Guidebooks don't always know best

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''A prodigious boozing town," declares no less an authority than part of the BBC. Cardiff, according to the new edition of Lonely Planet's Great Britain guide. The BBC-owned publisher promises "beered-up lads and ladettes tottering from bar to club to kebab shop". Tempted? I was, and hurried to the Welsh capital to see for myself.

Even now that TripAdvisor is the oracle of choice for many travellers, Lonely Planet has carried off the same trick that it has performed every two years since 1995: upsetting local sensitivities and generating free publicity for the book. The first edition sent the then-mayor of Blackpool into apoplexy. Ever since, the publisher has alternated with the rival Rough Guides to coax consternation from the nation.

Yet caution about Cardiff's lively nightlife is nothing new. Footprint's guide to Wales in 2005 described the city centre as "incredibly rowdy when assorted South Walians and stag and hen parties (hens generally wearing antlers or sprouting sparkly fairy wings) go largin' it". Two years earlier, the Rough Guide had warned of a different manifestation of binge-drinking: "Teashops have sprung up like fungus". And could any praise be fainter than this from a 16th-century writer, William Camden: "Cardiff, a proper fine Town (as far as Townes go in this county)"? But Mr Camden did commend the city's "most commodious harbour", where I headed.

As the sun bestowed a copper plating upon the water, I nervously sipped a pint in the Terra Firma pub and waited for trouble to start. But the only other drinkers were civil servants from the Department of Work and Pensions, without any antlers or sparkly fairy wings.

Guidebooks make better companions than online sources such as TripAdvisor: they are researched and written by professionals who are paid to rate and recommend. Bibles, though, they are not. Most of the Lonely Planet chapter on Cardiff is favourable and accurate, but every traveller should try to trump the authors' choices.

How could they recommend the expensive Park Plaza Hotel yet leave out Sleeperz – a budget boutique brand that offers top quality at half the price? Why overlook the Welsh cuisine of Garland's, an elegant café in Duke Street Arcade? To be fair, the new guide led me to lunch in Castle Arcade on the opposite side of the High Street. I feasted on fougasse (emmental, ham and olives in puff pastry) at a Breton deli named Madame Fromage.

One of the big cheeses in the Wales tourist industry is Paul Harris, founder of SeeWales Tours. He told me of his "extreme disappointment at the negative comments from Lonely Planet". But I reckon that guidebooks do the UK a favour by drawing attention to everything from long queues at Warwick Castle to the "sprawl of industrial townships tied together by flyovers" known as Stoke-on-Trent. Britain's tourism offering has improved since the mid-1990s, thanks in part to the guidebook writers and publishers whose scorn has spurred self-improvement along with fury.

Not even the greatest fan of Wales could claim that the principality is endowed with fast and frequent public transport. The Georgian gem of Aberaeron on the coast of Ceredigion has but a couple of buses each day to Cardiff and by 3pm on Tuesday I had missed them both. So I started hitching. A decorator stopped his van, but could accommodate me only in the back along with his materials. For the next 20 minutes I occupied a world that smelled of paint in a steel cocoon battered by the odd sharp shower.

How could I be certain I was not being abducted? He seemed a kind chap. And, in the 21st century, if you find yourself travelling in the sealed back of a van through Wales, you can follow your progress on a smartphone and be reassured that the van is following the course of the A482 and will shortly arrive in Lampeter.

After my release, I hitched another ride – on a minibus ferrying a team from Visit Wales from a conference in Aberystwyth to the Welsh capital. If anything, that experience was scarier.

Simon Calder on film in Cardiff Bay: cardiffbay