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

June 4, 2005
Avoid the rip-offs and see what you want to see

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.

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10 Tips For Inexpensive Travel Photography

Have you ever wondered why some travel photographs consist of headless torsos, blurred landscapes, red-eyed monsters, and corners with fuzzy thumbs, while other travel pictures look like a professional spread from Budget Travel? The key to taking better travel photos is not a more expensive camera or the latest high-tech gadget. It's in eliminating "dumb" approaches and errors. You can produce eye-popping travel photos (without imploding your budget) by cutting down on stupid mistakes, developing an artistic eye, making the most of your equipment, and following the Ten Terrific Tips of Inexpensive Travel Photography. What's more, you can produce great snapshots with a camera that is easy to operate and costs no more than $50, often less. The camera I used in researching this article was a 35mm "point and shoot," a simple Minolta Freedom 35R-FF that cost me about $30 and has extra features called "Focus Free Lens" and "Red-Eye Reduction." Focus Free refers to a cheap plastic lens that does not zoom or need manual focusing-just about everything from four feet to infinity is already in focus. As for Red-Eye Reduction, that means the eyes of the people and animals you photograph won't come out with a creepy reddish glow. The camera can also read DX coding (virtually all modern cameras can), which means that the speeds of various films are automatically set when you load them into the camera. Many people try to compensate for their lack of skill with a camera by purchasing expensive auto-everything models, only to discover they still get lousy photographs. If you are a beginning photographer with limited skills, you can get great photos with many simple point-and-shoot models in the $30-$50 range, which have all the features you're likely to need. The best of the cheapest Deciding which model to purchase can be a real headache, especially if you head for a photo shop where salespeople are more interested in their commissions than in helping you get the best bargain for your money. When looking for a good bargain point-and-shoot camera, the Internet can be a great tool. You can price and compare various models at Web sites like mySimon, Epinions, DealTime, and BizRate. With a few clicks you can price cameras in the $30-$50 price range and even purchase them online. Remember that most of the sites charge for postage and handling, so you need to learn the total cost before committing to buy. One really good bargain site for purchasing cameras is Overstock.com, where you can get deep discounts on surplus models (and free shipping). And now: The 10 terrific tips 1. Get closer! Not getting close enough to the subject is the most common mistake made by novice photographers. If you can't see the subjects' features well enough, it undermines the quality of the photograph. A good rule of thumb when using an inexpensive camera is to move a little closer to your subject than you feel is necessary. With inexpensive point-and-shoot cameras, what you see through the viewfinder when making the photograph is not exactly what you will see when the snapshot is printed. Also, don't try to get the whole world into your photos. A good head-and-shoulders shot with beautiful scenery in the background says more than a panoramic view with a stick figure waving back at you. 2. Always be aware of the range of your flash Ever wonder why your snapshot of Wayne Newton onstage from row 27 didn't come out? The reach of your flash is, at best, only about five feet, so you can get a nifty photo of the people in the row in front of you, but not of the stage. You may want to take some sample shots using your flash to gauge the angle and range of the illumination. 3. Take more than one shot Taking more than one photograph of the same subject is a veteran photographer's rule that applies to amateurs as well. Shoot two or three snapshots of the same subject, and at least one will be worth showing (granted, excessive overshooting can inflate your processing costs). Always try to be creative and vary your point of view. 4. Your landscape composition should include either more sky, more land, or more water When taking scenic shots, the best compositions include lots of sky. When photographing water and sky, you can sometimes include more water in your composition. The old half-sky-and-half-land rule used by many amateur photographers often makes for unexciting snapshots. You can also vary scenic pictures by shooting them vertically rather than horizontally. 5. You should always vary the angle of your snapshots Most portraits are shot at the level of the subject. Scenic photos shot from above or below often have a more vivid, original point of view that will produce truly unique photos. Try looking at art books and publications featuring travel photos to get a better idea of what makes an interesting composition. 6. Never show friends and neighbors your rejected photographs If you want to be known as a good photographer, don't show every single snapshot you make. Most professional photographers show only their best photos, so why shouldn't you? Is anyone really interested in seeing a mediocre photograph? Trust me on this one. 7] When photographing strangers, please show courtesy and always ask them first-and say "please" and "thank you" Many people don't like being photographed without prior permission. Others don't mind being photographed, but they would like a token of your appreciation. Common courtesy goes a long way here. You may find that a willing subject is a more photogenic subject. 8. When shooting outdoor portraits, make sure your subject is facing the sun When you shoot a portrait of a person who has his or her back to the sun, you get a dandy silhouette. If you use your flash as a "fill in" light when shooting against the sun or when shooting in deeply shaded areas, you can save many of your snapshots from the trash can. 9. Move your darn fingers More snapshots have been ruined by photographers' fingers blocking the lens than by overexposure and underexposure combined. This common problem can be solved if you take a moment to observe and think. 10. Make certain your camera has film in it, is loaded properly, and has an uncovered lens You'd be surprised to know just how many people fail to load their camera properly or load it at all. Many fumble-fingered types get frustrated loading a 35mm camera. If you are one of these people, go to a camera shop and ask the salesperson how it's done. Many shots are also lost due to the photographer's failure to uncover the camera's lens. Also, every camera has a small clear plastic window on its back where you can see the brand and speed of the film you're using. If you don't see numbers and bright colors in the little window, you probably don't have film in your camera. Lastly, make certain you know how to rewind and remove the film when you have used up your roll. Some final bargain pointers Use high-quality film and don't cut corners with cheap film processing. And remember that you can save a little more money by purchasing your Fuji or Kodak film at Costco or some other reputable discount chain. You can also find good film-processing by contacting your local camera club to see where its members process their own film. Which speed film to use? You can't go wrong with either 200-speed or 400-speed film. The 200-speed is a good all-purpose film for outdoors and indoors when using a flash. When shooting under overcast conditions or snapping action shots, 400-speed film is better. When practicing the Ten Terrific Tips and working to keep the "dumb" out of your photographs, you will meet with few setbacks in your learning. If you stick with the program, your travel photos can be transformed from awful to awesome, and you can also have the satisfaction of knowing you saved money in the process.

A Guide to Chesapeake Bay

North America's largest estuary, the Chesapeake commands more than 4,500 miles of shoreline, mostly in Maryland and Virginia. It's a vast water realm into which flow 19 major rivers and hundreds of smaller creeks and streams. You could spend a lifetime exploring all the bay has to offer-let me introduce you here to the highlights. I'll take you to two remote Chesapeake islands-Tangier and Smith-where the same families, descendants of early colonial-era settlers, have been farming and fishing for more than three centuries. Among themselves, they speak an Old English-type dialect that we outsiders have trouble understanding. We'll gaze at flocks of Canada geese numbering in the thousands at a national wildlife refuge, study the hard and isolated life of Chesapeake watermen in a pair of evocative museums. Here and there, you'll have an opportunity for a cooling dip at a sandy state-park beach. And though, even at their source, the Chesapeake's famed fresh crabs and oysters can be expensive, I'll show you where you can get the best deal. And every day you're by the bay, you'll be treated-at no extra charge-to magnificent waterscapes. Just off the main roads, little seems to have changed down through the decades. Getting started I've organized this guide as three varied getaways in Maryland and Virginia. All can be enjoyed on a two- or three-day trip. Put together a vacation that features just one or two or more. Got a week? Plan an 800-mile circle drive along both shores of the bay and do it all. If you're flying into Chesapeake Country, the most convenient major airport is Baltimore-Washington International, well served by Southwest Airlines. You will need a car. Thrifty (800/847-4389, thrifty.com) often offers the lowest summer rentals out of BWI. I recently found a one-week rate of $136 for an economy-size car with unlimited mileage. For the same week, Dollar (800/800-4000, dollar.com) was next lowest at $150, followed by Alamo (800/327-9633, alamo.com) at $160. The Chesapeake beckons travelers year-round. Weather-wise, spring and fall are the most pleasant seasons for many bay sports: Sailing, bicycling, hiking, and fishing. Sultry summer is the most expensive time to go-and, unfortunately, you're apt to get tangled in the crowds bound for the Atlantic beaches. Winter is best for bird-watching, when migrating geese, ducks, and swans arrive from the north. And it's definitely the least-expensive season, although snow is an occasional threat. Midweek tends to be cheaper in any season. As an example of winter savings, I made a special trip around the bay in February to find good budget lodging. In historic Yorktown, Virginia, where George Washington's troops trapped the British Army and won the Revolutionary War, my Chesapeake-view motel, the Duke of York (757/898-3232), charged just $60 a night. Since I was there as a sightseer keen on walking the well-preserved bayside battlefield, a nippy sea breeze didn't bother me a bit. In summer, when Yorktown's small beach tempts, the rate doubles. Budget tip: On the Chesapeake, you'll want to sample seafood. But slim catches due to overfishing have jacked up prices. To really save money on meals, take advantage of the region's huge chicken-raising industry. Poultry is plentiful here. Full platters of "Maryland fried chicken" go for under $6. Better yet, keep your eyes out for community-sponsored oyster roasts and chicken barbecues-popular local events. Room rates are for two people in summer, except where noted. State parks described below charge a per-car fee of $1-$3. Once around the Bay Some of you will want to see all of the Chesapeake, and I recommend you do. A week's loop around the bay-approximately 800 miles-is full of rewards for folks who enjoy exploring America's natural treasures by car. I've plotted a scenic route that will take you over soaring bridges and down quiet waterside lanes. Day 1: Begin in Annapolis, Maryland (45 minutes from Baltimore). Once a thriving colonial port, it's the home of the U.S. Naval Academy and one of the nation's major sailing and powerboat centers. Stroll bustling City Dock to see oceangoing yachts, catch a sailboat race, or grab a carry-out crab-cake sandwich at the Market House. Stay just outside Annapolis at the Super 8 (800/800-8000, $60 weekdays/$75 weekends). Or stay at an alternative lodging, the 69-room Days Inn (800/329-7466), charging $75 per room weekdays/$109 weekends. Dine on barbecue at popular Red Hot & Blue; half slab of ribs $10.99. Day 2: Just east of Annapolis, stop for a swim or hike at Sandy Point State Park and then cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge ($2.50 toll) to Maryland's Eastern Shore. Keep to bayside roads as you head south to visit the historic villages of St. Michaels, Tilghman, and Oxford. Catch the Tred Avon River car ferry from Bellevue to Oxford ($5.50) for a cheap ride on the bay. Stay in Easton at the 103-room Atlantic Budget Inn (410/822-2200, $69 weekdays/$89 weekends). Dine where the locals do at H & G Restaurant; fried oyster platter $8.25. An alternative in Cambridge, 16 miles south, is the 96-room Cambridge Inn (410/221-0800, $60 weekdays/$89 weekends). Dine down the street at Kay's Country Kitchen. Day 3: Travel more backcountry roads; they're great for bicycling, too. In Cambridge, try your luck at the Fishing Pier. To the south, stop at the 26,000-acre Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (410/228-2677) to learn about the Chesapeake's role as a winter habitat for massive flocks of waterfowl. Walk or drive the marsh-edge wildlife trail (car entry fee $3) and you might see as many as 20,000 Canada geese. Hundreds took flight as my car, one of very few on a February morning, inched along. Take the bridge-hopping road to Hooper Island for water views and lunch at Old Salty's, a fisherman's hangout. Stay in Crisfield at the Pines Motel (410/968-0900, $60 weekdays/$70 weekends) or the Somers Cove Motel (410/968-1901, $60 weekdays/$75 weekends). Dine on the bay at the Captain's Galley or down the street at the Dockside. Day 4: In summer, catch the Captain Tyler to Smith Island for the day (410/425-2771), $20. Take a look at Crisfield's crab-picking plants, where crabmeat is removed from shells. Spend another night in town. Day 5: Continue south into Virginia's Eastern Shore, pausing briefly for a look at the attractive towns of Accomac, Onancock, and Cape Charles. Swim and fish at Kiptopeke State Park. Stay and dine outside Cape Charles at the 73-room Best Western Sunset Beach Resort (800/899-4786, $89 weekdays/$99 weekends). A better deal: $64 weekdays/$76 weekends September 3-December 31; $59 weekdays/$64 weekends January 1-March 31. Another lodging option, north of Cape Charles, is the 41-room Anchor Motel in Nassawadox (757/442-6363, $60-$65). Day 6: Cross the 17-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel ($10 toll), which spans the mouth of the bay, and follow I-64 and U.S. 17 to Yorktown. Study the Chesapeake's role in the Battle of Yorktown at the Yorktown Battlefield ($4), visit the Watermen's Museum on the Yorktown waterfront, and continue north via U.S. 17 and State Routes 3 and 200 to Reedville for the night.(See "Islands Out of Time," below, for Reedville-area motels and restaurants.) Don't miss the Reedville Fishermen's Museum, $2. Day 7: Catch the tour boat to Tangier Island for the day (see below for lodging and dining on Tangier Island). Or spend another night in Reedville. Day 8: Return to Annapolis to close the loop via U.S. 360, State Route 3, and U.S. 301, stopping for a picnic on the Potomac River at Virginia's Westmoreland State Park. For a shorter Chesapeake vacation, consider the following overnight excursions: Islands Out of Time: A Bay Cruise from Reedville, Virginia, To Tangier and Smith Islands For three centuries, the families on tiny Tangier Island (Virginia) and Smith Island (Maryland) have lived by fishing the Chesapeake. In summer, they set out wire traps, called "pots," for crabs. In winter, they seek a harvest of oysters. Year-round, they battle the weather-from wind-whipped blizzards to the occasional fall hurricane. But what most interests visitors, who are welcome, is how much the islanders still do without in our age of indulgence. No hospital, no movie theater, no pubs or bars. Most get around more by boat than by car, which they leave parked on the mainland 12 miles away. From late spring into fall, tour boats from four ports carry crab-hungry sightseers to the islands, and a daily mail boat provides transportation for the residents year-round. Last year, I visited both islands on a two-day getaway out of the port of Reedville, Virginia, about four hours south of Baltimore. I like little Reedville because its historic wealth from the fishing industry is evidenced in a Main Street lined with well-kept Victorian mansions. And the Reedville departures often provide a chance to watch the town's commercial fishing fleet in action. Details: To get to know the watermen and their families-and to hear their lilting accents-stay on the islands at one of several modest bed-and-breakfast inns. On Tangier, the eight-room Chesapeake House (757/891-2331) provides lodging (shared bath), dinner, and breakfast for $40 per person. On Smith Island, the rate is $75 for two for lodging and breakfast at the four-room (shared bath) Ewell Tide Inn (888/699-2141). I stayed on the slightly cheaper mainland, taking boat trips on successive days to each of the islands (departures at 10 a.m., return 3:45 p.m.). Best bets for lodging are the 20-room Bay Motel in Reedville (804/453-5171, $59-$65) and the 29-room Whispering Pines Motel in White Stone, Virginia, about 20 miles south (804/435-1101, $59-$69). Round-trip fare to either island is $20 for adults. For Tangier, board the Chesapeake Breeze (804/453-2628); for Smith, the Captain Evans (804/453-3430). For More information National Park Service/Chesapeake Bay Program Office (800/968-7229, baygateways.net). Provides information on 90 sites offering unique Chesapeake experiences-sponsors the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network. Also contact: Virginia Tourism Corporation (800/934-9184, virginia.org); Maryland Office of Tourism Development (800/634-7386, mdisfun.org).

Austin, Texas

The lively, dynamic city of Austin boasts over half a million residents but manages to retain a sort of down-home charm too often lacking in Texas's larger cities. The liveliness is brought about by more than 50,000 students attending its well-regarded University of Texas, by the city's thriving industry of musical entertainment, a burgeoning high-tech industry, and finally by a political population of lawmakers and administrators in attendance at the State Capitol (LBJ and George W. Bush are former Austin residents). The down-home charm is aided by the beauty of the hill country, which dominates this part of central Texas. Another draw for tourists is the ease of using and enjoying the intellectual and entertainment offerings of the large university. As a state-owned institution financed by tax revenues, those facilities are available to the public at large, and most of them are absolutely free of charge. What will a stay cost? That's the best news of all. A low-cost student town in one of the least-expensive states, Austin boasts bargains as thick as black Texas crude. The standard orientation The 357 acres of the university campus are just northeast of downtown and the State Capitol building. Grand in scale (true to Texan style), the campus is dotted with oak trees and big limestone buildings with red-tile roofs. You gain a panoramic view of the area from "The Tower" of the Main Building, located near the western edge of the campus. You can also take free, one-and-a-half-hour, student-led walking tours of the campus Monday through Friday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (in May and December, 2 p.m. only) and Saturday at 2 p.m. Tours depart from the Information Desk (512/475-7348) on the ground floor of the Main Building, and like similar escorted walks at every large college in America, they feature colorful anecdotes on student life, campus lore, and local personalities. A better starting point But the real excitement of a trip to Austin is in the chance to participate in the actual intellectual life of this giant university-its daily gatherings, speakers, meetings, protests, plays and performances, even its classroom lectures and discussions, almost all of which are freely open to the public at large. And for that, you proceed to the Texas Union building (at 24th and Guadalupe Streets), which is not only the venue for many of these activities but serves as a central source of information on whatever else is happening on other parts of the campus. Schedules and announcements are obtained at the helpful Texas Union Information Center (512/475-6636, utexas.edu/student/txunion), which recently disclosed-for one short period-such stimulating no-charge events as a lecture with animal rights activist and filmmaker Josh Harper, a Latino comedy night, an appearance of James Earl Jones speaking on various aspects of theater and culture, a performance of belly dancing, several interesting exhibits, and an absolutely free sneak preview of a Hollywood film prior to its general release. The same Texas Union publishes a calendar (distributed free) of every event on campus, which you can acquire in advance of your arrival by logging on to utexas.edu/student/txunion/calendar. And the Union is well stocked with free copies of the campus newspaper, the Daily Texan (dailytexanonline.com), which lists other more impromptu speeches, meetings, and performances. The Texas Union is also the site of the well-known Cactus Cafe (512/475-6515), which presents musical performances by vocalists and instrumentalists of every kind; Billboard magazine once listed it as one of only 15 "solidly respected, savvy clubs from which careers can be cut, that work with proven names and new faces." Lyle Lovett, Allison Krauss, and Nanci Griffith are among the stars who appeared here early in their careers. Tickets for shows start at a reasonable $5, and the Cactus Cafe's menu includes pitas, bagels, pizza, and empanadas, all for under $7. Classes, plays, and concerts As at most state universities financed by taxes, large auditorium-style lectures and classes at UT can be attended free of charge and with little or no fuss (when you are one of perhaps hundreds in the audience). To sit in on smaller classes, you'll want to first check with the Registrar's Office (512/475-7575) about "auditing" a particular session. On-campus entertainment includes student-generated productions sponsored by the University's Theatre and Dance Department (tickets start at $9), and a variety of touring music and dance productions at the Performing Arts Center (tickets start at $18). For more information and schedules, call 512/471-1444 or visit utpac.org. In the world of classical music, UT's Early Music Ensemble (512/371-0099, utexas.edu/cofa/music/uteme/index.html) performs vocal and instrumental works of the medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and classic periods at Bates Recital Hall, and these are free and open to the public. The recently published, much-acclaimed Robert Caro biography of LBJ has focused renewed attention on the mammoth and fascinating Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum (512/916-5136, lbjlib.utexas.edu), which sits at the eastern edge of campus on Red River Street. Here, among other things, you can listen in on LBJ's taped phone conversations, check out the simulated Oval Office (seven-eighths the size of the original), and tour Lady Bird's former White House office, which is also re-created in exacting detail, down to the funky '60s furniture and family snapshots. This important museum is open every day 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission and parking are free. Elsewhere in Austin In this capital of Texas, you may also want to experience the residential lifestyle of the state's First Family at the Governor's Mansion (1010 Colorado Ave., 512/463-5516, governor.state.tx.us/mansion). Free tours are conducted every 20 minutes Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to noon. Across the street: The State Capitol of Texas (11th St. and Congress Ave., 512/463-0063) is 14 feet higher than the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Free tours begin every 15 minutes on weekdays, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and every 30-45 minutes on weekends, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Walk to the other side of the Capitol building and you will see a monumental 35-foot bronze star marking the entrance to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum (1800 N. Congress Ave., 512/936-8746, thestoryoftexas.com), which displays through multimedia exhibits everything you ever wanted to know about the Lone Star State for $5. Lodgings For lodging during your stay, you can always choose from every famous name in low-cost motel chains-they're all here in Austin. But my recommendations are for three more distinctive properties, named in ascending order of cost: For old-school cool and affordability, you might first choose the Austin Motel (1220 S. Congress Ave., 512/441-1157, austinmotel.com), where doubles start at only $60. Each room here is thematically unique (such as the Beach Room, the Great Wall of China Room, etc.), and there's a classic '50s pool to boot. Or try Hotel San Jose (1316 S. Congress Ave., 800/574-8897, sanjosehotel.com), surely the trendiest spot in Austin, with 40 rooms offering a taste of urban-loft living. Concrete floors and wrought-iron fixtures contrast with honey-colored wood, thick futons, and olive-green doors. The courtyard features a tiny but warm pool-made more for mingling than for laps. Rooms are $69 per double for a shared bath, $105 for private bath, and rates include continental breakfast, DSL access, and newspapers in the lobby. The historic 1888 Miller-Crockett House (112 Academy Dr., 888/441-1641, millercrockett.com) is a charming, well-appointed, plantation-style B&B run by the perky hostess, Kat Mooney. For $99, two can sleep in Caroline's Room-complete with brass bed and a balcony with a view. A gourmet breakfast is included, free evening yoga is offered on the lawn, and mountain bikes are available for guests' use at no extra charge. BBQ heaven Texas barbecue is the best the world over (proudly claim the Texans), and a great place to chow down on this specialty is local favorite Salt Lick (FM 1826, in Driftwood, 512/894-3117, saltlickbbq.com) near the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Try the heaping family-style (and family-size) meat combo for $8.95 and then top it off with freshly-made-this-morning peach cobbler (tm) la mode ($4.95)-and you'll understand why local girls Sandra Bullock and the Dixie Chicks keep coming back.

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