Dear Friends at Lonely Planet,
Greetings! First, I would like to say that your guides to various geographic locations are thick, diverse in choice, and are seemingly very user-friendly. I know that when I pick up a Lonely Planet guide that I'm getting some kind of authoritative resource that an actual person has gone to these locations and has experienced what they have to offer. On first glance, it appears that you all are very "real" with your approach to travel and that's why I bought your books (with the slick color photographic inserts inside helped, too -- hoo boy, those make everything look great!).
These things being said, I believe it's important that I call to your attention certain details that it may be necessary to clarify in your Fiji and East Coast Australia guides. Both of these guides give a pretty good overview of these locations, but I have a few objections to your verbiage.
For example, my friend and I recently returned from a trip to Fiji and Australia and we had your books in tow the entire way. Every time a city, port, island, tourist destination, hostel or hotel was mentioned I double checked the facts against your guides to make sure I had a realistic idea of what I was about to experience (and, I might add, I noticed a dozen other people doing the same thing all around us). For most of our destinations, your reviews were spot on and very useful, particularly when it came to actual things to see and/or geographic facts about a location (where the Swami temple is, where to catch a ferry, etc.). But when it came time to recommend accommodations you were sorely off-target, or else sorely misinformed.
In Fiji, we took Awesome Adventures' "Yasawa Flyer" boat (known to the locals as "the yellow boat" as you correctly identified) out to Kuata, a small island identified as "quite spectacular with unusual volcanic rock formations, caves, coral cliffs on the southern end, and great snorkeling just offshore" (p.182). In a general sense, this is correct. However, if one plans on taking advantage of any of these "spectacular and unusual" things, one needs a hefty pair of water shoes, hiking boots, and a machete to cut through the thick brush separating you from the mountains and reefs. Also, the beach sucks for swimming because of all the fossilized coral underfoot and shallow waters.
There is only one "resort" on Kuata, the "Kuata Resort," which is described as having "15-bed dorms and many traditional style double bure with private bathrooms, tightly arranged around the gardens" (p.182). This is more or less true, except for two important details: "resort" and "private bathroom" need to be clarified. Your Fiji guide should come with a glossary in the back that redefines "resort" as "any place with four walls and a bed and some other stuff to do," and "private bathroom" as "a room without electricity extending off main bure with toilet and 'shower,' or a pipe coming from ground with showerhead attached to the roof and a hole punctured in concrete-slab floor for a drain." When my friend and I first entered our private bure, we were struck by how cute it was with its colorful mismatched patterns on the beds and floor, but upon further inspection, were shocked by its crudeness: peeling mismatched linoleum, windows propped open with wooden stakes, mosquito nets suspended by coconut rope from each corner, and a single fluorescent bulb above the door. Not that we really minded, aware as we were that we're incredibly spoiled Americans used to all kinds of convenience and wasteful habits, but it would have been helpful to know exactly what we were to expect. We are used to hairdryers, straightening irons, DVDs and cable television. This was a good first test, though.
Fig1. Spiders as big as your hand lurk in Fiji hotelrooms.
Needless to say, we enjoyed our day and were actually happy with everything until that night, when we were introduced to the insects and arachnids of Kuata Island. You neglected to mention that Kuata is infested with cockroaches and very, very large spiders that take a liking to the walls, floors, and insides of the mosquito nets of private bures. My friend and I had a very restless sleep after some rather terrifying extermination processes.
When I had to get up in the middle of the night to use the "private bathroom," I was terrified of touching or stepping on some kind of huge insect or arachnid in the pitch dark that would scare me so bad I'd be willing swim all the way back to Viti Levu. Fortunately, I couldn't see a damn thing in the dark so I was unaware of anything at all (including walls), let alone any fist-sized spiders in my path.
By the time we left Kuata, we were getting used to the idea of bugs, lizards, sparse and sporadic electrical availability and drinking rainwater. We were also not surprised by outdoor toilet and bathing facilities, roofs open wide to the surrounding hills. Though primitive, there was something kind of charming about this, and thus I will not ask you to include this note in your book.
At this point, I would like to make an observation regarding beach photography: it is important to know that when water is many colors of blue that, while stunning and enticing, you must know that the dark areas are coral reef and are not to be considered in your leisurely beach swims. One cannot merely float and frolic around these large living underwater formations, one must be conscious that it is a thriving ecosystem that demands attention because if you don't, it will certainly get you. Don't swim without a snorkel for two reasons: you will seriously hurt yourself if you are unaware of coral proximity (see examples a and b) and you may be missing out on some of the most stunning underwater activity on Earth. The beauty of seeing hundreds of different kinds of fish interact with the reef is one that is permanently burned into my memory and though I foolishly thought I could take the reef, it was worth every drop of blood, every scab, and every stinging shower thereafter.
Fig2. Examples a and b of why not to be careful around coral
Now, on to Sydney: your book, East Coast Australia: A Classic Overland Route, was very helpful. We were able to glean appropriate wisdom about many places we visited, including Brisbane, Lismore, Byron and Sydney. Your recommendations for busses and airlines are really great and the extensive maps are exceedingly helpful. However, in the department of "Places To Stay," you again fall short of reality.
The most extreme example of this would be when my friend and I decided to try out a hostel in Bondi called "Indy's" that was described as having a "relaxed, easy-going vibe; this hostel is probably the best backpacking option in Bondi" (p.204). I would say that it may have been important to mention some of the key traits of this place, namely that it is an all-night party house filled with drunken, sunburned youth. I will describe my Indy's experience to give you an idea of what one can truly expect there.
When we finally made it into the front gate after sliding in behind some folks who were leaving, we were greeted with the smell of marijuana, cigarettes, and lots and lots of alcohol. "Loud" is not quite the appropriate word; "deafening" would be closer to the truth. At our feet were people wrestling on the floor. When one of the wrestlers accidentally ran into the feet of my friend and I, he stopped, slowly and deliberately ran his hands up our legs and said, "I am so sorry ladies, I hope you can forgive me," and then stumbled off in a drunken haze. My statement, "Get your hands off me," was drowned out by the noise of the room, leading me to think I maybe only said it in my head, and all I could do was stand there with my mouth hanging open in shock.
So, we headed up the stairs to find beds. What we met on the landing was anything but "relaxed" and this image proved to be one of the more humorous ones of our journey.
Fig3. A portion of the mural at Indy's in Bondi, Australia.
The foyer was decorated with an airbrushed mural of people on the beach, many muscular, topless women with can-toting men hitting on them. People with boomboxes and lots of muscles and did I mention the topless women? Not that this offends me terribly, but you really had to see this 360-degree airbrushed wonder to believe it. Their nipples had obviously received the attention of some bored and drunken backpacker who managed to scrape them down to the wall's plaster. In the foyer itself was a young guy using the ironing board in his underwear. The wrestling match had moved to the stairs behind us at this point. With all of this happening around, I was left thinking, "I'm planning on actually sleeping here?"
After some knocking on doors and calling people and finally getting signed in by someone who I hope was in charge, we were placed in room 1, one of the rooms with the topless women airbrushed on the door. I was so exhausted and uncomfortable that by the time we got in our room I decided to just go to bed. Sharing our room were two girls from the UK, and there were several apparently claimed beds. I just climbed to the top bunk, put on my headphones and went to sleep. However, because the wrestling match had moved into the hallway behind my head at that point, I was constantly being jostled and heard loud thuds through my headphones. I am surprised I managed to sleep at all.
When I woke up at about 7am, I sat up and noticed my roommates: a guy passed out in the twin bed in his underwear, another guy on the top bunk across from me, and another heavily-tattooed guy pulling on his pants and heading out the door. The girls from the night before were still there. Mixed-gender rooms don't necessarily bother me, but I found myself a little cautious after wondering if these guys were involved in the wrestling. But anyway, I digress.
These are just a few of the experiences we had that deviated noticeably from what was forecasted in your Lonely Planet guides. I have no idea if one of your reviewers was actually one of the drunk, tattooed, loud wrestlers we ran into at Indy's or not, but I would suspect that might actually be the case.
In conclusion, I would like you to know that I have penciled in my own comments into my copies of the guides and plan on sending them to you in an official sense for consideration in the next edition of either of these books. Again, overall, your books are great but your straightforward, cheeky reviews could be a bit more honest... or at least maybe you can have an "American wimp" edition or something. I would have appreciated this a couple of weeks ago, but now that the damage is done and I can have a good laugh over it, I think that you all have some serious work to do.
Thanks so much for your attention and I look forward to seeing many changes in the next wave of Lonely Planet guides.