Quirky, classic, hilarious, controversial: the best travel books around

Travel inspiration

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We look at some classics, some newbies, and some of the more unusual travel books around

Travel is great, we all know that. But when the weather’s dreadful, money’s tight, or something like a global health crisis makes travel all that more difficult, you can always immerse yourself in reading about it. These selections might even inspire you to write your own book one day!

The travel novel classics

Aerial view of Villasimius beach, Sardinia, ItalyIn Sea and Sardinia, DH Lawrence’s descriptions of sparkling waters, whitewashed villages gives you the vacation vibes you need — Shutterstock

Dissatisfied with life in the West, writer-explorer Wilfred Thesiger wrote Arabian Sands after spending five years traveling among the bedouin of the Arabian Peninsula, and this 1959 work looks at the huge changes that took place after the Second World War and the gradual wearing away of a way of life that had remained unchanged for thousands of years.

Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad follows the writer and a group of very insular American travelers on a five-month voyage by land and sea from the US to Europe and on to the Holy Land. Seeing the world through both his own eyes and the eyes of his companions, there is nothing — either tourist or local — that is unworthy of a humorous aside.

A far cry from his bleak depictions of the coalfields and industry of Nottinghamshire, DH Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia is a joyous paean to that island, on which Lawrence spent nine days in early 1921. Nine days might not seem much, but Lawrence’s awed descriptions of sparkling waters, whitewashed villages, humble people and a way of life that was so far removed from those characters he wrote about in his fiction are simply glorious.

Since the publication of The Lost Continent in 1989, Bill Bryson can claim to be one of the English language’s best-loved travel writers. It’s precisely because he’s not really a travel writer that makes his books so accessible: he simply turns up somewhere, walks about a bit, encounters some locals, and then writes about it in an utterly hilarious way. Notes from a Small Island and its follow-up The Road to Little Dribbling are travels around the UK, Neither Here Nor There crosses Europe, Down Under (or In a Sunburned Country to give it its US title)  tackles Australia, and A Walk in the Woods sees him attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail.

For a final dose of grit and realism, how about George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, in which the author struggles to survive in a Paris that’s a long way from the elegant, romantic city many novels paint it to be. Written for middle- and upper-class audiences, its shocking depictions of squalor and poverty might make you think twice the next time you’re sipping a coffee in some sun-dappled Parisian cafe.

The new releases

Alaska Glacier Bay landscape view from cruise ship holiday travel.In Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, Blair Braverman left her home in California to travel to Norway where she learned how to drive sled dogs. Later she became a tour guide on an Alaskan glacier — Shutterstock

In years to come, maybe this selection will be as well-regarded as the bonafide classics above. Let’s begin with the dramatically-titled Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, in which we’re introduced to Blair Braverman who, at the age of 18, left her home in California to travel to Norway where she learned how to drive sled dogs. Becoming a tour guide on an Alaskan glacier, her startling life makes you ponder what you were doing at 18!

Another glimpse of some amazing lives comes in Annabel Abbs’ Windswept: Walking in the Footsteps of Remarkable Women. Abbs walks trails once trekked by the likes of Georgia O’Keefe and Simone de Beauvoir, looking at how what was seen as a purely male pastime gave rise to creativity and liberation for women around the world.

For the peckish among you, how about Tiny Moons by Nina Mingya Powles, a collection of essays concerning food: part travel diary, part kitchen companion, and part meditation on the role food play in our lives as the author travels between Wellington, Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia, and Shanghai. It’s not a long book (just under 100 pages), but you’ll probably find yourself coming back to it over and over.

Monisha Rajesh has collected 50 of the greatest train journeys in the world into the simply-titled Epic Train Journeys, a coffee-table book with amazing photos and practical tips for anyone wanting to experience these journeys for themselves. From two-hour jaunts to cross-continental trips lasting days, there’s something for everyone and every budget.

Finally, for this section, Dan Kois’ How to be a Family is the story of how Kois and his wife uprooted their family from a typical life in Washington DC for a year of traveling to and living in places as diverse as New Zealand, Costa Rica, the Netherlands, and small-town Middle America. It’s a heartwarming memoir about the importance of finding happiness wherever you can.

The unusual reading options

Young backpacker girl standing on the Cliffs of Moher in yellow jacket with backpackIn Round Ireland with a Fridge, English comedian Tony Hawk discovers that the Irish are extremely welcoming and tolerant, and that the coast of Ireland is incredibly beautiful — Shutterstock

Not every travel book is a stone-cold classic, a source of inspiration and beauty; some are just, well… a bit odd.

Let’s start with Round Ireland with a Fridge by English comedian Tony Hawk. After making a bet with a friend that he could do exactly that — hitchhike around the perimeter of Ireland with a fridge — Hawk discovers that the people are extremely welcoming and tolerant of his absurd challenge and that the coast of Ireland is incredibly beautiful.

Tim Moore’s The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold is the adventures of the author trying to cycle the 9,000km Iron Curtain Trail, from the very north of Finland to the Black Sea in Bulgaria. To do this, he chooses a bike that he feels will suit the history of the Iron Curtain: a foldable, two-gear East German shopping bicycle. During his three-month trip, Moore reflects on the failure of the Communist dream, while being fuelled by a combination of energy drink and dumplings.

For the next selection, I feel I may have to apologize in advance to… well, everyone… as The Clumsiest People in Europe by Mrs. Favell Lee Mortimer is the reprinting of a Victorian travel book (for children, no less!) that shows the height of the British Empire at its most shockingly snobbish and superior. Todd Pruzan has assembled three of her travel guides into one volume and, for someone who basically never left her house, she has some frankly forthright views on pretty much every nation under the sun. It’s vicious, forthright, and no nation except Britain comes out of it well. You’ll feel guilty for laughing but the irony of someone so convinced of their own superiority being so very, very wrongheaded serves up some poetic justice.

Not a travel writer as such, but pop culture critic Chuck Klostermann served up Killing Yourself to Live back in 2005, setting off across the US to visit the sites where famed musicians died. Kurt Cobain, Buddy Holly, the swamp where Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crashed, and the famously debauched Chelsea Hotel, Klostermann’s road trip in search of music’s immortals is one of the oddest travelogues you’ll read.

Finally, can spending time stuck on a cruise ship give rise to a travel book? Well, David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is just that. A madly-detailed account of a trip aboard a luxury Caribbean liner, it looks into and exposes some bizarre elements of the cruise industry, all done with wit, flair, and a sense of disbelief.

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