Summer vacations can be a strange marriage of ambition and relaxation. We head to the shore, lake, or mountains and vow to swim, hike, boat, and generally take advantage of the natural beauty. But often we never leave our hammocks.
The following books offer even the most intrepid traveler a taste of their vacation spot in between naps, swims, or ice cream cones. This decidedly unscientific selection aims to capture the spirit of each spot for fiction and nonfiction readers, and children, too. It's a bit of on-the-spot armchair travel that gives you maximum local color with minimum effort. And if you decide to get up and go, you'll find a few suggestions for where to head.
Whether you've rented a cottage or reserved a room at the family compound, you'll feel at home in "The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home" by George Colt (Scribner, 2003). Part memoir, part history, part travelogue, it's the story of the Colt family house on Wings Neck in Bourne. The Colts, once venerable Boston Brahmins, have lost their money and can no longer keep the rambling 11-bedroom "cottage." Colt exposes the secrets that lie behind his ancestors' stiff upper lips -- mental illness, alcoholism, and divorce among them -- even as he celebrates the joys of the family's final summer in the house. It's a touching elegy for a season that always seems to pass too quickly.
For seashore strollers who have looked at a seagull and found it staring back, there is "Thy Friend Obadiah" by Brinton Turkle (Puffin, 1982), the story of a 6-year-old Quaker boy on Nantucket who is followed by a seagull that becomes his unlikely friend. The book captures the salty island feel of a Nantucket before ferries and film festivals.
Novelist Alice Hoffman tells the history of a Cape Cod farmhouse through the people who have lived there. Built during British Colonial days by an unlucky fisherman, "Blackbird House" (Vintage, 2005) becomes home over the years to a math prodigy, a Holocaust survivor, a hippie family, and a cancer survivor. A white blackbird, set free in the opening story, presides over the house, an emblem of mourning that lends a supernatural cast to the book. The most potent spell, however, is cast by Hoffman's descriptions of the Lower Cape's duned beaches, dense marshes, and humbling surf.
* For a glimpse of her fictional terrain, head to Marconi Beach, part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Sit on the beach or head to the lookout platform at Marconi Station for 360-degree views of the Atlantic and Cape Cod Bay. Marconi Beach, Marconi Beach Road, Wellfleet. 508-349-3785. nps.gov/caco
Long before Sebastian Junger's perfect storm, 19th-century Gloucester fishermen Howard Blackburn and Tom Welch became trapped in a blizzard, which soon claimed Welch's life. Alone in an open dory, Blackburn rowed for shore. The true story of his incredible journey is told in "Lone Voyager: The Extraordinary Adventures of Howard Blackburn Hero Fisherman of Gloucester" by Joseph E. Garland (Touchstone, 2000). This knotty yarn of survival at sea is also a stirring portrait of the world's most fabled fishing town during its golden age.
M.T. Anderson's "Serpent Came to Gloucester" (Candlewick, 2005) recounts in rhyming verse the early-19th-century sighting of a mysterious sea serpent off the coast of Gloucester. Inspired by real-life reports, Anderson writes from the perspective of a boy who witnesses the creature's visitations and is secretly pleased when it evades glory-seeking hunters. Perfect for reading aloud on a moonlit night along the shore where waves and monsters can be glimpsed in the distance.
"The Last Days of Dogtown" by Anita Diamant (Scribner, 2006) sets its sights on a local legend of a different sort. According to an old joke, Dogtown was "the last place that God created, since it was where He dumped all the rocks that were of no use elsewhere." The unworkable 19th-century farm settlement became a shantytown where widows, prostitutes, and orphans scraped a living from the unforgiving land. Today Dogtown's rocks are covered in beach roses, blueberries, holly, and bayberry, but cellar holes can still be glimpsed along the paths, which are perfect for hiking.
* Maps of Dogtown can be obtained from the Gloucester Visitor Welcoming Center at Stage Fort Park. Call 800-649-6839 or 978-281-8865.
In "Here at Eagle Pond" (Mariner Books, 2000), poet Donald Hall reminisces about his childhood, family history, and the pleasures of country life from his ancestral farm in Wilmot, N.H. These essays ruminate on rural culture, consider the state's presidential primary, take jabs at neighboring Vermont, and serenade the four seasons -- maple sugar, black fly, Red Sox, and winter.
The Old Man of the Mountain may be gone, but he does not have to be forgotten. Denise Ortakales's "The Legend of the Old Man of the Mountain" (Sleeping Bear Press, 2004) tells the story of Chief Pemigewasset, immortalized in the cliff-face after waiting in vain for his wife's return from a long journey.
In Anita Shreve's "The Weight of Water" (Little Brown, 2006) a newspaper photographer combines a family vacation and her research of an 1873 double axe murder on the Isles of Shoals off the coast of Portsmouth. Aboard a sailboat in stormy ocean waters, the photographer slowly uncovers the truth about the grisly crime as her own family's happiness begins to unravel.
* To take a similar, but hopefully less turbulent trip, climb aboard a steamship for the Isles of Shoals Lighthouses & Portsmouth Harbor tour that departs twice daily from Portsmouth. Isles of Shoals Steamship Company, 315 Market St., Portsmouth. 800-441-4620 or 603-431-5500. islesofshoals.com
All right, Providence isn't exactly a vacation destination for Bostonians, but who can resist the cool taste of true crime? Mike Stanton serves up "The Prince of Providence: The True Story of Buddy Cianci, America's Most Notorious Mayor, Some Wiseguys, and the Feds" (Random House, 2004). This portrait of the former Providence mayor is laced with political corruption and criminal follies, offering outsiders a gritty glimpse of a city's dark heart from the safe distance of your lawn chair.
On a lighter note, "R is for Rhode Island Red" by Mark Allio (Sleeping Bear Press, 2005) uses all 26 letters of the alphabet to tell you about the 13th state. Learn the length of Rhode Island's coastline, how native Samuel Slater started the American Industrial Revolution, and what a quahog is.
John Casey's "Spartina" (Vintage, 1988) ventures far from the mansions of Newport to the backwater salt marshes where Dick Pierce dreams of the Spartina, a 50-foot fishing boat he is building in his backyard so he can fish for red crabs in deep water and change his family's fortunes. Winner of the National Book Award, Casey tells the story of this hapless American hero with wit and feeling, trawling the Rhode Island shore like an old salt.
* For a taste of Rhode Island crab, lobster, clams, and other shellfish, head to Champlin's Market in Narragansett, a 69-year-old fishing operation that supplies Fulton Fish Market and the Boston Fish Pier. It'll be quicker than building your own boat. Champlin's Seafood, 256 Great Island Road, Narragansett. 401-783-3152. champlins.com
Set in a rustic fishing camp, Justin Cronin's "The Summer Guest" (Dial Press, 2005) tells the story of Harry Wainwright, a wealthy businessman who falls in love with the camp as a young man and returns for a last day of fishing before he succumbs to terminal cancer. Using history as both a backdrop and a main character, Cronin orchestrates a complex family drama among the camp's owners, guide, and staff that stretches through World War II and Vietnam to the present day. The story captures the cool calm of Mainers in their element, rendering crystal clear the appeal of a week in the north woods.
Summer people aren't the heroes in "The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier" (Penguin, 2005). Journalist and Maine native Colin Woodard recounts Vacationland's roots as a hard-scrabble lobstering economy and ponders Maine's suburbanized future.
While the state has changed over the decades, some constants remain, like "Blueberries for Sal" (Viking Juvenile, 1948), Robert McCloskey's iconic tale of childhood mischief in the blueberry patches of Maine. With their mothers bent on berry picking for canning and winter survival, Sal and Little Bear live for the present, stuffing themselves silly with the sweet fruit of summer.
*If you'd like to do the same, head to Berry Best Farm for pick-your-own blueberries, raspberries, and peaches. Berry Best Farm, 33 Colburn Way, Lebanon. 207-457-1435.