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Secret Hotels of Cornwall

By Jennifer Howze
March 9, 2006
0604_cornwall_scenic
Sue Parkhill
Springtime on England's Cornish coast means walking along windswept beaches, touring gardens that are just beginning to bloom, and lingering over meals made by some of the country's most popular chefs. Best of all, there are no summer crowds or high-season prices.

Primrose Valley Hotel, St. Ives

Outside the front door lies a jumble of buckets and spades, brightly colored wet suits, and children's neoprene swimming socks. Just inside, a window ledge is crowded with wedding portraits, baby pictures, and some shots of then-shaggy-haired owners Andrew and Sue Biss taken in the early '90s. "We're slightly embarrassed of those," Andrew says. He needn't be: Primrose Valley is the kind of family-friendly place that lets it all hang out--stylishly. Since buying the Edwardian villa in 2001, the Bisses have ripped up old carpet to reveal hardwood floors, and they've nixed heavy antiques in favor of contemporary oak tables and soft Italian leather chairs. There's a full-service bar and a kitchen where the Bisses and Sue's mother, Rose, whip up full English breakfasts and picnic lunches using local ingredients. The 10 bedrooms come with private baths and vary in size. Four have ocean views--two from covered balconies. Primrose Valley is in a residential cul-de-sac just across a set of raised railroad tracks from crescent-shaped Porthminster Beach. As the hotel's website advertises, it's "bed to beach in under a minute." The nearby town of St. Ives--a five-minute walk--has been an artists' enclave since the 19th century (J.M.W. Turner, James McNeill Whistler, and Barbara Hepworth all lived here at one time or another). Its narrow cobblestone streets are home to galleries, studios, and an outpost of London's Tate collections. 011-44/173-679-4939, primroseonline.co.uk, doubles from $140, includes breakfast.

Old Coastguard Hotel, Mousehole

As its name implies, the Old Coastguard Hotel is a former lookout for the Coast Guard, and as such, it has the best ocean views in the harbor town of Mousehole (pronounced mau-zel). Picture windows look out on the bay in many rooms, which are decorated simply in a contemporary style, with beech and pine furniture and beige and brown fabrics. Of the 23 rooms, eight are in the Lodge, a newer annex down the hill. At the hotel's award-winning restaurant, the catch of the day (brought straight to the kitchen from the fish market at nearby Newlyn Harbour) is jazzed up with Thai spices, tangy salsas, and saffron. Not far from Land's End, the westernmost point in mainland England, Mousehole is a wonderfully typical fishing village--and an old one: Part of its south quay dates from the 14th century. The little cove is surrounded by shops, pubs, and tearooms. A walkway traces the coastline from the harbor, and passes right by the stone steps leading to the Old Coastguard's back garden gate. When the tide is out, large boulders are revealed just below the path. Guests bask on the sunbaked rocks, while children check out the natural tide pools, their long-handled fishnets at the ready. 011-44/173-673-1222, oldcoastguardhotel.co.uk, doubles from $158, includes breakfast.

Trehellas House, Bodmin

Built in 1740, Trehellas House has served as an inn, farmhouse, private home, even a courthouse. Some of its history is evident in the courtroom suite, where there's a cut-glass chandelier, a wood-burning fireplace, and a large bed that rests on what was formerly the judge's dais. (Another remnant of the past is the friendly resident ghost, Mr. Lobb, a farmer who owned Trehellas House 200 years ago.) The 10 other rooms have a comfortable country feel, with patchwork quilts, floral curtains, and iron beds. They're scattered throughout the main building and in a coach house annex across the gravel driveway. The restaurant, in one of the oldest and most striking parts of the building, still has the original slate floor, low-beamed ceilings, and a fireplace that's lit on cold nights. Trehellas House is a good base for garden tours. The hotel grounds are planted with soft grasses, flowering shrubs, and heathers. A stone patio is dotted with deck chairs and potted plants, and there's a large swimming pool--an unusual feature for a historic inn. The property backs onto the Pencarrow estate, a Georgian home with 50 acres to explore. Also nearby is Lanhydrock House, with extensive gardens of its own and a kitchen that would make Martha Stewart swoon: There are separate larders for fish and meat and a marble-countered dairy to keep puddings cool. The hugely popular Eden Project--with two enormous biomes that contain plants from around the world--is a 15-minute drive away. 011-44/120-872-700, trehellashouse.co.uk, doubles from $136, includes breakfast.

Trevalsa Court Country House Hotel, Mevagissey

German expats Klaus Wagner and Matthias Mainka have spent the last seven years creating a sumptuous pre-WWII atmosphere at Trevalsa Court, formerly a family home that dates from 1937. They've obsessed over every detail, down to the door handles. The 13 rooms are furnished with Lloyd Loom woven chairs, and the moss-green walls are decorated with black-and-white art. In the main sitting room, light streams through mullioned windows, lemons are piled high in a silver bowl, roses float in a shallow vase, and glossy art books in English, German, and French are stacked on the coffee tables. Dinner is served in the oak-paneled dining room, where tables are set with candles and white tablecloths and windows frame the sea. The German chef, Achim Dreher, sneaks Swiss-German influences into his menus with favorites like apple strudel and potato dumplings filled with prunes. Wagner and Mainka planted the garden with spiky palms, camellias, and flowering bulbs that bloom at different times of the year. "It definitely looks like a Cornish seaside garden," Wagner says. "But you also see palm trees and things to remind you that you're on holiday." Several pairs of Adirondack chairs on the lawn face the sea, and a path at the end of the garden leads to secluded, and highly swimmable, Polstreath Beach. The Lost Gardens of Heligan, a massive garden restoration project, are two miles away. 011-44/172-684-2468, cornwall-hotel.net, doubles from $158, includes breakfast.

Mill House Inn, Trebarwith

In a small wooded valley at the bottom of a steep road, this 18th-century former corn mill looks higgledy-piggledy, with roofs and windows at all different levels. A young crowd whiles away time on slouchy sofas in the reception area, waitresses crack jokes in the dining room ("If you don't eat that garnish, we'll use it again for your main course"), and a few friendly dogs lie at their masters' feet on the bar's original flagstone floor. Visitors feel less like hotel guests than locals who've popped down to the pub for a pint. Make that gastropub: The restaurant attracts diners from around Cornwall with locally sourced seafood and meats. Weather permitting, weekly barbecues with live music are held on the terrace. Upstairs in the nine bedrooms, the thick, whitewashed stone walls are unadorned, setting off the dark wood of the headboards and desks. All rooms have pretty views of the gardens; on a clear day you can just spy the sea from No. 6 and No. 9. The village of Tintagel, three miles away, is home to the remains of a castle said to have been owned by King Arthur. And Trebarwith Strand Beach is a half a mile down the road. 011-44/184-077-0200, themillhouseinn.co.uk, doubles from $140, includes breakfast.

Mount Haven Hotel, Penzance

Orange Trevillion was drawn to Penzance, at the end of Cornwall, because of the town's proximity to St. Michael's Mount, an ancient craggy island that looks a lot like a lopsided volcano. "It's a sacred place," says Trevillion, an eccentric with carrot-colored hair (of course) who believes that four of the Earth's energy lines come together here. Formerly the site of a Benedictine priory and rumored to have once been home to a giant, the island got its name when a fisherman claimed to have seen the Archangel Michael there many years ago. Trevillion and her partners bought Mount Haven in 2001. They knocked down walls and reconfigured the old coach house to maximize views of St. Michael's Mount and the ocean. Most of the 18 rooms look out on the water. They have a distinctly Asian feel, with silk bedspreads and throw pillows covered in embroidered fabrics from Trevillion's frequent trips to India. (Room 6 is the quietest, away from both the front desk and the terrace.) Even the restaurant--where many dishes are flavored with curry and lemongrass--has views of the Mount from one end. But the best seats are on the terrace: You can see the island rising steeply out of the water, a medieval castle on its tippy-top. (Owned by the National Trust, the castle is open to the public.) At low tide, when people stroll across a granite causeway to visit, it appears as if they're walking on water. Beyond Mounts Bay and Penzance--the city made famous by Gilbert and Sullivan--is Land's End. 011-44/173-671-0249, mounthaven.co.uk, doubles from $147, includes breakfast.

Rick Stein's Café, Padstow

British celebrity chef Rick Stein has created a dining empire in Padstow over the last 30 years, turning a once-sleepy fishing village into a destination for foodies. "I've lived here since the '70s and love its sense of timelessness--a little peace and tranquillity in a madly rushing world," says Stein. The narrow, winding streets of the town radiate out from the harbor, and visitors who wander amid the shops and restaurants will inevitably find themselves outside one of Stein's many establishments: The Seafood Restaurant, St. Petroc's Bistro, Padstow Seafood School, Stein's Deli, Stein's Patisserie, Stein's Fish & Chips, and Rick Stein's Café. Dinner at the Café is the most affordable way to experience Stein's way with seafood. The menu changes seasonally but may include entrées like whole deviled mackerel with a tomato and onion salad or deep-fried plaice with tartar sauce. Like any good host, Stein, having fed his guests, puts them up for the night, in four locations around town (The Seafood Restaurant, St. Petroc's Hotel, St. Edmund's House, and Rick Stein's Café). The three rooms above the Café are snug but comfortable. Stein's wife and business partner, Jill, designed the French-accented interiors: wrought-iron beds blanketed in white matelassé; toile and gingham fabrics on the windows and pillows; and ornamental fireplaces. Breakfast is served in the Café and features hearty fare such as bacon sandwiches on homemade bread and parmesan-and-smoked-haddock omelettes. Avoid visiting Padstow in high season (June, July, and August) and during school holidays, when the village turns into a giant tourist scrum. And no matter what time of year you go, be sure to make dinner reservations well in advance to avoid disappointment. 011-44/184-153-2700, rickstein.com, doubles from $149, includes breakfast.

Watergate Bay Hotel, Watergate Bay

The 70-room Watergate Bay Hotel is in a prime location on the cliffs above a wide, sandy beach. Over the years--and after many renovations, including a recent revamp of the guest rooms--the Victorian hotel has morphed into a full-service resort, popular with young surfers who come year-round from all over England. The main building houses a contemporary glass-fronted restaurant and bar, an indoor pool, an outdoor pool, a small spa, a billiards room, and a playroom. A short, sloping driveway just beyond the parking lot leads to the water's edge and to the second part of the complex, which includes a funky beach bar where reggae is almost always playing. It's the perfect spot for a casual lunch--salads, sandwiches, ice-cold beer--especially if you can snag one of the window tables with views of bobbing surfers. In summer, a grill is rolled out to the walkway next to the beach so folks can order burgers without washing the sand from their feet. Naked Chef Jamie Oliver's newest restaurant, Fifteen Cornwall, is slated to open next month above the beach bar. Also in the same building is the Extreme Academy, which offers rentals and lessons for surfing and a bunch of sports most people have never heard of (waveskiing, kite-landboarding, traction kiting). The city of Newquay--a popular spot for destination bachelor and bachelorette parties--is a few minutes down the coast. Skip it and have a sunset drink on the terrace at Watergate Bay, or head 20 minutes north to Padstow. 011-44/163-786-0543, watergatebayhotel.co.uk, doubles from $158, includes breakfast.

Cornwall: When to go and how to get there

A four- or five-hour drive from London, Cornwall gets very crowded and very expensive in high season, generally from June through August. We've listed prices for mid-season (April-May, September-October), which is quieter and therefore much more pleasant.

You'll need a car to get around. Rent a small one, because once you leave the motorways, Cornish roads are extremely narrow. They're often lined with high hedgerows and have no shoulders.

You can also make the trip by train or plane. Low-cost carrier Ryanair flies daily from London Stansted to Newquay (011-353/1-249-7791, ryanair.com, from $28 each way). Air Southwest has four flights a day from London Gatwick to both Newquay and Plymouth, in Devon (011-44/870-241-8202, airsouthwest.com, from $51 each way). Express trains run from London's Paddington Station to Plymouth and take about four hours (no phone, thetrainline.com, from $54 each way).

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Inspiration

Southern U.S.: 'We're Moving to L.A. to Follow Our Dreams'

For most people, moving to another city equals stress. For Lisa Levine and her boyfriend, John Craig, it means adventure. Before relocating from Boston to Los Angeles in April, they're going to see the country. John, a 30-year-old film school grad, is leaving his gig as a waiter at a fine restaurant to try and make a living doing what he loves best--acting--in L.A. Lisa, 32, is likewise following her dream of working with animals, as well as basking in southern California's great year-round weather. She's quitting her job in human resources to become a dog trainer, specializing in positive reinforcement. The couple met in Aspen seven years ago watching a local band. They have a shared passion for music, food, drink, the outdoors, and of course, travel--with trips to Moab, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, northern California, and the southeastern U.S. already under their belts. "We've driven cross-country before, but never the southern route," says Lisa. "We were hoping that you could point out some hidden gems along the way--a place we didn't know was there, the best local cuisine in Tennessee, or something like that." Some days they'll do nothing but drive; other days they'll put in six hours at the wheel and six hours having fun; still others, they'll simply kick back. They're interested in a few cities in particular--Memphis, Austin, and Santa Fe--which gives the trip a basic structure, but they're not locked into a specific itinerary. "I like the fact that it's not a tour we have to stick with," says Lisa. "We're up for whatever." If we planned out all the cool stops across the land, they might not get to California until June. So for their three-week trip, we're focusing on a few key places that they've never been, starting with Kentucky. John and Lisa can find inspiration for their big move and lifestyle change in Louisville at the brand-new Muhammad Ali Center, dedicated to the man known as much for following his ideals as he is for being a great athlete. For a true taste of the state, they could visit Louisville's Brown Hotel, where the gluttony-inducing "Hot Brown" was invented in 1923 ($11.50). Sure, the turkey sandwich smothered in Mornay sauce, cheese, and bacon makes fried chicken seem like a light repast, but in this case a full belly might be good. John's favorite drink is bourbon, and his favorite bourbon of all is Jim Beam. The distillery is but a half hour outside the city, and everyone knows about the perils of drinking on an empty stomach. "We're willing to drive a little out of the way for cool side trips," says Lisa. Bearing that in mind, as well as the fact that Lisa and John mentioned their interest in food time and again, they might not want to take the interstates straight to Memphis. Instead, they should drive along the Western Kentucky Parkway to Princeton, home of Newsom's Aged Kentucky Country Hams--the best hams anywhere outside of Spain. John requests "great hikes with amazing views," and 20 miles north of Princeton, an easy walk leads to Mantle Rock, a 30-foot-high, 188-foot-long natural sandstone bridge. One big reason this trip is possible is because John and Lisa are selling most of their stuff, particularly furniture. If it doesn't fit into their two cars, it isn't leaving Massachusetts. "We're pretty much going to be traveling with books, CDs, clothes, only the important things," says John, a musician as well as an actor, whose prize possession is a Martin guitar. John should especially dig Memphis. To really put him in a Memphis state of mind, we recommend he read Peter Guralnick's book Sweet Soul Music and pick up a few Stax-Volt CDs for the car. Lisa likes museums that are "different or offbeat," so if Elvis's memorabilia-strewn racquetball court at Graceland doesn't completely fill the bill, the art, weaponry, and artifacts at the National Ornamental Metal Museum--a perfect picnic-and-sunset spot overlooking the mighty Mississippi--ought to do the trick. For John, the guitar factory at the Gibson Beale Street Showcase is a must. And for the required dose of Memphis barbecue, we suggest Cozy Corner, where they'll get not only the usual dry-rubbed ribs and falling-apart pork shoulder, but also Cornish game hen. There's enough to do in Memphis that they'll want to stay a night or two, and the spacious junior suites at French Quarter Suites come with a whirlpool tub for a mere $89. Last summer, while dreaming of their cross-country trip, Lisa and John checked off the places they wanted to see, and New Orleans was high on the list. "There has been so much devastation, but we still want to visit," says Lisa. "We're hoping that maybe we could volunteer for a couple of days and help in some way, with animals or people." On Wednesdays and Saturdays, grassroots group Katrina Krewe welcomes volunteers willing to put rubber gloves and garbage bags to use in various neighborhoods. Contacting the organization ahead of time is a good idea. The city's needs change from day to day, so John and Lisa should remain flexible and proactive in seeking out volunteer opportunities. Another contact is Best Friends Animal Society, an organization that links volunteers to local outfits helping pets left without homes after Katrina. Some of the Big Easy is ready for visitors, so John and Lisa can even be tourists, checking out the Rebirth Brass Band or Walter "Wolfman" Washington at the Maple Leaf Bar, and having a beignet--or three--at Café du Monde. When it comes to accommodations in New Orleans, the options certainly aren't as plentiful as they once were. Vacancy rates and prices are a bit unpredictable, so John and Lisa should absolutely book in advance and not be picky; neworleanscvb.com lists "rebuilding status" among the hotel features. "I don't necessarily need to spend a ton of time in Texas," says Lisa. "I'm curious about Austin and the desert and really good barbecue, but don't need to see Dallas or George Bush's ranch or anything." In that case, the bad news is that there are 800 miles of Lone Star State between Louisiana and New Mexico, so Lisa and John will have to spend a fair amount of time in Texas. The good news is there's tons to enjoy. Using the Austin Motel as their home base in the state capital, John and Lisa can try migas (eggs scrambled with tortilla chips, $5) next door at El Sol y La Luna and listen to blues or roots-rock across the street at The Continental Club. John says he's an "indie-rock guy," so he should also check the calendar for who's playing at Emo's. The shops at the corner of 6th and Lamar seem right for the couple: Waterloo Records (heard the latest Spoon album?), BookPeople (Karen Olsson's 2005 novel Waterloo defines contemporary Austin), and the flagship Whole Foods Market, where customers gorge on free samples and marvel at the chocolate enrobing station, where workers will cover almost anything requested in chocolate. Lisa enjoys yoga, and she can work out the kinks from too much time in the car at Yoga Yoga, which has four locations in the city, classes almost around the clock, and Yogi Tea so good she'll want the recipe. Highway 71 out of Austin means bluebonnets, brush, and yes, more barbecue. They'll have to decide between the huge pork chops at Cooper's, in Llano, or the brisket plate, which combines a choice of brisket and one other meat, beans, potato salad, peppers, onions, and bread, at Mac's, in Brady, because few stomachs could handle both. After a long drive through the austere landscape of West Texas, they can reward themselves with wine in...Lubbock? The truth is, there are more than 80 wineries in Texas, and the vintages aren't half-bad. "I always enjoy going to little vineyards and just checking them out," says John. "It doesn't matter if they're not in famous growing areas." Set on the wide-open plains, Llano Estacado is one of the area's most prominent wineries, with daily tours and free tastings. Continuing on, John and Lisa will head to one of those "hidden gems" that they'd never heard of: Palo Duro Canyon, just outside of Amarillo, is the second-largest canyon in the United States. The couple thought they'd wind up camping at some point on the road trip, and this is as good a place as any; a basic site is $12, and there are miles of hiking trails. After leaving the natural wonder, they should keep an eye out on the left side of I-40 for an unnatural wonder: Cadillac Ranch, built by local eccentric Stanley Marsh and made famous by Bruce Springsteen. "I love to cook, so a cooking class would be fun," says Lisa. "John, too--he likes to cook, but I usually hog the kitchen." Hopefully they'll be able to share space and work together at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, where the Chile Amor class introduces students to all things red and green, plus tortilla making. John should be able to fulfill Lisa's wish for "cute but not too expensive clothes" by getting her something in Santa Fe at Double Take, a hip consignment store. John and Lisa are intrigued by the groovy vibe surrounding Sedona, Ariz., though they're not sure they'll have time to visit. Just in case, we refer them to the comprehensive feature story on the town in last June's Budget Travel, available in our archives at BudgetTravelOnline.com. After a stop at Lisa's father's home near Kingman, Ariz.,the couple will be just five hours from Santa Monica. To finish the journey, we recommend a nice, long walk on the beach to stretch their legs. Surprise! After a long couple of weeks on the road, John and Lisa will certainly be ready to unwind. Thanks to a gift from Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs spa in New Mexico, they're being treated to one night's lodging and access to several hot springs, including a private, clothing-optional pool. Go on--nobody else can see. Lodging   French Quarter Suites 2144 Madison Ave., Memphis, 800/843-0353, memphisfrenchquarter.com, from $89   Austin Motel 1220 S. Congress Ave., 512/441-1157, austinmotel.com, from $57 Food   Brown Hotel 335 W. Broadway, Louisville, 502/583-1234   Cozy Corner 745 N. Parkway, Memphis, 901/527-9158   Maple Leaf Bar 8316 Oak St., New Orleans, 504/866-9359   Café du Monde 800 Decatur St., New Orleans, 504/525-4544   El Sol y La Luna 1224 S. Congress Ave., Austin, 512/444-7770   Cooper's Barbecue 505 W. Dallas St., Llano, 325/247-5713   Mac's BBQ 1903 S. Bridge St., Brady, 325/597-2164   Llano Estacado Winery 3426 E. Farm-to-Market Road 1585, Lubbock, 806/745-2258 Activities   Muhammad Ali Center 144 N. Sixth St., Louisville, 502/584-9254, $9   Jim Beam Outpost 149 Happy Hollow Rd., Clermont, 502/543-9877   Mantle Rock Preserve 859/259-9655, nature.org   Graceland 800/238-2000, elvis.com/graceland, mansion tour $22   National Ornamental Metal Museum 374 Metal Museum Dr., Memphis, 901/774-6380, $4   Gibson Beale Street Showcase 145 Lt. George W. Lee Ave., Memphis, 901/543-0800, tour $10   Katrina Krewe New Orleans, 504/329-7908, cleanno.org   Best Friends Animal Society 435/644-2001, bestfriends.org   Continental Club 1315 S. Congress Ave., Austin, 512/441-0202, continentalclub.com   Emo's 603 Red River, Austin, 512/477-3667, emosaustin.com   Yoga Yoga Austin, 512/490-1200, yogayoga.com, $16   Palo Duro Canyon State Park 806/488-2227, palodurocanyon.com   Santa Fe School of Cooking 116 W. San Francisco St., 505/983-4511, santafeschoolofcooking.com, $35   Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs 50 Los Baños Dr., Ojo Caliente, 800/222-9162, ojocalientespa.com, from $16 Shopping   Newsom's Old Mill Store 208 E. Main St., Princeton, 270/365-2482   Waterloo Records 600A N. Lamar, Austin, 512/474-2500   BookPeople 603 N. Lamar, Austin, 512/472-5050   Whole Foods Market 525 N. Lamar, Austin, 512/476-1206   Double Take 320 Aztec St., Santa Fe, 505/989-8886 How Was Your Trip? "Europe was brilliant!" says Beth Hicken, pictured in Tuscany with Sara Murdock; we coached the two Idaho firefighters in November. "We followed your advice and remained flexible, and everything turned out practically perfect."

Inspiration

South Dakota: Presidents, Tumbleweeds, and Brontoburgers

Day 1: Rapid City to Badlands Pre-trip research showed that the region has something for everyone, from wholesome families to thrillseeking bikers. Shawnda and I fall somewhere in between. Friends since high school, we now live on separate coasts and meet up once a year for a generally silly road trip. After arriving at the Rapid City airport, we drive 50 miles east to Wall Drug. It became well-known for the barrage of signs you pass on the approach, and now the glorified gift shop is famous because it's famous. I prefer my kitsch organic, not preprocessed; we make the best of it, posing atop a giant jackalope, laughing at the coin-operated diorama of dancing rabbits (one's arm has fallen off, another's arm is dangling by a mere thread), and watching kids get all atwitter as the animatronic T. Rex growls. Continuing east through Buffalo Gap National Grassland, we stop to admire a never-ending meadow of yellow flowers. What keeps us loitering there, though, is the deep silence. Badlands is Shawnda's kind of national park. You can hike, but you can also just pull over at a viewpoint, walk 50 yards, and snap a photo. The Badlands is my kind of national park, too, if for different reasons. It's gorgeous, but not in a standard way, with weird, desolate spires rising out of the prairie floor. The rock in the spires is composed of multicolored layers, and the colors change with the light. We check in at Cedar Pass Lodge, a collection of 22 cute, basic cabins on the park border. While Shawnda takes a nap, a thunderstorm blows in. The atmosphere turns primal. A curtain of black clouds draws across the sky, and lightning streaks on the horizon. I walk behind our cabin, dodging the tumbleweeds whizzing by. Even more tumbleweeds, driven by the wind, are forced up and over the back side of one of the spires. It looks like lava erupting from a volcano. The other research I did was to get restaurant recommendations from M.J. Adams, owner/chef of The Corn Exchange in Rapid City (which I'd read about in Gourmet). Near Badlands, she suggested Circle 10, off I-90, not far from a 15-foot prairie dog statue. We have salads with dried cherries, blue cheese, and walnuts, then BLTs on homemade English muffin bread. The people who own Circle 10 are very sweet, but Shawnda still wants to steal their pet mutt. At 10 p.m., we go on the Night Prowl. A Badlands ranger leads a group of about 30 on a 400-yard walk into the park, past some of the rocks. The goal is to look at the stars. We lie on the ground, while the ranger sermonizes about light pollution. We don't learn a whole lot, but just being outside at night, away from civilization, is a highlight of our road trip. Lodging Cedar Pass Lodge20681 Hwy. 240, Interior, 605/433-5460, cedarpasslodge.com, cabins from $65 Food Circle 10I-90, exit 131, Philip, 605/433-5451, BLT $6.50 Activities Wall Drug510 Main St., Wall, 605/279-2175, walldrug.com Badlands National Park605/433-5361, nps.gov/badl, $15 per car per week Day 2: Badlands to Custer The drive out of Badlands, along Route 44, is one of the most sublime Shawnda and I have taken. We generally rent convertibles, and we worried that it'd be too hot to go topless in July. But the weather stays bearable, and the sky is breathtaking: white at the horizon, turning bluer and bluer as you look up, until it peaks somewhere between cornflower and royal. We hightail it, as we're booked for the 1 p.m. Candlelight Tour at Wind Cave National Park. I've sworn off caves, having found them indistinguishable. But the Candlelight Tour goes to parts of Wind Cave not accessible on other tours, and you carry "candle buckets"--metal pails rigged so you hold them on their sides, with candles inside--just like 19th-century settlers did. Besides, the cave interior is 53 degrees year-round, and the day is really heating up. The 10 of us--11 if you count our guide, Michael--ride an elevator down 190 feet, then trudge single file through a lighted area. After about 15 minutes, Michael lights our candles and we head off into the dark. Candle buckets let you direct the light laterally, but not up or down, so you don't know how low the ceiling is or how bumpy the ground. I spend the two-hour tour in a perpetual stoop. There's a lot of interesting geology--grid-like formations called boxwork, nubby "popcorn," which looks like it sounds, and delicate crystals known as frostwork. We stop in a nook named Pearly Gates, and sit on ledges. Michael, who is highly earnest and from Malta, which makes for an entertaining combination, slowly scans the room. "Do you want to experience something . . . different?" he says, and Shawnda begins to giggle uncontrollably. He tells us to blow out our candles. In total darkness, your eyes try to adjust, but they can't--so you give in, and it stops mattering if your eyes are open or shut. The only food at Wind Cave is sold in vending machines, and when we surface we're starving. I'm excited to go to Flintstones Bedrock City, a campground in Custer with exhibits and photo ops, where you can actually order a Brontoburger. But the place is lame, in a word, and we head to Hill City, where we prepare to get an Old West photograph taken. The young women at Looking Back Photo (now closed) decide that I should be a "rugged cowboy" and Shawnda a "saloon girl." Let's just say that her credentials are more impressive than mine. When we call that afternoon, Sage Creek Grille, another M.J. favorite, says we don't need to reserve. But we arrive to find there's no room. We sulk our way over to Pizza Works (now closed), where we sit outside and peer up at the glowing Custer sign atop the hill. For dessert, we split a satisfying piece of blueberry pie at Reetz's, also known as the Purple Pie Place because, well, it's hard to miss. Lodging Comfort Inn & Suites301 W. Mt. Rushmore Rd., Custer, 605/673-3221, choicehotels.com, from $133 Food Sage Creek Grille611 Mt. Rushmore Rd., Custer, 605/673-2424, dinner entrées from $18 Purple Pie Place,19 Mt. Rushmore Rd., Custer, 605/673-4070, $3 Activities Wind Cave National Park605/745-4600, nps.gov/wica, Candlelight Tour $9 Flintstones Bedrock CityHwy. 16, Custer, 605/673-4079, $8 Day 3: Custer to Spearfish The Comfort Inn puts out a nice breakfast: Styrofoam cups hold single servings of waffle batter, and there are two waffle irons in the common room. But we can't pass up Chute Roosters, outside Hill City, if only because of the name. The food is forgettable, but the owner's a charmer. Roberta Wilburn, who bought the place in 1998, tells us about the ghost who haunts the building, an old dairy farm. When I try to buy a Chute Rooster mug (it's a rodeo term) she can't find the key to the vitrine, and promises to mail the mug if she ever locates the key. I fear she won't remember, however, as she's quite excited about the Elvis impersonator who'll be stopping by that evening (note: The restaurant is now under new management). And then, Rushmore. It might just be the world's greatest tourist trap--the idea for it came from state historian Doane Robinson, who in 1923 proposed that a monumental carving would draw more visitors to the Black Hills. It was a rare case of a historian actually making history. We're moved by the ambition and the artistry, but Rushmore is a bit of a yawner. Should it be seen? Absolutely. Does it take long? Not so much. We felt the same way about Crazy Horse Memorial, the Native American rejoinder to Rushmore, when we passed it yesterday. The scope is astounding, but we just didn't get much out of it--of course, we also didn't stop. Why pay $10 when we could see it from the road? M.J. raved about a burger in Rochford, a blip of a town, so we take Route 17 out of Hill City. It's unpaved part of the way, and the Black Hills are beautiful. At times, the road runs parallel to the Mickelson Trail; popular with hikers and cyclists, the trail traverses the length of the Black Hills from Edgemont to Deadwood. Moonshine Gulch Saloon, the burger place, is dingy and strange--words that can mean good things to me, but not to Shawnda. The ceiling is covered with business cards (including mine, now), baseball caps, snarky signs, all sorts of things, all coated in dust. We get a kick out of a rock next to our table. Painted on one side: PLEASE TURN ME OVER. Painted on the other: M-M-M THAT FEELS GOOD. The burger isn't bad, but the place freaks Shawnda out--particularly the photos of customers bottle-feeding a fawn next to an 8-by-10 glossy of a hunter holding antlers, the rest of the deer's corpse visible in his truck. She has to work up the nerve to go to the ladies' room. But not only is it fantastically clean, someone has written inspirational graffiti on the walls. It's perhaps the last place one would expect a quotation from Euripides. While my obsession has never been as strong as the one in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I've always longed to see Devils Tower, across the Wyoming state line. (The apostrophe got lost when the government proclaimed it a national monument, and all the bureaucrats in the world can't squeeze it back in.) Shawnda and I are heartened to hear that after climbers discovered that the tower is especially sacred to Native Americans in June, the number of climbers that month has dropped 80 percent. Scrambling over the boulder field at the base is enough climbing for us. We have a good laugh over the names given to the climbing routes ("Old Guys in Lycra"), the exhibit asking visitors to write what Devils Tower means to them ("It gives me the creeps"), and a tasteless T-shirt in a nearby gift shop ("I like it on top"). The parking lot at the Fairfield Inn in Spearfish, S.D., is full of vintage Chevy Impalas, as our visit coincides with a convention. We take our cue from them and have an evening of retro pleasures: a brownie sundae at the Bay Leaf Café and Air Hockey at an arcade, where we rock out to "Thunder Road" on the jukebox. Lodging Fairfield Inn2720 1st Ave. East, Spearfish, 605/642-3500, fairfieldinn.com, from $55 Food Chute Roosters101 Chute Rooster Dr., Hill City, 605/574-2122, breakfast $4 Moonshine Gulch Saloon22635 N. Rochford Rd., Rochford, 605/584-2743, $2.75 Bay Leaf Café126 W. Hudson, Spearfish, 605/642-5462, $5 Activities Mount Rushmore National Memorial Keystone, 605/574-2523, nps.gov/moru, $8 parking fee Crazy Horse MemorialHwy. 16/385, Crazy Horse, 605/673-4681, crazyhorse.org, $10 Devils Tower National Monument307/467-5283, nps.gov/deto, $10 per car Day 4: Spearfish to Rapid City Having spotted the Geographical Center of the U.S.A. on our map, I decide it'd make a fun photo op. We skip the Center's office in Belle Fourche, figuring all we really care about is the actual spot, and drive for 30 miles on a road that has more roadkill than we've ever seen. But there's no sign where the map has a dot, and the big empty nothingness doesn't have the same appeal as it did on Day 1. (Next time, I'll stop at the office.) On the return south, I want to check out another dot--the Government Experimental Farm. It sounds like a locale from The X-Files, and therefore worth investigating. Again, nothing there, except a lot of empty corrals. I try to convince Shawnda that federal scientists have found a way to turn animals invisible; it would certainly explain why cars keep running them over. Being neither bikers nor gamblers, we drive right through Sturgis, home of the big motorcycle rally every August, and Deadwood, an Old West town converted to a gambling destination. We stop for another burger, at Boondocks. It's full of Hollywood memorabilia, and we enjoy watching the bikers roar in. What we need is a challenge, and we find it at the Black Hills Maze. The maze is 1.2 miles of walkways, divided by wooden fences. There are four towers, and each one has an ink stamp with one of the Rushmore faces on it; the goal is to get all four stamps. We need an hour and four minutes to complete the maze, which is a huge victory if only because an hour and a half gets your name posted on the Hall of Shame. Two 9-year-olds solve it in 45 minutes. Built in 1928, Rapid City's Hotel Alex Johnson has neat old bones, though the water pressure and air-conditioning are feeble. It's a relief to be downtown, where we can walk rather than drive. There are statues of presidents on many corners, starting from both ends of American history, more or less (Washington, Bush Sr.); 25 are completed. Shawnda, obsessed with politics, can't resist chatting up the woman at The Presidents Information Center and posing with JFK, whereas I'm entranced by a Pomeranian that's been half-shaved to resemble a tiny buffalo. We've never met M.J., but by this point it feels like she's been in the back seat the whole time. In 1996, she moved from New York to Rapid City, where she opened The Corn Exchange. Her goal was to serve good food, using fresh ingredients. I'm happy to report that her restaurant is delightful. The room feels both sophisticated and homey--with a tin ceiling, hardwood floors, and exposed brick--and M.J. dotes on all her customers, including us. Shawnda and I split everything: a cheese plate, smoked trout on a white corn pancake, entrées of salmon and duck, and a bottle of pinot gris listed on the menu as Mr. Skikkels's favorite. Mr. Skikkels, M.J. informs us, is the cat who lives out back, and I should think he'd like the Belgian chocolate pot de crème even better than the wine. We certainly do. Lodging Hotel Alex Johnson523 Sixth St., Rapid City, 605/342-1210, alexjohnson.com, from $110 Food Boondocks21559 Hwy. 385, Deadwood, 605/578-1186, burger $6 The Corn Exchange727 Main St., Rapid City, 605/343-5070, entrées from $15 Activities Black Hills MazeHwy. 16, Rapid City, 605/343-5439, blackhillsmaze.com, $7 The Presidents Information Center631 Main St., Rapid City, 605/342-7272 Resources Center of the Nation415 5th Ave., Belle Fourche, 605/892-2676 Finding your way The tourist season is mid-May to mid-October, and many establishments hibernate in winter. Despite the northern latitude, summer is broiling, and August thunderstorms can be vicious. The good news: Rapid City has an efficient airport, with rental cars outside. Ours, from Thrifty, had a 150-mile-per-day restriction. We bet we wouldn't need the unlimited mileage upgrade, and were penalized $37 (148 miles over, at 25¢ a mile). We gained some of that back by using the Mt. Rushmore parking pass ($8 value) in the glove compartment. Thrifty says customers often leave theirs for the next driver.

Inspiration

Contrarian Tours of Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Houston, and New York City

Gross National Product's Scandal Tours Members of the comedy troupe GNP expose the Capitol's seamier side by regaling tour-goers with cheeky, costumed impersonations and sordid tales of politicians from George Washington to George W. Bush. First on the bus route is the Watergate Hotel, naturally, followed by the Kennedy Center (a easy segue to extramarital affairs and conspiracy theories), the Vista International Hotel where former D.C. mayor Marion Barry was arrested on drug charges, the Willard Hotel where Ulysses S. Grant dubbed those pestering him in the lobby "lobbyists", and more sights that are prime fodder for poking bi-partisan fun. "There's a constant supply of new material," quips GNP member John Simmons. Gross National Product, 202/783-7212, gnpcomedy.com/scandaltours; $30, $20 for students and seniors; reservations required; Saturdays at 1 P.M. Hurricane Katrina: America's Worst Catastrophe; City Disaster Tour In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, tourism-starved New Orleans has spawned two narrated bus tours of its ravaged neighborhoods and the uncomfortable concept of disaster tourism. The operators, Gray Line New Orleans and Tours by Isabelle, were driven largely by the need to revive their businesses and to inform visitors. The three-hour Gray Line tour passes a breached levee, the Superdome, Canal Street, the New Orleans Convention Center and the Lakeview area, where the company's vice president Greg Hoffman and many others lost homes. Isabelle Cossart's "City Disaster Tour" is slightly longer and more expensive. It begins in the French Quarter, and covers many of the same sights along with the badly hit St. Bernard and New Orleans East districts. Both highlight the area's history and development, and offer personal takes on the hurricane's timeline. (Passsengers are not allowed to exit the Gray Line motorcoach during the tour, and photography is discouraged.) Gray Line New Orleans, 800/535-7786, graylineneworleans.com; $35, children 6-12 years of age, $28; $3 donated to one of five local non-profit organizations; 9 A.M. and 1 P.M. daily. Tours by Isabelle, 877/665-8687, toursbyisabelle.com; $49 per person; 8:30 A.M. and 1 P.M. daily, provided there are at least four passengers Lifestyles of Houston's Rich and Infamous: The Enron Tour Yankee Sandra Lord has been leading tours of her adopted Houston since 1988, and the latest riffs on its greatest homegrown scandal: the rise and meteoric fall of Enron. While founder Kenneth Lay and chief executive Jeffrey Skilling pass the time on trial for fraud at a local courthouse, the curious can hop a bus for a five-hour, lighthearted look at offices, churches, restaurants, and jails they and other employees have frequented. Lord weaves together facts, anecdotes, biographical information, and historical precedent—a view of the 1928 Kirby Mansion calls for a quick lesson on Houston's first tycoon, John Henry Kirby, an oil man who went down in a high-profile bankruptcy. Discover Houston Tours, 713/222-9255, discoverhoustontours.com ; $30; public tours in Mar.-Apr. 2006, ongoing private tours available Surveillance Camera Walking Tours Each of the Surveillance Camera Players' walks begins with a general introduction on the workings and evolution of surveillance cameras, and then zeroes in to identify numerous often-discreet cameras in a single Manhattan neighborhood—some have close to 400! Far from spouting a left-wing screed, the Players present their findings and encourage healthy debate over the pros and cons of our increasingly public lives. Take a peek at their hand-scrawled online maps of cameras in Times Square and other neighborhoods. Surveillance Camera Players, 212/561-0106, notbored.org; free; Sundays at 2 P.M.

Inspiration

A Heartfelt Good-bye to a Fellow Traveler

One of the most popular pages of Budget Travel is our masthead. People are always saying how much they enjoy our answers to a particular question. Two years ago, when we revamped our masthead, we figured the questions were a way to add a bit of fun to a page that readers don't generally find interesting. That people like it as much as they do still surprises me, as it's not as if you actually know us, and there's never room to explain our answers. If you'd been paying particularly close attention over the past year and a half, you'd have learned the following about Associate Art Director Michael Liddy:   He was a fan of the burgers at New York City's White Horse Tavern.   He would have liked to be on the set of the movie Chocolat.   One day, he hoped to make it to the Milwaukee Art Museum.   His first time on an airplane was during a trip to Fort Lauderdale.   His drink of choice was Dewar's on the rocks.   If he could tour anybody's house, it would be Frank Gehry's.   The scariest place he'd ever been was Space Mountain, when he first went to Walt Disney World. In December, Michael died in his sleep, at the age of 34. What the masthead never told you was that he was not only a terrific designer--he touched every page of the magazine, solved problems that no one else could, and had an impeccable eye for color--but a very talented illustrator. (We've reproduced one of his paintings on the last page of this issue.) Art wasn't just a job: He also spent much of his free time at galleries and museums. MikeL--as he signed his e-mails--was such a sweet, gentle guy. I don't think I've known anyone so extraordinarily patient. Mike's unfathomable passing has been hard on us, and while I'm wary of speaking for everyone here, I think it has probably reminded many of us never to take anyone for granted. We know to value our families and our friends, but perhaps we're all a little guilty of not being as grateful as we should for the folks with whom we spend most of our waking hours. Because whether or not you enjoy your job probably has more to do with your coworkers than the work itself. The goal of this magazine is to celebrate places, but the most memorable part of travel isn't really the places, is it? It's the people--your traveling companions, and the people you meet along the way. The photographs of those people are the photographs that you end up cherishing. Life is no different. At Budget Travel, we're fortunate to spend our days among wonderful people, and we're unfortunate to have lost one. Here's to you, MikeL. We loved you, and we miss you.

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