Perceptive Travel Book Reviews March 2018
by William Caverlee

In this issue: Travels to untouched places, a how-to for solo travelers, and a story about journeying to a galaxy far beyond our front door.

Timeless Journeys: Travels to the World's Legendary Places
Published by National Geographic

At 320 pages, the coffee-table book, Timeless Journeys, is a photo-filled, heavyweight entry into the world-travel guidebook sweepstakes. Its sixty-four chapters range the globe from the Great Wall of China to the Great Barrier Reef to Stonehenge to Route 66. . .

As would be expected from National Geographic, the photos take center stage—they are in color, detailed, and gasp-inducing. Occasionally, they take up two pages; here and there, you lay the book open for a dazzling eighteen-inch by-twelve-inch image of a cheetah in the Serengeti or a green wall of trees in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. These super-sized images are interspersed among the book’s pages and include a brief report by the photographer about how the shot was taken—when and where and under what circumstances.

The text for each chapter is useful, coherent, and compact. I found myself picking up tidbits of interesting information. For example, contrary to popular opinion, the Great Wall of China “cannot be seen from space,” although the Great Barrier Reef can. I also learned (or maybe re-learned) that the Pyramids of Giza are the “lone survivor of the original Seven Wonders of the World.” Then there’s the Laetoli Footprint Trail in Tanzania. This is where, in 1978, a member of Mary Leakey’s group discovered tracks of humans from 3.6 million years ago.

Rains following a volcanic eruption created a thick, ashy paste those early humans walked over. Later, another eruption covered their prints with more sediment, preserving them for eons until erosion finally uncovered them.

Books like Timeless Journeys are catnip for bucket-list travelers and like-minded competitors. For the rest of us, the book makes an excellent armchair tour of the globe’s “Best Of” destinations: Angkor Wat, Athens, Easter Island, the Galápagos Islands, Machu Picchu, New York, Paris, Patagonia, Rome, Yellowstone, and so on.

Along with the usual suspects, the editors included a number of richly deserving destinations that might not be quite as well known (except, of course, to those who live there): Bay of Islands in New Zealand, Rice Terraces of the Cordilleras in the Philippines, Avebury in England, and Wat Phu in Laos.

Finally, each chapter has an adjoining sidebar called “Nat Geo Flashback.” From their archives, the editors have dug up a previous expedition to each destination. Perhaps from the 1920s, perhaps from the 1960s or 70s or 80s—these “flashbacks” remind us just how long National Geographic has been in the travel biz. Latecomers, take note.

Solo traveler gazing at a lake

The Solo Travel Handbook
Published by Lonely Planet

Certain would-be travelers reading Timeless Journeys might be inspired to dust off the old backpack, renew their passports, and make plans to visit the Galápagos . . . when they suddenly remember, “Oh yeah, I’m single. What am I to do?”

Lonely Planet has the answer in a tidy, easy-to-pack, paperback, The Solo Travel Handbook. Although the book is only a fraction of the size of Timeless Journeys, it is filled with handsome photos and graphics, describing distant places and attractions.

After an opening section, “Before You Go,” which, for me, had the tone of a pep talk, things got down to business with chapters devoted to the nuts and bolts of travel. Titles included “Accommodation,” “Eating and drinking,” “Meeting people,” “Managing your money,” and so on.

Here were dozens of lists and sidebars and jaunty page layouts. I found the book’s tone to be often aimed at youthful travelers, with plenty of directions to nightclubs, hostels, and beaches. A strong theme was travel safety, certainly a worthwhile consideration, but one which occasionally led to interesting mixed messages.

Rome is a safe city but petty theft can be a problem, and pickpockets are active in touristy areas and on crowded public transport.

Singapore may be one of the world’s cleanest countries, but dengue fever remains a risk (even in urban areas), so don’t forget to pack insect repellent.

And I wonder which Lonely Planet editor thought that the winking exclamation point at the end of this long sentence about the Caribbean island, Caye Caulker, would have us sprinting to water’s edge to take a carefree dip in the ocean:

It’s easy to lose days hanging out at The Split, the island’s main beach, but there are other activities on offer, from snorkeling and diving over Technicolored reefs, to kayaking around the lesser-visited parts of the island, keeping a beady eye out for crocs!

A chapter near the end was called “Resources.” Here were dozens of links (ninety-two, in all) to travel websites and apps. Topics included “Au Pair Jobs,” “Insurance,” “Medical Resources,” and similar how-to aids. I hope that nervous first-time travelers don’t click on all ninety-two of these sites. They might become so overwhelmed with information, warnings, and tips that they decide to junk the whole idea and repair to their sofas for a week of binge-watching Downton Abbey.

Still, taken one or two chapters at a time, The Solo Travel Handbook is a useful guide for anyone—alone or otherwise—who wants an overview of the state of travel in our present, ultra-digital, age.

By Scott Kelly with Margaret Lazarus Dean

This book about the International Space Station might not strike all readers as a “travel book,” but let me throw a certain date at you:

1903—The Wright brothers make their successful flight at Kitty Hawk.

In the big scheme of things, that event took place not too long ago—and not too many years afterwards, before you could say Pan Am, commercial airlines were offering regular international flights. And it wasn’t too awfully long after that, in the 1960s and 70s, that great throngs of college students were blithely jetting across the Atlantic for a summer of backpacking—with no more concern than if they were driving down to Fort Lauderdale for spring break.

My point being that, in a brief span of six or seven decades, humankind made the transformation from earthlings to jetsetters. And who’s to say, in a few more decades, that space travel won’t be as routine to our grandchildren as jet travel is to us?

Thus, Scott Kelly’s Endurance, the account of his year aboard the International Space Station has a prophetic air to it. Kelly is the American astronaut who spent a year on the ISS, circling the earth at 17,500 miles per hour, in a state of constant weightlessness, acting as crewman, commander, space walker, engineer, and human guinea pig.

In this fine introduction to the life of an astronaut, Kelly weaves his origin story as a boy growing up in New Jersey, who becomes a military pilot and a NASA astronaut, into the story of his year in space.

Throughout, we meet Kelly’s ISS crewmates, men and women from Russia, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. We learn to float along with Kelly as he navigates the interconnected labs and living quarters of the ISS—a daily life in which every second is lived on the brink of life and death, yet a life which includes e-mail, phone calls, mealtimes, and movies. One night the crew watched the space-disaster movie, Gravity! That’s astronautical aplomb for you. I can’t imagine doing so, like watching Snakes on a Plane as an in-flight movie. Or watching Titanic aboard the Queen Mary 2.

Kelly’s Endurance is a one-of-a-kind travelogue, which will be of keen interest to fans of space flight, but I suggest that it will also appeal to readers of exploration and discovery. And amid Kelly’s insider’s tour of the ISS and his personal story, an additional travel theme runs quietly in the background: Mars.

William Caverlee is a freelance writer who has been published in numerous magazines and literary journals, including The Oxford American, Cimarron Review, Flight Journal, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Cultural Vistas. His work appears in The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings, and he's the author of Amid the Swirling Ghosts and Other Essays.

See the last round of book reviews from William Caverlee

Also in this issue:

Timeless Journeys: Travels to the World's Legendary Places

Buy Timeless Journeys: Travels to the World's Legendary Places at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon

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The Solo Travel Handbook

Buy The Solo Travel Handbook at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon


Buy Endurance at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon