Sure Google Earth and GPS devices have their place, but sometimes you want to be unplugged. There's a lot of value in a local map you can just pull out of your pocket or bag.
The traditional map makers aren't leaving innovation to the pixel programmers though. I just got samples of two cool new map products that I can't wait to use on a future trip.
The first is from good ole Rand McNally and is called the fabMap. Mine is especially fab because it's a map of South Beach, Miami--and because it's made of cloth! Yes, it's a regular looking, useful map, but printed in color on cloth that's stitched on the side. That mean you can stuff it in your pocket, smash it into your purse, or get it wet at the beach. You can clean your sunglasses with it too, so there's your ruse if you want to look at it without appearing to be a clueless tourist.
The map has everything you'd expect from Rand McNally: streets, points of interest, hotels, and a distance scale marker. On the back of this South Beach map is a detail of Lincoln Road Mall, one of Espanola Way, and a symbol key. Other fabMaps are currently available for 15 popular tourist spots in the US, with more on the way. Right now that includes places like the French Quarter of New Orleans, the Theater District of Manhattan, the Las Vegas Strip, and the Fisherman's Wharf area of San Francisco. At only $5.95, this would be a great stocking stuffer.
City Walks and Village Walks
Chronicle Books has put out a series of maps arranged as walking tour cards in a box. You pull out the card you want and go take a hike. Arranged as City Hikes and Village Hikes, the boxes are smaller than a mass paperback book and contain "50 adventures on foot."
I got my hands on two of them: City Walks with Kids - New York and Village Walks - Provence and the Cote d'Azur.
I worked in Manhattan for a few years, so I already knew most of the areas in the New York with kids one. I just wish I had been able to take this box with me when we took our daughter there last year. One side of each card has an illustrated map, the other side has a few paragraphs of text. The cards point out all the kid-focused things in an area (including playground stops) and restaurants with food the little ones will like. Some of the cards focus on a neighborhood walk and others focus on one attraction, such as the New York City Fire Museum.
If you're going to be somewhere more than a half hour, it's probably best to group two or three of these together to have enough to do outside of mealtimes. That's easy to do though: they are in order from the bottom tip of Manhattan up to the Bronx, with the last seven hitting Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. All cards show how to get there by subway or bus and have stops marked on the map.
I haven't been to the the area covered by the French village walks set, but these cards are in a similar format, with a more traditional looking map on one side and text geared to patient adults on the other. There's a lot of dawdling built into the assumption on the itineraries though, so some look as if they would only take about 10 minutes to complete. It would pay to walk out the door with all three or four covering sightseeing walks in Nice or Avignon if it's not lunchtime or whatever they call happy hour in France. These cards would be a great companion in your pocket though as so many buildings or sights noted would be easily passed by on a normal stroll--unless you had your nose buried in a guidebook. Since these are lighter and easier to carry, they would allow you to walk with a lighter load.
The City Walks map cards sell for $14.95 and would be a thoughtful gift for a traveler or even a local resident of one of these regions. The City Walks with Kids series is also available for D.C., Paris, and San Francisco. The adult ones are also available for Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, D.C., New York, Toronto, Barcelona, Tuscany, Amsterdam, Rome, Paris, and Ireland. For info on these and future versions, search the Chronicle Books site.