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

By The Staff
January 12, 2022
041113_triphome
South African Tourism
Thirty years after serving in the Peace Corps in Africa, Sean Sullivan is heading back with his wife and friends

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
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    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.

    Inspiration

    Reykjavík

    What you'll find in this story: Reykjavik travel, Reykjavik restaurants, Reykjavik culture, Reykjavik affordable travel, Iceland neighborhoods Whether it's due to the cost of importing or the lack of competition, nothing comes cheap in Iceland. The idea of healthy living hasn't really caught on, either. Having said that, there are quite a few nice little restaurants, most in the downtown area, that are affordable (at least by Icelandic standards). Eld smidjan An almost life-size James Dean stares at a haunting blonde painted by former punk princess Elly. On the floor above, a painting by Harpa shows death having a drink with friends. But there's more to Eld Smidjan than decor. It has the best pizzas, with toppings from fish to snails. Can't decide? Leave it to the chef, who'll usually whip up something involving cream cheese. From $9 for a 10-inch margherita pizza. Bragagata 38a, 011-354/562-3838. Hornid The name means "corner," appropriately enough, since it's on a corner in the center of town. Reykjavik's oldest Italian restaurant is only 25 years old. But it's still perhaps the best (and the candles on the tables are more than you can say for some places). Look at the blackboard for the day's special, which might be pasta, baked seafood, or panfried saltfish; it comes with soup ($18). The pizzas, calzones, and pastas are nice ($15 to $20), as is the salmon, from a local river ($31). Hafnarstræti 15, 011-354/551-3340. Nonnabiti Nonnabiti is the top manufacturer of batur, or "boats," more or less what more advanced cultures call submarine sandwiches. It closes later than most restaurants here, which means 2 a.m. weekdays and 6 a.m. weekends, so it's a favorite of pub crawlers. (Get a dollar off before 1:30 p.m.) The big, greasy boats have a unique taste due to Nonni's sauce, which he invented--only he and his wife, Björk (no, not her), know the recipe. Try the lamb or fish boat ($10), or a holiday boat, with smoked pork, if you're in around Christmas or Easter. Hafnarstræti 11, 011-354/551-2312. Graenn Kostur Graenn Kostur ("green choice") is completely vegan: no sugar, no bleached flour, nothing from the animal kingdom. (Not exactly true--Antonio, a chubby cat thought to resemble a Latin lover, is served dairy products.) Actor Viggo Mortensen stops by on his frequent horse-riding trips. If you're in luck, the day's special ($12) will be a stuffed pepper or, failing that, a spinach pie. A second helping costs $3. Skolavördustigur 8b, 011-354/552-2028. Baejarins Bestu The Icelandic hot dog is not to be missed, and this stand, "the town's best," lives up to its name. On a sunny day the line stretches down the street. The hot dogs are made mostly from lamb, and if you ask for one with everything ("eina med öllu"), you get mustard, ketchup, raw and fried onions, and remoulade. A hot dog costs $3, but you'll want a pair. Two members of Metallica--James Hetfield and the new bass player--shared seven. Bill Clinton stopped by in August but only wanted mustard. Now you can ask for a Clinton and get just that. Tryggvagata (no street number), 011-354/894-4515. Vitabar The words best and cheapest don't often go together, but it's the case here--this is one of the few bars in the center area that has a "local" feel. For $7.50 you get a delicious burger and fries. Or ditch the fries and order a gleym-mer-ey ("forget-me-not"), a blue cheese and garlic burger ($11). A steak costs $22 but comes with beer, salad, and fries. Bergthorugata 21, 011-354/551-7200. Reykjavik Bagel Company Owner Frank Sands is originally from Boston but has become a naturalized Icelander; he's lived here for 11 years and is married to an Icelandic woman. He initially taught in a high school in the Westman Islands but has entered the catering business and also started the successful Vegamot bistro and bar. You can get any bagel with regular or flavored cream cheese for $4.50. Included in the price is Wi-Fi access, if you have your laptop. Laugavegur 81, 011-354/511-4500. Jomfruin Owner Jakob Jakobsson is the first man to earn the title "smörrebröd virgin." Smörrebröd, a Danish invention, consists of bread hidden under a pile of toppings, such as roast beef, herring, shrimp, or gorgonzola. A virgin in smörrebröd terms is, ironically, someone very proficient in the art of making the bread. On summer Saturdays, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., the top jazz acts in Reykjavik play in the garden. Half a slice (a lot more filling than you'd think) goes for around $10, a full one for between $18 to $30. Laekjargata 4, 011-354/551-0100. 3 Frakkar The name means "three Frenchmen," and 3 Frakkar used to be a French restaurant. When new owners took over two decades ago and turned it into a seafood restaurant, they didn't change the name, because conveniently enough, 3 Frakkar also means "three overcoats." The house specialty is whale. Whaling has been forbidden for 15 years, but the chef has a few frozen from before then. Fin whale is served raw or as a pepper steak. The restaurant also has puffin and guillemot on the menu, and a wide selection of fish. Main courses cost around $35; weekday lunches are roughly a third less (and include soup). Baldursgata 14, 011-354/552-3939.

    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 Romantic Trip to Italy

    What you'll find in this story: Italian travel, Italian culture, Italian attractions, Italy train schedules, Florence travel, Rome travel "Two years ago, my husband got activated with the military," Andrea Farrow, of Murrieta, Calif., wrote to us last summer. "While he has been all over the world, he has actually 'seen' very little of it other than military bases." Andrea was planning on dropping off her three sons with Grandma and taking a two-week trip to Europe in late March with her husband, Richard, a member of the Air Force Reserves, soon after he was released from duty. She wasn't sure where to go, listing Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Ireland, and Scotland among the places that interested them. When pressed for specifics, Andrea named Pompeii and Venice, and it became clear that we should help them focus on Italy. A short while after agreeing to coach the Farrows, we got an e-mail from Richard: "My wife doesn't think that we're going, because of some money issues. If she e-mails you about it, just ignore her. I guess this vacation is now going to be a surprise." Andrea never told us they were canceling the trip outright, but after a few weeks we stopped hearing from her. Richard stayed in touch with us between missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we managed to keep the planning a secret. At one point, worried that Andrea was "getting a little snoopy," Richard even switched e-mail addresses to throw her off. "Andrea thinks we can't afford this," Richard wrote, "but we'll manage. I will sell my car if I have to." The Farrows wanted to travel primarily by train, and we told them to research routes and schedules at trenitalia.com. After plotting out a rough itinerary according to their requests--a mix of Italy's major attractions with some off-the-beaten-path fun--we suggested that they spend $564 on a second-class, two-person Italy Rail 'n Drive pass, which comes with four days of train travel and a two-day compact-car rental. "I'm a history teacher," Andrea had said, "so castles, ruins, and historical sites are a must." The Farrows' first glimpse of Italy is in Rome, where their tight schedule allows for three days. Although they want to see the city's big-name attractions, we told them not to get bogged down with a checklist of sights. There are a number of ways to enjoy Rome, such as window-shopping the fashion boutiques of Via dei Condotti, tasting the creamy gelato at Giolitti, and wasting an afternoon at a café on Piazza Navona (so that Andrea can engage in an activity that she had requested--"sitting outside and watching people as they move about their daily lives.") The Farrows are using the first day of their rail pass to head two hours south to Naples, where they'll switch to a private rail line not covered by their pass (Circumvesuviana, $3) for a 40-minute ride to Pompeii. We pointed out to the Farrows that to be most efficient, before they leave Napoli Centrale station for Pompeii they should place their luggage in a storage room and reserve a sleeping berth, or couchette, on an overnight train to Venice that evening (roughly a $20 supplement to their rail pass). Wandering around the dusty streets, crumbling temples, vacant houses, intact bakeries, and amphitheater of Pompeii--all frozen in time (a.d. 79, to be precise) by the hot ash of a volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius--should eat up five or six hours. Snack trucks lining the road to Pompeii provide a simple lunch, and gift shops sell excellent illustrated guides to help navigate the ruins. If they limit themselves to three hours in Pompeii, they may be able to squeeze in Herculaneum, the less crowded and in many ways more evocative victim of Vesuvius. They just need to hop out at the Ercolano stop on the return to Naples. The overnight train arrives in Venice at 5:31 a.m., a great opportunity to watch the sun rise over the city of canals. We instructed the Farrows to drop their bags at their hotel--the family-run Hotel Bernardi Semenzato--and head directly to the famed Piazza San Marco, which will be wonderfully empty at that time of day. The Secret Itineraries tour of the Doge's Palace, adjacent to St. Mark's, is up next, and guides give an overview of the 1,000-year history of the Venetian Republic while bringing visitors through cramped wooden chambers hidden behind tapestries in the lavish palace. As part of the special tour, Richard and Andrea will even get to clamber up to "the leads," the attic prison cells from which Casanova once escaped. "We'd like to go to some out-of-the-way places that most tourists don't see," Andrea had insisted, prompting us to recommend that on their second day in town they explore Venice's outlying islands by ferry, or vaporetto. The glass factories at Murano, a mini-Venice with canals and cathedrals but no crowds, are fascinating. The fishing village of Burano is known for its brightly colored houses, and then there's also the largely abandoned island of Torcello. It was a former haunt of Ernest Hemingway and is home to little more than some weedy canals, a couple of restaurants, and a 1,000-year-old church glittering with mosaics. Limiting Venice to two days may seem like sacrilege, but the Farrows demanded a fast pace. Andrea had said she wanted to see as many things as possible, concerned that they'd never take a similar trip again. We told them to hop a morning train that by early afternoon would land them in Pisa for mandatory photo ops of the Leaning Tower. A couple of hours is plenty. They'll continue on to the seaside village of Riomaggiore, where brothers Roberto and Luciano Fazioli rent fantastic apartments for $65 to $130 double. Riomaggiore is the southernmost of five villages along the cliffs of the Riviera known as the Cinque Terre. The villages are connected by a series of ancient goat paths that are scenic and great for hiking. Next is Florence and two days of sightseeing, followed by a day of cycling through the small towns and hills of the Chianti region with an outfit called I Bike Italy. The Farrows pick up their car in Florence for a final two days, heading south to San Gimignano, a kind of medieval Manhattan with 14 stone towers atop a hill. After lunch at La Mangiatoia--with a bottle of the local white wine, Vernaccia--they drive on to Siena, one of the best-preserved medieval cities in the world. The Campo, Siena's sloping, scallop-shaped central square, is a stone's throw from the place we recommended the Farrows stay, the Piccolo Hotel Etruria. Before returning to Rome, the Farrows have one last stop. Along the back road from Scansano to Manciano, at a sharp bend just beyond a bridge, they'll see cars parked on the shoulder. Across the field is Saturnia's Cascata del Gorello, hot mineral waters that spill down the hillside in a series of relaxing pools. The total cost of the couple's trip should be about $4,500--well within the budget Richard gave us. "My wife has done an outstanding job raising our three sons and taking care of our house while I've been away," he said. "She deserves this." Now they know they can afford it. We just wish we could see the look on Andrea's face when she finds out.