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The Budget Charms of Edinburgh

By Jason Cochran
June 4, 2005
Though just five hours from London, Scotland's intoxicating capital is a world apart-a timeless town of free museums, cheap inns, and a festival of festivals

They say Edinburgh's stalwart castle, which the city wears like a crown, was constructed over an extinct volcano. They say ancient subterranean streets burrow beneath the feet of its bagpipers. They say that by night, Edinburgh is the most haunted place on Earth. It's all true. As the rest of Europe chokes itself with chrome, highways, and spiraling prices, the Scottish cling defiantly to old-fashioned customs and cost. The sprawl of London may be just five hours south by rail, but it's literally another country.

You will love Edinburgh. I have yet to meet a tourist who didn't. In the bonny capital of Scotland, foot-buffed cobbles, obstinate gabled buildings, and cascades of meandering stairways assemble in the misty rain like set pieces from some forgotten literary dream, turning Edinburgh (pronounced "Edinburrah") into the otherworld most Americans expect of Europe.

History, Scot-free

A generation ago, economic gloom and a dearth of affordable lodging made visits troublesome. Things have changed. These days, Edinburgh hosts for a month each year the most vital arts festivals in the English-speaking world (see box on next page), and although amenities have caught up to meet the influx, the city retains its timeless quality. Adding to local pride, in 1998 Scotland finally regained legislative independence-residents won't let you forget it, or that the Queen Mum herself was Scottish-and its banner, a field of blue with a white cross, now flaps alongside the Union Jack. Edinburgh is now a European capital worthy of the name.

Today, in addition to statue-studded, gravestone-gray lanes, it's stocked with fine, free museums providing a tapestry of Scotland's peculiar culture and history. Queen of them all is the Museum of Scotland (Chambers St., 0131/247-4422; when calling from the U.S., precede numbers with 011-44 and drop the first zero). Purpose-built in 1998, this enormous facility turns up countless treasures dating back to the ancient past. Of the many free museums on the magical Royal Mile, my favorite is the whimsical Museum of Childhood (42 High St., 0131/529-4142). Founded by eccentric Patrick Murray (who didn't even like children), exhibits of old toys come with brittle captions: A bottle of castor oil is described as "Vintage 1900, and a fine fruity year it was. We don't see the like nowadays." Huntly House (142 Canongate, 0131/529-4143) preserves a collection of random antiques from forgotten Edinburgh. Its sister attraction, The People's Story (163 Canongate, 0131/529-4057), peers into daily life's past hardships. The charming Writer's Museum in Lady Stair's Close, off the Mile (0131/529-4901), annotates the lives of locals Robert Louis Stevenson (who set Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde here) and Sir Walter Scott (the 200-foot Gothic spire on Princes Street is also in honor of the Ivanhoe writer-a city after my heart!). With its thistle-shaped steeple presiding over the Market Cross on the Royal Mile, the High Kirk of St. Giles (0131/225-9442) dates to 1120, was once John Knox's pulpit, and is the spiritual center of Scotland (patriots show spirit by spitting on the stone heart on the sidewalk outside). Its highlight is the intricate wood-and-glass Thistle Chapel. In New Town, free attractions include the National Gallery of Scotland, astride Princes Street Gardens (which, believe it or not, were once a lake). It's not huge, but it includes some Titians, Raphaels, Cezannes, and Rembrandts (The Mound, 0131/624-6200). There's also the conservative Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (75 Belford Rd., 0131/624-6200), including Braque, Picasso, Matisse, and Lichtenstein, and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (1 Queen St., 0131/624-6200), which I find dull-except for the likeness of native son Sean Connery-but others don't. Heather and heliotropes meet at the spacious Royal Botanic Garden (one mile north of Princes St., 0131/552-7171, rbge.org.uk). All ten of those attractions are free.

You need spring for only two, maybe three, paid attractions. At the foot of the Mile (site of the new Scottish Parliament), the Palace of Holyroodhouse (£6.50/$10, 0131/556-7371), surprisingly modest beside its ruined cathedral, is the Queen's official residence in Scotland (if the flag's up, she's in). And, of course, Edinburgh Castle (£8/$12.50, 0131/225-9846), the city's nucleus, with its stupendous views, rambling ramparts, and superlative free audio tour, is justifiably the city's top attraction. After visiting these two royal strongholds, you'll never again confuse a castle for a palace, or Scotland for England. Two miles northeast, at the port of Leith, hail Britannia, for 44 years the royal globe-trotting yacht. Her last voyage was for Hong Kong's hand-over in 1997; she's now a rewarding museum, proving Her Majesty doesn't actually sleep in a queen-size bed (£8/$12.50, 0131/555-5566); take bus 34 or 22 from Princes Street to Ocean Terminal (80p/$1.25).

Eschew the traps of the Edinburgh Dungeon, Our Dynamic Earth, and the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre. You'll pay £25/$39 too much and learn little. Instead, take a ghost walk. Edinburgh pioneered the tours that many cities duplicate so dismally. At nightfall, companies solicit courageous walkers at the Tron Church and the Market Cross, both on the Mile. The ghoulish route through Mary King's Close will thrill even skeptics. On it, you explore the underground city-derelict homes, streets, and vaults-in which hundreds were sealed alive and burnt as a plague-control measure. Poltergeist chasers deem Edinburgh's crypts to be among the world's most haunted places (£6/$9.30, Mercat Tours, 0131/557-6464, mercattours.com).

Around midnight, once you're good and spooked, the Caledonian brewery west of town sighs with the fragrance of hops, giving Edinburgh-once nicknamed "Auld Reekie," or "Old Stinky"-a distinctive, nostalgic odor, like fresh loaves on the hearth, to inhabit the crannies of your memory.

Sleeping on the Rock

One major development is a crop of cheap hotels, all spotless with private bathrooms, which finally make it affordable to sleep in the dreamy warren of Old Town. The Ibis (6 Hunter Sq., 0131/240-7000, ibishotel.com), near the luminous Tron Church, brags bright, well-kept rooms with satellite TV, and the upper floors have heart-swelling views over the rooftops. Per room, the rate is £60/$94 double and £50/$78 single (£70/$108 during Festival), plus £4.95/$7.75 for an optional continental breakfast. I also favor the three-star Jurys Inn (43 Jeffrey St., 0131/200-3300, jurysdoyle.com), a Dublin-based chain. It's an eyesore, but it's steps off the Royal Mile overlooking the monuments on Calton Hill. Nothing fancy-186 business-class rooms sleeping up to four-but spacious for Old Town. Doubles are normally £72-£82/$113-$129 but winter discounts regularly halve rates. Premier Lodge (94-96 Grassmarket, 0870/700-1370, premierlodge.com) is £50/$77 per double year-round. Rooms are small but serviceable, with showers. It's by Victoria Street's galleries (my pick: Rolling Stone at No. 42, which deals in arresting Polish-theater posters), bookstores, and-be warned-pubs. Travelodge Central (33 Saint Mary's St., 0870/905-6343, travelodge.co.uk), off the Mile, is also unsightly, with an aloof staff, but it's popular; satellite TV and a paper are part of the deal, £50/$77 per double weekdays and £70/$108 per double weekends/Festival. It grants free parking-rare for Edinburgh.

If you're really scrimping, the 280-bed Castle Rock Hostel (15 Johnston Ter., 0131/225-9666, scotlands-top-hostels.com, £11-£13/$17-$21 dorm bed), on a bluff beneath the Castle and overlooking the university district, has huge rooms, terrific amenities, and a view. A splurge but one epitomizing Edinburgh's wicked charm is the Bank Hotel (1 South Bridge, 0131/622-6800, festival-inns.co.uk). It's a converted money temple at the perfect location, with nine rooms meticulously dressed to evoke a famous Scot-in the "James Young Simpson" (pioneer of anesthesia), you doze among anatomy charts and medical equipment. It's £110/$171 per double (£90/$139 single, but rates are negotiable), with giant bathrooms, a full Scottish breakfast, and a respectable yuppie pub downstairs. And if you'd rather have a flat, one of the best renters is MacKays (mackays-scotland.co.uk), which rents spacious apartments in town starting at £200/$308 a week.

Beyond haggis

In New Town, sample Victorian elegance at Cafe Royal Circle Bar (19 West Register St.), with its glazed tiles, ornate terra-cotta, and hearty hot beef with horseradish and gravy (£3.95/$6.15), or wonderfully ripe Stilton cheese with strawberries (£4.25/$6.60). The central bar dispenses local ales (£1.80/$2.80 or so), fulfilling a vital role; once, Old Town had at least a brewery a block, and even today, the Scottish £10 note depicts a whisky distillery. Tippoo Sahib (129A Rose St.) scores with a two-for-one Indian dinner special, subtle chicken kurma (£7.50/$11.60), mango-and-spice pathia chicken (£7.50/$11.60), and garlic nan (£2.50/$3.90) that could swaddle a baby. Wok Wok, a stylish chain, serves noodles with a kick (£5-£7/$7.75-$10.85, 137 George St.), but my new favorite is The Lost Sock Diner (11 East London St.), on the eastern edge of New Town. If it smells of soap, it's because it adjoins a laundromat; folks nosh as they wash. Concoctions include baked avocado (£4/$6.20), parsnip chips (£1.50/$2.30), and creamy scrambled egg with salmon and dill on a savory waffle (£4/$6.20).

Traditional Scottish fare, like the famous haggis, is unusual-as we do, modern Scots eat deep-fried junk or corporate cuisine. For dessert, or "pudding," don't order a Deep Fried Mars Bar (sadly, they exist) from a chippie; visit Casey's of Edinburgh (52 St. Mary's St.), a tiny, old-time sweet shop that makes Willy Wonka look like a rookie. Behold towers of hand-labeled jars full of Rhubarb Rock, Soor Plooms, Berwick Cockles, Raspberry Fizzies, and the gemstonelike Parma Violets. Just 56p/87¢ buys enough candy to give even the British instant sugar shock. I asked the elderly woman behind the glass counter how she controlled herself among such temptations. "Actually," she admitted, "I don't eat sweeties." And a good thing for her, too.

Glimpsing Glasgow Some Americans try to "do" Scotland with 12-hour day trips to Loch Ness-not a good plan. Glasgow, 50 miles west of Edinburgh, isn't just a better springboard, it's worth a day or two itself. ScotRail's 50-minute Edinburgh-Glasgow shuttle departs every 15 minutes; from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. it's £7.50/$11.60 round trip (at Waverley Station, scotrail.co.uk). From Glasgow, it's easy to reach much of Scotland (info: visitscotland.com), including the espresso waters of Loch Lomond, the glory hikes of the Highlands, and the pastel Isle of Skye. But if you're like me, you'll want to hurry back to bonny Edinburgh as often as possible. I admit it: I have fallen in love. I'm plaid to the bone.

Senior Editor Jason Cochran, whose forebears fled Scotland for Georgia, visits Edinburgh often; he lost count at ten visits.

Going tartan

My most recent trips to Edinburgh were handled by go-today.com, which charges $499 for six-night air/hotel packages from New York, $649 from Chicago, and $679 from San Francisco and Los Angeles, November 1 to February 28, per person, double. Prices are around $150 higher in March.

No North American carrier flies direct to Edinburgh's small airport, but Glasgow is nearby; Continental (800/525-0280, continental.com) flies there from New York and Air Canada (888/247-2262) flies from Toronto; British Airways (800/247-9297, britishairways.com) can bring you from many U.S. cities via London.

Maximize your trip by flying to London and reaching Scotland by other means: by overnight coach from Victoria Station to St. Andrews Square, New Town, for £35/$55 round trip (gobycoach.com), or by five-hour train from King's Cross to Waverley stations for £35/$54 round-trip advance purchase (gner.co.uk).

The festival of festivals

When people say they're off to the summer "Edinburgh Festival," they really mean to August's six simultaneous festivals.

Edinburgh is packed then, so book hotels far ahead (six months isn't too early). But unless there's a show you must see, don't buy tickets in advance. Do what everyone does: Read the local paper to catch the buzz, then head to the ticket offices.

The Fringe is the queen of the August festivals, hosting nearly 1,500 shows and comics and some 20,000 performances in three weeks. The cheapest are £3/$4.65, and since curtains begin rising in the morning, it's easy to get carried away (box office: 180 Royal Mile, 0131/226-0026, edfringe.com). You can have a complete Fringe experience without paying a pence. With the city awash in art, performers give away tickets just to build word of mouth. Stroll up the Royal Mile-among the fire-eaters, jugglers, and musicians-and fend off the invitations. Not all shows are good, but most are creative and interesting. The original International Festival (0131/473-2001, eif.co.uk) mounts highbrow dance, opera, and theater. Prices range from £5/$7.75 for matinees to £30/$46 for opera. Buy these ahead; they aren't discounted much, so don't hope for freebies unless a show's unpopular (read: terrible). Another one to buy ahead is the Military Tattoo (box office: 33-34 Market St., 0131/225-1188, edinburgh-tattoo.co.uk). As the sun goes down each August evening, torches flare like flags and hundreds of bekilted bagpipers paint the summer breeze plaid. The £25/$39 tickets are too much; the lateral £9/$14 seats are adequate. Other concurrent festivals (with few discounts) include the 12-day International Film Festival (0131/229-2550, edfilmfest.org.uk); past premieres include Velvet Goldmine starring local boy Ewan McGregor. The 17-day International Book Festival (about £7/$11 per event, 0131/624-5050, edbookfest.co.uk) regularly attracts 100,000 to New Town's Charlotte Square and focuses on author talks, particularly by Scottish writers. The 10-day Jazz & Blues Festival (jazzmusic.co.uk) is the U.K.'s oldest and is held starting in late July. The Scotsman, a local paper, summarizes all attractions at edinburghfestivals.co.uk.

Plan ahead for Hogmanay, the New Year's party attracting some 100,000. Tickets are mandatory; hotels tend to supply them to guests (hogmanay.net).

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Who Doesn't Love the Idea of Having a House in Hawaii?

In our May issue, we published a list of 50 Hawaiian B&Bs, making the point that generic hotels are not the only lodging option in the fiftieth state. But why be cooped up in a single room when you can have an entire house? Island vacation rentals are another low-cost alternative, with fully equipped condominiums from $330 a week, roomy cottages from $350, and complete homes from $525. And we're talking amenities such as Jacuzzis and tennis courts, with settings sometimes yards away from a beach or tropical rain forest. That's what you'll find in the following list of rental bargains on Hawaii's four main islands. You may never stay in a claustrophobic hotel room again. Beyond the bargain rentals listed below, search such online directories as Unique Hawaiian Experiences, Affordable Paradise, Goin2Travel Vacation Rentals, or A1 Vacation Rentals. Keep in mind that rates tend to require at least a few nights' stay, fluctuate between summer and winter (most low rates listed here are for summer), and don't include taxes or cleaning fees. Costs for extra persons are usually reasonable -- as low as $10 per night. OAHU Aloha Beach Vacation Rentals (888/259-5023, vacationrentalshawaii.com) offer two separate homes, of which our favorite is a simple two-bedroom, two-story structure in Waimanalo on Oahu's eastern coast, with a coconut-tree-filled garden, a 12-person Jacuzzi, and a large kitchen. Rates start at $623 per week. Aloha Waikiki Vacation Condos (800/655-6055, waikiki-condos.com) also rent out a number of different digs -- studio apartments in high-rises scattered throughout Waikiki, for $330 a week; one-bedrooms (sleeping four) for $623 a week. All accommodations are within walking distance of the beach. 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A wood-burning sauna and a hot tub are on the property; showers flow with soft, collected rainwater; all in all, the experience is like that of Robinson Crusoe in paradise. From $350 per week. Andrea's Maui Oceanfront Condos (800/289-1522, mauicondos.com) are run by 23-year Maui resident Andrea, who happily rents out (with her daughter Jill) modern, large, and roomy one- and two-bedroom condos in the popular Kihei area starting at $693 a week. A bonus: They can supply you with goodies like free snorkel rentals, two-for-one dinner coupons, drink specials, and discounts for golf and local attractions. Haiku Getaway (800/680-4946, vacationrentalmaui.com) offers three out-of-the-way rentals (two rooms and a two-bedroom cottage) in verdant Haiku on the north shore. The Tangerine Room starts at $455 a week; you can rent the entire cottage for $700 a week. 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If that doesn't whet your appetite, how do rates starting at $330 a week sound? Hale Ono (877/924-7464, interpac.net/~waipiohi) is at the edge of the dramatic Waipio Valley, rich in history and greenery, and next to 40 acres of pastureland. The one-bedroom rental has a full kitchen, living room, and lanai, all starting at $510 a week. KAUAI Annie's Condos and Studios (800/481-4991, anniescondoskauai.com) are right on the Princeville golf course, a 10-minute walk to Anini Beach and come with fully equipped kitchens and pool access. Rates start at $435 a week. Aloha Estates at Kalaheo Plantation (808/332-7812, kalaheo-plantation.com) is a renovated, plantation-style house from the 1920s with six suites that can be rented out individually or together (the house sleeps a maximum of 12 adults and 4 children), many with full kitchens. Rooms start at just $299 per week. 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Family

10 Best Bargain-Priced Family Vacations

For our readers with kids (those fortunate folks!), Budget Travel has asked America's foremost expert on family travel to select what she regards as the top budget-priced family vacations for the year ahead. She's responded not simply with names but with prices, addresses, and phone numbers for snaring a reservation without further ado. At the start of a new year, it's appropriate that we should select prize-winning family vacations available throughout the year, in every season. Though we may highlight an especially low price available only during one season, each of the vacations we've described below is offered at reasonable rates in all 12 months. Our choices fall into 10 basic categories and number around 30 different specific programs, resorts, or facilities. The envelope, please, and the winners are... 1. Family camps  They are a way to have some fun in the woods, watch the leaves change colors, and later, play in the snow without paying for a pricey ski condo. There are kids' activities, meals available, and plenty of wildlife. And in summer there are plenty of affordable packages, too. The YMCA of the Rockies' Snow Mountain Ranch in Winter Park, Colorado, has 5,100 pristine acres near world-class ski resorts; room for 2,500 people in lodges and cabins; organized activities for children three and older; miles of hiking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing trails; an indoor pool and gym, even a climbing wall; and horseback riding in summer. Rates for a two-bedroom cabin start at $126 per night with fully equipped kitchens; lodge rooms as low as $50. The YMCA also runs an even larger resort in Estes Park, Colorado, that is known along with Snow Mountain Ranch for hosting large family reunions. Visit ymcarockies.org or call Snow Mountain Ranch at 970/887-2152; Estes Park at 970-586-3341. Elsewhere in America, Montecito-Sequoia Lodge is between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks on Lake Homovalo in California. The lodge has two big stone fireplaces and a deck to take in the view of the Great Western Divide. Stay in a lodge room with private bathroom or a rustic cabin with a wood-burning stove and bathhouse nearby. Stuff to do includes hiking, fishing, canoeing, tennis, and organized kids' activities such as all-day programs in summer and plenty of sing-alongs around the campfire. In winter, tube, sled, cross-country ski, or snowshoe. Packages include meals. Midweek stays in fall (until just before Thanksgiving) start at $180 per night for four in a cabin, including breakfast, dinner, and activities. Book a Thanksgiving package for four nights and five days for under $1,200, including meals, kids' activities, guided hikes, and more. Other winter packages cost less in cabins, slightly more for stays in the lodge. Visit mslodge.com or call 800/227-9900 or 650/967-8612. 2. Dude ranches  Some of them are open year-round and are just as much fun when the leaves are changing in autumn and snow is falling in winter. Malibu Ranch, in Milford, Pennsylvania, is on a thousand acres of forested land in the Poconos just 75 miles from New York City. It's the oldest working dude ranch in the East. The kids can swim in the indoor pool, fish, try pinball, dance, play with Bobo the donkey, and--of course--ride horseback. You can also ski in the winter. Five-day/four-night packages, including meals and riding, average $930 for a family of four. Two-night winter weekend packages for a family of four are $555. Contact 800/862-5428 or malibududeranch.com. Alternately, you can be a real Texas cowboy at the Flying L Guest Ranch, 40 miles northwest of San Antonio in the spectacular Texas Hill Country. The Flying L has hosted John Wayne and Willie Nelson, among others, and now spreads over 700 acres. There's breakfast and dinner, nightly western entertainment. Swim outdoors year-round, play tennis, golf, or fish in the San Julian Creek. If you don't want to ride, you can traipse miles of hiking trails. All-inclusive rates average $90 per night for adults and $40 for kids and teens. Contact 800/292-5134 or flyingl.com. You can also book these ranches and other affordable adventure trips through Gorp Travel at gorptravel.com or 877/440-4677. 3. Working farms Younger children love farms where they can gather eggs for their breakfast, milk a cow, feed the goats, or go for a hayride. At The Inn at East Hill Farm in Troy, New Hampshire, they can learn to water-ski in summer; ice-skate in winter; hike in the fall. In winter, there are sleigh rides, cross-country skiing, an indoor pool, and daily kids' activities. Bring the family before Christmas and cut down your own Christmas tree at a nearby farm. Fall rates, including meals and activities, average $78 per night for adults and $58 for kids; slightly higher for winter and summer stays of less than five nights. We know families who return year after year. Learn more at 800/242-6495 or east-hill-farm.com. 4. Hulas and such  Hawaii can be more affordable than you might think, with off-season packages and bargain airfares. Get every fifth night free mid-April to mid-December with packages starting under $175 per night for one-bedroom Maui condos booked with Destination Resorts Hawaii, the largest condo company in the upscale area of Wailea. There are special car rental, tennis, and golf packages as well as larger units, ideal for family reunions. They'll even buy your groceries for you before you arrive. Contact 800/367-5246 or drhmaui.com. While on Maui between May and November, pay $54.50 (a $20 savings) and take a child free on the Pacific Whale Foundation's ecotrip to watch the dolphins play, and then snorkel at a partially submerged volcanic crater. Naturalists will point out the Hawaiian green sea turtles. Contact 800/942-5311 or pacificwhale.org. Throughout the fall, pay just $73 a night ($90 in summer), including continental breakfast, at the newly renovated Aston Aloha Surf Hotel in Waikiki. The kids will love the hotel's surfing theme. Kids' Camp costs $40 daily, including lunch and snacks. Call 800/922-7866 or log on to astonhotels.com for deals throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Outrigger's Ohana Hotels (ohana means "family" in Hawaiian) are a block or two from the beach but have rates as low as $69, based on availability. Rooms with kitchenettes start at $119. Book the "Big Kahuna" package for five nights and get a free night, plus some other goodies (800/462-6262, outrigger.com). California-based Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays has some of the best air/hotel packages around, starting at just over $500 per person from the West Coast for Oahu. There are also good air/hotel deals from Chicago and New York, starting at $767 per person. Ask about added values like free nights, complimentary room upgrades, and food and beverage credits (pleasant.net, 800/242-9244). 5. Mexican beaches  All-inclusive resorts are always a hit because everyone can do what they want, when they want, and there are plenty of organized activities for the kids as well as other children for yours to pal around with. Usually you can get bargain rates throughout the Caribbean until mid-December and then again from just after Easter all the way to Thanksgiving and beyond. A trip to Mexico can really be a bargain and will give the kids a chance to practice their Spanish and see a different culture. At Allegro Resorts, kids can stay and play free until December 20 and then again during the summer. All-inclusive rates for a family of four start at $160 per night, including meals, liquor, sports, and kids' activities. Contact 800/858-2258 or allegroresorts.com. Akumal's Club Caribe is one of my favorites, south of Cancon's crowds but smack in the middle of the Yucatan coast, with prime snorkeling, diving, and plenty of Maya ruins to explore. Rates start at under $150 per day, including parents' meals. Costa Azul, an hour north of Puerto Vallarta in San Francisco, Mexico, is a soft-adventure resort ideal for preteens and teenagers where they can swim through caves, trek through jungles, kayak to hidden coves, and learn to surf. Room rates start at under $100 for a family of four. Book Akumal or Costa Azul at Rascals in Paradise, (800/872-7225 or rascalsinparadise.com), where you can also ask about other bargain finds. 6. Cruises offer the benefits of an all-inclusive vacation with the added plus of being able to explore many new places during one trip. They are especially good bets if the grandparents are coming. There are morning-till-night activities for children as young as three on most major cruise ships and plenty to keep adults busy, no matter what their ages. And, because of increased competition in the industry, cruising has never been more affordable. Even cruises to Alaska and Europe can be had for under $900 per person, less for kids. Carnival Cruises and the Disney Cruise Line are especially popular with budget-minded multigenerational groups. Kids will love the waterslides on Carnival ships and Disney's private island--Castaway Cay--complete with a jungle gym that's anchored in the water. Seven-night cruise packages for fall until just before Christmas, and in late spring, start at $799 for adults and $399 for kids up to age 12 who share a stateroom with two parents. There are also shorter cruises available. Contact 888/325-2500 or disneycruise.com. Check Carnival's Web site at carnival.com for specials under $500 per person per week. Call 888/227-6482. Cruises Only (800/278-4737 or cruisesonly.com) can offer substantial discounts. 7. Go granny  Grandparents are taking the grandkids on more trips than ever, leaving moms and dads behind. Elderhostel (877/426-8056, elderhostel.org) offers some of the best grandparents-with-grandkids deals anywhere, among them some 140 different intergenerational trips where families can spend a week between Christmas and New Year's Day exploring Yellowstone National Park, or in Minnesota learning about animal-tracking, bird-banding, wolves and deer, weather, and lake ecology (through the ice!). There are year-round programs in the United States, Canada, and abroad--take a Grand Canyon river excursion or a train trip in Louisiana. Packages start at under $500 per person including meals, accommodations, and programs. 8. Breakfast with Mickey Mouse Every family wants to go to Orlando at least once, and if you plan smart - say a long fall weekend or January after the holidays--you may find a trip to Mouseville more affordable than you might think, with deeply discounted hotel and air deals available. Even better, the crowds won't be nearly as large. After a hard day at the Orlando theme parks, come home to your own pool and plenty of space in a four-bedroom, three-bath house for just $105 a night; three-night minimum. For this and other top deals in Orlando, call Leisure Link International at 888/801-8808 or visit eleisurelink.com. If it's your first trip and you're planning to concentrate your time within Disney World, stay at one of Disney's own budget-priced properties (All-Star Sports, Music, or Movies Resorts) for as little as $80 per night (less for campsites), entitling you also to use Disney World's free transportation system and thus avoid a car rental. Call 407/934-7639 or visit disneyworld.com. Finally, grandparents and parents who are 50 or older save big-time at the Holiday Inn Family Suites Resort (877/387-5437, hifamilysuites.com), paying as little in some off-season periods as $89 a night or less. The older you are, the less you shell out for a two-bedroom suite complete with free breakfast (kids eat all their meals free), VCR, and separate TVs and video games for the kids. There are good deals for younger parents too. 9. Giant faces, buffalo, and more  On a visit to the Badlands of South Dakota, the kids can count all of the different license plates in the parking lot of Mount Rushmore, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary. (Get more Mount Rushmore information at nps.gov/moru or 605/574-2523.) Kids can't climb on the monuments, but Mount Rushmore can still serve as a welcome respite during an interminable cross-country trip or the centerpiece for a family vacation that's certain to please. You can explore caves, pick up rocks blasted from the mountain where the colossal statue of Chief Crazy Horse is a work in progress, join a "dig" at the Mammoth Site where more than 50 giant mammoths were trapped more than 26,000 years ago, and take a Jeep tour through a buffalo herd. Call 800/952-3625 or visit South Dakota's official tourist site at travelsd.com or blackhillsbadlands.com, the site of the Black Hills, Badlands & Lakes Association, which lists 50 "G-rated" family attractions in the region. Stay also at Custer State Park, where besides seeing the buffalo, you can rent an old-fashioned cabin on a lake starting at under $100 a night, go gold-panning, or make animal tracks with the kids at hands-on junior naturalist programs. Contact 800/658-3530 or state.sd.us/sdparks. 10. The time machine  Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown are absorbing year-round, as historic interpreters dressed in period costumes help thoroughly modern families appreciate what life was life without TVs, computers, or indoor plumbing. In eighteenth-century Williamsburg, you'll find the largest outdoor living history museum. The kids can help weed the garden in spring, make bricks in summer, or attend a slave couple's wedding in winter. Visit in summer and you can also go to Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA. Families can book a four-night/five-day stay, including accommodations and unlimited admission for $700 or less. If you go in the winter, you won't have the roller coasters but you will have fewer crowds and can join holiday celebrations. More information at 800/465-5563 or williamsburgfun.com. Money-saving smarts 1. Alternate pricey attractions with those that are free--a hike in the woods, the best playground in the area, a tour of the local potato-chip factory. 2. Set the souvenir budget before you leave home and stick to it. Suggest the kids start collections along the way-postcards, pins, patches, for example. 3. Always ask when you call for reservations if there are any other discount deals available-kids eat free, a room upgrade, a second room at half price, etc. Playing hooky 1. Carefully check the calendar to make sure your children won't be missing a school concert, championship soccer game, or dance. 2. As soon as you have your trip tentatively scheduled, inform the teacher. Ask for the work ahead of time and suggestions of how your children can share the experience with their classmates. An oral report when they return? A photo journal? 3. Buy your children journals so they can keep a daily record of what they're seeing and doing. 4. Set aside "homework time" every day so they don't fall behind. 5. Bring some goodies back to share with the class from the region you're visiting. Get the kids involved 1. Get out a map and talk about where you want to go and what you want to do. Even the four-year-old will have an opinion. 2. Make sure everyone gets at least some of their picks on the itinerary. 3. If the kids are old enough, suggest each one plan a day's activities. 4. Surf the Web with them to find where you want to go, the best deals to get there, and what to do once you've arrived. Often, the kids are the best Web browsers in the family. 5. Consider inviting a friend for an only child or for a sole preteen or teen in the family. He or she will be much happier.

One-of-a-kind Hawaii Cruise Deals

Perhaps you'd love to take a cruise--a week at sea with nothing to do but have fun. Then again, it might be nice for a few days just to veg on the beach--not just any beach, but Waikiki, sipping a mai tai under the palm trees. OK, do you'd like to do both--but not pay too much for either...oh, and get some cheap airfare thrown in to cover it all. Would you believe it actually can be done? United Airlines has a branch of the frequent flier program called Cruise4Miles (888-666-8120, cruise4miles.com/ )--you can earn miles by buying cruises, or redeem airlines miles earned for a cruise. Anyone who signs up for the frequent flyer program (which is free) can get in on these deals. The logistical (and economic) problem with most cruises is that airfare is rarely included in the base price, and can often be pretty expensive. Same goes for the land portion of your trip, by which I mean landlubbing lodgings. Most folks arrive in the port of embarkation a day or two before the ship sets sail, and/or sometimes choose not to return home until the day after the cruise puts into port, which means you're stuck finding a night's hotel accommodations on either end of your cruise. Well, with a cruise shop run by an airline, one that is also adept at putting together air/hotel packages, that problem is niftily solved. Everything but the kitchen sink And boy, how niftily. Rather than charge everyone from each gateway a different rate, the base price--which covers roundtrip airfare, the seven-day cruise, and two nights lodging in Honolulu before or after the trip--is $1,399 from dozens of cities on the East Coast, Midwest, and Southwest. (That in of itself is a bit unusual--a cheap Hawaii deal not from the West Coast). The list of possible departure cities includes Atlanta, Albuquerque, Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, Colorado Springs, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Grand Rapids, Houston, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Memphis, Miami, Milwaukee, Orlando, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New Orleans, Newark, New York (LaGuardia), Omaha, Philadelphia, Tampa, and Washington, DC. The ship sails pretty much weekly from Sept 14 through Jan 4, but the cheapest rate--that $1,399--is available on the following sail dates: Oct 26, Nov 16, Dec 7, Dec 14, and Jan 4. You pick which end of the cruise you want to spend your two free nights in Honolulu at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani (princess-kaiulani.com/) or a similar property. (Sadly, you cannot split them up for one before and one after. Ah, well.) The cruise itself aboard the Norwegian Star (ncl.com/ ) has restaurants, 14 bars and lounges, swimming pool and gym, etc.--lasts seven days. You leave Honolulu at 8pm to arrive at Hilo by 6am. You have seven hours to enjoy the Big Island before steaming off again at 1pm to spend a day and a half at sea en route to a 9am docking just across the International Date Line on Fanning Island in the Republic of Kiribati (one island up from Christmas Island; a silly US law forces foreign-flagged ships to hit at least one foreign port before returning to US soil). At 3pm it's time to head back Hawaii-way, arriving 46 hours later at Kahului on Maui, where you hang for the entire afternoon. At 10pm you set of again to steam overnight toward Nawiliwili, where you arrive at 8am for an eight-hour day on Kauai. Then at 4pm it's back on the boat for the final leg back to Honolulu, where you get in at 7am. Once again, go to Cruise4Miles (888-666-8120, cruise4miles.com/) to learn more about this offer.

The Big Island's Big Budget Road Trip

The Big Island of Hawaii -- why go there? As a former resident of the island, I can tell you it's the closest thing to the Hawaii of old and the Hawaii of your dreams. It's the very opposite of urban, with small rural towns occupied by relaxed, kindly, slow-paced people who savor the tradition of "aloha," and with far fewer high-rise hotels or swarms of tourists than its neighbor islands. More importantly, it is home to the longest volcanic eruption in recorded history (since 1983) at the Pu'u O'o Vent. The burgeoning landmass contains a dozen or so distinct microclimates, and is topped by two 13,000-foot-plus volcanoes, which are often snowcapped in the winter. You'll find no other island in the chain as wild or extreme. How best to enjoy it? On a road trip. The Big Island is nearly the size of Connecticut and is ringed by a long loop highway, lending itself to old-fashioned exploration by car. Since the complete route is well over 300 miles long, you'll want to break up the trip into at least four overnights in different regions, using the hotels listed here as bases for exploring. Start in sunny Kona I suggest beginning your drive on the western coast in desert-like Kona, and heading counter-clockwise around the entire island. Kailua-Kona, 15 minutes south of the airport, is a peaceful, arid town flanked by hardened lava flows. Spend your first night here. Along Kailua-Kona's main street, Ali'i Drive, is the first Christian church built in Hawaii (out of lava rock, no less), as well as the Hulihe'e Palace (admission $5), featuring koa wood furniture, historical photographs, and items belonging to the Hawaiian royalty who resided there. The rest of the town is home to quaint shops and overpriced eateries. To avoid the latter, nip into the very local Ocean View Inn (75-5683 Ali'i Drive, 808/329-9998), with an enormous menu of Hawaiian, Chinese, and American dishes -- reflecting the diverse make-up of the island. The atmosphere is old-fashioned coffee shop, and huge breakfasts hover around $5, while lunches and dinners are only $6 to $11. A great outdoor cafe is Huggo's on the Rocks (75-5828 Kahakai Road, 808/329-1493), where you munch on meal-size pupus (appetizers) like Thai curry pizza for $9.95, or large Caesar salads for $8.95 while taking in the magnificent Kona sunset and listening to the free live Hawaiian music. Kona coffee, grown in the uniquely rich volcanic soil, is known the world over. Be sure to drive up Highway 180 in the green hills above Kailua-Kona to the historic town of Holualoa, where you can view coffee being grown and roasted at the private farm of Kona Pride Coffee (808/327-1488). Its price of $18 a pound is well under the $25 charged by other, more commercial farms. Lodging for your first night? In Kailua-Kona, the best budget option is just south of town at the Kona Tiki Hotel (75-5968 Ali'i Drive, 808/329-1425), with prices of about $59 for a double. Although over 50 years old, it's well kept; all 15 rooms front the ocean, have balconies, and there's a swimming pool above the pounding surf. Another reasonable option is the Royal Kona Resort (75-5852 Ali'i Drive, 808/329-3111), with three sloping towers right on the ocean, all rooms with balconies, and a great authentic luau right on the ocean to boot. Doubles run approximately $89. Heading south to history Wake up the next morning and head south on Highway 11 from Kailua-Kona, where the road snakes up to 1,000 feet in elevation, and bougainvillea bushes, jacaranda trees, and coffee plantations float by your car as you pass through quaint towns. Turn right on Napo'opo'o Road as it winds down the hill to historic Kealakekua Bay. It was here that the first European to visit the island, Captain Cook, was killed in battle. A nearby stone heiau (Hawaiian temple) sits mystically on the shore. Continue south on the coast on Road 160 from the bay, and you'll discover the fascinating Pu'uhonua O Honaunau, or Place of Refuge National Historical Park (entrance fee $5), filled with Polynesian stone temples. Any breakers of a kapu (taboo) could have their transgressions absolved here by a kahuna (priest). The adjoining rocky cove is free to the public and makes a perfect snorkeling spot in the blue water, where dolphins often frolic around the swimmers. Heading from the park towards Highway 11, you'll pass the funky Wakefield Gardens (808/328-9930), a hidden-away patio restaurant set among lush foliage and flowers. Its fresh mahimahi sandwiches are served with tropical fruit and island cole slaw for $9, and "papaya boats" overflow with tuna salad for $8. Winding through Lavaland The highway then twists and turns through old black lava flows (the road had to be rebuilt a few times because of them) and through rural pastures and macadamia nut tree orchards. An hour farther on Highway 11 is the turn-off for South Point. The southernmost point in the United States, this grassy and windswept tip of the island is where the Polynesians first set foot in Hawaii around the third century A.D., having miraculously navigated almost 2,000 miles of open ocean. An old heiau is where Hawaiians believe their souls fly off the island after death. Back on Highway 11, you'll next pass through the lovely village of Na'alehu, overgrown with thick foliage. Mark Twain planted a monkey-pod tree here in 1866, and the gentle town hasn't changed much since. To soak up the undisturbed peace and quiet for your second night, check into the Shirakawa Motel (808/929-7462), just off the main highway. Simple but clean rooms underneath a canopy of luxuriant trees go for the rock-bottom rate of $35. An alternative accommodation for your second night is about a half hour farther along the highway. The road past Na'alehu opens up to immense expanses of lava flow dotted with red-blossomed ohia trees. Take the turnoff for the tucked-away Wood Valley, home to the tiny Wood Valley Temple and Retreat Center (808/928-8539), a Buddhist sanctuary once visited by the Dalai Lama. Beds in the adjoining dormitory cost $35, while private rooms go for $70 per couple. The home of Pele: Volcanoes National Park On your third day of driving, the road past Wood Valley once again climbs, this time to 3,000 feet, near the entrance of the mystifying Volcanoes National Park (entrance fee: $10 per car). Thousands of visitors a year peer into the depths of the steaming craters and crevices. This area is home to Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, and offerings of flowers and gin bottles are still thrown into the craters by believers. At times, lava flows spill into the ocean, creating a glowing spectacle, but the best views are only via helicopter. Otherworldly hiking trails over hardened lava cauldrons make you feel like you are visiting another planet. The nearby village of Volcano is cool and misty and full of mysterious fern trees. Your third-night accommodations should be at the Hale Ohia Cottages (808/967-7986), starting at $95 for a double and worth every penny. Built in 1931, these wood-shingled cottages appear like fairy castles in the forest. For women only, the Butterfly Inn in nearby Kurtistown (800/546-2442) has B&B-style rooms for only $55 single, $65 double, which includes breakfast and access to a steam room, hot tub, and beautiful gardens. Lush and wet Hilo Another option for your third night is to take Highway 11 an hour north and overnight in Hilo instead. The road to Hilo passes wild orchids blooming on the verdant roadside, and numerous gardens and nurseries beckon you to smell their tropical flowers. Hilo itself is the rainiest city in the United States. Its weathered storefronts hark back to its wealthy past as a booming sugar town. Well-watered Hilo is alive with banyan trees, plumeria, birds of paradise, and other exotic tropical plants, and it's home to the photogenic Rainbow Falls, just behind the downtown area. My Hilo lodging recommendation is the two-story, island-style Wild Ginger Inn (100 Pu'ueo Street, 800/882-1887), with banana bunches hanging in the bamboo lobby. Doubles cost only $65. A favorite for eats is Bears Coffee (106 Keawe Street, 808/935-0708), where local characters sit on sidewalk chairs and munch on overstuffed deli sandwiches for $4.25, and on fresh island breakfasts of eggs, bagels and lox, or waffles ranging from $3 to $4. North of Hilo, Highway 11 becomes Highway 19 as it coasts past abandoned fields of waving sugar cane and deep gorges filled with tall trees and overflowing creeks. Take a detour on Route 240 to its end, nine miles later, at the majestic Waipio Valley, once a major Hawaiian settlement and home to kings. Horse-drawn wagon tours with knowledgeable Hawaiian guides are just $40 with Waipio Valley Wagon Tours (808/775-9518). Hawaii's wild west Highway 19 curves westward up to the cowboy town of Waimea, headquarters of the enormous Parker Ranch. Cacti, cows, and horseback riders dot the panoramic landscape, which looks like something shipped in from Montana. For your fourth night, stay at the 30-room, motel-style Kamuela Inn (Highway 19, 800/555-8968), at $59 per room, or choose the cozy Waimea Country Lodge (65-1210 Lindsey Road, 808/885-4100), a motel with a red barn-like motif for $93 a room, some with views of the mountains. Afterwards, detour north on Highway 250 along the Kohala Mountains to the amiable town of Hawi, filled with art galleries. A must-eat venue is the historic Bamboo Restaurant on Highway 270 (808/889-5555), in a former hotel lobby offering the best chicken potstickers in the world for $7.95 a plate, and enormous burgers with cole slaw and french fries for $7.50. The road south from Hawi to Kailua-Kona is lined with pricey megaresorts, but be sure to stop by the best beach on the island, snow-white Hapuna Beach, about halfway to your starting point of Kailua-Kona. All told, this exotic tropical trip can be a breeze on the wallet -- now that you have a former resident's scoop. Budget Travel Associate Editor Matthew Link is the author of the 250-page guidebook Rainbow Handbook Hawaii.

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