Dangerous Destinations

Hilary and George Bradt went off on the traditional honeymoon getaway to South America and came back with a career churning out guidebooks to exotic, unusual traveling destinations.

They had relied only on a compass and word of mouth during their own travels, and hoped publishing "The Little Yellow Book" would provide some sort of direction for future tourists of the backpacking variety. The Bradts also were inspired to share their discoveries, including that of a secret Jesus statue that points to an Inca trail in Bolivia.

Some 30 years later, Bradt Publications has 76 titles to its name and specializes in dissecting the most remote, and even dangerous, of places: Kabul, Baghdad, North Korea and the like.

Bradt is distributed in North America by The Globe Pequot Press in Old Saybrook.

At age 62, Hilary Bradt, who lives right outside London in Buckinghamshire, doesn't sugarcoat her travels. While making their way across Africa, from Cape Town to Cairo, in 1976, the Bradts were arrested three times - once for photographing a pile of baskets in a market, and another time for praising capitalism in Ethiopia in front of an army lieutenant.

"The horror stories are only a tiny fraction of the experience," Bradt said.

Still, a smart tourist should always be well-prepared. The Bradt mini-guide to Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan, is chock-full of safety precautions for journalists and aid workers, and even includes a warning by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office against all "nonessential travel" to the city.

Cameras, binoculars and tape recorders should be used with discretion, and a wandering traveler should be aware of the many land mines that are hidden within the Afghan countryside.

The guide, though, has its lighter side. It raves about "ashak," a pasta dish that is saved for feast days, and points travelers to where they can find a $4 box of cornflakes. It offers this advice for eating in Kabul: "Peel It, Boil It, Cook It or Forget It."

Hilary Bradt takes enormous pride in her quest for all that is unknown and scary. She has written the first eight editions to Peru and Bolivia, and won the British Guild of Travel Writers Award for her 2000 guide to Madagascar.

She has since retired her hiking boots, and now concentrates on directing the more than 50 writers who work for Bradt. But her passion for the wildlife and landscape of Madagascar will keep her visiting and writing about the country for as long as she can. After all, only in Madagascar was Bradt forced to eat roasted insects after wandering around lost for four days in a jungle.

"Madagascar, I'll do forever. I adore the place. I'm more closely connected with it now," she said.

Andrew Evans, the author of the Bradt book on Ukraine, described his travel guide as having a life of its own. The 28-year-old spent three months living in Ukraine in 2002. There, he traveled alone, meeting locals by sharing compartments on trains, and drawing his own maps - 40 in total - with a Global Positioning System.

"Anything I wrote about, I had to have a map for," Evans said. "This is how readers orient themselves."

Part of being a travel writer is being up for anything: Evans once tagged along on a camping trip with a bunch of boy scouts in the Gorgany Mountains. On another occasion, he paid $2 to stay at a cheap hotel in Poltava, and ended up sleeping on the floor, next to the heater, all night.

Evans, whose dream job is to write for National Geographic, paid much attention to the history and religion of the country. He focused on picking out the must-see churches in Ukraine's capital, Kiev, but made sure to also include one mighty important detail - bring toilet paper.

"Nine times out of 10 there will be no paper in your toilet stall so saving paper napkins from restaurants in your pocket is a worthwhile precaution," he wrote.

Bradt also publishes a series of books dedicated to all things wacky. There are four Eccentric books in print, with Edinburg and Oxford on the way. The first edition of Eccentric America sold over 16,000 copies in the United States in under three years, Hilary Bradt said.

Eccentric America features quirk alerts and state maps littered with bizarre landmarks. There's the Children's Garbage Museum in Stratford that has a 24-foot-long, 12-foot-high dinosaur made entirely of trash, and the annual Stink Fest, which includes an outhouse race, held in Bradford, Pa., in May.

But writer Jan Friedman says one of her most treasured finds is a man by the name of Leonard Knight from Niland, Calif. His Salvation Mountain - made entirely of hay bales, adobe, old paint and window putty - is three stories high and about a 100 feet wide, one man's personal tribute to God.

Friedman said Knight's Salvation Mountain was her first taste of weirdness, and one of the first things she knew she just had to include in the 2001 edition of Eccentric America.

"I have kind of lived up to Leonard's standards ever since," she said. "I have just raised the bar on quirkiness so it takes a lot to impress me."

Friedman said she considered 3,000 entries for the first book, of which only 1,000 made the cut. She is working on an Eccentric California and hopes to have it completed by December.

Bradt guides range in price from $9.95 to $24.95. Hilary Bradt remembers the days when she and her now ex-husband would travel from city to city, promoting their unique guides to bookstores in Europe and throughout the United States.

Bradt was an occupational therapist for 15 years before discovering her knack for travel.

"This is hard work, and you need someone who has just the right sense of humor," Bradt said. "You can't just sit at a bar and talk to other travelers. You have to do the research."

By Laura Walsh