Moscow Made Easier

By Frank Brown
August 2, 2005
Emily Nathan
The city may not be as impenetrable as it once was, but that doesn't mean it has become a cakewalk. Moscow will always be a little difficult, a little tempestuous, a little dramatic. We wouldn't have it any other way.

Most of the stereotypes about Moscow aren't true anymore. Sure, there are lines--outside nightclubs. Street crime is insignificant. The mafia is too busy planning its next weekend in Monte Carlo to bother with tourists. In architecture and people, gray and staid are in a slow but steady retreat. This is a fast-changing city awash in oil money, a magnet for those with talent and ambition from all over the Russian-speaking world. In short, today's city of 10.6 million bears little resemblance to the Soviet capital of 15 years ago--much less to its 1147 origins as a hunting lodge on the banks of the Moskva River.

The attractions you really must see

Red Square, where St. Basil's Cathedral rises from the cobblestones like a mirage, is one of the most spectacular sights in the world. It also offers a quick course in the contradictions that are today's Russia--the near-absolute power behind the high-walled Kremlin, and the obscenely expensive shops in the GUM department store across the square.

The Kremlin itself is the brick fortress, dating from the 12th century, where tsars were married and buried, where Soviet leaders mapped out Cold War strategy, and where Russia's president works. Tourists enter the Kremlin through the western Kutafya Tower, buying tickets for the museums and cathedrals within. Foreigners have to pay extra but the prices are still reasonable: The Armoury, at $12.25, is the most expensive. (Don't be tempted by scalpers offering Russian tickets to foreigners.) The Armoury, with its tsarist treasures dating back beyond the time of Ivan the Terrible, displays more of the Russian emperors' accumulated opulence than any other museum in the world. Such extravagance makes the Russian Revolution of 1917, which overthrew the tsars, a bit more understandable. The Kremlin is open every day except Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 011-7/095-202-3776 (in Russian only), Metro: Aleksandrovsky Sad.

Upon exiting the Kutafya Tower, turn right and walk 100 yards to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where an eternal flame burns for the more than 20 million Soviets who died in World War II. The scene is especially moving on weekends as dozens of newlyweds lay flowers at the national shrine, a monument to the one Soviet achievement that all Russians still embrace. The cult built around the victory in WWII helped fill a vacuum created by the near extinction of the Russian Orthodox Church. During Soviet times, few weddings were church weddings, and a visit to an eternal flame--which almost all cities still have--was a way of satisfying religious urges without threatening the state.

Lenin's Tomb is just that: a squat granite mausoleum holding the mummified body of Vladimir Lenin, who founded the Soviet state following the revolution. Lenin's waxen features, tended to by embalmers, are holding up well 81 years after his death. Many visitors have come out of respect; more than a few others, out of macabre curiosity. It's free and the lines require a wait of minutes--not, as they used to, hours. The tomb is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. (except Mondays and Fridays, when it's closed). Those are also the hours when access is granted to the graves of Communist leaders buried nearby in the Kremlin wall. Judging from the number of red carnations left daily, dictator Joseph Stalin is hands down the most popular. His admirers, most of them elderly or historically ignorant, yearn for a return to the time when Russia was a great power and crime was nearly nonexistent.

Hearty, filling food--for less

Long gone is the time when Western prison fare compared favorably to the food at Moscow restaurants. Flush with oil money, Muscovites are demanding the best--and paying for it. You can easily drop several hundred dollars on dinner for two at places specializing in Thai seafood or Argentinian steaks. Fortunately, that's not necessary, especially at restaurants serving regional cuisines (which are often much more appealing to Westerners).

Once shoehorned into the basement of a central Moscow apartment building and favored by foreign journalists and mid-level diplomats, Mama Zoya's recently expanded and moved to a barge anchored in the Moskva River across from Gorky Park. There's nothing Russian about the restaurant: It features spicy, healthful Georgian cuisine--the lobio bean salads, $3.50, are the best value--and guitarists from the Caucasus region. Waiters will guide the uninitiated through the labyrinthine menu to the gems, including sturgeon tsatsivi in walnut sauce ($7) and khachapuri, Georgian cheese bread ($2.80). Frunzenskaya Naberezhnaya 16D, 011-7/095-242-8550. Metro: Park Kultury.

Upscale Guilly's becomes quite affordable every weekday afternoon with a "biznes lanch" menu. Quiet, dimly lit, and with superb service, the restaurant is way off the beaten tourist path but is a superb intro to Russian cooking done right. The chefs have mastered Russian staples like pelmeni (dumplings, $7) and blini with red caviar ($9.50). It's on the northern edge of one of the city's restaurant districts, around Ulitsa Tverskaya, so, after lunch, do some exploring and plan another meal. Stoleshnikov Pereulok 6, 011-7/095-933-5521. Metro: Pushkinskaya.

Named after a resort community on the Latvian coast, Apshu is decorated like a Soviet cottage circa 1960. The prices are retro, too: Soups start at $1.60, salads at $3.40. Most people don't come here for the food alone, though. The restaurant has local bands playing folk and jazz nightly, often with no cover. Klimentovsky Pereulok 10/1, 011-7/095-953-9944. Metro: Tretyakovskaya.

The Yolki-Palki chain of family restaurants features dishes that a babushka (grandmother) would deliver; they're filling but not fancy. Russian cooking leans heavily on meat but Yolki-Palki also has a well-stocked salad bar. A full meal with a local beer runs about $15. Ulitsa Bolshaya Dmitrovka 23/8, 011-7/095-200-0965. Metro: Chekhovskaya.

Where to sleep like a bear

Moscow has a severe shortage of hotel rooms for individual tourists on a budget, because city development authorities have focused their energies on the more lucrative business travelers. Below are four of the safest and best values in the city. Less expensive options exist but they typically cater to traveling merchants and itinerant workers and would offer little assistance to the non-Russian-speaking visitor. Prices quoted are for a basic double room including a private toilet, TV, and phone. Male guests should prepare to field at least one call from a friendly female voice offering "companionship." Hint: Politely decline.

One of the city's best-kept lodging secrets is Alexander Blok, a cruise ship anchored just west of the city center, in the usually waveless Moskva River. It caters to locals who party and gamble on the ship and don't want to schlep home. The 30 rooms go fast, so reserve well in advance. Krasnopresnenskaya Naberezhnaya 12A, 011-7/095-255-9278, doubles $75. Metro: Ulitsa 1905 Goda.

A 10-minute walk from southern Moscow's Universitet metro station, the high-rise Hotel Universitetskaya is operated by the Russian Orthodox Church. Rooms are small but neat, and they have views of the sprawling Moscow State University. Michurinsky Prospekt 8/29, 011-7/095-939-9663, doubles $69.

Quaint it's not, with a capacity for 10,000 guests spread over five high-rise buildings. But the simple rooms at Izmailovo Tourist Hotel Complex are well-kept and the location can't be beat: The city's best souvenir shopping (Izmailovsky Market) and the metro (Izmailovsky Park) are a three-minute walk away. Izmailovo was built for the 1980 Olympics and still has a Soviet feel, fostered by endlessly long, poorly lit corridors. Specify the Delta building, where the staff speaks English, when booking. Izmailovskoye Shosse 71, 011-7/095-737-7055,, doubles $56.

With breakfast included, Hotel Molodyozhny is a superb deal. The drawback is the location, in northern Moscow and a 10-minute walk from the nearest metro station (Timiryazevskaya). The least expensive rooms haven't been significantly refurbished for at least a decade, so it's best to think of a stay here as a kind of urban camping. Still, the staff is friendly. Dmitrovskoye Shosse 27/1, 011-7/095-782-9001,, doubles $68.

Or take a pass on the hotels altogether and rent yourself an apartment. City Realty has a collection of 25--30 in downtown Moscow and charges a flat fee (from $85) for up to four people. With fully equipped kitchens and discounts kicking in after the first night, this is a clever way to sidestep the hotel crunch. Note: The company also has flats in St. Petersburg. 011-7/095-517-9846,

What to skip (and what to do instead)

Once billed as a bohemian artists' quarter, Stary Arbat was an obligatory stop for tightly chaperoned Soviet tour groups. Today the pedestrian walkway more closely resembles a relatively sober Bourbon Street populated by an eclectic mix of sketch artists, souvenir hawkers, and mediocre restaurants. A more refreshing outdoor activity is a 90-minute cruise on one of the small boats that ply the Moskva River from April through September, 11 a.m.--9 p.m. The route starts at the pier opposite Kievsky train station (metro: Kievskaya) and ends at the Novospassky Monastery (metro: Proletarskaya), with four stops in between; you can go either direction. The boats, which depart about every 20 minutes, offer some of the best views in the city--including ones of St. Basil's Cathedral, Gorky Park, and the towering gothic Moscow State University building--and a feel for Moscow's sheer size. The operator, Capital Shipping Company, has a Russian-language site that's worth checking out for a pictorial preview. 011-7/095-257-3484,, $7.

If you want to get a sense of the the Russian soul, take a pass on the dry State Historical Museum, with its frescoes of early Russians eating raw mammoth meat. A far better option is a Russian bathhouse. The city is dotted with public bathhouses--called banyas--but two of the more venerable are the ornate Sandunovskiye Bani (Ulitsa Neglinnaya 14, 011-7/095-925-4631. Metro: Kuznetsky Most) and the humble, hard-core Seleznyovskiye Bani (Seleznyovskaya Ulitsa 15, 011-7/095-978-9430. Metro: Novoslobodskaya). Admission at the more authentic of the two--Seleznyovskiye--is $14 for women and $17 for men for a two-hour weekend session. Pay another $5 or so to rent slippers and sheets for sitting on and drying off. A few things to know: Men and women steam in the nude, and separately; the upper reaches of the steamroom are hot enough to scorch bald pates, while the dipping pool is frigid; groaning patrons can beat each other with birch branches. At the end of it all--feeling clean, reinvigorated, and a lot closer to the Russian soul--be sure to leave with a parting "S lyogkim parom," which translates roughly as "May the steam be with you."

Finally, the two famous circuses are typically jammed with screaming children--and really, wouldn't you rather spend an evening at the Kuklachyov Cat Theater? A cast of cats and a few dogs perform highly abridged Russian classics, such as Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. The dialogue, as one would expect, is nonexistent--which means you don't have to worry about a language barrier. Not only is the cat theater a cultural institution unique to Moscow, it also lacks the undercurrent of violent domination that colors most Russian circus acts. Stick around after the show has ended, when the actors come out and mingle with the crowd. Tickets start at $13 (popcorn and cat-shaped balloons are extra). Kutuzovsky Prospekt 25, 011-7/095-249-2907. Metro: Kievskaya.

Where to find crafts and kitsch

Sprawling Izmailovsky Market is the leading place to find Soviet memorabilia, icons of Russian saints, fur hats, matryoshka dolls, and more. (Metro: Izmailovsky Park. Just follow the crowds or ask for the "vernisazh.") Prices are usually the lowest in the city. Admission to the warren of outdoor stalls is 35¢. Most of the hundreds of vendors speak a smattering of English, accept dollars, and are ready to knock down prices by up to 25 percent for those spending over $30 on multiple items. One notable exception to the deals is amber jewelry, which is significantly cheaper in the kiosks of the pedestrian underpasses in central Moscow.

Beyond city limits

As the truism says, "Moscow is not Russia." Sergiev Posad--a 60-minute, $9 express train ride away--is a medieval town built around a monastery, the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, that's one of the holiest sites in the Orthodox Christian world. Pilgrims from across the former USSR come to kiss the coffin holding the 600-year-old remains of Saint Sergius of Radonezh, sip a bit of holy water, and attend services. The city itself is a blend of bland Soviet architecture and fetching low-rise buildings in the 19th-century neoclassical style still evident in regional cities across what was the Russian Empire. People are poorer and life is slower, but there's also a kindness and hospitality that Moscow lacks. Trains for Sergiev Posad leave from Moscow's Yaroslavsky Station (metro: Komsomolskaya) at least once an hour all day long. Stay at the ski lodge--like Russky Dvorik Hotel (Ulitsa Mitkina 14/2, 011-7/096-547-5392, $67), where the room rate includes an ample breakfast. Opposite the monastery's main entrance, a restaurant also called Russky Dvorik has an interior like a pre-revolutionary tavern and a kitchen that outclasses many a traditional Russian restaurant in Moscow, at a fraction of the price (Prospekt Krasnoy Armii 134, 011-7/096-547-3852, baked sturgeon $7).

Help from the experts

A one-month tourist visa issued by the Russian consulate is $100, and you need at least two blank passport pages. Look over the rules at, then do what everyone else does and hire a pro ($40--$50) to get the visa. Most tour companies that specialize in Russia will handle the paperwork; others hook you up with a service like Travel Document Systems (800/874-5100, or Travisa (800/222-2589, Visitors must register with authorities within three days of arrival. Although your hotel is legally required to do it, you may be charged $20 for the "courtesy." Carry your passport at all times, and if you have problems, contact the nearest Russian Passport, Visa and Registration office (OVIR or PVU) for help. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has a list (011-7/095-728-5000,

And do yourself a favor and pick up a Russian phrasebook. At least learn to sound out the Russian alphabet, which helps make simple words like "telephone" and "metro" become decipherable.

Another good resource is Russia specialist Eastern Tours (800/339-6967,, which will arrange any combination of discounted airfare, lodging, and private guides. The company also sells package deals to Moscow that start at $999 (including flights from New York City, seven nights' hotel, and guided sightseeing). If you want a fully escorted tour, Gate 1 Travel's six-night program visits St. Petersburg, Novgorod, and Moscow (800/682-3333,, from $1,649).

Resting your feet

Once a pathetic showcase of Soviet goods, GUM (it stands for State Department Store) is now a glitzy example of Russians' new wealth and, sometimes, strikingly bad taste. The hard-to-find Bosco Café (011-7/095-929-3182)--it's reachable through the Marina Rinaldi store on the southeast side of GUM's first floor--is a prime people-watching spot: Thousands of Red Square visitors pass by the windows. Borscht is $9.50, so stick with a soft drink (from $4).

Changing money

A deep distrust of the Russian banking system has made the U.S. dollar the unofficial second currency; some $70 billion are in circulation. You'll find restaurant prices are often quoted in dollars, and there are plenty of places to change dollars for rubles. (Money changers, however, only accept crisp, new notes.) And while ATMs are prolific, many have fallen prey to scammers. Stick to the ones that are operated by Alfa-Bank, Sberbank, and Citibank.

Getting around

Simply put, every vehicle is a potential taxi--even ambulances and buses have been known to stop. Two important rules: Never get into a car that already has a passenger, and always negotiate a price before you set off. The same rules apply for "official" yellow cabs and their notoriously capricious meters. During rush hour though, the superb metro, with its museum-like stations in central Moscow, is almost always faster than surface transport. Best of all, it's just 45¢ a ride.

Bringing stuff home

No matter what the salespeople say, antique carpets, samovars, icons, and paintings require permission from the Ministry of Culture for export. Make sure the necessary paperwork is included with the purchase, or you will get busted at the border.

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Travel Tips

Rachael Ray

Turn on the Food Network and it's hard not to catch a glimpse of Rachael Ray. The bubbly waitress-turned-foodie hosts three shows: 30-Minute Meals, Inside Dish, and $40 A Day, where she travels the world eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner (plus a snack) for under $40. She's the author of eight best-selling cookbooks, the latest is Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Get Real Meals--and as if that weren't enough, this September she's launching a magazine, Every Day with Rachael Ray, and getting married in Italy. Window or aisle? Aisle. The last thing I ate from a minibar? Jumbo, gigantic cashews. I won't leave home without.... This funny thing I got in Flight 001, called the In-Flight Food Survival Kit. It's got all of these little spice tins, plus individual packets of mustards, sauces, and condiments. It's got about 20 different spices and I use it on in-flight food and sandwiches. I love it. It's my favorite little thing. The best trip I've ever taken? And why? About ten years ago I traveled to Italy with my mom for her 60th birthday. It was the first time the two of us traveled together and she just couldn't stop talking. She told all of these stories about my grandfather who was Sicilian, we met our Italian cousins for the first time, and we really had to live on $40 a day. It was stressful, but we did it, and we had fun. We started in Rome and drove our way to Sicily, across the Straits of Messina on the ferry with our car, got lost out in the country a bunch of times--we had a blast. My dream tripI've already had them all. I love to travel so much that every trip I take becomes dreamy in one way or another. I guess I'm most looking forward to my honeymoon in Africa. It's the first time I'll ever have been there. The movie or book that inspired me to pack my bagsWhen I was about five or six years old, my mother gave me a book called the Casual Observer. It was about this little girl who travels the world observing and meeting different people while asking them questions along the way. She was a little vagabond. One day when I went to school, my teachers asked me to draw a picture of what I wanted to be when I grew up so I drew a picture of this weird little girl with a bonnet on. My teacher said, "So what do you want to be?" And I said, "a casual observer!" I always thought that it was a real profession, but I think I became very much what I wanted to be. My greatest travel pet peeve The airlines have gotten increasingly cheap and it seems to me that the services onboard should be going up, not down. If they're all on the verge of bankruptcy, they should be working harder. You've got no pillows now, in coach they took away all the food, and you have to pay for even mediocre snacks. It just seems backwards. If I was a waitress and I tried to treat my customers that way I would've been fired by my own mother, who I worked for most of my life, a hundred times. I wish that we as travelers had more power over the airlines. It's very frustrating to have to be polite to people when they're giving you really bad service. How I deal with jetlag I'm not a good napper. No matter what I have to do or what level of caffeine I have to intake, I really like to stay awake when I get to wherever I'm going until at least early nightfall. If I have a nap, I'm done. I'm screwed up for days. I've got to go in, hit it hard, drink the caffeine, and try to assimilate as soon as possible. Plus I always try and do something--not too strenuous--but something that I'm looking forward to that I've never done before as soon as I arrive. I distract myself from thinking about being tired. If I could travel with any living person.... My mom and my fiancé are both really fun. I prefer to travel with someone that I have a really long relationship with because they understand much more about what you get out of travel. It sounds ridiculous but my mom makes a great travel companion, and in fact we travel all the time. I'll never go back to ____________. And why? I hate saying never, but I'll never go back to Paris in the springtime, it's much colder than they say. It was absolutely frigid when I was there. I had to go out and buy a whole other wardrobe. I love Paris in the springtime? Well, not me. There was hail, sleet, and it was freezing. If I could be anywhere right now.... That's easy for me. I've been away for seven weeks so I'm exactly where I want to be, home, in the middle of the Adirondacks. This is always my favorite place. I love to travel, but like Dorothy said, there's no place like home.

Travel Tips

Rick Steves

Look in the dictionary under Europe and you will surely see Rick Steves' name. Over the past 25 years, he's expertly guided us through across the Continent, United Kingdom, Ireland, and beyond, entreating us to become temporary locals and educating us on how to be smart independent travelers. Rick Steves is the author of 30 European travel books, the host, producer and visionary behind nearly 100 travel shows for public television entitled Rick Steves' Europe, and the owner of Europe Through the Back Door, a company that leads 300 tours to Europe annually. He's also the perfect interview subject for "Window or Aisle?", our travel Q&A. Window or aisle? Window, please. The last thing I ate from a minibar? Cashews and orange juice. I won't leave home without... My laptop. The best trip I've ever taken? And why? I think three trips worked together to shape me as a traveler: Europe the first time on my own (as an 18 year old in 1973) - it expanded my back yard. India in 1978 and 1983 - it humbled me culturally. El Salvador/Nicaragua in 1989, 1991 and 2005 - it awakened me politically. My dream trip? Italy in the spring with no Fiats or Motorbikes anywhere and an ability to speak Italian. The movie or book that inspired me to pack my bags? Name of the Rose, Trinity, and Solzhenitzen's open letter to the Soviet Leaders. My greatest travel pet peeve? Beds with rubber covers under the sheets so I don't stain the mattress. They make me sweat. I rip them off and stow them under the bed. How I deal with jetlag? I put a fake departure date on my calendar two days before I really fly and get everything related to the trip done by that deadline in order to leave home well-rested. I work until I'm too sleepy on the flight (usually giving me two hours of sleep just before we land). I switch my wrist watch and mind to local time when the pilot announces what time it is where we're landing. Once in Europe, I stay active and productive on the day I land (jet lag hates bright light, fresh air and exercise). I plan on waking up wired the first morning at about 5am and suffer through the next day or two with a sleepy lull in late afternoon and then enjoy being 100 percent and immersed in Europe. If I could travel with any living person... Myself so I could accomplish twice as much research or get the job done and get home twice as fast. I'll never go back to... Hong Kong. It's a shoppers' Nirvana...but just not for me. If I could be anywhere right now... River rafting with good friends in Idaho. For more on Rick Steves, visit his website ( You'll also find information there on his latest and greatest products, such as his complete 2000-2005 seven DVD anthology, which includes 43 complete "Rick Steves Europe" TV shows, outtakes, and bonus interviews.

Travel Tips

Eat Like a Local: California's Monterey Peninsula

Many of the restaurants on California's Monterey Peninsula are aimed at out-of-towners. Lovely views of the sunset on Monterey Bay are supposed to compensate for overpriced, mediocre food, all too often served in faux seafaring surroundings. The best spots, not surprisingly, are more inconspicuous, beyond the bustle. Visitors make the mistake of heading to Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey, but a far better place for fresh seafood is unassuming Monterey's Fish House, on a busy road near the eastern edge of town. From spring through late fall, local salmon (around $15) is likely to be on the menu. Huge, tender prawns, straight out of the Bay, are a delicious splurge--order them grilled ($29). Most fish comes grilled, blackened, pan-fried, or sautéed with butter, lemon, and capers. And all the wines on the restaurant's list are available by the glass, a rarity. Opt for one of the Monterey char-donnays, like Bernardus, Morgan, or Chalone. If you simply can't give up looking out at the Bay, funky Loulou's Griddle in the Middle on Municipal Wharf No. 2 serves a mean breakfast and lunch. At breakfast, the banana griddle cakes arrive perfectly fluffy ($5.50). Egg dishes, from simple omelets to scrambled eggs with squid, come with home fries sprinkled with tomato, caramelized onion, basil, and Parmesan. A huge cup of clam chowder is thick without being gloppy, and filling enough to make a light lunch ($4). The local sand dabs--a type of flounder--are tender and delicate ($10). They're served in a sandwich, but it turns soppy too quickly. Getting them on a plate with crispy fries is a better way to go. You'd hardly expect to find a French bistro among the supermarkets and gas stations of Highway 68 in Pacific Grove, Monterey's neighbor to the west. But Fifi's Café Bistro is a little slice of Paris at a reasonable price; nothing tops $20. The homey coq au vin--two chicken leg quarters with carrots, onions, mushrooms, and potatoes in a rich wine sauce--is a frequent special ($15). And the steaming bowl of mussels could just as easily be found at a Parisian café ($7.50 as an appetizer and $15.75 as an entrée with French fries). The Monterey Peninsula has plenty of Mexican restaurants, but one of the best is Zócalo, with locations in Pacific Grove and downtown Monterey. Meals start with warm chips and two salsas, one version made with roasted tomatoes, the other with tomatillos. Pozole--a pork and hominy stew more often found in Mexican homes than in restaurants--is dense and flavorful, and accompanied by Zócalo's handmade flour or corn tortillas ($7.75). Those tortillas also wrap succulent grilled fresh snapper in the fish tacos ($9.75). Chile rellenos are juicy and coated in a light egg batter ($7 at lunch, $10.50 at dinner). Copies of The Surfer's Journal by the door and surfing snapshots by the register are clues that the old-fashioned Little Swiss Café in Carmel is popular with dudes looking to fuel up before hitting the beach. The soft cheese blintzes are a specialty ($6.50). And the eggs Benedict are the best around ($10). If only the coffee were as rich as the Hollandaise sauce. A playful mural--it's said to depict the Dutch countryside in four seasons, but it somehow includes the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa--spans three of the walls and provides silly eye candy. A fun alternative to Carmel's haute dining is a picnic on the beach. Stock up on provisions at The Cheese Shop on the lower level of the Carmel Plaza Shopping Center, next door to Chico's. Owner Kent Torrey is generous with the samples. The shop carries about 300 varieties from nearly 20 countries. (Nothing local, though--Monterey Jack was popularized in the area in the 1880s, but golf courses replaced pasture land, and the best Jack cheese now comes from Sonoma.) There's also bread from the Palermo Bakery in nearby Seaside, and an impressive selection of international wines. Two local standouts: the 2003 Kali Hart char-donnay ($13) from Talbott Vineyards, and the pinot noir from the Krutz Family Cellars ($25). Carmel Beach is just down the hill. Lay down a blanket, and take in the most authentic seascape around. Restaurants Monterey's Fish House 2114 Del Monte Ave., Monterey, 831/373-4647 Loulou's Griddle in the Middle Municipal Wharf No. 2, Monterey, 831/ 372-0568 Zócalo 481 Alvarado St., Monterey, 831/373-0228, and 162 Fountain Ave., Pacific Grove, 831/ 373-7911 Fifi's Café Bistro 1188 Forest Ave., Pacific Grove, 831/372-5325 Little Swiss Café Sixth Ave. between Dolores and Lincoln Aves., Carmel, 831/624-5007 The Cheese Shop Carmel Plaza Shopping Center, Carmel, 831/625-2272

Travel Tips

How to Buy Koa Wood on the Big Island

There's only one place in the world where koa trees grow: Hawaii, where the beautiful, red to chocolate-brown wood has been prized for centuries. Generations of Hawaiians believed that each koa tree was blessed with a special energy, or mana, and tribes reverently selected trees to be made into traditional dugout canoes, paddles, furnishings, and surfboards. Today, expert woodworkers carve bowls, chopsticks, jewelry boxes, knickknacks, furniture, ukuleles, and necklaces out of koa. Due to logging, fires, and overgrazing, Hawaii's supply of the special wood has shrunk in recent years, and prices have skyrocketed. Nearly all of the trees that remain are on the Big Island, which is where you'll find the best value for gorgeous handmade koa souvenirs. Color, Grain, Feel: Koa trees take 50 or more years to mature, growing upward of 120 feet and six to seven feet in diameter. They sprout out of old lava fields, and the dark, volcanic soil is responsible for the wood's trademark deep tones. The most coveted grain of koa is curly and wavy, which lends a dazzling, almost three-dimensional effect. Koa has a very hard and heavy feel, similar to walnut, and it seasons well without warping or splitting. A well-crafted item will be made of pieces of wood that are alike in color and grain, with sharp edges, strong joints, and no sanding marks. When it's finished, it should have a lustrous, slightly golden hue and a glass-smooth surface. Farmers Markets: At the Big Island's open-air farmers markets, you'll find dozens of inexpensive koa items to bring home -- chopsticks for $15, small boxes for $40 -- as well as fresh produce, chocolates, nuts, and tropical flowers. Try the Hilo Farmers Market (Wednesday and Saturday), in downtown Hilo, or the Kailua Village Farmers Market (Thursday through Sunday), in the Kona Inn parking lot in Kailua Kona. Haggling isn't customary, but some vendors will give you a deal if you're buying in bulk. Bring cash. Buying Direct: Most galleries mark up items considerably, and the shops inside the resorts on the northwest Kohala Coast are especially overpriced. The one exception in this part of the Big Island is the Harbor Gallery, where the prices are decent. Buying direct from the woodworker can sometimes save you money, and it's always exciting to meet the artists behind the art. A couple of upcoming events make it easy to do just that. From February 9 to 27, top artists will be showing and selling their works straight to the buyer at the Big Island Wood Show, inside the newly opened Chase Gallery in Hilo. The Big Island Woodturners Show at the Wailoa Center, also in Hilo, features hand-turned bowls and vases, from March 4 to 26. Another option is contacting the Hawaii Wood Guild, which will recommend woodworkers with no referral fees at any time of year. You negotiate prices directly with the artist, you can ask that the work be customized, and many craftsmen will even let you snoop around their workshops. Shopping   Hilo Farmers Market Corner of Mamo St. and Kamehameha Ave., Kailua Village Farmers Market 75-5744 Alii Dr., Kailua Kona, 808/329-1393 (ask for Lee)   Harbor Gallery Kawaihae Shopping Center,   Chase Gallery 100 Kamehameha Ave., Hilo,   Big Island Woodturners Show Wailoa Center, 200 Piopio St., Hilo,   Hawaii Wood Guild,