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Europe on the Quick: A Long Weekend in Stockholm

By Erik Torkells
updated September 29, 2021
0602_stockholm
Martin Adolfsson
In winter, airfares to Europe, and Scandinavia in particular, drop dramatically. Then again, so does the temperature. Would you want to spend 10 days there, strolling city streets in a parka? Perhaps not. But a long weekend can be absolutely refreshing, as Erik Torkells discovers in Stockholm.

The cardinal rule of a long-weekend getaway: Don't do anything to make it less long--like miss your flight. My partner, Adam, and I took the subway to JFK airport, feeling pretty good about ourselves for getting to the AirTrain transfer earlier than we'd expected on a Wednesday afternoon. I scanned the list of airlines and their terminals. Saudi Arabian Airlines, Singapore Airlines . . . . Where was Scandinavian Airlines, or SAS?

In Newark, it turns out.

I called SAS. "The flight to Stockholm is never delayed," said the agent, drolly. "Except tonight." It took us a total of six trains to get there, but we made it.

Having lived in a sublet while renovating a new apartment, Adam and I didn't travel much last summer, because there were always apartment-related things that needed to be done. And we didn't plan any big trips for after we moved in, because (a) renovating is expensive, and (b) we figured that all we'd want to do is savor finally being in our new place. But we found ourselves living inside a to-do list: Everywhere we looked, there was another task staring back.

We needed to get away. In honor of a certain special someone's birthday--mine--I proposed a quick trip to Stockholm. While we may not have wanted to spend 10 days in the Scandinavian winter, three sounded like a hoot. I've always believed that part of the reason people travel is so they have something fresh to talk about, and right away, it was a relief to focus on something besides, say, the fact that our new oven makes a strange booming noise when it hits 200 degrees.

I saw some appealing hotel/airfare packages, but bagged the package idea when I went to SAS's website. The airline was promoting a "Campaign Fare" on its home page: Newark (ahem) to Stockholm for $399, including all taxes. Our preferred dates were available, but every time I tried to book the flight, I kept getting error 140004. "Please try again later," the message said, so I did, every 15 minutes, convinced that someone was about to snap up the last two Campaign Fares. Eventually, I spoke with someone at the SAS offices in Sweden who knew how to fix the problem: I was entering myself as "passenger #1" and Adam as "passenger #2," but because Adam's last name comes before mine alphabetically, the system couldn't process it. That was a new one.

I bought the Time Out guidebook to Stockholm and checked out a bunch of hotels online. Adam likes a hip hotel, and the Nordic Light fit the bill. It had a weekend deal for $140 a night, but it was only valid Friday and Saturday nights. I e-mailed asking if they'd kindly extend the rate to Thursday. One of the many benefits of traveling off-season is that hotels get much more flexible.

Was it cold? Yes, generally about zero degrees Celsius--the sole Celsius temperature anyone can convert easily. Was it dark? The sun never got high in the sky, and it set around 4 p.m. The city's beauty was often accentuated by the long dusk: Restaurants place a pair of candles outside their doors, the very definition of a warm welcome.

Was it fulfilling? Was it ever.

Stockholm, situated on 14 islands, is geographically blessed: Walk 15 minutes and you'll probably end up with a water view. We didn't have a lot of preconceived notions about the city, and consciously didn't do a lot of advance planning. What was the point of trading one to-do list (our apartment) for another (guidebook essentials)? We mostly wandered, getting a real thrill when we'd happen upon something monumental. On the way to Gamla Stan--the old town, crisscrossed with narrow lanes--we passed a hulking brick building. I insisted we check it out, only to discover it was Stadshuset, the city hall. We entered a majestic courtyard, then passed through another set of arches, to a terrace area that runs right down to the water. It was like Venice for people who can handle the cold.

Considering we'd never actually follow through on it, Adam and I spent a lot of time talking about moving to Stockholm, coming to the optimistic conclusion that we'd be happiest in the upscale neighborhood of Östermalm. Two parts, in particular, struck our fancy: Strandvägen, a waterfront street, and Karlavägen, a broad avenue with a park down the middle, like Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. On Karlavägen, we stopped for lunch at the fussy little Café Foam. Seated next to us were three overly groomed young men and a woman with a Chihuahua dozing in her lap, forcing us to reconsider exactly how well we'd fit in.

Stockholmers, generally, were just lovely. The day we arrived, we went for panini and double espressos at Tintarella di Luna, a café in the city center. A woman overhearing our conversation recommended several places we should see during our stay. At the time, we were surprised, but then it happened again and again: Locals would offer suggestions, or help us if we looked lost.

As easy to manage as the city was, we still got that delicious sensation that we were somewhere foreign. For one thing, we saw no other Americans, and people thought we were Swedish. For another, while everyone spoke impeccable English, signs were written in Swedish, and maybe it's because I traffic in words for a living, but I love the Swedish language. They call an elevator a hiss, which had us ridiculously hissing the word--"Hisssssss! Hisssssss!"--every time we rode one. Instead of pull, doors are labeled drag, though not often enough. (Sweden, in my limited experience, has yet to realize that doors that push open shouldn't have handles. It leads folks like me to tug awkwardly, especially after we've had a glass of wine.) And the word chickybits, which we spotted on a street-food stall, makes me giggle just thinking about it.

The shorter your trip, the less you should feel like you have to see everything--because you can't. Whether that's true or not, it gave us a nice excuse to laze about the hotel room. The front desk clerk, bless her, had upgraded us. (She didn't know that I work at Budget Travel, or that I was writing an article.) Our new room was remarkably small, but if the floor plan posted in the room was any indication, we got very lucky. We still found it relaxing, if only because there weren't unpacked moving boxes in the corner.

We also decompressed at Sturebadet, a grand day spa, where we each had 20-minute massages--all they had available--and pondered using the gym. This will make me sound like a prude, and for obvious reasons I probably care less than most men, but I was shocked to see that women work inside the men's locker room. There's nothing like a trip to Sweden to make you realize you're not as progressive as you think you are.

Three days just might be the ideal amount of time to get jolted out of one's routine. Any longer and we'd be in rehab: We don't really drink before dinner anymore, but we did on this trip--at Berns Hotel, a neat old building, and Fräcka Halvpannan, a restaurant in Söder (as locals call Södermalm, the hipster neighborhood) where our waiter was friendly to the point of perky. We don't drink after dinner, either, but that didn't stop us from going for a Carlsberg at Pelikan, an old beer hall in Söder.

We drank, in part, because we couldn't get into a restaurant we wanted to eat at. We had read that you need to call ahead, especially on weekends, but we didn't pull it together to actually make reservations (see the part about decompressing, above). Sometimes we waited until a table was available, like when we went to Tranan, just north of the city center. I had the pork sausage, with potatoes drowning in cream; they were the richest thing I have ever eaten, and I'm no stranger to the dairy aisle. Another night, we planned on trying a restaurant called Matkultur, but the wait was an hour and 20 minutes, so we backtracked to a little Italian joint we'd passed, Zucchero. It reminded me of the kind of place where I'd eat when I was fresh out of college: The pasta was no more than fine, but it was fairly priced, the crowd was fun, and the room was done up in Italian kitsch.

In another way, our trip to Stockholm was serendipitous. Every other shop there seems to be selling exactly the kind of housewares you buy when you've moved into a new place only to realize you hate everything you own. For some reason, we were on a quest for place mats. We bought plastic ones, based on Josef Frank fabrics, for $5.50 apiece at upmarket Svenskt Tenn in Östermalm, and woven ones for $3 at Granit, which is like Crate and Barrel with a cooler, more organic, almost Asian sensibility. The other two stores that made an impression on us were DesignTorget, a showcase for cutting-edge design where we bought pillowcases with electric guitars silk-screened on them, and Asplund, where I couldn't pass up a coffee mug illustrated with hippos. For the first time in awhile, thinking about our apartment became fun.

Before we'd come to town, I had asked the photographer who'd be shooting this story, Martin Adolfsson, for advice on his city. I had never met Martin, but it turned out that he and his girlfriend were having a housewarming party the weekend we were there, so he e-mailed an invitation. I can count on one hand the times I've been invited to see how people in other countries truly live. I can also remember exactly the look on the face of the front-desk clerk at the Nordic Light when I asked her to translate the directions on the invitation. Martin had made it himself, using a photograph of Dave Chappelle as Rick James; IT'S A CELEBRATION BITCHES!!! was blazoned across the top in multicolored type.

The party brought out our insecurities. Martin is 24, and we were sure he'd have hip, creative friends who would make us feel like yuppies at best, fogies at worst. The other guests were indeed hip and creative, and I didn't help matters when I said that we'd found Östermalm to be particularly charming.

"It's not the real Stockholm!" protested Martin. He's right, of course. Then again, Beverly Hills isn't the real L.A., but I sure like to visit.

As is often the case when people from two countries hang out, we talked a lot about cultural differences--the irony being that we have much in common. From what Martin's guests had to say, Scandinavia is obsessed with poker, sudoku, and Harry Potter. The Ikea lamp Martin has in his bedroom is the one I have in my office. And like at every party everywhere, most of the guests loitered in the kitchen.

Adam and I had such a good time that we stayed a half hour longer than we intended, and we were late for a reservation at Bistro Süd, which Martin had recommended. He insisted we come back afterward, as they were going to play Ping-Pong at Lysy Pingwin, a bar around the corner. (He even did a sprightly Ping-Pong jig.) Alas, we're older and more bourgeois than we like to admit. I learned later that the party went on until 5:30 a.m.

It was snowing, the first of the winter, and as we walked across Söder to Bistro Süd, where we had a wonderful birthday dinner of steak frites and Arctic char, I felt more alive than I had in months. If that's not why we travel--and the best reason for going anywhere, at any time of year--I don't know what is.

Transportation

 

  • Arlanda Express 011-46/8-588-890-00, arlandaexpress.com, one-way $24
  • Lodging

     

  • Nordic Light Hotel Vasaplan 7, 011-46/8-50-56-30-00, nordiclighthotel.se
  • Food

     

  • Tintarella di Luna Drottninggatan 102, 011-46/8-10-79-55, panini $6
  •  

  • Café Foam Karlavägen 75, 011-46/8-660-09-96, panini $8.50
  •  

  • Berns Hotel Näckströmsgatan 8, 011-46/8-566-322-00, berns.se, beer $6.50
  •  

  • Fräcka Halvpannan Bondegatan 57, 011-46/8-642-20-70, cocktail $6
  •  

  • Tranan Karlbergsvägen 14, 011-46/8-527-281-00, pork sausage $12
  •  

  • Bistro Süd Swedenborgsgatan 8, 011-46/8-640-41-11, steak frites $26
  •  

  • Zucchero Borgmästargatan 7, 011-46/8-644-22-87, pasta $12
  •  

  • Kaffebar Skåningen Skånegatan 92, 011-46/8-642-29-00, espresso $1.25
  • Activities

     

  • Stadshuset Hantverkargatan 1, 011-46/8-508-290-58
  •  

  • Moderna Museet Skeppsholmen, 011-46/8-5195-5200, modernamuseet.se, free
  •  

  • Vasamuseet Djurgården 011-46/8-519-548-00, vasamuseet.se, $10
  •  

  • Sturebadet Sturegallerian 36, 011-46/8-545-015-00, sturebadet.se, 20-minute massage $52
  • Shopping

     

  • Svenskt Tenn Strandvägen 5, 011-46/8-670-16-00
  •  

  • Granit Kungsgatan 42, 011-46/8-21-92-85
  •  

  • Asplund Sibyllegatan 31, 011-46/8-662-52-84
  •  

  • DesignTorget Kulturhuset, 011-46/8-21-91-50
  •  

  • Grandpa Södermannag 21, 011-46/8-643-60-80
  • Nightlife

     

  • Pelikan Blekingegatan 40, 011-46/8-55-60-90-90, beer $5
  •  

  • Lysy Pingwin Närkesgatan 6, 011-46/8-641-26-26, beer $6
  • General advice for long weekends in Europe

    Fly direct whenever possible. I came across an appealing air/hotel package on Go-today.com--$449 per person for three nights--but the company wouldn't promise direct flights. We'd be in Europe for all of 72 hours; I didn't want to spend any of them sitting around Heathrow.

    Stay at a hotel that's centrally located. Stockholm has an amazing airport train, the Arlanda Express: It goes from the Arlanda airport to the city with no stops in between, and costs $24 one-way. Even better, we walked from the train platform at Central Station to the hotel lobby in less than 60 seconds. Also, because all of Stockholm's subway lines stop at Central Station, we didn't have to connect to get back to the hotel.

    Accept the fact that you won't be able to see everything. Stockholm is home to 75 museums (see stockholmtown.com for info); we only went to two: the Moderna Museet, which has a great selection of 20th-century art, and the Vasamuseet, which houses a wooden ship that capsized in 1628--15 minutes after it launched--and was dredged up only 45 years ago. What about the other 73? Think of it this way: If you love a city you're visiting, you can go back and see whatever you missed.

    Don't make too many set plans. The massages we reserved at Sturebadet were nice, but it was a distraction to have an appointment of any kind looming in the afternoon. Moreover, the whole experience--finding the spa, checking in, changing, showering, paying--took a much larger chunk of time than we'd expected. I wish we'd skipped it and walked around Söder more, spontaneity being more fulfilling.

    Don't be afraid to relax. I don't sleep on planes, and find flying to Europe hard. But, boy, the sleep you get when you're jet-lagged is the best, and that alone is almost worth the trip.

    Where the Scandinavian deals are

     

  • Continental Journeys 800/601-4343, continentaljourneys.com
  •  

  • Finnair 800/950-5000, finnair.com
  •  

  • Gate 1 Travel 800/682-3333, gate1travel.com
  •  

  • Go-today.com 800/227-3235, go-today.com
  •  

  • Icelandair 800/223-5500, icelandair.com
  •  

  • Nordic Saga Tours 800/848-6449, nordicsaga.com
  •  

  • Nordique Tours 800/995-7997, nordiquetours.com
  •  

  • Passage Tours 800/548-5960, passagetours.com
  •  

  • ScanAm World Tours 800/545-2204, scandinaviantravel.com
  •  

  • Scandia World Travel 800/722-4322, scandiaworldtravel.com
  •  

  • Scandinavian Airlines 800/221-2350, scandinavian.net
  •  

  • Scantours 800/223-7226, scantours.com
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    Inspiration

    Secret Hotels of Costa Rica

    MONTEZUMA Ylang-Ylang Beach Resort It takes a certain confidence to put up a hotel in a spot that requires a 15-minute hike on the beach to find, but Ylang-Ylang pulls it off. (You can arrange a lift for you or your bags from sister property El Sano Banano, located in town.) Shielded from the ocean by palm trees, the resort is set in a jungle clearing, and borders a wildlife reserve on one side. Ylang-Ylang's main, two-story building has six rooms, each with pale yellow walls and brightly striped blankets. The eight bungalows are more private; all but one have ocean views from their patios. Stone walkways connect the buildings and are lined with flowering plants and trees, including the fragrant ylang-ylang (naturally). The restaurant's menu was created by a French chef--he trained the kitchen staff and returns periodically to add new dishes such as grilled sea bass in a sauce of tomatoes, mushrooms, and white wine. Montezuma is the most compact and walkable of the southern Nicoya towns. During the day, street vendors sell jewelry and beaded caps from folding tables; at night, surfers and tourists barhop along the main drag. 011-506/642-0636, elbanano.com, doubles from $85, includes breakfast. Amor de Mar An Adirondack-style lodge houses Amor de Mar's 11 rooms, paneled in dark wood and decorated sparely, so as not to distract from the views (best from the second-floor porch). Two rooms share a bath, but the others are private. A patio restaurant serves breakfast and lunch, emphasizing simple fare like tropical smoothies and homemade breads. The wide front lawn gently slopes toward a rocky point, where there's a tide pool big enough to swim in. It's a five-minute walk to the nearest sandy beach, and thrill seekers will be happy to know that Amor de Mar is close to the famed Montezuma Canopy Tour, a zip line that whizzes through treetops and down over waterfalls ($30 for two hours). 011-506/642-0262, amordemar.com, doubles from $55. MALPAÍS The Place The Swiss owners of The Place have combined the famed tidiness of their home country--a custom-built rack neatly stores guests' surfboards--with design-conscious decor. Of the eight rooms, five are bungalows. Each is themed--Ocean Breeze, Out of Africa, Spicy Colors of Mexico, and so on. Some have mosquito netting hanging from a square frame on the ceiling, which lends a bit of drama, and the en suite bathrooms are separated by saloon-style doors. The Place bills itself as a surfer hangout, but the crowd is generally more novice than veteran, and many guests sign up for lessons--$45 for two hours, including board rental. (The hotel is on the nonbeach side of the street, however, and a 10-minute walk from a good surf break.) A large pool is the focal point of an outdoor living room with lounge chairs and daybeds. On Tuesdays, a screen is hung over the pool for movie night. There's no restaurant, but Frank's Place--with tasty ham-and-cheese omelets and shrimp with rice--is two minutes down the road on foot. 011-506/640-0001, theplacemalpais.com, doubles from $80. Moana Lodge A massive three-headed tribal sculpture--you kind of have to see it to understand--marks the entrance to Moana, and it's only the first taste of the hotel's African theme. Wa-Kabwe Kabue-Tshibanda, a Belgian with Congolese roots, has collected angular wooden masks and shields in the Congo and Ivory Coast. They're now scattered around his property--mounted next to the reception desk, near the pool, and on the walls of the seven rooms. Five of the rooms are air-conditioned and some have leopard-print pillows on the single beds. Moana is set on a hillside and has ocean views in the distance; the beach is on the other side of the road. There isn't a restaurant, but rather a well-appointed communal kitchen and a self-serve bar. Located at the southern end of Malpais, Moana is blessedly quiet--the kind of hotel that would be fun to take over with friends. 011-506/640-0230, moanalodge.com, doubles from $60. SANTA TERESA Hotel Milarepa It's easy to see why Leonardo DiCaprio stayed here with his girlfriend--the hotel has only four rooms, which guarantees privacy. Caroline Marot and her business partner (and now ex-husband) Philippe Verquin filled each bungalow with Balinese teak furniture, such as intricately carved armoires and antique four-poster beds. At night, guests are encouraged to open all the windows--and one wall of doors that lead to a private veranda--to let in the warm breezes. In the morning, noise from howler monkeys in the trees may provide a comic wake-up call. The bathrooms are private and semi-alfresco: The toilet and sink are under the roof's eaves, but the shower is open to the sky. A seven-table restaurant looks out over the pool, past a well-trimmed lawn, and down to the beach where there's a bamboo massage hut ($55 for an hour). The American chef, James Kelly, draws from Asian influences and makes great use of local seafood. He also plays another role: Marot's fiance. 011-506/640-0023, milarepahotel.com, doubles from $145. Luz de Vida Opened in 2003 by a group of seven Israeli friends who wanted to escape city life, Luz de Vida has built up a loyal clientele of surfers, families, and surfing families. Footpaths lined with palm, guava, and coconut trees lead to 13 cabins, eight with air-conditioning and five without. They're decorated with chunky wood furniture; three have sleeping lofts. Each has a private patio with two rocking chairs and a hammock. The view from the pool--past the restaurant, right down to the ocean--is spectacular. In addition to massages, the on-site spa offers treatments like manicures, pedicures, and peels. Yoga classes are held in an outdoor studio. 011-506/640-0320, luzdevida-resort.com, doubles from $80, includes breakfast; children under 10 stay free. Casa Zen Experienced surfers, backpacking young couples, and hip parents unafraid to travel with their babies--these are the kinds of free spirits that tend to find common ground at Casa Zen. Kelly Lange, a transplant from Kansas City, Missouri, opened the hotel in December 2004. She rents nine rooms with one or two beds, and three dorm rooms. Even the six shared bathrooms could be considered part of Casa Zen's communal ethos. All rooms are spare but inviting, with batik-print bedspreads and tangerine, ochre, and yellow color schemes. But guests usually hang out either in the hotel's Thai restaurant or in the "rancho," a circular outdoor pavilion decked out with primary-color pillows and comfortable banquettes. It has games, toys, and books for guests, and hosts movie nights on Thursdays and Sundays. 011-506/640-0523, zencostarica.com, doubles from $22, cash only. Point Break Hotel This hotel is just off one of the best breaks on the Nicoya Peninsula. Experienced surfers will want to know that despite the property's name, it's actually a beach break, not a point break--but nonsurfers probably won't care. There are six small cabins; the roofs are topped with dried palm fronds and the "walls" are largely screens (the overall effect is like sleeping out on a porch). White cotton curtains add a degree of privacy. The floors are concrete, inlaid with log cross-sections. Each cabin is fronted by a sandy area with deck chairs for lounging. One slightly more expansive cabin has its own bathroom and a fridge. The rest share a large bathroom, whose multiple sinks are out in the open. For groups of four, there are two rooms in a wooden building that's lifted high on stilts, each with a bathroom and a kitchen. It looks like a big, fun tree house. 011-506/640-0190, surfing-malpais.com, doubles from $40, cash and traveler's checks only. SAN FRANCISCO DE COYOTE Casa Caletas Atop a high bluff, Casa Caletas overlooks the bay where the Coyote River meets the Pacific. The sunsets can be magical. There's no tourist-friendly town nearby, so guests (many of them honeymooners) tend to stay put. The hotel restaurant has a terrific spa-like menu which features fresh fruits, seafood carpaccios, and green salads. It's read out loud tableside, sometimes by chef Cynthia Baltadano herself. Everything has been art-directed at Casa Caletas--even the coconuts lining the walkways have been painted the resort's signature light green--but the place doesn't come off as fussy. An infinity pool takes advantage of the incredible view. The main house is grand, with high beamed ceilings, lots of picture windows, and dark, rattan furniture. The nine rooms have private patios and striking abstract art made from reeds. A junior suite, though no bigger than the other rooms, boasts a private hot tub on its porch. Optional activities are numerous--kayaking ($10), horseback riding ($25), and waterskiing ($50)--but the nearest swimming beach is a mile away. To reach it, you can rent a golf cart for $25 a day. 011-506/289-6060, casacaletas.com, doubles from $130. When to go, how to get there, what to pack The best weather is in the dry season, between November and April. It's also high season, and we've listed those prices in this story. May through September is "green season," when it rains often, but in short, torrential bursts; hotel prices tend to be slightly lower. Avoid October; it's usually a washout. No matter when you go, bring an extra pair of flip-flops just for walking through town, as streets can get muddy. And in the dry season, a bandanna or other dust protection, even goggles, is advised for those who drive an ATV or ride a bike--the best ways to explore these small towns. Driving a car in Costa Rica, meanwhile, is an adventure in itself. Plan on six hours to get from San Jose to the southern Nicoya Peninsula--heavy rain can make some roads impassable. Or fly: Nature Air (800/235-9272, natureair.com) and Sansa (011-506/221-9414, flysansa.com) run round-trip flights between San Jose and Tambor for roughly $130. From Tambor, it's a half-hour cab ride to Montezuma ($25), and an hour to Malpais or Santa Teresa ($35). For Casa Caletas, fly from San Jose to Punta Islita ($160 round trip). If your itinerary calls for an overnight in San Jose, Hotel Grano de Oro is a great choice (011-506/255-3322, hotelgranodeoro.com, doubles from $90).

    Inspiration

    Grand Canyon Skywalk

    In January, a glass-bottomed, horseshoe-shaped walkway over the Grand Canyon--protruding 70 harrowing feet--will be unveiled. The Skywalk was envisioned nine years ago by David Jin, a tour operator specializing in trips to the Canyon's westernmost side, home to the Hualapai tribe. The tribe liked the idea, and Jin tapped Mark Johnson, a Las Vegas-based architect, for the design. The Skywalk has six-foot-tall glass walls, and is built to bear more than 71 million pounds, withstand winds over 100 miles per hour, and endure an 8.0-magnitude earthquake within a 50-mile radius. Still, says Johnson, "it's going to take some courage to step out there. Looking through a glass floor is intense." Views of the Colorado River, 4,000 feet below, come with a steep price. You must first book a tour of the tribe's grounds (877/716-9378, destinationgrandcanyon.com). The cheapest ($29) includes a walk through dwellings and an outdoor craft market. Only then can you test your mettle on the Skywalk, for an extra $25.

    Inspiration

    The Spirit of St. Lucia

    St. Lucia's most famous feature is the Pitons, two green, hulking peaks that rise from the sea in cinematic fashion. At the base of Petit Piton, the smaller of the two, sits Stonefield Estate Villa Resort, a former cocoa plantation transformed into 20 villas. With slatted walls, mosquito netting over four-poster beds, private plunge pools, and outdoor showers, the villas feel like part of a tropical summer camp--but Camp Hiawatha's dining hall never had an ocean view like this. Shuttles take guests to one of two beaches: the resort's rocky beach, five minutes away, or the ridiculously beautiful strip of white sand (imported from Guyana to cover the original volcanic black beach) at the Jalousie Plantation resort, 10 minutes away. At night, the stars spread out gauzily in the sky, and crickets and tree frogs make so much noise that even city dwellers may need to take a few deep breaths to get to sleep. The plantation has been in the Brown family for 32 years, but it's only spent the last eight as a hotel--which means proprietor Aly Brown's childhood bedroom is now a guest suite. Brown, 33, is a good-looking man who speaks about St. Lucian life and culture with a mixture of fond bemusement and even fonder pride. Returning to work for his family was the last thing he'd planned, he says over dinner at Camilla's, a small restaurant in downtown Soufrière, the southern village where Stonefield Villas is located. He had gone to Ryerson University in Toronto to earn a business degree, and was "summoned" home by his sister shortly thereafter. "I thought, Okay, I'll come down here for six months to a year, then leave," he says. That was eight years ago. Picking Brown's brain about where to go on the island is tough--he spends so much time managing the hotel that he rarely gets out anymore--but he did dig up a magical photocopied map of the area, and it quickly became indispensable. My first stop was touristy Sulphur Springs, billed as the world's only drive-through volcano (I'd encourage people to go when the wind is blowing the natural rotten-egg smell away from the viewing platforms). The Soufrière Estate and Diamond Botanical Gardens are much nicer; the former sugar plantation's hundreds of varieties of foliage include giant ficus trees that make you wonder if the plant in your office is a growth spurt away from grandeur. Brown also suggested a slightly out-of-the-way waterfall, called Spike, that crashes 350 feet into a swimmable pool. Waterfalls are ubiquitous in St. Lucia, like wedding chapels in Las Vegas, but this one really was quite stunning. Feeling ambitious, I had my guide, Nelly, take me all the way to the top. The climb (and accompanying near-cardiac arrest) killed any dreams I had of making the four-hour trek to the top of the 2,620-foot-tall Gros Piton. Finally, I followed a suggestion that would be repeated by almost everyone I met, and went for the Sunday buffet brunch at Ladera, a resort just down the road from Stonefield. The open-air dining room looks out over a broad expanse of Caribbean flanked by the Pitons, and the $20 prix fixe is a small price to pay for such a panorama, especially when one factors in the excellent coconut bread pudding. Surrounded by all this, I find it unsurprising Brown stuck around. "In Canada, I enjoyed the restaurants and libraries and universities--all kinds of culture," he says. "St. Lucia is a Third World country. You're somewhat limited in choices. But after a while you miss your beach and you miss riding horses on the beach, you know? It's a life that you grow to appreciate as you get older." He smiles. "Everybody wants to retire to an island." Nick Pinnock, owner of Ti Kaye Village Resort, e-mailed me his sightseeing suggestions ahead of time, declaring the island's best view to be from "the lighthouse on top of Moule à Chique in Vieux Fort"--a town at the southern tip of St. Lucia and an hour from Soufrière. My general inability to find anything outside of Soufrière, however, meant I never got to the lighthouse. But, hey, the power station and radio antenna one hill over are higher up anyway, and the view from there--with the entire island spreading below and so much ocean to my back that I swear I could see the curve of the earth--was a memorable last image of the south before heading north to Ti Kaye. Accessed by a typically gnarly St. Lucian road, Pinnock's resort is on a piece of property about halfway between Soufrière and the capital, Castries. Raised in the island's north, Pinnock, now 38, left St. Lucia in the '80s and moved to Brisbane, Australia, with his mother. After attending college Down Under, he returned to St. Lucia, working for an agricultural firm based in Puerto Rico; the job sent him traveling all over the Caribbean. He bought the land in St. Lucia as an investment: "I was basically gonna sit on it for a few years and then sell it to some other fool. But I fell in love with it a little bit." Drawing inspiration from Stonefield Villas (Pinnock used to be married to Aly Brown's sister--it's a small island--and Brown's father helped with Ti Kaye's design), he laid out 33 cottages: open-windowed structures with gingerbread roofs, outdoor showers, and a view from every porch. But the highlight of Ti Kaye is its beach, down 166 stairs to Anse Cochon, a bay with an excellent reef for snorkeling, a dive shop on property, and a waterfront restaurant and bar where the Piton Beer is lovingly chilled. Another of Pinnock's dining suggestions was to attend the Friday Fish Fry in Anse La Raye, 15 minutes north. More congenial than the better-publicized Mardi Gras--style "jump up" in Gros Islet, the fish fry consists of locals and tourists dining elbow to elbow at long tables in the town bazaar. With the sun setting over the pier and reggae blasting from six-foot-tall speakers, it's everything island life should be. I got there early and killed time at the Seaview Bar, a small teal building kitty-corner to the community center, where I met 84-year-old Peter Adjodha, whose parents immigrated to St. Lucia from India when he was a child. A couple of Pitons later, our conversation had covered everything from American politics to Hurricane Katrina, while baseball highlights drifted by on a TV that takes up about a third of the room. Peter invited me to come back sometime, which I took to mean the very next night. Providing experiences like that, says Pinnock, is something that small resorts such as Stonefield Villas and Ti Kaye pride themselves on. "If you're talking trickle-down economics, businesses like ours are much better for the economy [than bigger resorts]," he says. "We promote people to go outside, to spread it around a lot fairer." One of Pinnock's favorite suggestions for guests is to rent a jeep for a day, although he recognizes it can be a bit problematic. "For us, an old beat-up road to an east coast beach is normal," he says. "But you send a person who's been living in New York City all their life down there, they'll sort of freak out a little bit. Especially after they pass a country farmer wielding a machete." I tell him that I saw just such a farmer, though he was also wielding a puppy. "That was probably his dinner," Pinnock says, then laughs. "Just kidding." After the fairly rustic isolation of the south, St. Lucia's capital city of Castries and its northern neighbor, Gros Islet, are a kind of social reconditioning therapy: Buildings! Traffic! Humanity! My final destination, Coco Palm, is a candy-colored three-story building in Gros Islet's tourist-heavy Rodney Bay Village--and this being St. Lucia's relatively urban north, it's the first hotel I visited with full-on walls and windows, TV, Wi-Fi, and central air-conditioning. Co-owner and managing director Allen Chastanet, 44, has worked in pretty much every sector of the travel industry, including a three-year stint as St. Lucia's tourism director in the early '90s. He went to Bishop's University in Quebec for college and American University in Washington, D.C., for a master's degree in banking, but from the way he talks, there was no doubt he'd end up back on St. Lucia. When discussing the island's future, Chastanet lights up like a Christmas tree. Coco Palm opened in June, a sibling to the more affordable Coco Kreole. Both were founded on Chastanet's philosophy of "village tourism"--a fancy name for Pinnock's goal of "spreading it around"--and to that end, Chastanet employs a staff of hosts to find out what's up every guest's alley. "As you're making recommendations, you can watch how people react," he explains. "And then you lead them off in that direction." Suggestions might include a delicious Chinese dinner at Memories of Hong Kong, a drink at the Happy Day Bar (two-for-one all the time, which can make for an Unhappy Tomorrow Morning), or Coco Resorts' Zen Cruise, which incorporates snorkeling, lunch, and meditation. Within 15 minutes of hearing about my wanderings in the south, Chastanet threw out an idea: I should visit the La Toc military battery, an old fort on the outskirts of Castries owned by an American named Alice Bagshaw. I listened skeptically. Then he told me that, aside from running Bagshaw's Shop, where she sells silk-screened fabrics, Bagshaw also has a room filled with antique bottles she's found while diving off the coast. Chastanet found something that combined my love of history, crafts, diving, and eccentric American expats. As much as I liked stumbling around Soufrière, it was refreshing to have Chastanet and his hosts looking after me, fretting about my happiness, even chastising me for not spending enough time on Reduit Beach, a two-minute walk from Coco Palm. After I'd admired the murals at the hotel, the staff told me I should check out the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception--the artist who painted Coco Palm's murals, Luigi St. Omer, did the church's, too (with his father, Dustan). Chastanet also suggested a boat ride to Pigeon Island National Landmark, where a military outpost high up in the hills provides glorious views of Gros Islet and, if the weather is good, Martinique. I ate lunch at the Captain's Cellar Pub, enjoying a supertasty sausage sandwich (I admit that I was relieved to have something other than fish) while sitting at a simple picnic table just yards from waves crashing onto the northern beach. By the last day, I'd grown tired of being led around by the nose, and sought to reclaim my independence by visiting Cas en Bas, a popular windsurfing beach on the east coast. The directions consisted of "Take a left at the Shell petrol station"--and sure enough, my trusty jeep and I got lost for a solid hour, driving down ever-dwindling roads until we dead-ended in front of highly amused villagers. When I at last found the grotty road down to the beach, I discovered a stunning, peaceful cove where Marjorie's Beach Bar is ideal for sipping a Piton in the shade and watching honeymooners ride horses bareback into the surf. The only thing marring the experience: An enormous development is being constructed next to Marjorie's, where once there were only palm trees. Chastanet acknowledges that the tourism industry, for everything it brings to the island, isn't without its faults. "In a destination like St. Lucia, tourism can be very displacing," he says. "All of a sudden, in your backyard, you've got this resort, and there's all these people taking pictures of your kids. It can be very negative, if dealt with in the wrong way." But, he concludes, "If you're going to spend all this money to advertise for people to come to paradise, we need to make sure it's paradise." As more and more folks are attracted by the island's considerable charms, it'll be up to men like Brown, Pinnock, and Chastanet to find a way to meld the traditional and the modern--St. Lucia and the outside world--in ways that honor both. It's certainly possible: The company behind the mega-resort being built at Cas en Bas is talking to Marjorie about running the resort's water-sport rental business off of her property. Island driving: An adventure of its own St. Lucia's relationship with street signs is tenuous, the roads occasionally double as rivers, and people drive on the left. If you still want to rent a car--which I recommend--note that there's a $20 fee for the required temporary driving license (all you need is a valid U.S. license, and you pay at the car-rental agency). You may want to bring a compass and a friend who won't hesitate to ask for directions. And pack some music, unless you like R. Kelly as much as local DJs do. Hiring guides (and what to pay them) Most natural attractions in St. Lucia are run by the Forestry Department and require a small donation (usually $2--$4). Upon arrival, you'll be encouraged to hire a guide--one of the locals sitting outside--for a "suggested donation" of whatever you decide (I gave tips ranging from $2 to $5). Guides are fairly unnecessary at self-explanatory places such as Sulphur Springs, but I enjoyed seeing the Botanical Gardens with someone who knew what we were looking at. The one place a guide is indispensable is when climbing Gros Piton, but avoid paying the $100 (and up) charged by most tour services. You can drive five minutes south of Soufrière to the Gros Piton nature trail and hire a guide on the spot for $30. A final note: Hitchhiking and ride-giving is rampant in St. Lucia, and your guide might ask for a trip into town afterward. It's probably safe enough, but if you feel uncomfortable, you're allowed to politely decline. Lodging Stonefield Estate Villa Resort 758/459-7037, stonefieldvillas.com, from $140 Ti Kaye Village Resort 758/456-8101, tikaye.com, from $160 Coco Palm 758/456-2800, coco-resorts.com, from $125 Coco Kreole 758/452-0712, cocokreole.com, from $85 Food Camilla's 758/459-5379, fish dinner $17 Ladera 758/459-7323, ladera.com Friday Fish Fry Anse La Raye, dinner $8 Memories of Hong Kong 758/452-8218, crispy duck appetizer $11 Captain's Cellar Pub 758/450-0918, sausage sandwich $5.60 Marjorie's Beach Bar Cas en Bas, 758/520-0001 Activities Soufrière Estate and Diamond Botanical Gardens 758/459-7155, $4 Sulphur Springs admission $3 Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception 758/452-2271 Pigeon Island 758/452-5005, slunatrust.org Shopping Bagshaw's Shop 758/451-9249 Resources St. Lucia Tourism 758/452-4094, stlucia.org Nightlife Seaview Bar No phone, beer $1.15 Happy Day Bar 758/452-0650, two Piton beers $2.25

    Inspiration

    New York City

    Sean McCarthy met Katie Hellmann in third grade, when she was the new kid at school in Newburgh, Indiana. They went to a dance together in seventh grade, but at the end of the school year Sean's family moved to North Carolina. They wrote to each other through the years, and one letter from Katie prompted Sean to drive overnight to rekindle the romance 10 years after their first go of it. "I still have that letter," says Sean. Married in 2004, the McCarthys live in Chicago, where Sean works in sales for T-Mobile and Katie runs her own event-planning business. Sean is surprising Katie for her 30th birthday with a trip to a place she's always dreamed of: New York City. Neither has ever been there. "She keeps mentioning how much she'd like to go to New York," says Sean. "I pretend that I don't hear her." But the fact is, Sean is a very good listener. And he plans to indulge Katie in every way--dining at her favorite kinds of restaurants, drinking colorful cocktails, shopping at boutiques. "This trip is about her," he says. "I just want to do what she wants to do." The first challenge is pinning down the perfect hotel. Sean knows Katie will want a place with some style. "I'd rather not be in a shady area just because it's cheaper," he says. The McCarthys will spend much of their time downtown, an area not known for a good hotel selection. Reliable favorites include the Abingdon Guest House in the West Village, the Gershwin Hotel in the Flatiron, and Park South Hotel in Gramercy. The first two are full for the November weekend Sean had picked, so he's relieved when the Park South has a room. The hotel occupies a beautiful eight-story building that dates to 1906. "Authentic New York is much more appealing than what's on TV," explains Sean. Still, he asked us to brief him on major attractions that'll be convenient, so they have the option of checking them out. Their hotel is a few blocks from the Empire State Building, and they can easily start there first thing in the morning (it opens at 8 a.m., the ride up is $14, and crowds get larger later in the day). "If it's doable, Fifth Avenue might be fun," says Sean. All they have to do is take the 6 train uptown to 51st Street for browsing at Tiffany's and other ritzy shops, before detouring into Central Park for a nice walk. But Sean knows that with only a few days in the city, they won't focus on tourist sites. "We can always come back for those," he says. They prefer to experience New York like real New Yorkers. The best way to do that is by hitting the streets and walking, eating, and (a personal favorite for Katie) shopping. "I assume she'll want to go to smaller shops that can't be found in other places," says Sean. "The more eclectic boutiques." NoLita, a hip neighborhood east of SoHo--and as the abbreviation indicates, north of Little Italy--should be the first stop. Hollywould, a little shoe store on Elizabeth Street, is a favorite for girls who can never have too many sparkly heels. Around the corner on Prince Street, INA is where New York's fashionistas put their designer bags, dresses, and jeans on consignment. As part of her business, Katie creates invitations, and in SoHo she can indulge her paper obsessions at IS, a stationery store favored by graphic designers. She'll also love Kate's Paperie, which has tons of invitations and beautiful paper products. An informal paper district, on 18th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, includes the well-stocked Paper Presentation. No neighborhood is better suited for wandering--if only because its layout often gets people lost--than the West Village. The streets are lined with brownstones, shops, and cafés. (As a fan of Sex and the City, Katie should keep an eye out for Sarah Jessica Parker, who's often spotted on Waverly Place.) In particular, Bleecker Street, west of Seventh Avenue, has become a newer, smaller version of NoLita. The Marc Jacobs trio of stores--his, hers, and accessories--was the pioneer, and now there's a series of high-end boutiques. Sean is happy that most of the stores have chairs. "I'll just bring a magazine and nestle in," he says gamely. The McCarthys are interested in neighborhood restaurants. Two excellent possibilities in the Village: Mario Batali's informal pizzeria, Otto, which fills up fast on weekends for dinner. The restaurant just started taking reservations, but if the couple has to wait for 20 minutes or so, it isn't all that bad. They can have a drink in the bar, and a train timetable signals when tables open up. Also, the cozy Italian restaurant 'Ino is great for grilled panini. "There's not much we don't eat," says Sean. For lunch, Sean and Katie might test their palates at Freemans, down an unassuming alley on the Lower East Side. A hunting-lodge aesthetic carries through in the menu (wild boar terrine?), but there are more approachable dishes, like the smoked trout with hard-boiled egg ($9). The McCarthys host an annual martini party they jokingly call the Partini. "I'm a big fan of traditional martinis," says Sean. "Katie likes anything in a martini glass." There's a boom in Manhattan of classic cocktail lounges. At the Pegu Club, one of the newer entries, drinks are about $12 each, but the experience isn't one they'll find anywhere else. Each cocktail comes with a quartet of droppers, which allow patrons to perfectly calibrate their drink to taste. Katie might opt for the Pegu Club Cocktail: orange Curacao, bitters, London dry gin, and lime juice, served in a martini glass. As far as nightlife, Sean and Katie--who watch Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central regularly--will find some of the city's best comedy and wacky theater at the Upright Citizens Brigade. SNL cast-member Amy Poehler is a founder and a regular at the club, located in Chelsea. Laughs are great, but romance is what the McCarthys' getaway is about. Even jaded New Yorkers find walking across the Brooklyn Bridge magical. If the weather cooperates (a bit iffy in November), the couple will begin the dramatic 40-minute stroll at City Hall. The view of the Manhattan skyline is its own reward, but there are other reasons to make the trek. Many people say the city's best pizza is in Brooklyn, under the bridge's shadow at classic coal-oven joint Grimaldi's, and for dessert, Jacques Torres Chocolate is unforgettable. (Sean and Katie can take the A or C train back to Manhattan if they've had it with walking.) Finally, Landmarc, a rustic American restaurant in Tribeca, is the perfect spot to celebrate Katie's birthday. It's understated but special, and the wine list has an unusually low markup: While the standard at city restaurants is 300 percent, Landmarc charges the retail price for many bottles. A grill in the back of the dining room sears five cuts of steaks, which come with five options for sauces. Landmarc doesn't take reservations for parties under six, but Katie and Sean can give the host their cell phone number and head a few blocks north to the Brandy Library, which, on top of its 300 brandies and 240 single malts, has a long list of cocktails. The Perfect Manhattan comes--naturally--in a martini glass. Double surprise! The nice folks at the Broadway comedy hit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are giving Katie and Sean free seats to a performance. Also, thanks to Comedy Central, the couple will skip the lines with VIP tickets for a live taping of The Daily Show. Now all Sean has to worry about is his wife's crush on host Jon Stewart. "I think she finds him easy on the eyes," he says. Lodging Abingdon Guest House 13 Eighth Ave., 212/243-5384, abingdonguesthouse.com, from $149 Gershwin Hotel 7 E. 27th St., 212/545-8000, gershwinhotel.com, from $109 Park South Hotel 122 E. 28th St., 212/448-0888, parksouthhotel.com, from $199 Food Otto 1 Fifth Ave., 212/995-9559 'Ino 21 Bedford St., 212/989-5769, panini $9 Freemans Freeman Alley, 212/420-0012 Landmarc 179 W. Broadway, 212/343-3883, skirt steak $20 Grimaldi's 19 Old Fulton St., Brooklyn, 718/858-4300, pizza $14 Jacques Torres Chocolate 66 Water St., Brooklyn 718/875-9772 Brandy Library 25 N. Moore St., 212/226-5545 Pegu Club 77 W. Houston St., 2nd Fl., 212/473-7348 Activities Putnam County Spelling Bee 1633 Broadway, 212/239-6200, telecharge.com Empire State Building 350 Fifth Ave., 212/736-3100, esbnyc.com The Daily Show 733 11th Ave., 212/586-2477, comedycentral.com, free Upright Citizens Brigade 307 W. 26th St., 212/366-9176, ucbtheatre.com, free-$10 Shopping INA 21 Prince St., 212/334-9048 Hollywould 198 Elizabeth St., 212/343-8344 IS 91 Crosby St., 212/334-4447 Kate's Paperie 561 Broadway, 212/941-9816 Paper Presentation 23 W. 18th St., 212/463-7035 Marc Jacobs 403--405 Bleecker St., 212/924-0026 How was your trip? "In a word, Ireland was fantastic," says Kurtis Frank, shown here with his wife, Heather, at the Cliffs of Moher. The couple, who we coached in May, made a lot of readers jealous by scoring tickets to see U2 in Dublin. "The show was amazing from start to finish. Thanks so much."