Guidebooks have a bad reputation. The stereotype of the American tourist usually involves a bumpkin in Bermuda shorts with his nose stuck in a Fodor or Frommer: He'll only go where he's told to go, only see what's described for him. More than 50 years ago, Aldous Huxley summed up the complaint when he declared that the only useful guide would be one you wrote yourself.
Perhaps -- but guidebooks are nevertheless becoming more and more indispensable. The less time available for a trip, the more essential they are. If you have a month in Paris, you can rely on intuition, chance and the advice of strangers to lead you to an amiable bistro, a pleasing streetscape or a sympathetic cafe'. But if you're limited to three days, it's necessary to have a plan -- to know where you want to go and what you intend to do there.
This frequently means reservations, which calls for making decisions in advance -- one of the times a guide can be most helpful. With these types of handbooks, detail is all. Being informed of the wonderful 12-course meal at a special little restaurant in Kyoto is useless if you're not also told of the need to book a table six months in advance.
When evaluating an unfamiliar guidebook, it also helps to investigate the recommendations given to familiar places. If you loved a hotel and the guide slams it, this is probably not going to be a rewarding relationship. Similarly, it helps if the author tells you what he didn't like -- the meals he thought too expensive, the towns that were too touristy. If he's forthright about his unpleasant experiences, his raves will have some meaning.
Above all, never rely too slavishly on any guide. Watering down its suggestions by 50 percent will take into account any potential disappointment -- that the highly recommended places were "discovered," have suffered a change of ownership, or simply were never any good.
With that in mind, following is an appraisal of some recent guides and travel books. Unless otherwise noted, all are paperbacks.
"The Florida Keys: A History and Guide," by Joy Williams (Random House, $9.95). This is the latest in a series that has previously covered the Hudson Valley, Virginia, the Hamptons and Northern California. These are eclectic, uneven books -- if you know the areas they're examining, you'll be as surprised by what is listed as by what is not. They're also, apparently, not very successful, because this is the last title. If so, at least the series is going out with its best offering. Novelist and short-story writer Williams clearly loves the Keys, but she's also tough-minded. Of one bar in Key West, she writes that "it's a great old building with perhaps the worst food in town"; and she notes that the movie "Key Largo," wonderful as it may be, isn't very authentic. Williams knows the history of the islands -- how a local mayor once water-skied to Cuba; how a militant environmentalist shot a deer poacher off his roof; how long it took water in the old Navy pipeline to travel the 130 miles to Key West (a week). This is a book as funky as its subject matter, and as splendid. If you ever plan to go to the Keys, start looking for a copy now, because they may not be around much longer.
"Shopping in Exotic Places," by Ronald L. Krannich, Jo Reimer and Caryl Rae Krannich (Impact Publications, 10655 Big Oak Circle, Manassas, Va. 22111; $14.95). This is a comprehensive, fact-filled and very helpful guide to buying in Hong Kong, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore. Say you want to purchase an imitation name-brand watch on the Bangkok black market. "Exotic Places" explains how much they should cost ($12 to $30), where to find the best deals (along the Silom Road and in Silom Village), potential problems (the watch may stop running after a day or two; U.S. Customs may consider them a trademark violation). Or perhaps you want to do some serious shopping in Hong Kong, but need some assistance. The authors tell you about the leading professional shopping services. Have a problem with a merchant in Seoul? You're supplied with the number of the Tourist Complaint Center. There's also a good deal of general information on how to bargain, methods of shipping, and where to eat and stay.
"The Luxury Shopping Guide to London," by Nicholas Courtney (Vendome Press, hardcover, $17.95). For those who crave nothing but the best, Courtney supplies many ideas about where in London to find it. Dozens of stores are enthusiastically profiled, and the book succeeds in instilling a desire to, say, become registered at Charbonnel et Walker chocolatier. (This procedure, accomplished by buying 1 1/2 pounds of chocolate, will enable any of your buddies to know exactly what kind of chocolate sets your soul aflame.) On the other hand, if you want even an inkling of how much money you'll need to pay for the chocolates or anything else in this book, forget it. Courtney doesn't give any prices, explaining that they were deliberately omitted because inflation will render them out of date. That renders this guide a good deal less useful than it should have been. Maybe the lesson is, if you have to ask, you can't afford it.
"Travel for Two: The Art of Compromise," by Margot S. Biestman (Pe`rgot Press, 1001 J Bridgeway, Suite 227E, Sausalito, Calif. 94965; $10.95). Traveling with someone else makes a trip either better or worse than it would have been alone. With the perfect comrade, the pleasures of the voyage are greatly magnified; with an imperfect companion, you'll soon wish you were home. Biestman, a California teacher, does a fine job of discussing the art of compromise, choosing a travel partner, balancing likes and dislikes, dividing up costs, packing, and many other areas. The book is very readable, if longer than it needs to be. Still, a close reading could not help but make any joint trip smoother and more enjoyable.
"The Food Lover's Guide to France," by Patricia Wells (Workman, $14.95). The author's earlier book, "The Food Lover's Guide to Paris," was superb -- an invaluable resource for anyone going to Paris and paying serious attention to his stomach. The sequel, a 559-page opus that takes on the rest of the country, is a fitting companion volume. It's a personal guide, Wells makes clear; her decision for including an establishment was the question: "Would I want to go back there again?" It contains hundreds of recommended restaurants and food shops, plus photos, recipes, lists of markets, fairs and festivals, literary excerpts and a glossary.
"The Ackerman Guide to the Best Restaurants and Hotels in the British Isles," by Roy Ackerman (Penguin, $12.95). Ackerman notes in his introduction that "I have only included places that I feel I can talk positively about," and it generally seems to be the very expensive places that evoke his warmest feelings. Those who travel on a tight pocketbook needn't bother here. For those who like to splurge, Ackerman satisfactorily conveys his enthusiasm for his selections. What's missing, however, is a sense of surprise. The most highly recommended spots for London include the same ones on many other lists: La Tante Claire, Le Gavroche, Chez Nico, Langan's Brasserie. The title is also misleading: while Ackerman discusses the food in the best city hotels and includes some country hotels, this isn't a helpful guide in deciding where to stay.
"Tips for the Savvy Traveler," by Deborah Burns and Sarah May Clarkson (Storey Communications, Pownal, Vt. 05261; $4.95). First-time or nervous travelers will find some useful advice in this very basic guide. Some of the suggestions ("Kids and adults often have a prejudice against museums, but a good museum can be immensely exciting") are so simple as to be moronic, but there's also a number of tips that at least bear thinking about: wear a jogging suit on a long plane trip; add contrasting tape or a strap to the outside of your luggage to render it distinct; get up before dawn to experience an unfamiliar place as it is just waking up; take a hammock while traveling on a budget in South and Central America.
"Manston's Travel Key Europe," by Peter B. Manston (Travel Keys, distributed by St. Martin's Press; $9.95). There's an abundance of helpful information here. Most impressive is the nearly 70 pages on using phones in Europe, with a breakdown by each country and highly useful charts on what the different sounds you are hearing actually mean. There's equally fine material on public transit in key cities, how to find a restroom, clothes to take, shop hours, tax refunds on purchases, etc. A very handy book, even for the experienced.
"The Candy Apple: New York for Kids," by Bubbles Fisher (Frommer/Prentice Hall, $11.95). Can an author named Bubbles be trusted? While readers may wish for a less bubbly style, the answer is mostly "yes." The bulk of the information here can be used by anyone traveling with a child, but Fisher seems to feel her primary audience is grandparents -- perhaps because she first collected this information for use with her own grandchildren. The guide covers shopping, entertainment, eating, museums -- everything except, oddly, hotels.
"Great Vacations With Your Kids," by Dorothy Ann Jordon and Marjorie Adoff Cohen (Dutton, $9.95). A 300-page book with a title like this can only be suggestive, not comprehensive -- even if it also restricts itself to this country. In the city vacations section, for instance, only New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco are covered. There are listings of farms, dude ranches, resorts, adventure trips and ski centers. The general advice tends to be good -- such as visiting the museum gift shop first, so the children can pick out postcard reproductions and then look for the originals as they walk around.
"Water Escapes: Great Waterside Vacation Spots in the Northeast," by Betsy Wittemann and Nancy Webster (Wood Pond Press, 365 Ridgewood Rd., West Hartford, Conn. 06107; $12.95 plus $1 postage). This is a straightforward effort: The authors have selected 36 sites -- from St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore up to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia -- that are on rivers, lakes or the Atlantic. They list places to eat and stay and what to do, including waterside activities. The book is most useful if you already intend to go to one of their locations and want to scope the place out.
"The Best European Travel Tips," by John Whitman (Meadowbrook, distributed by Simon and Schuster; $6.95). This is another basic guide that will be of the most help to those who have never traveled to Europe before. Some of the advice here is nonsensical, as in the chart of "recommended stays": three days in Malta, three in Vienna, two in Crete and so on. But, as usual, even experienced travelers may learn something, such as this neat little trick with airplane seat assignments: if you're traveling with someone else, reserve the window and the aisle seat. The middle seat probably won't be booked unless the plane is full, so you'll have the best shot at more space.
Books that aim to describe a people, a country or a civilization won't tell you about the best restaurants, but they can be terrific for explaining the culture that produced the food. Sanche de Gramont's "The French" (published nearly 20 years ago and long out of print, but frequently available in secondhand bookshops) provides more illumination than a stack of Michelin guides. For every country, there are similar examples.
These days, travelers are demanding more than the basic facts, and publishers are trying to oblige. The boom in literary travel books showed no sign of slackening in 1987, as Penguin, Oxford and Routledge & Kegan Paul continued to add to their lines, and David & Charles, a publisher and distributor in North Pomfret, Vt., solidified its position as the most important reprint house.
David & Charles distributes Century Classics, a British series of 75 works that fall into the category of travel or memoir. These are extremely handsome paperbacks, if expensive -- usually around $14 a volume. The most recent selections range from Colin Thubron's "Jerusalem," a perceptive and entertaining 1969 report by an English novelist, to "Touring in 1600," E.S. Bates' highly amusing 1911 account of just how rough it was. "Of the ill-feeling that the tourists harboured against Spain," Bates writes, "the bitterest was on account of the inns; from the earliest, Andrew Boorde, who says 'hogs shall be under your feet at the table, and lice in your beds,' and another who relates how he preferred to hire three Moors to hold him in their arms while he slept."
Two other books in the Century series are of at least tangential interest. "Britain" and "The Pub and the People," both compiled by the sociological group Mass-Observation, are reports that were previously issued in 1939 and 1943 respectively. The first title is a general survey as to what the British were feeling at the moment when the Depression still held the country in an iron fist; the second and livelier book is an investigation of the all-important role of the pub in English life. As a description of working class life, it bears comparison with George Orwell's "Road to Wigan Pier."
The Ecco Press, a small literary publisher, has just begun a travel series. Its first two titles are Henry James' "Italian Hours" ($10.50) and Michel Vieuchange's "Smara: The Forbidden City" ($9.50). The first contains wonderful reflections on the author's visits to several northern Italian cities. He is especially good on Venice, a place he finds "always interesting and almost always sad; but she has a thousand occasional graces and is always liable to happy accidents." There is at least one other edition of "Italian Hours" in print, but it's always good to see it again.
"Smara" is a lesser-known effort, a young Frenchman's journal of his 1930 trip to "the lair of the Moors of the Atlantic Sahara, their center of brigandage and fanaticism." The ruined city of Smara had never before been visited by a European. Vieuchange, in fact, died on the return trip of dysentery. He was a man obsessed with danger, and the danger had the upper hand.
The Overlook Press has launched two long-term projects, both of which are aimed at putting back in print a number of works by two master travelers. So far, Overlook has issued three books by Dervla Murphy. Their titles alone give some sense of her enthusiasm and vigor: "Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle" ($17.95), "Eight Feet in the Andes" ($16.95) and "The Waiting Land: A Spell in Nepal" ($17.95). All three are attractive, sturdy hardcovers. The second of these, originally published in 1983, seems the best. The "eight feet" belonged to Murphy, her blase' 9-year-old daughter, and their mule. As is usual in travel narratives, the most memorable moments are the nasty ones: "Taken individually ants are not exactly scary, yet the pain of such an all-out attack can be almost unendurable. Luckily there were no passers-by to see me rolling naked in the irrigation chanel."
Only one book has been issued in the second Overlook series, which is devoted to Freya Stark. "A Winter in Arabia" ($18.95, hardcover), first issued in 1940, recounts the author's archeological expedition in what is now Yemen. "Winter" is not Stark's best book, but anyone who reads it will still be grateful that this enterprising publisher is planning to issue all 10 volumes of her autobiographical journeys, although at the painfully slow pace of one a year. Listen to a randomly chosen passage, about a boat journey to the city of Aden: "When the night has fallen and I can see only the coradage and sail against the stars, I listen to the steersman behind me singing softly over and over the ninety names of God to keep awake."