Early travel reports confirm that Americans are avoiding airports this year and taking to the highways in serch of the so-called safe vacation. In fact, it seems this is rapidly turning into The Summer We Stayed Close to Home.

If you live in the middle of the Mojave Desert, this may pose a problem. But in the Washington area, the nearby options are plentiful and attractive. From the beautiful free beaches of Gloucester Point, Va., to the isolated quiet of the islands in the Chesapeake, from the Victorian elegance of Norfolk to the battlefields of Yorktown, there may be no more logical spot for a variation on the classic Circle Tour. Take a week or two and drive the circumference, from Washington to Annapolis, through the Eastern Shore to Ocean City and beyond to Williamsburg and Richmond, then back to Washington either speedily by interstate or slowly along a trail of history stretching beside the Potomac River. The 700-mile route is a sweep of history, natural beauty and important architecture, with an abundance of sights all within reach, no matter what your time frame.

Bus tour companies have used the circle route to advantage for years, but the ordinary traveler rarely considers it for a car trip. Perhaps familiarity has bred contempt, or at least disinterest. But use it to explore these nearby regions -- from the Eastern Shores of both Maryland and Virginia, to the Chesapeake islands, Tidewater Virginia and Virginia's Northern Neck -- and you will gain a new appreciation of them.

*Maryland's Eastern Shore. On the theory that for many Washingtonians Annapolis is familiar territory, I bypassed it and concentrated most of my discovery tour on the lower Eastern Shore, the Tidewater area and the Northern Neck of Virginia. I left Washington on Rte. 50, crossed the Bay Bridge and took time to reexplore the quaint streets of Easton.

Across the street from the brick courthouse, a former antique store has been renovated as a long, narrow restaurant, Peach Blossoms, which serves light soups, fish kebabs and salmon strudel, among other offerings. There are several other restaurants within walking distance of the square and an eclectic children's clothing and toy store, Peas and Carrots. But this is primarily a town for walking or bicycling.

Just south of Easton, across the Choptank River, is Cambridge, another town that is fun to travel by bicycle, with its classic Victorian homes and extensive waterfront .

If you drive down High Street and take a right on bumpy Commerce Street, you'll discover the red awnings of Clayton's, a year-old fish restaurant situated on Cambridge Creek that lets you dine on an outdoor deck over the water. Retrace your steps when you leave, and turn right on High Street to find the riverfront town park, a perfect spot for a picnic.

It is another hour and a half to Crisfield, at the tip of Rte. 413, south of Princess Anne off Rte. 13. Salisbury is worth a stop, with its pleasant city zoo and its northeast section of whimsically painted Victorian homes, as well as the museum of carved waterfowl at Salisbury State College.

*The Chesapeake Islands. At the absolute end of Crisfield's Main Street is a pier where mail boats leave for tiny islands that provide one-of-a-kind overnight adventures. If you arrive by 4 p.m., you can catch the ferry to Virginia's Tangier Island. At 5 p.m., the last boat leaves for Maryland's Smith Island, actually a trio of islands named Ewell, Rhodes Point and Tylerton.

The mail boats are lifelines to these islands, hauling large quantities of new furniture destined for someone's living room, crates of milk, soda pop and beer and other necessities of life.

Each passage is about 14 miles and takes 30 to 35 minutes. At both destinations is a boarding house run by an expert cook. The accommodations are spartan, but the food is lavish. On Tangier Island, Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake Houseis the time-honored favorite. Betty, Rose and Edna Crockett serve a groaning-board dinner in the tradition of their mother, Hilda, who produced her first family-style seafood dinners in 1944.

On Smith Island, Frances Kitchinghas been cooking for overnight guests for nearly 30 years. From seemingly all-crab crabcakes to smooth clam fritters, corn pudding, spiced apples, chicken casserole, stewed tomatoes, dilled carrots, watermelon pickle, homemade bread and warm banana cake, this is an all-you-can-eat paradise.

All guests are grouped together in the Kitching dining room, creating instant friendships. In the midst of our dinner, 10 sunburned sailors from New Jersey arrived unexpectedly and master cook Kitching calmly conjured up an entire new dinner of equal proportion for the latecomers.

Kitching has five bedrooms in her home and eight across the street in a new, unpainted wood motel where rooms cost extra because they're air-conditioned. She also rents bicycles, and you'll find a ride throughout the island a very necessary activity after her complete dinner.

Commerce and home life are very closely mixed on Smith Island, with homes clustered behind the docks. The first view of the island is of the long "peeler" sheds. They are rough shanties over the water in which peeler crabs are dropped into boxes and kept until they shed their shells and become the delicacy that is the soft-shell crab. Clam shells line the streets, and the island day begins at 5 a.m. when the crab boats put out.

The islands are peaceful and interesting but are marred by an unusual amount of trash scattered along roads and in the marshes. Because so much of the area is so close to its natural state, the litter seems that much more out of place.

Mail boats leave both Smith and Tangier islands at 8 a.m., depositing you back in Crisfield in time to explore the Tawes Hardware Store, a collection of genuine finds. On your way out of town, stop at the Carvel Factory Outlet store one mile north of town, where Towle stainless steel products can be found at bargain prices, from a five-piece place setting for $20 to Scandinavian-design crystal glasses, candles, silverplate picture frames, baby cups and an entire room of cutlery, including oyster and crab knives and mallets.

These seafood utensils get a good workout in Crisfield most days of the year, but particularly over Labor Day weekend during the Annual Hard Crab Derby, where blue crabs endure a mock race before everyone settles down to tables of peppery crabs.

*Virginia's Eastern Shore. Follow Rte. 13 south into Virginia, and then head east to Wallops Island, where you'll cross large expanses of beautiful marshland. Suddenly, you'll begin noticing low-flying planes and then huge expanses of land filled with satellite dishes. This is a NASA space facility.A space research center has been located here since 1945, when Congress authorized the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics to set up a flight-testing facility for sub-orbital rockets. Wallops, one of the oldest rocket ranges in the world, has launched more than 13,000 rockets for meteorological and scientific research, and 21 satellites.

There is an interesting visitors' center, where a mix of films, photographs and artifacts chronicle the nation's space program. Children asked a lot of questions about one display, a disturbing 1960 photograph of a terrified monkey named Sam as he was forced into a Mercury capsule for a 35-mile ride. Guides didn't have good answers about the monkey's fear, but overall the center is an efficient way to quickly understand the shape of the space program. Available for sale are inexpensive, inflatable replicas of both the shuttle and various missiles, tiny world globes and embroidered patches from past flights.

Continue east into Chincoteague, ignoring the scenery-marring billboards that attempt to lure you to every ocean den of commerce. There are several bed-and-breakfast inns in Chincoteague if you decide to stay for a day of swimming or bicycling on the island of Assateague. They include the Channel Bass Inn, the Little Traveler and the ivy-covered and Victorian Miss Molly's Inn,where author Marguerite Henry stayed while writing "Misty," the book that made the area famous. All are clustered around North Main and Church streets. For those who have never seen the tiny Chincoteague ponies swim across the channel, the pony swim and auction will be held July 30 and 31 this year.

Chincoteague also is the home of an annual oyster festival -- held on Saturday of Columbus Day weekend at the Maddox Family Campground -- and an Eastern Shore Seafood Festival, held annually on the first Wednesday in May at Tom Cove's Park.

Car trips inevitably need constant interruptions to distract you, even on such a trip as this, which takes you through some of the nation's most abundant fields of nursery stock, with the Japanese holly, yews and azaleas filling the horizon. There is no better afternoon rest stop than at the Owl restaurant to sample some of the wondrous pies turned out daily by Josephine Roache. It's in Parksley, Va., on Rte. 13, two miles north of Accomac. Roache produces delectable versions of pineapple, black cherry, raisin custard, lemon chess, sweet potato and peanut pies. The favorite at the pine-paneled restaurant is a meringue-crust chocolate rum pie, one of several chilled pies Roache makes. It costs a whopping five cents more than the usual $1.30 per slice for most of the other pies.

The Owl's decor features wonderfully evocative 1950s tinted photos of Roache's sons toting banjos and six-shooters. It's a down-home place, with catfish and spoonbread. It is also generations removed from the next stop, an elegant bed-and-breakfast one mile north of Eastville, a logical stopping point before crossing the bay.

The term "bed-and-breakfast" doesn't do justice to the elegant Holly Brook Plantation,which is owned by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. It is a beautifully decorated but comfortable museum to the federal period, filled with English chintz, Eastern Shore antiques and fresh flowers gathered from the extensive boxwood gardens.

Each room at Holly Brook, which is operated by Charles Norton and Charles Daws, is a striking mix of pearwood tables, oriental rugs, giant candelabras and modern art. The bedrooms have high, four-poster beds and lacquered writing tables. There is a shared bath for all the rooms at present, but a bedroom about to be put into use has its own bath.

Norton is a celebrated cook, catering private dinners, weddings and receptions. The room rate of $150 per couple, or $80 for one person, includes a gourmet breakfast with such foods as almond cheese souffle' with spiced apples in a meringue nest served on antique china, with crystal goblets filled with champagne and orange juice.

Once you have been refueled, make sure you have sufficient gasoline to cross the 17-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, which charges a $9 toll. Impressive vistas from majestic bridges are one of the continual pleasures of driving the circle tour in the summer sunshine.

*Tidewater Virginia. The bridge deposits you directly onto the sands of Virginia Beach. There are public access beaches throughout the strand and boats for hire. You can hike through the cypress swamps at Seashore State Park or use the public fishing docks.

But instead of sunning, you might prefer to continue driving to nearby Norfolk and explore the cool halls of the Chrysler Art Museum. Said to be the state's oldest art museum building, it has an eclectic collection from Rodin to Cassatt, Rubens to Warhol. Fans of Tiffany glass will find dozens of the artist's multicolored vases, lampshades and stained-glass windows. Admission is free, but a $1 donation is suggested.

As you drive into the city's center, be sure to visit the Douglas MacArthur Memorial, a fascinating and one-sided look at a great American hero. There is a short movie, composed entirely of riveting film clips, of MacArthur at West Point, with Roosevelt, in World War II, Korea and Japan and saying goodbye to public life before Congress.

As you might expect, there is nary a critical word about one of the nation's most legendary figures, but it still is a painless way to recall or learn history. MacArthur's iron patriotism may compel you to buy an American flag (a bargain at 90 cents) in the gift shop, which shares space with MacArthur's huge black Chrysler Imperial limousine. Today's stretch Cadillacs have nothing on that impressive monster.

The Norfolk waterfront is a short walk south, but you can also catch one of the wooden trolleys that circulate throughout downtown. Riverside, a James Rouse development quite similar to Baltimore's Harborplace, wraps around one curve. Inside, you can lunch on everything from hot pastrami to Hawaiian shish kebabs.

Flea markets, along with roadside markets selling homegrown potatoes, horseradish and flowers, are as ubiquitous as antique stores throughout the circle drive. If you are in Norfolk on a weekend, a major flea market is held on Saturdays and Sundays at Bessie's Place, a former warehouse on the river just east of Riverside on City Hall Avenue.

Proceeding north on I-64, you cross the bay again as you drive into Hampton and Newport News, home of the famous shipyards and an extensive Mariners Museum.

Continue north on Rte. 17 to the Revolutionary battlefields of Yorktown. There is a special exhibit, the Yorktown Victory Center, but the admission is expensive ($4.50 for adults, $2.25 for children), and the displays and films have that artificial, created-from-a-textbook feel.

A better choice is the free, 4-year-old underwater archeology project run by the Yorktown Maritime Heritage Foundation that studies one of nine ships purposely wrecked in 1781 by British General Cornwallis off the Yorktown beach to ward off a French landing.

The ship, a merchant vessel, has been closed off by a steel wall. A 500-foot public pier built by York County allows visitors to view the work of the divers in progress. The shipwreck is located just off Virginia Rte. 238 in the shadow of the Yorktown Monument. The site is open during most daylight hours Wednesday through Sunday.

*The Northern Neck. Immediately upon leaving Yorktown via the beautiful George P. Coleman Bridge, you'll cross over a pleasant public swimming beach in Gloucester Point.

If you continue driving along Rte. 17 and then Rte. 3, you'll pass numerous antique stores and quaint towns. Cross the Rappahannock River and drive into Irvington, where an 1890 schoolhouse has been converted into the King Carter Inn,a bed-and-breakfast named after Robert (King) Carter, Virginia's most extensive landholder in the 17th century. Carter, a tobacco merchant and land agent for Lord Fairfax, held colonial posts throughout Virginia's Northern Neck. Just north of Irvington is Kilmarnock, site of Christ Church, which the Carter family had built using the architecture of a Wiltshire, England, church designed by Sir Christopher Wren.

Elegant country homes are found throughout the Irvington area, and local merchants have appropriated an old bank, library and post office for elegant shops and offices. The town is best known for The Tides, a classy golf and boating resort. But those with less than a weekend to spend will enjoy staying at the renovated schoolhouse and eating at a good seafood restaurant, the Calico House, across the street.

The nine bedrooms at the King Carter Inn, including one with a crib, are filled with carved wooden antique dressers, sprigged white curtains, gooseneck reading lamps and ornately carved beds. White terry-cloth robes are in each closet.

The inn, purchased in February by former Washingtonians, shares its outbuildings with an interesting collection of enterprises: an Italian import business, the administrative offices of the Lancaster County humane society and, yes, another good antique store.

On the drive back to Washington, you have a choice of the speedy interstate or winding along the Potomac River, stopping in Reedville, where you have another chance to visit Tangier Island via its ferry.

The menhaden fish processing in Reedville has always meant prosperity for the town, and there is an abundance of well-preserved Victorian homes there. Further north, in Montross, is the Inn at Montross, another beautifully decorated bed-and-breakfast.

For one last historic stop before the circle closes, visit the George Washington Birthplace National Monument. It is a fitting end to a tour that traces a good portion of our important colonial roots.

If you are one of those Washingtonians who get lost as soon as they cross the bridges into Virginia or can't keep the Maryland suburbs straight, this trip will give you genuine appreciation of your neighboring states. Less than two tanks of gasoline will carry you through their great diversity and natural beauty. Your only problem will be limiting the number of destinations.