Lonely Planet Caribbean Islands

[Short of time? Read the Haiku review instead]

Oh Lonely Planet – what have you become? I used to scoff at guidebooks when I first started travelling. My first trip, in 1991, was supposed to be just myself and a good buddy, a couple of young chaps raising hell across Europe. But, he decided to bring along his new American girlfriend from university, and she invited her sister, and her sister invited her best friend, and suddenly the two of us were overrun with dictatorial San Diegans with plans, itineraries, lists and timetables. I hadn’t even thought further than Amsterdam – our first stop - but one of them had a Let’s Go Europe guidebook which she wielded like the Necronomicon. I never looked at it but I was happy to follow them wherever they wanted to go, figuring that surely everywhere in Europe was interesting so I couldn’t lose. I could, and did, but that’s another story. My 2nd trip, up the east coast of Australia (solo this time – I’m a quick learner) was reliant on tourist information and hearsay but I did travel for a while with someone who had a Lonely planet book – the first one I ever saw. Again, I barely glanced at it. It was only on my next adventure – India – that I was welcomed into the guidebook fold. My mother heavily suggested some help and, more importantly, paid for it. After my first late-night train arrival in a dusty country town with no electricity or English-language signage, I was hooked. Over my next few continents I tried and tested various publications and eventually settled on Lonely Planet as my guide of choice. It was their Shoestring series that I really used – weighty, continent-wide tomes that would detail every possible tactic for saving and scrimping. From “You can walk to here,” and “Don’t believe the young chancers hanging around the entrance – you don’t need a guide,” to the ubiquitous “Cheapest rooms in town”, I hung on their every word and followed their every recommendation through Central America, South America, Europe, Africa etc. Thanks to the so-called Lonely-Planet Effect I knew exactly where to find some like-minded travellers when I needed company. I even shopped specifically for trousers that had a cargo pocket large enough for my trusty companion. We were together for life.

Then LP revamped their format, moving all the useful stuff from the front pages to a Survival Guide in the back. I wasn’t happy (I fear change) but I rolled with it. In 2011 though, they changed again, catastrophically. This time there was no getting away from it – they were blatantly pandering to flash-packers and, worse, tourists! Of course, they’d always had their money-making volumes: ‘Discovery spinoffs, city guides and coffee-table books, but the traditional destination guides had still been aimed at us – their hardcore base, the backpacking masses who discovered places for them to write about. No more. These new editions sported colour, fold-out maps and dozens of pointless sections detailing every conceivable itinerary for people with little time and less imagination: Regions at a Glance, Top Experiences, Month by Month etc. Why not just hand out pre-drawn routes on a map and have done with it? You’d think being in an industry with a built-in obsolescence would be enough, but no - they were digging up their own roots. Lonely Planet - the guidebook that ate itself. And so to the Caribbean Islands book, which I used on my most recent trip. (As well as this volume I did, for the first time, download some chapters to read on my father’s Kindle but that was an absolute disaster. It was impossible trying to browse them or quickly find information – never again.) Anyway, this was my first test of their new format and I was mightily disappointed: this is no shoestring guide. Granted, the region isn’t known as a budget destination but there are affordable places, yet almost no budget options are recorded between Trinidad and Haiti. For instance, St Lucia’s airport is only a couple of kilometres from the capital, Castries, yet walking is not mentioned as an option. Only two hotels are listed in the city, the most economic of which is $50, yet as we walked we discovered, not 100m from the end of the runway, a hotel that was cheaper than any priced on the entire island. Massive fail!

Now this is my question: was the guide useless because Lp has turned into a digital nanny for weekend city-escapees and gappers financed by their parents to experience a little life before being trapped forever in soulless careers, or was this particular title deliberately not aimed at backpackers? And if not, why not? We get everywhere, you know! Hey, Tony, don’t forget about us! This is when we need you the most. Why hast thou forsaken meeeeee! Okay, just in case it is the latter I’ll give you one more chance. Damn it, you're still probably the best. One more! You’d better pull your finger out, Loners, or I’m gonna have to Rough it.

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