So many new travel guidebook series have appeared in the last few years that it's hard to decide which is best for your trip. Each offers something a bit different.
Among the latest collections in the nation's bookstores are six offbeat series that originated outside the United States and now have become available here. They are quality alternatives to such longstanding travel standards as Fodor's, Fielding's, Frommer's, Birnbaum, Michelin and the Blue Guides.
The new series -- Insight, Dumont, Companion Guides, Travel Survival Kits, Gault/Millau and Knopf's art guides -- share a common characteristic: They are aimed at experienced travelers with a strong interest in learning about the place they are visiting.
Their strength (with the exception of the Gault/Millau restaurant series) is the in-depth detail they provide on history and culture. You don't buy one of these guides if all you are looking for is the most comfortable hotel or a good beach resort.
In most cases, the texts won't become outdated anytime soon, which makes the books good holiday gifts for travelers whose plans are still in the indefinite future. The "how-to" advice has been relegated, quite properly, to an appendix, since it is assumed many travelers already know "how."
Two of the series -- Insight and Travel Survival Kits -- feature less-visited Asian and African nations and keep the low-budget traveler very much in mind. Two others -- Dumont and Companion -- are longstanding historical and cultural series popular in their home countries. And the remaining two -- Gault/Millau and Knopf -- are specialty guides.
Each series (with one exception, noted below) has been attractively designed. The maps, generally, are excellent and the photographs appealing. These are books to read before you go and to carry along on the trip for handy reference.
* INSIGHT GUIDES: A sprightly series, the Insight guides highlight contemporary life in a number of Asian, Pacific and Western Hemisphere nations. One of this year's books, "Southern California," describes "The L.A. Sound," for example, and notes in a chapter on "The Sporting Lifestyle" that today's boy-girl opening line in the city is "So where do you work out?"
Originating in Singapore in 1970, the series was the idea of Hans Johannes Hoefer, a West German student of book production, who has given them a classy, well-packaged style: lots of good, clear maps and splashy color photos. The series has grown to more than 20 titles, which are released in the United States by Prentice-Hall, the New York publishing firm.
The books are put together by teams of writers, editors and photographers who are acquainted with each region. The staff numbered 30 for the Southern California book, and the list of authors reads like a Who's Who of L.A. free-lance writers. Each writes on a special aspect of the city -- its people, its moods, its temptations -- and they provide an unusual as well as an informed look at what makes Los Angeles tick.
An end-of-book "Guide in Brief" details accommodations, sightseeing and other helpful tourist information.
Among other destinations in the series: Bali, Burma, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Java, Korea, Malaysia, Nepal, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, the American Southwest, Florida, Northern California, New England and Mexico.
(Prentice-Hall, about $15 paper.)
* TRAVEL SURVIVAL KITS: This jaunty series is directed at individual travelers who shun escorted tours to explore the remote parts of the world on their own. As the name suggests, it presents the basic, practical information needed to get along in less-visited places.
The series got its start in 1974 when Tony and Maureen Wheeler, a British couple now living in Australia, toured Southeast Asia and produced what became a very popular guide for the world's vagabond youth, "South-East Asia on a Shoestring," now in its fourth edition.
Their firm, Lonely Planet, now has published more than 30 titles by a variety of authors and is one of Australia's largest independent publishers. Their latest book, all 820 pages of it, is about China. The series has been distributed in the United States for about six years.
The series editors have chosen destinations that, at least until recently, were skipped by many guidebook publishers because there was little profit in them: Burma, Kashmir, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and South America, among others.
The series is divided into two categories: "On a Shoestring," compact editions for the low-budget travel, and "Travel Survival Kits," appealing to a wider audience. The publishers have just added a series of compact phrasebooks, beginning with Nepal, Thailand and Indonesia.
The series authors tend to be young adventurers, and they bring a lively, upbeat tone to the texts. These are attractive books with good maps and color photography.
(Lonely Planet, from $7 to $15 paper for "Survival Kits" and $2.95 for phrasebooks.)
* DUMONT GUIDES: It's the past -- art, architecture and history -- that is the focus of this longtime German-language series, which is just now being updated and translated for American readers. About 80 titles have been published in German in the past 20 years. The first two available in English are "Paris and the Ile de France" and "Ireland."
Unlike the Insight series, these books are written not by a team but by individual authors. They are experts in their field, says the publisher, who can bring to them "sophisticated knowledge of art and history." For example, Klaus Bussman, the author of the Paris book, is professor of art history at the Professional College in Mu nster.
As an example of the historical detail included, the book devotes the first 100 of its 519 pages to the rise of Paris from its ancient beginnings to the "Transformation of the City Since de Gaulle." The bulk of the book details the history and cultural significance of churches, monasteries, palaces and squares. The final 70 pages offer practical tips on seeing and enjoying the city.
The guides (to countries, regions and cities) have been "extremely successful" in Germany, says the publisher, and are also being translated into Dutch. The American editions were redesigned and include many excellent color photographs.
The firm plans to publish about six titles a year. Upcoming early next year are guides to the Greek Islands, the French Riviera and the Loire Valley. A Tuscany guide is due in the fall. To follow are Egypt, Scandinavia, Mexico, Japan, India, London, Israel and South America.
(Stewart, Tabori & Chang, about $13 to $15 paper.)
* COMPANION GUIDES: There's a certain similarity between the Dumont guides and this series. Like Dumont, the books have been published abroad for a number of years -- beginning in the 1960s in Great Britain -- and only in the past two years have been made readily available here by a U.S. publisher. More than 15 titles have been released, with others in preparation.
Their aim, too, is to provide an expert's guidance to understanding a country's historical and cultural heritage. As an introductory note to the "Companion Guide to Jugoslavia sic " explains, the books offer "a Companion, in the person of the author, who knows intimately the places and people of whom he writes, and is able to communicate this knowledge and affection to his readers."
The differences between the two series are in appearance and content. The Dumont guides have a sleek, modern look to them with an easy-to-read page layout. The color photos are excellent. The look of the Companion guides, on the other hand, borders on the old-fashioned; they have fewer pictures, and these are black-and-white.
But the Companion guides take a much broader look at a country, including extensive observations on the people and their customs. The Dumont series puts its emphasis on full descriptions of art and architectural treasures.
Sometimes a bit scholarly in tone, the Companions are often quite evocative of a place, and the decidedly subjective observations of the authors make pleasurable reading.
Among other destinations in the Companion series: Florence, Venice, the Greek Islands, Mainland Greece, the Loire, London, Normandy, Rome, Shakespeare Country, the South of France, the West Highlands of Scotland and Turkey.
(Prentice-Hall, about $13 paper.)
* GAULT/MILLAU GUIDES: The authors, Henri Gault and Christian Millau, are a pair of witty, controversial French critics of fine dining who are credited with coining the term nouvelle cuisine. They rate restaurants and lodgings in a (so-far) short "Best of the World" series (France, Italy, London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles).
Restaurants are scored on a scale of 0 to 20, and exceptionally good places are awarded from one to four chef's hats based only on cooking and not on decor or atmosphere. A top rating is hard to achieve. Only in France does any restaurant get a 19. In "The Best of Italy," a nation of excellent cuisine, only six restaurants rate an 18, and none gets higher. In "The Best of New York," revised this year to include more hotels, shops and nightspots, Lute ce is ranked at the top of the city's restaurants, also with an 18.
But the real heart of the guides is in their lively capsule descriptions of each establishment, both fun to read and containing all the information you need to know to make a dining decision. When the authors like a place, it's usually pretty good.
(Crown Publishers, about $13 paper.)
* THE KNOPF TRAVELER'S GUIDES TO ART: These are excellent guides for independent travelers in Europe. They are designed as reference books so readers can quickly find the most important art treasures in or near the cities and towns they visit.
To date, there are three books in the series: France, Italy and, most recently, Great Britain and Ireland. Whether any more follow, says the U.S. publisher, depends on how well the initial ones sell. They were produced in Great Britain this year.
The first three are attractive, although a bit heavy in hardcover for easy carrying. They work best for nonstudents of art, who want to know something (but not everything) about the artworks they are seeing. Particularly helpful are the biographies of major artists and brief essays on art history and various regional schools of art. (Knopf, $14.95 hardcover)