Meet The Reclusive American Billionaire Who Bought Lonely Planet

Last year, the Wall Street Journal called Brad Kelley “the man with a million acres.” Now the American billionaire and land addict has expanded his kingdom to include the world’s biggest travel-guide publisher. Kelley’s NC2 Media bought Lonely Planet from BBC Worldwide in a deal announced yesterday.

Most of the headlines focused on the huge loss BBC is taking by selling the company for about $78 million. It paid double that to buy the Melbourne-based publisher a few years ago. Some travel insiders are wondering if NC2, a small firm based in Nashville, Tenn. and specializing in digital development, will continue to publish the familiar blue-covered guides while devoting energy to digital expansion. NC2’s chief operating office, Daniel Houghton, made some routinely vague comments about being committed to the brand’s roots in publishing in a Q&A with Skift Travel. NC2 also produces “Outwild TV,” a story-rich Web series on adventure travel:

A fair amount of the chatter surrounding the news questions whether NC2 will have any more luck than the BBC did with the brand, which was portrayed as struggling financially and with digital innovation. But Kelley surely knows what he’s doing. He didn’t become a billionaire by making bad deals. (Actually, he earned his fortune in the cigarette business.)

Kelley, who’s on the Forbes 400 list of the world’s richest people, must know a promising brand when he sees one. Lonely Planet is the world’s largest travel-guide publisher with 40 years under its belt and 120 million books sold. The BBC grew it from the third most-popular guidebook series in the U.S. to the first.

Kelley, though, is the anti-Trump, with about as much flash as the Amish. The Wall Street Journal called him “deeply private” and claimed he doesn’t use Twitter or email (as of last fall). His hobbies, according to the article, include making bourbon and raising exotic animals; he’s also passionate about conservation. Most of his land – which is concentrated in Florida, Texas and New Mexico and in total outsizes Rhode Island – is devoted to ranches, and his holdings make him one of the top three or four land owners in the country, right up there with Ted Turner.

According to the WSJ, Kelley grew up as the son of a tobacco farmer in Kentucky and bought his first piece of land at 17. He maintains his primary residence in Franklin, Tenn., a town with about 65,000 residents.

That description might seem to cut against the image of an innovative digital firm and the exotic locations on which Lonely Planet is an authority, but in the WSJ Kelley talked about his land habit in financial terms, not romantic ones: “It’s a nonperishable commodity and it’s as good a place as any to put my money,” Mr. Kelley says. “It’s better than derivatives.” The article reported that “the national average value of U.S. ranchland rose 12% compared with five years earlier; in Texas, it is up 30% compared with five years ago.”

Lonely Planet is now based in a state that doesn’t warrant a blue-spined guidebook of its own, but it may well be in better hands.

[Photo credit: Joshua Alan Davis via Flickr]

A Conversation With Rick Steves

Rick StevesRick Steves doesn’t want you to go to Orlando. For more than thirty years, Steves has been trying to sell Americans on leaving the country in his work as a tour guide, author and host of the PBS Series “Rick Steves’ Europe.” These days, Steves thinks that it’s more important than ever for Americans to travel overseas, both to broaden their own horizons and to serve as citizen diplomats who can help overcome stereotypes about America.

Steves, 57, still spends nearly four months each year researching his guidebooks on the ground in Europe, and says he’s not likely to retire anytime soon. His highly successful brand grew out of a love of travel that he inherited from his parents but evolved from his own wanderings after he graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in European History and Business.

After graduation, he returned to the university’s Experimental College to teach a class on budget travel in Europe, and in 1979, he self published the first edition of his now famous “Europe Through the Back Door” series. By the early ’80s, he was leading small minibus tours in Europe. Combining his two passions, he opened a piano teaching studio that gradually morphed into his travel business in Edmonds, Washington, his hometown.

Today, his company employs 80 people and thousands of his devotees swear by his guidebooks and tours. Steves is also an outspoken advocate for drug policy reform, (he’s a co-sponsor of Initiative 502, which will legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in Washington State if victorious in the upcoming election) and thinks that Americans need to take more time off, even though he admits that he works all the time. We talked to him about Iran, unrest in the Middle East, his passion for Europe, and the importance of travel as a political act.

As we speak, there are protests all around the Muslim World over a film that denigrates Islam. Just as Americans don’t understand them, they can’t understand that this film doesn’t represent us, right?

It’s so clear. That’s why I’m on a mission. If I’m going to be able to contribute anything, it’s enabling and inspiring Americans to travel so that makes it tougher for other governments to demonize us, and it makes it harder for our government to demonize them. When you travel, it works both ways.

After someone has met an American in person, it might be a little easier for him or her to put a ridiculous video they saw on YouTube in context?

They’ll have a better understanding of who we are and they’ll be less likely to think our whole country is blaspheming their prophet. Christians have a little more of a sense of humor with these things but I believe we have to respect people’s sensitivities and cut them a little slack. It’s much, much deeper than them being angry about a video though. They don’t want their culture to be hijacked by aggressive Western values.

A woman in Iran came up to me and said, ‘We’re united, we’re strong and we just don’t want our little girls to be raised like Brittney Spears.”

This woman is scared to death that we’ll take over their country – to protect Israel or get access to their oil or whatever – and then we’d impose on them our values. If we all traveled, they’d have more understanding of us and we’d have more understanding of them.

Rick Steves in IranWas there any backlash for visiting Iran, a country that many Americans still regard as an enemy?

I thought I would get more but of all the edgy projects I’ve done it’s been one of the most positively received. We worked hard to do it without an agenda. There’s a small element in our country that says, ‘when you humanize them, you make our enemy more likeable, therefore you are evil.’ But I can’t consider the objections of people like that.

Do you think that you’ve have contributed to informing Americans that Iranians don’t hate America?

I feel it’s been one of the most productive things I’ve done. I’m just one person though and we’re just one small production company. I feel like we were ahead of the curve – our timing was right. The State Department gave me the Citizen Diplomat of the Year Award after that and I got a Lutheran Activist of the Year Award too. The show aired in every market in the U.S. many times, so for me that was very exciting.

If I produced a show on Iran and only people who are progressive and want to understand Iranians and appreciate their culture watched it, I wouldn’t have accomplished much. I wanted to produce a show that people who were predisposed to be angry with Iran and not want to better understand the people who put Ahmadinejad in power would watch so they would understand that it’s a more complicated reality than what they’d learned watching the Hostage Crisis on Nightline with Ted Koppel.

Three years later, though, there’s still a lot of sabre rattling and talk of bombing Iran. But once you’ve traveled to a country and made friends with people there, it’s a lot harder to talk about dropping bombs on them isn’t it?

Of course it is. A lot of Americans are angry at Libya for killing our Ambassador. Well, Libya didn’t kill our Ambassador – a bunch of loose cannons did. A traveler has a more sophisticated understanding of these things. It saddens me to see angry and destructive rhetoric coming out of Iran, and there are times when I consider that and think, ‘well, why did I help those people?’ But I know that Iranian people are in a difficult situation and they’re generally good people and there are complicated forces at work there that might make less sophisticated Americans think of them as our enemy.

I just thought that if more people would travel there, that would be really constructive. Unfortunately, not many Americans will travel there, but I can give them the vicarious travel experience.

Can you recommend Iran to Americans?

It’s like traveling in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They want tourism – it brings in money. They think it helps people understand them better, but they don’t want people running around unescorted, so in order to get a visa you have to have a guide and your hotels arranged.

Given that, it’s wide open for tourism and it’s not that dicey. A lot of Europeans really enjoy going there; it’s a wonderful destination, as far as the culture, the food and the people go.

iran What’s the best payoff about visiting Iran?

If you’ve been to Iran, then every time you see it on TV, you know what’s not in the frame of the camera. It’s very easy from the news broadcaster’s point of view to zoom in on the intense stuff. If it bleeds, it leads, and if they’re shaking their fists at us on TV, it seems like the whole country is shaking their fists at us.

You’ve written in the past about trying to understand the grievances of terrorists and other evildoers. Some regard that as treason, right?

If your big motivation is national security and your approach is ‘shoot first, ask questions later, it’s my way or the highway,’ and unilateralism and exceptionalism and all that stuff, (not understanding the enemy) is the worst thing you could do for national security.

I really think it’s a pragmatic thing to try to understand what motivates people. That’s not justifying or excusing what they did, that’s just trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again. There are a billion Muslims in the world and a billion Christians. One thousand angry Muslims have breeched our consulates. OK, let’s figure that out, but it doesn’t mean we have to lose hope and all go crazy.

What other countries that we don’t have diplomatic relations with would you like to visit? Perhaps North Korea?

No, I don’t want to go to North Korea. My personal challenge would be to go to Palestine. I floated the idea of trying to do a show where we give Americans a better understanding of the roots of the Palestinian situation, but I think it would be even more of a challenge than doing the Iran show.

Why?

I think many Americans actually don’t want to learn more about the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian problem because it might threaten their deep-seeded feelings and beliefs about it. I think it would be very complicated to do a show that gives people a better empathy for the struggles of the Palestinian people without pissing off a lot of people at the same time.

I wrote an article proposing that the best thing we could do for Israel’s national security is to give Palestine more dignity and fairness and people were really, really upset with that. I’m sympathetic to the situation Israel is in, but if we could help Palestine, we’d be giving Israel more security. It seems so obvious. But people just don’t want to go there. It would be a fun challenge to try making a ‘let’s humanize Palestine’ TV documentary though and I think I probably will in the next few years.

Your name is synonymous with Europe, but it seems as though you also want to turn people on to other destinations around the globe?

My favorite country is India but I’ve decided that my beat is Europe. I see Europe as the wading pool for world exploration for Americans. If I can just help inspire and equip Americans to go to Portugal rather than Orlando again, to Morocco rather than Vegas again, to go to Turkey and suck on a hookah, and come home with a broader perspective, that’s a huge accomplishment. And that’s my mission.

Europe is a gateway to the rest of the world for Americans?

Right, then it’s, ‘let’s go to Thailand or Sri Lanka.’ Europe is the (first) big challenge. It’s amazing how many Americans are afraid to go to France because they don’t like us, or Portugal because it’s dirty, or Spain, because there are gypsies. Then you get there and realize, ‘hey, I had a great time and it didn’t cost that much and the world’s a big place, let’s go to Colombia.’

Our country is becoming less and less European and these days being called “Eurocentric” is a real insult. Is there anything wrong with being a Europhile?

I am proudly a Europhile and think anyone who is “anti-European” is driven by ethnocentrism and fear and naivety. You certainly don’t need to embrace European ideas or lifestyle, but to be anti-European is like being anti-culture or anti-broccoli.

istanbul in black and whiteI’ve heard you say that you like Bulgaria. What are some other under-the-radar spots you recommend in Europe?

I love Eastern Turkey, or anywhere in Turkey. Americans go to Istanbul, but they only see 5 percent of the city. Just take a bus to a far fringe of the city and spend a half-day wandering around.

I was just in Hamburg, Germany, and there are no Americans there. It’s really fun to go to cities that aren’t exotic but that Americans aren’t that interested in.

We were in the Greek isles this summer and there are lots of Americans in Santorini but essentially none in Syros, Samos, Patmos, Kos, and a host of other terrific Greek islands. How do we all end up in the same places, is it our guidebooks?

To me, Greece is the most touristed but least explored country. In Greece, some islands are touristy and they have lots of Europeans and multi-language menus and fun, fruity drinks and discos and others are pretty rustic and have just enough commerce to get you a Greek salad and some calamari, and the few tourists around at night are hanging out playing backgammon with the locals.

That really is a very rewarding slice of an otherwise touristy country. It’s not that tough – almost anywhere as a traveler – to make a left turn instead of going right as the guidebooks tell you and have a real experience.

So how do you encourage your readers to take your advice but also do their own thing?

In the introductory chapter to my guidebook “Europe Through the Back Door,” where I share my 40 favorite discoveries, I make the point that these are examples – don’t just march to these places, but let these places inspire you to find your own.

Having said that, Americans like to be spoon-fed, so that’s why a lot of people take the book and go exactly where I recommend, and that’s not all bad. But I always weave into my writing encouragement for people to go on their own cultural scavenger hunt. I’m not going to tell you to turn left at the fountain.

Travelers are gravitating away from guidebooks and toward user generated travel advice from Trip Advisor and a host of other sites. Has this dynamic changed the travel industry?

If you’re a restaurant or a hotel it’s dramatic. They’re brutalized by the power of sites like Trip Advisor. As a guidebook writer, I’m not threatened by this stuff. There are more than enough people out there who want information designed by a real traveler that has no agenda.

Internet sites that gather and share other peoples’ experiences are a real power though; there are a lot of people that design their whole trip around Trip Advisor. I had never visited Trip Advisor until about three months ago. It’s an impressive pile of information but I’ve been sifting through reader feedback for twenty years, so, while some of it is excellent and really helpful, I know how worthless most of it can be.

Rick Steves in SalzburgWhat’s your travel schedule like?

For the last twenty years I’ve been in a simple, clear rut. I spend four months in Europe – April and May in the Mediterranean, and then I go home in June. Then I go back for July and August north of the Alps. For 25 years, I was a tour guide but for the last ten years or so, I haven’t been leading tours. I dedicate my time to researching guidebooks and producing TV shows. This year I went to Leipzig, Wittenberg, Erfurt, and Hamburg for the first time and revisited lots of other places I’ve been writing about for decades. I spend two-thirds of my time researching guidebooks and one-third producing TV shows.

For me, the challenge is, do I want to find new frontiers for tourism or do I want to make sure that the places where most of the travelers go are well covered? It’s a tough call, because I’d like to go to the Ukraine, I’d like to go to Eastern Europe or do more in Northern Europe.

I can write a great self-guided tour for Paris or Florence or Vienna, and piles of people will use that. Or I can work really hard to get great information on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim’s trail across Northern Spain, but almost no one will use it. So I’m in a quandary. I’m supposed to be Mr. Back Door, going to places that are less popular, but where I can contribute the most is in places like Rome, Munich or Salzburg.

Are you too American to want to live in Europe full time, but too European to be content in the U.S. all year?

I would only live in the U.S.A. I really feel at home here. I am much more American than European even though I enjoy my work/mission of sharing a European perspective with Americans.

I understand that your son, Andy, is following in your footsteps with his own travel company?

While we took him to Europe every year of his life, I didn’t think he was destined to get into tour guiding and travel teaching. Travel didn’t seem to turn him on. But after he graduated from Notre Dame, he started his own tour business designing wonderful €200 three-day weekends for young Americans studying abroad. Now, through his company, Weekend Student Adventures, Andy’s taking hundreds of students on great tours in Europe’s top six cities.

He’s 25, promotes his business by giving free talks to universities anywhere he can and his tours are filled mostly with adventurous young women. He loves his work – just like me when I was that age. So the answer is yes. He’s over there now as I speak and I am really proud of him.

Where do you travel strictly for pleasure?

I like my work so much I don’t really need a vacation. I love to travel. I can work for 50 12-hour days in a row in Europe, and come home feeling younger and more energized than when I left.

What do you find most gratifying about your job?

I’m like a lifelong student. I love to learn. I have a European history degree. I like to connect good people with good entrepreneurs, and mom and pop kind of places in Europe. To help little businesses in Europe that deserve to thrive. I like to challenge Americans to get out of their comfort zones.

I wrote a book, “Travel as a Political Act.” I have enjoyed a huge new dimension to my work since 9/11. I think the role of a travel writer is to be the medieval jester. To get out there and find out what’s going on outside the castle, and come home and tell people what it’s all about. If I can inspire and equip people to do that, that’ll help America fit more comfortably on this ever-smaller planet.

My first guidebook, “Europe Through the Back Door” is in its 32nd year now, and I’m doing essentially the same thing I did way back then. And I’m thankful I’m not burning out. With so many great workmates to collaborate with and so much new technology to amplify our teaching, it’s more fun than ever. As long as I’m physically able to do this, I can’t stop.

[Photos courtesy of Rick Steves, seier and seier and Atilla 1000 on Flickr]

How To Create A Successful Hiking Route


A couple of years ago, I spent six enjoyable days hiking the East Highland Way and wrote a series about it for all you fine folks. Back then this trail through Scotland had only just been established by devoted hiker Kevin Langan.

I felt like a real pioneer when I did this route. The 82-mile journey from Ft. William to Aviemore was unmarked and there was no guidebook yet. Kevin was kind enough to email me PDFs of the page proofs. I never saw anyone else doing the trail and only heard of one other hiker, a German who was a day ahead of me.

Now the East Highland Way is fully established. The guidebook is not only in print now, it’s on its third edition. Kevin’s website is getting tons of hits, and his publisher has added some stuff for the techies in the form of a free Android mobile phone app for the route, which is now available on the Google Play store. GPS (.GPX) and Google Earth (.KMZ) route files are available to download from the website free of charge, as is a new amenities brochure, which includes maps of each location and places of interest.

The trail has also received markers. When I did it I had to rely on generally trustworthy Ordnance Survey maps. It’s nice to have confirmation with trail makers, though.

I caught up with Kevin and asked him how he went about building this new trail and what’s new after two years.

%Gallery-163506%What made you decide to establish a new route in the highlands and what made you pick the Ft. William-Aviemore line?

After walking the world-famous West Highland Way, I noticed that hikers can engage with a whole other network of interconnected trails such as the Great Glen Way, the Rob Roy Way, the Kintyre Way, and the Cowal Way. It was by exploring these routes that I then became aware of a satellite group further east. The Speyside Way, Dava Way and the Moray Coastal Trail seemed to be cut-off and isolated by a series of lesser-walked glens. It occurred to me that strategically, a new connection at this point could theoretically fuse together the various national trails and create a much larger path network to explore. The missing link in question ran between Fort William and Aviemore, two towns already drenched in outdoor culture and heritage. This was entirely theoretical at first and was never anticipated to become a mainstream long distance trail.

How did you go about researching and establishing the route?

In the years to follow I explored the area many times both physically and virtually, trial-blazed various routes and took more notes than I knew how to compile. It was through detailed analysis of the terrain and distances that I finally settled on the East Highland Way route as it stands today. Three websites and three guidebooks later, the route is becoming more popular with each day.

How did you get markers for the route? Were those put up by the government?

The waymarking has been done by building up relationships with various landowners. There are also various existing sections that use locally waymarked trails already, which is great – mainly the Badenoch way and the newly waymarked Loch Gynack trail. The EHW waymarking so far has been done very organically from the ground up. The new orange East Highland Way markers have been distributed to land owners and strategically placed at their discretion. These will include the forests of Inverlair and Corrour and also the full length of Loch Laggan past Ardverikie.

How has the route changed since I walked it (when the first edition was still in production)?

Since you walked it the route has changed immensely. Almost 10 miles of reduced road walking:

1: The route now leaves Fort William via the old Ben Nevis access path past the Alcan smelter, rather than the tarred cycle path to Torlundy.

2: The route uses a new Forest trail approaching Spean Bridge, which bypasses the road section.

3: A new forest route through the Ardverikie estate, which reduces the road walking along the Ardverikie driveway by a few miles.

3: The road walking through Laggan village has been chopped in half with a shortcut over the moor to Glen Banchor.

4: A new high-level route has been introduced between Newtonmore and Kingussie, which replaces the old tarred cycle path.

5: A new route waymarked through Invereshie House estate towards the Frank Burce sculpture park.

What’s next for the EHW?

I think the East Highland Way is growing steadily and I would be happy for people just to continue walking and enjoying the route and that over the years further waymarking is introduced and further road walking eliminated. It’s quite a simple project with a simple agenda. The most important thing for me is the quality of the product. I need to stay focused on finding the best quality paths and attractions along the route and everything else will sort itself out.

Are you planning to establish more routes?

I’ve got various projects, which are ongoing and take up lots of my time. There will hopefully be other long distance routes in the future although this isn’t something I’m actively pursuing at the moment. They are extraordinarily time consuming and need a lot of effort and hard work not to mention free time to be produced properly and with a high quality output in mind.

[Full disclosure: I contributed several photos to the original edition. I didn’t ask for payment, and I don’t receive any royalties. I gave Kevin free photos because I believe in promoting this trail. I don’t know if they’re in the third edition.]

The Problem With Guidebooks, Or How I Came to Hate Lonely Planet On A Sunday in Crete

anogiaHave you ever been so annoyed with a guidebook that you wanted to track down the author and bludgeon them to death with a rusty hatchet? Neither have I, but yesterday I came close.

I almost always invest in a guidebook when I take a trip. But I’m not sure why, because I’ve been led astray on so many occasions. After arriving in the Greek isles at the start of a six-week trip, my wife and I bought the Kindle edition of the Lonely Planet Guide to the Greek Islands.

I’m generally very high on Lonely Planet but this book is awful. For example, yesterday I convinced my family to make a day trip to Anogia, a remote village in the mountainous interior of Crete, on the basis of an enticing description of the place in the book (see photo above). The author described the village as “memorable” and “known for its rebellious spirit and determination to express its undiluted Cretan character.” (Whatever that means.)He or she went on to say that the town’s cafés were “frequented by black-shirted mustachioed men, the older ones often wearing traditional dress,” and claimed that the town was sought out by “foreign travelers in search of rustic authenticity.”

I was also drawn in by the author’s vivid description of the town’s reputation for lawlessness and its history – villagers sheltered Allied troops in WWII and the Nazis murdered all the men in the town in retaliation. I knew it would be a trek from our base in Plakias, on Crete’s south coast, but based upon the author’s recommendation, I didn’t want to miss the place.

Google maps claims the trip should take one hour and 27 minutes each way, and I’m a fast driver, but it took us two hours on windy, torturously circuitous roads to reach the village, largely because we were constantly getting caught behind slow moving cars and trucks that were impossible to pass on the curved roads.

Here I have to admit, in full disclosure, that my adorable, yet sometimes highly annoying, 2- and 4-year-old sons also contributed plenty of stress on the drive, what with their quarreling, whining and intermittent demands for snacks, movies, entertainment and pleas to get out of the damn car.

I was exhausted by the time we arrived in the town, which, by the way, is at least an hour drive from anywhere that travelers might be coming from. But I was still ready to dig the place. The day trip had been my idea and I was eager to prove it had been a good one.

Anogia has two sections – a lower town, which has 2-3 cafes, a church, restaurants and 20 or 30 widows dressed in black aggressively peddling rugs, and an upper town, which has 2-3 empty hotels, two forlorn restaurants and a smattering of homes and other businesses. The cafes in the lower town were full of old people but none were dressed in traditional outfits and only two men had impressive moustaches.

Perhaps the village-folk had received warning that a Lonely Planet author was coming to the town and they all prepared by growing stashes and getting gussied up in traditional Cretan outfits? Or perhaps the last Lonely Planet author to actually visit this town passed through in 1974 and everyone else has just used their description for subsequent editions since then?

old person sleepingAnogia is not an attractive town. If I had to describe it, the words I would use are: unremarkable, modern, remote, ugly, forlorn, impoverished, touristy and avoidable, among others. The town may have an interesting history but we saw no museums and none of the elderly people we met in the village spoke English. It’s the kind of place that’s fascinating to read about but not very interesting to actually see. How dead was this little village? I think this photo of an elderly woman taking a nap with her door open (right) says it all.

After deflecting offers from about two dozen carpet sellers, we’d seen all we needed to see of the upper and lower towns, both equally forgettable. Like gluttons for punishment, we decided to take the LP guidebook authors advice on a lunch recommendation and sought out a place called Ta Skalomata, which they claimed had “home baked bread” and “great grills at reasonable prices.”

In six weeks of travel around the Greek Islands, I’ve had exactly one bad meal and this was it. We took the waiter up on his recommendation that we try their fresh grilled lamb, but it was pricey and was about 85 percent bone, cartilage and fat. Revolting.

The torturous two-hour ride back to our base was filled with recrimination, along with a tremendous amount of whining coming from the back seat, and I felt terrible for killing our day on such a boondoggle. If we had a month in Crete, it would have been a pity, but with just a week, it felt like a criminal waste of our time.

The information you find in guidebooks is often just one person’s opinion and it has to be taken with a huge grain of salt. Why had I led my family to a remote village in Crete, a place loaded with beautiful and interesting places to visit, solely based upon an enticing entry in Lonely Planet?

We’d already been burned by this book on more than one occasion. The authors told us about a “world class” Mexican restaurant in Naxos that was a joke. In Kos, we took a one-hour-and-20-minute ride on a public bus out to a town called Kefalos, based upon a description in the book, which claimed that it was a “traditional village” that was a good place for visitors looking for someplace “a little more authentic.”

When I read the words “traditional village” and “authentic” I conjure up images of a nice old town, with a square filled with cafes, pedestrian streets and old stone houses. Kefalos has none of those things. Like Anogia, it’s a very ordinary, modern town with little charm and nothing to see. Worst of all, we had no car and would have been stuck there for six hours, thanks to the limited bus schedule, if we hadn’t been given a ride by a very friendly pharmacist in the town.

There is no way to adequately cover all of the most interesting sites in all of the Greek Islands in one book. But what’s maddening about this one is that they devote tons of space to places that barely deserve to be in the book at all and gloss over or completely ignore other places that are really quite interesting.

For example, the book has a very slim chapter on Naxos, but inexplicably features a four e-page long description of a jewelry shop in Halki, another mountain village they over-hype as “one of the finest experiences” on Naxos, when in fact the place is eminently forgettable.

Likewise, there is no mention of San Michalis, an absolutely gorgeous place on Syros and the book gives short shrift to the beautiful western half of Samos and to some of that island’s amazing hikes to medieval churches and monasteries.

The problem with this and indeed many guidebooks is that the authors try to make nearly every place seem interesting and so travelers who don’t have time to see everything are left guessing which places they should visit and which they should skip. They delve into the town’s history, which is interesting, but what you really want to know is: what’s the place like and is it worth my time?

Guidebook authors are out in the towns they visit doing the research and meeting people who have a vested interest in attracting tourists to the place. It’s only human nature not to want to turn around and write that a place is an unremarkable hellhole after having made friends and contacts. But that’s a shame because travelers have limited time and need help prioritizing.

As for my disastrous outing in search of Cretan “authenticity,” I’m as much to blame as the author of that section of the guidebook, because I’ve been traveling and getting burned by guidebook advice for decades and I should have known better. The next time I read about a place that’s very “authentic,” I’ll be sure to give it a miss.

[Photo by Dave Seminara]

The Most Useful Useless Phrasebook Phrases

broken heartI’ve frequently touted Lonely Planet’s Phrasebooks on Gadling (about as often as I’ve truthfully stated that I receive no kickbacks from them). They’ve saved my butt countless times, helping me do everything from getting on the right train platform to finding out what obscure ingredient is in a dish.

There’s another reason I love these indispensible travel companions, however, and that’s for their entertainment value. Like all LP books, the personality and preferences (and sometimes the nationality) of the authors shine through, although the content is consistent. Whether Czech, Hmong, or Mexican Spanish, you’ll find the layout and categories the same, barring cultural or geographical improbabilities: don’t expect to learn how to get your car tuned up in a Karen hill tribe dialect, for example.

I confess I’ve used my phrasebooks as icebreakers on more than one occasion because they make the ideal bar prop or conversation starter. Whip one out of your daypack, and I guarantee within minutes you’ll have attracted the attention of someone…so wield and use their power carefully.

The following are some of my favorite useful useless phrases culled from my collection. Disclaimer alert: May be offensive (or just plain stupid) to some readers. Also note that phrasebooks, unless written by native-speakers, will always have some errors or inconsistencies in grammar or dialect, especially when transliterated, so I won’t vouch for the complete accuracy of the following:

French
“No, it isn’t the alcohol talking.” Non, c’est moi qui dis ça, ce n’est pas l’alcool qui parle.

“Maybe a Bloody Mary will make me feel better.” Peut-être qu’un Bloody Mary me fera du bien. Unsurprisingly, many LP phrasebooks are written by Australians.

Spanish (Spain/Basque version)
“I’m sorry, I’ve got better things to do.” Lo siento, pero tengo otras cosa más importantes que hacer. Trust me, this comes in very handy if you’re a female traveling in Latin America.

“Do you have a methadone program in this country?” ¿Hay algún programa de metadona en este pais? Because savvy travelers are always prepared for the unexpected.

womanItalian
Under a heading called “Street Life” comes this handy phrase: “What do you charge? Quanto fa pagare?

And because Italians are romantics at heart, you’ll do well to learn the following exchange:
“Would you like to come inside for a while?” Vuoi entrare per un po?
“Let’s go to bed/the bathroom.” Andiamo a letto/in bagno.
“I’d like you to use a condom.” Voglio che ti metta il preservativo.
“Would you like a cigarette?” Prendi una sigaretta?
“You can’t stay here tonight.” Non puoi restare qui stanotte.

German
“I have my own syringe.” Ich habe meine eigene Spritze. This is actually useful, but not so much in German. If you’re traveling to developing nations and have a condition such as diabetes, definitely take the time to learn this. As for carrying syringes and hypodermics in developing nations if you don’t have a pre-existing medical condition, do so at your own risk. I’ve debated it and to me, I’d rather not be caught with “drug paraphernalia” on my person.

Portuguese
“I may be in a wheelchair but I’m able to live independently!” Posso andar de cadeira de rodas mas consigo ter uma vida independente! This isn’t so much funny as it is totally random. And I like the exclamation point.

“Oh baby, don’t stop.” Nao pares, amor! Better have this memorized or you’ll defeat the purpose of looking it up when needed.

Japanese
“Sorry, I can’t sing.” Go men na sai, u tai nam des [phonetic]. Very “Lost in Translation.”
tasmania map
Australian
“I’m feeling lonely/depressed.” “Miserable as a shag on a rock.”
My favorite ‘Strine phrases – not found in the LP book; I just know a lot of Aussies – include “leg opener” (a bottle of cheap wine) and “mappa Tassie” (map of Tasmania, referring to a woman’s pubic region, although I suppose this made more sense before Brazilians became the norm).

Vietnamese
“Do you want a massage? mát-xa không? Not a cliché at all.

“You’re just using me for sex (male speaker).” Am jeé moo úhn laám ding ver eé aang toy [phonetic]. Talk about progress.

Thai: “Where can I buy some gay/lesbian magazines?” mii nang seu keh/khaai thîi nai? Emergency!

[Photo credits: heart, Flickr user Toronja Azul; woman, Flickr user http://heatherbuckley.co.uk;Tasmania, Flickr user NeilsPhotography]

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