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Venturing Into West Texas

By Melissa Marshall
updated September 29, 2021
santa, elena, canyon, rio, grande, big, bend, national, park, texas, river, mexico
Tom2898 / Dreamstime.com
When you think of the lone star state, it's not the freeways of Dallas or the office towers of Houston that come to mind. It's the legendary, wide-open spaces of west Texas.

Panoramic sunsets and whimsical doll museums. Paranormal phenomena and 1940s-era motels. High art and cowboy kitsch. Across the expanses of Big Bend Country, at Texas's extreme southwestern border, attractions run from oddball to sophisticated, quaint to amazing. Mining and ranching towns have transformed themselves into tourist destinations, each locale working its own little niche. Meanwhile, Big Bend National Park, the main draw, needs no gimmick. As the Rio Grande turns east, rough desert converges with mountains, creating a landscape that'd make a giant feel small, an egoist insignificant.

Just remember that this kind of isolation doesn't come easy. Marathon, the first stop on this road trip, is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the nearest airport, Midland International. And Midland International isn't what anyone would call a hub.

Day one: Midland to Marathon

The initial part of the drive from the airport to Marathon is, in a word, hideous. On either side of the road, barbed wire encloses flat oil fields that stretch to the horizon. Only a belch of smoke from the occasional refinery breaks the monotony.

Then, somewhere around Fort Stockton, everything changes. The rusty pumps and industrial wasteland disappear in favor of the desert hills and valleys of Big Bend Country. Cactus flowers bloom along the highway and roadrunners periodically scurry across the road.

As it materializes in the distance, the tiny town of Marathon (the last syllable rhymes with "sun") looks like nothing more than a few feed stores and mobile homes. But as you arrive in the center, its nature becomes apparent. Upscale shops and galleries line the main street, most in adobe buildings with well-tended gardens. There's even a day spa.

A leisurely afternoon helps me adjust to the slow pace of Big Bend Country. When I ask someone to name the most popular entertainments, he says, "Sunset watching and stargazing." I poke about in the shops and galleries, chitchat with locals and other visitors. The name Texas comes from the Spanish word tejas, meaning friend. Although welcome, misanthropes and recluses may find themselves uncomfortable.

Two Marathon hotels are attractions in their own right. Opened in 1927 by a prosperous banker, the luxurious Gage Hotel quickly became the region's social epicenter. It eventually fell into disrepair, but a lush 1992 restoration returned the brick-and-adobe structure to its former glory. On any given night, all of Marathon's visitors and quite a few locals gather in the elegant bar and courtyard.

Just west of town on I-90, the less expensive Marathon Motel & RV Park has a vintage 1940s ambience, with its original neon sign and windmill. Postcards and posters sold across Big Bend Country feature the sign, which boasts that the rooms have TVs. From a small wooden building on the premises, the owner also operates what is pretty much the only radio station available out here (100.1 FM). When I knock on the door, the DJ/desk clerk invites me inside the booth for a tour and offers to take my requests. The motel's adobe courtyard has a fireplace and a shrine to the Virgin Mary; it's a great place to enjoy the sunsets, which are straight out of a Technicolor Western. Afterward, I head back to the Gage for dinner, drinks, and, indeed, stargazing.

Day two: Marathon to Terlingua

The drive to Big Bend National Park takes about 45 minutes; the entrance is nothing more than a small gate, usually unattended. (Park headquarters is at Panther Junction, another 30 minutes' drive.) Once inside the gate, most evidence of civilization vanishes. Gone are the fences and livestock, leaving only the brutal desert and distant mountains and mesas. Vultures circle overhead, but the cactus flowers that splash the land in yellow and purple somehow make them less intimidating.

The speed limit drops to 45 mph, and I follow it. I'm tempted to go faster, but driving at lower speeds prevents pollution, and gives me a chance to stop for the two coyotes that dash in front of my car. The park teems with wildlife, and if you don't see a coyote, you'll likely see a deer or a javelina (also called a peccary). Though they're plump and pig-like, javelinas aren't pigs; park rangers insist they're only distantly related. Native only to the American Southwest, these non-pigs inhabit every corner of the park, moving about in groups and eating prickly pears. They're the mammals most often spotted by visitors. Just don't approach: They smell mighty bad.

The 801,163-acre park can't be seen in a day, so I choose to explore the green and mountainous Chisos Basin. Its temperatures tend to be moderate and its trails well maintained, and it's home to the only full-service restaurant in the park. The Basin's twisty mountain roads (with the prerequisite daunting precipices) mark the beginning of bear and mountain lion country, but the map assures me that sightings are rare and attacks rarer.

I take the medium-level Window Trail hike, which winds into the basin and affords utterly gorgeous views of the mountains, the desert, and waterfalls caused by recent rains.

In the midafternoon, I drive into Terlingua, historic ghost town and self-styled chili capital of the world, famous for an annual cook-off. Skip the newer part of town, with its souvenir stands and river outfitters, and drive to the ghost town proper. Its squat stone buildings are on the side of a hill a few miles up the road. Most have been restored by artists and other eccentrics. Walking around the old mining village is encouraged, but signs warn you not to disturb the many private residences. Public buildings include the former jail (converted into restrooms), a partially renovated church, and an upscale gallery. My favorite spot is the peaceful, crumbling cemetery, where rocky graves and makeshift crosses memorialize doomed fortune hunters.

If you have a yen to shop, the Terlingua Trading Company sells souvenirs to fit every budget--from small carved crosses ($6) to unassuming woven baskets ($600). After carefully putting down the basket, I wonder if some of the adventure tourists milling around might have more cash than their looks imply.

Day three: Terlingua to Marfa

Marfa, the ranchers' town made famous by the 1956 movieGiant, attracts visitors on three fronts. It has the James Dean connection (he lived here during filming). The town also has the Marfa Mystery Lights, unexplained colored lights that appear outside of town. Then there's the art: Marfa is home to one of the world's largest private art installations.

After a quick stop for coffee at the Marfa Book Company, I arrive in time for the Chinati Foundation tour. Big-shot minimalist artist Donald Judd set up the Chinati in 1986 so he and select cronies could show large-scale, permanent works. He chose an old cavalry base for the cheap land, cavernous buildings, and lovely vistas. Judd created big aluminum boxes and laid them out in rows, while his friend Dan Flavin made fluorescent-light displays.

The Chinati can only be seen via guided tours Wednesday through Sunday. Part 1 starts at 10 a.m. and lasts for a couple of hours. After a lunch break, Part 2 begins at 2 p.m. Good shoes, sunglasses, and water are recommended; the walks between buildings are long. Minimalist art isn't for everyone. I like it rather than love it, and when the effusive praise of aluminum boxes becomes too much, I can at least admire Judd's ambition and the enthusiasm of the art scenesters who make the pilgrimage.

Back in town, I peek in the lobby of the Hotel Paisano, decorated with enough animal heads and leather furniture to make a rancher proud. It's where the cast of Giant, including James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor, stayed during filming. The movie is perpetually screened in the lobby, and you can buy related T-shirts and trinkets at the front desk.

After sundown, I go in search of the Marfa Lights. First reported in the 1880s, the lights dart and bounce above the ranch land between Marfa and Presidio. Or so they say. Different people have different explanations: reflecting headlights, swamp gases, evidence of alien visitors and/or government conspiracy. Assorted tourists and I wait at a viewing center west of town on Highway 90, but a local says that going east of town on 90 gives you the best odds of seeing them. I try that, too. It's rather like waiting for Godot.

Day four: Marfa to Midland

Since I have a late-afternoon flight, I stop at Fort Davis, a countrified resort town near the Davis Mountains. Stables offering trail rides are plentiful, and the shops sell plaques with aphorisms like never squat with your spurs on.

Astronomers consider isolated Fort Davis "the darkest place in the lower 48," or so says a guide at the University of Texas's impressive McDonald Observatory. Touring the giant telescopes pleases the scientific part of my personality the way the Chinati pleased the artsy side. If you're not into telescopes, outdoorsy attractions include Davis Mountains State Park and the Fort Davis National Historic Site. Meanwhile, the free Neill Doll Museum nearby houses a strange, impressive collection.

I head back to Midland through some lovely mountains and ranch land. Savor the view: Midland and Odessa's industrial scenery reappears before you know it.

Finding your way

Midland International is served by Sun Country, Continental, Southwest, and American Eagle; many flights connect via Houston or Dallas. Fall is high season: Rains cause the desert to bloom and the air to cool.

1. Midland international to Marathon

168 miles Arrive early: Marathon is over two hours from Midland/ Odessa. Take I-20 west to Hwy. 18. At Fort Stockton, get on Hwy. 385 south to Marathon. Stay at the Gage Hotel, the Marathon Motel, or the Adobe Rose Inn. Meals at the Gage are $20-$30 per person, but the food and ambience are excellent. Marcie's Kitchen, at the Marathon Motel, serves only breakfast.

2. Marathon to Terlingua

110 miles From Marathon, take Hwy. 385 to the west entrance to Big Bend. Leave the park via the western gate and Hwy. 118. Take Hwy. 170 to the Terlingua ghost town and Lajitas. Chisos Mountains Lodge is the only full-service restaurant in Big Bend, but all the stores sell snacks and sandwiches. (Cell phones rarely work, and the heat kills, so bring plenty of water. Carry cash because there are no ATMs.) The Hungry Javelina, a roadside stand on Hwy. 170, serves burgers and hot dogs. Dinner at the Starlight Theatre and Bar in Terlingua is a must. There are no hotels in the ghost town, but there are a few nearby. Stay inside the park at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, or near Terlingua at the Chisos Mining Company or the Longhorn Ranch Motel.

3. Terlingua to Marfa

110 miles From Terlingua, take Hwy. 118 to Alpine, then U.S. 90 west to Marfa. Grab coffee downtown before heading to the Chinati Foundation. Stay at Hotel Paisano or the Riata. Jett's, in Hotel Paisano, serves decent American food.

4. Marfa to Midland

200 miles Take Hwy. 17 to Fort Davis (about 20 miles). Continue on Hwy. 17. Sometime after Balmorhea, it will become I-10 for a few miles; take Hwy. 17 north, when it exits I-10, to Pecos. At Pecos, get on I-20 east and it'll lead you to the airport. The ride from Fort Davis takes approximately three-and-a-half hours.

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Inspiration

Insiders' Guide to Lake Superior

For much of the way around massive Lake Superior, the highway edges so closely-and so continuously-to the shoreline that I could almost imagine I was piloting a high-powered speedboat rather than my mundane little rental car. I dashed in and out of hidden coves, anchored (well, parked) at sunny beaches, splashed through a sudden, blinding rainsquall, and reveled hour after hour in the beauty of the seascapes in front of me. Could a sailor in a real boat have had it much better? If you love the sea, a five-day, 1,400-mile circle drive around Superior-the largest body of clean, fresh water in the world-is a terrific and inexpensive way to indulge that fancy. Good lodging and dining come at budget prices, especially along the Canadian side of the lake. I stayed in a small, beautifully maintained motel with a view in the village of Wawa, Ontario, for just CAD$62 (US$42, tax included). A savory dinner at the nearby Cedar Hof Dining Lounge, one of the province's most popular restaurants, set me back an easy CAD$15.95 (US$10.85). Beyond this, much of what you will want to see or do is free, or almost so. I was surprised and, yes, dazzled by the abundance of spectacular waterfalls dotting the way. Most are located in state or provincial parks, where the entrance fees are nominal. Countless rivers cascade from high ridges just before they empty into the lake. I popped in and out of my car again and again to catch the never-ending show. In Minnesota, I paid $4 (per car) for an all-day pass to a half-dozen waterfall parks. This is a drive into wilderness country, a winding route through the still mostly pristine land of the deep North Woods. The famed Voyageurs-the fur-trading canoe men who passed this way in the late eighteenth century-might feel quite at home, even today. If you circle the lake counterclockwise, as I did, the lake on your left seems as wide and forbidding as the ocean. On the right, thick evergreen forests, both awesome and intimidating, march in unbroken ranks to the distant horizon. For miles, nothing seems changed from the past except the highway ahead and all those big, yellow road signs warning you to be alert to moose in your path. I never did see one. Not surprisingly, the lakeside towns cater year-round to outdoorsy folks. In summer, take gear to hike, fish, bicycle, canoe, and kayak. Some may be brave enough to plunge briefly into the frigid waters of Superior. (I made it in up to my knees.) But many smaller lakes just off the highway promise sandy beaches and warmer swimming. Winter brings the snowmobile crowd and cross-country skiers. This is a land, too, of fascinating tales. Maritime museums and historic lighthouses tell the sometimes tragic story of Great Lakes shipping; hundreds of ships have gone down in these vast waters. Some wrecks have never been found. At Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, watch freighters navigate the historic Soo Locks linking Lakes Superior and Huron. Tour the rebuilt fort of the early Voyageurs at Minnesota's Grand Portage National Monument. The Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth puts the spotlight on giant lake sturgeon and other Great Lakes species. None of these places will dent your budget. And, oh, yes, once or twice a day a Las Vegas-style casino will tempt you inside. I'd like sudden wealth, too-but keeping to a tight budget, I set a limit of $20 total, which I lost, a few quarters at a time. It's my way of having a bit of gaming fun without regrets. Getting started Since this is a circle drive, start almost anywhere and loop back again. I began in Sault Ste. Marie, because I got what I thought was a bargain airfare from my hometown. But I was socked with a heavy car-rental bill because, after paying for a nonrefundable ticket, I learned that both rental agencies at the airport limited me to 800 free miles, and I drove more than 1,100. Dumb planning on my part. Subsequently, my Internet research suggested Minneapolis as a starting point, offering a combination of good airfares and car rentals. The drawback is that Minneapolis is 150 miles from Lake Superior in Duluth. You add 300 miles round trip to the distance I covered. The Minneapolis-St. Paul airport is served by four discount airlines: AirTran Airways, America West Airlines, American Trans Air, and Frontier Airlines. When I checked, four car-rental agencies were offering a week's compact rental with unlimited miles for about $160. They were Budget (800/527-0700), $153; Enterprise (800/736-8222), $150; Alamo (800/327-9633), $159; and Payless (800/729-5377), $169. I paid $72 for gas. I've routed this drive counterclockwise. From Duluth east to Sault Ste. Marie, lake views are somewhat limited because no road clings continuously to the shoreline. But from Sault Ste. Marie north and west back to Duluth-a distance of about 700 miles-you're rarely out of sight of the lake. The trip may start off slowly, but it ends with a bang. To some, the daily distances might seem somewhat long. But mostly the drive covers lightly traveled roads through little-populated areas. Before you go, order a free copy of the 77-page Lake Superior Circle Tour Adventure Guide, which describes things to see and do. Contact any of the tourism offices mentioned below or pick up a copy at the first information center you come to. On the road Day one Minneapolis to Duluth, 150 miles. Catch an early flight to Minneapolis to give you time in the afternoon to explore Duluth's exciting Lake Superior waterfront. Duluth is the leading Great Lakes port-about 1,000 lake and ocean vessels call here annually-and one of the busiest in the country. Make your first stop the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, a free U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facility at Canal Park in downtown Duluth. It provides an excellent introduction to shipping lore. You might catch a freighter sailing into port; the museum posts an updated schedule of expected arrivals and departures. Most ships enter empty and depart full. I was particularly interested in a large, illuminated map that helped me identify the harbor's major terminals. The Midwest Energy Terminal loads coal brought by train from Montana onto carriers supplying electricity-generating plants in the lower Great Lakes. Iron and coal are the two most important cargoes. There are also six grain elevators capable of holding 55 million bushels. Elsewhere in Canal Park, step aboard the William A. Irvin (adults, $6.75), a former iron ore and coal carrier turned museum ship, for a 60-minute escorted tour. Save an hour for another Canal Park attraction, the Great Lakes Aquarium & Freshwater Discovery Center ($8.95). Here I learned that Superior is about 350 miles long, 160 miles wide, and holds 3 quadrillion gallons of water. I suppose the huge, whiskered lake sturgeon-almost as big as sharks-feel a bit cramped, even in the aquarium's giant, 103,000-gallon tank. And while at Canal Park, enjoy dinner at one of its busy restaurants. Little Angie's Cantina & Grill offers a nice roasted-chicken enchilada plate ($8.99), served outside on the lake-view deck. Or walk uphill to the Radisson Hotel, which features a revolving rooftop restaurant, called JJ Astor, with sweeping harbor views. With the early-bird special (4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday through Thursday), every entree is $7.95. Details From Minneapolis, take I-35 north, exiting at Canal Park. Stay just off I-35 at the 99-room Motel 6 (218/723-1123), $45 weekdays/$53 weekends; or the 59-room Super 8 (218/628-2241), $82 weekdays/$91 weekends. For dining, see above. Information: 800/4-DULUTH, www.visitduluth.com. A mini-cruise Day two Duluth via Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Bayfield, Wisconsin, to Marquette, Michigan, 300 miles. Get an early start to catch a budget-priced mini-cruise at Apostle Islands. En route, the road scrambles alongside Superior; stretch your legs in the little port towns of Port Wing, Herbster, and Cornucopia. Outside Bayfield, the road passes acres of strawberry patches. Buy a pint for snacking. Apostle Islands is a cluster of 21 mostly unpopulated islands just offshore from Bayfield, a pretty town draped gracefully across a forested hillside. One way to see the islands is by tour boat; the three-hour "grand tour" (10 a.m. to 1 p.m.) costs $39.95. Or save by taking the 20-minute ferry crossing ($8 round trip) to Madeline Island, the easiest of the Apostles to reach. The ferry docks at La Point, a tiny village of shops and caf,s. The ride is short, but it's your chance to get on the water cheaply. After crossing into Michigan, look for Van Riper State Park ($4 per car), just east of the town of Michigamme. Break up the drive here with a swim at the park's fine sand beach. No, the lake's not Superior, but it's a lot warmer. In Marquette, head for the Marquette Maritime Museum ($5) overlooking Superior to learn more about legendary shipwrecks, such as the freighter Henry B. Smith, which vanished in 1913. Then join the museum's escorted tour of the still-operating Marquette Harbor Lighthouse. Details From Duluth, take I-535 east into Wisconsin, linking to U.S. 53 and U.S. 2 east. After 15 miles, take State 13 north and east to Bayfield and Apostle Islands. Continue on Route 13 until it rejoins U.S. 2. Head east on U.S. 2 to Wakefield, Michigan, picking up State 28 into Marquette. Stay at the 41-room Brentwood Motor Inn Budget Host (800/999-7055), $48; the 52-room Value Host Motor Inn (800/929-5996), $55; or the 80-room Super 8 Motel (906/228-8100), $67. For seaport flavor, try the Portside Inn in downtown Marquette; the chicken quesadilla plate is $10.95. Information: 800/544-4321, www.marquettecountry.org. On to Canada Day three Marquette via Sault Ste. Marie to Wawa, Ontario, 315 miles. About 40 miles down the road, the little port city of Munising is the departure point for a two-and-a-half-hour cruise off Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (10 a.m., $25). The park is named for a 15-mile-long wall of brightly hued shoreline rock, which centuries of harsh Great Lakes weather has carved into arches, spires, and other odd shapes. Or admire good land-based views of the cliffs from Miners Castle, a large rock formation reached by car. No entrance fee here. If you missed touring the museum ship in Duluth, a second chance awaits aboard the Museum Ship Valley Camp ($8) in Sault Ste. Marie. An ore carrier built in 1917, it's now open for self-guided tours. Climb to the pilothouse to get a captain's view of the huge vessel. Five blocks east, visit the Soo Locks Visitor Center, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facility, where you might see a freighter bound up-lake or down. The locks can average about 16 ships a day. A small museum describes how they work. Cross the International Bridge into Canada for the return drive west along Superior's wild North Shore. For two days, the lake rarely will be out of view. Ahead is a ruggedly majestic realm of rocky coves, pebbled beaches, high cliffs, countless small lakes, endless miles of tall firs, and Superior's sparkling blue waters. At Lake Superior Provincial Park, south of Wawa, stop at Agawa Rock ($4 per car). A short, rough trail descends steeply to the rock, a towering boulder at water's edge. A historic site, it bears many red-ocher paintings made by ancient Ojibwa Indians (as the Chippewas are known in Canada). But beware: The wave-washed viewing ledge can be slippery. Three long ropes have been installed so that those who tumble from the ledge into the lake can pull themselves back up the steep side. In Wawa, I got a chuckle out of a trio of giant geese, emblematic sculptures standing as tall as a house. In the Ojibwa language, Wawa means "land of the goose." At day's end, relax with a swim in lovely Wawa Lake in the heart of town. No charge. Details From Marquette, continue east on State 28 to I-75 north into Sault Ste. Marie. Cross the International Bridge and follow the signs to Canada 17 west (the Trans-Canada Highway) to Wawa. Stay just south of Wawa at the 14-room Mystic Isle Motel (800/667-5895), CAD$62/US$42; or in Wawa at the 32-room Big Bird Inn (705/856-2342), CAD$54/US$37; or the 18-room Algoma Motel (705/856-7010), CAD$62/US$42. Dine at the renowned Cedar Hof Dining Lounge, specializing in German dishes. Enjoy the Wiener schnitzel plate with homemade spaetzle, CAD$15.95/US$10.85. Information: 800/367-9292, ext. 260, www.wawa.cc. Into the North Woods Day four Wawa to Thunder Bay, 300 miles. A great day for sailing, even behind the wheel of a rented car. Skirt broad bays, crest lofty ridges, and plunge into the awesome North Woods. This leg ranks as one of the finest water-view drives in the world. At Terrace Bay, stretch your legs on the short hike to Aguasabon Falls, where a slender stream cascades over a steep cliff into a sheer-walled canyon. At Rainbow Falls Provincial Park, hike through dense woods to a pair of waterfalls splashing down a narrow, rocky channel. Elsewhere in the park, swim in the warm (sort of) water of Whitesand Lake. At Ouimet Canyon Provincial Park (CAD$1/US66> per person), take the one-mile loop trail to a viewing platform overlooking the impressively deep chasm. Details From Wawa, stick to Canada 17 all the way. Stay in Thunder Bay at the 50-room Super 8 (807/344-2612), CAD$75/US$51; or the 60-room Best Western Crossroads Motor Inn (807/577-4241), CAD$95/US$65. Dine elegantly at the Timbers at the Valhalla Inn. The evening buffet is CAD$14.95/US$10.15. The maple-glazed pork chop entr,e, ... la carte, CAD$20/US$13.60. Information: 800/667-8386, www.visitthunderbay.com. Waterfall way Day five Thunder Bay via Duluth to Minneapolis, 350 miles. For the first 200 miles, the road hugs the lake. But here it is overshadowed by the many roadside waterfalls. The first is just inside the U.S. border at Grand Portage State Park. An easy, ten-minute walk leads to the thundering High Falls of the Pigeon River. The one-day fee ($4 per car) is good for all Minnesota state parks. At nearby Grand Portage National Monument ($3), pause briefly for a history lesson. In 1784, this protected bay became the site of a major fur-trading post. Each spring until 1803, Montreal fur buyers journeyed here in canoes paddled by a backwoods navy of Great Lakes Voyageurs. They rendezvoused with the traders, who bought furs from the Indians. To reach the fort, the traders had to portage the last eight miles. A stockade fence, the Great Hall, kitchen, and other structures have been rebuilt, and costumed interpreters re-create frontier life. I spent an interesting half hour with Erik Simula, a birch-bark-canoe maker in buckskin, who introduced me to the fine art of harvesting and thrashing Minnesota wild rice. Afterward, stop at Judge C. R. Magney State Park, where a mighty waterfall disappears into the open mouth of Devil's Kettle, a pot-like rock formation. Turn in again at Cascade River and Temperance River State Parks for more waterfall hikes. At Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, climb the stairs of a restored lighthouse. At Gooseberry Falls State Park, scramble on the rocks at the foot of yet another grand tumble of water. Back in Duluth, celebrate the end of the drive with a final Superior view. And then head for Minneapolis and home. Details From Thunder Bay, take Route 61 south, connecting at the U.S. border to Minnesota 61 south. In Duluth, pick up I-35 south to Minneapolis.

Inspiration

Gaming in Nevada: Time to Think Reno

What comes to mind when you think about a casino vacation? If it's 3,000-room megaresorts, celebrity chefs, and pirate battles, then you may have been among the almost 34 million people who visited Las Vegas last year. Thirty-four million! Now for some, that's just dandy - the bigger the party, the better. But lately, even dyed-in-the-felt Vegasphiles have been grousing that their beloved casino haunt is being overrun now that the last of the several new 4,000-room hotels has opened. Time to think about an alternative? Time to think Reno. Think Reno and you won't conjure images of fire spewing and waters spouting from man-made volcanoes and lakes. You'll first entertain more modest associations, such as three-digit room counts, employees who smile, and a great oyster bar at John Ascuaga's Nugget in the neighboring city of Sparks. But these are just warm-ups to the Reno area's main event, which is anything but man-made: an outdoor wonderland of golf, skiing, and sightseeing, compliments of two dozen links, a score of downhill resorts, snow-capped mountains, and an alpine lake without peer. Dubbed the "Biggest Little City in the World" in 1927, Reno is no Las Vegas, but it doesn't try to be. The city has developed its own style based on its most marketable attributes: outdoor beauty, recreational opportunities, a come-as-you-are casualness, and affordability. And is it ever affordable! The area's large number of casinos ensures a high level of competition, which sets Reno's bargain quotient at a level second only to its big-sister city to the south. Two ways to win The key to enjoying Reno is knowing what to expect. If you're used to Las Vegas, you have to be prepared for the differences. For example, Las Vegas boasts 18 of the world's largest hotels. Reno has none; its largest hotel is the 2,000-room Hilton (not even in the Las Vegas top 20). Remember that lofty 34-million visitor count? Reno turnstiles admitted a mere 5.1 million last year. In almost every manner, the pace is slower and the glitz factor is lower. As one wise soul put it: If Las Vegas is a sparkling diamond, then Reno is a partially polished peridot. Still reading? Then you're a candidate to honestly love Reno. There are two ways. The first and most reliable is to use the city as a home base for day trips. Reno is the perfect gateway, not only to the Sierra Nevadas, Lake Tahoe, and the ski areas, but for a sightseeing excursion to Virginia City, or even an extended trip to San Francisco or Northern California's wine country, both about 200 miles away. The second way is to simply go to Reno for Reno, taking advantage of the best that the 30 or so casinos in the area have to offer, perhaps coordinating a visit with one of the city's nonstop summer events. Whatever your base strategy, planning in advance will pay big dividends. The first move is to obtain the "Reno, Sparks, Lake Tahoe Visitor Planner." No casino locale has an informational guide in the same league as this one. And it's free. A toll-free call to 800/FOR-RENO will secure it in quick order. The planner provides extensive hotel descriptions and vitals, RV parks, special-events listings, suggested sightseeing itineraries, maps (both city and area), a list of travel wholesalers you can query for package-rate savings, and some stunning photos that will fire you up about your trip. You can also log on to the tourism authority's very good Web site at www.renolaketahoe.com. High-end rooms at bargain rates Upscale or downtown-and-dirty? Unless you want to go the ultra-bargain route, the best combo of price and quality is captured by going for the gusto. The good news is that upscale prices in Reno still qualify as bargain-rate lodging. In a random (mid-summer) check of hotel rates for this article, the most expensive we could come up with for standard rooms was $119 on the weekend and $65 on a weekday, both at Harrah's (800/ HARRAHS). Those were the highest! Weekday/weekend rates of $49/$79 at John Ascuaga's Nugget (800/648-1177), $49/$89 at the Reno Hilton (800/648-5080), $49/$99 at the Atlantis (800/723-6500), and $59/$109 at the Peppermill (800/648-6992) qualify as downright steals. Now is as good a time as any to mention that these latter four hotel-casinos are the cream of the Reno crop. All are perimeter joints, two situated to the east (Nugget and Hilton) and two to the south (Atlantis and Peppermill) of downtown, which contains the primary casino concentration. Downtown Reno has had a tough go of it in the recent past, during which many of the older Reno casinos have closed for good. Gone are the Mapes, Nevada Club, Riverside, Virginian, Riverboat, Holiday, even the famous Harolds Club. Using its huge Bowling Stadium as an anchor, downtown hopes to mount a comeback with the dozen casinos that remain, but for now, there's not much to recommend it. Of course, the financial inducement to take the downtown-and-dirty route can be mighty. Our survey found weekday rates of $49 at the Eldorado (800/648-5966), $32 at both the Sundowner (800/648-5490) and Pioneer (800/879-8879), and $24 at Fitzgeralds (800/535-LUCK). If you're using Reno as a home base, there's a great case to be made for spending $24 a night simply to store your gear and crash at the end of the day. Truth is, Reno is an easy town to rate-shop, so all you really need is a general idea of what's where to evaluate the prices you encounter. The core of downtown contains Harrah's, the Flamingo Hilton (800/648-4882), Cal-Neva Virginian (877/777-7303), Fitzgeralds, Circus Circus (800/648-5010), Eldorado, and the relatively new Silver Legacy (800/687-7733). The latter three are linked via elaborate skywalks housing restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and shops; together they constitute the focal point of downtown. Located away from the core, on the downtown's outskirts are the Comstock (800/266-7862), Pioneer, Ramada (888/RENO-777), Sands Regency (800/648-3553), and Sundowner. You'll find lower prices here because the locations are less convenient. To the east and south perimeter casinos already mentioned, add the Silver Club (800/905-7774) and Western Village (800/648-1170) in Sparks, and way out some ten miles west of town, the burgeoning Boomtown (800/648-3790), and you've got the whole roster of Reno-Sparks hotels. Upscale meals, moderately priced Filling up a dining card in Reno isn't difficult. Excluding the rock-bottom plays detailed later (see our section called "Bargains on Parade," further along in the article), there are two must-dos. The first is John's Oyster Bar at John Ascuaga's Nugget. Open since 1959 and operating out of the same location since 1979, John's recipe for awesome seafood soups hasn't changed in four decades. The restaurant's inspiration was New York City's Oyster Bar at Grand Central, but try getting an oyster pan roast, overflowing with the little critters, at Grand Central for $9.95! Chowders, cocktails, Louies, and oysters on the half-shell are served with half-loaves of fresh bread and an update of the day's events compliments of the in-house-produced Today's Noon News. Dine early and there's a good chance you'll see John himself sampling the wares; on rare occasions, you might even spot him doing a bit of cooking. Must-do number two is a trip to Louis' Basque Corner. Northern Nevada has a rich Basque heritage, and the area is peppered with restaurants serving the region's unique cuisine-lamb, tongue, oxtails, rabbit, paella - at long tables in the traditional all-you-can-eat family style. But Louis' is the top choice: It has the formula down, the price is right (about $16 for dinner), and it's only a two-block stroll from the center of town. Reno's buffet scene has taken a little longer than Las Vegas's to catch fire, but the creativity gap is beginning to close. The best spreads in town, ordered by price (from $10 to $15 for dinner), are at the Peppermill, Ascuaga's Nugget, Atlantis, and Eldorado. Also recommended is the incredible Baldini's (800/845-7911) value buffet discussed below, and the famous steak buffet at the Silver Club. Though pedestrian in general, the Silver Club's $6.99-er comes with all the sirloin steak you can stomach. And these aren't skinny shoe-leather jobs, mind you, but slabs thick enough to get them cooked, according to the grill chef, "exactly the way you want, if you're lucky." Moving up to the low high-end, there are the good value-priced steak houses, such as those at the Sundowner, Cal-Neva Virginian, and Western Village. Many of these offer neat little early-bird menus that chop an already puny tab in half. Recommended mid-rangers include La Strada (Italian) at the Eldorado, Art Gecko (Southwestern) at Circus Circus, Orozko (Mediterranean) at Ascuaga's Nugget, and the venerable Steakhouse Grill, also at the Nugget, where a toteboard tells you that 3,186,576 steaks (whoops, make that 3,186,577..., 578..., 579) have been served since 1956. Two gorgeous Italian restaurants, MonteVigna at Atlantis and Romanza at the Peppermill, take it to the next level. And for the biggest dent Reno can levy on your wallet, head to the Peppermill's highly rated White Orchid. But a scanty club scene Whereas Reno holds its own in the food department, its entertainment situation is significantly less developed. This is not a place to find the latest in touring musicals, high-tech production shows, top-flight impressionists, or cutting-edge magic. In fact, there's barely even a star presence. Only the Celebrity Showroom at Ascuaga's Nugget maintains a regular schedule of headliners, even if the likes of Robert Goulet, David Brenner, and Tony Orlando seem about ten years removed from their showroom heydays. Reno showrooms are "intimate," and tend to house small-scale production shows that seem to mark time between the appearances of the occasional second-tier headliner. In a pinch, you can always count on the tried-and-true comedy clubs, of which there's usually more than one to choose from on any given night. Taking up some of the slack is a vigorous nightclub and bar scene. Finally, if you really want the Vegas-style show up north, you can take the ride to Lake Tahoe, where the stars still come out. Bargains on parade One universal trait of bona fide casino destinations is the availability of the super bargain. Since the goal is to hook you on the fishline of one of the negative-expectation casino games, it's necessary to throw out some bait. Reno's got the tactic down cold. With only about a third of the Las Vegas casino count, Reno deals aren't as numerous, but in a head-to-head comparison of each city's best, David may actually beat Goliath. The first place that comes to mind when discussing Reno food specials is the Cal-Neva Virginian, where the granddad of local breakfasts, the 99[cent] bacon-and-eggs special, is still available daily from 10 p.m. till 8 a.m. in the Top Deck restaurant. This breakfast is such a standard in Reno that it constituted legitimate big news when 24-hour availability was rescinded earlier this year, replaced during prime time with a $1.74 version ("with more bacon"). You can also treat yourself to a big hot dog and bottle of Heineken at the Gridiron Grill for $1.50; Cal-Neva claims to be the largest seller of one-bottle-at-a-time Heineken in the entire country. The Cal-Neva's trump card, though, is another Top Deck special that even Las Vegas couldn't sustain: A complete steak dinner for $1.99, available from 10 p.m. till 6 a.m. It's an eight-ounce sirloin steak, rolls, vegetable, choice of potato (including baked), and one trip to the salad bar. You'll want to save the check, displaying a tab of $2.13 after tax, as a souvenir. Stiff competition comes from Baldini's, a quirky locals' casino located halfway between downtown and Sparks, where Pepsi is so prevalent (a la Cal-Neva's Heineken) that it all but doubles as currency. Baldini's has 49[cents] hot dogs, 89[cent] burgers, a dozen chicken wings for $2, and a whole rotisserie chicken for $4.99. But its claim to fame is a buffet with a taco bar, a baked potato bar, and a working Mongolian grill, where cooks stir-fry beef, chicken, and pork with a vegetable mix of your choosing. A few other casino buffets have Mongolian grills, but not with prices like $3.99 for breakfast, $5.99 for lunch, and $6.99 for dinner. It gets better. Kids are half-price, you get a card good for a 25 percent discount on unlimited visits just for signing up for the slot club, and you can get half off the price of your first buffet with a coupon from Baldini's "Super Bonus" funbook (you'll need out-of-state ID and a voucher available at the tourist center in the Bowling Stadium). The diner at the back of the little Nugget slot joint in downtown Reno hasn't changed in nearly 45 years. Eighteen red stools face the counter and another eighteen face the back wall. Try the "Awful Awful" burger for $3.50, or the chef's special dinner, which changes daily, for $3.95. The Sundowner's $1.99 plate of spaghetti with garlic toast, available 24 hours a day, is another that's been around forever. Back to Plan A It would take another article of this size to thoroughly explore all the possibilities in the Reno-as-gateway scenario. The key trip you should take, if only to look around, is the 40-mile jaunt (plus another 20 to the casinos on the south shore) to Lake Tahoe. The payoff for the steep climb up and over majestic Mt. Rose is a view of the lake suitable for memory framing. This sight is surpassed only by the breathtaking visage of Tahoe's Emerald Bay. To call the Lake Tahoe recreational area an outdoorsman's paradise doesn't begin to do it justice. Golf in summer and skiing in winter? Duh! Try 10 golf courses and 13 alpine ski resorts, a number of them world-class. Now add bicycling, hiking, swimming, speedboating, sailing, rafting, waterskiing, windsurfing, jet skiing, scuba diving, sport fishing, bungee jumping, skydiving, horseback-riding, tennis, bowling, ballooning, paragliding, rock-climbing, cross-country skiing, sleigh riding, snowboarding, ice skating, and snowmobiling. Do one, do all - possibly in overlapping seasons. If you expend a little effort, you can find all sorts of ways to package these activities for big cost savings. Last May, for example, Fitzgeralds advertised $49 and $59 ski packages to Mt. Rose, Alpine Meadows, or Squaw Valley that included a room at the casino, all-day lift ticket, and transportation. The tourism authority produces several planning guides to specific activities. You can track them down via the main planner and Web site referenced earlier. Advantage play "Advantage play" is a gambling term that describes any method for getting an edge at a casino game. The concept can also be applied to a trip to a casino destination. Advantage play for Reno begins the moment you book your flight. Try to get a seat on the left side of the airplane. Depending on your approach path, you'll be rewarded with a great aerial view of either Lake Tahoe or the city. And don't run straight for a cab at the airport. Unlike Las Vegas, almost all the Reno casinos provide airport shuttles (plus, Tahoe Express shuttles travelers from the airport to Lake Tahoe's south shore about a dozen times a day). Right off the bat, pick up one of the freebie magazines (e.g. Best Bets or Fun & Gaming) and page through it immediately. They're great sources for entertainment leads and discount coupons for shows and meals. Also, visit the tourist center at the Bowling Stadium for more of the same. If you come with kids, the best arcades are at Atlantis, Reno Hilton, and Boomtown. The best book to read before you come is the Nevada Handbook by Deke Castleman. The best place to get a book once you get there is Ron Teston's Gambler's Book Store at First and Virginia. The biggest special events are the Reno Rodeo in June, Hot August Nights in August, and the Best-in-the-West Rib Cook-off, Great Reno Balloon Race, and the National Championship Air Races in September. For a cool diversion, have lunch, dinner, or a drink at the Liberty Belle Saloon and Restaurant, which is named after the first slot machine, developed in 1898 by Charles Fey. The bar's owned by two of Fey's grandsons, and on display are some of the inventor's machines, including his Liberty Belle. And finally, whatever you do, check out the great bathrooms next to the Romanza restaurant at the Peppermill. Trust us.

Inspiration

'We're Going to South Africa and We'd Like to Do it All'

Sean Sullivan spent most of the 1970s in the Peace Corps, and for nearly two years he trained volunteers in the southern African country of Swaziland. "That was during apartheid, and I had to drive through South Africa all the time," said Sean. "Back then no black people would look me in the eye." Now Sean wants to take his wife, Rita, who's never been to Africa, to see how things have improved in the Rainbow Nation. The Sullivans, from Darien, Conn., have set aside two weeks in February to travel to South Africa and Swaziland with Michael McMurray (a friend from Sean's bachelor days) and his wife, Michele. The foursome asked us to help plan their ambitious itinerary: see Cape Town, revisit Swaziland, and take a safari. Hotels in Cape Town are far more expensive than in the rest of the country; even the Holiday Inn goes for around $200 a night midweek. The best values are at guesthouses and B&Bs, which charge about $40 per person. We first told the Sullivans to look at the online database of B&Bs from the Portfolio Collection. But with the exchange rate so favorable (6.5 rands to the dollar at press time), Sean said he wanted to stay somewhere luxurious. He eventually gravitated toward a 150-year-old, antiques-furnished home from De Waterkant Lodge & Cottages. Their cottage has a kitchen, a rooftop terrace, a balcony, and is within walking distance of downtown and the popular waterfront area. Two of the biggest draws near Cape Town--the Cape of Good Hope and the Winelands--are both about an hour from the city. Sean thought about renting a car for a day trip to the vineyards, and we warned him that most South African rental agencies put a 200-kilometer cap (about 125 miles) on free daily mileage. Depending on how many wineries they want to visit, they'd probably have to pay extra. To guarantee unlimited mileage, all he would have to do is secure reservations before leaving the United States. Hertz and Avis both operate widely in South Africa, charging about $40 a day for a compact stick-shift car; automatics are typically twice as expensive. But before they rented a car for the Cape Winelands, we offered up the possibility of hiring a guide, who would double as their designated driver. "I hadn't thought of that, but it could be a lot more fun that way," said Sean. For $61 per person (not including entrance fees or meals), certified guide Rob Davidowitz, of Beautiful Cape Town Exclusive Tours, would lead them on a custom winery tour in an air-conditioned Honda CRV or minibus. Next, the Sullivans planned on visiting Swaziland, a tiny country embedded in South Africa's eastern reaches. "I know it was safe 30 years ago, but times change," Sean said. We assured him Swaziland is still safe. The trouble is that it's nearly 900 miles from Cape Town, and driving would take at least three days each way. Better to fly the 997 miles to Durban, South Africa's third-largest city, and from there drive through Swaziland and a few nature reserves, and end in Johannesburg (nicknamed Joburg), where they'd fly to Cape Town and then home. South African Airways quoted a price of $588 per person for the flights, but that wasn't the only option. Discount airlines have cropped up all over the globe, even in Africa. Nationwide Airlines quoted $95 one way to Durban, and three-year-old Kulula is selling tickets for just $66. The no-frills lines offered similarly priced flights between Joburg and Cape Town. "I used to go to Kruger Park in South Africa, staying in rustic places and driving around on my own looking at animals," Sean said. "I wonder if this can still be done." It sure can. North of Durban, there's a circuit of such parks. The first stop, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, is probably the best spot on earth to see both black and white rhinos in the wild. Positioned about 140 miles north of Durban off the busy N2 highway, its Hilltop Camp has sweeping views over the park. Just an hour east, on the Indian Ocean, the Sullivans could spend a day or two at Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, a 1,000-square-mile UNESCO World Heritage Site that's home to hippos, massive saltwater crocs, and more than 100 species of butterflies. Guesthouses in St. Lucia are available for around $30 a night through South African Tourism's official website, southafrica.net. From St. Lucia, it's about 185 miles up the N2 to the border of Swaziland, where Sean served in the Peace Corps. The hilly country is only 60 miles in diameter, making it easy to cross in a few hours. Hotels in the capital, Mbabane, tend to be either very basic or grafted onto tacky casinos, so we suggested the party pass through town just long enough for Sean to see how things have changed. We told them to continue 16 miles south to the Foresters Arms Hotel, a 235-acre retreat with rolling green pastures and groves of trees. From there, it's a 40-mile drive north through stunning mountain scenery to the South African border. An hour's travel farther is the Crocodile Bridge gate of Kruger National Park. This park, roughly the size of Massachusetts, is the world's premier do-it-yourself game reserve for the Big Five (elephants, lions, buffalo, leopards, and rhinos). Private reserves nearby charge at least $200 per night, but Kruger gets tourists close to the same animals in 14 motel-style rest camps for less than $50. The camps sell groceries, they're staffed with knowledgeable rangers, and electrified fencing keeps out predators. We suggested a few strategies for the couples in Kruger. First, don't stay at the same camp twice, since backtracking diminishes the chances of seeing fresh animal groups. Second, avoid the most popular camps (Skukuza, with its own airport, is the busiest)--tourists stampede out each morning, making sightings rarer. Finally, drive at least halfway up the 257-mile-long park, since the topography and fauna vary along the way. We charted a course up Kruger's spine from Lower Sabie camp (near hippos and crocs) to Satara (in lion country) to Olifants (above a dramatic escarpment where elephants roam). Sean's thirst for adventure still wasn't quenched. "Do you think that then we could fly to Victoria Falls in Zambia?" Yes, they could--Nationwide Airlines flies there from Joburg for $200 each way--but after a two-week whirlwind, the couples should probably think about taking it easy. Besides, they'll have saved so much money on this trip, there can always be a next time. South Africa Lodging Portfolio Collection 011-27/21-689-4020, portfoliocollection.com De Waterkant Lodge & Cottages 20 Loader St., Cape Town, 011-27/21-419-1097, dewaterkant.co.za, cottages for two from $183 Foresters Arms Hotel Mhlambanyati, Swaziland 011-268/467-4377, visitswazi.com/foresters/index.html, from $55 Transportation Hertz 800/654-3001, hertz.com Avis 800/230-4898, avis.com Nationwide Airlines 866/686-6558, flynationwide.co.za Kulula 011-27/11-921-0111, kulula.com Attractions Kruger National Park 011-27/12-428-9111, SANParks.org, double huts from $24 Hluhluwe-Imfolozi National Park 011-27/33-845-1000, kznwildlife.com, $10 per day, Hilltop Camp double chalets from $65 per adult Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park 011-27/33-845-1000, kznwildlife.com, free Beautiful Cape Town Exclusive Tours users.iafrica.com/r/ro/robair/tours.htm , tours from $200 per car Resources South African Tourism 212/730-2929, southafrica.net

Inspiration

Luxury Yachting on Pocket Change

Hitchhiking a ride on a yacht is not as tricky as it might seem. You don't need to swim to a harbor buoy and stick out your thumb. You don't even need white loafers or a set of Captain Stubing-issue epaulettes. What you do need, however, is some crucial insider information. Either that or you can learn the hard way, like I did. Just out of college, I decided I would hitchhike on vessels from Florida to Venezuela. I walked the various docks around the fancy harbors in Miami and Fort Lauderdale and heard the same embarrassing line: "Why are you trying to do this during hurricane season?" I eventually made it as far as the Virgin Islands, but only because I flew there. Since then, I've learned the ABCs of "crewing," which turns out to be a rather reasonably priced way to see the world from the deck of a yacht. You and the sea Why do people fling themselves to the open seas on a stranger's boat? For some, yacht hitching is just a cheap way to get from A to B. Others prefer the adventure to flying over the dimpled oceans with a high-altitude TV dinner in their laps. And many simply find life on the water an almost spiritual experience, and without the funds for their own yacht, they find this is a great way to get their fix. You may be drawn by all of these, or find the most rewarding aspect is the camaraderie and lifelong connections you make onboard. If this is your first time at sea (yes, you will be labeled a landlubber), at the very least you'll find out if yachting is for you. And until then, you'll just have to (in this order) pray for calm waters, stay on deck, stare at the horizon, use motion-sickness pills or patches, puke, feel temporarily better, puke again, endure hell, and-getting back to square one-pray for calm waters. For most people, thankfully, seasickness subsides after a few days. The basics The first thing you need to know is that hitching on yachts isn't just possible. It's fairly common. Private yachts and sailboats of all types often need an extra pair of hands during a sea passage-some have professional captains delivering a boat to a new owner somewhere, some have "old salt" couples who live aboard their vessels full time and simply need the help or the company of fresh blood. "Yachties" (live-aboard sailboat owners, often retired) are a fixture in ports around the globe, and they tend to follow general routes through regions and countries where anchorages are safe, the scenery is agreeable, and the prices are low. Yachties are colorful characters with a seaworthy culture all their own. If you know the sailing seasons, the yachting epicenters and routes, how to present yourself professionally, and above all, if you're persistent, it's possible to get a working passage, catch a free lift (you may be asked for $5 to $25 per day to cover your food and drinks-depends on the captain, your negotiating skills, and how much they expect you to work), or even earn money onboard while heading almost anywhere. Most agreements are done casually at the individual harbors, others may have written contracts. Passages can last anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months. You don't need to be in peak condition to crew on a yacht, but if you're reasonably fit and slender it certainly helps. This works for you as much as for the captain since most yachts have narrow passages and tight sleeping arrangements. In other words, if you shop at Big & Tall, you're in for a seriously cramped voyage. This also applies to what you bring. Space is limited, so a compact kit will be appreciated. Show up pulling a Samsonite wheel rig and you've got a few strikes against you already. There's not much special gear involved, but in your collapsible bag you'll want some nonmarking deck shoes, a good hat that won't land in the drink when the wind picks up, sunblock, UV sunglasses with safety straps, motion-sickness pills, and some smart clothes that won't get you thrown out of the occasional yacht club. How to look for passage If you're planning a trip by yacht well in advance, head for the Web (see our sidebar). Various sites match crews with ships. You can also check the ads in yachting magazines and newsletters. There are also crewing placement agencies that specialize in this very service, but be prepared for a membership fee in the neighborhood of $25 to $75. Before you pony up, consider how good your credentials look on paper. And with all ads for crew, keep in mind you're not likely filling an empty spot for a leisurely ride. They need you. Perforce, they're looking for someone with skills, from cooking to motor mechanics. And if they're taking a charter client, they're generally willing to pay for your services: $200 to $1,000 per week (including tips) depending on your duties. Paid or not, many are happy just to get a deckhand-an able body attached to a mind that can accept washing dishes, cleaning out the cabin, and scrubbing the boat-a few of the chores you can expect to do at some point, as well as taking your turn at "watch": staying up at night at the helm while the boat is under way. If you're winging it-and if you're planning to hitch your way from country to country on yachts, you probably are-head down to any major harbor and start by scanning the notice boards. Step two is to find the harbormaster and ask if he knows any captains looking for crew. That way, you can tweak it into a personal reference ("the harbormaster said I should speak to you about a crew position you're trying to fill"). If that doesn't yield any leads, ask if you can use his radio to announce on the local sailors' channel that you're looking for work. Getting onboard In the casual atmosphere of the marina, it's easy to forget that all your inquiries should be treated as interviews. If captains don't like how you look or conduct yourself, they may not reveal they have a position available or refer you to others. You want to dress smart (usually clean and neat will suffice) and demonstrate that you're easygoing and levelheaded. In other words, keep the giant python tattoo covered for now and don't bring up religion or politics. Moreover, learn some yachting manners. Always ask for "permission to board" before letting your foot cross the rail. If you're a good cook, mention it. If you've got technical experience, let the captain know. If you've got solid job recommendations, keep copies on hand. Tell the captain he's welcome to search your luggage (he may request this anyway) and that your travel documents are in order (make sure they are). The interview works both ways; you want to size up the captain and crew as well. Are these people you want to be stuck with at sea? Women travelers especially must beware. Will you be the only woman onboard? Can you talk with other women onboard who have sailed with these men before? Find out. Once you set sail, it's too late. Where and when Caribbean: The sailing season begins in October following the summer hurricanes and lasts until May. If you want to head "down island" (south), show up in Miami or Fort Lauderdale from November to March. Antigua Race Week (end of April) is the Big Event and the Antigua Yacht Club marina is an ideal place to pick up a berth to just about anywhere, especially South America, the United States, and Europe. In the Caribbean and Central America, try marinas and yachtie bars in Antigua, Grenada, Saint Martin, and Panama City's Balboa Yacht Club (for passage through the canal). Mediterranean: The season kicks off in June, when yachts need crew for their summer charters. Nearly all major marinas are active, but especially Antibes, Las Palmas, Rhodes, Malta, Majorca, Alicante, and Gibraltar. Then, in November, there's a 2,700- nautical-mile fun run from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (Canary Islands) to Rodney Bay in Saint Lucia called the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC). Over 200 boats participate, and even more make the crossing unofficially. So from October to the end of November, there's a mass exodus to the West Indies. The standard point of departure for the two-to- four-week Atlantic crossing is Gran Canaria. If you show up at the beginning of November and chip in some food money for the crossing (about $250), you've got a good chance of catching a lift. Better, even, if you arrive earlier. South Pacific: The main springboards are a few marinas in northern New Zealand: Opua, Whangarei, and Auckland, probably in that order. Most boats leave in the autumn (end February-end April). If you want passage in the other direction (to New Zealand) or on to the United States, your best months are July to October. Some prefer to start in Australia. There, try the marinas in the Whitsunday Islands, Townsville, and Airlie Beach. To head to Indonesia, May to July is promising. Returning home You may be able to catch a ride right back to your departure point. But don't count on it. Even if you've prearranged a long round-trip berth, one thing or another may cause you to hop off earlier. Expect to spring for a cheap one-way plane ticket, ferry ride, or bus trip, depending on where you end up. Resources for gettin' salty Postings: Bulletin board: yachtsclassified.com Post for crews: pacificcup.org/crew_lists/crew_list Matching boats with crews: partnersandcrews.com Florida-area crew list: walrus.com/~belov/florida-skippers.html New York-area crew list: walrus.com/~belov/skippers.html Agencies: Crew Unlimited (crewunlimited.com) charges $25 to sign up, then takes sizable chunk from the vessel hiring you. Crewfinders (crewfinders.com) charges $40 to sign up, then charges much larger percentage fee from vessel hiring. Marina: Listings: marinamate.com/marinas.html Yacht clubs by location: sailorschoice.com/yachtclb.htm More yacht club links: guam-online.com/myc/myclinks.htm Reading: The Practical Mariner's Book of Knowledge: 420 Sea-Tested Rules of Thumb for Almost Every Boating Situation by John Vigor (McGraw-Hill, $17.95) First signs for a first mate Here are a few warning signs, besides the eye patch and hook in place of a right arm. 1) Cabin looks like a guy's college dorm room 2) Navigation equipment doesn't look like it could locate a cruise ship in a bathtub 3) Any signs of transporting contraband 4) Captain with a hot temper 5) Major repairs being done to boat's hull Words of wisdom from crew members "You don't need to know how to sail to do a crossing; you need to be neat, clean, and trustworthy. If you're doing day work for a boat in the harbor, show up on time and take it seriously." -Jonas Persson "Once we were in the Caribbean, it didn't take longer than five days to catch a lift. You just need to make sure that you don't get left someplace without a lot of yachts. Barbados, Saint Martin, and Antigua are the places you want to be." -Peter Laurin