Travel the globe from your comfy armchair

Times Staff Writer

Some of the lavishly illustrated new gift books for travelers and armchair travelers span continents and cultures. Here are several worthy of any shopping list.

Burton Holmes Travelogues

The Greatest Traveller of His Time, 1892-1952

Edited by Genoa Caldwell

Taschen, $49.99

This is a delightful book about Burton Holmes, a 19th and 20th century adventurer credited with coining the word "travelogue." It is as stylish as its subject, an elegant man who affected white suits and pith helmets as he traversed the world, camera in hand.

Holmes, who died in 1958 at age 88, and his wife, Margaret, split their later years between New York and their Hollywood Hills home, Topside. He made travel shorts for MGM, and the couple hobnobbed with such stars and star-makers as Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Jean Harlow, Sam Goldwyn and Jack Warner.

Summing up his 60 years of globe-trotting, Holmes wrote: "The only things I own which are still worth what they have cost me are my travel memories, the mind-pictures of places which I have been hoarding like a happy miser for more than half a century."

The book, with its images of places now almost unrecognizably changed, is both history and biography. Among those images: a vintage motorcar pursuing a kangaroo in the Australian outback in 1917, women in Gibson Girl gowns promenading in 1907 Vienna, and Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee procession in London in 1897.

Japan and Italy remained Holmes' favorite foreign countries, but in the United States he found "an exhaustless wealth of charm and wonder." He photographed Calamity Jane in a long calico dress at Yosemite, and the Santa Monica Pier when the La Monica Ballroom hosted many a dance marathon.

Of Hollywood, he once observed: "One of these days someone will say, 'Strike the set' and this whole town will fall down."


Galen Rowell

A Retrospective

By the editors of Sierra Club Books

Sierra Club Books, $50

The editors have chosen 175 images, beautifully reproduced in large format, for this tribute to Galen Rowell, the noted adventure photographer who died in 2002 with his wife, Barbara, in a small-plane crash near Bishop, Calif.

There's a foreword by Tom Brokaw, his friend and admirer, who writes of Galen Rowell's "commitment to the wonders of nature in all of their forms." Other friends and former associates contributed text.

Rowell, a frequent contributor to National Geographic, was a UC Berkeley dropout and dedicated rock climber who in 1972 sold his auto repair shop in Albany, Calif., and set out to become an adventure journalist.

These adventures would take him -- with his camera -- to the wildest and most threatened spaces on all seven continents. Photography critic Andy Grundberg praises Rowell as a photographer "who both traveled light and traveled with the light."

Indeed, it was his way of capturing the light that largely defines his work, most notably perhaps in his celebrated photo (reproduced in the book) of a rainbow over Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.

California is well represented in his photography. After traveling from pole to pole, from Africa to Yosemite, Rowell said: "More of what I am seeking in the wilds is right here in my home state of California than anywhere else on Earth."


Atlas Maior of 1665

Taschen, $200

If there's a serious cartographer or geographer on your gift list -- and you have serious money to spend -- this could be the book.

This 594-page volume is a visual delight and a fascinating read. It is a reprint of the Austrian National Library in Vienna's copy of the Baroque world atlas that in the 17th century touted itself as "the greatest and finest atlas ever published."

The artwork, originally hand-colored, is decidedly fanciful -- map borders with mythic figures floating in clouds, maps festooned with coats of arms, cherubs perched here and there. America is depicted by a bare-breasted Indian woman, a huntress in a feather skirt.

The 17th century text notes, "Knowledge of inland America is still rather uncertain, especially as regards the north ... half of America stretches to the west; this part is entirely unknown in its interior and only its coasts have been explored."

Peter van der Krogt, a noted Utrecht University cartographer, has written an introduction and descriptions of the maps. Among the oddities he points out: "In most cases, north is at the top of the map. But this is not invariably so. Sometimes the cartographer or publisher chose a different orientation. This was generally motivated by the need to make economical use of the sheet, but aesthetic considerations sometimes prevailed."


Egyptian Palaces and Villas

Pashas, Khedives, and Kings

Shirley Johnston with Sherif Sonbol

Abrams, $50

Shirley Johnston, who divides her time between France and Egypt, and Cairo-based photographer Sherif Sonbol take readers beyond the marble fountains, Moorish archways and carved wooden screens to learn the stories of those who built and lived in these 19th and 20th century palaces -- some of which are now hotels or diplomats' homes.

There was Mohamed Ali Pasha, an Ottoman ruler whose Shoubra Palace near Cairo had a pool for sailing little wooden boats to amuse his harem. There was Maj. Evelyn Baring, Lord Cromer, who arrived in Cairo in the 1880s when Egypt was under British military rule, to straighten out the country's finances. When he and Lady Cromer entertained at this British-style mansion, the lord, a self-styled chef, might whip up a specialty of reindeer tongues with peach bitters.

At Mena House, Khedive Ismail Pasha's hunting lodge at Giza (today, Mena House Oberoi Hotel), the guests included Napoleon III's wife, the Empress Eugenie. At the Winter Palace Hotel at Luxor (today the Winter Palace Sofitel), a bulletin board first announced discovery of King Tut's tomb by British archeologist Howard Carter. The hotel staff journeyed to the tomb site for the opening, taking a midday champagne feast.


The Cities Book

A Journey Through the Best Cities in the World

Lonely Planet, $50

When staff and readers of Lonely Planet guides set out to rank the 200 best cities -- in order -- it's no surprise that Paris was first.

But plenty of surprises follow. The "best" list includes Aleppo (Syria), Ashgabat (Turkmenistan) and Pyongyang (North Korea).

Thirteen U.S. cities made the cut: New York (2), San Francisco (7), Chicago (34), New Orleans (39), Las Vegas (46), Los Angeles (49), Seattle (55); Memphis, Tenn. (98), Washington, D.C. (103), Savannah, Ga. (164), Austin, Texas (169), Anchorage (175) and Miami (194).

The criteria? Contributors were looking for the "most vibrant, diverse, hypnotic and chaotic cities in the world." (Lonely Planet tends to skew young.) The rest of the top five, after Paris and New York, are Sydney, Australia; Barcelona, Spain; and London.

Each entry includes a profile of the typical resident, the city's strengths and weaknesses and its "gold star attraction." Angelenos, it's noted, "don't care what the world thinks of them (narcissistic, vapid, flaky and superficial), or their city (dystopian, ugly, soulless) because they are too busy keeping fit, self-actualizing, working the room or just out there enjoying the place."

L.A. is lauded for its sunshine, art museums and galleries, beaches and Latino-inspired cuisine, among other things, and dinged for its June gloom, sprawl, stop-and-go freeways and bad pizza.

Each entry includes an urban myth, some true, some not. My favorite is the Feejee Mermaid, purportedly discovered by Japanese fishermen in the Fiji Islands and first displayed in New York in 1842. The mermaid, which toured America for two decades before being destroyed by fire, was in fact the creation of showman P.T. Barnum. No beauty, she had a fish tail, the torso of a baby orangutan and a monkey's head.


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