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These Are the 12 Oldest Places in America

By Justin Ocean
January 12, 2022
OldestPlaces_LafittesBlacksmithShop_Exterior
Courtesy <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:LafittesCarriage1May2004.jpg" target="_blank"> Infrogmation/Wikimedia Commons</a>
Just how far back in time does human achievement go in this country? We challenged ourselves to find out and in the process discovered everything from a prehistoric settlement near St. Louis to a pirate bar in New Orleans.

What constitutes "old" depends on where in the world you are—200 years sounds old, but not in comparison with 2,000 or 20,000. But just how far back does human achievement go in this country? We challenged ourselves to find out. We hit the road, spoke to historians, and dug deep in the history books to find the oldest of the old when it came to everything from cities to airports across America. And while not everything on this list is old in the European sense of the word, you'll find that it's some of the 19th and 20th century firsts (the airport, the skyscraper, for example) that established the United States as an important player in the world's history. Of course, there are churches, cities, and archaeological finds that well pre-date our own 1776 Independence, too, thanks to Spanish settlements, Pilgrims, and the Native Americans who have been here all along. Here are the top 12 places for exploring America's past.

Oldest City: Cahokia, c. 700–1400

UNESCO officially named Cahokia (15 minutes from modern-day St. Louis) the largest and earliest prehistoric settlement north of Mexico back in the 1980s. It was thought to be just a seasonal encampment, important but not that exciting. Then, in January 2012, reports were released showing that this was actually the first true North American city: 500 thatch-roofed rectangular houses were gridded around ceremonial plazas and stretched eight miles on either side of the Mississippi River; at its peak it had 20,000 inhabitants. Visit the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and get a sense of the scope from the top of Monks Mound, a 100-foot-tall monumental outlook that took an estimated 22 million cubic feet of earth to make. 30 Ramey St., Collinsville, Ill., 618/346-5160, cahokiamounds.org

Oldest Art: Chumash Cave Painting, c. 1000

Art, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Still, few can debate the impressiveness of these 500-plus-year-old rock paintings in Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park in the Santa Ynez Mountains near Santa Barbara, Calif.. Colorful and abstract symbols, possibly representing mythic figures or natural phenomena (like a 1677 solar eclipse), were applied with crushed mineral pigment for unknown reasons. Is it art? Is it graffiti? Bring a flashlight and theorize away. The paintings are easily viewed behind a protective grate after a short, steep hike. Painted Cave Rd., Santa Barbara, Calif., 805/733-3713, parks.ca.gov.

Oldest Community: Acoma Pueblo, c. 1150

Seventy miles west of Albuquerque, N.M., the Acoma people have lived continuously for nearly 900 years atop a 367-foot sandstone bluff. Homes are multi-story, multi-family "apartment complexes" that can be reached only by exterior ladders, much like the cliff cities of Mesa Verde and Gila, where their first nation brethren the Anasazi and the Mogollon lived, respectively. Group tours depart daily from Sky City Cultural Center at the bottom of the mesa, while the Haak'u Museum screens culturo-historical videos, offers fantastic pottery for sale (with plenty more vendors outside), and fry bread with green chile stew in the café. Interstate 40 & Exit 102, 800/747-0181, sccc.acomaskycity.org. 

Oldest Timber Frame House: The Fairbanks House, c. 1637–1641

Thanks to the magic of dendrochronology (a.k.a. tree-ring dating), the Fairbanks House was declared North America's oldest timber-framed house. It's amazing that the wooden house is still standing, about 375 years after it was built. Eight generations of the Fairebanks family lived in this homestead, 25 minutes outside of Boston, first in the two-story, two-room core, and later, as fashions dictated and wealth allowed, throughout its "new" additions. No grand renovation ever unified the various sections, so much of the original handiwork and historical details and construction techniques have remained. The house now exists as a museum and contains furniture, paintings, and other artifacts from the Fairbanks family. 511 East St., Dedham, Mass, 781/326-1170, fairbankshouse.org

Oldest Church: San Miguel Mission c. 1710

Although Santa Fe, N.M., can feel a bit like a studio backlot at times, there is some authenticity under all that freshly spread adobe. This is America's oldest capital city, after all, and the third oldest surviving European settlement (after St. Augustine, Fla., and Jamestown, Va.). Minus a few years of Indian occupation and partial razing during the Pueblo Revolt, serene San Miguel Chapel has stood as a compact call to Catholicism from the day Spain planted its founding flag right until U.S. annexation. The Spanish Colonial church was finished in 1710 (it replaced a 1626 chapel that was destroyed in a fire) and anchors the Barrio de Analco Historic District. Mass is still given on Sundays within its cool confines, beneath thick wooden beams and in front of a gorgeously carved wooden reredos. 401 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, N.M., 505/983-3974.

Oldest Bar: Jean Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, c. 1722

Nightlife is a murky business—especially when you're dealing with pirates and smugglers, which is how this bar got its start. The squat townhouse is the oldest structure to operate as a bar in the States, and it may even be the country's oldest continuously operating bar, period. Located on the far end of Bourbon Street, in New Orleans, it's the Vieux Carré's best remaining example of French briquette-entre-poteaux construction. And the establishment has weathered the centuries, first as a grog-soaked home base to nefarious privateers Jean and Pierre Lafitte, a gay bar in the 1950s, and the laid-back, candle-lit pub that survives today. 941 Bourbon St., New Orleans, La., 504/593-9761, lafittesblacksmithshop.com.

Oldest Continuously Operating Museum: Peabody Essex Museum, 1799

Back when museums were officially known as a "cabinet of natural and artificial curiosities," a group of Salem, Mass., sea captains founded the East India Marine Society with a specific charter provision to collect such specimens. That legacy is now the nation's oldest continuingly operating museum. (The Charleston Museum in South Carolina was founded in 1773, but had a period of closure and didn't open to the public until 1824.) Today, you can see the Peabody Essex Museum's 1.8 million pieces of maritime, Asian, African, Indian, and Oceanic art plus 22 historic buildings, including the Qing Dynasty Yin Yu Tang house. East India Square, 161 Essex St., Salem, Mass., 866/745-1876, pem.org

Oldest Public Garden: United States Botanic Garden, 1820

Perhaps it was all that cherry tree business, but George Washington himself had a vision of a modern capital with a botanic garden to teach the importance of plants to the young nation. This didn't become a reality until 1820, when President Monroe and an act of Congress created the United States Botanic Garden on the grounds of the Capitol building. Today's permanent location—a three-acre plot adjacent to the Mall and southwest of the Capitol—was established in 1933. Open every day of the year, the site allows visitors to explore a butterfly and rose garden outside and jungle, desert, primeval, and special exhibitions inside the gorgeous 1933 glass conservatory. 100 Maryland Ave. SW, Washington, D.C., 202/225-8333, usbg.gov.

Oldest National Park: Yellowstone National Park, 1872

With a flourish of the pen, Ulysses S. Grant changed where kids spend their summer vacations forever when he created the world's first national park. Yellowstone was made up of pristine wilderness straddling the Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho territories. (Tthey weren't states back in 1872, and the federal government oversaw the park until the National Parks Service was created in 1916.) Today, Yellowstone continues to be the system's bubbly, geyser-riffic, and wildlife-filled emblem of eco-consciousness. There is some controversy when it comes to which park is technically the oldest, though. Hot Springs National Park, southwest of Little Rock, Ark., was made a "government reservation" back in 1832, but didn't join the parks system until 1921. 307/344-7381, nps.gov

Oldest Skyscraper: Wainwright Building, 1892

When you are done looking at the prehistoric mounds at Cahokia, head into downtown St. Louis for a more modern pile. It's easy to define today's skyscrapers—just look up! But sussing out their more diminutive ancestors can be like figuring out if your great-great-great-great-uncle Jeremiah fought in the Civil War—and might bring architects to just that. One thing all experts can agree on: Skyscrapers must have a load-bearing steel frame. For that, Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building, in downtown St. Louis, rises as America's oldest surviving specimen. (Chicago's Home Insurance Building, from 1884, was technically the first, but it was razed in 1931.) Dwarfed today by its neighbors, the Wainwright Building's 10 stories of red brick aesthetically defined what modern office buildings were to be in both form and construction. 705 Chestnut St., St. Louis, Mo.

Oldest Roller Coaster: Leap-the-Dips, 1902

The Leap-the-Dips at Lakemont Park in Altoona, Pa., has been white-knuckling riders for 110 years by roaring down a figure eight of oak tracks at 10 mph with a vertical height of 41 feet. This may sound tame compared with the cheek-blasting G-forces of today's sidewinding behemoths that loop your stomach in your lap, but a rickety ride on the world's oldest roller coaster can still thrill, especially when you consider that it's the last remaining side-friction model in North America—no up-stop wheels bolt it to the track. That nine-foot drop suddenly feels a whole lot steeper. 700 Park Ave., Altoona, Pa., 800/434-8006, lakemontparkfun.com. 

Oldest Airport: College Park Airport, 1909

You won't be seeing any A-380s touching down at College Park Airport. The runway is only 2,600 feet long (jetliners need about 8,000 feet). We bet Wilbur Wright had no idea what the future of aviation would look like when he first brought military pilots here to train a century ago. Today, you can take the half-hour Metro ride from downtown Washington, D.C., to visit the on-site aviation museum. Temporary exhibitions are put on in conjunction with the Smithsonian, and there are classic aircraft on display, including a 1910 Wright Model B reproduction and the biplane-like Berliner Helicopter No. 5, which made its first controlled flight from here in 1924. 1985 Cpl. Frank Scott Dr., College Park, Md., 301/864-6029, pgparks.com

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But for a taste of the Bahamas high life, it's an enchanting setting to enjoy an evening cocktail or glass of wine on the terrace of the 18th-century plantation house and watch the sun set over the Caribbean sea.Atlantis Resort Okay, so you skipped it last time, but if you have the cash ($100 for a non-guest day pass), head across the Nassau causeway to the ridiculous mermaid castle/casino/resort that occupies Paradise Island. Atlantis is a must-see for the sprawling extravagance of the beachfront megaplex, with many secret beaches for relaxing in the sun. OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: The antithesis of the big-money resorts in Nassau, Orange Hill Inn on West Bay Street is a quiet family-owned inn right on the beach (orangehill.com; doubles from $135). #9 PUNTA CANA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC  The secret is out on Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. Already a popular beach destination for Europeans, the beach town is now on the American holiday radar as an inexpensive paradise within flight-hopping distance (it's just a two-hour flight from Miami). 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSBavaro Beach It's the busiest beach in Punta Cana, crowded on the weekends with resort guests and lively with restaurants and shopping plazas along the shore. But it's also one of the prettiest—a white-sand beach of crystal-clear water and offshore coral reefs that stretches for six miles, so there are plenty of opportunities for you to claim your own private spot in the sun.Santa Domingo The historic capital is a must-do day trip for any first-time visitor to the Dominican Republic. As evidenced by the numerous statues of Ponce de Leon and Christopher Columbus, the city takes its history seriously and many of the Spanish colonial buildings date back to the discovery of America, in 1492, when Columbus made landfall on Hispaniola (the island shared by Dominican Republic and Haiti).Indigenous Eyes Park Just inland from the beaches in Punta Cana is this jungle park of beautiful waterfalls and lagoons for swimming. It's a private nature reserve run by Punta Cana Resort &amp; Club (non-guests can buy a pass, for $65, to spend the day hiking and swimming in the lagoons, which are also known as "indigenous eyes"). 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSSurfing on Macao Beach The sea may be rougher at Macao Beach, a stretch of golden sand shaded by palm trees to the north, but it's a much calmer and quieter beach than Bavaro. It's better for surfing, too; you can rent gear and take lessons at Macao Surf Camp (two-hour lessons from $60 per person) and afterward reward yourself with fresh grilled fish, fried plantains, and cold El Presidente beer at one of the local beach shacks on the sand.Canyoning in Cordillera Septentrional Adventurous travelers should head into the Cordillera Septentrional mountains for a chance to rappel down waterfalls into the gorgeous river canyons. (Tour outfitter Iguana Mama runs trips from $195 per person.)Casa Ponce de Leon Ponce de Leon may be buried in Puerto Rico, but the best museum dedicated to his life is located in his historic house in Santa Domingo (011-809/551-0118, $1.27 to enter). OUR FAVORITE HOTEL NH Punta Cana is a colorful and stylish resort on Bavaro Beach with plenty of modern perks like complimentary Wi-Fi and satellite TV (nh-hotels.com; doubles from $60). #8 BARCELONA, SPAIN  Barcelona beats Madrid for the top city in Spain visited by U.S. travelers, especially 20-somethings on holiday in Europe. It's an arty, youthful city on the sea with a labyrinth of narrow streets and gorgeous plazas, branded by fairy-tale architecture from the quirky godfather of modern Catalonian architecture, Antoni Gaudi. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSLas Ramblas This wide boulevard slopes through Barcelona from Plaça de Catalunya in the city center all the way to Port Veil on the shore. The tree-shaded sidewalks are lined with shops, cafés, and souvenir kiosks; in the center of the road, street performers entertain the daily parade of tourists. Barceloneta The seaside neighborhood of Barceloneta is a perfect spot for an afternoon of wandering the quaint channel streets with a view of the ocean through gaps between tenements. Once you find your way to the beach, sit down and enjoy a glass of vino and tapas at Bar Electricitat in the market square.Parc Güell Set on the outskirts of the city, Barcelona's version of Central Park is a storybook land of strange stone pavilions designed by Gaudi among the green hills and trees. The park trails meander through the 37 wooded acres with mythical mosaic sculptures and curved terraces that look out over the city. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSEl Born This lovely neighborhood of narrow labyrinthine streets is a great spot to hang out with the locals, shop for vintage fashions, and taste the best of Catalonian cuisine at cubby-hole cafés and bars such as Casa Delfin.Sagrada Familia Love it or hate it, there's no escaping the sight of Gaudi's gargantuan drip-castle cathedral wherever you are in Barcelona. So if you skipped a visit the first time, it's worth a trip to the neighborhood of Exiample for a view of Sagrada Familia up close. It's a playful and profound structure that blends the whimsical curvature of Art Nouveau with the dark angularity of Gothic architecture. Barri Gotic This historic neighborhood of Gothic monuments reminds visitors of Barcelona's medieval past, before Gaudi put his stamp of eccentric modernity on the city. The wide plazas provide impromptu venues for Dark Ages-themed street performers. OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: Hotel Curious is a friendly boutique hotel near Las Ramblas in central Barcelona (hotelcurious.com; Doubles from $115). #7 MONTEGO BAY, JAMAICA  The all-inclusive resorts on Montego Bay (and a chance to experience Rastafarian culture) make Jamaica one of the top Caribbean destinations for U.S. travelers. "Liming" (otherwise known as relaxing) on the beach is the order of the day and many vacationers don't venture far from their umbrella-shaded lounger. But if you do, there's plenty to explore on this Caribbean island. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSLiming on Doctor's Cave Beach and Seven Mile Beach Doctor's Cave Beach is the most popular beach in Montego Bay and chances are your hotel will be within flip-flop distance. If you have wheels, Jamaica's most famous stretch of sand, Seven Mile Beach, is a short drive away in Negril. On either beach, be sure to look out for the famous jerk stands and kick back Jamaica-style with spicy grilled chicken and the national beer, Red Stripe.Montego Bay Marine Park The coral reef from Tropical Beach to Rum Bottle Bay is an underwater nature reserve that's shelter to a wide array of exotic fish and sea anemones… and great snorkeling territory for visitors. Watch out for the Lion Fish, cute but poisonous!Dunn River Falls Nearby in Ocho Rios, a short adventure into the rain forest will bring you to Dunn River Falls, a 180-foot waterfall that you can climb down, passing from lagoon to lagoon as the river rambles downstream. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSLiming in Port Antonio So you've seen the tourist beaches of Montego Bay and you're looking for something more low key? Head east to Port Antonio and its magnificent beaches for a day in the sun.Rose Hall Great House One of the oldest plantation estates on the island, the 18th-century Georgian mansion on the hill is a glimpse at the colonial past of Jamaica when it was a British stronghold for the export of sugar cane. Beware: The house is said to be haunted by the ghost of Annie Palmer, a voodoo practitioner and wife of the plantation owner, who was murdered in her sleep during the slave uprising of 1830. If you're feeling brave, book the night tour ($30 per person for a two-hour tour).Blue and John Crow Mountain National Park A hike through the forests of this misty mountain park will introduce you to the oldest inhabitants of Jamaica—its species of exotic birds, monkeys, lizards, and the rare Giant Swallowtail Butterfly. OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: Casa Blanca Beach Hotel is a classic Jamaican hotel with old-world styling situated in the middle of Montego Bay's Hip Strip near Doctor's Cave Beach (876-952-0720, doubles from $80). #6 ROME, ITALY  A modern city risen among the ruins of the greatest empire in history, Rome is No. 6 on our list as Italy's most popular destination for U.S. travelers. From the stone amphitheater of the Colosseum to the Roman Forum, where Caesar once spoke, and the immaculate Vatican City, Rome is a living monument to the ancient history of Europe. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSAncient Highlights: the Colosseum, the Forum, and the Pantheon Follow the shouts of the tour guides and trinket hawkers to the ruins of the Colosseum, where the spectators of ancient Rome cheered on gladiator death matches and lion fights from the stands. The historic steps of the Roman Forum and the House of Nero just around the corner, and the massive temple dome to the pagan gods, the Pantheon, is a short walk west with many lesser ruins along the way.Vatican City One of the most beautiful plazas in Rome leads to St. Peter's Basilica and the entrance to Vatican City. Of course, we sinners aren't allowed inside the Holy See, but the soaring marble interior of St. Peter's Basilica is a marvel worth its copper and no stop to Rome would be complete without a gander inside the Sistine Chapel at Michelangelo's Last Judgment.Villa Borghese North of the city center is Rome's largest public park, which is just as grandly designed as any of Rome's wonders, with 148-acres of trees from all over the world, lakes, and ancient villas. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSMAXXI The 21st Century of the Arts museum, designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid and opened in 2010, is Rome's grand foray into the modern art world. There are two museums here: the MAXXI collection of contemporary art featuring the likes of Maurizio Cattelan, and the MAXXI museum of architecture, dedicated to the art of architectural design and the modern-day wonders of the world (entrance $14 per person).Circus Maximus &amp; Avertine Hill The former chariot-racing grounds aren't much to look at these days when compared with the other ruins, but the verdant Avertine Hill above Circus Maximus is an amazing lookout perch and great retreat from the tourist hordes.Testaccio &amp; Ostiense These twin neighborhoods across the aqueduct from the ancient city center are the perfect place to wander, eat, drink, and experience modern-day Roman life (click here for a quick guide to the neighborhoods.) OUR FAVORITE HOTEL:  Hotel Mimosa is a cheery 14-room palazzo within a short stroll of Vatican City (hotelmimosa.net; doubles from $92). #5 TORONTO, CANADA  The modern city of Toronto straddles the shore of Lake Ontario with its blocky downtown of skyscrapers and needle-nose CN Tower. The fifth largest city in North America, the diverse population creates a vibrant cultural scene with many culinary delights. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSKensington Market Squared between Dundas Street W. and Spadina Avenue, this market neighborhood lined with ethnic groceries, fresh produce and spice stands, and tiny cafés is a great place to taste Toronto's amazing food scene. Be sure to stop by on Sunday when Kensington Market becomes a no-car zone.CN Tower The CN Tower, an olive-on-a-toothpick skyscraper rising 1,122 feet up into the Toronto skyline, has breathtaking views over the city, especially from a glass-walled elevator that takes you to the top at a snail's pace. There's even a rotating 360-degree restaurant for a sit-down meal afterward, if you can stomach it without getting dizzy.Distillery District The 19th-century warehouses and distilleries that once produced the famous Gooderham &amp; Worts Canadian whiskey have new life as a meandering 13-acre complex of vaulted-ceiling restaurants, patio cafés, and art galleries set inside the historic brick buildings. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSHockey Hall of Fame Even if you're not a fan of the game, this hallowed hall of hockey inside Brookfield Place is a uniquely Canadian experience. Moody lighting fits the cathedral-esque interior, where visitors wander halls of lithograph portraits of NHL greats like Wayne Gretsky, gander at trophies and jerseys from championship games, and perhaps try their puck skills in the Be a Player exhibit (entrance $18 per person.)Queen Street West The center of the Canadian broadcast television and film industry, the neighborhood of Queen Street West has more than its share of artsy cache in a clutch of contemporary galleries, hip bars and restaurants, and trendy boutiques.Art Gallery of Ontario The turn-of-the-century museum holds the largest collection of Canadian art in the world, with more than 80,000 works from the first century A.D. to today, including a sculpture center dedicated to the work of Henry Moore. Especially impressive is the new glass-façade by Frank Gehry on Dunda Street West. OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: Hotel Victoriais a century-old grand dame with a modern interior in central Toronto (hotelvictoria-toronto.com; doubles from $130). #4 PARIS, FRANCE  Millions of U.S. travelers flood the city of Paris every year to walk the romantic cobblestone streets of the Latin Quarter, kiss on the pedestrian bridges over the River Seine, marvel at the Gothic facade of old Notre Dame, or ride the elevator up the elegant iron legs of the Eiffel Tower for a grandstand view of the City of Light.  And then, of course, there's the food… whether it's nibbling a fresh baguette from a riverside bakery or tucking into steak béarnaise at a tiny Montmartre bistro, everything tastes better in Paris. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSExplore the Latin Quarter It's hard not to fall in love with Paris's famous Latin Quarter. Whether you're sipping espresso at the Café de Flore (once the squatting grounds of Simone de Beauvoir and John Paul Sartre), listening to jazz at the underground club on Rue de la Huchette,  or browsing books at Shakespeare &amp; Company, you'll soon be lost in the nostalgia of Paris's storied past.Visit the Eiffel Tower You don't have to visit the Eiffel Tower to appreciate its 1,050-foot-high majesty of iron; it can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. But you should: The lines can be long and the surrounding area mobbed with tourists, but it's worth a ride to the top to see the City of Light from above ($11 to the 2nd floor observatory, $18 to the top). Wander Jardin des Tuileries and check out the Louvre (if you can get in) Musée du Louvre is by far the most famous museum in Paris (if not in all of Europe), so don't be surprised if you wait for hours to explore the Egyptian collection or for that glimpse of Mona Lisa behind glass (entrance $13 per person, closed Tuesdays). If you tire of the wait, don't distress: the grounds of the Louvre Palace and its adjoining Jardin de Tuileries is one of the most beautiful spots in Paris. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSNotre Dame The cathedral of Notre Dame on the Île de la Cité is something to behold even if you're just passing by on your way to the Latin Quarter. Inside, the soaring Gothic chamber of stained glass, pillars, stone crosses, and statues of the saints high above the grand altar are a treasure that the city holds dear.Rodin Museum The Rodin Museum is elegant in its simplicity, especially when compared with the Louvre Palace across the River Seine (entrance, $8). The 18th-century mansion of Hotel Biron holds a collection of Rodin's greatest work inside and out in the estate's gardens where visitors can explore and ponder for a while with The Thinker and other sculptures. Nightlife in La Bastille Still an icon of the French Revolution, the neighborhood of La Bastille is a nightlife playground for the youth of Paris, chockful of bistros, bars, music venues, and tiny nightclubs, especially along Rue de la Roquette. OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: But wait, what about the Montmartre? Well, if you take our advice, you'll be staying in Montmartre at Ermitage Hotel Sacre-Coeur, a 12-room B&amp;B set inside a turn-of-the-century apartment building that's within walking distance to that beautiful white cathedral on the hill, the Sacre-Coeur (ermitagesacrecoeur.fr; doubles from $130). #3 SAN JUAN, PUETRO RICO  Yes, it's a U.S. territory, but Puerto Rico can feel like a world apart. The laidback atmosphere of San Juan with its narrow cobblestone streets and pastel-color houses will make any traveler feel at home, especially after a night in Old San Juan, where young and old drink, play music, and dance to salsa music until the early hours. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSNightlife in Old San Juan It can get rowdy late at night in Old San Juan, especially on weekends, when everyone and their uncle mobs the streets for a wandering bar crawl with drinks in hand. But there's no better time to drink up the culture alongside the locals—join in with the locals at bars like Bodega Chic and Nono's and possibly get silly enough to participate in a sing-along in Plaza del Mercado (a.k.a. La Placita).El Morro This beautiful old citadel fort commands a sweeping view of the Caribbean Sea on the northwest tip of Puerto Rico and has held its own against time and the island's seaborne enemies since the 16th century (entrance $3). Beaches of Condado The seaside neighborhood of Condado has the most popular beaches in San Juan proper, a stretch of golden-sand shore on the eastern side of the city. Arrive early on the weekends to claim your beach-towel territory against the droves of resort guests and local families. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSSalsa Dancing at the Nuyorican Café Hidden off an alley inside a former Spanish convent, this tiny nightclub has been an Old San Juan institution for decades, renowned for its jazz music and weekend salsa dancing. A eclectic crowd of locals and tourists brave the crowds on the weekend to test their moves on the dance floor; if the line is too long or too tedious, pop over to Rumba, a newer salsa club down the street. Catedral de San Juan Bautista The second oldest Cathedral in North America is a rather modest Spanish colonial structure. Inside, you'll find the hallowed chambers of stained glass and statues worthy of worship (and the tomb of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon underneath). Day trip to Vieques Island In a paradise like Puerto Rico, where do the locals go to vacation? The answer is the castaway island of Vieques, a 45-minute ferry ride from the port of Farajado on the east coast. The main town of Isabella is quiet and pretty, but the real reason for the trip is the pristine beaches on the south coast (be sure to pack a picnic basket… there are few places to eat nearby the beaches). OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: Numero Uno Guesthouse is a darling 15-room inn right by the beach in the Ocean Park neighborhood of San Juan (numero1guesthouse.com; doubles from $99). #2 LONDON, ENGLAND  London certainly hasn't lost its regal charms in the long march to modernity. And because the city is a gateway for further excursions into Europe, millions of travelers spend at least a day or two visiting the historic sites on the red double-decker lorries, attending theatre performances by Britain's greats, and enjoying a cool English pint (or three) while munching on fish-and-chips at one of the city's famous pubs. Just remember to mind your manners and your wallet: The British pound reigns supreme, at nearly twice the value of the U.S. dollar. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSRoyal Highlights: Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and the Tower of London The throne of the British Empire and the city's most famous historic sites are clustered within a short walk of one another in central London. Commoners can tour Buckingham Palace from July through September (or sneak a peek through the gates any other time of year); just down the road is Westminster Abbey, the iconic Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. A short cab ride along the Thames brings you to the Tower of London (which arguably offers the best tour and a chance to see the Crown Jewels).West-End Theaters London's West End neighborhood is the Broadway of England, known affectionately as "Theaterland." New London Theatre and Queen's Theatre are two great venues for new plays performed by Britain's greatest thespians, while smaller theaters like the Noel Coward Theatre often showcase well-known plays by British playwrights (like, say, Noel Coward), including new productions of Shakespeare plays. British Museum It was once said that the sun never set on the British Empire, and this museum dedicated to British history is true to that globe-spanning scope, with a collection that ranges from the armor of William the Conqueror to the 19th- and 20th-century colonial history of British ambitions. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSTate Modern Converted from a riverside power station on the Thames, the Tate Modern is a marvel of contemporary architecture and one of the most impressive art museums in the world, famous for its enormous (and often interactive) art installations and a collection of modern art from the early 1900s to today (entrance is free).East End Nightlife The once-gritty East End has been gentrified into the new epicenter of London nightlife—a haven of hip pubs, edgy art galleries, and nouveau restaurants, especially in the neighborhoods of Shoreditch and Hoxton.  The London Eye Who wouldn't want to get into a Ferris wheel that soars up over 400 feet in the air? Don't worry, the wheel moves at a turtle speed and the bird's-eye views over London from the enclosed-glass observatories are absolutely spectacular ($24 per person). OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: Umi Hotel is a simple and fashionable hotel comprised of adjoining 150-year-old townhouses in London's Notting Hill neighborhood (umihotellondon.co.uk; doubles from $99). #1 CANCUN, MEXICO  Cancun remains the No. 1 top destination for U.S. travel abroad, thanks to cheap flights from the States, 14 miles of beaches, and carnival-style nightlife that transforms the Z-shaped islet off the Yucatan Peninsula into a 24-hour party scene for college students every Spring Break.  But if you think this former Mayan trading city is just a sloppy boozefest on the beach, you haven't experienced the real Cancun. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSSun, Sand, and Waves at Playa Tortugas and Playa Delfines The beaches of Playa Tortugas and Playa Delfines offer the full-spectrum of the Cancun beach scene: Playa Tortugas is a festive party beach with calm, tranquil water and bungalow restaurants/bars under the palms; Playa Delfines is an escapist beach with white sand for travelers looking to get away from the crowds (and perhaps catch a few waves).Day Trip to the Mayan Ruins Integrated into the downtown area, the plaza ruins of El Ray remind travelers of the city's ancient history as a Mayan trading port and give the urban layout a uniquely mythic look (and a kitschy cache to bankroll tourist dollars). But for a more immersive experience, take a day trip drive down Riviera Maya to the beachfront ruins of Tulum and the jungle temples of Coba (they're far less crowded and closer than Chichen Itza).Coco Bongo It would be a shame to leave Cancun without a glimpse of the most explosive, extravagant club the party city has to offer. Coco Bongo is a temple of excess to ridiculous proportions—a massive 1,800-person nightclub with nightly trapeze acts, rock-star impersonators, a rainbow blitz of roving spotlights, and hundreds of partiers dancing to DJ-spun hits on any platform they can climb onto. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSIsla Mujeres This tiny island off the coast of Cancun is a quiet escape from the madness of the mainland. The palm-shaded beaches are perfect for laying out in the sun after an intimate lunch at one of the island's restaurants, and the azure water seems made for an afternoon swim.Dipping Into the Cenotes The rain forest of the Yucatan peninsula creates a unique experience for travelers looking for adventure in the form of sunken cenotes—subterranean rivers and lakes that you can access via rappelling into caverns.Underwater Museum of Art Sure, Cancun and the Riviera Maya have plenty of offshore dive sites. But if your tank skills are up to par, one of the coolest spots to scuba dive is the Underwater Museum of Art, designed by British artist Jason de Caires Taylor, which, true to its name, is an underwater museum of sculptures laid out at the bottom of the sea. New to scuba? No problem. Scuba Cancun can set you up with a beginner's diving lesson and then a museum dive for $80. OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: The Royal Islander is a beachfront resort with humdrum décor but a great location (and a seaside pool) in the Zona Hotelera of Cancun (royalresorts.com; Doubles from $120).

Inspiration

12 Most Iconic Rivers on Earth

Trace the great rivers of the world and you'll find you're tracing much of human civilization. Throughout the ages, these watercourses have provided sustenance for crops and have kick-started exploration, enterprise, and even empires. Of course you've heard of these rivers before—they've shaped the world as we know it and played a starring role in stories, songs, and spiritual beliefs along the way. But did you know that even today one of the best ways to learn about a region is to start with the nearest river? These waterways not only linked major cities and remote villages, but they also hold the secrets to everything from the local culture to the local cuisine. We've also outlined 12 incredible river cruises that will reveal their secrets to you. These trips might not come cheap, but they will take you on a once-in-a-lifetime journey through some of the most pivotal places on earth (plus meals and drinks are usually included). Read on and discover the rivers that have made the biggest splashes in the history of mankind. TAKE A PHOTO TOUR OF THE RIVERS Amazon The longest river in South America, the Amazon winds its way through six countries,  three time zones, and an incredible 4,980 miles. The 300-feet-deep "river sea" also boasts the world's largest reservoir of fresh water—approximately one fifth of the planet's running water, and an incredible abundance and diversity of flora and fauna. Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana was the first person known to navigate the length of this gushing goliath in the 1540s, looking for the "Land of Cinnamon." Instead, he found turtle farms, advanced settlements with complex irrigation canals, and the fierce fighting women that subsequently gave the river its name.River cruise: Follow in Francisco's wake on the five- to 10-day Amazon Dream river cruise through the Brazilian Amazon on board the 18-passenger M/Y Tucano, a traditional wooden riverboat. Round-trip from Santarem, Brazil, 727/498-0234, rainforestcruises.com. From $1,295 per person for a five-day cruise.   Mississippi The Big Muddy is mighty: It boasts the second-largest watershed in the world, covering more than 1.2 million square miles, plus tributaries from 33 states and two Canadian provinces. Its banks have been home to humans for 5,000 years and have witnessed history in the making, from Civil War battles to Civil Rights milestones. Explorers, fur traders, and settlers battled their way up and down this occasionally cantankerous river, changing the face of America as they went. The advent of the steamboat in 1812 cranked these changes up several knots and cut travel time between Louisville and New Orleans from as much as four months to just 20 days.River cruise: American Cruise Lines' 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi paddlewheeler journeys along the river, stopping at historic sites including Civil War battlefields and antebellum mansions. Round-trip from New Orleans, 800/460-4518, americancruiselines.com. From $3,995 per person for a seven-night cruise. Nile Egypt sits amid the most desolate desert on earth, the Sahara. But the 4,225-mile-long Nile turned this area into an oasis. The Egyptians became a rich agricultural society and the wonder of the ancient world by controlling the waters of The River and building the Valley of the Kings, the Ptolemaic Temple, and the Pyramids of Giza on its banks. By the year 3,100 B.C., this rich Nile Valley and Delta society had become the world's first large nation state. Today, Egypt remains one of the most important African countries.River cruise: Sonesta's six luxurious river boats ply the waters of the Nile with cruises taking in temples, tombs, and ruins. Round-trip from Luxor, 800/766-3782, sonesta.com. From $500 per cabin per night for three- to seven-night sailings in 2013 on the St. George I. Yangtze Asia's longest river flows south from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, watering more than 700 tributaries along the way. The river has seen human activity along its banks for millennia, and acted as a border between warring kingdoms and as a transportation and commercial thoroughfare for centuries—it's essentially China's east-west highway. Imperial palaces, cities of canals, and intricate temples dot its banks. Its most famous sites include the incredible Three Gorges and the gargantuan Three Gorges Dam. River cruise: See the Three Gorges—25-mile-long Qutang, 25-mile-long Wu and 49-mile-long Xiling—and this mindboggling feat of engineering from Victoria Cruises' 268-passenger Victoria Anna on the eight-day Three Gorges Explorer. Round-trip from Chongqing, 800/348-8084, victoriacruises.com. From $1,820 per person for a seven-night cruise. Ganges The 1,557-mile Ganges gushes from a Himalayan ice cave, coursing eastward through the heart of Northern India to the Bay of Bengal, providing water for farming, industry, energy, transportation, drinking, bathing, and religious ceremonies from baptisms to burials. Sacred to Hindus who consider the river a goddess, its banks are home to pilgrimage sites, funeral ghats, yoga ashrams, and holy cities such as Varanasi and Allahabad. River cruise: Assam Bengal Navigation's Holy Ganges river cruise spends six nights following the Ganges on the ABN Sukapha, 24-passenger expeditionary ship. Patna to Calcutta, 714/556-8258, assambengalnavigation.com. From $295 per person per night for the six-night cruise. Mekong The world's 11th-longest river runs through 3,000 miles of Chinese, Burmese, Lao, Thai, Cambodian, and Vietnamese rice paddies, fish farms, and orchards. Its delta has been the site of countless battles—during the Vietnam War, the Indochina War, and the fight against the Khmer Rouge. Today, the peaceful, fertile 15,000-square-mile Mekong Delta is confettied with river galleys and slender sampan boats, carrying cargo from rice to potbellied pigs.River cruise: Avalon Waterways' 14-day Fascinating Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Mekong River Cruise visits the Angkor temple region, tunnels left by the infamous Viet Cong, and provincial Cambodian capital Siem Reap. Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City, 877/797-8791, avalonwaterways.com. From $3,269 per person including a seven-night cruise and hotel nights in Bangkok, Siem Reap, and Ho Chi Minh City. Danube The Danube has been a trading river since at least the 7th century, when Greek sailors did brisk business along its course. Before that, the Romans used the "Danuvius" as the northern boundary of their empire, building settlements such as Vindobona (Vienna), Aquincum (Budapest), and Singidunum (Belgrade) on its banks to keep out the barbarians. This once-vital medieval trading route can also claim responsibility for the rise of two great empires, the Austrian and the Hungarian. From its source in Germany's Black Forest, the Danube flows to the Black Sea via Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria.River cruise: Ama Waterways' 12-day Legendary Danube trip includes three nights in Prague before you embark on a cruise along the Danube from Nuremberg to Budapest. Prague to Budapest, 800/626-0126, amawaterways.com. From $3,089 per person. Columbia Tumbling 1,200 miles from the Canadian Rockies to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon, the Columbia is best known for its part in Lewis and Clark's 1805 expedition westward, for the gold rush of the 1860s, and for being such a formidable obstacle for pioneers on the Oregon Trail. Today, the Columbia divides Washington and Oregon for its final 309 miles, reaching Astoria, Oregon, at the treacherous Columbia Bar, once known as the "Graveyard of Ships". Wineries abound on both sides of the torrent and midday winds from the craggy Columbia River Gorge power a busy windsurfing scene on the river at the city of Hood River.River cruise: Take to the water on American Cruise Lines' seven-night Columbia and Snake river cruise on the Queen of the West, a 120-passenger paddleboat. Portland, Ore., to Clarkston, Wash., 800/460-4518, americancruiselines.com. From $3,695 per person for a seven-night cruise. Rhine Sometimes known as the "heroic Rhine" for its fairytale castles, terraced vineyards, and dramatic cliffs, this historic river flows from the mountains of Switzerland, through Western Germany to the North Sea near Rotterdam. The Rhine's central location has caused it to be fought over and used as a border since Roman times—Julius Caesar himself crossed the Rhine in 53 B.C. Today, its stunning scenery and spectacular wines make it a popular tourist destination.River cruise: Get your fill of castles, cathedrals, and canals on Uniworld's 164-passenger Super Ship Antoinette with the Castles Along the Rhine cruise.  Basel to Amsterdam, 800/733-7820, uniworld.com. From $2,349 per person for a seven-night cruise. Orinoco The 1,300-mile Orinoco was first documented by Columbus in 1498, but its elusive source was not found until 1951. Situated in present-day Colombia and Venezuela, the Orinoco Delta covers more than 340,000 square miles and branches off into literally hundreds of off-shoot rivers and waterways. This watery wonderland is home to more than 1,000 species of birds, plus a huge variety of fish, from gargantuan 200-pound catfish to carnivorous piranhas.River cruise: Orinoco Delta Tours will get you close to this wealth of wildlife with its three-day river trip and lodge vacation on the Delta. Tucupita to Orinoco Delta Lodge, 011-58/295-249-1823, orinocodelta.com. From $260 per person for a two-night trip. Volga Europe's longest river is Russia's principal waterway. A crucial trade route since the Bulgars and the Khazars settled along it in the Middle Ages, its banks have since been invaded by Mongol hordes, Cossacks, revolting peasants, and anti-Putin demonstrators. Known as "Mother Volga" in Russia, the river has carried Russian colonization to the east, transported freight, and watered the vast steppes.River cruise: The 13-day Waterways of the Czars Cruise glides through Russia and the Ukraine, taking in majestic sights from the Kremlin and Red Square to Catherine the Great's Palace, the Hermitage, and the Golden Ring towns of Yaroslavl and Uglich. Moscow to St. Petersburg, 800/706-1483, vikingrivercruises.com. From $4,496 per person for a 12-night cruise. Thames Although archaeological evidence shows that people were trotting along the Thames as far back as 400,000 years ago, the Romans founded the river's most significant settlement, Londinium, a mere 2,000 years ago. The Thames may be short, but it's mighty. In fact, the 220-mile-long Thames could probably claim to be the river that's had the most powerful impact on the world: The British Empire was explored and claimed by ships that sailed from it. In 1589, Sir Walter Raleigh set off for the New World from here. By the 1700s, London was the world's busiest port as commodities were shipped up the Thames from all over the British Empire. Today, it's a slow-flowing river with 44 locks, several royal palaces, innumerable English villages, two famed university towns, and, of course, the one-and-only London.River cruise: See the Thames that flows outside London with a four-night cruise on the 12-passenger African Queen, which passes through quaint English villages like Henley-on-Thames and traverses the Goring Lock. Round-trip from Mapledurham, travel.saga.co.uk. From $886 per person for a four-night cruise.

Inspiration

Luxury Yachting on Pocket Change

Hitchhiking a ride on a yacht is not as tricky as it might seem. You don't need to swim to a harbor buoy and stick out your thumb. You don't even need white loafers or a set of Captain Stubing-issue epaulettes. What you do need, however, is some crucial insider information. Either that or you can learn the hard way, like I did. Just out of college, I decided I would hitchhike on vessels from Florida to Venezuela. I walked the various docks around the fancy harbors in Miami and Fort Lauderdale and heard the same embarrassing line: "Why are you trying to do this during hurricane season?" I eventually made it as far as the Virgin Islands, but only because I flew there. Since then, I've learned the ABCs of "crewing," which turns out to be a rather reasonably priced way to see the world from the deck of a yacht. You and the sea Why do people fling themselves to the open seas on a stranger's boat? For some, yacht hitching is just a cheap way to get from A to B. Others prefer the adventure to flying over the dimpled oceans with a high-altitude TV dinner in their laps. And many simply find life on the water an almost spiritual experience, and without the funds for their own yacht, they find this is a great way to get their fix. You may be drawn by all of these, or find the most rewarding aspect is the camaraderie and lifelong connections you make onboard. If this is your first time at sea (yes, you will be labeled a landlubber), at the very least you'll find out if yachting is for you. And until then, you'll just have to (in this order) pray for calm waters, stay on deck, stare at the horizon, use motion-sickness pills or patches, puke, feel temporarily better, puke again, endure hell, and-getting back to square one-pray for calm waters. For most people, thankfully, seasickness subsides after a few days. The basics The first thing you need to know is that hitching on yachts isn't just possible. It's fairly common. Private yachts and sailboats of all types often need an extra pair of hands during a sea passage-some have professional captains delivering a boat to a new owner somewhere, some have "old salt" couples who live aboard their vessels full time and simply need the help or the company of fresh blood. "Yachties" (live-aboard sailboat owners, often retired) are a fixture in ports around the globe, and they tend to follow general routes through regions and countries where anchorages are safe, the scenery is agreeable, and the prices are low. Yachties are colorful characters with a seaworthy culture all their own. If you know the sailing seasons, the yachting epicenters and routes, how to present yourself professionally, and above all, if you're persistent, it's possible to get a working passage, catch a free lift (you may be asked for $5 to $25 per day to cover your food and drinks-depends on the captain, your negotiating skills, and how much they expect you to work), or even earn money onboard while heading almost anywhere. Most agreements are done casually at the individual harbors, others may have written contracts. Passages can last anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months. You don't need to be in peak condition to crew on a yacht, but if you're reasonably fit and slender it certainly helps. This works for you as much as for the captain since most yachts have narrow passages and tight sleeping arrangements. In other words, if you shop at Big &amp; Tall, you're in for a seriously cramped voyage. This also applies to what you bring. Space is limited, so a compact kit will be appreciated. Show up pulling a Samsonite wheel rig and you've got a few strikes against you already. There's not much special gear involved, but in your collapsible bag you'll want some nonmarking deck shoes, a good hat that won't land in the drink when the wind picks up, sunblock, UV sunglasses with safety straps, motion-sickness pills, and some smart clothes that won't get you thrown out of the occasional yacht club. How to look for passage If you're planning a trip by yacht well in advance, head for the Web (see our sidebar). Various sites match crews with ships. You can also check the ads in yachting magazines and newsletters. There are also crewing placement agencies that specialize in this very service, but be prepared for a membership fee in the neighborhood of $25 to $75. Before you pony up, consider how good your credentials look on paper. And with all ads for crew, keep in mind you're not likely filling an empty spot for a leisurely ride. They need you. Perforce, they're looking for someone with skills, from cooking to motor mechanics. And if they're taking a charter client, they're generally willing to pay for your services: $200 to $1,000 per week (including tips) depending on your duties. Paid or not, many are happy just to get a deckhand-an able body attached to a mind that can accept washing dishes, cleaning out the cabin, and scrubbing the boat-a few of the chores you can expect to do at some point, as well as taking your turn at "watch": staying up at night at the helm while the boat is under way. If you're winging it-and if you're planning to hitch your way from country to country on yachts, you probably are-head down to any major harbor and start by scanning the notice boards. Step two is to find the harbormaster and ask if he knows any captains looking for crew. That way, you can tweak it into a personal reference ("the harbormaster said I should speak to you about a crew position you're trying to fill"). If that doesn't yield any leads, ask if you can use his radio to announce on the local sailors' channel that you're looking for work. Getting onboard In the casual atmosphere of the marina, it's easy to forget that all your inquiries should be treated as interviews. If captains don't like how you look or conduct yourself, they may not reveal they have a position available or refer you to others. You want to dress smart (usually clean and neat will suffice) and demonstrate that you're easygoing and levelheaded. In other words, keep the giant python tattoo covered for now and don't bring up religion or politics. Moreover, learn some yachting manners. Always ask for "permission to board" before letting your foot cross the rail. If you're a good cook, mention it. If you've got technical experience, let the captain know. If you've got solid job recommendations, keep copies on hand. Tell the captain he's welcome to search your luggage (he may request this anyway) and that your travel documents are in order (make sure they are). The interview works both ways; you want to size up the captain and crew as well. Are these people you want to be stuck with at sea? Women travelers especially must beware. Will you be the only woman onboard? Can you talk with other women onboard who have sailed with these men before? Find out. Once you set sail, it's too late. Where and when Caribbean: The sailing season begins in October following the summer hurricanes and lasts until May. If you want to head "down island" (south), show up in Miami or Fort Lauderdale from November to March. Antigua Race Week (end of April) is the Big Event and the Antigua Yacht Club marina is an ideal place to pick up a berth to just about anywhere, especially South America, the United States, and Europe. In the Caribbean and Central America, try marinas and yachtie bars in Antigua, Grenada, Saint Martin, and Panama City's Balboa Yacht Club (for passage through the canal). Mediterranean: The season kicks off in June, when yachts need crew for their summer charters. Nearly all major marinas are active, but especially Antibes, Las Palmas, Rhodes, Malta, Majorca, Alicante, and Gibraltar. Then, in November, there's a 2,700- nautical-mile fun run from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (Canary Islands) to Rodney Bay in Saint Lucia called the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC). Over 200 boats participate, and even more make the crossing unofficially. So from October to the end of November, there's a mass exodus to the West Indies. The standard point of departure for the two-to- four-week Atlantic crossing is Gran Canaria. If you show up at the beginning of November and chip in some food money for the crossing (about $250), you've got a good chance of catching a lift. Better, even, if you arrive earlier. South Pacific: The main springboards are a few marinas in northern New Zealand: Opua, Whangarei, and Auckland, probably in that order. Most boats leave in the autumn (end February-end April). If you want passage in the other direction (to New Zealand) or on to the United States, your best months are July to October. Some prefer to start in Australia. There, try the marinas in the Whitsunday Islands, Townsville, and Airlie Beach. To head to Indonesia, May to July is promising. Returning home You may be able to catch a ride right back to your departure point. But don't count on it. Even if you've prearranged a long round-trip berth, one thing or another may cause you to hop off earlier. Expect to spring for a cheap one-way plane ticket, ferry ride, or bus trip, depending on where you end up. Resources for gettin' salty Postings: Bulletin board: yachtsclassified.com Post for crews: pacificcup.org/crew_lists/crew_list Matching boats with crews: partnersandcrews.com Florida-area crew list: walrus.com/~belov/florida-skippers.html New York-area crew list: walrus.com/~belov/skippers.html Agencies: Crew Unlimited (crewunlimited.com) charges $25 to sign up, then takes sizable chunk from the vessel hiring you. Crewfinders (crewfinders.com) charges $40 to sign up, then charges much larger percentage fee from vessel hiring. Marina: Listings: marinamate.com/marinas.html Yacht clubs by location: sailorschoice.com/yachtclb.htm More yacht club links: guam-online.com/myc/myclinks.htm Reading: The Practical Mariner's Book of Knowledge: 420 Sea-Tested Rules of Thumb for Almost Every Boating Situation by John Vigor (McGraw-Hill, $17.95) First signs for a first mate Here are a few warning signs, besides the eye patch and hook in place of a right arm. 1) Cabin looks like a guy's college dorm room 2) Navigation equipment doesn't look like it could locate a cruise ship in a bathtub 3) Any signs of transporting contraband 4) Captain with a hot temper 5) Major repairs being done to boat's hull Words of wisdom from crew members "You don't need to know how to sail to do a crossing; you need to be neat, clean, and trustworthy. If you're doing day work for a boat in the harbor, show up on time and take it seriously." -Jonas Persson "Once we were in the Caribbean, it didn't take longer than five days to catch a lift. You just need to make sure that you don't get left someplace without a lot of yachts. Barbados, Saint Martin, and Antigua are the places you want to be." -Peter Laurin

Inspiration

Secret Hotels of Washington, D.C.

Phoenix Park The Irish-American owner has sprinkled Irish charms throughout this nearly 90-year-old property (with an adjacent pub) in Capitol Hill. Capitol Hill, where this gem is located, has a lock on the landmarks, letting visitors easily connect the dots between the Capitol, Union Station, and the National Mall's monuments and Smithsonian museums. The area hums with activity during the day, when government workers are busy bees and tourists madly try to squeeze it all in before closing time. However, the area quiets down in the evening, once folks have loosened their ties and the laces on their walking shoes. The hotel's owner, a proud Irish-American, brings a touch of his ancestral land to these shores, creating a country-estate aesthetic in an urban space. Irish charms are sprinkled throughout the nearly 90-year-old property: The hotel's moniker honors the eponymous park in Dublin; toiletries are made by Galánta, a Celtic company; and the in-room Irish breakfast tea comes courtesy of Bewley's, the country's leading coffee and tea company. The artwork further enhances this fantasy trip to the Emerald Isle, with paintings of castles and foxhunts, and a glass case that displays gleaming Waterford crystal. The 149 rooms are as jubilant as a cloudless day in County Clare, due in part to the color wheel of gold, burgundy, and green. The attached restaurant and pub, the Dubliner, brings in crowds with its Irish brews, traditional plates (fish and chips, corned beef and cabbage), and live Irish music every night. Later, work it off in the 24-hour fitness center. 520 N. Capitol St., NW, phoenixparkhotel.com, from $149 per night. PEEK INSIDE THE HOTELS Akwaaba This inviting 1890 brownstone has eight chic rooms with a subtle literary theme. Nestled in the 16th Street Historic District, Akwaaba is just steps from the cafes and boutiques of the trendy U Street area and a 10-minute walk to Dupont Circle. Run by a husband-and-wife team, the hotel's name translates to "welcome" in a language spoken in Ghana, and so you are. The 1890 brownstone creates a warm and inviting space with fireplaces, a piano, and parlor-esque furnishings appropriate for a literary salon or a Merchant Ivory film. A literary theme runs through the eight chic rooms and an apartment suite that was once a retreat for writers completing works in progress. Each accommodation centers on an author or genre, whose spirit and style subtly inform the interior designs. To wit: the African mud-cloth pillow covers in the Toni Morrison chamber; the vintage suitcases and framed print of Cuban cigars in the Langston Hughes room (conveniently outfitted with a balcony). During the evening happy hour, sip and snack on Akwaaba-labeled red and white wines (the owners work with vineyards in Napa), cheese, nuts, and olives. A gift shop in the foyer sells souvenirs such as Akwaaba microfiber robes, bottle openers made in South Africa, and textile notepad boxes from Ghana. The only drawback? No elevator, which means a StairMaster-like climb to the fourth floor. Breakfast is included. 1708 16th St. N.W., akwaaba.com, from $150 per night. Woodley Park Guest House Guests will feel like they're staying at the home of a well-to-do local with impeccable taste for art and antiques. Located in an upscale residential neighborhood near the zoo, you'll feel like you're a guest at the home of a well-to-do Washingtonian at the Woodley Park Guest House. The hotel feels very quiet and subdued—due, no doubt, to the absence of televisions and radios, and the fact that no children under 12 or pets are allowed. A former boarding house, the property has been tastefully upgraded with beautiful lighting, ceiling fans, central A/C, and granite countertops in bathrooms, yet retains its original appeal thanks to details such as bay windows and dormers. Though rooms are fairly small (especially the single-occupancy ones with shared bath), you'll feel cozy rather than cramped. There are six parking spots available to guests for $20 per night, which is a steal compared to other hotels around the city. The free breakfast is a cut above continental and is served in an elegant dining room. The afternoon brings complimentary cookies and brownies. If you ask, they'll do laundry for too, though it'll cost you $10. 2647 Woodley Rd. N.W., dcinns.com, from $125 per night. Hotel Helix A Kimpton boutique hotel with surprisingly large rooms—some with kid-friendly bunk beds—and a welcoming attitude to pets. This boutique hotel's theme is "15 Minutes of Fame"—meaning guests are invited to think of themselves as celebrities. When you enter the lobby, red drapes open as if you're stepping onto a stage, the check-in desks look like podiums, and the walls are lined with Pop Art-style photos of actual celebrities. The lobby Helix Lounge is popular with guests and locals alike, thanks to its fun drinks and, during happy hour, half-price burgers; in winter, its spacious outdoor terrace is kept cozy with heat lamps. The rooms are surprisingly large—from 400 to 800 square feet—and even the smallest options have separate dressing areas. And in spite of the fact that the modern décor is heavy on bright colors and hard, sleek surfaces, the property still manages to feel homey. A bonus for families: Some rooms have bunk beds fitted into an alcove with a second flat-screen TV, so the kids can watch cartoons while parents tune out. Even Fido is welcome and, to prove it, the staff will provide treats, beds, bowls, and bottled water. Outside your room you'll find Logan Circle, home to eclectic shops and restaurants-and a Whole Foods if you're looking for the familiar. Be aware that rates fluctuate wildly depending on the season. You might find rooms for $99 or as high as $500. Weekends tend to be cheaper, as do low seasons like late summer and Dec-Jan.1430 Rhode Island Ave. N.W., hotelhelix.com, from $99 per night. Adams Inn A cozy trio of early 20th-century houses with a communal vibe, a large garden, and a pet-friendly policy. You'll find the Adams Inn in Adam's Morgan, a neighborhood where restaurants wave flags from five continents and the bars crank up the music and host live bands. The trio of early 20th-century brick-town houses hasn't strayed far from its original roots as a group residence. More than half of the 26 rooms come with private baths; the remainder must share (ask the front desk for complimentary necessities like shampoo, conditioner, and shaving cream before you strip down). The pragmatic, only-what-you-need furnishings are dated in a good way. The color palette is soothing, and there's a refreshing absence of noise boxes (no TVs or phones). Two kitchens and numerous dining nooks mean you can save money by preparing meals or reheating leftovers. There is also a laundry facility in the basement. 1746 Lanier Pl., adamsinn.com, from $99 per night (shared bath), $129 (private bath).