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In Search of the Perfect Ski Village

By Brad Tuttle
June 4, 2005
0411_alps
Marc Latzel

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
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    Inspiration

    The Wonders of South Dakota

    Mistakenly believing that it's hard to reach, many Americans fail to visit the greatest human monument in all the nation, chiseled into the Black Hills of South Dakota. It's called Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and (for Americans) it's on a par-artistically and emotionally-with the Great Wall and the Taj Mahal. It's also only one of many wonders in the southwest corner of the state. They include the otherworldly rock formations of Badlands National Park, the burgeoning bison herds at Custer State Park, the dramatic Native American history and culture at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and the Crazy Horse Monument-the world's largest sculpture in the making. There couldn't be a better time to visit these grand landmarks, in an area of the country where lodging, food, and sightseeing costs are among our nation's least expensive. A Swift Visit to Rapid City Though Sioux Falls is the state's largest town (and airport), you are much better situated for the drive we suggest by beginning the trip in Rapid City, five-and-a-half hours to the west (and thus much nearer to The Badlands and Mount Rushmore). Delta, Northwest, and United Express all fly into the quiet Rapid City Airport (usually via Denver), with United Express tending to be the cheapest of the three. Low-cost car-rental companies at the airport include Thrifty, Budget, and National. Most tourists on their way to Mount Rushmore speed through Rapid City without stopping, but this neat, clean, and historic town is worth at least a full day's exploration. With well-tended gardens, historical signs everywhere, and interesting shops and restaurants, the city is a standout. And the downtown landmark you won't want to miss is the Hotel Alex Johnson (523 Sixth St., 605/342-1210, www.alexjohnson.com), a 75-year-old, ten-story tower with chalet motifs that somehow fit in. Pick up a walking-tour brochure that describes the property's ornate lobby, woodwork, chandeliers, and artwork. And why not stay here your first night? Doubles start at just $59 in winter, $89 in summer. If it's full, try the modern Microtel Inn & Suites (1740 Rapp St., 605/348-2523, www.microtelinn.com), where rooms start as low as $57 in winter, $82 in summer. Take time to see the rest of the downtown, with its boutiques, Indian arts stores, and western shops. One store not to miss is Prairie Edge (606 Main St., 800/541-2388), which showcases remarkable Native American arts and artifacts like drums, pipes, jewelry, herbs, and clothing; it's free and interesting to browse, even if you don't buy a thing. Then have lunch or dinner around the corner at the Firehouse Brewing Co. (610 Main St., 605/348-1915), housed in a former old-time, brick fire station whose huge meals-like Hyperventilation Wings and Rings of Fire Fightin' Nachos-sell for only $7.95. You'll see real-life cowboys with Stetsons and tight jeans stuffed into their boots, sauntering about just like in olden times. Even if you don't stay in Rapid City, stop by the Journey Museum (222 New York St., 605/394-6923, www.journeymuseum.org; $6) before heading on. Recently opened amid much controversy (it went way over budget and is in an awkward, hard-to-find location), the collection here is nothing short of first-class, with all kinds of multimedia and interactive displays on Native American culture and history-everything you'd want to know about South Dakota history, geology, and mythology. Good times in the Badlands Now, from Rapid City, head east along Interstate 90 for roughly 60 miles to the famous town of Wall. With billboards and signs for Wall Drug (which began by giving away ice water for travelers during the Depression) stretching from here to the South Pole, the town has become a running joke for cross-country motorists. The actual Wall Drug store (605/279-2175, www.walldrug.com) is a huge souvenir emporium taking up more than one building, offering mostly tacky but fun ashtrays, mugs, and fake bows and arrows, as well as singing mannequins and historical photos of Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and Annie Oakley. If you're hungry, Cactus Cafe & Lounge (519 Main St., 605/279-2561) in downtown Wall serves up Mexican food, steaks, and seafood in a down-home atmosphere for rarely more than $10. From Wall, head south on 240 until you reach the Pinnacles Entrance to Badlands National Park. The $10 car entrance fee is good for seven days ($5 for cyclists or hikers), and you'll want to spend at least two days at this magical outdoor U.S. attraction, rich in visuals and atmosphere. How did the Badlands get their name? The French Canadian fur trappers called them les mauvais terres ... traverser, or the "bad lands to travel across." The Native Americans' name for them, mako sica, also meant "bad lands." The reference captured the imagination of the American pioneers who had to traverse this unrelenting terrain in the 1800s. Named a national monument in 1939 and a full-fledged national park in 1978, Badlands, with its rock spires of different hues, is a mystical experience for intrepid domestic travelers. It's a place of intense history and controversy, which continues as Native Americans keep fighting for their land rights in this unforgiving land. Recent sit-in protests by activists postponed the digging up of ancient graves at Stronghold Table, a sacred area claimed by both the Lakota Nation and the National Park Service. With pointed, jagged peaks made from water-sculpted, crumbling rock, stark canyons in yellow and red tones, and frequent thunderstorms (legend says caused by the mythical Thunder Birds) creating a dramatic purple backdrop, it's amazing it took so long for the beauty of this area to be appreciated and accepted on its own terms. The Badlands lie 62 miles east of Rapid City, on I-90. Turning west on Creek Rim Road after the Pinnacles Entrance, you'll begin to witness the distinct badland formations and see some of the last virgin prairie land in the U.S. Five miles west from the entrance is Roberts Prairie Dog Town filled with mounds of earth dotted with peeking little heads of dogs. A vital member of the ecosystem due to their soil churning, the irresistibly cute prairie canines are endangered by ranchers who would rather see them all gone. Their natural predator, the black-footed ferret, once thought extinct, is still unusually rare. Badlands is one of the few places left to see such amazing creatures. The one main road east through the park is the Badlands Loop Road, which takes you through most of the park's natural wonders. A must-do is a hike along the Castle Trail near the Interior Entrance to the park. The Mars-like terrain will seem like the setting for a science fiction movie. Ranger talks are free during the summer, on topics ranging from fossils to prairie dogs. More information: 605/433-5361, www.nps.gov/badl. Near the park entrance are the only lodging facilities in the park at Cedar Pass Lodge (Cedar St., Interior, 605/433-5460), with individual cottages and a decent diner (under $10 for most meals) and gift shop. Doubles start at $55. You can also try the Badlands Budget Host Hotel (Hwy. 377, 605/433-5335), just outside the park entrance and open from May 1 to October 1. The 21 units start at $46 per double. Camping in Badlands National Park is available at two campsites. One campsite is free, the other charges only $10 a night (14-day limit). Call 605/433-5361 for information. And for your meals, try A & M Cafe (605/433-5340), just outside the park on Highway 44 in Interior. It's a very local diner where you can witness real cowboys and Indians munching on fried chicken, homemade pies, and Indian tacos, all under $9. The place feels like a living room. As you drive west back out of the park on Highway 44, you can take in the wide-open vistas of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland (which, unfortunately, has no buffalo on it but is leased to cattlemen for somewhat destructive grazing by livestock), adjacent to the Badlands National Park. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee A visit to Badlands wouldn't be complete without a detour south to Wounded Knee. Located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (second largest in the U.S.) about 60 miles south of Badlands National Park, this unassuming valley masks a horrific history-it's the site of a genocidal massacre of hundreds of unarmed Indian men, women, and children by the U.S. Cavalry in 1890 (including the Sioux leader Chief Big Foot). A somber graveyard marks the spot, and there's a friendly little visitors center affiliated with the American Indian Movement, with information on current-day Native American politics and the tribes' rough handling by the federal government. (The long, brutal history of Native Americans in this country can be read in the classic book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.) Obviously weary of outside government intervention but extremely friendly to guests, the residents of the Pine Ridge reservation welcome respectful visitors to their famous Sun Dances and powwows-cultural events not to be missed. To witness the ancient rhythms and colors of these Native American rituals is to fall in love with our great country and its land and people once again. For an event schedule, go to www.travelsd.com/history/sioux/powwows.htm, or call 605/867-5821, and also check out the political site www.fireonprairie.org. There's no place to stay within the reservation, but if you choose to spend a night in the area, do so just south of Pine Ridge near the Nebraska border at the charming Wakpamni B&B (605/288-1868, www.wakpamni.com), a family-run farmhouse getaway amid cornfields, with tepees to sleep in if the spirit moves you. Prices start at $60 for a double. You're soaking in it Heading northeast from the town of Pine Ridge on Highway 18, you'll begin the ascent into the Black Hills. One of the first towns you'll encounter is delightful Hot Springs, a turn-of-the-century resort with over 50 buildings built from blocks of pink sandstone. The warm-temperature Fall River goes through the heart of town, and you can bathe in the healing thermal waters at Springs Bath House for only $8 for the entire day (146 North Garden St., 888/817-1972, www.springsbathhouse.com). Whether or not you do have a soak, get out of your car and stroll along the Freedoms Trail, a mile-long sidewalk that follows the banks of the river. You'll also want to stop by the Mammoth Site Museum in Hot Springs (1800 W. Hwy. 18 By-Pass, 605/745-6017, www.mammothsite.com; $6.50), a mass graveyard of over 100 mammoths and other prehistoric animals where you can watch paleontologists work on the bones. Now you'll want to head north on Highway 385 toward Custer State Park. The hills become forested as you approach Wind Cave National Park (605/745-4600, www.nps.gov/wica), one of the world's longest and most complex cave systems (they still haven't found the end of it). Cave tours of the intricate box work, "cave popcorn," and flowstone formations cost only $6. Just north of Wind Cave is the superb, 73,000-acre Custer State Park (605/255-4515, www.custerstatepark.info), which is surely as impressive as any national park. These green, rolling hills are home to one of the largest bison herds in the world (at 1,500), as well as an 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road full of pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, wild turkeys, and a band of friendly burros that often come right up to your car. The Needles Highway (Hwy. 87), which snakes through the northwest corner of the park, is like a visual fairyland, with thin rock spires magically jutting up above the forest canopy. A must for outdoor types is a hike up the 7,242-foot Harney Peak, a sacred mountain for the Sioux, with breathtaking 360-degree views of the Black Hills from a stone watchtower on its summit. Seven-day passes for the park are $12 per vehicle in summer and $6 the rest of the year. All the lodges in Custer State Park are impeccably run and world-class-you will definitely want to spend at least one night here. One special recommendation (for which you'll want to make reservations) is the historic stone and wood State Game Lodge and Resort, which President Calvin Coolidge used as his "summer White House" in 1927; its rooms start at $75. Another you can opt for is a full-fledged modern log cabin with a double bed and sleeper sofa that can comfortably sleep four for $99, booked through the Blue Bell Lodge and Resort. Info for either property: 800/658-3530, or www.custerresorts.com. The heads of state We finally arrive at the grand finale of the trip: overwhelming, majestic Mount Rushmore National Memorial (605/574-2523, www.nps.gov/moru; $8 parking fee). One of those phenomena that needs to be seen to be believed, the four stunning, 60-foot presidential heads were built between 1927 and 1941 by the eccentric genius Gutzon Borglum (with the help of 400 workers, of course). An excellent visitors center shows films and houses displays of little-known facts and artifacts, like the large, cave-like shrine that is half built behind Lincoln's head, the original plans to also carve out the upper torsos of the presidents, and the controversial decision to include Borglum's friend Teddy Roosevelt in the sculpture. Schedule at least half a day to take in this human achievement that Borglum proclaimed would stand over 10,000 years from now (and no one doubts it). Nearly every visitor to Mount Rushmore makes a pilgrimage to the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial (605/673-4681, www.crazyhorse.org; $9) off Highway 385, which is also home to the comprehensive Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Cultural Center. Be sure to see Mount Rushmore first, because it will pale in comparison with Crazy Horse, which will be the largest sculpture in the world when it is finally completed (heaven knows when). The carved-out mountain of Crazy Horse sitting on his horse pointing outward is a three-dimensional monument so enormous that the four heads of Mount Rushmore could fit inside of Crazy Horse's head alone. At the request of Native Americans, sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began the project in 1948, and his family has since kept the blasting and carving going, relying entirely on private funds. Avoid the touristy area of Keystone, where everyone stays in cookie-cutter motels while visiting Mount Rushmore (but check out the fun President's Slide, where visitors plunge down a long mountain on a toboggan run for $8-605/666-4478, www.presidentsslide.com). Head instead to more secluded areas of the Black Hills for accommodations. For instance, the Harney Camp Cabins (605/574-2594), located on a creek four miles south of Hill City, are only $45 per double, and that includes the use of a sundeck and hot tub. Or mosey north to Deadwood (800/999-1876, www.deadwood.org), a historic town and National Historic Landmark popular for its Old West casinos and 1800s buildings. After a gold rush in 1876, prospectors, Chinese laborers, Calamity Jane, and Wild Bill Hickok all converged on the town to make it one of the most colorful spots in the West. By all means, try to get a room at the historic Bullock Hotel (633 Main St., 800/336-1876, www.heartofdeadwood.com/bullock), the first real hotel in Deadwood, opened in 1885 (before then, the town had only been full of flophouses and bordellos). Refurbished and full of character, it's the place to stay in Deadwood ($74 a room; slightly higher in summer). Or try the Deadwood Inn (27 Deadwood St., 877/815-7974; rooms start at $69), once a feed store and now a 19-room Victorian hotel with casino.

    Inspiration

    Finding the Music in Ireland

    What you'll find in this story: Ireland culture, Ireland attractions, Ireland neighborhoods, Dublin restaurants, Galway restaurants, Dublin hotels, Galway hotels, Dublin entertainment From the beginning, travel has been a big part of Kurtis and Heather Frank's relationship. The couple, who live in the Chicago suburb of Wheeling, Ill., met in 1999 while studying in Germany. They took advantage of their semester abroad, seeing an opera in Prague, touring the Louvre and Musée d'Orsay in Paris, and downing more than a few döner kebabs in train stations all over Germany. ("They put McDonald's and Burger King to shame," Kurtis says.) The couple got engaged on a trip to Boston, while overlooking the harbor just after a Red Sox game, and after they were married in 2002, went on their honeymoon to Hawaii. For their next adventure, the Franks asked us to help plan a 10-day trip to Ireland. They've never been and are hoping to visit Sarah Croke, a friend in Dublin who they went to school with in Germany, and take in some villages and gorgeous scenery on a road trip. Travel dates are based on a long shot: Toward the end of June, U2 is playing a couple of shows at Dublin's revamped Croke Park Stadium. "My wife and I are huge fans, along with half the planet, I suppose," Kurtis wrote to us in February. "It'd be fantastic to see U2 in their home country. Whether we'll be able to a) get tickets and b) afford going on the trip after purchasing said tickets remains to be seen." We told Kurtis and Heather to try and buy tickets at ticketmaster.ie when they went on sale, but no luck: All 160,000 tickets for the two concerts sold out in less than an hour. The Franks decided to go to Ireland anyway. (In turn, we decided to help them out in their quest to see Bono, the Edge, and the rest of the boys; see below for more details). Since June falls in high season, we advised them to book flights several months in advance. Aer Lingus offers its lowest fares online and had an O'Hare-Dublin round trip for $658, not including taxes and charges. This was $14 cheaper than the best fares from Travelocity and Expedia. We also suggested consulting The Irish Echo and Irish Voice--available at newsstands in Chicago, Boston, New York, and other Irish hubs--where Irish travel specialists such as Crystal Travel and O'Connor's Fairways regularly advertise deals. The booming Irish economy and a weak U.S. dollar mean that Dublin--and all of Ireland--is dramatically more expensive than a decade or two ago. The Franks aren't looking for anything luxurious in terms of lodging, and our vote for best budget choice goes to Jurys Inn Christchurch. Sure, it's got that chain-hotel feel (floral bedspreads and dark woods), but rooms are bright and relatively spacious. Plus, it's directly across from Christchurch Cathedral in the Old City and just a five-minute walk to the cafés and pubs of Temple Bar. Speaking of which, we also like the Temple Bar Hotel for its location in the heart of the action. Although Kurtis and Heather shy away from tourist traps, there are some blatantly touristy activities that intrigue them. One is Viking Splash Tours, an especially fun way to get oriented in Dublin. Forget double-deckers with canned commentary. This tour takes place aboard a "duck"--a reconditioned World War II amphibious craft similar to those that run tours in Boston and other cities. It starts on land and eventually splashes into the Grand Canal Basin; riders wear horned Viking helmets and issue war cries at appropriate moments. The Guinness Storehouse is another big tourist site that interests the Franks; we urged them to go for the last tour of the day (8 p.m. in July and August) and have a pint at the brewery's top-floor pub, where there's a particularly spectacular view of the city. "We like to travel by rail, which is how we got around in Germany," Kurtis says. "Neither of us has experience driving manual transmission cars, and we've never driven on the left side of the road, so I guess the train is the safest bet." This was a problem. After a little prodding, the Franks took our advice to rent a car: Driving is by far the easiest way to get around in Ireland (and the train system isn't all that extensive). But most rentals are stick shifts, and automatics are more expensive. We searched for a four-day automatic rental and the cheapest options for Avis and Hertz were $302 and $350, respectively. Instead, we steered the Franks to local operator Dooley Car Rentals, which rents an automatic Ford Fiesta for $244 for four days, including basic insurance coverage. (To be on the safe side, we told the Franks to get written confirmation specifying that the car will be an automatic.) Admirably, the Franks aren't the kind of travelers who are hell-bent on packing everything into one trip. "We always try to view our vacations as if they will not necessarily be the last time we visit a place," Kurtis explains. "Quality over quantity tends to be our mantra." The idea is to tackle a small territory at a leisurely pace over four or five days. For a dramatic antidote to the capital, we pointed the Franks toward the solitude of Connemara, a region on the west coast that comprises one of Ireland's largest Gaeltachts, or Irish-speaking areas. Oscar Wilde called it a "savage beauty," and the remote landscape is a wild and woolly blend of heather-clad mountains, silent lakes, vast bog plains, and a smattering of appealing seaside villages. Ireland is so small--about the size of West Virginia--that the coast-to-coast drive from Dublin to the west coast takes just over three hours. There's something wonderfully exhilarating about traveling out of Dublin on the N4 motorway. Maybe it's how the road signs beckon to the west and galway with the promise of the great wide open. The N4 leads right into Galway City, a gateway to Connemara and as inviting a city as any. The narrow street layout in the city center remains unchanged since medieval times, yet the place manages to be vibrant and youthful. As the home of many art galleries, artisan workshops, and festivals, Galway has earned a reputation as the unofficial arts capital of Ireland. The city is also blessed with a location between Galway Bay and the grand expanse of Lough Corrib, which is said to have some of the world's best fishing and an island for every day of the year. Kurtis told us that he likes the Chieftains and Damien Rice, so we knew he'd be happy to learn that Galway is a terrific place to hear traditional and folk music. One of our favorite pubs for live sessions (Wednesdays through Sundays) in Galway is Tigh Neachtain, which positively exudes atmosphere thanks to a labyrinth of tiny "snugs" (small interconnected rooms) that haven't been changed since 1894. The Crane Bar, a rustic gem of a pub renowned for its nightly music sessions, is also worth the 15-minute walk or quick cab ride from central Galway to the seaside outskirts of the city. The combination of comfort and good price again led us to recommend a Jurys hotel in the heart of Galway. The Franks don't want to be tied to a strict itinerary, and we told them that their road trip can be as scheduled or as loose as they desired. Even in Ireland's more remote areas, it's rare to drive more than an hour without passing a B&B. In Galway they could hop a ferry bound for Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, for a day of scenic bike riding. Another possibility is the coastal drive (R336) that loops around Galway Bay to Roundstone and Clifden. Ensconced between mountains and the Atlantic, tiny Errisbeg Lodge, about a mile from Roundstone, is an especially beautiful place to linger for a night. From Clifden, the N59 skirts past the entrance to Connemara National Park, where herds of ponies and red deer roam free. The Franks could zip through Connemara in a few hours, but it's far more rewarding to stop often and hang out in the colorful fishing villages along the way. Before heading back to Dublin, they may want to spend the night at Breaffy House Hotel. Just outside of Castlebar, in County Mayo, a long driveway leads to an honest-to-goodness, trumpets-blaring, grand castle hotel at an affordable price. Even if the weather doesn't cooperate (and in Ireland it rarely does), the warmth and kindness of the people will make for great travel memories for Kurtis and Heather. To paraphrase an Irish blessing, may the road rise up to meet them. Surprise! Call us a bunch of softies, but after hearing that the Franks couldn't get tickets for U2 in Dublin at the end of June, we used our resources to score two seats. "I'm in total shock," Kurtis said after we gave him the news. "And I think that Heather just passed out. But I'm sure she'll be fine by concert time. Thanks so much!" Just remember to tell us how it was. How was your trip? Sean Sullivan served in the Peace Corps in Africa three decades ago, and we coached him--along with his wife, Rita, and friends Michael and Michele McMurray, pictured here at the Cape of Good Hope--on a return trip in February. "What made the biggest impact on me was the relations between the races in South Africa," Sean says. "The spirit of oppression, defeat, and hopelessness that existed 30 years ago has been replaced by a good-natured, positive spirit. We saw young blacks and whites strolling together easily. I was also impressed by the lively jazz scene in Cape Town, and, of course, we enjoyed Kruger National Park. We saw all the big game--lion, buffalo, leopard, even a cheetah calling her cubs." Transportation Aer Lingus 800/474-7424, aerlingus.com Crystal Travel 800/327-3780, crystal-travel.net O'Connor's Fairways Travel 800/662-0550, oconnors.com Dooley Car Rentals 800/331-9301, dooleycarrentals.com Aran Island Ferries 011-353/91-568-903, aranislandferries.com, Galway to the Aran Islands $26 round trip, bus ride to the docks $6.75 Lodgings Jurys Inn Christchurch Christchurch Place, Dublin, 011-353/1-454-0000, jurysdoyle.com, $151 Temple Bar Hotel Fleet St., Dublin, 011-353/1-677-3333, templebarhotel.com, from $162 Jurys Inn Galway Quay St., Galway, 011-353/91-566-444, jurysdoyle.com, $139 Errisbeg Lodge Roundstone, Connemara, County Galway, 011-353/95-35807, errisbeglodge.com, from $94 Breaffy House Hotel Castlebar, County Mayo, 011-353/94-902-2033, from $173 Attractions Tigh Neachtain 17 Cross St., Galway, 011-353/91-568-820 The Crane Bar 2 Sea Rd., Galway, 011-353/91-587-419 Viking Splash Tours 64-65 Patrick St., Dublin, 011-353/1-707-6000, vikingsplashtours.com, from $24 Guinness Storehouse St. James Gate Brewery, Dublin, 011-353/1-408-4800, guinness-storehouse.com, tour admission $18.75 Connemara National Park 011-353/95-41054, heritageireland.ie The Automobile Association of Ireland aaroadwatch.ie (click Route Planning for directions) Entertainment Ireland entertainment.ie, for music and arts listings

    Inspiration

    The Allure of Southern New Mexico

    Everybody does the same thing when they come to New Mexico: They head north from Albuquerque, toward Santa Fe and Taos. But I went to school in a small town on the edge of the Navajo reservation up there, and my wife, Lynn, also once lived in that end of the state. We're more fascinated with what lies to the south, where Billy the Kid ran wild and aliens crashed. Day one: Albuquerque to Lincoln In Albuquerque, at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center's café, we order some $4.50 mutton stew--a New Mexico staple--and spread out our maps. We've stopped by the center to steep ourselves in native Southwest culture, checking out the historical exhibits, free dance performances, and pottery and art styles from around the state. We also need to decide where to go next. "This way," Lynn says, tracing I-40 east past Sandia Peaks, then down Highway 337 to Highway 55, which zigs through the center of New Mexico, connecting a number of tiny farming communities. The first part of our route follows a string of old missions, so we start with a mission church in Albuquerque, the Church of San Felipe De Neri, which has been holding weekly services since 1706. The interior smells of wax, and the walls, four feet thick, make the church feel like a fort. Two hours south of Albuquerque, we stop at one of the state's grandest missions, Quarai. Maybe 600 people lived here at its peak, but the mission lasted less than a century and was abandoned in the late 1670s. Perhaps the locals just weren't ready to give up their traditional way of life--the ruins contain a circular pit called a kiva, sacred to Southwest tribes. Above the kiva, the crumbling, red mission walls rise more than 40 feet. Another mission, Abó, is 10 miles down the road. This one's not in such good shape, with buffalo gourds growing in the road bank. We're hardly back in the car before it's time to stop at Gran Quivira, the hillside remains of a classic Pueblo village. It looks rather like a sprawling motel. Highway 55 leads us to 54, and then, past the ghost town of White Oaks, we intersect with Highway 380. To the west is the Trinity Site, where the first atomic explosion was set off. So we turn east, into the mountains, the temperature dropping with each switchback. America's most famous bear was born near here, in the Lincoln National Forest. Smokey weighed less than 10 pounds when firefighters rescued him in 1950, and it took weeks to nurse him to health. Although Smokey spent the rest of his life at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., he was buried at Smokey Bear Historical Park, in lovely Capitan. Lynn goes into Junior Forest Ranger flashbacks at the Smokey Bear Museum while I check us into the Smokey Bear Motel next door. (FYI, it's Smokey Bear, not Smokey the Bear; an act of Congress clarified this point.) Lincoln, 12 miles east of Capitan, is what an old western town should be. It's where Billy the Kid escaped from jail in 1881, killing two guards. The country store, courthouse, and more are open for tours, but Lincoln is best after everything shuts down. The white stones that mark where Billy's victims fell glow in the sunset. Day one Lodging Smokey Bear Restaurant & Motel316 Smokey Bear Blvd., Capitan, 800/766-5392, $50 Attractions Indian Pueblo Cultural Center2401 12th St. NW, Albuquer-que, 505/843-7270, $4 San Felipe De Neri Church2005 North Plaza NW, Albuquerque, 505/243-4628, free Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument(Quarai, Abó, Gran Quivira) 505/847-2585, free Smokey Bear Historical ParkHwy. 380, Capitan, 505/354-2748, $2 Smokey Bear Museum and Gift ShopHwy. 380, Capitan, 505/354-2298, free Lincoln State MonumentHwy. 380, Lincoln, 505/653-4372, $6 Maybe that's why aliens thought this was a good place to crash. Northwest of Roswell, just before midnight on July 4, 1947, a flying saucer came down. The wreckage was hauled to the local military base. Then, (a) the government switched the saucer for a weather balloon and hushed it up, or (b) it was a weather balloon all along. Roswell's International UFO Museum and Research Center offers both sides of the story, though there's an obvious slant. The highlight is a tiny piece of metal found near the crash site, a metal like none other on earth. But the teenagers walking through the museum--wearing top hats embellished with bright-green aliens--aren't much like anything else on earth, either. We turn south on Highway 285 for a two-hour drive to see what lies under all that desert. Carlsbad Caverns came to attention in 1898, when Jim White, a teenage ranch hand, saw what he thought was smoke rising from the earth. It was actually a swarm of bats streaming out of the cavern. During summer sunsets, as many as a half-million Mexican free-tailed bats--each able to eat half its weight in insects in a night--come out to hunt. With 50 or so other people, we sit by the cave entrance, listen to the free ranger talk, and wait. Quite suddenly, the air is alive with bats that pour from the cavern mouth for 45 minutes, a black ribbon stretching miles into the sky. Lynn and I beam like kids at Christmas. We decide to spend the night in Carlsbad, which is actually 25 miles from the caverns. A closer town, White's City, is really just a souvenir shop and a hotel that is slightly pricey due to its proximity. Day two Lodging Carlsbad Inn2019 S. Canal St., Carlsbad, 505/ 887-1171, from $39 Attractions International UFO Museum and Research Center114 N. Main St., Roswell, 505/625-9495, free The trail ends at the Big Room, which has some of the cave's most spectacular formations, from tiny nubs of minerals to hanging stone curtains the size of buses. We sign on for an extra tour, of the Left Hand Tunnel (wishing that we'd planned ahead better and booked one of the spelunking trips, where you crawl through dark, tight passages). There are no electric lights; our walk is lit by candle lanterns. After lunch in the underground restaurant, we elevator back to the surface, squinting like moles. At Highway 82, we head west, traveling slowly uphill along a perfect river valley with one horse pasture after another, peak at the town of Cloudcroft, and then drop nearly 5,000 feet in only 16 miles, to the deserts surrounding the small town of Alamogordo. It's still early enough to visit Alamogordo's main attraction, the New Mexico Museum of Space History. The models of rockets and satellites are interesting but easily trumped by the astronaut food. On the space shuttle, they toss back Pepsis in what look like whipped cream dispensers, but back on the Mercury flights, dinner consisted of little brown squares labeled "graham cracker cubes" and "cheese cracker cubes." Clearly, NASA was testing the future of airline dining. Southwest of Alamogordo on Highway 70, White Sands National Monument first appears on the horizon as a glare, and then the shape of the dunes comes out, pure white against the brown and green surroundings. White Sands is 275 square miles of gypsum sand, and even on a hot day you can walk barefoot on it. We buy a sled at the gift shop, then drive to the park's biggest dunes. We try to describe to each other how weird this place is, but words fail. Surrounded by giant dunes, the only colors we see are the white sand glare and the pure blue sky above. Except for the tarantulas, even the insects are translucent white. Lynn climbs 50 feet up a dune and leaps onto the sled as if the sand were New England snow. We get to Las Cruces, the state's second largest city, just in time to find a hotel with that vital something for summer travel in New Mexico (and an afternoon playing in the sand): an indoor pool. Days three and four Lodging Comfort Suites2101 S. Triviz Dr., Las Cruces, 505/522-1300, $80 Food Mesilla Valley Kitchen2001 E. Lohman Ave., Las Cruces, 505/523-9311, burrito $6 La Posta de Mesilla2410 Calle de San Albino, Las Cruces, 505/524-3524, chiles rellenos $7 Pete's101 N. First St., Belen, 505/864-4811, enchiladas $8 Attractions Carlsbad Caverns National Park505/785-2232, 800/967-2283 (tour reservations), entry $6, tours $7-$20 New Mexico Museum of SpaceHistory Alamogordo, 505/437-2840, $2.50 White Sands National Monument505/479-6124, $3 Hay-Yo-Kay Hot Springs300 Austin Ave., Truth or Consequences, 505/894-2228, $5.50 (half hour) Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge505/835-1828, $3 per car Harvey House Museum104 N. First St., Belen, 505/861-0581, donations accepted Interstate 25 is actually a section of the Pan-American Highway, which stretches from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Patagonia, Chile. We're four hours or so from Albuquerque, so we have plenty of time to pull off at Truth or Consequences for a stretch and a soak. T or C used to be called Hot Springs, after its natural Jacuzzis--unusual in that they're highly mineralized but almost sulfur-free. Then, in 1949, the game show Truth or Consequences offered to throw a party and broadcast a show from any town that would change its name to match.An hour later, it's time for a stretch at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. We've missed the sandhill cranes that migrate through the wetlands; the other birds we're seeing are simply LBGs (little brown guys) to us, except for the ones who are LBGs (little blue guys). Next time, we're bringing a field guide.One last stop: Belen, on the banks of the Rio Grande. Friends in Albuquerque said the best food in the state is at Pete's. We work up an appetite at the Harvey House Museum, looking at displays on train history and early fast-food service. Before World War II, there were Harvey Houses--staffed by Harvey Girls--at most major railroad stops west of the Missouri River. Then we cross the street to Pete's for enchiladas, burritos, and empanadas. One taste explains why the line for a table goes out the door.We're in no hurry. It's only a half hour to Albuquerque from here. We leave the restaurant and walk to the banks of the Rio Grande. So far, twilight has brought magic each night of this trip: bats, Billy the Kid, sled rides, a quiet hour with the two of us floating in cool water. On the riverbank, we watch the sun drop and wonder what the evening will offer this time. Day one:Albuquerque to Lincoln, 172 Miles  Take I-40 east to exit 175 at Tijeras, where you get on Hwy. 337 south. Turn right to go south on Hwy. 55, which leads to Quarai. Turn west on Hwy. 60 to reach Abó. Double back up 60 to turn south again on 55 to Gran Quivira. Continue south; when 55 hits Hwy. 54, turn right. A couple of miles past the ghost town of White Oaks, turn east on Hwy. 380, and head into Lincoln National Forest toward Capitan. The town of Lincoln is farther east on 380. Day two:Lincoln to Carlsbad, 206 Miles  Continue east on 380, which links with Hwy. 70 in Hondo, from which it's 47 miles to Roswell. Turn south on Hwy. 285 for the two-hour drive to the town of Carlsbad. Day three:Carlsbad to Las Cruces, 269 Miles Carlsbad Caverns National Park is actually 25 miles south of Carlsbad on Hwy. 62/180. After the caverns, backtrack through the town of Carlsbad, continuing north up 285 to the town of Artesia. Turn west here on Hwy. 82, going up to Cloudcroft, then down into Alamogordo. Drive southwest from Alamogordo on Hwy. 70; stop at White Sands National Monument. Continue down 70 to Las Cruces for the night. Day four:Las Cruces to Albuquerque, 223 Miles Leave Las Cruces on I-25, following the Rio Grande north about 70 miles to Truth or Consequences. Continue on I-25 to Bosque del Apache, Belen, and Albuquerque.

    Inspiration

    A Presidential Tour of Virginia

    At George Washington's Ferry Farm, the Virginia plantation where the nation's first president lived as a boy, you learn some of his youthful secrets. Like the time he took a dip in the Rappahannock River, which flows past the farm, and two women from a neighboring town pilfered his britches. "It's in the court records," I was told as I toured there recently. Did the Father of Our Country scamper home unclothed? I wondered. On that we can only speculate. Part of the fun of traveling to historical places is coming across odd, sometimes gossipy—but always fascinating—stories like this one, which add flesh and blood to notables like Washington who figure so prominently in school texts. In Virginia, four of America's first five presidents almost seem to step from the pages of history at the plantation homes where they once lived. You can meet them on a seven-day, budget-priced driving tour, in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers. The 500-mile loop itinerary out of Washington, D.C., takes you to Mount Vernon and two other plantations on which Washington lived; and on to Monticello, the gadget-filled home of Thomas Jefferson, America's third president. Settling nearby as neighbors—and good friends—were James Madison, the fourth chief executive, who called his mansion Montpelier, and James Monroe (the fifth) who retired to Ash Lawn-Highland. At these sites (and more), you learn about the everyday world of the men chosen to shepherd the new United States. The tour skips John Adams, the second president, who hailed from Massachusetts. To see Virginia's presidential quartet, plan on staying two nights each in three small colonial-era cities—Fredericksburg, Williamsburg, and Charlottesville. I've scouted out economy lodgings and good family-priced restaurants in each. Entrance fees at the presidential homes are modest. For recess from the history lessons, I've also pointed out inexpensive recreation. Outside Fredericksburg, take a cooling dip in lovely Lake Anna, a state park with an inviting sandy beach. Sample Virginia's fine vintages on a winery tour. Hike a shady segment of the famed Appalachian Trail not far from Monticello. Go tubing on the gentle James River. You'll mostly travel country roads past woodlands, fields, and pastures. But the focus of this drive is on the men—and their wives—who helped create the nation. They have the continuing power to inspire. We see them both as the pedestaled icons they have become and as the real-life men and women they actually were. What struck me most as I recently revisited their homes is that they achieved so much while facing daunting personal problems: the early death of loved ones, troublesome debts, family squabbles. Poor Madison, I learned at Montpelier, had to put up with an alcoholic stepson addicted to gambling. A disillusioning note is that all four-champions of freedom-kept slaves. This, too, is a story told at their plantations. Fredericksburg We know George Washington as a victorious general and astute president. But he was also a pioneering farmer, experimenting on new crops and methods of growing them. This is one of the stories told at Mount Vernon, the estate where he lived for 45 years. Little has changed, including the handsome furnishings in his white-pillared mansion (which you can tour) and its grand view across the Potomac River. Adult tickets from $17, kids ages 6-11 pay $8, $16 for seniors. As a farmer, Washington was especially proud of the massive 16-sided treading barn he designed to keep his wheat crop safe from the weather. Destroyed in the nineteenth century, it was rebuilt recently—and visitors can now watch his innovative structure at work. As my wife and I stood in the center, piles of newly cut wheat stalks were spread on the nearly circular plank floor. Then a trio of large horses, treading in a circle around us, separated the grain. Kernels fell though gaps in the floorboards to collecting bins below. Mount Vernon is 30 minutes south of Reagan National. You can stop for a half-day at the estate before continuing on for the evening to Fredericksburg, Washington's hometown. Devote the next day to visiting his boyhood homes: Popes Creek Plantation, where he was born, and Ferry Farm, where the family moved when he was six. Entrance to Popes Creek Plantation is free; admission to Ferry Farm is $8 for adults, $4 for students, and free for children under age 6. Officially designated the George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Popes Creek celebrates Washington's ancestors. His great-grandfather John, an English merchant seaman, was the first of the family to land in America in 1657, and he is buried here. The 550-acre park, about 38 miles east of Fredericksburg via Route 3, is maintained as a colonial-era farm with costumed interpreters. Devon oxen keep the grass mowed and a trio of turkeys struts. The river views are as lovely as Mount Vernon's. Pack a lunch and savor them at the picnic area. From Popes Creek, return to 115-acre Ferry Farm, just outside Fredericksburg. As a youth, Washington learned to hunt, ride, and farm—the skills of Virginia gentry. Here, too, is where he may have chopped down a cherry tree-wild cherries still abound—and perhaps tossed a stone across the Rappahannock. The river is not wide, and his arm was strong. Time your visit so you can watch archaeologists dig for colonial artifacts. In Fredericksburg's Historic District, you can also pick up the early footsteps of James Monroe. As a young man, he practiced law in the city. The James Monroe Museum, located at the site of his office, displays rich furniture pieces he took with him to the White House. As a history buff, I've known him as a statesman. But here I learned he was a Revolutionary War hero, wounded as a lieutenant the night Washington crossed the Delaware. His wife Elizabeth, so a guide told me, introduced place cards to society dining in America—etiquette she picked up when Monroe was minister to France. Admission is $5 for adults, $1 per child (ages 5 and under get in free). Getting thereFrom Reagan National, take the George Washington Parkway/Mount Vernon Memorial Highway south through Alexandria to Mount Vernon. After touring, continue west on Route 235 to Route 1 south and follow signs to I-95 south. The beach at Lake Anna State Park is about 25 miles southwest of the city. Where to Stay & EatExcept in summer, try for one of the 26 fully equipped cabins at Westmoreland State Park near Popes Creek. Contact them for current rates. Eat at Yesterdays in nearby Montross. In Fredericksburg, well-priced motels are clustered at the intersection of U.S. 17 and I-95. Try the 59-room Travelodge (800/578-7878), the 77-room Super 8 Motel (540/371-8900), or the 119-room Motel 6 (540/371-5443).  Near the motels, the Johnny Appleseed Restaurant features southern cooking with full dinners under $9. In the Historic District, Sammy T's is a local favorite with a nineteenth-century look. Go for the quesadilla plate, $5.50. Williamsburg As the capital of England's richest American colony, Williamsburg drew important visitors. The footprints of Washington, Jefferson, and Monroe crisscross often here. Many lodgings, taverns, and government offices they frequented have been rebuilt or restored to create Colonial Williamsburg, a 173-acre eighteenth-century town. Washington served for 16 years in the House of Burgesses. Topped with a soaring cupola, Colonial Williamsburg's impressive brick capitol duplicates the one in which the burgesses met as revolutionary fervor grew in the 1770s. Jefferson and Monroe attended the College of William and Mary, adjacent to the Historic District. The school's beautiful eighteenth-century Wren Building, where they studied, is the oldest academic building in use in America. A lifelong scholar, Jefferson is credited with broadening the school's curriculum to include chemistry, medicine, and modern languages. As Virginia's second state governor, Jefferson occupied the Governor's Palace that earlier had housed England's colonial governors. A beautifully symmetrical structure, which had to be rebuilt, it was one of America's most ornate residences. As you exit, take a stroll—as Jefferson may have—through the garden's holly bush maze. Washington and Jefferson were often guests at Raleigh Tavern, a popular gathering spot also authentically reconstructed. Step inside for a tour. As a student of 20, Jefferson is known to have spent at least one especially gala evening here dancing and drinking - to excess, it seems. After the night's revelry, he complained in a letter to a friend, "I could never have thought the succeeding sun would have seen me so wretched." To meet Washington as a military commander, take the Colonial Parkway about 12 miles east to the Yorktown National Battlefield, where his troops won the war for independence in 1781. Stretch your legs as you walk among the still-evident trenches and earthworks he ordered dug beside the York River. Getting thereWilliamsburg and Yorktown are about 105 miles south of Fredericksburg via U.S. 17. Where to Stay & EatArea motels are plentiful and inexpensive. Summer-season rates begin at about $30; at the 22-room Rochambeau (800/368-1055), $32; the 75-room Econo Lodge Pottery (757/564-3341), $60; the 39-room White Lion (800/368-1055), $44; and the 108-room King William Inn (800/446-1041), $65 weekdays/$79 weekends. Dine one night at a colonial tavern. At Chowning's, full dinners begin at $14. A less expensive alternative, the Old Chickahominy House serves up a bountiful colonial lunch-fruit, Virginia ham, Brunswick stew, biscuits, homemade pie, and coffee—for $7.75. In Yorktown, meals at Nick's Seafood Pavilion, beginning at $7, come with a water view; a heaping seafood platter is $16. Charlottesville The homes of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all perch atop green hills with grand Blue Ridge views. Acres of fields and gardens surround them. So untouched is the setting, I find it easy to imagine each Founding Father is at home when I come calling. Jefferson designed Monticello himself, adding to it for 40 years. More than any museum house anywhere, it reflects its master's inquisitive and industrious nature. He filled it with gadgets he designed, such as the giant clock over the front door that faces both inside and out. Indoors, the clock sports two hands; outside, he placed only an hour hand—since, to quote my guide Charlie Gay, "You only have to know the approximate time when you're working outdoors." A man with expensive tastes, Jefferson furnished his beloved retreat lavishly—and died deeply in debt. Admission from $25 for adults, $16 for children ages 12-18, $8 for children ages 5-11, children under five are free. Two miles up the road, Monroe's Ash Lawn-Highland is humbler, seated at the end of a long entrance drive lined with ash trees. Monroe, instrumental in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, held more major offices than any other president: senator, ambassador, governor, secretary of state, and secretary of war. His home displays many of the rich objects he and his wife acquired in their travels. In the drawing room stands a bust of Napoleon that the emperor himself gave to Monroe. Admission is $14 for adults, $8 for children ages 6-11, $12 for seniors over 60. Madison's Montpelier is located 30 miles north near Orange. Take Route 20, a scenic byway. Its entrance marked with four soaring pillars, Montpelier is a stately structure with a dual personality. Madison's lifelong home, it was acquired subsequently by a horse-loving Delaware du Pont, who greatly enlarged it. Scholarly and introverted, Madison was complemented by his vivacious wife Dolley, a born hostess, according to my guide Bob Carr. Admission is from $18 for adults, $7 for children 6-14, and free for children under age 6. Elsewhere in Charlottesville, the "academical village" Jefferson designed for the University of Virginia was cited in 1976 by the American Institute of Architects as "the proudest architectural achievement of the nation's first 200 years." His magnificent Rotunda is patterned after Rome's Pantheon. Jefferson so loved the university that he ordered "Founder of the University of Virginia" carved onto his Monticello tomb, ignoring his presidency. Two miles from Monticello, the city-run Monticello Visitor Center displays 400 original Jefferson objects. As a study break, stop for a complimentary tasting at Jefferson Vineyards, a 50-acre vineyard near Monticello. After all, Jefferson is considered America's first wine connoisseur. Or drive south 18 miles on Route 20 to Scottsville, where James River Runners will put you in a rubber tube on the James River. The fee is from $24 per tube. Just 18 miles west, hike along the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park. Getting thereCharlottesville is 120 miles west of Williamsburg. The fastest way is via I-64; the most scenic, Route 6 west from Richmond. En route, stop in Richmond to see the neoclassical State Capitol Building Jefferson helped design when Richmond succeeded Williamsburg as the capital city. A famed full-size statue of Washington stands in the Rotunda. Where to Stay & EatThe 37-room Budget Inn (800/293-5144) is an easy walk from the college campus; $46 weekdays/$55 weekends. Other choices: On the northern outskirts, the 115-room Knights Inn (804/973-8133), $54 weekdays/$65 weekends, or the 65-room Super 8 (800/800-8000), $49 weekdays/$59 weekends. In Orange, the new 65-room Holiday Inn Express (540/672-6691) occupies a Monticello-like hill with a view, $85. Just outside Monticello, eighteenth-century Michie Tavern serves the same hearty buffet lunch daily. For $10.95 (adults), the bill of fare lists fried chicken, black-eyed peas, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, corn bread, stewed tomatoes, green beans, "tavern beets," and biscuits. Across the street from the UVA campus, join students for budget meals at the College Inn, a pub where the eight-ounce steak platter (fries, salad) comes to $9.50. Up the street, the Virginia offers a baby back rib plate for $8.95. An easy walk from the Knights Inn and Super 8, the Chiang House Restaurant features lemon chicken at $7.45. Next door, heap your plate high at the Wood Grill Buffet; a choice of salads, entrees, and desserts runs $7.99.

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