Travel Essay Books

Colin Thubron

Ionia: a Quest, by Freya Stark
Travel books, like others, change perspective as we grow older, and I can see now that Freya Stark's Ionia: a Quest is an enchanting but disturbingly moralistic account of a journey that this remarkable woman took in the early 1950s along the west coast of Turkey. In those days these ancient Greek cities were virtually unvisited. In 55 sites Stark encountered only one other tourist. Relying largely on the witness of ancient writers, she mused among the ruins, deducing their cities' character from them as if the stones themselves might speak. It all sounds too dreadful. But such was the beauty of her writing, and the delicacy of her thought, that the result is captivating. It persuaded me, at the start of my career, how richly landscape and history may interfuse, and how deeply (and sometimes dangerously) a quiet attention can fire the imagination.
• Colin Thubron's latest book is To a Mountain in Tibet (Chatto, £16.99)

William Dalrymple

In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin
When Bruce Chatwin died in 1989, at 48, he had published just five books: a small yet dazzling output. His first, In Patagonia, is a metaphysical exploration of "the uttermost part of the earth". It is in the eyes of many his best, though it was not his most commercially successful (Songlines outsold it many times over). But it is probably the most influential travel book written since the war. Its opening page – telling of Bruce's childhood discovery of a piece of dinosaur skin in his grandmother's cupboard – is possibly the most imitated passage in modern travel literature.

Chatwin had three matchless gifts: he was a thinker of genuine originality; a reader of astonishing erudition; and a writer of breathtaking prose. All three talents shine brightly on almost every page of In Patagonia, but it is his bleak chiselled prose that remains his most dazzling: he had a quite remarkable ability to evoke place, to bring to life a whole world of strange sounds and smells in a single unexpected image, to pull a perfect sentence out the air with the ease of a child netting a butterfly.

The pendulum of fashion has swung against Chatwin, and it is now unhip to admire his work. Yet to his fans, Chatwin remains like a showy bird of paradise amid the sparrows of the present English literary scene, and it is impossible to reread In Patagonia without a deep stab of sadness that we have lost the brightest and most profound writer of his generation. He also knew and loved the Islamic world – and such writers are now badly in demand. God only knows what Chatwin might have produced had he still been writing, now when we need him most.
• William Dalrymple's latest book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India (Bloomsbury, £8.99), won the first Asia House Literature Award, in 2010

Sara Wheeler

A Winter in Arabia, by Freya Stark
A Winter in Arabia describes Freya Stark's 1937 journey through the Hadhramaut, a region in today's Yemen. A guest of the tribes, she conjures little girls in magenta silk trousers, their silver anklets frilled with bells; the drumbeats of the Sultan's procession; and veiled women bearing gifts of salted melon seeds. The book is a heady mix of hardship and luxury, scholarship and mischief, loneliness and intimacy, and the oppositions give the prose its strength.

Stark glittered in the drawing rooms of London and loved a party; having drunk her fill, she'd run off to peek out at the world from a solitary tent. Isn't that the best kind of life imaginable? She did not try to be an honorary man in a field still woefully dominated by that species. "There are few sorrows," she wrote, "through which a new dress or hat will not send a little gleam of pleasure, however furtive." Indeed.
• Sara Wheeler's latest book is Access all Areas (Jonathan Cape, £18.99)

Paul Theroux

The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
This was Cherry-Garrard's only book: it thrilled me when I first read it, and it still inspires me, for its quiet power to evoke a place and time, for its correction of history (the unsparing portrait of Captain Scott), most of all for its heroism. Cherry was only 23 when he joined the Scott Antarctic Expedition in 1912. Scott and four of his men (but not Cherry) died on the way back from the Pole. But in the Antarctic winter of 1911 Cherry trudged through the polar darkness and cold (-60C) to find an Emperor penguin rookery. This was "the worst journey". He wrote: "If you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing; if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad … And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your winter journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin's egg."
• Paul Theroux's latest book is The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99)

Kapka Kassabova

The Global Soul, by Pico Iyer
Pico Iyer was the writer who showed me how to take the Open Road (also the title of his sublime study of the Dalai Lama). Iyer's cultural and spiritual quest is driven by his own hybridity. Of all his books, it was The Global Soul that felt like the blow to the head I needed in 2001, when grappling with my own cultural and spiritual alienation. It's a book that launches the 21st century, and if this sounds grand, he is grand. In The Global Soul he goes to "in-between" places – airports, malls, the no-place of jet lag – and introduces the species of soul who has multiple passports, lives in several countries, and has nightmares not of the "Where am I?" variety, but of the more neurotically advanced "Who am I?" kind.
• Kapka Kassabova's latest book, Twelve Minutes of Love is out in November (Portobello Books, £18.99)

William Blacker

Works of Patrick Leigh Fermor
It was not just the books of Patrick Leigh Fermor – notably Between the Woods and the Water about Romania – that inspired me, but also the man. He was the quintessential free spirit. He didn't bother with university, but at the age of 18 set off, on foot, across Europe, hoping for the best. His journey lasted five years and led to extraordinary wartime adventures and a series of breathtaking books, which are among the masterpieces of 20th-century literature. The success he made of his brand of non-conformity should fill all would-be wanderers with hope. Read about his life, read his books, and if you are not similarly inspired and exhilarated then, as Kim said, "Run to your mothers' laps, and be safe."
• William Blacker's latest book is Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania (John Murray, £10.99)

Richard Grant

Great Plains, by Ian Frazier
Reading this book for the first time, in London in 1989, inspired me to spend a summer rambling around the American west. The second time I read it 12 years later, I was stuck trying to write my first book. The subject was American nomadism. I had a box of notebooks about my encounters with modern-day nomads – freight train riders, cowboys, tramps, hippies, footloose retirees in motorhomes – and three shelves of research books about nomads in American history. How to connect all this into a whole? I saw that Frazier had solved a similar problem by using himself as a character – something I'd been resisting – and infusing his book with a sense of wonder. I sat down again with something to strive for.
• Richard Grant's latest book is Bandit Roads: Into the Lawless Heart of Mexico (Abacus, £9.99)

Pico Iyer

Destinations, by Jan Morris
Suddenly you're not just seeing but hearing, feeling, sensing Washington, Panama, South Africa, as they look today but also as they may seem a hundred years from now. How many writers have been able to take a place and weave a thousand details and feelings and moments into a single near-definitive portrait, which almost seems to stand outside of time? Exactly one: Jan Morris. For 60 years she's been blending acute insights and warm intuitions into uniquely fluent, imperturbable and evocative descriptions. She's not so much traveller as historian, witness, master of classical English prose and impressionist all at once.

You can find these graces in all of her books, of course, but for me the long-form essays in Destinations: Essays from Rolling Stone offer the best (biggest) space in which her eloquence, shrewdness and wisdom can take flight. Read her on Los Angeles, Manhattan or New Delhi and you'll never want to read anyone else on those places again.
• Pico Iyer wrote the foreword to 100 Journeys for the Spirit, a collection of writings from authors including Michael Ondaatje, Alexander McCall Smith and Andrew Motion (Watkins £14.99)

Jason Webster

The Colossus of Maroussi, by Henry Miller
As the second world war was breaking out, Henry Miller visited Greece at the invitation of his friend Lawrence Durrell and travelled around it for several months. The result was The Colossus of Maroussi, at once a love letter to a great world civilisation and a poetic expression of Miller's mystical musings. There is little in the way of traditional "travel" here: the sights, smells and sounds are present only inasmuch as they trigger feelings and emotions. This book taught me that real travel writing must involve an "inner" element, either by detailing an inner journey or by creating a resonance to which the reader can respond. Take that away and you're left with either reportage or a guidebook.
• Jason Webster's most recent travel book is Sacred Sierra: A Year on a Spanish Mountain (Vintage, £8.99)


Travel books: I love reading them! They keep me inspired and educated, and help me pass the time on long flights, bus rides, and train rides.

Actually, I just love reading. When I was a child, I was an avid reader but that fell to the wayside as the years rolled on. However, last year, I started a book club in an effort to keep me on track and force me to read more. Now, I average a book a week (sometimes two if they are short).

At the end of 2015, I shared a list of some of my favorite books. As we get into the last few months of 2016, I want to share some more of the great stuff I’ve read this year to put in your Amazon queue:

A Year of Living Danishly, by Helen Russell

This was probably my favorite book of the year. When her husband gets a job at the Lego offices in Jutland, Helen Russell decides to head to Denmark with him, freelance write, and try to figure out why the Danes are so happy. From childcare, education, food, and interior design to taxes, sexism, and everything in between (turns out the Danes love to burn witches), Helen’s funny, poignant story kept me enthralled from start to finish. It’s informative, hilarious, self-deprecating, and tells a great story of someone trying to fit in. As someone who loves Denmark, has lots of Danish friends, and thinks Copenhagen is one of the best cities in the world, I couldn’t put this down. If you read just one book from this list, make it this one!
 

Eat Pray Eat, by Michael Booth

I found this book while roaming a bookstore in Thailand. I’d never heard of Michael Booth before, but I loved the title. In this book, Michael and his family travel to India — in part because he decided to write a definitive book on Indian food (slightly overambitious!) and, in part because his wife said it was about time they take a family trip and he reconnect with his kids. Along the way, the jaded and bitter Michael loses his cynicism and discovers that it’s never to late to change. I read this at a time I needed a bit of encouragement and inspiration, and I found Michael’s transformation a mirror for my own personal struggles. But, beyond my personal reasons for enjoying this book, his dry British humor and attention to detail were captivating, and I have since ordered his new book on Scandinavia!
 

A Beginner’s Guide to Paradise, by Alex Sheshunoff

I get a lot of random books sent to me by authors. Sometimes I read the books, most of the times I don’t. I picked up this one because the author sent a coconut with it and the title and cover art caught my eye. This book follows Alex as he quits his job in NYC at the end of the tech boom, moves to the South Pacific in search of the perfect life, and lugs a suitcase full of books with him to pass the time. He roams from island to island trying to find that “paradise” that we so crave (spoiler: it doesn’t exist) until one day he ends up on Palau, meets a woman, and decides to stay for a bit. Along the way, they build a house, adopt a monkey, learn the culture, and figure out life. It’s a funny, witty, and inspirational memoir that I couldn’t put down. His coconut got me to open the cover, but his incredible writing kept me going.
 

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, by Mark Manson

Blogger, friend, and legend Mark Manson is one of the most well-known writers on the Internet. Chelsea Handler snapchats his stuff and Elizabeth Gilbert quoted him in one of her novels. Mark’s blog contains long articles on living a better life, relationships, and happiness. This book focuses on breaking down the myth that we’re all special, the illusion that we are owed happiness, and his plans on how to live a more stoic life — accepting things as they are, recognizing that problems can actually push us toward development, and becoming happy and better at the relationships we do have. This book is not about not caring, but about learning how to not sweat the small stuff and focus on the bigger picture. There’s a reason it’s sold over a million copies.
 

The Backpacker, by John Harris

I picked up this book at a second-hand shop in Vietnam years ago, and it intrigued me as I was backpacking around Southeast Asia. Amazon suggested it to me recently, so I picked it up again for another read and found it just as enthralling! John travels to India, where he meets Rick, who then persuades him to go to the Thai island of Ko Phangan, where John, Rick, and their new friend Dave pose as millionaire aristocrats. after getting on the wrong side of the Thai mafia, they leave for adrenaline-fueled journeys to Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, and Hong Kong. I’ve always wondered if this was a true story since so much of it seems far-fetched, but, even if it’s all fake, it’s an entertaining read about life as a backpacker. Light, easy, and fun, it will get you excited for the road.
 

Walking the Nile, by Levison Wood

Adventurer Levison Wood had a dream to be the first person to walk the full length of the Nile. Like the author of the Amazon trek book I featured, Levison is looking to push himself to the limit and do something no one else has done. Starting at the source of the Nile (though this is very contested, since many countries claim to be the source), he starts walking, and walking, and walking. While not the most engrossing writer (side note: I feel this way about lots of adventurers-turned-writers: great stories, but poorly told), Wood still manages to weave a fascinating tale with plenty of insight into this part of Africa. I learned a lot with this book.
 

Backpacking with Dracula, by Leif Pettersen

Part travelogue, part history book, and part practical guide to Romania, this book recounts my friend Leif Pettersen’s travels through the country during his time as a guidebook writer for Lonely Planet. As someone who also loves Romania (it is such an underrated country. I don’t understand why more people don’t go!), I found his witty and funny retelling of Romanian history compelling and enjoyed all the travel tales he wove in between. I’m not sure some of practical tips still hold true but Pettersen’s book was a witty, funny, and good light read that will give a very good overview of the country!
 

Skeletons on the Zahara, by Dean King

This enthralling narrative recounts the experiences of twelve American sailors who were shipwrecked off the coast of Africa in 1815, captured by desert nomads, sold into slavery, and taken on a two-month journey through the Sahara. This vivid account of courage, brotherhood, and survival was a page-turner. I’m not sure I would have survived similar circumstances. Based off accounts from the few survivors, it gives you a window in a part of the world and culture that wasn’t well understood during this period of time. I won’t reveal too much of the story, but this book captivated me from start to finish.
 

The Joys of Travel, by Thomas Swick

Veteran travel writer Thomas Swick (who I also interview in my travel writing course) writes about “the seven joys of travel” through a series of personal essays that detail the author’s experiences visiting destinations across the globe, including Munich, Bangkok, Sicily, Iowa, and Key West. I dig this book because it talks about the personal journey and meaning travel has for us. You can really relate to Swick’s experiences about how travel has changed him.
 

Encore Provence, by Peter Mayle

In his follow-up to A Year in Provence, this book contains a series of essays and comments on the changes in the region, thoughts on the popularity of his first book, and a “how to guide” to visiting the area. Just as beautifully written as his previous book, I loved how he not only writes in detail on life in the region but also how he provides practical tips on visiting markets, what to buy, and where to eat, and even trashes a food writer for poor reporting of the food scene in the area! This is a definite must read (after your read his first book!).
 

Getting Stoned with Savages, by J. Maarten Troost

In this follow-up to The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Troost finds himself back in the South Pacific, living in Vanuatu and Fiji. Though they spent two years in Washington, DC, after returning from living in Kiribati, he and his wife move back to the South Pacific after she gets a job, he gets fired, and they decide it’s a better place to start a family. Falling into one amusing misadventure after another, Troost struggles against typhoons, earthquakes, and giant centipedes and soon finds himself swept up in the laid-back, clothing-optional lifestyle of the islanders. The book is as self-deprecating, funny, vivid, and interesting as all his others, and cements Troost as one of my favorite modern travel writers.
 

Eating Vietnam, by Graham Holliday

While I don’t love Vietnam (I didn’t have a great experience there), I do love Vietnamese food! Holliday’s awesome book about the history and culture behind the country’s street cuisine provides a unique perspective on the country. He lived in Vietnam for over ten years, devouring anything he could get his hands on. In this engrossing and hunger-inducing book, you’ll wander through the back streets of Vietnam, learning about street food, and begin to understand the country and its people through their first love. Though I thought the book got a bit tedious in the end, after reading it, this book managed to spark a desire to return to Vietnam that I didn’t think I would ever have again!

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If you’re looking for some earth shattering books, consider some of these! Or, as the holidays approach, get them to share with friends and family!

And if you’re a book junkie like I am, join our monthly book club where I send a list of the best books I’ve recently read. You’ll get a list of 3-5 suggested books sent once a month! It’s free to join! Just enter your name and email below to sign up:

And if you have suggestions, leave them in the comments, as I’m always looking to add books to my Amazon queue that I’ll binge-buy when I’m drinking!

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