Sure, you could pick up an all-purpose Washington getaway guide at, say, Starbucks and give it to your spouse (the card should read: "Hint, hint"), your perspective-starved sister-in-law or your recently retired and entirely too available Mom and Dad. All-purpose travel guides do make excellent stocking stuffers.
Today's advice, however, does not concern shopping. It concerns passion. Everyone you know has at least one of these--even those with a passion for hiding them. And if you've browsed the cyberstacks at Amazon.com lately, you also know that for every passion, there is a book--or two, or 17.
The more fellow Escapists I run into on the roads leading outside our Beltway, the clearer it becomes that most of us leave the comfort of home for one thing: love. It can be a love of antiques, or adrenaline highs, or the echoes of historic battles, or the mystique of mountains. Or just air that smells great and is refreshingly transparent. The three recent regional guidebooks reviewed here happen to address just such passions, in different but equally passionate ways. Each provides the details necessary to transport you to the region's many other worlds via car--plus further, unexpected minutiae to transport you there, either initially or alternatively, via armchair.
In the 17 painstakingly researched driving-walking tours that make up "Touring Virginia's and West Virginia's Civil War Sites," author Clint Johnson covers all the big names in the still-wrenching war--of its heroes (Lee, Jackson, Grant, Sheridan) as well as such well-trod battlefields as Chancellorsville, Manassas, Fredericksburg and Appomattox. But where this book really shines is in the shadows--in passing on the hopes and horrors of lesser-known officers and soldiers, and passing, respectfully but clear-eyed, through many small, privately owned battle sites and such out-of-the-way places as Grafton, W.Va. It was in Grafton that the first of 620,000 soldiers, a Union picket named Thornsbury Brown, was killed. And, not far west in Beverly, Johnson points out a house where young Thomas J. Jackson and his sister, Laura, grew up. Orphaned at an early age, the two grew to be very close. When the war began, however, Laura loudly supported the Union--like most of anti-secession western Virginia, which the conflict would soon transform into the state of West Virginia. Her brother, meanwhile, a West Point graduate, became . . . Stonewall Jackson. They never spoke again.
Johnson's unforced and vivid narration is accompanied by clear driving/strolling directions and numerous maps. Lodging and dining suggestions are left to other authors (true Civil War buffs often do, after all, forget to sleep or eat), but there's a useful appendix of addresses and phone numbers of relevant sites and tourism agencies, plus an excellent index and bibliography.
Touring Virginia's and West Virginia's Civil War Sites, by Clint Johnson ($19.95, John F. Blair, Winston-Salem, N.C., 1-800-222- 9796, www.blairpub.com).
No Straight Lines
The breezy, rambling "Way Out in West Virginia" reminds me of the fictional "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe": You can almost open it to any page at random and find strange--and strangely useful--information, in this case about a state whose borders, not to mention its voting residents, consistently defy straight-edged rulers.
Itself born of an independent spirit, West Virginia tends to foster fierce pride among those of a kindred nature. And Mozier--writer, astrologer and co-proprietor of Berkeley Springs's fab, funky old Star Theatre--definitely fits the Mountain State bill: odd, but in a positive way. Her descriptions and photos of more than 600 of the state's "wildest and wackiest" sights, sounds, tastes and smells are unabashedly fond--but often funny, and filled with insider advice and asides. These include such West Virginia inventions as Fiestaware, Mother's Day and (Mozier's favorite) the pepperoni roll, and such anomalous natural wonders as Ice Mountain, the Cranberry Glades and the incorrectly named New River, one of the world's oldest. In all, "Way Out" makes you want to jump in the car and go wild, or at least west--but before you do, choose your destinations and look up the directions and phone numbers in the alphabetical listings that follow Mozier's phone- and map-free text. Trying to do this while negotiating all those hills and curves on U.S. 55 can only lead to more roadkill.
Way Out in West Virginia: A Must-Have Guide to the Oddities and Wonders of the Mountain State, by Jeanne Mozier ($12.95, Quarrier Press, Charleston, W.Va., 304-342-1848).
Fat Tire Country
If ever a guidebook deserved to get beat up--the ultimate compliment to an indispensible, carry-it-everywhere bible--it's this one. Whether you're a veteran mountain biker or have only just begun having out-of-pavement experiences, you'll want to spend some time with level-headed tough guy Joe Surkiewicz (whose New York-to-West Virginia companion guide this year followed the 1998 Charleston-to-Washington book). "Mountain Bike!" is both inspiring, filled as it is with tips, sound advice, excellent maps and useful phone numbers, and packed more precisely than Paul Theroux's overnight bag. There are 70 routes in the southern mid-Atlantic volume, from Georgetown's C&O to coastal Carolina's Low Country--each with thorough roundups of terrain, maintenance, weather or other hazards, helpful contacts and a totally cool "At a Glance" box that lives up to its title. (Also great: an alternate index that groups rides by special interests, including "Family," "Wildlife Viewing," "Technical Heaven" and "High-Speed Cruising.")
Surkiewicz is good company--whether he's advising you to check tide tables before potentially dying when the beach floods at Virginia's First Landing State Park, or seeing the good in the history-rich, pedestrian-prone urban and suburban trails, or enjoying being bad--not stupid, not reckless--on some of the region's more exhilarating, technical tracks.
Mountain Bike! The Mid-Atlantic States: Charleston, S.C., to Washington, D.C: A Guide to the Classic Trails, by Joe Surkiewicz ($15.95, Menasha Ridge Press, Birmingham, Ala.).
Refining the Winery: For most, it's always been worth the 75-minute drive from the Beltway to Leon, Va. (30 minutes southwest of Warrenton on U.S. 29) and its Prince Michel Restaurant (1-800-800-9463, closed Monday-Wednesday). A showcase for the fine wines of Prince Michel Winery and its sister vineyards, the restaurant's only drawback has been its muted ambiance--a lack of outside light in a landscape renowned for its big skies and rugged good looks. Things will change later this month, however, with the opening of Prince Michel's new 80-seat restaurant: Overlooking chardonnay vines and the setting sun, it's a fitting view for a restaurant that will also, confidently, begin stocking more wines than its own. (The restaurant will feature bottles from Bordeaux, Napa Valley and elsewhere, along with an expanded menu.) A suggestion: Call early to request one of the two corner-window tables with the best views.
Y2K Consultable: Seems a thousand years since New England-based Kanin Press quit putting out its darn-useful Mid-Atlantic Weekenders Calendar ($13.95, 603-433-4775), but no--it's only been about a decade. The millennium, in any case, marks its return. The more colorful, still-useful 2000 calendar's dates, especially the Friday through Sunday ones, are thick with listings of more than 400 fairs, festivals and other events in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District. Up above are painter Marsha York's seasonal, regional, pastel-on-sandpaper illustrations.
ISO: Your Routes: Your top three personal escapes? Send us a list--your best three weekend getaways ever (day trips are okay, including secret respites inside the Beltway). And, starting Jan. 5, we'll publish a different reader's list every week on Wednesday's Escapes page. If your Desert Island . . . um, Desert Islands list is published, we will send you a free copy of The Post's "Escape Plans," the all-purpose D.C. getaway guide. Keep your lists brief--one sentence per item, 75 words total--and, if at all possible, pithy. Please include your name, address and daytime phone number in your e-mail to email@example.com or U.S. mail to Escapes, The Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.