"THE WORLD is now not contented to be merely entertained by a traveller's narrative," Samuel Johnson admonished the aspiring travel writer, James Boswell, "they want to learn something."

Two hundred years later, trends haven't changed much. Travelers still want to learn; and travel books and baedekers abound for that reason. Leisure - for most people - is simply too valuable to be left to chance.

Among the most promising of this spring's guidebooks is Europe's Wonderful Little Hotels and Inns, a book which will appeal to those who prefer to stay in small comfortable places surrounded by antiques, fragrant gardens and a friendly staff.

For example, consider the description of Combe House: a "grand and beautiful Elizabethan mansion standing in its own grounds" in Devon, "run like an Edwardian country house. Large, old-fashioned public rooms have roaring fires in winter, bedrooms enjoy views of woods and moors. Superb food, from Devonshire cream teas to dinner specialties such as a local shellfish in puff pastry . . . Only 13 bedrooms, so book well ahead." Such charm is not inexpensive, however. This is not a book for those seeking bargains, though some bargains are tucked in. By and large hotel prices listed are comparable to those here in the U.S. Prices for English inns seem to run from $30 to $60 for two, the Combe House slightly more.

The guide is based on reader recommendations, a system which has its advantages and disadvantages. The editor points out that no hotel pays for its entry and no free hospitality is accepted, a policy markedly different from that of some well-known guides. This also means there is no one clear-cut standard by which these inns rise and fall. Reader contributors, however generally seem to value antique furniture, fresh flowers, vegetables from the garden, walks and the art of conversation.

About half the 475 entries in the guide are devoted to England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and the Channel Islands; the other half to 19 countries in Europe and North Africa. (A serious flaw in the European section is the lack of conversion of lira, dinar, kroners and Maltese pounds into American dollars.) But the strength of this book is really its information on Britain. Apart from entries on the almost-elegant and genteel, some listings describe the unpretentious but comfortable, some the downright rustic - "There was a wake going on when I arrived at Kinloch, and the bar was thick with Gaelic, cigarette smoke and salt whisky fumes." The section on Wales was an especially delightful surprise, as not much has been done on this area; it may have more charming places to stay per square mile than anywhere.

David Yeadon, author of Backroad Journeys of the West Coast States has written a book for those sojourners in America willing to "bid farewell to the superhighways, the motel strips, the junk-food restaurants."

The author, who has already written 11 books on hidden corners in America's countryside and cities, offers routes - with very detailed directions - for 15 backroad trips in California, Oregon and Washington. The book is at its best when being specific about places to eat and stay, and things to do. Much of the history is wonderful. For example, during the gold rush, Yeadon recounts, Edwin Booth and Lola Montez were showered "with gold dust after each tumultuous performance" at the theater in Downieville, Calif.

A good deal of the book, however, is filled with narrative describing personal experiences, encounters with locals, conversations held on trips through these areas. Yeadon's enthusiasm for his subject may lead to occasional disappointment for the unknowledgeable: Readers must be able to decide for themselves if visiting the Reedsport Cheese Factory is a primary objective in life. It also seems only fair to warn sojourners who take quiet inland routes that they will miss some of the most spectacularly beautiful coast in America.

Yeadon's advice is sound, nevertheless and his sense of relaxed exploration and friendly encounter contagious. I now know of hidden beaches and waterfalls, neglected missions, and a place to get what may be the best bread in California, not to mention where to find a cranberry festival. Los Angeles denizens and commuters may be especially interested in the chapter on "The Great Los Angeles Bypass."

Said the Water Rat to the Mole in The Wind in the Willows, "'Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,' he went on dreamily, 'messing - about - in - boats; messing -.'" Thus sailors will no doubt welcome the most recent Cruising Guide to the New England Coast by Roger F. Duncan and John P. Ware. (Related Dodd, Mead cruising guides cover the Chesapeake Bay, the Southern Coast, and the Caribbean.) This is the eighth edition of the book (considered indispensable by the U.S. Power Squadron) to be issued since Duncan's father mimeographed and distributed 50 copies among friends in 1938, with requests for additions and corrections. The authors admit to preferring to sail themselves, but aver, "we hold no hard feelings toward those who prefer to motor."

Introductory chapters include practical advice to mariners on weather and the interpretation thereof, and the use of rudimentary equipment, such as a good compass and reliable charts. The rest of the book is devoted to description of hundreds of harbors, grouped by locations, from the Hudson River and Long Island Sound, to Schoodic Point and West Quoddy Head (a lonesome part of the Maine coast), which focus on pragmatic information, such as the depth of the harbor, silt and shoal conditions, and the provision of basic services - gas, oil, water, and marine supplies.

Entries are also crammed with historical anecdotes about towns and waters which have been sailed since the 17th century. What makes the book especially useful and readable is a sense of the unspoiled. The authors describe charming harbors surrounded by verdant hills and stark cliffs, when they exist. There is information on where to go lobstering, gaze at honeysuckle, find nesting osprey, or gather a bucket of berries, or clams at low tide. However, they do not flinch from informing their readers of the once more idyllic Provincetown that, "the first thing one meets ashore is a vast parking lot." "And this," they will say frankly of another port, "is a wretched anchorage."

Everett T. Rattray has written an informal and affectionate history of The South Fork: The Land and People of Eastern Long Island. The South Fork, which is the 30-mile strip along the Atlantic, from Southampton to Montauk Point ("all the Hamptons save West"), has enjoyed a special place in history. The tardy arrival of the railroads, which did not reach East Hampton "until three decades after they spanned the nation," helped protect the unspoiled beauty of the area. Although it has developed a reputation as a haven for the affluent, it has also largely managed to retain its neatly tended farmlands, windmills, and examples of relatively restrained traditional clap-board and brownshingle architecture, not to mention pristine beaches.

Rattray, who is publisher of The East Hampton Star is a 12th generation East Hamptonite, a fact which might go unnoticed, except that his grandmother, distrusting the effectiveness of oral history, wrote down stories of an idiosyncratic family.And for most readers, the book's family stories and collation of history will be of more interest than its topographical and geological descriptions.

Among the members of Rattray's family was Albert Edwards, one of grandfather's many uncles, "a notable killer of ducks, who, in cold weather, would throw off his clothes and paddle out into Great Pond rather than subject his dog to the wet." There were indomitable whalers and numerous shipwrecks. Walt Whitman tromped about Montauk, as did 29,500 Rough Riders in 1858, fresh from Cuba, who camped there until they were certified free of yellow fever, typhoid and profiteer's loot. And so on. Inhabitants and "summer people" may especially enjoy this honorable and concerned local history. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption