The Play's the Thing in Ashland, OR
An isolated hamlet in rural Oregon as a major U.S. theater capital? Sounds unlikely, but it's true: For 65 years, Ashland (population 19,500, just over the California border and about 80 miles inland as the crow flies) has played host to the Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the nation's largest and arguably most respected regional theater, drawing 150,000 visitors to its 762 annual performances of 11 productions between February and October. In fact, only four of those productions are Shakespeare-written, the rest being American theater classics ranging from comedies like The Man Who Came to Dinner to dramas by the likes of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Henrik Ibsen, and Anton Chekhov, along with new plays such as Margaret Edson's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning Wit. Still, the festival's calling card remains its Shakespearean extravaganzas, staged outdoors in a reasonably authentic (but thoroughly modern) Elizabethan theater starting in June.
Want more than just theater? Ashland's also an easy day trip from the absolutely glorious 250-square-mile Crater Lake National Park (a $10/car entrance fee gets you access to its hiking and skiing facilities) as well as the Oregon Caves National Monument with its remarkable array of flora and fauna. (For a more extensive list of visitor resources, check the Southern Oregon Vacation Guide at www.sova.org.)
All this thespianizing, along with Ashland's other charms, has transformed a rural town slated for oblivion into a vibrant, thriving center for the arts, a retirement haven, and a surprisingly lively travel destination. And while the area's cultural bounty has sometimes resulted in prices that run a bit higher than your average small town in the Pacific Northwest, it remains magnificently affordable for those who use a bit of foresight. (Note: All telephone numbers should be preceded by the 541 area code unless otherwise stated.)
Ashland may be in the boondocks, but its ticket demand is the envy of Broadway. Popular plays often sell out early for the entire season; most summer performances become sellouts quickly. If you want good seats, get your order in immediately: The box office starts to process ticket requests in the order received, starting in mid-January. Last season, most full-price tickets went for $29 to $42, with a few box seats at $52. (Next year's prices aren't out yet, but they'll be close to last year's.) However, "value season" discounts take 25 percent off performances prior to June 4 and after October 3. A few off-season matinees were even priced at 50 percent off, and children ages 6-17 get 25-50 percent reductions, depending on the time of year. In addition, last-minute visitors should be aware that the box office frequently releases a few daily rush seats on the day of performance, and you usually find a thriving "aftermarket" in front of the box office. You can get tickets by mail (15 South Pioneer St., Ashland, Oregon 97520) or phone (482-4331). The visitor section of the festival's brochure - much of which is duplicated on www.orshakes.org - provides a wealth of information on ticket prices, rooms, and activities.
Ashland is a hotbed of bed-and-breakfasts (more than 60 at last count). However, they rarely dip below $90 a day for a double. Hotels remain, on the whole, a more cost-effective way to stay; in the height of the summer season, rooms start at around $60 - not exactly cheap, but not quite exorbitant. For $65 per night, the Columbia Hotel (800/718-2530, www.columbiahotel.com) is a solid, funky choice on the second story of a block of storefronts near the theaters. The location's great, but most rooms aren't air-conditioned. Two others among the in-town options are Knight's Inn for $58-68 nightly (800/547-4566, www.brodeur-inns.com) and Timbers Motel for $68 a night (482-4242, www.visionww.com/timbers). Both are typical 1950s/1960s-style motels with outside corridors; they're comfortable and well-maintained, though without a scintilla of charm. More recently built properties include the somewhat out-of-the-way Ashland Regency Inn & RV Park (800/482-4701), costing $70/night for a double, and the $68/night Super 8 Motel (800/800-8000, www.super8.com); both are equally efficient, if charmless. The choice of real economy travelers-especially young ones-is the $16/night Ashland Hostel (482-9217), a converted residence.
For the best bargains, however, you need to head up the highway a short distance to Talent (4 miles), Phoenix (7 miles), or Medford (12 miles). In these three towns, the following are all clean, basic, serviceable 1950s-vintage lodgings, with little to distinguish one from the next other than proximity to Ashland: Goodnight Inn (Talent), $45-$58, 535-7234; Bavarian Inn (Phoenix), $42, 535-1678; Phoenix Motel (Phoenix), $49-$55, 535-1555; Crater Inn (Medford), $44-46, 776-9194; Knight's Inn (Medford), $45, 773-3676; Red Carpet Inn (Medford), $47, 772-6133; Royal Crest Motel (Medford), $40-45, 772-6144; Tiki Lodge (Medford), $37, 773-4579.
In addition, most nationwide economy chains have one or more locations in Medford, with summer rates starting in the mid-$50-per-night range. For more motel information, check the Medford Chamber of Commerce Web site at www.visitmedford.org.
The Civil War in Under a Week
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.
It's midnight at La Gu cara Ta­na, a rockin' nightclub set in a natural cave near the old quarter of Santo Domingo, and the very stalactites are practically boogying to the irrepressible merengue rhythms and the hip-swinging crowd below. Our Puritan forefathers might've plotzed at the scene and lyrics, but then they never set foot on the island of Hispaniola, where the sensual allure of the land and its people are truly enough to make you dump the work ethic and spend the rest of your days "livin' la vida loca." Christopher Columbus, the first outsider to fall under its spell, dubbed it "the fairest land that human eyes have seen." Five centuries later, the pristine beaches and exuberant greenery of La Republica Dominicana could still move the old imperialista to wax poetic - not just about the scenery but also about the prices, among the lowest in the tourist universe. About 50 miles due west of Puerto Rico, this wedge of a republic smaller than West Virginia harbors 8 million souls, sharing Hispaniola with Haiti to the west. Both nations offer quality getaways at hard-to-beat prices (see BT's article on Haiti in the summer 1998 issue), but it's the D.R.'s quantity and variety of offerings that make it the Caribbean destination of choice for the traveler on a tight budget; prices here run a good 30 to 40 percent lower than Puerto Rico, Jamaica, or other nearby vacation stalwarts. Depending on the season, in fact, seven-night air/hotel packages to all-inclusive resorts (providing unlimited meals, drinks, and activities) can go for less than $640 from Miami, $740 from New York, $900 from Chicago, and $970 from Los Angeles. Not a few of these deals feature Allegro (800/858-2258), a Santo Domingo-based all-inclusive resort chain that's one of the world's biggest; its Caribbean Village brand often comes in at less than $100 a night. Other decently priced Dominican chains worth considering include Amhsa (800/472-3985; www.amhsahotels.com), Occidental (800/424-5192; www.occidental-hoteles.com), and Coral (888/767-1664; www.coralhotels.com). If you're looking for something a little more intimate, small lodgings abound for as little as $20-$30 a night with breakfast. Best of all, just because the D.R. is cheap doesn't mean it's a one-horse island; indeed, the home of merengue, Oscar de la Renta, and Sammy Sosa offers much more substance than tiny islets like Aruba and St. Croix - lovely in their own right, but more limited in their offerings. There is plenty of culture, ecology, and architecture here, and - best of all, perhaps - there's distance. You can drive for hours on end, from undeveloped Barahona on the pleasant southwest coast, past mountains so high that apples grow on their cool flanks, all the way up to the north-coast resorts; this is also the only Caribbean island that offers white-water rafting. In my opinion, though, the true wealth of the land is the dominicanos themselves, a beautiful "cafe con leche" blend of European and African who'll spoil you with some of the friendliest treatment between Key West and Caracas. Most visitors skip the rugged interior and the funky towns for modern holiday developments along the thousand or so miles of crystalline beaches - especially the north shore's resort enclave of Playa Dorada, near Puerto Plata, and the peninsula of Punta Cana way out east (even more isolated, and home to the country's only Club Med). A smaller number go to beach towns like Sosua, Cabarete, and Saman on the north shore, or La Romana, Juan Dolio, and Boca Chica on the south. Basically, you can do the D.R. one of two ways, both quite economical: book a package through a tour operator (see box on tk) to one of the above resorts and veg on the beach all week, or combine sun 'n' sand with visits to towns where you'll actually see Dominicans not just changing your linens or hamming it up in goofy resort shows, but working and playing in their everyday lives. I'd like to cover two of those towns, focusing on the lesser-known, more authentic side of the Dominican Republic. Santo Domingo, south shore, cathedrals, baseball, & dirty dancing Named for the patron saint of the priests who founded the city, Santo Domingo has a population of more than 2 million and a character both sacred (the first cathedral in the Americas) and profane (more "love motels" per capita than any place this writer has ever seen). Santo Domingo also manages to be simultaneously charming (the old colonial quarter, with atmospheric cobbled lanes like Calle de las Damas), seedy (dumpy shops galore), bombastic (don't miss the gargantuan, vaguely fascist-looking Columbus Lighthouse), and upscale (check out Sammy Sosa's extravagant new digs downtown on Avenida George Washington). This jumble of contradictions is, to a great extent, what makes this colorful urb worth a couple of days of the adventurous traveler's vacation time, despite the lack of all-inclusives and prices that, while still reasonable, tend to be rather higher than out on the island (blame the business travelers). The seafront Malec:n makes for a pretty - and fairly interesting-stroll, but downtown's main drag is a couple of blocks inland: Calle El Conde, a once-elegant shopping street that runs the length of the old town from Plaza Col:n, with its imposing sixteenth-century cathedral, to the ancient fortifications at Parque Independencia. Nowadays this pedestrian thoroughfare serves up downscale shops (average monthly salaries, after all, hover around $100), street vendors hawking trinkets and Haitian paintings, and the usual yanqui fast-food suspects (KFC, Burger King, yech-cetera). This vibrant scene, more local than tourist, is framed by an array of eclectic architecture that runs the gamut from grand colonial to 1960s-era eyesores. Nearby Avenida Mella offers artsy-craftsy shopping at the Mercado Modelo bazaar; other good island buys include knockoffs of Cuban cigars like the respectable "Cohiba robusto," a much better deal at $5 a smoke than the authentic commie Cohibas. Amber is another national specialty, sold very reasonably at the Mundo de Ambar museum and shop (Calle Merino 452, 809/682-3309), where a small chunk with an embedded insect fossil runs as low as 225 pesos ($14). Finally, el beisbol is a great deal in a country that has produced many household names (not just Sosa but recently Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez of the Cleveland Indians); seats run $4.50 to $12 at the Quisqueya Stadium (Avenida Tiradentes at San Cristobal, 809/590- 5772) during the October-February local season - a prime opportunity to catch tomorrow's major-league stars. La inusica - not just merengue, but also bachata and other Latin rhythms - is another local treat, and can be enjoyed at a selection of clubs that won't break your bank. Besides the aforementioned Gu cara Taina on Paseo de Los Indios (cover $10), recommendable venues include Jet Set (Avenida Independencia 2253), Disco Sonido el Aguila (Avenida San Vincent de Paul 20), and Disco Kristal (Calle Pena Batlle 170); or, for a gay twist, head to Disco Free (Avenida Ortega y Gasset 13). Meanwhile, during the last week in July and the first in August (admittedly a hot, sticky time of year), the annual merengue festival is a wild (and free!) experience that takes over the Malecon. Time permitting, rent some wheels (from $44 a day at MC Auto Rent A Car, Avenida George Washington 105, 809/688-6518) for a day trip or two. For beachy fun near the capital, try Boca Chica, about a half-hour's drive (15 miles) east of town just past the airport. Aim to go on a weekday afternoon if you value peace and quiet; weekends, the strand is overrun by local families and boom boxes. Either way, the price is right, with secured parking costing a mere 60[cents] and food vendors selling cheap eats like yaniqueques (flat doughy pancakes) for about 6[cents] and fresh fried fish for under a dollar. Another 70 miles farther east along the coast, baseball fans will also appreciate San Pedro de Macor­s, source of most of the Dominicans in the U.S. major leagues (Tetelo Vargas stadium charges $8-$13 to catch games). If you're up for a solid day's jaunt, consider the hundred-mile trip out to the galleries and workshops of Altos de Chavon, an artists' colony near La Romana that's an artificial but engaging 23-year-old re-creation of colonial architecture and cobblestone streets. Eating and sleeping, Creole-style The least expensive beds in Santo Domingo happen to be on a prime corner right on El Conde at the Hotel Aida (Conde Espaillat 464, 809/685-7692), a charming if plainish pension where $24 lands you a comfy room with a nice balcony overlooking the street action - but no AC. Air-conditioned rooms here, oddly enough, lack windows altogether and go for $2 more; both categories, though, have their own bath. Located in the tourist district just west of the Old Town, the Hotel San Geronimo (Avenida Independencia 1067, 809/221-6600, fax 809/221-9106) rents out perfectly serviceable doubles with all the amenities - including sea views - for about $39, assuming you don't mind the slightly dated decor and clunky furniture. There is, however, a nice little pool bar and even a casino. "Dated" could also describe the Hotel Cervantes (Calle Cervantes 202, 809/688-2261, fax 809/686-5754), but it carries off the look with a bit more panache. For $54, the doubles here are roomier, with two queen beds, simple rattan furniture, mini-fridge - and bright fluorescent lighting (think of it as a quirky Caribbean thang). There's also a pool and a good-quality in-house restaurant, the Bronco Steak House (see below). If, on the other hand, you prefer to cook, then look no further than the ApartHotel Plaza Colonial (Calle Luisa Pellerano at Julio Verne, 809/687-9111, fax 809/686-2877) in the Gazcue district west of Calle El Conde. Here you can live like a middle-class Dominican in a studio apartment ($50), a roomy one-bedroom ($53), or a huge two-bedroom ($69); all units have kitchens, rattan furniture, and sparkling tile floors, and some even boast balconies. Other perks include maid service, a small pool, and a backup generator for those occasional blackouts. Food in the capital, surprisingly, is not always as cheap as one might expect. There are, however, three prime venues right on El Conde, and none primer than Restaurant-Cafeteria El Conde (Calle El Conde 111, 809/682-6944) - not a cafeteria at all, but rather a cafe and restaurant perched on Columbus Park across from the cathedral. Outside under bright umbrellas, or inside the French doors under ceiling fans, locals and tourists alike chow down on island specialties like breaded pork chops for $3.20, a lip-smacking goat stew for $5.70, or a side of mangu (plantain mashed with onions, practically the national dish) for $2.50. For even better value, try one of the daily specials, like carne ripiada (shredded beef), served with rice and beans, salad, and fried green plantains for $2.55! The same prices prevail down the street at Cafeter­a Bariloche (Calle El Conde 203, 809/687-8509), a cavernous joint in a gorgeous art nouveau building with a long cafeteria-style counter showcasing Dominican goodies. The $2.50 daily specials are the thing here, with a choice of entr,es such as codfish or roast leg of pork served with rice, beans, and salad. With fresh food, soft drinks starting at 50[cents] and Presidente beer for a buck, you couldn't cook your own dinner cheaper. Want a break from island fare? Head for Pekin Express (Calle El Conde at 19 de Marzo, 809/688-0499), a spotless Chinese restaurant with tile walls, neon touches, and a friendly young staff; best of all, the smells wafting from the kitchen are straight out of old Hong Kong. A la carte prices here are quite reasonable, with appetizers starting at 90[cents] for an egg roll and entr,es (such as pork chops in a honey-garlic sauce or chicken with mushrooms and snow peas) hovering around $3. There are daily specials, too, like an egg roll, beef or chicken kebab, french fries, and a soft drink, all for $2.10. Finally, the cozy Bronco Steak House, overlooking the swimming pool at the Hotel Cervantes, makes for a more upscale experience at downscale prices, with appetizers starting at $2 (cheese balls or avocado salad) and many entrees priced around $5 (stewed goat or island-style pork chops). Sosua, north shore, beaches, bars, & bar mitzvahs To many travelers, the Dominican Republic is practically synonymous with Puerto Plata, a pleasant, moderately interesting town on the northern "Amber Coast" with a nearby international airport serving both North America and Europe. Most folks head right on to Playa Dorada, a gated 15-resort development ten miles west that offers elaborate hotels, golf courses, casinos and nightspots - and is all but totally cut off from local life and color. Visitors who appreciate that color sail past the gate and on to Sosua ("so-SOO-ah"), a town of 30,000 just 12 miles west of Puerto Plata and a 15-minute, 150-peso ($9) cab ride from the airport. Compared to Santo Domingo, Sosua is practically brand new, but it has a unique history. Nobody could accuse longtime (1930-61) dictator Rafael Trujillo of being an angel of mercy, but he did do a good turn in 1940 by granting a group of 600 Jews fleeing Hitler's Germany the right to found a community along this lush stretch of coast. Sixty years later, there's not much left in the way of Jewish presence, save for a modest synagogue and street names like "Dr. Rosen" and "David Stern;" ironically, it's German tourists and expatriates who throng those streets nowadays, and merengue bars outnumber bar mitzvahs by far. The town now has a vigorous Dominican culture, funky street life, five of the country's best beaches, and scores of lodgings and eateries geared toward both foreigners and locals. Roads along this part of the coast are fairly decent, and using Sosua as a base you can get around quite easily by renting a motorbike (typically $20 to $25 a day) or car ($40 to $60) at one of the agencies in town, or by taking advantage of the many taxis and motoconchos (motorbike-taxis). Drive to Puerto Plata to take in the little colonial San Felipe Fortress; the gracious main plaza, complete with gazebo; the Brugal rum factory; and the interesting amber museum (which has capitalized on Jurassic Park, partly filmed on-island, right down to the logo). Or cruise 90 miles east to Samana, with its superb whale-watching (February is peak season), or nine miles east to Cabarete, a pleasant tourist town smaller than Sosua and boasting one of the hemisphere's best windsurfing beaches. Other outdoorsy activities include hiking, horseback riding, snorkeling, scuba, golf, white-water rafting, and the Columbus Aquapark; day trips to Santo Domingo or even Haiti are also available (try local operators like Melissa Tours on Calle Duarte in Sosua, 809/571-2567). El Batey-bound Sosua is basically divided in two: Los Charamicos, where most of the locals live, and El Batey ("el bah-TAY"), the tourist-oriented part of town, which is full of restaurants with names like Alt Dusseldorf, Schnitzel Paradise, and Margaritaville, as well as loads of bars and nightclubs (usually charging $2 cover); a local fave is the Merengue Bar on Calle Pedro Clisante. Some eateries are frankly turista traps not much cheaper than you'd find in the States, but at other local joints, such as the simple patio at Comedor Estiven on Ayuntamiento Street, you can get a plate heaped with tasty, down-home comida criolla (local fare) for $2 and a Presidente beer for 75[cents]. Your hotel's front desk staff can clue you in to others, which can open and go out of business regularly. There are also dozens of cute little hotels and guesthouses offering very reasonable rates. The 28-room, German-Canadian-owned El Paraiso (Calle Dr. Rosen 14, 809/571-2906, fax 809/571-2906) charges just $40 per double in high season ($25 in summer), including tax and use of a small, pleasant courtyard pool; several beaches are a short walk away. Slightly larger and more upscale, the Sea Breeze (Calle Alejo Martinez, 809/571-3858, fax 809/571-2115) - right next door to the synagogue - also sports a nice pool, plus 31 rooms with kitchenettes starting at $41 a night in winter. For something more elaborate, the huge Casa Marina complex on Calle Alejo Martinez (809/571-3690, fax 809/571-3110) charges just $65 a night per person through April 24 for an all-inclusive plan (that's three meals a day, plus unlimited drinks, alcoholic and not, day or night) and access to a nice beach, seaside Jacuzzi, multiple pools, restaurants, bars, shops, its own disco, and nightly shows; in July and August the price drops to $57 daily. To that, add typical high-season midweek fares of $310 to $360 round-trip from New York and $325 from Miami (both on American). A few tour operators also offer all-inclusive air-land deals such as seven nights this spring at the Sol de Plata resort just outside Sosua (from TourScan; see box, p. 123) for about $850 out of New York. Most operators, however, tend to concentrate their efforts on the Playa Dorada ghetto. One caveat: while the D.R. is not especially unsafe, bear in mind that this is one of the world's poorest countries (with an unemployment rate approaching 30 percent), and in some areas the stream of relatively affluent tourists unfortunately encourages prostitution. Thus in Sosua, for example, it's not single women but rather single guys who can sometimes be harassed on the streets (beware: postcoital robberies are not unknown); it helps not to wander around alone at night. The putas also frequent certain discos such as Moby Dick or High Caribbean (try Copacabana, Tropic, and Pyramide instead, which tend to be less infested). Cabarete has some tourist-friendly evening street life, too, but noticeably less of this particular kind of hassle. Gettin' to La Vida Loca In addition to seasonal charters, there's a fair amount of regularly scheduled airlift to the Dominican Republic, especially via New York and Miami. Flying times are approximately three-and-a-half hours from New York and two hours from Miami. Fares vary according to season, but midweek and round-trip they run $310-$470 from New York and $325-$350 from Miami. To Santo Domingo TWA (800/892-4141; www.twa.com) from New York and San Juan; Tower (800/231-0856; www.towerair.com) from New York; Continental (800/5250280; www.continental.com) from Newark; American (800/433-7300; www.aa.com) from New York, Miami, and San Juan. To Puerto Plata American from New York, Miami, and San Juan; TWA from New York; Continental from Newark (as of mid-June). To Punta Cana WA from New York and Newark. On the island Flights between Santo Domingo and either Puerto Plata or Punta Cana typically run 850 pesos ($54) each way on Air Santo Domingo (809/683-8020). If you want to go by land, it takes about four-and-a-half hours to drive the 140 miles between Sosua/Cabarete and Santo Domingo. The main roads are okay, but smaller ones can be in awful shape, getting lost is a possibility, and the Dominicans are not always the best drivers. So I'd definitely recommend the reliable, comfortable hourly bus service run by Caribe Tours (809/571-3808) and Metro Servicios Turisticos (809/586-6062). Both charge around 90 pesos ($5.70) between the north shore and Santo Domingo. Smooth operators Top marketers of air/hotel packages to the DR include: Apple Vacations (800/727-3400; www.applevacations.com), Funjet (800/558-3050; www.funjet.com), InterIsland Tours (800/245-3434), Moment's Notice (718/234-6295; www.moments-notice.com), TourScan (800/962-2080), and Vacation Travel Mart (800/288-1435; www.festaholidays.com). Informacion, por favor For further details before leaving home, contact the Dominican Tourist Board at 800/723-6138; in New York, call 212/588-1012, in Florida 305/444-4592, and in Chicago 773/529-1336. On the Web, log on to http://dominicanresorts.com, www.debbiesdominicantravel.com, www.hispaniola.com/DR, and www.dominicanrepublicpage.com. Once you're on the island, several free publications in English can be helpful, such as Santo Domingo News and Touring in the capital and La Costa and The Columbus Guide on the north shore. For phone assistance while in Sosua, dial 71-3433 or toll-free 1-200-3500.
One can easily argue that the capital of Egypt gets less respect than practically any other great world city -- and make no mistake, this town of some 17 million people unequivocally belongs in the same club with London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong, and their like. Laying claim to historical riches older than these others (hey, what's a millennium to a place that's weathered at least five of them?), as charged with life and energy, Cairo is nonetheless known to too many western travelers as the city you fly in and out of (one day at the Egyptian Museum, another at the Pyramids) when you "do" Egypt. A pity. It takes several days just to scratch Cairo's surface, and underneath you'll find one of the most enduring, mercurial, stoic, dramatic, impoverished, extravagant, profound, absurd, and genuinely fascinating places on earth. Not to mention one of the cheapest-filled to bursting with staggeringly inexpensive restaurants ($5 for a multicourse dinner in a good linen-tablecloth eatery), similarly budget-minded hotels, and at least a week's worth of free or low-priced museums and cultural attractions, among them some of the world's most famed sites. Famous sites, on the cheap To demonstrate just how budget-friendly Cairo can be, let's start with the two mandatory stops. First, the Pyramids. Even with recent price increases, it still runs a ridiculously low $6 to gain admission to the grounds where you can roam among the last remaining of the Seven Wonders of the World. Six smackers for Cheops and the Sphinx, for heaven's sake! Of course, you cough up an extra (but in my view, well justified) $12 if you want to crawl around inside whichever of the three 5,000-or-so-year-old pyramids is open that year (Cheops and Khephren alternate, Mycerinus opens far less often.) Expect to pay a whopping $30 more if you want to bring your camcorder along to shoot the interior. Needless to say, save your money. (By the way, it's no longer possible to climb up the exterior of the Pyramids, at any price.) The Pyramids, in fact, can be done for much less than the standard $40 price for a guided daylong tour from Cairo. After all, Giza itself is simply a suburb of the main city. Therefore, public transportation takes you almost all the way to the entrance, safely and reliably. Simply hop on Cairo's new, clean Metro (costing 50 piastres, about $.15) to the El Gama station, also known as University of Cairo. Exit the station, cross the street, and ask where you pick up the 25-piastre bus going to the Pyramids (you won't be able to read the route signs unless you're hip to Arabic); it lets you out at the base of the road leading up to the site, with maybe a ten-minute walk to follow. Total cost of transportation: less than a quarter, added to the $6 admission. That same price buys you admission to the Egyptian Museum, indisputably the world's greatest repository of pharaonic art and antiquities, with many pieces dating back to 4000 b.c. or even earlier. Here, you gaze upon the riches of King Tutankhamen, the mummies of various other royals (an extra $12 for this room, worthwhile only if you're truly curious), and literally tens of thousands of artifacts -- most displayed haphazardly, without much labeling. (The lighting's not that great, either.) However, the museum offers up such a profuse and dazzling collection of top-quality artifacts that you easily forgive it anything. And because it's walkable from practically any part of downtown Cairo, you incur no extra transportation charge. (However, be aware that to photograph inside, you must buy a $3 ticket, with the same extortionate $30 camcorder tariff. Flash photos aren't permitted, although bribes are not unknown.) A wealth of history, at little cost Many more must-sees can be visited at negligible or no cost. Just because they carry less than a few thousand years' worth of dust doesn't mean they're also-rans. For example, there's what's called Islamic Cairo; a good place to start is at the city's oldest place of worship, the Ibn Tulun Mosque, on Saliba Street. (The most straightforward way to get there is by flagging down a taxi from the center of town; it'll run about $2-$3). Ibn Tulum is a muscular hunk of ninth-century classical Islamic architecture whose central dome is one of the largest in the Muslim world, and whose commanding spiritual aura makes it the perfect intro to this part of town. Admission is around $1.80. From there, it's a 10- to 15-minute walk along Saliba Street to the Salah Al Din (Citadel) complex, which alone could easily justify an entire day's exploration. The highlight within this cluster of distinguished mosques and museums -- there's a $6 admission fee, with several of the more striking stops within the complex costing more -- is the mosque and madrassa (Islamic school) of Sultan Hassan, dating from 1356 and the largest of Cairo's mosques, with the city's tallest minaret as well as some impressive bronze doors inlaid with silver and gold in ravishingly detailed Islamic style; a ticket inside costs $3.50. Overripe, even bordering on kitschy, but still quite powerful are two relatively recent mosques, Mohammed Ali Mosque (with its profusion of chandeliers and lamps) and Mosque of Al-Rifai (an extra $3.50, but you see the suitably impressive resting places of several luminaries of the Arab world, like the Shah of Iran and King Farouk). The fourteenth-century El-Naser Mohamed mosque, also on the Citadel's grounds, offers a spartan counterpoint to all the Islamic baroque. Should you still have time after the Citadel, you'd be remiss not to take in the Islamic Museum, a short taxi ride (unless you're very energetic) up El Qala'a Street. Costing a way-cheap $3, this highly compact museum will, in an hour or so, acquaint you with the rich and surprisingly various artistic legacy of Islam -- from the smooth grace of seventh-century Persian ewers to fourteenth-century glass mosque lamps painstakingly inscribed with Arabic calligraphy, from Ottoman perfume atomizers to my own favorites, the extravagantly designed illuminated Koran pages, many dating from the ninth century and flickering with golden paint and outlandishly rich colors. Finally, for a more mystical approach to Islam, attend one of the absolutely free twice-weekly performances of the Al-Tannoura troupe of Sufi whirling dervish dancers, held at the madrassa of the Al-Ghuri Mosque on Wednesday and Saturday nights. (The band kicks in at around 8 p.m., but get there at least three-quarters of an hour earlier to guarantee yourself a seat. Call 909-146 for information.) Dancers aim to send themselves into a trance through continual twirling -- a half hour to 45 minutes nonstop isn't uncommon -- to the accompaniment of a hypnotic, thunderous Egyptian nine-piece orchestra. It's enveloping, mesmerizing, and of far more interest than Cairo's late-night, touristy belly dancing shows. Nearly as fascinating as Islamic Cairo, to my mind, is the area known as Coptic Cairo, where Christianity flourished in the city from roughly 313 a.d. until the Arab Conquest of 641. You can read a full account of this area -- and also find out how to get an abbreviated Nile tour for just 15 cents! - by going to a section in our Web site, frommers.com/supplement. Bazaar buys While nosing around in Cairo's rich history is rewarding enough, what I love as much about the city is its daily life. Even though local drivers make walking across any street an adventure, to put it diplomatically, you're well advised to amble -- at absolutely no cost, of course -- through downtown's endless, pedestrian-packed tumble of uneven sidewalks, past block after block of vest-pocket shops, scrupulously shiny windows one after another after another stuffed with shoes and lingerie and remarkably gaudy furniture, scruffy tea shops where small clusters of idle Cairene men (never women) trade chatter and take leisurely pulls off sheeshas (water pipes) filled with sweet-smelling, apple-laced tobacco. Their talk is swallowed up by the staggering, energizing din of the street: dozens of passionate conversations punctuated by laughter (Egyptians are known throughout the Middle East as wry, jokey types unable to take very much seriously), taxi horns, Egyptian pop music -- think belly dancing tunes plus disco thump-blaring from the cassette stalls, and the intermittent crackling drone, on days of worship, of Muslims being called to prayer by loudspeakers outside mosque doors. You can either embrace or shrink from the sonic assault, but there's no escaping the fact that every atom of Cairo pulses with sound and color and drama. The most concentrated dose of modern Cairo comes, without question, from a visit to Khan el-Khalili, the bazaar that forms the city's commercial center. Walkable from downtown, this Middle Eastern mall is less notable for the run-of-the-mill goods on sale (unless you're in the market for men's underwear, plastic toys, or low-level sheeshas, papyrus paintings, and belly dancing costumes) than for its raffish air. Tea vendors with immense silver urns slung around their shoulders dole out cups of their product for pennies, and once in a while you'll still come across one of the guys selling scrumptious hunks of roasted golden yam (one of the few street foods I'd risk) for 15 cents or so. That's not to say you can't find good deals. Gold and silver, for instance, aren't exactly cheap here, but because they are basically sold by the gram (craftsmanship adds only a small amount to the price) they can offer substantial savings over what you'd pay back home. In practically any shop in the Goldsmith's Bazaar along Al-Muezz Street, prices don't vary all that much; with bargaining, a pair of hefty 21-carat gold earrings can be yours for $60, much cheaper than stateside, and an excellently made, weighty silver cartouche with the name of your choice engraved in hieroglyphic writing, for less than $25. You can find these items cheaper, but when it comes to precious metals you do get what you pay for. Also worth a look, if you're interested in such things, are the copper and brassware shops just east of the goldsmiths' district. Me, I'd just as soon skip the merchandise and head straight for El-Fishawi, a landmark for over 200 years. (It's where Nobelist Naguib Mahfouz chilled and sometimes scribbled his novels of Old Cairo.) As tourist-tolerant as El-Fishawi is (western women smoking sheeshas don't even get a second look), the tables along the passageway are still jammed with actual Cairenes puffing away at pipes and nursing cups of chai (tea with fresh mint) or glasses of cold karkaday (highly sweetened hibiscus flower tea) as they bemusedly withstand the steady assault of street vendors. (By the way, while Cairo's itinerant sales force can be tenacious, after you utter a pleasant but no-nonsense "shokran" -- thank you -- while shaking your head no, you're free to cut off the conversation.) Even with inflated tourist tariffs, a chai and a pipeful of tobacco, along with a ringside seat for as long as you'd like, shouldn't cost more than a couple of bucks anywhere. Where you'll stay -- and barely pay Any discussion of Cairo's hotels should begin with what the city hasn't got -- spiffy four-star hotels in the $70 or $80/night range for a double. You're best off searching out modest two- and three-star properties. Luckily, decent hotels charging $50 or so per night are plentiful. And while some flophouses in Cairo aren't bargains at any price, plenty do give you your piastre's worth and then some. Arguably, the best value-for-money proposition is the Cosmopolitan (1 Ibn Talaab St., tel. 392-3956, fax 393-3531), a large, wonderfully located old pile a ten-minute walk from the Egyptian Museum. While its air-conditioned rooms (with TV and fridge) are hardly inspiring, they're quite functional, and even without breakfast at $35/night per double they're a steal. A bit farther afield but even cheaper, the very popular Windsor Hotel (19 Alfi St., tel. 591-5277; fax 592-1621) is famous for housing former Monty Pythoner Michael Palin when he filmed Around the World in 80 Days for public television. Your shower may be as erratic as Palin's so memorably was, and your in-room telephone may literally date from the 1920s, but if an aura of romantic decay and a great funky bar (one of the classic Cairo hangouts whether you're staying here or not) ring your bell, check out the doubles for $31-$43/night, including breakfast and all taxes (which can add 12 percent to your bill at other places). Book well in advance. (The tea house across the street from the Windsor is a cheerful hangout, by the way.) If, on the other hand, you're willing to sacrifice a degree of character in exchange for new construction and crisp efficiency (by Cairo standards, at least), look into the Happy City Hotel (92C Mohamed Farid Abgin St., tel. 395-9333, fax 395-9222), with air-conditioned rooms (all with refrigerators, minibar, and boob tube, some with balconies) and a nifty little rooftop garden. A double runs $39/night, including breakfast. The same owners offer very spare and plain (but reasonably clean) accommodations at the slightly out-of-the-way Happyton Hotel (10 Ali Kassar St., near Ramses Square, tel. and fax 592-8671) for an incredible $18.50/night with breakfast. While few of Cairo's hostelries achieve that mind-boggling degree of cheapness, one approaching it is the studenty, bustling Lotus Hotel (12 Talaat Harb St., tel. 575-0966, fax 575-4720), whose nothing-special but comfy rooms with bath will leave you $26.50/night out of pocket. Yet another notable cheapo is the El Malky Square (4 Al Hossiny Square, tel. and fax 589-6700); again, the rooms are modest but perfectly acceptable, and a double with breakfast and local hotel taxes goes for $20/night. If you'd prefer staying on the less frenetic, more residential West Bank of the Nile but don't want to be too far from the action, two very pleasant hotels in a somewhat posh neighborhood called Dokki are standouts; though costing a bit more, they also represent a step up in comfort. The King Hotel (29 Abdel Rehim Sabri St., tel. 335-0869, fax 361-0802) has 90 rooms and the quiet air of a businessperson's favorite; doubles are $49/night with breakfast and tax. Just a couple of blocks away you'll find Pharaohs Hotel (12 Lotfi Hassouna St., 761-0871, fax 761-0874), a touch plusher than King but very similar; its doubles cost $55/night, including breakfast and tax. Egyptian edibles While nobody would place Cairo in the same culinary stratosphere as Paris or San Francisco, few great world cities give you so many opportunities to eat well for a phenomenally low price. The strategy -- it's the case so often -- is to follow the locals. At lunchtime, that means finding a koshari joint. (They're all over the place.) This budget gourmand's secret weapon consists of a hefty bowl of rice, tubular pasta, lentils, a thinnish but savory Middle Eastern-spiced tomato sauce, and crumbled fried onions on top. At my personal favorite, the magnificently named International Public Meal Koshari (Alfy St. at Imad al-Don St.), a heaping bowlful sets you back all of 45 cents, with a refill costing half that. Bring your own beverage -- no alcohol, though -- because the only alternative is that dangerous carafe of water on the table. (While imbibing Cairo's tap water is an open invitation to a stomach-churning case of the "pharaoh's curse," perfectly safe aqua pura is available all over town in liter bottles for about 40 cents. Buy in bulk. Foodwise, the basic rules apply: no fruit or vegetables with skins, no undercooked meat, and so on.) The other quintessentially Egyptian meal consists of perfectly stomach-safe, meat-free Middle Eastern specialties: falafel (fried balls of ground chickpeas with spices), foul (pronounced "fool," a warm bean salad), and various pickled condiments. I happen to consider these dishes, when well done, a legitimate form of soul food; by that definition, one of Cairo's most soulful spots -- if you overlook the immaculate, somewhat sterile space packed with families -- is El Tabei El Domiati (31 Orabi St., tel. 575-4291). There, a well-prepared feast for two of foul with olives, tamea (falafel in a hamburger-sized patty), french fries, tahini (a spread made with ground sesame), pita bread, and a salad with beets, coleslaw, baba ghanouj (eggplant spread), and yogurt with cucumber, along with a soda, checks in for a staggering $2.50 per person. Just about as cheap are the restaurants whose stock-in-trade is feteer, which resembles a pizza made with a thin, vaguely phyllo-like crust. At a restaurant named Egyptian Pancakes (Al Azhar St. off the Midan Al Azhar Square), you pay $6 for a giant feteer (just try and finish it) loaded with feta cheese, tomato, peppers, and olives. For the same price, check out the luscious version topped with raisins, grated coconut, almonds, and jam, dusted with confectioner's sugar. Higher-priced, midlevel eateries -- many of them specializing in grilled meats too dear for the everyday Egyptian budget -- aren't actually that much costlier. For instance, at the cheerful, wood-paneled, white-tablecloth old-timer Restaurant Alfi Bey (3 Alfi Bey St., tel. 577-1888), a complete meal of soup, vegetable, kofta (minced lamb) kebabs, rice, and a nonalcoholic beverage comes to less than $5. A similar menu and prices prevail at Aly Hassan El Hatty & Aly Abdou (3 Halim Pasha Square, tel. 591-6055), with its high-ceilinged, chandelier-adorned, slightly worn premises and deeply friendly waiters; if you're looking to splash out, the most expensive item on the menu is the tajine, a savory pie of meat and vegetables, for around five bucks. Another Egyptian specialty, roast pigeon stuffed with peppery rice, is done to perfection at the simple collection of sidewalk tables called Farhat (126 Al Azhar St., tel. 592-6595); for $4 at lunch -- a bit more at night -- you get a whole pigeon (it ain't that big) along with a glass of lovely poultry broth, pita bread, and salad, which you dare not eat. After this repast, walk five minutes (make it ten and savor the journey) up Al Azhar Street past the giant mosque for which this broad thoroughfare is named, hang a left, a quick right on Muski (one of Khan el-Khalili's two main drags), and then another left at the next corner. A few storefronts down you'll see a simple, spotless little storefront called Al Haram el Hussein, right across the street from the Mosque of Saiyidna Hussein. This is where clued-in Cairenes go for the perfect meal-ender: crusty-topped om-aly, a warm pudding made of milk, bread, coconut, and a bit of sugar, sprinkled with chopped hazelnuts. It's brilliant -- and it'll set you back about a dollar. If a city can be defined by anything as trivial as a dessert, this richly layered, addictive, inexpensive confection is Cairo reduced to its essence. CAIRO CONNECTIONS The high season for Egypt airfares is between June and August, when discounted round-trip tickets cost around $950-$975 from Lotus International Tours (888/EGYPT-4U); in low season, that price goes down to about $750. Round-trip fares from another high-volume consolidator, Homeric Tours (800/223-5570), range from $780 to a high-season price of $980 June 21-July 31 and over the December holiday season. Because it's highly unlikely that anyone would visit Cairo without seeing the rest of Egypt's splendors, a good option is to combine a tour of the country with an extended stay in its capital city. The worldwide Dutch tour operator Djoser (877/DJOSER-6; djoserusa.com) offers the most economical Egypt package we know, a 14-nighter including Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan, for $1,695/person (double occupancy) most of the year; for an extra $100 (the cost of reissuing the airplane ticket) you can change your arrival or departure date to lengthen your stay. Lotus Tours and Homeric Tours also offer Egypt packages that can be made longer, but the cost of their tours is higher. A second option for hardier sorts is to choose from among the many Egyptian tours offered by any of the various companies working through California-based Adventure Center (800/227-8747, adventurecenter.com), which can also arrange well-priced airfares in conjunction with land bookings. The land portion for virtually all its Egypt itineraries comes to less than $100/day, and sometimes much less; for instance, Adventure Center's "Nile Felucca Sail Trek," conducted by Explore Worldwide, features a four-day sail through Upper Egypt by traditional sailboat and can cost as little as $375 for a nine-night trip. As we went to press, the Egyptian pound -- which has been a fairly stable currency of late -- was trading at 3.47 pounds to the U.S. dollar. For more information about Cairo, you can also contact the Egyptian Tourist Authority at 877/773-4978.
New York City B&Bs
With the average Manhattan hotel room weighing in at a whopping $250 a night, finding an affordable place to bed down in the Big Apple can seem as impossible as locating an empty taxi on a rainy day at rush hour. Even so-called budget hotels have become prohibitively pricey, thanks to the droves of tourists flocking to Gotham these days. But take heart. In the following pages, Budget Travel lets you in on Manhattan's best-kept lodging secret - and its last frontier for affordable stays - bed-and-breakfasts. There are hundreds of these cozy private accommodations sprinkled around New York City, many with double-occupancy rates as low as $80 to $95 - and that includes breakfast! What's more, B&Bs are mercifully immune to the city's 13.25 percent hotel tax and $2 nightly surcharge for rooms over $100. What they're like Far from the typical small-town B&B - a sprawling four-story Victorian house with numerous guest rooms, lots of gingerbread, and kindly retiree owners - the New York version is often one extra bedroom in apartments belonging to busy, working New Yorkers who either (a) could use a bit of help paying their own skyscraper - high housing costs, (b) love meeting travelers from around the world and sharing their favorite city with them, or (c) both of the above. The antithesis of huge, impersonal, 500-room tourist meccas in Times Square, B&Bs are as homey and personalized as lodging gets. In fact, many are tucked away in neighborhoods far from the madding crowds, where there's nary a hotel or tour bus in sight. You'll find funky artists' lofts in SoHo, quaint brick town houses on the tree-lined side streets of Greenwich Village, and posh high-rises with smartly uniformed doormen on the residential Upper East and Upper West Sides. As a B&B guest, not only will you get a chance to meet New Yorkers and see how they live, but in a sense you'll become a local during your stay, receiving your own set of keys and then coming and going as you please. You book through organizations Another distinctive (although hardly unique) twist to New York's B&B scene is the fact that rather than call hosts directly as they would in other large American cities, Gotham-bound travelers contact one of a number of B&B booking agencies or reservations services that help visitors select suitable rooms from their rosters. The practice first took hold in New York in the early 1980s, with one or two start-up B&B agencies offering a mere handful of guest rooms - some priced as low as $15 a night (ah, the good old days). From those humble roots, the market has expanded to include not only small, purist agencies that still focus on a select group of 20 or 30 B&B rooms, but also mammoth operations boasting hundreds of hosted accommodations - as well as slightly higher-priced unhosted ones - in virtually every corner of Manhattan. The agencies' expertise lies in their ability to play matchmaker by asking you, the traveler, a series of written or verbal questions and using your answers to pinpoint the ideal spot for your stay. For example, if you're passionate about paintings, an agency might steer you toward lodgings a few blocks from Museum Mile; if you're a gourmet food lover, you might find yourself paired with a host who happens to be a chef or restaurant critic. One B&B host near Lincoln Center recalled a diehard opera buff who spent two weeks ensconced in her guest room and walked to the Metropolitan Opera House (a few blocks away) to watch Placido Domingo perform every night. Our goals and our criteria To help you find as pleasing a perch as she did, we spent weeks pounding the pavement, scouting out various B&Bs around the city, and talking with hosts and guests, as well as those who run B&B services. Here's what to know before you go: First, because these are people's homes, the decor varies widely - we saw everything from cozy buttercup-yellow rooms filled with mementos from the owner's travels to bare lofts with exposed-brick walls and a single futon. Likewise, the privacy levels differ radically from place to place. Some guest rooms were demurely situated at the end of a hall with their own small, well-lit bath; others were separated from the owner's own bedroom by only one thin wall. Next, though most rooms inspected for this article were clean, a few had floor-level mattresses on somewhat grubby carpeting, and many featured 20-year-old bathroom fixtures (quite common in NYC, but they may catch travelers used to spanking-new hotel baths off guard). Hosts themselves are as diverse as their apartments - they run the gamut from stockbrokers to set designers. Some are apt to whisk you up to Harlem to their favorite jazz club, invite you to join them in a spot of sherry, or treat you to homemade hot oatmeal with currants. Others are more likely to greet you cordially, provide you with a few local guidebooks, maps, and hints on how to get to the nearest subway stop, then leave you to your own devices and a counter of assorted fresh bagels and fruit juice. Many hosts list their rooms with multiple agencies to ensure a higher number of bookings. There's also a great deal of difference in amenities from room to room, and it's not necessarily correlated to price. Some are equipped with cable TVs and private phone lines (one even had an answering machine); in others, you'll have to ask to borrow the host's main phone line. Guests at one B&B are invited to enjoy breakfast in a lush hidden garden with their host; those at another pick up muffins on the kitchen counter and carry them back to a tiny round table in their bedroom to eat. In almost all cases, you'll forego typical hotel niceties like daily maid service and in-room fax machines. It's worth noting that while B&B booking services set their own standards and inspection policies for their hosts, there is no regulatory agency that monitors or accredits them. Although most pride themselves on offering aesthetically pleasing lodgings in safe neighborhoods (much of their business consists of repeat guests and word-of-mouth referrals), we did find a few rooms in rather bohemian neighborhoods that might leave a less-than-intrepid traveler uneasy wandering around after dark. It's wise to be explicit about any special needs or preferences you have when booking. For instance, if you are allergic to or afraid of animals, tell the agent you need not just a pet-free room, but an entirely pet-free apartment. Quite a few agencies maintain Web sites stocked with colorful photos of their B&B interiors listed by location and price, which can be an enormous help for travelers trying to narrow down their choices. Oddly enough, when you book you may be warned that the phrase "bed-and-breakfast" is verboten upon arrival and asked to tell anyone who inquires that you're a friend or visiting relative of the host. Sources assure us that this doesn't imply anything legally shady about the operation (after all, the city takes an 8.25 percent sales tax on each booking); it simply protects hosts from co-op boards who might frown on having a B&B next door. Finally, most services require a deposit of 20 percent to 30 percent and a minimum stay of at least two nights. Advance booking is not required, but the earlier you call, the better selection of lodging options you'll find. Unless otherwise specified, the agencies listed below offer rooms in many different Manhattan neighborhoods and types of buildings, from high-rises with elevators and 24-hour doormen to quaint town houses - picturesque, but with lots of stairs and no attendants. Herewith, a select guide to Gotham's bed-and-breakfast booking services, listed alphabetically (prices don't include the 8.25 percent New York State sales tax): Affordable New York City Tel. 212/533-4001, fax 212/387-8732, affordablenewyorkcity.com Rates: Singles from $85/night, doubles from $90/night with shared bath, singles and doubles with private bath from $100, unhosted from $140 No. of properties: 120+ (50 percent B&Bs, 50 percent unhosted apartments) After years of staying at B&Bs and making mental notes on what did and didn't work, former AT&T saleswoman Susan Freschel decided to give the business a go herself, launching Affordable New York City five years ago. Freschel chooses her hosts based on "a gut feeling. They have to love New York, like people, and have their own lives. I don't want hosts so gregarious that they hang over their guests. Nor do I want people with fabulous apartments who are desperate for money, but obviously don't genuinely want anyone in their homes." She also rejects fringe neighborhoods, explaining, "I assume all visitors are from the deep woods and don't know New York. I don't want to sit up nights worrying about their safety." After an initial phone conversation with each traveler, Freschel and her assistant send a faxed description of several B&Bs, then let the traveler select a favorite. They follow up each stay with a questionnaire. "We can't go out constantly and review places, so we rely heavily on guest feedback. Once a year we inspect each property." Bed and Breakfast Network in New York Tel. 212/645-8134 Rates: Shared-bath singles $80-$90, doubles $110-$130, private-bath singles $90-$100, doubles $130-$150, unhosted from $130 No. of properties: 200+ (50 percent B&Bs, 50 percent unhosted apartments) Leslie Goldberg launched his B&B business in 1986 after hearing about a similar service in Montreal. "I thought it was a great idea, and that it would work very well in New York," says Goldberg, whose background was in sales. He started small - simply posting notices and finding people interested in sharing their apartments. The feedback was so positive that in the last 15 years, his roster has grown exponentially. "B&Bs are much less expensive than hotels," says Goldberg. "Plus, it's a friendlier experience. People are more helpful and it gives you a chance to live like a real New Yorker." All bookings are done over the phone and handled by Goldberg himself (a staff of one) through an informal chat. "I like to keep things small and personalized. Through our conversation, I get a feel for what travelers are looking for, then I offer several options," he says. Callers can specify the type of building or neighborhood they prefer when reserving. Like Freschel, he relies heavily on guest feedback to monitor his roster of accommodations. "If someone complains, we stop listing the property," he explains. City Lights Tel. 212/737-7049, fax 212/535-2755, citylightsbandb.com (Web site under construction at press time) Rates: Single and double $90-$130/night, (those on the higher end include private baths), unhosted from $130 No. of properties: 100+ (50 percent B&Bs, 50 percent unhosted apartments) One of New York's B&B veterans, Yedida Nielson was teaching theater at the Strasberg Institute when she got the urge to venture into the business world 16 years ago. After a writer friend suggested the then-nascent field of B&Bs, the gregarious Nielson convinced all her theater friends to open their homes to guests. "I had a lovely little collection," she recalls. "Just ten properties. Over the years, we've had some quite unusual places - even a houseboat and a water tower that felt like a Gothic cathedral." Nielson and her three-person staff still pride themselves on screening every B&B not only for cleanliness, but for how persnickety a potential host is about his or her apartment, how tourist-friendly the neighborhood is, and how aesthetically pleasing the guest room is. Travelers fill out written forms listing their requests; they can ask to be placed with someone who shares their interests; and City Lights will do its best to accommodate them. Like its competitors, the service sends a follow-up questionnaire and takes up complaints with individual hosts; it also does spot checks of hosts. CitySonnet.com Tel. 212/614-3034, fax 425/920-2384, citysonnet.com Rates: Shared- and private-bath singles $85-$125, doubles $125-$150 (those with private bath tend toward the higher rates), unhosted from $140 No. of properties: 35-40 (50 percent B&Bs, 50 percent unhosted apartments) This small, husband-and-wife-run company recently changed its name from West Village Reservations to better reflect its membership. However, it still specializes in Greenwich Village, SoHo, Chelsea, and other downtown neighborhoods "because we know them best," explains cofounder Margaret Packer. "Our goal is to represent only places we're very familiar with, places we'd stay ourselves. We don't want to boast about how many properties we represent." Margaret and her British-born husband David are both artists and travel enthusiasts who started booking informally in 1993 and founded their agency four years ago. One of Margaret's goals is to introduce travelers to "the real New York that tourists seldom see." However, "if something is funky or offbeat, we warn people. A loft, for example, is great for a young writer, but maybe not for his parents." Manhattan Getaways Tel. 212/956-2010, fax 212/202-4640, manhattangetaways.com Rates: Shared- and private-bath singles and doubles $105-$145/night, unhosted apartments start at $150 No. of properties: 50 (approximately 15 B&Bs, 35 unhosted apartments) Judith Glynn was a travel writer living in Spain 15 years ago when she ran across an article on B&B agencies; the idea stuck in her head and when she found herself in New York a few years later, she became a host herself (in fact, she worked with Urban Ventures, below). "It was a natural transition to run my own agency five years ago," she says. Before representing potential hosts, "I spend an hour with them at home to get a feel for the place and take lots of photos." Number one criterion for hosts? "They have to love New York - if they don't, it will translate to the guest. Number two, they've got to be gracious. That's more important to me than having a million-dollar apartment. The bath has to be spiffy, and the sheets and pillows have to be new." Glynn, helped by her adult daughter, also screens guests carefully, having them fill out written forms before agreeing to help them. She also attempts to match travelers with hosts who share their interests and offers a money-back guarantee to dissatisfied customers. A Web site offers background on the company and its policies along with a variety of photos (specific locations are avoided to protect hosts' privacy). After the initial screening and developing the traveler's "wish list," Glynn e-mails photos and detailed descriptions of several B&B options. New York Habitat Tel. 212/255-8018, fax 212/627-1416, nyhabitat.com Rates: Singles and doubles with shared and private baths $85-$115 No. of properties: 7,000 (up to one-third B&Bs, two-thirds unhosted apartments) Although technically a sublet service specializing in unhosted stays, New York Habitat merits a mention for the sheer volume of rooms it offers. Opened in 1989, the company was the brainchild of French-born antiques dealer Marie-Reine Jezequel, who found herself in the unusual position of having spare bedrooms in Manhattan and decided to rent them to travelers on a nightly basis. "She discovered there was a huge market for this," explains spokesperson Erika Koning. Now with a multilingual staff of 20, the company operates a comparable service in Paris with 800 apartments. The Web site allows travelers to search B&Bs by location, price, apartment type, and dates available, and then to call up colorful, detailed photos of each place. One caveat: The Web site also includes a category called "sleeping space in the living room," so find out where you'll sleep before you book. Urban Ventures Tel. 212/594-5650, fax 212/947-9320, nyurbanventures.com (Web site under construction at press time) Rates: Singles from $75/night, doubles $85-$150/night, most with shared bath; unhosted studios from $125 No. of properties: 900 (50 percent B&Bs, 50 percent unhosted apartments) In business for over 20 years, Mary McAulay is widely acknowledged as the pioneer of Manhattan's B&B scene. In 1979, she quit teaching high school and launched the then-tiny Urban Ventures, boasting just five guest rooms. The concept was a natural for McAulay, who grew up dividing her time between Miami and Ocean City, Maryland, where her family ran a restaurant and rented rooms to travelers. "I just put up ads in grocery stores," she recalls. "I had no idea what I was getting into, but the business just got bigger and bigger." McAulay, who now has a four-person staff, jokes that she knows what makes a good host because her mother was so finicky. "She'd tell guests which chairs they could sit on. Anyone that picky is not a good host. Some people think it's crazy to have strangers in your home, but we've been doing this for years, and we've never had one theft, not one fight." McAulay says most requests are made by fax and e-mail; however, travelers can also call and ask for a representative to help them find just the right B&B for their individual needs. Lest anyone doubt her ability to keep tabs on such a sprawling, ever-changing network, McAulay keeps stacks of looseleaf binders detailing the many guest rooms she's visited and inspected personally.