Every professional photographer I've ever talked to has told me that Nikon and Canon have the best lenses. I don't have any experiences with Canons so I can't help too much there. A buddy of mine has a 15X Nikon that he got for around $200 I believe that takes some great photos. Personally I bought a Panasonic DMC-FZ8 with 12X zoom a few years back and absolutely love the picture quality. Personally I would start by doing a little research on Cnet.com. Then go to best buy and play around with the ones that they have. That way you can see for yourself what you like best. Then I'd look at amazon.com or buy.com to compare their deals to best buys deals. Typically, the best times to buy a camera are mid summer and black friday.
I have a Canon sx10is,20x zoom.
So far I really like,however I wish I would have just spent a few more bucks and got a Nikon D40 or D60.
Zoom isn't all it's cracked up to be on any camera.
Here's a link for some good info. http://www.kenrockwell.com/
What every you do buy a digital, I have a good 35mm camera, but now with the cost of developing and buying film, I don't think its even worth it anymore. I will take a few differnt shots and only get 1 really good photo out of the bunch. With a digital you can see what your getting and decide which one to print. I'm looking to purchasing a cannon T1, as my old lenses will fit the new slr cameras from cannon. But it all depends on how much you want to spend. I got a good 10 meg camera for my fiance last year, I use that alot also, but its not as good as the higher up slr cameras. Also remember the more megs the photo is the more your going to eat up on your hard drive every photo will be just about that megs. Our computer is now slower b/c of all the photos, time to get an external hard drive just for the photos.