Is Maui the Better Hawaii? Or Is It Too Pricey to Be Admired?
It's a big shift in travel patterns. A growing number of American vacationers are today choosing the once-quiet, once-rural island of Maui in preference to the former travel king, Oahu (home of Honolulu and Waikiki Beach). While Maui can't possibly overtake Oahu in tourist numbers (it has only 17,473 hotel rooms compared with a giant 31,557 rooms in Waikiki alone), it's coming up fast and last year welcomed 2.2 million visitors as compared with Oahu's 4.7 million. In the last ten years, traffic to Maui has been strong, while somewhat stagnant to Oahu. Why? The main reason for Maui's increasing popularity is its rural atmosphere. Maui's numerous resorts are spread out over acres of manicured grounds, and its miles and miles of country-side with no buildings and no stoplights are the very opposite of Waikiki's densely packed hotels in their urban, concrete jungle. The "Valley Isle" offers visitors a variety of outdoor experiences because it is still relatively unspoiled and brimming with resources, from clear, crystal waters teeming with fish to fern-filled rain forests. If you dream of a classic, slow, relaxing tropical vacation, Maui is the place. But if you also contemplate staying at one of the "big names" in Maui resorts or hotels located along the luxury beach areas, you'll pay dearly for that choice. You'll also eat in expensive hotel restaurants and, since most of them don't provide kitchen facilities in their rooms (as the condos do), you won't be able to "cook in" occasionally.
The budget tourist seeking an authentic, unpretentious Hawaiian atmosphere goes instead to Maui's seaside area of Kihei. This sprawling community, wrapped around six miles of beaches, is one of Maui's best bargain areas for condo accommodations, cheap eats, and lots of free things to do. Located on Maui's sunny southern shore, Kihei is about a half hour drive from the Kahului Airport (which is located on the opposite side of Maui's isthmus, on the north shore). Not only is Kihei cheaper, but its central location makes it easily accessible to other places of interest on Maui, like the historic town of Lahaina, the shopping and bargains in Kahului, and the quaint rural areas of Upcountry, nestled on the slopes of the 10,000-foot volcano Haleakala.
Budget lodgings of Kihei
Indeed, "just across the street" describes the Sunseeker Resort (551 S. Kihei Rd., 800/532-6284 or 808/879-1261, fax 808/874-3877, mauisunseeker.com). Located in a palm-tree lined garden setting, next to the very busy Kihei Road, this sand-colored, low-rise series of older condo apartment buildings offers cozy air-conditioned units with complete kitchens and private lanai, at year-round budget prices of $50 to $70 for a studio double, $70 to $90 for a one-bedroom double, and $150 to $175 for a two-bedroom unit.
Next door is Nona Lani Cottages (455 S. Kihei Rd., just south of Hwy. 31, 800/733-2688 or 808/879-2497, nonalanicottages.com): a grassy expanse dotted with eight 400-square-foot cottages tucked among palm, fruit, and sweet-smelling flower trees. Charging year-round rates of $90 off-season and $99 high-season, management supplies everything but phones (a blessing if you're trying to escape civilization), and the four front cottages have ocean views. If the cottages are booked, opt for one of the private guest rooms (with private entrances) in the main house at the $75 to $85 price (for doubles).
For those who want to be right on the beach, Punahoa Beach Apartments (2142 Ilnli Rd., 800/564-4380 or 808/879-2720, fax 808/875-9147, punahoa.com), a four-story boutique condominium with only 15 units, sits on a quiet side street away from noisy Kihei Road. A grassy lawn rolls about 50 feet down to an excellent snorkeling beach, and all of the beautifully decorated condos have fully equipped kitchens and lanais with great ocean views. Shopping and restaurants are all within walking distance. Studio doubles rent for $85 off-season, $115 in high season, and one-bedroom doubles go for $110 off-season, but soar to $160 in high season.
For budget-minded families, Haleakala Shores (2619 S. Kihei Rd., 800/869-1097 or 808/879-1218, fax 808/879-2219, haleakalashores.com) offers two-bedroom condo units (sleeping up to four people) for $108 in off-season, $144 in high season. Located just across the street from Kamaole Park III, the apartment complex is an easy walk to restaurants and shopping, and near a golf course and tennis courts. Larger than most condominiums, the units here are 1,200 square feet and feature two bathrooms, a private lanai, a full kitchen with dishwasher, a washer/dryer, and a pool on property. Even the parking is ideal, with a free covered garage.
Finally, those looking for more amenities on property, like two swimming pools and tennis courts, should consider Hale Kamaole (2737 S. Kihei Rd., 800/367-2970 or 808/879-1221, fax 808/879-5576, maui.net/coop/HKChome.html). Here some 187 low-rise condo apartments are clumped into a series of buildings situated on sprawling grounds just across the street from a beach park noted for swimming and sunset-watching. All units have complete kitchens and lanais that overlook either the swimming pool or the tropical gardens. One-bedroom condos go for $85 in off-season, $110 high season.
The best general source for budget Kihei condominiums is Bello Realty (800/541-3060 or 808/879-3328, fax 808/875-1483, bellomaui.com), which offers a large number of units priced as low as $55 in the off-season and $70 in high season.
Your meals in Kihei
Once you have settled on your accommodations, consider grocery shopping and eating in to save money. Even this can be an adventure: shop at the various farmer's markets spread throughout the island. Not only do they offer the best prices for just-picked fresh produce, but you also get to talk to the farmers themselves (they will happily explain how to cut local fruit and cook exotic vegetables). In Kihei, the farmer's market is held every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 1:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at Suda Store, 61 S. Kihei Road.
It is possible to venture out to sample the local cuisine without taking out a second mortgage. Ethnic restaurants always offer bargains; a Maui original you can't afford to pass up is Maui Tacos (several locations around the island: in Kihei at the Kamaole Beach Center, 2411 S. Kihei Rd., 808/879-5005, all open daily 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.), serving gourmet Mexican on paper plates for less than $7. Never mind that it is little more than a take-out counter (with very few tables and chairs to eat there); take your fresh fish taco, chimichanga, or monster-size burrito to the beach and try not to stare at the glitterati lined up like everyone else for their order.
One of Maui's best frugal deals for fresh Hawaiian fish is also located in Kihei at Alexander's Fish, Chicken & Chips (1913 S. Kihei Rd., 808/874-0788, open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.), with fresh island catches for under $10, served with rice or fries, and coleslaw - or try some of their finger-licking chicken, calamari, beef, and shrimp. Easy to find (look for the ocean mural out front), this is one of Kihei's most popular eateries and outside patio seating is limited - just wander across the street to Kalama Beach Park and have lunch or dinner oceanside.
For a rock-bottom budget, Maui has hostels, but not in the Kihei area. Located on the other side of the island in "Old Town" Wailuku, about a ten-minute drive from the Kahului airport, Maui's two cheapest lodgings offer price-busting deals: Banana Bungalow Maui (310 N. Market St., Wailuku, 800/846-7835 or 808/244-5090, fax 808/244-3678, mauihostel.com), surrounded by a garden oasis, features dorm rooms for $16 or private single rooms for $29 (doubles $40) with shared bathrooms, as well as a range of free tours of the island (from hiking through a rain forest to whale-watching-even free shuttles to the beach. Or try the modest Northshore Hostel (2080 Vineyard St., Wailuku, tel./fax 866/946-7835 or 808/242-1448, hawan-hostel.com), priced the same and also offering free tours and shuttles.
A step up from spartan hostels is the seven-room inn Peace of Maui (1290 Halnmaile Rd., Halnmaile, 888/475-5045 or 808/572-5045, peaceofmaui.com) on the slopes of Haleakala, in the pineapple plantation community of Halnmaile. This very acceptable alternative, just ten minutes from the beach and an equal distance from the Kahului Airport, is slightly more upscale than a hostel, with more of a family atmosphere, and features comfy rooms (each with TV and a minifridge). For all this, you pay just $45 for a double that shares a full kitchen, living room, shower room, and separate toilet room. A one-bedroom cottage sleeping four is also available for $80 per couple.
To see and do
It's easy to enjoy other outdoor activities (from ocean-bathing to hiking) without dropping a bundle. You can play tennis for free at the numerous county tennis courts (some even have night lighting); for a complete list contact Maui County Department of Parks and Recreation, 1580-C Kaahumanu Ave., Wailuku, 808/270-7230. For superb golf at terrific prices ($26 weekdays, $30 on weekends), get a tee-time at Waiehu Municipal Golf Course (just off Waiehu Beach Road, Waiehu, 808/244-5934).
Carl Sandburg was wrong. Chicago is less the City of Big Shoulders than the City of Big Appetites. In our search for "Little Wonder Restaurants" charging less than $12 for a full-scale meal, we've encountered larger servings in Chicago - more copious sauces and sides, bigger mountains of meat, higher stacks of rolls and loaves - than in any other U.S. city we've surveyed. In Chicago, eating cheap doesn't mean eating lean or meagerly. It means tucking in to vast platters that crash through calorie limits and leave you near-catatonic at the end of the second course. Here are nine enthusiastic recommendations, of which five are old standbys that have fed frugal Chicagoans for at least two generations. The Berghoff 17 West Adams St., 312/427-3170. From just $10.95 for a taste of history (and some of the best German food in the Midwest) Where else could we begin this eating tour but at The Berghoff, in the heart of the Loop and a Chicago institution since 1898? An oversize beer hall, it survived prohibition (and nabbed the very first liquor license when the ban was lifted), and has wursted and knocked the masses with elan ever since. While dinner will take you a buck or two over our usual limit, lunch is still a budget treat, easily coming in at under a dozen dollars. To get the full experience, stick with the classic Teutonic dishes on the menu: savory sauerbraten ($9.50 lunch/$10.95 dinner); the famous Wiener schnitzel, as long as your forearm and served with the equally famous electric-green creamed spinach ($10.25/$11.95); Rahm schnitzel, a breaded pork cutlet ($9.50/ $10.95); or any of the sausage dishes. A starter soup is just $2 per cup, or try the classic Caesar salad ($3.50). Whatever you consume (and many "hop" by just for a stein of the house brew), having a meal in this turn-of-the-century gem with its stained-glass windows, dark wood paneling, original brass chandeliers, and stand-up bar is an experience in itself. Closed Sundays. The Parthenon 314 South Halsted St., 312/726-2407. A Greektown delight with soup and entree for as little as $6.65 At a good Greek restaurant, a meal is never just a meal. It's a celebration with jaunty music in the background and waiters bellowing "Opa!" as the plates of flaming cheese sail by. The owners of this Greektown culinary institution are not only throwing one of the best nightly parties in town, they claim to have invented (back in 1968) the "flaming saganaki" presentation that's become a dramatic standard in Greek eateries across the nation. Whether or not that's true, the waiters pull it off with aplomb, lighting the platters with a flourish and bearing the plate-size infernos like Olympic torches across the crowded dining rooms. But who cares about pyrotechnics? It's the food that counts, and The Parthenon delivers-and then some. Here I've enjoyed some of the tastiest Greek food in my not-so-young life. The best of bechamels, topping every helping of those wonderful Mediterranean casseroles, moussaka ($5.75 small portion, $8.50 monster-size), and pastitsio ($5.25/$8.25). Moist and flavorful lamb ($11.25), which you'll see roasting on a spit as you enter. Flaky spinach and cheese pies ($4.50), exquisitely tart egg-lemon soup ($1.75 cup), and exceedingly tender octopus in white wine sauce ($6.75). The eggplant dishes require special praise. The Parthenon's chefs have tamed the tricky aubergine, turning what can be a tough and seedy vegetable into the most melting of treats. Try the eggplant spread ($3.75), the baked stuffed eggplant ($8.50), or the melitzanopita ($8.50), which is cheese and eggplant encased in phyllo. All are delish. While The Parthenon is not the most up-to-date of the restaurants in the area (most now look like the Greek Isles as imagined by a Pottery Barn exec), it's a colorful, oversize place with fun, hokey murals (blue seas, men in togas) and the kind of old-fashioned hospitality that can't be faked. Open daily. It's a bit out of the way, unfortunately, so drive or cab it. Andalous 3307 North Clark St., 773/281-6885. Marvelous Moroccan meals at a bit over $10 Some restaurants strive to be exotic, others simply are. Andalous falls into the latter category, seemingly plucked off a St. in Marrakesh and plopped down one long pitch from Wrigley Field. There are few accommodations to American tastes here. The lamb is adamantly bone-in, and it's a big bone at that. The couscous is laden with ungainly slabs of vegetables. The owner's one-year-old periodically scoots through the spare dining room on a little play car, followed by her smiling, kerchiefed mother. But are we complaining? Of course not. This restaurant is a delight, with food that's unfailingly pleasing. Try the lemony harira ($2.25) or the thick, garlicky lentil soup ($2.25) to begin. Then make your choice from the many kebabs, couscous, bastillas, and tagines. We particularly like the lamb tagine ($9.99) with prunes and the chicken tagine doused in lemon confi (pickled rind), for $9.50. If you have room left, spring for any of the nutty, honeyed pastries, just $1.25 each. Lunches and dinners all week; take the El to Belmont. Foodlife 835 North Michigan Ave., 312/335-3663. Right in the heart of the Magnificent Mile, an abundance of options for as little as $8.15 for two courses We don't normally recommend food-court dining, but a phenomenon called Foodlife is so imaginatively executed, so well located, and most importantly, so well priced, that I'd be remiss not to mention it. Mimicking a charming town square, down to the cobblestone floors and arbors strung with fake grapevines, the ambience is much gentler than that of your local mall. A host greets you at the gate and then seats you at a table after first giving you an "eat the world" credit card that allows you to go from kiosk to kiosk, charging your food (you pay as you exit). Then you get up and wander through this "global village," choosing barbecue chicken ($6.95) from the "Kickin' Chicken and BBQ" area, or the jambalaya ($5.95) at "Creole King," a bottomless bowl of Italian wedding soup ($5.50, or $2.20 for a cup) at "Souplife," a brownie sundae ($3.25) from "Sweetlife." We could go on. While we can't pretend to have tried everything available (that would up us a dress size), the grub we grabbed was all quite tasty, high-quality stuff. Open seven days. Heaven on Seven 3478 North Clark St., 773/477-7818; 111 North Wabash Ave., 7th floor, 312/263-6443; and 600 North Michigan Ave., 312/280-7774 Almost as fun as baring your breasts on Bourbon St., this New Orleans-style eatery is cheap: from $7.95 for soup or salad and entree. It's Mardi Gras every day at Heaven on Seven, which celebrates the New Orleans version of that holiday in all its tacky glory. The restaurant is festooned with carnival beads (the drinks are too!), there are masks everywhere, and a museum-worthy collection of hot sauces graces one wall as you enter. Tables are loaded up as well - we counted a full 25 hot sauces at our four-top. But don't overdo it with the sauces, since much of the food already packs a fiery punch, as it should. This is real, down-home Cajun cooking, bravely spiced and as flavorful as anything you'd find in the bayou. All the standards plus a few unusual picks are here: jambalaya ($9.95), red beans and rice with andouille sausage ($8.95), a creamy cheese grits and shrimp platter ($10.95), southern-fried chicken ($9.95). All entrees come with your choice of soup, gumbo, or salad. By the way, this is a great place to take kids. They'll love the decor and music, and there's a special children's menu ($4.95) for blander palates. Open daily (Wabash location closed Sundays). Hi Ricky 941 West Randolph St., 312/491-9100; 1852 West North Ave., 773/276-8300; and 3730 North Southport Ave., 773/388-0000. Noodles and starters from just $9.90 Somehow the humble noodle has become a vehicle for high-concept cooking, as sleek au courant eateries have popped up in cities across the country. One of the smartest is the cheerfully named Hi Ricky, which mixes things up a tad by introducing a slew of fab satays into the mix. These meats-on-a-stick are a great way to start your meal and affordable, too, at just $3.95 to $6.25 per trio of skewers (there's shrimp and tofu, too). If you're not a big carnivore, the salad ($2.95) is a distinct treat, garnished with crispy noodles and dressed in a succulent sesame vinaigrette. Then move on to the pasta, which ranges from fiery, cabbage-laden Indonesian bakmi goreng ($7.45) to curried thin Singapore noodles ($7.45) to the pad Thai classic ($6.95). You do your noodle-slurping in some stylin' settings, by the by. Hi Ricky has that "industrial with just the right splashes of color" look down. There are terrific photos of Asia on the walls (in corrugated tin frames, of course), and the background music is tres alternative. Open daily. Pizzeria Uno 29 East Ohio St., at the corner of Wabash Ave., 312/321-1000. Soup or salad and the thickest pizza ever, from $6.98. he pizza joint that inspired the chain. If only its namesakes in other burgs were as good! Forget about fast food! "The pizzas we make are all done from scratch, so they take about an hour to cook," the host at the door explains to somewhat stunned patrons. "I'd suggest you order now." And with that he hands you the menu, and you choose your toppings, as quickly as you can. Then you take a seat, ordering the simple but fresh salad ($2.95), zippy wings ($4.99), or the thick minestrone called Florence's soup ($2.69) in honor of the founder's wife. And you wait. And wait. And wait. Is it worth it? Assolutamente. More "pie" than "pizza," the densely layered concoction that arrives at your table is certainly more interesting texturally than your average thin pizza. The massive crust is crispy on the edges, soft and doughy towards the center. It's topped with just the right amount of sauce and an extra-gooey layer of cheese. If you order meat, it's nicely peppery. If your choice is vegetables, they arrive still crisp atop the pie. But don't over-order. Remember, these pizzas have girth - a medium can easily feed a family of four. And that's just what founder Ike Sewell planned when he created the "bigger is always better," Americanized version of the Italian classic in 1943. Yes, this is where Chicago-style pizza was invented, so eating in this old-fashioned joint, with its pressed-tin ceiling and down-at-the-heel charm, is as much a pilgrimage as a meal. Open seven days a week, an easy walk from Michigan Ave.. La Creperie, 2845 North Clark St., 773/528-9050. Fattening French food (ah, don't we love it?!), two million calories, and a swell time for a mere $9.50. La Creperie inspires a fierce loyalty among Chicagoans. As I recently stood outside, scribbling notes about the look and menu, three passers-by stopped to encourage me to go in. "The best crepes in the city," one told me, and I had to wonder how much competition there was. No matter, this remains one of the top buys, an oh-so-Parisian little joint, redolent of frying butter and decorated with colorful, if faded, travel posters. You might think of crepes as a light in-between-meals snack. Not here. These are crepes to tickle a trucker, dinner-plate-size and plumped with heavy if savory fillings: coq au vin ($7.25), boeuf bourguignon ($7.25), spinach creme ($6.50), ham or cheese ($5.50), egg ($5.50), broccoli with cheese ($6.50). You can start with soup ($2.25) or salad ($4.25), or finish with a dessert crepe (from $3.50), but we doubt you'll be able to do all three. Portions are midwestern (read: big) and addictive - you won't put your fork down until the plate is clean. Closed Mondays. Ann Sather, 929 West Belmont Ave., 773/348-2378. As little as $9.95 for a Swedish feast 'Tis a gift to be simple, according to the old Shaker hymn, and our final pick has that gift in spades, serving food that is proudly simple but far from plain. A Second City fave since 1945, this was once one of many Scandinavian restaurants on Belmont. As demographics shifted, so did tastes, and Ann Sather is the last buffalo, overlooking an urban meadow of funky shoe stores, tiny theaters, and crowds making the trek to nearby Wrigley Field. It still has a sedate Scandinavian look with "Rosemaling" murals on the walls (those swoopy, whimsical paintings you see across Sweden and Norway), a dignified portrait of founder Sather above the fireplace, and upgraded diner banquettes throughout the two large rooms. While the restaurant serves a wide range of American fare, we'd suggest you stick to the Scandinavian specials, all of which come with a starter and two side dishes. We like the Swedish fruit soup, although it is an acquired taste, a peachy concoction filled with massive chunks of mystery fruit (the composition changes daily, but expect prunes, apricots, figs, dates, or kumquats); also good is the pickled herring. For the meat of the meal, choose...well, meat. The Swedish meatballs ($9.95) are a treat, lighter than you've ever tasted and subtly nutmeg-scented. Roast duck with lingonberry glaze ($10.50) is another champ, as is the surprisingly delicate potato sausage ($10.50). Open seven days; take the El to Belmont.
Can Americans Benefit from the Airfare "Bucket Shops" of Britain?
The "bucket shop" was born in Britain. And though the name for these once-shady, now-thoroughly-legal airfare discounters has grown respectable over the years (most are known today as airfare "consolidators" or "brokers"), they're still pulling off eerie and unsettling feats of low pricing from London to remote destinations throughout the world. A knowledge of how to find the British "bucket shop" is a mighty weapon in the arsenal of budget travel. (Note: The phone numbers in this article are written for dialing within the U.K. When dialing from North America, use the prefix 011-44 and drop the first zero from all of the numbers listed below.) Dropping into the buckets A similar matchmaking resource, cheapflights.com, is Web-only and has been running since 1996. Its site lists 290 British sellers (again, paid subscribers) and some current sample prices. On a recent visit to London, I found the rates were not always available when I called the listed companies, but they were usually close. From company to company, the prices I found through both services were similar. After all, the vendors know they're being stacked against one another. To join both, companies must be bonded, which means they're insured should your chosen air carrier go belly-up. In Britain, only unbonded sellers are today called "bucket shops," while insured ones are known by the loftier "consolidator" (call a consolidator a "bucket shop" and you'll receive a flinty glare). Since, generally speaking, there's no price difference between the two (and they jockey for the same customers), go with a bonded one. Also consider paying with a credit card, despite the 2-to-5-percent surcharge. Should trouble arise, you won't find yourself struggling to get a refund from the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean. You can also find a handful of consolidators through their ads. To-the-minute specials can be found in the major London newspapers, especially the daily travel pages in the Evening Standard (about 50 [cents]), or the weekly magazines Time Out (about $2.50) and TNT (free at most hostels). Once you have your list of contenders, it's time to shop for prices. Bargains, pound for pound First of all, pick your dream destination from London. Because of enduring links to the "mother country," places as far-flung as Sydney, New Delhi, and Johannesburg still do a great deal of culture-sharing with Great Britain, as family members and workers shuttle between them. With London's five bustling airports (Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, City, and Heathrow, the busiest in Europe), lots of seats are flying, so lots of seats need to be sold, and it's easy to hook a bargain you'd never find in the United States. Of course, to make this method work, you must get to London cheaply, too. Aside from the usual airline sales, try an American discounter (consolidator); three big ones are Travac (800/872-8800, thetravelsite.com), Cheap Tickets, (888/922-8849, cheaptickets.com), and TFI Tours (800/745-8000, lowestairprice.com). All three companies have round-trip winter departures selling at $275-$450 from most parts of America in the low season of November to March, and high-season seats for around $600 in summer. In order to secure the best last-minute flights, be prepared to stay at least five to ten days in London. Better yet, use an air/hotel package to London, which will fly you there round-trip and give you a bed while you look for those treasured onward ticket steals. With go-today.com, you'll spend as little as $399 per person in winter (November through March), $599 in shoulder months (April/May, September/October), $749 in peak summer, and $150 more from the West Coast, for round-trip airfare plus six nights' hotel. You can usually delay your homeward flight for up to three months-ample time to find a bargain and take a meaty trip-within-a-trip. While you're speaking to the American consolidators, get prices to your final exotic destination as well. That way, you can compare the fares from your home airport in the U.S. with the London-airport prices through ATAB or Cheapflights. If the two prices (once you add transportation to England) are close, then you don't need to visit the British bucket shops -- unless you really want to break your journey with a stay in London. Although there are no hard-and-fast rules, some destinations are more cheaply reached from the U.S. -- it depends on your home airport. Thus, because of their proximity, South America and the South Pacific are always cheaper from your own doorstep than from London. Everywhere else is in a grey area. Because of strong ties to North America, much of East Asia (including Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Seoul) can often be had for $600-$800 round-trip from our West Coast -- although last-minute British bargains occasionally beat that. Australia can be a better buy from the U.S. West Coast, but East Coasters will usually benefit from a London departure. Despite those general advantages, no matter where you live and no matter what the destination, you can (and should) do a little price research online before flying across the Atlantic Ocean to visit the bucket shops of Britain. For many destinations, the best deals await in London. Big deals under Big Ben The same tickets would have cost me $1,244 and $1,300, respectively, from the East Coast during the same period. So even with the added $400 I spent on my trip to London, I would have saved $125-$327 getting to South Africa or Australia. And I would have broken my journey with a stay in one of the world's most fascinating cities -- London. Or how about this: an eleventh-hour fare from a British bucket shop to New Delhi, India, was [British Pound] 299 ($430). From New York, flights to New Delhi can cost over $1,200, so I would have saved about $400 using the London method. There are dozens upon dozens of London consolidators, but for the record, I got those prices at Just the Ticket (28 Margaret St., 020/7291-8111, justtheticket.co.uk), Trailfinders (1 Threadneedle St., 020/7628-7628, trailfinders.com), Lupus Travel (189 Regent St., 0870/830-8158, lupustravel.com), and Benz Travel (83 Mortimer St., 020/7462-0011, benztravel.co.uk). The London method isn't just for long-haul flights. Five cheapo London-flying airlines sell popular European destinations for under $100 round-trip (such as Ryanair, Go, Buzz, easyJet, and Virgin Express), far less than flights of comparable length in the U.S. The lowest prices appear months earlier, so book those from home, quickly and for free, on the Web. Then hop to London to catch your dirt-cheap flight on these Euro "upstarts." Booking three months ahead, I was able to buy a round-trip seat from London to Athens for a mere [British Pound] 44 ($63). Even if I spent $350 to get to London, the total would still be a few hundred dollars less than the $550-$650 spent getting to Greece from America in the winter -- and I'd get six nights in London to boot. Last-minute package tours are also fair game. Using Cheapflights.com, I found unsold seven-night vacations from London to Marbella, Spain, including airfare, hotel, and rental car, for $444 in the middle of December (from Airline Network, 0870/241-0011, netflights.com). I also had my pick of cheap European weekend getaways, such as two nights at an Amsterdam B&B, including airfare, for $228 from Travelscene (020/8424-9648, travelscene.co.uk). A few vendors also specialize in last-minute charter flights, mostly to Mediterranean destinations favored by pasty British holidaymakers. One of the best-known is Charter Flight Centre (19 Denbigh St., 020/7828-1090, charterflights.co.uk), near Victoria, which profits in seats the big travel packagers can't fill. I found one-way prices like [British Pound] 59 ($85) to Faro, Portugal, and [British Pound] 69 ($99) to Malta. British truth-in-advertising laws are quite strict, so if you spot a very low fare - I saw Sydney return for [British Pound] 385 ($553) from GM Tours (020/8686-8486) -- rest assured it isn't for sometime in 2006. You can buy it, traipse around Europe for a week or two, and come back to England for your long-haul flight. Consolidators exist in other European hubs, but English-speaking London is the cheapest to reach and easiest to navigate. But you've gotta be ready to leave at the drop of a bowler hat.
Budget Lodgings at Spiritual Centers
Though they are normally pictured as Gothic castles on rural hills, America's spiritual centers (with in-house accommodations) are also found smack-dab in the center of some of our biggest and most heavily visited cities. And there they provide some of the most suitable budget lodgings in all the nation for travelers in search of both frugality and propriety. Here, if you'll excuse the alliteration, is cost-conscious comfort in contemplative surroundings. New York City Even the most enthusiastic tourists can find New York's high pressure a bit daunting. Here, by contrast, is serenity - on a budget. The Leo House (332 W. 23rd St., 212/929-1010, fax 212/366-6801) was already a 100-year-long mainstay when its surrounding Chelsea district recently became a trendy center of chic restaurants, art galleries, nightspots, and the performing arts (don't miss the Joyce dance theater). Self-styled as "A Heart in New York," it has a wood-paneled breakfast room that today is filled with multilingual chatter as guests enjoy a $6 buffet, complete with home-baked breads. The emphasis here is on the quiet and clean. But it has all the creature comforts you'd want, including cable television and telephones, although in compact rooms. Some units have private baths; others share a shower, but all have a sink and toilet. Singles start at $62 and doubles at $70, with a few larger rooms for families. St. Hilda's House (621 W. 113th St., 212/932-8098, ext. 345, email@example.com) is a big leap uptown, just steps from Riverside Church and the giant Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine (a don't-miss sightseeing attraction). It is a retreat house of the Sisters of the Community of the Holy Spirit, consisting of three converted brownstones in which neat single rooms rent from $65 a night (there are three doubles, which cost $130 a night), and most guests share a bathroom. The nuns center their lives around daily prayer services, and anyone who spends the night is invited to join them. Landmark Guest Rooms (3041 Broadway, 212/280-1313, firstname.lastname@example.org bia.edu) of the Union Theological Seminary near the Upper West Side's Columbia University, with its English Gothic architecture and tree-filled quad, is like a time machine transporting you to the past. And yet its recently redecorated rooms all have air-conditioning, cable television, a mini-fridge, and private bath. With continental breakfast included, single rooms start at $150, making this one of the priciest of our properties. The House of the Redeemer (7 E. 95th St., 212/289-0399, fax 212/410-7899, email@example.com), on the elegant Upper East Side of Manhattan near Museum Mile (Metropolitan, Guggenheim, Frick), is a retreat where guests in the third- and fourth-floor rooms sleep under the same roof that once housed Edith Shepard Fabbri, Cornelius Vanderbilt's great-granddaughter. Ms. Fabbri donated the house to be used as "a place apart," and it's often filled with quiet groups. When it's not, others can enjoy its splendid fifteenth-century Italian library and newly redesigned chapel that overlooks Central Park. Rooms in this peaceful bit of paradise start at $60 for a single with a shared bath. Chicago Carl Sandburg called Chicago "Hog Butcher," "Tool Maker," and "Stacker of Wheat," but obviously he never stayed at one of the city's ultragenteel guesthouses. Urban Meditation Retreat Center (1710 W. Cornelia Ave., 773/528-8685, fax 773/528-9909, buddha@enteract. com) is a quiet beacon for those with busy lives, particularly blessed by its pleasant sunroom and open deck devoted to restful reflection. At this Zen Buddhist temple, visitors attend early morning meditation and stay on the fourth floor, which has been fitted out with single or dormitory-style rooms with access to kitchen facilities. Located only 15 minutes from downtown by bus or elevated train, it attracts young professionals with accommodations priced at only $45 a night. Imani House (1340 E. 72nd St., 773/643-0359), whose name means "faith" in Swahili, is a rambling building that over the years has served as both a Catholic rectory and a convent, and is now a lodgings place for transient visitors when people on formal retreats are not in residence. Up to 35 guests can choose rooms that range from singles to triples, and the kitchen, dining room, and sitting rooms make it feel like home. Somewhat off the beaten track, this South Shore facility varies prices to match group size and season, but in general the charge is $15 per person per night. Bethlehem House (1125 North La Salle Blvd., 312/642-3638) is next door to the Convent of St. Anne, in the heart of Chicago, and both buildings date from the late nineteenth century. The guesthouse, which once served as a butler's residence, has five single rooms with a shared bath. Its quiet convenience costs just $25 a night. Benedictine Bed and Breakfast (3111 S. Aberdeen St., 888/539-4261, fax 773/927-5734, firstname.lastname@example.org) is a two-bedroom loft apartment operated by monks dedicated to their order's long tradition of caring for travelers. They offer far more than the usual B&B amenities, including a dataport in each bedroom, a fax machine, and secure, off-street parking. With a complete kitchen, dining area, and study, there's plenty of space for up to four guests. Rates range from $145 to $185 per night with breakfast treats such as pineapple topped with Wisconsin maple syrup, delivered to the door with a morning newspaper. It's even possible to make reservations via their Web site at www.chicagomonk.org. San Francisco It's been a long time since San Francisco was founded by Spanish missionaries (as Yerba Buena, on the Bay of San Francisco), but there are still open doors for those seeking a spiritual connection in the "City by the Bay." San Damiano Friary (573 Dolores St., 415/861-1372, fax 415/861-7952) is just two blocks from the historic Mission San Francisco de Assisi, the city's oldest structure. Both it and its neighbor, St. Francis House (see below), are run by orders associated with the city's namesake. Visitors to San Damiano stay in simple single rooms with a shared bath, for a self-determined donation. Despite the brothers' busy schedules, which include work in health care, teaching, and the arts, their hospitality includes sharing their evening meal. St. Francis House (3743 Cesar Chavez St., 415/824-0288, fax 415/826-7569) is also in the area known as the Mission District. The nuns here welcome visitors to a small guest apartment that sleeps three and comes with a complete kitchen. Set off from the street, it also has a garden that is ideal for quiet reflection. The donation is $30 a night. Incarnation Priory (1601 Oxford St., Berkeley, 510/548-3406, email@example.com.), just a 20-minute ride on the BART train system from San Francisco proper, is a short walk up the hill from the BART station and right on the edge of the UC Berkeley campus, near coffee bars and bookstores. Don't be put off by the apartment-house exterior; this is a real Anglican priory with a complete guest apartment (housing as many as four) on the second floor. The priory asks $40 per night for the entire apartment. Incarnation Monastery (1369 La Loma Ave., Berkeley, 510/548-0965) will require a bus or taxi, but it's well worth the trip. The monastery is built on the side of a hill with a sweeping view that includes the Golden Gate Bridge and the mountains beyond. The $45-per-night guest rooms share bathrooms, but breakfast is included. And the splendor of the setting is enhanced by the stillness of the monastery. The San Francisco Zen Center (300 Page St., 415/863-3136, firstname.lastname@example.org), just a block from very hip Haight Street, refers to its guest facility simply as the "City Center." Here guests will find single and double rooms, some with private baths, renting from $55 to $93. While those rates do not include meals, vegetarian fare is plentiful and available at the Center for under $8 a big plate. This elegant building was designed by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan; its impressive courtyard invites introspection and relaxation.
English-speaking and just a tad larger than New Jersey, lush Belize looks like a Caribbean island accidentally washed ashore on the Central American mainland. Its pace is molasses--slow, its populace smiling and easygoing--and its politics not perfect but relatively open and stable. With reggae rhythms, coconut palm-lined beaches, and breathtaking scuba diving (on the world's second-largest barrier reef), it's easy to mistake it for any of the more famous tradewind-kissed island "paradises" out to sea further east. But there's a key difference: Belize has none of the megaresorts, casinos, and sprawling development that have ruined so much of the Caribbean, looking instead to low-key cultural tours and ecotourism. The lack of large, glitzy resorts and hotel chains means an abundance of inexpensive, laid-back mom-and-pop guesthouses, and the low per capita income means an abundance of affordable restaurants and other services. The Belizean dollar is stable and pegged at 50: to the U.S. greenback (no need even to waste commission fees on changing money; almost any tourist establishment will take U.S. dollars and give you change in Belizean dollars at a rate of two to one). For the budget-minded looking for a relatively close and multifaceted tropical vacation with Maya culture to boot, friendly Belize is one of the cheapest places on earth. Why multifaceted? Because there's plenty of life beyond the reef and beaches: Belize's interior is a 65-percent uninhabited wonderland of deep jungle rain forest, exotic native species, and myriad Maya temples. The country's populace is an English-speaking rainbow mix of Creole, Garifuna, Mestizo, Spanish, Maya, and even German Mennonite, in a sea of Spanish-speaking neighbors like Honduras and Guatemala (a mere two decades ago, Belize was British Honduras, one of the last British colonies in the Western Hemisphere). Most visitors opt for "surf-and-turf": a few days of inland adventure (usually in the lush Cayo district), then some R&R on one of the offshore islets called "cayes" (pronounced "keys"). Belize City is mostly for passing through, having little of interest - not to mention a somewhat dicey reputation. Belize was hit by Hurricane Iris in October of 2001, devastating the once popular backpacker beach village of Placencia on the country's southeastern shore. Luckily, the remainder of Belize's verdant and wild beauty was left for the most part unscathed. Your basic costs The most popular way of getting around - for tourists and locals alike - is "puddle jumping" on small aircraft, since Belize is home to only four paved roads (and just four traffic lights, which in any case are usually out of order or simply ignored) and boat rides can be wet and bumpy. Most flights use Belize City as their hub; Tropic Air (26-2012, tropicair.com) and Mayan Island Air (23-1140, ambergriscaye.com/islandair) both operate short flights throughout the country. Round-trip airfare from Belize City to the cayes, for example, costs you $52. Most accommodations in Belize are on the simple side, with ceiling fans and no TVs, but their prices are nothing short of astounding. All offer much cheaper rates in low season (roughly Easter through Thanksgiving - which includes the autumn rain-and-hurricane season). You can try your hand at bargaining hoteliers down below their asking rates in low season, but winter usually means everything is booked up, so planning ahead is crucial. One very special accommodation option is the Maya Homestay Network (72-2470) in the southern Toledo district, where you can stay with a Maya family and learn local cooking and traditions for as little as $5 per person per night (plus a $5 registration fee) and meals for $2 each. The Cayo district: the jungle interior Ultrabudget travelers or those just passing through stay in town - otherwise, most tourists opt for the more comfortable jungle lodges around the area. If you're in San Ignacio, try the cheekily named Hi-Et (12 West St., 92-2828), in an old-fashioned plantation-style building with wraparound porches. Five basic but bright rooms with double beds, shared baths, and fans are located directly above the friendly host family's living room and cost a mere $12.50 per person for a double. Within a short drive of San Ignacio, rain forest lodges are made up of quiet, stand-alone cabins with two double beds and private bath, as well as inexpensive restaurants on the premises. My favorite is the Black Rock River Lodge (92-2341, blackrocklodge.com), ten miles outside San Ignacio and perched on an ancient Maya site within its own steep, dramatic valley of limestone cliffs visible above a rain forest river below the property. Spacious cabanas with shared baths are $25 per person per night, and for $8, John, the friendly manager, will whip you up an American breakfast with unlimited coffee and juice. A little closer to town is Clarissa Falls Cottages (92-3916). Its simple but comfortable thatched-roof bungalows sit aside the Mopan River, where you can swim and play in inner tubes. Your own private bungalow with bath is $20 per person ($32.50 in winter's high season), and the vivacious host, Chena Galvez, serves a hot and filling breakfast including fruits and local "fried jack" biscuits for only $4.50. For in-town chow, the best-known travelers' tavern in San Ignacio is Eva's Restaurant & Bar (22 Burns Ave., 92-2267), where local characters enjoy the chairs on the sidewalk and a wall of notices announces shared rides and cheap excursions. The food's so-so (entrees from $5) and the service iffy, but the atmosphere's a gem. Another budget traveler favorite is Martha's Kitchen (10 West St., 92-3647), serving up T-bone steaks with veggies and fries for $7.50 and stewed beef or pork with fried plantains for $3.50. Three thousand years ago, Belize was a thriving home to more than one million Maya, and Cayo is where you'll find a good selection of ruins from their great civilization. Two fascinating and popular sites are Cahal Pech and Xunantunich ($2.50 entrance fee each). Cahal Pech was once a royal residence and is perched on a hill right above San Ignacio, while Xunantunich is the country's most visited Maya site, eight miles west of town and accessible via a hand-cranked ferry across a small river, then a milelong road to the site. The panoramic views from the top will make your head spin. San Ignacio is also used as a base to visit the impressive Tikal ruins in neighboring Guatemala, about a two-hour drive away; Clarissa Falls Cottages (92-3916) offers a full-day trip from San Ignacio for $50 per person (minimum two), including lunch. The area's other great draws include eco-adventures like rain forest horseback riding (typically $40 for a day) and exploring Maya caves filled with ancient pottery ($25 for a three-hour tour). Most of these excursions have standard prices and can be arranged through lodges, except for the extraordinary full-day adventure innertubing through river caves offered by the terrific, deep-jungle Jaguar Paw Resort (888/775-8645, jaguarpaw.com) for $70, including lunch. On the way back from Cayo along the Western Highway to Belize City (between Milepost 29 and 30), stop by the fun Belize Zoo (81-3004). Hilariously clever placards explain the land's unique fauna, and this may be your only chance to see disappearing wildlife like the black howler monkey (with a cry as loud as an elephant's), tapirs, ocelots, crocodiles, scarlet macaws, and rare black jaguars. And it's all for a cool $7.50 for adults, $3.75 for kids. The offshore isles: first, Ambergris Caye Right on the water, the three-story Rubie's Hotel (26-2063, fax 26-2434), at the south end of Barrier Reef Drive, has been a budget anchor of Ambergris for 20 years, offering 24 basic but pleasant double rooms with private baths and fans for $12.50 per person ($15 in high season), including three with shared bath for $7.50 ($10 in high season). A short walk south of "downtown" San Pedro is the Exotic Caye Beach Resort (800/201-9389, belizeisfun.com) with a pool and bar, plus four small hotel doubles for $25 ($35 in winter) as well as large condos featuring balconies, lofts, separate bedrooms, air-conditioning, and full kitchens that rent for $60 per person ($87.50 in winter). Munching out in Ambergris can cost mere pennies: Celi's Deli (26-2014) just next to the San Pedro Holiday Hotel on Barrier Reef Drive, has an amazingly inexpensive menu of take-out food like 58: chicken tacos, 50: beef meat pies, and $1.15 slabs of rum cake; you're welcome to eat them on the hotel's oceanside back terrace. A popular town eatery called Elvi's Kitchen (26-2176) features wooden benches, a smiling waitstaff dressed in bow ties, and a thatched roof built around a tree. Rice, beans, and a quarter of a stewed chicken go for $6.90, while a huge plate of "Maya chicken" (served in banana leaves with fried plantains) is $10. Ambergris Caye is ringed by sandy beaches with so-so swimming (due to lots of sea grass), but the snorkeling and diving on the nearby reefs is extraordinary - with prices that are rock-bottom compared to most you'll find in the Caribbean. For instance, SEArious Adventures (26-2690) zooms you out to both the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley (where you can touch wild stingrays and toothless nurse sharks) for a half-day trip of snorkeling for a mere $20, while various full-day dive trips start at $40 - all including equipment and gear. And then there's Caye Caulker Built on a walkable grid of spacious dirt roads, most of Caye Caulker town lies just south of "the Split," a hurricane-carved channel. Adjoining the Split is a small sandy area where folks enjoy lounging in the bathtub-warm water. Caye Caulker's caught on with the young crowd, but you don't need to stay in a crowded hostel or sleep in a hammock (although the latter can be had for a laughable $5 a night if you ask around). Trends Beachfront Hotel (22-2094, fax 22-2097, cayecaulker.com/trends.htm) is a baby blue and pink two-story hotel with eight comfortable rooms, all with both a double and a queen-size bed, fridge, ceiling fans, and large private baths. Double rates are $20 per person in summer, $30 in winter. Sandy Lane Guesthouse (22-2117) has individual cabanas with private bath, kitchenettes, and funky decor, sleeping three for an amazing $20; shared bungalows go for $7.50 per person. The very pleasant Lazy Iguana Bed and Breakfast (22-2350, lazyiguana.net) presents four tidy rooms in a four-story building in the southern part of the village, including 360-degree views from the roof deck and hammocks, as well as hearty breakfasts cooked by friendly Texan hosts Mo and Irene Miller. Rates are $37.50 per person in summer, $42.50 in winter. Cheap eateries abound in Caye Caulker, but Syd's and Glenda's, both located in the inland part of the village, are where the islanders flock for cheap eats. Syd's is a white, rather spartan-looking affair, but dishes up yummy plates of three garnachas (mini-tostadas) for 50: or lobster burritos for $2 each. Glenda's is in a blue island-style home, with kitschy touches like a hanging beach towel depicting Leonardo's Last Supper. Here, chicken, rice, and beans (the local mainstay) are $3, and locally famous cinnamon rolls, 25: each. Belizey does it In some cases you may save money by opting for independent packages (airfare, transfers, and hotel, but no organized touring). America's top budget-friendly Belize specialist is Capricorn Leisure (800/426-6544, capricorn.net), which offers three nights in Cayo and four nights on Caye Caulker this winter with a three-day car rental and round-trip air from Miami for $708. Tara Tours (800/327-0080, taratours.com), meanwhile, is selling a $658 five-night package at the Spindrift Hotel in Ambergris Caye, including round-trip airfare from Miami. Marnella Tours (866/993-0033, marnellatours.com) has great three-night dive packages (with five dives, while staying at a beach resort) for around $700. A somewhat cheaper but more grueling alternative: Take a charter flight to Cancon, Mexico, from a selection of U.S. cities for about $300 with Apple Vacations (available only through travel agents; applevacations.com) and $400 with Sun Trips (800/357-2400, suntrips.com), then undertake a ten-hour, two-bus road odyssey from Cancon. ADO GL buses (800/702-8000, adogl.com.mx) leave daily from Cancon to Chetumel, Mexico (five to six hours) for $20, with video movies to distract you from the lack of scenery. From Chetumel, you switch to a Novelo's bus (27-7372) at Nuevo Mercado for the four-hour drive to Belize City for $10; the last bus leaves at 5 p.m., so be sure to time it right and secure a safe hotel in Belize City for the night. Get more tourism info at 800/624-0686 or at travelbelize.org, belize.com, belizefirst.com, belize.net, gocayecaulker.com, ambergriscaye.com, and cayecaulker.net.