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Venturing Into West Texas

By Melissa Marshall
January 12, 2022
santa, elena, canyon, rio, grande, big, bend, national, park, texas, river, mexico
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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

In Search of the Perfect Ski Village

They don't ski the powder. Of all the cultural peculiarities that North American skiers and snowboarders discover in the Alps, that one leaves them the most dumbfounded. In Colorado and Vermont and British Columbia, diehards have been known to stand in lift lines before daybreak if it means fresh tracks. But in Europe, the overwhelming majority prefer the fluffiness squeezed out of the snow to make for easy cruising runs. Carving turns in powder, while fun, is an awful lot of work, and anything coming close to the W-word is a no-no for Europeans on holiday. That just means more freshies for you and me. Everything else that goes along with the Alpine village experience in Europe makes absolute sense. Instead of day trips or long weekends, people primarily come for weeks at a time so that it's actually possible to relax. They use intricate train and bus links in lieu of cars, reserving the compact village centers for peaceful walking. And then there's that indefinable charm--the snow-topped chalets, narrow alleys, cozy après-ski pubs, and sheltering mountain surroundings are so irresistible that resorts around the world have been imitating them for decades. We're spotlighting three of these storybook ski villages, in Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. Each is authentic to its roots, more affordable than people imagine, and perfect in its own way. Wengen, Switzerland: An Alpine classic Switzerland is known for its idyllic ski villages, with traditional wooden chalets nestled amid craggy peaks jutting up into a baby-blue sky. Wengen (Ven-ghen) stands out because of its location in the middle of three interconnected ski areas, each of which would be considered well above average on its own in North America. Wengen is a pedestrians-only village--no diesel fumes, no cars revving their engines, no parking lots the size of football fields--so people find it that much easier to decompress here. And decompress they do: The ski holiday in Switzerland focuses as much on the idea of "holiday" as it does on "ski," and savoring a two-hour midday meal or hoisting a mug of frothy beer on a sundeck is more important than logging lots of mileage up and down the mountain. Instead of cars, Wengen relies on an elaborate, efficient system of trains, gondolas, cable cars, chairlifts, and T-bars that could only be the work of Swiss engineers. Visitors drive or take the train to the town of Lauterbrunnen. From there, a cog railway carts them past old timber farm sheds and over the crest of a cliff to Wengen. Across the Lauterbrunnen valley from Wengen is its smaller mirror image, Mürren, which is similarly car-free and situated on top of a dramatic bluff. On the Wengen side, a cable car in town shoots up to the top of a peak, and skiers can cruise down 4,000 vertical feet on the other side to find themselves in yet another quintessential ski hub, Grindelwald. The three villages form the heart of the Jungfrau region, smack in the center of Switzerland, just south of Interlaken and about three hours from Zürich. To access the Jungfrau's terrain--or any of the snowy landscape's restaurants, bars, cafés, and toboggan runs--all you have to do is roll out of your hotel and walk (or ski) to the nearest train stop. A ski pass covers all transportation within the Jungfrau region, and the trail maps come printed with train schedules. There's hardly a bad room in town, but since most ski hotels in Switzerland include breakfast and dinner in their rates, it's essential to factor in the quality of the kitchen. (If you don't want dinner, most hotels will take it off the bill, but only if you tell them ahead of time.) At the Hotel Hirschen in Wengen, the delicious pastas, tangy soups, and weekly fondue parties more than make up for the smallish guest rooms. Ski trails lead right to the hotel door, and most west-facing rooms come with terraces and views of the town, the mountains, and the valley. The village center is just a few minutes away on foot, quicker if you're on skis. Each morning, skiers and boarders face a mountain range's worth of options: hopping into the Männlichenbahn cable car for wide-open groomers leading down to Grindelwald; boarding the train and heading up above Mürren to the Schilthorn, a 9,748-foot peak known for its revolving restaurant, steep slopes, and the fact that the James Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service was filmed there; or taking the train in the opposite direction, up to the sunny Kleine Scheidegg area, where people toss back schnapps inside a giant tepee or soak up sun on the decks, gathering the nerve to try the Lauberhorn, a famous downhill course where a World Cup race takes place every January. Instead of the X Games style of aggression so common at North American ski resorts, the Jungfrau is filled with people making one effortless turn after the next with nothing to prove. They meander along, breathing the crisp air and reveling in the international atmosphere--the ski instructor may be Austrian, the waiter Dutch, the guy at the rental shop Canadian. Trying to ski more than one area per day is foolish. There's too much ground to cover, especially with the long, relaxing lunch break so popular in the Alps. It's rare to ski more than 10 minutes in the Jungfrau without spotting a lodge or hotel serving decent, affordable food, and a great view is all but guaranteed. For example, the Schilthornhütte, on a sunny perch near Mürren's Stellifluh lift station, has picnic tables near slopes that drop off so abruptly it feels like the top of the world. Plates of bratwurst, macaroni and cheese, and hot apple strudel are only $6 to $12 per. When the light begins to fade, skiers snowplow back through outposts of hotels and outdoor bars, right into the heart of Wengen. They prop their skis on a rack outside Chili's bar, settle in at one of the big wooden tables, and discuss the epic day they just had. After dinner at the hotel, the strongest--or just the most stubborn--convince their legs that they're able to take them back to town for more fun. Perhaps dancing to hip-hop with the young locals at the dungeon-like Kegelbahn? Maybe karaoke in French at the Club Med? Wengen Lodging Hotel Hirschen 011-41/33-855-1544, hirschen-wengen.ch, from $109 for two, or full weeklong package from $731 per person Food Schilthornhutte Murren 011-41/ 33-855-5053, bratwurst plate $6.70 Chili's 011-41/33-855-5020 InformationWengen Tourist Office 011-41/33-855-1414, wengen-muerren.ch, lift pass at Wengen-Grindelwald $45, five-day pass $205 Saalbach, Austria: The Winter Carnival "We haff no moral?" That's how, in uncertain English, a longtime local explained the no-inhibitions party scene in Saalbach-Hinterglemm, neighboring villages in a snowy valley between Innsbruck and Salzburg. "Other places, zay haff what zay call ski sizzon," he said. "We haff Carnival all winter long." By 2:30 every day, a lack of "moral" is on display underneath tents at Bauer's Schi Alm and other après-ski bars, where hordes who bailed on the slopes early curl their soggy gloves around mugs of beer and coffees laced with sweet liqueurs. Soon enough, a tipsy German in his 40s is up on a slippery table dancing in his ski boots. People who live here don't seem annoyed by the shenanigans; they embrace the raucous atmosphere and often join in. A well-known rumor has it that a prominent elected official, a married man, was caught with his pants down in a pub with a young girl a couple of seasons back. He was reelected soon after--with more votes than he received the first time. The two villages are made for carousing until your body says uncle, with the likes of Goasstall, a crazy bar decorated with goat-headed mannequins, and discos that draw crowds well after midnight. Even with all the wacky happenings in town, an evening at the mountain lodge Spielberghaus will probably be the most memorable part of the trip, so reserve early. The adventure begins with a 15-minute ride in a snowcat up to the converted farmhouse. The ride isn't particularly windy or cold, but you'll want to wear boots, snow pants, a hat, gloves, and goggles for what comes later. Inside, it's all wooden walls and ceilings. Here and there are old skis, stuffed moose heads, paintings of Tyrolean life, and rosy-cheeked people laughing and telling stories. A host, who more than likely speaks a half-dozen languages, sits groups on benches at big tables. You may have to share a table with strangers, but that's part of the fun. The goal, apparently, is to eat and drink as much as possible. Order the pork ribs, and out comes a heaping pan with enough to feed three. Waiters carry special trays on their shoulders for beer--basically a two-by-four with round grooves for a dozen glasses. Inevitably, some group will start singing songs from their homeland, be it Russia, Sweden, or Germany, and will then challenge other tables to do the same. Everyone sways to the anthems, drinks in hand. Dancing in the crowded aisles or right at the table usually follows. (People of all ages enjoy the Spielberghaus, but go early if you're with kids; things get nuttier by the hour.) After dinner, folks head to the adjoining bar for a game of nageln, or nailing. Four or five players stand around a slab of tree trunk trying to pound in nails using the chisel end of an old-fashioned hammer. Each person gets a swing, then passes the hammer along. First one to flatten his nail into the wood wins. At night's end, everyone puts on their snow gear and barrels down the snowcat track in red plastic sleds. The ride is a 30-to-45-minute mix of laid-back cruising and exciting, mountain-hugging turns, interrupted by the occasional snowball fight. Oh yeah, Saalbach-Hinterglemm offers skiing too--really good skiing, if you can stop partying long enough to try it out. The entire area, which includes slopes on both sides of the Saalbach-Hinterglemm valley as well as several other mountain faces and wide-open bowls, is aptly called the Ski Circus. If it's not the greatest show on earth, it's close. There are 55 lifts in total, and like Switzerland's Jungfrau region, it's best to stick to one area per day. Even if it hasn't snowed in a while, you'll probably still be able to carve fresh tracks off of the Sportbahn 2000 lift (most people avoid the powder, remember). For lunch, stop in at the nearby Die Alte Schmiede, a rustic homestead-turned-restaurant with gorgeous mountain views and enough old farm equipment for it to qualify as a museum. Free buses work the lone valley road, so it's not necessary to pay extra for lodging in town. Right next to a bus stop, and just a 10-minute walk from Saalbach--the more charming of the two villages--is Landhaus Burgi. This classic chalet, which was redone a year ago and is efficiently run by Hans and Burgi Obwaller, has simple wooden fixtures and sleek bathrooms. When choosing between Burgi's traditional B&B accommodations and its one fully equipped apartment (no meals included), keep in mind that many people in Saalbach find it difficult to rise early enough for breakfast. Every bed at the Burgi comes with a cushy down comforter, and the back rooms have decks that hang over the gurgling river. The rowdy atmosphere gets most of the attention in Saalbach-Hinterglemm, but the resort also attracts plenty of couples, families, and low-key groups. Ski instructors in Austria take pride in their reputation as the best in the world, and here they're particularly skilled and sensitive. For a break from the slopes and nightlife, each village has a few quaint, car-free blocks lined with bakeries, coffee shops, and souvenir stores. Restaurants such as Hotel Peter, where the staff wear traditional Tyrolean dress (milkmaid skirts, lederhosen), keep tasty classic Austrian barbecue recipes alive. The ultimate romantic outing is past the villages and lifts, at the far end of the valley: a horse-drawn-sleigh ride to the old farmhouse restaurant Lindlingalm. Saalbach-Hinterglemm Lodging Landhaus Burgi 011-43/6541-6466, landhaus-burgi.com, from $38 per person with breakfast, apartment for four from $145 Food Bauer's Schi Alm Saalbach, 011-43/6541-6213 Goasstall Reiterkogelweg 491, Hinterglemm, 011-43/6541-8705 Die Alte Schmiede 011-43/6583-8246, alteschmiede-leogang.com Hotel Peter Saalbach, 011-43/6541-6236 Activities Lindlingalm Hinterglemm, 011-43/6541-7190, lindlingalm.at, $13 for horse-drawn-sleigh ride Spielberghaus Spielbergweg 207, 011-43/6541-7253, spielberghaus.at, snowcat ride and sled $9 Information Saalbach Tourism Glemmtaler Landstrasse 550, 011-43/6541-6800, saalbach.com, lift pass for one day from $32, for six days $151 Bormio, Italy: Old, Old World charm It's not easy to reach Valtellina, a mountainous region just east of the lakes district in northern Italy. Half of the roads threading through the pointy peaks into the Valtellina are closed for the winter because of snow. The passes that remain open are of the winding, single-lane variety, and travel on them slows down even further in tunnels and narrow town centers along the way. On a map, the posh resort of St. Moritz lies right across the Swiss border from Bormio, the city at the heart of the region, but driving there takes at least a couple of hours. Milan Malpensa, the nearest airport served direct from the U.S., is about four hours by car, more like five with a combination of train and bus. The remote locale is a blessing. How else would so few people know about a medieval village that overflows with handsome churches, towers, archways, and cobblestone piazzas, all within a 10-minute walk of world-class skiing? Several of the palaces and public squares around the main drag of Via Roma date to before the 15th century. Yet just across a small footbridge are completely modern cable cars that shoot skiers up to wide-open slopes. Bormio boasts a hefty 5,860-foot vertical drop--longer than any resort in North America--but overall the resort is considered smallish in Europe. This is probably because Bormio's layout is tall and thin, served by 14 lifts, which is paltry compared with mammoth spreads in France, Switzerland, and Austria. Still, the mountain's long, thigh-burning trails are good enough for the globe's best: It'll host the Alpine World Championships in early 2005. Lifts top out at a lofty 9,882 feet, and there can be a foot of virgin powder at the peak even if it hasn't recently snowed in town. Together with the bigger resort of Livigno (33 lifts) and a few intermediate ski hills all within an hour of each other on a free ski bus, the terrain of Valtellina will keep any skier happy for a week. With the exceptions of Christmas and New Year's and the popular vacation period of mid-February to mid-March, crowds are rare in Bormio, both on the slopes and in town. Once you arrive, expenses will be minimal compared with most ski resorts. A daily lift pass starts at $32, less than half of what most U.S. mountains charge. Meublé Garnì della Contea, a B&B chalet on the slope-side edge of the old town, has sparkling rooms and a breakfast with gooey pastries and coffee with hot cream for under $40 a night per person. The food in Bormio is spectacular, and most restaurants seem unaware that it's standard procedure to gouge ski tourists. La Nuova Pastorella, a warm, family-run establishment right on Via Roma, charges $5 for brick-oven pizzas, as little as $6 for pastas, and $8 for liters of the sweet house red. When there's a race or festival in town, après-ski in Bormio can be as spirited as in Wengen or Saalbach. Most of the time, the day winds down with a quiet dinner and a stroll past 800-year-old chapels and the prominent Civic Tower clock. A rejuvenating retreat on a day off from the slopes is 10 minutes from town by car ($5 by taxi). The Romans knew about the area's thermal springs more than 2,000 years ago, and over the centuries the healing mineral waters have attracted visitors such as Leonardo da Vinci, Garibaldi, and Austria's Archduke Ferdinand. A day of soaking in the caverns, grottoes, and baths at the Bagni di Bormio Spa Resort--including a steaming open-air pool overlooking the valley and soaring mountains around Bormio--does wonders for stress, as well as for sore hamstrings and aching backs. Before you know it, you'll be raring to tackle the Stelvio, Bormio's steep, unforgiving downhill course that doesn't let up for more than two miles. Bormio Lodging Meublé Garni della Contea Via Molini 8, 011-39/0342-901202, garnicontea.it, from $36 per person Food La Nuova Pastorella Via Roma 20, 011-39/0342-901253, pizzas from $5, pasta dishes from around $6 Activities Bagni di Bormio Spa Resort Strada dello Stelvio, 011-39/0342-910131, bagnidibormio.it, one day $36 per person Information Tourism Bormio Via Roma 131b, 011-39/0342-903300,valtellinaonline.com, pass at Bormio $32, five-day pass at four resorts in Valtellina from $150

Inspiration

Australia Wine Tours

Forget Fosters, the Australian beer. Oz is fast becoming famous for another tipple: wine. It's no secret to Aussies that their island's varied climate is apt for cultivating a plethora of premium vinos--they've been producing wine since the first grape vines arrived in 1788. But it wasn't until the past decade that word got out to the rest world and Australia's discreet winemaking production blossomed into the sixth largest in the world. From Chardonnay to Shiraz, Aussie wines are now known to be some of world's best, and the same can be said for the dozen or so beautifully rustic valleys where they are produced. Of course, vino is the star of the show in Australian wine country, where light quaffers and aficionados alike can revel in everything wine, from "cellar door" tastings and winery tours to leisurely strolls through the vineyards flanking rugged terrain. Luckily for travellers, three of Australia's most popular wine valleys are just a short drive outside its biggest cities-- Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne. These palatable city escapes are worth more than just a daytrip, so follow our tips on how to spend a few solvent and maybe not-so-sober days on the trail of the Australian grape. Hunter Valley--114 miles (190 km) north of Sydney Set along the fertile flats of the Hunter River, the Hunter Valley is Australia's oldest commercial wine-producing region. Top-quality whites and reds have been pouring out of here since the 1830s; more recently tourists have been pouring in to visit the 80-plus wineries and cellar doors dotted among the rich vineyards and pastoral farmland. Two or three days will allow you to enjoy free wine tastings, terrific cuisine and beautifully varied scenery, but be warned: you'll want to stay longer. Highlights: The gateway to the valley is the south, known as the Lower Hunter. Over 50 wineries, including many well-known producers, are scattered over the rolling green hills around the towns of Cessnock and Pokolbin, leaving no shortage of cellar doors to visit and an array of wines to taste--Semillon, Shiraz, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and pinot noir are just a few of the varieties produced in this region. Most wineries are open for tours and free tastings, so don't be shy about trying: it's perfectly acceptable to sample a few wines without buying a bottle. Of the many cellar doors in the Lower Hunter, don't miss a visit to the grand Rothbury Estate (Broke Rd., 02/4998 7555) in Pokolbin, renowned for its magnificent Shiraz and Great Cask Hall, a lofty dinning area bedecked with huge wooden barrels. The friendly staff leads free tours of the vineyards and winemaking process daily at 10:30am, followed by a tutored tasting. McGuigan Wines (Broke Rd. & McDonalds Rd., Pokolbin, 02/4998 7402, mcguiganwines.com.au/) has free tours at noon and several fine wines to taste--enjoy them on the spacious, farmhouse porch. There is also a cheese factory, fudge shop and bakery on site. The small and privately-owned Tamburlaine (McDonalds Rd., Pokolbin, 02/4998 7570, tamburlaine.com.au/) is one of the best boutique wineries in the area, offering an intimate setting to taste their award-winning vintages. Australian rural life prevails in the "Upper Hunter" to the north, with its sheep and cattle farms, small country towns and traditional homesteads. Nestled between verdant plains, farms and rugged bush, vineyards in the Upper Hunter are more spread out than their neighbors in the south but many come just for the sprawling Rosemount Estate (Rosemount Rd., Denman, 02/6549 6450, rosemountestates.com/). Home to world-famous wines, it overlooks a picturesque Upper Hunter panorama: flat, green plains flanked by steep mountains. Stop here to enjoy the view over a glass or two of chardonnay and Semillon. Dining: Locals and tourists agree that Il Cacciatore (Hermitage Lodge, Pokolbin), which means 'The Hunter' in Italian, prepares the best Tuscan food in the valley. Lunches start at $11, dinner is just a few dollars more. For Australian country-style cuisine with a gourmet twist The Cellar, an al fresco eatery nestled alongside the beautiful Hunter Valley Gardens, is a good choice (Pokolbin, 02/4998 7584; lunch from $8.00, dinner from $23). And for extra-fine dining there's Robert's Restaurant (Peppers Convent, Pokolbin, 02/4998 7330; lunch $12; dinner from $21; $3 per-person surcharge weekends and public holidays). Chef and owner Robert Molines has a talent for combing classic French and Australian dishes with the region's best wines. The dining room, decorated with a diverse collection of antiques, is almost as spectacular as the food. The Barossa--45km (28 miles) northeast of Adelaide Half of Australia's wines originate in South Australia, and a large number of the best vintages come from the shallow valleys of the Barossa, less than an hour outside of Adelaide. Softly sloping hills, rich soil and a temperate coastal climate have made the Barossa one of the best wine-producing regions in the country. When German Lutherans first settled the area in 1842, they brought not just their grapes, but cultural influence that still lingers today. In addition to its 50 wineries, the Barossa is known for its quaint valley towns, chock full beautiful 19th-century architecture, craft shops and traditional German eateries. Highlights: The wine industry in the Barossa is focused around the towns of Angaston, home to two the Barossa's oldest wineries; Nuriootpa, the valley's commercial centre; and Tanunda, the nearest town to Adelaide. Like the Hunter, the Barossa offers a dazzling choice of wines to sample--Shiraz, Grenache, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Frontigac are just some of the favored varieties. Wineries range from huge, big-label vineyards to small mom-and-pop cellar doors, literally all of which offer tastings and tours. One of Australia's largest wine producers, Penfolds (Tanunda Rd., Nurioopta, 08/8568 9408, penfolds.com.au/) houses the largest oak maturation cellars in the Southern hemisphere. History tours show off the 20-acre grounds, cellars and the Penfolds museum (four times Mon-Fri, three times on weekends; adults $5, children $1.50), though tasting Penfolds superior wines, including the famous Penfolds Grange, is the real highlight. Follow the avenue of conspicuous-looking palms trees to Seppelts (Seppeltsfield, Nurioopta, 08/8568 6217, seppelt.com.au/), a historic complex of stone buildings built in 1857. After a 'structured tasting' of five Seppelt premium wines ($4.50 per person), don't miss the tour around the gardens and bluestone buildings (three times daily; adults $5, children $1.50). Yaldara Wines (Barossa Valley Highway, 08/8524 0200, yaldara.com.au/), just outside the small town of Lyndoch, is home to another architectural feat: an impressive European-style chateau, surrounded by vineyards, housing a fine collection of art and antiques (daily guided tours at 10:15am & 1:30pm, adults $4.75) Dining: Set along the vineyards, the Vintners Bar & Grill (Nuriootpa Road, Angaston, 08/8564 2488, meals from $18) features fresh regional produce and a six-page wine list. It's my top choice, but there's also Salters Restaurant (Satram Winery, Nuriootpa Road, Angaston, 08/8564 3344, mains from $8) which united Mediterranean and traditional German cuisine featuring seasonal Barossa produce, smoked meats and wood-fired pizzas. Yarra Valley--38 miles (61 km) east of Melbourne At the foot of the striking Dandenong Ranges (and just an hour outside Melbourne) lies one of Australia's best cool-climate wine regions: the Yarra Valley. Dubbed the fastest-growing wine region in Australia, Yarra Valley has long been producing great wine, but it wasn't until the 1980s that the region really began to grow, not only in terms of sales but in taste and range. Today, the rolling hills of Yarra Valley house over 50 wineries and you'll find a thriving 'vineyard culture' has also developed here, thanks to the luxuries that accompany premium wine-making: gourmet restaurants (featuring delicious local produce), historic houses, rambling gardens, and crafts shops. Visiting Melburnians bring their cosmopolitan chic, but while Yarra Valley is still young, the atmosphere is pleasantly unpretentious. Enjoy it before it gets glamorized. Highlights: The majority of the wineries, from boutiques to grand estates, are scattered between the towns of Coldstream, Yarra Glen and Dixons Creek, connected in triangle by the valley's major roads. The valley is hailed for its spectacular cold-climate varieties, including sparkling wines, chardonnays, pinot noirs and cabernets. A good number of the smaller wineries are only open for tastings, while most of the big-label producers offer vineyard tours. One of the area's most famous wineries, Domaine Chandon (Maroondah Highway, Coldstream, 03/9739 1110, domainechandon.com.au/, open 10:30am - 4:30pm) revamped a 19th century homestead to build its striking, multi-million dollar complex in the heart of Yarra Valley. The highlight of the new architecture is undoubtedly the Green Point Room, with its soaring glass windows looking out onto the vineyards. Unfortunately, tasting Chandon's superb sparkling wines comes at a cost (you have to purchase a flute or a bottle), but visitors can take a free self-guided tour of the bottling area and riddling hall cellar. Rows of Manchurian pear trees lead the way to De Bortoli (Melba Highway, Dixons Creek, 03/5965 2271, debortoli.com.au/), maker of many premium wines, including the excellent Yarra Valley Chardonnay. There are guided tours of the winery daily at 11 am and 3pm, weather permitting, followed by a tutored tasting at the long bar made from recycled wine vats. Don't miss the excellent onsite restaurant for lunch or dinner (see 'Fact File'). Steep, closely-planted vineyards are the trademark of Coldstream Hills (31 Maddens Ln., Coldstream, 03/5964 9410, coldstreamhills.com.au/), one of Yarra's leading small wineries. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the best bets for the free tasting, though more serious wine buffs will want to sample the selection of reserves and vintages for $3.50. Dining: Tasty local produce along with fruits from the owner's orchard give customers at the Mediterranean-style Eyton on Yarra (Maroondah Highway and Hill Road, Coldstream, (03/5962 2119; mains from $16) more than enough reason to "eat their vegetables". A top choice. There's also De Bertoli (Pinnacle Lane, Dixons Creek, 03/5965 2271, meals from $14) which as you may guess from the name, serves Italian fare. A highlight of this restaurant? The stunning views of surrounding vineyards and mountain ranges. Finally, for a quick lunch pop inot the friendly Fergusson of Yarra Glen (Wills Road, Yarra Glan, 03/5965 2237, meals from $9).

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

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.