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20 Secret Bargains of New Orleans

By Michael Llewellyn
June 4, 2005

Seductively straddling the shores of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi, this spicy gumbo of French/Spanish/African/Caribbean cultures, world-famous food, music and architecture, and notorious laissez-faire ambience make the Big Easy inimitable among American cities - and a powerful tourist magnet. And while lots of prices in the famed French Quarter (a.k.a. the Vieux Carr, locally pronounced "voo car-EY") can therefore be steep indeed, the exceptionally low local cost of living overall means bargains abound for visitors who know where to look. In the old days, the Creoles even had a word for it: lagniappe ("lan-yap"), meaning a "little extra unexpected something." Check out these 20 examples of voodoo economics:

1. Packages to Pontchartrain

Sometimes you can do yourself a favor by looking into air/hotel combination deals. This spring, for example, Vacation Travel Mart (800/288-1435) will whip y'all up a midweek American Airlines flight and three nights (extra nights also available) at the Bienville House in the Quarter (including breakfast and taxes) for $499 from San Francisco, $519 New York, $419 Dallas, and $519 Denver. Not bad-and from mid-May to mid-September, those prices even drop by $30 to $35. Another package outfit worth calling: Travel New Orleans at 800/535-8747.

2. Cajun coupons, cyber-style

Before you leave home, don't forget to log on to neworleanscoupons.com, where you'll find more discounts than you can shake a stick at, for everything from restaurants and carriage jaunts to swamp tours and steamboat rides. Print 'em out, stuff 'em in your pocket, and away you go.

3. Hoofing the Quarter

There are numerous (often costly) tours of the Quarter specializing in everything from voodoo and vampires to gay history, but you can't beat the freebie offered by the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve (419 Decatur St., 504/589-2636). At 10:30 a.m. daily, friendly and knowledgeable park rangers give one-and-a-half-hour tours covering about a mile of this historic district; after 9 a.m., tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

4. Take the shuttle, cher

Once you hit the runway down here, except for hitchhiking, the $10-a-person Airport Shuttle (504/592-0555) is your rock-bottom option for getting into town. For the same trip, taxis charge $24 for one to two passengers (though it's the same as the shuttle, $10 each, for groups of three to five).

5. Get squared away

The New Orleans visitor information center (529 St. Ann St., 504/566-5031, neworleanscvb.com) at Jackson Square in the heart of the Vieux Carre has all sorts of freebies for tourists, including a brochure for self-guided walking and driving tours. But unless you're in the mood for a hard sell, beware the other official-looking "visitor information centers" you'll come across, promising "free tours" - they're little more than shills for uptown condos.

6. Bayout beds

Cheap sleeps aren't that common in the pricey French Quarter, but there are exceptions, most notably Bourgoyne House (839 Bourbon St., 504/524-3621, doubles from $87.50) and Hotel Le Richelieu (1234 Chartres St., 800/535-9653, fax 504/524-8179, doubles from $95, including free parking). On the uptown cusp of the Quarter is the LaSalle Hotel (1113 Canal St. near Basin St., 800/521-9450, fax 504/525-2531, doubles from $39, with bath from $69). In the Lower Garden District are the HI-New Orleans Marquette House hostel (2249 Carondelet St., 504/523-3014, fax 504/529-5933, dorm beds from $16.90, doubles/singles from $46.95) and the Old World Inn (1330 Prytania St., 504/566-1330, fax 504/566-1074, doubles from $55).

7. A bushel of B&B's 

New Orleans has 'em in abundance, something for everyone's wallet - under $100 a night per double included. My top three agency picks: Bed and Breakfast & Beyond (800/896-9977, fax 504/896-2482), Bed & Breakfast Reservation Service (800/729-4640, fax 504/488-4639), and New Orleans B&B Accommodations (888/240-0070, fax 504/838-0140). FYI, some of these properties can be a bit far-flung, so make sure you're at least near a streetcar or bus line.

8. Hello, submarine

If a restaurant's too much of a production, nab a cheap, hearty lunch in the form of a po' boy (the meal-sized local version of the sub sandwich) or its subset, a muffaletta (a massive, uniquely New Orleans product packed with Italian cold cuts and cheeses, and drenched in garlicky olive salad). The latter was born at Central Grocery (923 Decatur St., 504/523-1620), where it costs $9.80 but easily handles two appetites. Take it to the nearby levee and chow down while gazing out at the ferries, tugs, barges, tankers, and passenger liners plying the nation's busiest port.

9. Making groceries

That's what the Creoles used to call food shopping, and you can keep that tradition alive at the world's smallest A&P (701 Royal St.) in the Quarter. This is the place to save on the hot sauces, chicory coffee, spices, and other Creole/Cajun comestibles that can be considerably higher in the tourist shops.

10. All that jazz

The birthplace of jazz is world-famous for its music, and that goes for the quality of the street musicians too; they congregate mostly on Jackson Square and Royal Street (pedestrians-only during the day), and while you can listen for free, it's just good manners to toss a couple of bucks into that open guitar case. Or pick up a beer or soft drink at the A&P, head a block over to Bourbon Street, and hang around outside the club of your choice (walk inside and you'll get hit with a music/cover charge or minimum). For a measly $5 you can bask in the presence of living jazz legends at Preservation Hall (726 St. Peter St., 504/522-2841); lines are usually long, but the wait's worthwhile. At Funky Butt (714 N. Rampart St., 504/558-0872), the cover ranges from nuttin' to $12, and at Donna's Bar & Grill (800 N. Rampart St., 504/596-6914), the $10 Monday-night cover includes barbecued chicken, red beans, and rice. Storyville District (125 Bourbon St., 504/410-1000) lets you soak up an entire musical set for the price of a drink (from $7).

11. This old house 

For as little as $4 a pop, dip into the past and to see how the Creoles lived. The Louisiana State Museum (751 Chartres St., 800/568-6968) runs five French Quarter properties - the Cabildo, Presbyt`re, 1850s House, U.S. Mint, and Madam John's Legacy - charging $5 each ($4 each for tickets to two or more).

12. A good case of fleas

Souvenir hunters, blow off Bourbon Street's inflated prices and head for the downriver end of the French Market. Here are the best buys for tee shirts, Mardi Gras masks, beads, dolls, fridge magnets, and other tchotchkes, as well as surprisingly fair prices for locally made jewelry and crafts.

13. Jambalaya jambouree

Food's practically a religion in these parts, meaning a good range of eateries abound. For Creole and Cajun bargains in the Quarter, try longtime local faves Quarter Scene (Dumaine and Dauphine Sts.,504/522-6533), Magnolia Cafe (200 Chartres St., 504/524-4478), and Coop's Place (1109 Decatur St., 504/525-9053). Go Italian at Mona Lisa (1212 Royal St., 504/522-6746) and the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen (95 French Market Pl., 504/522-9500). Bivalve aficionados pack the world-famous Acme Oyster House (724 Iberville St., 504/522-5973), where raw rules. Also definitely worth a stop is the "non-costoso" Cuban/Mexican fare at Country Flame (620 Iberville St., 504/522-1138). Finally, for a belly-busting breakfast buffet, try Harrah's Casino from 2 a.m. to 11 a.m. for just $6.99 (512 St. Peter St. near the foot of Canal St., 504/533-6000 or 800/HARRAHS).

14. You gotta have park

New Orleans is blessed with two enormous green spaces, both graced with centuries-old live oaks drenched in Spanish moss. City Park is America's fifth largest (1,500 acres); here, kids will love Storyland (504/483-9381), a playground featuring 26 larger-than-life recreations of fairy-tale characters (weekends 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; admission $2, under 2 years free). The second, Audubon Park, has the fabulous Audubon Zoo (504/581-4629), one of the country's top five and cheaper than most at $9 for adults and $4.75 for ages 2 to 12. A third blooming bargain: Teeming with exotic flora, the ten-acre New Orleans Botanical Garden (504/483-9386) makes a wonderful spot to relax ($3 adults, $1 ages 5 to 12).

15. Get festive 

This bons temps state has more festivals than any other in the Union, and plenty of them are right here in the Big Easy. The most famous (apart from Mardi Gras, of course) is late April and early May's Jazz & Heritage Festival (ticket info: 800/854-4714). But for free music and dancing, come a little bit earlier in April (12 to 14 this year, 20 to 22 in 2002) to the French Quarter Festival (504/522-5730), whose centerpiece is the "World's Largest Jazz Brunch" at Jackson Square (the grub's $3 to $4 a plate). For a complete calendar of events, check with visitor information (see #4).

16. A cheap car named desire

You won't need your own wheels here-most everything's reachable on foot or by streetcar. The 166-year-old St. Charles Avenue Streetcar (the oldest of its kind still running) is not just a National Historic Landmark but a cheap ($1.25 a ride), fun way to explore, gently rocking along 13 historic miles, back and forth from Canal and Carondelet Streets to Palmer Park in Carrollton (en route passing the Garden District, Audubon Park, and Tulane and Loyola Universities). For a day of unlimited rides on streetcars and also buses, get a $5 VisiTour Pass ($12 for three days), sold at the French Quarter Postal Emporium (1000 Bourbon St., 504/525-6651) and the kiosk beside Café du Monde at Jackson Square. The Riverfront Streetcar line, nicknamed "the Red Ladies," follows the Mississippi from the French Market to the Convention Center and costs $1.50. Get details from the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) at 504/248-3900.

17. Art for free

Also in City Park, the impressive New Orleans Museum of Art (1 Collins Diboll Circle, at Esplanade, 504/488-2631) boasts one of the fabbest Fabergé egg collections in the world. Back in the Quarter, the Historic New Orleans Collection (533 Royal St., 504/523-4662) mounts excellent exhibits gratis. Royal Street's antiques shops boast the largest concentration of French furniture and objets d'art outside Paris; prices are admittedly staggering, but it costs nothing to browse, and the same is true of that street's art galleries.

18. Graveyard shift 

New Orleans' unique above-ground "cities of the dead" with their grandiose tombs and mausoleums are all free, but for safety's sake you're better off sticking with group tours. One notable exception, in the western suburb of Metairie, is Metairie Cemetery (5100 Pontchartrain Blvd., 504/486-6331), the area's largest and flashiest, where at the front gate you can get free audio cassettes for walking/driving tours. To get there from the Quarter, take Canal Street five miles west to City Park Avenue, turn left, go one block, turn right onto Pontchartrain Boulevard (crossing under I-10, the interstate), then follow signs to Academy Drive, which leads into the cemetery.

19. Rolling on the river

There are beaucoup de riverboat tours (costing $15 or so during the day), but the only passenger freebie ($1 for cars) is the ten-minute ferry ride to Algiers Point, a quaint nineteenth-century town just across the Mississippi with lots of gingerbread-style cottages and spectacular views of the New Orleans skyline. Between 8 a.m. and 11:15 p.m., it leaves every 15 minutes from where Canal Street meets the river; more info at 504/566-5011 or 800/672-6124.

20. Swamp things 

Tours of Louisiana's bayous are popular but pricey (typically $20 to $30). But few know they're free at Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge (504/882-3881), which has a full schedule of canoeing and photography excursions - some with nature guides - roughly 20 minutes from Bourbon Street via I-10 East to Chef Menteur Highway (look for signs). Families will get a kick out of the nearby Audubon Louisiana Nature Center (Joe W. Brown Memorial Park, 504/246-5672, auduboninstitute.org), an 86-acre preserve with trails, planetarium, multimedia and laser shows, and hands-on exhibits. Adult admission's $4.75, $2.50 for ages 3 to 12.

Keep reading

Suriname

You might think that the Dutch got the short end of the stick when, in 1667, as part of the Peace of Breda, they traded away New Amsterdam (a.k.a. Manhattan) for an expanse of South American rain forest along the Caribbean coast known today as Suriname. If you're a real-estate tycoon or Wall Street whiz, you might be right. But if you prefer palm trees to pavement, parrots to pigeons, and blue skies to skyscrapers, it won't be hard for you to appreciate that the Dutch came away with a steal in Suriname, where great deals still abound, especially for those in search of a first-rate ecotourism experience at bargain-basement rates. Suriname today is a touch of southeast Asia on the northern coast of South America - and that handy description applies not simply to its prices but to a population made up mostly of Indian, Javanese, and Chinese immigrants. In its capital city of Paramaribo, $30 will buy a double room in a clean, comfortable, and centrally located guesthouse. In a residential neighborhood called Blauwgrond, $3 summons a vast Javanese-style feast (beef in coconut milk preceded by appetizers of fishballs, string beans, cabbage, soybeans, and spinach) served daily to all comers by families on the front patios of their homes. Truly, this is one of the cheapest places on earth. And you can get here via an easy four-hour flight from Miami, from $570 round-trip. With the help of fares like this, Suriname's major attractions - pristine rain forests inhabited by spider monkeys, neon-vivid butterflies, and 680 species of birds - have at last begun to attract legions of cost-conscious Americans, who can make two-day visits into the bush for a total of only $125, including a park ranger and a cook who prepares three squares a day. Bottom line: a superb adventure-travel bargain amid a Dutch-flavored, English-speaking culture and a safe, friendly atmosphere. And you can drink the water! Parbo perambulations Before you make tracks for the rain forest or the coast, plan on at least three full days in Paramaribo (a.k.a. "Parbo," population: 250,000) to take in the sights, reconfirm departing flights, and eat at as many restaurants as humanly possible. It's a charming city with the look of a friendly small town and plenty of picturesque wooden Dutch colonial architecture and historic sites. At the central market along the Suriname River, Maroon women whose forefathers were runaway slaves carefully stack ripe tomatoes and oranges into small pyramid-shape displays; garbed in colorful West African-print sarongs, they chatter softly to each other in Sranantongo, the one language that every Surinamer speaks. Out on the bank, Javanese and Creole fishermen toss fish from their boats up to vendors who turn around and slap the fish down in crates lined with shaved ice. All side trips (day and overnight alike) originate from Parbo, making it the ideal staging ground for excursions to the rest of the country. Shorter day trips from town might include visits to Brownsberg Nature Park; Jodensavanna, an area where Portuguese Jews established plantations 350 years ago; and Commewijne, a quiet neighborhood of abandoned rural estates. Once you've settled into Suriname's slow, tropical groove and picked up a few phrases in Sranantongo, you'll be ready for extended jaunts to Raleighvallen/Voltzberg in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, recently named a UNESCO Nature World Heritage Site, and Galibi Nature Reserve. For touring, Parbo is small enough that you'll be able to walk almost anywhere without trouble. On the other hand, hitching a ride is pretty cheap, too: cabs $2 to $3 anywhere in town and buses a flat 10: per ride. Main sites include Fort Zeelandia, a ten-minute walk downstream from downtown, whose museum is well worth the $1.50 admission. The star-shaped stone fort was built in the mid-1600s to guard the entrance to the Suriname River, and also served as a prison. The central market (Mon. to Sat., 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.) is located on Waterkant under what appears to be an enormous airplane hangar. Anything and everything that ever flew, grew, swam, slithered, or walked on four feet is available on the first floor, from freshwater crabs to bananas (19: a bunch) to plantain chips (77: for a big bag) to Javanese sweets called gulong gulong - a bright red cornstarch paste wrapped around a syrupy coconut filling (6: for a cigar-size helping). Any of the cambios across the street are a good place to change dollars for guilders; these exchange bureaus are safe, legal, and offer roughly the same rate as a bank with a lot less paperwork (pegged to the dollar, local currency recently fluctuated between Sf 2,600 and Sf 2,800 to US$1). For non-edible purchases, Readytex at Maagdenstraat 44 is your one-stop curio shop. I recently brought home a dozen attractively handcrafted, hardwood kitchen spoons (58: each) and couldn't resist the stuffed, shellacked, and mounted piranha for $7.50. (I'm embarrassed to say I bought four of 'em.) For the slightly more sophisticated shopper, there's an art gallery on the second floor featuring the work of local artists, with canvases and carvings fetching anywhere from thirty to several hundred dollars. Surinamese snoozes At Paramaribo's quality hotels, complete with fitness rooms and swimming pools, double rooms can be had for $70 a night. And at smaller establishments and guesthouses, this prime exemplar of a "cheapest place on earth" will lodge you for even less than half that reasonable sum. Lisa's Guest House (Burenstraat 6, tel. 476-927*) is one of the most popular places to stay here with the folks who invariably track down the best deals in any town: Peace Corps volunteers. Centrally located, it has 13 tidy rooms (seven of which are equipped with air-conditioners) at $20 per double. You'll find an oscillating fan in the other six rooms, and those will only set you back $16 per double. All of them share clean toilets, showers, the house phone, and a common room with big-screen TV and cable. Another cheapie right downtown is called Albergo Alberga (Lim-A-Po Straat 13, tel. 474-286). This bright, airy guesthouse has six non-A/C rooms without phones on the third floor of a white clapboard house in the heart of the historic district. The doubles run $20 a night, the rest are singles renting for $15 each. Running the length of the building is a covered front balcony that overlooks one of the most charming streets in the city. All rooms share immaculate toilets and showers as well as a common room with a cable TV, and all are outfitted with sturdy fans. Guesthouse Sabana (Kleine Waterstraat 7, tel. 424-158), on the north side of town, is under new management (usually a good sign) and charges $37 for A/C-equipped doubles with private baths; its ten rooms lack phones but are quite comfortable. Right next door at the Combi Inn guesthouse (tel. 426-001, fax 426-005, combi-inn@paramaribo.net), the nine rooms are clean and include bathroom, fridge, TV, and phone. Manager Arnold Fredrik says he likes to haggle over prices; I got him down to $42 for a double without too much difficulty. Both the Sabana and Combi Inns are on the second floor and have open front balconies overlooking the street and Suriname River beyond. Further north but still within easy walking distance to the center of town is the Hotel ABC (Mahonielaan 55, tel. 422-950, fax /477-588), which rightly bills itself as "a small hotel with first-class rooms and top-of-the-line features." ABC has ten air-conditioned doubles for $40, each with private bath, TV, fridge, and telephone. The best upscale bargain is the Eco Resort Inn (Cornelis Jongbawstraat 16, tel. 425-522, fax 425-510, info@ecores.com). While it seems a bit pricey ($75 double, $65 single, including service, tax, and a bountiful breakfast buffet), consider that in addition to 74 air-conditioned rooms with phone, fridge, cable TV, private balcony, and private bathroom with a generously hot shower, it also offers airport transfers (a taxi runs $25 each way for the hour-long journey), use of the pool and all other facilities at the luxury Hotel Torarica just down the street. My own room was so spotless, I'm convinced I was the first person to have stayed in it. Parbo provisions There are cheap eats aplenty around town, but the usual South American rice and beans - no way, Jose. Instead, expect Asian-style delights from the other side of the world: satay, fried rice, chow mein, and roti at prices that will astound you. This country's profusion of Indian, Javanese, and Chinese immigrants lends Surinamese cuisine a rich Asian flair, at prices on a par with Asian "cheapest places on earth" such as Indonesia and Thailand. In the neighborhood of Blauwgrond - about a five-minute cab ride north of town-scores of Javanese families have turned their homes into restaurants, and low overhead means lower prices; you'll sit on their front patios while being served from the family kitchen. Pawiro's at Samson Greenstraat 114 has a great menu (although there are blocks and blocks of other similar homes from which to choose). Its nasi rames is the equivalent of a Javanese pupu platter and includes, among other things, a tasty deep-fried fish ball; sambel, shredded fried sweetened potatoes; goedanang, a zesty mixture of string beans, cabbage, soybeans, and spinach; and a choice of entree. I went with the spicy beef in coconut milk-a rich, sweet, slightly salty delicacy. The whole kit and caboodle: $3. An appetizer of bakabana (28[cents]) - fried plantain with hot peanut sauce-made the meal a cholesterol A-bomb, but to make up for it, I ate veggies (easy to do in Suriname) for the next two days. The best Chinese food in town can be had at Chi Min on Cornelis Jongbawstraat 83 (tel. 412-155), where a heaping plate of noodles or fried rice topped with savory slices of chicken or beef runs just a buck and a half. If your room has a fridge, go ahead and get one order per person; you can keep the leftovers for the next day's lunch. Otherwise, one order for two hearty eaters is plenty. The wonton soup (67:) is as good as I've had anywhere in Asia. Restaurant Dumpling #1 on Nassylaan #12 (tel. 477-904) boasts similar lightweight prices and oversized portions. For a filling snack, hit one of the numerous roti shops in town. Roti is a tortilla-sized Indian pancake wrapped around a combination of curried mashed potatoes, lentils, and often chicken or lamb. It's meant to be eaten without utensils, but be warned: The meat is still on the bone! Roopram's (Zwartenhovenbrugstraat 23 and Grote Hofstraat 4) and Joosje (Zwartenhovenbrugstraat 9) both offer versions with chicken for $1.15; word on the street is that Joosje uses less salt. Venturing into the bush The conservation foundation STINASU (Cornelis Jongbawstraat 14, tel. 427-102, 427-103, fax 421-850, fnps@sr.net, www.stinasu.sr) is an excellent traveler's resource, running inexpensive and exciting tours to the three main ecotourist destinations: Galibi Nature Reserve, Brownsberg Nature Park, and Raleighvallen/Voltzberg Nature Reserve. The bulk of STINASU's profits is funneled back into local conservation projects. Other reputable tour operators include METS (tel. 477-088, fax 422-332, www.metsre sorts.com) and Suriname Safari Tours (tel. 424-025, fax 455-768, eerstelingsst@yahoo.com). Bear in mind that one of the keys to cheap travel in Suriname is a degree of flexibility and a willingness to share rides (especially in dugout canoes and chartered planes). While all of the tour operators listed in this article will do their best to consolidate trips, a good person to contact before leaving the U.S. is Sirano Zalman, founder of Access Suriname Travel (tel./fax 424-522, access-travel@cq-link.sr, www.surinametravel.com). A kind of clearinghouse for tours, his office is plastered with various travel agencies' schedules and is testimony to the fact that this guy's up on who's going where and when in this neck of the woods. Rain forest rambles: Brownsberg and Raleighvallen National Parks More than three-quarters of Suriname is rain forest, and until recently, almost all of the interior had been beyond the reach of the budget-conscious traveler pressed for time. More and more tour companies are building lodges and airstrips in the jungle, however, and there are some very reasonably priced, all-inclusive, $90-a-day packages into the heart of the 13-year-old Central Nature Reserve. Thus, expect to pay in the vicinity of $360 per person for a memorable four-day all-inclusive trip (like a safari) to Raleighvallen, a remote site deep in the interior. Cheaper and much more accessible is STINASU's compound at Brownsberg-only two hours from the capital. It's a collection of six main lodges, an office with radio communication to Paramaribo, and a generator shed (the juice runs from sundown to sunup). Each lodge commands a stunning view of Lake Brokopondo Stuwmeer (a.k.a. Van Blommestein Meer) - created by damming the Suriname River. The accommodations consist of three or four bedrooms, a toilet and showers (cold water only), a common room, and a kitchen with sink, propane stove, and fridge. All-inclusive trips to Brownsberg are available starting at only $125 per person for two days, for which you'll be picked up at your hotel, driven to the park in an air-conditioned 4x4, and put up in one of the lodges. What's more, you'll be accompanied by a cook who'll prepare three tasty meals. A knowledgeable guide - usually a park ranger - is also included in the price, and he'll gladly lead you to any of several waterfalls within easy walking distance. Determined to spend less? Much, much less? Essentially, the same Brownsberg experience can be had for far fewer guilders by simply catching the express bus from Parbo to the village of Brownsberg ($2.30). Arrange to have the folks from STINASU meet you in a Jeep, and for $3.85 round-trip, they'll haul you and your gear up the muddy, twisting jungle track to their compound. You can sling the sturdy hammock that they provide with sheets, a pillow, and a cocoon-like mosquito net for a scant $6. The hammock hut is a thatched-roof, open-air, traditional Amerindian dwelling, but given the higher altitude and the cool breezes off the lake, you're in for a comfortable night's rest. You'll be on your own for meals, so a cooler (available for $13.50 at Fernandes on Klipstenenstraat in Parbo) is a must; blocks of ice are widely available for about a buck. Cooking facilities at the STINASU Brownsberg compound are simple but adequate. Like the bungalows, you can count on running cold water, a fridge, and a gas stove. After a day or two exploring Brownsberg, pay a visit to Tonka Island - a 90-acre hilltop-turned-island created by the rise of the Lake Brokopondo Stuwmeer. Run by Fritz van Troon in conjunction with the Amazon Conservation Team, the lush facility is covered in cashew, tamarind, palm, and Tonka trees (from which it derives its name) and offers guests traditional Amerindian lodgings in an utterly secluded setting. The lodges cost $60 a night but sleep up to 24 people. Ask beforehand about sharing expenses with other guests, and chances are you'll end up paying a mere fraction of the $60 fee. Hammocks, bedding, mosquito nets, fishing gear, and cooking facilities are all provided free of charge. You'll want to pack in some of your own food, but don't bother bringing a main course for dinner; we recently hauled succulent, pie-plate-sized piranha out of the lake as if they were fish from a barrel; toekoenarie, a kind of bass, are harder to catch but have a far sweeter meat than piranha (which, interestingly enough, taste a lot like swordfish). Our guide cleaned our catch in return for one of our cold beers. Ogling sea turtles: Galibi Nature Reserve Suriname has some of the best beaches in the world - for sea turtles, that is. Human bathers might not find the deserted coast with its murky water all that inviting because of the tremendous amount of silt flushed into the sea by the massive Corantijn, Coppename, and Marowijne Rivers. The turtles, on the other hand-leatherbacks, ridleys, and greens alike - hit the beaches by the thousands from February to August to lay their eggs. STINASU runs all-inclusive, two-day turtle-watching packages to its lodge at the Galibi Nature Reserve. The $150 price tag includes transportation from Parbo by bus and motorized dugout canoe, comfortable accommodations, all meals, and a guide. Knowing and Going Suriname Airways (800/327-6864), and Air ALM (800/327-7230) have twice-weekly departures to Paramaribo from Miami via Curacao, with fares recently quoted at $570 plus $68 tax. American Airlines (800/433-7300) also flies the Miami-Curacao leg, but its total fare can be as much as $225 higher. U.S. citizens must obtain a visa to visit Suriname ($45 fee). Contact either its embassy (4301 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008, tel. 202/244-7590, fax 202/244-5878, embsur@erols.com) or its consulate in Miami (7235 NW 19th St., Suite A, Miami, FL 33126, tel. 305/593-2163, fax 305/599-1034, surcgmia@bellsouth.net). For a complete list of hotels, tour agencies in Paramaribo, and heaps of other useful information, check out the Suriname Tourism Foundation's Web site at www.parbo.com/tourism/info3.htm or the Suriname Information Desk at www.surinfo.org, where you can even print out a visa application. Reading list: Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice by Mark J. Plotkin and The Guide to Suriname by Roy Tjin and Els Schellekens (available in Paramaribo at Vaco on Domineestraat 26 or through sranansani@aol.com).

A Guide to the Other Great National Parks

Everybody has heard of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon-America's most famous national parks - and in previous issues of Budget Travel I've described them as among the country's best vacation bargains. But other lesser-known parks shouldn't be overlooked if you can't make it to the Big Three. Here's my list of 11 unheralded gems, each of which will treat you to just as memorable and rewarding a vacation-but mostly without the summer crowds and congestion. Go for two or three days or for a week. On a budget, of course. Though very different, all 11 display a scenic beauty and quiet serenity that refresh the spirit. For a full week of this natural rejuvenation, the entrance fee is just $10 or less per car. Superb hiking and awesome scenic drives are the most popular pastimes, neither of which will strain your budget. Some activities may entail a small fee, but I'll direct you to the best buys. And in or near each park, I've searched out affordable lodgings and cafes. As a full-time travel writer, I'm dispatched around the world on an expense account. When I'm vacationing on my own buck, I head for parklands like these, where a little money buys a wealth of outdoor fun in America's most beautiful settings. Rates are per room, housing two persons in summer. Land of waterfalls The Cascade Range in Washington State got its name from an abundance of cascading waterfalls. When winter snows are heavy, the falls tumble in summer with thundering power, as my wife and I recently discovered on a visit to amazing North Cascades National Park (360/856-5700), which is little known outside the Pacific Northwest. Time and again as we drove State Route 20, the North Cascades Highway, I spotted a dozen or more falls in a single mile's drive. We were almost never out of sight or sound of racing white water. One of the wildest corners of the country, the jumbled landscape-dense evergreen forests, craggy peaks, sheer rock cliffs, twisting gorges, and fjordlike lakes thrill sightseers but can intimidate even experienced hikers. So my wife and I spent much of our time on minihikes on the periphery of the wilderness. The easy Trail of Cedars, marked with interpretive signs, wanders among giant Douglas firs and western red cedars. Once I caught sight of a black bear scurrying away; deer were more common. Near the Visitor Center, steep stone steps climb the more challenging trail alongside Ladder Creek Falls, which gushes in turbulent frenzy through a narrow cut in the rocks. The cattle-raising town of Winthrop, just east of the park, looks like the set of a Hollywood western. Details: Fly to Seattle. Stay in Winthrop at the 37-room Virginian Hotel (800/854-2834), which offers a heated pool, $50. Two more options are the six-room Duck Brand Hotel (509/996-2192), $62, or down the road nine miles in Twisp at the 25-room Idle-a-While Motel (509/997-3222), $58. Dine at Three Fingered Jack's Saloon; the sirloin steak dinner (served with salad and potato), $9.95. Information: 888/463-8469, winthropwashington.com. High desert colors On my first visit to Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park (520/524-6228), I'd allotted only an afternoon because it looked so small on the map. Bad planning. Once there, entranced by the fallen forest of giant trees turned to stone, I carved another full day out of my schedule. Petrified wood is a geological curiosity found in most U.S. states, but nowhere else in such profusion and color. One after the other, I trekked mostly easy trails through the high-country desert leading to dazzling clusters of these unusual rocks. The milelong Blue Mesa Trail drops quickly down a rocky slope into a slender valley of hard-packed gray clay. Into this arid landscape has tumbled an array of fossilized logs and segments. They lie scattered across the valley, their slick, polished surfaces displaying a rainbow of colors - reds, yellows, browns, blues, and purples - like field flowers on a moonscape. My approach scattered a small herd of pronghorn antelope, and I was soon chased away by a thunderstorm I could see approaching for miles. The trails should keep you busy for a couple of days. But the park also makes a good location from which to tour the Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations to the north and the Fort Apache Historic Park to the south. Details: Fly to Phoenix. Stay in Holbrook, just west of the park, at the 63-room Econo Lodge (520/524-1448), $43. Another option is the 126-room Motel 6 (520/524-6101), $32. Go Tex-Mex with the locals at Romo's; the combo plate (taco, two enchiladas, rice, beans, dessert, and soft drink), $8. Information: 520/524-6558. Windswept islands In the heat of summer, slip away to Wisconsin's Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (715/779-3397), a cool and serene cluster of 21 islands in the western tip of Lake Superior. We spent four days there a while back, reveling in the refreshing breezes and water views and (to our further delight) sampling sweet, juicy strawberries plucked ripe from farmyard vines. They're found everywhere in this unspoiled, out-of-the-way corner of the Great Lakes. Many visitors hike the mostly uninhabited islands or sail or kayak among them. I braved a swim at a sandy beach, but only briefly in Superior's frigid embrace. For nonsailors, Apostle Islands Cruise Service of Bayfield (715/779-3925) offers a variety of boat tours (half-day $25) among the islands, with brief stopovers on some. Or you can catch the service's daily shuttle ($25 round-trip) to Oak Island for a day hike. Twelve miles of trails edge ravines, climb to spectacular viewpoints, or take you to hidden beaches. The pick-up shuttle returns in five hours. If this is too stiff a price, a ferry ($9 per car or $4 per adult, 20-minute ride) serves the resort community on Madeline Island, the only Apostle not a part of the park. On flat little Madeline, about 14 miles long and three miles wide, bicycles seem to outnumber cars. Details: Fly to Minneapolis. Stay in Ashland, a small city on Chequamegon Bay, at either the 18-room Anderson's Chequamegon Motel (715/682-4658), $55, or the 12-room Town Motel (715/682-5555), $38 weekdays/$42 weekends. Dine at the Breakwater Cafe; broiled lake trout dinner, $9. Information: 800/284-9484, visitashland.com. Where the West begins On the edge of the prairie where the West begins, North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park (701/623-4466) possesses the wonderful, soul-nurturing beauty of wide-open spaces. Rolling green hills stretch endlessly into the distance, the tall grass tossed by the wind like waves of the sea. From this serene landscape rise the badlands, an incredible chaos of high buttes, windswept bluffs, twisting canyons, and multicolored cliffs. As I explored by foot and car, I caught sight of plentiful elk, a village of prairie dogs, wild buffalo, and - to my momentary horror - a pair of prairie rattlers that slithered from my path as I was about to step on them. The park is divided into North, South, and Elkhorn Ranch units, separated by about 70 miles. Hiking trails and scenic drives at the North and South units are rewards enough for a visit. But plan, too, for a horseback ride into the surrounding hills. And delve into Roosevelt's link to the park. His historic footsteps crisscross the land. In 1884 he established a ranch called the Elkhorn - the site of which can be visited. The town of Medora at the entrance to the South Unit is an Old West charmer. In the summer, a nightly outdoor show, "The Medora Musical" ($19), is a rip-roaring spectacle celebrating Roosevelt and the area's ranching heritage with songs and dances. Details: Fly to Bismarck. Stay in Medora at the 160-room Medora Motel (800/633-6721), $64. Another option is the 19-room Alfred Sully Inn (701/623-4455), $40-$60. Dine at the 1884 Rough Riders Hotel; the buffalo burger is $7. Splurge on the nightly "Pitchfork Fondue," a western cookout, $19. Information: 800/633-6721. Monarchs of the mist "Monarchs of the Mist" is the catchy nickname bestowed on the groves of redwood trees in California's Redwood National Park (707/464-6101). It attests both to the frequent presence of fog, especially in summer, along the state's northern coast, and to the coastal redwoods' most striking characteristic. They are the tallest trees on earth, soaring skyward - upwards of 300 feet - as if to break free of their wrap for a few hedonistic moments of warming rays. The park is an inviting blend of rock-strewn beach, thickly forested mountains, grass-covered prairie, and cathedral-like groves of redwoods - great country for a variety of hikes. Some trails descend from deep, fern-laced woods to isolated sea coves, where you can explore tidal pools, fish in the surf, or watch for passing whales. Swimming and canoeing in the park's rivers tempt when the sun shines. But more than anything, you'll want to wander among the majestic trees on needle-strewn paths. Details: Fly to San Francisco or Portland, Oregon. Stay in Crescent City at the park's north end at the 48-room Gardenia Motel (707/464-2181), $50, or the 65-room Bayview Inn (800/446-0583), $69. Dine with a Pacific view at Harbor View Grotto; the seafood platter (fried prawns, oysters, and scallops with salad and fries) costs $10.95. Information: 707/464-3174, delnorte.org. Cave country I'm not a spelunker, so I signed up for one of the shorter and less claustrophobic descents into Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park (270/758-2328). The world's most extensive known cave system, it stretches more than 350 miles - with more passages to be explored. My quick 75-minute Travertine Tour ($7) gave me a peek at Frozen Niagara, among the most colorful formations. Fluted stalactites spill from above like a large pink waterfall. To reach it, our group ducked and dodged down a tight twisted path and steep stairway. Along the way, we peered deep into a shaft where we could see emerald green Crystal Lake far below. Serious cavers will want to join a series of more exacting tours into Mammoth's depths, lasting six hours or more. For the five-and-a-half-mile "Wild Cave" adventure ($35), kneepads are advised because you'll be crawling on your belly in tight passages. In truth, I was happier hiking the park's aboveground trails. A dappled forest of oak and hickory covers a scenic landscape of high bluffs, narrow gorges, and meandering rivers. Details: Fly to Louisville. Stay and dine in the park at the 92-room Mammoth Cave Hotel (270/758-2225), $48 for a rustic cottage (no heat/air-conditioning). In the dining room, try the baked ham dinner for $8.75. Tour reservations: 800/967-2283. High times If you're not a skier or mountain climber, you've probably never stood on a mountain perch at more than 12,000 feet above sea level. In Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park (970/586-1206), Trail Ridge Road, the nation's highest continuously paved through-highway, travels above 12,000 feet for four miles. The first time I took my wife, she got woozy from the altitude, and we had to descend until she acclimated. Even in summer, snow often lingers beside the road, and icy winds prompt you to grab a jacket. This is a rocky realm of alpine tundra, high above the tree line. Snowcapped peaks can be seen in every direction. More than 300 miles of trails trace the park, mostly at lower, more comfortable altitudes, attracting both easygoing day hikers and experienced backpackers. From Grand Lake on the park's western edge, gentler trails wind along tumbling streams through forests of evergreens. On Trail Ridge, you can't avoid summer crowds. But go for a hike, and you're apt to see more elk than people. Details: Fly to Denver. Stay in Granby at any of several small mom-and-pop motels: the 12-room Broken Arrow (970/887-3532), $39; try the 11-room Trail Riders (970/887-3738), $54; or the 14-room Blue Spruce (970/887-3300), $55. In Grand Lake, 15 miles north, is the 11-room Bluebird Motel (970/627-9314), $70. Dine in Granby at the Silver Spur Saloon and Steakhouse; the eight-ounce sirloin platter is $9.95. Information: 800/325-1661. Badlands beauty The name Badlands National Park (605/433-5361) is ominous, and understandably so. In a small corner of western South Dakota, centuries of violent wind and thunderstorms have eroded the landscape into a bleak yet fantastic jumble of pinnacles, buttes, and spires. Surrounding these badlands is an enveloping sea of wild grasslands, equally spooky in their unnerving emptiness. So why would you want to vacation in such desolation? Because the park is so wonderfully peaceful, except maybe when a prairie squall rages overhead. And because the twisting gullies and steep canyon walls possess their own quiet beauty. Hike its trails, take the scenic drive, and keep an eye out for buffalo. And then take a look at nearby Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park, and the gaming parlors of historic Deadwood. Details: Fly to Rapid City and stay in town at the 150-room Motel 6 (605/343-3687), $76. Dine nearby at the Millstone Family Restaurant; roast pork dinner $6.45. In nearby Hot Springs, where the kids can frolic in a giant hot-springs pool called Evans Plunge, try the Super 8 (605/745-3888), $78. Information: 800/487-3223, rapidcitycvb.com. High and low On this trip, you'll visit two neighboring national parks sprawled across a magnificent expanse of high Sierras in central California. Despite their proximity, they couldn't be more different. Sequoia National Park (559/565-3134) encircles 14,495-foot Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states. And Kings Canyon National Park (559/565-3134) takes its name from the narrow chasm - one of the deepest in this country - cut by the Kings River. More than 700 miles of trails, some easy and many hard, lace this mountain wilderness. Many climb to remote snow-fed lakes where, if you dare the frigid water, you can take a cooling dip - or at least soak tired feet. Even if you're not a strong hiker, you will want to see the parks' giant sequoia trees, the world's largest living things. A part of the redwood family, they don't grow as tall as the coastal redwoods, but their massive trunks give them an advantage in bulk. Details: Fly to Fresno. Stay at Kings Canyon (559/335-5500) at one of 42 basic cabins, $38-$45, or in nearby Visalia at the 39-room Super 8 (559/627-2885), $55. Dine at Grant Grove Restaurant in Kings Canyon; full dinners start at $9.95. Information: 559/734-5876, cvbvisalia.com. Wild water An awesomely deep and narrow gorge, Colorado's Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (970/641-2337) is a rugged land that excites strong hikers who can manage the 2,000-foot drop from rim to river. Less athletic visitors can peer into the depths from the rim roads that skirt the Gambel oak- and sagebrush-lined canyon. A pair of binoculars is a big help in viewing the pale green Gunnison River as it races through the rocky chasm. At the adjacent Curecanti National Recreation Area, go swimming, waterskiing, or windsurfing on a trio of lakes formed by dams on the Gunnison. About 35 miles south of Montrose, the mountain resort town of Ouray is famous for its natural hot-springs swimming pool, great for the kids. Details: Fly to Denver or Grand Junction. Stay in Montrose at the 42-room Super 8 (970/249-9294), $54. Or head for nearby Gunnison to the 24-room ABC Motel (800/341-8000), $62. Dine at the Red Barn in Montrose; a seven-and-a-half-ounce sirloin steak platter is $11.95.

Paris: There's a Small, Secret Hotel

A one-star hotel in Paris? When we tell friends this is where we stay, they visualize a combination youth hostel and flophouse. The truth is quite different. For years we've billeted ourselves at a small hotel on the Left Bank and found it perfectly satisfactory. Besides, who can complain about a decent room in Paris, breakfast included, for $55? Our petit h(tm)tel not only makes the city possible, but a lot more fun. The bed is comfortable, the shower is hot. No TV, no phone, but who cares? We are only there long enough to sleep. French doors open onto a tiny balcony. If the carpet is a bit threadbare and the chenille drapes look suspiciously as if they were bedspreads in a former life, the fireplace with marble mantel makes up for it. Some disadvantages: The hotel has five floors and the elevator holds only two people, though a sign states it can accommodate four, plus luggage. "The only way it could hold four people is if they were doing something you could get arrested for!" commented one guest. The hotel is run by the dour Monsieur Marc, aided by a lovely young woman called Patricia, who speaks fluent English. So does Monsieur Marc, but he prefers not to. With a staff of two, who double as clerks, cleaners, and wait staff, the hotel runs on their schedule, not ours. On our last visit, we arrived at 2 p.m., zonked from jet lag. Our room wasn't ready. "Come back in a couple of hours," said Monsieur Marc. "But they are tired!" cried Patricia. "Everyone is tired I am tired," sighed Monsieur Marc with a Gallic shrug. Another drawback is the regimented breakfast in a small room across the hall from the tiny office. Featuring dusty ferns on a sideboard and a never-opened upright piano, it seats 12 at a time. But Monsieur Marc tells you where to sit and when. A choice of coffee, tea, or chocolate is served on a tray with croissants, crusty bread, and exactly four pats of butter and jam. And don't ask for anything extra. One day a young woman inno cently requested a carafe of water. "What country are you from?" asked Monsieur Marc, fixing her with an icy stare. "The United States," she quavered. But the pluses are many. The greatest is location; minutes from the M?tro, the hotel is near the Sorbonne, the Latin Quarter, and narrow streets bursting with cafes, shops, and markets. The breakfast room is a gathering place for guests of all ages, many of whom are Australian and Canadian. They share information on sights, itineraries, and experiences and swap books and maps. A sense of adventure pervades our one-star hotel in a way that would be impossible in more upscale establishments where maids, plush carpets, and room service insulate guests from cultural realities. At our hotel, guests are excited to learn that yes, not only can they afford Paris, but they can also explore the city, try out their faltering French, and enjoy authentic adventures. To stay here is an experience that reinforces one's independence, resourc efulness, and spirit of discovery. The hotel's name? Ah, that would be telling Try the more expensive two-star Hotel Troyon near the Arc de Triomphe. We want to be able to stay here again, after all.

European Youth Hostel "Family Rooms"

By now, most everyone knows that youth hostels are no longer just for youths. They've even dropped the word from their title ("Hostelling International" is the new name of the official hostel organization). But were you aware that most hostels nowadays offer what are billed as "family rooms?" Sometimes, a family room can be as fully private as a suite, with its own bathroom. More often, it's simply a standard dorm-type room equipped with bunks--but at least the place is all yours, privately, and that's the point. You can have a space of your own, often in a centuries-old building loaded with character, at a bargain price. Obviously, such lodgings aren't for everyone. They suit the energetic budget traveler who's eager to be out and about, who prefers to spend minimum time in a hotel room and maximum time in the local ambience. Pampered types, for whom the lodging and its amenities are a major part of the traveling experience, should clearly look elsewhere. That said, even the intrepid traveler should be warned about a few eccentricities common to family rooms at youth hostels. Sleeping facilities will almost certainly feature tall bunks, with vertiginous top beds. Four to six bunks will be in the room, and frequently there'll be only one light fixture: "Lights out" for the kids at a reasonable hour means that the grown-ups will be plunged into darkness too. But then again, perhaps early-to-bed is not such a bad thing, since early-to-rise is obligatory: Some hostels close during the day, and you may be required to vacate the premises as early as 10 o'clock in the morning. (You can, however, leave belongings in your room during "lockout.") Finally, don't expect to stay in a hostel with your family for a few bucks a night, as you might have done in your own youth. Each individual bed is bargain-priced: from $12 to $15, typically. With hostels, as with most hotels and pensions in Europe, you pay by the bed, regardless of the age of the person who sleeps in it. Thus, even the low price of $12 a bed can add up if there are five of you. On the plus side, it's unlikely you'll find a better bargain anywhere else, especially as your $12 to $15 includes breakfast, too. Often this is a simple bread-and-jam affair, but even in those cases you'll usually enjoy plenty of strong coffee, steamed milk, and hot chocolate. Sometimes inexpensive communal dinners are available, which brings up another selling point: Hostels are sociable places. If you feel friendly, you can meet individuals from many walks of life. Speaking of food, many hostels offer shared kitchen facilities, and when you travel with small kids, simply having access to a fridge (to store milk, for example) can be a great convenience. Just note that you're expected to clean up after yourself. Our own recent experience A particularly excellent feature of hostels, especially in Europe, is that many are located in centuries-old castles or former monasteries. On a recent trip to France and Italy with three kids, nearly every hostel we tried had something to recommend it. In Lyon, it was a megabreakfast with toast, jam, unlimited hot chocolate, juice, and those little boxes of cereal that kids love, plus a great view over the medieval rooftops. At the Villa Francescatti in Verona, we enjoyed the huge grounds of a sixteenth-century villa and the privacy of a separate building for families. The La Primula hostel, in Menaggio on Lake Como, offers friendly atmosphere, a library of books and board games, wonderful dinners at bargain prices (this hostel also organizes cooking classes), and the view from the balcony ain't bad either. In Cinque Terre, the Manarola hostel gets top marks, with helpful staff, individual bedlights, and private bathrooms. How did we find these hostel gems? An excellent guidebook, Hostels France & Italy: The Only Comprehensive, Unofficial, Opinionated Guide, by Paul Karr and Martha Coombs, describes many outstanding hostels and notes which ones have family rooms or reputations for excessive noise. Online resources are helpful, too. Hostels of Europe (hostelseurope.com) has maps with top locations and excellent listings that make note of family rooms, quietness, and kitchen facilities. The Italian Youth Hostel Association (hostels-aig.org) has details and pictures. Most Web sites also promote online reservations. Always try to make reservations for your family room well in advance, and get a confirmation by fax or e-mail. The two big questions But what about the bathrooms? And that bring-your-own-bedding thing? The BYOB policy is ancient history. Some hostelers still travel with their own "sleep-sheet" (two sheets sewn together to make a sack), but why bother? Typically, when you enter your family room, each bunk will be decked out with crisp sheets, plump pillows, and a blanket folded neatly at the foot of each bed. If a sleep-sheet is required, it can be rented at the hostel for a modest charge. Sleeping bags, meanwhile, are considered unhygienic and are often not allowed, so there's little point in carting them around. Do remember, though, to bring along your own towels. As for the bathrooms, even when there's no private toilet or shower for your room, facilities will probably be just across the hall; those we saw were very clean. I know, I know: Most North Americans have a phobia about shared bathrooms. Overcome this bias and a new vista of budget options will open. Meanwhile, your family room will always contain a sink, at least. The great decision One final point about hostels concerns memberships: Some hostels require membership in a hosteling organization; check on this issue when you make your reservations. With luck, you'll be able to buy a membership (approximately $15 to $25) at the first hostel on your itinerary. Nonmembers won't be turned away--in the worst case, you might have to pay a slightly higher charge for your room. Alternatively, you can buy a membership before your trip-head to the Web sites noted above or to www.hiayh.org or www.hostels.com, which can also answer your general questions about hosteling. Four recommended European hostels Auberge de Jeunesse du Vieux Lyon, 41-45 Montée du Chemin Neuf, 69005 Lyon, France. Tel. 011-33-4/78-15-05-50, fax /78-15-05-51, fuaj.org/aj/lyon. Villa Francescatti Youth Hostel, Salita Fontana del Ferro 15, 37129 Verona, Italy. Tel. 011-39-045/590360, fax /8009127, hostels-aig.org/shop-uk/verona.htm. International Youth Hostel "La Primula," Via 4 Novembre 86, 22017 Menaggio, Italy. Tel. 011-39-034/432356, fax/431677, menaggiohostel.com. Hostel 5 Terre, in Manarola, Cinque Terre, Via Riccobaldi 21, 19010 Manarola, Italy. Tel. 011-39-018/7920215, fax /7920218, cinqueterre.net/ostello/ostelloen.htm

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