There is an amazing number of new and unusual ways to see America on a summer vacation, a boon especially for undecided travelers who want to try something a little bit different this year. The idea is not to just go someplace, but to make an adventure of it -- a trip to keep you remembering years later.
An excellent example is what has happened in the state of Vermont, famous for its fine inns. In the past, you drove to an inn to enjoy its amenities. Now getting to the inn can be as much a part of the vacation as staying there. You can go bicycling from inn to inn, or hiking, or skiing, or -- the latest inn holidays -- canoeing from inn to inn. You can go on your own or join a small organized tour.
Some of the country's most remote -- and most scenic -- mountain wilderness regions are becoming increasingly accessible to vacationers with little or no back-country experience. Outdoor tours are available that take you into the wilds by foot, horseback and even old-fashioned covered wagon. You are led by a guide whose goal is to get you into places you might never venture to on your own -- and to get you out again safely.
These are physically active outings -- very popular in today's health-conscious America -- but many are not overly strenuous. They are arranged by outfitters who realize most of their customers are beginners looking for a little challenge, but not too much.
More-sedentary travelers also have a wide choice of unusual options. In West Virginia, you can spend a week learning to play the dulcimer at an Appalachian folklife school. In northern Arizona, you can rent a houseboat on a lake and lazily explore dozens of beautiful red-rock canyons. In Maine's woodland lake country, you can stay in a famous fishing resort, doing as little or as much as you wish.
With gasoline prices such a bargain right now, it seems a good time to see the wonders of outdoor America. Summer is the season for it. Among the many interesting possibilities:
*Go llama trekking in the California Sierras. There's been something of a mini-revolution in the mountains of the west in the past half-dozen or so years. On many holiday treks, the gentle, whimsical llama from the South American Andes is replacing the horse and mule as the pack animal to tote tents, cooking gear and food.
One advantage of llamas is that their soft padded hoofs do less damage to the trails than horseshoes, according to outfitter Francie Greth of Mama's Llamas in El Dorado, Calif. And, "They're real easy to get along with -- real personable." Her firm leads a number of llama treks into California's mountain wilderness.
On this summer's schedule are a series of five-day hikes into the Hoover Wilderness and adjacent Yosemite National Park in the Sierras. The trips depart Aug. 13, 20 and 28 from Bridgeport, Calif., which is northeast of Yosemite. You climb along wooded trails to remote mountain lakes and meadows, often still abloom with wildflowers. Camp is usually beside a rushing stream, where you can fish for trout.
Typically, the group size ranges from eight to 14, plus two or three guides and six or seven llamas. The guides do the cooking and the cleanup, but generally everybody pitches in to help. Usually the group is a mix of families, couples and singles.
Llama trips appeal to people who want to hike into remote back country but don't want to carry a heavy pack, said Greth. Other hikers are too busy to organize food, gear and trail permits, so prefer to join a group where that is all prearranged.
The cost for the five-day Hoover/Yosemite trip is $413 per person, which includes food, guides and llamas. Hikers must provide tent and sleeping bag. The closest major airport to Bridgeport is Reno, Nev., where equipment rentals can be arranged.
For information: Mama's Llamas, P.O. Box 655, El Dorado, Calif. 95623, (916) 622-2566.
*Rent a houseboat on Arizona's (and Utah's) Lake Powell. A major attraction of houseboat life on Lake Powell on the scenic Arizona-Utah border is the lake's more than 90 major side canyons -- and many more minor ones -- that can be explored. If you want a lakeside retreat away from everyone else, you can probably find a hidden cove deep inside one of the canyons to beach the boat.
The massive man-made lake was created when the Glen Canyon Dam was built to trap the waters of the Colorado River. As the lake rose behind the dam, it flooded the Colorado's many tributary canyons. You can cruise up the twisting passages to the head of these canyons -- or until its walls narrow to a point where the boat no longer fits.
The lake, a sparkling blue, and the surrounding red-rock canyonlands are part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Houseboat rentals are available year-round, but the swimming season is from about May through September, when the water temperature gets above a comfortable 70 degrees. This is southwestern plateau country -- just north of the Grand Canyon -- which means mostly dry, cloudless summer days and cool nights.
Many houseboaters find a private spot and stay there, spending their days swimming, fishing and hiking. You can rent a motorboat and trail it behind the houseboat. They are handier for canyon exploring, and you can use them to water-ski. The famous white-water rafting trips through the Grand Canyon begin just beyond the dam on the controlled flow released from Lake Powell.
A 36-foot houseboat, the smallest available, sleeps a maximum of six in two cabins. The youngsters often scramble to the porch atop the boat and sleep under the stars. A seven-night rental in high season (May 15 to Oct. 15) is $960; in spring and fall the price drops to $720; in winter, it's $575. Three- and four-night rentals also are offered.
Renters provide their own food, bedding and towels and must pay for gas. A motorboat big enough for water-skiing rents for $650 for seven days. Beginning houseboaters get a driving lesson on the lake. About 300 boats are available at four marinas. So popular are houseboat vacations that summer rentals book quickly well in advance, but many dates remain open because of cancellations.
For information: (800) 528-6154. A color booklet, "Planning and Enjoying a Lake Powell Houseboat Vacation," is available by sending a check for $1.50 to Del E. Webb Recreational Properties, 2916 North 35th Ave., Suite 8, Phoenix, Ariz. 85017-5261.
*Canoe from inn to inn in Vermont. Once a Vermont inn vacation meant good food and lots of sedentary relaxation. The food remains good, but nowadays many guests seem interested in pursuing more athletic outdoor activities, such as canoeing from inn to inn.
By day, you paddle one of the state's many excellent canoeing rivers. At night, you enjoy the comfort and hospitality of a country or village inn.
At least one of the state's several canoe-tour outfitters, Canoe Vermont of Waitsfield, has a van waiting at occasional pull-out spots if you decide you have had enough exercise for the day. The van also drives ahead to set up a picnic lunch along the river bank. Depending on the river's flow, groups travel about 10 to 16 miles a day.
Canoe Vermont offers a variety of two-, three-, five- and seven-day trips from May through the October foliage season on several flat-water rivers but principally the Connecticut, which forms Vermont's border with New Hampshire. The firm welcomes all ages and experience levels. Lessons are given throughout the trip for those who want them.
Canoe Vermont is a subsidiary of Mad River Canoe, which manufactures many types of canoes. Tour members get to sample several, including the firm's one-person canoes. "You can learn to paddle about 10 times quicker in solos," according to spokesman Steven Brownlee.
Prices for a two-night trip range from $235 to $295 per person (double occupancy), depending on the inns scheduled. The cost is all-inclusive from the canoe-launching site. A seven-day trip is about $915.
For information: Canoe Vermont, Box 610, Waitsfield, Vt. 05673, (802) 496-2409.
*Ride a covered wagon in Wyoming's Grand Teton country. Plunge into America's mountain wilderness the way the pioneers did. Three- and five-night trips depart weekly this summer from Jackson, Wyo. to explore the foothills of the Grand Teton Mountains over little-used back-country roads. The drivers form the wagons into a circle at night, usually in a meadow alongside a rushing stream.
The outfitter, Wagons West, calls the trips a "gentle introduction to the outdoors," which inexperienced campers may find reassuring. The trips can accommodate children, seniors, the disabled -- "and the lazy."
For a bit more comfort than the pioneers enjoyed, the wagon's seats are foam-padded and the wheels have rubber tires. You can sleep on bunks in the wagons or in tents. Portable toilets are set up at each site.
On the trail, horses are available for those who want to alternate wagon seats for horseback. The cook prepares the meals "chuck-wagon style over an open fire," and the menu is full of hearty American basics: steak, chicken, stews and sourdough hotcakes.
Five-night trips are scheduled each Monday from June 9 to Aug. 25. The cost is $480 for adults and $360 for children under 16.
For information: Wagons West, Afton, Wyo. 83110, (307) 886-5240.
*Fish for salmon at a remote Maine lodge. They take fishing seriously at Leen's Lodge, a small, very comfortable resort that sits on the edge of West Grand Lake in the thick pine woods of northeastern Maine's lake country. Even after a full day on the lake, some guests will return after dinner to try their luck under the stars.
Leen's is one of 20 resorts cited by fishing expert A.J. McClane in his 1984 book "Great Fishing and Hunting Lodges of North America" (Holt, Rinehart and Winston). What makes it great, among other attributes, is that it looks just like what you hope for in a lakeside cabin in the woods.
Accommodations are in 10 individual cabins (two bedrooms or more) facing the 20-mile-long lake. They look properly rustic but they really are fully modern. Breakfast and dinner are served in the cozy, wood-lined dining room. A large picture window facing west captures the sunset over the lake. You can dine, if you choose, on your day's catch, prepared by the lodge's staff.
The season runs from May through October, when the catch also includes bass, perch and pickerel. The lodge rents power boats, canoes and fishing tackle. Guides can be hired at a rate of $80 a day, including use of a power boat.
The lodge welcomes families. Guests who don't fish can go boating, hike woodland trails around the lake or go swimming. "It's real good swimming," said lodge owner Stanley Leen. "You can go out and see the bottom."
For a two-bedroom cabin and two meals a day, the rates are $58 per person a day for two people and $48 per person a day for four people. For ages 13 to 16, the rate is $37; ages 6 to 12, $27; and 5 and under, $15.
For information: Leen's Lodge, Grand Lake Stream, Maine 04637, (207) 796-5575.
*Spend a week at an Appalachian folk school. Learn to play the dulcimer, the fiddle, the banjo, the mandolin or the harmonica. Try your hand at chair making, basketry, spinning, paper making and even whittling.
Old-fashioned skills -- but still as practical and as fun as they ever were -- they are kept alive at the annual Augusta Heritage Arts Workshop, held on the hilly, 170-acre campus of Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, W.Va. It is a five-week festival, from July 13 to Aug. 17, of traditional Appalachian Mountain crafts, music, dance and storytelling, open to individuals, couples and families.
Classes are offered Monday through Friday, and participants may sign up for one or more weeks. Accommodations are in campus dormitories (two-person rooms or suites for families) and meals are in the dining room.
Elkins is a scenic community in the Potomac Highlands region of West Virginia, a four-hour drive from Washington. After class, there's time for rafting, hiking and swimming in river pools; and the workshop offers many evening programs, including square-dancing.
Tuition for most classes is $145 per person. Room and three meals a day from Sunday evening through Saturday morning is an additional $122 per person.
For information: Augusta Heritage Center, Davis & Elkins College, Elkins, W.Va. 26241, (304) 636-1903.
*Sail the Hawaiian Islands. Every week of the year, a six-passenger, 35-foot sloop sets sail on a six-day cruise to three of the Hawaiian islands: Maui, Lanai and Molokai. It's a sea and surf adventure into the romantic Hawaii of decades past, away from crowded beaches and high-rise resort hotels.
The boat is your hotel, usually anchored in a quiet cove. The crew prepares the meals, which feature, not surprisingly, fresh fish and local fruit prepared according to Hawaiian recipes. Days are spent cruising the island coastline, swimming, fishing, diving and windsurfing. You have opportunities to explore on land or just relax and sun, a cool drink in hand.
The cost is $750 per person from Lanai's Manele Bay and includes all food, the crewed ship and use of snorkeling and fishing gear.
For information: Pacific Quest Inc., P.O. Box 205, Haleiwa, Hawaii 96712, (808) 638-8338.
*Take a family bicycling vacation in Wisconsin. A Sierra Club outing, the trip is a seven-day camping and cycling tour of northeastern Wisconsin's Door County, a 50-mile-long peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan. It is a region of attractive fishing villages clinging to a rocky shoreline.
Cyclers will stay in state or private campgrounds on Lake Michigan or Green Bay on the western shore of the peninsula. Several factors make the trip ideal for families: Cycling distances will be short; the terrain is gentle; and there will be layover days at some campsites. Guide John Arthur of Madison will be joined by his 11-year-old son.
Everyone will be expected to help set up camp and prepare and clean up after meals, a good way for youngsters to learn the basics of camping and cooperation. The trip, departing Aug. 10, is limited to 17 participants.
The cost from Door County is $645 for two parents and one child; $175 for each additional child; or $430 for one parent and one child. Included are food, camping fees, guide services and shared cooking utensils. Cyclers must provide bicycle, tent and sleeping bag.
For information: Sierra Club Outing Department, 730 Polk St., San Francisco, Calif. 94109, (415) 776-2211.
*Join a trail ride in Montana's Rockies. This is a vacation for people who love horses, even if they have never ridden one before. For 10 days, you and your mount get to know each other well as you explore together the spectacularly scenic -- and remote -- Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness of Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park.
It is a region of towering peaks, pine and spruce forests and vast mountain meadows. The trail climbs to 9,500 feet.
A camping trip means roughing it, but the guides help you set up tents and they prepare hearty campfire meals. Also helpful is the fact that the trip is arranged so you don't have to pack up every day. Camps are established at three sites along the way, providing layover days on which you have a choice of riding, hiking, fishing for cutthroat trout or simply relaxing by a stream.
There are two departures, arranged by the American Wilderness Alliance, a conservation group. Each is limited to 10 participants. The July 20 trip begins in Livingston, Mont. and heads south to Cooke City. On the July 30 trip, the itinerary is reversed. These two departures are particularly good for families because of the relaxed pace.
The cost is $865 per person, which includes guides, horses, meals and use of a tent. You must bring your own sleeping bag.
For information: American Wilderness Adventures, 7600 E. Arapahoe Rd., Suite 114, Englewood, Colo. 80112, (800) 582-3624# (dial numbers and character; then wait for a dial tone and dial 4-1117-88).