* "Guide to the Cruise Vacation," by Steven B. Stern. Prentice-Hall. 224 pp. $8.95 paperback.

Steven Stern is a Chicago tax attorney who claims to have sailed on more than 140 cruise ships and to have "personally inspected almost every ship in service." He clearly enjoys the comfortable life of an oceangoing resort.

His multiple voyages have given him valuable insight into cruise travel, and his guidebook, as a result, is very informative. First-time sailors will find the chapter on how to select a cruise especially helpful. He raises important considerations most novices might not be aware of, such as:

* Many Caribbean cruises specialize in beach ports, others in shopping ports. Shore tours for history and archeological buffs are more interesting in the Mediterranean Sea and North European ports. To avoid disappointment, he advises, pick the ship that offers what interests you most.

* Some ships put into a new port almost every day; others are on the open sea most of the time. The choice is active sightseeing or sunning in the salt air.

* Service and food on a cruise line tend to be best aboard the line's flagship, because the staff works its way up to these prestigious vessels. His personal experience, he writes, is that "ships with Italian dining room and cabin staffs offer the best all-around service."

* A large percentage of fellow passengers will be from the region near the departure port. If you enjoy the company of sports-happy Californians, sail from Los Angeles. If a European ambiance appeals, pick a British, Scandinavian, Italian, Greek or German port.

There's an amusing chapter on "Cruising for Singles," with detailed advice on how to arrange a private love nest if you are sharing a cabin with a couple of buddies to save money. Suggestions: Skip dinner, so the room is yours while the roommates are dining. Sneak into the gym or sauna and ignore the couples who already are there.

The chapter on cruising with children is more practical. Stern notes that the "moderate" cost of youth fares make cruising attractive for a family budget. As a father, he recommends larger ships with more facilities for children. For the over-7 age group, visits to the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean are interesting and informative.

The book includes selected ship menus; a statistical chart listing, among other things, the ship's size and the nationality of the crew; the sightseeing and recreational possibilities of most major ports; and, briefly, Stern's personal evaluation of selected ships cruising the Caribbean.

A sample rating: He gives the Fairsea, a Sitmar ship, five "X"s for "superior" food but only three for a "good" singles atmosphere. The Carnivale of the Carnival line gets exactly the opposite: three "X"s for food; five for the singles life. You take your choice.

* "McClane's Great Fishing and Hunting Lodges of North America," edited by A.J. McClane. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 176 pp. $29.95.

Only a small percentage of the continent's thousands of hunting and fishing camps can be called "great," writes noted fishing expert A.J. McClane, editor-at-large of Sports Afield magazine. He has picked 20 of them, from Alaska to the Yucata'n, for their amenities, the "quality of sport" and "the professionalism of the management."

More than a guide, "Great Lodges" is an affectionate look at a way of life, and profiles of the lodge operators are part of the text. It is also an attractive picture-book full of large photos of each lodge and the surrounding wilderness. The lodges, looking properly rustic yet very, very comfortable, range from expensive to inexpensive, from remote to just-off-the-highway. Some are family-oriented; others cater mostly to singles.

Among the 20, Vermejo Park, a 392,000-acre working ranch in northern New Mexico, is cited as "one of the finest sports and nature lodges in the world." It is set among ponderosa and pin on pine in the Sangre de Cristo mountains at elevations climbing above 10,000 feet. Wildlife includes elk, mule deer, black bear, bison, mountain lion and antelope; wild turkey, quail and Canada goose; and rainbow, cutthroat and brook trout.

Once a private retreat for the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge and Cecil B. DeMille, it is now owned by the Pennzoil Company of Houston and open to the public. But a public with money. The "premier sport" is hunting bull elk, six hunts a year beginning in October, each limited to 26 hunters who reserve up to two years in advance. The per-person cost, McClane reports, is $4,500.

* "Canada's National Parks: A Visitor's Guide," by Marylee Stephenson. Prentice-Hall. 308 pp. $11.95 paperback.

Canada possesses 29 national parks, from the Yukon Territory and British Columbia in the West to St. John's on the North Atlantic Coast, and author Marylee Stephenson toured all but four of them in four years of research that took her 28,000 miles.

She has produced a concise guide to the parks, describing the scenic attractions of each in a half-dozen pages as well as providing basic details on lodging and dining facilities and recreational possibilities. A teacher of nature photography by profession, she has included a number of excellent photos.

Canada's first and most famous national park is Banff in the Rocky Mountains, and a reader can appreciate why from her description of the Icefields Parkway, a 75-mile drive north from Lake Louise to Sunwapta Pass. It is, she writes, "one of the most spectacular stretches of road in North America," with glaciers and turquoise lakes lining the route. The newest park is Grasslands in Saskatchewan, an undisturbed pocket of short-grass prairie.

The book's chief value is that, for Americans, it opens inviting new scenic destinations, whether explored by auto or by plunging on foot into the deep wilderness.

* "Hidden San Francisco and Northern California," by Ray Riegert. Ulysses Press. 421 pp. $9.95 paperback.

San Francisco is one of this country's most exciting cities; Northern California is a scenic and recreational wonder; and travel writer Ray Riegert's book, in its own way, is equally impressive. You couldn't expect to find a more helpful guide, especially one that is so entertainingly readable and thoughtful, as well.

Riegert, once an editor of the iconoclastic "Berkeley Barb," knows the city and region well, leading the visitor on a tour of the traditional tourist spots but also beyond, as he writes, "in search of adventure." After sightseeing along Chinatown's famed Grant Avenue, he advises readers to explore the community's "hidden heart," its alleyways, where the real business of Chinatown transpires. In Ross Alley one will find, for example, an authentic fortune cookie factory.

Outside the city, the book describes day trips to the nearby University of California at Berkeley, the Sonoma and Napa Valley wine country and the Pacific beaches (nude hideaways included). And it ranges north and south in longer excursions to Big Sur and Mendocino along the rugged coastline and the Gold Country, Yosemite and Lake Tahoe in the Sierras.

"Every decade San Francisco moves further out along the edge, maintaining a tradition for the avant-garde and iconoclastic that dates back to the 49ers," writes Riegert. To see it requires "an open spirit and unquenchable curiosity." And it wouldn't hurt to tote along this book.

* SPECIALTY BOOKS IN BRIEF:

"A Battlefield Atlas of the Civil War," by Craig L. Symonds. Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America (Annapolis). 106 pp. $12.95. Forty three full-page maps of Civil War battles from Fort Sumter to Appomattox, with accompanying description. The author is a history professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.

"Arts & Sports USA: The Professional Attractions Guide," published by Cultural Services Inc. (Bethesda) and Reston Publishing Company Inc. (Reston). 644 pp. $85 paperback. For tour planners, a state-by-state listing of museums, theaters, arenas, zoos, gardens and other attractions.

"How to Go Around the World Overland," by Michael C. Savage and Theresa L. Savage. Surface Travel Publications (Long Branch, N.J.). 498 pp. $14.95. The routes, the hazards, inexpensive places to stay while circling the globe. Basic information for a great adventure.