The 25 Best Contemporary Travel Books

The only thing that can get me through periods of inertia when I can’t travel is a good book. Twenty years ago, I picked up a copy of Paul Theroux’s “The Great Railway Bazaar” and have been a restless wanderer ever since. Over the years, great books have inspired me to travel but have also filled in my gaps in knowledge about places I’m probably not brave enough to visit, like Congo or Afghanistan.

For $20 or less, I can sit back and enjoy reading about someone else’s discomfort, and hopefully learn a thing or two in the process. What follows is a highly subjective list of my 25 favorite contemporary travel narratives. Feel free to pick a fight with me in the comments section.Paul Theroux

The Great Railway Bazaar- This classic ’70s account of Theroux’s epic train journey across Europe and Asia was Theroux’s first travel narrative and it’s still one of his best works. But he paid a price: when he returned home from the trip, his wife had taken up with another man.

The Old Patagonian Express– In this vividly reported, often humorous book, Theroux rides the rails from Boston to Patagonia, save for a flight across the Darien Gap. Last year, Rachel Pook, a Theroux fan, blogged about her in the journey retracing Theroux’s trip.

The Happy Isles of Oceania– In the wake of a divorce and a health scare, Theroux traveled via collapsible kayak to 51 islands in the South Pacific. As always, Theroux tells the story of his own voyage intermingled with tidbits on the local culture and vignettes about notable South Pacific expats, like Paul Gauguin.

Dark Star Safari– Most 60-something travel writers are looking for gigs in Provence and Tuscany, but Theroux traveled overland from Cairo to Cape Town for this modern classic.

Jeffrey Tayler

Siberian Dawn– This is a beautifully written, addictive adventure story about a daring road trip across Siberia.

Facing the Congo– What sane person takes a wooden pirogue and a series of barges up the Congo River? Tayler does and lives to tell about it. To his credit, Tayler took this trip and the Siberian Dawn adventure out of desperation, with no book deal in hand.

Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire Between Moscow and Beijing– In this perceptive, funny book, Tayler travels through obscure corners of Russia and China, shedding light on places few Western writers bother to visit.

Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat, and Camel- Tayler’s adventures in the Sahel provide insights into an overlooked but fascinating part of the world.


Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, Round Ireland with a Fridge, and One Hit Wonderland– Tony Hawks- All three of these books describe journeys taken to fulfill gimmicky bets: could Hawks track down and beat all the Moldovan national soccer players at tennis, could he hitchhike around Ireland with a small fridge, and could he write a song that charts somewhere in the world. They’re all completely contrived, but great fun nonetheless.

Lost Continent– Bill Bryson- Bill Bryson’s search for the perfect small American town. His first travel book is still probably his best and certainly his funniest.

Four Corners- Kira Salak- A page-turner about a bold trip in the footsteps of British explorer Ivan Champion through Papau New Guinea. An impressive journey for anyone to undertake, but particularly gutsy for a single female traveler.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals– J. Maarten Troost- Troost tags along with his wife who got a job on a remote Pacific atoll and the result is perhaps the funniest travel book ever written.

A Way to See the WorldTom Swick– A terrific collection of travel stories from Tom Swick, a great writer who can capture the essence of a place in a few pages while making just about any place seem interesting.

The Village of Waiting– George Packer- If you want to get a feel for what it’s like to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in a remote African village, look no further than this great read.

River Town– Peter Hessler- Hessler’s outstanding, often hilarious account of life as a volunteer (Peace Corps) English teacher in a provincial Chinese city reveals a lot about China and Chinese culture.

Hokkaido Highway Blues– Will Ferguson- Ferguson has a great sense of humor and this account of his hitchhiking adventure across the length of Japan along the trail of the blooming Cherry Blossoms is one of my all-time favorite travel books.

Sean and David’s Long Drive– Sean Condon- A riotously funny account of a lad’s road trip across Australia.

Stealing from a Deep Place– Brian Hall- This 80’s classic recounts Hall’s bike trip across Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary in the waning days of the Soviet Empire.

The Places In Between– Rory Stewart- A superbly written account of a ballsy walk across Afghanistan written by an adventurer turned diplomat.

The Summer of My Greek Taverna– Tom Stone- Brilliant, funny tale about what happens when an American partners with a local taverna owner in Patmos.

Travels In SiberiaIan Frazier- You might not want to visit Siberia after reading this book, which is about a series of trips Frazier took spanning over a decade, but you won’t want this book to end.

Turn Right at Machu Picchu- Mark Adams– Adams shows us that there’s more to Machu Picchu than what one can find on the Inca Trail. A great read.

The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto– Pico Iyer- Iyer quit his job with Time magazine in New York and went to live in a monastery in Japan. He only lasted a week, but his observations about Kyoto and Japanese culture are fascinating.

Blood River- Tim Butcher- I read this book and still have no idea how Daily Telegraph reporter Tim Butcher made it out of the Congo alive. This is a must read.

National Geographic iPad app offers 50 Places of a Lifetime

There is no doubt about it, the iPad has changed the way we consume media and altered how we define what a magazine is. Those of us who use Apple’s insanely popular gadget have gotten use to the idea that our “magazine’s” now include audio, video, and interactive elements that just aren’t possible in the print versions. This is demonstrated perfectly in a new app from National Geographic, which highlights their list of the 50 Places of a Lifetime compiled by Nat Geo Traveler.

As the name implies, this new app spotlights some of the greatest destinations on the planet, which are broken down into five categories. Those categories include “Urban Spaces”, “Wild Places”, “Paradise Found”, “Country Unbound”, and “World Wonders”. Selecting any one of those items will present you with a list of 10 places, which stylishly appear on the screen complete with animation and music. From there, you simply navigate through the individual destinations by swiping left and right. Scrolling up and down presents the full article on the location, offering insights to that place, and why it deserves a spot on the list. It is all very intuitive, and easy to use, with gestures that are second nature to any iPad owner.

The individual articles that accompany the various locations are typical Nat Geo fare. That is to say, they are well written, insightful, and will likely inspire you to want to visit the places being described. The stories are penned by the likes of Bill Bryson, Jean-Michel Cousteau, and George Plimpton, amongst others, who share their personal thoughts on what makes these places so magical. Places like the Serengeti, the Seychelles, and Venice, Italy.
The trademark National Geographic photography makes an appearance as well, of course. Stunning images accompany the travel essays, bringing each destination to life and offering tantalizing glimpses of what travelers can expect at these places of a lifetime. As you would expect, the photos are one of the highlights of this app, and many of them will have you drooling all over your screen.

Other features of the app include videos, interactive “fast facts,” expanded photo galleries, and the always popular Nat Geo maps. I was particularly fond of the 360-degree panoramic images which take full advantage of the iPad touch screen, and built-in checklists that allow you to highlight the destinations that you’ve already visited, while adding others to your own personal bucket list.

The app weighs in at a whopping 464 MB in size, which means it takes awhile to download. If you intend to read it while on your next vacation, be sure to download it well ahead of time. Once installed, everything is self contained however, which means you won’t need an Internet connection to take advantage of everything it has to offer.

The best part of this great app? It costs just $1.99! Where else can you get this kind of interactive content for so little money? Even a print magazine cost more than that! You can find it on iTunes by clicking here.

[Image courtesy of Victor R. Boswell, National Geographic]

Six great beach reads for travelers

There’s a special joy that comes with losing yourself in a good book while relaxing on a beach. The warm sun on your skin, the sand between your toes, and the sound of waves gently breaking on the shore create the perfect environment for shrugging off your cares and transporting yourself to a new world. Here are a few of my favorite travel books – perfect picks for an easy summer read no matter what your style.

If you’re looking for a trashy novel. . .
Summer beach reading should be light, fun, and maybe a little tawdry. Thomas Kohnstamm’s Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? fits the bill perfectly. The subtitle, A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics and Professional Hedonism, describes the plot quite well. The book tells the story of Kohnstamm’s first guidebook-writing assignment for Lonely Planet. He gives up his apartment, job, and girlfriend to travel to and write about northern Brazil and soon realizes he’s in far over his head. What follows is a hilarious and controversial account of his adventures, how he learns the ropes of guidebook writing, and just how guidebooks are created.

If you’re looking for a travel-writing how-to. . .
Rolf Potts’ Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Recollections from One Decade as a Post-Modern Travel Writer is perfect for the aspiring travel writer, or anyone interested in a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into a travel story. The book includes some of Potts’ published work (well-written, insightful, and entertaining stories on their own), followed by interesting end notes about how each story came about, from what really happened and what didn’t make it into the final copy to the long road from experience to published article.

If you’re looking for an inspiring story. . .
If you dream of one day taking charge of your life and pursuing your passions, Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story is for you. The story traces the creation of the Lonely Planet empire, from Tony and Maureen Wheeler’s decision to take an overland journey from Europe to Australia to the publishing of their first guidebook and the subsequent failures and triumphs of the company. Even if your goals don’t involve building one of the top travel book publishing companies in the world, the story of chasing your dreams and finding success will inspire you.

If you’re looking for a good laugh. . .
Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away is a quick beach read that will keep you laughing all afternoon. Based on the hilarious writer’s newspaper column, the short stories point out the idiosyncrasies and oddities of life in America. From dealing with the Post Office to the difficulties of preparing a tax return, the book perfectly captures small town life in America and pokes fun at some of the country’s stranger traditions. The chapters are all quite short, perfect if you’ve got kids to mind and can’t commit to lengthier reading periods.

If you’re looking for a collection of short stories. . .
The Best American Travel Writing series has been combining great travel stories and narratives from websites, magazines, and newspapers, and putting them in one place for nearly a decade. The 2008 edition was edited by Anthony Bourdain and covers everything from restaurants in Kabul to weddings in St. Petersburg. With a dozen or so unique tales from different voices in each book, the collection will satisfy your need for short story variety and entertain you with engrossing travel narratives.

If you’re looking for intellectual stimulation. . .
If you’re the type who loves reading about research and studies, Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World is right up your alley. Weiner set off to explore what makes us happy, and how economic conditions, culture, and traditions in various countries make people happy (or not). Along the way he visits countries like Iceland, India, Bhutan, Moldova and Thailand to see just how happy or unhappy the people are, and why. Along with being a fascinating and educational read, it also happens to be pretty darn funny too.

Classic Treks: The Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail has been mentioned in the news quite a bit in the past week or so, thanks to a certain governor who managed to hike it all the way to Argentina. While “Hiking the AT” may yet become a sexual euphemism due to this recent scandal, for years the trail has been one of the best long distance treks in North America, if not the entire world.

The Appalachian Trail was first conceived back in 1921, with construction being completed in 1937. In 1968 it was designated as the United States’ first national scenic trail, cementing its status as the top trail in the country. Stretching more than 2,175 miles in length, the trail crosses 14 states, running from Maine to Georgia, and while it does pass through six national parks, it doesn’t wander anywhere close to Argentina.

According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website, more than 10,000 people have taken the estimated 5 million footsteps it takes to hike the entire length of the trail. Many of them have done it over the course of a number of years, breaking it into sections, and tackling various lengths as their time allows. A few have thru-hiked the entire trail however, going non-stop across its vast length, stopping in towns along the way to resupply before heading out to the backcountry once again. Typically it takes about six months to finish the entire length of the AT, with some starting in the spring in Georgia and heading north, and others getting underway in the summer in Maine, and moving south.

The Appalchian Trail falls within a days ride of 2/3rds of the American population, and 4 million of us head out on the “foot path” every year. The AT offers everything from great day hikes to months long adventures, serving up spectacular views and stunning vistas across its length. Hikers will also encounter plenty of wildlife as well, with moose, dear, elk, and even black bear making regular appearances through out its length.

With its rich diversity, ease of access, and amazing length, the Appalachian Trail has something to offer just about everyone. Whether you are a bird watcher looking to kill a few hours in the woods or a hardcore backpacker with the desire to add your name to the list of those who have conqured all 2000+ miles, this classic trek has something for you. Even armchair adventurers can can get in on the fun by picking up Bill Bryson’s classic book A Walk in the Woods. America’s first scenic trail, remains its greatest, even if it has gained a bit of noteriety.

Bryson Interview on NPR

Sure, he’s hawking his newest book, a memoir about his childhood called The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, but it’s still an enjoyable experience to hear my favorite travel writer Bill Bryson interviewed. I actually have a copy of A Short History of Nearly Everything in audio book, which he reads himself, and I like his soft, avuncular Britishy twang (even though he was born in the US, Bryson lived long enough…like Paul Theroux…in Britain, that he has an accent). Anyway, in this interview on NPR Bryson reads a bit from the book and talks about growing up in Iowa where, one might guess, it helped to have a vivid imagination.