Their real work has been finished for weeks. Legislation has been parsed, passed and signed into law, county budgets debated and approved. So this week, Maryland politicians are beginning their annual exodus for the summer holidays.

And they aren't going down to the ocean, hon.

This week the governor, State House leaders and at least one county executive leave for three continents on excursions paid for by taxpayers or advocacy groups. The field trips are a mix of business boosterism and cultural immersion in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Trip sponsors and their guests say the excursions, which cost thousands of dollars a person, provide an intimate understanding of complicated, far-flung places. But critics contend those funded by taxpayers are rarely worth the investment. Those footed by private agencies alarm government watchdog groups that say traveling with politicians gives business executives unfair access to them. The trips do not have to be reported to state regulators unless they are paid for by registered businesses or lobbyists.

"Too often we miss the rest of the iceberg when we look only at political contributions and lobbying reports," said Kathleen Skullney, president of Common Cause Maryland. "These are spheres of influence that the public never really sees."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) is scheduled to be in Copenhagen and Rome this week promoting Maryland to politicians and airline executives. Prince George's County Council member Ronald V. Russell (D-Mitchellville) heads to North Africa, then Gaza City as part of a legislative delegation paid for by an educational nonprofit organization. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), General Assembly leaders and business executives leave today for Israel for an all-expense-paid trip that includes sightseeing, trade promotion, deluxe hotel rooms and a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak.

"We try to pick people we think are important and have an impact within our community, our state," said Darrell D. Friedman, president of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, the nonprofit organization funding the Israel trip.

The guest list includes Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) and leaders of the General Assembly's most powerful fiscal committees. Miller made the same trip several years ago and said the itinerary was 18-hour days of religion, politics and history.

"The reason I go again is that I also have the opportunity to visit the birthplace of Christ," Miller said. "It's spiritual as well as mental enlightenment."

About 10 Maryland business executives also plan to go, including such prominent political fund-raisers as H. Furlong Baldwin, chairman of Mercantile Bankshares Corp., and Calman "Buddy" Zamoiski Jr., chairman of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Duncan, who traveled to Israel in 1995 with a Washington-based group, said the trip was first mentioned to him by Zamoiski, a booster of the expanded Strathmore Hall project in Montgomery being pushed by Duncan.

"This is supposed to give us a better understanding of daily life there," Duncan said. "The other part, though, is that . . . spending time with Miller, Taylor, [Del. Howard P.] Rawlings, [Sen. Thomas L.] Bromwell -- that will be good for the county in Annapolis."

Del. Sheila Ellis Hixson (D-Montgomery), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the Middle East is an appropriate destination for the frequently feuding Baltimore and Montgomery officials.

"I'm going to see how the Arabs and Jews made peace," Hixson said jokingly. "If I can figure that out, then maybe we can figure out how to make peace."

Staff writer Jackie Spinner contributed to this report.

CAPTION: GLENDENING: The governor is scheduled to be in Copenhagen and Rome this week promoting Maryland to politicians and airline executives.