YOU WANT TO GET AWAY for the weekend. You're looking for a change of pace, new scenery not too far away from the city. Maybe a quiet inn with a water view or a mountain trail to stretch your legs.
You're ready, the car's waiting, and only one nagging question is holding you back. "Where should I go?"
It's a curious thing about vacations, even two-day getaways: people value them, really need them, but many can't put much effort into planning ahead. At the end of a hectic work week, they much prefer to have someone else nudge them in the right direction.
On Friday afternoon, they're looking for somebody -- anybody -- with a good suggestion.
Fortunately, the Washington region, blessed with as varied a choice of getaways as any place in the nation, is well supplied with experienced nudgers. They are the authors of local getaway guides, and each year they usually add one or two good new selections to the bookstore shelves.
In the realm of English literature, guidebooks -- especially getaway guides, which often are outdated in a year or two -- rank a notch or two above the daily horoscope, perhaps. But they are useful when you need them, like Band-Aids, Kleenex and scotch on the rocks.
I suspect that most guides are sold on Thursday or Friday when the prospective weekender is most desperate for advice, and time is running out. Don't grab the first one you spot; many are specialized, and some are much better than others. A few are awful.
Among the choices are guides to romantic inns, to outdoor recreation, to the abundant historic treasures of this region, to its natural wonders and to its many curiosities.
Here's a look at some of the most useful ones:
VIRGINIA, A HISTORY & GUIDE
By Tim Mulligan (Random House, 285 pp., $9.95 paper).
This one is by far the best current sightseeing guide to Virginia. Mulligan is a fine writer with discerning taste who directs the traveler to Virginia's most appealing historic and scenic attractions.
Not content simply to list them, he tells you why he likes them, and you quickly sense that here is someone whose judgement you can trust.
"Fredericksburg is one of my favorite places," he writes, which is a good indication of his reliability. "The town, having so much that is uniquely American as well as so many important relics of our past, still looks more 19th than 20th century. You feel instantly at home here . . ."
Near Abingdon, in southwestern Virginia, he finds the countryside "as exciting as any in Virginia . . . the hilly landscape sometimes looks as if the earth had furrowed its brow. The results are breathtaking." Drive Route 58 through Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, he wisely suggests, because the views "border on the spectacular."
Mulligan has organized his tour of the state into six geographical regions, concluding each section with recommendations for the best lodging and dining. Each region is suitable for a weekend getaway or a series of them.
This book is especially useful for exploring the countryside by car.
AWAY FOR THE WEEKEND: WASHINGTON, D.C.
52 Great Getaways in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania & New Jersey
By Eleanor Berman (Crown, 254 pp., $11.95 paper).
The number "52" in the title is a clue to the format of this unusual new guide. The author has planned a complete weekend for you for every week of the year.
In summer, for example, she takes you one week to West Virginia to soak in the hot springs at Berkeley Springs and on another to the annual extravaganza of food and folk arts at the Kutztown Folk Festival in Pennsylvania. Fall destinations include the Waterfowl Festival in Easton on Maryland's Eastern Shore (plenty of seafood) and a climb to the top of 4,842-foot Bald Knob aboard West Virginia's Cass Scenic Railroad for grand views of the fall foliage.
For each trip, Berman provides historical background, major attractions and suggested places to stay and to eat, ranging from inexpensive motels to good inns. One problem with this guide, however, is that many of the weekends she describes feature major annual festivals. If you used the book week by week, you would always show up on the one weekend of the year that your destination is swamped in crowds. It might be hard to find a vacancy or, indeed, any relaxation.
Berman urges her readers not to "feel bound by the calendar . . . Many of these destinations are equally appealing and less crowded when nothing special is going on . . . " This guide, too, is for sightseers.
MORE COUNTRY WALKS NEAR WASHINGTON
By Alan Fisher (Rambler, 219 pp., $7.95 paper). I like museums and historic houses, but sometimes feel overdosed. Get me outdoors, then, and into the countryside, where the shape of a stately old tree has as much elegance as any collection of antique furnishings.
Author Alan Fisher describes 18 scenic hikes not far from Washington, most under five miles long. That's enough for nature to work its spell, but not so challenging that you wish you'd gone to the movies instead. All can be undertaken as a day's outing. But for a weekend, seek out a country inn as a reward at the end of the trail.
Fisher provides detailed trail directions, but what makes this guide so valuable is that he also gives you the history of the landscape. Two trails take you into Manassas National Battlefield in Virginia and a third into Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland, both sites of heavy Civil War engagements. Antietam makes an especially good weekend getaway, because there are several bed-and-breakfast inns nearby.
GREATER WASHINGTON AREA BICYCLE ATLAS
62 Scenic Tours in the Mid-Atlantic Region
Edited by Ken Moskowitz (Potomac Area Council American Youth Hostels/Washington Area Bicyclist Association, 248 pp., $6.95 paper). More muscle work. More outdoor pleasures. Short rides near Washington and some long ones (for example, 117 miles from Mt. Vernon to Monticello).
Several tour outfitters put together inn-to-inn bicycling weekends near Washington, a convenient arrangement. This guide is for the self-reliant cycler. For each route, the book provides a map, detailed directions and suggestions for lodging and meals. Several of the trips begin and end at inexpensive American Youth hostels.
Among the trips is a 40-mile ramble through picturesque Amish farmland in south-central Pennsylvania, beginning and ending at the hostel in Bowmansville. The route's a bit hilly, so it is rated moderate-to-difficult (at least for beginners). Obviously, this is a guide for the adventurous.
VIRGINIA OFF THE BEATEN PATH
A Guide to Unique Places
By Judy and Ed Colbert (East Woods Press, 176 pp., $7.95 paper).
This book is not very well organized, and in places it is clumsily written. But -- and this is what recommends it -- it's full of Virginia curiosities that you probably won't find listed anywhere else.
I suspect a weekender would get the most use from this guide by toting it along as a supplement to the more standard attractions described in, say, Tim Mulligan's book reviewed above.
For some reasons, few guides to Virginia mention Breaks Interstate Park in the southwestern mountains on the Kentucky border. But the Colberts have sought it out, and rightly so. The Breaks is a deep river gorge that has been called "The Grand Canyon of the South." That's a big exaggeration, but the canyon is impressive -- and there's a comfortable, inexpensive lodge perched right on the ledge for glorious views.
The Colberts have been particularly successful in discovering unusual museums, among them the Enders Mortuary Museum in Berryville. As they write, "The museum shows old caskets, documents, embalming implements, cosmetic jars and a horse-drawn hearse from 1889 . . . " Phone ahead, however, because "the museum is closed during services."
THE JERSEY SHORE:
A Travel and Pleasure Guide
By Robert Santelli (East Woods Press, 216 pp., $8.95 paper).
To most Washington-area weekenders, the beach means Rehoboth Beach in Delaware or Ocean City in Maryland. But as author Robert Santelli points out, the New Jersey coastline is 127 miles long, and its beaches "are among the finest on the Eastern Seaboard."
Santelli has compiled an informative and, I think, honest guide (lodging, dining, attractions) to the varied beach communities from Sandy Hook on the north to Cape May Point. A vacationer can head for the gambling tables of Atlantic City, relax in the quiet quaintness of Victorian Cape May or revel in the garish neon of Wildwood at night.
For a boardwalk junkie, says Santelli, "Wildwood must surely be the closest thing to paradise. Where else can one find a boardwalk chapel, a boardwalk McDonald's and pony rides, of all things, on the beach?"
Go if that appeals to you; stay away if it doesn't. The test of a good guide is that it provides the details you need to make an informed decision.
OFF 13: THE EASTERN SHORE OF VIRGINIA GUIDEBOOK By Kirk Mariner (The Book Bin, 176 pp., $7.95 paper).
"Most people have never heard of the place," begins this informative guide to the small but historic appendix of Virginia, and "the great majority of those who have are not really certain where it is."
It is, in fact, two Virginia counties, Accomack and Northampton, forming the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula on the far side of Chesapeake Bay. Often the counties are mistaken for part of Maryland, to which they're attached. Their only physical link with the rest of Virginia is the 17-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, strung across the Virginia Capes to Virginia Beach.
If that doesn't place Virginia's Eastern Shore for you, then certainly the name of its leading community should -- Chincoteague, home of the famous pony roundup held annually the last week in July. Chincoteague's fame has long overshadowed the rest of the Virginia Peninsula. But there is much more to see, asserts Mariner, including dozens of 18th- and 19th-century country houses.
"Historic structures are everywhere," he writes, "lined up next to each other in villages . . . looming magnificently over wide and beautiful creeks, hiding behind barns and tucked away in backyards, even rotting away gradually in the middle of cornfields."
The title refers to U.S. 13, the spinal cord of the peninsula. It is a commercial highway to be avoided as much as possible, Mariner says. The charm of the counties' many country and coastal villages is found "off 13."
Seek out the village of Accomac for "handsome buildings from the past"; the 300-year-old bayside port town of Onancock because it is "beautifully situated"; the seaside port of Wachapreague for its large charter fishing fleet; and (if you have a boat) the uninhabited Virginia Barrier Islands for their wild beauty.
Rich in detail, this guide maps several off-13 driving tours; directs you to the beaches (mostly on the Chesapeake); and names the best places to eat (fine seafood) and to stay. For each mile of the way there's local lore. Buried in the Custis Tombs near Cheriton, for example, is the father of the first husband of Martha Custis Washington. Now that's detail.