New travel books explore the paths less taken

The Bizarre Truth: How I Walked Out the Door Mouth First . . . and Came Back Shaking My Head By Andrew Zimmern Broadway Books 271 pages, $24.99

Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel series Bizarre Foods and the new Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre World, which premiered Tuesday, has a dream job that allows him to traverse the globe in search of authentic experiences in exotic places.

The upside: He gets to rub elbows with everyone from glitterati in India to bushmen in the Kalahari.

The downside: He has had to eat rotten shark in Iceland and raw camel kidneys in Ethiopia.

But as Zimmern says of his pursuit of the odd: "We do not seek out strange enclaves or outrageous foods for the sake of shocking people. If we wanted to do that, we would shoot the whole thing at the town landfill here in Minneapolis and save a lot of travel costs."

And despite the purely subjective use of the word bizarre to characterize food and culture, Zimmern approaches travel with a usually offbeat sense of adventure and a healthy dose of wonder.

As he notes in an aside about a "horrific" stay some years back in an all-inclusive resort in Mexico, "The best experiences you will ever have as a traveler require getting off your (butt) and spending quality time with real people in real towns. … I prefer to do it by experiencing food and sharing culture."

Whether that sharing entails hunting fruitbats in Samoa or chasing puffins in Iceland, the cultural exchange generally culminates with a meal.

"I … believe you can taste a culture and its people in their food," Zimmern writes. "I swear to you I have tasted struggle and love, war and death, in a good bowl of stew."

Off the Tourist Trail: 1,000 Unexpected Travel Alternatives By various authors DK Eyewitness Travel 336 pages, $40

So you've seen the Grand Canyon from a dozen angles. And the Amalfi coast is so yesterday. As for Carnival in Rio? Major yawn.

Whether you're truly jaded or just extremely well-traveled, this coffee-table tome to paths less taken is full of intriguing detours.

The book takes popular tourist spots, outlines why their reality might not live up to their promise (top reason: too many tourists) and offers alternative destinations. It's divided into nine categories ranging from natural wonders to festivals to great journeys.

For instance, the authors suggest Utah's Bryce Canyon is less intimidating than Arizona's Grand Canyon. Corsica's northwest coast lacks the killer traffic of Italy's Amalfi coast. And if you're looking for a really wild party, the 2 million revelers who hit the streets of Salvador, Brazil's Carnival, top Rio's crowds.

Besides giving the lowdown on alternative locales, Off the Tourist Trail offers additional spots in list form. Riga, Latvia, for example, is suggested as a worthy substitute for Prague. (While the latter is gorgeous, it's prone to ripping off tourists, many of whom are rowdy Brits on stag party weekends, the authors note.) And if Riga isn't your flavor, other medieval beauties include Bratislava, Slovakia; Gdansk, Poland; and Bruges, Belgium.

The book concentrates on international, exotic locales. But even those who don't have a prayer of ever reaching Everest Base Camp — never mind its lesser-known alternative, Annapurna—Off the Tourist Trail serves up plenty of fresh ideas.