Trip Coach: January 23, 2007
Susanna Henighan: Hi guys and welcome to today's chat. It is a beautiful sunny day here in the Virgin Islands, and I'm ready to answer your questions. So let's get started!
Durango, CO: We like to travel once a year with our best friends and we each have young teenage/preteen sons. Our trips usually revolve around snorkeling, hiking, and "easy" adventures (nothing too dangerous) for the kids and great beaches, but quiet locale for the grown-ups. We like to stay in condo-type hotels to save on meals and prefer places where we can experience local cultures rather than cookie-cutter, touristy, mega resorts. One of our favorite trips was Ambergris Caye, Belize, but we would like to find somewhere with better, "walk-in" beaches. Any suggestions in the Virgin Islands? Thanks, Mini
Susanna Henighan: Dear Durango:
Thanks for the questions.
The island that comes to mind is St. John. Estate Concordia or Maho Bay Camps are two of my favorite places to stay. Both are within the Virgin Islands National Park and have facilities for you to self-cater. Kids will love the unique accommodations, and there are tons of activities available (hiking, snorkeling, kayaking are the most popular). The beaches on St. John are fantastic -- beautiful white sand, coconut trees, reefs to snorkel on.
St. Croix might also be a good choice -- it has nice hiking, great scuba diving, and a lot of historic sites. The beaches are nice, but not as nice as those on St. John. You could check out Cottages by the Sea, which has some very cute little cottages right along the Frederiksted Beach.
I hope that you guys have a great vacation.
Washington, DC: Are there any major advantages to visiting the British Virgin Islands as opposed to the U.S. Virgin Islands? Thanks in advance for any information you can provide.
Susanna Henighan: Dear Washington, DC:
The main advantage to visiting the BVI is that it is a little bit more off the beaten path, so you feel less like one of the crowd. That said, there are places in the USVI that are remote and peaceful, and places in the BVI that are crowded. If you are intersted in a charter yacht vacation, than the BVI is your choice -- it has the greatest choice of charters and is closest to the best cruising ground.
The BVI has a reputation of being a little more upscale than the USVI, and the islands are less Americanized. I hope that helps.
Levittown, PA: Hi, my friends and I (early to mid thirties) are hoping to go on a vacation to one of the virgin islands in March. We are looking for an all inclusive that has a beautiful beach, good food, decent shopping, and above all--nice atmosphere! There are so many places to go and i was hoping you could tell me which you'd pick to go to. (i'm hoping to spend about $1500 or less per person). Any help or suggestions would be so appreciated. Thank you
Susanna Henighan: Dear Levittown,
Here are a few ideas that you could check out:
The Sugar Mill on Tortola is a charming little hotel, with great food and a lovely small beach right across the road. It routinely wins awards for good service. Its atmosphere is laid-back, but clearly upscale. (There is very little shopping nearby, however).
The Hotel on the Cay on St. Croix is located on a tiny island in Christiansted Harbour. There is a nice beach on the island, and tons of shopping is a VERY short ferry ride away. There is a restaurant too, but you might want to eat some of your meals at Christiansted's fabulous restaurants. The atmosphere is festive and welcoming.
On St. Thomas try Marriot Frenchman's Reef (1-888-236-2427), which offers inclusive pacakages, has a nice beach, and is close to Charlotte Amalie's famous shopping. This is a large resort, but it offers some attractive package deals, and the air link to St. Thomas is very good.
If you want something really unique, check out Cooper Island in the BVI. They have a handful of villas, a good beach, watersports centre, and restaurant. This is a real get-away.
And, since you asked, I would choose The Sugar Mill simply because it is a small hotel, and the food is excellent.
Duarte, CA: Do they use american dollars there?
Susanna Henighan: Dear Duarte,
Thanks, this is an easy one! Yes, both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands use U.S. dollars.
Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands: Dear Susanna, how would you compare life on Anegada with life on Virgin Gorda, with respect to the welcoming of visitors? Also, where do you recommend staying on Anegada, for a week, with the advantage of a television? George
Susanna Henighan: Dear George,
Thanks for the question. I can't say that there would be a big difference in the welcome you would receive on Anegada and Virgin Gorda: both are very welcoming islands. Anegada's population is smaller, though, so by the end of a week there is a good chance you would know most of the residents.
Regards a place to stay with television -- believe it or not, but there are not too many hotels on Anegada with TV. I stayed at the Sands Hotel, on the North Shore, (340/777-3217), which had television and is one of the best deals on the island. I recommend it. But a word to the wise: Anegada is not the place to come if you require a lot of diversions. Its main attraction is the peace and quiet.
Thanks again for the question!
Munroe Falls, OH: We (a party of eight) will be traveling to St. John USVI on March 23, 2007. We are having trouble figuring out how to get our luggage from the airport in St. Thomas to our villa on St.John. We will be renting two jeeps (4 people to a jeep) and there is not enough room to transport our luggage. It doesn't matter if we get the jeeps in St. Thomas or in St. John, we face the same problem. Any suggestions? Kathryn
Susanna Henighan: Dear Munroe Falls,
The best thing to do would be to take a taxis. You can easily get a taxi from the airport on St. Thomas to the St. John ferry dock, which is located at Red Hook, St. Thomas. All the airport taxis are large passenger vans that will be able to accommodate you and all your luggage. If you want, explain to the taxi driver at the airport that you want a private taxi -- this means that he won't wait for every seat to fill up before driving off. You will pay more, but in some situations it is worth it.
After you arrive on St. John, I recommend taking another taxi to your villa. Perhaps you could ask the driver to drop two members of your party off at the car rental agency to drive to the villa, or else you could go to the villa, get settled, and then deal with the rentals. If you call in advance, the rental agency might even agree to pick you up at your villa in the rentals.
And just as a note: it is possible to rent a car on St. Thomas and transport it to St. John via one of the car ferries. This is a fairly major undertaking, however, and not advisable since in the event of car trouble, your rental agency is on another island.
Have a great time! March is a wonderful time to visit the islands.
Washington, DC: I'm a US licensed private pilot. Are there any aircraft rental businesses in the BVI that will rent a light aircraft to me? If not, is there any way to fly around with a BVI pilot in a small plane? I'd like to check out some of the smaller islands that are off the beaten track. I'm also a huge fan of roti. What's the best roti in the BVI? Also, what can you recommend for day care in the BVI? I'd love to leave my 1-3 year-old with somebody for a few hours so that my wife and I can go SCUBA diving.
Susanna Henighan: Dear Washington:
Wow, these are some great questions.
First of all, I have not been able to find a business in the BVI that rents aircraft. There are a number of air charter companies, and it is possible that you could negotiate with one of them to provide this service. It is certainly not the usual request, however. You could start with Fly BVI (284/495-1747).
I should add that flying around the islands is a lot of fun, whether you're a pilot or not. I love the short flights between Tortola and Anegada, Tortola and Virgin Gorda, and St. Thomas and St. Croix. The scenery from up above is just spectacular.
On the topic of Rotis, this is an easy one: the best roti in the BVI can be found at the Roti Palace on Main Street, next to the Post Office. Call ahead so Mrs. Leonard knows you are coming (284/494-4196).
Finally, childcare: Some of the resorts offer this service; Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda has an entire programme for children. There are also a number of day care centres on the island, most in the Road Town area. As far as I know, however, none of them cater to visitors. I would recommend speaking with the proprietor of the inn or villa that you are staying with early -- preferably before you arrive. I am sure that they could arrange something for you.
Have a great trip!
Newcastle, ME: Is St. Croix less expensive than St. John? We took our adult children and a grandchild to St. John, found the condo rentals reasonable, and car rentals expensive.
Susanna Henighan: Dear Newcastle:
You are correct that car rentals on St. John are expensive; in my experience they are the most expensive in the whole Virgin Islands. This is partly because none of the rental companies rent cars -- only SUVs -- due to the island's rough terrain.
As a rule, St. Croix is probably less expensive as a vacation destination, although not dramatically so. Gas certainly is cheaper, and comparable accommodations will be less than those on St. John. Of course, in all things it depends on your standards and expectations: you can spend a fortune at a fancy resort on St. Croix, or be quite frugal at a campground on St. John.
As a side note, I have had success getting good prices for rental cars by using one of the national rental brands and booking in advance.
Thanks for the question!
Louisville, KY: My husband and I are considering a trip to the Virgin Islands. What is the best time to visit? We'd love to come when the crowds are small and the prices are low!
Susanna Henighan: Dear Louisville,
The tourist trade in the Virgin Islands is highly seasonal. The winter season, from December 1 to the end of March, is considered high season. This is when the prices will be at their peak, as well as the number of visitors. Low season is July to November, which is also the peak of the hurricane season and the hottest time of year. In between is the so-called "shoulder season", a good time for bargain hunters who still want to avoid the hottest time of year.
Prices for hotel rooms can drop as much as 40 percent between high and low season, and air fares also typically decline, although not by quite as much. So planning a trip outside of high season is the best way to save some money.
I hope you and your husband decide on a trip to the VI -- it is a great place to visit!
Boston, MA: We are taking our first trip to St. John in early March for one week. Two main questions for you: 1--Are there any secrets to making the St Thomas to St John ferry trip hassle-free, such as timelines, pre-trip arrangements, etc.? This trip will be our only vacation until Christmas, so we'd like to avoid time-eating travel mix-ups that we could've planned around. 2--We are staying in Caneel Bay and have rented a car for four days, but we're not sure how to take best advantage of seeing all corners of the island. Can you recommend an itinerary for the week, if we'd like to be fairly active and see all of the sights that we should before we leave? Thanks so much for taking our questions!
Susanna Henighan: Dear Boston,
You've made a great choice to visit St. John, and Caneel Bay is a beautiful property.
Regarding ferries to St. John, Caneel Bay is one of the resorts that offers special airport transportation for its guests. I copied the next two paragraphs from the Caneel Bay website:
"Upon arrival at the St. Thomas airport, please go to the baggage claim area and you will find our reception lounge on the right. We will assist with your luggage and escort you to our private ferry. The transfer fee is prepaid and will be applied against your advance deposit.
"Cost for transfers which includes baggage handling, van transportation and unlimited use of the Caneel ferry between St. Thomas and St. John during your stay with us is $85 per adult roundtrip, $50 per adult one-way, $42.50 for children ages 5 to 12 years and complimentary for children 4 years or younger."
So for ease and making the most of your time, this is probably your best choice. If you want to go on your own with the taxi/ferry/taxi option, my primary piece of advice is to remain patient -- frustration is the quickest route to starting your vacation out on the wrong foot. It takes a maximum of 30 minutes to drive from the airport to the ferry dock at Red Hook, and ferries to St. John leave Red Hook every hour on the hour (from 8 a.m. to midnight), so plan accordingly.
Regarding your second question -- how to make the most of four days with a rental car on St. John -- I would suggest spending at least one day exploring the area around Coral Bay: Salt Pond Bay is a nice beach. If you are up for an adventure, drive the unpaved road to Lameshure Bay, which is past Salt Pond Bay and very remote and beautiful. You should also spend a day in the area of Anneburg. You can spend the morning at the Anneburg Sugar Mill Ruins and then spend the afternoon at Waterlemon Cay, just down the road. Finally, you could spend the day at one of the lovely North Shore beaches: Hawksnest or Trunk are the best. And remeber, just driving around St. John can be a lot of fun -- so plan on a self-guided island tour too. Under no circumstances should you drive into Cruz Bay, however. Traffic and parking are terrible, and you are much better off taking a taxi.
Have a great trip!
Washington, DC: Another pilot question: Which islands in the BVI have a landing strip? Also, is there any sea plane service between the islands?
Susanna Henighan: Hello again Washington, D.C.:
There are airports on three of the islands in the BVI: Beef Island, which is connected to Tortola by a bridge; Anegada; and Virgin Gorda. The strips on Anegada and Beef Island are paved, and the strip on Virgin Gorda is dirt (and very exciting, thanks to strong winds and some nearby cliffs!)Several of the islands have helicopter landing pads.
There is a seaplane company in the U.S. Virgin Islands -- Seaborne Airlines -- which has announced that it plans to start seaplane service between Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, and North Sound, Virgin Gorda, although this has not yet become a reality. Seaborne does, however, provide regular seaplane service between Charlotte Amalie and Christiansted, St. Croix, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Seaplanes are tons of fun, and very time efficient since you don't have to go to the airport.
Thanks for the questions!
Seattle, WA: Hi! Is beach camping permitted in the Virgin Islands? If so, what kind of restrictions are in place? Are permits needed? Thanks! Abby
Susanna Henighan: Dear Seattle,
Ahh, camping on the beach. This is really one of the best ways to enjoy the Virgin Islands--one of my favorites, anyway. The specific rules may vary a little bit between the islands, but in general, you are not allowed to camp on the beach unless you are camping at a bonafide campground. Luckily there are several of these: Ivan's on Jost Van Dyke (284/495-9358) is fabulous, as is Cinnamon Bay on St. John. Vie's, also on St. John, is very bare-bones (340/693-5033). Brewer's Bay on Tortola is okay, and there is a simple campground on Anegada. All of these will allow you to either bring your own tent, or use one which they provide (a plus considering airline luggage limits). There aren't any campgrounds on St. Thomas, and St. Croix's lone campground is in the rainforest, not on the beach.
A word of warning, camping on the beach is fabulous, but remember to pack some powerful bug spray and long sleeves/pants to protect against mosquitos and sand flies.
Thanks for the question!
Philadelphia, PA: I'f I'm coming to the BVI in late July. Is there some way I can participate in the Festival parade or obtain a costume? Also, I am particularly interested in historical sites--are they pretty easy to find or should I hire a guide? If so, is there a particular company you'd recommend?
Susanna Henighan: Dear Philly,
Thanks for the question. It is great that you are planning to visit the BVI during Festival, which is a unique and really fun time to be in the islands. Besides the annual parade, there are a whole lot of other activities including food fairs, horse racing, beauty pageants, and tons of music -- reggae, calpyso, soca, and much more. The Festival reaches its peak during the first full week of August -- the first Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of August are the main holidays, and the parade takes place on Monday. So be sure to time your vacation accordingly.
Regarding costumes, to be honest, most tourists do not take part in the parade itself, but that should not stop you. I would suggest contacting the BVI Tourist Board directly to find out if they can hook you up with a Festival troop. Be aware, however, that most troops rehearse for several weeks prior to the parade. Just coming out to watch the parade is a lot of fun. It usually starts around midday, and continues until sunset. The whole parade route is something like a street fair, and you should get there early to scope out a shady spot.
On the topic of historic sites, I am not aware of anyone who offers tours of historic sites of the BVI. In my book, and many other guides, you will find a listing of the main historic sites, and if you are the least bit adventurous, the best way to visit them is to rent a car and find them on your own. The BVI Tourist Board has also published a pamphlet with information on historic sites -- you should be able to get it directly from them. As a rule, though, historic sites in the BVI are not particularly well-managed, marked or protected, so be prepared.
Takoma Park, MD: I know that crime is a problem on some Caribbean islands. But I never hear about any crime problems in the BVI. What's the deal with that? Are the BVI police just better?
Susanna Henighan: Dear Takoma Park,
Crime is something that worries many visitors to the Caribbean, and it's good to consider it. First of all, most all visitors to the Virgin Islands have absolutely no problems with crime. That said, it is important to remember that although you are on vacation, you should still practise basic common sense -- pay attention to your surroundings and do not leave valuables unattended. Don't even bring them with you -- there is no need for fine jewelry down here. And please, don't do anything that could see you on the wrong side of the law -- drugs are just as illegal in the VI as they are in the rest of the world. Regarding the different crime rates, it is true that the BVI's crime rate is one of the lowest in the Caribbean. I think that this is more likely due to the small and close-knit population than the police themselves. It also may have to do with the BVI's rule that basically makes all types of guns illegal.
Thanks for the question, Takoma.
Susanna Henighan: I am afraid that our time is up, but thanks for all the questions. You really tested my knowledge on a few of them! I hope that my answers were helpful, and that you will all plan on coming down to the Virgin Islands soon. There are a lot of unique experiences waiting for you.
Have a great afternoon,
A Visit from Down Under
Australia's tourism minister, Fran Bailey, was in town last week, and as usual, she was a treat. Mostly she sang the country's praises, but we were even more fascinated by her enthusiasm for more flights between Australia and North America. (The fact that it's a long flight is nothing anyone can do anything about; the price of the fare, however, is something else altogether.) Unlike some folks in the government, she fully supports competition with Australia's national airline, Qantas. Let's hope she has some sway. Evidently low-fare upstart Virgin Blue is trying to get flights okayed between the western U.S. and Sydney. If approved it won't happen for a few years, but that'd be a good day, indeed.
You Can't Get There From Here
Hobbits on the Silk Road Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today, for they love peace and quiet and a good-tilled earth. . . . Even in ancient days they were, as a rule, shy of "the Big Folk," as they call us, and now they avoid us with dismay and are becoming hard to find. --J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings Tell me about it. I had been in Almaty, a cosmopolitan city in the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan for five days, a stop on the yearlong trip I was taking with my husband, Nick. I was on a mission to find the mythical subculture of Tolkienists--Kazak kids who were so taken with the writer J. R. R. Tolkien's characters from Lord of the Rings that they frequently dressed as hobbits, wizards, dwarves, and other Gandalfian creatures, parading in full regalia through Almaty's tree-lined streets. I had prowled Zhibek Zholy and Tole Bi, the main pedestrian drags downtown, where I'd seen plenty of long-haired metal kids hanging out and drinking beer. I'd also seen a fair number of ashen-faced babushkas, begging bowls before them, beseeching a spare few coins. (Poverty is one of the unfortunate by-products of the demise of the Soviet Union; when state socialism collapsed, so did these grandmothers' pensions.) I had shopped among the nouveau riche as they spent their fresh-from-the-oil-fields cash on the latest electronic gadgets and imported French clothes at the bastion of emerging capitalism, the TsUM department store. But so, far I'd spotted no hobbits. My next stop had been to track down a 21-year-old writer named Erbol who worked for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and who had written an article about the Tolkienists that I'd seen on the Web. Erbol spoke no English, but, using an Internet-based translation program and sign language, we'd had a conversation of sorts. He'd told me he knew a guy named Ilya, a punk rocker--this communicated via an outstretched hand run alongside the length of his head to denote a mohawk--who was down with the Tolkien scene and who also spoke good English. I had returned to my hostel armed with Ilya's telephone number and a Russian Language Beginner's Guide, a necessity in a city where few speak English. Under the bemused glances of the three matrons who guarded the front desk, I had practiced saying in broken Russian "Mozhna pagavarit Ilya's telefonem?" a few times before dialing. After three days I had finally gotten ahold of Ilya, who'd turned out to be a tall, lanky blond fellow with a buzz cut and a baritone voice. He'd informed me that he was no longer a Tolkienist but a writer and poet--one who'd recently received an award as Kazakhstan's best young author, it turned out--but he was familiar enough with the movement to be able to track down some hobbits for me. Which was why that Saturday I had met Ilya at the bus stop at the southern end of downtown Almaty, a few tram stops from my hotel. There, along with dozens of Almaty-ites all dressed up for weekend hiking trips, we'd boarded a packed bus to Butakovka, a wilderness getaway in the foothills of the snowcapped Zailiyski Alatau Mountains. Six miles later, we had alighted at the end of the line and had begun hiking along a cold mountain stream, passing a couple of half-built mansions--part of the upscale urban sprawl spurred by Almaty's new class of oil gazillionaires--before making a turn straight up a steep mountainside. For the better part of an hour I'd trudged up the muddy path as best I could in flip-flops, pausing frequently to breathe deeply and drink water. Ilya had appraised my stumblings with a look of equal parts disgust and pity. At the top of the hill he'd guided us over the ridge and to a grassy clearing he'd kept referring to as the helicopter pad, where he'd promised me my hobbits. We didn't find any. No hobbits. Or elves. Or dwarves. Or orcs. Not even a human. Ilya shrugged. I sat down to pant. Tolkien was right: These hobbits were a bitch to find. There were a number of probable causes for the hobbits' elusiveness. It could be, as Tolkien described, the hobbitian temperament, shy of us "big folk." It could also be the Kazak one. More than ten years after the collapse of the USSR, much of Kazakhstan had yet to shake its totalitarian character. Its statues of Lenin and Marx had long been warehoused, but Almaty still felt vaguely Soviet, and not merely because of the city's Stalinist apartment blocks and ubiquitous Lada cars bucking for lane space with flashy new Mercedes. Politically, Kazakhstan, and indeed all of the former Central Asian Republics, which include Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, have not exactly had great success in democratizing. All of these states are ruled by former Soviet officials who fell into power when the Union collapsed, and these men run their nations with iron fists--more Khrushchev than Kennedy. Kazakhstan is the most progressive of the 'stans, but even here, journalists critical of the government have been arrested or beaten. Religious and ethnic minorities have also been tightly regulated, purportedly to keep tabs on Islamists, Uighur Muslim separatists, and nascent Christian groups. But because the KGB-era cops don't actually bother with subtle distinctions--say, between Baptists, Scientologists, and Tolkienists--the hobbits, elves, and wizards have found themselves branded as members of an unregistered religion and have suffered a good deal of harassment at the hands of Kazak police. They have had their swords confiscated. They've been beaten. They've even been jailed for staging alfresco jousts on the mall. So the Tolkienists had taken to the hills. But now Ilya and I were in the hills. Where were the Tolkienists? Ilya was perplexed. "They come here every weekend in warm weather," he told me. I stared at him, doing my best to replicate the disgust/pity look he'd given me on the trail up. Then I handed him my cell phone. "Why don't you call around?" Ilya did that and discovered where all the hobbits were hiding: under the covers, nursing hangovers. The night before, one Tolkienist had thrown a wild Friday-the-13th party that had gone on till sunrise. But the hobbits would be back in form the next day, the voice on the phone told Ilya, who gave me a no-problem smile. I gave him a yes-problem frown. I'd have to hike this monster mountain again. The next day I hiked the mountain again, in proper footwear this time, and met myself a hobbit, a mercenary, several sorceresses, and an army of warriors. It was the first of many meetings. Later on I'd try jousting, learn Elvish, and come to understand just why the Kazak kids were so Tolkien-obsessed. Reprinted from You Can't Get There From Here: A Year on the Fringes of a Shrinking World, by Gayle Forman. Copyright 2005 by Gayle Forman. Permission granted by Rodale Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 848-4735.
Four Sexy, Silly Hotels
Even Hotel Zamas's origins are sexy: Daniel McGettigan and Susan Bohlken were on their honeymoon in Mexico when they discovered a pristine beach south of Cancun; in 1993, they opened their dream hotel. Get laid (back, that is) in one of the thatched-roof bungalows, inspired by traditional Mayan architecture. Each has a private porch with a hammock, and out front on the beach are chairs under a palapa, or palm-thatched umbrella. Nearby is inspiration for anyone looking to monkey around--there is a spider-monkey habitat, not to mention lagoons, limestone wellsprings, and cave pools. Bring a flashlight, as there's no street lighting; walking around after dark (unless there's a full moon) is one of those activities that's definitely better with the lights on (zamas.com, rates start at $80 per night.) Bad boys get a sexy session of detention--if not an outright spanking--at the Kennedy School Hotel, in Portland, Ore. At this 1915 elementary school-turned-hotel, you can bring that fantasy to life in a former classroom outfitted with a bed and cloakroom (even the original blackboards are still intact). Sketch each other in chalk, then head down to the auditorium--now a movie theater--for a serious make-out session. The little girls' room has been converted into a grown-up brewery. Down the hallway, the teachers' lounge was demolished to make way for an outdoor soaking pool. No homework allowed. And don't forget to bring along a ruler, in case anyone gets naughty (kennedyschool.com, rates start at $99 per night). "Don't come a-knocking if the trailer's a-rocking" should be the motto of the Shady Dell, an authentic RV park in the former mining town of Bisbee, Ariz. Nine souped-up Airstream-style trailers--plus a tiki-themed bus and a glamorous yacht--are for rent. Lucy and Ricky wannabees will feel right at home in the 1950 Spartanette Tandem, which has a VCR for playing old movies on the black-and-white television. Pop over and visit Fred and Ethel in their 1951 Spartanette Royal Mansion, equipped with a cocktail lounge for late-night martini swilling. Sinful rates justify the drive an hour and a half south from Tucson (theshadydell.com, rates from $45 per night). Get it on like Rae Dawn Chong in Quest for Fire at the 45-year-old Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, Calif. The 108 rooms are gaudily decorated; some of the kitschiest involve rock walls, like the Kona Coast (rock walls, rock bathroom) and the Caveman Room (rock everything). Or is your style more turn-of-the-century lady of the evening? Try the San Francisco room, with its bordello-red carpet and walls. Cloud Nine, meanwhile, has cherubs everywhere--decorating the bedspread, holding up the lamps, hanging from the ceiling--for anyone who thinks Cupid needs some inspiration (madonnainn.com, rates from $168 per night). Related links: 50 Totally Charming Hotels Under $150 Four Hotels We Wouldn't Be Caught Dead In
A Budget Travel Foundation?
We've gotten some thoughtful replies to Erik Torkells's letter from the editor in the December/January issue, in which he mulled over the idea of a travel foundation. Here's a sampling: I just read your letter and wanted to say that many others share your idea. I was lucky enough to be a principal in a school district with a large number of Chinese students. One community member thought that all of us, principals and teachers, would benefit from visiting China. 40 of us spent 10 days with all expenses paid by our benefactor, except for $300 for our airfare from LA. It was indeed a fabulous experience. We visited schools of course, and I later returned taking 11 teachers with me to teach English to Chinese high school students for 6 weeks in the summer. One other trip followed as well as several visits by the Chinese to our city. One of the highlights of my career I would say, and yes it does broaden your acceptance and understanding of other cultures. Hopefully all that went not only opened their minds to the Chinese but became more accepting of all cultures. --Sandra Miller, Ed.D, University of La Verne, Calif. Your letter in the December/January issue spoke to our hearts. It said why we founded the nonprofit all volunteer our developing world. We knew that "our preconceived notions would be the only thing getting blown up" in a perfect world but that won't happen till people cooperate. Such cooperation won't happen till people know something about each other. Therefore we have a free lending resource library for teachers with artifacts, lessons & visuals of "developing countries" and we take small groups of people who want to see for themselves on Reality Ecotours always with a focus on people, health, socio-economic & human rights. We hope some budget travelers will check out our website. Anyone with lots of time could put together these contacts but for those with limited vacations we guarantee to give you the fullest non-Hilton adventure. --Barby & Vic Ulmer, Saratoga, Calif. In early 2003, while on a trip to Thailand, I met a retired businessman who had recently sold his company. In getting acquainted, he told me he was using part of the money from the sale to finance a "think-tank" of intellectuals and scientists to come up with feasible plans to helpThird World countries by putting money more directly into the hands of the citizens and not having it filtered through corrupt governments or agencies. Your "The View from Here is Pretty Nice" column of December 06/07 struck a note that reminded me of that encounter. I have been a tour organizer for a teacher's organization from the early 60's until my retirement in early 1990 and I facilitated teacher travel through low-cost charters and group programs. These two paragraphs are connected in this way. I suggested to the businessman that his "think-tank" look at the idea that, in place of our current foreign aid programs, the U.S. Government should divert a large part of the dollars going to those programs to very low-cost flights to needy foreign countries, e.g., $100 round trip, plus a tax credit of "X" dollars per person. The participants would spend their own money while on the trip, which money would go directly into the local economies and the pockets of citizens of those countries. Safeguards could be imposed such as discontinuing flights to countries that attach government fees to the flights or add hotel taxes, etc. I am sure that many schemes would be developed by the corrupt bureaucracy, but with care this could be circumvented. I think this would give Americans who currently do not travel abroad something to think about and give a wake-up call to many foreign politicians that their free lunch at our expense can end. --L. Edmond Leipold I write you this email today only one day back from my weekend trip to Munich, but felt a need to respond to you column in the December/January issue of Budget Travel. You, I and the thousands of others who work in the travel industry have to be some of the luckiest people alive. Why you ask? It does not have to do with our somewhat job security, discounts received, great people with whom we work with, but more of the fact that we can see the world for practically nothing be it for work or pleasure. So let me begin by telling you why I wrote. My name is John Luttrell and I live in the tiny state of Delaware. I am currently working for US Airways on the ramp in Philadelphia and have been for the last ten years. Though we have been through many pay cuts and job changes since 9/11 knowing I still have the advantage to travel on a whim for free has kept me hanging in. Over the past five years I have seen many colleagues depart for other jobs and I think to myself what a shame it would be if that day were to ever come for me. For ten years now I have been to and have seen so many places that would have never happened if not for me working in the airline industry. Be it Vegas for a day or the Caribbean for a week these things seem so unattainable to many others in this country who don't have the opportunities we do. As I read your article about how the girl in the coffee shop had wanted to go with you to Iowa because she has never been anywhere it only reminded me of how many of my colleagues don't travel and also of how my friends react when I go away to all these different places. But, the one thing that really got me was to think about the people I know who have never been out of the local Delaware area. This state is in such a great location with driving distance to so much. A day trip to Philly, NYC, DC or ever to Atlantic City, but I have talked to so many who have never been to any of these places and it makes me question why these people have never been far from home. Is it due to laziness, nervousness, scared to try new things, or could it be the fact that these people might not have the means to take these day trips yet alone leave the country for a week. I too believe that travel brings people closer together and what one might have thought of you because of where you live, what religion you are, whom you voted for I think it gets thrown out the window when you really get to know that person for themselves and see how they live their life. So I question your daydream about the Budget Travel Foundation and hope you make it a reality as you and I both know that many people out there should have an opportunity to see what or who is outside their own town. These people should have an opportunity to experience new races, cultures, and creeds so they can see for themselves that this world is a beautiful place once you get out of your comfortable surroundings and let others in. Though I personally don't have the means to start a foundation on my own I would love to help in anyway possible if you were to start anything. It could be using my eight companion passes to help with airfare, coming to NYC to help your staff arrange travel plans, or just doing anything I could do from my home here in Delaware. I know there are numerous foundations helping people who are sick, but I think that a foundation like this would be great for those who have never been outside their hometown and I hope this does become reality. --John Luttrell, Wilmington, Del. My latest copy of Budget Travel arrived today. I so enjoyed your editorial comment. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a Foundation that helps more folks travel! I have had the good fortune to travel for the past twenty years. As with many travelers, the cost of trips is a big factor in my destination decisions. I learned to shop wisely and travel during off seasons. It was snowing in Florence the February I was there, but I WAS in Florence and the museum and sights were still there. Each trip I take, I bring home small items for the children in my life. I have brought home soccer team scarves, cricket balls from England, beads from New Orleans, and puka necklaces from Hawaii. My husband volunteers in a fourth grade class, so each child gets a postcard and/or other small items from my travels. I bring home flags of each country to share with the children. None of these things cost much, but they help show that the world is a different place. My constant message is that travel is something that everyone can achieve. Keep up the good work. --Jackie MacNeil
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