Despite the enduring allure of exotic destinations, we're naturally post 9/11 tending to reconsider the attractions in our own backyards and appreciating them anew. "I celebrate myself," enthused the great poet Walt Whitman, and these days it's a sentiment shared by many Americans.
For the 81 percent of the populace who do their exploring by car, Fodor's has added two sweeping new volumes to its Road Guide USA series: Great American Drives of the East and Great American Drives of the West. It seems somewhat odd to see such distinctly nonwestern loci as Louisiana in the latter group, but the Mississippi more or less serves as the great divide. The loops and lines (each state gets at least one tour) are themed and numbered: "Connecticut's Impressionist Art Trail," for example, focuses on little-known local caches and hugs the scenic coastline from Greenwich to New London. Timely, town-by-town recommendations for attractions, restaurants and lodgings follow, so the reader can easily customize itineraries and revise them as necessary en route. Should you straddle the Mississippi or have particularly ambitious travel plans, Insight Guides' United States on the Roadis a handy all-in-one tome spanning the entire continent, selectively. It's packed with lively background info and lavished with photos a trait typical of this British-based line. (The burly, flag-trailing biker on the cover even lends a frisson of On the Road rowdiness.) Particulars on where to eat and sleep, consigned to the back of the book, can be a bit sketchy; this volume is perhaps most useful in the dreaming/planning stage. Eight routes frame the country the fold-out cover gives the big picture and the only area seriously slighted is the Rockies.
Into the breach leaps Rough Guides' Rocky Mountains. Originally geared to backpackers and other itinerant penny-pinchers, the international series with its copious, accurate tips and highly detailed maps has stretched of late to accommodate upscalers. However, you can tell where the writers' sympathies lie: one, in his acknowledgments, takes pains to thank his friends for "sofa space." The trio of contributors hail from as far afield as Wales, Scotland and Australia, but they've done their homework and put in the necessary time on-site; plus, you can tell they just love the place. True to the Rough Guide credo, they manage to inject a sense of humor and a refreshing aura of frankness (bears, they elaborate, are "attracted by the smell of sex, so watch what you do in your tent if you don't want a rather drastic coitus interruptus").
Not quite ready for such close encounters of the ursine kind? The Appalachians may top out at 6,000 feet or so, but the fauna are commensurately smaller as well. The Blue Ridge & Smoky Mountains, newly added to the Countryman Press' Explorer's Guide series (an East Coast collection which hitherto has extended only as far south as Maryland), covers a region characterized by "tidy county seats, brick-front downtowns little changed in half a century, artists' colonies hidden away in remote valleys, and well-tended farms and old log cabins that welcome overnight visitors." Local writer Jim Hargan's take is distinctive for what he doesn't cover: no amusement or theme parks (which he dismisses as "a modern intrusion from the outside having nothing to do with mountain wilderness or culture") and a minimum of prefab food (included only if "the price is right and the atmosphere nice"). It's heartening to encounter a writer with attitude, and there are, of course, plenty of exciting experiences left to exult in, from Class V rafting rivers to "grassy balds" ridgeline meadows awash in wildflowers and berries ripe for the picking.
For self-sufficient city slickers, HarperCollins has reissued a handful of its excellent Access Guides ($19.95 each): most recently, New Orleans, Chicago and San Francisco, with Boston due later this summer. Based on an ingenious format devised by Richard Saul Wurman (author of Information Anxiety), these are the ultimate tool in customizable trip-planning on the hoof, because they're map-centric: listings aren't separated into categories such as restaurants, attractions, etc. (though they do get color-coded, which facilitates skimming), but by propinquity. So to use a somewhat obvious example if you get peckish while checking out New Orleans' French Market, all you have to do is scan the nearby paragraphs for a suitable place to grab a bite (the famous Cafe du Monde is right there). Or let's say you've spent the sunset admiring the belching sea lions at San Francisco's Pier 39: you could sup unspectacularly among the hordes of tourists or walk six blocks and enjoy the meal of a lifetime at Restaurant Gary Danko. Because each guide is prepared by a local and supplemented by sidebars featuring the recommendations of resident luminaries, you get a fair measure of hand-holding to complement your independence. Latch on to a good cicerone like author Beth D'Addono, who succinctly captures New Orleans in one telling phrase "a gorgeous mistake, a flawed paradise of wild culture, ambrosial food, and unpunished sin" and it's as if you had a good, smart friend showing you around.
Destinations, after all, are more about the people than the scenery (or you could just stay home and look at pictures). Main Streets & Back Roads of New England, published by Globe Pequot, is part travel guide, part portrait gallery. Based on 50 segments of Chronicle, an award-winning Boston television news series, it visits beekeepers and boat-builders, llama-breeders and burger-flippers, and characters too colorful to pin down with any one job description. Perusing these stories most of which have destination details appended you'll likely be inspired to set out on your own search for human curiosities and natural wonders, the very stuff memorable trips are made of. And you probably won't have to venture all that far from your own backyard.
Sandy MacDonald, the author of Quick Escapes Boston (Globe Pequot), has contributed to guidebooks from Access, Fodor's, Frommer's and Insight. She lives in Cambridge and Nantucket in Massachusetts.