Reviewers’ Corner

Here are a couple of the latest travel-book reviews written by ITN readers.

“Panama” by Sarah Woods (2005, Bradt Travel Guides/Globe Pequot Press, Inc. ISBN 184162117X — 340 pp., $21.95).

There’s more to Panama than the canal, and the best thing you can do is let Sarah Woods’ guidebook introduce you to this fascinating land only three hours away from Miami.

When looking for a guidebook, “Bradt” does not easily come to mind, yet Hilary Bradt has been an established guidebook publisher for over 30 years. The British company has just over 100 titles and seems to cover parts of the world other publishers often overlook. For example, their roster includes city guides to Kabul and Baghdad.

The Panama guide is perfect not only for background information but as a help in making intelligent decisions for day trips from your Panama City hub as well as longer visits to coastal resorts and islands. There is a tremendous amount of information on the capital city and provinces.

This guide has everything one wants and more. However, I do not recommend it for a cruise traveler as it is too detailed for a simple canal transit and shopping stop.

Its attractive and logical layout, using headings, boldface and highlights, makes it easy to locate and follow information. There is good use of text blocks for ephemeral though interesting information, plus color photos, province maps and fairly decent orientation maps of cities — all wrapped around practical, useful advice.

All 10 provinces are covered, and those visiting the popular Bocas del Toro and Kuna Yala will appreciate the detail of information provided as well as the stern warning about travel in the Darien Province near the Panama/Colombia border.

I especially liked the extensive listing of recommended local operators, including something I would like to see more of: the names of tour companies they handle operations for. If an operator is good enough for Journey Latin America or Explore Worldwide, etc., it should be a safe bet.

Appendices include further readings and, since Panama has been named the fourth-best retirement destination in the world, a list of real estate/relocation agents.

Because this is a U.K. publication, there is a (very) small issue with some language. In the “What to Bring” section, most know “trainers” are sports shoes, but the listing to bring “a pair of washable pumps/plimsolls/daps” completely threw me and I e-mailed a British friend to translate. Also, some of the recommended brands of clothing and equipment outfitters are not available in the U.S. (i.e., Rohan).

Minimal concerns in the guide include an underwhelming hotel and restaurant list and a few typos. And I would like to have seen more detail on the once-a-month full-canal transit with return to Panama City by train, which would certainly appeal to most land-based visitors.

Panama is far from a banana republic. The canal brings the world through on a daily basis, and its importance to the shipping industry has helped keep the country stable.

If you are planning a visit and routinely reach for a Footprint, Rough Guide or Lonely Planet at the bookstore, try this Bradt guide as, in spite of the few minor concerns, it is a worthwhile purchase for travelers seeking an out-of-the-mainstream experience.

— ESTHER PERICA, Arlington Heights, IL

“Let’s Go! Vietnam” (2005, Let’s Go Publications/St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 0312335709 — 461 pp.,$19.99).

The first thing I do when I get a new travel book is glance through it quickly. This book had a good table of contents, the index looked adequate, and there were almost 50 maps. The edges of the pages were marked in black squares, which looked as if it made it easy to find wanted material.

My second run-through saw that the print was extremely small, place names were in Vietnamese with all the strange diacritical markings, and stair-step markings on the page edges were not by cities but by general geographical areas.

I had just returned from Vietnam, so I began to look up points of interest I had just seen. I found this quite difficult because the index was incomplete and most of the places were in the Vietnamese language, while our daily program gave the Americanized names of points of interest we would see.

As an example, I couldn’t find the Perfume River or the Japanese Bridge by using the index. I had to find the area such as Northern Central and look through that section. It took hours, but I finally found almost all of the places we visited.

I concluded from this that the guide would be best for the independent traveler who is going to spend a lot of time in each area. When I did find what I was hunting for, the explanations and descriptions were interesting and accurate.

The best feature of the book is the detailed content. An independent traveler could go page by page and tour the country very well. All essential information is included.

Hotel listings cater to inexpensive to moderate. I could not find some of the hotels (upper end) where we stayed.

For the traveler who is going to touch only the big cities and fly from place to place, the book would not be useful to carry along. However, the first 100 pages would be of great interest to all travelers. Had I read this book before I went to Vietnam, I wouldn’t have picked up Hepatitis A.

For the person who is interested in visiting each area in depth, this would be a good book to take along. There are even suggested itineraries for 10 days to two months.

I found the table of contents much more useful than the index. I did miss the fact that there were no pictures.