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Beat the Crowds in January and February

By Paul Brady, David LaHuta, Erin Richards, Erik Torkells, and Brad Tuttle
June 13, 2006
Yellowstone National Park
Yosemite and Yellowstone fill up with elbow-to-elbow tourists in summer. Go in winter for affordable skiing and more activities than you might think—including Yosemite's annual Chefs' Holidays.

As wonderful as Yosemite and Yellowstone are in summer, the peaceful outdoorsy vibe can be spoiled by having to elbow for space to snap a photo of El Capitan or line up 10 deep at Old Faithful. The premier parks are far less crowded—and arguably more beautiful—in the heart of winter. Snow drapes the mountains, meadows, and every last tree branch, and things are never quieter or more pristine.

But for an off-peak time, there is surprisingly a lot going on. During four weeks in January and February, Yosemite hosts the annual Chefs' Holidays, when the men and women in charge of some of the best restaurants in the country give cooking demonstrations and host five-course dinners during three-day sessions. All events take place in the Ahwahnee, a granite lodge built in 1927, now a National Historical Landmark. Chef presentations are held in the hotel's appropriately named Great Lounge, among its 24-foot-high ceilings, wrought-iron chandeliers, and enormous windows topped in stained glass. Jesse Cool, chef and proprietor of the Bay Area's Flea Street Cafe, has participated in the event for two decades. "Winter is my favorite season at Yosemite," says Cool. "The setting is just gorgeous, especially when it snows." Paired with top wines from California and elsewhere, the dinner costs $250 per person (plus tax). Tours and demos are only available in a lodging package, which will include dinner—often a better deal.

Throughout the year, kids can join a program called Wee Wild Ones, with stories, singing, crafts, and games, all free. Yosemite Lodge at the Falls hosts s'mores nights at its fireplace, and nearby there's an outdoor ice-skating rink with an unobstructed view of Half Dome, the famous rock formation that shoots up nearly 5,000 feet from the valley. Most nights the park offers free events of some sort—artist slideshows, talks by mountain climbers, documentaries on photographer Ansel Adams.

Yosemite is also home to the oldest ski resort in the Sierra Nevada. Badger Pass offers five chairlifts, 10 runs, and $42 lift tickets, and while the terrain might not get an expert skier's adrenaline rushing, the scenery is fantastic, the sunshine is plentiful, and the ski school specializes in teaching beginners. "Badger Pass is one of the last of the great little ski areas in the West," says Colin Baldock, Yosemite's manager of guest recreation. "Parents feel comfortable here letting their 9-year-olds ski off on their own. That wouldn't happen at the big resorts." A system of free shuttles connects Yosemite Valley to Badger Pass and other key spots in the park, so there's no worrying about driving in the snow—or having a few too many glasses of wine over dinner at the Ahwahnee.

There are five entrances leading into Yellowstone, but in the winter the only way for visitors to drive in is through the North Entrance, nearest to Gardiner, Mont. A few miles inside the park, at the Mammoth Hot Springs area, you'll find an ice-skating rink, a restaurant, and several natural pools that gurgle and spout off steam in the cold air. It's easy to spot wolves, bison, and elk just off the lone plowed road. To venture further into the park, hop aboard a special snowcoach. They're customized vans or buses outfitted with snowmobile-type wheels and steering, arranged by private companies in towns bordering the park. All Yellowstone Sports offers a full-day snowcoach tour to Old Faithful for $105 (800/548-9551, allyellowstone.com).

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Chill With the Animals
The Yellowstone Association offers four-night Winter Wildlife Expedition packages with food, transportation, lodging, and the chance to see bighorn sheep, elk, wolves, and other animals on a hike or snowshoe trek. $579 per person based on double occupancy; $747 for single occupancy (307/344-2293, travelyellowstone.com).

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A High Point at Yosemite
Like hiking, cross-country skiing is especially nice if there's something special at the end of the trail. After 10 easygoing miles—four to five hours on average—from Yosemite's Badger Pass, you reach Glacier Point Ski Hut. About 3,000 feet directly below is the ice-skating rink in Yosemite Valley, and spread in front are Half Dome and snowcapped mountains that seem to go on forever. The views would be reward enough for some, but what makes the journey especially enticing is that there's no need to turn around and hoof it back by nightfall. The Glacier Point Ski Hut sleeps up to 20 people in bunks (BYO sleeping bag; rentals are available for $13). There's a staffed kitchen, indoor bathroom, and heat via a wood-burning stove. One-night packages with a ski guide, lodging, and hot meals are $192 per person; self-guided trips are $110 per person (209/372-8444, yosemitepark.com).

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Beat the Crowds in November and December

Masses of people head to Hawaii, Florida, and the Caribbean over Christmas and New Year's simply because that's when it's convenient for work and school schedules—not because the weather is better then. Travelers who are flexible with their vacation time don't have to cope with either the end-of-year crowds or the peak-season airfares and hotel rates. Summer and early fall in Florida's Everglades can be brutal, with overwhelming humidity, giant mosquitoes, and fierce storms. November marks the end of hurricane season and the beginning of dry, pleasant days--but tourism doesn't hit its stride until Christmas. (More than 80 percent of visitors come between December and March.) As the swamps slowly dry up, the bugs are less of an annoyance. Alligators, herons, egrets, warblers, and pelicans gather around remaining lakes and become easier to spot. Traveling by canoe or hiking is the best way to poke around the Everglades' 1.5 million acres, with miles of canals and hiking trails that lead to hidden nooks and backcountry campgrounds. Information Officer Linda Friar recommends a series of connected waterways known as the Nine Mile Pond Loop. "You have three ponds right at the beginning, and you'll see cormorants, terns, white-crowned pigeons, maybe alligators," she says. "The trail has mangrove tunnels and also some open areas. You get some variety." Look for piles of snail shells under trees--a sure sign that the rare snail kite is roosting above. It's a forked-tail bird that feeds on freshwater snails, extracting them from their shells with a hook-shaped bill. More than 100,000 people visited Hawai'i Volcanoes in December 2008. The park service doesn't break down visitor statistics by the week, but it's safe to say that things are always busier at Volcanoes during the Christmas and New Year's rush. That means early December is quiet compared to, say, June—which saw 109,000 visitors in 2008. Weather at the Big Island's 333,000-acre park is always unpredictable. There's no especially good or bad time to come, and visitors should always be equipped with rain gear, sunscreen, and a sweater. The park's main attraction is Kilauea, the volcano that's been spewing out lava in a mellow fashion for more than 25 years. To find out about the latest volcanic activity, check out the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory's website (hvo.wr.usgs.gov), or call park information (808/985-6000). Both sources are updated regularly and tell exactly where lava is flowing. The weather at Haleakala, the 10,000-foot-high volcano on Maui, is just as variable as its Big Island counterpart. At any time of year it can be 80 degrees on the beach at Kaanapali but in the 40s at the Haleakala summit—and it often feels colder because of the strong winds. A paved road literally snakes through the clouds to the edge of a dark, otherworldly, 19-square-mile crater. (It's safe: Haleakala hasn't erupted in more than 400 years.) The sunrise views are phenomenal, but if you're not an early riser, watching the sunset or star-gazing are nice alternatives. Temperatures in December and March are virtually identical on the Caribbean island of St. John, more than half of which is preserved as U.S. Virgin Islands National Park. Highs are in the upper 80s, with lows in the 70s, though it does tend to rain slightly more in December. Yet last March the park's campgrounds and beaches saw nearly 61,000 visitors, compared to less than 37,000 in December. This leaves plenty of space for hiking through lush tropical forests and swimming, boating, and fishing in the park's turquoise waters. ________________________________________ That's a Whole Lot of Nature for $10 For seniors, the newly named America the Beautiful-National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass-Senior Pass goes way beyond the usual senior discount: If you're 62 or older, $10 buys lifetime entrance to national parks, wildlife refuges, and historic sites across the country. If there's a per-vehicle charge, everyone with the passholder is covered. Buy it at any park that charges an entrance fee. Folks under 62 who are visiting several parks should consider getting an annual pass, good for 12 months from first use ($80).

Beat the Crowds in October

Big Bend in Texas is one of the least-visited national parks, and its 800,000 acres of rugged mountains, canyons, and deserts are never emptier than in late summer and fall, despite pleasant weather. The busiest months are March and April, when the wildflowers of spring first make an appearance. Fewer visitors are aware that after a scorching May and June--"mind-numbingly miserable," according to park ranger Eric Leonard--late summer rains produce a second bloom of flowers, with purple ceniza and long-spur columbine sprouting up in August. Butterflies such as the two-tailed swallowtail, the Mexican yellow, the red spotted admiral, and the California sister flit through the flower fields. The "rainy season," when Big Bend averages between two and three inches of rain per month, lasts through October. The desert turns surprisingly green, and the Rio Grande sometimes overflows into the flood plains. By October the daytime highs are in the 70s, which is downright chilly compared to the three-digit temps of June. It's comfortable enough to hike through the desert or up into the Chisos Mountains. You're bound to spot a few of the 450 bird species in the park, and perhaps even a mountain lion or black bear. Another suggestion is Wind Cave in South Dakota. Like neighboring parks, summer is peak season. October is when the crowds have dwindled and when the elk put on a concert of sorts. Every evening, bull elk emit eerie, high-pitched wails that echo through the ponderosa forests. It's called bugling, and it's part of an annual mating ritual that males use to protect their harems from would-be suitors. The bugling is said to also relieve stress on the bulls' shoulders and necks, which swell due to increased testosterone levels. You should always stay a safe distance away from the elk, especially during mating season. A good place to listen in is right outside your car on Route 87, a few miles north of the visitors center. The 28,295-acre park is also home to bison, mule deer, prairie dogs, antelope, and of course its namesake attraction: a cave in which the temperature is 53 degrees year-round (and protected from cool autumn breezes). "It's really like two parks in one here," says Tom Farrell, chief of interpretation. "You can arrive in the morning and wander through the fourth-longest cave in the world, then hike in the afternoon, and listen to the elk bugle in the evening." __________________________________________ Wake Up! Hitting the trail early is always rewarding. The best times for spotting wildlife are just after the sun rises and just before it sets. Conveniently, the sunlight during early morning and dusk is also great for taking photos. __________________________________________ Take Advantage of Off-Season Autumn is a slow period at most parks, when you can even find solitude at hugely popular destinations such as the Grand Canyon. Last October, the chasm brought in around 365,000 visitors, compared to 651,000 in July. October is when the weather is nice throughout the park—highs of 86 at the bottom of the canyon and 65 on top of the South Rim, compared to 106 and 84 respectively in July. The first couple weeks of October are also your last chance to check out the less-visited North Rim before access is shut down for the snowy season. Deep winter is even quieter than the fall at the Grand Canyon, but by then the hiking trails are usually covered in snow—and this sure isn't the place you want to risk slipping and taking a tumble.

Relaxation Damnation

I like to get stress relief from mundane things like TV, exercise, and paperbacks. When I'm sick, I turn to legal drugs and people with a healthy respect for the scientific method like, say, doctors. To steal from the Piña Colada Song, I'm not much into yoga. Or crystals, colonic incense aromatherapy, or homeopathic anything. So when I found myself driving up the California coast to a holistic health spa, it was with a stunned wife and not a little trepidation. Ten years of living in wacky Los Angeles, two months of intense back pain, and one fat gift certificate from my agent had pried my mind open. "It's the best, the only spa my wife goes to," he bragged. Low expectations were probably a good thing. Spas set the bar pretty high for themselves with words like "rejuvenate," "pamper," and "indulge." As it turns out, even if we had been headed to the Abu Ghraib Desert Inn we would have had seriously dashed hopes by trip's end. Trouble was in the air as soon as we got out of the car. Literally. We were prepared for the geothermal "rotten egg" smell, a sign that nearby sulfurous springs were doing their salubrious thing. But we weren't prepared for garbage. Rotten eggs, sure, but also old banana peels, putrefying fish sticks, and other telltale aromas of trash. An open dumpster placed ten feet from the entrance helped to explain the smell. But nothing explained our receptionist's bizarre anger at being told of the problem or her reluctance to remedy it. "We'll take care of it," she lied testily, handing us our keys. The open dumpster was proudly basking in the sun when we left two unhappy days later. After we checked in, I guilted myself into letting the bellhops bring our lone suitcase to the room. While waiting three hours for them to lose it, find it, and carry it 50 yards to our cramped, stuffy room, my wife and I sat by the window, drinking warm pomegranate juice (the minifridge was broken) and admiring the partial view. Unfortunately, "partial" turned out to mean around 1/32, so only one of us could admire at a time. We had scheduled massages for the afternoon and were advised to soak in the resort's hot tubs beforehand to loosen the muscles and get into the general spirit of things. The tubs were co-ed, and apparently clothing optional. An obese gentleman, au naturel, soon joined us in ours. Our hot tub being, in fact, a tepid tub made escape from Mr. Immodesty all the easier. But, streak holding fast, the second tub was pretty much scalding. In my life I've had pretty good luck at adjusting to what at first seemed like an excessively hot bathtub or Jacuzzi, but when acclimation yields to countless microblisters I'm ready to throw in the towel and call the maintenance guy a sadist. Or a moron. Or nonexistent. Our early departure from the heat-challenged tubs took us into a pre-massage waiting area complete with trays of organic orange slices, assortments of holistic health magazines, and impressive swarms of all-natural fruit flies with an ardent desire to explore our noses, ears, and mouths. Shortly after we commenced battle with the fruit flies, our pursuit of peace was again thwarted, this time auditorily. Distressed cooing noises cried out from behind a wall. At first, we were sure a dove was being choked to death, but when the terrified gurgles turned human we realized that a young woman was being massaged the wrong way or in the wrong places. Later, the poor soul emerged and revealed himself to be an elderly man, intensifying our horror and coating it with a sort of creepiness, especially we saw how red and swollen his eyes were from crying. Without time to shudder, my wife and I were simultaneously called to our sessions. We nervously scanned the two masseuses, wondering which of us would soon be gurgling. My therapist being burly and austere, with a Wagnerian name, I figured I held the short straw. The massage corroborated. Hildegaard or Gretchen, or whoever she was, lashed out at my defenseless kidneys like a laser-guided missile. My pleas for lighter pressure helped a bit, but so displeased Gretchen that I ended up with pretty much no massage at all. I wondered if she doubled her spa duties as hot-tub thermostat setter. Chastened by the first half of the first day, and somewhat constrained by torrential rains, I hid in our dank room, emerging only to force down flavorless vegan meals. My wife bravely tried avocado masks and mud-pack treatments until an angry red rash on her chest, neck, and face forced her to join me in exile. It was with a combination of relief and disbelief that we packed our bags, headed home, and tried not to let the experience harden into bitter hatred of all humanity. My back was still hurting, so my wife took the wheel and flew us down the pitted dirt road that led to the Pacific Coast Highway. A lesson dawned on me: Vacations are just one of those things you ought to pick entirely yourself. Then a pebble shot out from the car in front of us and cracked our windshield. No, we didn't meet the deductible. ____________________________________________ Andy Robin is a film and television writer and director. He spent six seasons on "Seinfeld," penning such memorable episodes as "The Junior Mint" and "The Fatigues," which won the 1998 Writers Guild Award. He and writing partner Gregg Kavet recently wrote "Saving Face," a humorous guide to awkward social situations. The duo also wrote and directed the feature film "Live Free or Die," which won the Jury Prize at the 2006 South by Southwest Film Festival. For the past five years, Robin and his family have made their home in Rhode Island.

Trip Coach: June 13, 2006

Pam Grout: Hi everybody--Thanks for joining me to talk about girlfriend getaways, one of my favorite topics of conversation. _______________________ Miami, FL: Can you give your suggestions for cooking school vacations in Italy? Pam Grout: There's a great website with all sorts of Italian cooking schools. It's cookitaly.com. What a great way to spend a vacation. _______________________ Sacramento, CA: Hi Pam, I am a single woman whose girlfriends are all married or otherwise coupled, and cannot go on getaways due to time or money issues. I have gone on vacation solo before, but I'd really like to travel with some other friends and be with a small group of people with similar interests. How can I find other singles who'd want to travel together to Hawaii who live in my area? Thanks for your assistance. Vanessa Pam Grout: There are a bunch of websites and outfits that hook singles up to travel together. I'm partial to the ones that team you with girlfriends with similar interests. I have a whole section in the back of my book about these, but here are a couple off the top of my head: womentraveltips.com, journeywoman.com _______________________ Orchard Park, NY: My three college friends and I get together every fall ... this year's trip is scheduled for the weekend of November 3-5. We had settled on NYC, but then they went and changed their minds on me, and now are making me go to Skaneateles, NY to the Mirbeau spa, which is luxurious and decadent, and very expensive. Please, find something positive about this for me ... what is there to do in Skaneateles, NY besides get a facial ... which I can do here in Orchard Park just fine. Help me. I can't back out, it's criminal. Signed, 36 and still meeting annually... Pam Grout: Well, I really don't care where I travel with my girlfriends just as long as they're with me. I realize money can be an issue (and that's probably not quite fair if one of you doesn't have access to the same resources), but overall, the value of a girlfriends getaway is not the destination, but the journey--the chance to talk and just commune. _______________________ Osan, South Korea: I'm getting ready to move back to the US, specifically Montana. A few of my friends have talked about traveling up there so we can go to a dude ranch. Any suggestions for a group of females on where to get that experience? Marla Pam Grout: There's a dude ranch association that will put you in touch with dude ranches in all 50 states--yes, believe it or not, every state has at least one dude ranch. I had a great experience in Montana at the Sweet Grass Rancher's association. They invite folks to live at their ranches--some of the ranches have a whole home, some it's a trailer by the river. But it's a great chance to really meet some Montana folks whose families have been there for generations. Talk about a reality vacation. _______________________ Palmer, AK: A girlfriend & I are thinking of going to NYC while the Christmas decorations are up. We have never been there before--how many days do you think we should go for & what should we use for transportation? Thanks Pam Grout: The thing I love about New York is you can get pretty much anywhere by subway. Every now and again, it's handy to take a taxi, but I love getting around in New York. As for number of days, you will never get bored. Go for as many days as you can afford. The shopping, the shows--I'm telling you, you could live the rest of your life there and never run out of things to do. _______________________ Kirkland, WA: Six girlfriends will be renting a house in San Miguel Allende the first week in July. It will be hard to do a lot of things as a group but I was thinking maybe we could all visit a spa together. Any recommendations? Thanks Pam Grout: Spafinder.com has suggestions for spas in any destination. It's pretty easy to find a spa nearly anywhere you go. I even wrote about a spa once in a town in Kansas that had a population of 600 folks. Gotta love those ubiquitous spas. _______________________ Auburn Hills, MI: Tell us about one of your favorite girlfriend getaways and what made it so special. What is the max you like to include in your girlfriend getaways? Pam Grout: I have loved every girlfriend getaway I've ever been on. I tend to travel with some of the same girlfriends so I know what to expect. Usually it's just three or four of us. If you take too many girlfriends, it can be a bit problematic. As for what made it special, it's just that chance to be together--away from all the pressure of family and housework and jobs and all those things that keep us from communing with special friends. As I say in the book, I think a yearly girlfriend getaway should be mandatory for every girlfriend over 18. _______________________ Chillicothe, OH: A group of friends from work would like to take a trip during our holiday shut down in December. We get the week off between Christmas and New Years when most destinations seem to have no discounts. Any ideas where we can go that won't cause us to strain our bank accounts? Pam Grout: Hi Ohio--If you look hard enough there are discounts every week of the year. My current favorite is southwest airline's beep. You sign up to be on their beep list and they beep you every so often (at least once a day) when they are offering discounts--usually less than $50 one way to all sorts of destinations. _______________________ Lansing, MI: During July, my roommate and I will be driving across the country and have already made our hotel reservations. We will be staying in St Louis, Missouri; Hayes, Kansas; Grand Junction, Colorado; Las Vegas, Nevada; and finally, Camarillo, California. We were wondering what to do in these places to have fun like the locals do. Specifically in Kansas. Could you help us? Thanks. Pam Grout: Kansas. Well, I happen to think Kansas is one of the most interesting states and because most people don't know that, you kinda get the place to yourself. I'm an expert on oddities (I've written 3 books on curiosities), so I like some of the offbeat things. You can dig for dinosaurs (lots and lots to be found) near Scott City, you can visit a bunch of presidential libraries--Eisenhower's of course, but there's an also-rans museum in a bank. Also ran's are the presidential nominees who didn't make it, there's a presidential museum for a guy who was president for one day and, of course, the Bob Dole Institute (another wannabe president) in my hometown. Well, i could go on and on about Kansas, but I suggest either of my two books--Kansas Curiosities and You Know You're in Kansas When. _______________________ Grundy Center, IA: My family and I will be visiting Vienna, Austria from 12/29 to 1/2. My daughter, who will be 13, and I are interested in a "girl's day" at one of the spas in the Baden region south of Vienna. Have you any suggestions for a place to go that the both of us would enjoy? Thanks in advance for your help! -Marcia Pam Grout: I love the spas in Baden. You might forewarn your 13-year-old daughter (mine is 12, so I know the age group) that people are a bit more open with nudity in Europe. My daughter's used to it, but it can tend to shock and embarrass that age group. I already mentioned spafinder.com. but there's also experienceispa.com that might have specific suggestions. Just google spas and Vienna and you'll get lots of suggestions. _______________________ San Diego, CA: Hi Pam, My girlfriend and I are trying to plan a trip out of United States, but we just cannot figure where to go. Since both of us are female, so we would like someplace fun and safe. We are very adventurous girls. We are willing to spend only US$1500. Any Suggestions? Thanks! Pam Grout: I'm a big fan of Rio Caliente near Guadalajara, Mexico. It's relatively expensive, located on a natural hot spring and far enough off the beaten path that you will not feel threatened one bit. _______________________ Minneapolis, MN: My sister and I are going on a tour of Italy with a group of seniors. We would like a side trip to Fatima, Portugal and would appreciate any advice. We will be doing that portion on our own, unless we hook up with a tour but timing could cause problems with that. There is a 3-4 day period at the end of our tour Nov 29-Dec 2 that we could fly to Lisbon, take a bus to Fatima and back to Lisbon and then to Venice to go home with our group. We speak no Portuguese or anything but English. Any ideas would be appreciated. Pam Grout: I love the Algarve region of Portugal. I haven't been there in a while, but it was super inexpensive and I didn't have a lick of problem with my lack of Portuguese. I went on my own (I did have a car), but it was very easy to find places to stay and things to do. I'm a "follow your nose" kind of person and if you are, too, you will do fine without a tour group. _______________________ Minneapolis, MN: Every May our husbands spend a weekend fishing "the opener", and the women take a weekend away. Where would you recommend a group of about 8 women, ages 40-70, to go together for a quick weekend away? Pam Grout: From Minneapolis, you could do a fun shopping excursion in Chicago. Or head on over to Door County, Wisconsin that has spas and just about everything else you could want to do. _______________________ Santa Clarita, CA: Our daughter will be 21 on Aug 3. She and a group of young ladies will be in Las Vegas Aug 4 and Aug 5 for some wild and crazy times. They have reserved rooms at the Hard Rock through a discount connection. Do you have any suggestions for hot spots for their night time entertainment (keeping in mind they are college girls on a college budget)? -A concerned mom of four Pam Grout: The nice thing about Las Vegas is that things are cheaper. Because they make all their money on gambling, you can score all sorts of deals on meals. Wild and crazy, of course, will be easy to find in Las Vegas. You can just walk around with your mouth agape at all the big hotels--they're a tourist attraction in themselves. _______________________ Petal, MS: Where can 50 year old divorcees go to have fun with men their own age or older? Dating in my hometown is been nonexistent. Pam Grout: From where I'm standing (I'm 50, too) there are men everywhere. I know Alaska has an abundance of single men, plus what a great place for a girlfriend getaway. _______________________ Whittier, CA: Hi Pam, Here's my question: Next year, I'll be turning the big 4-0 and would like to take a trip w/my sisters (50 & 45). I've told them I'd like to be in Italy on my birthday, but am unsure whether to take a tour (which I've done before) or if we should go it on our own. Can you recommend a tour outfit who give you more free time than, say, Trafalgar or Globus (both good companies, but rather rush rush)? Or what is the best and safest way for 3 women to get around. Our main focus would be Venice, Florence and Rome w/maybe some stops in between. We'd like to take 8-12 days. Thanks in advance for your help. Rita Pam Grout: Again, I'm a big one for letting fate lead the way. I like venturing out on my own, although it's not for everyone. You could buy a eurail pass and get around easily. I always do that and get suggestions on where to go, what to do from my fellow travelers. It's a good way to practice language skills and meet people and get recommendations on the VERY best places--straight from the horse's mouth. It sorta depends on the personality of your fellow travelers. _______________________ Austin, TX: First of all, LOVE the mag!!!! My girlfriends and have been doing girlfriend getaways for about 20 years. We are all turning 50 next year and are in the planning stages of a med cruise. Question: What do you recommend as the best excursion trips? Any "unknown" places?? Beaches?? etc. Look forward to hearing from you!! Linda Pam Grout: Hey Austin--Happy 50th! Me and my crew of girlfriends are also turning 50 this year. We're looking at all sorts of options. But a mediterranean cruise sounds fabulous. Not having done one, I'm hoping you'll report back to me. _______________________ Glassboro, NJ: I'd like to go to Salem, MA the first week of October with my sisters for some Halloween fun. How can we do this for three days relatively cheap? We'll be driving and we range in age from thirty five to forty five years old. Pam Grout: Salem is great during October--they celebrate Halloween the whole month. There are costume balls and psychic fairs and all sorts of bewitching to be had. Lot of the events are free and if you really want to do cheap, you can stay in college residence halls at Salem State College _______________________ Helena, AL Seven of us middle-aged girl friends will be sharing a villa in Tuscany the second week in October. Three or four of us are staying another week and have yet to decide where we might go, except for CincaTerra (sic). What are your suggestions for places of interest, good food, wine, shopping and scenery? We arrive and depart from Florence. Pam Grout: Here's an idea. I'm big on doing girlfriend getaways with a theme--read Under the Tuscan Sun (maybe you already have) and try to recreate. A friend of mine did a recreation of Field of Dreams (complete with video camera) and had the time of her life. And as for good food and wine, shopping and scenery, is there a place in Tuscany without good food and wine, shopping and scenery???? _______________________ Pittsburgh, PA: Can you tell me the best time of the year for specials, deals, promo's to visit Las Vegas? Also if I wanted to go to Sams Town or Laughlin, what should I expect compared to the Las Vegas Strip? Thanks Pam Grout: If you can swing going to Vegas during the week, you can get all sorts of deals. The big hotels are more expensive on weekends. You can save up to $150 if you can go on say a Tuesday. _______________________ Jersey City, NJ: My friend Brandy and I (both in our early 30's) are starting to plan this year's girl-trip. We don't have a lot of money to spend or a lot of time (probably a long weekend from Thursday night until Monday night). We'll probably be traveling in the middle of August. We've been considering Montreal for a while and traditionally prefer to bypass the usual touristy things and go straight for local favorite haunts, restaurants, shops and scenery. What would you recommend we do and see while we're there? Thanks for your help! Michele Pam Grout: Good for you for recognizing that the local's haunts are the best place to really get to know a place. Montreal has all sorts of interesting neighborhoods--Greek, Jamaican, Haitian, etc. And, as for those 100 bells, you can probably hear them wherever you go in the city. There's a book called Quebec: Off the Beaten Path that might come in hand. If you have time, head out to the Laurentians, one of my favorite places. It's only 45 minutes away and the guys, who would be Jack and Paul, are Jacques and Pierre in the Laurentians. _______________________ La Grange, TX: Four girlfriends are planning a trip to Italy in the fall of 2007. We plan to stay around 14 to 16 days. Of course, we would like to see as much of Italy as we could. We all in our 50. We will be flying out of George Bush in Houston, Texas. Mary Pam Grout: That sounds like a fabulous trip--14 to 16 days. Get some shopping done in Milan. What you see in Milan will be in style in America (and everywhere else) in a year. This is the city that international garmentos go to find goods they will tote back to Hong Kong to reproduce as expensive copies. Elegant boutiques and posh cafes are found in charming Victorian-era buildings. Be sure to check out La Rinascente, Milan's own department store and Provers, a must for vintage wine selection. _______________________ Seattle, WA: As a high school graduation present, I am taking my eighteen year old granddaughter to Italy next Spring. She wants to go tourless, on our own. I am somewhat intimidated, and I am clueless how to start, although I did take beginner's Italian this Spring. Although I will be 75 years old, I am in very good shape. Can you help me with a plan for a ten day trip? Where do I start? My granddaughter is majoring in art. I don't want to rob a bank to make this possible! Pam Grout: What a nice grandma you are. That is one of nicest graduation gifts I can think of. If your daughter wants to go tourless, she must have some ideas of what she wants to see. And if she's majoring in art, she probably already knows the best places--Rome, Florence, well, the whole of Italy is one big art gallery. Instead of going completely tourless, how about going with one of those companies that will put together a special itinerary just for you--tell them what you want and at least get a hotel booked in two or three cities you want to visit. You can get the museum tickets while you're there and you'll both get what you're looking for. You'll have a tad bit of security and she'll get her sense of tourless. _______________________ Washington, DC: Going to Vegas on Wednesday 6/14/06. Where is the best place to get spa services and purchase show tickets? Thanks Pam Grout: If all else fails, you can contact the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Their phone number is 702/892-0711 and their website is lvcva.com. Good luck and win some big money for me. _______________________ Pam Grout: Thanks for all your fantastic questions. Here's to lots of great girlfriends getaways with all your favorite people. _______________________

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