THIS TIME of year "coffee table books" are almost as numerous as sugar plums. If only they were always as appetizing . . .

In recent weeks the Vendome Press of New York City has released a minor flood of big, colorful and expensive picture books that are obviously aimed at the Christmas trade. They are more than typical travel books (nowadays almost anything can be termed "travel" and that's not necessarily meant to be approbatory), since the camera -- and text -- focus on people, their life styles and culture, not merely on buildings and places.

Unfortunately, the quality of the reproduction is often superior to the content, both in terms of the pictures' failure at times to go beyond mere recording to transmit a real sense of drama and feeling, and textual concepts that sometimes seem to exclude or restrict reporting on negative or unflattering aspects. But the books have their good points.

Some of the most artistically striking and pleasing scenes appear in "Islands and Lagoons of Venice," photos by Fulvio Roiter, text by Peter Lauritzin, $50); and "Afghanistan: Paradise Lost," by Roland and Sabrina Michaud, $45.

"Venice," with 160 full-color illustrations, explores a lagoon area of 212 square miles whose history spans the centuries from pagan times to the Christian era. "Afghanistan" features 108 color photos by the husband and wife team who spent many years in that tortured land, leaving before the Soviet army's invasion in December, 1979. The publisher notes that the authors recorded "a way of life -- age-old, classic Islam -- that most likely no longer exists," and this makes the book "more poignant." It is dedicated to "a yet unconquered people."

Another Vendome book is "The Joy of Rio," with 200 photos by Bernard Hermann and text by Vincius de Moraes and Ferreira Gullar, $19.95. It is a riot of color with a suitable selection on near-nudity on the Carioca beaches (de Moraes wrote "The Girl From Ipanema" and "Orfeo Negro") and near-insanity at Carnival.

Finally, there are two weighty coffee-table tomes on India: "The Palaces of India," by the maharaja of Baroda, with more than 140 pictures in color and about 110 in black and white by Virginia Fass, $50; and "Eternal India," by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, with 86 color photos and 215 in black and white by Jean-Louis Nou, $50.

For the "outdoors" type who likes to hike, fish, camp, canoe, bird watch or just sit under a tree and enjoy nature, Random House offers "Guide to Natural Areas of the Eastern United States," by John Perry and Jane Greverus Perry (paperback, 833 pp., $11.95), the first in a projected four-volume series. The next volume will cover the Northwest United States and is scheduled to be published sometime in 1981.

This first book covers 800 sites in 17 states -- "the quiet places, where plants grow, birds sing, and artifacts are few." Included are state and federal parks, forests, and wildlife areas. And if you like to avoid crowds, it's easy. The authors explain in the introduction that "95 percent of the visitors crowd into 5 percent of the natural sites."

Noting that in the East some park areas have hundreds of thousands of acres (1.3 million in the Everglades, more than half a million in Great Smoky Mountains National Park), the Perrys point out that "many sites with less than a thousand acres offer peaceful refuge and enough diversity for seasons of observation and discovery."

They also add that as the "availability and cost of gasoline" cause concern and problems (not to mention other rising costs now associated with long-distance travel), people who "love the outdoors . . . look for sites closer to home. We have them."

And on a sobering note, they warn that "The public lands are not safe," being "vulnerable to legislative change . . . to neglect . . . to abuse . . ." But people need nature, they explain, and "Those who walk the quiet trails can speak to legislators most eloquently and compellingly in their behalf."

If you ever wondered "how did it all start?" -- referring, of course, not to the creation of the universe but the development of American tourism -- the well-known syndicated travel writer Horace Sutton has the answer in his latest book, "Travelers: The American Tourist From Stagecoach to Space Shuttle," (William Morrow & Co., New York, 320 pp., illustrated, $12.50).

Sutton, who is also editorial director of Saturday Review, has written a breezy social history of more than 200 years of travel in the United States. Beginning with the Colonials, he traces how the multi-billion-dollar travel industry grew. The credit (or blame) goes to that small number of well-fixed Americans who came by stagecoach to "take the waters" at unpretentious spas, after learning from the Indians about the rejuvenating effects of natural hot springs.

"It is the story of how we discovered the world," writes Sutton in his introduction, "of the great hotels, the elegant resorts, of the jet people and the beautiful people and the Place-setters . . ."

For solid, useful, up-to-date travel information, don't overlook the 1981 editions of three paperback guides from Fielding Publications (in association with Morrow & Co.): "Fielding's Europe," by Temple Fielding (1,052 pp., $10.95); "Fielding's Low-Cost Europe," by Nancy and Temple Fielding (874 pp., $5.95), and "Fielding's Caribbean," by Margaret Zellers (876 pp., $10.95).

Travel is broadening, and in this case we're speaking of your mind, not your girth. To provide intellectual food for those starving "gray cells" comes Peterson's Guides of Princeton, N.J., with the third edition of "Learning Vacations" by Gerson G. Eisenberg (paperback 337 pp., $6.95).

Eisenberg, a native of Baltimore, Md., is a veteran of more than 40 learning vacations over the past 25 years. His "favorite definition of education comes from my high school days when my headmaster defined it as 'having fun with one's mind.' His book covers a wide variety of travel experiences -- vacations on campus, elderhostels for travelers at age 60-plus, outdoor trips, cultural events -- and includes commercial tours as well as seminars and festivals. And if you miss a particular event as listed, you can write to the address given for information about next year's offerings.