Postcard PerfectBefore the advent of the Bates Motel and a plague of interchangeable chains, there was the Great American Hotel, in all its glory and guises. Barry Zaid's "Wish You Were Here" takes us on a nostalgic tour of these hotels past, via his collection of linen-finish postcards -- themselves a vanished art form -- from the '30s, '40s and '50s.

Were the skies really bluer then? Yes, thanks to the miracle of hand tinting, and every hotel was impossibly palatial or charming, right on the ocean or in its own park, with flowers perpetually in bloom and not a telephone pole in sight -- all courtesy of air brushing. In those days, you could lodge in a wigwam (Wigwam Village No. 1, near Horse Cave, Ky.) or book passage at the "Grand View-Ship Hotel," resembling a beached ocean liner atop a cliff in Pennsylvania.

Check out "Wish You Were Here" (Crown Publishers Inc., $19.95), and check in any time.

Local HeroesThere's the Shark Lady, a speleologist who's into Hawaiian "lava tube" caves, the dinosaur hunter who digs the District and envi-rons, and the odd senator or scientist who takes an occasional break from bureaucracy to pursue far-flung adventures in science. At their annual meeting in New York, they recount their exploits over rattlesnake meat, fried ants and lamb's eyes. No, it's not another PAC, but the Explorers Club -- the Washington group of that international organization dedicated to preserving man's instinct to explore land, sea, air and space.

Would-be club members must do something to further the cause of modern exploration, says Dr. Donald Watkin, chairman of the Washington club's education committee. He will moderate a lecture series next year, the club's first for the Smithsonian's Resident Associate Program. Vicarious expeditions to Siberia, Thailand, Australia, and Central and West Africa (pith helmet optional) depart Thursdays at 8 p.m., Jan. 17 through March 7. (For details, call 202-357-3030.)

Feeding CelebrityAt last, a field guide to celebrities in their natural habitats -- Ronald Reagan at Chasen's on Tuesday nights, they say, or the assorted famous who hang out at Spago or the Polo Lounge. Ed (not Eddie) Murphy, self-described "man about town" and former record-industry talent scout, has compiled "Celebrity Hideaways: Where the Stars Shine and Dine in L.A." Do Angelenos still go nuts over Kevin Costner, like we do here in the provinces? "They act blase," says Murphy, "but they're not." Send $2 (includes postage and handling) to P.O. Box 241823, Los Angeles, Calif. 90024. And when you return, perhaps you can say you broke bread with Barbra, or dim summed with De Niro.

TRAVEL TRIVIA In Greek mythology, the gods dwelt on Mount Olympus, under the rulership of Zeus. Where was Zeus born? ANSWER BELOWTRIVIA ANSWER: IN A CAVE ON THE ISLAND OF CRETE.

ON TRACKYou auto take the train to Florida, because Amtrak is offering discounts for cars aboard its Auto Trains through Feb. 18. The regular one-way rate for cars is reduced from $249 to $200; the round-trip excursion rate, formerly $298, is now $238. These rates do not include passenger fares or sleeping car charges. They also are subject to availability, and early reservations are advised. For reservations or more information, call 800-872-7245.