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8 Best Travel Books and Their Real-Life Destinations

SmarterTravel

A good book can send you into a far-off daydream—but when the story is about a real-life destination, why not let it inspire a quest of your own? The secret islands, otherworldly landscapes, and towering cities in the pages of the best books are just as stunning in reality.

Travel Books and Their Real-Life Destinations

Make your daydreams a reality by choosing one of these travel books to inspire your next journey.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette: Antarctica

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A travel book worth reading before its movie version debuts later this year, Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette invokes a new travel frontier: Antarctica. The comedy novel revolves around a Seattle-based architect who goes missing before a family trip to the icy subcontinent that her teenage daughter, Bee, begged to visit.

Bee’s excitement about following in the steps of explorers like Ernest Shackleton might be enough to make you yearn for a cruise expedition to the Antarctic complete with kayaking beside glaciers—which is becoming more and more common thanks to options like National Geographic Expeditions’ 14-day Journey to Antarctica.

What the Reviews Say:Where’d You Go, Bernadette leaves convention behind. Instead, it plays to Semple’s strengths as someone who can practice ventriloquism in many voices, skip over the mundane and utterly refute the notion that mixed-media fiction is bloggy, slack or lazy.” –The New York Times

Seven Pillars of Wisdom: Jordan

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The rogue British officer and archaeologist who inspired the movie Lawrence of Arabia, T.E. Lawrence, accounts the British-controlled Arab Revolt of 1916 in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The autobiography is worth sifting through for daydream-inducing depictions of Jordan’s Wadi Rum. The red desert more recently served as the backdrop for The Martian, and is now a hot spot among travelers for camping and hiking on guided tours like Intrepid Travel’s nine-day Trek Jordan itinerary. The actual Seven Pillars of Wisdom, referred to by Jordan’s Bedouin locals as the Seven Flutes, make up an awe-inspiring rock formation that can still be seen today in the heart of Wadi Rum.

What the Reviews Say: “Lawrence is a fascinating and controversial figure and his talent as a vivid and imaginative writer shines through on every page of this, his masterpiece.” –Goodreads

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane: China

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The untamed natural wonders of China’s lesser-known Yunnan province are home to many of the country’s indigenous minorities, like the Akha. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane tells the story of an Akha woman and her daughter, forced apart by circumstance but drawn inexorably back to the same tea-growing village in the mountains.

The bestselling novel can also introduce you to Yunnan’s rice paddies, snow-capped mountains, and plunging lakes. Exodus Travels’ 12-day Wild Yunnan itinerary takes visitors through the region and to local villages like the one detailed in the novel for a less-traveled route through unspoiled China.

What the Reviews Say: “A powerful story about a family separated by circumstances, culture, and distance, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane paints an unforgettable portrait of a little-known region and its people and celebrates the bond that connects mothers and daughters.”—Goodreads

The Paris Wife: Paris, France

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If, like me, you don’t consider Hemingway’s brooding descriptions to be leisurely reading, there’s a newer version of The Sun Also Rises that offers the women’s view of Paris’s “Lost Generation” writers, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Gertrude Stein. The Paris Wife is Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, who moved with him to Paris during the Roaring 20s. It almost goes without saying that the descriptions of Jazz Age Paris and its plot-thickening revelry might leave you planning a trip to the City of Lights.

What the Reviews Say: “The Paris Wife [is] an imaginative homage to Hadley Richardson Hemingway, whose quiet support helped her young husband become a writer, and it gives readers a chance to see the person Hemingway aspired to be before fame turned him into something else.” –The Washington Post

The Beach: Thailand

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Author Alex Garland was a 20-something living in Southeast Asia when he wrote his 1996 novel The Beach, and it shows. A hefty dose of backpacker-inspired wanderlust turns to terror as an idyllic beach uncovered by a handful of young travelers incites power struggles and drug dependencies. Still, the movie version of the book starring Leonardo Dicaprio has made Thailand’s Maya Bay, where it was filmed, such a popular tourist spot that it’s been temporarily shut down.

Visiting Thailand’s other nearby shorelines today, though, is easy with a small tour: G Adventures’ four-day Kho Phi Phi to Phuket sailing itinerary even touts its starting point as the island that inspired The Beach.

What the Reviews Say: “Part of [The Beach’s] astonishing success at the time (a bestseller and then a movie with the hottest director of the moment, Danny Boyle, and the biggest star in the world, Leonardo DiCaprio) was its hotwiring of the zeitgeist. By 1996-97, it wasn’t just the trust-fund kids from W11: everyone was backpacking in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.” –The Guardian

Cinnamon Gardens: Sri Lanka

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Set in Colombo in the 1920s, Cinnamon Gardens looks back at the then-British colony of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and the still-relevant cultural traditions of the island nation. This tale of a young local teacher struggling to avoid an arranged marriage by her family is one of the best travel books when it comes to covering modern Sri Lankan history.

Sri Lanka, which was long cordoned off from the world thanks to recent civil war and unrest, only recently blossomed into a travel destination. Reading up on some of the customs of Sri Lankans, like arranged marriages and the caste system, both still existing today, should be essential for visitors setting out for the Pearl of the Indian Ocean. Spice gardens (which, yes, grow cinnamon) have become a must-visit stop on Sri Lanka itineraries like Intrepid Travel’s 14-day Real Food Adventure.

What the Reviews Say: “With sensuous atmosphere and vivid prose, this masterfully plotted novel re-creates a world where a beautiful veneer of fragrant gardens and manners hides social, personal, and political issues still relevant today.” –Goodreads

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail: United States

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Another travel book turned movie, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about life after addiction and losing a loved one is both heartbreaking and awe-inspiring, with the California wilderness setting a vivid scene for Strayed’s rough road to recovery. An average woman’s quest to conquer the thousand-mile Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to Washington State might even inspire you to make the trek on your own—a feat that can take hikers the entire snow-free season to complete in its entirety.

What the Reviews Say: “The author was not chewed on by bears, plucked dangling from the edge of a pit, buried by an avalanche or made witness to the rapture. No dingo ate anyone’s baby. Yet everything happened. The clarity of Ms. Strayed’s prose, and thus of her person, makes her story, in its quiet way, nearly as riveting an adventure narrative as Jon Krakauer’s two ‘Into’ books: those matey fraternal twins, Into the Wild and Into Thin Air.” –The New York Times

The Alchemist: Egypt and Spain

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Required reading for anyone who’s fallen in love with the Moorish art and architecture of Southern Spain and let it lead them into the Middle East, The Alchemist is a quest of fantasy fiction that takes young Santiago on a hunt for buried treasure.

From Andalusia, into Morocco, and through the Egyptian desert to the Nile and the pyramids, the shepherd boy’s route could inspire you to take a Euro-Arabian jaunt of your own, like Egypt Tours Plus’s 20-day Spain, Morocco, and Egypt itinerary. Following Spain’s Arab routes into North Africa is a little-known yet cohesive way to straddle two continents in one trip.

What the Reviews Say: “Santiago’s journey teaches us about the essential wisdom of listening to our hearts, of recognizing opportunity and learning to read the omens strewn along life’s path, and, most importantly, to follow our dreams.” –Goodreads

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SmarterTravel Editor Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Instagram at @shanmcmahon.

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