Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Ireland: Moon Handbook review

This is my Amazon US review, posted today. I liked this guide. Not flashy, not a lot of color, but down-to-earth, sensibly written, and affordable as it's pitched towards we cost-conscious travelers who head out on our own.

This was published in May 2007, and I consulted it during my stay in June and July. I can vouch for its accuracy. The strength of the book lies in the fact that as far as I can tell from the acknowledgements (worth reading for their charm), the whole was written by a young American ex-pat, Camille DeAngelis, and therefore has the consistency of a single p-o-v that reflects her encyclopedic knowledge, tempered enthusiasm, and evident stamina. While the guide is markedly less comprehensive on history, sightseeing, and local lore than competing guides, it is very thorough on practicalities such as civilized accomodation, decent eats, bus routes, and ATMs. I would use this to work out the nitty-gritty of planning the details of staying once you figure out in your itinerary where you are going and how long in each locale you'd be staying.

That's where the prefaced itineraries geared to particular cultural, scenic, historic, or recreational interests come in, as well as a few paragraphs at the end of each county section telling you how long would be ideal to remain in a certain location if you want to partake of its attractions-- or flee their lack of appealing destinations. The book lacks the flashy graphics of other guides, and is geared more to the independent visitor, perhaps on their own, on a budget rather than a tour bus or expense account. DeAngelis succeeds in giving travellers a realistic expectation of the costs, hassles, rewards, and drawbacks of getting about the remoter and less-obviously touristed places in Ireland. She also takes care to note prices whenever possible; although inevitably these may rise, they do, due to the book's recent publication, reflect as closely as any print work can, the considerable expense of looking after yourself and getting around and staying put in this, one of the priciest nations now in the world-- especially given the weak dollar vs. the euro.

I tested my own two-week stay in such a place in Donegal, off the beaten track a bit, with her coverage. She was accurate in her descriptions, noting such details as the mattresses in a hostel, how far said hostel was from the main road, what kind of road it was, how to find the place given its remoteness, the temperament of the caretaker, and prices for what she charged vs. what you got for the money. All this in about a hundred words. She tells that the nearest ATM is 27 kilometres away. She recommends of the three choices the pub (not the quieter one I favored...but the same one all the guides like!) with the best craic. She warns of the few shops, the difficulty without a car in seeing it all, and the scattered nature of the dramatically situated settlement. While her coverage of the archaeological and cultural sites there was for my tastes far too brief, such information can be obtained easily with other references.

Like the Moon Handbook I remember using on a trip five years ago to the Big Island of Hawai'i, this series concentrates on the good place to grab a bite, the B&B that won't rip you off but which may not have t.v., the view from the window of the pricy hotel, the fare to the airport, the cost of the taxi, the options if you have a week vs. a day.

The pictures she took, often in black-and-white, make it difficult to do justice to the places, but this does keep costs down for this affordable book, and you can always take your own snapshots or buy postcards! She took care with every feature here. The maps are a bit less detailed than those in a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, but easier to read and larger on the page. For those of you unsatisfied with other guidebooks' tiny maps and insets, the Moon Handbook provides bigger type both in the page layout and the graphics. Symbols often mark tourist attractions. The pages are easy to scan without being cluttered. The shops, pubs, attractions, and bus and rail stations are marked clearly in text and on maps. Streets actually have names on maps and are not only drawn blanks!

A telling example of DeAngelis' thoroughness is the Irish-language section. Short as this portion is, she thought it through. She gives you actual words and everyday sentences and (not simply cute phrases about buying folks drinks and/or flirting with them) with phonetic equivalents, and encourages you (I studied Irish there on my recent trip in that locale for those two weeks) to use them when conversing with the locals in the Gaeltacht-- or, I might add, outside of it! She is realistic about the chances of actually using much Irish (earnest outsiders tend to be in my experience regarded often with bemusement or suspicion by native speakers), but I encourage her inclusion of this material, often superficially treated in other guides.

Finally, she wrote a lovely preface, that begins with the trope that (I paraphrase) ten years from now you will remember the trip that you are now planning, and from there goes into an evocative memory of the pub, the craic, the stranger who struck up a chat, the scenery as you walked to your temporary home away from home that evening. It's a powerful way to bring you into the power that Ireland still can hold, despite the rush to ugly bungalows, rampant consumerism, littered countrysides, urban gridlock, and suburban sprawl. She does not shy away from these realities, but urges you as a visitor to understand these marks of our society as the island's prosperity must contend with, in my clumsy metaphor, killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

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