If you wanted to fill a shelf with the best books on any given subject, you'd do well to ask an expert for advice. Our guide to travel books, James T. Yenckel, wrote The Washington Post's Fearless Traveler column for 16 years. He now publishes a monthly newsletter about Mid-Atlantic getaways.
The books I offer here share two important characteristics: They illustrate the many different ways to travel, and they provide instructive insights in how to see and understand the destinations we visit. There is an art to rewarding traveling, and these books show the way. I have been fortunate to travel widely (about 90 countries, all 50 states), and each of these books has influenced me greatly. Because of them, my experiences, I think, have been more interesting -- and more fun. My choices are very personal, as any such list must be.
THE YOSEMITE, by John Muir (1912)
Doubleday paperback, 1962
A Scottish-born naturalist, Muir first hiked into California's Yosemite Valley in 1868 and was promptly captivated by its beauty, which he details in this book. The valley's famous granite cliffs soar "in stern, immovable majesty," he writes. His eloquent words and effective lobbying efforts ultimately led to the creation of Yosemite National Park. For many years, I've hiked Yosemite in Muir's footsteps, my eyes opened wide to its natural wonders -- and to natural wonders worldwide -- by Muir's keen descriptions. Perhaps this is why Yosemite to me is the most beautiful place I've ever visited.
ITALIAN JOURNEY, by J.W. Goethe (1816)
Penguin paperback, 1970
Spurred by an interest in the classical world, Goethe departed his home in Germany in 1786 to travel in Italy, and this is his delightful, very human account of the joys and hassles of the trip. In 1972, I made my own extended journey through Italy, reading Goethe along the way, and I was amazed at the similarity of our experiences despite the difference of nearly 200 years. Goethe's acute commentary is a practical guide to appreciating a country's people, art and landscape. And I have taken to heart his savvy tip: "One has only to walk the streets and keep one's eyes open to see the most inimitable pictures." It is the best travel advice I have ever read.
UNDAUNTED COURAGE: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West
By Stephen E. Ambrose (1996)
Touchstone paperback, 1997
Only weeks after I read Ambrose's magnificent account of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804 and 1805, I convinced my editors at The Post to dispatch me on a two-week, 3,500-mile drive tracing Lewis and Clark's path from St. Louis to the Oregon Coast. That's how powerfully the book influenced me. The expedition ranks as one of the world's most important explorations, and Ambrose re-creates it as the daring and dangerous adventure that it was. I suspect he is sending many Americans on their own journeys into the nation's past.
THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR: By Train Through Asia
By Paul Theroux (1975)
Penguin paperback, 1995
Theroux is frequently a peevish traveler, and he has days in which you would hate to be his companion on a long train journey. But his otherwise fascinating report of his overland travels from London to Tokyo and back reminded Americans, who have only limited access to trains in this country, that you don't always have to fly to see the world. I read it soon after my own overland journey around the world. Check the book for exotic train rides you would like to take, and keep your eyes open to the passing scene the way he does. But unlike him, don't misplace your sense of humor. Today's travel book shelves are filled with volumes about modern adventures abroad. Theroux's, one of the earliest of the genre, remains the best -- and his trip is one of the easiest for the ordinary traveler to duplicate.
EUROPE FROM $50 A DAY, edited by Ron Boucheau
Frommer paperback, 1998
In 1956, Arthur Frommer produced Europe on $5 a Day, and ordinary, middle-class Americans swarmed to Europe with his thick guide in hand in search of budget-priced lodgings and meals. No longer was the Continent a destination solely for the wealthy. Europe was the first practical travel guide of the post-World War II era, and though the latest edition ($50 a Day) faces stiff competition, I still find the information in it helpful. Frommer has gone on to editing a new budget travel magazine and no longer writes the guide, but he remains involved as a consultant. It is the only true guidebook on this list, a position it has earned because of its historic and continuing role in the evolution of these publications.
By Willa Cather (1913)
Bantam paperback, 1989
I'm a Nebraskan by birth, and as much as anyone Cather showed me the quiet beauty of the prairie. So many people tell me they have found the long drive across my home state dull. "Ah, but you haven't read Willa Cather," I reply. O Pioneers!, the first of her evocative novels I read, gave me pride in Nebraska. But it also taught me that no place is really dull if you observe it as carefully as she did.
HAWAII, by James A. Michener (1959)
Fawcett paperback, 1994
A vacation in Hawaii is the dream of nearly everyone. But Hawaii really is more than its beaches and golf courses. If you read Michener's hefty historical tale before you go, you're apt occasionally to skip the surf, sand and oceanside greens to explore the islands' intriguing past. Polynesian rituals, Kamehameha's kingdom, Capt. James Cook's explorations, the arrival of American missionaries and the sugar barons -- it's all here. Let Michener be your guide. I can think of no other novel that serves this role so well.
CAPTAIN SIR RICHARD FRANCIS BURTON: The Secret Agent Who Made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Discovered the Kama Sutra, and Brought the Arabian Nights to the West, by Edward Rice
Scribners, 1990; out of print
A flawed but brilliant man, Burton was one of the 19th century's greatest explorers, daring all of those exploits listed in this biography's subtitle. And Rice tells the story completely and well. This is a humbling book, one reason I included it. When next you begin to complain about a delayed flight, think of Burton and his nearly constant hardships. I use his example as a prod, getting me to dare my own small adventures.
THE INNOCENTS ABROAD, by Mark Twain (1869)
Signet paperback, 1966
Is Twain's account of his trip to Europe and the Holy Land in 1867 a satire, or does he share the outrageous provincialism of his fellow American tour members? Something of both, the critics seem to say. Time and again, the splendors of Europe fail to match the wonders of home. How "dull" are the waters of Italy's Lake Como, he writes, "compared with the wonderful transparence" of California's Lake Tahoe. I've met too many travelers like this. Look on this irreverent, hilarious journal as a primer on how not to see the world.
TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY: In Search of America
By John Steinbeck (1962). Penguin paperback, 1986
At age 58, novelist Steinbeck concluded he had lost touch with the real America. To renew his acquaintance, he embarked on a 10,000-mile, 34-state journey in a camper truck named Rocinante. His only companion for the three months was his French poodle, Charley. Many of us dream of a vagabond life such as this -- if only for a brief period. Steinbeck made it all seem possible. And so I soon embarked on my own tour of America propelled by a $99 Greyhound Bus ticket good for travel anywhere for 99 days. It brought me to Washington.
THE KILLER ANGELS, by Michael Shaara (1974)
Ballantine paperback, 1996
For four years, the Civil War raged on the very outskirts of Washington, and today a visit to a nearby battlefield park is a popular weekend activity. For me, a major impetus to touring these sites was Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, as told from the view points of the generals and privates who fought there. Valor and tragedy: Shaara puts a human face on the war. Read his book as a guide to seeing the battlefields as the combatants once did.
THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ
By L. Frank Baum (1900)
Tor paperback, 1993
This famous children's novel thrust itself onto my list almost immediately, though I thought surely I would eventually drop it. But, I found myself concluding, it deserves recognition as a very influential travel book. As a youngster, before the Judy Garland movie, I read The Wizard of Oz many times and most of the other Oz books, too. Dorothy traveled with spunk and intelligence, facing adversity and forging ahead to the most fantastical of places. What an example she sets. Someday, I told myself, I want to see for myself the sort of places where she ventured, and do so with her aplomb. I'm still working on it, as I suspect other "Oz" fans are, too.