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Dominican Republic

By Paul Balido
June 4, 2005
A proud Hispanic capital of the Caribbean offers a top vacation at dirt-cheap rates

It's midnight at La Gu cara Ta­na, a rockin' nightclub set in a natural cave near the old quarter of Santo Domingo, and the very stalactites are practically boogying to the irrepressible merengue rhythms and the hip-swinging crowd below. Our Puritan forefathers might've plotzed at the scene and lyrics, but then they never set foot on the island of Hispaniola, where the sensual allure of the land and its people are truly enough to make you dump the work ethic and spend the rest of your days "livin' la vida loca." Christopher Columbus, the first outsider to fall under its spell, dubbed it "the fairest land that human eyes have seen." Five centuries later, the pristine beaches and exuberant greenery of La Republica Dominicana could still move the old imperialista to wax poetic - not just about the scenery but also about the prices, among the lowest in the tourist universe.

About 50 miles due west of Puerto Rico, this wedge of a republic smaller than West Virginia harbors 8 million souls, sharing Hispaniola with Haiti to the west. Both nations offer quality getaways at hard-to-beat prices (see BT's article on Haiti in the summer 1998 issue), but it's the D.R.'s quantity and variety of offerings that make it the Caribbean destination of choice for the traveler on a tight budget; prices here run a good 30 to 40 percent lower than Puerto Rico, Jamaica, or other nearby vacation stalwarts.

Depending on the season, in fact, seven-night air/hotel packages to all-inclusive resorts (providing unlimited meals, drinks, and activities) can go for less than $640 from Miami, $740 from New York, $900 from Chicago, and $970 from Los Angeles. Not a few of these deals feature Allegro (800/858-2258), a Santo Domingo-based all-inclusive resort chain that's one of the world's biggest; its Caribbean Village brand often comes in at less than $100 a night. Other decently priced Dominican chains worth considering include Amhsa (800/472-3985; www.amhsahotels.com), Occidental (800/424-5192; www.occidental-hoteles.com), and Coral (888/767-1664; www.coralhotels.com). If you're looking for something a little more intimate, small lodgings abound for as little as $20-$30 a night with breakfast.

Best of all, just because the D.R. is cheap doesn't mean it's a one-horse island; indeed, the home of merengue, Oscar de la Renta, and Sammy Sosa offers much more substance than tiny islets like Aruba and St. Croix - lovely in their own right, but more limited in their offerings. There is plenty of culture, ecology, and architecture here, and - best of all, perhaps - there's distance. You can drive for hours on end, from undeveloped Barahona on the pleasant southwest coast, past mountains so high that apples grow on their cool flanks, all the way up to the north-coast resorts; this is also the only Caribbean island that offers white-water rafting. In my opinion, though, the true wealth of the land is the dominicanos themselves, a beautiful "cafe con leche" blend of European and African who'll spoil you with some of the friendliest treatment between Key West and Caracas.

Most visitors skip the rugged interior and the funky towns for modern holiday developments along the thousand or so miles of crystalline beaches - especially the north shore's resort enclave of Playa Dorada, near Puerto Plata, and the peninsula of Punta Cana way out east (even more isolated, and home to the country's only Club Med). A smaller number go to beach towns like Sosua, Cabarete, and Saman on the north shore, or La Romana, Juan Dolio, and Boca Chica on the south.

Basically, you can do the D.R. one of two ways, both quite economical: book a package through a tour operator (see box on tk) to one of the above resorts and veg on the beach all week, or combine sun 'n' sand with visits to towns where you'll actually see Dominicans not just changing your linens or hamming it up in goofy resort shows, but working and playing in their everyday lives. I'd like to cover two of those towns, focusing on the lesser-known, more authentic side of the Dominican Republic.

Santo Domingo, south shore, cathedrals, baseball, & dirty dancing

Named for the patron saint of the priests who founded the city, Santo Domingo has a population of more than 2 million and a character both sacred (the first cathedral in the Americas) and profane (more "love motels" per capita than any place this writer has ever seen). Santo Domingo also manages to be simultaneously charming (the old colonial quarter, with atmospheric cobbled lanes like Calle de las Damas), seedy (dumpy shops galore), bombastic (don't miss the gargantuan, vaguely fascist-looking Columbus Lighthouse), and upscale (check out Sammy Sosa's extravagant new digs downtown on Avenida George Washington). This jumble of contradictions is, to a great extent, what makes this colorful urb worth a couple of days of the adventurous traveler's vacation time, despite the lack of all-inclusives and prices that, while still reasonable, tend to be rather higher than out on the island (blame the business travelers).

The seafront Malec:n makes for a pretty - and fairly interesting-stroll, but downtown's main drag is a couple of blocks inland: Calle El Conde, a once-elegant shopping street that runs the length of the old town from Plaza Col:n, with its imposing sixteenth-century cathedral, to the ancient fortifications at Parque Independencia. Nowadays this pedestrian thoroughfare serves up downscale shops (average monthly salaries, after all, hover around $100), street vendors hawking trinkets and Haitian paintings, and the usual yanqui fast-food suspects (KFC, Burger King, yech-cetera). This vibrant scene, more local than tourist, is framed by an array of eclectic architecture that runs the gamut from grand colonial to 1960s-era eyesores.

Nearby Avenida Mella offers artsy-craftsy shopping at the Mercado Modelo bazaar; other good island buys include knockoffs of Cuban cigars like the respectable "Cohiba robusto," a much better deal at $5 a smoke than the authentic commie Cohibas. Amber is another national specialty, sold very reasonably at the Mundo de Ambar museum and shop (Calle Merino 452, 809/682-3309), where a small chunk with an embedded insect fossil runs as low as 225 pesos ($14).

Finally, el beisbol is a great deal in a country that has produced many household names (not just Sosa but recently Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez of the Cleveland Indians); seats run $4.50 to $12 at the Quisqueya Stadium (Avenida Tiradentes at San Cristobal, 809/590-

5772) during the October-February local season - a prime opportunity to catch tomorrow's major-league stars. La inusica - not just merengue, but also bachata and other Latin rhythms - is another local treat, and can be enjoyed at a selection of clubs that won't break your bank. Besides the aforementioned Gu cara Taina on Paseo de Los Indios (cover $10), recommendable venues include Jet Set (Avenida Independencia 2253), Disco Sonido el Aguila (Avenida San Vincent de Paul 20), and Disco Kristal (Calle Pena Batlle 170); or, for a gay twist, head to Disco Free (Avenida Ortega y Gasset 13). Meanwhile, during the last week in July and the first in August (admittedly a hot, sticky time of year), the annual merengue festival is a wild (and free!) experience that takes over the Malecon.

Time permitting, rent some wheels (from $44 a day at MC Auto Rent A Car, Avenida George Washington 105, 809/688-6518) for a day trip or two. For beachy fun near the capital, try Boca Chica, about a half-hour's drive (15 miles) east of town just past the airport. Aim to go on a weekday afternoon if you value peace and quiet; weekends, the strand is overrun by local families and boom boxes. Either way, the price is right, with secured parking costing a mere 60[cents] and food vendors selling cheap eats like yaniqueques (flat doughy pancakes) for about 6[cents] and fresh fried fish for under a dollar. Another 70 miles farther east along the coast, baseball fans will also appreciate San Pedro de Macor­s, source of most of the Dominicans in the U.S. major leagues (Tetelo Vargas stadium charges $8-$13 to catch games). If you're up for a solid day's jaunt, consider the hundred-mile trip out to the galleries and workshops of Altos de Chavon, an artists' colony near La Romana that's an artificial but engaging 23-year-old re-creation of colonial architecture and cobblestone streets.

Eating and sleeping, Creole-style

The least expensive beds in Santo Domingo happen to be on a prime corner right on El Conde at the Hotel Aida (Conde Espaillat 464, 809/685-7692), a charming if plainish pension where $24 lands you a comfy room with a nice balcony overlooking the street action - but no AC. Air-conditioned rooms here, oddly enough, lack windows altogether and go for $2 more; both categories, though, have their own bath. Located in the tourist district just west of the Old Town, the Hotel San Geronimo (Avenida Independencia 1067, 809/221-6600, fax 809/221-9106) rents out perfectly serviceable doubles with all the amenities - including sea views - for about $39, assuming you don't mind the slightly dated decor and clunky furniture. There is, however, a nice little pool bar and even a casino.

"Dated" could also describe the Hotel Cervantes (Calle Cervantes 202, 809/688-2261, fax 809/686-5754), but it carries off the look with a bit more panache. For $54, the doubles here are roomier, with two queen beds, simple rattan furniture, mini-fridge - and bright fluorescent lighting (think of it as a quirky Caribbean thang). There's also a pool and a good-quality in-house restaurant, the Bronco Steak House (see below). If, on the other hand, you prefer to cook, then look no further than the ApartHotel Plaza Colonial (Calle Luisa Pellerano at Julio Verne, 809/687-9111, fax 809/686-2877) in the Gazcue district west of Calle El Conde. Here you can live like a middle-class Dominican in a studio apartment ($50), a roomy one-bedroom ($53), or a huge two-bedroom ($69); all units have kitchens, rattan furniture, and sparkling tile floors, and some even boast balconies. Other perks include maid service, a small pool, and a backup generator for those occasional blackouts.

Food in the capital, surprisingly, is not always as cheap as one might expect. There are, however, three prime venues right on El Conde, and none primer than Restaurant-Cafeteria El Conde (Calle El Conde 111, 809/682-6944) - not a cafeteria at all, but rather a cafe and restaurant perched on Columbus Park across from the cathedral. Outside under bright umbrellas, or inside the French doors under ceiling fans, locals and tourists alike chow down on island specialties like breaded pork chops for $3.20, a lip-smacking goat stew for $5.70, or a side of mangu (plantain mashed with onions, practically the national dish) for $2.50. For even better value, try one of the daily specials, like carne ripiada (shredded beef), served with rice and beans, salad, and fried green plantains for $2.55!

The same prices prevail down the street at Cafeter­a Bariloche (Calle El Conde 203, 809/687-8509), a cavernous joint in a gorgeous art nouveau building with a long cafeteria-style counter showcasing Dominican goodies. The $2.50 daily specials are the thing here, with a choice of entr,es such as codfish or roast leg of pork served with rice, beans, and salad. With fresh food, soft drinks starting at 50[cents] and Presidente beer for a buck, you couldn't cook your own dinner cheaper. Want a break from island fare? Head for Pekin Express (Calle El Conde at 19 de Marzo, 809/688-0499), a spotless Chinese restaurant with tile walls, neon touches, and a friendly young staff; best of all, the smells wafting from the kitchen are straight out of old Hong Kong. A la carte prices here are quite reasonable, with appetizers starting at 90[cents] for an egg roll and entr,es (such as pork chops in a honey-garlic sauce or chicken with mushrooms and snow peas) hovering around $3. There are daily specials, too, like an egg roll, beef or chicken kebab, french fries, and a soft drink, all for $2.10. Finally, the cozy Bronco Steak House, overlooking the swimming pool at the Hotel Cervantes, makes for a more upscale experience at downscale prices, with appetizers starting at $2 (cheese balls or avocado salad) and many entrees priced around $5 (stewed goat or island-style pork chops).

Sosua, north shore, beaches, bars, & bar mitzvahs

To many travelers, the Dominican Republic is practically synonymous with Puerto Plata, a pleasant, moderately interesting town on the northern "Amber Coast" with a nearby international airport serving both North America and Europe. Most folks head right on to Playa Dorada, a gated 15-resort development ten miles west that offers elaborate hotels, golf courses, casinos and nightspots - and is all but totally cut off from local life and color. Visitors who appreciate that color sail past the gate and on to Sosua ("so-SOO-ah"), a town of 30,000 just 12 miles west of Puerto Plata and a 15-minute, 150-peso ($9) cab ride from the airport.

Compared to Santo Domingo, Sosua is practically brand new, but it has a unique history. Nobody could accuse longtime (1930-61) dictator Rafael Trujillo of being an angel of mercy, but he did do a good turn in 1940 by granting a group of 600 Jews fleeing Hitler's Germany the right to found a community along this lush stretch of coast. Sixty years later, there's not much left in the way of Jewish presence, save for a modest synagogue and street names like "Dr. Rosen" and "David Stern;" ironically, it's German tourists and expatriates who throng those streets nowadays, and merengue bars outnumber bar mitzvahs by far. The town now has a vigorous Dominican culture, funky street life, five of the country's best beaches, and scores of lodgings and eateries geared toward both foreigners and locals.

Roads along this part of the coast are fairly decent, and using Sosua as a base you can get around quite easily by renting a motorbike (typically $20 to $25 a day) or car ($40 to $60) at one of the agencies in town, or by taking advantage of the many taxis and motoconchos (motorbike-taxis). Drive to Puerto Plata to take in the little colonial San Felipe Fortress; the gracious main plaza, complete with gazebo; the Brugal rum factory; and the interesting amber museum (which has capitalized on Jurassic Park, partly filmed on-island, right down to the logo). Or cruise 90 miles east to Samana, with its superb whale-watching (February is peak season), or nine miles east to Cabarete, a pleasant tourist town smaller than Sosua and boasting one of the hemisphere's best windsurfing beaches. Other outdoorsy activities include hiking, horseback riding, snorkeling, scuba, golf, white-water rafting, and the Columbus Aquapark; day trips to Santo Domingo or even Haiti are also available (try local operators like Melissa Tours on Calle Duarte in Sosua, 809/571-2567).

El Batey-bound

Sosua is basically divided in two: Los Charamicos, where most of the locals live, and El Batey ("el bah-TAY"), the tourist-oriented part of town, which is full of restaurants with names like Alt Dusseldorf, Schnitzel Paradise, and Margaritaville, as well as loads of bars and nightclubs (usually charging $2 cover); a local fave is the Merengue Bar on Calle Pedro Clisante. Some eateries are frankly turista traps not much cheaper than you'd find in the States, but at other local joints, such as the simple patio at Comedor Estiven on Ayuntamiento Street, you can get a plate heaped with tasty, down-home comida criolla (local fare) for $2 and a Presidente beer for 75[cents]. Your hotel's front desk staff can clue you in to others, which can open and go out of business regularly.

There are also dozens of cute little hotels and guesthouses offering very reasonable rates. The 28-room, German-Canadian-owned El Paraiso (Calle Dr. Rosen 14, 809/571-2906, fax 809/571-2906) charges just $40 per double in high season ($25 in summer), including tax and use of a small, pleasant courtyard pool; several beaches are a short walk away. Slightly larger and more upscale, the Sea Breeze (Calle Alejo Martinez, 809/571-3858, fax 809/571-2115) - right next door to the synagogue - also sports a nice pool, plus 31 rooms with kitchenettes starting at $41 a night in winter.

For something more elaborate, the huge Casa Marina complex on Calle Alejo Martinez (809/571-3690, fax 809/571-3110) charges just $65 a night per person through April 24 for an all-inclusive plan (that's three meals a day, plus unlimited drinks, alcoholic and not, day or night) and access to a nice beach, seaside Jacuzzi, multiple pools, restaurants, bars, shops, its own disco, and nightly shows; in July and August the price drops to $57 daily. To that, add typical high-season midweek fares of $310 to $360 round-trip from New York and $325 from Miami (both on American). A few tour operators also offer all-inclusive air-land deals such as seven nights this spring at the Sol de Plata resort just outside Sosua (from TourScan; see box, p. 123) for about $850 out of New York. Most operators, however, tend to concentrate their efforts on the Playa Dorada ghetto.

One caveat: while the D.R. is not especially unsafe, bear in mind that this is one of the world's poorest countries (with an unemployment rate approaching 30 percent), and in some areas the stream of relatively affluent tourists unfortunately encourages prostitution. Thus in Sosua, for example, it's not single women but rather single guys who can sometimes be harassed on the streets (beware: postcoital robberies are not unknown); it helps not to wander around alone at night. The putas also frequent certain discos such as Moby Dick or High Caribbean (try Copacabana, Tropic, and Pyramide instead, which tend to be less infested). Cabarete has some tourist-friendly evening street life, too, but noticeably less of this particular kind of hassle.

Gettin' to La Vida Loca

In addition to seasonal charters, there's a fair amount of regularly scheduled airlift to the Dominican Republic, especially via New York and Miami. Flying times are approximately three-and-a-half hours from New York and two hours from Miami. Fares vary according to season, but midweek and round-trip they run $310-$470 from New York and $325-$350 from Miami.

To Santo Domingo

TWA (800/892-4141; www.twa.com) from New York and San Juan; Tower (800/231-0856; www.towerair.com) from New York; Continental (800/5250280; www.continental.com) from Newark; American (800/433-7300; www.aa.com) from New York, Miami, and San Juan.

To Puerto Plata

American from New York, Miami, and San Juan; TWA from New York; Continental from Newark (as of mid-June).

To Punta Cana

WA from New York and Newark.

On the island

Flights between Santo Domingo and either Puerto Plata or Punta Cana typically run 850 pesos ($54) each way on Air Santo Domingo (809/683-8020). If you want to go by land, it takes about four-and-a-half hours to drive the 140 miles between Sosua/Cabarete and Santo Domingo. The main roads are okay, but smaller ones can be in awful shape, getting lost is a possibility, and the Dominicans are not always the best drivers. So I'd definitely recommend the reliable, comfortable hourly bus service run by Caribe Tours (809/571-3808) and Metro Servicios Turisticos (809/586-6062). Both charge around 90 pesos ($5.70) between the north shore and Santo Domingo.

Smooth operators Top marketers of air/hotel packages to the DR include: Apple Vacations (800/727-3400; www.applevacations.com), Funjet (800/558-3050; www.funjet.com), InterIsland Tours (800/245-3434), Moment's Notice (718/234-6295; www.moments-notice.com), TourScan (800/962-2080), and Vacation Travel Mart (800/288-1435; www.festaholidays.com).

Informacion, por favor

For further details before leaving home, contact the Dominican Tourist Board at 800/723-6138; in New York, call 212/588-1012, in Florida 305/444-4592, and in Chicago 773/529-1336. On the Web, log on to http://dominicanresorts.com, www.debbiesdominicantravel.com, www.hispaniola.com/DR, and www.dominicanrepublicpage.com.

Once you're on the island, several free publications in English can be helpful, such as Santo Domingo News and Touring in the capital and La Costa and The Columbus Guide on the north shore. For phone assistance while in Sosua, dial 71-3433 or toll-free 1-200-3500.

Keep reading

New York City B&Bs

With the average Manhattan hotel room weighing in at a whopping $250 a night, finding an affordable place to bed down in the Big Apple can seem as impossible as locating an empty taxi on a rainy day at rush hour. Even so-called budget hotels have become prohibitively pricey, thanks to the droves of tourists flocking to Gotham these days. But take heart. In the following pages, Budget Travel lets you in on Manhattan's best-kept lodging secret - and its last frontier for affordable stays - bed-and-breakfasts. There are hundreds of these cozy private accommodations sprinkled around New York City, many with double-occupancy rates as low as $80 to $95 - and that includes breakfast! What's more, B&Bs are mercifully immune to the city's 13.25 percent hotel tax and $2 nightly surcharge for rooms over $100. What they're like Far from the typical small-town B&B - a sprawling four-story Victorian house with numerous guest rooms, lots of gingerbread, and kindly retiree owners - the New York version is often one extra bedroom in apartments belonging to busy, working New Yorkers who either (a) could use a bit of help paying their own skyscraper - high housing costs, (b) love meeting travelers from around the world and sharing their favorite city with them, or (c) both of the above. The antithesis of huge, impersonal, 500-room tourist meccas in Times Square, B&Bs are as homey and personalized as lodging gets. In fact, many are tucked away in neighborhoods far from the madding crowds, where there's nary a hotel or tour bus in sight. You'll find funky artists' lofts in SoHo, quaint brick town houses on the tree-lined side streets of Greenwich Village, and posh high-rises with smartly uniformed doormen on the residential Upper East and Upper West Sides. As a B&B guest, not only will you get a chance to meet New Yorkers and see how they live, but in a sense you'll become a local during your stay, receiving your own set of keys and then coming and going as you please. You book through organizations Another distinctive (although hardly unique) twist to New York's B&B scene is the fact that rather than call hosts directly as they would in other large American cities, Gotham-bound travelers contact one of a number of B&B booking agencies or reservations services that help visitors select suitable rooms from their rosters. The practice first took hold in New York in the early 1980s, with one or two start-up B&B agencies offering a mere handful of guest rooms - some priced as low as $15 a night (ah, the good old days). From those humble roots, the market has expanded to include not only small, purist agencies that still focus on a select group of 20 or 30 B&B rooms, but also mammoth operations boasting hundreds of hosted accommodations - as well as slightly higher-priced unhosted ones - in virtually every corner of Manhattan. The agencies' expertise lies in their ability to play matchmaker by asking you, the traveler, a series of written or verbal questions and using your answers to pinpoint the ideal spot for your stay. For example, if you're passionate about paintings, an agency might steer you toward lodgings a few blocks from Museum Mile; if you're a gourmet food lover, you might find yourself paired with a host who happens to be a chef or restaurant critic. One B&B host near Lincoln Center recalled a diehard opera buff who spent two weeks ensconced in her guest room and walked to the Metropolitan Opera House (a few blocks away) to watch Placido Domingo perform every night. Our goals and our criteria To help you find as pleasing a perch as she did, we spent weeks pounding the pavement, scouting out various B&Bs around the city, and talking with hosts and guests, as well as those who run B&B services. Here's what to know before you go: First, because these are people's homes, the decor varies widely - we saw everything from cozy buttercup-yellow rooms filled with mementos from the owner's travels to bare lofts with exposed-brick walls and a single futon. Likewise, the privacy levels differ radically from place to place. Some guest rooms were demurely situated at the end of a hall with their own small, well-lit bath; others were separated from the owner's own bedroom by only one thin wall. Next, though most rooms inspected for this article were clean, a few had floor-level mattresses on somewhat grubby carpeting, and many featured 20-year-old bathroom fixtures (quite common in NYC, but they may catch travelers used to spanking-new hotel baths off guard). Hosts themselves are as diverse as their apartments - they run the gamut from stockbrokers to set designers. Some are apt to whisk you up to Harlem to their favorite jazz club, invite you to join them in a spot of sherry, or treat you to homemade hot oatmeal with currants. Others are more likely to greet you cordially, provide you with a few local guidebooks, maps, and hints on how to get to the nearest subway stop, then leave you to your own devices and a counter of assorted fresh bagels and fruit juice. Many hosts list their rooms with multiple agencies to ensure a higher number of bookings. There's also a great deal of difference in amenities from room to room, and it's not necessarily correlated to price. Some are equipped with cable TVs and private phone lines (one even had an answering machine); in others, you'll have to ask to borrow the host's main phone line. Guests at one B&B are invited to enjoy breakfast in a lush hidden garden with their host; those at another pick up muffins on the kitchen counter and carry them back to a tiny round table in their bedroom to eat. In almost all cases, you'll forego typical hotel niceties like daily maid service and in-room fax machines. It's worth noting that while B&B booking services set their own standards and inspection policies for their hosts, there is no regulatory agency that monitors or accredits them. Although most pride themselves on offering aesthetically pleasing lodgings in safe neighborhoods (much of their business consists of repeat guests and word-of-mouth referrals), we did find a few rooms in rather bohemian neighborhoods that might leave a less-than-intrepid traveler uneasy wandering around after dark. It's wise to be explicit about any special needs or preferences you have when booking. For instance, if you are allergic to or afraid of animals, tell the agent you need not just a pet-free room, but an entirely pet-free apartment. Quite a few agencies maintain Web sites stocked with colorful photos of their B&B interiors listed by location and price, which can be an enormous help for travelers trying to narrow down their choices. Oddly enough, when you book you may be warned that the phrase "bed-and-breakfast" is verboten upon arrival and asked to tell anyone who inquires that you're a friend or visiting relative of the host. Sources assure us that this doesn't imply anything legally shady about the operation (after all, the city takes an 8.25 percent sales tax on each booking); it simply protects hosts from co-op boards who might frown on having a B&B next door. Finally, most services require a deposit of 20 percent to 30 percent and a minimum stay of at least two nights. Advance booking is not required, but the earlier you call, the better selection of lodging options you'll find. Unless otherwise specified, the agencies listed below offer rooms in many different Manhattan neighborhoods and types of buildings, from high-rises with elevators and 24-hour doormen to quaint town houses - picturesque, but with lots of stairs and no attendants. Herewith, a select guide to Gotham's bed-and-breakfast booking services, listed alphabetically (prices don't include the 8.25 percent New York State sales tax): Affordable New York City Tel. 212/533-4001, fax 212/387-8732, affordablenewyorkcity.com Rates: Singles from $85/night, doubles from $90/night with shared bath, singles and doubles with private bath from $100, unhosted from $140 No. of properties: 120+ (50 percent B&Bs, 50 percent unhosted apartments) After years of staying at B&Bs and making mental notes on what did and didn't work, former AT&T saleswoman Susan Freschel decided to give the business a go herself, launching Affordable New York City five years ago. Freschel chooses her hosts based on "a gut feeling. They have to love New York, like people, and have their own lives. I don't want hosts so gregarious that they hang over their guests. Nor do I want people with fabulous apartments who are desperate for money, but obviously don't genuinely want anyone in their homes." She also rejects fringe neighborhoods, explaining, "I assume all visitors are from the deep woods and don't know New York. I don't want to sit up nights worrying about their safety." After an initial phone conversation with each traveler, Freschel and her assistant send a faxed description of several B&Bs, then let the traveler select a favorite. They follow up each stay with a questionnaire. "We can't go out constantly and review places, so we rely heavily on guest feedback. Once a year we inspect each property." Bed and Breakfast Network in New York Tel. 212/645-8134 Rates: Shared-bath singles $80-$90, doubles $110-$130, private-bath singles $90-$100, doubles $130-$150, unhosted from $130 No. of properties: 200+ (50 percent B&Bs, 50 percent unhosted apartments) Leslie Goldberg launched his B&B business in 1986 after hearing about a similar service in Montreal. "I thought it was a great idea, and that it would work very well in New York," says Goldberg, whose background was in sales. He started small - simply posting notices and finding people interested in sharing their apartments. The feedback was so positive that in the last 15 years, his roster has grown exponentially. "B&Bs are much less expensive than hotels," says Goldberg. "Plus, it's a friendlier experience. People are more helpful and it gives you a chance to live like a real New Yorker." All bookings are done over the phone and handled by Goldberg himself (a staff of one) through an informal chat. "I like to keep things small and personalized. Through our conversation, I get a feel for what travelers are looking for, then I offer several options," he says. Callers can specify the type of building or neighborhood they prefer when reserving. Like Freschel, he relies heavily on guest feedback to monitor his roster of accommodations. "If someone complains, we stop listing the property," he explains. City Lights Tel. 212/737-7049, fax 212/535-2755, citylightsbandb.com (Web site under construction at press time) Rates: Single and double $90-$130/night, (those on the higher end include private baths), unhosted from $130 No. of properties: 100+ (50 percent B&Bs, 50 percent unhosted apartments) One of New York's B&B veterans, Yedida Nielson was teaching theater at the Strasberg Institute when she got the urge to venture into the business world 16 years ago. After a writer friend suggested the then-nascent field of B&Bs, the gregarious Nielson convinced all her theater friends to open their homes to guests. "I had a lovely little collection," she recalls. "Just ten properties. Over the years, we've had some quite unusual places - even a houseboat and a water tower that felt like a Gothic cathedral." Nielson and her three-person staff still pride themselves on screening every B&B not only for cleanliness, but for how persnickety a potential host is about his or her apartment, how tourist-friendly the neighborhood is, and how aesthetically pleasing the guest room is. Travelers fill out written forms listing their requests; they can ask to be placed with someone who shares their interests; and City Lights will do its best to accommodate them. Like its competitors, the service sends a follow-up questionnaire and takes up complaints with individual hosts; it also does spot checks of hosts. CitySonnet.com Tel. 212/614-3034, fax 425/920-2384, citysonnet.com Rates: Shared- and private-bath singles $85-$125, doubles $125-$150 (those with private bath tend toward the higher rates), unhosted from $140 No. of properties: 35-40 (50 percent B&Bs, 50 percent unhosted apartments) This small, husband-and-wife-run company recently changed its name from West Village Reservations to better reflect its membership. However, it still specializes in Greenwich Village, SoHo, Chelsea, and other downtown neighborhoods "because we know them best," explains cofounder Margaret Packer. "Our goal is to represent only places we're very familiar with, places we'd stay ourselves. We don't want to boast about how many properties we represent." Margaret and her British-born husband David are both artists and travel enthusiasts who started booking informally in 1993 and founded their agency four years ago. One of Margaret's goals is to introduce travelers to "the real New York that tourists seldom see." However, "if something is funky or offbeat, we warn people. A loft, for example, is great for a young writer, but maybe not for his parents." Manhattan Getaways Tel. 212/956-2010, fax 212/202-4640, manhattangetaways.com Rates: Shared- and private-bath singles and doubles $105-$145/night, unhosted apartments start at $150 No. of properties: 50 (approximately 15 B&Bs, 35 unhosted apartments) Judith Glynn was a travel writer living in Spain 15 years ago when she ran across an article on B&B agencies; the idea stuck in her head and when she found herself in New York a few years later, she became a host herself (in fact, she worked with Urban Ventures, below). "It was a natural transition to run my own agency five years ago," she says. Before representing potential hosts, "I spend an hour with them at home to get a feel for the place and take lots of photos." Number one criterion for hosts? "They have to love New York - if they don't, it will translate to the guest. Number two, they've got to be gracious. That's more important to me than having a million-dollar apartment. The bath has to be spiffy, and the sheets and pillows have to be new." Glynn, helped by her adult daughter, also screens guests carefully, having them fill out written forms before agreeing to help them. She also attempts to match travelers with hosts who share their interests and offers a money-back guarantee to dissatisfied customers. A Web site offers background on the company and its policies along with a variety of photos (specific locations are avoided to protect hosts' privacy). After the initial screening and developing the traveler's "wish list," Glynn e-mails photos and detailed descriptions of several B&B options. New York Habitat Tel. 212/255-8018, fax 212/627-1416, nyhabitat.com Rates: Singles and doubles with shared and private baths $85-$115 No. of properties: 7,000 (up to one-third B&Bs, two-thirds unhosted apartments) Although technically a sublet service specializing in unhosted stays, New York Habitat merits a mention for the sheer volume of rooms it offers. Opened in 1989, the company was the brainchild of French-born antiques dealer Marie-Reine Jezequel, who found herself in the unusual position of having spare bedrooms in Manhattan and decided to rent them to travelers on a nightly basis. "She discovered there was a huge market for this," explains spokesperson Erika Koning. Now with a multilingual staff of 20, the company operates a comparable service in Paris with 800 apartments. The Web site allows travelers to search B&Bs by location, price, apartment type, and dates available, and then to call up colorful, detailed photos of each place. One caveat: The Web site also includes a category called "sleeping space in the living room," so find out where you'll sleep before you book. Urban Ventures Tel. 212/594-5650, fax 212/947-9320, nyurbanventures.com (Web site under construction at press time) Rates: Singles from $75/night, doubles $85-$150/night, most with shared bath; unhosted studios from $125 No. of properties: 900 (50 percent B&Bs, 50 percent unhosted apartments) In business for over 20 years, Mary McAulay is widely acknowledged as the pioneer of Manhattan's B&B scene. In 1979, she quit teaching high school and launched the then-tiny Urban Ventures, boasting just five guest rooms. The concept was a natural for McAulay, who grew up dividing her time between Miami and Ocean City, Maryland, where her family ran a restaurant and rented rooms to travelers. "I just put up ads in grocery stores," she recalls. "I had no idea what I was getting into, but the business just got bigger and bigger." McAulay, who now has a four-person staff, jokes that she knows what makes a good host because her mother was so finicky. "She'd tell guests which chairs they could sit on. Anyone that picky is not a good host. Some people think it's crazy to have strangers in your home, but we've been doing this for years, and we've never had one theft, not one fight." McAulay says most requests are made by fax and e-mail; however, travelers can also call and ask for a representative to help them find just the right B&B for their individual needs. Lest anyone doubt her ability to keep tabs on such a sprawling, ever-changing network, McAulay keeps stacks of looseleaf binders detailing the many guest rooms she's visited and inspected personally.

An African Safari

Let me first suggest why you should try to overcome the heavy financial barrier to this classic travel activity. An African safari in either Kenya or Tanzania comes as close to deserving the term "indispensable" as any trip I know. To drive through immense game parks in which there are no roads, no power lines or telephone poles, no communities, but simply open terrain roamed by hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, giraffes, elephants, cheetahs, monkeys, water buffalo, elephants, and prides of lions, moving and foraging as they did in prehistoric times, when they were alone on this land, is an almost mystical experience that puts human existence into perspective. You must do it, and thousands of well-off Americans each year do book an African safari in Kenya/Tanzania, spending an average of $3,500 to $4,500 per person and often placing their reservations through American-based companies that have nothing to do with the actual operation of the safari. Rather, many of these firms simply perform a marketing and reservations function, and then pass on the booking to specialists in Nairobi who actually organize the trip, hire the drivers and guides, book the lodges, and supervise the trip from beginning to end. Because the American middlemen have heavy costs for advertising, marketing, and administration, their resulting high prices prevent a huge number of modestly incomed Americans from even considering an African safari. I'm here to tell you that you can enjoy the very same safaris for which some pay $3,500 to $4,500 for considerably less, and frequently for as little as $2,200, including airfare from the United States. And you can do so simply by purchasing a round-trip ticket to Nairobi and then booking your safari on the spot, either from a local tour operator or through any number of Nairobi travel agents in downtown locations. Currently, more than 800,000 tourists a year come to Kenya for safaris, and there are quite literally dozens of safaris that depart from Nairobi each and every day of the year. Obviously, these small-group journeys don't always leave full; there are scores of seats on the various vans and corresponding rooms in the game park lodges that go empty. The smart traveler visiting a Nairobi tour operator or travel agent on the spot should be able to find last-minute space at discounts of 30 to 60 percent off the prices normally charged in the States. Sometimes you can bargain for even deeper discounts. And if you arrive with at least three other persons, you'll also find that all of the tour companies will instantly offer to arrange a special van with a guide-driver (and find you two rooms at a game park lodge) at a remarkably low price. Though you'll be accosted by touts at the airport, already offering cut-rate safari bargains as you step off the plane, wait until you get into town to start your search. It's a good idea to spend at least one night in Nairobi to ensure yourself the best deal - and to be at your freshest for the safari. But if you're immune to jet lag and want to leave the same day, plan on arriving any day except Sunday, when most downtown offices are closed. Hunting down a safari You obtain your safari either directly from any number of companies operating them or, if you're anxious to visit only a single firm, from one of the many retail travel agents who each represent multiple tour companies. Both groups have their offices in the commercial center of Nairobi, most concentrated along Standard and Kaunda Streets and adjacent side streets. The most reputable of the tour operators are members of the Kenya Association of Tour Operators (KATO) and will prominently display their membership decal near the entrances to their offices. Among those with the best local reputation are Gametrackers, Kenia Tours & Safaris, Safari Seekers, Southern Cross Safaris, Star Travel & Tour, and Venture Africa. I've listed their street addresses, phone numbers, Web sites, and e-mail addresses in a box accompanying this article. Keep in mind that none of the above has an absolutely spotless record (many things can go wrong on a safari), yet these are the companies that have been repeatedly recommended to me by people I trust. It may be a good idea to e-mail several tour operators before your arrival to get competing quotes (telephones and faxes in Kenya are notoriously unreliable). Begin by visiting the Web sites of the companies I've listed. A full list of KATO companies can be found at gorp.com/kato. If several packages interest you, send a query to KATO (Kato@africaonline.co.ke) several weeks before leaving, or call them when you're in Nairobi at 225570. They should be able to advise you on the most recent track record of the operator in which you're interested. Alternatively, you may want to go to any of several local retail travel agencies. The best, according to all my informants, include Bunson Safaris (Pan Africa House on Standard Street, 02/221992, bunson.co.ke), Let's Go Travel (Waiyaki Way, Westlands, 02/447151, letsgosafari.com), and Tour Africa Safaris (Dennis Pritt Rd. Plot No. 355/2, 02/729333). For a standard and quite comfortable safari, they'll charge you as little as $100 to $125 per day during high season. Paying the lower price for, say, a ten-day, all-inclusive safari (van, guide, lodgings, all meals), and adding round-trip airfare to Kenya for about $1,200, you can achieve a safari, spending a full ten days in the field, for about $2,200, that would easily cost $3,500 or more if purchased in the U.S. Local safari operators When calling from the U.S., first dial 011-254-2 to reach Nairobi. Gametrackers Ltd. Kenya Cinema Plaza, 1st Floor (Moi Avenue), tel. 338927 or 222703, Web site gametrackers.com, e-mail game@africaonline.co.ke. Kenia Tours & Safaris Ltd. Jubilee Insurance House, 4th Floor (Kaunda/Wabera Street), tel. 223699 or 217671, Web site gorp.com/kenia, e-mail kenia@africaonline.co.ke. Safari Seekers Jubilee Insurance House, 5th Floor (Kaunda Street), tel. 226206, Web site kenyaweb.com/safari-seekers, e-mail safseekers@form-net.com. Southern Cross Safaris New Stanley Hotel (Standard Street), tel. 225255 or 336570, Web site kenya-direct.com/southerncross, e-mail sxsnbo@africaonline.co.ke. Star Travel & Tours Ltd. New Stanley Hotel (Standard Street), tel. 226996 or 219247, Web site startravel.co.ke, e-mail startravel@iconnect.co.ke. Venture Africa Safaris & Travel City House, 3rd Floor (Standard/Wabera Street), tel. 219511 or 219888, e-mail ventureafrica@form-net.com. Airfares From New York to Nairobi, airfare consolidators such as Pino Welcome Travel (800/247-6578) and Premier Tours (800/545-1910) can offer round-trip fares for around $1,200 during high season and under $1,000 during low season.

Secret Hotels of New York City

Chelsea Star Hotel 300 West 30th Street, tel. 877/827-6969 or 212/244-7827, fax 212/279-9018, chelseastar.com. A small hotel of 20 rooms, all with shared bath. Rates: $83-$95 From street level, the nondescript door hardly looks like a hotel entrance. But up a narrow stairway, you'll find one of bargain lodging's best-kept secrets. Two years ago, owners Ted and Claudia Howard transformed the former hot-sheets transient hotel (Madonna lived here before her big break) into a charming, funky find facing Madison Square Garden. The clientele is largely youthful and European; the flavor, decidedly arty. A small second-floor lobby is painted cheerful yellow with blue cityscapes and glass brick; sounds of a fountain echo through industrial-chic hallways of pressed tin and exposed brick. Although the 20 rooms are small and hardly luxurious, artist Rob Graf designed each with a unique theme. The Shakespeare Room's walls are lined with sonnets and gray velvet swags; the Orbit Room's deep blue walls and ceilings glow with fluorescent stars at night. Baths are clean and new, with gray slate and black marble; all are shared (generally one shower and two toilets per six-room floor). All the rooms have TVs. E-mail and Internet access is available near the lobby. However, there are no elevators, and light sleepers might want a room facing away from Eighth Avenue. Decor varies dramatically, so get a room list ahead of time and choose one to suit your tastes. Suites with baths are available in the building next door, though they're much plainer. At press time, plans were underway to add in-room phones and a street-level Internet cafe. The Gershwin Hotel 7 East 27th Street, tel. 212/545-8000, fax 212/684-5546, gershwinhotel.com Rates: $99 weeknights - $125 weekends (economy rooms with private bath); starting at $199 for family quads (private bath); but note that only 10 of the hotel's 150 rooms are treated as "economy rooms," and family quads number only 8 Though still part hotel, part pop art museum, an ongoing renovation has transformed the Gershwin from what once resembled a crash pad for starving artists into what feels like a stylish SoHo gallery. Huge colorful sculptures and lithographs brighten the freshly painted, high-ceilinged lobby. (That's a Lichtenstein hanging behind the front desk and a Campbell's soup can signed by Andy Warhol near the elevators.) Each floor is lined with cheerful green-and-yellow doors and showcases work from different artists. Guest rooms have high ceilings, plenty of light, TV, phone; some feature charming touches like bow windows and brightly painted wooden furniture. Baths vary from spanking new to well worn but clean. (Hostel-style shared-bath rooms with bunks start at $35/night, though the hotel plans to eliminate them eventually.) Guests can visit the art gallery adjoining the lobby, browse through copies of the Village Voice, check their e-mail at one of two Internet kiosks in the Gershwin Cafe, or catch nightly comedy, live music, theater, and other performances in a back room with an enormous floor-to-ceiling fireplace and Statue-of-Liberty-motif walls. The new, improved Gershwin even boasts a doorman. When we last visited he was hanging out curbside with a Jerry Garcia look-alike strumming a guitar. We'll take it as proof that the Gershwin's makeover hasn't diminished its unique and lively bohemian spirit. Belleclaire Hotel 250 West 77th Street, tel. 877/HOTEL-BC or 212/362-7700, fax 212/362-1004, belleclaire.com. 189 rooms, of which 39 are with shared bath. Rates: $79-$95 (shared bath) Thanks to a recent renovation, everything about the Belleclaire is light, airy, and cheerful-from the buttercup-yellow walls on guest floors to the stylish curved lobby with its blond wood, potted plants, and leather couches. Travelers longing to escape Times Square's madding crowds and see how real New Yorkers live would do well to check out this 100-year-old landmark on the bustling, residential Upper West Side. Nearby are Central Park, Lincoln Center, and the American Museum of Natural History. Many rooms here exceed our price cap, but the Belleclaire still offers 39 splendid shared-bath bargains. These are clustered in groups of three; each cluster has its own mini-hallway accessed by a magnetic key card for safety and privacy. Rooms are simple but stylish, furnished in a modern-chic decor that reservations and sales director Stephen DeFazio calls "Norwegian art deco." Although they lack views, they're sizable (by New York standards), with pastel walls, charcoal-gray bedspreads, and gray suede headboards. Each has a telephone with dataport, TV, and in-room sink. Baths are plain but immaculate; toilets are separate from showers. Concierge service is available, and planned additions include a gift shop, a vending area for forgotten necessities such as toothpaste, and a rooftop deck for breakfast and cocktails on the tenth-floor penthouse level. Insider tip: Stop by H & H Bagels, around the corner, for a delicious bargain breakfast-the city's best fresh-baked bagels for less than $1 each. Larchmont Hotel 27 West 11th Street, tel. 212/989-9333, fax 989-9496, larchmonthotel.com. 57 rooms, all with shared bath. Rates: $90-$109 weeknights, $100/$125 weekends, continental breakfast included Tucked away on a quiet side street of charming, historic Greenwich Village, the Larchmont wins hands-down for best location. Stepping inside this lovely 1910 brownstone town house, you feel more like you're visiting a private residence than a hotel. (In fact, upon check-in, guests receive front-door keys and enter through a separate foyer.) The lobby is cheerfully decorated with a few oversize pieces including a large boar statue, wooden armoire, and brown leather couch. Rooms have rattan furniture, dark floral bedspreads, ceiling fans, and books to add a homey touch. Hallways are narrow and some rooms are exceedingly small, but all have in-room sinks and thoughtful touches such as robes and slippers to make schlepping down the hall to the small but clean shared bathrooms more pleasant. Floors are equipped with kitchenettes, though it would take some restraint to use them in this restaurant-rich neighborhood. Free continental breakfast is served in the downstairs dining room. West Side Inn 237 West 107th Street, tel. 212/866-0061, fax 212/866-0062, westsideinn.com. 102 rooms, all with shared bath. Rate: $59-$79 Start with this bargain-hunters' favorite. It's quite high up on the Upper West Side, but the neighborhood is safe and on the upswing, with cheap restaurants nearby. The narrow lobby boasts chandeliers and gilded mirrors, though guest rooms hardly live up to such spiffy standards. And the bright pink, turquoise, and yellow walls are cheerful enough, but there's 100 years' worth of paint caked on doors, baseboards are missing here and there, and some rooms have odd configurations. This lends the place a decidedly off-campus-housing flavor. Kitchenettes are grungy but functional; shared baths are cleaner. All rooms have minifridges and most have sinks; you'll find phones and an Internet kiosk in the lobby. "It's a very cool place, very bohemian," explains manager Moni Jeitany. Indeed, backpackers and those nostalgic for their salad days might enjoy the ambiance - not to mention the price. Insider tip: tiny La Piccola Cucina gourmet shop around the corner sells irresistible focaccia - $3 for a round loaf big enough to feed three for lunch. At press time, the hotel was completing West End Studios, which promises similar lodgings nearby on West End Avenue. Portland Square 132 West 47th Street, tel. 800/388-8988 or 212/382-0600, fax 212/382-0684, portlandsquarehotel.com or citysearch.com/nyc/portlandsquare. 145 rooms, of which 38 are with shared bath and 33 others are triples or quads with private bath. Rates: $73 (shared bath); $140/triple, $150/quad (both with private bath) Don't be misled by the lovely white facade and regal columns; inside, this is strictly no-frills lodging. Sure, Jimmy Cagney stayed here (as promotional brochures remind you), but it's not exactly "top of the world, Ma." You must press a buzzer to enter the lobby, where you'll find the front-desk staff secured behind Plexiglas. The abundance of pink tile gives the place a YMCA-like feel; a small sitting area with pink-and-green floral-print couches adds minimal cheer. But then, you don't choose the Portland Square for posh surroundings; you come for the convenient Theater District locale and the rock-bottom rates. Rooms are rather dark and drab, with green carpets, beige walls, and floral bedspreads and curtains. Still, both shared and private baths are very clean (no more than four rooms per bath, and in-room baths are sizable by New York standards). All rooms have guest safes, phones, and TVs; those with shared baths have sinks. Rooms facing 47th Street offer more light and a better view. There's a guest laundry and a teeny fitness room in the basement. AAA and AARP discounts available. Habitat Hotel 130 East 57th Street, tel. 212/753-8841, fax 212/829-9605, habitat-ny.com. 235 rooms, of which about 70 percent are with shared bath. Rates: $85-$105 (shared bath) Once a women's residence, the Habitat became a full-service hotel last year. The lobby's sophisticated green-and-cream color scheme, fresh flowers, concierge desk, and jazz background music seem a cut above budget lodging. And indeed, rooms with private baths miss our cutoff; however, you'll still find bargains on those with shared baths. Doubles have trundle beds, which means they're set up with what looks like a single bed; underneath is another mattress and frame that opens to a reasonable semblance of a double bed. Although it's a tight squeeze when the beds are open, they're new and comfy with plush velour blankets. Rooms and hallways are stylishly decorated in taupes and beiges, most with striped or harlequin-patterned wallpaper and deco-style lamps. Furnishings are neat and tidy, though some look a little worn. Rooms include freestanding closets to hold amenities and hangers, in-room sinks, phones with voice mail, dataports, and TVs. If you've got to share a bath, it might as well be elegant, and these are: small but immaculate, with brand-new marble tile and glass-doored showers. Toilets can be found in separate rooms; no more than four rooms share two stalls and two showers. At press time, the hotel was turning the erstwhile Irish pub next door into an entrance for the new mezzanine-level lobby. Aladdin Hotel 317 West 45th Street, tel. 212/246-8580, fax 212/246-6036, aladdinhotel.com. 132 rooms, of which all but two are with shared bath and fit our price category. Rates: $65-$85 (shared bath) The lobby's deep purple walls, red velvet curtains, saggy couches, and bright, multicolored carpet make you feel more like you're stepping into an East Village bar than a hotel-cum-hostel. Don't be fooled: the Aladdin caters heavily to serious students and young international travelers, perhaps because they're most tolerant of the bathroom situation. (Sinks are communal, and the three-stalls/two-showers-per-20-room-floor formula can mean a wait for the facilities.) The lobby, the orange-and-yellow-walled first-floor lounge, and the cheerfully painted pastel halls are the hotel's best features. Rooms are grungy and basic with low, slouchy beds, worn wall-to-wall carpeting, and bright curtains and bedspreads. Pay phones are located in the lobby. For supercheap lodgings, try the dorm-style rooms with multiple bunk beds. At press time the Aladdin was renovating, but chances are it won't shed its student-union feel. Apple Core Hotels (all rooms with private bath) Quality Hotel & Suites Midtown 59 West 46th Street, Quality Hotel East Side 161 Lexington, Comfort Inn Midtown 129 West 46th Street, Best Western Manhattan 17 West 32nd Street, Apple Core Hotels tel. 800/567-7720 (central reservations) or 212/790-2700, fax 212/790-2760, applecorehotels.com. Rates: start at $89 weeknights; $99-$109 weekends (private bath), continental breakfast included. Caveat: During holidays and other high seasons, rates can reach $139. Since 1993, Apple Core has been restoring rundown hotels in Midtown and turning them into some of the best bargains around. Although rates vary and management is cagey when it comes to listing a set price range, you can often find real deals. (If you're quoted a higher rate by phone, inquire about 10 percent AAA and AARP discounts as well as availability of smaller, more affordable rooms, especially at the Quality Hotel East Side.) And if you're bringing the kids, "family suites" sleep up to six for $139-$189, and the Best Western offers Nintendo and on-demand children's movies. Although Apple Core runs chain hotels, its four Manhattan properties are far from generic. The Quality Midtown and Best Western retain lovely Beaux Arts facades, and the Comfort Inn's restored turn-of-the-century building with its modern lobby is downright elegant. Decor ranges from black, white, and purple art deco in the Best Western's lobby to Colonial American at the Quality Hotel Eastside, with its borders of L.L. Bean-style duck-print wallpaper and bookcase-lined lobby. (The Quality, just off 30th Street in quiet Murray Hill, also boasts large windows and the best views we've seen at a budget property - ask for a room ending in the numerals 10 or 11.) On the downside: Rooms in all four hotels vary from spacious to barely wide enough to squeeze past the bed, and those still awaiting redecoration at the Quality could use better lighting. But with free continental breakfast and luxury amenities like in-room coffeemakers, hair dryers, irons, ironing boards, and 24-hour fitness and business centers, who's complaining? Editor's Note: Though rates here can sometimes go higher (even much higher) than our limits, the chain is still worth a call and a pointed inquiry about whether rates can be found within our range; they often can be. Also, at press time Apple Core was completing a new Red Roof Inn, set to open this year on West 32nd Street. Malibu Hotel 2688 Broadway, tel. 212/222-2954 or 800/647-2227, fax 212/678-6842, malibuhotelnyc.com. 140 rooms, of which 80 percent are with private bath and yet priced within our limits. The remainder are with shared bath and even cheaper ($69 to $89 per room). Rates: $89-$129 (private bath), $109-$149/quad (private bath) Though they won't win any awards for decor, you can't argue with the rates at this Upper West Side standby. A steep, narrow stairway covered in gray carpet that's seen better days leads to an equally drab second-floor lobby. Rooms are small and plain but serviceable, with chunky black iron headboards, a framed poster or two, and often hangers on a rack above the bed. Still, each has a TV and a clean, newly renovated bath (phones are in the lobby). Those facing away from commercial Broadway are likely to be quieter. Skip the heavy suitcases unless you want a workout; there are five flights and no elevators. Free continental breakfast is served in the lobby. The subway is a few steps from the hotel's front door. The neighborhood around 103rd Street is ethnically mixed but yuppifying fast; nearby are Grant's Tomb, Riverside Park, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and Columbia University. Washington Jefferson Hotel 318 West 51st Street, tel. 212/246-7550 or fax 212/246-7622. A big 260 rooms in size, of which 85 percent are with shared bath. Rates: $89-$99 (shared bath) Flaking exterior paint and an Edward Hopper-esque neon "hotel" sign outside belie this hotel's recent transformation. Once a down-at-the-heels single-room-occupancy hotel (SRO in New York lingo), the Wash-Jeff retains its shabby-chic appeal - and some of its original inhabitants - with a dark wood-paneled lobby, frayed red floral carpet, and saggy but comfy rose-colored couches. Halls are lined with black-and-white city photos - the work of a resident artist who fell behind in his rent and came up with an "alternate payment plan." Another interesting touch: GM Bob Lindenbaum offers room #114 for exhibits by local artists; last year one nonconformist covered the room in cheese. (You can see the photos, if you're skeptical.) Guest floors are more New York apartment house than hotel, with eclectic furnishings and years' worth of paint on the door frames. Baths are vintage 1940s but tidy (the staff cleans them hourly). All rooms have sinks, phones with voice mail, and dataports; minifridges are available on request. Eventually, the hotel hopes to install private baths in all rooms - without raising rates, we hope. Though once seedy, Hell's Kitchen now pulses with chichi coffee houses and trendy bars; you can still find meal deals at nearby diners and falafel stands. Editor's Note: Unless otherwise indicated, rates are for double rooms and do not include New York's 13.25 percent tax + $2/night occupancy tax. All hotels listed offer rooms starting under $100/night for significant portions of the year; higher rates may apply to holidays and other high-demand periods.

The Best Things in Sightseeing, as in Life, are Free

From the crowded shops of the Monkey Forest Road, we strolled to the outskirts of Ubud--an arts-and-crafts village in the very center of Bali--and then scrambled down a hillside path to a river below. And there at dusk, the Balinese people, men and women alike, were bathing away the sweat and cares of their day's work, chatting and socializing with one another. As Roberta and I approached, they looked up and smiled. Some small children shouted "hello," their one English word. It was a magical moment, the highlight of our trip thus far, and an example of what can happen when you wander away from the tourists, on your own two feet, and simply roam about the villages and neighborhoods of this world. We had resolved, on this trip to Bali, to stay far removed from the beachside hotels and stores of the southernmost tip of Bali, and instead to go directly from the airport to the island's rural interior. What a lucky decision! Not a day went by but that we would pass a religious procession on a near-deserted country road, of gaily-clad people going to make a fruit-and-floral offering at a nearby temple. Not an hour elapsed but that some unusual human activity would quietly occur before our very eyes: farmers threshing rice by hand, as their ancestors did centuries ago; a group of young men seated earnestly in a shaded pavilion down a narrow alleyway, practicing the ancient art of the xylophone-like gamelon of Indonesia; school children reciting their lessons aloud. It is said by some travel experts that on a first trip to a foreign land, you should immediately take an "orientation sightseeing tour" by motorcoach. That way, it is claimed, you gain a "once-over-lightly" of the area, and can later return on foot, at leisure, to the places that most intrigued you. What nonsense! The sights you experience from the interior of a fast-moving bus are simply a glob of vast, buzzing, blooming, confusion, in William James' phrase, of which you later remember nothing. The view from behind the windows of a motorcoach is sanitized and unreal, utterly removed from the authentic sights, sounds and smells of the country you are visiting. The commentary to which you listen is usually stale from repetition, geared to the lowest common taste, full of inane anecdotes, and peppered with historically inaccurate fables. The best way to experience any destination is not in a group vehicle, but on foot, without itinerary but simply at random, wandering where your spirit leads you--as Roberta and I did in Bali. You do this even in the largest of cities. In London, Paris or Rome, the smart traveler simply sets out without a plan, plunges into the very center of town, and goes wandering down the nearest street, experiencing the actual life of people, looking into grocery stores and the courtyards of hospitals and schools. In this fashion you will eventually get to the same major sights that the group motorcoach tours have passed--the museums, the monuments, the city hall. But you will have done so much more; you will have felt the contemporary life of the city. "But what if I get lost?" That's the retort that often greets me when I proffer this advice to friends. "What if I get lost?" No one ever gets irrevocably lost in a major city. Sooner or later there passes a trolley or bus with the words Central Station ("Gare Centrale," "Stazione Centrale") on its hood, and you easily return to where it all began. But the nicest things happen to people who get lost in a foreign city. You stop at a sidewalk cafe to calm your nerves. You have a coffee. You ask instructions of the native residents. You talk to people. And your trip is enhanced by the experience. The very same advice is valid for most major U.S. cities. No one has really experienced San Francisco who has not walked its colorful streets, from Union Square, say, to Fisherman's Wharf. No one has felt the raw, vital energy of New York who has not hiked down Broadway from Columbia University to Times Square. Or strolled the built-up sections of Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Some cities attempt to facilitate your do-it-yourself walking tour by supplying a brochure that maps out the routes, as Boston does for its "Freedom Trail." More recently, the major publishers of travel books have issued one after another of thick, self-conducted "walking tour guides" to cities ranging from Tokyo to Washington, D.C. All can be found in the travel sections of any large bookstore, and their easy availability robs you of an excuse for not experimenting with the do-it-yourself walking method. Six other ways to improve your sightseeing 1. Know before you go Learn something of the history and culture of the destination in advance of departure, and your trip will be immensely enhanced. Those Americans who simply assume that someone there will explain it all, are condemned to confusion and unhappiness. Even on a trip here in the United States, a few hours in a library, boning up on the destination, will provide you with a framework for understanding and enjoying what would otherwise be odd and dull. 2. Move about like a local Use the subways, trams and buses of the city you're visiting--they're an important part of the local lifestyle and culture. Screw up your courage, ask instructions at your hotel, and then use the city's public transportation for getting about. You'll not only save money, but you'll learn how people live there. And you'll gain an entirely different perspective of their city--a more realistic one--from the impressions you'd have on a sightseeing motorcoach. 3. Go into the neighborhoods On at least one occasion, use that public transportation to visit a real-life neighborhood of the city, away from its central tourist areas. On a visit to the showplace sections of East Berlin at the height of the Cold War, I took a subway to the working district of Prenzlauerberg, and learned more in an hour than tourists learned in their entire stay. In the same fashion, I've gained a more impressive view of Denmark by dipping into the residential neighborhoods of Copenhagen. 4. Haunt the bulletin boards In both U.S. cities and English-language countries, the university-area bulletin boards are a treasure trove of free lectures, concerts, workshops, and social gatherings open to all. The locals attending these events are also among the area's most dynamic visitors, and the occasion gives you a chance to observe them (or even meet them), a form of sightseeing. 5. Use evening museum hours Increasingly, major museums around the world are adding once-a-week evening hours to their schedule. Inquire. The viewing is calm and uncrowded at that time, and the museum visited by local residents, in large part. 6. And if you must book a guided tour... At least book the non-standard ones, the inexpensive kind conducted on foot. Most major capital cities have them, and the local tourist office will tell you when and where they start. So-called "sidewalk tours" (they bear different names) of London, New York, Paris, wherever, draw thoughtful people, and in my experience are more profound and rewarding than the motorcoach variety.

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