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Live Like a Local: Islandhop the Caribbean

By Bob Morris
June 4, 2005
Cruise from Grenada to little-known, little-developed, and therefore absolutely fascinating St. Vincent and the Grenadines

I was finishing my $2 breakfast of saltfish and breadfruit at the beachfront cafe in Hillsborough, the sleepy port town that passes for Carriacou's main center of commerce, when the waitress asked how much longer I would be staying on the island. Just another hour or so, I told her, then I would be setting out for the next stop on my itinerary - Union Island. Its craggy, volcanic outline loomed on the near horizon, about a dozen miles to the north. "So then, you'll be taking the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line to Union Island," she said.

"No," I told her. "I'll be taking the mail boat."

The waitress laughed.

"Same thing," she smiled. "That's what we call the mail boat around here."

I gazed down the beach toward the town dock where two sinewy crew members were busily loading all manner of cargo-sacks of rice, cases of soft drinks, boxes of canned goods and clothes - into the hold of a 35-foot wooden sloop. The sailboat wasn't much to look at, and it certainly offered no cruise-ship amenities - no teak deck chairs, no casino, no steel drum band on the aft deck - but it was eminently seaworthy. And the price was right. For about $6 it would deliver me to Union Island, a rollicking, two-hour ride into the precious necklace of islands that is St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

This is one of the world's most fabled cruising grounds, a dreamy destination where sleek sailboats rent for $5,000-plus a week and ritzy, private-island resorts charge upward of $300 per person a night. But for travelers willing to take the time to do a bit of planning and forego only a few of the niceties - how much is nightly turn-down service really worth, anyway? - a vacation in paradise beckons for only a fraction of those prices. Using a network of inter-island ferries and mailboats, the transportation cost for a week of island-hopping from Grenada to St. Vincent, allowing you to stop at numerous idyllic outposts in between, is about $75. Along the way is waterfront lodging for less than $30 a night, fresh fish dinners with all the trimmings for $5, and stretches of deserted beach that are free for the walking.

Your companions on this seaborne sojourn? Except for a few intrepid tourists, most passengers on the ferries and mailboats are locals-businessmen on leisurely commutes, students on holiday, big extended families heading for reunions on neighboring islands. The atmosphere is laid-back, the mood gracious and convivial. Yes, the seas can occasionally kick up and make you glad you packed the Dramamine. But it's typically smooth sailing, and certain perks enhance the authenticity of this mode of travel.

On the leg between Union Island and Bequia, for instance, I shared a foredeck bench with two brothers who were returning to their native island after several weeks of work on a freighter. When we arrived on Bequia they insisted that I join them in the family car for a quick tour of the tiny island, which still bears a hint of its Scottish heritage and is one of the last outposts of whaling in the Caribbean. It turned into a four-hour excursion in which the brothers showed me their favorite hangouts, including a "secret beach," a sweet crescent of sand reached only by a narrow footpath that snaked around a hillside. We eventually wound up at their grandmother's house, where she greeted our arrival with a mid-afternoon repast of curried chicken and yams, then sent me off with a sackful of hot-out-of-the-oven coconut bread.

The actual Royal Caribbean Cruise Line passengers can strap on the feed bags and have all they want of those midnight buffets and lavish suit-and-tie dinners. I'll gladly settle for the amenities that come when you island-hop like a local.

Setting out from Grenada - a dash of spice

The best place to begin an island-hopping vacation in the lower Windward Islands is Grenada, the lush "Isle of Spice" that anchors the southern end of the chain. Here is the Caribbean in microcosm - from volcanic peaks and sprawling rain forests to white, sandy beaches and coral reefs ripe for snorkeling. It's a little bit French, a little bit British, yet wholly a culture unto itself and, thankfully, one that has largely escaped the sort of cookie-cutter tourism that has turned too much of the Caribbean into a mishmash of overpriced resorts and generic, umbrella-drink restaurants.

While Grand Anse, the two-mile strand that ranks as one of the Caribbean's beast beaches, is a lovely place to while away a sunny afternoon that stretches into an evening of music under the palm trees, the hotels along its shoreline charge prices approaching the stratospheric. No matter. Just a ten-minute walk west leads to Morne Rouge, a pocket-size bay with a shimmering sliver of sand - call it Grand Anse Lite - and enticements all its own. Consider the Gem Holiday Beach Resort (473/444-4224, fax 473/444-1189, e-mail: gem@caribsurf.com), a 20-unit, family-owned and - operated beachfront hotel where, for $65 a night ($20 more in season) I settle into a two-room efficiency suite with a full kitchen, a broad balcony overlooking the bay, and a blessedly icy A/C system. Elsewhere on Morne Rouge, or within walking distance of Grand Anse, there's the Grand View Inn ($60 a night in low season; 473/444-4984, fax 473/444-1512, www.grenadagrandview.com) and the Blue Orchid Hotel ($55 a night in low season; 473/444-0999, fax 473/444-1846, www.blueorchidhotel.com). One tip for securing an even lower price - ask for the "Caricom" rate, which is about 10 to 15 percent below the posted rate. It is typically reserved for islanders - members of the Caribbean community - but many hoteliers will extend it to foreigners, too.

"We cater to families so we tend to be a lot more relaxed than the brand-name hotels," says manager Julia Moore, whose mother built the Gem Holiday Beach Resort in 1987. Moore always makes it a point to buy arriving guests a drink at the bar of the hotel's Sur Le Mer restaurant, an open-air affair no more than ten paces from the sea. This is more than just the usual "welcome drink" gimmick, since it typically turns into another drink or two and then a plate of appetizers arrives - papaya, pineapple, cheese - while Moore offers insider tips on the best way to see her native island.

I follow Moore's suggestion to arrive early - by 7 a.m. - at the market that's the bustling heart and soul of St. George's. Founded in 1700 by French settlers, the city is perched around one of the Caribbean's most charming harbors, and the market, with its warrens of plywood vendor stalls and canvas tents, occupies a football-field-size habitat atop a hill in the center of town. Six days a week (the market is closed on Sundays) farmers and fishermen arrive before dawn to spread out their wares - mounds of mangoes and bananas, vast piles of snapper and mackerel. There are also the ubiquitous "spice ladies," who are often relentless in their pursuit of customers. Dickering is part of the deal here. For about $10, you can buy enough nutmeg, cinammon, cloves, and other spices to last a lifetime. And aromatic spice necklaces, strung on fishing line, are about $3 after the bargaining is done.

Breakfast, at one of the many unnamed cafes, is coffee with fish 'n bake (chunks of salted cod in a crispy hot muffin) for about $2. But for a sit-down meal, one can hardly do better than Deyna's (on Melville Street along the Esplanade, 473/440-6795) where Diana Hercules, one of the island's finest traditional chefs, holds court starting with breakfast at 7:30 a.m., through a busy lunch, and serving dinner until 10 p.m. Her "sampler dinner" of Grenadan specialties, which changes daily and can feature anything from marinated kingfish and callalloo soup to curried lambi (conch) and rice, peas, and chicken, runs about $7.

Like most Caribbean islands, there are no real deals when it comes to renting cars on Grenada. Expect to pay at least $50 a day for a four-cylinder stick-shift compact with an air-conditioner that may not work. But Grenada is wonderfully served by a public transportation system consisting of countless white or red Mitsubishi minibuses that are constantly on the prowl. If you are walking down the street and hear a beep behind you, it means a minibus driver is advertising that he has room. Hop in and the fare is one East Caribbean dollar (about 40 cents) no matter where you are going around St. George's. For an extra buck or two, drivers will sometimes alter their established routes to deliver you directly to your hotel or to a restaurant (private cabs can be expensive and fares should be negotiated in advance). Outside of St. George's, minibus rates are based on an inscrutable scale that I never managed to figure out. All I know is that I spent an entire day traveling via minibuses, going from one end of Grenada to the other and back - through the rain forest preserve of Grand Etang National Park to the lovely beach at Bathway on the island's north tip - and it cost me about $9.

Fly like an Osprey: Carriacou

Grenada is actually a three-island nation that also includes Carriacou and Petit Martinique, about 25 miles to the north. Carriacou, (pronounced "Care-a-koo") offers more lodging and restaurants than Petit Martinique and is popular with day-trippers from Grenada who come to enjoy empty beaches. Shuttling twice daily between Grenada and Carriacou is the Osprey Express Ltd., a sleek, modern ferry that serves the first leg in the island-hopping trek to St. Vincent. It boasts an air-conditioned main cabin with seating for about 60, along with a snack bar. Most passengers, however, opt for the deck, at least in balmy weather.

The 90-minute voyage (about $30) skims Grenada's west coast, dipping close to the fishing village of Gouyave (its street party on the final weekend of each month is one of the Caribbean's liveliest) and past "Leapers Hill" in Sauteurs. It was here, in 1651, that the last band of Carib Indians on Grenada - some 40 of them - jumped to their deaths on the rocks below rather than submit to French rule. The Osprey also cuts a careful path around "Kick 'Em Jenny," an underwater volcano that sits between Grenada and Carriacou and still kicks up on occasion.

Once delivered by the Osprey to the main dock in downtown Hillsborough (population, about 700), it's only a three-minute walk to Ade's Dream (Main Street, 473/443-7317, fax 473/443-8435, e-mail: adesdea@caribsurf.com), a two-story, 23-unit guesthouse with exceptionally clean, air-conditioned double rooms starting at about $40 a night. It's owned by the enterprising Adele Mills, a friendly seventy-something islander who also owns the adjacent supermarket, as well as Seawave restaurant across the street, where a dinner of chicken 'n chips is about $4. Nearby, the Sand Island Cafe does wonders with the traditional saltfish-and-cakes breakfast, soaking the fish in coconut milk and adding carrots and cabbage (with side dishes of grapefruit, bananas, papaya, and coffee, it comes to about $5).

For such a small island and one that takes some degree of forethought to reach, Carriacou serves up a surprising number of worthy accommodations. The most notable new venture is the Green Roof Inn (473/443-6399, www.greenroofinn.com), which offers five rooms in an immaculately tended home on a bluff at the north end of Hillsborough Bay. It's the loving project of a Swedish couple, Jonas Gezelius and Asa Johansson, who have appointed it with Danish/Scandinavian furniture and given special attention to sprucing up an otherwise scrubby landscape. There's a small terrace restaurant and prices for a double room range $40 to $70 per night with breakfast. Just up the road-there's really only one road on Carriacou - sits John's Unique Resort (473/443-8345, e-mail: junique@caribsurf.com), with 17 rooms. Shrouded in bougainvillea and featuring a restaurant, John's rates run $20 to $55 per night.

So what's there to do on Carriacou? The beaches are the big thing. And the most easily accessible strand is Paradise Beach, which runs for a good mile or so just south of the island's airport. Indeed, things are so slow on Carriacou that the main road also doubles as the airport's runway (a barricade blocks automobile traffic when planes are approaching). The Hardwood Bar & Restaurant, on Paradise Beach, is a good place to sip a Carib beer or, for the brave, sample the local form of distilled punishment: Jack Iron rum. Bottled on Carriacou and weighing in at almost 160 proof, Jack Iron is so close to pure alcohol that ice cubes sink straight to the bottom. It is carefully measured out in small beakers and sipped over the course of a very long afternoon. If you want to make friends quickly in a Carriacou bar, then simply order a small flask of Jack Iron - an entire quart costs only $7, but that can kill you-and invite other patrons to join you in polishing it off.

The owner of the Hardwood Bar & Restaurant, Joseph Edmunds, also runs a water taxi from the beach in front of his establishment. For about $4 a head, he'll haul visitors out to Sandy Cay, about a mile offshore. It's an idyllic beachy spit - barely a half-mile long, no houses, no nothing, not even a tiki bar - featured on countless postcards. No trip to Carriacou is complete until you've spent a few hours playing Robinson Crusoe on its shore.

Onward to Union Island

"She's a good ship, mon. Just close your eyes to the way she look."

So says Troy Gellizeau, captain of the mailboat Jasper, as he takes my fare (about $6) for the passage from Carriacou to Union Island. At first appraisal, the Jasper does not inspire confidence. The mast, cut years ago from a cedar tree, is bound with bailing wire. The bamboo boom, splitting from the assault of sea and sun, is lashed with duct tape. And we, the half-dozen or so passengers, are forced to sit on the deck, since cargo consumes every square inch of cabin space.

Other than hiring a charter plane ($200) or a water taxi ($80), hitching a ride on the Jasper, which also serves as the twice-weekly mail boat, is the most expedient way to continue northward through the Grenadines. And, for anyone willing to endure a passage that is not guaranteed to be dry - it rains almost daily and waves of even middling size send spray over the bow - the Jasper is a compelling throwback to an era when most interisland travel took place on small sailing vessels. Flying fish skip the waves ahead of us and, about halfway to Union Island, three dolphins appear in our wake, marking our course for a mile or so, leaping to our happy whoops and hollers.

Once we arrive at the port of Ashton on Union Island, Gelliceau, a 25-year-old descendant of Portuguese sailors who ventured to these islands more than 200 years ago and married African slaves, transforms into a willing unpaid guide, shepherding us through customs and immigration, then hiring a cab at a deep discount to take us to our lodgings. Union Island has long been a favorite stopover of yachties who tie up to replenish their stores, but the island's hotels were out of range for budget travelers. That changed with the opening in 2000 of St. Joseph's House and Cottage (784/458-8405, www.unionisland.com), which gives vacationers a chance to sample Union Island without breaking the bank. The lodgings are on the grounds of St. Joseph's Catholic Church and were the brainchild of Father Andrew Roache, who started the guesthouse to help sustain his church.

The suites, which rent for $40 a night, are decorated with bright fabrics, wicker furniture, and come with private bathrooms. There's no air-conditioning, but the ceiling fans work just fine, and the guesthouse sits atop a hill where there almost always seems to be an easterly breeze. The view from the balcony is magnificent - a sweeping panorama of turquoise waters and nearby Palm Island and Petit St. Vincent (private enclaves with pricey digs). In addition, guests can raid the church's sprawling kitchen.

Two other affordable options exist on Union Island. Lambi's Restaurant (784/458-8549), a favorite watering hole for sailors, also runs an inn where basic rooms go for about $55 a night. And Sydney's Guesthouse (784/458-8320), near the airport, offers a deal for guests who also want to visit the nearby Tobago Cays, the cluster of deserted islands a few miles east that are home to what is arguably the best snorkeling and diving in the Caribbean. For an additional $65 above the nightly rate of $35, Sydney will take guests there in his boat for a half-day excursion. That's about half the price of competing trips.

Bequia Beckons

The ferry Baracuda, which makes a thrice-weekly route through the southern Grenadines, leaves the Union Island dock promptly at 7 a.m., whistle blaring. It's a sturdy, steel-hulled ship with room for a dozen or so cars on the aft deck and, when fully booked, a couple hundred passengers. This is the milk run, and after a brief stop on Mayreau, then another on Canuoan, we arrive at Port Elizabeth, on Bequia's Admiralty Bay, two hours later. The fare: $9.

Bequia is the Caribbean as imagined by the Brothers Grimm. A storybook island of pastel cottages and gingerbread-trim houses, it boasts one of the loveliest main drags in all the Caribbean, a quiet street with a flower-filled median that becomes a pedestrian-only pathway as it stretches along Admiralty Bay. The largest of the Grenadines, Bequia is still quite small - less than seven square miles - and with a rental car it can be roamed in its entirety in a day. But it's easy enough to hoof it from one side of the island to the other, and cheap taxis and minibuses are available for the haul back.

My room at the Frangipani Hotel (784/458-3255, www.frangipanibequia.net) was just as quaint as the rest of Bequia - a four-poster with a "mozzy" (mosquito) net, hardwood floors, and from my balcony, a view of the bay not 30 feet away. There's no air-conditioning and the bathroom is down the hall, but at $40 a night there is little room for complaining.

There's no shortage of affordable lodging on Bequia, rimming the bay and ascending into the nearby hills. Canadians Glen and Trudy Wallace opened Deja View Apartments (707/897-6537, e-mail: dejaview2@sprint.ca), with a hillside vista of the bay, two years ago. The apartments, with complete kitchens, rent for $80 a night and can sleep four people. Off-season rates are $400 a week. A bit closer to the water, the Village Apartments (784/458-3883, e-mail: tvabqsvg@caribsurf.com) offers package deals, including tax-inclusive lodging for two for three nights, plus one day's car rental, for $147.

When it's time to eat, the Green Boley Restaurant, on the beach about 200 yards west of the Frangipani, serves up chicken roti with all the trimmings for $4. Dawn's Creole Cafe, on the beach in Lower Bay, makes a mean goat water - the Caribbean version of Irish stew - for $4 and serves a full breakfast for less than $5.

Under the volcano: St. Vincent

The last leg of the trip puts me on the Bequia Express (784/458-3472), one of two ferries making several runs a day on the nine-mile passage from Bequia to St. Vincent (about $6). Compared to the torpor of the outlying islands, Kingstown, the capital of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, is positively kinetic. There are occasional traffic jams and newly-sprouted shopping malls, but all in all there is an underlying Caribbean sense of "No problem, mon."

From the ferry dock, it's a $3 cab ride (or a ten-minute walk) to the Heron Hotel (784/457-1631, e-mail: innsvg@caribsurf.com), which with its $60 double rooms has long been a favorite of budget travelers. It's certainly convenient - right next to the main taxi stand and just a block from Kingstown's pride, the new three-story public market. For cheap eats, one has to venture no further than the market, where take-out joints like Cammie's (784/451-2932) serve massive plates of fish, beans, rice, and plantains for $3.

Those looking for a quiet escape would do well to head south to Indian Bay Beach where the Coconut Beach Inn (784/457-4900, e-mail: coconutbeach@cariaccess.com) offers its ten rooms starting at $45 a night. The rooms, though small, are air-conditioned and nicely appointed, with a tiny beach just outside. It looks across the 100-yard wide channel to Young Island, a private retreat where the nightly tariff reaches $250. The inn also has a fine little restaurant where the Chinese chef melds his cooking background with Caribbean specialties to create dishes like a spicy red snapper in black bean sauce with rice for $8.

At nearly 18 miles long and 11 miles wide, St. Vincent is a big island - residents of the outlying Grenadines refer to it as "The Mainland" - and to fully explore it could easily take the better part of a week. But for one great day, rent a car and head up the windward coast. The highway snakes above black-sand beaches and past vast stands of towering palm trees-miles and miles of them - that, along with the broad fields of sugar cane and banana, are testament to the island's rich volcanic soil. If you're lucky, the clouds will break and you'll be granted a view of the beast itself - 4,000-foot-high La Soufriere, an active volcano that last erupted in 1979 and still offers the occasional rumblings. Pull off the road, sit back, and enjoy.

From St. Vincent, return to Grenada on a 40-minute flight by small plane ($85). British West Indies Airlines and Air Jamaica fly between Grenada and the U.S.

The how-to's of ferry-hopping

Ferry service in the Caribbean, though reliable, is subject to occasional changes in schedule. It's wise to contact the ferry office to double-check the schedule and avoid getting stuck on an island. The Osprey, which makes daily runs between Grenada and Carriacou, posts its schedule on the Web site www.grenadaexplorer.com and can be contacted by e-mail at osprey@grenadaexplorer.com. The mail boat Jasper typically leaves Carriacou for Union Island on Monday and Thursday, anywhere from 10 A.M. to 1 P.M. Call Ade's Dream guesthouse (473/443-7317) to check its schedule. Check schedules for the Baracuda by calling 784/456-5180. For more information on the Bequia Express, call 784/458-3472 or visit www.grenadines.net.

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The Secret Hotels of Florence & Venice

One thing I will never change is our one-star status," declares Roberto Zammattio, owner of Venice's Al Guerrato Hotel. "I prefer to take in a few euros less but still give a bit more to guests; that way everyone is happy." Such is the attitude that makes a Little Wonder Hotel-a personal touch, comfortable beds, and a price tag of less than $90 per room. What follows are my selections of the top ten budget hotels in Florence and Venice. Breakfast is included in the price unless otherwise indicated. The rates quoted here are based on 1=$1. To call Italy from the United States, dial 011-39 before the numbers listed below. Florence Pensione Maria Luisa de' Medici Via del Corso 1, 055-280-048 (reservations by telephone only). Doubles ($62-$67) without bath, ($80) with bath. No credit cards. Picture the narrow hall of an antiques shop: a neoclassical sculpture of a child propped on a chair, tattered baroque canvases by Sustermans and Van Dyck cluttering the walls, a chipped della Robbian terra-cotta resting on a table in sunlight. Now imagine cavernous bedrooms opening off this hall, each filled with a quirky mix of antique armoires and 1950s and '60s designer tables and lamps of the sort usually seen in museums of modern art. The eclectic collector, Dr. Angelo Sordi, now convalesces in a back room, but each morning his partner, Evelyn Morris-born in Wales but a Florentine for decades-serves you a home-cooked breakfast in your room. Throw open your shutters and watch the pedestrian parade along the ancient, narrow street below. That's the picture of the best pensione in Florence, a place where I've taken everyone from my parents to my Boy Scout troop. Not all the rooms are that huge, or enjoy as rich a mix of designer furnishings, and only two have private bathrooms, but it's bang in the geographic center of town, and you just can't beat the atmosphere. Hotel Abaco Via dei Banchi 1, 055-238-1919, fax 055-282-289, abaco-hotel.it. Doubles ($63) without bath, ($95) with bath. Bruno, a gregarious transplanted Calabrian, has in a few short years made this one of Florence's best little budget hotels. Each room is named after a local painter and is decorated with ornately framed reproductions of his works, as well as richly colored walls, draperies, and bed-hangings, high wood ceilings, ornate mirrors, and buckets of antique charm. This tiny hotel is conveniently located at an acute intersection with the main road from the train station to the Duomo (double-paned windows keep out most of the noise). Bruno's putting in air-conditioning, which will cost an additional ($8) if you want to use it. Though he accepts credit cards, he far prefers cash (it helps keep those rates so low). Albergo Serena Via Fiume 20, 055-213-643, fax 055-280-447, thserena@dada.it. Doubles ($85). Breakfast ($5). The Bigazzi family's pensione around the corner from the train station is ever-so-slightly shabby, but it does retain some of the opulence from when this was a private apartment-leaded glass doors in the hall, stuccoed decorations on the ceiling, patterned stone-tile floors. The furnishings, however, are your average, well-worn modular jobs with baths squeezed into the corners. Still, the rooms are large enough, clean enough, and you get a lot of amenities for your money: TV, private bathrooms, even air-conditioning in some (the four rooms without A/C enjoy a small discount). Albergo Firenze Piazza Donati 4, 055-214-203, fax 055-212-370. Doubles ($83). No credit cards. This budget standby has none of the charm of its neighbor Maria Luisa de' Medici (mentioned earlier) but shares the enviable location in the very heart of Florence, on a tiny and quiet piazza just off Via del Corso. It still suffers from the institutional style and feel of its days as a student crash pad-a few study-abroad programs still use it for housing-but the beds are firm, and it's kept tolerably clean. The clientele is a comfortable mix of students and frugal families, guests who tend to congregate at the little breakfast-room tables, grabbing Cokes out of the fridge as they plan the day's sightseeing. Locanda Orchidea Borgo degli Albizi 11, tel/fax 055-248-0346, hotelorchidea@yahoo.it. Doubles ($57) without bath. No credit cards. No breakfast. The thirteenth-century palazzo in which Dante's wife Gemma Donati was born now hosts Maria Rosa Cook's little pensione of high ceilings, new tile floors, beaten-up functional furnishings, and extra-firm beds. It is ultraclean and has a cheerful staff. Number 4, one of the family rooms that can sleep four for($110), opens onto a narrow, 30-foot-long balcony over a pretty little garden. Albergo Azzi Via Faenza 56, tel/fax 055-213-806, hotel azzi@hotmail.com. Doubles ($46-$56) without bath, ($51-$62) with sink and shower, ($62-$67.30) with bath. Dorm bed ($17-$25). Breakfast ($2-$3). The Azzi is a self-styled locanda dei artisti, an "artists' place," where owners Sandro and Valentino are fond of breaking out guitars and serenading the guests on the little courtyard terrace. They also keep a collection of art books and gallery guides to lend to clients. The place has a laid-back atmosphere that's more beatnik than bohemian, and the rooms are an eclectic mix, the best (numbers 3 and 4) have ceiling frescoes and impressive French-style antiques. The owners have bought two of the other modest hotels in this building, so there are usually plenty of rooms available. Albergo Mia Cara Via Faenza 58, 055-216-053, fax 055-230-2601. Doubles ($50) without bath, ($60) with bath. No credit cards. No breakfast. The rooms are almost depressingly basic, but the Noto family keeps them clean, the beds are comfy, and the prices absolutely fantastic. Most furnishings are simple and modular, though the nicer rooms have wrought-iron bedsteads. Only two or three rooms share each hall bath. Though the windows are double-paned, for utmost quiet book a room on the back overlooking the trees of a little courtyard. Travelers on even tighter budgets can check into the daughter's fun-loving Ostello Archi Rossi hostel downstairs for ($17-$20; the 1 a.m. curfew, though, has almost caught me on occasion in this city of four-hour dinners). There are plans to renovate the place, expanding both the hostel and the hotel-and perhaps upgrading the latter to three-star status-but the family is unsure when the work will start. Albergo Merlini Via Faenza 56, 055-212-848, fax 055-283-939, hotelmerlini.it. Doubles ($45-$65) without bath, ($50-$79) with bath. Breakfast ($5.16). A kind Sicilian family runs this gem in a building stuffed with cheap hotels. It's on the top floor, so rooms 1, 4, 6, 7, and 8 peek over the rooftops to the domes of the cathedral and San Lorenzo beyond. The rooms are simply but comfortably furnished. Thanks to renovations in 2002, all the bathrooms are new. Satellite TV, telephone, and air-conditioning should be installed in 2003. There are plenty of quirky touches: ornately carved wooden beds and dressers in some rooms, wall safes hidden behind hinged paintings, and a minor miracle: mosquito screens (something I've found in only two other hotels among hundreds throughout Italy). Two walls of the pretty breakfast room were frescoed by art students in the 1960s, the other two are floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking greenery. Hotel Sole Via del Sole 8, tel/fax 055-239-6094. Doubles ($77). No credit cards. No breakfast. Hardworking Anna Giuralarocca keeps the prices way down at her cozy, eight-room pensione by doing everything herself-cleaning the rooms each morning before rushing home to prepare lunch for her kids-so don't begrudge her the 1 a.m. curfew. The orthopedic beds come with country-style frames that go well with the simple but sturdy furnishings. The baths are brand new, and double-paned windows keep out the noise. The Sole's a block from the church of Santa Maria Novella in a neighborhood chockablock with inexpensive restaurants and chic boutiques. Signora Giuralarocca plans to install televisions by mid-2003 and may start accepting credit cards soon. Instituto Gould Via dei Serragli 49, 055-212-576, fax 055-280-274, gould.reception@dada.it. Doubles ($44) without bath, ($47-$52) with bath. No breakfast. No credit cards. This Valdese guesthouse, in a quiet corner of the Oltrarno surrounded by antiques shops, is quite a bit starker than its lovely cousin in Venice, but here you have the comfort of knowing that all the proceeds go directly to running an institute that helps disadvantaged and abused children. (The Valdese is an order of missionaries and do-gooders; no proselytizing, just a few discreet pamphlets.) The functional rooms can be, well, a bit institutional but are well-sized and quiet. Those on the first floor have high wood ceilings courtesy of the palazzo's seventeenth-century origins. Some units are perfect for families, with two beds in a large main room and another two lofted above it, and several of these overlook the institute's courtyard gardens. Rooms on the courtyard go for the higher rate listed above; those on the street, the lower one. Venice Hotel Bernardi-Semenzato Calle della Coa 4366 (parallel to Strada Nova near Campo SS. Apostoli), Cannaregio, 041-522-7257, fax 041-522-2424, hotelbernardi@vergilio.it. Doubles ($45-$55) without bath, ($85-$90) with bath. This is the Little Wonder Hotel of Venice: It has friendly family management, lies just off the main drag between the train station and San Marco, and is flush with incredible four-star amenities and class at one-star prices so astoundingly low they have to post much higher official ones otherwise the other hotels complain. Not only do you get Murano chandeliers, hand-painted eighteenth-century Venetian-style furnishings, and rough-beamed ceilings, but also satellite TV, air-conditioning, and a minibar. The homey annex is even better, as several of the large rooms overlook the L-bend of a canal, and a few even sport 200-year-old iron chandeliers, massive fireplaces, and eighteenth-century ceiling frescoes. Plans to upgrade the annex's functional furnishings to canopied beds and repro-antiques are in the works. Pensione Al Guerrato Calle Drio La Scimia 240A (off Ruga Speziali), San Polo, 041-522-7131, fax 041-528-5927, web.tiscali.it/pensioneguerrato. Doubles ($80-$93) without bath, ($100-$115) with bath. Roberto is so friendly that departing guests often hug and cheek-kiss him good-bye (though this may also have to do with the fact that he resembles a long-lost Baldwin brother). This 14-room pensione in a thirteenth-century palazzo near the Rialto Bridge is one of Venice's best for its welcoming atmosphere and sheer value. The good-size rooms with their patched-up chipped-stone flooring and historic Venice photos are spruced up with Murano lamps, scraps of frescoes in a few (best in number 3), and a stupendous melange of antique-yet-homey furnishings. "I stole everything I could from the houses of my grandmother and my aunties," Roberto says. Rooms overlooking the Rialto market to a sliver of Grand Canal and the Ca' d'Oro tend to be smaller and quite noisy during the early-morning market. The rates sometimes peak over our price ceiling-the lower ones are applied October to March and if you pay cash-but rarely will you find such an excellent marriage of price, class, and warmth at any Venice hotel. Albergo Doni Calle del Vin 4656, Castello, tel/fax 041-522-4267. Doubles ($80) without bath, ($105) with bath. The Doni family has been welcoming guests to its 12-room hotel mere steps off the high-rent Riva degli Schiavoni since 1946, and though Niccol- and Tessa now run the place, Grandma Gina hangs around to keep an eye on everything. Creaky floorboards lead to the modestly sized rooms filled with a hodge-podge of furnishings and aging bedsprings. However, all is forgiven when you check into room 8 and see the Murano chandelier dangling from a ceiling gorgeously frescoed in 1850, or throw open your bottle-bottom windows in room 3 to see a canal cruising with gondolas (rooms 12, 20, and 21 share the view). Only three of the rooms have private bath; the others split three large, clean ones. The prices listed above apply to the high season (generally, Easter to mid-October, and the weeks of Carnevale and Christmas); at other times they may be lower. Foresteria Valdese Calle Luga S. Maria Formosa 5170 (just over the bridge at the end of the street), Castello, 041-528-6797, fax 041-241-6238, chiesavaldese.org/venezia. Doubles ($54) without bath, ($70) with bath. The 40-foot hallways and frescoed rooms of the 1711 Palazzo Cavagnis host some of Venice's best cheap lodgings thanks to the Valdese order. I can't give you many specifics on the accommodations because as we go to press the guesthouse is undergoing a prolonged renovation that will open up more rooms as well as turn most of the small dorms into private rooms with bath. Just ask for a camera affrescata to get one of the coveted rooms with eighteenth- or nineteenth-century ceiling frescoes. Given its location at a confluence of waterways, almost all rooms overlook a small canal. Hotel San Samuele Salizzada San Samuele 3358, San Marco, tel/fax 041-522-8045. Doubles ($62-$70) without bath, ($88-$100) with bath. No credit cards. The amicable, energetic owners Bruno, Piero, and Mimmo hold cleanliness in the highest regard, and their simple, ten-room pensione positively sparkles. The sloping, old pebble-stone floors support modern furnishings, efficient baths, and a profusion of flowers in the window boxes (many of the bright rooms have two windows-a luxury in Venice). Every year they renovate something; last year it was rooms 9 and 10 on the staircase, which are carpeted, nonsmoking, and overlook a small, ivy-clad courtyard. Hotel Caneva Ramo dietro La Fava 5515, Castello, 041-522-8118, fax 041-520-8676, hotelcaneva.com. Doubles ($77) without bath, ($98) with bath (subtract $10 if you pay cash). Gino has run this basic one-star hotel since 1955, now helped by his son Massimo. Its location is fantastic-a three-minute stroll from Piazza San Marco-and 17 of 23 rooms overlook a canal to the palazzo where Casanova once lived. Many rooms are blessed with a strip of Gothic decor along the interior wall courtesy of the palazzo's fourteenth-century origins, and eight enjoy small balconies. Once you tear your gaze away from the gondolas cruising below, you'll notice the rooms themselves are fine, if nothing special: linoleum floors, unremarkable built-in units, and simple Venetian-glass light fixtures. The baths range from tiny modular shower jobs to aging tiled rooms with tubs. The breakfast room overlooks the choicest stretch of canal, opposite a Gothic palazzo. Hotel Silva Ariel Calle della Masena 1391a (the street's marked merely "Parrocchia S. Marcuola"; it's off Rio Terra S. Leonardo), Cannaregio, tel/fax 041-720-326. Doubles ($50-$82) without bath, ($60-$105) with bath. This little family-run hotel is up a narrow side street just two blocks from the historic Jewish Ghetto and ten minutes from the station. The rooms are small but the effect is cozy, fitted with velvet headboards and modular '80s baths. Some have dark beams on plank ceilings, others let the sunlight pour in through walls of frosted glass. Marble tables fill the flower-bedecked covered patio where you can enjoy breakfast year-round. Albergo Dalla Mora Salizzada San Pantalon 42 (just off the street), Santa Croce, 041-710-703, fax 041-723-006. Doubles ($67) without bath, ($72) with shower and sink, ($88) with bath. This unassuming hotel is tucked away in the little-touristed Santa Croce neighborhood, which is across the Grand Canal from the rail station, so it manages to be close by without feeling like a station neighborhood. Only six of the 16 rooms have a private bathroom-though four more have a shower and sink in the room (just no toilet). Half of the rooms overlook the wide, quiet Malcanton canal: four from the main blood-red house with its flower-fringed canal terrace, four from the annex across the alley. The rooms are basic but comfortably large for Venice. A few with foldout bunk beds are perfect for families. Casa Gerotto Calderan Campo S. Geremia 283, Cannaregio, 041-715-562, fax 041-715-361, casagerottocalderan.com. Doubles ($52-$72) without bath,($71-$98) with bath. The Gerotto is your basic budget backpacker haven but not a dive or party house (they frown on drunkenness and don't let nonguests hang around). It's a ten-minute stroll from the station on a heavily trafficked square, so even the double-paned windows can't quite block out the pedestrian noise. However, those rooms on the front are the nicest in a varying lot, boasting eighteenth-century-style furnishings and, soon, air-conditioning (turning it on jacks up the price a bit, as does having a TV in your room). Others suffer from bland modular units, though those on the back courtyard do have the advantage of overlooking a leafy park one block away. They also offer shared-room "dorms" of only five beds each for ($21) per person. Hotel Galleria Campo della Carita 878a (next to the Accademia Gallery), Dorsoduro, 041-523-2489, fax 041-520-4172, hotelgalleria.it. Doubles ($88-$93) without bath, ($104-$135) with bath. Yes, you can have a room right on the Grand Canal for under $90. But call early: There's only one. This place would be near the top of the list if only it had more rooms in our price bracket. Stefano and Luciano make you feel you're living as a doge while spending like a pauper. Everything is decorated in a rich, antique-Venetian style (patterned-silk walls, curvaceous eighteenth-century-style wood furnishings, ceiling stuccos in rooms 2 to 4), it's set right at the foot of the Accademia Bridge, and breakfast is served regally in your room. Actually, bathless little number 5 on the corner with its ($93) Grand Canal view is not nearly as requested by name as the larger, ($135) Grand Canal rooms with private bath: intimate number 8 with a raised sitting nook set into the arch of a canal-vista window, and number 10 with its frescoed ceiling.

Eugene, Oregon

College is a time not only for learning but for exploring, and few towns are better suited for both than Eugene, Oregon. Home to the University of Oregon, with dozens of art galleries, music and theater venues, and secondhand bookstores, Eugene beckons students and visitors alike to poke around and explore. It's a city where philosophies and political perspectives are regularly investigated and challenged in earnest idealism, and where peace-and-love holdovers from the 1960s reside next to radical, antiestablishment anarchists and even a few staunch conservatives. Eugene's freethinking people are matched by many free or low-cost cultural events, as well as budget-friendly food and lodging. It's also surrounded by the raw beauty of the Pacific Northwest, which is indisputably one of the best places in North America to explore. The two best resources for planning a visit to the Eugene area are the local Convention & Visitors Association (115 W. 8th Ave., Ste. 190, 800/547-5445, travellanecounty.org) and the Eugene Weekly, which lists all the upcoming week's events on campus and in town. Grab a copy in print (free, distributed all around town) or view its calendar online at eugeneweekly.com, and you'll find art openings, environmentalist discussion groups, political lectures, films, and concerts-the vast majority of them for little or no charge. Exploring campus Covering nearly 300 acres, the "U of O" (541/346-1000, uoregon.edu) is dotted with redwoods and Douglas firs, ivy-covered nineteenth-century buildings such as Deady Hall, and grassy sections that invite you to plop down on a sunny day. For a basic overview of campus, student-led tours (sprinkled with fun tidbits, like the fact that party flick Animal House was filmed here) depart from Oregon Hall at 10 a.m. Monday to Saturday and 2 p.m. weekdays. Alternately, head directly to the Erb Memorial Union (at 13th and University, 541/346-3705), which is the heart of campus. Inside you can scout out the upcoming day's events via bulletin boards and various free publications, grab coffee or a cheap bite to eat, or simply hang out and absorb the atmosphere. The ground floor of the EMU brims with a broad range of activity, from the production of the radical rag the Insurgent, to workshops in woodworking, sculpture, jewelry making, and such at the Craft Center (open to the public; some single-day classes start at only $25). During the school year, visitors have their pick of campus events daily. On a fairly typical Tuesday this past April, there was an ensemble performance of classical music for $5 in Beall Concert Hall, a free Indian film in Pacific Hall, a free lecture on slavery in Knight Library, and a free reading in the bookstore caf, from Portland-based author and storyteller Mitch Luckett. Utilize the Eugene Weekly or head online to duckhenge.uoregon.edu/calendar to find out what's happening. Campus proper ends at Kincaid Street, but you'll still get that student vibe by crossing it to the shops, bars, and caf,s on 13th Avenue. Swing by at lunchtime-most eateries post specials for $5 or less. Delving into downtown There's nothing more Eugene than its Saturday market (541/686-8885, eugenesaturdaymarket.org), which takes over the corner of 8th and Oak weekly from April to November. Bongo-playing hippies in tie-dyes, farmers with fresh produce for sale, 200 artisans hawking their works, two dozen food vendors, and live music are some of what you can expect. The only sight that might make a local blink is someone wearing a tie. Across the street, in front of the county buildings, there is always some kind of protest about cultural imperialism, global warming, or the logging industry in progress. Somehow, it all just works. It's all Eugene. People in Eugene are passionate not only about politics but about artwork, which explains the plethora of galleries downtown (especially along Willamette Street). Browsing is, of course, free, but once a month a guide will pepper you with details about the artists, inspirations, and the galleries themselves on Eugene's First Friday Art Walk. (Call the Convention & Visitors Association for information.) The Hult Center for the Performing Arts (1 Eugene Center, 541/682-5000, hultcenter.org) is the premier spot for concerts and theater in the Willamette Valley. Symphonies and plays regularly start at $12 to $14, and there are free shows in the lobby most Thursdays at noon. Sign up online for the Hult Center's e-news and you'll get details on two-for-one ticket specials, free events, and lectures. Other price-friendly possibilities are the Lord Leebrick Theatre Company (540 Charnelton St., 541/465-1506, lordleebrick.com) and the Actors Cabaret of Eugene (996 Willamette St., 541/683-4368, actorscabaret.org), each charging under $10 for some performances, and shows at the university (like the student-run Pocket Playhouse, admission $1). When it comes to getting around, Eugene practices what it preaches with a progressive (and cheap!) public transportation system. Ride the local hybrid-electric shuttle, known as the Breeze, for a quarter. Or hop aboard the regular bus, connecting Eugene to surrounding towns and far removed National Forest areas, for $1.25 a ride, $2.50 for a day pass (valid all day on all buses). All buses have bike racks too, which you can use at no extra cost. More info: Lane Transit District (541/687-5555, ltd.org). Serious runners know Eugene as Track Town, U.S.A., for the city's and university's glorious tradition of putting one foot in front of the other really fast. You can remember Steve Prefontaine (the running world's James Dean, who died tragically at age 24 in 1975) at spots such as the Nike Store (248 E. 5th Ave., 541/342-5155), featuring memorabilia about "Pre" and a history of the company (which originated in Eugene); Pre's Trail, a rigorous running path in Alton Baker Park; and Pre's Memorial, at the spot near Hendricks Park where he died in a car accident. All free, of course. Getting fed, getting a bed There are chic, upscale restaurants in Eugene, but they are the exceptions. Most establishments offer hearty, and hardly expensive, fare. The L&L Market (at Willamette St. and 16th Ave.) is uniquely Eugene, with a bakery, butcher, coffee stand, sandwich shop, and rows of tables inside, and breakfast or lunch will only cost a few dollars. Choices inside are many, but French Horn Bakery (1591 Willamette St., 541/343-8392) has particularly scrumptious cinnamon rolls, soups, and pastries. Another local favorite is the Glenwood Restaurant, with two locations (a block from campus at 1340 Alder St., 541/687-0355; and 2588 Willamette St., 541/687-8201), offering diner-style breakfasts, and a dozen or so dinner entr,es (including soup and salad) for under $8. Lodging shouldn't make that big a dent in the bank account, either. The cheapest bed in town is at the Eugene International Hostel (2352 Willamette St., 541/349-0589; $19 dorms, $16 for members), but it's rather cramped and grungy. With two people splitting costs, a motel offers privacy and arguably better value. Pick from more than a dozen, well-located accommodations starting under $60, ranging from the clean, somewhat small rooms at the 66 Motel (755 E. Broadway, 541/342-5041; $43 double) to the Campus Inn (390 E. Broadway, 541/343-3376; $58 double including breakfast and in-room refrigerators), which is an easy walk to campus and downtown. Trash or treasures? It's with great pain that locals throw anything into the trash in Eugene. If at all possible, everything is recycled, resold, or reused. As a result, the city is a treasure chest of thrift shops, flea markets, and yard sales. This intellectual town's best gems are found at its dozen-plus bookstores. Two of the finest shops are Smith Family Bookstore (two locations: 525 Willamette St., 541/343-4717; 768 E. 13th Ave., 541/345-1651) and J. Michaels Books (160 E. Broadway, 541/342-2002), both with wonderful collections of secondhand reads.

Out of Anchorage: South Central Alaska

Unless you're coasting by it in an insulated cruise ship, nearly every tourist to Alaska spends time in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska (which isn't saying much, with just under 300,000 inhabitants). Many first-timers to the 49th state think they need to fly all around the humungous state (twice the size of Texas), an idea as impractical as it is expensive. Much of what visitors are looking for in Alaska--untamed wilderness, stunning mountains, scores of wildlife--can all be had within a day's drive of Anchorage. (Locals have a saying: "Anchorage is only 20 minutes from Alaska.") Not only does this section of the state have the best weather (generally dry and warm compared to rainy Juneau), Anchorage's surprisingly complete infrastructure makes for a plethora of low-cost lodging and traveling options. So even though summertime means high season and high prices, you don't need to trap yourself aboard a crowded cruise to enjoy Alaska affordably. You can see a lot more for even less with a road map and sense of adventure. You'd think with Alaska's size, there would be a criss-cross network of highways linking the far-flung corners of the state. But this is the sub-Arctic--meaning permafrost, snow, and wild weather makes year-round road travel a pain in the neck. In fact, Alaska really only has a handful of highways, concentrated in the southeastern section of the state. (That's why everyone seems to own a float plane instead!) Luckily, some excellent scenery is found south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula--making for the ideal summer road trip. The Seward Highway leading south out of Anchorage is the golden path to Alaska's scenery. The minute you get out of town, the road winds along the Chugach mountain range and the long inlet known as the Turnagain Arm (so named because Captain Cook had to make a tricky U-turn at its dead end after realizing he hadn't found the fabled Northwest Passage). Immediately you feel the grand majesty of Alaska, with towering masses of earth and rock thrusting up from the sea, hundreds of stories high. It looks like a Maxfield Parrish landscape, or a mythological drawing from a children's book. If you time it right, you may even catch glimpse of the bore tide--a strange phenomena where the tidal current forms a perfect 6-foot wave that crosses the otherwise peaceful water. Be sure to stop in the Chugach State Park Headquarters along the highway to get info on the area (907/336-3300, kenaipeninsula.info/). Thrity-seven miles south of Anchorage is a must-stop: the town of Girdwood (girdwoodalaska.com/). This cozy village tucked away in a valley is home to the best ski facilities in Alaska, the fancy and gorgeous Alyeska Resort (800/880-3880, alyeskaresort.com/). Mandatory is a ride up the resort's gondola to halfway up the mountain--the views are out of this world. It's a little pricey, $16 for a roundtrip--but for another $4 they will throw in a full sandwich lunch. You can picnic while taking in the enormous panorama, at a popular spot where paragliders leap off the mountain before your eyes (contact Chugach Paragliding if you're feeling brave--907/754-2400, alyeskaadventure.com/). The hotel is pricey in summer--$199 a room--but come back in fall or winter when rates can dip to a low $95 a room (and winter air/ski/hotel packages through Alaska Airlines can be steal here). About another hour's drive south from Girdwood, you'll find one of the most unique towns in America: Whittier. After the Japanese began invading the Aleutian Islands in World War II, the town of Whittier was dreamt up by military specialists. They were looking to build a top-secret installation that would be covered by clouds and hidden by huge mountains. They blasted a tunnel through solid granite as an entryway to the tiny town, and tourists now have to time their passage through this one-way tunnel, open on an hourly basis. Why even bother visiting odd little Whittier (population 300)? It's the entrance point to the remarkable Prince William Sound--yes, the same sound made famous by the Valdez Exxon oil spill of 1989. Oil still lurks here and there from this environmental catastrophe, but the sound is a naturalist's delight, full of sea otters, seals, whales, and glaciers breaking off apartment building-sized chunks of blue ice. For a close-up tour of the sound, Lazy Otter Charters (907/472-6887,lazyotter.com/) offers trips starting at $62.50 (minimum six people), or you can see the sound from sea level by renting kayaks through the Prince William Sound Kayak Center (877/472-2452, pwskayakcenter.com/) for $45 a day. But even the view out of your car window is breathtaking. If you'd like to spend the night in Whittier to soak up the oh-so authentically Alaskan town, do so at the Anchor Inn, smack in the center of town (877-870-8787). It ain't the Ritz, but it's clean and you're sure to meet some local characters at the bar. The price for a double is highest ($82.40) in August, and becomes five dollars cheaper each month thereafter. The last leg of your road trip is to one spot the tourists never miss: the town of Seward (seward.org/), about three or four hour's south of Anchorage. Seward is the entryway to the stunning Kenai Fjords National Park (nps.gov/kefj), filled with not only impossibly steep canyons and crevices, but teeming with some of the best wildlife viewing in the state. The locals are well-aware of their natural treasures, and charge an arm and a leg to the busloads of tourists who pile on to the day cruises to take it all in. Luckily, there are a number of operators to choose from, the cheapest being Major Marine Tours (800/764-7300, majormarine.com/), with sightseeing cruises and a full all-you-can-eat buffet (salmon, prime rib) all for $49 when booked online (kids are half price).

Road Trips

Driving the Alaska Highway

The hardest thing about traveling the Alaska Highway (better known as "the Alcan") is deciding what to gawk at. In the middle of the road are animals that look like a cross between a goat and a sheep designed by Walt Disney. The mountains all around are a stark, rocky brown, as if the glaciers pulled back just minutes ago. More surprising still is the color of the lake behind the sheep. It's a shade you could only get if you melted a clear-blue-sky day with a box of purple crayons. It's a color that couldn't possibly exist in nature, but there it is: Muncho Lake, British Columbia, right about the halfway point of the Alcan. This is why you come this way: simply to be amazed in the last great frontier. And all the while, in the center of the highway, a Rocky Mountain variety of wild sheep lick salt off the pavement. You and the Alcan Once you've done the Alcan, you have permanent bragging rights any time your friends start to talk about road trips. You can drive the Alaska Highway in under a week, but what fun is that? It's made for lingering, fishing in clear lakes, hiking on moose trails through spruce forests, or just spending quiet days watching the sun hit glaciers. The practicalities are simple, and the trip can be surprisingly cheap-made all the more affordable by the fact that two thirds of the road is actually in Canada, and exchange rates are very, very good. Right now, you can get nice hotel rooms for under US$50, fine meals for US$10. Except for the price of gas-which is significantly higher in Canada-the Canadian portion of the trip is a bargain. There are small, friendly towns and regular services along the way. Whether your taste runs to intimate hotels or remote, pristine campgrounds, you'll find the nights are as good as the days. The Alcan, then and now The Alcan was built over eight frenzied months, from March 9 to November 20, 1942, to protect the northwest flank of the continent from Japanese invasion. War fears meant the road had to be built, no matter what. During the peak of construction, more than 17,000 men were using over 7,000 cars, trucks, and dozers to build the road, putting up 133 bridges along the way. Conditions were a little less than ideal. An ad for workers placed in the New York Times read, "Temperatures will range from 90 degrees above zero to 70 degrees below zero. Men will have to fight swamps, rivers, ice, and cold. Mosquitoes, flies, and gnats will not only be annoying but will cause bodily harm." The highway has never shaken its early, rough reputation, but everything has changed for the better. Today, the entire length of the Alcan is paved, and highway speeds are not a problem. I've driven the road in everything from a subcompact car to a hugely overpowered motorcycle and have never had any trouble. As far as condition goes, the Alaska Highway is no different from any blue highway in the lower 48. And as far as scenery goes, there's nothing like it in the world. Roadside attractions The first stretch of the road is through low, rolling hills, covered in trees to the horizon, but the real northern scenery begins about 370 miles north of Dawson Creek, at Stone Mountain Provincial Park and the turquoise waters of Muncho Lake Provincial Park (Mile 454). The rivers run north here, crystal clear, their banks lined with berry bushes. Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park (Mile 496) was the most popular posting during highway construction because of the 127-degree Alpha pool. It's still churning out hot water, as is the 104-degree Beta pool. Thanks to the warm air, the ecosystem around the pools is an oasis, with more than 250 species of plants, 14 of them as far north as they grow. Look for orchids, ferns, and the carnivorous butterwort. The pools are free, but if you're hoping to stay at the nearby campground (CAD$12/US$8), stake out your spot early: This is still a highway must-stop. Leave British Columbia and enter the Yukon near Watson Lake (about Mile 630). The main reason to stop here is for the signpost forest: more than 60,000 signs-road signs, name signs, markers, and mottoes-from around the world. The first sign was put up in 1942 by a homesick G.I., and now the stop here is a tradition. The hotels in Watson Lake are pricey, so after a visit to the signpost forest and the multimedia aurora borealis presentation at the Northern Lights Centre (CAD$10/US$6.60), it's time to hit the road again. The Yukon River, the lifeblood of both Alaska and the Yukon, comes into view at Mile 895. During the time of the Klondike Gold Rush, hopeful miners would build rough boats-rafts, really-above Skagway, Alaska, and float north on the river, hoping to strike it rich. Miners would get as far as the rapids at Whitehorse (Mile 915) and then transfer to riverboats for the last stretch to Dawson City (not to be confused with Dawson Creek, where the Alcan begins). At the height of the gold rush, as many as 100,000 people-30,000 in one year alone-passed through Whitehorse on their way to the Yukon gold fields. Today, Whitehorse is the capital of the Yukon Territory, and its main attraction is the dry-docked Klondike II, a restored stern-wheel riverboat that ran the river for more than 15 years. In its prime, it carried 300 tons of cargo and 75 passengers for the 36-hour run to the gold fields (tours CAD$4/US$2.65). Right outside of town, check out the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Center (CAD$6/US$4), which shows what the Yukon was like during the Ice Age: scimitar cats (a saber-toothed tiger with attitude), short-faced bears (bigger than grizzlies), and a whole lot of cold. Entering Alaska Kluane/Tatshenshini-Alsek Wilderness Park complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest protected wilderness area in the world. It's so big, it has mountains over 10,000 feet that nobody has even bothered to name. Take one of the free, self-guided hikes at the Kluane National Park Visitor Center, just east of the highway, and get off the road for a little while. Cross the Alaska border near Mile 1,200. Now's the time to fill up the gas tank, as prices take a dramatic drop on the Alaska side. The Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge (Mile 1,223) is Alaska's first attraction. It's three quarters of a million acres of protected wetlands and mountains, and a breeding ground for trumpeter swans. By the road, you'll see stunted-looking trees leaning at odd angles: These are black spruce trees, growing in permafrost-setting their roots into permanent ice. Tok (Mile 1,310) is Alaska's major crossroads: Stay straight for the final miles of the Alcan, or head south for Valdez, on the edge of Prince William Sound, or Anchorage, the state's largest city. Or just get off the road for the night and watch the nightly, free sled-dog demos at the Burnt Paw Motel (907/883-4121). There's a constant battle between Delta Junction (Mile 1,422), the next town up the line, and Fairbanks, with each claiming to be the official end of the Alaska Highway. Technically, Delta Junction is it: This is where the World War II construction crews stopped, but that's only because there was already a road from here to Fairbanks-the larger town was always the goal. In Delta Junction, you can look at the bison that range outside town, buy an official "I Drove the Alaska Highway" certificate for a buck from the Tourist Info Center (907/895-5069), or take a gander at the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which is visible from the highway near town. Stretching more than 800 miles, from the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay to the dock at Valdez, the pipeline carries more than two million barrels of oil a day. It's 48 inches in diameter, insulated with three-and-three-quarter inches of fiberglass. All that is jacketed in galvanized steel and, in some sections, refrigerated with a brine mixture to keep the line from melting through the permafrost. Fairbanks is the end of the line. Home to the University of Alaska, the town sits on the banks of the Nenana River, just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. As with any university town, the best things in life are cheap: Go to Creamer's Field for a free nature walk-over 100 bird species migrate through here-and to the University of Alaska campus to see the musk ox herd (there's a free viewing platform, or you can take the US$6 tour; call 907/474-7945 for times). Musk ox are a species as old as the woolly mammoth; their hair is eight times warmer than a sheep's, and it's soft enough to make cashmere feel like steel wool. Road nights Best-and cheapest-are the government-run campgrounds along the entire length of the highway. In these, you really never need to spend more than US$8 to US$12 (CAD$12 to CAD$18) per night for a place to stay. Although none have hookups for RVs, they're all clean, some have flush plumbing, and in B.C., you can buy bundles of firewood for only CAD$3.50 (US$2.30). The campgrounds are very scenic, and frequent: It's rare to go more than 30 miles or so without passing one. Campers in B.C. should try Prophet River Wayside Provincial Park (Mile 217), or camp by the green-blue waters of the Tetsa River Provincial Park (Mile 365)-good Arctic grayling fishing, in season. In Yukon, there's the perfectly quiet Squanga Lake campground (Mile 848), or Congdon Creek (Mile 1,070), just past Kluane Lake, where rangers give free interpretive talks in summer. Once across the Alaska border, some of the best campgrounds include Tok River State Recreation Site (Mile 1,309), Lakeview (Mile 1,249, inside the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge), or Delta State Recreation Site (Mile 267 on the Richardson Highway, a mile west of the Alcan), for views of the snow-covered peaks of the Alaska Range. There are also privately run campgrounds all along the highway. These are usually more developed-with hot-water showers and RV hookups-and more expensive. They're also fairly interchangeable: gravel lots, trees, a few outbuildings. Figure US$15 for a tent site, US$20 to US$25 for a fully serviced RV spot. Tent campers should really stick to the government-run places, though-there you'll get more quiet, more privacy, and more grass and trees. If camping out isn't your thing, you can find a nice hotel room for CAD$60 to CAD$105 (US$40 to US$70) in Canada, or US$75 to US$100 in Alaska. Prices do rise the further north you go. A few of my favorite stops include Liard Hotsprings Lodge (250/776-7349; doubles from CAD$75/US$49); the basic but clean Cozy Corner, in Haines Junction (867/634-2511; doubles from CAD$73/US$48); and Burwash Landing Resort (Mile 1,093, 867/841-4441; rooms from CAD$65/US$43). In Alaska, no trip seems complete without a stop at Tok's Golden Bear (907/883-2561; US$90); and in Fairbanks, there's nothing finer than a stay in the beautifully restored train cars at the Aurora Express (907/474-0949; from US$115). Road practicalities Canada has a 7 percent goods and services tax, which is refundable to visitors. But there are a couple of conditions: You need to spend more than CAD$50 per receipt, and the refund, although valid on most purchases-including hotel rooms-is not good on things such as gas and car rentals. Be sure to pick up a refund flyer at any local bank or Tourist Info Centre, and save your receipts for the border crossing. How to budget the trip depends largely on your time and inclination. A carload of people could easily travel for under US$50 a day-that's total. Keep it to one tank of gas a day, a nice campsite, and a couple of picnic meals, and you'll be enjoying the best bargain travel has to offer. If you're stretching the days out with more driving or looking for more luxurious accommodations, prices rise accordingly. Even on long days, when we ate only in restaurants before collapsing in hotels at night, we rarely spent much more than US$100 a day for two of us. The longest stretch of highway without services is about 100 miles, in northern B.C., and it's very well posted. Most towns have good mechanics, but it can sometimes take a few days to get parts, so make sure your vehicle is in top repair. Keep an eye on tires, fluids, and anything else that could ruin your trip. Many of the hotels, restaurants, and outfitters along the Alcan are seasonal, open only from mid-May through mid-September. If you're traveling outside the summer months, call ahead to make sure the businesses you're interested in are open. When driving, keep your headlights on at all times. It's the law in Yukon and much of B.C., and it's a good idea besides: It's almost impossible to see a dark car coming out of a background of dark trees. Almost anywhere along the road, you've got a good chance of seeing wildlife. Bald eagles-and 200 or so other bird species-are common, as are black bears. Grizzlies, although more scarce, come down to the road from time to time. Moose are everywhere, and there are sections of the highway where you can see Dall sheep, mountain goats, and more. When you stop anywhere on the highway to watch animals, pull all the way off the road. Never leave the car to get a better look. Bears will just run away, and moose might charge. My wife and I once had a moose come after us because she thought our motorcycle was a threat to her calf. Trust me on this one: Watching an enraged, nine-foot-tall animal run at you is not fun. Side trips and the round trip It's a day's drive from Fairbanks south to Anchorage. However, it's better to spend a couple of days, stopping at Denali National Park and Preserve, home to North America's highest mountain, Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet. If you want to camp in the park-most sites are US$6 to US$18-you'll need to make advance reservations (800/622-7275). The most coveted campsites are at Wonder Lake, 85 miles from the park entrance and only 25 miles from the base of Mount McKinley. From here, the mountain is so big, it's like camping next to a wall. There's a loop road that runs roughly from Watson Lake, Yukon, to just outside Tok, Alaska, heading north to the mining town of Dawson City. Once the focus of wanna-be miners from around the world, today the town's still got that gold-rush vibe, with a casino, cancan shows, regular readings of Robert Service's poetry, and a bunch of 100-year-old buildings falling down. A really fun place. The Alcan connects to the Inside Passage in two places via short roads to Skagway and Haines. Even if you've been glutted on spectacular scenery from the Alcan, the Haines Highway is an eye-opener: wide, gently curved, running between glaciers and mountain peaks before dropping down to the banks of the Chilkat River. From Haines or Skagway, you can get on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system to points south (see the April 2003 issue of Budget Travel). Or try British Columbia's other great highway, the Stewart-Cassiar. This goes further inland than the Alcan, starting near Prince Rupert, B.C., meeting the Alaska Highway outside Watson Lake in Yukon. The Cassiar is a little rougher than the Alcan and considerably more remote, with services in only a couple of places. Gas prices are much higher than they are on the Alcan. However, the Cassiar is shorter, quicker, and more dramatically scenic. The Cassiar offers more of the remote, wilderness experience-I've seen ten bears by the roadside before most people are up for breakfast-but it's a highway for people who are camping out. If you're looking for good hotels, stick to the Alcan. The Alaska Highway is a road straight into the heart of the last frontier, the greatest drive on the continent. Visitor info

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