At this time of year, bookstore shelves begin to fill with new travel titles and new editions of standard series. Among the latest releases:
"Bed & Breakfast in the Caribbean," by Kathy Strong (Globe Pequot Press, $9.95). What could be more delightful in midwinter than an escape to a charming inn in the Caribbean? Strong's guide, a second edition, describes more than 160 island inns and bed-and-breakfast guest houses, most of them with no more than 20 rooms.
The book's major asset is its large number of entries, providing travelers who want to avoid big, high-rise resorts with a good choice of alternatives ranging in price from moderate (for the Caribbean) to very expensive. As Strong quite rightly points out, "There is no better way to visit these islands than by staying in those special, intimate spots that offer local hospitality and perhaps a slice of history."
Among the lower-priced possibilities is the Hotel Frangipani, an 11-room inn that occupies an old beachfront home on the island of Bequia in the Grenadines. The atmosphere is casual, and the inn and its restaurant are popular with the yachting crowd that gathers on the island. The 25-room Crane Beach Hotel in Barbados qualifies as one of Strong's "romantic inns." An 18th-century country mansion, "it is perched," she writes, "on a cliff 60 feet above the most beautiful beach in Barbados."
Don't expect the book to provide all the details you need to make a decision about booking a vacation. Many entries are quite brief, barely enough to whet your appetite. But Strong promises no more than this, and she recommends that you get more detailed information directly from an inn that intrigues you.
"Birnbaum's Mexico 1988," edited by Stephen Birnbaum (Houghton Mifflin, $12.95). This, too, is an updated edition of an earlier guide; it is included here for two reasons. The first is that Mexico continues to be a very attractive destination for Americans -- and an especially inexpensive one compared with much of Western Europe this year. The second is that the book, like others in the Birnbaum series, is excellently organized for the casual traveler who is looking for a mix of recreation and cultural insight.
While many competing series present Mexico (and other countries) in geographical sequence -- see the north, see the south, etc. -- Birnbaum has the good sense to organize much of each guidebook by activities. As a result, a reader can find in the index a listing of tempting vacations by theme.
For example, one section titled "For the Body" offers separate chapters on Mexico's beaches, fishing, camping, golfing and other active sports. "For the Mind" is a guide to the country's great museums and its archeological heritage. "For the Spirit" describes Mexico's "evocative small hotels," its fashionable spas and its best resort hotels.
More traditional in format are his profiles of Mexico's 25 cities "most often visited by vacationers." Obviously, his list is not going to lead you into hidden corners, but it's a rare traveler who is interested in exploring the unexplored. For its targeted audience, this guide to Mexico is hard to beat.
"Crown Insiders' Guide to Britain," edited by Robert C. Fisher (Crown, $10.95). One of an interesting new series of guides, "Britain" has two characteristics that especially distinguish it. It is readable and it is intelligently selective, sorting out the most interesting sights a visiting American might want to see.
Written by Americans for American travelers, "Britain" obviously is aimed at the first-time traveler, or someone who has been away for a decade or two and wants to repeat the customary tourist route. Helpful, in this era of quickie trips, are hurry-up London itineraries should you happen to be in the city for only one, two or three days.
To earn the title "insider," the book offers up suggestions that even frequent visitors might find valuable. They come under the title of "Perils & Pitfalls" and "Insiders' Tips," snappy paragraphs highlighted in special type that appear every other page or so.
A sample tip: The Tate Restaurant at Tate Gallery (officially the National Collection of British Art -- 16th to 19th centuries) "has one of London's best-selected lists of exceptionally fine wines at unbelievably modest prices." A pitfall: "Carnaby Street, off Regent Street, is long past its prime. All you'll find along this once-trendy enclave is glitzy, over-priced sleaze. Don't even bother to look."
The guide offers only a limited selection of hotels and restaurants, but I suspect that the travelers who find it most valuable will have booked a package tour where their lodgings already have been selected for them.
"Virginia Wine Country," by Hilde Gabriel Lee and Allan E. Lee (Betterway, $11.95). Though Virginians have been making wine for more than 350 years, it has only been in the past decade that the state has produced a flourishing wine industry. "Virginia Wine Country" is an introduction to 35 of the state's wineries.
This is not a tasting guide, comparing one chardonnay with another. Instead, it is more a touring guide. Grouped by region -- north, east, central, south and the Shenandoah Valley -- each winery and its product are briefly described, and directions for reaching it and operating hours are listed.
Local wine samplers should find the book handy in planning a day or weekend of wine touring. To aid in making the getaway pleasurable, the book offers a good selection of convenient country inn restaurants in each region that feature Virginia wines on their menus. Many of the inns have accommodations.
In addition, the book provides an informative history of wine-making in Virginia, some tips if you are interested in becoming a Virginia vintner yourself and 150 of the favorite recipes of the winemakers and the inns included in the book.
"America on Display: A Guide to Unusual Museums and Collections in the United States and Canada," by Joyce Jurnovoy and David Jenness (Facts on File, $24.95). America is "a nation of incurable collectors," write the authors, who collectively "display our popular culture, from soup to nuts."
To prove their words, they direct readers to 200 unusual museums, including the Campbell Museum at Campbell Soup's headquarters in Camden, N.J., and the Nut Museum in Old Lyme, Conn. Campbell's display features a collection of ornate soup tureens, ladles and bowls. The Nut Museum is a whimsical celebration of decorative objects -- jewelry, a spoon, toys -- made from nuts and their shells.
Many of the museums are the creations of individual collectors, among them publisher Malcolm Forbes, who at the Forbes Magazine Galleries in New York displays 12 of the jeweled Easter eggs designed for the last two czars of Russia by the House of Faberge'. Another collector is Lucille Bromberek of Lemont, Ill., who, according to the authors, has lovingly gathered more than 2,000 cookie jars of all shapes and sizes for her Cookie Jar Museum.
The book lists museums dedicated to a wide variety of interests -- sports, food, animals, railroading, the arts -- and it provides the address, admission fee (if any) and hours of operation for each entry. Many offer curiosities you might never expect to find in a museum. When next in Los Angeles, for example, consider a visit to the Museum of Neon Art, a humorous tribute to this special bit of Americana.