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The Civil War in Under a Week

By James T. Yenckel
updated September 29, 2021
national, park, historic, civil, war, harpers, ferry
Steveheap / Dreamstime.com
Visit Gettysburg and five other nearby battlefield parks

Onward came the Confederates, an experienced and disciplined army of 12,000 soldiers striding my way across an open field. Flags flying, their battle line stretched for a mile in perfect alignment. I could see their determined faces - would they detect my trembling fear? - as I stood on Cemetery Ridge. A foot soldier, I was part of a strong Union force that had taken a defensive position on high, rocky ground just outside the little Pennsylvania village of Gettysburg. It was July 3, 1863, a momentous day. History books would call it the turning point of the Civil War. No, of course I wasn't really there that day.

But I could easily imagine I waited - steadfast but frightened - to thwart the famous attack that became known as Pickett's Charge. Again and again, the Civil War comes vividly alive like this as I walk over the very ground where great battles were fought. I can see the fields, woods, ridges, and gullies that determined how generals plotted their strategies. And I begin to understand the challenge facing the troops ordered to carry them out. How would I have fared? It's a question surely every Gettysburg visitor must ponder, as I have.

You, too, can step back into the past on a budget-priced drive into the heart of the Civil War. It will give you intimate glimpses into the life (and, so very often, the death) of the soldiers and civilians caught up in the tragic four-year conflict between North and South.

Amidst the horrible carnage, incredible tales of courage on both sides stir the soul. Our nation was shaped by the Civil War, and its ramifications are still with us. I grew up never having to fight in a war. Our national Civil War battlefields, the only ones I know, help me better appreciate the sacrifices of those who did.

A Civil War buff, I've plotted a practical, six-day, 600-mile auto tour from Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg and five other nearby battlefield parks, where many of the bloodiest and most crucial clashes were waged. On this four-state drive, you will eat and sleep cheaply and well - and see the greatest number of sites (small entrance fees) in the fewest miles (to keep gas costs down). If time is short, spend a day at one or two of the parks. Each is a good introduction to the war. Why Washington, D.C.? Except for Appomattox (last stop on the drive), the parks are all less than 120 miles away. And, as important, two of the city's trio of airports - Washington-Dulles and Baltimore-Washington - are served by low-cost airlines.

The drive takes you through lovely pastoral countryside only little changed since the nineteenth century. Count on stopping at one of Virginia's many wineries to sample (free) a fine vintage. In summer, go for a swim (small fee) at a state park lake. And stroll the inviting old streets (no charge) of each of the towns in which you'll stay.

You will need a car. Among nationally known rental companies, Rent-A-Wreck (202/408-9828) often offers the lowest rates locally at $175 a week. But free mileage is limited to 100 miles a day, and you'll have to take an airport bus ($16) into the city. In summer, when business travel is slack, look for a better bargain at a major rental agency with airport pickup. For an August rental this year, Budget (800/572-0700) quoted an economy car rate at Baltimore-Washington airport of just $188 a week with unlimited mileage.

The very dramatic prelude

Let me set the scene before I send you on your way: Richmond, Virginia, which served as the Confederate capital, is located just 100 miles south of Washington, D.C., the Northern capital. The proximity of the two enemy cities turned the landscape between them blood red in a series of horrendous battles marked by courageous charges and catastrophic blunders. The North's basic strategy was to capture Richmond and end the war. The South, realizing its military strength was limited, sought to punch and poke at the North - holding on until the Union wearied of the fighting and granted the Confederacy independence. The story unfolds chapter by chapter at the battlefield parks.

(The per-night lodging rates I cite below are for two adults in summer high season. Fall and spring are cheaper, and in winter, prices at many motels drop to as low as $30 to $35. Children usually stay free.)

Day 1: Gettysburg National Military Park

If you can visit only one Civil War site on this trip, make it Gettysburg National Military Park (717/334-1124) in Pennsylvania. Before Gettysburg, the South seemed headed for victory; after the battle, a terrible loss for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy was doomed - although the war staggered on for two more years. In exhibits here, you get a good overview of the war.

Stand in the well-marked Union lines on Cemetery Ridge, as I did, and look across the slender valley of green fields and pastures below to Seminary Ridge, which sheltered Lee's troops. For three sun-baked days, the opposing armies watched each other from these rocky perches separated only by a mile. Today, on the two ridge tops, imposing equestrian statues of the commanders - Gen. George Meade for the North and Lee for the South - still maintain a vigil across the valley in easy view of each other. On this site, where Pickett's troops marched to disaster, you can sense the terror the poor foot soldiers must have experienced as their world exploded around them. That they fought so valiantly makes me wonder at the sometimes incredible strength of the human spirit.

Admission to the park is free. But to understand the battle, catch the 30-minute electric map presentation (adults, $3) in the visitor center. The map recreates the battlefield landscape and its significant landmarks in miniature, and colored lights mark the movement of the armies. Also in the visitor center is the Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War (free), where room after room details a soldier's hard, dangerous life. At this point, consider yourself ready to take the park's 18-mile auto tour (free), which follows the path of the three-day battle chronologically. To see it as the soldiers did, walk at least partway.

Catch a free ranger-led talk or living-history encampment here at Gettysburg or at the other parks (schedules at www.civil wartraveler.com). And relax and swim at Hunting Creek Lake in Cunningham Falls State Park, Thurmont, Maryland, about 20 minutes south ($3).

Getting thereI-70 from Baltimore or I-270 from Washington north to U.S. Route 15 north, about 80 miles.

Where to stayGettysburg offers a choice of reasonably priced motels and cafes - although they're a bit more expensive here than elsewhere on this drive. Within a five-minute walk of the visitor center, the 30-room Three Crowns Motor Lodge (800/729-6564), $50 weekdays/$65 weekends, tempts with a large swimming pool. Nearby are the 25-room Colton Motel (800/262-0317), $50 weekdays/$60 weekends, also with a pool, and the 40-room Home Sweet Home Motel (717/334-3916), $55 weekdays/$65 weekends. A mile from the park, the 25-room Perfect Rest Motel (800/336-1345), $55 weekdays/$65 weekends, with pool and morning coffee, enjoys a quiet country setting.

Where to eatA few steps from the in-town motels, Gettysburg Eddie's is a Victorian-style charmer. It looks fancy, but prices are right. An entree of grilled chicken breast, lightly seasoned with lemon pepper and served with a salad and wild rice, is $9.95. Take $2 off all dinners Monday through Thursday from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Up the street, General Pickett's Buffet Restaurant charges $9.95 for a full dinner, which includes an entree (meat loaf, for example), a large salad bar, and a sinfully tempting dessert bar.

Day 2: Antietam National Battlefield

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Today, Antietam National Battlefield (301/432-5124, $2 per person) in little Sharpsburg, Maryland, is the prettiest of the Civil War parks. Beneath a wooded hillside, Burnside Bridge, a stone arch, leaps Antietam Creek so gracefully it has starred in countless tourist snaps. Yet ironically, it is here that the horror of the war seems most evident. On a single day, September 17, 1862-the bloodiest of the war - 23,000 men were killed or wounded, partly because of the blunders of their commanders. Attempting to invade the North, Lee was halted at Antietam. Union troops failed to pursue Lee's army, and he would march north again a year later at Gettysburg.

At the visitor center, watch the movie; tour the museum, which puts a human face on the battle, and then take the nine-mile auto tour of the battle sites. To stretch your legs, hike the Snavely Ford Trail, a 2.5-mile wooded path along Antietam Creek where Union troops outflanked their enemy.

Afterwards, head for Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (304/535-6223, $5 per car) in West Virginia. Strategically located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, the little mountain town - a munitions manufacturer at the war's outset - switched hands time and again. Earlier in 1859, abolitionist John Brown was captured in Harpers Ferry after he seized the federal arsenal in a move to arm slaves. Many of the town's original buildings are preserved as part of the park, and they have been turned into small museums telling the story of Brown and the war. In warm weather, rafters tackling the Shenandoah rapids splash past in laughing groups.

Getting thereTo reach Antietam, about 50 miles distant, retrace your route south on U.S. 15 to Frederick, Maryland, home of the fascinatingly gruesome National Museum of Civil War Medicine (adults, $6.50). Pick up U.S. 40 Alternate West to Maryland 34 south. Pack a picnic lunch, because food options are limited. To continue on to Harpers Ferry, follow back roads south along the Potomac River, about 15 miles.

Where to stayFor the cheapest lodgings on the drive ($16 per person), check into Harpers Ferry Hostel (301/834-7652), a 39-bed Hostelling International-American Youth Hostel property in Knoxville, Maryland, a few miles from the park. (I sit on the board of directors that manages the hostel.) The rambling frame house perches near a ledge overlooking the Potomac. Hike the Appalachian Trail alongside the river into Harpers Ferry. Up the road in a scenic country setting is the 23-room Hillside Motel (301/834-8144), $50 daily. For a city setting, double back to Frederick to the 72-room Red Horse Motor Inn (301/662-0281), $67 daily.

Where to eatAcross from the Hillside Motel, Cindy Dee's Restaurant is a friendly family eatery where a plate of liver and onions, mashed potatoes, and corn goes for $6. In Frederick, the Red Lobster ($9.99 for Santa Fe chicken) is near the Red Horse Motor Inn (above).

Day 3: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

Midway between Washington and Richmond, the old colonial river port of Fredericksburg, Virginia, earned the dubious nickname of "battlefield city." Four major battles were fought here - two (Fredericksburg in 1862 and Chancellorsville in 1863) in which Lee was triumphant and the final two (the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse, in May 1864) in which he was forced to withdraw south when hard-charging Gen. Ulysses S. Grant maneuvered to outflank him.

All four battles are commemorated at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (540/373-6122, $3 per person), and the park distributes a free auto tour map. On the route is the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, where the famed Confederate leader died of wounds accidentally inflicted by his own men at Chancellorsville.

The most unsettling of the park's sites is the still partially standing stone wall behind which Lee's troops sheltered during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Union troops, charging the high ground, were slaughtered in masses.

Getting thereU.S. 340 south to U.S. 17 south, 110 miles. The route passes through the heart of Virginia's wine country. Outside Fredericksburg, catch the beach at Lake Anna State Park (adults, $6).

Where to stayYou'll find a cluster of well-priced motels at the intersection of U.S. 17 and I-95. Try the 59-room Travelodge (800/578-7878), $48 weekdays/$62 weekends, with pool and continental breakfast; the 77-room Super 8 Motel (540/371-8900), $50 weekdays/$55 weekends; or the 119-room Motel 6 (540/371-5443), $38 weekdays/$49 weekends.

Where to eatNear the motels, the cheery-looking Johnny Appleseed Restaurant features menus in the "down-home Southern tradition." With buttermilk biscuits, "Pam's Fish 'n Chips" is $8.99.

Day 4: Petersburg National Battlefield

In June 1864, Grant trapped Lee's forces in Petersburg, Virginia, but for nine-and-a-half harrowing months, Lee held out. Partially encircling the old city, the Petersburg National Battlefield (804/732-3531, $5 per person) preserves Northern and Southern earthworks and the Crater, a massive hole created by a blast set off from a tunnel beneath Confederate lines. A four-mile auto tour leads to the Crater.

The civilian side of the story - the lives of the 18,000 residents who endured hunger and cannon bombardment - is found in the Siege Museum ($3) in the historic district. They kept up their spirits at "starvation balls" - lots of dancing but no food.

Getting thereI-95 south to Route 36 east, about 85 miles.

Where to staySeveral budget motels are located at the intersection of I-295 and U.S. 460, about a mile from the park's entrance. They include the 120-room American Inn (804/733-2800), $45 daily, with pool; the 48-room Budget Motor Inn (804/732-1646), $40 daily; and the 32-room California Inn (804/732-5500), $40 weekdays/$46 weekends.

Where to eatAll the motels recommend Roma's Italian Restaurant just up the highway. The place bustles, and the aromas are rich. Spaghetti with mushrooms is $4.50, or go for the veal cutlet parmigiana with a salad ($8.50).

Day 5: Appomattox Court House National Historical Park

The other Civil War battle sites commemorate the violent clash of armies. Appomattox Court House National Historical Park (804/352-8987, $4 per car) in Virginia is a place of peace, a memorial to the dignity, honor, and generosity of the combatants in the final days of conflict. Here on April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered his tattered army to Grant. He had broken free from Petersburg and was attempting to escape into the Carolinas. At this tiny village, Grant blocked his way.

Today the restored village looks much as it must have at the surrender. A tavern, the general store, the courthouse, and the jail are clustered atop a grass-covered hill ringed by acres of rolling farmland. In the McLean House - the finest home in the village - Grant and Lee met in the parlor to sign the surrender.

A formal ceremony, the stacking of arms, took place three days later. The Confederates filed uphill between Union ranks to lay down their arms for the last time. No jeers assaulted them; the victors stood silently in respect. As Union Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, who was there, later wrote:

"On our part not a sound of trumpet more, nor roll of drum; not a cheer, nor word nor whisper of vain-glorying, nor motion of man standing again at the order, but an awed stillness rather, and breath-holding, as if it were the passing of the dead."

Getting thereHead west on U.S. 460, about 90 miles. Or take "Lee's Retreat," a historical route with signposts pointing the way on country roads that follow Lee's flight more closely. Phone 800/6-RETREAT for a detailed map. Stop for a swim at Holliday Lake State Park (admission $1 per car, swimming $3 per adult).

Where to stayTwo fine motels are located about a mile from the park in contemporary Appomattox: the 20-room Budget Inn (804/352-7451), $45 daily, and the 45-room Super 8 (804/352-2339), $50 weekdays/$56 weekends with breakfast pastry, juice, and coffee.

Where to eatClose to both motels, the Homeland Cafeteria can't be beat for its prices. A full dinner - fried chicken, mashed potatoes, vegetables, salad, rolls, and dessert - costs just $5.99, $5.49 before 4 p.m.

Day 6: Closing the loop

Return to Washington via U.S. 29 and I-66 north. Remember, on this drive you've seen only the highlights of the Civil War. More battlefields, monuments, and museums await another visit.

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Inspiration

Arizona the Way It Was

The heat is like a slap in the face. When my husband and I left the East Coast it was 40 degrees and raining; here in Tucson the temperature is above 90, even though it's late October. Not that Jason and I are complaining. The rental car has A/C and we haven't seen the sun in weeks. The southeast corner of Arizona is a land of extremes: mountains that top 9,000 feet and are covered in Douglas firs; dry, dusty basins that sprout cacti and seemingly little else. The flavor is a wild mix of the Old West and Old Mexico--from the architecture (wooden ranch houses and adobe casitas) to the food (mesquite-grilled steak and carne asada). Toss in quirky attractions and a 75 mph speed limit and you have a road-tripper's nirvana. Day one: Tucson Even though it's Arizona's second-largest city (after Phoenix), Tucson doesn't feel all that big. With a few exceptions, the things you'll want to see are concentrated in and around downtown. We land mid-morning and head straight to Mission San Xavier del Bac. Completed in 1797 and still the center of a functioning Roman Catholic parish, the enormous adobe church can be seen for miles around. Its blinding exterior leaves no mystery as to why it's called the White Dove of the Desert. Upon entering, I'm struck by the serenity: Worshipers and tourists stand in quiet awe, marveling at the colorful murals and statues that adorn each wall, all recently restored to their original beauty. Back in the car, we head to Pico de Gallo, a little taquería in South Tucson. It isn't much to look at, but the soft corn tortillas are amazing. The namesake dish isn't what you'd expect--instead of watery salsa, you get spears of mango, pineapple, coconut, and jicama served in a Dixie cup and topped with red chili powder and salt. It sounds odd but tastes heavenly. Nearby in the Barrio Histórico is El Tiradito, a small wishing shrine dating from the 1870s. The ground around it is littered with colorful candles--evidence of the hundreds of prayers offered here in recent weeks. This remnant of the late 19th century stands in stark contrast to the modern convention center a block away. Downtown Tucson is a warren of one-way streets; you'll want a good map. We circle the Hotel Congress a few times before figuring out there's parking in back. Built in 1919, the hotel served as a high-class rest stop for ranchers and mining tycoons, maintaining its genteel reputation until John Dillinger and his gang rolled into town. They were holed up here in 1934 when a fire broke out. Firefighters recognized Dillinger, and he was captured nearby. The rooms haven't changed much since. They're small, a bit ragged, and the door hits the toilet as you enter the bathroom. But they have character, with vintage beds and rotary phones. Ask for a room far from the popular nightclub or you'll feel the booming music until 1 a.m. No matter where your room is, you'll hear the cargo trains. I found the noise soothing; you might not. From the hotel it's a short walk to the 4th Avenue shopping district. There are enough thrift stores and import shops to keep you busy for hours. Don't dally too long. Up in the foothills of the Santa Catalinas is the late Ettore "Ted" De Grazia's Gallery in the Sun. Best known for his paintings of children and landscapes, De Grazia created a unique space to show his work: The adobe gallery is decorated with colorful murals, brightly painted tin flowers, and a cholla cactus walkway. We head over to the El Presidio Historic District for dinner at the oldest family-run Mexican restaurant in the country, El Charro Café. We come for the famouscarne secaplate and aren't disappointed. The beef is perfectly spiced with lime, garlic, and green chilies, and dried outdoors for several days. Shredded and served with fresh tortillas, it's unlike anything I've ever tasted. Except maybe beef jerky, but thecarne secais much better. Day one Lodging Hotel Congress311 E. Congress St., 520/622-8848, hotelcongress.com/, double $39-$72 Food Taquería Pico de Gallo2618 S. 6th Ave., 520/623-8775, taco $1.25 El Charro Café311 N. Court Ave., 520/622-1922, carne seca $11.95 Mission San Xavier del Bac1950 W. San Xavier Blvd., 520/294-2624, donations welcome Gallery in the Sun6300 N. Swan Rd., 800/545-2185, free Day two As you drive southeast on I-10, the ubiquitous saguaros and mesquite give way to willowy cottonwoods--you're crossing the San Pedro River. After so many miles of highway, the Ghost Town Trail comes as a shock. This unpaved road from Pearce to Tombstone is quite rutted in places and so isolated that you'll be tempted to turn back. Stick with it and you'll pass through remnants of once-booming copper-mining villages. The best reason to take this route: John & Sandy's Rattlesnake Crafts. John and Sandy Weber are self-described rattlesnake hunters whose wallets and jewelry are on display in an old trailer. The shop is self-serve--if you find something you like (and I defy you not to), drop some money in the mailbox outside. Compared with the real ghost towns of Courtland and Gleeson, Tombstone is a circus. Packed with tourists and people dressed in period costume, the Town Too Tough to Die is worth only a quick visit. Stop by Boothill Graveyard to see the famous grave markers, then stroll Allen Street and have lunch at the Longhorn Restaurant. The Mule Mountain Pass into Bisbee is vertiginous--it's a mile above sea level and the highway twists and turns--but the view is spectacular. The town is nestled in a canyon, with clapboard houses stacked on top of one another; it looks as though one good rain will wash all the buildings away. Now a magnet for artists and retirees, Bisbee was once the heart of copper mining in the area, producing nearly 3 million ounces of gold and 8 billion pounds of copper. At the turn of the century, it was the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco. See proof at the Mining & Historical Museum. Explore the mine as the miners did--with a hard hat and lantern--on the one-hour underground tour of the Queen Mine. Claustrophobes will prefer to peer into the giant crater that is the Lavender Open Pit instead.Pick up an illustrated map at the visitor center on Subway Street and look for signs of the town's rough-and-tumble history. They're everywhere, from the big houses on Quality Hill (where the bankers and lawyers lived) to the saloons in Brewery Gulch (once home to gamblers and prostitutes). The center of town is now full of art galleries and boutiques, but the facades still scream Old West.We decide to try the new Harlequin Restaurant at the bottom of Brewery Gulch. Chef and co-owner Scott Edelen has turned what was once the town pharmacy into a first-class restaurant. The menu is small--two entrées--but it changes nightly and incorporates fresh local ingredients. Jason swears the steak is the best he's eaten (it's blackened and served with a red-curry coconut-cream sauce).As we make our way downhill, the car turns into a time machine, hurtling us from the early 1900s to the 1950s. Welcome to the Shady Dell. Alongside its regular RV hookups, the Shady Dell rents out eight meticulously restored aluminum trailers as rooms. We chose the granddaddy, a 1951 Spartan Royal Mansion. I can't take it all in fast enough: the lustrous blond-wood interior with leopard-print carpeting; the Frigidaire in the kitchen, along with vintage martini glasses; the phonograph and 78 rpm records ranging from doo-wop to polka. After I squeal, "Oh my God, look at this!" for the hundredth time, we settle onto the couch to watch the grainy black-and-white Setchell-Carlson TV. It's hooked up to a hidden VCR, with a dozen films to choose from. We stay up late watching Rawhide and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Day two Lodging Shady Dell 1 Douglas Rd., 520/432-3567, theshadydell.com, $35-$75 Food Longhorn Restaurant 501 E. Allen St., 520/457-3405, burger $6 Harlequin Restaurant 1 Howell Ave., 520/432-1832, entrée $16.95 Attractions Queen Mine Tours off Hwy. 80, 866/432-2071, $13 Bisbee Mining Museum Copper Queen Plaza, 520/432-7071, $4 John & Sandy's Rattlesnake Crafts Gleeson Rd., 520/642-9207 Day three We're off after a late breakfast at Dot's Diner--a 1957, 10-stool wonder, itself worth a trip to the Shady Dell. By late morning we're in Patagonia, another boom-and-bust mining town that has found new life as a mecca for tourists and weekenders from Tucson. The Nature Conservancy's Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve has over two miles of trail paralleling Sonoita Creek. It's a nice, flat walk under a canopy of trees--a bird-watcher's paradise. More than 300 species have been identified here. Lunch is at Velvet Elvis: incredible homemade soups, large gourmet pizzas with names like "The Good, the Bad & the Ugly," and limonada rosa, lemonade flavored with hibiscus and lime. Past Nogales is the village of Tubac, Arizona's oldest European settlement, dating from 1752. The Spanish built a presidio here that's now a state historic park, but most people come for the art galleries and pottery shops.We're lucky enough to have our own guide--Bill Spater, a family friend who has lived in the area for years. After a driving tour of Nogales's Crawford Street Historic District--on a hill above town, with old mansions and an extraordinary view of the spotlit wall separating the U.S. from Mexico--we "walk across the line." (The border is so porous here that people cross back and forth daily: Arizonans and tourists head over to Sonora for dinner; Mexicans visit Arizona to shop at Wal-Mart.) It's another world: narrow streets lined with shops and bars, people everywhere. We head down a small side street to Regis, Bill's favorite watering hole. It's packed with locals watching TV. A waiter quickly finds us a place to sit down, adding chairs to a table already occupied by two men. One of them asks me in Spanish who I'm rooting for. They're watching Game Six of the World Series--and Jason and I, lifelong Yankees fans, are surrounded by rowdy Marlins fans. We have dinner at La Roca, or "The Rock"--a beautiful restaurant literally built into the side of a cliff above town. A mariachi band serenades us with "Guantanamera" as we dig into an enormous platter of grilled shrimp, spiced beef, and roasted chilies. Day four: Tubac to Tucson Tumacácori is about three miles south of Tubac. A national historical park surrounds the ruins of a Jesuit frontier church built in 1757. It's only a short drive back to Tucson, and as we try to figure out exactly how far we are from the airport, we realize that I-19 is signed in metric. Another Arizona quirk to end a memorable trip through the Old West. Days three and four Lodging Country Inn 13 Burruel St., 520/398-3178, tubaccountryinn.com, double $85-$155 Secret Garden Inn 13 Placita de Anza, 520/398-9371, tubacaz.com/secretgarden, double $95-$105 Food Dot's Diner Shady Dell, 520/432-5885, breakfast $4.20 Velvet Elvis 292 Naugle Ave., 520/394-2102, pizza $17.99 Regis Calle Juárez 34, 011-52/631-31-25181, margarita $1 La Roca Restaurant & Bar Calle Elias 91, 011-52/631-31-20891, entrée $8 Attractions Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve nature.org/ for directions, admission $5 Tubac Presidio State Historic Park off Tubac Rd., 520/398-2252, admission $3 Tumacácori National Historical Park exit 29 off I-19, 520/398-2341, admission $3

Inspiration

We Usually Avoid Chains, But...

When it comes to chain stores, sameness rules. But visiting a foreign chain can give you a real sense of just how unique a place can be. Nowhere is this more true than Canada, where restaurants slather their fries in gravy and hockey gear takes up half a floor at department stores. Even the coffee tastes different--in the wonderfully same way. Shopping Canadian retail begins with the huge department store the Bay, part of the Hudson's Bay Company, a massive chain with multiple floors (hbc.ca/bay, 98 locations). It sells Canada's must-have souvenir, the woolen Hudson's Bay Company blanket, similar to the ones the first explorers traded (from $205). Winners is Canada's answer to Ross: designer clothes for the entire family, at bargain prices (winners.ca, 168 locations). Laura Canada features upscale women's clothes; check here for the London Fog coat of your dreams (laura.ca, 141 locations). And make your yoga class gasp with envy after your trip to Lululemon Athletica for earthy, flattering gear and workout clothes (lululemon.com, 14 locations). There are two names to know for books and records: Chapters, Canada's answer to Borders, with British titles added to the mix and an extensive magazine selection (chapters.indigo.ca, 72 locations). And A&B Sound is a record store staffed by the types who can list the B sides of every hit single from the last 50 years (absound.ca, 22 locations). Food For cheap and tasty coffee and doughnuts, locals head to Tim Hortons (timhortons.com, over 2,400 locations). U.S.-owned Wendy's bought the chain in 1995--and there are a growing number of locations in the States--but it remains a Canadian breakfast institution. Eggspectation's Eggwhat? Breakfast (yes, that's the name) will fill you up: corned beef hash, eggs, potatoes (eggspectation.ca, nine locations in the eastern provinces). For lunch, White Spot's fish-and-chips is only $7 (whitespot.ca, 57 locations, western provinces); or try Earls for its famous cedar-planked salmon (earls.ca, 50 locations in the western provinces). And prime rib at The Keg Steakhouse & Bar provides the making of a nice evening out (kegsteakhouse.com, 72 locations). Thanks to their British roots and cold climate, Canadians truly understand and value the importance of a good cup of coffee or tea, as Murchie's demonstrates (murchies.com, five locations, western provinces). Its Golden Jubilee tea was blended specially for the Queen (50 bags $9). Hotels Canada lacks large nationwide hotel chains, but it does have some fine local mini-chains. British Columbia's Accent Inns have big rooms in three-diamond properties with the kind of thoughtful touches--drawer of business supplies, nice bathroom amenities--you'd expect in hotels twice the price (accentinns.com, five locations). Stay close to downtown Victoria and Vancouver for as low as $64, or head to their property in the Okanagan Valley (Canada's Napa), which offers winery tour packages. In the east, string together stays at Coastal Inns for a family-friendly Atlantic Canada road trip (coastalinns.com, seven locations). Think of it as a Best Western with all the sports channels showing hockey. Or treat yourself to a night at Rodd Hotels & Resorts: 13 eastern locations, with a suite in a four-star property starting at $161 (rodd-hotels.ca). How does VAT work? Visitors to Canada can get a partial refund on GST/HST sales taxes, or value added taxes (VAT), on most purchases and accommodations. Here's how it works: If you spend more than CAD $200 and leave the country within 60 days, hang on to your receipts and have them stamped at the departure airport or border. (The refund only covers items over CAD $50.) Submit them with form GST176 (available from banks and tourist-info centers, or download it from cra-arc.gc.ca). It may take up to six weeks to get your refund, but the 7 percent discount is worth it.

Inspiration

Suddenly Sonoma

Forget Napa. These days, it's all about Sonoma. This magical wine-producing valley sits to the west of the Mayacamas Mountains an hour north of San Francisco, and shines like a beacon to those seeking excellent and unusual wines, awe-inspiring landscapes, and good old-fashioned peace and quiet. Even though Napa is a short, half-hour drive away, it's worlds apart, less crowded, and much more affordable. Unlike its corporate-owned neighbor, many of Sonoma's wineries are smaller and family owned. You're guaranteed to see more pick-up trucks than Hummers in Sonoma, and blue jeans not baubles are the norm. "While Napa was busy becoming the wine capital of California, Sonoma's smaller vineyards were quietly vinting away, making great wines but just not shouting as loud about it," says Katharine English a wine collector and former Bay Area resident. "I've always preferred going to Sonoma." Sonoma Valley makes an ideal getaway for lovebirds, true escape artists and all those smitten by the grape. It's even worth traveling cross-country for a long indulgent weekend among the vines, or the redwoods. Because Sonoma and its elevations range between 800 to 1,200 feet, it's possible to travel through fog, sun, forest and valley meadow in just a few short miles. The region's cooler micro-climes have served well for producing certain varietals, especially pinot noirs. Harvest time (September and October) is when Sonoma kicks into high gear, but the truth is, it's beautiful any time of year. Springtime is still considered "off season" but it's an excellent time to visit. Not only are plum trees, quince, and yellow wild mustard flowers in bloom, you're almost certain to land a good deal at an area hotel. And there's plenty to do year-round. Like sister its regions in Spain and Italy, Mediterranean-like Sonoma also produces olive oil. The Olive Press (14301 Arnold Road in Glen Ellen) is a terrific spot to learn about the pressing process (and to sample the goods). The recently renovated Sonoma Valley Museum of Art (551 Broadway, Sonoma) shows works in a variety of mediums by locals and world-renowned artists. And, Bacchus Glass (21707 Eighth St, Sonoma), which uses traditional glass-blowing methods from Italy, is worth a stop, if only to watch a nail-biting studio demonstration. It's quite a colorful spectacle. And then there are spas, many of which take advantage of local hot springs and veins of therapeutic mineral waters that flow underground. Sonoma's annual film festival is in its eighth year. Scheduled to take place on the near horizon--from March 31 - April 3, it celebrates indie film, food, and wine. Not surprisingly, it was named one of the "Top Vacation Festivals" by the Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide. This year Aidan Quinn and James Woods are among the tribute honorees. (Visit Cinemaepicuria.org for the lowdown on festival passes and details about special festival lodging and restaurant promotions.) For more information on the valley's best attractions and goings-on, stop by the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, housed in the Carnegie Library on Sonoma plaza (open daily from 9am to 5pm). The bustling town of Sonoma is one of the valley's most popular enclaves, and reminiscent of small-town Mexico. Mexican general Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, who oversaw the town in the mid-1800s, made sure of that. A picturesque central plaza ringed with historic sights, boutiques, tasting rooms, and gourmet food shops drives home the Old World feel. Pick up a Sonoma Walking Tour map (available for $2.75 at the Mission) and set out on foot to take the town in. Where to dine, inside and out Ask anyone where to eat in the valley, and you'll surely get one consistent response--the Girl & the Fig. It's conveniently located right in downtown Sonoma, and serves California country cuisine dressed up with French accents. Black mission figs are well-represented (warm fig and thyme crisp with port ice cream, anyone?), along with garden-fresh vegetables and local meats. Dinners run $30 per person (without wine), and its passionate owner, Sondra Bernstein, makes expert wine suggestions. If you want to keep it casual, head to the Black Bear Diner in Sonoma--in addition to its heaping portion and affordable prices, there's a jukebox chock full of oldies. Another valley favorite is the welcoming and more upscale Glen Ellen Inn Restaurant. Its wine cellar is stocked with 550 bottles from Sonoma and Napa valleys. Picnicking is one of Sonoma's favorite pastimes, so if the sun is shining, grab a basket (or ample-size bag) and load up on gourmet provisions and head to Sonoma's plaza, the 800-acre Jack London State Historic Park, or a winery, and settle in for lunch this bucolic corner of the world. Few things are more enjoyable than sipping a good wine and nibbling on stinky cheese and crusty bread among the grapes in a sun-dappled vineyard. There are numerous places to stock up on edibles, and they're ready-made for hungry picnickers. Sonoma Cheese Factory (home to Sonoma jack cheese, and it also sells hearty deli sandwiches to go) is a good bet and located on the plaza. (Just a word of note: Lines at the Sonoma Cheese Factory can snake out the door, so be sure to grab a number before you shop.) Alternately, try the Cheesemaker's Daughter or Vella Cheese (in business since 1931), and Artisan Bakers for chewy sourdough baguettes and other breadstuffs. Near the southern gate to the Sonoma Valley (Arnold Drive) sits Viansa Winery and Italian Marketplace, another ideal stop for lunch provisions. It sells all kinds of Tuscan treats, including homemade focaccia. Where to wine Everyone loves the Gundlach Bundschu Winery. This old (and legendary) winery is located just a few miles from downtown Sonoma, and in the free spirit of Sonoma, its staff pours without pretension (its reds are best, try its 1995 Cab Franc), and more than a few rowdy sippers have been known to ignite impromptu parties in the tasting room. Its vineyard is laced with paths for strolling, and there are ample spots for picnics. There's a welcome trend in Sonoma to make sampling and learning about wine fun. Charles Creek Vineyards has a tasting room right on the historic Sonoma plaza (483 First St; open daily from 11am - 5pm) that, in addition to some terrific vintages, also features a rotating exhibit of works by local artists. And Castle Vineyards (122 West Spain St. in Sonoma) invites visitors to play pétanque in its garden while they sip a pinot. Roshambo Winery (in Healdsburg, in Sonoma County) also pairs art and award-winning wines, and its conceptual contemporary art exhibits are anything but run-of-the-mill. It even once featured a Shrinky Dink installation. Super-friendly, down-home Ravenswood Vineyards (known for its bold zinfandels) allows you to "blend your own no wimpy wine" for $25 and take the bottle home. And, on weekends between Memorial and Labor days is serves up BBQ and live music. End (or begin) your tipple tour of Sonoma by swinging by the Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves for a glass of one of its famed sparkling wines--they've earned over 100 gold medals in the last five years alone. (Note: The price of tasting room pours can range from free to a $5 flight of samples to $15 for four generously filled glasses.) And although it runs counter to common sense, it can often be more expensive to purchase bottles at the winery. It's only worth buying bottles and lugging them home if you've fallen in love with a wine that you know won't be likely to find at your local liquor store. Where to sleep For better or for worse, Sonoma is not over-run with hotels. There seem to be just enough places to stay for those who visit, and enough variety to match. If you'd like to stay in the town of Sonoma, you're your best bet is the charming Sonoma Hotel, perched right on the leafy central square. Housed in an 1880 building, this property smartly blends history with modern amenities. Extra niceties include complimentary coffee and fresh-from-the-oven pastries in the morning, and wine tastings in the evening. Its restaurant, the girl & the fig, is one of the valley's best. Doubles start at $110 in the warmer months, and less in the off-season. Down the road on East Napa street is the Victorian Garden Inn, a B&B that prides itself on its turn-of-the-century touches and springtime blooms. It's cozy and comfortable with an inviting wraparound porch. Rates start at $139, and include a continental breakfast. Finally, just outside of town, lies the Pink Lady, the grand dame of Sonoma accommodations--the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. It's difficult to imagine a visit to sybaritic Sonoma without a splurge or two. If you're looking for a truly special spot to stay, there are two choices that stand head and shoulders above the rest. The Gaige House Inn (in Glen Ellen) and the Kenwood Inn & Spa (in Kenwood) are destinations in and of themselves, however they possess vastly different personalities. Both properties regularly offer promotional packages, but their best rates fall in the off-season--now! The former crash house of Timothy Leary is now an extraordinary B&B. The Gaige House Inn is run by two partners, Ken Burnet and Greg Nemrow, who lovingly restored the structure to its present day elegance. Their fastidious and unpretentious service, chic Asian touches, and creative gourmet breakfasts (artichoke and pistachio blini with home-smoked salmon--you get the idea) are just a few reasons the inn has a reputation as one of wine country's best lodging choices. Just this year, it opened eight new creek-side spa suites with private enclosed gardens and massive granite soaking tubs inspired by ryokan inns of Kyoto and the countryside onsens of Japan. Conversely, the nearby Kenwood Inn & Spa is Italian to the core, and an excellent place to hide away with a special someone for an indulgent weekend. The Mediterranean-style rooms are ready made for romance, and many come with baronial fireplaces. The inn exudes an ultra-casual elegance, and guests mill around in robes, hopping from pool to hot tub to the Caudalie Vinotherapie Spa, which incorporates treatments using vine and grapeseed extracts. In California style, robe-clad guests even belly up to the inn's wine bar, which is tended by the inn's affable (and hands-on) owner/manager Terrance Grimm, who pours hard-to-find boutique wines nightly. Weather-permitting, breakfasts are served outdoors around the lush courtyard. If you have to stay a night in San Francisco If you embark on a weekend getaway in Sonoma, chances are you'll have to spend at least one night (probably your first) in San Francisco. The Orchard Hotel, located between Union Square and Nob Hill, is easily the best accommodations value in downtown SF. The stylish boutique property, which consistently gets stellar reviews on Tripadvisor.com, is family-run with much TLC, the staff exceedingly helpful, and incredibly, one of its spacious rooms can be had for as little as $135. What makes the Orchard Hotel especially appealing is that it's within easy striking distance of major attractions, as well as the up-and-coming SoMa area (South of Market St.). Should your plane arrive in the evening, drop off your bags and duck into Oola (860 Folsom Street), one of the city's best new restaurants, and arguably SoMa's hottest nightspot. Try a toothsome late-night burger or the excellent all-natural baby back ribs with ginger soy glaze from its American bistro menu, which celebrates San Francisco cuisine by leaning heavily on local purveyors. Artisanal cheeses, boutique wines, and organic meats and produce are all well-represented. The people-watching's fun too. Right now, the Orchard is also partnering with the Camellia Inn near Healdsburg's historic plaza in Sonoma and offering a "Best of Town and Country" package, which includes two nights at each property (four nights in all), full breakfast, museum and city passes, and more for $725. And here's some more good news: Spring airfares to San Francisco are still affordable. Here's a list of sample airfares from major US gateways for travel the weekend of April 28 - May 1:   $189--Seattle (Alaska Airlines)   $216--Chicago (ATA)   $266--New York City (JetBlue)   $285--Miami (American)   $288--Boston (AirTran)   $297--Denver (Alaska Airlines)   $366--Dallas (Frontier) Want to speak sommelier? Check out this mini-glossary of need-to-know wine terms   Attack The first impression or impact of a wine   Bouquet A wine's aroma or "nose"   Breed Wines made from the best grape varieties   Corked Wine that has a musty smell   Decanting The technique of pouring wine into a second vessel to remove any sediment   Finish A wine's aftertaste   Greeen Describes wines produced with under-ripe fruit   Legs The liquid rivulets on the inside of a glass after the wine is swirled; legs indicate a high concentration of alcohol   Lush An adjective for wines with above-average quantities of sugar   Tannin The bitter taste caused by grapeskins, seeds and stems

Inspiration

The Easy, Breezy Riviera Maya

What you'll find in this story: Maya resorts, Mexico Caribbean beach vacations, honeymoon destinations, resort comparisons After Cancún cemented its reputation as Spring Break Mecca, developers looked south to a seemingly endless expanse of powder-white beaches. Offshore was the largest reef in the Northern Hemisphere. Inland were ruins--more ancient sites than in all of Egypt. Slowly but surely, resorts popped up, first in the town of Playa del Carmen and then in smaller fishing villages. Tourism officials christened this 75-mile stretch the Riviera Maya, and today it's the fastest-growing area in all of Mexico. At last count, 372 hotels offered 23,512 rooms, most of them at grand all-inclusive complexes. With swim-up bars, kind prices, loads of activities, and almost perfectly reliable weather (fine, there's some wind), the only question is: How do you choose? Josh Dean went to find out--straight from the guests themselves. Gala Beach Resort With the help of some experts, I narrowed down a long list of the most popular four- and five-star resorts. First up was the Gala Beach Resort Playacar, 45 minutes south of the Cancún airport, and the southernmost resort in the lush gated community of Playacar, home to one of only two golf courses on the entire Riviera Maya. Guests stay in one of two 150-room "hotel" buildings fronting the ocean, or in the 16 inland buildings--each with 10 suites, a private pool, tropical foliage, and the ever-present sound track of spitting sprinklers that keep the Bermuda grass green. Spread over a large swath of acreage, Gala feels quiet at first. Beyond the towering, thatched-roof reception lodge, a plaza leads past two à la carte restaurants, an open-air sports bar, and the main buffet restaurant,  toward the water. And that's where the action starts. A team of attractive young workers cajole a healthy slice of the Western world--I hear English, German, French, and what might be Swedish--into group activities. I'm barely sipping my first beer when a toned, tanned blonde begins trolling past husbands in beach chairs, barking, "Volleyball! Anybody for volleyball?" Meanwhile, the pool (one of four) churns with kids playing water polo under the spastic leadership of a female "animator," the title many resorts give to employees in charge of activities (also known as animations). And the adults who remain parked by the pool? They're ordering dos piña coladas, por favor. Two young couples from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, enjoy the last few hours of sun with a round of frozen cocktails and a game of hearts. They're part of a group of 37 Canadians who fled the cold via charter and have had a fabulous time, with one major exception: Fifteen of them caught Montezuma's revenge, a risk no matter where you stay in Mexico. "Other than that, it's the best vacation I've ever taken," says Kristin Harmel, 29. Over at the bar, Carrie and Steve Wainwright, from Princeton Junction, N.J., wind down after a day at the beach. "We love Mexico because it's cheap," Carrie explains. With the help of a travel agent, they paid $1,500 for five nights, including airfare. A Canadian supermarket VP jumps into the conversation to share his thoughts. "The resort next door is five times bigger," he says. "It's nice, but you'll lose 10 pounds walking from the beach to your room." The Wainwrights were partly drawn by an article they read touting the wealth of off-campus offerings in the Yucatán--Mayan ruins, ATVs, horseback riding. "So we planned to do all kinds of stuff," Carrie says, then laughs. "But mostly we just sit on the beach."   Gala Beach Resort Playacar 877/888-4252, galaresorts.com.mx Riu Playacar On the south end of Playa del Carmen, the Riu is an immense resort complex consisting of five properties: Riu Playacar, Riu Yucatán, Riu Tequila, Riu Lupita, and the luxe Riu Palace Mexico. It's a huge compound but not obnoxiously so, because the five resorts are somewhat self-contained. Guests can remain on the property they're staying at, or use the beaches, pools, restaurants, and bars at the other resorts. Actually, people staying at the fancy Palace have the run of the grounds, but those of us staying at the other resorts have to steer clear of the Palace. At check-in, the desk clerk takes out a map of the grounds and draws an X through the Palace, just to make the rules perfectly clear. I'm staying at the Playacar, which has a French-Colonial feel, with wrought-iron railings and bar stools, pastel walls, tile roofs, and balconies. A deep, palm-dotted beach makes catching late-afternoon sun difficult, and a sea of topless French and Italian women jockey for position on the narrow stretch of sand that isn't shaded by palms. Unruly weather ate up a huge portion of the beach in late December, so now there's a mere 50 feet or so between the surf and the palms. The loss of open sand lends a South of France feel; most available space has been jam-packed with lounge chairs. There's no drink service, and the beach bar is a bit of a hike from my towel, but I'm pleasantly surprised to find the mojitos made fresh, mint and lime muddled before my eyes. Wisconsinites Peggy and Mike Block came last year for their 25th anniversary, loved the place--largely because it wasn't overwhelmed by kids--and came back this year with their daughters, Angela and Holly, who are in college. They paid $4,400 for five nights, including airfare and transfers. After they booked, the hotel's room rates went on sale and their agent refunded them $260. The Blocks have fallen into an easy routine: Breakfast at 8 a.m., the beach at 9 a.m., lunch around noon, and on to the pool. "Then we have a few drinks," says Mike, offering me a beer. "Then eat, more drinks--we rarely see 11 p.m." Like the people at all five resorts I visit, the Blocks can't say enough about the staff. "They do anything for you here," says Peggy, as hotel workers nearby rig up an outdoor movie screen to show a Packers vs. Vikings playoff game, much to the pleasure of not only the Blocks, but what feels like half of the state of Wisconsin hanging out in the bar. "If you've had a good time," Peggy explains, "why go someplace else?" "We'll come back again," Mike agrees. "We feel comfortable here."   Hotel Riu Playacar 888/666-8816, riu.com. Iberostar Paraiso del Mar Part of another vast complex, this one about 15 minutes north of Playa del Carmen, the Iberostar is similar to the Riu in structure, with four properties of varying levels sharing facilities. There's the Paraiso Maya, Paraiso Lindo, Paraiso Beach, and Paraiso del Mar, where I'm staying; altogether, the four resorts have room for up to 3,000 guests. The first thing I notice is the water. Shallow manmade canals flow in and around del Mar's marble-floored, open-air lobby, wind along the walks, and vanish into the tropical foliage. As I walk past the main restaurant, a white egret flies through a space between the thatched roofs and plucks a fish from the canal. Outside the lodge, peacocks wander among the ferns, further lending the place a jungly vibe that extends to the pools. While pools at the other resorts tend to be bright and open, the main ones at the Iberostar are built to look like lakes and are surrounded by greenery. (A warning to those wary of walking: The path from lobby to beach, while beautiful, is about a half mile. A shuttle runs sporadically.) If you love shade, this is your place. There's no need to rise early to get a chair under a palapa, which is where I find an ophthalmologist and his wife and three daughters (all the girls sport fresh cornrows) from the Toronto suburbs. The McGillivrays paid $8,000 for seven days, airfare included, and two rooms at the higher-end Iberostar Paraiso Maya. They've walked over to check out the del Mar's pool. "We usually take a ski vacation," says the dad, Daniel, kicking back in his lounge chair. "But we thought we'd try something different this year. And there are really only two places that have guaranteed 30 degrees: Mexico and the D.R." (Celsius, of course.) Every hour offers another activity: water volleyball, Ping-Pong, dance instruction, target shooting with pellet guns, windsurfing lessons, water aerobics. That doesn't even include the entertainment, which is particularly entertaining here. When they're not prepping for the nightly show--typically, popular Broadway routines or local dances--the workers are hamming it up. A pack of guys dressed up as Baywatch babes surround me on the way to my room, and, for some unknown reason, jab and jeer at me in Spanish. In one show, "Hollywood stars" (including Indiana Jones, Mary Poppins, Batman and Robin, and Superman, who leaps off the two-story beach bar into the pool) attempt to rescue a man dressed as Marilyn Monroe from a guy with a shark fin on his back. While watching this spectacle, I meet Robert and Stephanie Skinner, two 30-something Brits. They've flown 11 hours from Manchester and plan to "totally relax and recharge." It's clearly working. When I ask how long they've been here, Robert honestly has no idea what day it is.   Iberostar Paraiso del Mar 888/923-2722, iberostar.com. Sunscape Tulum The Sunscape Tulum Riviera Maya has a lot going for it. For one, size--or lack of it. With only 232 rooms, the Sunscape is what you might call a boutique all-inclusive. Resembling an elegant hacienda, the main cluster of buildings is yellow stucco; the insides have polished wood and whirring fans. A large rectangular pool, tiled in navy blue, is just steps from the lodge and abuts the resort's private cenote (a limestone freshwater sinkhole, also open for swimming). But perhaps its coolest feature is its proximity to the famed Mayan city of Tulúm. The Sunscape is the southernmost resort before the coastline turns wild and winds in toward the ruins. From the horseshoe-shaped beach, which angles to the south and thus is sheltered from the Riviera's near-incessant eastern wind, you can see the faint outline of the main temples of Tulúm, hazy rectangles atop a wooded cliff. Each morning, a chipper resort employee (sorry, animator) leads guests on a 20-minute bike ride on a path alongside the 307 highway to the ruins. While streams of tourists pour from buses, we pay a shopkeeper five pesos to watch our bikes and stroll into one of the most sacred sites in the Yucatán. It's a spectacular cliffside spot overlooking cerulean waters, the Malibu of Mayan civilization. In my group are two American couples leaving the property for the first time. They figure a morning bike ride is a great way to take in some off-property sites, not to mention justify that lunchtime margarita. Newlyweds Zach and Anne Ault are winding down what they call a perfect week-long honeymoon and will head back to Columbus, Ohio, tomorrow. "We basically told a travel agent we wanted to spend $3,000, and we were given options," Anne explains. "Then we went on the Internet and checked them out." The Aults can't rave enough about the food. Though their preference is for the authentic Mexican food served at the resort, they've eaten plenty at the Sunscape's simple and delicious à la carte Italian, Japanese, and Pan-Asian restaurants. Whereas some all-inclusives allot only a few tickets per week for the à la carte joints, the Sunscape has no restrictions. The other couple, two young New Yorkers originally from Israel, pose for photos in front of the magnificent temples. Eric and Nourit Klepar were supposed to spend a month in Thailand and would have arrived the week after the tsunami. For obvious reasons, plans changed and instead they split three weeks over three Mexican resorts, starting with the Sunscape. They both love the place but wish that there were more people their age around. "I think it would be very good for older couples," says Eric, "or if you had children." Later, over lunch and mudslides, Zach and Anne agree that the Sunscape is quiet--but that's exactly what makes it a nice place to honeymoon. "If you're here to relax, it's perfect," Zach says. "There's a lot to do if you want to, but if you don't&" He takes his turn at shuffleboard and forgets to finish his thought.   Sunscape Tulum 866/786-7227, sunscaperesorts.com. Barceló Maya Fifteen miles south of Playa del Carmen, the Barceló Maya Beach Resort has 1,020 rooms and is situated on the largest beach by far of any resort I've visited. Beyond the long stretch of dedicated resort beach, lined by blue chairs, is another equally long span that's completely deserted, totaling more than a mile of white sand and swaying palms. The facilities are a bit generic, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sitting at the lobby bar, with its jewelry shops and loud signs, I feel as if I'm waiting for a delayed flight. But the Barceló Maya is immaculate, and the staff is motivated to instigate fun. Stephanie and Jamie Gallant, from Toronto, are sitting by the pool with their 4-year-old, Nicholas. The Gallants decided at the last minute that they needed to escape the Great White North. Stephanie's business partner had been to Barceló before and remembered there being an abundance of kids. "We did a lot of homework online about activities," says Jamie, "especially for our son." Nicholas, wearing a color-coordinated outfit and holding a pail with a shovel on a string, looks like he's been styled for a Visit Mexico! travel poster. Only two weeks prior to their departure, they paid $2,880 for the three of them, including airfare. On the beach-volleyball court, a pack of rowdy Italians do battle with a family from Wisconsin that has a distinct advantage--two of the daughters play for their college teams. I strike up a conversation with Jon and Erica Guyer, a brother and sister from Detroit, who are on the sidelines. Jon's a freshman at Brown, and Erica is researching law on a Fulbright scholarship; they came to Barceló with their parents for a little family bonding. "We haven't taken a family vacation in a while," Erica says. "And we're really more city people; we don't usually do lie-out-on-the-beach-type trips." As if on cue, mom Cheryl pulls up a chair. Mainly, she wanted to get the family together at a place where her husband, a physician, could "totally shut down and do nothing." So she consulted a Detroit travel agency that she trusted. "The Barceló had the biggest beach, with the most privacy," she says. They paid $1,300 per person for seven nights. At the moment, Jon and Erica are reclining with books, but soon they're on the volleyball court. Earlier, they kayaked, and later this afternoon they'll try windsurfing--their last sunny activity before winding down for dinner, drinks, and a show. Both admit to being skeptical when their mom initially presented the mega-resort idea. They've come to realize, however, that life at the Barceló Maya isn't all that bad. And it's become clear to me that if you're not having fun at an all-inclusive, you're just not trying.   Barceló Maya Beach Resort 800/227-2356, barcelo.com. Prices at these and other all-inclusive resorts vary dramatically depending on when and how you reserve. Packagers like Apple Vacations (book through a travel agent, applevacations.com), Vacation Express (877/684-3786, vacationexpress.com), and SunTrips (800/786-8747, suntrips.com) are popular and generally offer good deals. Packages are also available through booking engines like Expedia and Travelocity. And it's possible to reserve rooms (not with flights) directly through the resorts, though prices may not be as low. As always, the best way to get deals is by comparison shopping. Once there, bear in mind that it's not all all-inclusive. At most resorts, one price gets you a room, unlimited food and drinks, nightly stage shows, and myriad activities. But there are exceptions. Food: You have free access to the buffet, plus snack bars, usually poolside. Most resorts parcel out two or three coupons for reservations at the à la carte restaurants. Drinks: At most resorts, local alcohol (beer, rum, and tequila), house wine, and low-end labels of foreign hard liquors are free, though some resorts also pour free from the top shelf. Rooms have complimentary minibars. Sports: Scuba diving and anything involving a motor--parasailing, Jet Skiing--cost extra. Expect to pay $50-$75 for motorsports and at least $100 for scuba trips.