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Sierra Gold Country

By James T. Yenckel
June 4, 2005
vines, grapes, harvest, landscape, vineyard, amador, cunty, northern, california, gold, country, sierra, nevada, mountains, rush
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Find the secret romance of the West on this budget-friendly drive through Sierra Gold Country.

With a flick of the reins, the driver urged his sturdy horses into a gallop as the lumbering old stagecoach approached an incline in the dusty road ahead. Bouncing behind him, my wife, Sandy, and I grabbed the edge of our hardwood seats and held on tightly. "Keep your eyes open," the driver shouted over the rackety din. "We might run into bandits around the next bend." And, sure enough, we did. Stagecoach? Bandits? What's going on here?

As excited as kids, we were reliving the romance of the 1849 California Gold Rush. Stagecoaches like the one to which we clung once linked the mining camps that sprang up in the rugged foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The rare chance to ride in an authentic coach was just one historical episode among many in our four-day, 540-mile drive into Gold Country.

Though some forty-niners struck it rich, you won't need a bag of nuggets to explore the region, which has become a popular weekend retreat for folks from the nearby San Francisco Bay Area. This is good budget travel territory, where appealing lodgings and Old West-style caf,s come at affordable prices. Much of what you will want to see and do is free-or almost so.

Speaking of nuggets, many visitors still pan for gold in the rushing streams that cascade out of the Sierras. And with a quick lesson in the art of handling the pan-offered throughout Gold Country-you might go home with a bit of gold dust, a nugget, or even your own bonanza. California still mines millions of dollars of gold annually.

But panning is hard work; I know firsthand. For less-demanding fun: Go white-water rafting; tour a former gold mine; view one of the world's largest gold nuggets (13 pounds); hike among giant sequoia trees; quaff a beer in an authentic miner's saloon; or sip (for free) the very fine wines of Amador County, where more than 20 wineries are clustered in the sunny hills just outside the town of Plymouth.

Relics of the legendary quest for gold are everywhere on this very scenic drive-in the crumbling stone walls of a former Wells Fargo office or the rusting machinery of abandoned mines. But the principal vestiges of the colorful era are the onetime camps and boomtowns scattered about the hills wherever gold was discovered, some all but hidden now down shady country roads.

Many became decaying ghost towns, but others have prospered from tourism, like Angels Camp, where Mark Twain was inspired to write The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. The two once-rollicking towns of Columbia and Coloma (site of the first gold discovery) have been carefully preserved as state historic parks, where the Gold Rush story is excitingly told.

The discovery had a profound impact on California and America, uniting the eastern seaboard with the vast western lands that had recently been won from Mexico. As you tour, count the easygoing history lesson as a value-added bonus of the drive.

Getting started

For us, Gold Country made an ideal add-on to a trip to San Francisco, getting us out of the city and into the quieter countryside. The San Francisco Bay Area's three major airports-San Francisco International, Oakland International, and San Jose International-are reasonably convenient to the drive. Airfares into Oakland and San Jose, served by Southwest Airlines, the nation's largest no-frills airline, tend to be cheaper. No discount airline currently flies into San Francisco.

When we made our arrangements, the Internet showed seven car-rental agencies at Oakland's airport-including Budget (800/527-0700, budget.com), Thrifty (800/847-4389, thrifty.com), and Dollar (800/800-4000, dollar.com)-all offering a compact car for a week with unlimited miles for about $150.

The main road threading Gold Country, California Route 49, is aptly dubbed the "Mother Lode Highway." Mostly two lanes and endlessly winding, it stretches 310 miles north from the foothill town of Oakhurst, just outside Yosemite National Park, to Vinton, north of Lake Tahoe. You may want to tackle the entire route, but I've shortened the itinerary to focus on the most historically interesting and scenic segment. (Lodging rates listed are for two people during summer high season.)

Day one: On the road

San Francisco to Mariposa, 215 miles One good reason to make Mariposa your first stop in Gold Country is that it still has the look of a frontier town that briefly lured fortune hunters from around the world. But the number one reason, I think, is to gaze in awe at the huge, 13-pound Fricot Nugget. One of the largest and finest specimens in the world, it was found in 1865 in the Middle Fork on the American River about 100 miles north. Value: about $1 million to $3 million-if you discount all historical worth. Imagine stumbling across it. Sort of makes you want to spend a little time panning on your own, no matter how strenuous.

The crystalline nugget, bright and shiny, is displayed at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum (adults, $2), where exhibits provide a good introduction to gold-mining techniques. The first forty-niners sifted the rivers flowing down the western slopes of the Sierras for placer gold, flakes, and nuggets swept from the mountains as gravel by raging currents. By the mid-1850s, however, the easy gold was gone, and big investment money was needed to tunnel for the hard-rock gold that remained. To learn more about this aspect of the frantic gold quest, step into the museum's 175-foot-long simulated mine tunnel. It's so realistic, I sort of hurried through, fearful that the ceiling might cave in.

Save time, too, for the Mariposa Museum and History Center ($3), which displays even more gold-mining artifacts, including a typical one-room miner's cabin, a giant freight wagon, and a stamp mill-a monster machine that crushed ore to particles of sand, releasing the gold from the quartz. Excerpts from miners' letters sent back home to family and friends detail the hardscrabble life in a mining camp.

Details

From San Francisco, take I-80 and I-580 east to I-5 south. At Gustine, head east on Route 140 via Merced to Mariposa. The stretch from Gustine to Merced cuts through the San Joaquin Valley, one of the world's most productive agricultural areas. In summer, sniff the rich scent of ripening fruit and vegetables. In Mariposa, stay at the eight-room Sierra View Motel (800/627-8439), $59; the 28-room E.C. Lodge Yosemite (209/742-6800), $69; or the 77-room Miner's Inn Motel (888/646-2244), $75. Dine at the Miner's Inn Motel; the barbecued-chicken plate is just $9.95. Information 888/554-9013, homeofyosemite.com.

Day two: A Hollywood favorite

Mariposa to Jackson, via Calaveras Big Trees State Park, 145 miles Just north of Mariposa, Route 49 plunges for about 50 miles into a mostly untouched land of deep canyons and rumpled hills blanketed by sunburned grass. Here and there cattle graze. Traffic is light, and providently so. At times, the road edges steep precipices, ultimately dropping down the side in ten-miles-per-hour hairpin turns.

At Coulterville, detour briefly off the highway to stroll Main Street. The sleepy little village, where adobe structures dating back to 1851 still stand, calls itself "the most unspoiled Gold Rush town in California." Indeed. We turned into a parking space just off Main and flushed a covey of wild quail. Still a gold-mining town, Coulterville doesn't discourage the legend that "When it rains, sometimes you find gold in the streets."

Jamestown, another Old West charmer, is a Hollywood star. It served as a backdrop for High Noon and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as well as countless other movies and TV shows. Here, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park ($2 for a tour) re-creates turn-of-the-century mountain railroading. Its historic steam locomotives and cars claim title as "the movie railroad," having appeared in Little House on the Prairie and other TV shows and films.

In Columbia State Historic Park catch a 12-minute ride ($5) into the piney woods on a stagecoach. But watch out for Trigger Mortis, who might pop out from behind a monster boulder. He's a not-so-threatening masked bandit easily talked out of robbing passengers of wallets, watches, chewing gum, and other valuables. At ride's end, parched from the sun and dust, we slaked our thirst at the Douglass Saloon, downing a mug of homemade sarsaparilla, on tap for $1.

Gold was first discovered in the area in 1850, and in one month 6,000 fortune hunters arrived. Before the placer deposits ran out, Columbia produced about $87 million in gold, most of it weighed on the set of scales displayed in the Wells Fargo office.

Unlike many early settlements, the town, which grew to 15,000 in its heyday, never succumbed to fire, vandalism, or the elements, nor was it ever completely deserted. The best preserved of the boomtowns, its oak-shaded Main Street, stretching four blocks, is lined with two- and three-story wood and brick buildings housing a mixture of museums and shops. Over-hanging balconies and wood sidewalks reflect the frontier heritage.

At Matelot Gulch Mine Supply Store, sign up for a gold-panning lesson ($5) and learn for yourself that panning is harder than it looks. For the price, you get a pan and a packet of sand "salted" with a fleck of gold so you recognize what you are looking for. Dip the pan in water and swirl gently again and again, trusting that the gold, which is heavier than the silt, sinks to the bottom of the pan.

From Columbia, continue on to Angels Camp, and then detour east here for 23 miles on Route 4 into the lofty Sierras. The goal is Calaveras Big Trees State Park ($2 per car) and its impressive stand of giant sequoia redwoods. To see them up close, take the easy one-and-a-half-mile hike on North Grove Trail, where some sequoias-the largest living things on earth-grow nearly 30 feet in diameter at the base. In 1852, a grizzly hunter stumbled into the grove; his was the Western world's first recorded glimpse of these magnificent trees. Like gold, they astonish those who lay eyes on them as yet another remarkable feature of California.

En route back to Angels Camp, take a walk through Murphys, another former mining camp turned vibrant weekender's retreat, and then end your day in Jackson. On Main Street at California Street, we recently discovered Hein & Co., a huge warehouse of bargain-priced used books. We stuffed every pocket of our suitcases with the armful we carried away.

Details

From Mariposa, take Route 49 north to Jackson. The detour on Route 4 from Angels Camp to Calaveras Big Trees, 23 miles (each way), adds about two hours to your day if you hike the trail. Stay in Jackson at the 36-room Jackson Gold Lodge (209/223-0486), $55 weekdays/$65 weekends; or the 119-room Best Western Amador Inn (800/543-5221), $79 weekdays/$84 weekends. Dine on Mexican dishes with the locals at Jos,'s; the chile relleno plate, $9.95. Information 209/223-0350, amadorcountychamber.com.

Day three: Where it all began

Jackson to Auburn, 60 miles Don't let the short distance fool you; the day ahead is full.

If you are in Jackson on a Saturday or Sunday, you can enjoy a leisurely breakfast before catching the 10 a.m. opening of the Kennedy Gold Mine ($9). It's reputed to have been the richest and deepest gold mine in California. Preserved as a museum of Gold Rush history, the above-ground structures-the mine office, the changing house, the dynamite storage shed, the stamp mill-can be seen on 90-minute escorted or self-guided tours. If the mine is closed, take Jackson Gate Road (Main Street extended) behind the mine to see the Kennedy Tailings Wheels, four massive, Ferris wheel-like structures (two standing, two collapsed) that once lifted tons of gravel over two hills. They are an especially photogenic relic. You can frame the hillside mine structures through the giant spokes of the standing wheel.

In the town of Plymouth just ahead, look for Shenandoah Road, a turn to the right. It's the gateway to Amador County Wine Country, a cluster of more than 20 fine wineries with tasting rooms that don't charge a penny to sip. Their red zinfandels are said to be among the finest in the world. In summer, the rolling hills are traced by rows of vines hanging heavy with ripening grapes. We thought we were in Tuscany.

And then, just ahead is Villa Toscano (209/245-3800, general information), a vineyard-encircled winery with a tasting room designed to look like an ancient Tuscan villa. Classical statues line the walkway and fountains splash in the garden. Even wine, we recently learned, has a link to forty-niner gold. Newly rich, the lucky miners spurred a new economy providing them with comfortable lodgings and fine dining. Soon enough, Gold Country boasted more wineries than the rest of the state. Justification enough, we figure, to stop at two more wineries before heading on.

In a topsy-turvy way, you'll arrive at the site where the Gold Rush began-now the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park ($4 per car) in Coloma-only near the end of the drive. No matter; you will have acquired the background to fully appreciate the significance of what happened here.

In the 1840s, John Sutter was assembling an empire for himself in the nearby Sacramento Valley. He needed wood, so he went into partnership with James W. Marshall to build a sawmill in the Coloma Valley along the American River. The mill was almost complete when Marshall found his gold. Hordes scurried to Coloma, creating an overnight town of thousands. From Coloma, miners spread out to other streams and canyons north and south pursuing reports of other strikes. The rush was on. By 1857, however, the placer gold had given out, and Coloma became a quiet grape-growing town.

Still quiet, much of Coloma is now incorporated into the park. In mid-summer, the American River, which slices through the preserve, draws big crowds to raft, wade, or swim in its rock-strewn channel. On the far shore, an area is set aside for recreational gold panning, and a park concessionaire provides lessons.

"Does anyone ever find gold?" I recently asked John Hutchinson, a senior park aide. "Some do," he said, "if they work hard enough and long enough." On occasion, he has scored a bit of gold himself.

Though a swim is tempting, Sandy and I set out dutifully to walk the park's interpretive trail, which follows the shoreline. A replica of Marshall's sawmill sits back from the water next to a weathered cabin used by his workmen. Further on, the trail turns abruptly toward the river's edge. On a gravelly bank behind a sheltered backwater, we reached the discovery site. Except for a small sign, it's simply a riverbank.

North of Coloma, Route 49 snakes through a rugged mountain realm, offering some of the most dramatic scenery on the drive. Initially, the road traces the American River, where white-water rafters go splashing past. Climbing high above a deep gorge, it suddenly tops a summit and then quickly descends into Auburn, one of California's prettiest little cities.

Details

Except for the wine-sampling detour in Plymouth, stick to Route 49. In Auburn, stay at the 52-room Super 8 (530/888-8808), $59 weekdays/$63 weekends; or the 57-room Motel 6 (530/888-7829), $62 weekdays/$68 weekends. Dine at Tio Pepe's Restaurant; the hefty taco plate includes taco, enchilada, burrito, tostadas, and rice and beans for $7.95. Information 530/887-2111, visitplacer.com.

Day four: Auburn to San Francisco, 120 miles

Return quickly to San Francisco on I-80 to catch your flight home. Or for more Gold Rush lore, continue north 130 miles on the Mother Lode Highway to its terminus at Vinton. Either way, you might reflect on this thought:

A state-park ranger once told me that practically every inch of the streams and rivers of the Sierras has been worked for gold at one time or another. But more washes down from the mountains every spring, when melting snow turns placid streams into racing torrents. The lure of California gold may have diminished, but it is far from gone.

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Inspiration

Jamaica's Other Side

It's a tiny crowd that assembles on the rocky outcrop between bays--two young Peace Corps volunteers down from the mountains for the weekend, a middle-aged American couple who've been strolling arm in arm along the beach, and a Jamaican man who hiked down the hill from his villa. Chitchat halts as the sun sinks and clouds turn pyrotechnic on the horizon. So ends another perfect, indolent day on Jamaica's South Coast. There's more sun for the money on "the other side of the island," as Jamaicans call the 100-mile stretch from Savannah-la-Mar to Milk River. Nestled in the rain shadow of the country's central mountain range, the southwest corner of the island has a dry climate, uncrowded beaches, towering waterfalls, mysterious rivers-and some of the best food in the country. What it doesn't have are big resorts. Jamaica-bound Americans have long gravitated to resort developments in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios on the north side of the island, and Negril on the west, where they get a generic, sequestered experience of warm weather, a beach, and umbrella-garnished rum drinks. But when the already laid-back Jamaicans want to unwind, they choose the South Coast for bargain rates on an unspoiled Caribbean shore where locals treat you like family. Almost every casual conversation leads to the suggestion that you look up a relative in the States. Stop at the same coffee shop or restaurant three days in a row, and you'll get a big hug good-bye when you have to go home. Best of all, rooms on the beach start at $30 and you can feast on freshly caught fish for $6 or less. SuperClubs it ain't. Picking a base The South Coast sweeps through open sugarcane fields in the west to a wetlands wilderness at the midpoint. But the best place to base your visit is east of Black River, where the coastline is scalloped with small bays. The heart of this beach country is the four-mile stretch of fishing coves along Calabash, Frenchman's, and Billy's Bays known as Treasure Beach, more a region than a village. Not only do the soft, brown sand beaches have great swimming, body-surfing, and snorkeling, Treasure Beach is also ideally situated for exploring the villages and backcountry of this rural side of Jamaica. Calabash and Frenchman's Bays bustle with tiny restaurants and bars, and all four miles of the shore are dotted with villas, small hotels, and guesthouses. The premier bargain lodging on Frenchman's Bay-only a garden gate separates the property from the beach-is Golden Sands Guest House (876/965-0167, www.geocities.com/goldensandsguesthouse). Three single-story buildings hold 24 spartan but immaculate rooms, each fitted with an overhead fan, two twin beds, a dresser, and a bathroom with cold (actually cool) water. Simple white bed linens and towels are provided. Popular with the backpacking crowd, the shared kitchens let you economize by preparing your own meals. The monkish rooms are offset by flowering grounds, the sound of surf a few yards away, and a pleasant outdoor bar. Rooms for two are $30 per night. The sole one-bedroom cottage with air-conditioning and TV costs $60. The modern, family-run Sunset Resort Villa (800/786-8452, 876/965-0143, www.sunsetresort.com) offers many creature comforts on a budget. The crisply maintained, intimate complex of 12 air-conditioned rooms enjoys spectacular sunset views over the courtyard pool or from the outdoor tables of its accomplished, upscale restaurant (full meal, about $25). Room decor leans toward rich colors and floral prints, and most rooms have king- or queen-size beds with soft linens, high-grade mattresses, and abundant towels. Rooms for two start at $80 a night without breakfast. With 32 air-conditioned rooms, Treasure Beach Hotel (800/526-2422, 876/965-0110, www.treasurebeachjamaica.com) is both the area's largest lodging and a popular budget honeymoon getaway, especially for Jamaicans. Founded in the 1930s as a retreat for asthmatics, Treasure Beach Hotel, which overlooks the sea, has installed two large pools and a hot tub, and it has cultivated a wooded, tropical-garden landscape for guests who like to leave the rest of the world behind. The Frenchman's Bay beach is steps away. Published rates start at $99 to $110 for two in a garden-view room; ask about discounts for multinight stays. All the beaches of Treasure Beach are public, but they're hardly crowded. The coastline consists of long, sandy crescents punctuated by rocky outcrops. Moderate waves crest high enough for good bodysurfing, and coral reefs about 100 yards offshore make for colorful snorkeling. These are working beaches, and one corner of each cove is usually reserved for the fleet of 30-foot open fishing boats bobbing at the low-tide line with their tethers leading up the beach. There are no swim-up bars on Treasure Beach, but there are plenty of thatched-roof huts along the shore where you can order an icy Red Stripe and escape the sun under a palm tree. Some of the best dining is close enough to the water to feel the splash of the surf. Winsome's On the Beach (Frenchman's Beach, no phone) sets a high standard for casual cuisine with inventive twists on Jamaican classics such as fish soup for $1.80, callaloo (similar to spinach) fritters for $2, and chicken adobe (coconut milk-tomato-ginger sauce) or grilled kingfish in escovitch (pickled onions, peppers, and carrots), each only $6. Diners Delite (Treasure Beach Rd., no phone) serves country-style dishes, including saltfish and okra ($2.60), braised oxtail ($4.60), and chicken stew ($3.40). If you have a hankering for Jamaican jerk barbecue ($5.60 to $8), Chef Kit at Wild Onion (off Treasure Beach Rd., no phone) fires up the outdoor pits nightly, with live music on the weekends. Fish Fry and a Soak The dining and beachside social scene at Little Ochi (876/965-4450) lures even many Treasure Beach locals into driving an hour east to the fishing village of Alligator Pond. Select your own fish (priced by weight), then settle into a thatched hut or an old fishing boat on the beach. Dinner ($10 to $12) will be delivered to you, along with bammy (cassava bread), "festival" (cornmeal cake), and rice and peas. It's another 40 minutes east along the narrow coastal road to Alligator Hole, a broad pool in a river inhabited by three female manatees. You're most likely to see them in the afternoon when they come to feed at this idyllic spot. The mineral baths at Milk River Spa (Clarendon, 876/902-6902), 15 minutes farther east, were discovered in 1794. Like more famous spas (Bath, England, or Karlovy Vary/Karlsbad, Czech Republic, for example), Milk River touts the powers of its naturally radioactive waters, claiming that they cure "gout, rheumatism, neuralgia, sciatica, lumbago, nerve complaints generally, and liver disorders." In any event, a relaxing 15-minute soak in a private chamber costs $2, and you can also pamper yourself with a $4 manicure or a $24 full-body massage. On the way back to Treasure Beach, Lover's Leap, south of Southfield, marks the spot where a slave couple jumped to their deaths in 1747 rather than be separated from each other. Admission to the observation deck atop the 1,700-foot cliff is $3 ($2 under age 12) for a jaw-dropping view. Black River's Dark Heart People from all over the South Coast converge on the town of Black River, located just a half-hour drive west of Treasure Beach, to sell and shop at a huge open-air market. Once the center of Jamaica's logging industry, Black River has a couple of historic "great houses" that recall the island's days as a British colony-as in the old British saying, "Rich as a Jamaican planter." The waterway of Black River and its associated 125-square-mile swamp are natural wonders comparable to the Louisiana bayous or the Everglades. The Morass is home to more than 100 species of birds, mahogany and logwood forests, mangrove swamps-and Jamaica's greatest concentration of American saltwater crocodiles. To sneak up on the leathery behemoths dozing in the sun, take a cruise with wetlands biologist Lloyd Linton. His Irie Safari (12 High St., 876/965-2211, 876/384-7673) offers 90-minute tours on pontoon boats for $20 per person ($15 each for three or more). It's worth the splurge. Before you explore the pristine upper reaches of the river as it penetrates the Jamaican mountains, you might want to drive 20 minutes west to Whitehouse for a light lunch of conch fritters ($7) at Culloden Cafe (Hwy. A2, 876/963-5344), which serves gourmet Caribbean fare in a garden setting overlooking the water. Back on the main highway, tree-high grasses arch over the four-mile stretch of Bamboo Avenue. Couples sit in the shade selling coconuts, called "jelly coconuts," for less than a dollar each. Jamaicans say that drinking coconut water "washes the heart," but from Lacovia, you can follow the signs to the true Jamaican cure-all at Appleton Estate (876/963-9215), rum makers since 1749. The $12 admission charge ($6 under age 12) includes a tour of the process of turning sugarcane into fine, aged rums, a generous tasting, and a small souvenir bottle of rum, which should help soften your return home. As Jamaicans often say, "When you have troubles, don't cry--remember rum is standing by."

Inspiration

Learning to Love London

What you'll find in this story: Lodon restaurants, London culture, London attractions, London bargains, London flea markets, London apartments After a season in the African outback, the homeward itinerary read Nairobi-Paris-London-New York, but I got seriously snagged in London: I fell in love! Not with London, but with a foxy French girl who was living there. We embarked on a whirlwind transatlantic romance, and six months later I found myself living in London--whereupon I promptly fell out of love. With London. It was the $15 chicken that did it. I'm not talking about a nicely prepared dish in a naked celebrity chef's restaurant, mind you, but a jaundiced-looking specimen from a local shop. Multiply £8.25 by the $1.80 exchange rate--which has since gone up to $1.88--and that's what you get. It was as if I'd been slapped upside the head with the thing, like a stooge in a vaudeville act. There's no way around it: London is pricey to begin with, even for Brits, but for those of us operating in good, old, depreciated Yankee dollars, it's almost twice the price. For just about everything. By simply deplaning with a resident visa in hand, my net worth had virtually halved. I reacted badly--went into a deep funk as I contemplated my new life as a pence-pinching coupon clipper. Unsurprisingly, the Foxy French Girl did not find the new, blue me very appealing, and the romance was in jeopardy. What did I do? What could I do? I resolved to learn to love London, to find a way to keep the romance alive. Not at all costs--because going broke isn't very sexy, either, and doesn't have a whole lot of future in it--but at costs nice middle-class people like us could afford. I consulted an expert, a lifelong Londoner who's an editor at a tourist magazine. She shared lots of insider tips and, just as important, two paradoxical truths about surviving and thriving in London on a budget. One: "You can do things cheaply, but you have to think about what you're doing." And two: "Sometimes you just have to forget about what things cost and get on with it." So I threw myself into the fray of that sprawling, higgledy-piggledy city, and the more I did, the more I found haughty ol' London to be accommodating, even generous. London knows it's too expensive and actually does something about it, doling out freebies and discounts on all sorts of attractions and cultural events. This is especially true in summer, when the historic streets and squares, the opulent parks, and the resurgent riverfront come alive with markets and festivals of so much street-theatrical entertainment value, it's as if the wildly animated spirit of a medieval fair had been updated and set loose on a citywide scale. The Foxy French Girl and I became eager tourists of the town we lived in, poring over the weekly Time Out magazine (bursting with listings that put New York City to shame), planning dates and outings and explorations. When we got home at night, happily exhausted, we'd keep the lights low and dance to Lou Reed's "Perfect Day": "Just a perfect day, problems left all alone/Weekenders on our own/It's such fun...." Romance was alive and well. Before very long at all, "Perfect Day" would be played as our wedding song. (Everybody say "Awww.") We live there no longer, but we'll always have London--and the precious baby boy who was born there. (Gimme a double "Awww.") So it is with great fondness and nostalgia for London Towne that I share one erstwhile expat's recent and thoroughly successful journey toward enjoying some of the best of what that great city has to offer, while keeping the expenses real in a town that's just too bloody expensive. To live in London without going to the theater would be like living in the Alps and not skiing, so that was an obvious point of entry. And when I learned that the National Theatre sells steeply discounted tickets to lots of shows for $19, I logged on to its website and signed up for e-mail alerts to on-sale dates so I could snatch up seats. Once a month, we'd attend a world-class production of a new or classic play for about the price of a movie ticket. Brilliant, as the Brits say. The National became our home base even when we didn't have tickets; it was always putting on free, high-quality music and theater in the lobby and outside by the Thames. We weren't the only ones: Londoners and tourists alike throng to the river's South Bank, a promenade that must be the most culturally rich boardwalk anywhere, with everything from skateboarding to classical music to mind-bending art installations. One of our more Perfect Days began at Borough Market, near London Bridge, a Friday and Saturday food extravaganza that has existed in some form since before the Roman era. After a pint of ale at the legendary Market Porter Pub, we grazed the stalls of the covered market, picking up various picnic supplies--serrano ham, focaccia, olives, and artisanal cheeses--and headed toward the river. There we had a quintessential London moment: Just after we passed by the 14th-century Westminster Hall, an amphibious Bond-mobile came skimming across the surface of the Thames. (As Austin Powers says, "Groovy, bay-beee.") Shakespeare's Globe, a replica of the Bard's artistic residence, spilled its matinee audience onto the riverside walk, where it mingled with the crowd emerging from the Tate Modern, a temple of contemporary art (admission is free, as it is at many of the major museums), and perhaps with patrons of the nearby Royal Festival Hall and the National Film Theatre. But the high-caliber street musicians and a bird act worthy of Ed Sullivan were pulling crowds as readily as the bastions of official culture. As usual, it was the National Theatre that captured us, with a café table available for our picnic, ringside of the amphitheater, where a troupe of young thespians performed a raucous entertainment. They were followed by a Congolese Soukous band that knew all about good vibes and how to spread them. As evening advanced, we were overwhelmed with choices--two discount plays and some sort of multimedia rave later on at the National, or the Japanese art-film festival next door--but we'd had enough. It was dusk, time to stroll across the Millennium Bridge, into the wide-open arms of Central London's cityscape. The more I resisted the reflexive urge to mentally convert pounds to dollars, the happier I became. Cruelly, the credit card company did it for me: It took me exactly one whopping monthly statement to realize that dining frequently in London's restaurants would quickly earn me enough miles for a return ticket to New York, alone and in debt. And thus we hatched the genius strategy of building excursions around days at the market, where comparatively inexpensive delicacies compete for attention. We cultivated our picnic technique in London's abundant and extremely well-appointed parks. When it was time to splash out, as they also say, we had to plan ahead or fall into the ever-present trap of an $80 pizza lunch or a perfectly mediocre $120 dinner for two. Our favorite park in Central London quickly became St. James's, between the Thames and Buckingham Palace, initially because we went there to neck on our first date, and thereafter because it offered a full menu of options. As with all the London parks, St. James's enjoys the rain dividend and the benefits of being in a land where the arts of gardening and landscaping are staples of prime-time television. The resulting bounty of luscious habitat is not lost on the bird population; some 47 species of waterfowl call the place home at one time or another, if you believe the placard next to the lake. Also on the lake is a wonderfully clever mixed-use restaurant, Inn the Park, catering to a clientele of businesspeople, ladies who lunch, and clued-in tourists. Modern but comfortably so, the Inn has pondside alfresco seating and a versatile brasserie menu. The beauty of the place is that it also provides exactly the same prime seating to consumers of take-out drinks, snacks, and meals from its organic sandwich and salad canteen. How very democratic. Being in a celebratory frame of mind--our first meal out with the baby, on the day we took him to the embassy to become officially American--I went for the splash-out option: gazpacho, oysters, steak, wine, dessert. Okay, it was not a cheap meal ($150), but it was an occasion. Afterward we sunbathed on canvas deck chairs of the kind provided in many of London's parks at the entirely reasonable fee of £1 apiece, and purred like a little lion family after a good feed. (Until our son erupted in an inconsolable, high-decibel crying jag, shattering the peace and quiet of the entire park, scattering cormorant, coot, and great-crested grebe alike.) Other of our most memorable meals took place before the arrival of the turbo-lunged one, in gastropubs. At its best, this category, indigenous to the Realm, represents a melding of two worlds: pubby atmosphere and an ambitious kitchen, with prices far lower than at comparable proper restaurants. "With this exchange rate, if I can't put it in my mouth, I'm not gonna buy it," said a visiting foodie friend, so I made sure we had a suitable dining destination on our day trip to the north of the city. As promised, Hampstead has oodles of English-village charm, despite its in-town location. Sidewalk planters on tiny lanes and mews overflowed with geraniums and impatiens in a way that seemed generous rather than self-conscious; the shops were lively with personality, refreshing in a town that can feel choked with dreary chains. And the Holly Bush provided everything we could have wanted for an early-summer-afternoon supper. Downstairs is a venerable pub, reliably dark and smoky inside, with a gang of bright young things quaffing pitchers of Pimm's Cup on the sidewalk. Upstairs, a light, high-ceilinged dining room serves a very British menu (sausages, lamb, meat pies) with adventuresome ingredients in the sauces and salads (and even some vegetarian options). The three of us had a wonderful meal, notable for the warm, easygoing vibe of the entire experience, which retained its nice afterglow even when the credit card company did the math ($126). To me, shopping for its own sake holds about as much allure as outpatient surgery--so it says something that I'd happily go with the Foxy French Girl through London's famous markets. Notting Hill's Portobello Road to the west and Spitalfields to the east are variations on a funky-chic theme, both awash in legions of fashion-aware young women with eyes set on original designs at bargain prices. And both markets are in cool neighborhoods, worth checking out even when it's not market day. Notting Hill is like New York City's Greenwich Village, boho-gone-upscale, with more in the way of collectible bric-a-brac that you buy when traveling because you simply won't find it elsewhere. Spitalfields is more heavily tattooed, with an accent on home and fashion accessories. It's also the gateway into the very "now" neighborhood of Shoreditch. This is the place to go cool-hunting for streetwear like limited-edition hip-hop sneakers that come with certificates of ownership proclaiming them to be "one of only 70 pairs worldwide." I'll pass on those, thanks--but it's fun to know they're there. These excursions were never really about the food or the shopping, anyway. They were about urban adventure. Yes, I was armed with clippings and guidebooks, but, in fact, that was all a matter of putting ourselves into position for the unexpected: We were never disappointed when we simply relaxed and let serendipity take over. London is endlessly rewarding that way. On the first of our many trips to Richmond--a posh movie set of a village on the Thames at the southwestern city limits--on our first picnic on the first weekend we ever spent together, we settled in for a nap under a tree by the river. We were joined by a group of Middle Eastern gentlemen and a few charming children, whose energy and volume levels were running a bit higher than our own. Before long, the senior member of the party loomed over us, and, in a courtly tone, said, "Good afternoon. We are from Baghdad, Iraq, and we would like to invite you to join us for some tea." Soon we were sipping minty chai from tiny glasses, toking cranberry-flavored tobacco from a hookah, and discussing world events at a time of fraught relations between our home countries. At least we were doing our part for world peace. Then talk turned to London. The éminence grise expounded a bit, as was his wont. London, he said, was the crossroads of the world, first because of traditional patterns of immigration from the Commonwealth, and more recently from the new waves of strivers flooding in daily from Eastern European nations being added to the EU. Furthermore, as one who had lived in the U.S. and France during his long exile, he was of the opinion that London was the business and creative capital of the world, here in the early years of the third millennium. The New Yorker in me recoiled reflexively, but now that I've lived there, I can't say he was wrong. London is all go, go, go these days; you can feel it everywhere. And when my boy is old enough to ask about where he comes from, I'll tell him, "Son, you are a child of the universe, your mother's a Foxy French Girl, your daddy's a Yank with itchy feet, and you were conceived at the end of a Perfect Day in the capital of the world." The first places to look for London deals General: Londontown.com is a comprehensive tourist site with lots of special offers on tickets, rooms, etc. It's particularly strong for attractions and events listings: Enter your dates and get a menu of what's happening, or click on the annual calendar. Visitlondon.com, the official tourist site, is promotional rather than critical, but also full of useful information. Dining: At squaremeal.co.uk, an authoritative restaurant site, you can search by neighborhood or ethnicity, browse readers' favorites, or just click on Best Gastropubs. Markets: Try Portobello Road, in Notting Hill, for antiques and clothing (portobelloroad.co.uk); Spitalfields for goods by young designers of fashion and home accessories (visitspitalfields.com); Borough Market, located near London Bridge, for food, glorious food (boroughmarket.org.uk). Theater: London Theatre Guide (officiallondontheatre.co.uk) provides one-stop shopping for the West End, including daily listings for its discount TKTS booth in Leicester Square. For the National Theatre, go to nationaltheatre.org.uk--and note in particular the $19 Travelex Season offerings and the summertime series of free events called Watch This Space. Transport: The Tube starts at $3.75 per ride, but the map is not to scale--walking may be quicker. And buses are cheaper ($2.25 per ride). Find info on both at tube.tfl.gov.uk. --D.H. Live like a local--by renting yourself a flat Apartments aren't cheap, but you'll get more space than at a hotel, and you'll save money if you eat some meals at home. (Restaurants may charge 10 percent less for take-out orders.) Apartments have compact kitchens with appliances, dishes, and utensils, and some throw in amenities like newspapers or Internet access. "Serviced apartments" come with daily maid and linen service, and generally rent by the night, while unserviced rentals tend to require a week's stay and include weekly cleaning. When renting, be sure the price includes the VAT of 17.5 percent and any charges for maid service. You can usually get a deal on stays of longer than a week. And if you require an air conditioner or elevator, ask: Not all older buildings have them. June and July are the most popular months, but everyone offers specials in the off-season. Emperor's gate apartments: Eighteen simple studios and one-bedrooms in two Victorian buildings near the Earl's Court and Gloucester Tube stations. Studios have Murphy and sofa beds, from $169 per night; one-bedrooms have twin or double beds and a sofa bed, from $188; service and VAT included. apartment-hotels.com Astons apartments: In three Victorian town houses on a South Kensington side street. Studios are tight, and it's worth considering an upgrade. From $122 per night for a single studio to $310 for a four-person executive apartment. astons-apartments.com Nell Gwynn House: A modern building housing 180 apartments in the leafy Chelsea neighborhood near Sloane Square. From $884 a week for a small studio to $2,002 for a two-bedroom apartment, not including a $103 (studio) or $113 (one- or two-bedroom) per-week maid-service charge. nghapartments.co.uk Sloane apartments: Full eat-in kitchens and plush decor. Studios start at $216 a night, two-bedrooms at $470 a night, plus VAT. sloaneapartments.com The Independent Traveller: Run by Simon and Mary Ette since 1981. Over 100 unserviced apartments in suburban and central London. Studios start at $818 weekly; two-bedrooms at $1,222. gowithit.co.uk The London apartment net: Search more than 100 central London apartments by location and price. http://londonapartment.net/ Other resources: TouristApartments.com (touristapartments.com), Coach House London Vacation Rentals (chslondon.com), Home From Home (homefromhome.co.uk). --B.J. Roche

Inspiration

Northern Vietnam

Just ask last year's nearly 3 million international visitors: Vietnam is hardly a best-kept secret. And the traffic is increasing. Since they were introduced in December, United Airlines' direct flights to Ho Chi Minh City -- the first American flights to the country from the U.S. since 1975 -- have been virtually sold out. Vietnam Airlines plans on jumping aboard with direct flights of its own later this year. Feel like you missed your window? Don't worry. Getting off the beaten path is remarkably easy in Vietnam. Most visitors stick to the two poles of this narrow, 1,000-mile-long land: Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. National airlines offer dirt-cheap, two-hour flights between the two cities. But travel by train is still the more affordable option and allows for detours along the way. At least a quarter of all Vietnam tourists make Hoi An one of those stops. An 80,000-person port town on the Thu Bon river, Hoi An has seen its popularity surge since UNESCO -- the cultural preservation arm of the U.N. -- designated its Ancient Town a World Heritage site in 1999 for, among other things, its elegant 18th-century architecture. But Hoi An is still worth a visit, not only for its prolific seamstresses who can custom-make a silk dress in a matter of hours, but also for its proximity to two places under most travelers' radars: My Son Sanctuary and Bach Ma National Park. My Son Sanctuary In a lush valley below Cat's Tooth Mountain, My Son was once the royal burial and temple grounds for the Champa Kingdom, one of Vietnam's earliest major civilizations, which existed between the 2nd and 15th centuries. The Vietcong used the site as a base during the war, and American bombs destroyed many of the more than 70 Hindu-inspired monuments, though President Nixon finally declared them off-limits, partly at the urging of a Cham art expert. Bomb craters still punctuate the monument grounds, and land mines lurk beneath the surrounding jungle. (Signs provide plenty of warning about where the area becomes potentially unsafe.) Reminiscent of a mini-Angkor Wat, My Son is best enjoyed when you can wander the crumbling brick altars and temples in solitude. So go at off times. Tour buses are there from around 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; you can and should avoid the crowds by hiring a driver for an early-morning or late-afternoon trip (it's open from 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.). The ride costs about $20, and your driver will wait for you. Two hours at the site should do it. Also a UNESCO World Heritage site, My Son has seen a bump in tourism; a newly paved road, which cut the three-hour drive from Hoi An in half, is making it more accessible. Several international organizations, including Global Heritage Fund, have recently backed restoration projects, painstakingly reassembling the bombed-out monuments and planning for increased on-site security. But while those projects make My Son friendlier to visitors, the feeling now is still that of stumbling Indiana Jones-style onto an archaeological find. Bach Ma National Park Even more remote, Bach Ma National Park, 56 miles north of Hoi An, is Vietnam at its best -- untamed jungles, leafy valleys, views of sparkling beaches. The two-hour drive from Hoi An over the Hai Van Pass is easily the country's most beautiful. Then from Bach Ma's entrance, a tight 10-mile paved road snakes almost to the top of the park's 4,800-foot summit, with wild side trails (some requiring the use of overhanging vines to help you haul yourself over large logs) leading to waterfalls. You can hire a jeep to shuttle you up the park's main road, but the four-to-five-hour hike allows you to take time with the views. The temperature drops about 40 degrees as you climb; pack a hat, a rain jacket (the park is Vietnam's wettest spot), and lots of bottled water. High-ranking French officials built stately vacation villas along the road in the 1930s. Although most are now in ruins, the park service renovated a few near the entrance and summit after Bach Ma was designated a national park in 1991. They're now spare but comfortable inns, with wood floors, shutters, and verandas; an on-site caretaker serves basic Vietnamese meals. Beyond the update of these villas, not much else has changed at Bach Ma. For that, in part, you can thank conservationists, who have fought to preserve the park's biodiversity -- including tigers and over 1,400 plant species -- and a remarkable serenity. Northern Vietnam Transportation   Vietnam Airlines 415/677-0888   Vietnam Railways vr.com.vn, Hanoi to Danang from $26 Lodging   Cua Dai Hotel Hoi An, 011-84/510-862-231, elephantguide.com/cuadai, from $12   National Park Guesthouse Bach Ma, 011-84/54-871-330, bachma.vnn.vn, rooms from $6.50, dinner for two from $5.50   Morin-Bach Ma Bach Ma, 011-84/54-871-199, rooms from $20,dinner for two $10 Resources   My Son globalheritage fund.org, tickets $3   Bach Ma 011-84/54-871-330, bachma.vnn.vn, tickets $1

Inspiration

Secret Hotels of the Caribbean: Jamaica, Bahamas, and More

What you'll find in this story: Caribbean travel, Caribbean getaways, Jamaica hotels, Bahamas destinations, Caribbean secrets Our criteria are simple. We insist on being right on the water. We'd rather not sleep in motel-style, side-by-side lodging. And we don't want to pay more than $160 a night--even in high season. Jamaica Rockhouse Hotel,876/957-4373, rockhousehotel.com, doubles from $100. Seclusion isn't easy to come by in the party town of Negril, with its sprawling resorts and thumping dance beats, but that's exactly what Rockhouse delivers, primarily to hip couples and families hoping to avoid anything close to a spring break experience. Rockhouse's rounded thatched villas are strung atop a low cliff carved with stairs that lead down to the warm waters of Pristine Cove. The 19 units peeking out of the jungle right at the cliff's edge start at $250 in winter, but the long buildings set a bit farther back are easier to pull off--seven studios with sea views ($130) and nine standard rooms with garden views ($100), all with minibars, safes, A/C, and mosquito netting around four-poster beds. Guests chill out at the 60-foot horizon pool, take yoga classes, or stroll along the property's serpentine paths and stepping stones, which inevitably lead to quiet nooks, isolated beach chairs, and what most people say are the best sunset views in Jamaica. The action on Seven Mile Beach--including the nightlife hub of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville and live reggae on the beach at Alfred's (Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday) and Roots Bamboo (varies)--is a quick $5 to $10 cab ride away. Closer to your cabana--right next door, actually--is Pirate's Cave, where patrons eat grilled lobster before jumping off the cliff and swimming into the sea cave underneath. Country Country, 888/790-5264, countrynegril.com, doubles from $155 The 17 cottages of Country Country occupy a narrow acre covered with tropical gardens and brick-lined paths in the middle of Negril's hopping Seven Mile Beach. No two cottages are the same, though A/C, ceiling fans, louvered shutters, a porch, and a cabinet hiding a TV, fridge, and tea set are standard. Other than that, you might find bamboo bed frames, whimsical murals of starfish, or a fleet of conch shells surrounding the windows. The walls and gingerbread trim are painted in bright shades of lemon, eggplant, leaf green, burnt tangerine, and stonewashed blue. Sisal rugs surround either a king-size bed or two twins, and the loud bedspreads somehow go well with the purple lamp shades spangled with yellow stars. Most cottages are stand-alone buildings with neat little gardens and cool stone floors, but a few are double-deckers. Second-floor units come with hardwood floors and views over the vegetation to the water (you pay $20 more a night to stay upstairs or in the one-floor cottages closest to the water). At the edge of the beach, there's an open-air thatched-roof bar and restaurant for jerk chicken and fruity drinks. Country Country's owners recently acquired adjacent land and plan on doubling the number of cottages and installing a pool and tennis courts by fall. Jake's, 800/688-7678, islandoutpost.com, doubles from $115. Sitting alongside rocky shoals washed by the warm surf of Jamaica's South Coast, Jake's Easter egg-colored guest cottages are funky boutique versions of the Caribbean shack. The two dozen buildings overflow with odd, endearing details that are an exercise in culture-clash chic: Indian minaret-shaped windows, driftwood door frames, glass bottles embedded in plaster walls, Arabian-influenced domes, hammered-tin doors, Mayan-inspired weavings. The grounds are dotted with flowering bushes and desert greenery--cacti, yucca, gnarled little trees. What you get instead of a room with a TV, phone, and A/C is a welcoming, laid-back vibe. Don't bother trying to find Jake, a parrot who's not around anymore--it's a long story. The place was designed by Sally Henzell and is currently run by her son Jason, both of whom are particularly loved by the surrounding fishing village for starting a nonprofit that pays for medical rescue services, school computers, fishing tournaments, and even literary festivals where Shakespeare is performed in Jamaican patois. Hustlers are virtually nonexistent in the area, and Jake's bar and pool serves as a gathering place for locals and guests alike. "We've felt like we've had the place to ourselves for the past week," says John, a Toronto magazine publisher, as he watches his daughters play by the pool with a village girl in her school uniform. "Our own Jamaica." Carriacou Bayaleau Point Cottages, 473/443-7984, carriacoucottages.com, doubles from $85. Tired of his job as a commodities trader, Dave Goldhill left Manhattan in 1977 for the Caribbean. He taught tennis and bummed around, eventually landing on Carriacou, a sleepy, 13-square-mile island of white-sand beaches in the Grenadines. "Back then there was just a small community of ex-colonials here," says Dave. "I never imagined I'd meet Ulla." A tall and slender Dane who sailed from Europe to the Caribbean on an 80-foot schooner, Ulla stumbled across Dave in a rum shop in 1984. The two married, had three kids, and bought a piece of oceanfront near the village of Windward. They built four simple one-room cottages to rent out, painting them in bright shades of red, blue, green, and yellow. Each cottage is a little different (the green one has two full-size beds, star and moon fretwork, and sweeping views of a handful of the Grenadines from its patio), but all are within a minute's walk of the property's small stretch of rock and sand beach. There's a shack at the water's edge where you can grab a kayak and paddle out to a sun-drenched sandbar. Snorkelers spend hours exploring the German fishing boat that ran aground on a nearby reef in 1990. St. John There's no airport on St. John, and two thirds of the island is a national park. Rather than first-class resorts and first-class service, St. John has earned a reputation for being friendly to both Mother Nature and visitors' budgets. Cinnamon Bay Campgrounds, 340/776-6330, cinnamonbay.com, bare site $27, tent $80, cottage $140. Backpackers and families head to Cinnamon Bay on the thickly wooded northern coast for one of its 40 screen-lined cottages (with electricity and four twin beds), 60 canvas tents (cots on hardwood floors), or 26 BYO-tent sites. Everyone shares bathhouses with cold-water showers, and every plot comes with a picnic table and charcoal grill. At night, the trade winds cool things down for a good night's rest. Maho Bay Camps, 800/392-9004, maho.org, doubles from $120. Like tree houses for grown-ups, Maho Bay's 114 cottages inspire an oddball form of domesticity. Each canvas-roofed unit comes with linens, cooking utensils, a propane stove, and a rudimentary kitchen. As your morning coffee bubbles in the dented percolator, pelicans float past the window, riding balmy updrafts. Built on stilts, the cottages connect to the beach via stairs and walkways, and it's all so enmeshed in greenery that you can barely see anything man-made from sea level. Daily chores of shaking sand from bedsheets and fetching ice blocks take place against a backdrop of jungled hills plunging to the bay. The water is so clear that even from way up the hillside you can see manta rays and turtles gliding through the shallows. Like at Cinnamon Bay next door, there are no private bathrooms or hot-water showers. There's also no outdoor lighting to compete with the moon and stars. And the walls are made only of cloth, so the nightly serenade of tree frogs comes from all sides. St. Lucia Villa Beach Cottages, 758/450-2884, villabeachcottages.com, doubles from $115. The hour-and-a-half ride from St. Lucia's international airport to the Villa Beach Cottages in a standard taxi is $60, but you'll save $10 if you let one of the Villa Beach drivers do the honors. He or she will also chat you up and buy you a cold Piton--St. Lucia's local brew--along the way. The special treatment is one of the reasons why owner Colin Hunte's 14 cottages and suites welcome so many repeat guests, some having visited regularly for 20 years. The operation dates to 1958, when Hunte's grandfather bought two former U.S. naval barracks and had them moved to a 40-foot-wide beach on the island's northwestern tip. New buildings have gone up since Colin took over 15 years ago, but he's tried to keep the feel of the originals, incorporating cathedral ceilings, jalousie shutters, and gingerbread woodwork. Most rentals have a private patio with ocean views (on a clear day you can spot Martinique). Next door at the Wharf, try a roti, a traditional wrap stuffed with beef, chicken, and West Indian spices. For true relaxation, hit one of the hammocks slung at the water's edge and drift off to the sounds of the waves crashing. Dominica Picard Beach Cottages, 767/445-5131, avirtualdominica.com/picard.htm, doubles from $100. On the northwest coast of "the nature island," a group of 18th-century-style cottages with private verandas rests along a beach of black sand. There's a bucket of water at the doorway of each cottage to help guests keep the dark sand off the white-tile floors inside. The ceilings are high, the walls are stained wood, and there's A/C, a living room, a kitchen, and a separate bedroom. There are 18 units in total (nine right on the beach), and each is surrounded by yellow hibiscus and pink bougainvillea--the same colors on the bedspreads and curtains. The beach is the star attraction, but the two-century-old British fort and hiking trails at Cabrits National Park, a $6 cab ride away, are close behind. An easy walk from the cottages brings you to an American medical school and a strip of sheds that everyone calls the Shacks. Order spicy grilled chicken, macaroni and cheese, and red beans at Nelson's ($6), some fresh mango, tangerine, or passion fruit juice at A&E, and snack at canopied picnic tables. Bahamas Chez Pierre, 242/338-8809, chezpierrebahamas.com, doubles from $130. Seven years ago, Pierre and Anne Laurence decided to sell their successful Montreal bistro. "Montreal was all about stress and competition," says Pierre. "I wanted a place where I'd have the time to really enjoy myself in the kitchen and tend to my customers." The Laurences found what they were looking for just south of the Tropic of Cancer: eight acres on Long Island, an 80-mile stretch of cliffs, cays, and coves that's only four miles across at its widest point. Powered entirely by alternative energy (wind and sun), Chez Pierre's six bungalows are spread out along a wide crescent beach. Each has a screened porch overlooking the water, and shutter doors open to a terra-cotta-colored bedroom. At the main house, there's a large wooden deck and a bright, airy restaurant. Needless to say, the food is fantastic--a blend of Bahamian, Italian, and French, highlighting local ingredients and fresh seafood. (Rates include breakfast and dinner; your bar tab is extra.) Bikes, kayaks, and a catamaran are available at no charge. Pierre also helps arrange snorkeling excursions ($50), scuba trips ($125), bonefishing ($250), and rental cars ($60 per day). Seascape Inn, 242/369-0342, seascapeinn.com, doubles from $132 (with continental breakfast), dinners about $20. Most of Andros Island is uninhabitable marshland, choked by mangroves and shot through with so many lakes and channels that from the air it looks like a doily. The Seascape Inn, on Andros Island's Mangrove Cay, is within minutes of a 120-mile-long barrier reef (the third largest in the world), making it perfect for diving, fishing, or just dropping out for a week. Each of the property's five cabanas has a small deck facing the white-sand beach. Pass the hours bonefishing from the flats in front of your bungalow (catch and release), exploring the reef by kayak, or pedaling along Mangrove Cay's lone road (bikes and kayaks are free for guests). You'll typically find Brooklyn-born hosts Mickey and Joan McGowan at the inn's bar and restaurant. Gracious and friendly, the McGowans are clearly thrilled with their choice to move to the Bahamas nine years ago. Mickey sports an impressive collection of cheeky T-shirts ("You are entitled to my opinion" reads one). He's also a PADI-certified instructor, and takes guests out most mornings on his 34-foot boat for a two-tank dive ($75). Joan likes to garden and bake, whipping up muffins and biscuits at dawn and tempting desserts--sometimes pies made with coconuts from the yard--in the afternoon. The rest of the family is four-legged: Bernie, Bebe, and Magoo, a trio of abandoned dogs rescued and spoiled absolutely silly by the McGowans. Staniel Cay Yacht Club, 954/467-8920, stanielcay.com, doubles from $135, per person all-inclusive $173. In the center of the 100-mile-long Exuma island chain, a half-hour flight from Nassau, is tiny Staniel Cay, a popular port for the sailing set that's home to just 80 full-time residents. The Yacht Club is a five-minute golf-cart ride from the airstrip (there are only a handful of cars on the island). Couples and families love the club's nine pastel-colored cottages, seven of which have private balconies that jut over the crystal-clear water. There's a small beach next door and more dramatic stretches of sand accessible by foot or golf cart, but most people are here to play skipper. A Boston Whaler is docked outside each cottage; guests are given a map and encouraged to explore on their own. There are so many deserted islands nearby that the unspoken rule is if a beach is occupied, move on to the next. Thunderball Grotto, where part of the Bond film Thunderball was shot, is a favorite for snorkeling. Just north of the grotto, at Major Spot, surf-swimming pigs will circle your boat, expecting to be fed. Four miles beyond Major there's a group of tame nurse sharks who don't mind posing for pictures. Though you can pay for lodging and extras à la carte, a package that covers lodging, all meals, taxes and gratuities, a Whaler (with fuel), a golf cart, snorkeling gear, and round-trip transfers is often the better value. The Yacht Club also offers charter flights from Fort Lauderdale ($400 round trip), and you can be here in less than three hours from the mainland--instead of just wishing that you were.

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