Learning to Love London
What you'll find in this story: Lodon restaurants, London culture, London attractions, London bargains, London flea markets, London apartments
After a season in the African outback, the homeward itinerary read Nairobi-Paris-London-New York, but I got seriously snagged in London: I fell in love! Not with London, but with a foxy French girl who was living there. We embarked on a whirlwind transatlantic romance, and six months later I found myself living in London--whereupon I promptly fell out of love. With London.
It was the $15 chicken that did it. I'm not talking about a nicely prepared dish in a naked celebrity chef's restaurant, mind you, but a jaundiced-looking specimen from a local shop. Multiply £8.25 by the $1.80 exchange rate--which has since gone up to $1.88--and that's what you get. It was as if I'd been slapped upside the head with the thing, like a stooge in a vaudeville act.
There's no way around it: London is pricey to begin with, even for Brits, but for those of us operating in good, old, depreciated Yankee dollars, it's almost twice the price. For just about everything. By simply deplaning with a resident visa in hand, my net worth had virtually halved.
I reacted badly--went into a deep funk as I contemplated my new life as a pence-pinching coupon clipper. Unsurprisingly, the Foxy French Girl did not find the new, blue me very appealing, and the romance was in jeopardy. What did I do? What could I do? I resolved to learn to love London, to find a way to keep the romance alive. Not at all costs--because going broke isn't very sexy, either, and doesn't have a whole lot of future in it--but at costs nice middle-class people like us could afford.
I consulted an expert, a lifelong Londoner who's an editor at a tourist magazine. She shared lots of insider tips and, just as important, two paradoxical truths about surviving and thriving in London on a budget. One: "You can do things cheaply, but you have to think about what you're doing." And two: "Sometimes you just have to forget about what things cost and get on with it."
So I threw myself into the fray of that sprawling, higgledy-piggledy city, and the more I did, the more I found haughty ol' London to be accommodating, even generous. London knows it's too expensive and actually does something about it, doling out freebies and discounts on all sorts of attractions and cultural events. This is especially true in summer, when the historic streets and squares, the opulent parks, and the resurgent riverfront come alive with markets and festivals of so much street-theatrical entertainment value, it's as if the wildly animated spirit of a medieval fair had been updated and set loose on a citywide scale.
The Foxy French Girl and I became eager tourists of the town we lived in, poring over the weekly Time Out magazine (bursting with listings that put New York City to shame), planning dates and outings and explorations. When we got home at night, happily exhausted, we'd keep the lights low and dance to Lou Reed's "Perfect Day": "Just a perfect day, problems left all alone/Weekenders on our own/It's such fun...."
Romance was alive and well. Before very long at all, "Perfect Day" would be played as our wedding song. (Everybody say "Awww.") We live there no longer, but we'll always have London--and the precious baby boy who was born there. (Gimme a double "Awww.") So it is with great fondness and nostalgia for London Towne that I share one erstwhile expat's recent and thoroughly successful journey toward enjoying some of the best of what that great city has to offer, while keeping the expenses real in a town that's just too bloody expensive.
To live in London without going to the theater would be like living in the Alps and not skiing, so that was an obvious point of entry. And when I learned that the National Theatre sells steeply discounted tickets to lots of shows for $19, I logged on to its website and signed up for e-mail alerts to on-sale dates so I could snatch up seats. Once a month, we'd attend a world-class production of a new or classic play for about the price of a movie ticket. Brilliant, as the Brits say.
The National became our home base even when we didn't have tickets; it was always putting on free, high-quality music and theater in the lobby and outside by the Thames. We weren't the only ones: Londoners and tourists alike throng to the river's South Bank, a promenade that must be the most culturally rich boardwalk anywhere, with everything from skateboarding to classical music to mind-bending art installations.
One of our more Perfect Days began at Borough Market, near London Bridge, a Friday and Saturday food extravaganza that has existed in some form since before the Roman era. After a pint of ale at the legendary Market Porter Pub, we grazed the stalls of the covered market, picking up various picnic supplies--serrano ham, focaccia, olives, and artisanal cheeses--and headed toward the river. There we had a quintessential London moment: Just after we passed by the 14th-century Westminster Hall, an amphibious Bond-mobile came skimming across the surface of the Thames. (As Austin Powers says, "Groovy, bay-beee.") Shakespeare's Globe, a replica of the Bard's artistic residence, spilled its matinee audience onto the riverside walk, where it mingled with the crowd emerging from the Tate Modern, a temple of contemporary art (admission is free, as it is at many of the major museums), and perhaps with patrons of the nearby Royal Festival Hall and the National Film Theatre. But the high-caliber street musicians and a bird act worthy of Ed Sullivan were pulling crowds as readily as the bastions of official culture.
As usual, it was the National Theatre that captured us, with a café table available for our picnic, ringside of the amphitheater, where a troupe of young thespians performed a raucous entertainment. They were followed by a Congolese Soukous band that knew all about good vibes and how to spread them. As evening advanced, we were overwhelmed with choices--two discount plays and some sort of multimedia rave later on at the National, or the Japanese art-film festival next door--but we'd had enough. It was dusk, time to stroll across the Millennium Bridge, into the wide-open arms of Central London's cityscape.
The more I resisted the reflexive urge to mentally convert pounds to dollars, the happier I became. Cruelly, the credit card company did it for me: It took me exactly one whopping monthly statement to realize that dining frequently in London's restaurants would quickly earn me enough miles for a return ticket to New York, alone and in debt.
And thus we hatched the genius strategy of building excursions around days at the market, where comparatively inexpensive delicacies compete for attention. We cultivated our picnic technique in London's abundant and extremely well-appointed parks. When it was time to splash out, as they also say, we had to plan ahead or fall into the ever-present trap of an $80 pizza lunch or a perfectly mediocre $120 dinner for two. Our favorite park in Central London quickly became St. James's, between the Thames and Buckingham Palace, initially because we went there to neck on our first date, and thereafter because it offered a full menu of options.
As with all the London parks, St. James's enjoys the rain dividend and the benefits of being in a land where the arts of gardening and landscaping are staples of prime-time television. The resulting bounty of luscious habitat is not lost on the bird population; some 47 species of waterfowl call the place home at one time or another, if you believe the placard next to the lake.
Also on the lake is a wonderfully clever mixed-use restaurant, Inn the Park, catering to a clientele of businesspeople, ladies who lunch, and clued-in tourists. Modern but comfortably so, the Inn has pondside alfresco seating and a versatile brasserie menu. The beauty of the place is that it also provides exactly the same prime seating to consumers of take-out drinks, snacks, and meals from its organic sandwich and salad canteen. How very democratic.
Being in a celebratory frame of mind--our first meal out with the baby, on the day we took him to the embassy to become officially American--I went for the splash-out option: gazpacho, oysters, steak, wine, dessert. Okay, it was not a cheap meal ($150), but it was an occasion. Afterward we sunbathed on canvas deck chairs of the kind provided in many of London's parks at the entirely reasonable fee of £1 apiece, and purred like a little lion family after a good feed. (Until our son erupted in an inconsolable, high-decibel crying jag, shattering the peace and quiet of the entire park, scattering cormorant, coot, and great-crested grebe alike.)
Other of our most memorable meals took place before the arrival of the turbo-lunged one, in gastropubs. At its best, this category, indigenous to the Realm, represents a melding of two worlds: pubby atmosphere and an ambitious kitchen, with prices far lower than at comparable proper restaurants.
"With this exchange rate, if I can't put it in my mouth, I'm not gonna buy it," said a visiting foodie friend, so I made sure we had a suitable dining destination on our day trip to the north of the city. As promised, Hampstead has oodles of English-village charm, despite its in-town location. Sidewalk planters on tiny lanes and mews overflowed with geraniums and impatiens in a way that seemed generous rather than self-conscious; the shops were lively with personality, refreshing in a town that can feel choked with dreary chains. And the Holly Bush provided everything we could have wanted for an early-summer-afternoon supper. Downstairs is a venerable pub, reliably dark and smoky inside, with a gang of bright young things quaffing pitchers of Pimm's Cup on the sidewalk. Upstairs, a light, high-ceilinged dining room serves a very British menu (sausages, lamb, meat pies) with adventuresome ingredients in the sauces and salads (and even some vegetarian options). The three of us had a wonderful meal, notable for the warm, easygoing vibe of the entire experience, which retained its nice afterglow even when the credit card company did the math ($126).
To me, shopping for its own sake holds about as much allure as outpatient surgery--so it says something that I'd happily go with the Foxy French Girl through London's famous markets. Notting Hill's Portobello Road to the west and Spitalfields to the east are variations on a funky-chic theme, both awash in legions of fashion-aware young women with eyes set on original designs at bargain prices. And both markets are in cool neighborhoods, worth checking out even when it's not market day. Notting Hill is like New York City's Greenwich Village, boho-gone-upscale, with more in the way of collectible bric-a-brac that you buy when traveling because you simply won't find it elsewhere. Spitalfields is more heavily tattooed, with an accent on home and fashion accessories. It's also the gateway into the very "now" neighborhood of Shoreditch. This is the place to go cool-hunting for streetwear like limited-edition hip-hop sneakers that come with certificates of ownership proclaiming them to be "one of only 70 pairs worldwide."
I'll pass on those, thanks--but it's fun to know they're there. These excursions were never really about the food or the shopping, anyway. They were about urban adventure. Yes, I was armed with clippings and guidebooks, but, in fact, that was all a matter of putting ourselves into position for the unexpected: We were never disappointed when we simply relaxed and let serendipity take over. London is endlessly rewarding that way.
On the first of our many trips to Richmond--a posh movie set of a village on the Thames at the southwestern city limits--on our first picnic on the first weekend we ever spent together, we settled in for a nap under a tree by the river. We were joined by a group of Middle Eastern gentlemen and a few charming children, whose energy and volume levels were running a bit higher than our own. Before long, the senior member of the party loomed over us, and, in a courtly tone, said, "Good afternoon. We are from Baghdad, Iraq, and we would like to invite you to join us for some tea."
Soon we were sipping minty chai from tiny glasses, toking cranberry-flavored tobacco from a hookah, and discussing world events at a time of fraught relations between our home countries. At least we were doing our part for world peace. Then talk turned to London. The éminence grise expounded a bit, as was his wont. London, he said, was the crossroads of the world, first because of traditional patterns of immigration from the Commonwealth, and more recently from the new waves of strivers flooding in daily from Eastern European nations being added to the EU. Furthermore, as one who had lived in the U.S. and France during his long exile, he was of the opinion that London was the business and creative capital of the world, here in the early years of the third millennium.
The New Yorker in me recoiled reflexively, but now that I've lived there, I can't say he was wrong. London is all go, go, go these days; you can feel it everywhere. And when my boy is old enough to ask about where he comes from, I'll tell him, "Son, you are a child of the universe, your mother's a Foxy French Girl, your daddy's a Yank with itchy feet, and you were conceived at the end of a Perfect Day in the capital of the world."
The first places to look for London deals
General: Londontown.com is a comprehensive tourist site with lots of special offers on tickets, rooms, etc. It's particularly strong for attractions and events listings: Enter your dates and get a menu of what's happening, or click on the annual calendar. Visitlondon.com, the official tourist site, is promotional rather than critical, but also full of useful information.
Dining: At squaremeal.co.uk, an authoritative restaurant site, you can search by neighborhood or ethnicity, browse readers' favorites, or just click on Best Gastropubs.
Markets: Try Portobello Road, in Notting Hill, for antiques and clothing (portobelloroad.co.uk); Spitalfields for goods by young designers of fashion and home accessories (visitspitalfields.com); Borough Market, located near London Bridge, for food, glorious food (boroughmarket.org.uk).
Theater: London Theatre Guide (officiallondontheatre.co.uk) provides one-stop shopping for the West End, including daily listings for its discount TKTS booth in Leicester Square. For the National Theatre, go to nationaltheatre.org.uk--and note in particular the $19 Travelex Season offerings and the summertime series of free events called Watch This Space.
Transport: The Tube starts at $3.75 per ride, but the map is not to scale--walking may be quicker. And buses are cheaper ($2.25 per ride). Find info on both at tube.tfl.gov.uk. --D.H.
Live like a local--by renting yourself a flat
Apartments aren't cheap, but you'll get more space than at a hotel, and you'll save money if you eat some meals at home. (Restaurants may charge 10 percent less for take-out orders.) Apartments have compact kitchens with appliances, dishes, and utensils, and some throw in amenities like newspapers or Internet access. "Serviced apartments" come with daily maid and linen service, and generally rent by the night, while unserviced rentals tend to require a week's stay and include weekly cleaning. When renting, be sure the price includes the VAT of 17.5 percent and any charges for maid service. You can usually get a deal on stays of longer than a week. And if you require an air conditioner or elevator, ask: Not all older buildings have them. June and July are the most popular months, but everyone offers specials in the off-season.
Emperor's gate apartments: Eighteen simple studios and one-bedrooms in two Victorian buildings near the Earl's Court and Gloucester Tube stations. Studios have Murphy and sofa beds, from $169 per night; one-bedrooms have twin or double beds and a sofa bed, from $188; service and VAT included. apartment-hotels.com
Astons apartments: In three Victorian town houses on a South Kensington side street. Studios are tight, and it's worth considering an upgrade. From $122 per night for a single studio to $310 for a four-person executive apartment. astons-apartments.com
Nell Gwynn House: A modern building housing 180 apartments in the leafy Chelsea neighborhood near Sloane Square. From $884 a week for a small studio to $2,002 for a two-bedroom apartment, not including a $103 (studio) or $113 (one- or two-bedroom) per-week maid-service charge. nghapartments.co.uk
Sloane apartments: Full eat-in kitchens and plush decor. Studios start at $216 a night, two-bedrooms at $470 a night, plus VAT. sloaneapartments.com
The Independent Traveller: Run by Simon and Mary Ette since 1981. Over 100 unserviced apartments in suburban and central London. Studios start at $818 weekly; two-bedrooms at $1,222. gowithit.co.uk
The London apartment net: Search more than 100 central London apartments by location and price. http://londonapartment.net/
Just ask last year's nearly 3 million international visitors: Vietnam is hardly a best-kept secret. And the traffic is increasing. Since they were introduced in December, United Airlines' direct flights to Ho Chi Minh City -- the first American flights to the country from the U.S. since 1975 -- have been virtually sold out. Vietnam Airlines plans on jumping aboard with direct flights of its own later this year. Feel like you missed your window? Don't worry. Getting off the beaten path is remarkably easy in Vietnam. Most visitors stick to the two poles of this narrow, 1,000-mile-long land: Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. National airlines offer dirt-cheap, two-hour flights between the two cities. But travel by train is still the more affordable option and allows for detours along the way. At least a quarter of all Vietnam tourists make Hoi An one of those stops. An 80,000-person port town on the Thu Bon river, Hoi An has seen its popularity surge since UNESCO -- the cultural preservation arm of the U.N. -- designated its Ancient Town a World Heritage site in 1999 for, among other things, its elegant 18th-century architecture. But Hoi An is still worth a visit, not only for its prolific seamstresses who can custom-make a silk dress in a matter of hours, but also for its proximity to two places under most travelers' radars: My Son Sanctuary and Bach Ma National Park. My Son Sanctuary In a lush valley below Cat's Tooth Mountain, My Son was once the royal burial and temple grounds for the Champa Kingdom, one of Vietnam's earliest major civilizations, which existed between the 2nd and 15th centuries. The Vietcong used the site as a base during the war, and American bombs destroyed many of the more than 70 Hindu-inspired monuments, though President Nixon finally declared them off-limits, partly at the urging of a Cham art expert. Bomb craters still punctuate the monument grounds, and land mines lurk beneath the surrounding jungle. (Signs provide plenty of warning about where the area becomes potentially unsafe.) Reminiscent of a mini-Angkor Wat, My Son is best enjoyed when you can wander the crumbling brick altars and temples in solitude. So go at off times. Tour buses are there from around 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; you can and should avoid the crowds by hiring a driver for an early-morning or late-afternoon trip (it's open from 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.). The ride costs about $20, and your driver will wait for you. Two hours at the site should do it. Also a UNESCO World Heritage site, My Son has seen a bump in tourism; a newly paved road, which cut the three-hour drive from Hoi An in half, is making it more accessible. Several international organizations, including Global Heritage Fund, have recently backed restoration projects, painstakingly reassembling the bombed-out monuments and planning for increased on-site security. But while those projects make My Son friendlier to visitors, the feeling now is still that of stumbling Indiana Jones-style onto an archaeological find. Bach Ma National Park Even more remote, Bach Ma National Park, 56 miles north of Hoi An, is Vietnam at its best -- untamed jungles, leafy valleys, views of sparkling beaches. The two-hour drive from Hoi An over the Hai Van Pass is easily the country's most beautiful. Then from Bach Ma's entrance, a tight 10-mile paved road snakes almost to the top of the park's 4,800-foot summit, with wild side trails (some requiring the use of overhanging vines to help you haul yourself over large logs) leading to waterfalls. You can hire a jeep to shuttle you up the park's main road, but the four-to-five-hour hike allows you to take time with the views. The temperature drops about 40 degrees as you climb; pack a hat, a rain jacket (the park is Vietnam's wettest spot), and lots of bottled water. High-ranking French officials built stately vacation villas along the road in the 1930s. Although most are now in ruins, the park service renovated a few near the entrance and summit after Bach Ma was designated a national park in 1991. They're now spare but comfortable inns, with wood floors, shutters, and verandas; an on-site caretaker serves basic Vietnamese meals. Beyond the update of these villas, not much else has changed at Bach Ma. For that, in part, you can thank conservationists, who have fought to preserve the park's biodiversity -- including tigers and over 1,400 plant species -- and a remarkable serenity. Northern Vietnam Transportation Vietnam Airlines 415/677-0888 Vietnam Railways vr.com.vn, Hanoi to Danang from $26 Lodging Cua Dai Hotel Hoi An, 011-84/510-862-231, elephantguide.com/cuadai, from $12 National Park Guesthouse Bach Ma, 011-84/54-871-330, bachma.vnn.vn, rooms from $6.50, dinner for two from $5.50 Morin-Bach Ma Bach Ma, 011-84/54-871-199, rooms from $20,dinner for two $10 Resources My Son globalheritage fund.org, tickets $3 Bach Ma 011-84/54-871-330, bachma.vnn.vn, tickets $1
Secret Hotels of the Caribbean: Jamaica, Bahamas, and More
What you'll find in this story: Caribbean travel, Caribbean getaways, Jamaica hotels, Bahamas destinations, Caribbean secrets Our criteria are simple. We insist on being right on the water. We'd rather not sleep in motel-style, side-by-side lodging. And we don't want to pay more than $160 a night--even in high season. Jamaica Rockhouse Hotel,876/957-4373, rockhousehotel.com, doubles from $100. Seclusion isn't easy to come by in the party town of Negril, with its sprawling resorts and thumping dance beats, but that's exactly what Rockhouse delivers, primarily to hip couples and families hoping to avoid anything close to a spring break experience. Rockhouse's rounded thatched villas are strung atop a low cliff carved with stairs that lead down to the warm waters of Pristine Cove. The 19 units peeking out of the jungle right at the cliff's edge start at $250 in winter, but the long buildings set a bit farther back are easier to pull off--seven studios with sea views ($130) and nine standard rooms with garden views ($100), all with minibars, safes, A/C, and mosquito netting around four-poster beds. Guests chill out at the 60-foot horizon pool, take yoga classes, or stroll along the property's serpentine paths and stepping stones, which inevitably lead to quiet nooks, isolated beach chairs, and what most people say are the best sunset views in Jamaica. The action on Seven Mile Beach--including the nightlife hub of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville and live reggae on the beach at Alfred's (Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday) and Roots Bamboo (varies)--is a quick $5 to $10 cab ride away. Closer to your cabana--right next door, actually--is Pirate's Cave, where patrons eat grilled lobster before jumping off the cliff and swimming into the sea cave underneath. Country Country, 888/790-5264, countrynegril.com, doubles from $155 The 17 cottages of Country Country occupy a narrow acre covered with tropical gardens and brick-lined paths in the middle of Negril's hopping Seven Mile Beach. No two cottages are the same, though A/C, ceiling fans, louvered shutters, a porch, and a cabinet hiding a TV, fridge, and tea set are standard. Other than that, you might find bamboo bed frames, whimsical murals of starfish, or a fleet of conch shells surrounding the windows. The walls and gingerbread trim are painted in bright shades of lemon, eggplant, leaf green, burnt tangerine, and stonewashed blue. Sisal rugs surround either a king-size bed or two twins, and the loud bedspreads somehow go well with the purple lamp shades spangled with yellow stars. Most cottages are stand-alone buildings with neat little gardens and cool stone floors, but a few are double-deckers. Second-floor units come with hardwood floors and views over the vegetation to the water (you pay $20 more a night to stay upstairs or in the one-floor cottages closest to the water). At the edge of the beach, there's an open-air thatched-roof bar and restaurant for jerk chicken and fruity drinks. Country Country's owners recently acquired adjacent land and plan on doubling the number of cottages and installing a pool and tennis courts by fall. Jake's, 800/688-7678, islandoutpost.com, doubles from $115. Sitting alongside rocky shoals washed by the warm surf of Jamaica's South Coast, Jake's Easter egg-colored guest cottages are funky boutique versions of the Caribbean shack. The two dozen buildings overflow with odd, endearing details that are an exercise in culture-clash chic: Indian minaret-shaped windows, driftwood door frames, glass bottles embedded in plaster walls, Arabian-influenced domes, hammered-tin doors, Mayan-inspired weavings. The grounds are dotted with flowering bushes and desert greenery--cacti, yucca, gnarled little trees. What you get instead of a room with a TV, phone, and A/C is a welcoming, laid-back vibe. Don't bother trying to find Jake, a parrot who's not around anymore--it's a long story. The place was designed by Sally Henzell and is currently run by her son Jason, both of whom are particularly loved by the surrounding fishing village for starting a nonprofit that pays for medical rescue services, school computers, fishing tournaments, and even literary festivals where Shakespeare is performed in Jamaican patois. Hustlers are virtually nonexistent in the area, and Jake's bar and pool serves as a gathering place for locals and guests alike. "We've felt like we've had the place to ourselves for the past week," says John, a Toronto magazine publisher, as he watches his daughters play by the pool with a village girl in her school uniform. "Our own Jamaica." Carriacou Bayaleau Point Cottages, 473/443-7984, carriacoucottages.com, doubles from $85. Tired of his job as a commodities trader, Dave Goldhill left Manhattan in 1977 for the Caribbean. He taught tennis and bummed around, eventually landing on Carriacou, a sleepy, 13-square-mile island of white-sand beaches in the Grenadines. "Back then there was just a small community of ex-colonials here," says Dave. "I never imagined I'd meet Ulla." A tall and slender Dane who sailed from Europe to the Caribbean on an 80-foot schooner, Ulla stumbled across Dave in a rum shop in 1984. The two married, had three kids, and bought a piece of oceanfront near the village of Windward. They built four simple one-room cottages to rent out, painting them in bright shades of red, blue, green, and yellow. Each cottage is a little different (the green one has two full-size beds, star and moon fretwork, and sweeping views of a handful of the Grenadines from its patio), but all are within a minute's walk of the property's small stretch of rock and sand beach. There's a shack at the water's edge where you can grab a kayak and paddle out to a sun-drenched sandbar. Snorkelers spend hours exploring the German fishing boat that ran aground on a nearby reef in 1990. St. John There's no airport on St. John, and two thirds of the island is a national park. Rather than first-class resorts and first-class service, St. John has earned a reputation for being friendly to both Mother Nature and visitors' budgets. Cinnamon Bay Campgrounds, 340/776-6330, cinnamonbay.com, bare site $27, tent $80, cottage $140. Backpackers and families head to Cinnamon Bay on the thickly wooded northern coast for one of its 40 screen-lined cottages (with electricity and four twin beds), 60 canvas tents (cots on hardwood floors), or 26 BYO-tent sites. Everyone shares bathhouses with cold-water showers, and every plot comes with a picnic table and charcoal grill. At night, the trade winds cool things down for a good night's rest. Maho Bay Camps, 800/392-9004, maho.org, doubles from $120. Like tree houses for grown-ups, Maho Bay's 114 cottages inspire an oddball form of domesticity. Each canvas-roofed unit comes with linens, cooking utensils, a propane stove, and a rudimentary kitchen. As your morning coffee bubbles in the dented percolator, pelicans float past the window, riding balmy updrafts. Built on stilts, the cottages connect to the beach via stairs and walkways, and it's all so enmeshed in greenery that you can barely see anything man-made from sea level. Daily chores of shaking sand from bedsheets and fetching ice blocks take place against a backdrop of jungled hills plunging to the bay. The water is so clear that even from way up the hillside you can see manta rays and turtles gliding through the shallows. Like at Cinnamon Bay next door, there are no private bathrooms or hot-water showers. There's also no outdoor lighting to compete with the moon and stars. And the walls are made only of cloth, so the nightly serenade of tree frogs comes from all sides. St. Lucia Villa Beach Cottages, 758/450-2884, villabeachcottages.com, doubles from $115. The hour-and-a-half ride from St. Lucia's international airport to the Villa Beach Cottages in a standard taxi is $60, but you'll save $10 if you let one of the Villa Beach drivers do the honors. He or she will also chat you up and buy you a cold Piton--St. Lucia's local brew--along the way. The special treatment is one of the reasons why owner Colin Hunte's 14 cottages and suites welcome so many repeat guests, some having visited regularly for 20 years. The operation dates to 1958, when Hunte's grandfather bought two former U.S. naval barracks and had them moved to a 40-foot-wide beach on the island's northwestern tip. New buildings have gone up since Colin took over 15 years ago, but he's tried to keep the feel of the originals, incorporating cathedral ceilings, jalousie shutters, and gingerbread woodwork. Most rentals have a private patio with ocean views (on a clear day you can spot Martinique). Next door at the Wharf, try a roti, a traditional wrap stuffed with beef, chicken, and West Indian spices. For true relaxation, hit one of the hammocks slung at the water's edge and drift off to the sounds of the waves crashing. Dominica Picard Beach Cottages, 767/445-5131, avirtualdominica.com/picard.htm, doubles from $100. On the northwest coast of "the nature island," a group of 18th-century-style cottages with private verandas rests along a beach of black sand. There's a bucket of water at the doorway of each cottage to help guests keep the dark sand off the white-tile floors inside. The ceilings are high, the walls are stained wood, and there's A/C, a living room, a kitchen, and a separate bedroom. There are 18 units in total (nine right on the beach), and each is surrounded by yellow hibiscus and pink bougainvillea--the same colors on the bedspreads and curtains. The beach is the star attraction, but the two-century-old British fort and hiking trails at Cabrits National Park, a $6 cab ride away, are close behind. An easy walk from the cottages brings you to an American medical school and a strip of sheds that everyone calls the Shacks. Order spicy grilled chicken, macaroni and cheese, and red beans at Nelson's ($6), some fresh mango, tangerine, or passion fruit juice at A&E, and snack at canopied picnic tables. Bahamas Chez Pierre, 242/338-8809, chezpierrebahamas.com, doubles from $130. Seven years ago, Pierre and Anne Laurence decided to sell their successful Montreal bistro. "Montreal was all about stress and competition," says Pierre. "I wanted a place where I'd have the time to really enjoy myself in the kitchen and tend to my customers." The Laurences found what they were looking for just south of the Tropic of Cancer: eight acres on Long Island, an 80-mile stretch of cliffs, cays, and coves that's only four miles across at its widest point. Powered entirely by alternative energy (wind and sun), Chez Pierre's six bungalows are spread out along a wide crescent beach. Each has a screened porch overlooking the water, and shutter doors open to a terra-cotta-colored bedroom. At the main house, there's a large wooden deck and a bright, airy restaurant. Needless to say, the food is fantastic--a blend of Bahamian, Italian, and French, highlighting local ingredients and fresh seafood. (Rates include breakfast and dinner; your bar tab is extra.) Bikes, kayaks, and a catamaran are available at no charge. Pierre also helps arrange snorkeling excursions ($50), scuba trips ($125), bonefishing ($250), and rental cars ($60 per day). Seascape Inn, 242/369-0342, seascapeinn.com, doubles from $132 (with continental breakfast), dinners about $20. Most of Andros Island is uninhabitable marshland, choked by mangroves and shot through with so many lakes and channels that from the air it looks like a doily. The Seascape Inn, on Andros Island's Mangrove Cay, is within minutes of a 120-mile-long barrier reef (the third largest in the world), making it perfect for diving, fishing, or just dropping out for a week. Each of the property's five cabanas has a small deck facing the white-sand beach. Pass the hours bonefishing from the flats in front of your bungalow (catch and release), exploring the reef by kayak, or pedaling along Mangrove Cay's lone road (bikes and kayaks are free for guests). You'll typically find Brooklyn-born hosts Mickey and Joan McGowan at the inn's bar and restaurant. Gracious and friendly, the McGowans are clearly thrilled with their choice to move to the Bahamas nine years ago. Mickey sports an impressive collection of cheeky T-shirts ("You are entitled to my opinion" reads one). He's also a PADI-certified instructor, and takes guests out most mornings on his 34-foot boat for a two-tank dive ($75). Joan likes to garden and bake, whipping up muffins and biscuits at dawn and tempting desserts--sometimes pies made with coconuts from the yard--in the afternoon. The rest of the family is four-legged: Bernie, Bebe, and Magoo, a trio of abandoned dogs rescued and spoiled absolutely silly by the McGowans. Staniel Cay Yacht Club, 954/467-8920, stanielcay.com, doubles from $135, per person all-inclusive $173. In the center of the 100-mile-long Exuma island chain, a half-hour flight from Nassau, is tiny Staniel Cay, a popular port for the sailing set that's home to just 80 full-time residents. The Yacht Club is a five-minute golf-cart ride from the airstrip (there are only a handful of cars on the island). Couples and families love the club's nine pastel-colored cottages, seven of which have private balconies that jut over the crystal-clear water. There's a small beach next door and more dramatic stretches of sand accessible by foot or golf cart, but most people are here to play skipper. A Boston Whaler is docked outside each cottage; guests are given a map and encouraged to explore on their own. There are so many deserted islands nearby that the unspoken rule is if a beach is occupied, move on to the next. Thunderball Grotto, where part of the Bond film Thunderball was shot, is a favorite for snorkeling. Just north of the grotto, at Major Spot, surf-swimming pigs will circle your boat, expecting to be fed. Four miles beyond Major there's a group of tame nurse sharks who don't mind posing for pictures. Though you can pay for lodging and extras à la carte, a package that covers lodging, all meals, taxes and gratuities, a Whaler (with fuel), a golf cart, snorkeling gear, and round-trip transfers is often the better value. The Yacht Club also offers charter flights from Fort Lauderdale ($400 round trip), and you can be here in less than three hours from the mainland--instead of just wishing that you were.
Native American Country in Arizona
The drive up to the mesa-top village of Walpi, on the Hopi Indian Reservation in northern Arizona, takes only a few minutes. But you will remember it for a lifetime. From high-desert flatlands, the rough, narrow road suddenly leaps up the side of a sheer cliff in a couple of twisting jumps, barely clinging to a precipitous drop-off. In centuries past, the Hopis climbed to Walpi's lofty perch on perilous trails to escape their enemies. Today's road, open to visitors, seems only slightly less daunting. A visit to ancient Walpi, which hugs the mesa's rocky tip an awesome 600 feet above the countryside, is just one of many adventures awaiting you on a five-day, 800-mile drive-budget-priced, of course-into Arizona's scenic Indian Country, touring both the Hopi and surrounding Navajo reservations. If you've got another day or two, the nearby Apache tribes also invite visitors. A most affordable adventure Look forward to enjoying plenty of exciting Old West-style fun. But perhaps more important, the trip rewards with an up-close look at the culture and lives of these intriguing peoples, struggling to retain their historic identities in a beautiful but harsh land. If you're lucky, you might catch a ceremonial dance, fair, or rodeo. This educational aspect-a look at Indian culture beyond the cliches fostered by all those Westerns-adds considerable value to the modest prices you'll find in these areas for food and lodging. In a way, entering Navajo and Hopi territories is like visiting a foreign country-make that two foreign countries. They do things differently, and they speak unique languages among themselves. But these are less-distant lands, easily reached by car or a cheap flight to Phoenix. Unlike Europe, they are inexpensive. In summer high season, a room for two people in a quality motel-either on or off the reservations-costs only $60 to $100 a night, often with breakfast included. The price drops to as low as $30 a night if you'll accept a shared bathroom. Everywhere I went, good family restaurants featured full dinners that began at less than $10 per person. I got hooked on Navajo tacos-a huge, plate-size hunk of Indian fry bread liberally topped with ground beef, chopped tomatoes, lettuce, onions, melted cheese, and an optional hot pepper sauce. For about $7, a single serving set in front of me looked like a mini-mountain. Delicious as it was, the hearty dish proved more than I could eat. Just as I would abroad, I sampled all the local foods, which usually proved the cheapest. What I liked best was the chance to meet Navajos and Hopis in their villages. Many are rather shy about talking to tourists. It's just not their way. But you can usually engage in conversation with a potter, wood-carver, or basket-maker, many of whom market their art from their doorsteps. Even if you don't buy-although you will find some terrific bargains-it's interesting to watch them at work. My wife, who collects the colorful, hand-carved kachina (or katsina) dolls of the Hopis, especially enjoys hearing the carvers explain why they chose a particular design. Along the way, you will visit (as we recently did) massive Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "shay"), once a secret labyrinthine refuge for the Navajos, and the equally spectacular Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the red-rock realm where Hollywood director John Ford filmed such Western classics as 1938's Stagecoach, starring John Wayne. The cliff-hanging stone pueblos of the Hopis, such as Walpi, are among the oldest continually inhabited residences in North America. But don't be tempted to snap a photo; the Hopis ban the use of cameras. As you drive, keep an eye out also for Navajo hogans, the traditional six- or eight-sided shelters that many still use. Some are built in the old style with log walls and earthen roofs; others make use of plywood and other modern materials. And stay alert as well for livestock on the road-the Navajos maintain an open range. Cattle, ponies, sheep, and goats roam free without fences. I had to brake quickly one day for a large flock of sheep meandering down an otherwise empty road. They were only shepherded-as far as we could tell-by a small dog. Totaling more than 18 million acres (larger than many states), the Navajo and Hopi reservations occupy an often stark, desertlike landscape, yet one that is surprisingly beautiful in its wide-open emptiness. Almost anywhere you look, odd rock formations thrust skyward, teasing the eye. Lofty mesas give way to deep gorges painted in hues of red and yellow. Pygmy forests of juniper and pi-on, a source of edible nuts for the region's early inhabitants, add splashes of green. I reveled, too, in summer's mild, dry climate. At elevations ranging from 4,000 to 7,500 feet, the area turns chilly enough at night for a sweater. Getting started The logical starting point is Phoenix, served by such discount airlines as Southwest (800/435-9792, southwest.com) and ATA (800/435-9282, ata.com). Although summer is the high season for lodging in northeast Arizona, it's low season in Phoenix because of frequent 100-plus-degree days. You can find a good motel room for no more than $50 near the airport, if needed before or after the drive. Better yet, car rental rates in the desert tend to be a bargain. For a one-week rental in mid-August, Alamo (800/462-5266, alamo.com) quoted the lowest price, $141 for a compact car with unlimited mileage. Next lowest was Enterprise (800/736-8222, enterprise.com) at $144. The lodging rates listed below represent the total cost per night for two people traveling during the peak summer period. Day one Plan to land in Phoenix by early afternoon. This gives you plenty of time to complete the pleasant 190-mile drive northeast via State Routes 87, 260, and 377 to Holbrook, a modest but interesting former frontier town on the southern edge of the Navajo Reservation. Less than an hour from the airport, you climb through a forest of stately saguaro cactus into high, cool mountains, fragrant with the scent of pine. Located just off I-40 along Historic U.S. 66, Holbrook and neighboring Winslow offer the cheapest lodging prices on this drive. I scouted out several motels I could recommend, charging about $50 to $60 a night. But another half dozen or more, in desperate need of refurbishing, advertised single rates as low as $20 a night. It's up to you. In midsummer, they all had vacancy signs lit. To really save, consider making either town your headquarters, visiting the sites on this itinerary as a series of day trips. The two towns are just north of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and west of Petrified Forest National Park. In Holbrook, the livelier of the pair, stay comfortably at the 63-room Econo Lodge (928/524-1448), $49; 61-room Comfort Inn (928/524-6131), $64; or 70-room Best Western Arizonian Inn (928/524-2611), $70. Nearby is Jerry's Restaurant, which features a ham-steak dinner, $7.29. In Winslow, make it the 55-room Motel 6 (928/289-9581), $60; or the 46-room Super 8 (928/289-4606), $53. Falcon, the Family Restaurant, a longtime local favorite, is the place to eat. Try "Steak a la Mexicana," $7.99. Info: Holbrook (928/524-6558), Winslow (928/289-2434). Navajo nation Day two Just 15 miles north of Holbrook, State Route 77 enters into the sprawling Navajo Reservation (or Navajo Nation, as it is also called), the border crossing noted by the rumble of the cattle guard beneath your tires. As if to emphasize the tribe's open-range policy, cattle graze beside the highway, their swishing tails in danger of being whacked by the fender of your Ford. Today's drive covers just 125 miles via State Routes 77 and 15 and U.S. 191 en route to the town of Chinle and the nearby Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Give yourself plenty of time at the canyon. Almost immediately, you'll be captivated by the views, which in this open country seem to stretch forever. Far to the west, a thunderstorm flashes across a flat-topped mesa. Just ahead, strange black cones thrust from a field of sagebrush, geological formations like incipient volcanoes that fizzled centuries ago. My wife and I pointed out the hogans we saw along the road. Often, younger Navajos live nearby in modern houses equipped with electricity and plumbing; their parents or grandparents favor the old ways. About 30 miles from Chinle, take the five-mile detour to Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site. Opened in 1878, it's the oldest continually operating trading post in the Navajo Nation. The main trading area, selling groceries, looks as if it has changed little in 124 years. In the adjacent rug room, browse through stacks of handwoven rugs, noting the variety of traditional designs. The little ones begin at about $95; many larger rugs are priced at $4,500 or more. (Don't worry; down the road, I'll show you cheaper crafts that make fine souvenirs or gifts.) In the visitors center, Mary H. Begay, adorned in tribal jewelry of silver and turquoise, demonstrates the weaver's art, fashioning a rug in the style of the Teec Nos Pos community in New Mexico. In the 1840s, Canyon de Chelly, stretching 26 miles in a maze of passageways, served the Navajo as a stronghold, and the tribe remains protective of it. To enter, you must go with a paid Navajo guide or on an escorted tour-although there is one exception. Most visitors hop aboard one of the tourist trucks outfitted with open-air seats. The truck plows along the sandy road winding beneath the canyon's narrow, 1,000-foot-high red stone walls. A half-day excursion costs about $50 per person. To avoid paying, take the north- or south-rim drives and peer into the canyon from above. You'll be quite satisfied, I promise. The best overlook is at Tsegi on the south rim, which offers an extended view up and down the canyon. Far below, a farmer tends his vegetable garden, and here and there a cow wades in shallow Chinle Wash. I spotted one of those tourist trucks bouncing past in a cloud of dust. To get into the canyon, head for nearby White House Overlook. A 2.5-mile (round-trip) trail descends to the canyon floor, where you can see the White House cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi, who preceded the Navajo here. It's the one descent into the canyon for which you don't need a guide. Chinle's three motels, all inviting, happen to be some of the most expensive on this trip: the 102-room Best Western Canyon de Chelly Inn (800/327-0354), $89; 108-room Holiday Inn (928/674-5000), $99 to $109; and 73-room Thunderbird Lodge (928/674-5841), $101. The Thunderbird cafeteria, a favorite of Navajo families, serves a terrific sirloin-steak plate for under $10. Or stay about 20 minutes north at the 15-room Many Farms Inn (928/781-6362), a school training Navajo youth for hotel careers. A twin-bed room with shared bath costs $30 a night. Contact Navajo information (928/871-6436, discovernavajo.com). Day three Next stop is Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, another red-rock wonder, about 100 miles northwest of Chinle. If you caught John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon on the late-night movie, you'll recognize giant Elephant Butte, John Ford Point, and other odd rock formations rising from the valley floor like modernistic sculptures. To get there, take U.S. 191 to Many Farms, State Route 59 and U.S. 160 to Kayenta, and U.S. 163 to Monument Valley. Admission is $5 per person. For another $25 each, join a Navajo-led van tour, which makes a 17-mile, 90-minute loop through the valley (tours leave from the visitors center). But at no extra cost, tackle the rough, rutted road in your own car-always keeping an eye alert to wandering sheep. On the van tour, which I recommend, the guide provides insights into Navajo life, noting that the valley is sacred to the tribe. He even introduced us to a Navajo woman who invited us into her hogan, furnished in lovely rugs. The closest affordable lodging is in Kayenta, about 25 miles south. Choices are the 54-room Best Western Wetherill Inn (928/697-3231), $108; and the 73-room Hampton Inn (928/697-3170), $89 to $109. At the Wagon Wheel Restaurant, I couldn't resist the "Navajo Burger," two patties on fry bread with beans, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and french fries-a full dinner at $8.95. Drive seven miles south to Tsegi and stay more cheaply at the 58-room Anasazi Inn (928/697-3793), $69. Perched on the edge of a gorge, it boasts great views. In Tuba City, 70 miles south, you'll find three more options: 15-room Dine Inn Motel (928/283-6107), $70; 80-room Quality Inn (928/283-4545), $88; and 32-room Grey Hills Inn (928/283-4450), another hotel training school; with shared bath, $52. Day four Surrounded by the Navajo Nation, the little Hopi Reservation preserves a culture that in many ways is different from the Navajos. For one thing, the Hopis shun irrigation for dry farming, instead nurturing crops that can survive on rainfall. Unfortunately, as is the nature of peoples everywhere, the two neighbors have squabbled for generations over land and other issues. You will get hints of the dispute in tribal newspapers found in shops, gas stations, and cafes. Most Hopis live in 12 villages on or near First, Second, and Third Mesas, three huge rocks shooting up from the valley. From Tuba City, eastbound State Route 264 crosses (in succession) Third and Second Mesas and nudges up against First Mesa. Today's drive, about 130 miles, cuts through Hopi lands on routes 264, 77, and 87, returning you for the night to Holbrook or Winslow. Atop Second Mesa, stop at the Hopi Cultural Center, where a small museum details the tribe's history. Check here about ceremonial dances open to the public. Next door is the reservation's only tourist lodging, the 33-room Hopi Cultural Center Motel (928/734-2401), $90 weekdays, $95 weekends. At the restaurant, I bought a $1.95 package of "piki bread," a flaky, Hopi-style tortilla made of blue corn and baked on a hot stone. Save plenty of time to explore the village of Walpi, high atop First Mesa. Daily 45-minute walking tours ($5) depart frequently from the Ponsi Hall Cultural Center (928/737-2262). Loretta, our guide, explained that the steep road we had just negotiated was built only a few years ago, easing life for the mesa's 200 residents. Most live in two adjoining villages; only five families remain in Walpi, which dates back to 1690. Unlike its neighbors, Walpi lacks running water and electricity. Former residents, living on the valley floor, return on ceremonial occasions. A number of artisans, young and old, sell kachinas and pottery from their homes, usually for considerably less than you would pay off-reservation. We noted their old negotiating tactic of offering one price only to immediately lower it if we didn't seem interested. In this way, my wife paid $50 for a brightly painted Crow Mother kachina, which featured a small image of Walpi. "You can't take photos of the village," said artist Jolie Silas, "so I carve it into my dolls." The best buy, though, is a "cradle" doll, a small kachina traditionally given to newborn girls. At $10 (you may have to bargain), they make a memorable souvenir. Hopi information: 928/734-2401, hopi.nsn.us. Day FIVe: Return to Phoenix, perhaps through Petrified Forest National Park or the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. From Holbrook, take State Routes 77 and 73 south through Fort Apache, connecting to U.S. 60 into Phoenix, about 200 miles. Keep in mind as you drive that Arizona is home to 21 Indian reservations or communities. They might tempt you back on another journey into Native American cultures. Arizona information: 888/520-3434, arizonaguide.com.
Venturing Into West Texas
Panoramic sunsets and whimsical doll museums. Paranormal phenomena and 1940s-era motels. High art and cowboy kitsch. Across the expanses of Big Bend Country, at Texas's extreme southwestern border, attractions run from oddball to sophisticated, quaint to amazing. Mining and ranching towns have transformed themselves into tourist destinations, each locale working its own little niche. Meanwhile, Big Bend National Park, the main draw, needs no gimmick. As the Rio Grande turns east, rough desert converges with mountains, creating a landscape that'd make a giant feel small, an egoist insignificant. Just remember that this kind of isolation doesn't come easy. Marathon, the first stop on this road trip, is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the nearest airport, Midland International. And Midland International isn't what anyone would call a hub. Day one: Midland to Marathon The initial part of the drive from the airport to Marathon is, in a word, hideous. On either side of the road, barbed wire encloses flat oil fields that stretch to the horizon. Only a belch of smoke from the occasional refinery breaks the monotony. Then, somewhere around Fort Stockton, everything changes. The rusty pumps and industrial wasteland disappear in favor of the desert hills and valleys of Big Bend Country. Cactus flowers bloom along the highway and roadrunners periodically scurry across the road. As it materializes in the distance, the tiny town of Marathon (the last syllable rhymes with "sun") looks like nothing more than a few feed stores and mobile homes. But as you arrive in the center, its nature becomes apparent. Upscale shops and galleries line the main street, most in adobe buildings with well-tended gardens. There's even a day spa. A leisurely afternoon helps me adjust to the slow pace of Big Bend Country. When I ask someone to name the most popular entertainments, he says, "Sunset watching and stargazing." I poke about in the shops and galleries, chitchat with locals and other visitors. The name Texas comes from the Spanish word tejas, meaning friend. Although welcome, misanthropes and recluses may find themselves uncomfortable. Two Marathon hotels are attractions in their own right. Opened in 1927 by a prosperous banker, the luxurious Gage Hotel quickly became the region's social epicenter. It eventually fell into disrepair, but a lush 1992 restoration returned the brick-and-adobe structure to its former glory. On any given night, all of Marathon's visitors and quite a few locals gather in the elegant bar and courtyard. Just west of town on I-90, the less expensive Marathon Motel & RV Park has a vintage 1940s ambience, with its original neon sign and windmill. Postcards and posters sold across Big Bend Country feature the sign, which boasts that the rooms have TVs. From a small wooden building on the premises, the owner also operates what is pretty much the only radio station available out here (100.1 FM). When I knock on the door, the DJ/desk clerk invites me inside the booth for a tour and offers to take my requests. The motel's adobe courtyard has a fireplace and a shrine to the Virgin Mary; it's a great place to enjoy the sunsets, which are straight out of a Technicolor Western. Afterward, I head back to the Gage for dinner, drinks, and, indeed, stargazing. Day two: Marathon to Terlingua The drive to Big Bend National Park takes about 45 minutes; the entrance is nothing more than a small gate, usually unattended. (Park headquarters is at Panther Junction, another 30 minutes' drive.) Once inside the gate, most evidence of civilization vanishes. Gone are the fences and livestock, leaving only the brutal desert and distant mountains and mesas. Vultures circle overhead, but the cactus flowers that splash the land in yellow and purple somehow make them less intimidating. The speed limit drops to 45 mph, and I follow it. I'm tempted to go faster, but driving at lower speeds prevents pollution, and gives me a chance to stop for the two coyotes that dash in front of my car. The park teems with wildlife, and if you don't see a coyote, you'll likely see a deer or a javelina (also called a peccary). Though they're plump and pig-like, javelinas aren't pigs; park rangers insist they're only distantly related. Native only to the American Southwest, these non-pigs inhabit every corner of the park, moving about in groups and eating prickly pears. They're the mammals most often spotted by visitors. Just don't approach: They smell mighty bad. The 801,163-acre park can't be seen in a day, so I choose to explore the green and mountainous Chisos Basin. Its temperatures tend to be moderate and its trails well maintained, and it's home to the only full-service restaurant in the park. The Basin's twisty mountain roads (with the prerequisite daunting precipices) mark the beginning of bear and mountain lion country, but the map assures me that sightings are rare and attacks rarer. I take the medium-level Window Trail hike, which winds into the basin and affords utterly gorgeous views of the mountains, the desert, and waterfalls caused by recent rains. In the midafternoon, I drive into Terlingua, historic ghost town and self-styled chili capital of the world, famous for an annual cook-off. Skip the newer part of town, with its souvenir stands and river outfitters, and drive to the ghost town proper. Its squat stone buildings are on the side of a hill a few miles up the road. Most have been restored by artists and other eccentrics. Walking around the old mining village is encouraged, but signs warn you not to disturb the many private residences. Public buildings include the former jail (converted into restrooms), a partially renovated church, and an upscale gallery. My favorite spot is the peaceful, crumbling cemetery, where rocky graves and makeshift crosses memorialize doomed fortune hunters. If you have a yen to shop, the Terlingua Trading Company sells souvenirs to fit every budget--from small carved crosses ($6) to unassuming woven baskets ($600). After carefully putting down the basket, I wonder if some of the adventure tourists milling around might have more cash than their looks imply. Day three: Terlingua to Marfa Marfa, the ranchers' town made famous by the 1956 movieGiant, attracts visitors on three fronts. It has the James Dean connection (he lived here during filming). The town also has the Marfa Mystery Lights, unexplained colored lights that appear outside of town. Then there's the art: Marfa is home to one of the world's largest private art installations. After a quick stop for coffee at the Marfa Book Company, I arrive in time for the Chinati Foundation tour. Big-shot minimalist artist Donald Judd set up the Chinati in 1986 so he and select cronies could show large-scale, permanent works. He chose an old cavalry base for the cheap land, cavernous buildings, and lovely vistas. Judd created big aluminum boxes and laid them out in rows, while his friend Dan Flavin made fluorescent-light displays. The Chinati can only be seen via guided tours Wednesday through Sunday. Part 1 starts at 10 a.m. and lasts for a couple of hours. After a lunch break, Part 2 begins at 2 p.m. Good shoes, sunglasses, and water are recommended; the walks between buildings are long. Minimalist art isn't for everyone. I like it rather than love it, and when the effusive praise of aluminum boxes becomes too much, I can at least admire Judd's ambition and the enthusiasm of the art scenesters who make the pilgrimage. Back in town, I peek in the lobby of the Hotel Paisano, decorated with enough animal heads and leather furniture to make a rancher proud. It's where the cast of Giant, including James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor, stayed during filming. The movie is perpetually screened in the lobby, and you can buy related T-shirts and trinkets at the front desk. After sundown, I go in search of the Marfa Lights. First reported in the 1880s, the lights dart and bounce above the ranch land between Marfa and Presidio. Or so they say. Different people have different explanations: reflecting headlights, swamp gases, evidence of alien visitors and/or government conspiracy. Assorted tourists and I wait at a viewing center west of town on Highway 90, but a local says that going east of town on 90 gives you the best odds of seeing them. I try that, too. It's rather like waiting for Godot. Day four: Marfa to Midland Since I have a late-afternoon flight, I stop at Fort Davis, a countrified resort town near the Davis Mountains. Stables offering trail rides are plentiful, and the shops sell plaques with aphorisms like never squat with your spurs on. Astronomers consider isolated Fort Davis "the darkest place in the lower 48," or so says a guide at the University of Texas's impressive McDonald Observatory. Touring the giant telescopes pleases the scientific part of my personality the way the Chinati pleased the artsy side. If you're not into telescopes, outdoorsy attractions include Davis Mountains State Park and the Fort Davis National Historic Site. Meanwhile, the free Neill Doll Museum nearby houses a strange, impressive collection. I head back to Midland through some lovely mountains and ranch land. Savor the view: Midland and Odessa's industrial scenery reappears before you know it. Finding your way Midland International is served by Sun Country, Continental, Southwest, and American Eagle; many flights connect via Houston or Dallas. Fall is high season: Rains cause the desert to bloom and the air to cool. 1. Midland international to Marathon 168 miles Arrive early: Marathon is over two hours from Midland/ Odessa. Take I-20 west to Hwy. 18. At Fort Stockton, get on Hwy. 385 south to Marathon. Stay at the Gage Hotel, the Marathon Motel, or the Adobe Rose Inn. Meals at the Gage are $20-$30 per person, but the food and ambience are excellent. Marcie's Kitchen, at the Marathon Motel, serves only breakfast. 2. Marathon to Terlingua 110 miles From Marathon, take Hwy. 385 to the west entrance to Big Bend. Leave the park via the western gate and Hwy. 118. Take Hwy. 170 to the Terlingua ghost town and Lajitas. Chisos Mountains Lodge is the only full-service restaurant in Big Bend, but all the stores sell snacks and sandwiches. (Cell phones rarely work, and the heat kills, so bring plenty of water. Carry cash because there are no ATMs.) The Hungry Javelina, a roadside stand on Hwy. 170, serves burgers and hot dogs. Dinner at the Starlight Theatre and Bar in Terlingua is a must. There are no hotels in the ghost town, but there are a few nearby. Stay inside the park at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, or near Terlingua at the Chisos Mining Company or the Longhorn Ranch Motel. 3. Terlingua to Marfa 110 miles From Terlingua, take Hwy. 118 to Alpine, then U.S. 90 west to Marfa. Grab coffee downtown before heading to the Chinati Foundation. Stay at Hotel Paisano or the Riata. Jett's, in Hotel Paisano, serves decent American food. 4. Marfa to Midland 200 miles Take Hwy. 17 to Fort Davis (about 20 miles). Continue on Hwy. 17. Sometime after Balmorhea, it will become I-10 for a few miles; take Hwy. 17 north, when it exits I-10, to Pecos. At Pecos, get on I-20 east and it'll lead you to the airport. The ride from Fort Davis takes approximately three-and-a-half hours.