An African Safari
Let me first suggest why you should try to overcome the heavy financial barrier to this classic travel activity. An African safari in either Kenya or Tanzania comes as close to deserving the term "indispensable" as any trip I know. To drive through immense game parks in which there are no roads, no power lines or telephone poles, no communities, but simply open terrain roamed by hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, giraffes, elephants, cheetahs, monkeys, water buffalo, elephants, and prides of lions, moving and foraging as they did in prehistoric times, when they were alone on this land, is an almost mystical experience that puts human existence into perspective.
You must do it, and thousands of well-off Americans each year do book an African safari in Kenya/Tanzania, spending an average of $3,500 to $4,500 per person and often placing their reservations through American-based companies that have nothing to do with the actual operation of the safari. Rather, many of these firms simply perform a marketing and reservations function, and then pass on the booking to specialists in Nairobi who actually organize the trip, hire the drivers and guides, book the lodges, and supervise the trip from beginning to end. Because the American middlemen have heavy costs for advertising, marketing, and administration, their resulting high prices prevent a huge number of modestly incomed Americans from even considering an African safari.
I'm here to tell you that you can enjoy the very same safaris for which some pay $3,500 to $4,500 for considerably less, and frequently for as little as $2,200, including airfare from the United States. And you can do so simply by purchasing a round-trip ticket to Nairobi and then booking your safari on the spot, either from a local tour operator or through any number of Nairobi travel agents in downtown locations.
Currently, more than 800,000 tourists a year come to Kenya for safaris, and there are quite literally dozens of safaris that depart from Nairobi each and every day of the year. Obviously, these small-group journeys don't always leave full; there are scores of seats on the various vans and corresponding rooms in the game park lodges that go empty. The smart traveler visiting a Nairobi tour operator or travel agent on the spot should be able to find last-minute space at discounts of 30 to 60 percent off the prices normally charged in the States. Sometimes you can bargain for even deeper discounts. And if you arrive with at least three other persons, you'll also find that all of the tour companies will instantly offer to arrange a special van with a guide-driver (and find you two rooms at a game park lodge) at a remarkably low price.
Though you'll be accosted by touts at the airport, already offering cut-rate safari bargains as you step off the plane, wait until you get into town to start your search. It's a good idea to spend at least one night in Nairobi to ensure yourself the best deal - and to be at your freshest for the safari. But if you're immune to jet lag and want to leave the same day, plan on arriving any day except Sunday, when most downtown offices are closed.
Hunting down a safari
You obtain your safari either directly from any number of companies operating them or, if you're anxious to visit only a single firm, from one of the many retail travel agents who each represent multiple tour companies. Both groups have their offices in the commercial center of Nairobi, most concentrated along Standard and Kaunda Streets and adjacent side streets.
The most reputable of the tour operators are members of the Kenya Association of Tour Operators (KATO) and will prominently display their membership decal near the entrances to their offices. Among those with the best local reputation are Gametrackers, Kenia Tours & Safaris, Safari Seekers, Southern Cross Safaris, Star Travel & Tour, and Venture Africa. I've listed their street addresses, phone numbers, Web sites, and e-mail addresses in a box accompanying this article. Keep in mind that none of the above has an absolutely spotless record (many things can go wrong on a safari), yet these are the companies that have been repeatedly recommended to me by people I trust.
It may be a good idea to e-mail several tour operators before your arrival to get competing quotes (telephones and faxes in Kenya are notoriously unreliable). Begin by visiting the Web sites of the companies I've listed. A full list of KATO companies can be found at gorp.com/kato. If several packages interest you, send a query to KATO (Kato@africaonline.co.ke) several weeks before leaving, or call them when you're in Nairobi at 225570. They should be able to advise you on the most recent track record of the operator in which you're interested.
Alternatively, you may want to go to any of several local retail travel agencies. The best, according to all my informants, include Bunson Safaris (Pan Africa House on Standard Street, 02/221992, bunson.co.ke), Let's Go Travel (Waiyaki Way, Westlands, 02/447151, letsgosafari.com), and Tour Africa Safaris (Dennis Pritt Rd. Plot No. 355/2, 02/729333).
For a standard and quite comfortable safari, they'll charge you as little as $100 to $125 per day during high season. Paying the lower price for, say, a ten-day, all-inclusive safari (van, guide, lodgings, all meals), and adding round-trip airfare to Kenya for about $1,200, you can achieve a safari, spending a full ten days in the field, for about $2,200, that would easily cost $3,500 or more if purchased in the U.S.
Local safari operators
When calling from the U.S., first dial 011-254-2 to reach Nairobi.
Gametrackers Ltd. Kenya Cinema Plaza, 1st Floor (Moi Avenue), tel. 338927 or 222703, Web site gametrackers.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Kenia Tours & Safaris Ltd. Jubilee Insurance House, 4th Floor (Kaunda/Wabera Street), tel. 223699 or 217671, Web site gorp.com/kenia, e-mail email@example.com. Safari Seekers Jubilee Insurance House, 5th Floor (Kaunda Street), tel. 226206, Web site kenyaweb.com/safari-seekers, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Southern Cross Safaris New Stanley Hotel (Standard Street), tel. 225255 or 336570, Web site kenya-direct.com/southerncross, e-mail email@example.com. Star Travel & Tours Ltd. New Stanley Hotel (Standard Street), tel. 226996 or 219247, Web site startravel.co.ke, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Venture Africa Safaris & Travel City House, 3rd Floor (Standard/Wabera Street), tel. 219511 or 219888, e-mail email@example.com.
From New York to Nairobi, airfare consolidators such as Pino Welcome Travel (800/247-6578) and Premier Tours (800/545-1910) can offer round-trip fares for around $1,200 during high season and under $1,000 during low season.
Secret Hotels of New York City
Chelsea Star Hotel 300 West 30th Street, tel. 877/827-6969 or 212/244-7827, fax 212/279-9018, chelseastar.com. A small hotel of 20 rooms, all with shared bath. Rates: $83-$95 From street level, the nondescript door hardly looks like a hotel entrance. But up a narrow stairway, you'll find one of bargain lodging's best-kept secrets. Two years ago, owners Ted and Claudia Howard transformed the former hot-sheets transient hotel (Madonna lived here before her big break) into a charming, funky find facing Madison Square Garden. The clientele is largely youthful and European; the flavor, decidedly arty. A small second-floor lobby is painted cheerful yellow with blue cityscapes and glass brick; sounds of a fountain echo through industrial-chic hallways of pressed tin and exposed brick. Although the 20 rooms are small and hardly luxurious, artist Rob Graf designed each with a unique theme. The Shakespeare Room's walls are lined with sonnets and gray velvet swags; the Orbit Room's deep blue walls and ceilings glow with fluorescent stars at night. Baths are clean and new, with gray slate and black marble; all are shared (generally one shower and two toilets per six-room floor). All the rooms have TVs. E-mail and Internet access is available near the lobby. However, there are no elevators, and light sleepers might want a room facing away from Eighth Avenue. Decor varies dramatically, so get a room list ahead of time and choose one to suit your tastes. Suites with baths are available in the building next door, though they're much plainer. At press time, plans were underway to add in-room phones and a street-level Internet cafe. The Gershwin Hotel 7 East 27th Street, tel. 212/545-8000, fax 212/684-5546, gershwinhotel.com Rates: $99 weeknights - $125 weekends (economy rooms with private bath); starting at $199 for family quads (private bath); but note that only 10 of the hotel's 150 rooms are treated as "economy rooms," and family quads number only 8 Though still part hotel, part pop art museum, an ongoing renovation has transformed the Gershwin from what once resembled a crash pad for starving artists into what feels like a stylish SoHo gallery. Huge colorful sculptures and lithographs brighten the freshly painted, high-ceilinged lobby. (That's a Lichtenstein hanging behind the front desk and a Campbell's soup can signed by Andy Warhol near the elevators.) Each floor is lined with cheerful green-and-yellow doors and showcases work from different artists. Guest rooms have high ceilings, plenty of light, TV, phone; some feature charming touches like bow windows and brightly painted wooden furniture. Baths vary from spanking new to well worn but clean. (Hostel-style shared-bath rooms with bunks start at $35/night, though the hotel plans to eliminate them eventually.) Guests can visit the art gallery adjoining the lobby, browse through copies of the Village Voice, check their e-mail at one of two Internet kiosks in the Gershwin Cafe, or catch nightly comedy, live music, theater, and other performances in a back room with an enormous floor-to-ceiling fireplace and Statue-of-Liberty-motif walls. The new, improved Gershwin even boasts a doorman. When we last visited he was hanging out curbside with a Jerry Garcia look-alike strumming a guitar. We'll take it as proof that the Gershwin's makeover hasn't diminished its unique and lively bohemian spirit. Belleclaire Hotel 250 West 77th Street, tel. 877/HOTEL-BC or 212/362-7700, fax 212/362-1004, belleclaire.com. 189 rooms, of which 39 are with shared bath. Rates: $79-$95 (shared bath) Thanks to a recent renovation, everything about the Belleclaire is light, airy, and cheerful-from the buttercup-yellow walls on guest floors to the stylish curved lobby with its blond wood, potted plants, and leather couches. Travelers longing to escape Times Square's madding crowds and see how real New Yorkers live would do well to check out this 100-year-old landmark on the bustling, residential Upper West Side. Nearby are Central Park, Lincoln Center, and the American Museum of Natural History. Many rooms here exceed our price cap, but the Belleclaire still offers 39 splendid shared-bath bargains. These are clustered in groups of three; each cluster has its own mini-hallway accessed by a magnetic key card for safety and privacy. Rooms are simple but stylish, furnished in a modern-chic decor that reservations and sales director Stephen DeFazio calls "Norwegian art deco." Although they lack views, they're sizable (by New York standards), with pastel walls, charcoal-gray bedspreads, and gray suede headboards. Each has a telephone with dataport, TV, and in-room sink. Baths are plain but immaculate; toilets are separate from showers. Concierge service is available, and planned additions include a gift shop, a vending area for forgotten necessities such as toothpaste, and a rooftop deck for breakfast and cocktails on the tenth-floor penthouse level. Insider tip: Stop by H & H Bagels, around the corner, for a delicious bargain breakfast-the city's best fresh-baked bagels for less than $1 each. Larchmont Hotel 27 West 11th Street, tel. 212/989-9333, fax 989-9496, larchmonthotel.com. 57 rooms, all with shared bath. Rates: $90-$109 weeknights, $100/$125 weekends, continental breakfast included Tucked away on a quiet side street of charming, historic Greenwich Village, the Larchmont wins hands-down for best location. Stepping inside this lovely 1910 brownstone town house, you feel more like you're visiting a private residence than a hotel. (In fact, upon check-in, guests receive front-door keys and enter through a separate foyer.) The lobby is cheerfully decorated with a few oversize pieces including a large boar statue, wooden armoire, and brown leather couch. Rooms have rattan furniture, dark floral bedspreads, ceiling fans, and books to add a homey touch. Hallways are narrow and some rooms are exceedingly small, but all have in-room sinks and thoughtful touches such as robes and slippers to make schlepping down the hall to the small but clean shared bathrooms more pleasant. Floors are equipped with kitchenettes, though it would take some restraint to use them in this restaurant-rich neighborhood. Free continental breakfast is served in the downstairs dining room. West Side Inn 237 West 107th Street, tel. 212/866-0061, fax 212/866-0062, westsideinn.com. 102 rooms, all with shared bath. Rate: $59-$79 Start with this bargain-hunters' favorite. It's quite high up on the Upper West Side, but the neighborhood is safe and on the upswing, with cheap restaurants nearby. The narrow lobby boasts chandeliers and gilded mirrors, though guest rooms hardly live up to such spiffy standards. And the bright pink, turquoise, and yellow walls are cheerful enough, but there's 100 years' worth of paint caked on doors, baseboards are missing here and there, and some rooms have odd configurations. This lends the place a decidedly off-campus-housing flavor. Kitchenettes are grungy but functional; shared baths are cleaner. All rooms have minifridges and most have sinks; you'll find phones and an Internet kiosk in the lobby. "It's a very cool place, very bohemian," explains manager Moni Jeitany. Indeed, backpackers and those nostalgic for their salad days might enjoy the ambiance - not to mention the price. Insider tip: tiny La Piccola Cucina gourmet shop around the corner sells irresistible focaccia - $3 for a round loaf big enough to feed three for lunch. At press time, the hotel was completing West End Studios, which promises similar lodgings nearby on West End Avenue. Portland Square 132 West 47th Street, tel. 800/388-8988 or 212/382-0600, fax 212/382-0684, portlandsquarehotel.com or citysearch.com/nyc/portlandsquare. 145 rooms, of which 38 are with shared bath and 33 others are triples or quads with private bath. Rates: $73 (shared bath); $140/triple, $150/quad (both with private bath) Don't be misled by the lovely white facade and regal columns; inside, this is strictly no-frills lodging. Sure, Jimmy Cagney stayed here (as promotional brochures remind you), but it's not exactly "top of the world, Ma." You must press a buzzer to enter the lobby, where you'll find the front-desk staff secured behind Plexiglas. The abundance of pink tile gives the place a YMCA-like feel; a small sitting area with pink-and-green floral-print couches adds minimal cheer. But then, you don't choose the Portland Square for posh surroundings; you come for the convenient Theater District locale and the rock-bottom rates. Rooms are rather dark and drab, with green carpets, beige walls, and floral bedspreads and curtains. Still, both shared and private baths are very clean (no more than four rooms per bath, and in-room baths are sizable by New York standards). All rooms have guest safes, phones, and TVs; those with shared baths have sinks. Rooms facing 47th Street offer more light and a better view. There's a guest laundry and a teeny fitness room in the basement. AAA and AARP discounts available. Habitat Hotel 130 East 57th Street, tel. 212/753-8841, fax 212/829-9605, habitat-ny.com. 235 rooms, of which about 70 percent are with shared bath. Rates: $85-$105 (shared bath) Once a women's residence, the Habitat became a full-service hotel last year. The lobby's sophisticated green-and-cream color scheme, fresh flowers, concierge desk, and jazz background music seem a cut above budget lodging. And indeed, rooms with private baths miss our cutoff; however, you'll still find bargains on those with shared baths. Doubles have trundle beds, which means they're set up with what looks like a single bed; underneath is another mattress and frame that opens to a reasonable semblance of a double bed. Although it's a tight squeeze when the beds are open, they're new and comfy with plush velour blankets. Rooms and hallways are stylishly decorated in taupes and beiges, most with striped or harlequin-patterned wallpaper and deco-style lamps. Furnishings are neat and tidy, though some look a little worn. Rooms include freestanding closets to hold amenities and hangers, in-room sinks, phones with voice mail, dataports, and TVs. If you've got to share a bath, it might as well be elegant, and these are: small but immaculate, with brand-new marble tile and glass-doored showers. Toilets can be found in separate rooms; no more than four rooms share two stalls and two showers. At press time, the hotel was turning the erstwhile Irish pub next door into an entrance for the new mezzanine-level lobby. Aladdin Hotel 317 West 45th Street, tel. 212/246-8580, fax 212/246-6036, aladdinhotel.com. 132 rooms, of which all but two are with shared bath and fit our price category. Rates: $65-$85 (shared bath) The lobby's deep purple walls, red velvet curtains, saggy couches, and bright, multicolored carpet make you feel more like you're stepping into an East Village bar than a hotel-cum-hostel. Don't be fooled: the Aladdin caters heavily to serious students and young international travelers, perhaps because they're most tolerant of the bathroom situation. (Sinks are communal, and the three-stalls/two-showers-per-20-room-floor formula can mean a wait for the facilities.) The lobby, the orange-and-yellow-walled first-floor lounge, and the cheerfully painted pastel halls are the hotel's best features. Rooms are grungy and basic with low, slouchy beds, worn wall-to-wall carpeting, and bright curtains and bedspreads. Pay phones are located in the lobby. For supercheap lodgings, try the dorm-style rooms with multiple bunk beds. At press time the Aladdin was renovating, but chances are it won't shed its student-union feel. Apple Core Hotels (all rooms with private bath) Quality Hotel & Suites Midtown 59 West 46th Street, Quality Hotel East Side 161 Lexington, Comfort Inn Midtown 129 West 46th Street, Best Western Manhattan 17 West 32nd Street, Apple Core Hotels tel. 800/567-7720 (central reservations) or 212/790-2700, fax 212/790-2760, applecorehotels.com. Rates: start at $89 weeknights; $99-$109 weekends (private bath), continental breakfast included. Caveat: During holidays and other high seasons, rates can reach $139. Since 1993, Apple Core has been restoring rundown hotels in Midtown and turning them into some of the best bargains around. Although rates vary and management is cagey when it comes to listing a set price range, you can often find real deals. (If you're quoted a higher rate by phone, inquire about 10 percent AAA and AARP discounts as well as availability of smaller, more affordable rooms, especially at the Quality Hotel East Side.) And if you're bringing the kids, "family suites" sleep up to six for $139-$189, and the Best Western offers Nintendo and on-demand children's movies. Although Apple Core runs chain hotels, its four Manhattan properties are far from generic. The Quality Midtown and Best Western retain lovely Beaux Arts facades, and the Comfort Inn's restored turn-of-the-century building with its modern lobby is downright elegant. Decor ranges from black, white, and purple art deco in the Best Western's lobby to Colonial American at the Quality Hotel Eastside, with its borders of L.L. Bean-style duck-print wallpaper and bookcase-lined lobby. (The Quality, just off 30th Street in quiet Murray Hill, also boasts large windows and the best views we've seen at a budget property - ask for a room ending in the numerals 10 or 11.) On the downside: Rooms in all four hotels vary from spacious to barely wide enough to squeeze past the bed, and those still awaiting redecoration at the Quality could use better lighting. But with free continental breakfast and luxury amenities like in-room coffeemakers, hair dryers, irons, ironing boards, and 24-hour fitness and business centers, who's complaining? Editor's Note: Though rates here can sometimes go higher (even much higher) than our limits, the chain is still worth a call and a pointed inquiry about whether rates can be found within our range; they often can be. Also, at press time Apple Core was completing a new Red Roof Inn, set to open this year on West 32nd Street. Malibu Hotel 2688 Broadway, tel. 212/222-2954 or 800/647-2227, fax 212/678-6842, malibuhotelnyc.com. 140 rooms, of which 80 percent are with private bath and yet priced within our limits. The remainder are with shared bath and even cheaper ($69 to $89 per room). Rates: $89-$129 (private bath), $109-$149/quad (private bath) Though they won't win any awards for decor, you can't argue with the rates at this Upper West Side standby. A steep, narrow stairway covered in gray carpet that's seen better days leads to an equally drab second-floor lobby. Rooms are small and plain but serviceable, with chunky black iron headboards, a framed poster or two, and often hangers on a rack above the bed. Still, each has a TV and a clean, newly renovated bath (phones are in the lobby). Those facing away from commercial Broadway are likely to be quieter. Skip the heavy suitcases unless you want a workout; there are five flights and no elevators. Free continental breakfast is served in the lobby. The subway is a few steps from the hotel's front door. The neighborhood around 103rd Street is ethnically mixed but yuppifying fast; nearby are Grant's Tomb, Riverside Park, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and Columbia University. Washington Jefferson Hotel 318 West 51st Street, tel. 212/246-7550 or fax 212/246-7622. A big 260 rooms in size, of which 85 percent are with shared bath. Rates: $89-$99 (shared bath) Flaking exterior paint and an Edward Hopper-esque neon "hotel" sign outside belie this hotel's recent transformation. Once a down-at-the-heels single-room-occupancy hotel (SRO in New York lingo), the Wash-Jeff retains its shabby-chic appeal - and some of its original inhabitants - with a dark wood-paneled lobby, frayed red floral carpet, and saggy but comfy rose-colored couches. Halls are lined with black-and-white city photos - the work of a resident artist who fell behind in his rent and came up with an "alternate payment plan." Another interesting touch: GM Bob Lindenbaum offers room #114 for exhibits by local artists; last year one nonconformist covered the room in cheese. (You can see the photos, if you're skeptical.) Guest floors are more New York apartment house than hotel, with eclectic furnishings and years' worth of paint on the door frames. Baths are vintage 1940s but tidy (the staff cleans them hourly). All rooms have sinks, phones with voice mail, and dataports; minifridges are available on request. Eventually, the hotel hopes to install private baths in all rooms - without raising rates, we hope. Though once seedy, Hell's Kitchen now pulses with chichi coffee houses and trendy bars; you can still find meal deals at nearby diners and falafel stands. Editor's Note: Unless otherwise indicated, rates are for double rooms and do not include New York's 13.25 percent tax + $2/night occupancy tax. All hotels listed offer rooms starting under $100/night for significant portions of the year; higher rates may apply to holidays and other high-demand periods.
The Best Things in Sightseeing, as in Life, are Free
From the crowded shops of the Monkey Forest Road, we strolled to the outskirts of Ubud--an arts-and-crafts village in the very center of Bali--and then scrambled down a hillside path to a river below. And there at dusk, the Balinese people, men and women alike, were bathing away the sweat and cares of their day's work, chatting and socializing with one another. As Roberta and I approached, they looked up and smiled. Some small children shouted "hello," their one English word. It was a magical moment, the highlight of our trip thus far, and an example of what can happen when you wander away from the tourists, on your own two feet, and simply roam about the villages and neighborhoods of this world. We had resolved, on this trip to Bali, to stay far removed from the beachside hotels and stores of the southernmost tip of Bali, and instead to go directly from the airport to the island's rural interior. What a lucky decision! Not a day went by but that we would pass a religious procession on a near-deserted country road, of gaily-clad people going to make a fruit-and-floral offering at a nearby temple. Not an hour elapsed but that some unusual human activity would quietly occur before our very eyes: farmers threshing rice by hand, as their ancestors did centuries ago; a group of young men seated earnestly in a shaded pavilion down a narrow alleyway, practicing the ancient art of the xylophone-like gamelon of Indonesia; school children reciting their lessons aloud. It is said by some travel experts that on a first trip to a foreign land, you should immediately take an "orientation sightseeing tour" by motorcoach. That way, it is claimed, you gain a "once-over-lightly" of the area, and can later return on foot, at leisure, to the places that most intrigued you. What nonsense! The sights you experience from the interior of a fast-moving bus are simply a glob of vast, buzzing, blooming, confusion, in William James' phrase, of which you later remember nothing. The view from behind the windows of a motorcoach is sanitized and unreal, utterly removed from the authentic sights, sounds and smells of the country you are visiting. The commentary to which you listen is usually stale from repetition, geared to the lowest common taste, full of inane anecdotes, and peppered with historically inaccurate fables. The best way to experience any destination is not in a group vehicle, but on foot, without itinerary but simply at random, wandering where your spirit leads you--as Roberta and I did in Bali. You do this even in the largest of cities. In London, Paris or Rome, the smart traveler simply sets out without a plan, plunges into the very center of town, and goes wandering down the nearest street, experiencing the actual life of people, looking into grocery stores and the courtyards of hospitals and schools. In this fashion you will eventually get to the same major sights that the group motorcoach tours have passed--the museums, the monuments, the city hall. But you will have done so much more; you will have felt the contemporary life of the city. "But what if I get lost?" That's the retort that often greets me when I proffer this advice to friends. "What if I get lost?" No one ever gets irrevocably lost in a major city. Sooner or later there passes a trolley or bus with the words Central Station ("Gare Centrale," "Stazione Centrale") on its hood, and you easily return to where it all began. But the nicest things happen to people who get lost in a foreign city. You stop at a sidewalk cafe to calm your nerves. You have a coffee. You ask instructions of the native residents. You talk to people. And your trip is enhanced by the experience. The very same advice is valid for most major U.S. cities. No one has really experienced San Francisco who has not walked its colorful streets, from Union Square, say, to Fisherman's Wharf. No one has felt the raw, vital energy of New York who has not hiked down Broadway from Columbia University to Times Square. Or strolled the built-up sections of Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Some cities attempt to facilitate your do-it-yourself walking tour by supplying a brochure that maps out the routes, as Boston does for its "Freedom Trail." More recently, the major publishers of travel books have issued one after another of thick, self-conducted "walking tour guides" to cities ranging from Tokyo to Washington, D.C. All can be found in the travel sections of any large bookstore, and their easy availability robs you of an excuse for not experimenting with the do-it-yourself walking method. Six other ways to improve your sightseeing 1. Know before you go Learn something of the history and culture of the destination in advance of departure, and your trip will be immensely enhanced. Those Americans who simply assume that someone there will explain it all, are condemned to confusion and unhappiness. Even on a trip here in the United States, a few hours in a library, boning up on the destination, will provide you with a framework for understanding and enjoying what would otherwise be odd and dull. 2. Move about like a local Use the subways, trams and buses of the city you're visiting--they're an important part of the local lifestyle and culture. Screw up your courage, ask instructions at your hotel, and then use the city's public transportation for getting about. You'll not only save money, but you'll learn how people live there. And you'll gain an entirely different perspective of their city--a more realistic one--from the impressions you'd have on a sightseeing motorcoach. 3. Go into the neighborhoods On at least one occasion, use that public transportation to visit a real-life neighborhood of the city, away from its central tourist areas. On a visit to the showplace sections of East Berlin at the height of the Cold War, I took a subway to the working district of Prenzlauerberg, and learned more in an hour than tourists learned in their entire stay. In the same fashion, I've gained a more impressive view of Denmark by dipping into the residential neighborhoods of Copenhagen. 4. Haunt the bulletin boards In both U.S. cities and English-language countries, the university-area bulletin boards are a treasure trove of free lectures, concerts, workshops, and social gatherings open to all. The locals attending these events are also among the area's most dynamic visitors, and the occasion gives you a chance to observe them (or even meet them), a form of sightseeing. 5. Use evening museum hours Increasingly, major museums around the world are adding once-a-week evening hours to their schedule. Inquire. The viewing is calm and uncrowded at that time, and the museum visited by local residents, in large part. 6. And if you must book a guided tour... At least book the non-standard ones, the inexpensive kind conducted on foot. Most major capital cities have them, and the local tourist office will tell you when and where they start. So-called "sidewalk tours" (they bear different names) of London, New York, Paris, wherever, draw thoughtful people, and in my experience are more profound and rewarding than the motorcoach variety.
Travel for Women Only
Should women travel only with other women? Should they do so on occasion? If the trip is one of outdoor adventure, involving physical challenge, should they travel only with other women? Should they agree to include men on a group tour only if the group is led by a woman? Because so many women are responding to one or more of the above questions with a resounding "Yes," a sizable new segment of the travel industry has emerged to serve their wants. As surprising as it may seem, more than 50 tour companies in a dozen major states are now openly feminist in their orientation, and limit their clients or leadership to women only. The reason is unrelated to sexual proclivities or the lack of them. From a review of their literature, not one of the 50 new firms seems operated for lesbians, and most stand carefully apart from a wholly separate group of tour companies openly appealing to gay men or gay women. The premise of only female travel Rather, the move to feminist travel seems motivated by a combined goal of consciousness raising and female solidarity, and by the belief that women enjoy a holiday change of pace, stress-free, and relaxing, when they travel only with other women. Though the philosophy is rarely articulated in the feminists' tour brochures, and is obtained with difficulty even in conversations with feminist tour operators (I've now spoken with several), the gist of it seems as follows: When women travel with men, and especially on outdoor trips, both they and the men, say tour leaders, tend to fall into predetermined gender roles: the men do the heavy work, the women putter about and cook. Traveling only with other women, women accept greater challenges, court greater responsibility, acquire new skills, gain confidence and a heightened sense of worth. Male travelers are conditioned by society to be excessively goal-oriented: they must conquer this or that mountain, show prowess and strength, domineer. Most women, by contrast, enjoy the mere experience of travel, the joy of encountering nature, all without stressful competition or expectations. They have less need to boast and strut; they lack the male's inner urge (from early upbringing) to seem always skillful, strong, serene, and protecting. "I don't want to be protected on vacation," say many women, "I want to be myself." In the presence of the other sex, so goes the argument, both sexes find it difficult to "let down their hair." On a tour limited to women, say the feminists, these tensions subside. Women spend less time on personal appearance and grooming, dispense with sexual role-playing, care only for themselves. "And why should men feel threatened by that need?" asks one prominent female tour operator. "Why should an all-female tour be the subject of sneers? Men have been going off to hike or fish 'with the boys' for centuries." Practical considerations: Since everyone on a woman-only trip is "single," participants pay no single supplement, but instead share rooms and costs. Since some male spouses don't care for outdoor trips, feminist tours often provide the only vacation outlet for women who genuinely enjoy the attractions of nature. Then, too, women who are recently widowed or divorced are enabled by such tours to meet others in the same situation; the experience is healing, restorative. But mainly, the women "take charge" of their holiday, free from the customary domination of men. Vacations for women over 30 The first, Adventure Women, Inc. was founded more than twenty-two ago by Susan Eckert to promote adventure travel to women over 30, in areas she had herself traveled while in the Peace Corps. Today, along with standard, mild safaris, treks and ski trips limited to women, she also deals in challenges of considerably greater daringsafaris in Botswana and Zambia, sailing in Greece, and lodge trekking in the Himalayas. The international trips, priced from $2,095-$6,595 for a 5 to 16-day adventure, are all-inclusive--including international airfare, meals, lodgings and all else. Contact Adventure Women, Inc. (for women over 30) at 15033 Kelly Canyon Road, Bozeman, MT 59715, (phone 800/804-8686 or 406/587-3883, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org). Or visit the Web site at adventurewomen.com/. Also for women in their prime is Canyon Calling, a wilderness travel organization for women over 30, and Explorations in Travel, which handles "cultural" tours as well as outdoor adventure, this time for women over the age of 40. Canyon Calling (200 Carol Canyon Drive, Sedona, AZ 86336; phone 800/664-8922 or 928/282-0916, Website: canyoncalling.com/) offers what it calls "multi-adventure" tours--each day participants engage in a different kind of activity, from hiking and "glacier walking" to jetboating and kayaking. Destinations include Fiji and New Zealand, Greece, Iceland and various areas of the southwestern United States. Prices range from $1,695 per week all the way up to $4,575 (these rates include all meals, equipment, entrance fees and accommodations but not airfare). Explorations in Travel (2458 River Road, Guilford, VT 05301, phone 802/257-0152, Web site: exploretravel.com) offers 30 trips throughout the year to destinations all over the world, but with a definite emphasis on New England (where the company is based). In the U.S. its trips are wilderness oriented, including cross-country skiing, hiking and whale-watching vacations. Overseas, the focus is cultural with jaunts to such exotic destinations as Ecuador, Belize and Costa Rica. Exceptions to its age specification are the popular "Multi-Generational Weekends," attended by mothers and daughters or grandmothers and granddaughters (one must be over 40, the other over 21). At these gatherings, the women engage in various outdoor activities such as hiking or canoeing, staying in rustic but nice accommodations in New England and the South. Price for the weekends is $495 per person, weeklong offerings tend to average $1,500 in the U.S. and $3,000 overseas (not including airfare). Wilderness companies Wild Women Expeditions (WWE) is an all-women outdoor adventure company that has been operating in Northern Ontario, Canada for 15 years. Set at a restored 1920's northern fishing camp, WWE offers the low-tech simplicity of outdoor showers, outhouses, wood heat, private waterfront for swimming, canoeing, and excellent country road cycling. With rustic amenities comes low prices: a three-night vacation in the fall, including hiking in the LaCloche mountains, paddling on the Spanish River, and enjoying the base camp, costs US$256. Formore information, contact Wild Women Expeditions, P.O. Box 145, Station B, Sudbury, Ontario Canada P3E 4N5 (Phone: 705/ 866-1260, e-mail email@example.com, or check out the Web site at wildwomenexp.com/). Adventures in Good Company is one of the newest organizations in women's travel. Founded by Marian Marbury, a former guide for Woodswoman (the influential hiking, backpacking and adventure travel organization) until it shut its doors in 1999, AGC offers outdoor and wilderness trips primarily in the Minnesota/Wisconsin area in winter (dog sledding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing), throughout the West and Canada the rest of the year. Though it is a newish enterprise, all of the group leaders are former Woodswomen guides and thus bring with them years of experience in the field (and in the forest, on the stream and river, and behind the dogsled). Trips include "sea Kayaking the Alaskan Fjords," "Living the Cowgirl Life," and "Navajo Land Trek". Adventures also offers mixed hotel and camping adventures in Belize, Spain, Nepal and the UK. Prices start at $595 all the way up to $2,2,650. For more information, write, call or e-mail Adventures in Good Company, 5913 Brackenridge Ave, Baltimore, MD 21212 (phone 877/439-4042 or 410/435-1965, Web site: goodadventure.com/, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). Boating, biking and hiking Still another relatively large firm is Womanship, of Annapolis, Maryland, offering a learn-to-sail program in a field of sport heavily dominated by men. Because (according to founder Suzanne Pogell) men tend to handle the main tasks on sailing expeditions, women are rarely able to do more than prepare the sandwiches; certainly they never "take charge" of the vessel. With Womanship, they do, gaining confidence, achieving independence. Weekend, weekday, and week-long cruises are offered for both beginners and advanced sailors aged 18 to 82, in locations ranging from Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, New England and Long Island Sound, the west coast of Florida, and the Pacific Northwest (San Juan and the Gulf Islands) to the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Trips range from 2-7 days in length and $495-$3890 in price, all-inclusive except transportation costs. Learn-to-sail programs include the Young Womanship course for girls aged 10-17--a 2-7 day program for beginning sailors, as well as a Mothers and Daughters course. Contact Womanship, 137 Conduit St., Annapolis, MD 21401, (phone 800/342-9295, Web site womanship.com/, email: email@example.com. For the avid walker, Going Places! offers extensive women-only walking tours in Europe, the Pacific Northwest, the Canadian Rockies, New Mexico and northern California. Though the trips involve walking from inn to inn, they are not meant as "endurance tests." The typical walk is about eight to 12 miles per day on "well marked, well maintained trails" with stops along the way at cafes, pubs, picnic sites and viewpoints. The groups are limited to 10 or 14 walkers (depending on the specific tour) and the cost of the trip, between $2,495-$2995, covers accommodations, most meals, permits and entrance fees, maps, transportation en route and guide service. For more information, call or write Going Places! P.O. Box 2034, Sonoma, CA 95476 (phone/fax 707/935-0595 or visit its Web site at goingplacestours.com/). Bike tours in New Zealand, Hawaii, France, the U.S. and Canada are the focus of WomanTours. It offers 37 tours in total, from Maine to South Africa. WomanTours accommodates all levels of experience--a van accompanies the cyclists on their routes to carry luggage and provide a ride for anyone who may need a break during the trip. The weeklong trips are usually composed of 12 to 18 cyclists costing between $990 and $2,300 per person. For more information, contact Woman Tours, 2340 Elmwood Ave., Rochester, NY, 14618 (phone 800/247-1444, Web site: womantours.com/, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) Other major operators include Mariah Wilderness Expeditions, P.O. Box 1160, Lotus, CA 95651 (phone 530/626-6049 or toll free 800/462-7424, Web site: mariahwe.com), with an impressive four-color catalog featuring white-water rafting, kayaking, and hiking; and Adventures for Women, 15 Victoria Lane, Morristown, NJ 07960 (Phone 973/644-3592, Web site: adventuresforwomen.org/), for its hiking trips in New Jersey and New York. Cultural tours With roughly 1,300 current members, The Women's Travel Club is the largest organization running women's tours. Unlike the other companies we've mentioned, this club offers a yearly membership of $35, which provides members with a monthly newsletter and full access to all areas of its Web site, in addition to participation on the club's trips. Also unlike many of the other organizations in this chapter, instead of focusing on adventure travel to one or a few particular regions of the world, the Women's Travel Club offers a wide variety of different trips, from four days in the California Wine Country to 15 days exploring Egypt to tours of Southern Italy's medieval villages. Prices are on the highish side, averaging $250 per day, but groups are limited to no more than 15-20 women per trip, and the amenities abound. For more information, contact The Women's Travel Club (USA), Inc., suite 301, 36 W. 20th St., New York, NY 10011 (phone 800/480-4448 or Web site: womenstravelclub.com/). Spiritual vacations Several women's travel groups offer spiritual retreats and journeys with a focus on mind-body renewal. Sacred Journeys for Women, founded in 1996, offers trips to places where female deities (they call them "The Goddess") have been honored for millennia. On these tours, scholars and guides lecture on the mythology of the "sacred sites" and the group engages in "healing circles" and ceremonial dances. Destinations include Hawaii, Ireland, England and Crete, with prices averaging $2,995 per trip (for eight to 13 days), not including airfare. For further information, contact Sacred Journeys directly at sacredjourneys.com/or e-mail: email@example.com. You can also reach it the old fashioned way by writing to P.O. Box 8007, Roseland Station, Santa Rosa, CA 95407 or phoning 888/779-6696. GATE (Global Awareness Through Experience) is perhaps best known for its "reality tours". But for the past six years it has also been offering "Women's Spiritual Quest" tours for women only. As with GATE's regular offerings, much of the emphasis is on cultural exchange: participants meet with impressive local women, officials at community clinics, workers at base Christian communities, doctors, nurses, teachers and the like. They learn in this way about the struggle for women's dignity and empowerment in these communities. But there is also a spiritual component to these tours, which sets them apart from GATE's regular programming. Led by Sister Cecilia Corcoran, who holds a doctorate in women's studies, participants are introduced to the history and rituals of the various ancient Goddesses. In Mexico, this means communing with the major mother deities of the central highlands (around Mexico City, primarily) with visits to such archeological sites as Cuicuilco and the pyramids of Teoticuacan. In Eastern Europe, the tour ranges from Vienna for a look at the Venus of Willendorf (at the Natural History Museum) to Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic where mammoth hunters carved goddess images on the tusks of their prey. The group will even visit Auschwitz to learn about the painful women's history there. At many of these sites, along with lively discussions and lectures, participants engage in circle dances or other rituals to help them better connect with the spiritual energies of these places. According to Sister Cecilia, these tours are for women who wish to "explore the feminine face of God." To learn more, contact GATE at gate-travel.org/ or call 608/791-5283. GATE's mail address is 912 Market Street, LaCrosse, WI 54601. Earth Island Expeditions also offers spiritual tours, but with an emphasis on nature and the earth. Heading into its seventh year, the company is shifting its focus homeward. It's leading more programs in the wilds of the Northeast, as well as running workshops and trainings from its newly-established Yurt Sanctuary at the Ten Stones Community in Charlotte, VT. Contact Earth Island Expeditions, 201 Ten Stone Circle, Charlotte, VT 05445 (phone 802/425-4710, Web site: earthislandexpeditions.org/). Resources To learn of other women's travel companies, contact EarthWise Journeys, a clearinghouse of information on non-profit organizations and tour operators that focus on "local cultures, wilderness programs, learning adventures, volunteering, personal growth and environmental awareness." Be sure to specify you are interested in their women's trips resources. Contact EarthWise Journeys, PO Box 16177, Portland, OR 97292 (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and see its Web site at teleport.com~earthwyz/).