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THE GIFT OF INFORMATION GUIDEBOOKS DIRECT TRAVELERS TO CALIFORNIA'S DIVERSE TREASURES.

Byline: - Eric Noland

They want to stay closer to home.

It's a sentiment you've heard your friends and relatives voice with increasing frequency over the past three months. Their wanderlust hasn't abated any, they'd just like to work off a shorter leash until the world cools down, perhaps by exploring the incredible vastness and diversity of the Golden State.

It's something to keep in mind if you're hunting for a guidebook - a practical and generally well-received gift idea - for the inveterate traveler on your holiday list.

Damascus? Jakarta? Algiers? Uh, probably not this year.

Carmel? Carlsbad? Kings Canyon? That's better.

``A lot of people are kind of discovering their own backyard,'' said Adrian Kalvinskas, proprietor of Distant Lands Traveler's Bookstore & Outfitters, a treasure trove of publications and travel gear in Pasadena. ``Driving trips and the national parks have really picked up. It seems people want to keep their feet on the ground - or at least six inches off the ground.''

If you're seeking out books on tourist destinations close to home, you're in luck. There are more than 100 guidebooks on the market that address California in general, dozens more that focus on specific pursuits: city explorations, nature treks, wine country rambles, backroads driving trips, cultural immersions, country-inn romance.

With a little page-thumbing, you can readily find a book that is neatly geared to the interests of the people on your list. And most of the publications are priced in the $20 range.

Here is a gift-buyer's guide to California travel books:

``Hidden San Francisco & Northern California'' (Ulysses Press; $18.95).

This book and its companion, ``Hidden Southern California,'' are probably the two best all-purpose guidebooks to be had on the state. Berkeley's Ulysses Press customarily works with authors who live in the areas they are writing about, and territory is covered with a fine-toothed comb.

The ``hidden'' element takes the form of small arrows in the margins that direct you to the lesser-known features of a region, whether an off- the-beaten-track attraction, a tiny inn or a locals' cafe.

For example, most visitors to the Gold Rush country won't have any trouble stumbling onto the most popular attractions: the restored mining town of Columbia State Historic Park, or the location where James Marshall spotted some shiny nuggets at John Sutter's sawmill. But this guide also directs travelers to remote Malakoff Diggins in the northern reaches of the gold country. Of the 17-mile drive to the obscure site, the book correctly notes that ``the last half of the road is unpaved and parts of it are quite steep and sinuous.''

The ``Hidden'' folks also produce guides to the wine country and the coast of California. The books are well-organized and easy to follow. Instead of having lodging and dining choices bunched in separate sections in the back pages, for example, they incorporate such listings into the text for specific regions. There is also a lot of information about cultural sights and unusual dining.

These publications are much more fringe than mainstream - as the name would imply.

The series hadn't been particularly strong on maps, but in recent years it has addressed that deficiency, notably by adding some full-color AAA maps.

``Best Places'' (Sasquatch Books; varied prices).

If food and lodging are high priorities for the traveler on your list, you can't go wrong with any of these guides. Separate books are devoted to Southern California, Northern California, Los Angeles, San Diego, Palm Springs, San Francisco, Northern California coast and California wine country.

Unlike the ``Hidden'' guides, you won't find a lot of information about attractions, but the detail on lodging options and restaurants is exhaustive. This is invaluable for making room reservations before leaving home - a traveler can compare two similar properties and get a much better feel for the specific attributes of each.

A clever touch is a series of symbols that alerts travelers to places that have great views, are kid-friendly, are good for bike riding, feature local farmers markets, etc.

Lodging and dining options are organized according to price, but unlike many guidebooks, ``Best Places'' doesn't tilt heavily toward the top end. It offers choices at all points of the price range. For example, the 20-page section on Santa Barbara in ``Best Places Southern California'' ($19.95) includes nearly a half-page on elegant Bouchon, but it devotes almost as much space to the downscale and historic Cold Springs Tavern, as well as a terrific neighborhood Mexican lunch shack, La Super-Rica.

``Best Places'' also does a commendable job identifying nightlife options in the bigger cities.

``Coastal California'' (Fodor's Travel Publications; $21).

Part of Fodor's Compass American Guides series, this is one of the more learned guidebooks you're going to find. It bursts with the history, geography, social developments and literary background of any given area.

Flip to the pages devoted to Point Reyes on California's northern coast, for example, and you'll find an excerpt from the journal of Richard Hakluyt, who landed somewhere along this coast with British seafarer Sir Francis Drake in 1579. It's fascinating to look out over the rough Pacific waters, read the entry (``Our general called this country Nova Albion ...'') and imagine the damaged Golden Hind limping into the bay to make repairs.

The book is printed on high-grade paper and features many color photos and maps, as well as black-and-white archival photos.

In a seven-page section on the Russian River wine country, color labels of several wineries are displayed with entries on them, and the location of 16 of the more acclaimed wineries are noted on a detailed, color map. The driving directions to each winery are meticulously specific - a critical feature for anyone navigating the remote country roads of northwestern Sonoma County.

The book will also guide you to places well off the tourist path. It touts the Santa Rosa eatery Cafe Lolo, which matches delicious lunch items (including a salmon club sandwich on rich sourdough bread) with regional wines by the glass.

``Access'' guides (HarperResource; varied prices).

There's no better way to tackle a major city than with one of these pocket-size books. They are tremendous resources that break down a city by neighborhood, then provide detail literally block by block.

Entries are color-coded - one color of ink for hotels, another for restaurants, another for shops, another for attractions. And a map of a particular neighborhood will number the precise locations of its notable features for easy navigation.

For any guide to a big city, it's essential that the information be updated regularly - nothing is more infuriating than heading to some out- of-the-way shop or restaurant only to find it boarded up or, worse, now housing a coin laundry.

Accordingly, a new edition of ``Access San Francisco'' ($19.95) was released last month, featuring updated material and redesigned graphics that are much more readable. (The red ink and blue ink that once threatened to blind you over the course of a long passage has been replaced with black, topped by color subheads.)

Want to head out for a shopping excursion along Fillmore Street? This book breaks down the establishments according to block and side of the street, from Jackson to Sutter - more than 100 businesses in all. So you can zero in on housewares at Fillamento, gold jewelry at Tom Bergen or a bouquet of flowers at Fleurtations.

In the Pacific Heights section, you might come across the entry for Bonta, a delightful neighborhood trattoria with perhaps 10 tables. Despite being less than two miles from the frightful mediocrity of the Fisherman's Wharf restaurants, this is a popular dining spot for those who live here and in the Marina district. The fare is accurately characterized as ``rustic Italian.''

Curious about that row of identical Victorian houses that pops up so often in San Francisco ad campaigns, post cards and calendars? This book will guide you directly to the spot - the east side of Alamo Square - which is included in a self-guided architectural tour of the city.

``CityGuide Los Angeles'' (Fodor's Travel Publications; $19).

This is an excellent gift idea for someone who just moved here, someone who lives here but has fallen into a close-to-home regimen - and certainly for anyone who frequently entertains out-of-town guests.

It breaks things down by specific interest such as best beaches for kids, viewpoints that you can drive to, botanical gardens and shopping (68 pages, featuring products from antiques to costumes to tobacco). It features an exhaustive chronicle of the region's museums, from largest to smallest.

And if you're looking for some lively times after dark, it will oblige, but not with the obvious choices. Piano bars? Bars with a great view? English-style pubs? Neighborhood dives like the Oar House in Santa Monica? They're all here. And you know the authors are on the money when they refuse to list the House of Blues - which books such acts as Shelby Lynne and DJ Jazzy Joyce - among the blues clubs.

There are two other guidebooks that can be valuable traveler's aids, but they're a bit obscure and not easily found. If you conduct a hunt for them, you're likely to encounter some frustration; it might be wiser to keep an eye out for them while browsing in bookstores, particularly the large independents or out-of-the-way establishments.

One is ``The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: Pacific States'' (Stewart, Tabori & Chang; $19.95). This is strictly for history buffs, as the name would indicate (there are no listings for lodging or dining). It's great for reviewing before you depart on a trip, as it will lay a foundation as to how your destination came to be what it is. Lately, the Smithsonian series has seemed to concentrate more on the natural world, perhaps because once travelers purchase a history guide, there's no need to acquire a subsequent one for updates.

Another tough-to-find but excellent guide is Frommer's ``Wonderful Weekends From Los Angeles'' (Macmillan Travel; $15.95). For a given destination, it lists events and festivals around which a trip can be planned, and it provides a generous selection of outdoor activities and cultural attractions. Another strength is the book's broad cross section of lodging choices - with many more budget choices than most guidebooks. Its companion volume is ``Wonderful Weekends From San Francisco.''

CAPTION(S):

9 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) no caption (books)

Evan Yee/Staff Photographerz

(2 -- 3 -- color) The historical significance of Point Reyes is addressed in Fodor's ``Coastal California.''

(4 -- 5 -- color) The location of a row of Victorian homes on San Francisco's Alamo Square is provided in the ``Access'' guide.

(6) The foothills at the Malakoff Diggins, a secluded mining site in Northern California, brandish the scars of gold diggers. The site is highlighted in ``Hidden San Francisco & Northern California.

(7 -- 9) no caption (Book covers: ``Hidden Wine Country''; ``Hidden Southern California'' and ``Best Places San Diego'')
COPYRIGHT 2001 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 9, 2001
Words:1800
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