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5 Reasons Why Chinese Food in America Is Better Than Ever

By Liza Weisstuch
January 12, 2022
Chinese food in America gets a makeover (69459) Image Placement 118271
As the Year of the Dog dawns in China, chefs across North America offer a fresh, exciting spin on Chinese cuisine.

No matter where you live (and eat) in the United States, chances are you’re no farther than a short drive from a spot where you can get wonton soup, scallion pancakes, and General Tso’s chicken. Chinese restaurants, it seems, are as ubiquitous as pizza parlors and Irish pubs. And while Peking duck will never fall out of fashion, a new crop of chefs are offering some pretty inventive, if not radical, twists on familiar dishes. 

1. UPSCALE NOODLES

You could make the case that David Chang started it all. The New York chef’s name remains synonymous with his first venue, Momofuku Noodle Bar, a lively, funky joint he opened the East Village in 2004 that famously offered modern versions of his favorite dishes from Chinatown’s gritty old-school noodle houses. Later came Momofuku KO (ko.momofuku.com), offering more polished selections, including Asian morsels enhanced with foie gras, truffles, and other global morsels. Now he’s gone on to open a veritable empire of clever Asian eateries—throughout New York but also in Sydney, Toronto, and Las Vegas.

2. A FRESH, GREENMARKET SENSIBILITY

These days, though, Chang hardly has a monopoly on intriguing Chinese fare in Manhattan. A few years after Momofuku opened came RedFarm (redfarmnyc.com), a project by Joe Ng and Ed Schoenfeld, both notable figures in the New York dining scene. Today there are three outposts in the city. Billing itself as “Innovative, Inspired Chinese Cuisine with Greenmarket Sensibility,” the menu runs the gamut from dumplings that are a far cry from classic, what with they’re being shaped like Pac Man and those ghosts, to a full papaya/ginger/soy-sauce-marinated rib steak and the most New York-y eggroll you’ve ever seen: stuffed with Katz’s pastrami and served with honey-mustard and kaffir-lime sauce.

3. REGIONAL FLAVORS

Chefs elsewhere around the country add their own regional accents, like Ryan Bernhardt, who opened TKO (tkotn.com) in Nashville in the fall of 2016. He brings a strong southern influence to his recipes, making creative use of pickles, porridge, buttermilk and other classic flavors. To wit: the kale salad, cruciferous veggie du jour, appears here adorned in shallots, cashews, crispy pork and chili vinegar. A buttermilk-dressing-slathered medley of broccoli, raisins, spicy peanuts and lemon. A cocktail list that leans heavy on rum- and rye-based drinks seals the deal.  

In Atlanta, Chef Wendy Chang offers something not often associated with the deep south: soy beef and soy chicken. Herban Fix (herbanfix.com) is her airy and modern vegan restaurant, where she fuses traditional Asian tastes with all the wholesome elements frequently found in cafés in San Francisco and Burlington, Vermont. There’s Pan seared soy fish w. organic kale simmered in spicy curry noodle soup as well as a mushroom/quinoa/cherry tomato/kale. All the classic preparations are along for the ride, too—in vegan form, of course—like scallion pancakes and sweet and sour tofu.  

4. WEST COAST INNOVATORS

Regional obsessions play into the style at HRD (hrdcorp.com), a longstanding coffee-shop-style restaurant that bills itself as serving “global fusion” cuisine, but regardless of what you call it, it’s uniquely San Franciscan, as beyond the rice bowls, curry plates, and salads, the menu offers a wide range of burritos and tacos with inventive fillings, like spicy pork, organic tofu, and panko-crusted pork, each with kimchi and a few other eastern-leaning flavors. While we’re on the west coast, Portland, Oregon can always be counted on to throw some creative culinary mojo into the ring. We were particularly taken by Expatriate (expatriatepdx.com), a hip, dimly lit cocktail lounge with inventive craft drinks alongside a menu of inspired bites that fuse all sorts of global tastes and traditions. China meets the American South the Chinese sausage corn dog, a heat-fiend’s fantasy with hot mustard and “xxx death sauce.” Consider yourself warned. A tremendous nachos platter dubbed the Expatriot Nacho with a wink is a tremendous pile of fried wonton chips, thai chili cheese sauce, spicy lemongrass beef, crema, kaffir lime, and tomato salsa, and herbs. A feast for the eyes and the body. 

5. DINER KITSCH MEETS ASIAN FUSION CUISINE

Moving north, Joanne Chang broke the mold in Boston in 2007 when she opened Myers + Chang (myersandchang.com, pictured above), an eatery that blends American diner kitsch with a down-home Chinese style in terms of both food and décor. You can also spot Thai, Korean, and Vietnamese touches on the menu, which, in addition to a roster of noodles and familiar dishes, includes options like fish tacos with kimchee sesame salsa and fried chicken with ginger waffles, an elevated spin on the country classic.

Chang told us she recommends Bao Bei (bao-bei.ca), a self-styled “Chinese Brasserie,” in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown. The small shabby-chic spot puts a premium on local, seasonal, organic ingredients and the thoughtfully designed menu blends Shanghainese, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese traditions, with a little French flare tossed in for good measure. The result: dishes like spicy noodles flat wheat noodles swimming in chili lamb mince, pork fat, sesame sauce, cucumber, and preserved yellow bean. Steelhead trout is adorned with crispy squash and cumin gnocchi, rapini, and velvety shiso butter clam sauce. A far cry from beef noodle soup, to be sure. And certainly only a hint of what's to come from this new generation of chefs.  

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Inspiration

Supermarket Souvenirs

Love foreign supermarkets as much as we do? Now you can prove it. Send your supermarket souvenir photo and caption to Letters@BudgetTravel.com with the subject line "Supermarket Souvenir," and we'll consider your photo for our slide show. Each spring, Cambodian farmers hold their breath as trays of food are set before a pair of oxen. The specific dishes the beasts choose to eat predict the bounty of the next harvest. The maker of this jerky has given the bovine an even greater ability—the power to fly. —Naomi Lindt In Mexico, cleaning your clothes is a sultry affair thanks to Tango soap ($2). A dancer seduces you with her bare shoulders (is her bra in the dryer?), while the product promises to "express passion." Added bonus: clean undies. —Andrea Sachs In Italy, cool design pops up just about everywhere, even on packages of $1 snack food. Each bag of Virtual chips features a lone corn chip, lit as if it were on display in the Uffizi Gallery. At a mere 154 calories per bag, it also leaves you feeling virtually no guilt. —Sean O'Neill There really is something in the bottled water sold in the tiny Middle Eastern nation of Bahrain. Not only is Al Kamel's cardamom water ($1) used as a flavoring for milk and coffee, but its label claims that if you drink the water three times a day it will function as a "digestive inducer, sexual stimulator, tranquilizer, and tonic for the heart." —Summar Ghias In Colombia, the health benefits of soy can't be oversold. Not only do packets of Leche de Soya, a powdered soy milk ($2), sport a spokesman who looks a bit like Richard Simmons, but the instructions include illustrations of sports that are ideal for soy-milk drinkers—bodybuilding, rollerblading, desk jockeying.... —Liz Ozaist These Gluco-Max tea biscuits look like they should be from Japan, but they're actually from Uganda. Munch on enough of them and you might end up sumo-size, too. (18¢) --Laura MacNeil Here's one way to stand out in a market flooded with bottled water: Replace the streams and mountains usually found on labels with a snarky sense of humor. Another Bloody Water is about $1.75 in Australian groceries. --Celeste Moure Swing Ernie is a curvaceous, heart-stamped sponge that seems to be romantically involved with a hedgehog. In commercials, the two dance and roll around on a countertop to Paul Anka's "Put Your Head On My Shoulder." Why use sex to sell a sponge? "It's very French," laughs Spontex's marketing manager. Sold for $4 or so across France. --Ellise Pierce Bottled in St. Kitts, the honey-based (and nonalcoholic) Giant Malt is sold at island supermarkets for around a dollar. But what's with the buff bod on the label? "Giant Malt makes you strong," claims Mark Wilkin, Carib Brewery's managing director. --Amy Chen This makes twist-off caps look traditional: Iron Wine sells malbec cabernet and chenin blanc in aluminum cans. The 12-ounce cans ("When a bottle is too much but a glass is too little!" says ironwine.com) are available at upscale shops and bars in Argentina for $2 to $6. --Celeste Moure There's nothing minor about a candy bar that combines the rich cocoa goodness of Swiss chocolate with chopped, roasted hazelnuts. It comes in various shapes and sizes--including this 46-gram bar made solely for rest stops and kiosks ($1.20). Yes, in Switzerland, even the snacks sold at gas stations are fancy. --Mike Iveson In Greece, people tend to eat dinner at 10 p.m. or later, which explains the large number of light mezes (small plates) on most taverna menus. Thessaloníki-based Zanae has been canning traditional appetizers--such as grape leaves stuffed with rice, and giant butter beans or meatballs in tomato sauce--for nearly 70 years ($2). --Laurie Kuntz Guidebooks say that in Portugal, food without wine is a snack, not a meal. But carrying a bottle for lunch isn't always practical. The solution: a single-serving box of white or red wine from the Estremadura region in western Portugal, available for 80 cents each. --Tom Berger When the competition sports names like Rockstar and Monster, why link your energy drink with unwanted e-mail and a potted-meat product? Because that's living on the edge. Spam Energy Drink, $1, throughout Belgium, Finland, and the Netherlands. --Mike Iveson Caviar for breakfast? It sounds like something out of a Jackie Collins novel, but there it was at the hotel buffet in Stockholm: creamed cod roe cut with potato flakes and tomato paste. Toothpaste-size tubes are sold at supermarkets for $1.40. Evidently, it's a popular after-school snack (on bread) in Sweden. Somehow we don't think Skippy has much to worry about. --Erik Torkells In Myanmar, née Burma, people love tea so much they eat it--pickled, no less. Ah Yee Taung (which means "big aunt basket") steams and ferments green tea leaves, then pairs them with roasted sesame seeds and fried beans. "Pungent" is the kindest way to describe the concoction, which can be bought throughout the country ($5). --Laura MacNeil It's only a .78-ounce bag of crispy puffed kernels, but if the peppy hiker on the package is any indication, Quinua Pop is all the fuel you'll need to trek across the Andes. Called the mother grain by the Inca, quinoa is heavy on protein, iron and vitamin B. Four-packs of the breakfast cereal are sold for 75 cents at Metro and other grocery stores in Peru. --Laura MacNeil Despite the packaging, Leverpostei is actually not a puree of a small blond boy. Rather, it's a Norwegian pork liver pate best paired with salty crackers. It's sold in seven-ounce tins--some are decorated with girls, but contain the same tasty contents--for $1.70. --Litty Mathew With these animal crackers, there's no question who sits atop the food chain: kids. Wildlife Cookie Company makes foxes, bears, and mountain lions (available at Yosemite and other national parks, $1.75), while Oahu-based Diamond Bakery opts for bite-sized Hawaiian sea creatures such as humpback whales, octopi, and dolphins ($1). --Brad Tuttle Made with Scotch bonnet peppers, a Caribbean favorite, Hell Sauce, is named for the Cayman town of Hell. (According to the label, nearby rocks resemble "the smouldering remains of a Hell Fire.") The sauce is a kick, even if Hell is a tourist trap, just as one always suspected. It costs $4 for a five-ounce bottle at Foster's Food Fair on Grand Cayman Island. New Zealand has four million residents, and about as many dairy cows. So it's small wonder that milk shows up everywhere, including the candy aisle. Heards Milk Chews ($2 for a seven-ounce bag at Foodtowns across the country) taste like milkshake-flavored Tootsie Rolls. Sweet. --Paul Brady Slow-cooked, marinated quail eggs are considered fertility boosters in Taiwan, where they're sold as pang ti neng (in Taiwanese) or xiang tie dan (in Mandarin). Both translate as fragrant iron eggs--not that you can smell a thing through the serious vacuum packing. (Come to think of it, that's just fine.) They cost $6.50 at supermarkets and convenience stores. --Christine Y. Chen Kranky and Crunky aren't just descriptions of hip-hop star Lil Jon after a long night. In Mexico, Kranky is a brand of chocolate-covered cornflakes; and in Japan, Crunky is a Nestle Crunch-like bar. Each brings attitude adjustment for under $1. A mix of Indian spices and German sausage, Curry-Wurst is popular with munich clubgoers looking to line--and test?--their stomachs. A sliced pork sausage is doused in tomato sauce; toothpicks and a curry packet are tucked underneath. Plke holes in the lid, microwave, and sprinkle on the spice. It's sold refrigerated in grocery stores, including the MiniMal chain ($1.80).--Marilyn Holstein With Toreras (female bullfighters), cocktail onion company Kimbo combines two Spanish signatures--bullfighting and tapas--in one neat tin. On the inside, toothpicks skewer stacks of olives, pearl onions, and hot peppers. On the outside, saucy chicas in matador pants play coyly with spears. Olé! Available across Spain at El Corte Inglés Carrefour, and Eroski supermarkets. 1.50 (about $2). --Lisa Abend

Inspiration

Witness a Total Eclipse

When the moon slides between the earth and the sun at just the right angle to create a total solar eclipse, astonishing things happen: "As the sun disappears, the hairs stand up on the back of my neck," says Vicki Buchwald, a dental hygienist from Crystal Lake, Ill. "I've cried and screamed. It's like looking into the eye of God." She and her husband, Greg, an electrical engineer, have traveled to see five eclipses and can't get enough. Let others chase tornadoes or the northern lights; for these fans, there is no better show, and the next one to catch is July 22 (July 21 if you're in the South Pacific). What makes this eclipse extraordinary is that it'll create the longest stretch of darkness in the daytime that the planet will see for more than a hundred years. Even though it takes about three hours for all the phases of an eclipse to unfold, totality (when the moon entirely blocks the sun) is stunningly brief. This year, it'll last up to 6 minutes and 39 seconds. The next one to come close isn't until 2132. Of course, being in the right place at the right time is key. As July's occurrence travels from India to the South Pacific, it will be visible along a 150-mile-wide swath. Since eclipses are lengthiest at the midpoints of their routes, the prime viewing destinations this summer will be on the coast of eastern China, a day trip from Shanghai. There, you'll see how local perceptions have also come a long way: What was once considered a bad omen is now cause for celebration. Eclipse viewing 101 No matter how well you plan, catching an eclipse is a game of chance—clear skies are hard to predict a week ahead, much less months in advance. Nor does it help that the event takes place during monsoon season. Uncontrollables aside, here's how to maximize the marvel: Reach for higher ground Head to a roof or a mountain to get away from buildings and ambient light that interfere with visibility. Wear protection It's safe to look at the sun only when it is completely obscured by the moon. Staring at a partial eclipse with the naked eye can give you retinal burns and even cause temporary or permanent blindness. Regular sunglasses won't protect you, so play it safe and wear a pair of eclipse-viewing glasses—they may look like 3-D movie specs, but they actually contain specialized filters (seymoursolar.com, shades $1.50). Snap away Regular digital and film cameras are fine for capturing the event, as long as you place a filter on your viewfinder to shield your eyes while shooting the partial stages (rainbowsymphonystore.com, filters from $10). For best results, use manual focus, turn off the flash, and remove the filter for totality. First-time viewer? Put down the camera and just take it in. Be at ease Since you'll be staring skyward for hours, bring along snacks and a pillow or a folding chair. Then get comfy. Let them take you there These outfitters are offering expert-led eclipse trips in July: TravelQuest International has a 15-day cruise through the South Pacific with lectures by Harvard astronomy professor Owen Gingerich and former editor of Sky & Telescope magazine Rick Fienberg (800/830-1998, tq-international.com, from $6,995 without airfare). Spears Travel hired NASA astrophysicist Fred Espenak to head a 10-day trip from Beijing to Shanghai, with stops at the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the cities of Suzhou and Hangzhou. On July 22, the group will be in the seaside town of Haiyan, on a hotel roof directly in the path of the eclipse (800/688-8031, spearstravel.com, from $3,695 without airfare). Ring of Fire Expeditions called on Paul Maley, expedition coordinator for NASA's Johnson Space Center Astronomical Society, to guide a 10-day journey through China and Tibet. The itinerary includes a ride on the Xining–Lhasa train, a visit to the Wolong panda reserve, and an eclipse-viewing at a spot determined by Maley on the day of the event (281/480-1988, eclipsetours.com, from $3,789 without airfare).

Inspiration

The Wonders of South Dakota

Mistakenly believing that it's hard to reach, many Americans fail to visit the greatest human monument in all the nation, chiseled into the Black Hills of South Dakota. It's called Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and (for Americans) it's on a par-artistically and emotionally-with the Great Wall and the Taj Mahal. It's also only one of many wonders in the southwest corner of the state. They include the otherworldly rock formations of Badlands National Park, the burgeoning bison herds at Custer State Park, the dramatic Native American history and culture at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and the Crazy Horse Monument-the world's largest sculpture in the making. There couldn't be a better time to visit these grand landmarks, in an area of the country where lodging, food, and sightseeing costs are among our nation's least expensive. A Swift Visit to Rapid City Though Sioux Falls is the state's largest town (and airport), you are much better situated for the drive we suggest by beginning the trip in Rapid City, five-and-a-half hours to the west (and thus much nearer to The Badlands and Mount Rushmore). Delta, Northwest, and United Express all fly into the quiet Rapid City Airport (usually via Denver), with United Express tending to be the cheapest of the three. Low-cost car-rental companies at the airport include Thrifty, Budget, and National. Most tourists on their way to Mount Rushmore speed through Rapid City without stopping, but this neat, clean, and historic town is worth at least a full day's exploration. With well-tended gardens, historical signs everywhere, and interesting shops and restaurants, the city is a standout. And the downtown landmark you won't want to miss is the Hotel Alex Johnson (523 Sixth St., 605/342-1210, www.alexjohnson.com), a 75-year-old, ten-story tower with chalet motifs that somehow fit in. Pick up a walking-tour brochure that describes the property's ornate lobby, woodwork, chandeliers, and artwork. And why not stay here your first night? Doubles start at just $59 in winter, $89 in summer. If it's full, try the modern Microtel Inn & Suites (1740 Rapp St., 605/348-2523, www.microtelinn.com), where rooms start as low as $57 in winter, $82 in summer. Take time to see the rest of the downtown, with its boutiques, Indian arts stores, and western shops. One store not to miss is Prairie Edge (606 Main St., 800/541-2388), which showcases remarkable Native American arts and artifacts like drums, pipes, jewelry, herbs, and clothing; it's free and interesting to browse, even if you don't buy a thing. Then have lunch or dinner around the corner at the Firehouse Brewing Co. (610 Main St., 605/348-1915), housed in a former old-time, brick fire station whose huge meals-like Hyperventilation Wings and Rings of Fire Fightin' Nachos-sell for only $7.95. You'll see real-life cowboys with Stetsons and tight jeans stuffed into their boots, sauntering about just like in olden times. Even if you don't stay in Rapid City, stop by the Journey Museum (222 New York St., 605/394-6923, www.journeymuseum.org; $6) before heading on. Recently opened amid much controversy (it went way over budget and is in an awkward, hard-to-find location), the collection here is nothing short of first-class, with all kinds of multimedia and interactive displays on Native American culture and history-everything you'd want to know about South Dakota history, geology, and mythology. Good times in the Badlands Now, from Rapid City, head east along Interstate 90 for roughly 60 miles to the famous town of Wall. With billboards and signs for Wall Drug (which began by giving away ice water for travelers during the Depression) stretching from here to the South Pole, the town has become a running joke for cross-country motorists. The actual Wall Drug store (605/279-2175, www.walldrug.com) is a huge souvenir emporium taking up more than one building, offering mostly tacky but fun ashtrays, mugs, and fake bows and arrows, as well as singing mannequins and historical photos of Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and Annie Oakley. If you're hungry, Cactus Cafe & Lounge (519 Main St., 605/279-2561) in downtown Wall serves up Mexican food, steaks, and seafood in a down-home atmosphere for rarely more than $10. From Wall, head south on 240 until you reach the Pinnacles Entrance to Badlands National Park. The $10 car entrance fee is good for seven days ($5 for cyclists or hikers), and you'll want to spend at least two days at this magical outdoor U.S. attraction, rich in visuals and atmosphere. How did the Badlands get their name? The French Canadian fur trappers called them les mauvais terres ... traverser, or the "bad lands to travel across." The Native Americans' name for them, mako sica, also meant "bad lands." The reference captured the imagination of the American pioneers who had to traverse this unrelenting terrain in the 1800s. Named a national monument in 1939 and a full-fledged national park in 1978, Badlands, with its rock spires of different hues, is a mystical experience for intrepid domestic travelers. It's a place of intense history and controversy, which continues as Native Americans keep fighting for their land rights in this unforgiving land. Recent sit-in protests by activists postponed the digging up of ancient graves at Stronghold Table, a sacred area claimed by both the Lakota Nation and the National Park Service. With pointed, jagged peaks made from water-sculpted, crumbling rock, stark canyons in yellow and red tones, and frequent thunderstorms (legend says caused by the mythical Thunder Birds) creating a dramatic purple backdrop, it's amazing it took so long for the beauty of this area to be appreciated and accepted on its own terms. The Badlands lie 62 miles east of Rapid City, on I-90. Turning west on Creek Rim Road after the Pinnacles Entrance, you'll begin to witness the distinct badland formations and see some of the last virgin prairie land in the U.S. Five miles west from the entrance is Roberts Prairie Dog Town filled with mounds of earth dotted with peeking little heads of dogs. A vital member of the ecosystem due to their soil churning, the irresistibly cute prairie canines are endangered by ranchers who would rather see them all gone. Their natural predator, the black-footed ferret, once thought extinct, is still unusually rare. Badlands is one of the few places left to see such amazing creatures. The one main road east through the park is the Badlands Loop Road, which takes you through most of the park's natural wonders. A must-do is a hike along the Castle Trail near the Interior Entrance to the park. The Mars-like terrain will seem like the setting for a science fiction movie. Ranger talks are free during the summer, on topics ranging from fossils to prairie dogs. More information: 605/433-5361, www.nps.gov/badl. Near the park entrance are the only lodging facilities in the park at Cedar Pass Lodge (Cedar St., Interior, 605/433-5460), with individual cottages and a decent diner (under $10 for most meals) and gift shop. Doubles start at $55. You can also try the Badlands Budget Host Hotel (Hwy. 377, 605/433-5335), just outside the park entrance and open from May 1 to October 1. The 21 units start at $46 per double. Camping in Badlands National Park is available at two campsites. One campsite is free, the other charges only $10 a night (14-day limit). Call 605/433-5361 for information. And for your meals, try A & M Cafe (605/433-5340), just outside the park on Highway 44 in Interior. It's a very local diner where you can witness real cowboys and Indians munching on fried chicken, homemade pies, and Indian tacos, all under $9. The place feels like a living room. As you drive west back out of the park on Highway 44, you can take in the wide-open vistas of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland (which, unfortunately, has no buffalo on it but is leased to cattlemen for somewhat destructive grazing by livestock), adjacent to the Badlands National Park. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee A visit to Badlands wouldn't be complete without a detour south to Wounded Knee. Located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (second largest in the U.S.) about 60 miles south of Badlands National Park, this unassuming valley masks a horrific history-it's the site of a genocidal massacre of hundreds of unarmed Indian men, women, and children by the U.S. Cavalry in 1890 (including the Sioux leader Chief Big Foot). A somber graveyard marks the spot, and there's a friendly little visitors center affiliated with the American Indian Movement, with information on current-day Native American politics and the tribes' rough handling by the federal government. (The long, brutal history of Native Americans in this country can be read in the classic book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.) Obviously weary of outside government intervention but extremely friendly to guests, the residents of the Pine Ridge reservation welcome respectful visitors to their famous Sun Dances and powwows-cultural events not to be missed. To witness the ancient rhythms and colors of these Native American rituals is to fall in love with our great country and its land and people once again. For an event schedule, go to www.travelsd.com/history/sioux/powwows.htm, or call 605/867-5821, and also check out the political site www.fireonprairie.org. There's no place to stay within the reservation, but if you choose to spend a night in the area, do so just south of Pine Ridge near the Nebraska border at the charming Wakpamni B&B (605/288-1868, www.wakpamni.com), a family-run farmhouse getaway amid cornfields, with tepees to sleep in if the spirit moves you. Prices start at $60 for a double. You're soaking in it Heading northeast from the town of Pine Ridge on Highway 18, you'll begin the ascent into the Black Hills. One of the first towns you'll encounter is delightful Hot Springs, a turn-of-the-century resort with over 50 buildings built from blocks of pink sandstone. The warm-temperature Fall River goes through the heart of town, and you can bathe in the healing thermal waters at Springs Bath House for only $8 for the entire day (146 North Garden St., 888/817-1972, www.springsbathhouse.com). Whether or not you do have a soak, get out of your car and stroll along the Freedoms Trail, a mile-long sidewalk that follows the banks of the river. You'll also want to stop by the Mammoth Site Museum in Hot Springs (1800 W. Hwy. 18 By-Pass, 605/745-6017, www.mammothsite.com; $6.50), a mass graveyard of over 100 mammoths and other prehistoric animals where you can watch paleontologists work on the bones. Now you'll want to head north on Highway 385 toward Custer State Park. The hills become forested as you approach Wind Cave National Park (605/745-4600, www.nps.gov/wica), one of the world's longest and most complex cave systems (they still haven't found the end of it). Cave tours of the intricate box work, "cave popcorn," and flowstone formations cost only $6. Just north of Wind Cave is the superb, 73,000-acre Custer State Park (605/255-4515, www.custerstatepark.info), which is surely as impressive as any national park. These green, rolling hills are home to one of the largest bison herds in the world (at 1,500), as well as an 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road full of pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, wild turkeys, and a band of friendly burros that often come right up to your car. The Needles Highway (Hwy. 87), which snakes through the northwest corner of the park, is like a visual fairyland, with thin rock spires magically jutting up above the forest canopy. A must for outdoor types is a hike up the 7,242-foot Harney Peak, a sacred mountain for the Sioux, with breathtaking 360-degree views of the Black Hills from a stone watchtower on its summit. Seven-day passes for the park are $12 per vehicle in summer and $6 the rest of the year. All the lodges in Custer State Park are impeccably run and world-class-you will definitely want to spend at least one night here. One special recommendation (for which you'll want to make reservations) is the historic stone and wood State Game Lodge and Resort, which President Calvin Coolidge used as his "summer White House" in 1927; its rooms start at $75. Another you can opt for is a full-fledged modern log cabin with a double bed and sleeper sofa that can comfortably sleep four for $99, booked through the Blue Bell Lodge and Resort. Info for either property: 800/658-3530, or www.custerresorts.com. The heads of state We finally arrive at the grand finale of the trip: overwhelming, majestic Mount Rushmore National Memorial (605/574-2523, www.nps.gov/moru; $8 parking fee). One of those phenomena that needs to be seen to be believed, the four stunning, 60-foot presidential heads were built between 1927 and 1941 by the eccentric genius Gutzon Borglum (with the help of 400 workers, of course). An excellent visitors center shows films and houses displays of little-known facts and artifacts, like the large, cave-like shrine that is half built behind Lincoln's head, the original plans to also carve out the upper torsos of the presidents, and the controversial decision to include Borglum's friend Teddy Roosevelt in the sculpture. Schedule at least half a day to take in this human achievement that Borglum proclaimed would stand over 10,000 years from now (and no one doubts it). Nearly every visitor to Mount Rushmore makes a pilgrimage to the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial (605/673-4681, www.crazyhorse.org; $9) off Highway 385, which is also home to the comprehensive Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Cultural Center. Be sure to see Mount Rushmore first, because it will pale in comparison with Crazy Horse, which will be the largest sculpture in the world when it is finally completed (heaven knows when). The carved-out mountain of Crazy Horse sitting on his horse pointing outward is a three-dimensional monument so enormous that the four heads of Mount Rushmore could fit inside of Crazy Horse's head alone. At the request of Native Americans, sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began the project in 1948, and his family has since kept the blasting and carving going, relying entirely on private funds. Avoid the touristy area of Keystone, where everyone stays in cookie-cutter motels while visiting Mount Rushmore (but check out the fun President's Slide, where visitors plunge down a long mountain on a toboggan run for $8-605/666-4478, www.presidentsslide.com). Head instead to more secluded areas of the Black Hills for accommodations. For instance, the Harney Camp Cabins (605/574-2594), located on a creek four miles south of Hill City, are only $45 per double, and that includes the use of a sundeck and hot tub. Or mosey north to Deadwood (800/999-1876, www.deadwood.org), a historic town and National Historic Landmark popular for its Old West casinos and 1800s buildings. After a gold rush in 1876, prospectors, Chinese laborers, Calamity Jane, and Wild Bill Hickok all converged on the town to make it one of the most colorful spots in the West. By all means, try to get a room at the historic Bullock Hotel (633 Main St., 800/336-1876, www.heartofdeadwood.com/bullock), the first real hotel in Deadwood, opened in 1885 (before then, the town had only been full of flophouses and bordellos). Refurbished and full of character, it's the place to stay in Deadwood ($74 a room; slightly higher in summer). Or try the Deadwood Inn (27 Deadwood St., 877/815-7974; rooms start at $69), once a feed store and now a 19-room Victorian hotel with casino.

Inspiration

World's Weirdest Hotels 3.0

1. LA VILLA HAMSTER, NANTES, FRANCE Ever wonder what life is like for a hamster? If so, you're not alone—ever since it opened in 2009, La Villa Hamster has been booked almost every night. The owners, a local businessman and an interior designer, spared no expense when it came to the details of their property, an unusual addition to the town of Nantes in western France. Wrought iron has been affixed to the walls to suggest a cage, and, if they so choose, guests can drink water out of a tube attached to the side of the wall. Naturally, there's a large, fully functioning hamster wheel (consider it the hotel's gym) located on one side of the cage, ahem, room. 011-33/6-64-20-31-09, uncoinchezsoi.net, doubles from $136. • Photos of La Villa Hamster 1 of 2 2. CAN SLEEP, LAKE SKANDERBORG, DENMARK Beer lovers of the world unite at Lake Skanderborg for a full-immersion experience: drinking by day and sleeping in a giant beer can by night. No, we weren't imbibing the sudsy stuff when we found this one. The collection of 121 aluminum Royal Unibrew beer cans is known as Can Sleep, and it's only open one month out of the year during the Skanderborg Music Festival every August. The cans are clustered in sections of six (six pack, get it?), and each has a loft and is 12 feet high with a "lid" that cracks open. The loft is the sleeping area, and the Ikea furniture-bedecked bottom floor is a living-room-type space, complete with a minibar that's restocked each day with Royal Unibrew products. 011-45/8793-4444, smukfest.dk, doubles from $336. • Photo of Can Sleep 1 of 1 3. PALACIO DE SAL, BOLIVIA If you're one of those people who believe you can never have too much salt, then we've got the place for you. The luxurious Salt Palace, located on Bolivia's vast salt flats, is made entirely out of the mineral. From floor to ceiling, including the walls, beds, and chairs, it's all salt, all of the time. And the 16-room property offers dishes like salt-encrusted lamb, of course. Sufferers of high blood pressure should probably look elsewhere for a room. 011-591/2- 62-2951, palaciodesal.com.bo, doubles from $135. • Photos of Palacio de Sal 1 of 3 4. FREE SPIRIT SPHERES, VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA A whole new approach to tree houses has taken shape in an old-growth forest on Vancouver Island. Set on five acres, Free Spirit Spheres consists of three pods (made of cedar, spruce, or fiberglass, respectively) that are suspended 10 to 15 feet in the air and accessed by staircases that wind around the trees. The heated interiors are surprisingly comfy—and are even equipped with an iPod docking station. The pods sway gently, so those prone to motion sickness should take note. But look at it this way: At least a bear or other wild beast won't be able to get you. 250/757-9445, freespiritspheres.com, doubles from $135. • Photos of Free Spirit Spheres 1 of 2 5. HOTEL UTTER INN, SWEDEN What's so weird about this pint-size property in Sweden? At first glance, the one-room hotel appears to be a cheery red house in the middle of the lake—yes, it's in the middle of a body of water but how strange is that, really? Don't be fooled: The room isn't actually in the house; it's 10 feet underwater. It's also the only functioning underwater hotel that started out as an art installation. Designed by artist Mikael Genberg, the 10-year-old inn's sole room consists of two twin beds with panoramic windows on all sides. There is no electricity, but there is lighting and a portable gas heater. When ready to come up for air, guests can relax on the deck or take the dinghy out to one of the nearby uninhabited islands. 011-46/21-39-0100, vasterasmalarstaden.se, from $328 for two people, open April–Oct. • Photos of Hotel Utter Inn 1 of 2 6. HOTEL KAKSLAUTTANEN, FINLAND It's hard enough to pronounce "Kakslauttanen" sober, so don't even think about attempting it after a shot of Finlandia vodka (we do, however, recommend a few glasses of the stuff to keep warm while staying at this Finnish resort near the North Pole). The snow igloos here are cool (pun intended), but what really caught our eye were the futuristic glass igloos, which guarantee unrestricted views of the aurora borealis from the comfort of your zebra-striped bed; the phenomenon turns the night sky dazzling shades of green, red, and blue from late August to April. (The special thermal glass doesn't frost over—even if outdoor temperatures drop to minus 30 degrees Celsius.) Staff supply wool socks and down sleeping bags for guests who opt for one of the 12 "real" igloos, where the interior temperature hovers between 21 and 27 degrees Fahrenheit. If you get cold feet, the property also features more conventional accommodations like wood cabins. 011-358/1666-7100, kakslauttanen.fi, glass igloos from $468 for two people. • Photos of Hotel Kakslauttanen 1 of 2 7. JUMBO STAY, STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN For most jet-setters, getting on a big jet plane and going nowhere might seem like a prank of transatlantic proportions. Then again, most people have never boarded Jumbo Stay at Stockholm's Arlanda Airport. The 450 seats on this retired Boeing 747 have been replaced by 27 rooms, all of which, we assure you, have plenty of legroom. To fly really high, book the cockpit-located suite, where you can move the controls and push as many buttons as you'd like without ever worrying about crashing. 011-46/8-593-604-00, jumbostay.com, doubles from $149. • Photos of Jumbo Stay 1of 2 8. LES ROULOTTES DE LA SERVE, PROVENCE, FRANCE Gypsy (Roma) circus performers once traveled through the French countryside in the three restored caravans that now welcome guests at Les Roulottes de la Serve. It's run by Pascal and Pascaline Patin, who bought this lush plot of land for their horses more than 20 years ago. They outfitted the caravans (roulottes) with eclectic bohemian and Indian touches: lanterns, garlands, woven carpets, framed images of deities, and plush armchairs. Guests share bathrooms, a kitchen, and a campfire—a communal setup that's gypsy-like indeed. 011-33/04-74-04-76-40, lesroulottes.com, doubles from $87, open early Apr.–late Oct. • Photos of Les Roulottes de la Serve 1 of 2 9. WIGWAM MOTEL, SAN BERNARDINO, CALIFORNIA The Wigwam Motel—located on Route 66—feels less like a place one might commune with Native Americans and more like a quirky stopover on a 1950s road trip. But whatever authenticity this hotel lacks, it makes up for in serious kitsch, starting with the tepees themselves. The western-themed interiors are simple: Each wigwam is outfitted with a wagon-wheel headboard as well as air-conditioning, a 25-inch TV, free Wi-Fi, and an in-tepee bathroom. There's also a kidney-shaped pool, a barbecue pit, and a gift shop stocked with Americana. 909/875-3005, wigwammotel.com, doubles from $66. • Photo of Wigwam Motel 1 of 1 10. ELEPHANT SAFARI PARK HOTEL LODGE, BALI  The first confirmation that you're not at just any old luxury resort comes when pachyderm "chauffeurs" show up to transport you to your room at the Elephant Safari Park Hotel Lodge. The 26-room property is adjacent to an 8.5-acre sanctuary for the largest herd of rescued Sumatran elephants in the world. The rooms feature elephant art—literally painted by the park's pachyderms—and elephant-inspired decor and artifacts. Guests can hang out in the on-site baby nursery and catch the 29 resident Sumatran elephants performing in four shows per day. They roam the property, and you can admire them while you're lounging in the pool or dining in the restaurant. 011-62/36-172-1480, elephantsafariparklodge.com, doubles from $260. • Photos of Elephant Safari Park Hotel Lodge 1 of 2 STILL WEIRD! • A wine cask, a hotel that defies gravity, and more from 2009 • A beagle-shaped B&B, a sewer-pipe hotel and more from 2008 MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL • Photos: 8 New Natural Wonders • Best Places You've Never Heard Of • For more travel inspiration, deals, and news, sign up for our E-mail newsletter