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How to See the Best of Australia—On a Budget!

By Andrea Minarcek
November 1, 2011
Mrs. Macquarie's Chair
Nicky Ryan
The mission: Plan a trip Down Under that skips the usual tourist suspects but still captures all the sea-, sun-, and kangaroo-soaked magic of Oz.

LESSONS FROM THE OUTBACK

Skip: Ayers Rock; it sees a half-million tourists a year; four-hour flight from Sydney
Do: Chillagoe; easier Outback access, and a population of just 350

Every afternoon at about 4 p.m. in the Chillagoe Hotel Motel, owner Ray Neary assumes his perch on a bar stool by the entrance and waits to greet his clientele. First come the wild peacocks, who usually show up once Neary tosses them a few leftover scraps from lunch. Soon after, almost everyone else in Chillagoe, Queensland (population: 350), files in to take the birds’ place. Off-duty hands from the cattle station, miners from the nearby gold quarries, a few aboriginal men in jeans—they all come to eat Frisbee-size steaks with drafts of XXXX (pronounced “fourex”), the Queensland state beer. The wood-paneled walls are lined with posters of Australian rugby teams, and the jukebox plays (no joke) Men at Work’s "Land Down Under." “Everyone thinks you have to go out in the middle of nowhere, fly all the way to Ayers Rock or something, to find the Outback,” Neary says. “But this”—he slams his palm on the pine bar—“is the real deal, and it’s a heck of a lot closer to civilization.”

Now, that’s what you might call a real Outback steak house, and if it doesn’t exactly look like you’d expect—peacocks instead of kangaroos, XXXX instead of Foster’s—maybe that’s because Americans have been playing by the wrong Aussie rules. Many tourists heading Down Under get stuck in a sort of Australian triangle between the country’s three most popular sites: Sydney to the Great Barrier Reef to Ayers (which the locals call Uluru)—despite the fact that it takes three intra-country flights to do it all. Not that there’s anything wrong with the triangle trip. Australia is halfway around the world for everything this side of New Zealand, and no one wants to save up all the necessary time and money and miss the greatest hits.

But what if you like going your own way, skipping the usual, packaged-tour suspects in favor of something more authentic? Could you plan a vacation to Australia with substitutions that won’t leave you feeling like you’ve missed the boat? No Ayers Rock. No Sydney Harbour Bridge climb. No Great Ocean Road. It’s a tempting idea: fewer crowds, lower cost, plus a genuine Aussie sense of adventure. It’s also pretty fraught: How will you feel when your friends back home ask to see photos of Ayers Rock and you say—well, actually, check out these great shots from Chillagoe!

Five years ago, before social media connected everyone in a near-endless network of friends of friends of kinda-sorta-friends, pulling off a no-tourist tour might not have worked. You could study up before you left and make educated guesses about decent alternates, but you’d still be traveling largely by the guidebook. Now, thanks to Facebook and Twitter, anyone and her mother can get insider tips from locals—new “friends” you made via that old neighbor’s ex-roommate who spent a year abroad in Sydney.

That’s the only way you’re going to find yourself in the likes of Chillagoe, an all-around charming town, from the peacock lunch-guests at the Chillagoe Hotel Motel (Tower St., 011-61/7-4094-7168, steaks from $14) to the limestone caves in nearby Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park, where there are 30,000-year-old aboriginal rock-wall paintings. It sits just past a string of coffee and sugar-cane plantations on the west side of the Great Dividing Range, and it’s dotted with turn-of-the-century buildings, such as the Chillagoe Guesthouse, a six-room inn housed in the town’s original 1906 post office (16-18 Queen St., doubles from $124, including breakfast). Can any of this compete with majestic Ayers Rock in terms of eye candy? Probably not. That’s the thing about icon-free traveling: It’s about trade-offs. As many as a half-million people visit Uluru every year. It’s a four-hour flight from Sydney, and once you’ve seen it—well, you’ve seen it. There’s not much else to do. Chillagoe, on the other hand, gets a couple thousand visitors annually and you can make it there from Cairns—a North Queensland base camp—in less than three hours by car. “We get a lot of Aussie visitors from the coast,” says Eugene Miglas, the owner of Chillagoe Guesthouse, “but I don’t think Chillagoe’s on the radar for most international tourists yet.”

See photos of Australia and New Zealand

 

LESSONS FROM SYDNEY

Skip: Harbour Bridge Climb; sky-high vistas and cost: $194 for the cheapest tour
Do: Mrs. Macquarie's Chair; spectacular city views at a down-to-earth price: free

Finding Outback stand-ins in this big, empty country isn’t terribly difficult. Things get harder when you’re looking for experiences that will measure up to two of the country’s biggest urban landmarks: the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. You wouldn’t want to skip them entirely; they’re beautiful structures that look even better in person, where you get a real sense of how they frame, and are framed by, the city around them. But if it’s lovely views you want, you don’t need to tour the opera house or haul yourself up for a walk across the bridge just because Oprah did. (Besides, if she wants to spend $200-plus for a ticket, more power to her.) For a stunning, free—and less heart-attack inducing—perch, you could head to a place called Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair, a 201-year-old bench carved out of a natural rock ledge in the Royal Botanic Garden (Mrs. Macquarie's Rd., free entry). Looking out on the city from Mrs. Macquarie’s as dusk approaches, the dipping sun paints a spectrum of citrus colors over the white sheen of the opera house. Nearby, thousands of flying-fox bats swoop into ginkgo biloba trees, where they nest each day. “Bats in Sydney” isn’t listed in most guidebooks—and, frankly, would that be much of a selling point?—but the sight of thousands of them spiraling through the dusk is unexpectedly captivating. “There’s this idea of them being scary, but if you come here in the evening, you can see the light shine through their wings, and they’re so translucent and smooth, it’s magical,” says Larissa Trompf, who’s studying animal behavior at Macquarie University, in Sydney.

That’s another fringe benefit of skipping the marquee routes to the monuments—when you’re not running around dutifully checking items off of a must-see list, your eyes are open enough to make your own discoveries. In Sydney, that might mean skipping famous Bondi Beach in favor of the 3.7-mile coastal path to Coogee, a lovely, quieter stretch of sand that’s home to dads tossing a rugby ball with their sons and a class for tween surfers.


LESSONS FROM THE WILD SIDE

Skip: Taronga Zoo; $45 entry; "encounters" programs: $26 each
Do: Hunter Valley Zoo; $18 entry fee—petting included; bonus: surrounded by gorgeous, world-class wineries!

On a day trip out of town, you could find yourself at the Hunter Valley Zoo, which is tucked away in one of Australia’s many wine regions, a two-hour drive north. Sydney is practically papered with ads for its famed Taronga Zoo, but admission costs $45 and up-close “encounters” with koalas, owls, and reptiles run an extra $26. Hunter Valley Zoo is small—10 acres, at most—yet it’s home to every Aussie creature you could hope to see: kangaroos, wallabies, dingoes, wombats, and a menagerie of rainbow-hued birds (138 Lomas Lane, Nukalba, free entry). The best part is that twice a day, a handler lets visitors into the koala pen and nudges one awake from its perch on a eucalyptus. You aren’t allowed to hold them, but you can pet them, and their fur is as soft as a rabbit’s.

 

LESSONS FROM THE ROAD

Skip: the Great Ocean Road; Sees a lot of traffic in high-tourist season; three-hour flight from Sydney
Do: Captain Cook Highway; the 47-mile coastal road runs between Cairns, in the south, and Mossman, in the north, and connects to the spectacular Cape Tribulation rainforest and Great Barrier Reef

Of course, any dream trip to Australia requires one splurge: the Great Barrier Reef. The only time- and cost-effective way to get there is to hop a three-hour flight from Sydney to Cairns, on the Queensland coast. Plenty of operators run reef trips right out of Cairns—85 percent of the 1.6 million tourists who see the reef annually go through Cairns and the Whitsunday Islands, the two most popular sites, and 40 percent of visitors use one of the 10 largest tour groups. But for the reef, avoiding tourists is all the more crucial—the more people you snorkel with, the fewer fish you’ll see. You’ll need to go through Cairns, but only because it offers access to lesser-known reef towns such as Cape Tribulation.

Cape Tribulation, in the heart of the ancient Daintree Rainforest, is a tropical playground of hiking paths and wide, empty swaths of sand, with easy access to some of the most pristine parts of the reef. The area looks a lot like Hawaii 100 years ago: palm-tree-wrapped peaks reaching for the sky above and sliding into the ocean below—and not a single resort or mega-development mucking up the view. The two-and-a-half-hour drive from Cairns is a treat in its own right. Two-lane Captain Cook Highway hugs the ocean like a paved wave, curving between sand-dollar white beaches and the camouflage-colored foothills of the Great Dividing Range. It’s a worthy replacement for the famed Great Ocean Road near Melbourne, which, pretty though it is, would require yet another flight from Sydney.


LESSONS FROM THE REEF

Skip: Cairns; 27 dive outfits; gets 70 percent of visitors from overseas
Do: Cape Tribulation; one dive company—and it's the only one you'd want

“People come to Australia to meet real Australians,” says Dawn Gray, who owns and runs the Cape Trib Farmstay, “and here I am. At a big hotel, you maybe get to say hello to other travelers around the pool.” Gray’s tropical-fruit farm has 88 acres and five Swiss Family Robinson–type cabins, each with its own veranda and views of Mt. Sorrow, to the north (Cape Tribulation Rd., from $139, with breakfast, two-night minimum). Every morning, guests find a basket in the refrigerator with their name on it, overflowing with complimentary fruit such as papaya, wattleseed, and jackfruit, many grown by Gray on the property. (Just down the road—the only road in town—another farm charges $26 per person for an “Exotic Fruit Tasting.”) In the evenings, Gray makes tea and helps book tours on the reef and in the rain forest. She knows all the operators personally; just 101 people live in Cape Tribulation year-round.

That said, there is only one snorkeling outfitter in Cape Tribulation—though it’s the same one you’d choose even in a sea of options. Ocean Safari Adventure keeps crowds in check by only running one or two trips a day on a 25-passenger vessel (Cape Tribulation Rd., half-day snorkeling trips from $123 per person). The snorkeling trips last well over two hours, and in wet suits, the 70-degree water feels balmy. “The sections of the reef we’re heading to are in such better condition than most of the rest,” says Tristan Giardini, an Ocean Safari snorkeling instructor with blond dreads and a sunburn. “Even people with good intentions sometimes bump it and break parts off when they snorkel, but here in the cape, it’s just us, so the reef is almost perfect.”

The Mackay and Undine reef sections, where Giardini leads tours, are just as spectacular as he promises: orange-and-white striped anemone fish, ledges of pink coral, curious sea turtles, and starfish of such a startlingly bright cornflower blue that they seem spray-painted. But the boat rides to and from shore can be just as exciting. As the catamaran is pounding through the choppy surf, about 200 yards away a massive blue torpedo shoots out of the ocean toward the sky. Giardini had mentioned that humpback whales migrate along this stretch of coast from August to September, but this looks more like a rocket than a mammal. When it crashes back into the water, it shakes the boat like an earthquake.

The passengers, of course, are thrilled, but they’re mellow compared with Giardini. While everyone else stays obediently glued to their seats, he grabs his camera and races to the front of the rocking boat to try to photograph a whale in midair. “Ah, isn’t this amazing?” he yells, followed by a few ecstatic expletives, shouted into the wind. And suddenly, you realize you’ve just seen the highlight of your icon-free trip. The whale? Sure—the friends at home are going to love seeing those pictures. But it’s Giardini’s utterly unjaded reaction—doesn’t he do this every day?—that reminds you of the difference between a trip crammed with must-see destinations and one designed for maximum spontaneity and authenticity. Any time your tour guide is having at least as much fun as the tourists, you know that you’ve had a very g’day, mate.

 

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The Pacific Coast Highway—Without the Traffic

You start to feel it about an hour after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge: a kind of kick-off-your-shoes, carefree freedom that comes from cruising along the edge of the earth. Oh, maybe it's mixed with a tinge of nausea, but a few hairpin turns are a small price to pay for endless views of the ocean. After all, this is Highway 1—the Pacific Coast Highway—that drop-dead gorgeous, wildly snaking road that follows the sea almost every inch of its way. The central stretch from Monterey to Big Sur gets all the glory (and the well-heeled crowds), but head north and things start to get funkier and more affordable. Flat-out unfashionable, really, in a charming, time-warp '70s sort of way, where washed-out roadside motels with names like Surf and Sand still tout "free color TV" on their peeling signs, local radio stations play Steve Miller Band, and people read the newspaper in print, not on an iPad. The landscape, too, remains unchanged: the craggy cliffs, the golden hills, the grazing cows, the I've-got-to-snap-a-picture lookouts. But it's really the quirky, old-fashioned communities that make this stretch of Highway 1 so special. The town of Fort Bragg, 170 miles north of San Francisco, is a prime example: Nine years ago, Fort Bragg's sprawling oceanfront lumber mill shut down, and Pacific Ocean views once obstructed by smoke stacks were opened up to the public. Now green spaces and walking trails are scattered across town, along with new restaurants, boutiques, and beachfront bike paths. Fort Bragg is a town in transition, no doubt, but somehow it's maintained its low-key spirit—a refreshing surprise on the sometimes chichi California coast. Best of all, you can get a room with an ocean view for less than, say, lunch at a spa down south. At least for now. Day 1: San Francisco to Sea Ranch, 110 miles The traffic in San Francisco only makes the open vistas to the north all the more spectacular. Just across the Golden Gate Bridge, convertibles bound for wine country clog the lanes. Then, it's stop-and-start past auto shops and Applebee's, until about 60 miles north, when you reach Highway 1 and the road narrows to a rolling two-lane past cattle fields and cyclists, into the country and out to the coast. Near the town of Jenner, Highway 1 edges a bluff where the Russian River intersects the raging Pacific, and my friend and I can't resist a quick stop. The pull-out has room for only a handful of cars—no bus tours or caravanning RVs could fit if they tried. The water is a tropical turquoise blue and kayakers paddle peacefully below. A guy next to me shoves his binoculars in my hand: "Check it out!" he exclaims, pointing to a smooth black hump surfacing every so often. "See it?!" Camaraderie among strangers, it seems, is not uncommon here. There's the shared thrill over whale sightings, yes, but also an unspoken feeling of luck. Hunger strikes right around the time you see Stewarts Point Store, a yellow clapboard shop that dates back to 1868 (32000 S. Hwy. 1, 707/785-2406, turkey-cheese-avocado sandwich $8). Owner Charles Richardson, a smiley, Carhartt-clad fifth-generation son of the original propietors, stocks the shelves with a mix of the retro (glass bottles of grape Crush) and the gourmet (cheeses, salamis). If it were a Friday, we could've joined a dance-hall dinner held weekly upstairs. Instead, it's a lazy Sunday, so  we head for the town of Sea Ranch, a 10-mile windswept bluff scattered with austere, 1960s architecture that blends so respectfully into the land you could very well miss it. Built out of cedar and redwood, the Sea Ranch Lodge may be the best-value inn on the Sonoma-Mendocino coast, where a frilly room with an ocean view usually runs at least $250 (60 Sea Walk Dr., searanchlodge.com, from $149, including breakfast). Weathered Adirondack chairs at the water's edge are made for sipping wine, and most of the 20 cozy rooms have woodstove fireplaces and overlook the Pacific. As the moon reflects on the water, I thank the zillions of stars we paid only $149 a night.   Day 2: Sea Ranch to Point Arena, 20 miles With a dilapidated-looking "day spa," a very-much-still-in-business video store, and a better-than-decent BBQ joint, the town of Gualala, about six miles north, is a booming metropolis compared to Sea Ranch. The kind of 2,000-resident town where your waitress tells you she's lived forever and restaurants tend to empty out before 9 p.m. A few miles north, we get the sea lions, tide pools, and coastal hiking trails all to ourselves at Stornetta Public Lands; there isn't anyone else at Bowling Ball Beach either. Maybe because we just miss low tide, which reveals a sea of symmetrically round boulders that give this often photographed spot its name. To call Point Arena a town is a bit of an overstatement. It's basically a single strip consisting of not much more than a co-op grocery, homemade-jam stand, and historic theater. We find the real entertainment just up the hill: a 110-acre park where zebras and antelope roam. Owned by a couple dedicated to giving displaced African animals a better life than the zoo, the B. Bryan Preserve also has a three-room inn. You can take a guided tour or stay the night, like we do, to wander on your own (130 Riverside Dr., bbryanpreserve.com, from $135, including a 1.5-hour walking tour of the park). That evening, we have our pick of tables on the deck at the Pier Chowder House & Tap Room, where we eat fish tacos made with cod caught off the very pier we're gazing at.   Day 3: Point Arena to Fort Bragg, 45 miles In Mendocino, we stop for an early lunch of chicken focaccia sandwiches in the garden at Moosse Café, which is filled with elderly women with wide-brimmed hats and lap puppies (90 Kasten St., 707/937-4323, chicken focaccia $13) . It comes as a surprise, then, when we get to Fort Bragg's Piaci Pub & Pizzeria, 20 minutes north, and discover a different world entirely (120 W. Redwood Ave., Fort Bragg, 707/961-1133, pies from $9.25). Scruffy, friendly locals squeeze into overstuffed booths—not a designer dog in sight. A teacher sitting near us puts it best: "Mendocino is for celebrities and older second-home owners—the Murder, She Wrote crowd," he says, referring to the Angela Lansbury TV show partly filmed in Mendocino. Home to monster trucks and mattress stores, Fort Bragg isn't exactly the land of flowery B&Bs. But on the street-lamp-lined side streets, there is a thriving small-town scene with live-music cafes, chic boutiques, an outstanding greasy spoon (Eggheads, inexplicably decked out in all things Wizard of Oz), and a trio of indie bookstores (326 N. Main St., 707/964-5005, Dungeness crab omelet $16). But it's the easy access to the pristine, rugged coast that's the main draw for visitors, namely MacKerricher State Park, just outside of town. We arrive in the afternoon to a nearly empty stretch of sand, with waves raging every which way. The only other visitors are a family of sea lions sunning themselves and a few folks on horseback. Nearby, our room at the Beachcomber Motel is basic but squeaky clean, with front-row views of the Pacific (1111 N. Main St., thebeachcombermotel.com, from $99). Stuffed with pesto-spinach pizza from Piaci, we pick up the three-mile paved path right outside our room's sliding-glass door. We detour into the bluff through a carpet of long grasses, and the wind is fierce and salty. No wonder the cypress trees permanently lean in a horizontal slant. White caps crash against the rocks below. The sun slips into the horizon, and a man taking photographs turns into a silhouette. And we otherwise have the coast all to ourselves. Again.   SEE MORE POPULAR CONTENT: 10 Record-Breaking Bridges How Well Do You Know Your City Skylines? 10 Most Interesting Beaches The Dirty Truth About Hotel Ratings 8 Most Complicated Countries to Visit

The best food neighborhood in the best food city

For: Argentinian Try: Chimichurri GrillOne thing is clear at this narrow, white-walled nuevo Argentine spot: Buenos Aires-born Chef-owner Carlos Darquea believes there's no place like home. Every cut of grass-fed beef is imported from ranches in South America, and Darquea makes his featherlight chicken, beef, and chard empanadas from his grandmother's recipe (mixed platter $15). Try them at the marble-topped bar for prime sidewalk people-watching. 609 Ninth Ave., chimichurrigrill.com. For: EthiopianTry: Queen of ShebaThe secret of Philipos Mengistu's signature berbere sauce is so well-guarded, even his kitchen staff doesn't know the formula. Mengistu's mother mixes up each batch of the 20-plus-spice blend back home in Addis Ababa and ships it to his restaurant in New York, which is decked out with African art and woven-straw stools. The seven-dish sampler of lentils, greens, and chickpeas on spongy injera bread is a vegetarian's dream ($12.50). 650 W. 10th Ave., shebanyc.com. For: FrenchTry: Chez NapoléonOpened in 1960, this is the sort of classic French establishment that barely exists in Paris anymore: Think silver chafing dishes of calf's brains in black butter and capers ($23), rabbit in mustard sauce ($24), and cherries jubilee ($9), all overseen by 90-year-old proprietor Marguerite Bruno. Yet the decor is the furthest thing from stuffy: Along with mounted swords and battle murals, there's also a framed jigsaw-puzzle homage to the Little Corporal. 365 W. 50th St., cheznapoleon.com. For: ItalianTry: MercatoMismatched wood chairs, open shelving, fluted-tin pendant lamps, and a large, wine-cork-framed mirror make this West Side trattoria feel worlds away from the gritty stretch of Midtown it actually inhabits. Thanks to the efforts of Sardinian Executive Chef Emanuel Concas, the fava-bean puree with sautéed chicory ($10) and the homemade gnocchi with braised wild-boar ragout ($16) will transport you further still. 352 W. 39th St., mercatonyc.com. For: JapaneseTry: Totto RamenJust because the chefs are tattooed, the music is J-pop, and the crowd skews hip, don't assume this just-below-street-level space puts style over substance. Its 20 seats are always packed (with a line out the door) for one very good reason: the flavorful, steaming-hot ramen ($10.50), cooked with handmade noodles and enlivened with seasoned avocado ($2), shredded pork ($2), spicy bamboo shoots ($1), and other toppings.366 W. 52nd St., tottoramen.com. For: KoreanTry: DanjiWith stints at upscale New York institutions Masa and Daniel under his belt, you might expect Chef Hooni Kim to make his solo debut an exercise in over-the-top indulgence-with prices to match. Instead, he created Danji, an understated gem of a restaurant with communal seating and two distinct tapas menus: one boasting traditional Korean items like scallion pancakes ($10), the other fusion dishes like spicy pork-belly sliders ($12). 346 W. 52nd St., danjinyc.com. For: MexicanTry: Tehuitzingo Mexican DeliIt would be easy to mistake Tehuitzingo for nothing more than a cheerful, well-stocked Mexican grocery store. But those in the know head straight to the deli's back room for Pueblan dishes such as roast-pork-and-pineapple tacos al pastor ($2.75) and torta cecina, a pressed sandwich stacked with salt-cured beef, queso fresco, avocado, and jalapeños ($6), all served with Norteño music and telenovelas playing in the background. 695 10th Ave., 212/397-5956. For: GermanTry: Hallo BerlinWhen Rolf Babiel immigrated to the U.S. in 1981 with $500 in his pocket, he found his salvation in a street cart, selling sausages in Midtown. Today, that "German soul food" has more deluxe digs: his family's indoor-outdoor beer garden, outfitted with picnic tables, taxidermy, and a cheat sheet likening the menu items to cars. Check out the Mercedes (bratwurst) and Porsche (Berliner currywurst), served with spiced onions and sauerkraut ($7). 626 10th Ave., halloberlinrestaurant.com. For: GreekTry: Poseidon BakeryMaybe it's the influence of their ever-present ancestors, watching over the room from photos along the wall. The folks behind this fourth-generation bakery have never stopped rolling out their phyllo dough by hand—a laborious process plenty of their competitors have abandoned. It's takeout only, so go ahead and load up on honey-drenched baklava ($3) or tangy apricot-cheese strudel ($3.50) for now and for later.629 Ninth Ave., 212/757-6173. For: HaitianTry: Le SoleilOne of just a handful of Haitian restaurants in the city, Le Soleil seems perpetually filled with cabdrivers looking to refuel between shifts and Haitian natives who care much more about the spot-on familiar food than the drive-by, no-frills decor. The menu changes daily, though heaping plates of fried chicken ($10) or stewed, delicately spiced red snapper ($17) are consistent favorites. Each entrée comes with plantains, beans, and rice. 877 10th Ave., 212/581-6059. For: IsraeliTry: Azuri CaféThe things people will do for a little taste of home. Israel native Ezra Cohen gave up his successful thrift shop nearby (Barbra Streisand was a regular) back in 1990 to open this five-table hole-in-the-wall cafe, all because he missed his country's cooking. The gamble paid off: His unusually delicate falafel, which comes on an enormous platter of dips and salads, has repeatedly been voted among the city's best ($9.25). 465 W. 51st St., 212/262-2920. For: Middle EasternTry: Gazala PlaceThere aren't many restaurants in the U.S. devoted to the cuisine of the Druze people, a religious community scattered across the Middle East. After a meal at the snug-but-cozy, banquette-edged Gazala Place, you'll wonder why. The tissue-thin pita is made fresh daily on a griddle in the front window, and the spinach-and-cheese burek lunch special, served with hummus and a hard-boiled egg, is one of the most wallet-friendly meals in town ($10). 709 Ninth Ave., 212/245-0709. For: RussianTry: Uncle Vanya CaféWith its exposed beams, brick walls, and ramshackle collection of antique lamps, this mellow little restaurant has the feel of a friend's countryside dacha, the kind of homey place where lively conversation and a pot of tea with cookies and homemade jam ($5), cherry dumplings (16 for $8.50), and red-caviar-laden blini ($12.50) are always waiting. In true Russian style, dinner patrons are encouraged to BYOV (corkage fee $15). 315 W. 54th St., 212/262-0542. For: South AfricanTry: Xai XaiThe wine comes first at Xai Xai (pronounced "shai shai")—no surprise, given South Africa's oenophile status. But the food at this candlelit, 50-seat spot is no afterthought. You'll find dried, cured beef like biltong; droewors, made from beef, lamb, and pork (three for $18); four types of "bunny chow," a curried stew served in a bread bowl (from $10); and sosaties, or "skewers," of spicy Cape Malay paneer ($6) and peri-peri prawn ($7). 369 W. 51st St., xaixaiwinebar.com. For: ThaiTry: Pure Thai ShophouseOne of the most recent additions to the Ninth Avenue strip, this skinny, year-old storefront seems lifted from a seaside stretch of Koh Samui, down to the open kitchen in front, tin-siding ceiling, bright metal stools, and colorful Thai movie posters. You can't go wrong with the house specialty, crab-and-pork dry noodles, a perfectly balanced dish of handmade egg noodles, slabs of roasted pork, and tender lump crabmeat ($8). 766 Ninth Ave., purethaishophouse.com.

Year's Best Cameras for Avid Travelers

BEST FOR: Mega-zoom in a mini size Canon PowerShot ELPH 510 HSThere's never been a bigger zoom in such a compact package. When it's not in use, Canon's 28 mm wide-angle lens with 12x optical zoom (good for detailed, expansive landscapes) collapses into a camera body that's only .86" thick. The 3.2" touch-screen display lets you manually select a focal point and activate the shutter with a tap. $350, shop.usa.canon.com. RELATED: See the 3 Best Camera-phones by Network BEST FOR: Simultaneous video and stills Sony Cyber-shot TX55It's one of the great quandaries of memory-making: Is this a video moment or a photo moment? (Usually, by the time you've decided, the toucan has already flown off your daughter's head.) Sony's double-duty shooter lets you take 12 MP photos and 1080i video at the same time, without sacrificing image quality. $350, store.sony.com. BEST FOR: Locating landmarks Fujifilm FinePix F600EXRPart compass, part guidebook—oh, yeah, and a swell camera, too—this 16 MP number goes way beyond just taking great photos. Using GPS and augmented reality (which overlays data on the screen as you frame a shot), it can direct you to over a million preloaded landmarks, suggest worthy sites nearby, and even plot your route on a map. $350, shopfujifilm.com. BEST FOR: Slide shows on the go Nikon S1200pjTime was, treating your family and friends to a post-trip slide show required bulky equipment (and possibly handcuffs). Now, Nikon's pocket-size projector-slash-camera lets you stage a screening anywhere you can dim the lights and clear some wall space. It even hooks up to iPads and other devices to increase your feature-presentation options. $430, shop.nikonusa.com.   SEE MORE POPULAR CONTENT: 10 Most Interesting Beaches 12 Iconic City Skylines Secret Hotels of Paris 8 Items You Never Pack...But Should 13 Things You Didn't Know About Hawaii

All-time worst travel scenarios (and how to get out of them)

Bad things can happen to good travelers. And while these worst-case scenarios are just that—things that could throw you for a serious loop, but most likely won't—that doesn't mean some prevention and damage control won't go a long way should something go wrong on the road. Our tips come from the people who handle these types of situations routinely—doctors, state-department officials, guidebook directors. Across the board, preparation is your friend. But even if you don't have time to do everything we recommend, the one thing you should always do is write down the number and website of the local consulate for where you're going—it turns out that they're useful for far more than just replacing a stolen passport.   YOU GET IN AN ACCIDENT IN YOUR RENTAL CAR You're cruising down a dark south Australian highway when a couple of cattle suddenly appear out of nowhere. You brake too late, and bam! How to Cope"Getting in a car crash in a foreign country puts you in a confusing world," says Tom Hall, the U.K. spokesperson for Lonely Planet. "There are police who may not speak your language, the angry person you've crashed into…so it's important to talk to the hire firm about what to do [in a crisis] before you drive off the lot." Most car-rental companies have an emergency number specifically for crashes. Also, some European countries require you to wear an emergency vest (usually provided in the car) for visibility if you exit the car after the accident and stand on the road. Next, file a local police report (you'll need it for your insurance claims), and if it's a situation where livestock have wandered into the road, be sure to get the name of the farmer and his insurance policy—there's a good chance he has coverage for a situation like this. Finally, get in touch with your own insurer (believe it or not, your home auto insurance or credit card may have you covered) to see what procedure to take for filing a claim. 3 Tricks to Avoid the Problem1.     Buying insurance directly from the car-rental company when you rent your car can be expensive. In advance of your trip, look at policies you already have—including home insurance, travel insurance, your personal car insurance, even your credit card—to see if collision-damage waiver insurance on rental cars is covered for you or if you can add it. 2.     Learn about local road rules when visiting a new place or foreign country by visiting the website of the national transport authority. If you're planning to rent a car in Europe, AA publishes some great advice. Also, ask the car-rental company about any unusual road rules you should know about (in New Zealand, for example, left-turning traffic must give way to opposing right-turning traffic, which is completely counterintuitive for American drivers). 3.     Avoid driving late at night on roads with no streetlights or when you are fatigued. If you're not sure if the roads you'll be traveling will have streetlights, ask a local or save your travel for the daytime.   YOU GET IN LEGAL PROBLEMS/SENT TO JAIL WHILE ABROAD The prescription drugs you've traveled with from the U.S. send up a red flag abroad. Before you know it, you're doing your explaining from behind bars. How to CopeWhat flies at home might be completely illegal in a foreign country (chewing gum in Singapore is an oft-cited example). And finding yourself tangling with the law in a foreign language—or worse yet, foreign prison—is the last thing you want to be doing on vacation. If you're not immediately offered the option, "the first thing to do if you're arrested in a foreign country is to contact the nearest consulate or embassy," says Michelle Bernier-Toth, managing director of the Office of Overseas Citizens Services, Bureau of Consular Affairs, for the U.S. State Department. "Someone who travels abroad is subject to the local government's laws and regulations," she says, "but the embassy or consulate will make sure that an American citizen who has been arrested has access to legal counsel." The goal is to make sure that the victim understands what the charges against them are and what their rights are. 3 Tricks to Avoid the Problem1.     "Know what kinds of things can get you into trouble in a foreign country," Bernier-Toth says. The State Department's travel warnings, which cover local laws, are a good place to start. 2.     Certain prescription drugs, though allowed in the U.S. (in particular, those with codeine and other narcotic-like ingredients), may be on the control list in other countries. To be safe, carry your prescription with you—including both the U.S. and the generic name of the drug—in case there are questions overseas. 3.     Be aware that certain bridges and buildings are considered military installations in some countries—for example, in Vietnam, the United Arab Emirates, and select parts of Israel, such as the West Bank and Gaza—and, as a result, taking photos of them may be prohibited.   YOU'RE CAUGHT IN A NATURAL DISASTER An Indonesian vacation goes from paradise to pandemonium when an earthquake strikes. How to CopeNo matter where you are when disaster strikes, your best course of action is to follow the instructions of the local authorities who are responsible for responding in the moments and days that follow, Bernier-Toth says. Next, you should contact the local consulate or embassy. "We need to know who is there so that we can calibrate our response accordingly," Bernier-Toth says. Also, reach out to family and friends as soon as possible. Communication with people back home is often the best way to get information about when (and how) you'll be able to depart from the disaster zone. If you're looking for local hospitals, doctors, or pharmacies, the best place to find these is on the website of the local U.S. consulate or embassy (that is, if you can access the Internet). If you can't get online, make your way to a major hotel and request information there. 4 Tricks to Avoid the Problem1.     Be aware of weather conditions where you're traveling, and stay connected to local news during your trip. If authorities ask people to evacuate an area, do so! "We've had very tragic situations where U.S. citizens have failed to heed those warnings and have paid a high price," Bernier-Toth says. 2.     Also, before traveling it's important to understand what your travel and medical insurance will cover when you are outside of the country. That way, in the event of a disaster, you'll know what your coverage provides as far as medical evacuation and emergency care. 3.     Download the State Department's Smart Traveler app from iTunes, with its travel alerts, warnings, embassy location finder, and more. 4.     Register your travels on the State Department's website via the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. If you do so, the U.S. embassy will have your contact information so they can reach out in case of an emergency, as well as put family from the U.S. in touch with you.   YOU'RE INJURED ABROAD A leap from a rocky outcrop into clear blue water on a Thai beach ends in injury when you don't quite clear the cliff. How to CopeIf your injury is minor, says Ronald A. Primas of travelmd.com, you can self-treat using tools from your first-aid kit (a minor slip-and-fall injury, for example, can be handled by wrapping an elastic bandage around the wound, then elevating and icing it). But when things appear more serious, he says, do not hesitate to seek out local help. To find a doctor, start by asking the front desk of your hotel (or a major hotel in the area) for a recommendation. Local U.S. consulate or embassy websites also have lists of English-speaking doctors. If you seek out care in a local facility in an undeveloped country, avoid any unnecessary injections if you have concerns about the facility's hygiene standards. For serious injuries that require hospitalization, especially in undeveloped countries, Bernier-Toth says that local embassy and consulate services can "make sure that a [U.S. citizen] is being treated appropriately, assist with coordination with the family in obtaining or arranging medical care, and, in dire circumstances, actually loan someone who is destitute the funds to get them into the hospital." 4 Tricks to Avoid the Problem1.     "Prevention is number one when it comes to reducing your risk of being injured while traveling," Primas says. Always wear your seatbelt in your rental car. And if you rent a moped or bicycle, wear a helmet as well as wraparound eyewear. 2.     Swimming injuries are also common while traveling, Primas says, so never mix boozing and swimming, don't dive into water headfirst when you're unsure of its depth, and never swim alone. 3.     Pack a good first-aid kit with bandages, antibiotics, and, if you're going to be in an undeveloped country, your own syringes. Bring your own medications from home, too, since expired, as well as counterfeit, medications are a problem in some countries (sugar pills in place of active malaria pills, for example). 4.     Before your trip, register on Iamat.org, a free service that screens medical clinics around the world to make sure the facilities are adequate and English is spoken.   YOU LEAVE VALUABLES IN A TAXI CAB Your taxi driver takes you to Marrakech's main square, where there's such a commotion between the spice hawkers and snake charmers that by the time you realize you've left your camera in the backseat of the cab the driver has rounded the corner, out of sight. How to CopeWhile cities with large taxi and public-transport networks—London and New York City, for example—have a central number to call to report lost property, in most places around the world you will be relying on the goodwill of your taxi driver for getting your stuff returned (even where goodwill is given, it's still a long shot that he or she will be able to find you, of course). "If it's gone, in a majority of cases it will be gone for good," says Hall from Lonely Planet, who speaks from experience—he left a video camera in the backseat of a cab in Syria, never to see it again. If you took a city's official taxi service, try calling the central dispatch to tell them where you were picked up and dropped off, with approximate times, in case there's a chance the cab can be traced. But prepare to be disappointed. 4 Tricks to Avoid the Problem1.     "The first point is not to get flustered when you're getting out of a taxi," Hall says, "Sometimes, you arrive somewhere and people are trying to sell you stuff, but don't get out of the taxi until after you have paid the driver and taken a good look around." 2.     Opt for official taxis over cheaper, fly-by-night operations—not only is it safer, but it also helps with tracking, too. Hall recommends ordering taxis through your hotel. Quite often, the hotel will have a long-term relationship with the taxi service, which may be helpful in tracking down lost objects for guests. 3.     Tip your driver. It can help to keep you at the top of their mind if you happen to forget something inside. 4.     Label your gear with a "return card." After all, Good Samaritans do exist. Also, check out a new service, Reward Tag: It provides a tag you stick on valuables that offers a reward in case they are lost and found.   YOUR HOTEL CANCELS YOUR RESERVATION You reach your destination after a sleepless transatlantic flight only to find that the French hotel's response to your missing room reservation is an unhelpful "Je ne sais pas." How to CopeNicole Hockin, who writes the TravelSmartBlog for hotels.com, says to stay calm. "Keeping your cool helps the hotel staff keep their cool, too," she says. "Sometimes the problem is as simple as your name having been keyed in incorrectly when the reservation was made." If you have printed proof of your confirmation, Hockin says, this is the time to show it. As long as you can prove you had a reservation, the hotel should be able to find a source of accommodation for you. Also, call the online site that you booked through right away (one of the benefits of booking through an online agency is that they have a wealth of resources to get you re-accommodated). "The sooner they know there's a problem, the faster they can assist you," Hockin says. If your hotel doesn't have any availability, ask if they have a sister property in town where you can be rebooked at no extra charge. "You should also ask for a transportation voucher to get there," she says. "And if the property where you're rebooked isn't the same standard as the original hotel, ask what they'll be refunding you. Don't be afraid to ask for a restaurant credit—what will it take for you to be satisfied? Don't hesitate to have that conversation." 4 Tricks to Avoid the Problem1.     For peace of mind before you travel, the best strategy is to call the hotel a few days before your arrival to verify your reservation. Even if you booked through a third party, you can call the hotel directly to confirm this. 2.     If you plan to arrive late, advise the hotel so they'll know to hold your room. 3.     In addition, always have a printed copy of your reservation confirmation to show upon check-in, in case they can't find you in the system. 4.     It's a good idea to carry relevant phone numbers on you, too, Hockin says, including numbers for the travel agent you booked through. "Have them written down somewhere, not just in your phone," she says, "because this is just the situation where your phone battery will decide to die."   YOU LOSE YOUR WALLET You're digging into tapas at a restaurant in Madrid when you realize your purse is no longer hanging on the back of your chair. Inside? Your wallet and every single money-retrieving possibility you had (cash, ATM card, credit cards—all gone). How to CopeDon't panic, Hall says. Get to a place where you can access the Internet or make a phone call—perhaps a hotel lobby or library—and immediately call your bank to cancel your credit cards and report your items missing. This way, you won't be responsible for any charges that might show up. It's highly unlikely that you'll be able to get your bank to send cards to you while you're traveling, so you need to find alternative methods to access cash. "The old-style way to get money that's still the most effective, when all your cards are gone, is to have someone from home wire you money via a service like Western Union," he says. (Note: You will be required to produce some form of ID to pick up money that has been wired to you.) The State Department's Overseas Citizens Service can also help get funds to you by setting up a trust account so they can be forwarded your way. 3 Tricks to Avoid the Problem1.     Before you leave, order a backup ATM card from your bank and store it in another place (perhaps one in your wallet and another in your hotel safe). You'll still need to cancel the card if the original is stolen, but you'll at least have a way to withdraw cash before you do so. 2.     Have a printed sheet of your bank-account numbers and credit-card and bank phone numbers in your luggage so that if your wallet is stolen you'll have the necessary info to report to the companies. (Hall suggests throwing each of the numbers off by one digit to protect yourself in case someone else finds the list.) 3.     In crowded urban areas, consider wearing a money belt under your clothing to store the most important credit cards and ATM cards.   YOUR CHILD GOES MISSING It's a hot summer day at a theme park, but your blood turns ice cold when you realize your 6-year-old has vanished into the throngs. How to CopeKeeping calm seems impossible at a time like this, but Nancy A. McBride, national safety director of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, stresses that it's more important than ever to remain calm. "Be focused on where you are and get the local people to help you," she says. "If you've done a cursory search and still can't find your child, don't hesitate to find local authorities and report your child missing." If you're at a public venue, she says, the situation has mostly likely happened before and authorities probably have a plan in place for what to do. After enlisting local officials to help in the search, notify the U.S. embassy or consulate about what has happened, Bernier-Toth says. "While we don't have jurisdiction outside of the U.S., we will work with local authorities to make sure they're investigating and taking the necessary actions," she says. 4 Tricks to Avoid the Problem1.     First, give your child an ID card with emergency-contact numbers and your cell number (make sure your phone works where you're traveling), McBride says. 2.     When you get to a venue, take time to point out a uniformed person or other official person (even someone like a gift-shop employee, she says) to your child as someone they could turn to in the event they were separated from you. 3.     Emphasize to your child how important it is to stay together, McBride says, but if they do get separated tell them not to wander far since you'll be looking for them. Assigning a meeting place to gather to in the event of a separation is a good idea, too. 4.     Finally, snap a photo of your child on your phone before you set out, so you know exactly what they're wearing.      

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