updated 2/21/2006 3:25:19 PM ET 2006-02-21T20:25:19

I hate feeling clueless. But standing in Dupont Circle, where streets shoot out like spokes on a wheel, it can be easy to miss some gems in one of the city's most eclectic neighborhoods.

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To help find my way one recent afternoon, I clutched a hand-held Palm Pilot that included the navigational travel guide Earthcomber. The software bills itself as "a new mobile lifestyle tool that helps you find exactly what you want, wherever you are."

First I wanted lunch - specifically, an inexpensive meal.

So I put Earthcomber to work by pulling up an electronic map that, with the help of a Global Positioning System, marked my location with a red X. Then, using a tool bar at the top, I tapped on a "Look List" and scrolled through myriad categories (hotels, nightlife, shopping and sights) until I found restaurants.

My choices continued from there. Did I want a cafe or a "hot spot?" How about something romantic? And did I want to spend a lot of cash or a little? I was even able to determine how far I wanted to walk.

Now for the real test.

Pairing Earthcomber's free technology with content purchased from commercial guidebooks such as Mobil Travel Guide and Moon, the software began "combing" my surroundings for places that met my demands.

Within seconds, I had a number of options to pick from within a half-mile: everything from Vietnamese to Italian. Many listings provided details about the restaurants atmosphere, service and food quality. Some even included pictures.

My friend and I settled on Raku after reading about its "New Wave menu" from Asia that entices "Gen X diners" with excellent noodle soup. The guide also warned the service was often sluggish, but we were in no hurry.

Raku lived up to its billing as a place for young people. Pulsating techno beats greeted us as we walked in from the cold. The food was great for the price (the total bill for two came to about $25). And, as advertised, the service was a bit slow.

Following lunch, I dared Earthcomber to surprise me again.

After all, I'm not a stranger to Dupont Circle, having become familiar with some of the cosmopolitan neighborhood's stores, restaurants and bars during my time in Washington. But I haven't spent much time exploring the area beyond a busy stretch along Connecticut Avenue.

While using Earthcomber to punch up a list about touring, I was intrigued to learn that a statue of Sonny Bono, the late congressman and entertainer of Sonny Cher fame, was just a few blocks away.

Arriving at the spot, it became clear why I had never seen it before. The statue turned out to be little more than a small, oval plaque at the entrance to a small traffic island. Nevertheless, I was amused that I had walked past the spot before, oblivious.

My walk contained other surprises. In a city well-known for grand memorials to presidents Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson, I was amazed to learn that Dupont Circle is home to the city's only presidential museum.

Built in 1915, the red brick Georgian style building on S Street NW is where Woodrow Wilson lived after serving as the nation's 28th president and leading the country through World War I.

Earthcomber's "Look List" also included the entire National Registry of Historic Places (though many descriptions of the 50,000 sites are vague). Among them is Brewmaster's Castle, which bills itself as the most intact late-Victorian home in the country and one of Washington's best-kept secrets.

The rust-colored building was constructed on New Hampshire Avenue from 1892 to 1894, and was the home of German immigrant and brewer Christian Heurich. Today the 31-room home is open to visitors.

In the nearly three hours I spent exploring Dupont Circle, Earthcomber lived up to its promise as a "virtual concierge." But there were stumbling blocks.

Though the concept behind Earthcomber is excellent, I found the software to be maddeningly sluggish at times, at least on the Palm that I used - sometimes failing to respond to my screen taps when I wanted to pull up a list.

I also had trouble with the Global Positioning System device, which had to be carried separately. It failed to work with light clouds overhead and at other random times.

When GPS failed, however, I was still able to update my location by tapping and dragging the X to my new location on the map, which allows users to zoom in and out (there are 12 different layers).

Although I mostly used Earthcomber for browsing at all the choices around me, the guide could be useful for travelers who know exactly what they want - and just need to know where to find it.

Earthcomber also can be personalized, allowing users to mark their favorite spots on the map and write a brief description so they'll remember next time.

Digital maps for every part of the United States can be downloaded at no cost from the company's Web site. The guide runs on Palm devices and Windows Mobile phones. They should also work with Blackberries in April, according to Earthcomber.

Earthcomber's maps - as well as basic information about landmarks and natural features like trails and lakes - can be supplemented with commercial guides that cost $10 to $15.

There are general-interest offerings from Mobil and Moon that, in addition to Washington, include cities such as Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Orlando, San Francisco and Seattle. There also is "Damron," which lists gay-friendly places; "FindAGrave," listing information about "gravesites of the rich, famous and notorious"; and Where To Wear, a guide to shopping in New York City.

If You Go:

EARTHCOMBER: or 708) 366-1600.

AROUND WASHINGTON: Raku restaurant, 1900 Q St. Sonny Bono plaque, in a small park bounded by New Hampshire Avenue and 20th and O streets NW. Brewmaster's Castle, 1307 New Hampshire Ave. NW.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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