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New York City B&Bs

By Kathy Passero
June 4, 2005
The one guaranteed way to find rooms under $100

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.

Keep reading

Secret Hotels of New York City

Chelsea Star Hotel 300 West 30th Street, tel. 877/827-6969 or 212/244-7827, fax 212/279-9018, chelseastar.com. A small hotel of 20 rooms, all with shared bath. Rates: $83-$95 From street level, the nondescript door hardly looks like a hotel entrance. But up a narrow stairway, you'll find one of bargain lodging's best-kept secrets. Two years ago, owners Ted and Claudia Howard transformed the former hot-sheets transient hotel (Madonna lived here before her big break) into a charming, funky find facing Madison Square Garden. The clientele is largely youthful and European; the flavor, decidedly arty. A small second-floor lobby is painted cheerful yellow with blue cityscapes and glass brick; sounds of a fountain echo through industrial-chic hallways of pressed tin and exposed brick. Although the 20 rooms are small and hardly luxurious, artist Rob Graf designed each with a unique theme. The Shakespeare Room's walls are lined with sonnets and gray velvet swags; the Orbit Room's deep blue walls and ceilings glow with fluorescent stars at night. Baths are clean and new, with gray slate and black marble; all are shared (generally one shower and two toilets per six-room floor). All the rooms have TVs. E-mail and Internet access is available near the lobby. However, there are no elevators, and light sleepers might want a room facing away from Eighth Avenue. Decor varies dramatically, so get a room list ahead of time and choose one to suit your tastes. Suites with baths are available in the building next door, though they're much plainer. At press time, plans were underway to add in-room phones and a street-level Internet cafe. The Gershwin Hotel 7 East 27th Street, tel. 212/545-8000, fax 212/684-5546, gershwinhotel.com Rates: $99 weeknights - $125 weekends (economy rooms with private bath); starting at $199 for family quads (private bath); but note that only 10 of the hotel's 150 rooms are treated as "economy rooms," and family quads number only 8 Though still part hotel, part pop art museum, an ongoing renovation has transformed the Gershwin from what once resembled a crash pad for starving artists into what feels like a stylish SoHo gallery. Huge colorful sculptures and lithographs brighten the freshly painted, high-ceilinged lobby. (That's a Lichtenstein hanging behind the front desk and a Campbell's soup can signed by Andy Warhol near the elevators.) Each floor is lined with cheerful green-and-yellow doors and showcases work from different artists. Guest rooms have high ceilings, plenty of light, TV, phone; some feature charming touches like bow windows and brightly painted wooden furniture. Baths vary from spanking new to well worn but clean. (Hostel-style shared-bath rooms with bunks start at $35/night, though the hotel plans to eliminate them eventually.) Guests can visit the art gallery adjoining the lobby, browse through copies of the Village Voice, check their e-mail at one of two Internet kiosks in the Gershwin Cafe, or catch nightly comedy, live music, theater, and other performances in a back room with an enormous floor-to-ceiling fireplace and Statue-of-Liberty-motif walls. The new, improved Gershwin even boasts a doorman. When we last visited he was hanging out curbside with a Jerry Garcia look-alike strumming a guitar. We'll take it as proof that the Gershwin's makeover hasn't diminished its unique and lively bohemian spirit. Belleclaire Hotel 250 West 77th Street, tel. 877/HOTEL-BC or 212/362-7700, fax 212/362-1004, belleclaire.com. 189 rooms, of which 39 are with shared bath. Rates: $79-$95 (shared bath) Thanks to a recent renovation, everything about the Belleclaire is light, airy, and cheerful-from the buttercup-yellow walls on guest floors to the stylish curved lobby with its blond wood, potted plants, and leather couches. Travelers longing to escape Times Square's madding crowds and see how real New Yorkers live would do well to check out this 100-year-old landmark on the bustling, residential Upper West Side. Nearby are Central Park, Lincoln Center, and the American Museum of Natural History. Many rooms here exceed our price cap, but the Belleclaire still offers 39 splendid shared-bath bargains. These are clustered in groups of three; each cluster has its own mini-hallway accessed by a magnetic key card for safety and privacy. Rooms are simple but stylish, furnished in a modern-chic decor that reservations and sales director Stephen DeFazio calls "Norwegian art deco." Although they lack views, they're sizable (by New York standards), with pastel walls, charcoal-gray bedspreads, and gray suede headboards. Each has a telephone with dataport, TV, and in-room sink. Baths are plain but immaculate; toilets are separate from showers. Concierge service is available, and planned additions include a gift shop, a vending area for forgotten necessities such as toothpaste, and a rooftop deck for breakfast and cocktails on the tenth-floor penthouse level. Insider tip: Stop by H & H Bagels, around the corner, for a delicious bargain breakfast-the city's best fresh-baked bagels for less than $1 each. Larchmont Hotel 27 West 11th Street, tel. 212/989-9333, fax 989-9496, larchmonthotel.com. 57 rooms, all with shared bath. Rates: $90-$109 weeknights, $100/$125 weekends, continental breakfast included Tucked away on a quiet side street of charming, historic Greenwich Village, the Larchmont wins hands-down for best location. Stepping inside this lovely 1910 brownstone town house, you feel more like you're visiting a private residence than a hotel. (In fact, upon check-in, guests receive front-door keys and enter through a separate foyer.) The lobby is cheerfully decorated with a few oversize pieces including a large boar statue, wooden armoire, and brown leather couch. Rooms have rattan furniture, dark floral bedspreads, ceiling fans, and books to add a homey touch. Hallways are narrow and some rooms are exceedingly small, but all have in-room sinks and thoughtful touches such as robes and slippers to make schlepping down the hall to the small but clean shared bathrooms more pleasant. Floors are equipped with kitchenettes, though it would take some restraint to use them in this restaurant-rich neighborhood. Free continental breakfast is served in the downstairs dining room. West Side Inn 237 West 107th Street, tel. 212/866-0061, fax 212/866-0062, westsideinn.com. 102 rooms, all with shared bath. Rate: $59-$79 Start with this bargain-hunters' favorite. It's quite high up on the Upper West Side, but the neighborhood is safe and on the upswing, with cheap restaurants nearby. The narrow lobby boasts chandeliers and gilded mirrors, though guest rooms hardly live up to such spiffy standards. And the bright pink, turquoise, and yellow walls are cheerful enough, but there's 100 years' worth of paint caked on doors, baseboards are missing here and there, and some rooms have odd configurations. This lends the place a decidedly off-campus-housing flavor. Kitchenettes are grungy but functional; shared baths are cleaner. All rooms have minifridges and most have sinks; you'll find phones and an Internet kiosk in the lobby. "It's a very cool place, very bohemian," explains manager Moni Jeitany. Indeed, backpackers and those nostalgic for their salad days might enjoy the ambiance - not to mention the price. Insider tip: tiny La Piccola Cucina gourmet shop around the corner sells irresistible focaccia - $3 for a round loaf big enough to feed three for lunch. At press time, the hotel was completing West End Studios, which promises similar lodgings nearby on West End Avenue. Portland Square 132 West 47th Street, tel. 800/388-8988 or 212/382-0600, fax 212/382-0684, portlandsquarehotel.com or citysearch.com/nyc/portlandsquare. 145 rooms, of which 38 are with shared bath and 33 others are triples or quads with private bath. Rates: $73 (shared bath); $140/triple, $150/quad (both with private bath) Don't be misled by the lovely white facade and regal columns; inside, this is strictly no-frills lodging. Sure, Jimmy Cagney stayed here (as promotional brochures remind you), but it's not exactly "top of the world, Ma." You must press a buzzer to enter the lobby, where you'll find the front-desk staff secured behind Plexiglas. The abundance of pink tile gives the place a YMCA-like feel; a small sitting area with pink-and-green floral-print couches adds minimal cheer. But then, you don't choose the Portland Square for posh surroundings; you come for the convenient Theater District locale and the rock-bottom rates. Rooms are rather dark and drab, with green carpets, beige walls, and floral bedspreads and curtains. Still, both shared and private baths are very clean (no more than four rooms per bath, and in-room baths are sizable by New York standards). All rooms have guest safes, phones, and TVs; those with shared baths have sinks. Rooms facing 47th Street offer more light and a better view. There's a guest laundry and a teeny fitness room in the basement. AAA and AARP discounts available. Habitat Hotel 130 East 57th Street, tel. 212/753-8841, fax 212/829-9605, habitat-ny.com. 235 rooms, of which about 70 percent are with shared bath. Rates: $85-$105 (shared bath) Once a women's residence, the Habitat became a full-service hotel last year. The lobby's sophisticated green-and-cream color scheme, fresh flowers, concierge desk, and jazz background music seem a cut above budget lodging. And indeed, rooms with private baths miss our cutoff; however, you'll still find bargains on those with shared baths. Doubles have trundle beds, which means they're set up with what looks like a single bed; underneath is another mattress and frame that opens to a reasonable semblance of a double bed. Although it's a tight squeeze when the beds are open, they're new and comfy with plush velour blankets. Rooms and hallways are stylishly decorated in taupes and beiges, most with striped or harlequin-patterned wallpaper and deco-style lamps. Furnishings are neat and tidy, though some look a little worn. Rooms include freestanding closets to hold amenities and hangers, in-room sinks, phones with voice mail, dataports, and TVs. If you've got to share a bath, it might as well be elegant, and these are: small but immaculate, with brand-new marble tile and glass-doored showers. Toilets can be found in separate rooms; no more than four rooms share two stalls and two showers. At press time, the hotel was turning the erstwhile Irish pub next door into an entrance for the new mezzanine-level lobby. Aladdin Hotel 317 West 45th Street, tel. 212/246-8580, fax 212/246-6036, aladdinhotel.com. 132 rooms, of which all but two are with shared bath and fit our price category. Rates: $65-$85 (shared bath) The lobby's deep purple walls, red velvet curtains, saggy couches, and bright, multicolored carpet make you feel more like you're stepping into an East Village bar than a hotel-cum-hostel. Don't be fooled: the Aladdin caters heavily to serious students and young international travelers, perhaps because they're most tolerant of the bathroom situation. (Sinks are communal, and the three-stalls/two-showers-per-20-room-floor formula can mean a wait for the facilities.) The lobby, the orange-and-yellow-walled first-floor lounge, and the cheerfully painted pastel halls are the hotel's best features. Rooms are grungy and basic with low, slouchy beds, worn wall-to-wall carpeting, and bright curtains and bedspreads. Pay phones are located in the lobby. For supercheap lodgings, try the dorm-style rooms with multiple bunk beds. At press time the Aladdin was renovating, but chances are it won't shed its student-union feel. Apple Core Hotels (all rooms with private bath) Quality Hotel & Suites Midtown 59 West 46th Street, Quality Hotel East Side 161 Lexington, Comfort Inn Midtown 129 West 46th Street, Best Western Manhattan 17 West 32nd Street, Apple Core Hotels tel. 800/567-7720 (central reservations) or 212/790-2700, fax 212/790-2760, applecorehotels.com. Rates: start at $89 weeknights; $99-$109 weekends (private bath), continental breakfast included. Caveat: During holidays and other high seasons, rates can reach $139. Since 1993, Apple Core has been restoring rundown hotels in Midtown and turning them into some of the best bargains around. Although rates vary and management is cagey when it comes to listing a set price range, you can often find real deals. (If you're quoted a higher rate by phone, inquire about 10 percent AAA and AARP discounts as well as availability of smaller, more affordable rooms, especially at the Quality Hotel East Side.) And if you're bringing the kids, "family suites" sleep up to six for $139-$189, and the Best Western offers Nintendo and on-demand children's movies. Although Apple Core runs chain hotels, its four Manhattan properties are far from generic. The Quality Midtown and Best Western retain lovely Beaux Arts facades, and the Comfort Inn's restored turn-of-the-century building with its modern lobby is downright elegant. Decor ranges from black, white, and purple art deco in the Best Western's lobby to Colonial American at the Quality Hotel Eastside, with its borders of L.L. Bean-style duck-print wallpaper and bookcase-lined lobby. (The Quality, just off 30th Street in quiet Murray Hill, also boasts large windows and the best views we've seen at a budget property - ask for a room ending in the numerals 10 or 11.) On the downside: Rooms in all four hotels vary from spacious to barely wide enough to squeeze past the bed, and those still awaiting redecoration at the Quality could use better lighting. But with free continental breakfast and luxury amenities like in-room coffeemakers, hair dryers, irons, ironing boards, and 24-hour fitness and business centers, who's complaining? Editor's Note: Though rates here can sometimes go higher (even much higher) than our limits, the chain is still worth a call and a pointed inquiry about whether rates can be found within our range; they often can be. Also, at press time Apple Core was completing a new Red Roof Inn, set to open this year on West 32nd Street. Malibu Hotel 2688 Broadway, tel. 212/222-2954 or 800/647-2227, fax 212/678-6842, malibuhotelnyc.com. 140 rooms, of which 80 percent are with private bath and yet priced within our limits. The remainder are with shared bath and even cheaper ($69 to $89 per room). Rates: $89-$129 (private bath), $109-$149/quad (private bath) Though they won't win any awards for decor, you can't argue with the rates at this Upper West Side standby. A steep, narrow stairway covered in gray carpet that's seen better days leads to an equally drab second-floor lobby. Rooms are small and plain but serviceable, with chunky black iron headboards, a framed poster or two, and often hangers on a rack above the bed. Still, each has a TV and a clean, newly renovated bath (phones are in the lobby). Those facing away from commercial Broadway are likely to be quieter. Skip the heavy suitcases unless you want a workout; there are five flights and no elevators. Free continental breakfast is served in the lobby. The subway is a few steps from the hotel's front door. The neighborhood around 103rd Street is ethnically mixed but yuppifying fast; nearby are Grant's Tomb, Riverside Park, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and Columbia University. Washington Jefferson Hotel 318 West 51st Street, tel. 212/246-7550 or fax 212/246-7622. A big 260 rooms in size, of which 85 percent are with shared bath. Rates: $89-$99 (shared bath) Flaking exterior paint and an Edward Hopper-esque neon "hotel" sign outside belie this hotel's recent transformation. Once a down-at-the-heels single-room-occupancy hotel (SRO in New York lingo), the Wash-Jeff retains its shabby-chic appeal - and some of its original inhabitants - with a dark wood-paneled lobby, frayed red floral carpet, and saggy but comfy rose-colored couches. Halls are lined with black-and-white city photos - the work of a resident artist who fell behind in his rent and came up with an "alternate payment plan." Another interesting touch: GM Bob Lindenbaum offers room #114 for exhibits by local artists; last year one nonconformist covered the room in cheese. (You can see the photos, if you're skeptical.) Guest floors are more New York apartment house than hotel, with eclectic furnishings and years' worth of paint on the door frames. Baths are vintage 1940s but tidy (the staff cleans them hourly). All rooms have sinks, phones with voice mail, and dataports; minifridges are available on request. Eventually, the hotel hopes to install private baths in all rooms - without raising rates, we hope. Though once seedy, Hell's Kitchen now pulses with chichi coffee houses and trendy bars; you can still find meal deals at nearby diners and falafel stands. Editor's Note: Unless otherwise indicated, rates are for double rooms and do not include New York's 13.25 percent tax + $2/night occupancy tax. All hotels listed offer rooms starting under $100/night for significant portions of the year; higher rates may apply to holidays and other high-demand periods.

The Best Things in Sightseeing, as in Life, are Free

From the crowded shops of the Monkey Forest Road, we strolled to the outskirts of Ubud--an arts-and-crafts village in the very center of Bali--and then scrambled down a hillside path to a river below. And there at dusk, the Balinese people, men and women alike, were bathing away the sweat and cares of their day's work, chatting and socializing with one another. As Roberta and I approached, they looked up and smiled. Some small children shouted "hello," their one English word. It was a magical moment, the highlight of our trip thus far, and an example of what can happen when you wander away from the tourists, on your own two feet, and simply roam about the villages and neighborhoods of this world. We had resolved, on this trip to Bali, to stay far removed from the beachside hotels and stores of the southernmost tip of Bali, and instead to go directly from the airport to the island's rural interior. What a lucky decision! Not a day went by but that we would pass a religious procession on a near-deserted country road, of gaily-clad people going to make a fruit-and-floral offering at a nearby temple. Not an hour elapsed but that some unusual human activity would quietly occur before our very eyes: farmers threshing rice by hand, as their ancestors did centuries ago; a group of young men seated earnestly in a shaded pavilion down a narrow alleyway, practicing the ancient art of the xylophone-like gamelon of Indonesia; school children reciting their lessons aloud. It is said by some travel experts that on a first trip to a foreign land, you should immediately take an "orientation sightseeing tour" by motorcoach. That way, it is claimed, you gain a "once-over-lightly" of the area, and can later return on foot, at leisure, to the places that most intrigued you. What nonsense! The sights you experience from the interior of a fast-moving bus are simply a glob of vast, buzzing, blooming, confusion, in William James' phrase, of which you later remember nothing. The view from behind the windows of a motorcoach is sanitized and unreal, utterly removed from the authentic sights, sounds and smells of the country you are visiting. The commentary to which you listen is usually stale from repetition, geared to the lowest common taste, full of inane anecdotes, and peppered with historically inaccurate fables. The best way to experience any destination is not in a group vehicle, but on foot, without itinerary but simply at random, wandering where your spirit leads you--as Roberta and I did in Bali. You do this even in the largest of cities. In London, Paris or Rome, the smart traveler simply sets out without a plan, plunges into the very center of town, and goes wandering down the nearest street, experiencing the actual life of people, looking into grocery stores and the courtyards of hospitals and schools. In this fashion you will eventually get to the same major sights that the group motorcoach tours have passed--the museums, the monuments, the city hall. But you will have done so much more; you will have felt the contemporary life of the city. "But what if I get lost?" That's the retort that often greets me when I proffer this advice to friends. "What if I get lost?" No one ever gets irrevocably lost in a major city. Sooner or later there passes a trolley or bus with the words Central Station ("Gare Centrale," "Stazione Centrale") on its hood, and you easily return to where it all began. But the nicest things happen to people who get lost in a foreign city. You stop at a sidewalk cafe to calm your nerves. You have a coffee. You ask instructions of the native residents. You talk to people. And your trip is enhanced by the experience. The very same advice is valid for most major U.S. cities. No one has really experienced San Francisco who has not walked its colorful streets, from Union Square, say, to Fisherman's Wharf. No one has felt the raw, vital energy of New York who has not hiked down Broadway from Columbia University to Times Square. Or strolled the built-up sections of Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Some cities attempt to facilitate your do-it-yourself walking tour by supplying a brochure that maps out the routes, as Boston does for its "Freedom Trail." More recently, the major publishers of travel books have issued one after another of thick, self-conducted "walking tour guides" to cities ranging from Tokyo to Washington, D.C. All can be found in the travel sections of any large bookstore, and their easy availability robs you of an excuse for not experimenting with the do-it-yourself walking method. Six other ways to improve your sightseeing 1. Know before you go Learn something of the history and culture of the destination in advance of departure, and your trip will be immensely enhanced. Those Americans who simply assume that someone there will explain it all, are condemned to confusion and unhappiness. Even on a trip here in the United States, a few hours in a library, boning up on the destination, will provide you with a framework for understanding and enjoying what would otherwise be odd and dull. 2. Move about like a local Use the subways, trams and buses of the city you're visiting--they're an important part of the local lifestyle and culture. Screw up your courage, ask instructions at your hotel, and then use the city's public transportation for getting about. You'll not only save money, but you'll learn how people live there. And you'll gain an entirely different perspective of their city--a more realistic one--from the impressions you'd have on a sightseeing motorcoach. 3. Go into the neighborhoods On at least one occasion, use that public transportation to visit a real-life neighborhood of the city, away from its central tourist areas. On a visit to the showplace sections of East Berlin at the height of the Cold War, I took a subway to the working district of Prenzlauerberg, and learned more in an hour than tourists learned in their entire stay. In the same fashion, I've gained a more impressive view of Denmark by dipping into the residential neighborhoods of Copenhagen. 4. Haunt the bulletin boards In both U.S. cities and English-language countries, the university-area bulletin boards are a treasure trove of free lectures, concerts, workshops, and social gatherings open to all. The locals attending these events are also among the area's most dynamic visitors, and the occasion gives you a chance to observe them (or even meet them), a form of sightseeing. 5. Use evening museum hours Increasingly, major museums around the world are adding once-a-week evening hours to their schedule. Inquire. The viewing is calm and uncrowded at that time, and the museum visited by local residents, in large part. 6. And if you must book a guided tour... At least book the non-standard ones, the inexpensive kind conducted on foot. Most major capital cities have them, and the local tourist office will tell you when and where they start. So-called "sidewalk tours" (they bear different names) of London, New York, Paris, wherever, draw thoughtful people, and in my experience are more profound and rewarding than the motorcoach variety.

Travel for Women Only

Should women travel only with other women? Should they do so on occasion? If the trip is one of outdoor adventure, involving physical challenge, should they travel only with other women? Should they agree to include men on a group tour only if the group is led by a woman? Because so many women are responding to one or more of the above questions with a resounding "Yes," a sizable new segment of the travel industry has emerged to serve their wants. As surprising as it may seem, more than 50 tour companies in a dozen major states are now openly feminist in their orientation, and limit their clients or leadership to women only. The reason is unrelated to sexual proclivities or the lack of them. From a review of their literature, not one of the 50 new firms seems operated for lesbians, and most stand carefully apart from a wholly separate group of tour companies openly appealing to gay men or gay women. The premise of only female travel Rather, the move to feminist travel seems motivated by a combined goal of consciousness raising and female solidarity, and by the belief that women enjoy a holiday change of pace, stress-free, and relaxing, when they travel only with other women. Though the philosophy is rarely articulated in the feminists' tour brochures, and is obtained with difficulty even in conversations with feminist tour operators (I've now spoken with several), the gist of it seems as follows: When women travel with men, and especially on outdoor trips, both they and the men, say tour leaders, tend to fall into predetermined gender roles: the men do the heavy work, the women putter about and cook. Traveling only with other women, women accept greater challenges, court greater responsibility, acquire new skills, gain confidence and a heightened sense of worth. Male travelers are conditioned by society to be excessively goal-oriented: they must conquer this or that mountain, show prowess and strength, domineer. Most women, by contrast, enjoy the mere experience of travel, the joy of encountering nature, all without stressful competition or expectations. They have less need to boast and strut; they lack the male's inner urge (from early upbringing) to seem always skillful, strong, serene, and protecting. "I don't want to be protected on vacation," say many women, "I want to be myself." In the presence of the other sex, so goes the argument, both sexes find it difficult to "let down their hair." On a tour limited to women, say the feminists, these tensions subside. Women spend less time on personal appearance and grooming, dispense with sexual role-playing, care only for themselves. "And why should men feel threatened by that need?" asks one prominent female tour operator. "Why should an all-female tour be the subject of sneers? Men have been going off to hike or fish 'with the boys' for centuries." Practical considerations: Since everyone on a woman-only trip is "single," participants pay no single supplement, but instead share rooms and costs. Since some male spouses don't care for outdoor trips, feminist tours often provide the only vacation outlet for women who genuinely enjoy the attractions of nature. Then, too, women who are recently widowed or divorced are enabled by such tours to meet others in the same situation; the experience is healing, restorative. But mainly, the women "take charge" of their holiday, free from the customary domination of men. Vacations for women over 30 The first, Adventure Women, Inc. was founded more than twenty-two ago by Susan Eckert to promote adventure travel to women over 30, in areas she had herself traveled while in the Peace Corps. Today, along with standard, mild safaris, treks and ski trips limited to women, she also deals in challenges of considerably greater daringsafaris in Botswana and Zambia, sailing in Greece, and lodge trekking in the Himalayas. The international trips, priced from $2,095-$6,595 for a 5 to 16-day adventure, are all-inclusive--including international airfare, meals, lodgings and all else. Contact Adventure Women, Inc. (for women over 30) at 15033 Kelly Canyon Road, Bozeman, MT 59715, (phone 800/804-8686 or 406/587-3883, e-mail advwomen@aol.com). Or visit the Web site at adventurewomen.com/. Also for women in their prime is Canyon Calling, a wilderness travel organization for women over 30, and Explorations in Travel, which handles "cultural" tours as well as outdoor adventure, this time for women over the age of 40. Canyon Calling (200 Carol Canyon Drive, Sedona, AZ 86336; phone 800/664-8922 or 928/282-0916, Website: canyoncalling.com/) offers what it calls "multi-adventure" tours--each day participants engage in a different kind of activity, from hiking and "glacier walking" to jetboating and kayaking. Destinations include Fiji and New Zealand, Greece, Iceland and various areas of the southwestern United States. Prices range from $1,695 per week all the way up to $4,575 (these rates include all meals, equipment, entrance fees and accommodations but not airfare). Explorations in Travel (2458 River Road, Guilford, VT 05301, phone 802/257-0152, Web site: exploretravel.com) offers 30 trips throughout the year to destinations all over the world, but with a definite emphasis on New England (where the company is based). In the U.S. its trips are wilderness oriented, including cross-country skiing, hiking and whale-watching vacations. Overseas, the focus is cultural with jaunts to such exotic destinations as Ecuador, Belize and Costa Rica. Exceptions to its age specification are the popular "Multi-Generational Weekends," attended by mothers and daughters or grandmothers and granddaughters (one must be over 40, the other over 21). At these gatherings, the women engage in various outdoor activities such as hiking or canoeing, staying in rustic but nice accommodations in New England and the South. Price for the weekends is $495 per person, weeklong offerings tend to average $1,500 in the U.S. and $3,000 overseas (not including airfare). Wilderness companies Wild Women Expeditions (WWE) is an all-women outdoor adventure company that has been operating in Northern Ontario, Canada for 15 years. Set at a restored 1920's northern fishing camp, WWE offers the low-tech simplicity of outdoor showers, outhouses, wood heat, private waterfront for swimming, canoeing, and excellent country road cycling. With rustic amenities comes low prices: a three-night vacation in the fall, including hiking in the LaCloche mountains, paddling on the Spanish River, and enjoying the base camp, costs US$256. Formore information, contact Wild Women Expeditions, P.O. Box 145, Station B, Sudbury, Ontario Canada P3E 4N5 (Phone: 705/ 866-1260, e-mail beth@wildwomenexp.com, or check out the Web site at wildwomenexp.com/). Adventures in Good Company is one of the newest organizations in women's travel. Founded by Marian Marbury, a former guide for Woodswoman (the influential hiking, backpacking and adventure travel organization) until it shut its doors in 1999, AGC offers outdoor and wilderness trips primarily in the Minnesota/Wisconsin area in winter (dog sledding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing), throughout the West and Canada the rest of the year. Though it is a newish enterprise, all of the group leaders are former Woodswomen guides and thus bring with them years of experience in the field (and in the forest, on the stream and river, and behind the dogsled). Trips include "sea Kayaking the Alaskan Fjords," "Living the Cowgirl Life," and "Navajo Land Trek". Adventures also offers mixed hotel and camping adventures in Belize, Spain, Nepal and the UK. Prices start at $595 all the way up to $2,2,650. For more information, write, call or e-mail Adventures in Good Company, 5913 Brackenridge Ave, Baltimore, MD 21212 (phone 877/439-4042 or 410/435-1965, Web site: goodadventure.com/, e-mail: info@goodadventure.com). Boating, biking and hiking Still another relatively large firm is Womanship, of Annapolis, Maryland, offering a learn-to-sail program in a field of sport heavily dominated by men. Because (according to founder Suzanne Pogell) men tend to handle the main tasks on sailing expeditions, women are rarely able to do more than prepare the sandwiches; certainly they never "take charge" of the vessel. With Womanship, they do, gaining confidence, achieving independence. Weekend, weekday, and week-long cruises are offered for both beginners and advanced sailors aged 18 to 82, in locations ranging from Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, New England and Long Island Sound, the west coast of Florida, and the Pacific Northwest (San Juan and the Gulf Islands) to the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Trips range from 2-7 days in length and $495-$3890 in price, all-inclusive except transportation costs. Learn-to-sail programs include the Young Womanship course for girls aged 10-17--a 2-7 day program for beginning sailors, as well as a Mothers and Daughters course. Contact Womanship, 137 Conduit St., Annapolis, MD 21401, (phone 800/342-9295, Web site womanship.com/, email: sail@womanship.com. For the avid walker, Going Places! offers extensive women-only walking tours in Europe, the Pacific Northwest, the Canadian Rockies, New Mexico and northern California. Though the trips involve walking from inn to inn, they are not meant as "endurance tests." The typical walk is about eight to 12 miles per day on "well marked, well maintained trails" with stops along the way at cafes, pubs, picnic sites and viewpoints. The groups are limited to 10 or 14 walkers (depending on the specific tour) and the cost of the trip, between $2,495-$2995, covers accommodations, most meals, permits and entrance fees, maps, transportation en route and guide service. For more information, call or write Going Places! P.O. Box 2034, Sonoma, CA 95476 (phone/fax 707/935-0595 or visit its Web site at goingplacestours.com/). Bike tours in New Zealand, Hawaii, France, the U.S. and Canada are the focus of WomanTours. It offers 37 tours in total, from Maine to South Africa. WomanTours accommodates all levels of experience--a van accompanies the cyclists on their routes to carry luggage and provide a ride for anyone who may need a break during the trip. The weeklong trips are usually composed of 12 to 18 cyclists costing between $990 and $2,300 per person. For more information, contact Woman Tours, 2340 Elmwood Ave., Rochester, NY, 14618 (phone 800/247-1444, Web site: womantours.com/, e-mail info@womantours.com) Other major operators include Mariah Wilderness Expeditions, P.O. Box 1160, Lotus, CA 95651 (phone 530/626-6049 or toll free 800/462-7424, Web site: mariahwe.com), with an impressive four-color catalog featuring white-water rafting, kayaking, and hiking; and Adventures for Women, 15 Victoria Lane, Morristown, NJ 07960 (Phone 973/644-3592, Web site: adventuresforwomen.org/), for its hiking trips in New Jersey and New York. Cultural tours With roughly 1,300 current members, The Women's Travel Club is the largest organization running women's tours. Unlike the other companies we've mentioned, this club offers a yearly membership of $35, which provides members with a monthly newsletter and full access to all areas of its Web site, in addition to participation on the club's trips. Also unlike many of the other organizations in this chapter, instead of focusing on adventure travel to one or a few particular regions of the world, the Women's Travel Club offers a wide variety of different trips, from four days in the California Wine Country to 15 days exploring Egypt to tours of Southern Italy's medieval villages. Prices are on the highish side, averaging $250 per day, but groups are limited to no more than 15-20 women per trip, and the amenities abound. For more information, contact The Women's Travel Club (USA), Inc., suite 301, 36 W. 20th St., New York, NY 10011 (phone 800/480-4448 or Web site: womenstravelclub.com/). Spiritual vacations Several women's travel groups offer spiritual retreats and journeys with a focus on mind-body renewal. Sacred Journeys for Women, founded in 1996, offers trips to places where female deities (they call them "The Goddess") have been honored for millennia. On these tours, scholars and guides lecture on the mythology of the "sacred sites" and the group engages in "healing circles" and ceremonial dances. Destinations include Hawaii, Ireland, England and Crete, with prices averaging $2,995 per trip (for eight to 13 days), not including airfare. For further information, contact Sacred Journeys directly at sacredjourneys.com/or e-mail: info@sacredjouneys.com. You can also reach it the old fashioned way by writing to P.O. Box 8007, Roseland Station, Santa Rosa, CA 95407 or phoning 888/779-6696. GATE (Global Awareness Through Experience) is perhaps best known for its "reality tours". But for the past six years it has also been offering "Women's Spiritual Quest" tours for women only. As with GATE's regular offerings, much of the emphasis is on cultural exchange: participants meet with impressive local women, officials at community clinics, workers at base Christian communities, doctors, nurses, teachers and the like. They learn in this way about the struggle for women's dignity and empowerment in these communities. But there is also a spiritual component to these tours, which sets them apart from GATE's regular programming. Led by Sister Cecilia Corcoran, who holds a doctorate in women's studies, participants are introduced to the history and rituals of the various ancient Goddesses. In Mexico, this means communing with the major mother deities of the central highlands (around Mexico City, primarily) with visits to such archeological sites as Cuicuilco and the pyramids of Teoticuacan. In Eastern Europe, the tour ranges from Vienna for a look at the Venus of Willendorf (at the Natural History Museum) to Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic where mammoth hunters carved goddess images on the tusks of their prey. The group will even visit Auschwitz to learn about the painful women's history there. At many of these sites, along with lively discussions and lectures, participants engage in circle dances or other rituals to help them better connect with the spiritual energies of these places. According to Sister Cecilia, these tours are for women who wish to "explore the feminine face of God." To learn more, contact GATE at gate-travel.org/ or call 608/791-5283. GATE's mail address is 912 Market Street, LaCrosse, WI 54601. Earth Island Expeditions also offers spiritual tours, but with an emphasis on nature and the earth. Heading into its seventh year, the company is shifting its focus homeward. It's leading more programs in the wilds of the Northeast, as well as running workshops and trainings from its newly-established Yurt Sanctuary at the Ten Stones Community in Charlotte, VT. Contact Earth Island Expeditions, 201 Ten Stone Circle, Charlotte, VT 05445 (phone 802/425-4710, Web site: earthislandexpeditions.org/). Resources To learn of other women's travel companies, contact EarthWise Journeys, a clearinghouse of information on non-profit organizations and tour operators that focus on "local cultures, wilderness programs, learning adventures, volunteering, personal growth and environmental awareness." Be sure to specify you are interested in their women's trips resources. Contact EarthWise Journeys, PO Box 16177, Portland, OR 97292 (e-mail earthwyz@teleport.com and see its Web site at teleport.com~earthwyz/).

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