LIMOUSINES -- the height of luxury -- are reserved for the rich and famous. Or are they?

Strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue recently, I eyed a sleek stretch limo. Who was behind the smoked glass, I wondered. Bush, Quayle, Cruise? Imagine my amazement when the door swung open and out stepped my friend Jerry and her mother. The rented limo was for her mom's 70th birthday celebration.

That started me thinking, why not indulge myself in a fling? But first I needed to know the particulars: What type of car could I hire, what would the cost be, where could I go in a limo and what perks could I enjoy?

I began my investigation in the Yellow Pages. Flipping to "Limousines," I was shocked to find that there are over 125 companies in the area. As I dialed, I quickly learned that the mortality rate in the limo service industry is high. Instead of a greeting, I frequently heard a pause followed by, "I'm sorry, this number has been disconnected." So lesson number one when booking a limo, especially months in advance, is to ask any prospective company how long it's been around.

Next I needed to decide what type of car I wanted. Should I go for Hollywood glitz or British elegance? To start, I chose the British classics.

Fantasy Limousines in Silver Spring specializes in British limos, featuring cars by Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Princess and Daimler. Owner Bill McCoskey offered to take me on a tour of his fleet of six limousines. The best part was I'd be picked up in a Rolls.

At 9:30, with the kids off to school and the breakfast dishes done, a 1961 Princess Limousine by Vanden Plas rolled into my driveway. For the first time I was disappointed we didn't have fountains, a circular driveway or at least statues in front of our house.

As I climbed into the back seat of the magnificent gold and black auto, I learned that this particular car was built for members of the royal family to use when they were stateside. Hand-built, it took eight months to complete. Yes, I was going to be sitting in the same spot graced by Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip and their guest Sir Winston Churchill.

Today the car rents for $65 an hour ("plus tip" says McCoskey), with a four-hour minimum.

Leaving my tiny abode behind, we headed towards Silver Spring. Ever wish you'd be noticed? Well, this is the way to do it. Surveyors, gardeners, construction workers and pedestrians turned their heads as we drove by. And at each stoplight eyes peered in from all sides. I knew they were wondering who I was and whether they should recognize me. At one stop, a school bus driver shouted, "Hey, I like your style."

According to McCoskey, "Riding in a Rolls opens doors everywhere. At a concert or the theater you can drive right to where the performers park and most times the attendants just assume that if you're in a Rolls you're someone."

Now that I had experienced life in a Rolls, I was eager to experience a "stretch." Stretches are luxury automobiles, usually Lincolns or Cadillacs, that have been lengthened anywhere from 48 to more than 135 inches. Ellen Lichtman of Celebrity Limo drove over to show off her newest addition, a white "ultra stretch" limo. Arriving at the curb, it caused quite a stir among the neighbors, who were quick to gather around.

Once inside, I wasn't quite sure where I was -- Trump's private jet, Agent 007's car or the presidential train. The five-door (two on the left and three on the right) limo with 24-carat gold trim on the outside and a raised roof had been stretched a whopping 135 inches.

Seating 14 comfortably, it seemed the perfect place to host a party or travel with a group of close friends. "It's great for prom night, transporting the wedding party or riding to Atlantic City. We even have a group of men who every Christmas use it to do their holiday shopping," Lichtman says.

While inside, you can engage in a number of activities: chit chat, (though it's a long distance from end to end), tune into your favorite show on one of the two color TVs, have a drink from one of the three bars, listen to music, make a call on the cellular telephone or sink into seclusion as the privacy divider comes up, separating you from the driver.

To add to the ambiance are "halo lights" (that's limo lingo for tiny lights that surround the inside roof of the car) and crystal decanters and glasses in the bars. And of course you can gaze at the stars from the moon roof.

For more intimate groups, Lichtman has four 70-inch stretches. They come equipped the same as the longer model but with only one TV and bar each. They do, however, have one extra -- a VCR.

I have a feeling that getting caught in a traffic jam in a limousine wouldn't be at all bad. And traveling in this fashion could even make the long, hard trek to New York fun. LIMO SCENE -- Prices range from $45 to $100 an hour depending on the type of car. There is usually a three- or four-hour minimum. Since Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the slowest nights in the limo business, you may be able to negotiate a lower rental on those days. Most of the limos for rent are stretches; however, some companies specialize in British automobiles or antique vehicles. Extras vary, but most newer limousines have a TV, bar, stereo, telephone and moon roof. Some have a VCR. All stretches are air-conditioned, while classic model cars may not be. Many companies will be happy to send you pictures of their cars, give you a tour of the cars on their lot or even send a limo out for you to inspect. When deciding on a company, be sure to ask how long it's been in business, how old its fleet of cars is and whether it takes major credit cards.

Alice Rindler Shapin last wrote for Weekend about renting boats.