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The Alaska Cruise Companion
by Joe Upton
($14.20)

Author and mapmaker Joe Upton has designed a terrific concept for a cruise guide: a mile-by-mile travel guide and map from Seattle to Whittier, Alaska that's meant to deliver "the true magic" of the North.

A Princess Cruises exclusive, the book and map are tied together with a navigation system that allows passengers to easily detect their position on the map while referencing tales, photographs and points of interest in the guide. Princess makes it seamless by promoting The Alaska Cruise Companion -- and the relevant page numbers and route information -- on the front of its daily newsletter, Princess Patter, and in shipboard announcements.

It's a neat way to follow a route and Upton, a former commercial fisherman in Alaska, offers some interesting personal insights about a land he obviously cares very much about. "Alaska in capital letters," as he puts it. Of particular appeal: journal entries Upton made when he fished there in the 1960's and 1970's. If you're a Princess passenger, this is a guide you'll want to consider.

--by Ellen Uzelac, Cruise Critic contributor

Alaska by Cruise Ship:
The Complete Guide to Cruising Alaska with Giant Pull-out Map

by Anne Vipond
($13.57); (£9.74)

I really liked Anne Vipond's cruise guide of the Panama Canal so I was happy to see, in advance of our cruise of the Inside Passage, that she had also written Alaska by Cruise Ship. With her crisp writing and in-depth reporting, she's created a terrific series of guides. Vipond has also written cruise guides of Hawaii, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. That's not to say this book isn't beautifully illustrated as well. Looking now at the photos of the incomparable Glacier Bay, I'm transported right back.

More than anything else, Vipond does a good job delivering a full picture of what Alaska looks, smells and feels like -- ranging from its history and native culture to its wildlife and natural beauty. How can you not love her Glacier Glossary, introducing exotic terms like ice sizzle, neve, rock flour and cirque? The port profiles -- which include walking tours that correspond with a numbered map -- are particularly well done. Bottom line: You're getting the goods here from a real authority.

--by Ellen Uzelac, Cruise Critic contributor

Cruise Guide to Europe and the Mediterranean
by DK Publishing
($16.50); (£11.19)

I'm a sucker for the whole line of DK Eyewitness Guides and have been for years. I like the style and layout, the schematic maps and detail, their durability and their straightforward presentation. I've carried them along from Hawaii to Egypt and used them well. This newly published cruise-oriented edition has been reasonably updated from the original, but makes no attempt to follow fads or quick trends; it gives great background and useful information for the traveler who likes to poke around on his/her own. It's also an excellent and portable (but not lightweight) companion for those new to cruising and touring in the region, and is a great help in getting prepped for the cruise itself and the ports along the way.

--by Glenn Tucker, Cruise Critic contributor
Lonely Planet's Tahiti & French Polynesia
by Becca Blond, Celeste Brash and Hilary Rogers
($22.99); (£10.49)

I don't generally judge a book by its cover, but these two young Tahitian dancers caught my eye. I mean, look at them. Not only do they offer a clue to just how exotic the region is, but they'd also be a great illustration for parents who tell their kids "don't make that face or it'll get stuck that way." Beyond the fantastic, intriguing cover art, Lonely Planet's Tahiti & French Polynesia was a huge help in planning a recent cruise as a first-timer -- and most folks that travel to this remote but gorgeous region most definitely are virgins.

Lonely Planet's Tahiti and French Polynesia is essentially divided into two sections: the first quarter or so focuses on the history and culture of French Polynesia as a whole, while the rest delves into what to do, where to eat and, if you're adding on to your trip pre- or post-cruise, where to stay -- broken down by island with maps.

Sidebars highlight top attractions (such as the best places to surf), money-saving tips, and local folklore. A nice touch is a quick reference guide printed on the inside front cover offering translations for key words and phrases such as "hello," "goodbye" and, my trademark, "I don't understand" (a more detailed glossary appears in the back of the book, just before the index). This page also includes exchange rates and a guide to symbols used on the book's maps.

One caveat: When I travel outside of the United States, I use a credit card wherever possible for convenience and to guarantee myself the best exchange rate; we would have liked restaurant and attraction entries to specify whether or not credit cards are accepted, and if so which ones. More glossy color photographs -- like the striking cover -- would have been nice, too.

--by Melissa Paloti

The Essential Little Cruise Book (3rd edition)
by Jim West
($7.95); (£3.82)

Written by a former cruise director, this little book is a compilation of hundreds of tips and bits of advice from many sources. In truth, just about all the information in the book can be found in a variety of places right on the Cruise Critic Web site. So why buy it? It's the perfect size for a jacket pocket, purse or carry-on bag. It also makes the perfect pre-cruise or bon voyage present, and I'll admit that it is useful for newbies and veterans alike. And finally? It's cute and cleverly done.

You can read through the book in one sitting or just refer to pertinent parts. The Essential Little Cruise Book does not require an Internet connection and you don't even have to plug it in. Plus, it will help you sound smart at dinner onboard, and help you avoid mistakes both before you go and while you're traveling.

And you know what else? It's fun.

--by Glenn Tucker, Cruise Critic contributor

Insight Guides' Caribbean Cruises
by Brian Bell
($17.96); (£11.89)

If you're planning to cruise the Caribbean for the first time, Insight Guides' Caribbean Cruises offers helpful insight into the world of cruising. It's worth buying just for the first 130 pages, which is a veritable primer that offers, er, insights into everything from choosing an itinerary to spa trends. You can learn about the history of the region -- and the history of Caribbean cruising; all fascinating. Exceptional graphics that range from antique maps to glorious full-color photos will have you plunking down your dollars for that first cruise without a moment's pause.

The guide is less useful when it comes to capsulizing each port of call. Most egregiously, it lacks details. In a section (consisting of a mere three paragraphs) on Nevis, it mentions that you can take a ferry from St. Kitts but doesn't tell you where to get it and what it costs. It tells you that, once there, you could go to Pinney's Beach -- but why? It mentions lunching there -- but it's pathetic, back-of-the-book listings don't even offer a restaurant suggestion at Pinney's Beach (and trust me, there are some good ones there!)

Watch out for outright errors. In one instance, the book notes about the U.S. Virgin Island's St. Croix that passengers should negotiate taxi fares. But they're set by the government and have been, for years....

What the creators of the Insight Guides' concept fail to understand -- and I've also reviewed their Mediterranean guide from a similar point of view -- is that cruise travel is unique. Most passengers are visiting an island or port for the first time, and what's even more challenging is that they have to hit the ground running. They only have six to eight hours to create their own marvelous experiences.

In order to best appreciate ports of call, homework is necessary. This book is the equivalent of an oh-so-broad sketch. It tells you about the main attractions you could hear about anywhere (even the cruise ship tour desk). It neglects to give the kind of helpful, between-the-lines figures and facts that are truly useful.

And it's incredibly heavy. I'm leaving mine behind. Hopefully the library on my ship this week will find a use for it.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor

Panama Canal By Cruise Ship:
The Complete Guide to Cruising the Panama Canal

by Anne Vipond
($14.93); (£10.18)

You're not going to find a better book about cruising the Panama Canal than Panama Canal By Cruise Ship: The Complete Guide to Cruising the Panama Canal. Anne Vipond, an authoritative and lively writer, approaches the canal almost as a biographer. It "changed the face of the earth. Upon its completion, the world's two great oceans were joined." For cruise passengers, she predicts, the journey through the canal will likely represent the most exciting eight hours ever spent onboard a ship.

The book is amply illustrated (loved the pull-out map) and deftly organized. It actually makes sense to read it before you even book your cruise. There's a lot of great planning info, including a listing of the lines that cruise the canal along with their itineraries.

But tuck it into your travel tote, as well, because you'll want to refer to it during your trip. Vipond does a super job detailing ports of call in the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico, the West Coast and, of course, Panama. As an example, the section on San Juan, an impressive 16 pages, introduces the location and then offers news nuggets on everything from shopping and dining to local attractions and suggested walking tours. It's similar to Cruise Critic's popular port profiles -- only more robust.

--by Ellen Uzelac, Cruise Critic contributor


Insight Guides: Great River Cruises Europe & The Nile
by Brian Bell
($16.29); (£13.59)

Great River Cruises will open your eyes to a boatload of choices for exploring Europe by waterways large and small (from the "blue" Danube to Italy's Po and Scotland's Caledonian Canal). This is basically a guide to help you decide which river to roam, not a review of individual riverboats -- though one chapter does list river operators like Uniworld, Grand Circle and Orient-Express. But what's really special about Great River Cruises are the gorgeous photos depicting the most charming possible images of Europe's rivers (you'll want to book something, anything, after flipping through the color photography), the trivia tidbits and pieces of advice. Such as? When traveling on a really small boat, it is extremely important to choose your cruise companions very, very carefully. Now if only the Brits who wrote the guide would ditch that outdated image of North Americans. We don't all drink weak coffee!

--by Ginger Dingus, Cruise Critic contributor


Insight Guides: Mediterranean Cruises
by Brian Bell, Tom Le Bas and Lesley Gordon
($16.29); (£11.21)

The timing couldn't have been better: a new copy of Insight Guides: Mediterranean Cruises showed up on my desk just before I departed for a "road test" (a.k.a. a cruise from Rome to Istanbul). On the plus side, the book is geared for cruise trips -- its collection of ports focuses solely on places you're likely to visit (including key info like terminal info) via ship. The front of the book features, particularly the A - Z of Mediterranean Cruising, are full of helpful hints and insights, especially for first timers. The color photos are gorgeous.

But as a guide to helping me get the most out of one day in a series of exotic places -- Kusadasi, Tunis, Crete, Malta and Naples on this trip -- the book's coverage disappoints. Beyond the photography, each destination merits listings of what to see and where to shop in a monotonous tone. Frankly, you can get that stuff anywhere; Oceania Cruises' daily "destination services port information sheet" had more information, better details and a clearer layout.

Come to think of it, so do Cruise Critic's port profiles (which also accompanied me on this trip). These feature news-you-can-use info along with off-beat activity suggestions, warnings where appropriate, shopping recommendations for a range of interests -- from tourist trinkets to contemporary art -- and good choices for lunch. And because our profiles are on the Internet rather than in a bound book, they can be updated much more frequently and so are more likely to feature recent info. Finally? Printed out individually, the Cruise Critic port profiles took up far less space (and were less weighty) than the guide.

And oh, yes. They're free.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor

Panama Canal and Caribbean Cruise Companion
by Joe Upton
($20)

I really wanted to like Panama Canal and Caribbean Cruise Companion. My husband had been engrossed by the book during our cruise to the Panama Canal on Coral Princess. (The book is a Princess Cruises "exclusive," but, to its credit, never gets salesy.)

The introduction is personal and promising. Author Joe Upton is a mapmaker and his maps are terrific. The first section, a history of the Panama Canal, reads like an adventure story. Extremely reader-friendly, it also benefits from period photographs and catchy sidebars.

Alas. The last two-thirds of the book definitely dampened expectations. The middle section, inexplicably to me, recounts a six-month cruise of the Caribbean the author and his family took in their 44-foot sailboat in 1999 -- complete with entries from the journals of Upton's two teenagers. It's a tale that belongs in another book -- not this one. (It should be noted that my husband says that if you care about deep-water sailing, the family's sailing adventure has some pull.) Finally, the third section on Caribbean ports has lots of nice pictures and maps, but with only a few exceptions, it's a bit thin on content.

--by Ellen Uzelac, Cruise Critic contributor


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