A Travel Guide to Captain James Cook’s New Zealand.  Graeme Lay.  2017

A Travel Guide to Captain James Cook’s New Zealand. Graeme Lay. 2017

Lay, Graeme. 
A Travel Guide to Captain James Cook’s New Zealand
New Holland Publishers. 
208 pages. 
ISBN 9781869664602.

An irritating thing about many travel guides – Lonely Planet for one – is often the large size of the book and the small size of the print.  If you’re travelling light, a good guide for me needs to be, well…. er, small enough to fit into my wife’s handbag and easily retrievable (good luck) so I can avoid having to wear one of those man bag things.  It’s also a great help if the font size is actually big enough to read without binoculars.


So this book got instant ticks for perfect dimensions, light weight, and proper, non-eye-straining font.  It would be no problem reading this in a jiggling car, bus or train passenger seat, or even on one of those bikes you often see unfit tourists on.  It’s also got a very good, clear index—yippee!!  Indispensable for looking up the places you especially want to see first.  I also like my travel guide to be very accurate, concise and “punchy” to read, with only the most relevant background or interesting historical facts noted, and to include website addresses or I-sites to visit if needed when you get there.


These qualities altogether sum up a little gem of a book really.  It has all of these things.  Graeme Lay’s “street cred” on Cook and where he went, of course is second to none.  Having travelled all around the Pacific and elsewhere researching Cook for many years, he really knows his stuff.  We like authority in a travel guide and this has it.  So even us picky readers can be assured he knows what’s really worth going to see.  But Lay also knows most of the fascinating, side-line Cook snippets, so there’s absolutely no risk of this travel guide becoming just another list of places to go to.


One of the crazy things about our hero is that on his first ever trip down under in 1769, he just happened to stop off at what are still regarded today, as the very best scenic places in the whole of NZ!  His instincts for missing big rocks and finding beautiful bays were unbelievable.  The Travel Guide to Cook’s New Zealand takes you to five or six regions that still resound today as “must-sees”, even if you aren’t a Cookaphile.  They are the wonderful rolling green pastures, fruit bowls and grape-growing hills of the North Island East Coast; the white sands and crystal-clear blue waters of the Coromandel marine playgrounds and Cook’s Beach; north to the stunning 360° panorama and history-soaked sites of the Bay of Islands; Captain Cook’s favourite—Queen Charlotte Sound, whose islands and waterways are beautiful enough to make you wince in disbelief; and Dusky Bay and Breakwater Sound in the Fiordland national park—places of such incomparable majesty and beauty that crusty old male friends of mine who have been there have told me confidentially that their eyes watered while they were swallowing the lump in their throats.  Lay says himself, when describing Dusky Bay, that the word “grandeur” is just too feeble a word to use.


The beauty of a book written by someone who knows how to write, is that in this case it becomes much more than a travel guide.  You could thor­roughly recommend A Travel Guide to Captain James Cook’s New Zealand to any favourite niece or old uncle in the UK, USA, Australia, or any­where, who is planning his or her first visit to New Zea­land, and just wants some advice on the best places to see—without even mentioning Cook. 


But also, don’t expect a glossy, expensive-looking work.  This is a travel guide, a paperback designed to be thumbed through, scribbled on, and probably stained by the odd spilled coffee or pinot noir, but to be kept forever as a memory of a very special visit or time, or even reference book.  It’s also right up to date—a perfect lead-in to the 250th anniversary events in 2019 and 2020.  What you can also expect is some great stories (like the wonderful little backgrounder on Cook’s beer-brewing activities and the story of the sunken Russian tourist ship), travel tips and historical references, all packed into something you can read cover to cover on a three-hour flight from any­where.  There are good colour photos, instructions for the particular state highways to use, up-to-date website addresses, some very useful little maps and diagrams and practical recommendations on walk­ways and tours.  If I had just swallowed a mouthful of vinegar or a squeeze of lemon, I might have found a couple of very petty quibbles, but this is a travel guide after all, and you’re probably better to just lie back and let your appetite be whetted.


Good on both author and publishers for includ­ing, in the appendices, some useful information about the Captain Cook Society, the Sester­centennial and, for those interested, further reading suggestions on Cook.  It all makes for a very complete and useful little package—whether you’re travelling or not.  Actually, I have an excellent idea now for a couple of Xmas presents because I probably won’t want to loan my copy to anyone—I’d never get it back.



John Steele

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 20, volume 41, number 1 (2018).

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