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Armchair Travel At Its Best In March

Sun., March 22, 1998

March is known in the tourist trade a “shoulder season,” when vacationers vanish from the radar screen. School, work, blown budgets and unpredictable weather conspire to keep people home.

But even if you don’t travel, you can still dream and scheme. To help you focus on your next great escape, here are some helpful titles:

If your hear the call of the wild, you’ll want to take along a dependable companion. Three candidates stand out.

Ellen Searby’s annual “Alaska’s Inside Passage Traveler” (Windham Bay Press, $14.95) greatly enhances your prospects of a bon voyage along the 1,060-mile Alaska Marine Highway. Searby, who worked 15 years as a ferry naturalist and crew member before turning to travel writing full time, distills facts and advice down to their bare essentials. Her paperback is about the same size as a Cub Scout Handbook, and equally useful. (The 18th edition is due in May.)

However you intend to reach Alaska - by boat, air, and especially if by highway - you’ll want a copy of “The Milepost” (Morris, $22.95), a comprehensive, user-friendly travel guide that painstakingly dissects the last frontier into unintimidating portions. Having published the annual guide for 50 years, “Milepost’ editors (and advertisers) anticipate and answer virtually every question visitors have.

“The Alaska Almanac” (Alaska Northwest Books, $11.95) also aims to inform, but with less step-by-step minutia and more humor. How else to explain the prominent inclusion of “the wacky wisdom of Mr. Whitekeys”? Judging by how ill-informed most visitors are about the 49th state, the almanac is cheap (and amusing) insurance against asking too many dumb questions.

If your travels north will take you only as far as Western Canada, you’re still in luck. Three new guides offer valuable insight.

“British Columbia Handbook, 4th Edition” (Moon Travel Handbooks, $16.95) adroitly balances discussion of the West Side’s urbane appeal (restaurants, theaters and shopping) with glimpses of the province’s more rugged charms (hiking, kayaking and mountain biking).

“British Columbia: Off the Beaten Path” by Tricia Timmermans (Globe Pequot, $11.95) steers visitors away from crowded spots such as Victoria’s Butchart Gardens in favor of places like the Brisco (population 140) General Store, where you can still hitch your horse to the post out front.

Globe Pequot Press’ “Guide to Western Canada, 4th Edition” ($16.95) offers an armchair perspective of all four western provinces and two territories. Light on details, its information is confined mostly to the region’s major cities and parks.

If you’re in the market for a new road map, check out the National Geographic’s first-ever “Road Atlas” (Geosystems, $14.95). The detailed city maps alone are worth the price of admission. But also appealing is the spiral binding, which allows the atlas to lie open to the appropriate page. Equally handy is the back-cover flap that acts as a book mark.

Feel like taking a walk? If your journey requires packing a passport, you’ll also want to consider finding room in your knapsack for a $17.95 Lonely Planet walking guide. The dense paperbacks - ranging from the familiar (“Walking in Britain”) to the remote (“Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya”) - are stuffed with useful facts, maps and photos, yet still compact enough to earn their keep on a one-day (or one-year) walkabout.

And if your English isn’t going to unlock the mysteries of where to find the best restaurant (or restroom), reserve a side pocket for a Lonely Planet phrase book ($5.95). Even if English is the lingua franca of the late 20th century, it’s good manners to give the local tongue a try. Capito?

If your travels take you to the Midwest - or if you appreciate good architecture - check out Academy Editions’ elegant “Frank Lloyd Wright Field Guide” pocketbook series ($19.95 each) by Thomas A. Heinz. The new “Volume 2” examines 100 structures in the greater Chicago area, including Wright’s home in Oak Park and the Unity Temple. (“Volume 1” focuses on the Upper Great Lakes region.) Like Wright’s playful Romeo and Juliet Windmill in Spring Green, Wis., each volume is a tiny work of art.

Most cruise experiences probably rank somewhere between “The Love Boat” and “Gilligan’s Island.” Helping you choose the right match is the goal of “The Unofficial Guide to Cruises 1998” (Macmillan Travel, $19.95). Besides tips for saving money before you book and once you’re on board, “The Unofficial Guide” warns about ships with mediocre food, cramped cabins and/or poor shore excursions.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo


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