6 Graceful Strategies for Dealing With an Annoying Seatmate

By Beth Greenfield
December 8, 2011
Illustration by Edwin Fotheringham
If you look forward to your transit time as a chance for R&R, a chatty seatmate can be your nemesis. Here, six cues to expertly exempt yourself from conversation—plus, what to do if you're the one who's up for small talk.

You've got a fresh copy of the new John Grisham novel, an issue of Budget Travel, and a plum spot—exit row, aisle seat—for your six-hour flight to California. Best of all, you've just shut off your cell phone and are officially out of reach. But before you can even switch on your overhead light and take a cursory glance through the SkyMall catalog, you hear the dreaded question: "So do you live in San Francisco? Or just visiting?"
For many travelers, a chatty-Cathy seatmate is the kiss of death. So what are some subtle, effective ways to fend off conversation when you want to commute in peace? We asked body-language expert Joe Navarro—former FBI agent and author of Louder Than Words and What Every Body Is Saying—for some surefire tips.

1. Avoid Eye Contact From the Start

Looking someone in the eye is a great way to foster communication, bonding—even flirting. And that's exactly why you should steer clear of it if you want to be left alone. "As soon as you make eye contact, it's like a license to make conversation," Navarro says. But, he continues, "I do a lot of traveling, and I'll tell you, there are a lot of people who just don't get it."
Why is it so hard for someone to take a hint? "People seek the comfort and company of others when they're anxious," explains Maureen Erber, a social psychology professor at Northeastern Illinois University. "So one reason people may insist upon connecting with their seatmates, in spite of signals to the contrary, may be anxiety." Plus, Navarro adds, "There are those who talk just because it's the social thing to do."

2. Turn Slightly Away From the Person

"I have a saying about this: 'Belly away, don't want you to stay,'" Navarro says. "It's actually called ventral (versus dorsal) denial. You rotate so [your seatmate] sees more of your shoulder."
Practically turning your back on someone should work with most seatmates, Navarro notes, since it's a trick that's elementary: "Children at a very young age learn to turn their belly away when they don't want to engage."

3. Have an Object That You're Focusing on

Make it clear that your attentions are elsewhere, Navarro suggests—whether it's a book or a smartphone or listening to music on your headphones. "Or do some writing," he says. Still, he's quick to warn, "You'll still have people who will try to engage."
"While we think that a behavior such as reading a book clearly sends a sign to others, it might not be immediately perceived that way," notes Greg Willard, a social psychologist and research associate at Harvard University's department of psychology. It's helpful in these situations, he says, to try to understand that the person is most likely not being rude—just a bit thickheaded.

4. Close Your Eyes and Lean Back

If all other nonverbal cues are failing, Navarro says, "Just close your eyes and lean back, as if you're trying to get some rest." And, hey, maybe you'll actually drift off while you're at it. The bottom line with Navarro's suggestions, he says, is this: Are your nonverbal cues being read in the way you want them to be?
"People do not always notice the things that we think they've noticed," Willard points out.

5. Answer a "Hello" With a Polite Smile Only

You can respond to a direct greeting, Navarro says, but not with a "hello" or in any other verbal way. In fact, he advises, you shouldn't even nod, which is an invitation to engage. Just flash a polite (not toothy) grin, and then immediately get back to something—anything—that keeps your attention away from the seatmate.
However, Willard adds, "When it comes to the distinction between rejection and ostracism (being ignored completely), research finds that ostracism can hurt in even more profound ways." To really make yourself understood, he suggests, "it is best to [tell someone directly] if you do not want to talk."

6. Give Curt Answers

If your previous signals fail and your seatmate insists on talking, just be sure to give very curt, short answers. Navarro says, "That indicates: 'I don't want to get involved in conversation.'"
"People generally do not deal well with ambiguity," Willard continues, so instead, be direct and explain that you need to stop talking because, for example, you have to get some reading done. Usually, Willard says, "Any reason whatsoever will do."

What If You WANT to Engage in Conversation?

For every person who doesn't want to chat up a fellow flier, there is someone who does. "Once I sat next to an archaeologist, and we had the most fascinating conversation," gushed one Budget Travel reader. Another said: "It's my favorite part of traveling. We share this world, why not enjoy it together?" Rather than dive right in—for the reasons we've mentioned above—it's best to give signals that you are open to communicating and then look for positive responses, Navarro suggests.
"The best way to engage is to say "hello" and arch your eyebrows or flash your eyes, which communicates, subconsciously, that you are genuinely interested, or that you care," he says. "Even babies recognize this." Tilting your head to the side, he adds, also conveys your interest. And then? Simply follow up with the surefire, "So do you live in San Francisco? Or just visiting?"

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Top Travel News of 2011

For travelers, 2011 was the year of the shake-up. Old certainties were challenged; former ways of doing things, rethought. Travelers saw Southwest merge with AirTran. Deal-a-day site Groupon gave online travel agencies their first serious competition in ages. The year's other online travel sensation, Airbnb—a site that offers lodging in people's homes—dealt with news that one renter had trashed and robbed a site member's home, renewing questions about the kindness of strangers. Looking abroad, the revolts in North Africa and the Middle East shifted travel patterns—most dramatically in Cairo, where famous museum halls echoed emptily for months. Cruise lines suspended stops at a couple of Mexican ports, prompting local officials to introduce measures to better protect passengers. Meanwhile, some international travelers took advantage of opportunities to fly the new, high-tech Dreamliner 787 from Boeing. Back at home, the government tested new ideas in airport security and permitted Americans to visit Cuba as part of licensed educational tour groups. Finally, officials opened Manhattan's oft-debated memorial to the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Here, a chance to cap off 2011 and learn (or remember, in some cases) the biggest stories of the year that affect how we travel and see the world now—and in years to come. Compare this news to the events that rocked the travel world in 2010. Flying Started to Get More Comfortable Anyone who swears that it's just about the journey, and not the destination, has never logged hours crammed into an economy-class seat on an airplane that feels as dry as the Sahara. But a new era in comfier cabins dawned in 2011, thanks to the debut of a high-tech aircraft design. In October, Boeing's latest jumbo jet, the 787 Dreamliner, took its inaugural flight. (See Budget Travel's post "The 787 Dreamliner Debuts This Month.") The 787's cabins maintain higher humidity levels than traditional ones, sparing passengers from dry eyes and mouths. The 787s also pressurize their cabins to a more earth-like level than older planes, avoiding the altitude sickness some fliers feel in the air. They're quieter machines, too, and sound like you're riding in a hybrid car instead of a gas-powered one. The first airlines to use the aircraft are in Asia; United will bring the plane into U.S. service next year. Boeing's aerospace rival Airbus plans to launch similarly designed planes, dubbed the A350 series, within a year or two. It looks like high-tech cabins will soon be commonplace. Sure, no matter what a plane is made of, flights remain nasty, brutish, and not short enough. But we applaud every aircraft improvement travelers can get. Cruise Lines Become Wary of Mexico Mention Mexico, and some Americans think of violence linked to a government crackdown on drug trafficking and turf battles between various narcos. Case in point: In Mazatlán, two visitors were shot in the parking lot of a hotel frequented by foreign tourists, prompting cruise lines to suspend port calls. In the first half of 2011, the number of cruise-ship passengers to Mexico dropped from about 500,000 to 58,000. Puerto Vallarta faced similar security concerns after incidents there. (See Budget Travel's post "Puerto Vallarta Says It's Safe, Despite Princess Canceling Calls.") Yet nearly all of the violence has taken place far from cruise ports. Cancún, for instance, has remained safe, except for an attack in August on a bar in an outlying residential area. At Mazatlán, officials have put into place additional security measures, too, such as beefed-up police patrols and strict supervision of tour buses as passengers board them for day excursions. So expect more cruise lines to return to full itineraries soon. Princess Cruises Lines, for one, will begin calling on Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta again in 2012. The Arab Spring Causes Unrest in Popular Tourist Destinations Nothing prepared us for what happened across the Arab world this year, with uprisings toppling repressive regimes in Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya and protests continuing in Bahrain. But it was the revolution in Egypt that set off the biggest political shockwaves—and prompted the largest travel industry shake-up, too. Egypt is thought to have drawn only 10 million international visitors in 2011, down from 14.8 million a year earlier. Experts note that not a single tourist has suffered a scratch because of the turmoil to date. But the ongoing political uncertainty concerns many, and understandably so. Here's hoping that the country's commitment to keeping travelers safe remains solid during Egypt's continuing march to democracy. 9/11 Memorial Opens in NYC No one in America—or, perhaps, the world—was left untouched by the events of September 11, 2001, so it’s understandable that erecting a memorial to such a monumental event would be difficult. How does one pay tribute to each and every person affected by that tragedy? (See Budget Travel’s post "A Sneak Peek at the 9/11 Memorial Site.") Ten years to the day after the 9/11 attacks, the United States finally opened its much-debated commemorative site (911memorial.org), which consists of a pair of recessed pools in the footprints of the Twin Towers. Around the pools' edges, bronze plates bear the names of all 2,983 victims in New York, Washington, D.C., and Somerset County, Pa. The memorial has received much praise, instantly becoming a must-see memorial of equal power as those along Washington, D.C.'s National Mall. (See "15 Places Your Kids Should See Before 15.") Its next-door neighbor the 9/11 Museum is set to open next year. Southwest Stopped Being a Budget Carrier Formerly nicknamed The Love Airline, Southwest Airlines was once a scrappy discounter, bedeviling its larger rivals. Yet this year, it swallowed up AirTran, one of the last low-cost competitors. Now tickets booked on Southwest a couple of weeks in advance often seem little different from fares touted by United, Delta, and other giants. (See Budget Travel's post "Is the Era of Cheap Airfare Ending?") Salting the wound for budget-minded travelers, Southwest also revamped its loyalty program in March, requiring the typical vacationer to fly 10 round trips—up from a former eight—to earn a free ticket. (See our article "Southwest Waters Down Its Rapid Rewards Program.") To be fair, Southwest is still a traveler's best friend when it comes to keeping fees to a minimum, such as with its free checked-bags program. It's also great at offering (comparatively) reasonable fares for tickets booked at the eleventh hour. That said, while Southwest's stock symbol is LUV, fewer budget-conscious travelers are feeling the love from it these days. Airlines Made Tracking Lost Luggage a Priority Know how FedEx and other shipping services allow you to track the location of your package in real-time online? This year, Air France and Delta proved that airlines could provide passengers with similar high-tech tracking for similar precious cargo: luggage. Since February, Air France has invited fliers to sign up for its free Connect service during booking to receive updates via email or text message about changes to their trip, including alerts whenever a bag has gone missing. Earlier in the year, Delta created a page on its website where passengers can punch in the code on their bag tag to learn the status of their luggage. The airline also added this tool to its apps for iPhone and Android. Neither Delta nor Air France are providing quite the same level of detail as FedEx-style services do about shipments, but every bit of progress helps. In the meantime, given how airlines keep piling on the fees for checking luggage, you may want to hand your bag over to FedEx for domestic delivery in the first place and skip the uncertainty. (See Budget Travel’s post "How to Ship Your bag, From $70 Each Way.") Deal-a-Day Sites Took the World by Storm In July, 2011's biggest shopping phenom—the daily-deal site Groupon—teamed up with the largest online travel agency, Expedia, to create Groupon Getaways, a site devoted to e-coupons for travel. Discounts typically range from 30 to 80 percent off list prices. A recent example is a weeklong stay at one of hundreds of vacation rentals for $399 (valid for travel within the next year). The competition among daily-deal sites keeps growing, though, with companies like TripAlertz jockeying for dollars, too. At the same time, the discounts tend to be unprofitable for the companies providing them, and Groupon itself has just started turning a profit. At year-end, some critics wondered if the daily-deal sites might themselves expire soon. That's all the more reason for travelers to nab bargains while the going's good. ¡¡Bienvenidos a Cuba!! The headline of a Budget Travel blog post from July says it all: "We Can Now Travel to Cuba!" But there's a catch: You still can't hop a plane to Havana all by yourself and wander freely along the concrete seashore, puffing on Sancho Panzas–brand cigars. No, unlike Canadians, Europeans, and other nationalities, los yanquis have to travel as part of an educational tour group run by a handful of licensed companies—Insight Cuba, for example. Government rules require that the tours be packed with a "full-time schedule of educational exchange activities," such as meeting with local art gallery owners or children in orphanages. To our ears, these tours sound interesting. So we're not surprised that tour demand is strong. Here’s hoping the U.S. government licenses more companies to meet that demand soon. The TSA Tests "Chat Downs" In August, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began testing a new type of inspection technique at Boston's Logan Airport: "behavioral profiling." Specially trained officers quiz passengers about their journey. If anything seems suspicious, a passenger may be subjected to additional screening. In October, this trial expanded to Detroit. (See Budget Travel's article "4 Common Airport Security Questions—Answered!") In the same month, the TSA invited a select group of fliers to volunteer information about themselves—such as their home addresses and phone numbers—in advance of their trips, in exchange for a chance to zip through speedier screening lanes, which wouldn't require them to remove their shoes or jackets. This experiment is currently still taking place in Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, and Miami and includes selected travelers in American and Delta airlines' frequent-flier programs. Critics of both experiments remain concerned that the new wave of security may squash some people's privacy rights without boosting safety. The "Airbnb Robbery" Highlighted the Risks of Peer-to-Peer Rentals Travel-site sensation Airbnb broke new records this year, announcing that it had helped travelers rent places to stay (homes, rooms within homes, even boats) from ordinary homeowners more than 1 million times. Quite the achievement. But then the company raced into the public-relations equivalent of a 12-car pileup, when a San Francisco homeowner reported that her place had been trashed by an Airbnb renter. The company responded by rolling out an automatic $50,000 property guarantee to all hosts. It also introduced more thorough vetting of its site members, such as allowing hosts to screen out potential guests whose phone numbers haven't been verified, among other safety checks. (See "How Is Airbnb Dealing With the Robbery That Rocked the Vacation Rental World?") Renting from ordinary persons, rather than from companies, is part of a trend called peer-to-peer travel. The risks of such travel—for both renter and rentee—aren't confined to any one website, though. When it comes to free or cheap lodging, users of Crashpadder, Roomorama, Couchsurfing, and other sites are all taking small gambles. Yet given that there's been only one sensational incident reported during a time with more than a million happy rentals and swaps, the odds of enjoying a good experience remain solid. Believing in the essential goodness of humanity remains a winning proposition to travel by.   SEE MORE POPULAR CONTENT: World's Prettiest Castle Towns Top Budget Travel Destinations for 2012 10 Most Interesting Beaches 4 Most Common Reasons Airlines Lose Luggage World's Best Affordable Hotels Weirdest Hotels on the Planet

A Coffee Addict's Guide to the World

Choosing a cup of coffee is about more than just milk or sugar. From the Ethiopian countryside where coffee was first discovered to the baroque cafes of imperial Europe to the high-tech streets of Tokyo, coffee has adapted to almost every culture—even infiltrating tea-loving strongholds such as India and Hong Kong. Here's your global guide to regional coffee styles: some that have caught on across the globe, some that represent a unique link to the area—and some that are just plain weird. SEE HOW FOLKS AROUND THE WORLD TAKE THEIR COFFEE   Italy: Espresso Description: The perfect cup should have a caramel-colored crema layer on top that is thick enough to support a spoonful of sugar for a few seconds before breaking.Sip Tip: Espresso should be downed in one gulp while standing at the bar; if you sit at a table, that privilege will cost you up to four times more than standing.Cafe: Experts claim you can find Rome's best espresso near the Pantheon, where water is sourced from springs by the Aqua Virgo, an aqueduct built in 19 B.C. The most popular with locals is at Caffe Sant'Eustachio, where Romans have been stepping up to the stainless-steel bar since 1938 for their morning brew—always presweetened here. Piazza Sant'Eustachio 82, santeustachioilcaffe.it, espresso $1.50. Austria: Melange Description: The most popular drink in Viennese cafes, Austria's take on cappuccino combines espresso and steamed milk, topped with milk foam or sometimes whipped cream. Sip Tip: Cafes usually serve a glass of water with coffee, meant to be drunk between sips to hydrate and cleanse the palate. Cafe: With its elegant rococo interiors and elaborate sugar displays in the front window, it's no wonder that the Demel cafe once served as the official confectionary of the Hapsburg imperial court. Don't skip a slice of Vienna's signature dessert, Sacher torte (chocolate cake, apricot jam, and dark chocolate icing). Kohlmarkt 14, demel.at, melange $5.40. Ethiopia: Buna Description: In the birthplace of coffee, the drink may be served with salt or butter instead of milk and sugar (and a side of popped sorghum kernels) in the countryside, but sugar has become increasingly popular since the 1930s Italian occupation. Sip Tip: If invited into someone's home for the elaborate hours-long coffee ceremony, don't stop drinking until you've had cup number three (called bereka), which is considered a blessing. Cafe: Addis Ababa's Habesha Restaurant brings Ethiopia's rural traditions to the heart of the capital city: The coffee ceremony is performed throughout the day in a thatched hut in its outdoor dining area. Bole Rd. (next to the Sabit Building), 011-251/11-551-8358. Mexico: Café de Olla Description: Traditionally drunk at all-night Mexican wakes, the spiced drink is brewed in an earthenware pot with cinnamon sticks. Sip Tip: Don't add extra sugar—the drink comes presweetened with piloncillo (unrefined dark brown sugar). Cafe: Mexico City's El Bajío is widely considered one of the top spots for home-style Mexican cooking in the world. The original location is a bit off the tourist path in the northern district of Azcapotzalco, but their Polanco branch sits squarely in the city's upscale boutique-and-gallery district. Alejandro Dumas 7, carnitaselbajio.com.mx, café de olla $1.50. Saudi Arabia: Kahwa Description: A hallmark of Bedouin hospitality, the cardamom-infused drink is almost always offered with sweet dried dates, which counter the bitterness of the coffee. Sip Tip: A younger person is always expected to pour coffee for his elders. Cafe: Note that women are typically not welcome in Riyadh's traditional coffee and shisha (water pipe) shops. To get your caffeine fix as a Western tourist, you'll want to stick to the capital's more upscale hotels. At the Caravan Stop in the Hotel Al Khozama, you can sip coffee with traditional desserts like rosewater custard and almond puff pastry. Olaya Rd., al-khozama.com, desserts from $9. Turkey: Türk Kahvesi Description: A remnant of Ottoman coffeehouse culture, this thick brew is made in a copper cezve (a long-handled pot) and often served after meals with chewy Turkish delight candy. Sip Tip: Don't drink the thick layer of sludge on the bottom of the cup. You won't want to end up chewing on leftover grounds; besides, they can be used for a special form of fortune-telling called tasseography. Cafe: Founded in 1923 in Istanbul's Kadıköy market, Fazıl Bey'in Türk Kahvesi offers its small cups of Turkish coffee in flavors like cardamom, vanilla, or mastic—an aromatic resin used in Mediterranean desserts. Serasker Cad.Tarihi Kadıköy Çarçısı 1a, fazilbey.com, Türk kahvesi $2.50. Hong Kong: Yuanyang Description: An East-meets-West mix of coffee and tea (and milk), this unlikely pair is named for the Mandarin duck—a species in which the male and female look totally different but mate for life. Sip Tip: A proper cup should be made with Hong Kong–style milk tea, a strong blend of black tea filtered through a fabric bag that looks remarkably similar to pantyhose (in fact, it's sometimes nicknamed "silk stocking tea"). Cafe: The most popular places to find Hong Kong comfort food and milk tea are the 24-hour, retro-style diners called cha chaan tengs. Among the best is Tsui Wah, a spot known for its giant neon sign and its all-hours crowds. 15–19 Wellington St., tsuiwahrestaurant.com, yuanyang from $1.90. Greece: Frappé Description: The ubiquitous foam-topped iced drink is made with Nescafé instant coffee, cold water, sugar, and evaporated (or regular) milk—and always served with a straw. Sip Tip: Any self-respecting Greek knows a frappé should always be shaken, not stirred. Cafe: A great place to sip the cool stuff is Thessaloniki, Greece's seaside Second City and the drink's hometown—it was reportedly invented here in 1957 at the Thessaloniki International Fair by a representative of the Nestle company. For the best views, stop by the stylish Kitchen Bar, which sits on the harbor overlooking the city's famous White Tower. B Port Depot, kitchenbar.com.gr, frappé $2.70. India: Kaapi Description: Brewed with chicory, this South Indian variety comes with a layer of foam formed during the cooling-down process: The server pours the coffee back and forth between two stainless-steel tumblers in long, sweeping arcs to aerate it. Sip Tip: You might see this coffee referred to on menus as "meter coffee" or "coffee by the yard," a reference to the desired height from which the coffee should be poured between tumblers. Cafe: Opened in the 1950s by a coffee workers' cooperative, the Indian Coffee House is a popular national chain, well-known for its extremely cheap eats. Perhaps the most famous of the branches is Kolkata's College Street location, which has attracted its fair share of students, intellectuals, and even revolutionaries, such as the founders of the Indian Communist Party. 15 Bankin Chatterjee St., indiancoffeehouse.com, kaapi 16¢. Vietnam: Ca Phe Sua Da Description: Made tableside by pouring hot water through a stainless-steel filter (phin) balanced over your glass, the coffee drips slowly onto a layer of sweetened condensed milk. Sip Tip: If the beans are too finely ground, the coffee will drip through the filter too quickly, making for a weak brew. Cafe: Hotel Continental's La Dolce Vita Cafe, with its whirring ceiling fans and wicker terrace chairs, will immediately call to mind colonial Saigon. 132–134 Dong Khoi St., continentalhotel.com.vn, ca phe sua da $3. Cuba: Café Cubano Description: This Italian-style espresso shot gets its unique taste from adding raw demerara sugar, resulting in a sweet brown foam on top called espumita. Sip Tip: The best way to achieve the perfect espumita is by mixing the first few drops of coffee with the sugar—creating a sugary sludge—before adding the rest of the coffee. Cafe: The coffee daiquiri on the menu may not be the most traditional, but everything else at Café el Escorial, which is housed in a colonial mansion overlooking Havana's Plaza Vieja, screams Old Cuba. Mercaderes No. 317, 011-53/868-3545, café cubano from 75¢. Indonesia: Kopi Luwak Description: This infamous brew starts its trip to the cup by passing through the digestive tract of the civet, where enzymes are said to make the beans smoother, richer, and less bitter. The catlike mammal eats the ripest coffee berries and then excretes the undigested inner beans, which farmers harvest from their droppings. (This may not be any comfort, but the beans are then thoroughly washed!)Sip Tip: The world's most expensive coffee (it's often sold for hundreds of dollars per pound) has spawned a slew of counterfeiters. Be wary if you see the coffee being sold at a deep discount—chances are no civets were used in the making of this bean. Cafe: Located in Jakarta's Chinatown, the city's oldest coffee shop, Warung Tinggi, opened in 1878 and traces its history back to Indonesia's days as a Dutch colony. Bonus: Jakarta sits on the island of Java! Jl. Batu Jajar No. 35B, warungtinggi.com, kopi luwak $150 per pound. Malaysia: Pak Kopi/Kopi Putih/Bai Ka-fe Description: Introduced to the Perak region by 19th-century Chinese tin miners, this lighter brew—also called Ipoh white coffee after the town where it was developed—is made by roasting coffee beans in palm-oil margarine. Traditional Malaysian black coffee (kopi o) is roasted with both margarine and sugar, resulting in a darker roast. Sip Tip: Unlike in most other countries, in Malaysia the term "white coffee" does not mean that milk is included—it simply refers to the lighter color of the roast. Nevertheless, like the rest of Southeast Asia, Malaysians will most often serve white coffee with condensed milk. Cafe: With its stark tiled interiors and Coca-Cola sign over the door, Sin Yoon Loong in Old Town Ipoh is decidedly no-frills, but this is the original white coffee cafe. Try the specialty for breakfast with toast and homemade coconut jam. 15A Jalan Bandar Timah, 011-60/05-2414-5601, white coffee 45¢. Argentina: Cortado Description: Taking its name from the Spanish word for "cut," this drink is a simple espresso "cut" with a small splash of milk. The connection to Italian espresso is no coincidence—Buenos Aires is the Latin American city with perhaps the closest ties to Europe and its old-world cafe culture.Sip Tip: If you like your coffee (much) milkier, order a lágrima ("tear" or "teardrop" in Spanish), which reverses the ratio: a lot of hot milk with a splash of coffee. Cafe: Founded in 1858 by a French immigrant, Buenos Aires's Cafe Tortoni is the country's oldest cafe, offering nightly tango shows in its simple basement venue. Avenida de Mayo 825, cafetortoni.com.ar, cortado $2.50. Australia/New Zealand: Flat White Description: Though the Aussies and the Kiwis still feud over who invented the drink, they agree on one basic fact: It's not a latte! A flat white is coffee mixed with steamed milk, served in a ceramic cup with a handle; a latte also includes froth on top and should be served in a tall glass. Sip Tip: A flat white shouldn't be made with just any milk—the recipe calls for micro-foam, the non-frothy steamed milk at the bottom of the vessel. (Macro-foam, or dry foam, comes from the top of the steaming pitcher, includes more bubbles, and is used in cappuccinos.) Cafe: First they tackled wine. Now they're onto coffee. Both Australia and New Zealand have turned into countries of caffeine connoisseurs (snobs even!) and have followed by opening a slew of sleek, urban cafes. Campos Coffee, a tiny timber espresso bar in Sydney's Newtown neighborhood, is known for its crowds, the speed of its baristas (up to 200 coffees served per hour), and its quirky house blends: The Obama includes beans from both Kenya and the Americas (193 Missenden Rd., camposcoffee.com, flat white $3.55). In Auckland, Espresso Workshop ups the coffee-snob quotient with an on-site roastery, barista lessons, and coffee-appreciation classes (19 Falcon St., espressoworkshop.co.nz, flat white $4.15). Spain: Café Bombón Description: This sweet combination of equal parts espresso and condensed milk originated in Valencia and has since become popular throughout the country. Sip Tip: The drink is most often served in a small glass (similar to a shot glass) to show off the distinct layers of the black coffee and the off-white condensed milk. In order to keep the layers separate, the espresso must be poured into the glass very slowly, often over the back of a spoon. Cafe: If you're in search of a café bombón, chances are you have a serious sweet tooth. Don't miss one of Madrid's famous churrerias, where you can dip sugary sticks of fried dough into insanely thick and rich hot chocolate. Locals prefer Chocolat, an unassuming churro spot tucked into a neighborhood side street a 10-minute walk from the Museo del Prado. Santa Maria 30, 011-34/914-294-565, café bombón $2.30. Morocco: Café des Épices Description: A delicious by-product of Morocco's spice markets, this brew can incorporate a number of flavors depending on the whims of the cafe owner, including ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, black pepper, cinnamon, sesame, cumin, and cloves. Sip Tip: The sweetness of your cup of coffee is often dictated by the occasion, with sweet coffee served symbolically at happy occasions like weddings and bitter, black coffee served at funerals. Cafe: Aside from the spiced coffee—hence the name Café des Épices—this cafe in the Marrakech medina offers mint tea, fresh-squeezed orange juice, flatbread sandwiches, and rooftop seating from which to gaze out over the buzzing market. 75 Lakdima Rahba, cafedesepices.net, café des epices, $1.80. France: Café au Lait Description: This quintessential morning drink made with hot (but not steamed) milk is often served in a wide-mouthed bowl to accommodate the dunking of baguettes or croissants. A similar drink you may see on menus is café crème; many say the drinks are nearly identical, but crème is more often ordered in the afternoon. Sip Tip: If you'd like only a little milk in your coffee, do as the locals do and ask for café noisette (hazelnut coffee)—it has nothing to do with hazelnut flavoring, but instead takes its name from the toasty, nutty color imparted by the dash of milk. Cafe: Situated in the 6th arrondisement on Paris's Left Bank, the Café de Flore looks much the same as it did when Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir argued about existentialism here during World War II, with its famous red-leather booths, mahogany paneling, and mirrored walls. 172 Boulevard Saint-Germain, cafedeflore.fr, café crème $7. Finland: Kaffeost Description: Especially popular among the local Sami population in the eastern region of Kainuu, this dish/drink is made by submerging chunks of leipäjuusto (a cow- or reindeer-milk cheese curd with a caramelized crust that makes it look like bread) into a cup of black coffee, fishing them out, and then drinking what's left.    Sip Tip: If you're looking to make the treat yourself, the distinctive cheese is sold under a number of different names: leipäjuusto (bread cheese), juustoleipa (cheese bread), and narskujuusto (which refers to the squeaky sound the curds make on your teeth). Cafe: This rural treat is more often made at home rather than purchased at a cafe, especially in cosmopolitan Helsinki. You can pick up leipäjuusto at most markets and dunk it yourself. Or head to Zetor, a Finnish-countryside-themed restaurant that is decorated with tractors and milk jugs and serves classic dishes like reindeer and leipäjuusto with cloudberry jam. Mannerheimintie 3–5, ravintolazetor.fi, cheese $10.75. Ireland: Irish Coffee Description: Served in a stemmed whiskey goblet with a heaping dollop of whipped cream, this warming drink—more classic cocktail than morning pick-me-up—is made with hot coffee, sugar, and Irish whiskey and was reportedly invented by Chef Joseph Sheridan in 1942 to warm up arriving passengers at what is now Shannon Airport. Sip Tip: Don't stir the cream into your coffee! The hot coffee is meant to be drunk through the cold whipped cream. Cafe: Though the Irish coffee may be a relatively recent addition to the centuries-old pub scene, the drink has become all but ubiquitous across the Emerald Isle. In Dublin, sipping an Irish coffee is all about the atmosphere, and it doesn't come much more authentic than the Brazen Head. Established in 1198, the pub claims to be the country's oldest—although the present building dates back to the still-impressive 17th century. Plus it's only a 10-minute walk to the Irish whiskey motherlode: the Jameson Distillery. 20 Lower Bridge St., brazenhead.com, Irish coffee $8. United States: Frappuccino Description: Starbucks has become synonymous with American cafe culture, and this milkshake-coffee hybrid has become the ultimate symbol of the brand: a ubiquitous, endlessly customizable, massive seller tailored to the country's sweet tooth. Taking into account the bottled version sold in supermarkets and convenience stores, annual Frappuccino sales have exceeded the $1 billion mark. Sip Tip: Looking for an extra boost? Frappuccinos can be ordered "affogato-style," which means they come topped with a shot of espresso. But you won't see this drink listed on any menus. In addition to the 87,000 combinations advertised by the brand in the past, the truest Starbucks connoisseurs speak in a language of off-menu secret specialties (a "Short," for example, is a third smaller than a Tall and comes at a cheaper price). Remember that, though relatively common, these drink orders are not official, so don't get too mad if your barista doesn't know what you're talking about! Cafe: Whether or not you're a Starbucks skeptic, you can't miss Seattle's Pike Place Market location. The first link in the ever-expanding global chain opened here in 1971. 1912 Pike Pl., starbucks.com, Tall from $2.95. Netherlands: Bakkie Troost Description: Literally translating to "cup of comfort," the Dutch bakkie troost usually comes black and served alongside a single spice cookie (you may also commonly see the drink simply referred to as kaffe). If you want a latte, you'll have to order koffie verkeerd, or "coffee wrong." Sip Tip: Know your terminology! A bruine kroeg (brown cafe) is a tobacco-stained, pub-like bar, known for its untranslatable sense of gezelligheid (similar to coziness); a koffieshop (or simply "coffee shop") is the infamous Amsterdam shop that sells marijuana products; a koffiehuis will sell coffee and light meals; and a cafe is similar to a restaurant with a bar. You can find a good cup of coffee in any of them, but you should know what you're getting yourself into before going inside. Cafe: Amsterdam is a city of coffeehouses, from less than savory to gleaming and grand. Often, the most rewarding spots are those steeped in centuries of history. Situated in one of Amsterdam's oldest wooden houses, Cafe In 't Aepjen (literally "In the Monkeys") gets its odd name from the tavern's storied history as a sailor's haunt. Reportedly, men returning from Asia in the 16th century sometimes paid out their tabs with monkeys they had picked up in their travels. Zeedijk 1, cafeintaepjen.nl, kaffe $3.17. Brazil: Cafezinho Description: The diminutive name of this drink (meaning "a little coffee" in Portuguese) belies a big fact about Brazil's coffee economy—the country produces almost a third of all the world's coffee beans. The national coffee is filtered through a cloth strainer and often served in tiny plastic or china cups, and comes very sweet and very strong. Sip Tip: A cafezinho often comes free at the end of a meal in a restaurant. Cafe: Skip the European-style grand cafes and head to one of Rio de Janeiro's botequins (neighborhood bars) like Café Gaúcho. At this popular sidewalk spot, guests must follow a few steps to fit in like a local: Pass coins to the cashier, get a small receipt, bring it to the man behind the circular counter, and receive your distinctly bitter cup of coffee. Rua São José 86, 011-55/25-339-285, cafezinho 50¢. Poland: Kawa Parzona Description: Also called kawa naturalna, this traditional Polish-style coffee is made by simply mixing ground coffee beans and boiling water directly in a glass with no filter. Sip Tip: If you want to steep your coffee the traditional way, look on the label for drobno mielona, which is an extra-fine, Turkish-style ground. If the label just reads mielona, these beans have been ground and are suitable for a regular drip coffee pot or an espresso machine. Cafe: Finding traditional Polish coffee is becoming increasingly difficult in the country's major cities, but it's simple to make the drink yourself once you buy the correct grounds. Though the coffee may come out of a copper pot rather than brewed in your individual glass in the traditional manner, Warsaw's Cafe Blikle serves up one of the most classic Polish cafe experiences. While most of the capital was damaged or destroyed during the two world wars, this spot has been going strong since 1869, thanks in no small part to its world-famous pączki (doughnuts). Nowy Świat 35, 011-48/022-826-0569, kawa $2.75. Japan: Kan Kohi Description: Introduced by the Ueshima Coffee Co. in 1969, canned coffee (which became kan kohi through Japan's system of adapting foreign phrases) is found in most grocery stores and vending machines, from which it is dispensed hot in the winter and cold in the summer. Sip Tip: Though canned coffee is perfectly portable, that doesn't mean you should bring it everywhere. Eating or drinking on Japanese subways, for instance, is generally considered rude. Cafe: Searching for the best place to find canned coffee in Japan is akin to searching for the best place to buy Coca-Cola in the United States—it's everywhere. The country operates an estimated 6 million vending machines (that's about one for every 23 people).   SEE MORE POPULAR CONTENT: World's Prettiest Castle Towns America's Best Food Regions Top Budget Travel Destinations for 2012 5 European Countries Where Prices Have Decreased the Most Photos: Weirdest Hotels of All-Time

World's Weirdest Hotels 2011

What makes a hotel "weird"? Each year, we search for out-of-the-ordinary experiences that you can't find anywhere else in the world. "Weird" is our way of saying "one of a kind," and in this lighthearted survey, uniqueness sometimes trumps BT's typical price point of $150 per night. Our goal is to showcase special corners of the globe, where you can literally slumber Down Under in an Australian "opal mine" lodge or tuck yourself into a vintage plane's cockpit for a nightcap. If our annual roundup is evidence of anything, it's that even your wackiest dreams can come true! SEE THE HOTELS Seaventures Rig Resort, Malaysia An oil rig in the middle of the ocean isn't the first venue that comes to mind for a dive hotel. But that didn't stop the folks behind Seaventures Rig Resort from creating an immersive, ecofriendly experience like few others. Situated in the center of the coral triangle of three Malaysian islands, the bright blue-and-orange converted rig is built over a cultivated reef teeming with undersea life. Rooms are outfitted with the basics, but diving is the focus here: Days are spent inhabiting the underwater home to all forms of sea creatures, from cuttlefish and sea turtles to barracuda and eel. A lift lowers divers directly into the water below to explore the reef, which the rig now serves to protect. With just 23 rooms, the sundeck's never crowded, and spectators can come up anytime they'd like for 360-degree views of the surrounding islands. Come nightfall, there's a house band and outdoor BBQ. Any time an oil rig is helping a marine environment, we're on board. 011-60/88-261-669, seaventuresdive.com, two-night diving packages from $433. Treehotel,  Sweden Set in Harads near Sweden's Lule River, Treehotel puts a high-concept twist—as only Scandinavian design can—on the well-worn idea of a tree-house hotel. Fixed about 20 feet up in the trees of the Harads woods are five separate "rooms" that each offer distinct tree-house experiences. The Bird's Nest is exactly what it sounds like, with a wild twig exterior on grand scale. The Mirrorcube is a square unit that reflects its surroundings, doubling as a kind of forest camouflage. (Bird lovers, don't fret—it's covered in an infrared film that's visible to our feathered friends, to avoid crashes.) The UFO evokes a spinning spaceship from just about any '60s sci-fi movie. Each structure is only accessible by an individual ladder, staircase, or bridge, so to wander among them is to stroll the forest floor. While doing so, you'll also encounter the eight-person Tree Sauna, which includes a hot tub for soaking in after you've soaked up the great outdoors. 011-46/928-10403, treehotel.se, doubles from $590. 9 Hours, Japan Sure, the capsule concept is far from new—the first one opened in Osaka in 1979 as a conveniently located base camp for business travelers. But Kyoto's 9 Hours hotel marries this original conceit of convenience—it is, after all, located in one of the main commercial centers of the city, a two-minute walk from the train station—with amenities you would expect from a four-star hotel (rain-forest showerheads, complimentary mineral water, pillows specially designed to ensure healthy posture during sleep). Awash in a Space Odyssey–style—white, with single-person sleeping quarters and technology designed to make sleep easier—9 Hours is like the iPod of hotels. Each capsule includes a computerized-lighting/alarm-clock system to facilitate sleeping and waking. Once inside, you might expect a soothing mist to put you into a time-traveling slumber, only to wake in the year 2057 wondering what happened to your crew. No such luck, as 9 Hours pays far too much attention to time: 9 Hours = 1 hour to shower (in the hotel's locker rooms), 7 hours to sleep, and 1 hour to prepare before leaving. Get it? Don't worry, though, the staff is not that literal—if you want to linger longer in the computer lounge or lobby, guests are allowed to spend up to 17 hours in a single stay. 011-81/075-353-9005, 9hours.jp, capsules from $63 per stay. Kolarbyn, Sweden "Good" is god in Swedish—and we can't deny there's something heavenly about being tucked away in a forest along the shore of Lake Skärsjön. Imagine being led through the woods to a tall pile of grass and branches. There seems to be a stovepipe sticking out of the top of it, and on further examination, a door! Inside one of 12 primitive forest huts at Kolarbyn, you'll discover a rugged getaway from modern-day bustle (and a marked absence of Ikea furnishings). Candles and fireplaces provide the only night-lights, and guests cook their own meals over an open fire. After a night's sleep on the simple beds, the closest thing you find to an alarm clock will be the birds chirping in the morning. But Kolarbyn isn't completely without comforts: After a guided forest hike, you can take a wooden boat ride on the lake and finish with a cathartic sweat in the floating sauna. Ah, the god life. 011-46/70-400-7053, kolarbyn.se, doubles from $59. Madonna Inn Resort & Spa, California The name predates the pop icon, but something tells us Madge would approve of this landmark motel. Situated in the California coastal town of San Luis Obispo, the Madonna Inn is a living shrine to retro kitsch. "Anybody can build one room and a thousand like it," says Jack Madonna, son of owner Phyllis. "I try to give people more than they pay for." With 110 individual theme rooms, this may be an understatement. The Country Gentleman, outfitted with gauche brown-leather sofas, portrays a circa-1960s suburban living room. The Caveman Room and Rock Bottom share a love of faux-rock ceilings and floors—and showers. The Love Nest revels in floor-to-ceiling magenta. Among the remaining 105 units, monochromatic color schemes, heavy carpeting, and faux retro touches rule. "I want people to come in with a smile and leave with a smile," Jack says. 805/543-3000, madonnainn.com, doubles from $179. Airplane Suite, Netherlands Welcome to the Airplane Suite. Once a government-owned Ilyushin 18 aircraft that carted around former East German officials like Hans Honecker, this vintage plane now only offers flights of fancy. In a feat of genius and excess, Dutch entrepreneur Ben Thijssen saved the craft from the trash heap, then promptly converted it into a five-star hotel suite. Parked permanently on the edge of Teuge International Airport's runway, the 131-foot cabin now ticks off a litany of posh amenities, including a whirlpool bath, a sauna, flat-screen TVs, and Wi-Fi. Guests can watch arrivals and departures without ever leaving the comfort of their queen-size bed. Naturally, the cockpit has been left intact for when you want to play pilot. 011-31/30-221-0568, hotelsuites.nl, one suite from $472. Desert Cave Hotel, Australia Part underground refuge, part desert oasis, few properties delve as deep into the Australian Outback as the Desert Cave Hotel. Literally. Taking a cue from nearby opal mines, 19 of the hotel's 50 rooms are underground to evoke a dugout, cave-like experience (albeit with modern-day amenities). Sandstone is the principal design element here, buttressing walls, floors, and ceilings throughout the property. As a result, even a visit to the gift shop can feel a little like a lunar walk. Of course, that's part of the charm. Those who can't do without natural light can stay aboveground in units that showcase stunning views of the expansive red desert. Given the setting, it may be your extracurricular activities that distinguish your stay at Desert Cave: Special tours offer the chance to explore real opal mines (complete with hard hat) one day and then tour the 80-million-year-old Painted Desert in a four-wheel-drive vehicle the next. 011-61/-8-8672-5688, desertcave.com.au, doubles from $184. Medieval Hotel Detenice, Czech Republic Bound to call to mind troubled visions of the Medieval Times franchise (for some American travelers anyway), this hotel on the outskirts of Prague survives comparisons to its gauche counterpart with admirable attention to authenticity. Part of a larger resort that features a castle, brewery, and tavern, the hotel's decor isn't just charmingly anachronistic; it pays loyal tribute to the details of the Middle Ages. Candles and sconces light the way to dim guest rooms without electricity (but with indoor plumbing, thankfully). The rooms themselves are outfitted with furniture made from solid timber beams (as they would have been around the 13th century A.D.). Sheepskins and weaponry hang on the walls—but historical accuracy stops short of horsehair ticking in the mattresses, which are topped by plush down comforters. Maintaining the medieval illusion, the staff dresses and acts the part, sometimes with bawdy banter aimed at guests themselves. Foodies won't be disappointed, either, as the adjacent tavern offers enough banquet fare and ale to make King Henry I, II, or III proud. 011-420/493-599-161, detenice.cz, doubles from $80. Marmara Antalya, Turkey Offering a new spin on the notion of 360-degree views, Turkey's Marmara Antalya is the world's only fully revolving hotel. Sitting in 400-plus tons of water to ensure a smooth rotation, the hotel can be sped up or slowed down as various events require—the fastest (and most novel) 360-degree rotation takes two hours, for, say, a cocktail party; the slowest, a regular setting for everyday guests, takes 22 hours. Perched atop the Falez cliffs near Antalya, this circular Revolving Loft annex serves up multiple vistas for each room in the process. You might go to sleep overlooking the surrounding foothills only to wake to a vista of the Mediterranean Sea. White linens and natural wood accents lend a warm-and-airy feel to rooms, but the views are the main attraction. If the novelty of a hotel spinning on its axis isn't quite enough, guests can also canoe a man-made river, ascend a rock-climbing column, or even channel their inner Banksy at a graffiti station, all without leaving the hotel complex. 011-90/242-249-3600, themarmarahotels.com, doubles from $127. La Balades des Gnomes, Belgium For anyone who's ever wanted to inhabit a fantasyland worthy of a child's picture book, La Balades des Gnomes is the B&B for you. At this Belgian countryside residence, travelers can pretend they're about to invade Troy inside a full-scale replica of the famed Trojan Horse, complete with wooden panels and wheels. The nearby farmhouse showcases the same whimsical details in 10 imaginative rooms that look like something out of Tim Burton's sketchbook. Each space has its own distinct narrative: Guests can sleep in a boat floating in a pool of water or in a spaceship set on a lunar landscape. There's even a Fores Hut with a moat of live goldfish. Detailed woodwork accents every inch of the property, with Grimm's Fairy Tales–like gnomes and ghoulish faces carved in all manner of surfaces. Single travelers, rest assured: You're not alone here. 011-32/20-472-8623, labaladedesgnomes.be, doubles from $155.   SEE MORE POPULAR CONTENT: Top Budget Travel Destinations for 2012 Year's Best Cameras for Avid Travelers 40 Unbelievable Underwater Snapshots 12 Iconic City Skylines 10 Record-Breaking Bridges

Insiders' Guide to the Caribbean

ST. MARTIN If there's any complaint about this part-French, part-Dutch island-piled high with nightclubs, restaurants, and resorts—it's that there's too much of everything. But in the wake of the global economic downturn, construction has slowed—and even, in a sense, reversed. A string of hurricane-battered structures at Mullet Bay on the Dutch side was torn down (after 15 years) and replaced by a provisional park. On the French side, the 154-acre private nature reserve Loterie Farm continues to grow, adding poolside cabanas to its zip-line course, hiking trails, and other outdoorsy amenities (loteriefarm.com, hiking $7, zip line $48, pool access $28, 10-person cabana $240). And following a 13-year effort, the Man of War Shoal reef earned certification as a marine park, giving divers new reasons to take the plunge. SEE OUR FAVORITE PHOTOS FROM THE ISLANDS ARUBA There's a reason Aruba's luxury hotels, glitzy casinos, and designer boutiques are concentrated along this Dutch island's western edge: the spectacular sunsets. Yet even a non-morning person might want to sample the sunrise side for its weekly street party called Carubbean Festival (297/582-3777). Every Thursday night, food and drink vendors set up stands to sell regional specialties, primarily to local transplants hungering for a taste of home. This cross-cultural mixer takes place, appropriately enough, in the working-class community of San Nicolas, built to house oil-refinery workers who immigrated here in the 1920s. "Aruba has opened its doors to many other islanders—a lot of Jamaicans, Haitians, Dominicans," says Ruthlene Flemming, an Aruba native and the event's coordinator. "It's our melting pot. And here, you can experience a little bit of the whole Caribbean." The sunrise side is also home to cactus-studded Arikok National Park, which features rebuilt access roads, trails, and a new visitors center, thanks to a $10 million grant from the EU (arubanationalpark.org, adult admission $10). The best budget-hotel option, however, is back on the west side about a $20 cab ride away: MVC Eagle Beach, a 19-room inn with ocean-view terraces, all-white bedding, and dark-wood furniture (mvceaglebeach.com, from $145). BAHAMAS Some solitude seekers insist there's a direct relationship between proximity and peace: The farther you travel, the more quiet things get. Then there's Cat Island, a 48-mile-long coral outcrop just 265 miles east of Florida and only 45 minutes from Nassau. SkyBahamas Airlines flies to Cat Island daily from Nassau (skybahamas.net, round-trip from $169), yet of the over 5 million travelers to the Bahamas last year, only a fraction made a call on Cat. What they found here wasn't much, and in a good way: thatch-roof beach bars and empty pink-sand bays, diving and gentle hikes up Mt. Alvernia, the Bahamas's highest point at 206 feet above sea level. There's a great waterfront restaurant in Arthur's Town called Da Smoke Pot that serves sweet-and-sour conch and rum punch, and hosts musicians on the porch playing Bahamian songs on the musical saw (242/354-2094, sweet-and-sour conch $15). Nearby Pigeon Cay Beach Club occupies a three-mile strand with seven simple, stand-alone rental cottages (pigeoncaybahamas.com, from $140). U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS St. Croix, at 82 square miles, is larger than St. Thomas and St. John combined, yet of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, it gets the fewest visitors. Why? It's the most remote and the least developed—good news for the agriculture-rich island's burgeoning food scene. Among the most notable foodie stops are the farmstays and weekend workshops at the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute on the island's certified organic Ridge to Reef Farm (visfi.org; tours daily from $25; visit website for farmstay retreat options), and the annual St. Croix Food & Wine Experience, a festive, weeklong charity event in April that draws big-name chefs such as Top Chef Masters star Graham Elliot Bowles and James Beard award-winner Ana Sortun (stcroixfoodandwine.com, events from $50). Sports culture is also thriving in all that open space. Horseback riding and triathlons are popular, as well as diving and other water sports. One of the newer options: Sea Thru Kayaks VI's tours through the island's two bioluminescent bays (seathrukayaksvi.com, 90-minute tours $50). "Go when the moon isn't full, and you can really see the lights twinkling," says local restaurateur and sommelier Katherine Pugliese, a cofounder of the food festival. "You feel like you're in pixie-land." PUERTO RICO San Juan is still numero uno in Puerto Rico, but folks have increasingly begun gazing about 40 miles east—to Vieques. The nearly four-year-old W Hotels resort here has lured celebrity chefs (Alain Ducasse) and guests (Angie Harmon, Ryan Phillippe). But what's drawing more casual types, however, is Vieques's laid-back personality. Hospitality veterans Robin and Marsha Shepherd left their villa-rental business in St. Bart's to open the 10-room Malecón House in 2010, amid a row of mom-and-pop inns (maleconhouse.com, from $175). The most impressive and least crowded of the island's beaches (some of which have hit worldwide top 10 lists) are part of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, on land the U.S. Navy used as a target-practice center until 2003. Today, it's managed by Puerto Rico's branch of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "If it hadn't been for the Navy and Fish and Wildlife," says Bill Barton, who owns Vieques Sailing (787/508-7245, daylong boat trips including lunch $110, late Feb.-Oct.), "the east end would look like Atlantic City." BERMUDA Sitting all alone in the Atlantic Ocean 650 miles east of North Carolina, Bermuda is a true outlier. It's not anywhere near the Caribbean Sea, and its food, architecture, and customs are far more British-colonial than tropical paradise. Still, the island (actually an atoll) has found an easy alliance with its neighbors to the south, sharing in tourism efforts and reaping the benefits of their counterbalanced seasons: The Caribbean booms in the winter, while peak season in Bermuda runs from spring through fall. Though Bermuda is always pricey—four of the five most expensive destinations in the Caribbean are here—visitors traveling now will find lower airfares, reduced golf fees, and hotels that are more than 40 percent off summer rates. It's not quite sunbathing weather: December days average 70 degrees. But it's perfect for touring the island's cultural attractions. Two years ago, Bermuda celebrated the 400th anniversary of the settlement of St. George's Town, the 350th anniversary of Warwick Academy, the oldest school in the western hemisphere, and the 200th anniversary of the Bermuda Post Office. Even the hotels have history: The 202-year-old main house of the Greenbank Guesthouse & Cottages incorporates cedar beams that were used as ballast in transatlantic trading ships (greenbankbermuda.com, from $145). CAYMAN ISLANDS The Caymans are practically synonymous with two wealthy pursuits: deep-sea diving and offshore banking. Dive 365, an initiative launched by the islands' Tourism Association, is hoping to make at least one of those more accessible to regular folks (divecayman.ky). The project's goal is to establish and maintain one Cayman dive site mooring for every day of the year, which meant adding 79 sites to the existing 286 by the end of 2012. One of the most noteworthy additions is the decommissioned U.S. naval ship Kittiwake, a 251-foot submarine rescue vessel that now sits in 62 feet of water off Seven Mile Beach (kittiwakecayman.com, scuba pass $10, snorkel pass $5). "The Kittiwake has a history that divers can relate to, with recompression chambers and lots of bulkheads to explore," says Nancy Easterbrook of Divetech, a local dive shop that helped to prepare the vessel for her sinking in January 2011 (divetech.com, two-tank boat dives $120). "Because the top is only about eight feet below the surface, you can snorkel the wreck too," she says. Affordable hotels on Grand Cayman are rare, but one good pick is 130-room Sunshine Suites, just a stone's throw from the Ritz-Carlton; each room has a fully equipped kitchen (sunshinesuites.com, from $167). DOMINICAN REPUBLIC The Dominican Republic is a great place to find affordable all-inclusives, particularly in Punta Cana, on the island's east coast. But along the north shore—famous for its sporty adventure culture—more intimate hotels and house rentals offer a worthy alternative. In Cabarete, the Residencial Casa Linda villas look more like a neighborhood than a resort, though all rental units come with daily housekeeping service (casalindacity.com, two-bedroom villas from $120). The villas are only five miles down the road from Iguana Mama Adventure Tours, which offers trips to the 27 Falls of Damajagua, known for daredevil-quality jumps and slides over the waterfalls (iguanamama.com, full-day tour $89). In recent years, north-coast outfitters have seen an increase in the popularity of—and the competition for—canyoning and cascading excursions. One new arrival, Monkey Jungle Dominicana, located between Cabarete and Sosúa, stands apart for its philanthropic bent (monkeyjungledr.com, zip line from $50). All the profits from its zip-line and suspension-bridge tours go to the free on-site medical and dental clinic, which is staffed by volunteers and treats patients who cannot afford health care. Kitesurfing may be Cabarete's most popular outdoor pursuit, and while there's no shortage of local instructors to show you the ropes, it's almost as much fun just to watch the theatrics from the waterfront Nikki Beach lounge (nikkibeach.com, cocktails from $7)—drink in hand, of course. JAMAICA It's easy to get to Jamaica (flights are frequent and relatively cheap) and easier still to find a resort destination for just about every type of traveler: romantic Negril for honeymooners, family-friendly Montego Bay, busy Ocho Rios for cruisers. What's harder is finding an all-inclusive hotel that doesn't sequester you in its own cocoon at the expense of exploring the Jamaican culture beyond. Treasure Beach, on the south coast, is home to just a handful of hotels, all of them small-scale and dedicated to opening their doors to the community. At Marblue Villas Suites, an eight-suite hotel with custom-made local cedar furniture, guests often stray into the nearby fishing villages for coffee, dinner, or drinks (marblue.com, from $111). Jason Henzell's Jakes Hotel, which evokes Moroccan riads with arched doorways and colorful tapestries, is one of the area's largest properties, with 49 rooms, two restaurants, and a spa (jakeshotel.com, from $90). Henzell is committed to helping interested guests connect with their surroundings. On working farms in the nearby Pedro Plains area, the hotel runs a monthly series of organic, local-food dinners, which are drawing Jamaican residents and visitors alike. "There's a vibrancy that leaks into every aspect of life here," says Liz Solms, an NGO veteran who works with local growers to supply the produce for the meal. "It's there in the spiciness and richness of the food, and even in the way people communicate with one another." TRINIDAD & TOBAGO Tobago is like Trinidad's backyard, a 116-square-mile haven just a 20-minute flight on Caribbean Airlines from its bigger, noisier sibling (caribbean-airlines.com, round-trip flights from $48). Where Trinidad has restaurants, nightclubs, and 96 percent of the country's population, Tobago has empty beaches, calm bays, and spectacular brain-coral reefs. There are also almost three times the number of exotic bird species as there are hotels, and the birds have free rein in the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, one of the oldest protected forests in the western hemisphere. When it comes to human nesting, it doesn't get more peaceful than the four-room Gloucester Place Guest House in Parlatuvier, on the island's north coast (gloucesterplace.com, from $110). Shaded by coconut palms and mango trees, the guesthouse even has its own natural waterfall and an infinity pool overlooking the Caribbean.