Perceptive Travel Book Reviews December 2017
by Susan Griffith

In this issue: A memoir about discovering hotels with character in Europe, a magazine editor's hikes on Britain's "small hills," and a trip around the world with an envelope of cash for giving.

Travelling Light: Journeys Among Special People and Places book review

Travelling Light: Journeys Among Special People and Places
By Alastair Sawday

Although the name of Sawday isn't as familiar as that of Fodor, most discerning travelers in the British Isles have consulted his accommodation guides at some point. Since publishing his first guide to French Bed & Breakfast nearly a quarter of a century ago, his publishing company has ever since championed characterful accommodation over bland, corporate style hotels in Britain, Europe, and beyond. This book is his memoir of travel publishing rather than a complete autobiography, and it makes for a very genial read.

It is difficult to disagree with his philosophy of travel, which is to seek out interesting places that "honour our humanity" run by individuals and families. What he hates most are those "grim fortresses of incivility" that are the cloned chain hotels like Novotel in Europe and Travelodge in the UK. Since 1993 (and still going strong), Sawday has published guides to out-of-the-ordinary places to stay, all visited and assessed by a team of trusted inspectors. Much of the book consists of pen portraits of the people who ran these guest houses—he refers to them as "our owners"—from the "peasant peer dressed in tweeds" who owned a crumbling French chateau to the chaotic owner of a house in the English Lake District. The latter was eventually dropped from the book after the publisher received reports of her dirty fingernails and demented husband making strange noises at the breakfast table.

Sawday was ahead of his time, setting and not just following travel trends. He advocated slow travel before that movement was named. He published a guide to Turkey when independent travelers were few (and just when a bomb went off in a Turkish resort, killing off sales almost dead). The emphasis on low-impact travel grew out of his early and continuing environmentalism. In his youth, he traveled extensively in France and lovingly describes the kind of places he stayed: tiny farmsteads with a range-warmed kitchen, home preserves lined up on shelves, with rooms "rustic, ill-fitting and indescribably atmospheric." This is tourism at its most sustainable, a million miles from the hotels featured in design magazines and those luxury international brands that offer pillow menus.

Now in his 70s, he sometimes indulges in nostalgia for a way of traveling that is no more. And there were a few questions he doesn't address such as whether any of the secret places he featured were ever spoiled by an increase in visitors. But on the whole, this is a charming account of a principled man's attempt to promote travel that brings people together.

The Yellow Envelope: One Gift, Three Rules, and a Life-Changing Journey Around the World
By Kim Dinan

This is also a book that focuses on travel that brings people together, but from a different starting point. The author is entrusted with a sum of money to give out to deserving people met on her travels in South America and Asia. It is an interesting premise for a world trip (and for a book), and sets it apart from all those blogs and books by other couples who have left behind unfulfilling jobs, sold up, and embarked on open-ended travels. At about age 30, Kim persuaded her reluctant husband Brian that they should leave Portland to see the world. Just before departing, their fairy godparents, friends Michele and Glenn, presented them with a yellow envelope of cash with instructions to give the money away to worthy recipients along the way, without overthinking it, and then to share the stories. It’s a very west coast version of creative philanthropy.

In some cases, giving the money away was straightforward, for example to a non-profit south of Quito where the couple volunteered for a time. At other times, our roving good Samaritans found it surprisingly difficult, especially when there is no shared language with which to explain. On a hike in Ecuador, they helped an elderly barefoot couple to track down their errant cow, and afterwards wanted to give them shoes. But without knowing their shoe size and worrying that they might cause offence, they let that opportunity pass. Later in India, they several times give "yellow envelope money" as a reward for assistance and personal acts of kindness, such as to the old man who turned in a dropped mobile phone and to a mechanic who tracked down a part for their broken down rickshaw; this seemed more like tipping than giving to people in need.

Because this is a contemporary travel book, there is no escaping the autobiographical angle. A great deal of soul-searching is recorded and analysis of the author's relationship with her husband that covers control freakery (hers), lack of initiative (his), guilt (hers), bewilderment (his) and their sex life. Her empty ring finger is mentioned in the Prologue so we have due warning of complications ahead. Relations are strained for the first months on the road, and come to near breaking point in India when they decide to spend time apart. This does the trick and by the time they are trekking in the Himalayas and cycling in Vietnam, harmony has been restored.

The trials and rewards of long-term travel are examined in careful detail. The author sometimes feels as though she has swapped bodies with a more exciting stranger. At other times she is assailed with homesickness and doubt, and feels worn out by her inability to understand the nuances of other cultures without speaking the language. The couple seem to follow the well-worn backpackers' path that takes in Buenos Aires, Goa, Annapurna and Bali, but Kim also embraces the scary adventure of the Rickshaw Run, driving 3000 miles from Jaisalmer to Kochi in an auto rickshaw with two women (met online).

Once into their second year of traveling she has learned to loathe the places where she feels she is seen as a dollar sign (Ubud in Bali) and to feel uncomfortable on a pampered bicycle ride in Vietnam with other Americans (a gift from the fairy godparents). Our protagonists have been changed by travel and by the focus on giving, not just money but kindness and care.

Britain's Best Small Hills
By Phoebe Smith

As an antidote to all those bucket lists that include the most famous hikes in the world (Inca Trail, Appalachian Trail, etc.) here is a book where small is beautiful. The author is a guru of wild camping and editor of Britain's premier travel magazine Wanderlust but here her focus is on hikes that are thoroughly accessible. She details 60 hill walks, evenly distributed among England, Scotland and Wales, that take between half an hour and half a day to complete. Among them is one of my own favorite "small hills" in the Lake District, Castle Crag. I already knew that it was where the (locally) famous Professor of Adventure made his cave home in the early decades of the 20th century, but I now learn that you can locate and even sleep overnight in his cave.

Each walk description covers about three pages, illustrated by enticing photos and a route map. Those who are looking for more than a short hike can consult the suggestions that accompany each walk under the headings "Added Adventure" and "Make it Bigger." Plus there’s advice on how to get to the starting point by public transport and tips on where to eat, camp, or find things to amuse children. I wasn't always enamored of the chatty tone ("At the top, grant yourself time to sit for a while to see whether inspiration or a thirst for exploration finds you, as it did Captain James Cook"). However this is an attractively produced book which will lead its readers on some cracking hikes.

Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World and Teaching English Abroad, she has also turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes hotel reviews to the Daily Telegraph, a British daily newspaper.

See the last round of book reviews from Susan Griffith

Also in this issue:

Travelling Light: Journeys Among Special People and Places

Buy Travelling Light: Journeys Among Special People and Places at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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The Yellow Envelope: One Gift, Three Rules, and A Life-Changing Journey Around the World

Buy The Yellow Envelope: One Gift, Three Rules, and A Life-Changing Journey Around the World at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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Britain's Best Small Hills

Buy Britain's Best Small Hills at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy on Amazon