Travel books as holiday gifts

Travel books as holiday gifts

Arnie Weissmann

Despite the wide range of travel-related content on the Web, the selection of physical books in travel-adjacent categories seems to have expanded, not contracted. Guidebooks, essays, oversize photography books, biographies and autobiographies, even fiction that relies on “a sense of place” can apparently still stimulate the appetite to explore.

I’ve come across several books published in the past few years that would be welcomed by the travelers, armchair travelers, clients, friends and relatives on your holiday gift lists. These, in particular, made an impression:

• For those whose curiosity extends below the surface of a destination, I’ve found nothing compares to Simon and Schuster’s “A Traveller’s History of …” series, with coverage from the Caribbean to China. Each is written by an authority on the history of the country or region in the title, and each adds immeasurably to the enjoyment of a destination.

• Mark Chesnut was born with a traveler’s eye, one that sees below the surface, and a writer’s voice, to share what he sees in ways that enlighten others. His name may sound familiar because he has written for Travel Weekly, TravelAge West and TravelPulse and last year penned “Prepare for Departure,” (Vine Leaves Press, 2022), an autobiography that examines both interior and external landscapes. He looks deeply into how circumstances, not least of all the presence of his mother, turned him into the traveler he is today.

• “Safar” (Hardie Grant, 2023) is an unusual collection of essays by Muslim women telling their “stories of travel and transformation” to journalist Sarah Malik. (“Safar” means “journey” in Arabic and Urdu.) There’s no shortage of books by Westerners, from Freya Stark to Michael Palin, who explored and wrote about their experiences in the Middle East and South Asia. But I hadn’t previously come across such a beautifully written collection of essays by women who live in the region. Illustrations by Amani Haydar complement the stories perfectly.

• “Remote Experiences” by David De Vleeschauwer, with text by Debbie Pappyn (Taschen, 2022), has striking imagery from far-off destinations that have attracted the photographer. Images of places where I’ve been, from North Korea to the North Pole, brought me back and took me deeper. And those places I haven’t (yet) been, from St. Helena to Papua New Guinea, increased my desire to go.

• Similarly, in his most recent self-published book, “The Skin of Rock: Galapagos” (2023), the Emmy-nominated photographer Enzo Barracco brings a fresh perspective to what may be one of the best-documented string of islands in the world. A former fashion photographer, Barracco has a way of making even the warted, lethargic marine iguana look glamorous. As he did with the Antarctic in his previous book, “The Noise of Ice” (Merrell, 2016), he takes a well-known place and discovers a way to look at it anew.

Mark Edward Harris, another Travel Weekly contributor, came out with a gorgeous book about the orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra. “The People of the Forest” (Shashin Press, 2021) is a beautiful and evocative photographic study of our fellow great apes. The intelligence and emotional sensitivity of the subjects comes through Harris’ lens in ways that are both distinctive and natural. It’s a bit of a departure from his usual destination focus, but it turns out he’s got an eye for wildlife portraiture, as well.

• Among my best-read columns in 2023 were two that inspired me to include related books on this list. 

Many of you were touched by my Sept. 11 column, “Future-proofing in Morocco,” which told the story of how a hotel in the Atlas Mountains facilitates high school educations for girls in rural Morocco. I ran into one of the owners of that property at World Travel Market earlier this month and was relieved to hear that all the girls survived the Atlas Mountains earthquake, although four of their dormitories have been condemned. The story of the hotel and its philanthropic work can be found in the book, “Reasonable Plans: The Story of the Kasbah du Toubkal,” by Derek Workman (revised 2014, Discover Ltd.).

• “The most unusual luxe hotel in the world,” a column I wrote in our Oct. 16 issue about Schloss Elmau in Bavaria, caught the attention of many readers. For those who want a deeper dive into this philosopher-run hotel, the proprietor, Dietmar Mueller-Elmau, has written “Schloss Elmau, A German History” (Kosel, 2015), which ties the property’s current programming to Germany’s past.

These two books can most readily be found on websites selling secondhand books.

• And finally, a work of fiction that provides a fantastical, yet relatable, portrait of an environment that’s a component of the majority of vacations: oceans. The narrator of “Underjungle,” by James Sturz (Unnamed Press, 2023), is a thoughtful, sensitive and observant fish. The mix of fantasy, science and emotion was my favorite novel of the year and certainly one of the most unusual books in 2023. 

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