Question: I'd like to spend an off-season week in Sorrento with side trips to Pompeii, Herculaneum and Naples. Can I hire a personal English-speaking guide?

Answer: The town of Sorrento, 30 miles from Naples, 24 miles from Herculaneum and 17 miles from Pompeii, is on the Sorrento Peninsula, on the northwest coast of Italy. One of the best times to visit the area is in the off-season, which runs from mid-October until the end of March (excluding a few weeks around Christmas.

During those months, it is possible to avoid the tourists that swarm the coast during the summer. A list of hotels can be obtained from the local tourist agency, the Azienda Auto-noma di Soggiorno Sorrento-Sant'Agnello, 35 Via Luigi de Maio, 80067 Sorrento; telephone (39-81) 8074033.

English-speaking guides can be hired by contacting the Co-operativa Guide Center, 187 Via degli Aranci, Sorrento; (39-81) 8783061. Guides are available for full- or half-day excursions. For example, a daylong trip to the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii, which were both buried in A.D. 79, when Mount Vesuvius erupted, costs $211 for the guide, while a day of sightseeing in Naples, including one museum costs between $177 and $211, depending on the itinerary.

A number of tourist agencies in Sorrento organize trips to Naples, Pompeii and Herculaneum. In the summer the tours are available nearly every day; in the winter, tours are offered when a minimum of 25 people sign up. A one-day trip to Pompeii and Herculaneum costs about $35 a person, excluding the cost of entry ($8 to each site).

A half-day trip to Pompeii and to Mount Vesuvius costs $20 excluding entrance to the site. A trip to Naples costs $30, excluding the entrance ticket to the chosen museum. You can find out when tours are being offered by calling the Associazione Agenzie di Viaggio, (39-81) 8072900. They will book you on a tour bus.

Question: On my 1994 vacation in London, I took a tour on the Orient Express train, which visited the English countryside. Are such tours still available?

Answer: The tour company Venice Simplon Orient-Express still offers a wide variety of day trips from London and other cities aboard its restored British Pullman train. The umber and cream cars, with their intricate wooden marquetry patterns, brass luggage racks, bathrooms with mahogany fittings and mosaic floors and uniformed stewards, aim to re-create the original luxury of the trains of the 1920s and 30s.

Most trips depart from Victoria station in London. Among the destinations are Canterbury, Bath, Cambridge, Salisbury, Stratford-upon-Avon and Sandringham. Most take place from March throughout the summer and early fall, but several trips are scheduled in November and December.

On Nov. 21, for example, there is a day trip to Beaulieu, which is famous for its palace, abbey and National Motor Museum. Passengers travel by train to Southampton, 80 miles south of London, with a champagne brunch on the way, then by coach to Beaulieu and by coach back to London. The cost is $158.

On Nov. 13 and Dec. 15, there are excursions to Winchester, 67 miles south of London, on a Pullman train hauled by a steam locomotive. This package, which in-cludes a light lunch en route, walking tour of the historic city, and a three-course dinner, costs $315.

An alternative is lunch or dinner aboard the train as it travels through the English countryside. The packages are available on Dec. 13, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 and 23. The cost is $282. In 1997, murder mystery tours will be added to the choice of excursions.

For information, contact the Venice Simplon-Orient Express, Sea Containers House, 20 Upper Ground, London SE1 9PF; in the U.S. call (800) 524-2420, in London (44-171) 805 5100.

Question: I will be visiting Asheville, N.C., the first week of December. Besides the Christmas goings-on at Biltmore, are there any other worthwhile holiday festivities in the area?

Answer: Many travelers familiar with Biltmore Estate's extravagant Christmas decorations and candlelight tours are unaware of the myriad holiday events in Asheville and the surrounding area. A calendar distributed by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, (704) 258-6101 or (800) 257-1300, lists some 30 events, including parades, Christmas markets, plays, dances, readings, a Kwanzaa celebration and holiday-themed tours of historic houses.

For example, from Dec. 1 to 22, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, an 1883 Queen Anne house at 48 Spruce St. in Asheville (704) 253-8304 will be decorated for a Victorian Christmas. Guided tours of the author's boyhood home will be offered from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $1 and 50 cents for students.

On Dec. 7, in the nearby town of Black Mountain, a parade with more than 100 floats begins at 4 p.m. and is followed by Christmas caroling, a visit from Santa Claus, cookies and hot chocolate and a display of luminaries around Lake Tomahawk. Admission is free. Information: (800) 669-2301.

A number of performances are scheduled during your visit, including a musical adaptation by Mockingbird Theater Productions of "The Prince and the Pauper" from Nov. 29 to Dec. 12 at the Diana Wortham Theater at Pack Place in Asheville. Information, (704) 257-4530.

As for the Biltmore Estate itself, a 250-room French Renaissance chateau that once belonged to George Vanderbilt, it will use the Christmas wreath as a focal point for its decorations, which will be displayed from Nov. 12 to Jan. 5. More than 200 Christmas wreaths ranging in diameter from 6 inches to 10 feet will hang from walls, chandeliers and statuary. Decorations also include 35 Christmas trees, over 500 luminaria, 1,800 poinsettias and 20,700 feet of evergreen roping. Performances by carolers and instrumentalists are part of the festivities.

The house will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day).Tickets are $29.95, $22.50 for those aged 10 to 15.

A series of candlelight evening tours are also scheduled. Reservations are required.

Information: The Biltmore Co., 1 North Pack Square, Asheville, N.C. 28801; (704) 274-6333 or (800) 922-0046.