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When Everybody's an Expert, Who Can You Trust?

By Brad Tuttle
October 11, 2005
0511_how_trust
Anyone planning a trip should regard certain sources with suspicion--and disregard others completely

In February 2004, something funky happened on the Canadian version of Amazon.com. Because of a temporary glitch, you could see who had written which anonymous book review--and an amazing number were written by the authors themselves.

Everyone has an agenda, right?

It seems obvious, but we all forget it: Not all opinions are trustworthy. Rather than following advice blindly, you should always bear in mind where it came from, and how it was gathered. Some may argue that this article is self-serving, but we hate to see people get duped. What's especially galling is when authorities claim to be fair and balanced, and are anything but.

Guidebooks

Writing travel guides seems like a dream gig. The truth is, writers are rarely paid enough to cover the expenses necessary to do the job properly, let alone earn them a decent wage. So, unlike the major travel magazines, the authors accept freebies--which skews what they write about, and how. Many cut corners on their research, glancing at menus and hotel websites rather than actually evaluating places. Some writers even crib directly from other guidebooks.

Furthermore, while most printed materials have a built-in lead time, books are worst of all. By the time a first edition actually sits in travelers' hands, the information is probably at least two years old. Subsequent editions tend only to be updated via phone and Internet, meaning the writer might not have even set foot in the destination in five or more years. What can you do? Always check for the copyright date (though guides are famous for hiding it, burying it at the back or after pages of glossy photos) to make sure the edition is recent. Cross-referencing between guidebooks, and supplementing with Internet sources, also helps.

User review sites

TripAdvisor, IgoUgo, and other sites that provide platforms where millions of travelers post their opinions certainly have a democratic appeal. But do you really want the opinion of just anybody? There are probably people in your life whose recommendations you don't trust--like the neighbor who lives on fast food and vacations at the same beach town you avoid--so why plan a trip according to a message that was posted by cooldude23?

It's easier to take anonymous advice if there seems to be a consensus. But on a recent visit to IgoUgo, eight of what were rated the top 10 hotels in San Francisco were based on the reviews of one person each. The remaining two had two reviews apiece--hardly mass approval. Even when a hotel gets several postings, opinions tend to be all over the map. Las Vegas's Cancún Resort received the lowest possible rating from one reviewer ("beds were thin and you could feel the springs every time you turned over... bathrooms clogged up a couple of times"), a top score from another ("a great resort for a family!"), and several ratings in between. It's all very confusing, and turns the viewer into a psychologist, trying to figure out which message comes from a like-minded traveler. The best idea is to approach these sites like an ice-skating competition and throw out the high and low scores as aberrations. Then read the remarks carefully, looking for specific gripes and compliments about the details that matter to you.

Convention & Visitors Bureaus

Visitors centers can be wonderful sources of information, often doling out free maps and lodging assistance, but they're rarely completely objective. It's not that they lie outright--it's that they only present a select, enticing assortment of details. A brochure from the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce boasts of "559.6 miles of unspoiled coastline" yet never mentions that you'll run across more no trespassing and private property signs than you will public beaches. And the fact that parking on the Cape often costs $15 a day for outsiders? If all you read was the brochure, that's something you'd only discover upon arrival.

Also, most CVB maps and information centers only list properties that are chamber members (meaning they pay dues), so you might not be getting the whole picture. Small establishments, in particular--cafés, B&Bs, galleries--don't often find it worthwhile to participate.

Sometimes, the maps and materials distributed at rest stops and hotels aren't even produced by the CVB. One of our editors, while in Spearfish, S.D., noticed that an interesting-looking restaurant--the Bay Leaf Café--wasn't mentioned in the brochure in his motel room. "The big hotel chains contract out to companies who make other brochures, and they try to get us to buy ads in them," says Taffy Tucker, one of the restaurant's co-owners, when we called for an explanation. "If they're $225 a pop, that's over $1,000. That just doesn't work for us." The editor, who considers himself fairly aware, hadn't even realized that the guide wasn't civic-sponsored. The bottom line: You're wise to ask for a local's unvarnished opinion, and to keep your eyes open.

Spokespeople

Large companies such as American Express, Travelocity, Expedia, and Priceline employ staffers who present themselves as industry experts always available to the lazier members of the press. Expedia plays no role in house exchanges, but that didn't stop the Chicago Tribune from quoting Expedia spokesperson Cari Swartz on the topic. "Most people," she said, "prefer to stay in hotels." Expedia, of course, is in the business of selling hotel rooms.

Some even have journalistic-sounding titles, such as editor-at-large--but they're not bound by journalism's traditional code of ethics.

We just can't say it enough: Everyone in this industry has an agenda. And it's not always the same as yours.

Before You Post That Nasty Review...

A friend of mine recently stayed at a little hotel in Europe. He had a terrible time, so he posted a bad review on TripAdvisor once he got back. The hotel figured out who wrote it, and threatened to sue if he didn't take it down.

American reviewers on bulletin boards such as TripAdvisor and IgoUgo might be surprised to learn that the rest of the world doesn't protect free speech the way the U.S. does. "Libel law overseas usually lets Americans be sued for any statement that stings a foreign business or resident," says Kurt Wimmer, a media lawyer at Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C. "And countries are taking the view that their courts can hear any dispute about content that can be accessed over the Internet in their country."

As with so many things, you need to know your risks. Say you criticize a French hotel online, and the hotel sues you. "If you don't plan to make a habit of visiting France, you can ignore it," says Wimmer. "If a French court issues a default judgment, you can only be forced to pay if they 'execute' the judgment. And unless you live in the E.U., that's tough to do. If they were to try to execute the judgment in the U.S., they'd have to go to a U.S. court. Our courts have steadfastly refused to enforce foreign judgments that don't comply with our standards under the First Amendment." But what if you do plan on returning to France--or worse, own property there? "I'd be careful," he says. "You may not want to post quite so freely." But another thing to consider is that foreign lawyers don't usually take suits as easily as U.S. lawyers. "If a French hotel wants to sue you for libel, it'll need to pay a lawyer," says Wimmer. "France doesn't have contingency fees, where a lawyer will just take a case for free as long as he gets a cut of the winnings. Frankly, the hotel would know that its chances of collecting anything are slim, and be more likely to try to convince the site to just take a negative post down."

All we'll add is that don't assume you'll be able to persuade TripAdvisor to remove your own review. My friend had a devil of a time, pulling every string he could find before getting some help. --Erik Torkells

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EasyGroup's Stelios

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Confessions Of... A Vegas Massage Therapist

Our anonymous confessor has been a massage therapist for six years, including the past three at a spa inside a premier hotel in Las Vegas. A spa is not a "massage parlor" The most common question massage therapists get asked is whether we are propositioned. Being a professional, I usually give a vague answer and move on. The truth is, it happens all the time. Las Vegas is a place where people feel they can disregard boundaries, but if you get a massage in a spa at a major hotel, rest assured your therapist is not a prostitute. The insinuation is a huge insult. That hasn't stopped people from making offers ("I'll give you $100 to finish me off"), exposing or even touching themselves, or grabbing me. If you do anything along these lines, realize that everyone on the hotel staff will know about it before you've left the spa, that your massage will come to an abrupt, unhappy ending--and yes, you will pay for the full hour! GET EXPERT TRAVEL TIPS AND DEALS WITH OUR FREE E-NEWSLETTERS! Hygiene, hygiene, hygiene We are happy to massage you after you've spent two hours in the gym...once you've showered. If you have something contagious, such as athlete's foot, disclose it up front. Likewise, it is never OK to come in for a massage in the throes of the flu. Your body aches and a massage sounds heavenly, but it's wrong to expose your therapist and other guests to a disease. We are paid a commission for each massage, and when we're sick, we have no income. And FYI: Your flu symptoms will feel much worse in the hours following a massage. Common courtesy You're sharing the facilities with others, so shut off your cell phone. And due to the revolting behavior we sometimes witness, it needs to be said: Don't be disgusting. I'll skip the graphic details, but suffice it to say guests have done things in the showers and the whirlpool that are so unsanitary it's necessary to shut them down. A classy spa doesn't guarantee classy clients. Tips are not comped Hotels offer high rollers complimentary gifts, or comps, in the form of casino credits, rides in hotel limos, meals, and spa treatments. The comp covers the service, not gratuities. Tips are a big part of our income, and it baffles us when comped guests fail to tip. What's $25 when you've just had a $120 massage at no cost? (The standard tip is around 20 percent, preferably in cash or casino chips, and you can put it in an envelope at check-out or hand it directly to us, whichever you prefer. Tipping with a credit card is typically fine, but some spas add tips to our paychecks and deduct taxes.) Beware that some spas automatically add a gratuity to non-comped guest bills. The spa should disclose this when your appointment is booked and again upon check-in. However, if you really appreciate the work (say, the migraine that's been plaguing you disappears) give a little extra. Only part of the automatic gratuity makes it into my hands; the rest is spread among changing room attendants and the concierge. When we say deep... Many guests, men in particular, don't think a woman can give a good deep-tissue massage. They'll even cause a stink when there's no male therapist available. Big mistake. That female therapist will likely go to the extreme and give you a painfully deep massage. (We know what hurts.) The guest usually whines that the pressure is too much-or is too macho to admit it, and spends what should be a blissful hour in wretched discomfort. For that matter, guests who try to direct their therapist's every move will likely end up disappointed. Have faith that your therapist is qualified to know what needs work and what doesn't.

Travel Tips

Where Foodies Love to Eat

We pestered 33 experts until they shared every last tip from their recent trips. It's food for the soul, from people whose taste you can trust (and check back next week for more places where foodies love to eat). MARIO BATALIOwner of seven New York City restaurants; author of the new book Molto Italiano; star of Molto Mario on the Food Network San Francisco The best tacos in the world are at Taqueria San Jose. 2830 Mission St., 415/282-0203, $2. Miami Beach The best skirt steak with chimichurri is at Parrillada Las Vacas Gordas. 933 Normandy Dr., 305/867-1717, $16. New York City The best pork bao is at Momofuku. 163 First Ave., 212/475-7899, $7. ALICE WATERSChef/owner of Chez Panisse in Berkely, Calif., and a champion of sustainable farming San Francisco Cocina Primavera at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market serves great Mexican food on Saturday mornings: a delicious breakfast with handmade tortillas and tamales, and salsas using pure ingredients (ferrybuildingmarketplace.com, breakfast $8). At Pizzetta 211, the pizza with two eggs cracked in the middle is very good, especially with an organic-lettuce green salad and a glass of wine (211 23rd Ave., 415/379-9880, egg pizza $14). New York City Pearl Oyster Bar still makes the lobster roll by which others are judged. 18 Cornelia St., 212/691-8211, $22. ARI WEINZWEIG Cofounder of Zingerman's, an artisanal food emporium in Ann Arbor, Mich. Kalamazoo Julie Stanley, chef and owner at the Food Dance Café, puts great energy into sourcing quality ingredients, and her efforts show. 161 East Michigan Ave., 269/382-1888, calamari $9. Chicago Pastoral is a new little cheese shop with a beautiful selection and a nice variety of wines and breads. There are a few tables outside where you can eat one of their cheese sandwiches. 2945 N. Broadway, 773/472-4781, cheese sandwich $6. Milwaukee Cuban food isn't what comes to mind when you mention Milwaukee, but there are some great dishes on the menu at Cubanitas. It's authentic Cuban cooking in a spot you'd never expect. 728 N. Milwaukee St., 414/225-1760, roasted pork with rice $10. DAN BARBER Chef and co-owner of Blue Hill in New York City, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. Berkshires To shop for the perfect picnic, start at Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Housatonic; they use their own organic flours (367 Park St., Rte. 183, 413/274-3412, loaf of sourdough $4). This part of Massachusetts is famous for dairy. High Lawn Farm is the last dairy around that produces and bottles its own milk (535 Summer St., Lee, 413/243-0672, chocolate milk $3). Then head to Rubiner's, an upscale cheese shop, for Rawson Brook chèvre (264 Main St., Great Barrington, 413/528-0488, $8). On Saturday mornings, go to the Great Barrington Farmers' Market (Castle St., 413/528-0041). PATRIC KUH Restaurant critic for Los Angeles Magazine Los Angeles I like to go to Teresita's, a family-run restaurant in East L.A. The owner, Teresa Campos de Hernandez, opened the modest place in 1983. She's still cooking and greeting customers in the front, but her son Antonio runs the restaurant now. Their chilaquiles are great--fried corn tortillas drenched in homemade red or green salsa and strewn with cotija cheese. And on Wednesdays, they have costillas de puerco en chile negro, pork ribs cooked in a black chili sauce and finished with Ibarra chocolate. It's sort of like a braising juice. 3826 E. 1st St., 323/266-6045, chilaquiles $8. BILL NIMAN Founder and chairman of Niman Ranch, purveyors of hormone-free meats Philadelphia When I'm in Philadelphia, I love to go to the White Dog Cafe, a restaurant in a row of five 130-year-old houses. You feel right at home the moment you walk in. Their food is prepared from natural ingredients sourced directly from sustainable family farms. The best thing is the barbecued pork sandwich, served in the bar and grill part of the restaurant. 3420 Sansom St., 215/386-9224, pork sandwich $11. JOAN NATHANAuthor of The New American Cooking (out next month), host of PBS's Jewish Cooking in America Providence Whenever I go to my hometown, I make a trip to nearby Fall River for delicious Portuguese English muffins from Central Bakery. On the package, they call it a "Port." 711 Pleasant St., Fall River, Mass., 508/675-7620, English muffin $3. RICK BAYLESS Chef and owner of Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, both based in Chicago Oklahoma City For Oklahoma-style barbecue, I go to Van's Pig Stand in Shawnee, outside of town. Everything's made from scratch. The barbecue is dry-rubbed. It's mostly pork ribs with hickory smoke. Oh, you've got me all worked up now! 717 E. Highland St., Shawnee, 405/273-8704, ribs $11. BILL SAMUELS JR. President of the Maker's Mark bourbon company Kentucky People drive 70 miles to eat breakfast at Lynn's Paradise Café in Louisville. It's the most interesting place--not fancy, just weird. They give out an Ugly Lamp of the Year award (984 Barret Ave., 502/583-3447, bacon and eggs $5).The best fried chicken in Kentucky is at the Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg. It's been open since 1919, and they age their own hams. Let's just say you would not be surprised to run into Robert E. Lee there (638 Beaumont Inn Dr., 800/352-3992, fried chicken lunch $9).Everyone wants a steak. At Pat's Steak House in Louisville, Pat butchers his own meat. My wife and I had our wedding reception there.... My mother was so mad that we didn't have it in the country club, she didn't come (2437 Brownsboro Rd., 502/893-2062, steak dinner $28). R. W. APPLE JR.New York Times associate editor and author of Apple's America Portland Jake's Famous Crawfish is a favorite with locals for its cedar-planked salmon ($20) and selection of Oregon wines (401 SW 12th Ave., 503/226-1419). At Mother's Bistro and Bar, Lisa Schroeder is the mom, and I'll bet she cooks better than your mother. The bill of fare features homey items like chicken and dumplings and pot roast (409 SW 2nd Ave., 503/464-1122, chicken $13). Seattle The country is full of faux bistros, but Le Pichet is the real thing, and a lot cheaper than a ticket to Paris. Try the charcuterie ($11), followed by one of the wines served in pitchers. 1933 First Ave., 206/256-1499. CHRIS BIANCO Owner of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, where the pies have inspired many pilgrimages Phoenix Burros are a southwestern soul food--basically little tacos with meat and chilis. At Rito's, they come with either red or green chili sauce; I always get green ones. It's been around for 28 years. There's no sign, it's family-owned and cash only, and Grandma's in the kitchen. As far as the food goes, it's the real deal. The burros are really killer (907 N. 14th St., 602/262-9842, green chili burro $4). Also in Phoenix, there's a new place called Matt's Big Breakfast. They make traditional American breakfast, and almost everything is locally grown. I usually get either this really great oatmeal with bananas, or the pork chop and eggs. The building itself is brick, and inside it's a funky space--tiny, clean, deco, all white with orange tables and counters (801 N. First St., 602/254-1074, oatmeal $5). SHIRLEY CORRIHER Author of Cookwise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking San Francisco In North Beach, there's Café Jacqueline. She only makes soufflés, soups, and salads. I still remember the endive tossed in olive oil and blue cheese. She said the secret is to find a white, white endive, so it's sweet. If there's any color at all, it'll be bitter. You can stop in and have a chat with her--she'll explain. 1454 Grant Ave., 415/981-5565, soufflé for two $25. RACHAEL RAY Host of three Food Network shows--30-Minute Meals, $40 a Day, and Inside Dish Austin The Salt Lick is my number-one, super-affordable go-to. It's in what looks like a huge barn with an open smoke pit. You can sit at community tables and get huge platters of sausage, brisket, and ribs. The whole barnyard is smoked and piled up on a platter--all things dead off the grill (18001 FM 1826, 512/894-3117, all-you-can-eat dinner $15). Taco Xpress--that place is crazy, too. It's this teeny, tiny shack not far from the San Jose Hotel and the tacos are awesome. It's run by a lady named Maria who put a papier-mâché bust of herself on the roof--a huge statue, like an Evita Perón sort of thing (2529 South Lamar Blvd., 512/444-0261, taco $1.75). JIM LEFF Cofounder of the cult favorite website Chowhound and producer of two new books, The Chowhound's Guide to the New York Tristate Area and Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area San Francisco A small grocery store in the Mission District, La Palma Mexicatessen is filled with a phalanx of women who are diligently pounding out various grades of masa, which is corn dough. They make the best potato chips anywhere in the continental U.S.--fried up in yummy corn oil. They also have great tamales, chicharrones (fried pork rinds), and taquitos de cabeza (beef head tacos), too. 2884 24th St., 415/647-1500, soft tacos $2.45. New Orleans Touristy though it is, I can't resist Mother's Restaurant. Debris--the stuff that falls off roast beef while it cooks--on a biscuit is a diabolical flavor bomb, the po'boys kill, and lots of other things are mega-soulful. I often eat there twice per trip, for both breakfast and lunch. 401 Poydras St., 504/523-9656, debris on a biscuit $4. DAVIA NELSON & NIKKI SILVA Known as the Kitchen Sisters, Nelson and Silva have an NPR show called Hidden Kitchens; their new book of the same name comes out next month Austin Barton Springs public pool, in South Austin, is a liquid town square where all of Austin goes to swim, barbecue, and play soccer. The snack shack there has catfish fry, burgers, and Coke floats, not to mention pigeon and duck food (2201 Barton Springs Rd., Zilker Park, 512/474-9895, burger $3). Artz Ribhouse is a roadhouse, with cacti out front that are taller than the building. You can get a half-rack of ribs with potato salad or coleslaw for $9. Carolyn Wonderland and Shelley King were playing when we were there--imagine eating baby backs while Janis Joplin serenaded you (2330 South Lamar St., 512/442-8283). "A day without goat is a day without sunshine" was the motto on the Friday we went to Ranch 616. We watched them barbecue a baby goat in the parking lot, and ate their "pulled pie"--a lemon-meringue-pecan creation with hand-pulled peaks (616 Nueces St., 512/479-7616, pulled pie $6). SUZANNE GOIN Chef at A.O.C. Wine Bar and Lucques, both in Los Angeles, and author of Sunday Suppers at Lucques, to be published in November Los Angeles There's a Thai place called Ruen Pair on Hollywood Boulevard. It's in this minimall that's famous for having three Thai restaurants. One, named Palms, has a Thai Elvis impersonator. Put your name down at Ruen Pair, then go have a beer at Palms and watch Thai Elvis sing his songs, then go back and your table will be ready. It's a lot of soupy noodle things, fried noodle, meats over rice. We never remember what we ordered. We just look at what other people are eating and we point. 5257 Hollywood Blvd., 323/466-0153, papaya salad $6. MARK BITTMAN Host of the PBS series How to Cook Everything: Bittman Takes on America's Chefs and food columnist for the New York Times New York City I've been going to Menchanko-Tei for 20 years, and I always get the same thing: Hakata Ramen ($8). It's a milky white broth with vegetables, meat, and delicious noodles. Craig Claiborne turned me on to it. 43-45 W. 55th St., 212/247-1585. Los Angeles Dumpling 10053 has dumplings with this amazing chili sauce. It's like an Asian-Mexican fusion, but there's nothing pretentious about it. The thing to order is the pork or the shrimp. 10053 Valley Blvd., 626/350-0188, shrimp dumplings $6. PHYLLIS RICHMAN Former critic for the Washington Post and culinary mystery writer; her latest book is Who's Afraid of Virginia Ham? Washington, D.C. One of the most upscale restaurants in town, Galileo, has a bargain lunch in the lounge. If you see the charcoal grill out front, it means that they're grilling sandwiches in the back. The best is the pork sandwich. It's $5 for a huge one with a green sauce and fried onions. Also, they have the best cannoli on the East Coast for $2.50. You'll see limousines sitting outside waiting for someone who's gone in to get his lunch. 1110 21st St. NW, 202/293-7191. FRANK STITT Author of Frank Stitt's Southern Table and chef/owner of three restaurants in Birmingham, Ala.: Bottega, Highlands Bar and Grill, and Chez Fonfon Charleston An out-of-the-way place for an oyster roast in the winter is Bowens Island, on James Island, outside of town. It's a cinder-block shack overlooking the water on a bend in the river on the way to Folley Beach. They'll roast the oysters, then shovel them onto these big wooden tables. If you're at all cool you know to bring your own oyster knife (1870 Bowens Island Rd., 843/795-2757, oyster roast $19). In Mount Pleasant, on Shem Creek right across the river from Charleston, where the shrimp boats come in, there's the Wreck, a hole in the wall. It's a reeeal dive. It's a little bit sleazy and a little bit shady, and cheap, but you get shrimp that are right off the boat, either boiled or fried (106 Haddrell St., 843/884-0052, fried shrimp dinner $15). New Orleans At Acme Oyster House the guys stand at this marble oyster bar, shucking oysters that came out of the water the day before. You drink your beer. (Wine, no way.) The guys are shucking oysters as fast as you can eat them. There's a bit of an honor code about how many you've eaten, which I think is charming. 7204 Iberville St., 504/522-5973, half-dozen oysters $4. San Francisco: Swan Oyster Depot has the most beautiful seafood on crushed ice. 1517 Polk St., 415/673-1101, seafood salad $15. CHRIS KIMBALL Founder, editor, and publisher of Cook's Illustrated Vermont At the Creamery, in northeastern Vermont, the woman who makes the pies still melts and renders leaf lard--the fat around the kidneys in the pig. It's mild and makes it taste much better than butter crust. They are delicious! There are maple cream and chocolate cream pies--stuff you usually don't see anymore. 46 Hill St., Danville, 802/684-3616, slice of maple cream pie $5.

Travel Tips

Moscow Made Easier

Most of the stereotypes about Moscow aren't true anymore. Sure, there are lines--outside nightclubs. Street crime is insignificant. The mafia is too busy planning its next weekend in Monte Carlo to bother with tourists. In architecture and people, gray and staid are in a slow but steady retreat. This is a fast-changing city awash in oil money, a magnet for those with talent and ambition from all over the Russian-speaking world. In short, today's city of 10.6 million bears little resemblance to the Soviet capital of 15 years ago--much less to its 1147 origins as a hunting lodge on the banks of the Moskva River. The attractions you really must see Red Square, where St. Basil's Cathedral rises from the cobblestones like a mirage, is one of the most spectacular sights in the world. It also offers a quick course in the contradictions that are today's Russia--the near-absolute power behind the high-walled Kremlin, and the obscenely expensive shops in the GUM department store across the square. The Kremlin itself is the brick fortress, dating from the 12th century, where tsars were married and buried, where Soviet leaders mapped out Cold War strategy, and where Russia's president works. Tourists enter the Kremlin through the western Kutafya Tower, buying tickets for the museums and cathedrals within. Foreigners have to pay extra but the prices are still reasonable: The Armoury, at $12.25, is the most expensive. (Don't be tempted by scalpers offering Russian tickets to foreigners.) The Armoury, with its tsarist treasures dating back beyond the time of Ivan the Terrible, displays more of the Russian emperors' accumulated opulence than any other museum in the world. Such extravagance makes the Russian Revolution of 1917, which overthrew the tsars, a bit more understandable. The Kremlin is open every day except Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 011-7/095-202-3776 (in Russian only), kreml.ru. Metro: Aleksandrovsky Sad. Upon exiting the Kutafya Tower, turn right and walk 100 yards to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where an eternal flame burns for the more than 20 million Soviets who died in World War II. The scene is especially moving on weekends as dozens of newlyweds lay flowers at the national shrine, a monument to the one Soviet achievement that all Russians still embrace. The cult built around the victory in WWII helped fill a vacuum created by the near extinction of the Russian Orthodox Church. During Soviet times, few weddings were church weddings, and a visit to an eternal flame--which almost all cities still have--was a way of satisfying religious urges without threatening the state. Lenin's Tomb is just that: a squat granite mausoleum holding the mummified body of Vladimir Lenin, who founded the Soviet state following the revolution. Lenin's waxen features, tended to by embalmers, are holding up well 81 years after his death. Many visitors have come out of respect; more than a few others, out of macabre curiosity. It's free and the lines require a wait of minutes--not, as they used to, hours. The tomb is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. (except Mondays and Fridays, when it's closed). Those are also the hours when access is granted to the graves of Communist leaders buried nearby in the Kremlin wall. Judging from the number of red carnations left daily, dictator Joseph Stalin is hands down the most popular. His admirers, most of them elderly or historically ignorant, yearn for a return to the time when Russia was a great power and crime was nearly nonexistent. Hearty, filling food--for less Long gone is the time when Western prison fare compared favorably to the food at Moscow restaurants. Flush with oil money, Muscovites are demanding the best--and paying for it. You can easily drop several hundred dollars on dinner for two at places specializing in Thai seafood or Argentinian steaks. Fortunately, that's not necessary, especially at restaurants serving regional cuisines (which are often much more appealing to Westerners). Once shoehorned into the basement of a central Moscow apartment building and favored by foreign journalists and mid-level diplomats, Mama Zoya's recently expanded and moved to a barge anchored in the Moskva River across from Gorky Park. There's nothing Russian about the restaurant: It features spicy, healthful Georgian cuisine--the lobio bean salads, $3.50, are the best value--and guitarists from the Caucasus region. Waiters will guide the uninitiated through the labyrinthine menu to the gems, including sturgeon tsatsivi in walnut sauce ($7) and khachapuri, Georgian cheese bread ($2.80). Frunzenskaya Naberezhnaya 16D, 011-7/095-242-8550. Metro: Park Kultury. Upscale Guilly's becomes quite affordable every weekday afternoon with a "biznes lanch" menu. Quiet, dimly lit, and with superb service, the restaurant is way off the beaten tourist path but is a superb intro to Russian cooking done right. The chefs have mastered Russian staples like pelmeni (dumplings, $7) and blini with red caviar ($9.50). It's on the northern edge of one of the city's restaurant districts, around Ulitsa Tverskaya, so, after lunch, do some exploring and plan another meal. Stoleshnikov Pereulok 6, 011-7/095-933-5521. Metro: Pushkinskaya. Named after a resort community on the Latvian coast, Apshu is decorated like a Soviet cottage circa 1960. The prices are retro, too: Soups start at $1.60, salads at $3.40. Most people don't come here for the food alone, though. The restaurant has local bands playing folk and jazz nightly, often with no cover. Klimentovsky Pereulok 10/1, 011-7/095-953-9944. Metro: Tretyakovskaya. The Yolki-Palki chain of family restaurants features dishes that a babushka (grandmother) would deliver; they're filling but not fancy. Russian cooking leans heavily on meat but Yolki-Palki also has a well-stocked salad bar. A full meal with a local beer runs about $15. Ulitsa Bolshaya Dmitrovka 23/8, 011-7/095-200-0965. Metro: Chekhovskaya. Where to sleep like a bear Moscow has a severe shortage of hotel rooms for individual tourists on a budget, because city development authorities have focused their energies on the more lucrative business travelers. Below are four of the safest and best values in the city. Less expensive options exist but they typically cater to traveling merchants and itinerant workers and would offer little assistance to the non-Russian-speaking visitor. Prices quoted are for a basic double room including a private toilet, TV, and phone. Male guests should prepare to field at least one call from a friendly female voice offering "companionship." Hint: Politely decline. One of the city's best-kept lodging secrets is Alexander Blok, a cruise ship anchored just west of the city center, in the usually waveless Moskva River. It caters to locals who party and gamble on the ship and don't want to schlep home. The 30 rooms go fast, so reserve well in advance. Krasnopresnenskaya Naberezhnaya 12A, 011-7/095-255-9278, doubles $75. Metro: Ulitsa 1905 Goda. A 10-minute walk from southern Moscow's Universitet metro station, the high-rise Hotel Universitetskaya is operated by the Russian Orthodox Church. Rooms are small but neat, and they have views of the sprawling Moscow State University. Michurinsky Prospekt 8/29, 011-7/095-939-9663, doubles $69. Quaint it's not, with a capacity for 10,000 guests spread over five high-rise buildings. But the simple rooms at Izmailovo Tourist Hotel Complex are well-kept and the location can't be beat: The city's best souvenir shopping (Izmailovsky Market) and the metro (Izmailovsky Park) are a three-minute walk away. Izmailovo was built for the 1980 Olympics and still has a Soviet feel, fostered by endlessly long, poorly lit corridors. Specify the Delta building, where the staff speaks English, when booking. Izmailovskoye Shosse 71, 011-7/095-737-7055, izmailovo.ru, doubles $56. With breakfast included, Hotel Molodyozhny is a superb deal. The drawback is the location, in northern Moscow and a 10-minute walk from the nearest metro station (Timiryazevskaya). The least expensive rooms haven't been significantly refurbished for at least a decade, so it's best to think of a stay here as a kind of urban camping. Still, the staff is friendly. Dmitrovskoye Shosse 27/1, 011-7/095-782-9001, hcm.ru, doubles $68. Or take a pass on the hotels altogether and rent yourself an apartment. City Realty has a collection of 25--30 in downtown Moscow and charges a flat fee (from $85) for up to four people. With fully equipped kitchens and discounts kicking in after the first night, this is a clever way to sidestep the hotel crunch. Note: The company also has flats in St. Petersburg. 011-7/095-517-9846, cityrealtyrussia.com/moscow_apartments.html. What to skip (and what to do instead) Once billed as a bohemian artists' quarter, Stary Arbat was an obligatory stop for tightly chaperoned Soviet tour groups. Today the pedestrian walkway more closely resembles a relatively sober Bourbon Street populated by an eclectic mix of sketch artists, souvenir hawkers, and mediocre restaurants. A more refreshing outdoor activity is a 90-minute cruise on one of the small boats that ply the Moskva River from April through September, 11 a.m.--9 p.m. The route starts at the pier opposite Kievsky train station (metro: Kievskaya) and ends at the Novospassky Monastery (metro: Proletarskaya), with four stops in between; you can go either direction. The boats, which depart about every 20 minutes, offer some of the best views in the city--including ones of St. Basil's Cathedral, Gorky Park, and the towering gothic Moscow State University building--and a feel for Moscow's sheer size. The operator, Capital Shipping Company, has a Russian-language site that's worth checking out for a pictorial preview. 011-7/095-257-3484, cck-ship.ru/ru/main/, $7. If you want to get a sense of the the Russian soul, take a pass on the dry State Historical Museum, with its frescoes of early Russians eating raw mammoth meat. A far better option is a Russian bathhouse. The city is dotted with public bathhouses--called banyas--but two of the more venerable are the ornate Sandunovskiye Bani (Ulitsa Neglinnaya 14, 011-7/095-925-4631. Metro: Kuznetsky Most) and the humble, hard-core Seleznyovskiye Bani (Seleznyovskaya Ulitsa 15, 011-7/095-978-9430. Metro: Novoslobodskaya). Admission at the more authentic of the two--Seleznyovskiye--is $14 for women and $17 for men for a two-hour weekend session. Pay another $5 or so to rent slippers and sheets for sitting on and drying off. A few things to know: Men and women steam in the nude, and separately; the upper reaches of the steamroom are hot enough to scorch bald pates, while the dipping pool is frigid; groaning patrons can beat each other with birch branches. At the end of it all--feeling clean, reinvigorated, and a lot closer to the Russian soul--be sure to leave with a parting "S lyogkim parom," which translates roughly as "May the steam be with you." Finally, the two famous circuses are typically jammed with screaming children--and really, wouldn't you rather spend an evening at the Kuklachyov Cat Theater? A cast of cats and a few dogs perform highly abridged Russian classics, such as Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. The dialogue, as one would expect, is nonexistent--which means you don't have to worry about a language barrier. Not only is the cat theater a cultural institution unique to Moscow, it also lacks the undercurrent of violent domination that colors most Russian circus acts. Stick around after the show has ended, when the actors come out and mingle with the crowd. Tickets start at $13 (popcorn and cat-shaped balloons are extra). Kutuzovsky Prospekt 25, 011-7/095-249-2907. Metro: Kievskaya. Where to find crafts and kitsch Sprawling Izmailovsky Market is the leading place to find Soviet memorabilia, icons of Russian saints, fur hats, matryoshka dolls, and more. (Metro: Izmailovsky Park. Just follow the crowds or ask for the "vernisazh.") Prices are usually the lowest in the city. Admission to the warren of outdoor stalls is 35¢. Most of the hundreds of vendors speak a smattering of English, accept dollars, and are ready to knock down prices by up to 25 percent for those spending over $30 on multiple items. One notable exception to the deals is amber jewelry, which is significantly cheaper in the kiosks of the pedestrian underpasses in central Moscow. Beyond city limits As the truism says, "Moscow is not Russia." Sergiev Posad--a 60-minute, $9 express train ride away--is a medieval town built around a monastery, the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, that's one of the holiest sites in the Orthodox Christian world. Pilgrims from across the former USSR come to kiss the coffin holding the 600-year-old remains of Saint Sergius of Radonezh, sip a bit of holy water, and attend services. The city itself is a blend of bland Soviet architecture and fetching low-rise buildings in the 19th-century neoclassical style still evident in regional cities across what was the Russian Empire. People are poorer and life is slower, but there's also a kindness and hospitality that Moscow lacks. Trains for Sergiev Posad leave from Moscow's Yaroslavsky Station (metro: Komsomolskaya) at least once an hour all day long. Stay at the ski lodge--like Russky Dvorik Hotel (Ulitsa Mitkina 14/2, 011-7/096-547-5392, $67), where the room rate includes an ample breakfast. Opposite the monastery's main entrance, a restaurant also called Russky Dvorik has an interior like a pre-revolutionary tavern and a kitchen that outclasses many a traditional Russian restaurant in Moscow, at a fraction of the price (Prospekt Krasnoy Armii 134, 011-7/096-547-3852, baked sturgeon $7). Help from the experts A one-month tourist visa issued by the Russian consulate is $100, and you need at least two blank passport pages. Look over the rules at russianembassy.org, then do what everyone else does and hire a pro ($40--$50) to get the visa. Most tour companies that specialize in Russia will handle the paperwork; others hook you up with a service like Travel Document Systems (800/874-5100, traveldocs.com) or Travisa (800/222-2589, travisa.com). Visitors must register with authorities within three days of arrival. Although your hotel is legally required to do it, you may be charged $20 for the "courtesy." Carry your passport at all times, and if you have problems, contact the nearest Russian Passport, Visa and Registration office (OVIR or PVU) for help. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has a list (011-7/095-728-5000, usembassy.ru). And do yourself a favor and pick up a Russian phrasebook. At least learn to sound out the Russian alphabet, which helps make simple words like "telephone" and "metro" become decipherable. Another good resource is Russia specialist Eastern Tours (800/339-6967, traveltorussia.com), which will arrange any combination of discounted airfare, lodging, and private guides. The company also sells package deals to Moscow that start at $999 (including flights from New York City, seven nights' hotel, and guided sightseeing). If you want a fully escorted tour, Gate 1 Travel's six-night program visits St. Petersburg, Novgorod, and Moscow (800/682-3333, gate1travel.com, from $1,649). Resting your feet Once a pathetic showcase of Soviet goods, GUM (it stands for State Department Store) is now a glitzy example of Russians' new wealth and, sometimes, strikingly bad taste. The hard-to-find Bosco Café (011-7/095-929-3182)--it's reachable through the Marina Rinaldi store on the southeast side of GUM's first floor--is a prime people-watching spot: Thousands of Red Square visitors pass by the windows. Borscht is $9.50, so stick with a soft drink (from $4). Changing money A deep distrust of the Russian banking system has made the U.S. dollar the unofficial second currency; some $70 billion are in circulation. You'll find restaurant prices are often quoted in dollars, and there are plenty of places to change dollars for rubles. (Money changers, however, only accept crisp, new notes.) And while ATMs are prolific, many have fallen prey to scammers. Stick to the ones that are operated by Alfa-Bank, Sberbank, and Citibank. Getting around Simply put, every vehicle is a potential taxi--even ambulances and buses have been known to stop. Two important rules: Never get into a car that already has a passenger, and always negotiate a price before you set off. The same rules apply for "official" yellow cabs and their notoriously capricious meters. During rush hour though, the superb metro, with its museum-like stations in central Moscow, is almost always faster than surface transport. Best of all, it's just 45¢ a ride. Bringing stuff home No matter what the salespeople say, antique carpets, samovars, icons, and paintings require permission from the Ministry of Culture for export. Make sure the necessary paperwork is included with the purchase, or you will get busted at the border.

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