Bored with your life? Try another, virtually

Published May 17, 2007

NEW YORK - The tour was a whirlwind: dancing at a beachside disco in Spain surrounded by scantily clad women, grabbing a seat at a lively pub in Dublin, Ireland, flying in a small aircraft above a lush, tropical forest.

Time elapsed? Less than two hours.

With no tickets required, no money spent and no need to leave your seat, touring in the virtual world of Second Life (secondlife.com) holds a certain appeal for travelers willing to delve deep into the Internet to find their escape.

Visitors need only download a free program, then log in. With the help of elaborate 3-D locales designed and built by the world's residents, tourists can watch their online embodiments - known as their avatars - lounge at the beach, dine at a romantic restaurant, or go out dancing at a crowded nightclub.

Like in the real world, it's easy to get lost. Longtime inhabitants of Second Life are creating automated tours, opening virtual travel agencies and even publishing travel guidebooks modeled after those seen in the hands of confused tourists.

Of course, there are some glaring differences between your average Frommer's guide and The Unofficial Tourists' Guide to Second Life, published in April by St. Martin's Press.

"There are sections on how to fly and how to hover, " said co-writer Paul Carr. But despite such necessary adjustments, he said, "it's very much like going to a foreign country."

With the ability to fly and even teleport from place to place in Second Life, which hosted more than 1-million visitors in April, a vacation does not need to be a lengthy affair.

As they travel to virtual Roman neighborhoods and fantastical worlds, visitors can interact with other participants from all over the (real) world - about three-quarters of users are from outside the United States, mostly from Europe, Brazil, Canada, Japan and Australia.

In Second Life, even language difficulties are a thing of the past. Visitors can pick up a free translation program and carry on typed conversations with others speaking any of nine languages.

For those looking to get their bearings, one option is the guided tour. Virtual travel agency Synthravels seeks to match up "tourists" and volunteer guides in 27 different online worlds, including Second Life, World of Warcraft and others. Those having a hard time securing a personal tour can turn to a number of automated options.

Like the Vatican in the height of tourist season, Second Life locations tend to get especially crowded when it's evening in the United States or Europe, and the resulting computer lag time can make navigating cumbersome.