The 10 Best Travel Books Of The Last Two Decades

Monday, July 21, 2014

Best Travel Novels

The joy of curling up with a good travel book is damn hard to beat. Part fiction, part memoir, the best travel books tell weird and wonderful stories and describe the intricate things that make a journey, or place, memorable. The initial excitement of a vessel leaving port or the joy of waking up to a brand-new city, they celebrate the act of exploration itself: poking around, asking questions, getting lost and into scrapes, making all the mistakes of a newcomer.

The best travel books should ignite a travel spark to pack your suitcase and stumble forward into some world experiences of your own. 12 years ago I picked up copies of Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari and Alex Garland’s The Beach and have been a restless wanderer ever since.

During the periods of vexing inertia when I’m not traveling, one of my most treasured activities is reading a travel book and pretending I’m right there with the narrator. I’ll transform into their best mate on a round-the-world road trip, a stowaway on the Trans-Siberian railroad, a (not-so handy) handy-woman helping to restore a Tuscan Villa or a Monastery volunteer in Nepal.

Over the years, some of the best travel books published in the last decade — like the ones below — have inspired me to travel far and wide and have almost always left me with an insatiable starvation for new cultures and experiences.

Their innate ability to fill the gaps in my knowledge of places that aren’t exactly on most government’s “Safe List” — like the Congo or Afghanistan — is a curiosity quencher that I’m continuously thankful for.

Disclaimer: What follows is a very subjective list of 10 of the best travel books of the last 20 years (in no particular order). I’m sure I’m missing a few, but I could only choose 10 so feel free to fight me in the comments section. And no, Eat Pray Love is not on this list.

I Wouldn’t Start From Here: The 21st Century and Where It All Went Wrong – Andrew Mueller (2008)

I Wouldn’t Start From Here is a curious tale of one man’s attempt to comically demystify the horrors and cultural complexities that plague our young world. Recounting his many crazy and death-defying experiences as a freelance correspondent for The Guardian and The Independent, Andrew Mueller’s fearless circumnavigation of some of the world’s most violent and politically shady places including Kosovo, Palestine, Libya, Sarajevo, Afghanistan and Iraq — as he grapples with “possibly the most maddening mystery of our time” — could have easily become a non-PC, jaded, samey “trouble tourism” recount.

Thankfully, the book is much more than that. With his self-effacing, good-humored cynicism extending beyond the war zones, he is able to reach deep inside each area to the people locked inside them. He slips easily between meetings with Hezbollah in Beirut, a Loyalist hitman-turned-surrealist painter in Belfast and Al Gore in Edinburgh. He is shot at in Gaza. He is imprisoned in Cameroon and he worries about the discomfort of U.S. soldiers in Iraq who look “as perplexed as people who’d togged up for a fancy dress party and gone to the wrong address.”

Under the Tuscan Sun – Frances Mayes (1996)

The “I just moved to [insert new city here] and this is why it’s so good” genre is completely and utterly saturated — this I know. We roll our eyes at the “unique” anecdotes and earth-shattering realizations of these authors — that is if they even get published these days.

We are just no longer interested in this sort of thing. We couldn’t be more bored of this genre if we tried. But, for some reason, I will never lose my childish enthusiasm for Frances Mayes’s memoir of an almost dream-like Tuscany. It’s my “go-to” book for when I want to feel all sunshine, lollypops and . . . Italian rainbows, and the aforementioned “been-there, done-that” mentality just doesn’t apply for me here. I think it’s partly because of it’s shameless la dolce vita attitude, but also because of its intelligent, engaging and empowering feminist tale (without being too pretentious). And besides, who wouldn’t want to randomly purchase a villa in Tuscany?

Dark Star Safari – Paul Theroux  (2002)

Most 60-something travel writers are looking for gigs in Provence and Tuscany, but Theroux, the grandfather of travel writing, trekked overland from Cairo to Cape Town for this modern classic. Why? Because he’s awesome and he could. The wittily observant and endearingly irascible author takes readers the length of Africa by rattletrap bus, dugout canoe, cattle truck, armed convoy, ferry and train. In the course of his epic and enlightening journey, he endures danger, delay and dismaying circumstances. Gauging the state of affairs, he talks to Africans, aid workers, missionaries and tourists. What results is an insightful mediation on the history, politics and beauty of Africa and its people.

The Beach – Alex Garland (1996)

The Beach Alex Garland

If only gap years in Thailand were really like this one. Well, up until the point where food poisoning and deadly violence on an otherwise “utopic community” ensue. Alex Garland’s story of a young traveler who finds “the perfect beach” by going off the tourist trail is inspiring for any would-be modern explorer, even if things do take a sinister turn by the end.

Despite his distrust of the younger Goa and Phuket-set with their technology obsession and general detachment from society, few writers have Garland’s eloquence when it comes to describing the simplest and purest of worldly pleasures — the beauty of a Thai sunset, the serene turquoise water of an uninhabited island — it’s impossible to not to want to book a trip to paradise after reading this book.

In A Sunburned Country – Bill Bryson (2000)

This is 100% Australiana told from one of the most revered travel authors of our time. In A Sunburnt Country is set Down Under — a place that doubles as a continent with the friendliest inhabitants, the hottest, driest weather and the most peculiar and lethal wildlife to be found on the planet.

Bryson takes his readers on a rollicking fun ride far beyond the beaten tourist path. His deliciously funny, fact-filled and adventurous prose describing the clean, safe cities, cold beer and constant sunshine Down Under makes me proud to call Australia home. And let’s not forget, Bryson’s account of a uniquely sporting people (read: sports mad), who excel at games ranging from cricket to Australian Rules football: “It is a wonder in such a vigorous and active society that there is anyone left to form an audience.”

The Sex Lives of Cannibals – J. Maarten Troost (2004)

The Sex Lives of Cannibals J. Maarten Troost

Fed up with being a directionless procrastinator and perpetual degree-swindler, Troost decides to follow his girlfriend to the vastly remote Island of Tarawa after she landed a job there. The Sex Lives of Cannibals tells the hilarious story of what happens when Troost discovers that Tarawa is not the island paradise he dreamed of.

Falling into one amusing misadventure after another, Troost struggles through relentless, stifling heat, a variety of deadly bacteria, polluted seas and toxic fish — all in a country where the only music to be heard for miles around is “La Macarena.” He and his stalwart girlfriend spend the next two years battling incompetent government officials, alarmingly large critters, erratic electricity and a paucity of food options (including the Great Beer Crisis). 
Troost’s hilarious travelogue will leave you thankful for the staples of Western civilization such as coffee, regular showers and tabloid news.

Into the Wild – John Krakauer (1996)

In April, 1992, a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself.

Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a moose hunter. How McCandless came to die is the unforgettable story of Into the Wild. Krakauer is sympathetic to the spirit that led McCandless to set out for life off the grid.
Much like Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, this is a story that draws sharp lines between adventure and madness, shedding light on McCandless unflinching romanticism for being free to wallow in the raw, unfiltered experience of nature, which ironically cost him his life. It is for this reason that I enjoyed this story as much as it frustrated me. A great read.

Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge – John Gimlette (2011)

Between the Orinoco and the Amazon lies a fabulous forested land, barely explored. Much of Guiana seldom sees sunlight, and new species are often tumbling out of the dark. Shunned by the conquistadors, it was left to others to carve into colonies. Guyana, Suriname and Guyane Française are what remain of their contest, and the 400 years of struggle that followed.

The 2012 Dolman Award-winning book by John Gimlette sets off along the coast, gathering up its astonishing story. His journey takes him deep into the jungle, from the hideouts of runaway slaves to penal colonies, outlandish forts, remote Amerindian villages, a “Little Paris” and a space port. He meets rebels, outlaws and sorcerers; follows the trail of a vicious Georgian revolt; and ponders a love affair that changed the face of slavery. Here too is Jonestown where, in 1978, over 900 Americans committed suicide. The last traces are almost gone now as the forest closes in. Beautiful, bizarre and occasionally brutal, this is one of the great forgotten corners of the earth: the Wild Coast.

Wrong About Japan – Peter Carey (2005)

The novelist Carey and his 12-year-old son travel to Japan in search of manga and anime culture, which the son adores and the father can’t quite understand. What follows is a nuanced and enchanting tour of Japanese culture (not dissimilar to Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation), as entered through its garish, brightly lit back door.

Guided, and at times judged, by an ineffably strange boy named Takashi, the Careys meet manga artists and anime directors, the meticulous impersonators called “visualists” and solitary, nerdish otaku. Throughout, the Booker Prize-winning novelist makes observations that are intriguing even when — as his hosts keep politely reminding him — they turn out to be wrong.

The trip doesn’t bring Carey (or indeed the reader) much enlightenment about the country (in fact, the book only serves as a reminder of the generational gaps and East/West divide), but that’s most of the fun, for even in a global age, it shows we can still find meaning in impenetrable and bewildering things when they are presented to us in an engaging way.

Headhunters on My Doorstep – J. Maarten Troost (2013)

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a bit of a J. Maarten Troost groupie. He is the David Sedaris of travel writing and I want to have his babies. So you can imagine my delight when he came out with a new novel — a memoir no less — last year. And it didn’t disappoint.

Part recount of “the-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel” of his alcohol addiction and part adventure story, Troost, upon completing a stint in rehab, decides to retrace the beaten path traveled by the author of Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson) through the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, Tahiti, the Gilberts and Samoa. Bringing his signature wit and penchant for misadventure, Troost confronts his newfound sobriety in the only way he knows how: getting lost in the real world.

The Prince of Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards Of Iraq – Rory Stewart (2006)

In August 2003, at the age of 30, Rory Stewart took a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad. A Farsi-speaking British diplomat, he was soon appointed deputy governor of Amarah and then Nasiriyah provinces in the remote, impoverished marsh regions of southern Iraq. He spent the next 11 months negotiating hostage releases, holding elections and splicing together some semblance of an infrastructure for a population of millions teetering on the brink of civil war.

The Prince of the Marshes tells the story of Stewart’s year. As a participant, he takes us inside the occupation and beyond the Green Zone, introducing us to a colorful cast of Iraqis and revealing the complexity and fragility of a society we struggle to understand. Darting between funny and harrowing, moving and incisive, this book amounts to a unique portrait of heroism and the tragedy that intervention inevitably courts in the modern age.


[Hand Holding Book via via shutterstock]

By Stefanie Acworth / Stefanie Acworth Twitter Stefanie Acworth Google+

Stefanie Acworth Bio PictureCall her a nomad, but travel keeps Stefanie Acworth sane. After living and working in London and New York (and everywhere in between), she still calls Australia home (or so the QANTAS commercial says). When she’s not gallivanting around the globe and penning her adventures, you can find her making dreamcatchers in Byron Bay, copywriting for some top Australian brands or hosting the next pub trivia night at her local. Follow her travels on her blog,

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