Trip Coach: Feb. 7, 2006
Budget Travel Editors: Thanks for joining us. Let's get to your questions!
Birmingham, Alabama: My husband and I will be celebrating our 20th anniversary in October. We would like to go to Ireland for a week, but don't know where to begin. This will be a very big trip for us--my husband was laid off just before our 10th anniversary, so we didn't celebrate that milestone, and we'd like to make this one perfect! We'd like to travel around by car and love the idea of staying in bed and breakfasts. What cities should we plan to visit? What will the weather be like? How much should we plan to spend? When should we begin making reservations or plans? Thanks so much for helping us plan a dream!
Budget Travel Editors: Ireland in October can be lovely...All the summer crowds are gone and prices have gone down. It sounds like you and your husband are the perfect candidates for an Ireland B&B package, which generally combines airfare, a car rental, and vouchers good at more than 1,000 B&Bs across the country. You can plan ahead and choose exactly where you want to go each night, or wing it as you drive along, stopping wherever takes your fancy. Since this is a special occasion -- a big trip, as you say -- I'd suggest splurging on at least one night at a castle. (To avoid any disappointment, I would book that night well in advance.) We published a terrific article about Ireland B&B packages in our December/January issue. It explains exactly how these packages work, gives advice on how to book, and lists the names and websites of companies that offer them. You'll find it here.
Celina, Texas: I am traveling to Whistler, BC for work in late May. My husband, 3 year old daughter, and 64 year old mother will join me at the end of the conference. I anticipate that we will stay May 27-June 2. We are considering spending a few days in Whistler then the remaining in Vancouver. What activities can you recommend for a three year old? She has recently expressed interest in taking a train ride. Are there any scenic trains in the area? Any other kid friendly recommendations would be greatly appreciated.
Thanks for your assistance!
Budget Travel Editors: Vancouver has many kid-friendly activities. Stanley Park, located in the heart of downtown, has over 1,000 acres of native trees, plants, and wildlife. It contains the Vancouver Aquarium (vanaqua.org), a fun place to spend an afternoon. There's also a children's water park, children's farmyard, miniature train, and more. More park information is at city.vancouver.bc.ca.
Vancouver is also home to the second-largest Chinatown in North American, and it's a convenient 10-minute walk from downtown. Sun Sui Wah (3888 Main St., 872-8822, sunsuiwah.com) has great Hong Kong-style dim sum. More information: vancouverchinatown.ca
Because a number of Alaskan cruises depart from Vancouver, there are many train routes designed for tourists interested in a short pre- or post-cruise trip. Check out the scenic train trip packages at whistlermountaineer.com, vacationsbyrail.com, or Canada's national rail service, viarail.ca.
Fairfax, VA: I am leaving out of San Diego on April 22nd for a 7 day cruise. I have never been to San Diego and wondering if it is worth it to spend several days there before the ship pulls out of port? Any info on things to see,hotels near the port, good places to eat, will a rental car be necessary,advice on ship to shore transfers ect.? Thanks
Budget Travel Editors: A major naval base with seventy miles of beachfront and a rich Spanish-Mexican heritage, San Diego is booming and definitely worth a few days. Head straight to the revitalized Gaslamp Quarter for boutiques, restored Victorian buildings, and many of the best and trendiest restaurants. You'll find sophisticated Mexican dishes at Candelas, Moroccan lamb skewers and Mediterranean/fusion at the Solamar Hotel's Jsix, and splurge-worthy seafood at the legendary Star of the Sea right on the water (its adjacent restaurant makes a cheaper alternative). Explore Little Italy and Balboa Park, home of the world-class San Diego Zoo, a cluster of museums, lily pond, and the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, where you can catch a free concert on Sunday afternoons. The sprawling red-roofed Hotel del Coronado, made famous in Gene Wilder's Some Like It Hot, is just a short ride across the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge. A trolley tour can take you there, too. The city's downtown is walkable and cabs, including popular pedi-cabs, are common; a car rental isn't necessary unless you want to venture off to places such as La Jolla.
Kaneohe, HI: What time of year is it BEST to visit South Africa for animal
Budget Travel Editors: The best time of the year to see animals in South Africa is May-Aug, when the leaves are (mostly) off the trees. Scenery is not as lush, but since things are drier, the risk for malaria goes down during this time too.
Modesto, CA: What is the best time of year to fly to Barbados, as far as air and hotel prices go? There two of us traveling and we are flexible. We have the option of flying out of San francisco, Oakland, San Jose or Sacramento. Thanks.
Budget Travel Editors: The best time of the year to fly to Barbados for reduced rates on air and hotel is Aug.-Oct., which is generally considered hurricane season in the Caribbean. Since Barbados lies outside of the hurricane belt, it's rarely affected by the region's seasonal bad weather. In fact, it hasn't had a hurricane hit its shores in over 50 years. However, Barbados does suffer by association, and therefore discounts airfares and hotel rates to lure skittish travelers, who, in reality, have nothing to worry about. Barbados is a smart choice. One warning: it's very hot that time of year.
Tiburon, Ca: I am trying to plan a trip for my 15 1/2 year old son and me to study Spanish for about 2 weeks during August. I would like it to be reasonable and safe. It would be fine if we boarded in with families seperately in order to get more experience with Spanish. We don't eat meat, poultry nor shellfish so our hosts would need to understand that before we arrived. It would be great if we could do some volunteer work while we are in the school.Could you advise me as to the most reasonable school, flights and side trips? I have an MSW and would like to improve my Spanish for work. I understand that some schools give discounts to social workers.
Budget Travel Editors: I would recommend looking into schools in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. You can take one class, or spend your entire day learning Spanish. Here's a link to school listings.
The Spanish colonial town is accustom to foreigners, and has a nice blend of local Mexicans, expats, students and travelers. It's quite safe, plus it's small enough so that you can pretty much walk almost anywhere. I know that the school does place students, if they want, with families. One of the great things about Mexico is that there are plenty of non-meat dishes available for vegetarians, and you'll love the fruit and vegetable markets. If you're interested a school and want to go, I'd suggest looking into flights to Leon first (American and Continental fly there), and second to Queretaro, which is closer, but since the airport is newer, it doesn't have as many flights, and the ones they do have tend to be more expensive. As for sidetrips, check out: the colonial city of Guanajuato, one hour away, Pozos, a revitalized mining (ghost) town, and the hot springs on the outskirts of town. In terms of volunteering, you can donate your time at the library, Biblioteca. Last I knew English speaking volunteers teach English informally in the central courtyard. And, there's a bulletin board there with all kinds of postings, including volunteer opps.
Concord, CA: I have two travel books on Miami/Florida as we are leaving on a cruise in June from Miami. We are traveling with our two girls, 12 and 15. I still can't figure out where to stay that's budget friendly, yet fun for kids their age or even what to do in Miami besides hit the beach. Got any ideas? How about the Keys? Best ones to spend a night at and where? Thanks.
Budget Travel Editors: At risk of over-tooting our own horn, I'd suggest checking out our Miami Snap Guide.
We list nine great budget properties, plus there are listing of fun places to eat and play, like Parrot Jungle Island, the Venetian Pool, or crafts market on Espanola Way.
Newark, NJ: I'm planning to go to Prague for the first time by myself. When is the best time to go to avoid the crowd? I'm also looking for the either the package or separate air and hostel. Any suggestions? Thx
Budget Travel Editors: Much like the rest of Europe, Prague is busiest during the summer months of June, July, and August. If you're looking to save some cash--and enjoy the city virtually tourist-free--visit in springtime when the tourist crowds have yet to pack the city's charming cobblestone streets. In April, Gate 1 Travel has a six-day Prague vacation from $869 including roundtrip flights from New York (800/682-3333, gate1travel.com). Explore the Prague Castle and stroll across the Charles Bridge all for under $150 a day (with airfare!). If a hostel sounds more up your alley, be sure to visit hostelworld.com, a listing of low-cost accommodations around the world.
Noank, CT: My fiance and I are planning our honeymoon on the French Riviera during the week of May 1-8. It looks as though renting an apartment would give us more room for less money; but we can't find the kinds of traveler reviews for apartments that are common for hotels. Do you know of a site that has reviews, or can you recommend a reputable broker--or better yet, can you recommend apartments in the area from Nice to Cannes? We want a terrace with a great view, walking distance to some restaurants, shops, etc., and a total cost under $1,000 for the week. Possible?
Budget Travel Editors: One of the best places to look for inexpensive apartment rentals is Vacation Rentals By Owner (vrbo.com). The site lists over 48,000 rental homes across the globe--from ski condos in Vail to one-bedroom flats in London--all offered directly by the people who own them. Not only can you read the comments of people who've stayed at each property, but you'll avoid costly broker fees along the way. Check in daily because prices and properties change often--as of today, there were eleven apartments listed in the French Riviera. If you strike out there try greatrentals.com, another website that rents apartments by owner.
Trumbull, CT: Two of my girlfriends and I (mid-late 30s Moms, also known as M&Ms) are planning a trip to NYC on 4/6/06 - 4/9/06. We are looking for the best places to shop for high quality, extremely discounted clothing and shoes as well as a great jazz destination with national acts. Also would like a few "can't miss" ideas for restaurants and other things off of the beaten path. Thanks so much for your help!!
Budget Travel Editors: Sounds like a fun, well-deserved M&Ms getaway! And once again our ever-expanding Snap Guide collection will come in handy. The New York City guide is packed with insider tips (look for the section on tackling sample sales). Heavily discounted designer clothes and shoes can be found at mammoth stores such as Century 21, Designer Shoe Warehouse, and LoftWorks. SSS Sample Sale (261 W. 36th St., 2nd Fl.) hosts sample sales for Ben Sherman, Theory and other hip designers frequently; check New York magazine's sale list before you travel for up-to-date listings. If you're willing to sacrifice some quality, you can snag knockoff goods for next to nothing in Chinatown (Mott St. is the main drag) or ceramic dishes, slippers, and all sorts of Chinese knick-knacks at the multi-level Pearl River Mart. The buzzy cobblestone Meatpacking District is crowded with trendy restaurants and nightclubs; try Spice Market for a high-end twist on Southeast Asian street food, Highline for Thai, or Florent for French bistro fare. As for jazz, there are a wealth of options--Arthur's Tavern, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Blue Note, Jazz Standard, Village Vanguard. If you're interested in other genres, we recommend the Amato Opera as an intimate, mom-and-pop affordable alternative to the Met and Café Sabarsky for cabaret. A few more suggestions: a lesson at the Trapeze School, a treatment at Koreatown's fabulous Juvenex Spa, a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge followed by a treat from Jacques Torres Chocolate.
On a final note...you seem like perfect voters for our current Girlfriend Getaways poll: what famous woman would make an ideal travel mate? Make your choice and check back this spring for a special Budget Travel issue devoted to planning a Girlfriend Getaway.
Newnan, Georgia: What is the best way to find an apartment to rent in London, June 23 - July 3, 2006 for four adults and two children.
Budget Travel Editors: There are a few good resources for finding condo rentals abroad, and getting started early is a good idea--especially since London is pricey! In a quick search on Vacation Rentals by Owner (vrbo.com) I turned up a Central London apartment with two bedrooms, a bunk area (perfect for the kids!) and two bathrooms, beginning at £650 per week ($1,150). cyberrentals.com is another good site that lets you deal directly with property owners. A two-bedroom apartment that sleeps up to six people costs £450 per week ($795) for rentals from March through July. Both sites are pretty consistently updated, and since you're dealing directly with the property owners, there is often some room for negotiation.
Budget Travel Editors: Thanks for all your great questions.
Exploring Virginia's Chesapeake Bay
What you'll find in this article: trip planning advice, restaurant recommendations, hotels, driving directions, and other activities near Chesapeake Bay, Virginia Day 1: Richmond to Reedville My friend Sam and I land in Richmond just after noon and head northeast. The Northern Neck was named after its shape: It's a long, narrow peninsula that looks somewhat like a chicken's wobbly throat. Bordered by the Potomac River to the north, the Rappahannock River to the south, and Chesapeake Bay to the east, the Northern Neck has been well preserved, thanks to dedicated conservation. We cross over the Rappahannock on a simple two-lane bridge, leaving behind strip malls and tract houses for wide expanses of farmland. It feels as though we've traveled much farther than 50 miles from Richmond. Virginia is proud of its history, and vocal about it, too. Markers along the side of Route 3 declare it historyland highway. The Historic Christ Church, a 1735 Georgian church outside of Irvington, has a particularly interesting story. The man responsible for building it, Robert "King" Carter, was a busy guy, as we learn in a museum next door. Carter was a member of the House of Burgesses (Virginia's colonial assembly); acting Governor of Virginia; and ancestor of "three signers of the Declaration of Independence, two presidents, eight Virginia governors, a Supreme Court chief justice, and Robert E. Lee." The list grows every day; in fact, a guestbook asks if visitors are Carter descendants. An increasing number of people from Richmond and D.C. are buying second homes in the Northern Neck. To furnish them, they go to the antiques stores in the town of Kilmarnock. We arrive just before 5 p.m. and race to the Kilmarnock Antique Gallery before it shuts for the day. Gallery is an understatement. The large warehouse has dozens of stalls selling everything from costume jewelry to antique oyster plates. I pick up a set of 1950s anodized aluminum ice-cream cups for my mom. GrandView, our B&B for the night, is about 20 miles up the road. The large house sits on the Great Wicomico River, and water laps against sand in the backyard. Inside, an earnest but precariously cute aesthetic prevails. My bedside lamp is in the shape of a lighthouse, and a plaque on the wall reads a boat is a wood-lined hole in the water in which you pour money. The owners, Chris and Sandye Mills, bought the property in 1984 and spent weekends sleeping in an old Richmond city bus that came with the land. "Eventually we decided it was too cold in the winters and too hot in the summers," says Chris. So they ditched the bus and built a B&B in its place. After checking in, Sam and I play fetch on the beach with the Mills's enthusiastic mutt, Survivor. We go to dinner in Reedville. The town was founded in 1874, and it did well for itself thanks to a small, oily, bony fish called menhaden. (It's used in the manufacturing of everything from animal feed to lipstick to bread.) The catch made sea captains so wealthy that they built Edwardian-style mansions, many of which still line Main Street. At the Crazy Crab on Reedville's marina, I introduce Sam, a Connecticut Yankee, to the Southern goodness of hush puppies (deep-fried balls of seasoned cornmeal) while we sit on the deck and watch the sun set over the water. Our night ends at another marina, Great Wicomico, where we toast locals with $2 Buds at the Boathouse Lounge. Lodging GrandView B&B114 Riverside Ln., Reedville, 804/453-3890, from $80 Food Crazy CrabReedville Marina, Reedville, 804/453-6789, crab cake dinner $16 Boathouse LoungeGreat Wicomico Marina, Burgess, 804/453-3351 Activities Historic Christ Church420 Christ Church Rd., outside Irvington, 804/438-6855 Kilmarnock Antique Gallery144 School St., Kilmarnock, 800/497-0083 Resources Northern Neck Tourism Council800/393-6180, northernneck.org Day 2: Reedville to Kinsale After the B&B's breakfast of homemade coffee cake and scrambled eggs, we drive back into town to go to the Fishermen's Museum. Before this trip I'd never heard of the menhaden, and now I can't stop hearing about the bony little fish. We learn that they're still very much alive and swimming. "This is a success story!" crows the narrator of a video presentation about the menhaden fishing industry. A house at the museum was restored to reflect the daily life of an average 1900s local fisherman. Our docent, Bob Matthews, says he and his wife, Natalie, are originally from the Boston area. "We're come-heres," he says. It's clear from the looks on our faces that Sam and I don't understand, so Bob explains. "There are born-heres, come-heres, brought-heres (such as kids or spouses), and come-back-heres. Reedville, itself, is named after a come-here, Elijah Reed, a sea captain from Maine." After the tour, we don't have much time to linger--we've got a ferry to Tangier Island to catch. Two things make Tangier Island tick: soft-shell crabs and tourists. Three ferry services bring about 20,000 visitors each year to the self-proclaimed soft-shell capital of the world (quite a title for what's all of three square miles). A display between souvenir shops shows live crabs in tubs with placards explaining the industry. Fishermen set traps, keep an eye out for crabs about to molt--the edges of the paddle fins turn dark red--and place them in holding pens until they shed their shells. Once they're soft-shell crabs, they have to be removed immediately or their hard-shelled neighbors will eat them right up. The island has a days-gone-by charm: Clapboard houses with white-picket-fenced yards line the shore. Golf carts are the main vehicles used to get around, though locals drive them like they're sports cars. We hop on a cart waiting by the dock for a tour by Tangier Island native Sylvia Parks of Parks Tours, a guide for 31 years. "There aren't many secrets here," Sylvia says, lead-footing it around the narrow dirt roads. "Everyone knows everyone and everything." Locals don't even pretend they're not watching your every move. Later, as Sam pets a dog, two men on a golf cart pass by and, without stopping, shout, "The dog's name is Milli--as in Milli Vanilli." We have lunch at the Fisherman's Corner restaurant, run by three fishermen's wives. "They can be sure their catch is fresh," says the hostess. "It comes directly from their husbands, after all." I have my first-ever soft-shell crab sandwich. The two deep-fried crabs, wedged between slices of Wonder bread, look and taste as though they crawled straight from the bay into the fryer. Sam and I walk past crab traps on the piers and stop at a bulletin board. A handwritten sign reads $1 for 10 tangier island recipes, and there's a bucket for money tacked to the frame. (Aunt Nellie's Crabmeat Casserole and Mom's Coleslaw both require generous amounts of mayo.) The Reedville ferry, which usually makes only one trip a day to Tangier, departs soon. It's a 90-minute ride to the mainland, and we get back around 7 p.m. Since things close early on the Neck, we have to make good time to get to Kinsale, 45 minutes away, in time for dinner. Transportation Tangier Island FerryBuzzard's Point Marina, Reedville, 804/453-2628, tangiercruise.com, round trip $25 Food Fisherman's Corner4419 Long Bridge Rd., Tangier Island, 757/891-2900, soft-shell crab sandwich $9 Activities Parks ToursTangier Island, 757/891-2261, $5 Reedville Fishermen's Museum504 Main St., Reedville, 804/453-6529, $5 Day 3: Kinsale to Westmoreland Park Sam and I have signed up in advance for the 10 a.m. departure of a kayaking tour on the Potomac, at Westmoreland State Park. Our destination is Horsehead Cliffs, a section of the coast that used to be under a prehistoric sea. The area was popular with sharks, and the predators' fossilized teeth can be found in the sand. When we arrive at Fossil Beach, visitors are sifting the sand through screens and pocketing their discoveries. Park policy, surprisingly, is that you can keep whatever teeth you find--which would've been cool, if we'd found anything. Westmoreland Berry Farm, about 15 minutes away, has a similar keep-what-you-find policy. In addition to u-pick strawberry and blueberry patches, there's a petting zoo and barn with fruit preserves and berries for sale. Instead of picking, Sam and I opt for a tour around the property on the kiddie train, which is pulled by a tractor. Sam tries to bail mid-route, claiming his spine is going to snap from all the bumps, but by the time he's about to jump off the train, the eight-minute ride is already over. A slice of fresh-baked berry pie à la mode helps speed his recovery. On the other side of Westmoreland Park, Stratford Hall Plantation was home to several generations of Lees, the most famous being Robert E. At the visitors center, photographs and excerpts of the family's personal correspondence highlight the accomplishments of a litany of Lees, but the plantation history itself also grabs me. Stratford Hall was built after another house burned down, killing a servant. (The fire is believed to have been set by indentured servants.) We're staying the night on the property: Our simple guesthouse has Northern Neck ginger ale in the vending machine and a back patio overlooking the woods. Before the trip, I'd heard good things about the Driftwood, a restaurant in Coles Point, 25 miles away. I order the fried oysters and a chardonnay from a local vineyard, Ingleside. I'm rewarded on both counts. The wine is sharp and satisfying, and the lightly breaded oysters from the Chesapeake are salty and slick. After coffee, Sam and I retire to the back patio of the Stratford Hall guesthouse to stargaze. Good Eats Café is a gourmet restaurant in a former gas station outside Kinsale, and it's more great than good. Star lanterns hang in the windows, and bright ceramic suns are mounted on the yellow walls. Most of the decorations are souvenirs from regulars' travels. I understand why the place inspires such affection when I taste my dinner: pan-seared scallops and potatoes baked with rosemary and Parmesan. Sam has pork loin in Thai basil sauce with broccoli, pecans, and cranberries. We're so full that dessert is doomed. Lodging Stratford Hall Plantation483 Great House Rd., Stratford, 804/493-8038, stratfordhall.org, from $115, house tour $10 Food Driftwood StateRte. 612, Coles Point, 804/472-3892, oysters $19 Good Eats Cafe , 12720 Cople Hwy, 804/472-4385, goodeatscafe.net Activities Westmoreland State Park1650 State Park Rd., near Montross, 804/493-8821, car fee $4, two-hour tandem kayak tour $22 Westmoreland Berry Farm1235 Berry Farm Lane, Oak Grove, 804/224-9171, pie à la mode $2.50, train $1 Day 4: Westmoreland Park to Richmond We're the only ones at breakfast in the plantation's dining hall. It looks like a mess hall from summer camp, but the buttery biscuits, moist corn bread, and strawberry preserves, all made on the premises, are anything but camp quality. Maybe 11 a.m. is a little early for a wine tasting, but when we pass a turnoff for Ingleside Vineyards, in Oak Grove, I remember last night's chardonnay and decide to go for it. During a tasting of eight varietals, our guide explains that Virginia's conditions are ideal for grape cultivation. The Petit Verdot grapes thrive more on the Northern Neck than in either California or France. Even the vineyards in Virginia can claim historical significance. During the Civil War, Union soldiers used Ingleside's property as a fort. At the winery museum, displays show how the local roadways follow routes of old Native American trails. My wine buzz wears off around the same time I read about how Pocahontas was supposedly kidnapped from this very area. On our way to Richmond, we stop at Goolrick's Pharmacy in Fredericksburg. The decor hasn't changed much since the '40s. Aluminum stools are lined up along a Formica counter, and vintage Coca-Cola signs hang on the walls. The menu hasn't changed either: The soda fountain has always served rich milk shakes in only one size (large). Sam orders a large coffee shake. I ask for a small nonfat vanilla. Sam sighs, and the waitress looks at me blankly. I quickly amend my order to a large chocolate. In these parts, tradition is to be respected. Food Goolrick's Pharmacy901 Caroline St., Fredericksburg, 540/373-9878, milk shake $3.50 Activities Ingleside Vineyards5872 Leedstown Rd., Oak Grove, 804/224-8687, wine tasting $2.50 Finding your way The Northern Neck is a seasonal destination: Many restaurants and services have reduced hours or close completely October through April, so call ahead before visiting. The ferry from Reedville to Tangier Island begins its summer service May 15. As for the driving, the main roads around the Northern Neck are Routes 3, 200, and 360. The best scenery, however, is on the side roads, such as Routes 649, 644, and 657--all in the tip of the Neck around Reedville. You can pick up free detailed maps of the area at the Crazy Crab in Reedville and many other local businesses.
Solar flares and explosions hurl particles that collide with the Earth's atmosphere, producing energy emitted as photons, or light particles. It takes 100 million photons to make the aurora borealis, or northern lights, visible to the naked eye. Getting there As with rainbow spotting, there are no guarantees. The key ingredients are a cloudless sky, little or no moon, and luck. For the best odds, head near or above the Arctic Circle from October through March. At 78 degrees north, between mainland Norway and the North Pole, Spitsbergen on the Svalbard archipelago is the world's northernmost place reached by regularly scheduled flights (about $200 round trip from Olso). If that's too hardcore, go as far north as you can manage. The Norwegian town of Hammerfest was popularized as a viewing place by Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There; Tromsø is a decent-size city with charm 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Both cities are stops on the slow-moving Norwegian Coastal Voyage cruise (800/323-7436, coastalvoyage.com, six-night packages from $1,067). Though 110 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Fairbanks, Alaska, has reliable enough viewing to attract scientists annually; flights from Seattle cost around $500 in winter. You made it It helps if your destination offers more than the lights, because sitting around in the freezing dark can try the most patient of souls (and in winter, the farther north you go, the less daylight you get). Svalbard is ideal for snowmobiling, dogsledding, and polar-bear viewing. Basecamp Spitsbergen arranges tours, as well as accommodations aboard an old ship embedded in ice or in a trappers' lodge (011-47/7902-4600, basecampexplorer.com, doubles from $165). Many decent Fairbanks motels charge under $100 a night; drive a few miles away from the city in any direction for a chance at clear viewings. Or stay outside town at Northern Sky Lodge, a log B&B with dogsledding tours (907/388-9954, northernskylodge.com, doubles from $75), or Mt. Aurora Fairbanks Creek Lodge, with 270 degrees of sky visible from its deck (907/389-2000, mt-aurora.com, $289 for two with meals). Whichever destination you choose, ask around about when to head out for a look; locals keep tabs on the best viewing times, which can change seasonally. Who knew? Every 11 or so years, the northern lights are known to appear way below the Arctic Circle. In 2000 they were visible in El Paso, Tex. Wherever you are during the winters of 2011 and 2012, be sure to look up at night.
The Blue Hole, Belize
Once a dry cave system, the Blue Hole was formed after the last ice age, when the Caribbean Sea engulfed the entire area and the cave's roof collapsed. The resulting sinkhole is more than 400 feet deep, 1,000 feet in diameter--and a mainstay on divers' wish lists. Getting there Fly 20 minutes from Belize City to San Pedro, the only real town on the resort island of Ambergris Cay, for about $110 round trip via Tropic Air (800/422-3435, tropicair.com) or Maya Island Air (800/225-6732, mayaairways.com). Or hop a ferry: Caye Caulker Water Taxis charge $16 each way for the 75-minute trip from Belize City (cayecaulkerwatertaxi.com, 011-501/226-2194). Most places to stay are huddled around San Pedro; scout options at ambergriscaye.com. For something more removed, try the Salamander Hideaway (011-501/209-5005, salamanderbelize.com, cabanas from $130), a quiet, solar-powered resort north of town reached by a half-hour boat ride ($25 round trip). Many agencies, including regional specialist Capricorn Leisure Corp., sell air-hotel packages to Ambergris Cay (800/426-6544, capricorn.net). Ambergris Divers (011-501/226-2634, ambergrisdivers.com) and Amigos del Mar (011-501/226-2706) offer Blue Hole day trips, departing at 5:30 a.m., returning at 5 p.m., with two hours' travel each way, for $185 plus $40 for park fees. If that's not enough time in the water, consider a live-aboard boat such as Peter Hughes Diving's Sun Dancer II: A seven-night package with meals, space for 20 passengers, and up to five dives per day starts at $1,895, plus fees of about $200 (305/669-9391, peterhughes.com). You made it Due to limited sunlight and water circulation in the Hole, its limestone walls don't support all that much marine life and are rather sterile and rocky. Still, while descending, look toward the walls rather than into the hypnotizing, deep blue of the Hole's center, as the low light and lack of visual cues can be disorienting. In a cavern about 100 feet down, huge stalactites hang from the ceiling. Some are 40 feet long and more than 10 feet wide; feel free to slalom through. Most groups don't go lower than 130 feet, the maximum depth for recreational dives. Several kinds of sharks (reef, blacktip, bull, hammerhead) may appear, adding to the excitement. Attacks are extremely rare. Who knew? For generations, people believed the Blue Hole was bottomless. But in 1970 that notion was put to rest by Jacques Cousteau. Using a minisub, the famous explorer reached the bottom, at a depth of around 415 feet.
Machu Picchu, Peru
'Machu Picchu might prove to be the largest and most important ruin discovered in South America since the days of the Spanish conquest,' wrote Hiram Bingham, the explorer who stumbled upon the marvelous granite city in 1911. Bingham was understating things: Every year, half a million tourists head to a remote Peruvian ridge to visit the 15th-century ruins. Getting there Round-trip flights between Miami and Cuzco, the launching point for visits to Machu Picchu, start at $550 on LAN Airlines (connecting via Lima). Three types of trains make the four-hour journey from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes, an ATM-less town at the base of Machu Picchu: the Backpacker ($68 round trip), Vistadome ($105), and Hiram Bingham ($495). The main difference between the first two is that the Vistadome has more windows. Hiram Bingham service comes with afternoon tea and a four-course meal accompanied by musicians. Reservations are required for all (perurail.com). Consider spending a night in Aguas Calientes, which allows more time for poking around the ruins. One package, from Cuzco-based SAS Travel, includes a round trip on the Vistadome, one night near the ruins at the Pueblo Hotel, and a guided tour from $175 (011-51/8425-5205, sastravelperu.com). Outfitters also lead several-day hikes to Machu Picchu. The traditional Inca Trail, part of the empire's original network of stone footpaths, has grown so popular that the government caps the number of hikers at 500 a day and requires that all tourists go with a licensed guide. Prices for the four-day trek from operators such as Peru Treks & Adventure (perutreks.com) start at $295 and include food, entrance fees, porters, and all camping equipment except your backpack and sleeping bag. The dry season (May-September) is best for hiking and exploring, though it's also crowded. Far fewer people come in the wet season, but you run the risk of getting stuck in Aguas Calientes; mudslides sometimes block train tracks for days. You made it Starting at 5:30 a.m. in Aguas Calientes, buses leave as soon as they fill, bound for the ruins' gate 15 minutes away ($6 each way). Alternately, a stone staircase to the gate takes about an hour to climb and 45 minutes to descend. To avoid lines at the gate, buy admission tickets in Cuzco or Aguas Calientes (inc-cusco.gob.pe, $23). From the entrance, a path leads to a terrace for the postcard view, with the stone city laid out at the foot of a taller mountain, Huayna Picchu. Wooden signs indicate the important ruins, but there's little else in the way of explanatory information. Tour guides lingering at the entrance charge $15-$20 per person for a 20-minute tour, largely doling out the same basics that are in any guidebook. Who knew? Bingham thought that one group of stone chambers served as Machu Picchu's prison. More likely, the Inca used the spot for some kind of religious ceremonies. It's known as the Temple of the Condor because the layout resembles one of the huge birds considered sacred by the Inca.