Sometimes the most satisfying journeys are vicarious, and the best way to travel is often by way of a great writer. Here's a roundup of a few of our favorite travel memoirs.
"A Year in Provence" by Peter Mayle
"The year began with lunch," writes Mayle in the opening of his now-classic account of his love affair with Provence. Month by month, he offers beautiful descriptions of the local culinary delights, the pleasures of the French landscape, and the unexpected wisdom he acquires when he moves into a 200-year-old farmhouse with his wife and two dogs. One of the happy discoveries that Mayle makes is the comfort of neighbors. "In the country," he explains, "separated from the next house though you may be by hundreds of yards, your neighbors are part of your life, and you are part of theirs...your attitudes and decisions have a direct effect on another family's well-being." Funny, moving, and filled with gorgeous prose and memorable characters, Mayle's memoir is the perfect guide to Provencal life.
"In a Sunburned Country" by Bill Bryson
It's hard to choose a top pick among Bryson's wonderful travel memoirs -- among them, "The Lost Continent," "Notes from a Small Island," and "A Walk in the Woods." With his wry, whimsical humor, rich anecdotes, and sharp, observant eye, Bryson is a master of the genre. In this book, the author offers his recollections from multiple trips Down Under, recounting both its spectacular beauty (such as the Great Barrier Reef) and its lethal dangers: "If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner," warns Bryson, "you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback." He also provides a wealth of statistics and facts -- Australia is the world's largest island, for instance, and the only island that is also a continent. It's a wonderfully entertaining and illuminating read.
"In Patagonia" by Bruce Chatwin
This exhilarating book, published in 1977, was an overnight success and remains a classic of the genre. Chatwin, who had always wanted to travel to Patagonia finally did so in December of 1974, at the age of 34. The British writer (who died of AIDS in 1989) spent six months in what he called "the uttermost part of the earth." His book, which he described as "peculiarly dotty," redefined the genre with its mix of memoir, historical information, reportage, and exotic South American adventure. (It also turned out out be a mix of fact and fiction.) This exquisite text is just as powerful today, and Chatwin's storytelling skills are incomparable. As Nicholas Shakespeare noted in his introduction to a later edition of the book, Chatwin's amazing journey "would transform a truant journalist to one of the most stylish and original writers of the twentieth century."
"The Art of Travel" by Alain de Botton
Whether he's covering philosophy, architecture, or (as in his latest) atheism, de Botton is always an erudite and witty guide. In this volume, the author contemplates how traveling can transform us in surprising ways, even when the journey proves more pleasing than the destination -- or when the anticipation of travel exceeds the reality. Regardless, he argues, traveling poses a number of fascinating questions to be examined: "If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness," he writes, "then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest -- in all its ardour and paradoxes -- than our travels." He shares amusing stories of his own disappointing journeys -- recalling trips to beautiful places where he simply could not relax: "My body and mind were to prove temperamental accomplices in the mission of appreciating my destination," he writes. While his body disliked the heat and the poor hotel meals, "the mind meanwhile revealed a commitment to anxiety, boredom, free-floating sadness and financial alarm." He also takes a tour through history, art, and literature, recounting the ambivalent travels of Baudelaire, for instance. Among his many books (both fiction and nonfiction), this is surely one of de Botton's best.