Over the River and Through the Woods

By Stephen Heuser
March 6, 2009
Joshua Paul
On the Appalachian Mountain Club's trails in New Hampshire, hiking is only part of the thrill. Along the way, you can stay in huts straight out of summer camp, complete with picnic-table dinners, silly skits, and plenty of trail tales. Lights-out at 9:30!

As unexpected luxuries go, there's a lot to be said for the notion that you can climb for six hours into the roadless New Hampshire wilderness, unshoulder your backpack, and find yourself, at 4,200 feet, face-to-face with a freshly carved turkey dinner.

For more than a century, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), a Northeast conservation group, has maintained a string of eight huts in the White Mountains, each a day's hike away from its nearest neighbors, that shelter and feed thousands of hikers every summer. I've known about these cabins since I moved to Boston 15 years ago and, strange as it may sound, have diligently avoided them. I was an avid camper and backpacker in my early 20s, and these huts always struck me as a form of cheating: The outdoors is supposed to be a theater of self-sufficiency; it felt wrong to march into the open only to spend the night at a hotel. But now that I'm 38, I'm willing to change my mind. I haven't camped for more than a decade; these days, having someone cook for me after a hike is the only way I'm getting back to nature.

That's what brings me 2,000 feet above the trailhead off Interstate 93, the straps of a new backpack cutting into my shoulders. It's the middle of June, and I've decided to try a four-day trek, bunking down in a different AMC hut each night. For company, I've enlisted my friend Sam, an architect and fellow lapsed hiker. We've spent two weeks buying gear, marking our route on a waterproof map, and wondering whether we're crazy to think that, after years of tackling nothing harder than the hills around Boston, we can walk into some of New England's most forbidding terrain and emerge unscathed more than 25 miles later. Also along with us are a photographer, Josh, and his brother Jason. Their backpacks, I note, look suspiciously new, too.

We're bypassing the short route to our first hut in favor of a more picturesque—but also more challenging—climb over Franconia Ridge, which rises like a wall along

I-93 through the middle of northern New Hampshire. It's a clear, sunny Saturday morning, and we set off in T-shirts and shorts, hopping roots and brooks, with the cheerful wooden signposts of the White Mountain National Forest marking every junction. Soon, though, the trail takes a sharp turn for the vertical, and we find ourselves scrambling upward on our hands and feet, grabbing on to trees for balance, and double-checking the map to make sure we're going the right way. We're rapidly draining our water bottles, and conversation eventually dwindles into labored breaths. Am I wrong, or is my hiking party starting to look at me darkly?

At least the setting is magnificent. At one point, we hear a low rush of tumbling water and then come upon a 60-foot cascade deep in the forest. Sam poses before it with his hiking stick, grinning: If nothing else, we've made it this far! As our elevation ticks higher, the dwarfish windswept spruces and firs give way to an open gravel path lined with delicate little alpine plants. We press up the last few hundred feet to the ridgeline, and we're rewarded with a spectacular panorama of velvety green hills interrupted only by the brown stripes of landslides. Far below, the highway twists like a double strand of ribbon.

We hike along the crest for an hour, the view dramatically rearranging itself as we trace folds in the mountains. Then, after we summit the 5,260-foot Mount Lafayette, our highest peak of the day, we finally spot it: the roof of the Greenleaf Hut, about 1,000 feet below. Our moods brighten instantly—we can almost smell dinner—and we scramble down the trail. If this were a true luxury camping experience, Sam says, they'd have installed a zip line.

A two-story shingled house with green-trimmed windows and a porch, Greenleaf would be unremarkable anyplace else. But here, it is a small wonder, built nearly 80 years ago with lumber hauled up by burros. Inside, it looks like a charming ski lodge, with knotty-pine walls, a cathedral ceiling, and long wooden picnic tables scattered with backpacks. Bootless hikers lounge in sandals and fleece.

A man with a white walrus moustache checks us in by ticking our names off a handwritten list and then points us toward the bunks. The hut can accommodate 48 people, but the rooms are tight—most have two sets of beds stacked three high. In my room, the lower berths have already been claimed by a family of four playing cards. I try to change discreetly, hanging my sweaty clothes on wooden pegs and hoping that they'll keep their eyes on their crazy eights.

Before I left Boston, friends had offered some hints about hut life. "I hear it's quite a scene up there," one told me. There was a mention of guitars and of people drinking wine they'd packed in. I was slightly worried that we'd signed on for a happy hour in the woods. But in the main room, we meet Mike, a Boston money manager who hikes the mountains twice a month and knows the ground with a geologist's expertise. Then, Josh, who has just returned from Easter Island, starts swapping travel stories with Eric, a medical resident who backpacked across Central America. It's more like an adventure camp for grown-ups.

Suddenly, from the kitchen comes the clamor of spoons banging on pots, and the staff calls out in unison: "DIN-ner!" The three dozen guests quickly sort themselves among the picnic tables, and the mostly college-age workers begin trooping out with a feast: thick slices of roasted turkey, homemade whipped potatoes, a pitcher of gravy, a huge pot of minestrone, and turban-size loaves of warm challah bread. We pass plates up and down the benches like an impromptu family and help ourselves to generous portions. It's a bit weird having a Thanksgiving dinner in June, but it's also the first Thanksgiving dinner I've ever felt I needed.

While we eat, our hosts line up to introduce themselves and recite the hut rules. One of them sings the alphabet backward; another tells us about his college thesis on pirates. Two words pop into my head: Mouseketeers and granola. Happy hour never occurs, although I notice that a couple at the end of the table has quietly opened a box of wine.

As it turns out, we eat a lot better than we sleep. All four of us end up on top bunks, listening restlessly as a fellow camper's snores echo throughout the building. Sam whispers that he'd have been happier in a tent. I'm not sure if Josh and Jason sleep at all. At 6:30 a.m., when the hut staff sounds reveille by marching past the bunk rooms singing a proudly tuneless rendition of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," it's hard to imagine there's anyone not already wide awake.

The sun has given way to spitting rain. Back on the trail, we plant our feet carefully, trying to find traction on loose rocks as we crest Mount Lafayette again. At the top, we're enshrouded in mist and can barely see the stone pyramids that mark the way. For all we know, they could be leading us over a cliff.

As we hike deeper into the backcountry, the footing gets worse. At times we're sliding down sheets of slick granite; at others, we're clomping through mud beneath dripping trees. Sam leads the way, his red rain pants flashing like a weather beacon. At one point, we all debate whether a jumble of rocks is part of the trail or a waterfall. It's both, and we can only laugh as we carefully clamber down it. Two hours pass before we see another person. Around noon, we crouch under a rock and carve hunks of salami for lunch.

The climb becomes a little easier in the afternoon, and just after we reach the turnoff to our next hut, a small miracle occurs: The sun comes out. Galehead Hut is the most remote in the chain, cupped in a green cleft between two peaks, five miles uphill from the nearest road. It's a perfect little lodge, with rough logs supporting the porch roof and tall windows surveying the valley like eyes. We're checked in by Caroline, a cheerful Colby College student with a bandanna on her head. Like the rest of the crew, she won a lottery to land her job, which requires living in the woods all summer, cooking for 30 strangers most nights, and hiking the trash out and the food in twice a week.

It's cozier here, and because this is a Sunday, there are few guests. After a dinner of pasta shells in a marinara sauce and turkey chowder, we settle down for a talk by a staffer on why the climate here is so extreme. (Who knew that the White Mountains are in the path of nearly every major weather system on the East Coast?) This time when the lights go out, there's nothing but silence. In the morning, we're awakened by an acoustic guitar and three staffers singing tune­fully about the open road. It's kind of magical.

We've started to realize that these cabins form a vine of sorts, one that goes dormant every winter and reawakens in June. Photos on the walls show hut crews stretching back for decades, year after year of doughty "hutmen" and, since the 1970s, women. Caroline says that everything gets passed down from one summer to the next: the ancient wooden pack frames used to carry supplies, the breakfast and dinner skits, the ghost stories. Hokey, yes, but also undeniably seductive. After three days of camping in a tent, I'm usually aching for a beer and a shower. On this trip, I'm starting to wonder how I can enlist.

Josh and Jason are heading home today, so Sam and I say our good-byes as we set out over South Twin Mountain. By now, my calves feel like guitar strings. Fortunately, today's route is less tricky: a few steep, rocky climbs, but mostly bouncing descents. And the weather is clear again. At one point, we sit for 15 minutes at the edge of a cliff, awed by the sweep of Zealand Notch beneath us.

We spend our last night at the Zealand Falls Hut, eating chicken fricassee in a dining room with bound nature journals slouching on the shelves and Austrian hiking signs on the walls. There are even fewer guests here, and we've crossed paths with several of them before: Shawna and Amber, friends who are on their annual trip to the mountains, and Keith and Roger, brothers from England who haven't hiked together in 55 years. Everyone is friendly but not too much so—the one thing we have in common is that we've traipsed for days to get away from civilization.

Before we leave in the morning, I chat with Ben and Lindsay, students who've worked in the huts for a few summers each. Some visitors are wowed by the setup, they say, amazed to see a full dinner materialize in the backcountry. Others blanch when they discover that the bathrooms have sinks but no showers. Lindsay, who made perfect scones and oatmeal for breakfast, tells me her worst guest was a man who stormed into the kitchen, irrational and swearing, frightening her until she realized he was hypothermic from two days in the rain. She got him out of his wet clothes and wrapped him in blankets. "In the morning, he gave a speech about how I saved his life with a hot orange liquid," she says. "It was Tang."

Sam and I bid adieu to our last hut and walk down the stairs and into the sun-dappled birch forest for the last couple of miles of our trek. After four days in the mountains, we're not only intact, we feel revitalized. And when we reach my car and I turn the key in the ignition, I'm pleased to notice that the engine sounds just the tiniest bit strange.

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Brigadoon on the Baltic

Mirja von Knorring never expected to find herself living in a thatched cottage on Muhu, a speck of an island off Estonia's western coast. A Cordon Bleu–trained chef and native of Finland, she visited a friend on Muhu a couple of years ago and came under the spell of its hamlets, juniper forests, and fields of wildflowers. "This is a fairy-tale place, so beautiful and isolated," she tells me and my boyfriend, Alex, as we admire the foxglove gardens at the B&B she now runs with her friend Pirkko Silvennoinen. "It reminds me of Finland when I was growing up." When I started planning our trip, I was probably as in-the-dark as Mirja had been about Muhu and the neighboring isles of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. The reason for the visit was in part personal: Alex's dad had fled Estonia for the U.S. during World War II, and Alex, a New York native who'd recently applied for and received his Estonian citizenship, wanted to finally see his father's homeland. Our plan was to fly into Estonia's impressively preserved medieval capital, Tallinn, and then head for the islands, which have remained largely unchanged since Alex's father was a kid. Ironically, Estonians have their former occupiers to thank for any time-warped charm. The country was overrun three times: by the Russians, the Germans, and then the Russians again in 1940. When the Soviet Union finally incorporated Estonia, it turned Muhu, Saaremaa, and Hiiumaa into military outposts, leaving them cut off from the rest of the world until the country became independent again in 1991. The few locals who stuck it out during the decades of Russian control survived in the old-world way, fishing for pike in the chilly waters of the Baltic Sea and holing up in wood-fired saunas during the long winters. Today, Estonia is quickly making up for its extended slumber—the country's residents just became the first in the world to cast votes by cell phone. But as with the summer sunsets that color the sky lemonade-pink until nearly midnight, offshore change is very gradual. Rather than build resorts, island hoteliers are converting centuries-old manor houses into inns, and chefs have opened restaurants devoted to native ingredients such as elk, herring, and juniper berries. (Mirja herself has contributed to Namaste, a cookbook of island dishes.) Prices, too, have remained astonishingly low, only a fraction of what they are on the Estonian mainland—a true bargain compared with the rest of Europe. MUHU: THE TRADITIONALIST Most day-trippers from Tallinn skip 15-mile-wide Muhu in favor of the more-populated Saaremaa, but we decide to start things slow. Two days of doing nothing feels like a perfect way to slip into the relaxed pace of life here. As the local saying goes, "Muhu is an island where time rests." Our first stop, the hamlet of Koguva on the western edge of the island, is reputed to be one of the best-preserved 19th-century villages in the country. With moss-covered stone walls, grassy lanes, and adorable pine houses, it looks like something out of a Hans Christian Andersen tale, complete with the occasional resident dressed in a brown wool vest and black knickerbockers. While searching for our guesthouse, Alex and I stumble upon a stable that turns out to be a contemporary art gallery hung with paintings of American jazz greats from the 1920s. Behind a small bar toward the back, Mirja is pouring glasses of Höpler Grüner Veltliner for guests staying at the adjoining Pärdi Talu B&B. The inn is rustic to the hilt, with iron beds and water basins in lieu of sinks. As she shows us around, Mirja mentions that a certain amount of roughing it is necessary on the island (I guess that explains the wooden outhouse). For lunch, Mirja suggests Kalakohvik, a seafood shack in nearby Liiva that serves a bounty of regional specialties, including fried herring topped with sour cream and dill, potato pancakes, and a flaky pie stuffed with pike, apple, and farm-fresh eggs. This place takes family-run seriously: Marja, the young woman scribbling our orders at the counter, tells us that her grandfather catches the fish and her grandmother prepares it. "This is exactly what my own grandmother's dishes tasted like when I was growing up," Alex says as he polishes off a second fish pie. That night, we're eager to experience the national obsession, the Estonian sauna, at Pädaste Manor, a former country estate that the owners have transformed into a 24-room boutique hotel and spa. Saunas exist everywhere, from the most isolated farms to the streets of Tallinn, where people take breaks in mobile sauna trucks throughout the workday. But the ritual is perhaps most faithfully observed on Muhu, where the sauna is heated the way it has been for centuries, with a wood-burning stove. Before stepping into the cedar box, we coat our skin with purifying honey and salt. The thermometer quickly spikes to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, and when we can't take it any longer, we jump out and dump a bucket of icy water over our heads. After we've hopped in and out a few times, it's on to another form of mild torture: We each grab a bundle of leafy birch branches and whack each other on the legs, arms, and back to improve circulation. I'm hesitant about the beatings, so I start by lightly tapping Alex's skin, like a shaman performing a healing ceremony. "Is that really all you've got?" he teases. "Pretend that I just dropped your camera and it shattered into a thousand pieces." Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! "Does this even feel good?" I yell over the swishing of the birch leaves. He flinches at the last blow. "OK, OK!" he begs. "You can stop!" SAAREMAA: THE SOPHISTICATE Saaremaa's tidy capital, Kuressaare, is Estonia's answer to Martha's Vineyard: In the summer, the country's well-to-do flock here in their Mercedes and BMW sedans to sip espressos at sidewalk cafés, browse in boutiques, and rejuvenate in the city's many seaside spas. Kuressaare's resort-town roots date to the early 1800s, when the Russians leveled much of the village and then rebuilt it, erecting neoclassical private manors, opulent bathhouses, and gorgeous concert halls. The party came to an abrupt halt during World War I, but Kuressaare has since regained its status as the cultural heart of the islands. Alex and I wander the cobblestoned streets, popping into stores selling handwoven linens and blown-glass jewelry. At Saaremaa Sepad, blacksmiths forge iron candlesticks, lanterns, and bells by hand, just as they did in olden days. We pass through a farmers market, where elderly women sit gossiping behind bouquets of wildflowers and jars of freshly picked raspberries. From town, it's a quick amble to Kuressaare Bishop's Castle, the only intact medieval fortress left in the Baltic countries—it looks so perfect, it could be the model for every grade-school drawing of a castle. According to legend, criminals got tossed into the castle's pit, where lions waited to rip them to shreds. As Alex and I peer down into the shaft, a loud roar emanates from the darkness, startling me. I'm instantly embarrassed when I realize it's a recording. As we head out, I spot a poster by the exit: We've arrived during Kuressaare's annual Opera Days festival, and there's a concert at the castle that evening. We buy two of the last tickets and rush back to our hotel to freshen up. When we return, the castle's soaring main hall is set with leather-backed chairs encircling a grand piano. The performance couldn't be more magical, with candlelight flickering off the arched ceilings and Estonian singer Ain Anger's deep bass filling the cavernous space. The following morning, we're ready for some exercise, so we rent a car and drive to Vilsandi National Park, a sprawling wetland where moose and boars roam and gray seals loaf on rocks. It's a gorgeous day: The Nordic sun is beaming down on fields of wild daisies and poppies, and a breeze is blowing through the juniper pines. After a couple hours of hiking, we make it to Harilaid Peninsula, where a white-and-black-striped lighthouse stands slightly askew just offshore. Alex takes a nap on the beach while I contemplate swimming to the lighthouse. (I quickly decide against it after dipping a toe in the numbingly cold water.) Famished from our excursion, we then pull over for lunch at a roadside farmhouse restaurant, Lümanda Söögimaja, and order a feast: pickled pumpkin and shredded beet salad, bean cakes drizzled with dill cream sauce, and herring rolls in a juniper-berry marinade. Sitting at a simple plank table under a maple tree, we hoist mugs of Saaremaa-brewed beer and toast to the best picnic of our lives. When we check in that night at the whitewashed Loona Mõis Guesthouse, we're happy to discover that we're the only ones staying there. But our excitement turns to concern when the hotel's lone staffer walks out, bags in hand, and drives off as the sun sets at 11 p.m. Her shift is apparently over, and we're now totally alone, deep in the Saaremaa hinterland. Just after dark, we hear a noise coming from the driveway. Alex and I look at each other, jump from our chairs, and lock the front door. "It could be a guest," I say. "Wouldn't the receptionist have waited around, then?" he responds. A few minutes go by, and we hear pounding on the door. We both take a deep breath before opening it. Standing on the front stoop is a very confused—and rather tired-looking—Estonian man, who tries to explain in his best English that he and his wife have a reservation, so we show him to one of the empty rooms. The next morning, the hotel worker has a sour look on her face. "Did you let the other guest in last night?" she asks. I tell her that we did, and she thanks me with the thinnest of smiles. "He was late," she says. HIIUMAA: THE UTTERLY REMOTE Meeli Lass greets us warmly when we arrive at the Allika Hostel. Dressed in a flowery cotton dress, she's playing in the front yard with her two small children, who scamper off when they see a pair of Americans coming their way. "We're only here in the summer," she says, explaining that she's an opera singer in Tallinn the rest of the year; coincidently, she studied with Ain Anger. "It's good for my kids to spend time in the country—that's why I bought this place." Her hostel is no backpacker special. The six spacious guest rooms in the massive stone building, once used to house servants for an even grander mansion just down the road, are decorated with antique spinning wheels, wooden chests, and bear-skin rugs. "This is where you come when you truly want to get away from everything," she says, lighting a neat stack of juniper logs in our fireplace. Indeed, of the three islands, Hiiumaa is the least developed. Crops don't flourish in the sandy soil, so the land is still blanketed with pine forests, and a single road hugs the shoreline. There's also very little in the way of infrastructure—Alex and I eat at the same restaurant twice in one day, and not because the food is that good. But what Hiiumaa lacks in amenities, the isle more than makes up for in its miles of empty beaches and hiking trails, not to mention an endearing community spirit. Take the local sheep farmers, who sell their wool at the mom-and-pop run Hiiu Vill factory, owned by Jüri and Tiiu Valdma. Jüri mans the creaky machines, giving demonstrations showing how they work, while Tiiu designs the sweaters and socks that are woven on an equally rickety loom. Hiiumaa's enterprising farmers also make money these days by renting out rooms to travelers. Since it's our last night in the islands, Alex and I decide to rough it at Mäeotsa Talu, a tiny farmstead (with indoor plumbing!) surrounded by sheep-filled pastures. On top of running the three-room guesthouse, owner Margit Kääramees also shears the sheep; maintains the apple, cherry, tomato, and leek crops; and cooks the herring caught by her husband, Indrek, who spends most mornings at sea. Fortunately, she has the help of two grown daughters, who chatter all day in the backyard as they tackle their chores. Alex is seduced by the scenery as we go on a long bike ride through the fields. "My father always talked about how much he relished being in the countryside in warm weather," he says. "I'd love to bring him here." Back at the inn, we ask Margit if we can indulge in one last sauna. She builds a fire in the stove to heat the small cedar room and then hands me a switch of birch leaves, pointing to a bucket filled with chilled water. "Yes, yes," I tell her. "I know the routine." When I step foot inside the inferno, I practically faint. It's so hot that I can muster only 30 seconds, and Alex doesn't last much longer. As we emerge into the cool night, we notice that Margit's elderly mother is patiently waiting her turn. To our astonishment, she spends nearly 20 minutes sweating it out, putting us to shame. We may have learned to slow down on the islands, but endurance—that's another thing. TRANSPORTATION Tuule Laevad ferry service Kuressaare, 011-372/452-4444, tuulelaevad.ee, from $8.50 per car, $3 per passenger. Ferries run several times a day from the mainland to both Hiiumaa and Muhu, as well as between Hiiumaa and Saaremaa LODGING Pärdi Talu B&B Muhu, 011-372/454-8873, saaremaa.ee/koguva, from $19 per person Pädaste Manor Muhu, 011-372/454-8800, padaste.ee, from $197, sauna $81 for four people Loona Mõis Guesthouse Saaremaa, 011-372/454-6510, loona.ee, from $68 Allika Hostel Hiiumaa, 011-372/462-9026, allika.com, from $66 Mäeotsa Talu Hiiumaa, 011-372/469-7120, maeotsa.maaturism.ee, from $25 per person FOOD Kalakohvik Muhu, 011-372/454-8551, fish pie $7 Lümanda Söögimaja Saaremaa, 011-372/457-6493, herring rolls $6 ACTIVITIES Kuressaare Bishop's Castle Saaremaa, 011-372/455-4463, saaremaamuuseum.ee, $4 Opera Days Saaremaa, 011-372/614-7760, concert.ee, tickets from $7 Vilsandi National Park Saaremaa, 011-372/454-6554 SHOPPING Saaremaa Sepad Saaremaa, 011-372/510-9648, sepad.ee, iron candlestick $21 Hiiu Vill Hiiumaa, 011-372/463-6121, hiiuvill.ee, wool socks $9

Paris Tasting Tour

8TH ARR. CAFÉ SALLE PLEYEL In 2007, art deco concert hall Salle Pleyel unveiled a lovely new act: Café Salle Pleyel. Each concert season, a guest chef presents a new menu—Sonia Ezgulian's hit was her napoleon of Jerusalem artichokes and pears; currently, David Zuddas's most winning dish is a chocolate cake with cardamom crème anglaise. FIND IT A seven-minute walk northeast of the Arc de Triomphe on avenue Hoche. Métro stop: Ternes. 252 rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré, 011-33/1-53-75-28-44, cafesallepleyel.com, lunch on weekdays, dinner on concert nights only, entrées from $22 14TH ARR. LA CANTINE DU TROQUET Chef Christian Etchebest first wooed audiences at his Montparnasse restaurant, Le Troquet. His latest venture opened last year and is more casual, with wines starting at $10.50 for a half liter, a menu written in schoolboy cursive on a six-foot-wide chalkboard, and simple specialties such as oeuf-mayo (similar to a deviled egg), Bayonne pork belly, and cherry clafoutis—all fairly straightforward, but as conceived by Etchebest, extraordinary. FIND IT A 15-minute stroll northeast on rue de l'Ouest from the Montparnasse Cemetery. Métro stop: Pernety. 101 rue de l'Ouest, closed Sat. and Sun., from $17 3RD ARR. MARCHÉ DES ENFANTS ROUGES Paris has plenty of food markets, but this one—nearly 400 years old and named after the children of a nearby orphanage who wore red uniforms—stands apart for its array of international dishes. Choose from Moroccan, Mediterranean, and Japanese fare, and then grab a seat at one of the many indoor picnic tables. FIND IT In the middle of the northern section of the Marais, a 15-minute walk from Centre Pompidou. Métro stop: Filles du Calvaire. 39 rue de Bretagne, closed Sun. dinner and Mon., from $13 13TH ARR. CHEZ BLONDIN When a noodle joint in this building closed two years ago, the chef, Blondin Cissé, convinced the owners to open a restaurant featuring dishes from his native Senegal. Now, boho-chic Parisians flock here for the poulet yassa (chicken and onion stew) and bissap (a drink made from steeped hibiscus). FIND IT Down the street from the cobblestoned market on rue Mouffetard, not far from the Jardin des Plantes. Métro stop: Les Gobelins. 33 blvd. Arago, 011-33/1-45-35-93-67, closed Sun., entrées from $17 4TH ARR. LES CôTELETTES Wedged into a blind alley in the Marais, this 45-seat bistro, with its stone walls and exposed-beam ceiling, is as cozy as they come. The menu is a virtual map of France. The asparagus tips, which are sprinkled with chive flowers grown in the chef's garden, come from Provence and the Loire Valley, and the cheeses are from the small town of Machecoul, near the coast in western France. FIND IT Less than a five-minute walk around the block from the Place des Vosges. Métro stop: Bastille. 4 impasse Guéménée, 011-33/1-42-72-08-45, lescotelettes.com, closed Sat. lunch and Sun. and Mon., from $25 9TH ARR. SUPERNATURE The natural-food scene in Paris is casting off its hippie vibe, and this pocket-size hotspot—12 tables inside, four outside—gives a taste of what's on the horizon. Run by Severine Mourey, a former Air France flight attendant, Supernature attracts regulars for its signature cheeseburger on a sesame bun and for its Sunday brunch: baked eggs, muesli, wheatgrass shots, and galette de goumeau, a pancake flavored with orange-flower water. FIND IT Three blocks northeast of the Grévin wax museum. Métro stop: Grands Boulevards. 12 rue de Trévise, 011-33/1-47-70-21-03, super-nature.fr, closed Sat., brunch only on Sun., from $14.50 9TH ARR. LES PÂTES VIVANTES Passersby often stop in their tracks at the sight of Xiao Rong Coutin hand pulling wheat noodles in the window of this Chinese snack shop. The place is small and the staff nonchalant, but all is forgiven when your steaming bowl arrives. Be sure to slurp the noodles whole. They're a symbol of long life—to cut is to ask for bad luck. FIND IT Just over three blocks from the infamous Folies Bergère theater. Métro stop: Le Peletier. 46 rue du Faubourg Montmartre, 011-33/1-45-23-10-21, closed Sun., from $13

Table of Contents: April 2009

Brigadoon on the Baltic Cut off from the rest of the world for much of the 20th century, three Estonian islands are now welcoming visitors.• See the slide show Eat Like a Local: Paris It's easy enough to find your average bistro in Paris. The challenge is discovering those off-the-radar spots that locals keep to themselves. Clotilde Dusoulier leads us to seven restaurants that are destinations in their own right.• Launch the Google map New Hampshire: Over the River On the Appalachian Mountain Club's trails in New Hampshire, hiking is only part of the thrill. Along the way, you can stay in huts straight out of summer camp, complete with picnic-table dinners, silly skits, and plenty of trail tales. Lights-out at 9:30! 25 Reasons We Love Philadelphia Forget the Liberty Bell. Artists, designers, and restaurateurs are rewriting this city's history.• See the slide show• Launch the Google map Four Hotels: Bangkok A new crop of small hotels offers plenty of bang for your baht. Brand News: Eco-conscious Hotel Groups Pricey eco-resorts no longer own the hotel high road—with the major chains now more environmentally minded, anyone can afford to think about the planet. Road Trip: North Carolina A father-daughter duo takes on the mountains and mansions along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.• See the slide show• See writer Kate Appleton's photos from the trip 40 Best From our April issue: Deals for Orlando, Tuscany, Cancún, and 37 other fascinating destinations worldwide.

Lose Yourself in Uruguay's Beach Towns

UNPLUGGED IN CABO POLONIO It's well past midnight when Joselo, the blind bartender with silver hair past his shoulders, brings up the story of El Pingüino. "Four penguins washed up on shore," he says. "I took them all in, but El Pingüino was special." Joselo is speaking by candlelight in his eponymous bar in Cabo Polonio, a tiny beach town about 150 miles east of Uruguay's capital, Montevideo. The candles aren't for effect. A half-hour dune buggy ride from the nearest highway, Cabo Polonio has no cars, no paved roads, and, apart from its signature lighthouse, no municipal electric power. "When the bar would fill up, I used to bring El Pingüino out on the dance floor," Joselo explains. "He'd walk right through the crowd completely at home." Dancing penguins hardly seem out of the question in Uruguay, a Dorito-shaped country of 3.5 million wedged between the more touristed Brazil and Argentina. The towns along its Atlantic coast—cut off in capes, isolated on rocky points, and marooned behind dunes—have evolved along their own, often quirky, paths. In Cabo Polonio, Bar de Joselo is getting crowded. It's a local favorite, although competition is admittedly scarce; apart from a few peak weeks of the high season (December through February), Joselo's is the only bar in town. A side door leads from the ramshackle bar room to a backyard garden. I feel my way through a maze of flowering vines to a hidden outdoor patio. Small groups of Argentines and Uruguayans, and even an unlikely pair of Americans, sit huddled around bottles of grappamiel, Uruguay's trademark blend of grappa and honey. It's smooth, sweet, and deceptively potent. Last call sends everyone spilling out onto Cabo's sandy main street. The village, with an estimated year-round population of 79, is dark now except for candlelight seeping from a few windows. A short walk takes me back to the Posada Mariemar, a guesthouse a few yards from the ocean's edge. Mariemar offers simple, comfortable rooms, oceanfront views and—a luxury in these parts—electric power drawn from its private generator. I drift to sleep watching the glimmer of the lighthouse on the water and wake up the next morning to what sounds like distant howling, barely audible above the crashing waves. At breakfast, on Mariemar's sunny seaside patio, innkeeper Daniel Machado explains that it's the sea lions: "We've got a whole colony." On cue, a sleek, whiskered head surfaces from the water, a stone's throw from where we're sitting. Machado points me down a rocky trail to investigate. Finding the sea lion colony is hardly a challenge. I follow my nose toward Cabo's lighthouse, passing simple stone and stucco cabins (many available for weekly rentals) that cling to grassy cliffs overlooking the ocean. There are no shops, but a few local craftspeople have spread out woolen goods and carvings for sale. On either side, white-sand beaches stretch to the horizon. Surfers prefer the more southerly beach, while the calm waters of Playa Norte are better for swimming. Behind the lighthouse, I find several hundred barking, squealing animals sunning themselves on the rocks, giving off the heady bouquet of two-day-old sushi. The largest sea lions weigh nearly half a ton and laze untroubled, blinking sleepily in the afternoon sun. But the rest are in a feistier mood. Every so often, rivals bare fangs, let out a blood-curdling yelp, and charge. Blubbery necks crash with a satisfying slap. "They're the machos that got kicked off the islands offshore. There are no females here, so all they do is fight," Machado explains back at Restaurante Mariemar over the classic Uruguayan lunch: an artery-busting chivito sandwich. It takes two hands to steady this imposing pile of sliced steak, ham, and fried egg. Machado later escorts me to the oversized 4x4 that will ferry me across the dunes and back to civilization. We drive past vehicles loaded down with visitors arriving for the weekend: a mix of long-haired nature lovers, local families, and a few international travelers with imposing cameras. Looking back, I see the lighthouse has been fired up. Lodging Posada Mariemar, oceanfront, 011-598/470-5164, mariemar@cabopolonio.com, rooms from $35 Cabins, private owners rent out rustic, beachfront cabins; most have no electricity, and water for washing and flushing must be hand pumped. For photos and contact information, see cabopolonio.com/alquileresx.htm (Spanish site but most owners are English-savvy). Cabins from $60 Food Restaurante Mariemar, oceanfront, 011-598/470-5241, mariemar@cabopolonio.com, chivito (steak sandwich) with fries $7.50 Restaurante La Perla del Cabo, oceanfront, 011-598/470-5125, paella for two $18 Activities Sea lion colony, behind the lighthouse (follow your nose), free Nightlife Bar de Joselo, look for the bungalow with an exuberant garden out front (or ask anyone), no phone Finding Your Way International flights land in Uruguay's capital, Montevideo, with round-trip fares starting around $670 from Miami. At the airport's Budget office, you can rent a sedan for $104 a day during high season, with taxes and insurance included (visit budgetinternational.com to reserve in advance). Cabo Polonio is about 150 miles east of Montevideo (about three hours by car). Take the coastal highway (Interbalneario) to Ruta 9. At kilometer 209, turn right onto Ruta 15. Then turn left at Ruta 10 and continue to kilometer 264.5. There you'll find a fleet of ever-ready 4x4s that ferries travelers over the dunes and into Cabo Polonio (around $2 per person). Budget has good maps and can offer advice on getting around. Don't worry: Uruguay has only a handful of highways, all well marked. GETTING SUBVERSIVE IN PUNTA DEL DIABLO An hour's drive east of Cabo Polonio, Punta del Diablo (Devil's Point) is a cheery settlement of colorful bungalows. A onetime fishing outpost, the village has recently become a requisite stop for backpackers. But long before they discovered its endless beaches and low-key vibe, Diablo was a refuge for visitors of a different sort. "It was a haven for leftists back in the '70s," says Andrés Carrau, who custom builds and then rents out Diablo's trademark beachside bungalows, known as cabañas. "They came here to hide from the dictatorship." Carrau shows me to one of the Terrazas del Diablo rentals, a two-floor, magenta-colored cabaña that has a sundeck, a full kitchen, and an upstairs bedroom with ocean views, exposed beams, and bamboo furniture. Diablo is just as easygoing; the streets are sand, and a fleet of wooden fishing boats bobs in the bay. But international attention has also lent the village a young, hip vibe and the kinds of accommodation and services to match. Beachside restaurants offer French and Italian cuisine, and a few tasteful mini resorts are now sprinkled among village cabañas. Right on the beach, El Diablo Tranquilo, a hybrid hostel, pub, and laid-back restaurant, is at the vanguard of the new Diablo. I climb to the rooftop for possibly the best view in town: The beach three stories below is scattered with young, beautiful people sunning alongside fishing boats pulled up on the white sand. Surfers ply the waves beyond. Farther still, thrill seekers clamber out onto Diablo's rocky point, a 300-foot finger of land that extends into turquoise water. "In other beach towns, it's all about being seen," says Brian Meissner, expat owner of the El Diablo Tranquilo. "Here, you could be famous and no one would know." Thirty years ago, Uruguay's most infamous guerrillas flocked here for precisely that anonymity. In the '70s, the leftist Tupamaros terrorized the country, robbing banks, looting gun depots, and even kidnapping the British ambassador. When the government cracked down, the Tupamaros fled to Diablo. Sympathetic fishermen ferried the rebels to safety in Brazil, until the government caught on, reportedly sinking a fishing boat and drowning its crew in retaliation. After dinner at El Diablo Tranquilo—grilled local whitefish caught fresh that day—I trek the few blocks back to my cabaña. Instead of bearded revolutionaries, I pass partygoers headed for Diablo's most happening nightspot, Bitacora Bar, an open-air, sand-floored club. During Diablo's manic January peak, when vacationing uruguayos descend upon the Atlantic coast in droves, Bitacora hosts all-night parties with dancers numbering in the thousands. But most nights the scene is far more intimate, with bands playing for crowds of just a few dozen. The next day I'm up at dawn, in time to witness a few fishing boats unloading the night's catch. I follow a narrow path that leads away from the village and into Santa Teresa National Park, a UNESCO biosphere reserve that's home to endangered sea turtles and, during spring mating season, pods of right whales. The trail climbs along a sandy bluff before plunging down to a gracefully curving bay. Hardly a bad place to be on the lam. Lodging El Diablo Tranquilo Hostel, Playa del Rivero, 011-598/477-2647, eldiablotranquilo.com, rooms from $65 Terrazas del Diablo, rental bungalows on or near the beach, 011-598/477-2250, puntadeldiablo.com.uy (Currently Spanish-only), bungalows from $60 Food El Diablo Tranquilo Bar, Playa del Rivero, 011-598/477-2647, eldiablotranquilo.com, grilled whitefish with spicy salsa $9.50 Activities Santa Teresa National Park, trails begin at Playa del Rivero, parquesantateresa.com.uy (Spanish-only) Nightlife Bitacora Bar, open-air club in the dunes behind the village, no phone, bitacorabar.com Finding Your Way Punta del Diablo is about 35 miles east of Cabo Polonio (about one hour by car). From Cabo Polonio, take Ruta 15. At the intersection with Ruta 9, turn right and follow Ruta 9 to kilometer 298, the entrance to Punta del Diablo. GOOD VIBRATIONS IN MYSTICAL PIRIÁPOLIS This resort town on a rugged stretch just outside of Montevideo has inspired enough dark legends and Byzantine conspiracy theories to fill a Dan Brown novel. It all started in 1890, when Piriápolis's founder, local real-estate baron Francisco Piria, bought 7,000 acres of undeveloped coastline in pursuit of his twin dreams: making a load of money selling vacation homes and building a utopian city based on Kabbalah, a mystical set of religious beliefs. "Piria built his city around the spots where magnetic vibrations were strongest, just like the Aztecs, the Egyptians, and the Druids did," says Carlos Rodriguez, our New Age Mystical Tour guide. We're standing at a scenic point high above Piriápolis, joined by a busload of open-minded travelers from as far away as Spain. Some sway rhythmically, overcome by the good vibes. I'm not feeling it. But the town spread below is undeniably appealing. A regal stone boardwalk winds along the waterfront, past a grand old hotel and aging mansions. On the white sand out front, day-tripping families soak up rays, and behind them, lush hills rise dramatically to rocky peaks. When the sunset séance begins, I part ways with my mystical friends. On the boardwalk, local fishermen hawk fresh squid, shrimp, and mussels from wooden stands. Sandy beaches eventually give way to cliffs, where a few seafood joints sit right over the water. At Barlovento, the red wine comes in half-liter jugs, and the house special, linguine tutto mare, comes with just about everything local fishermen have caught that day: clams, mussels, calamari, octopus, and shrimp, all served over homemade pasta. It's dark by the time I follow the boardwalk back into town, and except for the waves below, Piriápolis is quiet. Then an eerie drone starts in from the water, soft at first but growing louder. Piria's ghost? Kabbalah spirits? "Frogs," explains the concierge at my hotel, the oceanfront Terrazas del Puerto. While not a match for the gracefully moldering period hotels along Piriápolis's main drag, Terrazas del Puerto has airy rooms with ceramic tile floors and large terraces overlooking the ocean and the yacht club below. From my room, four floors above the Atlantic, I listen as Piriápolis's amphibians croon late into the night. I rent a bicycle from a shop on the boardwalk the next morning and make for the area's most famous landmark, Castillo de Piria. The three-story castle is hard to miss. Rising from farmland outside town, it has medieval turrets and a yawning portico, all frosted a delicate shade of pink. I meet up again with Rodriguez, busy initiating another group in the town secrets. "The castle is built on a fault line," he says from behind a pair of mirrored sunglasses. "A lot of negative energy converges here." Inside, we navigate a maze of twisting passages, secret staircases, and blind doorways. Rickety stairs lead to what appears to be a basement lab. "Piria was an alchemist," Rodriguez explains matter of factly. "All Kabbalists were." It gets weirder. On the way back into town, we pass the ruins of a Gothic-style cathedral that towers nearly 10 stories above a fallow field. It's Piria's unfinished masterpiece. "He built the cathedral to fulfill a prophecy," Rodriguez begins. In quick succession, he reveals that Hitler was a black wizard, Churchill was one of the Knights Templar, and in 1944, the Holy Grail was in grave danger of falling into Nazi hands. So, naturally, the Pope had the Grail brought to Uruguay. Tour goers are scribbling down notes, nodding enthusiastically. Rodriguez pans the crowd, his face grimly serious with the weight of this revelation. He fixes his gaze on me. What can I do? I exchange a solemn nod. After all, this is Uruguay's Atlantic coast, where penguins barhop, insurgents unwind, and—just maybe—a kooky alchemist once stashed the Holy Grail. Lodging Terrazas del Puerto, Avenida Francisco Piria (upper level), 011-598/43-21-432, hotelterrazas.com.uy, rooms from $40 Food Barlovento, Rambla de los Ingleses, 011-598/43-26-895, linguine tutto mare (pasta with fresh seafood) $11 Activities Mystical Tour, contact mystical guide Carlos Rodriguez, 011-598/43-22-544, solraca63@hotmail.com, three-hour tour to Piria's castle and cathedral $12 (transportation included) Castillo de Piria, Ruta 37 (2.5 miles outside of town), no phone, free Cathedral, Ruta 37 (1.5 miles outside of town), no phone, free Finding Your Way Piriápolis is 125 miles west of Punta del Diablo (about 2.5 hours by car) and makes a convenient stop on the way back to the international airport in nearby Montevideo. From Punta del Diablo, take Ruta 9 west. Turn left on Ruta 37 (toward the end of the trip), the access road to Piriápolis.