Saturday, January 1, 2011

"Fodor's Ireland 2011": Book Review

Certainly a vibrantly hued presentation of images and lots of words, aimed at the comfortable traveler who has money to spend but in this very expensive country wants to do so wisely. The appendix of golf courses indicates this audience, as do the "In Focus" inserts, almost like informercials, about Cork cookery, traditional music, the Rock of Cashel, or the craft revival. These appeal to the eye and break up the standard columns of text and marginal symbols that any guidebook features. It's an attractive resource, one that I have used along with the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides aimed more at younger or fitter visitors wishing more on the nightlife, the hostels, and the pub scene than found here, where handsome hotels, nicer restaurants, and more elegant accomodations beckon.

The foldout map's more of a sketch when compared to the likes of a Michelin one; you get lines linking market towns with cities by (non-numbered) major roads but many more scenic or byway routes are not listed. Oddly, none of the six counties of the North are filled in on the map. However, the guide is organized not by county but by major areas, so this may not confuse the visitor as much as with other guidebooks which keep to the region, then county, then town or locale, breakdown for organization.

Again, Fodor's takes pains to incorporate local talent. Alannah Hopkins with her Cork residence and Paul Clements based in Belfast have long experience as journalists and travel writers; Anto Howard weighs in from his native Dublin. Spot-checking three entries for this review, I found their contributions helpful. I tested what I know against details, for some of this material's covered in every guidebook, other material's not or is skimmed over.

Glencolmcille in Donegal has its new Ionad Siúl walking center as the one place to stay, but the Guinness cakes (as of my last visit) were sad to say not sold at the Folk Museum's tearoom anymore. I'd love to be corrected on this. The three pages given over to this village feature two lovely photos. But, no pubs, no shops, no food places, no other places to stay are mentioned, whereas in other guides, this information may be common. It may show that the writers expect visitors to pass through some places rather than settle down for a week or so. Still, the pictures, the feature trumpeted by Fodor in this edition, may convince more than one more paragraph about archeological sites around the area may to visit.

For a larger place, but one often rushed past or ignored, Drogheda on the Boyne gets great coverage as to how to get there by bus: how much the fare, how often the buses run, where they drop you. Fodor's maps (unlike some competitors) are usually reserved for the truly popular cities and destinations, so for example, none here. But you get a brief sense of the medieval walled town, its historical attractions. For it, a country club and a trendy hotel the two places listed to stay, but nowhere can be found recommended to eat!
What about Dublin? The writers know the hotels and the eateries. They describe them succinctly and accurately. The emphasis is on the mid-to-higher end, albeit in a city where few bargains exist. Nice to see a list of bookstores, decent maps of the city center (small streets may not always be given, but the keyed numbers mapped to what's listed in the guidebook get you there), and a pro-con (as in all the accomodations) for the good-bad of the hotels. Many seem to have slipped a bit in service from what they were, as an aside.

The book starts with a frank acknowledgment of how the recession's hit Ireland. Prices may have slipped a fraction for where you may stay due to a glut, but food (if not a pint) and amenities will cost you more. In the appendix, I think they needed to warn American drivers more about the fact that insurance for a rental car may not be covered and that you must purchase it from the renter directly--the authors note the costs that can be added but they do not cover what can double the amount paid for a vehicle. They give good advice about phones (US ones tend not to work overseas as is), tipping, credit cards and transaction fees, and the ways to get around what can be with or without a car a daunting place to navigate.

The writers prepare you for an island nation not what romanticized readers might expect, and they honestly weigh their own pros-cons of the rapid pressures of sophistication and drive for accumulation that characterize today's Irish culture. The history and myth tend to get blended into the presentation rather than separated as in some other guides. I'd say there's less attention to some of the ancient monuments, churches and medieval structures, and Irish-language culture than other books provide. Instead, Fodor's seems to pitch its contents towards a middle-of-the-road visitor, perhaps a bit less eager to rummage around relics on display than to buy a scarf, find an inviting dining nook, or to play golf. This is not a critique but an observation!

At nearly seven-hundred pages, in an appealing format, this is a solid mainstream reference. I liked the website, admission fee, bus-route type of data integrated into entries. The visual breadth, as in the insert on the Ring of Kerry, adds of course to the interest conjured up for the tourist planning a stay. It may not direct you to the more quirkly or less-frequented sights, but for a single-volume compendium, Fodor's combines enthusiasm with guidance well. (Posted to Amazon US 12-29-10 & 2-20-11)

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