale Fodors and the cash-conscious but experience-minded Lonely Planet. Though in my opinion it basically tried to do Fodors but cheap, without focusing on experience and instead just looking for getting the most bang for your buck.

Well, that's all I got for now, I'm interested to see if anyone has any thoughts on guide books, stories to share, etc. Or are we just better reading a history book to get a sense of place and winging the rest? I'm sure Sarah and I will be doing plenty of that as the trip unfolds. So bon voyage for now, it's off to California tomorrow then London on the 27th. It's tough to leave the new place overlooking the mountains so soon after moving in, but we look forward to filling you in about our adventures with the the nine-year old as they progress.

Have a great trip Roger and Kylie!

1 comment:

  1. Hey, hey, to chime in: Lonely Planet was great, but we also had a Rough Guide along with us in Iceland. Lonely Planet had more about the history/cultural options, Rough Guide had more hikes and economy options, if I remember correctly. And, to just note something about the hot spring, it was actually the other way around! Grettir was an outlaw, had killed a bunch of folks and was hiding from the authorities on that leeeeettle rocky island in the fjord, subsisting on puffins and puffin eggs. Every once in a while, his fire would go out and he'd have to swim the fjord back to land (a bare smidgen below the Arctic Circle, mind you) and steal some fire from one of the farms there. He used that hot spring to warm up after the swim. Best part of the saga: some farm girls once saw him crawling, spluttering into the hot spring and noted their surprise at how much less of a legendary man the "shriveled" Grettir seemed in such a state. I'll let you figure that one out.

    Steve in the windswept fjord:

    View into the fjord: