TRAVEL WRITING has a basic drawback. It must, due to the very nature of the beast, push the destination or why have you bothered to sit down at the typewriter? It sometimes suffers, for this reason, from a tendency to sound like Chamber of Commerce prose. Nevertheless, it's handy to have some advice when you set off on a trip.
Among the currently available travel guides that cover the mid-Atlantic, Michael Spring's "The Great Weekend Escape Book" is far and away the best. His book also takes in the Northeast, so that he doesn't have to include dull destinations to flesh out his guide. In addition, he can write. This is not a simple rehearsal of facts and tourist offerings beginning with sentences like "When in Virginia Beach, visit Handy Andy's Frontier Trading Post . . ." His eye is keen for the kind of detail that makes you promise yourself you'll go there.
Spring says in his introduction that his aim was to write as if his reader were a close friend who wanted to know about 19 glorious weekends. And, so that we can judge his opinions, he tells us a bit about himself. He likes country inns with five to 10 rooms, hates cute furnishings, likes hard mattresses and hates yellow water glasses.
Credentials established, he takes us up the coast from Williamsburg to Cuttyhunk Island, Mass., and for each stop there are details you'll not find elsewhere. For example: Newport attracts the same summer crowds as the Hamptons and Fire Island; in New Hope, Pa., the response to "Where do you go for night life?" is "Straight or gay?" He speaks as a critic: Williamsburg is a class operation; the rounded hills of the Poconos may disappoint if you expected mountains like the Catskills or the White Mountains.
One of the reasons Spring is successful is that he explored literature written about the places he went. Read what Fawn Brodie said about Jefferson in her biography and you'll enjoy Monticello more. Study the 1865 city ordinance of Cape May on the moral obligations of the city and you'll get the flavor of this old resort as you'll never get it from a brochure. And what's more he often tells you where you can buy this parallel reading locally.
Willard Scott wrote the introduction to "Weekender's Guide to the Four Seasons" and he says he keeps it with him so he can keep track of all the crabfests, shoofly pie contests and bull roasts he might want to attend. If you have a copy, you won't miss any dog shows, flower shows, horse events, jousting contests or seasonal opportunities to pick fruit and vegetables either. There's a calendar of events by months and also by geographical location, a special-interest section for people who like canoeing, soaring, antiquing, covered bridges and cutting their own Christmas trees. Every conceivable telephone number and address is handy. On facts, there is no beating this book.
But no inns or restaurants appear in the guide and what traveler doesn't consider this of primary interest? There are route numbers galore: If you lose your way, it is not the fault of this book. The hours for every attraction are carefully listed. This book is first cousin to a world almanac, with no overall personality, maybe because it is the work of a team which took over after the death of Robert Shosteck, who compiled its first six editions.
David Pursglove has contributed a special section of vineyards of the area--a nice addition, though among the three states covered, Pennsylvania seemed slighted.
Jane Ockershausen Smith's "One-Day Trips Through History," 200 excursions within 150 miles of Washington, D.C., must be a godsend to history teachers planning field trips. It's well organized and gets especially high marks for clear maps with Beltway exit directions. It is a great buy for families wanting to take short educational trips with kids. It's a guide book, not a travel book, and as such is more readable than most.
The material is nicely organized, chronologically by era, and then once more in the back, alphabetically. It's a good idea to visit the places where history was made, but it seldom soars beyond the essential facts to the whys and the personalities of the people involved as it boasts it does on the back cover. A few more homely details would have made it more spritely and possibly fired more young history buffs. It's instructive, but it reads as if someone had stood over Smith growling, "Just the facts, ma'am."
But then with 200 excursions to cover, there's not much room for more. It's a great reference book and might deserve a place in the glove compartment. Smith was a history teacher and she's qualified.
"The Great Weekend Escape Book, From Williamsburg to Cuttyhunk Island," by Michael Spring (E.P. Dutton Inc., 323 pp, paperback, $8.95).
"Robert Shosteck's Weekender's Guide to the Four Seasons" (Potomac Books Inc., 490 pp, paperback, $7.95).
"One-Day Trips Through History, 200 Excursions Within 150 Miles of Washington, D.C.," by Jane Ockershausen Smith (E.P.M. Publications Inc., 335 pp, paperback, $9.95).