Dream Trips 2004

If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you choose? We've figured out the smartest, cheapest ways to experience seven of the world's wonders. It's time to stop dreaming and start exploring.

By , Monday, Mar 1, 2004, 7:00 PM

The Pyramids Cairo, Egypt

The pharaohs built things to last. That's why the name of Cheops has survived for 4,500 years. After all, nothing says "Cheops was here" like a 450-foot-high pile of stones weighing 6 million tons and covering 13 acres. This Great Pyramid is the oldest, and last surviving, member of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It bakes under the desert sun in the western suburbs of Cairo, surrounded by nine smaller siblings and the inscrutable gaze of the Sphinx. An old Arab proverb holds that "Man fears Time, but Time fears the Pyramids."

GETTING THERE: Direct EgyptAir flights from New York to Cairo cost roughly $800, plus a $15 visa fee paid upon arrival. Taxis downtown are $10 (be firm on the price) and buses cost 50¢. Giza and the pyramids are an hour's bus ride (12¢ on air-conditioned minibuses #83 or #183), or 40 minutes in a taxi ($7, with airconditioning), from Cairo's main Tahrir Square, where relics from ancient times are housed in the Egyptian Museum. But in this case, an air/hotel package trumps going solo. One of the best deals in traveldom is Misr Travel's $899 package from New York.

YOU MADE IT: Admission is $3.24 and covers the entire site: the Great Pyramid, two slightly smaller ones, seven teensy Queens' Pyramids, and the Sphinx. Shimmying into a burial chamber costs another $8 to $16, depending on the pyramid you choose, but involves a long, crouching shuffle down a steep passage less than four feet high. Claustrophobes will want to pass.

WHO KNEW? The Great Pyramid of Cheops (his Greek name; the Egyptian name is Khufu) releases only 150 tickets each morning for burial-chamber visits, and another 150 at 1 p.m. Unfortunately, tour buses scoop up the first batch by 8 a.m. Solution: Arrive mid-morning, explore the grounds, then line up by 12:30 p.m. to snag an afternoon entry. Better yet, pay $13 to hire a taxi for the day and get there early. You can then drive just a few miles farther to Saqqara, Dahshur, or any of the other pyramid sites in the surrounding valley which, unlike crowded Giza, you can have virtually to yourself. --Reid Bramblett

Taj Mahal Agra, India

When his wife died in 1631, Emperor Shah Jahan was so bereaved that he spent 22 years-and most of his empire's riches-on this elaborate tomb, a tribute to love and mild insanity. His subjects locked him up for profligacy, but these days the Shah is most remembered as a romantic for the ages. Travelers who behold this soothingly symmetrical architectural ode report a sense of accomplishment, for there are few world monuments to match it for exotica and beauty. And-surprise!-if you've got the nerve to forge through chaotic Indian crowds, the Taj is reachable on a simple plane/train combo.

GETTING THERE: Flying out of New York, San Francisco, or Toronto yields the best chance at a markdown. Hari World Travel, operating in five North American cities, can arrange flights to New Delhi, the nearest gateway, for under $900 (212/997-3300). Don't forget to bring a visa ($30, indianembassy.org). Once you land, take one of several competing airport shuttle buses (about $1.30) to New Delhi's main train station, and from there grab one of the many daily trains on Indian Railways (indianrail.gov.in), the world's largest employer, southeast to Agra. The express ride is two-and-a-half hours (slow trains take up to twice as long); prices float illogically between $6 and $12. Spring for first-class seats with air-conditioning, especially when the heat spikes, from April to October. A rickshaw from Agra station to the Taj should cost just a buck or two (always settle on a price before boarding). The package alternative: Djoser's guided 20-day India and Nepal tour hits Agra on days eight and nine. It costs $2,095, including airfare, leaving Los Angeles from February to May (877/356-7376, djoserusa.com).

YOU MADE IT: Indian citizens pay 55¢ to enter the grounds (and they stay there all day, picnicking and hanging out), but you must pony up $20. Respectfully cover your legs with breathable pants-it's a Muslim burial site, which also means it's closed Fridays--and if you want to mount the plinth and pad around the polished inner sanctum that's inlaid with semiprecious stones (you do), you'll have to leave your shoes with an attendant. Tons of basic lodgings, of the type patronized by the Indian middle class and Western shoestringers, are in the adjoining Taj Ganj neighborhood and cost but $4.40 a night. After seeing the Taj, lots of tourists spin around and return to Delhi-you shouldn't. About a mile west, Shah Jahan's home, the Red Fort, still dazzles with its regal austerity, and 23 miles west of Agra, don't miss the fabulous palatial city of Fatehpur Sikri, built from scratch by the Mughals in the late 1500s and abruptly abandoned 14 years later.

WHO KNEW?: Although every photograph you've ever seen of the Taj-including this one-makes it look tranquil and wistful, in fact the whole joint is usually jumping with sightseers. Plan to enter the grounds when they open at first light, as sunrise bathes the monument in an eerie peachy hue, and again in the evening, when moonlight seems to light the building from within. Quick-footed salesmen will offer to snap digital photos of you in the gardens and print them while you wander. They're actually pretty talented, and you don't have to pay unless you want a copy. --Jason Cochran

Great Barrier Reef Queensland, Australia

The world's largest reef system is arrestingly big. What other living thing is about as long as the American West Coast and visible from space? Nonetheless, it sure can be an ordeal reaching it, marooned as it is off the northeast coast of Australia. Better face it: With the planet's reef habitats withering at an alarming rate, it's a true see-it-before-it's-gone wonder.

GETTING THERE: The best land gateways are tropical Cairns (touristy to a fault) and Townsville (Cairns' yokelly competition about 150 miles south). Americans usually first touch down in distant Melbourne, Brisbane, or Sydney and take a connecting flight to reach the reef. High airfares used to make that leg the deal breaker, but young Virgin Blue (virginblue.com.au) offers one-way Sydney-Cairns flights for $74 (on sale) to $170 (normal price). Add that to a good Los Angeles-Sydney fare ($899 in our summer), and your toes can get to the sea's edge for as little as $1,047 round trip. Alternatively, a company called Oz Experience (ozexperience.com) will guide you and a busload of other adventurers from Sydney to Cairns, allowing you to take your time, for $287; it requires a minimum of nine days each way.

YOU MADE IT: Dozens of outfits vie to take you to the reef, an hour offshore. One of the cheapest, Compass Cruises, in Cairns (011-61/7-4051-5777, reeftrip.com), leads snorkeling outings for $45. Three-day, 10-dive expeditions cost around $425, and there's plenty of equipment to go around. Day trips to the many islands (some overcrowded, some virtually deserted) start at around $20. Generally, the farther from land you go, the better the diving is.

WHO KNEW? Cairns has more than 20 hostels, many with nice double rooms, so lodging doesn't have to cost more than $25 a night. Avoid going in the rainy season, from January to March, when waters can get cloudy from river runoff-that's when transpacific airfare costs the most, anyway. And, for heaven's sake, always check with locals before jumping into these wild waters: From November to April, the deadly box jellyfish prowls the waves, and, year-round, saltwater crocodiles browse for meals at the shore. -JC

Red Square Moscow, Russia

Russia is more than a decade removed from the fall of Communism, yet the country's heart and soul is still Moscow's Red Square, a 500,000-square-foot swath of public space that is actually not red, or square (it's more like a gray rectangle). It's here that you'll find the royal trio of Russian icons: onion-domed St. Basil's Cathedral, the Kremlin looming behind high walls, and the world's creepiest tourist magnet, Lenin's corpse.

GETTING THERE: Flights to Moscow often drop below $500 in winter, when temperatures there rarely climb above freezing. In summer, it's unusual to find airfare under $1,000. (Tip: Try Finnair, with a change in Helsinki.) But an air/hotel package is usually more affordable. For $699 in winter and $1,399 in summer, Eastern Tours offers a six-night package to Moscow and St. Petersburg, with lodging, air from New York, train tickets between the cities, transfers to hotels, and guided tours of both cities, with a particular focus on the Kremlin and Red Square. It's a bureaucratic nightmare to get a tourist visa (by itself, $100) without using a travel agent-another good reason to go with the package. Flight taxes and visa fees tack on about $300 through Eastern Tours (800/339-6967, traveltorussia.com).

YOU MADE IT: Most decent hotels-such as the Rossiya Hotel (moscow-hotels.net/rossiya-hotel), a modern, three-star property right across from Red Square ($104)-help guests negotiate the complicated and mandatory visa procedure. It's also necessary to register with local authorities within three days of arrival. Most hotels take care of this for you for an additional $20 or so-skip it and you risk getting hassled by the police. The wait for Lenin's Mausoleum can sometimes last three or more hours (it's generally open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and closed Mondays and Fridays). Stone-faced guards turn tourists away for any number of reasons. Carrying baggage is a no-no of late, due to security precautions (both Red Square and Lenin's Mausoleum were closed for spells last year, without much warning, for renovations and terrorism concerns). Entrance to the mausoleum is free and also grants access to the Kremlin Wall, where Stalin, Brezhnev, and other luminaries are buried.

WHO KNEW? Lenin's body in the mausoleum is dabbed with embalming fluid twice a week. Every year and a half, the entire corpse is bathed and decked out in a new suit. The so-called Lenin Laboratory, which is in charge of the former leader's upkeep, has become quite adept at preserving the human body. A recent client was Kim Il Sung, father of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il, whose embalming was rumored to have cost $1 million. You don't need to have Communist ties for its services, however. The laboratory will actually immortalize anyone who's willing to shell out $300,000. --Brad Tuttle

Antarctica

You can't get more remote than The Ice (as scientists call it), the coldest and windiest of the continents, where 90 percent of our planet's freshwater supply is locked up in deep freeze. Although it was hypothesized to exist by the ancient Greeks, humans didn't set foot there until the 1800s. It seems like the least likely tourist destination, but nowadays up to 15,000 travelers a year sail to the fringes of the elusive Seventh Continent so that they can take in its primordial beauty-and brag about it for a lifetime.

GETTING THERE: Because of Antarctica's unpredictable weather, scheduled plane service is nearly impossible, so tourists visit the continent via ship. The season blips by between December and March, which means the few available ships book up fast. Some tour operators charge $20,000-especially for longer cruises departing from Australia or New Zealand-but it's simple to find a run under $4,000 leaving from Ushuaia, at the tip of Argentina (about a $350 round-trip flight from Buenos Aires, which is itself about $600 from Miami). Because it's convenient to the spindly Antarctic Peninsula, Ushuaia is base to many 100-passenger vessels, primarily Russian-built icebreakers, promising professional lecturers and landfalls by Zodiac dinghy. Ten-night departures sell for under $4,000 through U.S.-based Adventure Center (800/228-8747, adventurecenter.com). That includes all meals but means sharing a triple cabin; reserving a double adds about $800 to the bill. Some trips don't actually make landfall, so scrutinize the itinerary before you sign on. You might want to find a cruise through the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (iaato.org), whose members adhere to stringent environmental guidelines.

YOU MADE IT: You won't need any cash on the cruises because they're essentially all-inclusive-residual stuff like your bar tab is settled at the end by credit card. But be sure you have seasick patches and pills since you'll be crossing the nasty Drake Passage, where swells can top 60 feet. Layers of synthetic-fiber clothing are recommended instead of cotton and wool, which tend to trap moisture and keep you colder. And since there are no stores in Antarctica, bring more film than you think you'll ever need. And then pack even more-those penguins are photogenic.

WHO KNEW? Book a trip that stops at one of the scientific outposts, such as the Ukranian-run Vernadsky Research Station. You can get a mock Antarctica stamp in your passport and have a drink and play pool with the scientists who live there year-round. --Matthew Link

Graceland Memphis, Tennessee

The King is rock-and-roll royalty, and Graceland is America's Versailles. Priscilla Presley threw open the wrought-iron, musical-staff gates of Elvis's 14-acre estate to the public in 1982, and it has since become one of the nation's most-visited homes, a holy-pilgrimage site for 600,000 fans annually, and for the unenlightened, a curiosity of American kitsch.

GETTING THERE: Low-cost carrier AirTran serves Memphis, and Graceland is barely four miles west of the runway. A direct taxi costs just $10. Taxis downtown run $25, or hop on the $15 airport shuttle. Sun Studio, where Elvis once crooned alongside Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis, runs a free shuttle bus (800/441-6249) that stops hourly at the blues clubs on Beale Street, Stax Records, Sun Records, Heartbreak Hotel, and Graceland.

YOU MADE IT: The 90-minute tour ($18) of the home's perfectly preserved '70s decor covers the Jungle Room (with built-in fountain and shag carpeting), the bedroom Elvis kept for his mama, and a vintage kitchen where he scarfed peanut butter and banana sandwiches and fried pickle chips. Outbuildings house guitars, press clippings, rhinestone-slathered jumpsuits, video snippets, and endless walls of gold records. The tour ends by the pool, at Presley's Meditation Garden grave. Additional tickets get you in to see the original pink Cadillac and other Presley cars ($8), his customized jets ($7), and the "Sincerely Elvis" collection of personal items ($6). Graceland is closed Tuesdays from November to February (800/238-2000, elvis.com).

WHO KNEW? Just coming to pay your respects? Skip the mansion tour and spend some time at the graves; that's free from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. (8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. in winter). Area hotels are booked solid during the week leading up to the August 16 anniversary of Presley's (alleged) death. In any event, you can save by staying in the huge $30 rooms at the new casinos of Tunica, Miss., an easy 30 miles south on U.S. 61. --RB

Angkor Wat Siem Reap, Cambodia

A thousand years ago, this metropolis of tumbledown temples was the seat of Southeast Asia's mighty Khmer culture. This sprawling collection of palaces, causeways, and monasteries (the most famous of which is the corncob-spired namesake, Angkor Wat) was overgrown by the jungle in the 1400s, and not until the mid-1800s was this mysterious Lost City seen by Europeans. French anthropologists reassembled much of the ruins, but Cambodia's apocalyptic civil war in the '70s once again made it a no-man's-land. Today, peaceful and cleared of mines, its crenellated towers and murky kapok-tree-clogged moats inspire national pride in Cambodians-and Indiana Jones delusions in Westerners.

GETTING THERE: First fly to Bangkok, which costs $600 from the West Coast on a good day in late spring; last May, Gate 1 Travel (800/682-3333, gate1travel.com) charged $639 for flights plus five nights' hotel. There, cruise the cheap travel agents of Khao San Road and buy a ticket for the 50-minute flight (typically $150 each way) to Siem Reap, the modernized tourist town servicing Angkor Wat. Upon arrival, you'll pay $20 cash (bring greenbacks) for a tourist visa.

YOU MADE IT: Although the place sounds inaccessible beyond imagination, it's as easy to see as any other world-class tourist site. Three-day entry passes to Angkor Wat cost $40; weeklong ones, $60. Then slip on your boots and hire your own guide at local rates. Just $20 a day gets you an accredited English-speaking guide who'll escort you around the 300-square-kilometer park on a moped. At night (and in the afternoon, when the heat gets ugly), crash at Bakong Guest House (1 Sivatha St., 011-855/63-380-126), which does free airport runs and charges $15 for a single and $20 for a double for air-conditioned rooms (a must). Two sites you shouldn't miss are Bayon, the temple studded with spooky staring faces like some sort of living chessboard, and Ta Prohm, where you can clamber through caved-in galleries and root-chewed breezeways. There's food and drink for sale at kiosks throughout the park, and vendors hawk vibrant local fabrics for a few bucks each-bring them home as presents and lie about what you spent.

WHO KNEW? If you can, time your visit for the week of April 13, the Khmer New Year, when rural Cambodians (many of whom have never seen Westerners like you before) throng this national treasure for picnics, festivities, and raucous fights with talcum powder and Super Soakers. --JC

MORE DREAM TRIPS