TV tours de force: Today's would-be travelers can channel ** their interests

August 01, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

Planning a trip? Dig out the guide books, the maps, the airline and train schedules. Oh, and don't forget to watch some television.

Excuse me?

Surprise! The medium that spawned the term "couch potato" in fitting tribute to its usual effect on viewers has increasingly become a portal to a variety of travel experiences.

"Finally, a TV series that will ensure you watch less TV," promises the advertising for "Trailside: Make Your Own Adventure." The summer public television series from the publishers of Backpacker magazine urges viewers to watch first, but then get out there and do some mountain biking, kayaking, backpacking, rock climbing or family camping.

"It's a different kind of travel show. Our guiding philosophy is a how-to, where-to, what-to approach to the outdoors," says John Viehman, executive editor of Backpacker and host of "Trailside."

Not interested in such strenuous activity? Try a visit to "Great Country Inns," a series on cable TV's Maryland-based Learning Channel (available in only some areas; check your cable carrier). In this information-based series, host Donna Hamilton, formerly of "Evening Magazine" on Baltimore's WJZ-TV (Channel 13), introduces viewers to more comfortable travel destinations.

"I really think they use it both ways. For some, yes, they say, 'Probably in real life I'd never be able to go there.' But there are a lot of people who turn it into action, and fly off in their private planes," says Ms. Hamilton, adding drily, "How nice for them."

In similar fashion, the Learning Channel is also launching this fall a pair of potential travel guides, "Great Castles of Europe" and "Romantic Escapes," the latter looking especially for a variety of locations in the United States that lend themselves to amorous interludes.

Too hip for typical tourist itineraries? Try "Rough Guide," another public TV summer series in which a pair of English hosts, who could double as veejays on MTV, check out some of the more unusual activities and destinations around the world, from Zimbabwe to Indonesia.

In an almost completely vicarious vein, cable's Discovery Channel (also Maryland-based and affiliated with the Learning Channel) tonight presents a three-part travelogue to our planet's southernmost continent, "Antarctica: Planet of Ice."

And for a full-immersion experience, some cable viewers have an entire network to sample. The Travel Channel (available on only a few Maryland systems) aims at everything from vicarious armchair experiences to information-laden travel tip shows.

"I think travel is the most broadening thing. People do love to see the world, and we want to be a window on the world," says Dalton Delan, vice president for programs and production of the Atlanta-based network.

Here is a quick guide to some current travel-via-television possibilities:

* "Trailside: Make Your Own Adventure," 10 a.m. Saturdays on Maryland Public Television and 12:30 p.m. Sundays on Washington's WETA-Channel 26. (The Washington airing of the 13-week program lags two weeks behind the MPT episodes.)

Mr. Viehman writes in his editor's column in the current issue of Backpacker magazine that for a long time he never even owned a television, believing, like passionate environmental author Edward Abbey, that "most TV shows do more to retard humanity than advance it."

But when the opportunity to do an outdoors-oriented show arose, in association with L. L. Bean, Chevy trucks and Hi-Tech Sports USA (a hiking footwear company), he says, "I decided it's one thing to sit on the sidelines and complain, but a better response is to get in there and try to make things better."

The 39-year-old outdoors editor-writer had not intended to be on the show himself. But as planning developed, "the more it was like somebody kept knocking on my door. It's almost like I've been training for this job for 20 years," he says.

Each episode of "Trailside" features Mr. Viehman undertaking an activity with expert practitioners, from the first show last month on mountain biking in Utah to a two-part episode on wilderness hiking in Alaska that will conclude the series.

But the range of shows also includes advice for beginning or family campers. Two weeks ago, Mr. Viehman was family camping in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia with his 5-year-old daughter, Haley.

Mr. Viehman acknowledges his knocking-on-middle-age status helps viewers project themselves into his shows. He sees himself as tackling reasonable physical experiences "that should never be out of reach of the average human."

Will people really watch "Trailside" and then go out and emulate him?

The response so far has been impressive, he says, noting brisk inquiries from viewers for two useful companion books, "Trailside's Hints and Tips for Outdoor Adventure" and "Trailside's Trail Food," as well as videotapes of each episode. (Call [800] TRAILSIDE.)

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