asia specific IN DOUGLAS ADAMS' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Ford Prefect is stuck on Earth while updating the guide's entry for the 'utterly insignificant little blue-green planet' at the unfashionable end of the galaxy. 'Harmless' doesn't quite capture it, so he changes it to 'Mostly harmless'. It's with a similar appreciation for brevity that Grant Thatcher and his team at Hong Kong-based Luxe City Guides approach the needs of the modern-day traveller for whom only the best will do and time is a precious commodity. Operating out of Sheung Wan, with offices in Singapore and Sydney, Thatcher coordinates coverage of 16 cities throughout the Asia-Pacific region and injects the guides with a tone The Independent newspaper in Britain describes as 'either fabulously witty or fantastically irritating, depending on your point of view'. It takes a moment to reconcile the Wildean campery of the internationally popular pocket guide to travelling with style with the well-spoken, buttoned-down and bespectacled Englishman, whose voice, trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, narrated National Geographic and Discovery Channel documentaries until Luxe took over his life. 'Other guides want to be all things to all people, to be as comprehensive as they can be,' says Thatcher. 'Our point of view is simple - if something is great, then it's in, if not, it's out.' Thatcher's quirky writing has a growing following among those who don't want to waste time in places they won't be seen, those who enjoy the odd vacation indulgence and travellers who have outgrown the Lonely Planet and find Fodor's staid. With a lot to say about each city, and a rigorous format in which to say it, every word counts and Thatcher and his city editors weigh each for accuracy. 'There's no room for grey writing in Luxe; every word must be precise,' he says. Each of the 300 to 350 entries is hard fact with attitude, be it a hotel or bar or half-day shopping trip away from the boutique boulevards, with a dash of whimsy. Luxe disdains the word 'tourist'. 'It conjures up too many images, none of which is nice,' says Thatcher. 'You may not be able to afford to travel first class, but that shouldn't dampen your appreciation of where you're visiting.' It's clear from each guide that Luxe approaches travel with a sense of fun. 'Everything is luxury, luxury, luxury to the point it doesn't mean anything any more, which cheapens what is truly luxurious. Travel is a serious business these days, so you've got to find time to have a laugh and enjoy being in the presence of something truly great, even if it's just a great martini.' This is Thatcher's special area of research, and he reports that only five of the 16 cities under coverage have fabulous martinis. 'I'm talking about when they get it right the first time, without you having to explain to the barman how to make it,' he says. 'And it has to be served up in the right sized glass, and that means a big martini, not something gone in one sip. You can't get a good martini in Phuket.' But he's delighted to report from his latest field trip to Shanghai for that city's third edition that you can get a fine martini at Jean Georges on the Bund, where they 'nailed it first time'. And in the new Hong Kong edition - the seventh for the city in 31/2 years, Thatcher gives a nod to Corduroy in Causeway Bay. So what's really hot in Hong Kong at the moment? Surveying his 34 contributors from a cross-section of Hong Kong life, all unpaid and recognised only by their initials, 'they just love Caprice'. Contributors are at the heart of each guide. 'You get a swift and clear idea of who's good and who's slipping. It's the kind of opinion people like. The writers live in the city. The editor lives in the city. And everything is checked again from here.' The New York Times says the guides are 'fast becoming indispensable for their up-to-date intelligence'; style.com recommends them as the next best thing to having a well-connected local friend; and foodandwine.com calls Luxe 'ruthlessly picky'. Thatcher, 43, was born in Bristol, in the heart of England's west country. His memories are of the annual family holiday in a cramped caravan on the same wet piece of coast. 'No one flew off to Spain.' He goes back there for his own holidays, partly because he loves the green countryside, but also because he can't relax in places covered by Luxe - which rules out Bali, Bangkok, Beijing, Chiang Mai, Dubai, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Phuket, Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Sydney and Tokyo. 'There's always going to be something I have to check out,' he says. Luxe emerged from the two years he lived in Bangkok before moving to Hong Kong, and the large amount of furniture he had custom-made there for his new home in Pokfulam. He was assailed with questions about where he got his pieces from, so he wrote it all down, adding to the list answers to other most-asked questions about where to eat, where to hear good music and where to get a decent drink. He e-mailed the list to friends, and updated it after each trip. 'I was at a party in Singapore and mentioned I was on my way to Bangkok. This woman pulled from her bag five ratty pages with a half page 'cc' list and said 'You'll thank me for this'. It was then I realised there might be some money in this.' That was in 2002. 'The first seven guides I researched and wrote myself.' He polished his text and worked with a Hong Kong printer to develop the distinctive concertina layout and stain-resistant paper. 'Perhaps the most unique point of Luxe is that for each new city, I fly to the destination and personally check all the entries, from shops to bars to services and walks,' he says. 'I know of no other guide series on the planet that does this.' With two editions a year for each city, the print run of 10,000 copies is in the warehouse and being distributed within 48 hours of Thatcher signing off on it. 'I think the immediacy of our information is pretty good,' he says. About 5,000 copies per edition are sold over the internet, and Thatcher is exploring how to make it available as a download for PDA and iPod. Shades of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which tells you how to make a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster and its effect - 'like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick' - but never actually says where to find the best. Martini, anyone? For the road Grant Thatcher's favourite travel books Hong Kong by Jan Morris 'I read it on the plane when I first came to Hong Kong, which was 10 years ago.' My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell 'I've lost count of the number of times I've read this enchanting tale of a family's life on Corfu in the 1930s.' Martini - A Memoir by Frank Moorhouse 'I read this fascinating, dark and poignant hymn to the beautiful beverage while fasting for six days at the Farm in San Benito - it was agony.' City Secrets: London edited by Tim Adams 'This charming volume is a collation of favourite places, like how to find the 'secret' rooms at Sir John Sloane's Museum and the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. Venice for Pleasure by J.G. Links 'Walks through Venice with an author who clearly adores his subject, studded with observations and little gems that you would miss if he wasn't whispering in your ear as you go.'