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Trip Coach: June 6, 2006

June 6, 2006
Tim Leffel, author of "The World's Cheapest Destinations," answered your travel questions

Tim Leffel: Greetings everyone. I'm a travel writer and author of The World's Cheapest Destinations, as well as Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune: The Contrarian Traveler's Guide to Getting More for Less (out in August). I've been around the world three times and travel outside the country a few times a year: alone, with my wife, or with her and my daughter. But let's talk about YOUR trips!

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Sterling, VA: I am looking to book a honeymoon to Bali in September of this year. What is the best way to get a good deal on all inclusive packages with meals, activities, and airfare? I seem to be finding good deals on accomodations but airfare seems to be very expensive. Thanks!

Tim Leffel: That's a long plane trip, first of all, almost as far as Australia. But I am guessing you are seeing higher airfares right now just because it's the beginning of summer--prime travel time for Americans and Canadians. As we move closer to September, prices should fall. Bali is indeed one of the best deals on the planet in terms of accommodation, so that will likely be a great deal no matter what and standards are very high. Don't get too tied to the idea of getting an all-inclusive package: meals are a terrific bargain everywhere on the island so it will be a paltry percentage of your budget. It's fun to just pop into different restaurants while you're out exploring and you'll get a better variety. Budget Travel Magazine often lists some attractive packages to Bali, as do the usual travel booking sites, but if you don't see one that suits, my advice would be to sign up for a fare alert with Travelocity and set a target price you're willing to pay for plane tickets. When it drops below that, you'll get an e-mail automatically. Then you can split your hotel time between different locations on the island. Another option is to look into a round-the-world ticket or a circle-the-Pacific ticket. If you keep going and make another stop or two, it can be as cheap or cheaper than just coming straight back. Check out these agencies: http://www.airtreks.com/index.html
 http://www.aroundtheworldtickets.com/
 http://www.airbrokers.com/

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Hopewell Junction, NY: Tim, IS there a cheap destination in Europe?

Tim Leffel: With the dollar taking a beating against European currencies, cheap is a relative word. Eastern Europe is still far cheaper than Western Europe though, especially if you avoid the tourist-magnet cities of Krakow, Prague, and Budapest. Get out into the countryside and spend time in lovely Czech or Hungarian towns outside the capitals. Or go to Bulgaria, or Romania--they are still a comparatively great value. Or head to Turkey, which has one foot in Europe. In these places you can manage to spend less than you would at home instead of double what you would at home.

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Detroit, MI: I've heard that Central and Eastern Europe have been raising their prices for tourists now that most are joining the EU. Is there a way to get local prices instead of tourist prices? Which countries are better for this?

Tim Leffel: It's not necessarily that they are charging tourists more, though there's sure to be some of that. It's just that as they align more with the EU, prices tend to edge up closer to what they are in the rest of the continent. Also, Americans are going to pay more as the dollar loses value against the euro.
The countries that are still a ways out from joining the EU are the best bet, especially Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey.

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Bowling Green, KY: With the U.S. dollar's exchange rate being so bad against the euro, where are the best places for Americans to travel internationally? Which ones are still good bargains for us? I am planning a trip for two weeks in spring '07.

Tim Leffel: The dollar could strengthen by the spring, but I wouldn't bet on it. Fortunately, a lot of countries have their exchange rate pegged to the U.S. dollar, either officially or in practice. Ecuador and Panama actually use our currency as their own, so no worries there. Most of Latin America is pretty stable in terms of exchange with the dollar, through Brazil and Chile bounce around. Much of Asia is also stable, including China, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and India. So the short answer is to head to Asia or Central/South America. Or Mexico.

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Georgetown, DE: I'm thinking about visiting Malaysia with my 7 year old daughter in October. Can you recommend some places and activities that are safe and interesting for a child?

Tim Leffel: Malaysia is in my World's Cheapest Destinations book and it's one of the best choices in Asia for a child. It's easy to get around, there are plenty of cuisines to pick from, and you can usually drink the water. A lot of people speak English and there are also a lot of attractions in a relatively small area. Georgetown, on the island of Penang, is a nice city, with colorful Chinese and Indian temples. There are beaches nearby, and even prettier ones on the opposite coast. (The Perhenthian Islands are some of the most beautiful I've ever seen--and I've seen a lot!)
Comfortable and efficient buses go almost everywhere, but this is a good place to take a train trip or two. You may want to venture into the Camaroon Highlands for some mountain air and hiking. With so much water around, there are plenty of boating and snorkling options. If the time is right, you can go on river rafting trips. All this will cost a fraction of what it does at home. You'll probably want to limit your time in Kuala Lumpur though--there's a limit to what you can see and do there. Malaysia is a very safe country--safer than nearly anywhere in the U.S., so don't worry.

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Hartford, CT: Where is the best place for a single, budget conscious 40 year old woman to go on a week long jaunt? I can leave from either JFK/Newark or Hartford. I would like to go at the end of August (I have some flexibility). I would like to stick my toes in the sand or the culture!

Tim Leffel: If you only have a week, you don't want to venture all the way to the other side of the world. So I would recommend going somewhere between Mexico and the top of South America. A relatively short flight, no jet lag, and your U.S. dollars are still worth a lot on the ground. Most of the Mexican beach resorts have become almost U.S. satellites though, so don't expect much culture unless you distance yourself from the resort strips. Plus that time of year it's hurricane season, so the Yucatan area is dicey. If you are an adventurous type who speaks a bit of Spanish, Nicaragua, Panama, or Ecuador would offer nice beaches, good prices, and a place that's definitely not just like home. If culture wins out over a beach, the colonial cities of Guatemala or Mexico might be the ticket instead. If you go to Grenada, Nicaragua, you can sort of have both: the city is on a large volcano lake with boat trips to islands, plus the Pacific beaches aren't far away.
If you don't mind sitting on a plane a little longer, being in Cusco, Peru for a week would be an enriching break. You have to go through Lima though, which cuts into your time. If you just want a mindless lie-on-the-beach vacation, the Dominican Republic is the best deal in the Caribbean.
So many choices--and all a good value--but if you can fly out of JFK, you have lots of flight options (and sales) at your disposal. Subscribe to e-mail alerts like those from TravelZoo and Sherman's Travel and watch for deals. If something pops up for cheap, go with the flow and make it an adventure!

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New Rochelle, NY: My husband and I are thinking of doing some kind of African Safari..are there any shots that we are required to get before we can travel to Africa? Thanks

Tim Leffel: It depends on where you go. You'll usually need a typhoid shot and you should be up to date on your standard boosters. Some, but not all, safari countries require a yellow fever vaccination. Consult the official web site or guidebook for the region you end up choosing.

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Stamford, CT: I'm trying to plan a trip for the middle of August. I would like to spend a week at a spanish language school. I'm thinking Central America, Mexico or Carribean. I've been to Costa Rica so I think I want a different country. I'm looking for a non-touristy place. Also I'm looking for a place with other things to do (beach, sightseeing, etc.) I'm try to go to an inexpensive country and would love to stop in LA for a weekend to see my son. I work so would love to be able to fly out to LA on Friday and fly out on Sunday and start class on Monday. Homestay would be preferable. Thanks.

Tim Leffel: To research language schools, my highest recommendation goes to a magazine I write for regularly, Transitions Abroad. They have a terrific web site with what has to be the widest collection of language school advice and listings anywhere: http://www.transitionsabroad.com/listings/study/language/index.shtml
There are some more links here under "learning": http://www.worldscheapestdestinations.com/id17.html
You can do an immersion Spanish study week with a homestay almost anywhere in Latin America. Guatemala is known as the best value, but if you want to avoid tourists you probably don't want to do one in Antigua. There are plenty of other options in Guatemala, however, as well as in cities in Mexico and Central America that are closer to the beach or in historic cities with sightseeing opportunities. The cost is rather insignificant no matter where you go--far less than the airfare to get there usually--so browse around and see what looks interesting to you. If it's not a well-known school or you haven't read about it in an article, you may want to ask for references.

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Sheldon, IL: Where can I take a family of five for a beach all-inclusive vacation including airfare the week after Christmas for around 1,000.00 per person?

Tim Leffel: The key phrase there is "the week after Christmas." That is THE peak time of the year for all-inclusive beach vacations. Because of that, I would get in touch with whatever travel agents in your area take out those big Sunday newspaper ads and get on their radar. My guess is that the best deals are going to be in Mexico or the Dominican Republic, but you never know who will be cranking up the sales.
Whatever you do, spend the extra to upgrade to a suite, a villa, or adjoining rooms. It will be money well spent. This is a time when I wouldn't try doing it all online. Get a human to work it out so everything will be right.

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Cincinnati, OH: My husband and I are planning a trip to New England in August. We are flying into (and out of)Boston and rent a car. We plan to cover Boston (2 nights), the coast of Maine to Bar Harbor, New Hampshire (White Mountains) and Vermont all in 9 nights total. Is this too aggressive? Do you have any suggestions for choosing less expensive accomodations in general and around Portland ME specifically? We would like to experience a few of the famous New England Bed and Breakfasts.

Tim Leffel: I would suggest picking two or three places you really want to visit and not try to see and do everything. Otherwise you'll be spending much of your vacation in a car and won't get to enjoy those nice inns where you stop. Fortunately, the distances aren't all that great between some of those locations and the drives are scenic, especially in Vermont.
There are a staggering number of B&Bs to choose from in New England. You can often find guides in your local library, plus there are plenty of web sites that will let you sort by location. Here are a few of them:  http://www.bnbfinder.com/
 http://www.bbexplorer.com/
 http://www.bedandbreakfast.com/  http://www.bbonline.com/nh/nhbba/ 
 http://www.ibbp.com/northamerica.html
Once you've narrowed down your choices, I would suggest perusing the hotel review sites and guidebooks to see comments. The visitors to the Fodor's forum (http://www.fodors.com/forums/?lid=Forums&lpos=top_nav ) often provide good advice as well. Just act like an Olympic judge when you read online comments: throw out the high and low scores, then use the rest to get an accurate picture.

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Philadelphia, PA: I am planning a trip to Bangkok next year and was wondering which of the night markets and floating markets are the best. I read a lot that Patpong is overly touristy. I want to avoid the over touristy markets and go somewhere more authentic. I was at Chichicastenango in Guatamala and that was awesome, a real look at the people and culture with some tourists but not a lot. Obviously the wats and the temples are touristy, that can't be avoided and that's fine. What are your suggestions on the places that are off the beaten path? Thanks!

Tim Leffel: It's been a few years since I've been in Bangkok, but here's a good web site with excellent current advice: http://www.travelfish.org/
It's not easy finding a floating market that's not touristy because really it's the tourists that keep them going. The weekend market in Bangkok has a lot of tourists, but they are outnumbered by the locals--much like Chichicastenango, so that's worth checking out regardless.

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Fort Collins, CO: I recently visited Costa Rica and was surprised that the locals were charged a different (lower) price than tourists for food, beverages, and gift items. Are there ways to avoid this?

Tim Leffel: I feel your pain. I am going to Argentina this summer and am paying a much higher price for internal flights than the locals pay. It's annoying and unfair, especially when it's official policy. You see this a lot in former or current communist countries--it's the "soak the rich foreigners" concept. These practices don't usually stand the test of time, though, as we've seen in Vietnam. Eventually it starts hurting the tourism growth and you see a lot of anger in visitor satisfaction surveys and travel articles. So the practices start going away because it's hurting business.
In Costa Rica, however, there's a lot of "dumb money" floating around because of all the American investors and retirees who own property there. Costa Rica has become one of the most expensive places in Latin America because they've done a good job at marketing to retirees and bringing in hordes of free-spending vacationers--even though their neighbors offer similar attractions at a better price. If you went to Panama or Nicaragua, you wouldn't see this two-tiered pricing so much.
The only way to really avoid this, besides skipping the offending country entirely, is to bargain hard for souvenirs and avoid restaurants geared to tourists. Don't be afraid to walk away if you're being overcharged. If enough people vote with their wallet, things will change.

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San Juan Capistrano, CA: After reading your wonderful review of best kept hotels of Costa Rica my husband and I would like to plan a trip there. We have two boys ages fourteen and four. Most of the hotels featured don't include any activities for kids so I was wondering how it would be traveling there with them?
My boys like the water so that would be great but are they family friendly? Do you recommend me booking everything on my own to save money or should I use a travel agent. I am quite adventurous and love researching and trying to find the best deal. We absolutely love your magazine and I am on your website all the time trying to decide where to go. Thank you very much. Lynley P.S. it seems like CR would be a cheap destination for our family, yes?

Tim Leffel: This article is a little old, but it's a good one about traveling to a nature reserve in Costa Rica with kids. Lots of good links: http://www.gonomad.com/family/0204/costaricafamily2.html
Here's another one, covering more ground:
 latimes.com/travel/
 I would suggest booking the hotels and maybe transportation in advance (on your own), but working the rest out after arrival. If you book the adventure tours with a U.S. agency before you leave, you're going to pay a lot more to cover marketing and commissions. If you're the type who likes to have everything set up before you arrive, however, the peace of mind could be worth it. Just keep in mind that the best-laid plans are often fouled by weather when you're dealing with jungles, volcanoes, and beaches. Don't preplan too much or you'll be committed to tours that might not work out.
As for hotels, a beach and a pool are often enough to entertain a child or two, especially if you are doing jungle excursions and the like. One major thing a day is probably enough. There are some recommendations in the above articles though.
Unfortunately, Costa Rica has not been a cheap destination for quite a while--it is the most expensive country in Central America, battling with the coast of Belize to attract the wealthy Americans on a too-short vacation. But the tourism industry is more developed there than in neighboring countries, so in exchange for higher prices you will find it easier to get things scheduled and taken care of, especially if you don't speak Spanish.

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Waukon, IA: I will be traveling to Norway next year, possibly in May. I know it is an expensive place... any way to enjoy the country but keep the costs down? I will be traveling from LaCrosse, WI or Cedar Rapids, IA My niece who will be 18 and myself will be traveling together. I do use hostels at times. Thanks, Nancy

Tim Leffel: Scandinavia is one of the most expensive regions in the world, unfortunately, but although your destination has the greatest bearing on costs, there are certainly plenty of other variables under your control. Going in May rather than over the summer should help, first of all. Try to take public transportation most or all of the time if you can; renting a car and buying gas there will really hurt the budget. Use a guidebook that is geared more to independent travelers, such as Rough Guide or Lonely Planet, when searching out hotels and inexpensive places to eat. If you have any friends, relatives, or friends of friends there, seek them out by e-mail for advice. The inside scoop is usually best when it comes to dining and finding local bargains. There's bound to be plenty you can do for free.
If you can spend part of the time in an apartment rental or a room with a kitchen, that would help reduce costs at times. Camping is another option. If you are sociable and aren't put off by the thought of staying with strangers, there are organizations where you can arrange to stay with kindly hosts in the country. I'm a host at GlobalFreeloaders and Hospitality Exchange and have had good experiences. They're free to join, so it might be worth checking out.
The best would be to set up a home exchange with someone, but the chances of finding a Norway to Iowa exchange are admittedly not too great.

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Bethlehem, PA: My husband, 14-year old son, and I want to go from Paris to Amsterdam on July 12th or 13th 2006. What is the cheapest way to do this without us driving? Thanks!

Tim Leffel: The cheapest way is probably by bus, on a carrier such as Eurolines. http://www.eurolines.com/
For a tad more, you can take the train and probably get there faster. http://www.raileurope.com/us/index.htm
 For both options, your son's ticket will be a discounted one. Don't rule out budget flights though. These days, inter-European flights can be a great deal--as long as you don't carry too much luggage. To see who flies on which routes, go to the following: http://www.whichbudget.com/

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Auburn Hills, MI: Since you have visited many of the world's cheapest destinations-name one of your favorites and tell us why?

Tim Leffel: I have different favorites for different reasons. It's hard to top Indonesia for pure variety and value for the money. Nepal took my breath away every day. I have a fond spot in my heart for Turkey because the Turks are the friendliest, most hospitable, most full-of-life people I've ever met and I lived in Istanbul teaching English for a while. I like Mexico so much I bought a little casita down there. But who knows, I may have a new favorite after my next trip...

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Murfreesboro, TN: We are getting married in November. We would like to take our honeymoon the week of Thanksgiving. We'd initailly planned on NYC, we want to see shows, museums, etc, not really beachie people. NYC has proven to be way more expensive than planned. Any suggestions?

Tim Leffel: I was just there in the fall and can assure you that NYC is definitely the most expensive city in North America, mostly because hotel costs are in the stratosphere. (Though a trip to Orlando is almost as bad.) It will be even worse for Thanksgiving week.
There are a lot of other great cities to choose from however, and all of them offer lower prices. It won't be deathly cold yet in Chicago, Montreal, or even Quebec City. You could go to the northwest and tour Portland, Seattle, and/or Vancouver. If Congress is not in session, you can probably get a decent deal in Washington, D.C. Or go the opposite direction and be warmer in Miami. It's hard to match New York for vibrancy, but most large North American cities have a wealth of museums and culture on offer these days.

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Brentwood, TN: What are the best sources to locate affordable (1 star and two star) but clean hotels, rooms with bath, in Venice, Italy for a couple in their 30's traveling in September 2006? Thank you.

Tim Leffel: Many people have come to rely solely on the Internet for info, when good old guidebooks will often do a better job. If you have access to a good library, see if you can check out several different guidebooks for Venice. If not, settle into a comfy chair in a large bookstore and browse the different ones to see which is the best match. Then buy it. Guidebook writers have to be very careful about which places they recommend and they get lots of feedback if they steer people the wrong way. After you've narrowed down the options you can see if there are reviews posted on sites such as TripAdvisor, VirtualTourist, and IgoUgo.
Also, if you're not the super-organized, every minute scheduled type, you may just want to reserve the first night or two and then have the option to move elsewhere if you find something nicer after arrival, either on your own or asking around. There should be ample availability since you're not going in the summer. Those who play things by ear are often happier with their lodging choices, especially at this budget range, because they can inspect the room before saying yes.

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Lompoc, CA : For our 60th anniversary, we plan to pay for a celebration with our three progeny, their spouses, and three still at home grandchildren, plus three other adult family members, 14 total. Any suggestions?

Tim Leffel: Wow, that's ambitious, but it sounds great! Without knowing more about you or what you want to do, here's my limited advice. First of all, you probably need to rent a huge house or several houses close together, at least part of the time. Otherwise you're jamming people into hotel rooms, which means less space and more money. You need a kitchen or two, a deck or a pool, and room to spread out. Check sites with a large database of listings, such as VRBO.com, vacationrentals.com, and cyberrentals.com. That is, unless you are planning to go the all-inclusive route, which could make sense and eliminate some planning hassles, but again will probably cost you more.
Depending on where everyone is coming from, you should probably stick to a location that's relatively easy to get to, with flights under a few hours. I'm guessing with that many schedules involved, this party is not going to go on for weeks...

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Seattle, WA: My wife and I, ages 62 and 65, are planning an around the
world trip. We must go to Bangkok for a wedding on Jan. 22, 2006. We want to make a stop in India and Must stop in Nairobi for two weeks, then we want to go on to Madrid and back to Seattle. What would be some good stop overs in the
journey and how much should we budget for economy class airfare? Thank you, Larry

Tim Leffel: Scroll up a bit and see the Bali question for agencies that sell round-the-world tickets. I would base your stopovers on your research rather than trying to make your itinerary fit extra stopovers. The flights vary quite a bit depending on airports.

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Greensboro, NC: My wife and I would like to go to Montenegro in June 2007 would like to cruise a bit on a small boat 8-10 passengers and maybe rent a car and drive inlandetc Whoshould we contact to plan and get information

Tim Leffel: The Bay of Kator is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a great departure or arrival port. Here's a good article about the area from a British paper. telegraph.co.uk/travel/
Montenegro just voted for independence, so you're smart to go now before the hordes of tourists flood in as they have to neighboring Croatia. Montenegro's official tourism site contains extensive listings for the area and should provide some good leads on cruise operators: http://www.visit-montenegro.com/
Many of the cruise companies operating in the area seem to be based in Croatia. Here's one company that offers a large selection of different boat tours: http://www.clubadriatic.com/
I would suggest hiring a car and driver rather than renting a car. Roads in Montenegro are not exactly in tip-top shape and a local will know the routes and signs. You can easily set this up locally after arrival and if you're good at bargaining, it will probably cost you the same or less than renting a car¿with no insurance charges.
David Farley wrote a useful article on Montenegro for Budget Travel last year, complete with specific prices. budgettravelonline.com
(Farley, co-author of Travelers' Tales Prague, also wrote a Bulgarian coast article for a travel narrative site I edit, Perceptive Travel http://www.perceptivetravel.com/issues/0306/farley.html)

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Tim Leffel: Thanks for all the great questions, and for tuning in! I'm sorry I couldn't answer everything that was submitted. You can always catch up with me on my blog at http://travel.booklocker.com/

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59 Jaw-Dropping Roadside Attractions: Western U.S., Alaska, Hawaii

Alaska Santa Claus House Every day is Christmas at the Santa Claus House, just south of Fairbanks in the town of North Pole. Stop in for a look at Dasher and Blitzen--the two on-site reindeer--or a visit with Santa himself (Wed.-Sun.). For $7.50, you can purchase a square inch of land in North Pole or send a pre-written letter from Santa--with a North Pole postmark--to anywhere in the world. 101 St. Nicholas Dr., 800/588-4078, santaclaushouse.com. California Exotic World Once the home of dirty dancer Jennie Lee--known in her heyday as the Bazoom Girl--this burlesque museum houses a collection of pasties, lip prints, and bejeweled G-strings. Curator Dixie Evans leads tours through the Striptease Hall of Fame, where she is also proudly enshrined. The Striptease Reunion and Miss Exotic World Pageant--the best in burlesque, past and present--is held annually on the first Saturday of June here in Helendale, 15 miles southwest of Barstow. 29053 Wild Rd., 760/243-5261, exoticworldusa.org, suggested donation $5. Sticker: $3. The World's Tallest Thermometer Standing 134 feet tall--a tribute to the hottest temperature ever recorded in North America, on the floor of nearby Death Valley--the World's Tallest Thermometer displays bright digital readings to motorists going in both directions on I-15. Willis Herron, former owner of the Bun Boy Restaurant, also in Baker, had the Popsicle-stick-shaped tower built in the hope that folks would pull over for a slice of Bun Boy's famous strawberry pie ($4). 72155 Baker Blvd., 760/733-4660. Calico Ghost Town Ten miles north of Barstow is a throwback to the Old West, complete with Lil's swinging-door saloon and a sheriff who regularly rounds up "lawbreakers." If you're lucky, you may see a real western-style wedding held at the one-room schoolhouse; there are also nighttime ghost tours through spots where spooks have been sighted. Be alert: Gunfights can break out at any time--or, actually, every hour on the half hour from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Exit Ghost Town Rd. on I-15, Yermo, 800/862-2542, calicotown.com, $6, kids $3. Colorado UFO Watchtower No abductions have been reported--yet--at the UFO Watchtower, a man-made lookout for anything and everything extraterrestrial. After hearing countless references to the San Luis Valley in The X-Files and on the SciFi Channel--the area is well known for having very little light pollution--founder Judy Messoline created the watchtower, about 200 miles south of Denver. Bring a tent and stay the night or head straight to the gift shop, where you can buy Judy's favorite bumper sticker ($2): "Buckle up! it makes it harder for the aliens to suck you out of your car." 2502 County Rd. 61, Hooper, 719/378-2271, ufowatchtower.com, free. Hawaii The World's Largest Maze The two-acre garden maze at the Dole Plantation in Oahu was recognized in 2001 by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's biggest. The hibiscus hedges are seven feet high, and at its center the maze resembles a giant pineapple. There are guides to help those who get lost. 64-1550 Kamehameha Hwy., 808/621-8408, dole-plantation.com, $5, kids $3. Idaho Idaho Potato Expo Off I-15, 25 miles southwest of Idaho Falls, is the Idaho Potato Expo, a museum filled with a two-foot Pringle (the world's largest), potato hand lotion, and even a spud signed by grammatically challenged former vice president--and good sport--Dan Quayle. Bonus: Each pair of visitors gets a free box of dehydrated hash browns. 130 Northwest Main St., Blackfoot, 208/ 785-2517, potatoexpo.com, $3, seniors $2.50, kids $1. Montana Lincoln's World Famous 10,000 Silver $ Bar and Casino Actually, it's more like the 43,000-and-Counting Silver $ Bar and Casino: In 1952, Rex Lincoln cut a round hole in his bar, pounded in a silver dollar, and inscribed his name below it. Patrons have wanted in on the fun ever since. Each year visitors to this I-90 landmark, halfway between Missoula, Mont., and Spokane, Wash., donate nearly 1,500 coins to be mounted on the walls. Bring your own or buy one at the bar, then come back next year: Coins are mounted in January. Exit 16, Haugan, 406/678-4242. Nevada Little Ale Inn Along Highway 375--better known as the Extraterrestrial Highway--this restaurant/bar/gift shop/motel is the only trace of civilization outside the ultrasecretive Area 51, just south of Rachel. Owner Pat Travis will be happy to entertain you with stories of actual alien sightings ("They came in the form of humans..."). Browse the aprons and tote bags in the gift shop, and order Travis's famous Alien Burger. "It's out of this world," she says. 775/729-2515, aleinn.com, burger $3.75. Alien salt and pepper shakers: $8.99. Oregon The House of Mystery and the Oregon Vortex Self-described as "an area of naturally occurring visual and perceptual phenomena," the Oregon Vortex, near Gold Hill, in southwestern Oregon, has been defying the laws of physics since 1930. Balls roll uphill, brooms stand on end, and the mass of objects--including people--has been known to mysteriously change. Bring a camera. 4303 Sardine Creek Rd., 541/855-1543, oregonvortex.com, $8, seniors $7, kids 6-11 $6. Utah Hole N' the Rock Forty-thousand visitors come annually to see this 5,000-square-foot house carved from a huge sandstone rock 12 miles south of Moab. It has 14 rooms, including an art studio and lapidary, where cocreator Albert Christensen once polished his rocks. All that's missing: Fred, Wilma, and Pebbles. 11037 S. Hwy. 191, 877/686-2250, moab-utah.com/holeintherock, $4.25, kids $2.25. Washington World Famous Bob's Java Jive This Tacoma dive, where bands play nightly, has a jungle-theme interior--and it once featured live, swinging monkeys. Even stranger, it's shaped like a giant coffeepot: Built in 1927 as a coffee shop, it was once surrounded by other buildings that imitated their purposes (such as a gas station shaped like a pump). It's the only one left. 2102 S. Tacoma Way, 253/475-9843, bipolaraudio.com/bobs_java_jive.html. Wyoming The Douglas Jackalope The town of Douglas--130 miles north of Cheyenne--is absolutely devoted to the rare jackalope, a cross between a rabbit and an antelope. Self-proclaimed as the Home of the Jackalope, Douglas erected an eight-foot statue in what's known as Jackalope Square. To solidify its place in jackalope lore, the town had hoped to build another statue (this one 80 feet tall and made of fiberglass), but the plans fell through. Jackalope hunting licenses are available, but no one has ever bagged one of the wily creatures. Douglas Chamber of Commerce, 307/358-2950, jackalope.org, free.

59 Jaw-Dropping Roadside Attractions: Southwest

Southwest Arizona Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch Between Tucson and Phoenix, near Picacho Peak, the largest ostrich ranch in the country has more than 1,100 ostriches, and they'll eat the $2 feed right out of your hand. Stock up on infertile eggs, for eating ($15); feather dusters ($7 and up); and ostrich oil (four ounces for $30), said to be good for cracked heels, dry skin, acne, and eczema, or as an aftershave lotion. Exit 219 on Interstate 10, 520/466-3658, roostercogburn.com, free. Empty ostrich egg: $10. The Thing? Along Interstate 10, 40 miles west of Tucson, billboards about every quarter mile will lure you toward The Thing? There's no charge for checking out the taxidermic armadillo holding a beer (it's in the gift shop), but to discover what exactly The Thing? is--we're not telling--you have to fork over a buck. No photos allowed. Exit 322 on I-10, 520/586-2581, $1. New Mexico Trinity Site Now a National Historic Landmark, Trinity Site is where the first atomic bomb was tested in 1945. On the grounds of the White Sands Missile Range, the site is only open for bus tours twice a year--the first Saturday in April and October, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.--and is marked by a triangular stone tower and commemorative plaque. Walk the giant crater, still littered with Trinitite, the green-colored, glassy substance formed by the explosion's heat. Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce, 800/826-0294, alamogordo.com/activites/trinity.html, free. Oklahoma The Blue Whale The 80-foot cement whale, built by Hugh Davis as an anniversary present for his wife, Zelta, has been smiling at motorists on Route 66 for more than 30 years. About 15 miles east of Tulsa, the Blue Whale--with its walk-in mouth (you can't go farther, not that you'd want to)--is beached alongside a small pond right next to the highway. Catoosa Chamber of Commerce, 918/ 266-6042, free. Texas Cadillac Ranch Off I-40, just west of Amarillo, 10 Cadillacs are half buried, tail fins up. Created in 1974 by a collective of artists called Ant Farm, it's a tribute to America's once-most-beloved cruiser. For the true artistic experience, bring spray paint; Ant Farm encourages audience participation. Free.

59 Jaw-Dropping Roadside Attractions: Midwest

Midwest Illinois Bill Shea's Gas Station Museum Back in 1946, when Bill Shea started pumping gas on legendary Route 66, a car would go by every 10 minutes. Now, he says, it takes 10 minutes just to cross the road. Stop in for an earful of stories and a look at Shea's gas station memorabilia from nearly 60 years on the Mother Road. 2075 Peoria Rd., Springfield, 217/522-0475, $2, kids $1. World's Largest Catsup Bottle Once America's best-selling catsup, Brook's Old Original Tangy Catsup was so popular that the company's owners built themselves a massive landmark. The bottle--12 miles east of St. Louis on Route 159--is really a 170-foot-tall water tower, but it's definitely more fun to pretend otherwise. 800 S. Morrison Ave., Collinsville, 618/345-5598, catsupbottle.com. Indiana Bluespring Caverns Living in perpetual darkness, the fish in Bluespring Caverns have evolved to a state of blindness--see for yourself on the one-hour boat tour. In the winter months, Bluespring runs organized caving tours for groups of kids, with an overnight stay in a limestone cave, where hibernating bats also make their home ($23). 1459 Bluespring Caverns Rd., Bedford, 812/279-9471, bluespringcaverns.com, $12, kids $6. Iowa Grotto of the RedemptionFather Paul Dobberstein's geological tribute to God is one of the largest collections of precious stones and gems in the world. The nine grottoes tell the story of redemption through Christ; its curators estimate its value at $4 million to $5 million. In December, if the pond freezes, there's ice-skating. 300 N. Broadway, West Bend, 800/868-3641, westbendgrotto.com, suggested donation $5, kids $2.50. Kansas Dorothy's House and the Land of Oz Tours of the cottage, carefully done up to resemble the one in The Wizard of Oz, are led by one of 18 Dorothy look-alikes--they're dressed in pigtails, blue gingham, and ruby slippers. Strangely enough, the house is on Yellow Brick Road--and you thought that was in Oz! 567 Yellow Brick Rd., Liberal, 620/624-7624, $5, seniors and kids $3.50. Toy ruby slippers: $13. World's Largest Ball of Twine Made from over 7 million feet of sisal twine, the World's Largest Ball of Twine measures 40 feet in circumference and weighs almost nine tons. Housed under a canopy in Cawker City on Highway 24--100 miles northwest of Abilene--the ball is a work in progress, so bring some twine, wrap it around, and consider yourself part of the record books. Cawker City Hall, 785/781-4713, free. The Van Gogh Project Part of an ongoing venture to reproduce all seven of Van Gogh's sunflower paintings in seven countries around the globe, this 768-square-foot reproduction of Three Sunflowers in a Vase is easy to spot. It stands on an 80-foot easel along I-70, in the town of Goodland. Artist Cameron Cross painted the work--the other two completed paintings are in Canada and Australia; thebigeasel.com. Michigan Henry Ford Museum When Thomas Edison was dying in late 1931, Henry Ford decided he wanted to capture the inventor's final gasp--so he had him breathe in a test tube and corked it for posterity. It's now part of the Henry Ford Museum's permanent collection, along with other pieces of American history, including the Rosa Parks bus, Kennedy's presidential limousine, and Lincoln's blood-stained chair. 20900 Oakwood Blvd., Dearborn, 313/982-6001, hfmgv.org, $14, seniors $13, kids $10. Ford Model A toy: $32. Minnesota Jolly Green Giant Ho, ho, ho! The 55-foot-tall statue of everybody's favorite Jolly Green Giant--at the midpoint of Minnesota along I-90, America's longest interstate--has a smile that's 48 inches wide and a shoe size that's somewhere around 78. He was erected in the town of Blue Earth back in 1979 to celebrate the area's longtime affiliation with canning--Green Giant was once the Blue Earth Canning Company. Intersection of I-90 and Hwy. 169, Blue Earth Area Chamber of Commerce, 507/526-2916. Missouri Lambert's Cafe Beware of flying objects. Raise your hand at this Sikeston restaurant and a server will toss a wheat roll from across the room. Credit the practice to owner Norman Lambert, who was once so busy he couldn't bring the rolls to a table--so he threw them. No injuries have been reported. 2305 E. Malone St., 573/471-4261, throwedrolls.com. Nebraska Carhenge Constructed of 38 cars from the '50s- and '60s--mirroring both the number of boulders and the diameter of the circle at the original in England--this Stonehenge replica was dedicated on the summer solstice in 1987. Just north of Alliance, the structure was conceived by Jim Reinders as a memorial to his father, who once lived on the field where Carhenge now stands. Hwy. 87, Alliance, carhenge.com, free. North Dakota The Enchanted Highway A 32-mile county road connecting Gladstone and Regent, the Enchanted Highway off I-94 is proof that if you build it, they will come. To boost tourism, local artist Gary Greff began erecting weird roadside structures, including a towering family made of tin, the world's largest grasshopper, and a flock of oversize pheasants. His next project: a giant bass. Exit 72, 701/563-6400, enchantedhighway.net, free. Ohio World's largest basket building Weighing 9,000 tons and standing seven stories high, the home office for the Longaberger Company, in Newark, was built to resemble Longaberger's most popular item, the Medium Market Basket. The building houses Longaberger's 500 employees and is visible from State Route 16. Walk in to admire the seven-story atrium; the glass ceiling allows you to see the handles from inside. 1500 E. Main St., 740/322-5588, longaberger.com, free. South Dakota The Corn Palace Covered entirely with thousands of bushels of corn, grasses, and grains, the Corn Palace in Mitchell--with turrets, onion domes, and minarets--is America's answer to the Kremlin. The exterior of the palace is refurbished annually during harvest time (August through September), but its interior features year-round corn murals depicting the history of Native Americans and the white man. 604 N. Main, 866/273-2676, cornpalace.org, free. Key chain: $2.50. Wall Drug Store For more than 70 years this landmark has wooed visitors with countless roadside billboards ("Have You Dug Wall Drug?"). They arrive to find much more: Now an attraction in its own right, the store boasts an 80-foot-tall brontosaurus, an art gallery displaying western art and artifacts, and strange mechanical people like Dr. Feelgood, who for 50¢ will tell you about the benefits of snake oil. 510 Main St., Wall, 605/279-2175, walldrug.com, free. Wisconsin World's Largest Muskie The National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, about 70 miles south of Duluth, Minn., is home to the World's Largest Muskie. It's four stories high and half a city block long. The belly holds freshwater fishing exhibits and the mouth opens up to a 20-person observation deck. 10360 Hall of Fame Dr., Hayward, 715/634-4440, freshwater-fishing.org, $6, under 18 $3.50, under 10 $2.50. Snow globe: $3.25. The House on the Rock Perched precariously atop a tall rock spire, the House on the Rock, in southwest Wisconsin, mixes architectural enthusiasm with an eclectic collection of just about anything you can imagine--suits of armor, model airplanes, pipe organs, and even a pyramid of life-size fiberglass elephants. The most identifiable feature of this attraction is the Infinity Room--a 200-foot-long glass and steel promenade cantilevered over the valley. And for the kids, there's the world's largest carousel, insured for $4.5 million. 5754 Hwy. 23, Spring Green, 608/935-3639, thehouseontherock.com, $19.50, kids 7-12 $11.50, 4-6 $5.50.

59 Jaw-Dropping Roadside Attractions: South

SOUTH Alabama Ave Maria Grotto Built by a Benedictine monk named Joseph Zoettl, the Ave Maria Grotto is four acres of biblical history, with more than 125 miniature replicas of holy sites, such as St. Peter's Basilica and the city of Jerusalem. They're not perfectly set to scale--Brother Joe eyeballed his designs--but historians and architects have marveled at his accuracy just the same. 1600 St. Bernard Dr., Cullman, 256/734-4110, avemariagrotto.com, $5, seniors $4.50, kids 6-12 $3.50. Arkansas Cotham's Mercantile and Restaurant Before it opened as a restaurant in 1984, Cotham's had served (sometimes simultaneously) as a general store, jail, and commissary for nearly 70 years. The Hubcap burgers--big enough to feed four--were a favorite of then governor Bill Clinton; as its website says, Cotham's is "Where the Elite Meet to Eat!!" in Scott, about 15 miles east of Little Rock. FYI: It's pronounced "Cottum's." 5301 Hwy. 161, 501/961-9284, cothams.com, Hubcap burger $8. Florida Coral Castle After his fiancee, Agnes Scuffs, canceled their wedding the day before the ceremony, Ed Leedskalnin began constructing a titanic tribute to his lost love. For over 28 years, Ed dug up nearly 1,100 tons of coral, then placed and carved each block by hand to create Coral Castle. The castle, about 30 miles south of Miami, features a nine-ton swinging gate and the Great Obelisk, 25 feet tall and weighing 28 tons. Agnes never visited. 28655 S. Dixie Hwy., Homestead, 305/248-6345, coralcastle.com, $9.75, seniors $6.50, kids 7-12 $5. Drive-In Christian Church The congregation at Daytona Beach's Drive-In Christian Church has been pulling up for prayer since 1953. Offering two services on Sundays (8:30 a.m. and 10 a.m.), the Christian church--it was converted from an old drive-in movie theater--has more than 1,300 members and encourages visitors to join in its unique outdoor worship. Pull up, grab a Communion wafer at the gate, then tune in to 88.5 on your FM dial. No worries about drinking and driving--this church uses juice instead of wine. 3140 S. Atlantic Ave., 386/767-8761, driveinchurch.net, free. Georgia Georgia Guidestones No one knows who erected the 19-foot-tall granite Guidestones--picture the Ten Commandments inscribed on Stonehenge--which list instructions for the preservation of mankind in 12 languages, including Sanskrit and Swahili. Here's one: "Avoid petty laws and useless officials." The folks at the Elbert County Chamber of Commerce say that the best way to find them is to drive on Highway 77, between Elberton and Hartwell, and look for the lady's house that resembles a spaceship. The Guidestones are across the street. Elbert County Chamber of Commerce, 706/283-5651, elbertga.com, free. Kentucky Penn's Store In 1992, America's oldest country store, family owned since 1850, got its first bathroom: an outhouse (before that it just had "plenty of trees"). Now, every fall the store hosts the Great Outhouse Blowout, a festival with music, food, and outhouse races (in 2004, Oct. 2). Contestants head to Gravel Switch--50 miles southwest of Lexington--and race human-powered dragsters, some made to resemble that lovable lavatory. 257 Penn's Store Rd., 859/332-7715, pennsstore.com. Louisiana Bayou Pierre Alligator Park With gator sausage and kebabs in the food court and gator wallets and boots in the gift shop, you'd think the Bayou Pierre Alligator Park was killing off its main attraction. Not so. All of the park's hundreds of gators are for viewing only (the others come from local farms). Watch these thousand-pounders wrestle over chicken parts, or hold a baby gator in your arms for a Cajun-style photo opportunity. It's 75 miles southeast of Shreveport, off Highway 1. 380 Old Bayou Pierre Rd., Natchitoches, 877/354-7001, alligatorshow.com, $6.50, kids $4.75. Baby gator head: $9.99. Mississippi The Crossroads According to the song "Crossroads Blues," by legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, this is the spot where he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his skills as a guitar virtuoso. At the intersection of Highways 161 and 49 in the town of Clarksdale, the spot is marked with a guitar-shaped sign. Clarksdale Chamber of Commerce, 662/627-7337. North Carolina Furnitureland South The world's largest highboy--an 85-foot-tall dresser with three foot-wide gold-leaf handles--stands in front of the world's largest home-furnishings showroom. Built in 1999, it towers over its rival (the world's largest bureau, also in High Point) by more than 45 feet. 5635 Riverdale Dr., 336/841-4328, furniturelandsouth.com, free. South Carolina South of the Border With its 200-foot-tall Sombrero Tower and smiling mascot, Pedro, this monument to Mexican kitsch has attracted road-trippers since 1949. What started as a small beer stand has expanded into an amalgamation including 15 shops, an amusement park (called Pedroland), six restaurants, campgrounds, and a hotel. I-95 at Hwy. 301, Hamer, 843/774-2411, pedroland.com. Tennessee The Parthenon In 1897, to commemorate 100 years of statehood, Tennessee built a full-scale replica of the Parthenon just outside downtown Nashville, in Centennial Park. It houses the city's art museum, as well as plaster casts of the Elgin marbles (the real ones, which date from around 440 b.c., are in the British Museum). Like the original in Athens, the Parthenon focuses on a 42-foot statue of the goddess Athena--by all estimates she's wearing size-177 sandals. 2600 West End Ave., 615/862-8431, parthenon.org, $4, seniors and kids $2.50. Virginia Route 11 Potato Chip Factory The Route 11 Potato Chip Factory prepares, cooks, and bags all 13 varieties of its chips by hand. The Chesapeake crab chips are a regional favorite: They're flavored with the same salty, spicy blend fishermen use to season their Chesapeake Blues. 7815 Main St., Middletown, 800/294-7783, rt11.com, 11-oz. bag $4. West Virginia Prabhupada's Palace of Gold Billed as America's Taj Mahal--don't tell Trump--Prabhupada's Palace of Gold, in Moundsville, was constructed by monastic volunteers to be the home of spiritual leader Srila Prabhupada. When he died before its completion, the gilded palace became a pilgrimage center and tourist attraction. The elaborately decorated rooms have marble and onyx floors, crystal chandeliers, and silk tapestries. Palace Rd. Exit off Hwy. 250, 304/843-1812, palaceofgold.com, suggested donation $6, kids $3.

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