Monday, December 10, 2007

We're Not All Surfers & Celebs

The Most Beautiful Villages and Towns of California

by Joan Tapper
Photographs by Nik Wheeler
Thames & Hudson, September 24, 2007
208 pages, hardcover/323 color illustrations/$40.00

Reviewed by Jain Lemos

With The Most Beautiful Villages and Towns of California, photographer Nik Wheeler and travel writer Joan Tapper have created a hefty new coffee-table book that engagingly transports readers to the small town jewels of a mammoth state. Flipping through the image-heavy pages of this volume, it is easy to imagine yourself enjoying a lazy afternoon strolling around any of the many charming communities scattered throughout California.

California is part of the Most Beautiful Villages and Towns series by Thames & Hudson, with earlier titles focusing mostly on European destinations. The concept is to explore lesser-known hamlets and the assorted townsfolk who frame the personalities of small-town settings. The villages and towns selected for inclusion typically have populations less than 40,000.

The book is organized by six main sections on Northern California’s Coasts, Mountains and Valleys, and Central and Southern California’s Coasts, Mountains and Valleys. Additionally, there are three separate pictorial spreads exploring the history and heritage of the state’s most iconic themes: the wine country, ghost towns and missions.

As a native of the Golden State, I was thrilled to see the town where I was born and raised, Mendocino, presented so attractively in California. I have visited nearly every location covered in this book, and the quality of photography and writing inspired me to return to many, but this time with deeper appreciation for the historical importance these communities have played in forming Californian’s heritage.

Wheeler and Tapper found a way to shed a new importance to ho-hum stops such as Eureka, Truckee, Bishop, and Ferndale. Throughout California, the authors do a fair job of attempting to equalize the stature of those lesser-known places with the state’s more fashionable weekender stops such as Sausalito, Montecito, and Carmel-by-the-Sea. Also exposed are Nevada City, Julian, Jamestown and Ballard. In fact, one could take any number of treasure-hunt-like trips using this book as a guide.

The images by Santa Barbara-based photographer Nik Wheeler have been added liberally and make the book as abundant as the state itself. His images form a cohesive and fresh approach to the most obscure parts of the state. Wheeler photographed new images on assignment specifically for California, often returning to a location in order to extend coverage or document festivals. His shots are a smart blend of oceanscapes, antiquated streets, wilderness environments, abandoned and restored hallmarks, ranches, markets and well-timed candid snaps of locals at various yearly events.

With her friendly, chatty style, celebrated travel writer Joan Tapper mixes timelines, travel tips, happenings, secret spots to visit and visual high points in her narrative running through California. Tapper obviously spent time hanging out long enough at each stop in order to ask the right “outsider” questions to the right “insider” residents. There is enough historical information to get a general flavor for each place.

The book also touches on local architecture and natives, making California that more intriguing to read. In a back section are personal recommendations for places to stay and dine, a map of the state pinpointing places covered in the book and a list of selected reading about California topics and specific towns.

If you want to experience an earthy, down home dimension of the state, California delivers that feeling page after page. Bypassing the usual glitz and glamour, this book instead celebrates the more solid and serious side of California by bringing to light the beauty of its little places with big hearts.

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