Secret Hotels of the Caribbean: Jamaica, Bahamas, and More
What you'll find in this story: Caribbean travel, Caribbean getaways, Jamaica hotels, Bahamas destinations, Caribbean secrets
Our criteria are simple. We insist on being right on the water. We'd rather not sleep in motel-style, side-by-side lodging. And we don't want to pay more than $160 a night--even in high season.
Rockhouse Hotel,876/957-4373, rockhousehotel.com, doubles from $100.
Seclusion isn't easy to come by in the party town of Negril, with its sprawling resorts and thumping dance beats, but that's exactly what Rockhouse delivers, primarily to hip couples and families hoping to avoid anything close to a spring break experience. Rockhouse's rounded thatched villas are strung atop a low cliff carved with stairs that lead down to the warm waters of Pristine Cove. The 19 units peeking out of the jungle right at the cliff's edge start at $250 in winter, but the long buildings set a bit farther back are easier to pull off--seven studios with sea views ($130) and nine standard rooms with garden views ($100), all with minibars, safes, A/C, and mosquito netting around four-poster beds.
Guests chill out at the 60-foot horizon pool, take yoga classes, or stroll along the property's serpentine paths and stepping stones, which inevitably lead to quiet nooks, isolated beach chairs, and what most people say are the best sunset views in Jamaica. The action on Seven Mile Beach--including the nightlife hub of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville and live reggae on the beach at Alfred's (Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday) and Roots Bamboo (varies)--is a quick $5 to $10 cab ride away. Closer to your cabana--right next door, actually--is Pirate's Cave, where patrons eat grilled lobster before jumping off the cliff and swimming into the sea cave underneath.
Country Country, 888/790-5264, countrynegril.com, doubles from $155
The 17 cottages of Country Country occupy a narrow acre covered with tropical gardens and brick-lined paths in the middle of Negril's hopping Seven Mile Beach. No two cottages are the same, though A/C, ceiling fans, louvered shutters, a porch, and a cabinet hiding a TV, fridge, and tea set are standard. Other than that, you might find bamboo bed frames, whimsical murals of starfish, or a fleet of conch shells surrounding the windows. The walls and gingerbread trim are painted in bright shades of lemon, eggplant, leaf green, burnt tangerine, and stonewashed blue. Sisal rugs surround either a king-size bed or two twins, and the loud bedspreads somehow go well with the purple lamp shades spangled with yellow stars. Most cottages are stand-alone buildings with neat little gardens and cool stone floors, but a few are double-deckers. Second-floor units come with hardwood floors and views over the vegetation to the water (you pay $20 more a night to stay upstairs or in the one-floor cottages closest to the water).
At the edge of the beach, there's an open-air thatched-roof bar and restaurant for jerk chicken and fruity drinks. Country Country's owners recently acquired adjacent land and plan on doubling the number of cottages and installing a pool and tennis courts by fall.
Jake's, 800/688-7678, islandoutpost.com, doubles from $115.
Sitting alongside rocky shoals washed by the warm surf of Jamaica's South Coast, Jake's Easter egg-colored guest cottages are funky boutique versions of the Caribbean shack. The two dozen buildings overflow with odd, endearing details that are an exercise in culture-clash chic: Indian minaret-shaped windows, driftwood door frames, glass bottles embedded in plaster walls, Arabian-influenced domes, hammered-tin doors, Mayan-inspired weavings. The grounds are dotted with flowering bushes and desert greenery--cacti, yucca, gnarled little trees. What you get instead of a room with a TV, phone, and A/C is a welcoming, laid-back vibe. Don't bother trying to find Jake, a parrot who's not around anymore--it's a long story.
The place was designed by Sally Henzell and is currently run by her son Jason, both of whom are particularly loved by the surrounding fishing village for starting a nonprofit that pays for medical rescue services, school computers, fishing tournaments, and even literary festivals where Shakespeare is performed in Jamaican patois. Hustlers are virtually nonexistent in the area, and Jake's bar and pool serves as a gathering place for locals and guests alike. "We've felt like we've had the place to ourselves for the past week," says John, a Toronto magazine publisher, as he watches his daughters play by the pool with a village girl in her school uniform. "Our own Jamaica."
Bayaleau Point Cottages, 473/443-7984, carriacoucottages.com, doubles from $85.
Tired of his job as a commodities trader, Dave Goldhill left Manhattan in 1977 for the Caribbean. He taught tennis and bummed around, eventually landing on Carriacou, a sleepy, 13-square-mile island of white-sand beaches in the Grenadines.
"Back then there was just a small community of ex-colonials here," says Dave. "I never imagined I'd meet Ulla." A tall and slender Dane who sailed from Europe to the Caribbean on an 80-foot schooner, Ulla stumbled across Dave in a rum shop in 1984. The two married, had three kids, and bought a piece of oceanfront near the village of Windward.
They built four simple one-room cottages to rent out, painting them in bright shades of red, blue, green, and yellow. Each cottage is a little different (the green one has two full-size beds, star and moon fretwork, and sweeping views of a handful of the Grenadines from its patio), but all are within a minute's walk of the property's small stretch of rock and sand beach. There's a shack at the water's edge where you can grab a kayak and paddle out to a sun-drenched sandbar. Snorkelers spend hours exploring the German fishing boat that ran aground on a nearby reef in 1990.
There's no airport on St. John, and two thirds of the island is a national park. Rather than first-class resorts and first-class service, St. John has earned a reputation for being friendly to both Mother Nature and visitors' budgets.
Cinnamon Bay Campgrounds, 340/776-6330, cinnamonbay.com, bare site $27, tent $80, cottage $140.
Backpackers and families head to Cinnamon Bay on the thickly wooded northern coast for one of its 40 screen-lined cottages (with electricity and four twin beds), 60 canvas tents (cots on hardwood floors), or 26 BYO-tent sites. Everyone shares bathhouses with cold-water showers, and every plot comes with a picnic table and charcoal grill. At night, the trade winds cool things down for a good night's rest.
Maho Bay Camps, 800/392-9004, maho.org, doubles from $120.
Like tree houses for grown-ups, Maho Bay's 114 cottages inspire an oddball form of domesticity. Each canvas-roofed unit comes with linens, cooking utensils, a propane stove, and a rudimentary kitchen. As your morning coffee bubbles in the dented percolator, pelicans float past the window, riding balmy updrafts. Built on stilts, the cottages connect to the beach via stairs and walkways, and it's all so enmeshed in greenery that you can barely see anything man-made from sea level. Daily chores of shaking sand from bedsheets and fetching ice blocks take place against a backdrop of jungled hills plunging to the bay. The water is so clear that even from way up the hillside you can see manta rays and turtles gliding through the shallows.
Like at Cinnamon Bay next door, there are no private bathrooms or hot-water showers. There's also no outdoor lighting to compete with the moon and stars. And the walls are made only of cloth, so the nightly serenade of tree frogs comes from all sides.
Villa Beach Cottages, 758/450-2884, villabeachcottages.com, doubles from $115.
The hour-and-a-half ride from St. Lucia's international airport to the Villa Beach Cottages in a standard taxi is $60, but you'll save $10 if you let one of the Villa Beach drivers do the honors. He or she will also chat you up and buy you a cold Piton--St. Lucia's local brew--along the way.
The special treatment is one of the reasons why owner Colin Hunte's 14 cottages and suites welcome so many repeat guests, some having visited regularly for 20 years. The operation dates to 1958, when Hunte's grandfather bought two former U.S. naval barracks and had them moved to a 40-foot-wide beach on the island's northwestern tip. New buildings have gone up since Colin took over 15 years ago, but he's tried to keep the feel of the originals, incorporating cathedral ceilings, jalousie shutters, and gingerbread woodwork. Most rentals have a private patio with ocean views (on a clear day you can spot Martinique).
Next door at the Wharf, try a roti, a traditional wrap stuffed with beef, chicken, and West Indian spices. For true relaxation, hit one of the hammocks slung at the water's edge and drift off to the sounds of the waves crashing.
Picard Beach Cottages, 767/445-5131, avirtualdominica.com/picard.htm, doubles from $100.
On the northwest coast of "the nature island," a group of 18th-century-style cottages with private verandas rests along a beach of black sand. There's a bucket of water at the doorway of each cottage to help guests keep the dark sand off the white-tile floors inside. The ceilings are high, the walls are stained wood, and there's A/C, a living room, a kitchen, and a separate bedroom. There are 18 units in total (nine right on the beach), and each is surrounded by yellow hibiscus and pink bougainvillea--the same colors on the bedspreads and curtains.
The beach is the star attraction, but the two-century-old British fort and hiking trails at Cabrits National Park, a $6 cab ride away, are close behind. An easy walk from the cottages brings you to an American medical school and a strip of sheds that everyone calls the Shacks. Order spicy grilled chicken, macaroni and cheese, and red beans at Nelson's ($6), some fresh mango, tangerine, or passion fruit juice at A&E, and snack at canopied picnic tables.
Chez Pierre, 242/338-8809, chezpierrebahamas.com, doubles from $130.
Seven years ago, Pierre and Anne Laurence decided to sell their successful Montreal bistro. "Montreal was all about stress and competition," says Pierre. "I wanted a place where I'd have the time to really enjoy myself in the kitchen and tend to my customers." The Laurences found what they were looking for just south of the Tropic of Cancer: eight acres on Long Island, an 80-mile stretch of cliffs, cays, and coves that's only four miles across at its widest point.
Powered entirely by alternative energy (wind and sun), Chez Pierre's six bungalows are spread out along a wide crescent beach. Each has a screened porch overlooking the water, and shutter doors open to a terra-cotta-colored bedroom. At the main house, there's a large wooden deck and a bright, airy restaurant. Needless to say, the food is fantastic--a blend of Bahamian, Italian, and French, highlighting local ingredients and fresh seafood. (Rates include breakfast and dinner; your bar tab is extra.) Bikes, kayaks, and a catamaran are available at no charge. Pierre also helps arrange snorkeling excursions ($50), scuba trips ($125), bonefishing ($250), and rental cars ($60 per day).
Seascape Inn, 242/369-0342, seascapeinn.com, doubles from $132 (with continental breakfast), dinners about $20.
Most of Andros Island is uninhabitable marshland, choked by mangroves and shot through with so many lakes and channels that from the air it looks like a doily. The Seascape Inn, on Andros Island's Mangrove Cay, is within minutes of a 120-mile-long barrier reef (the third largest in the world), making it perfect for diving, fishing, or just dropping out for a week. Each of the property's five cabanas has a small deck facing the white-sand beach. Pass the hours bonefishing from the flats in front of your bungalow (catch and release), exploring the reef by kayak, or pedaling along Mangrove Cay's lone road (bikes and kayaks are free for guests).
You'll typically find Brooklyn-born hosts Mickey and Joan McGowan at the inn's bar and restaurant. Gracious and friendly, the McGowans are clearly thrilled with their choice to move to the Bahamas nine years ago. Mickey sports an impressive collection of cheeky T-shirts ("You are entitled to my opinion" reads one). He's also a PADI-certified instructor, and takes guests out most mornings on his 34-foot boat for a two-tank dive ($75). Joan likes to garden and bake, whipping up muffins and biscuits at dawn and tempting desserts--sometimes pies made with coconuts from the yard--in the afternoon. The rest of the family is four-legged: Bernie, Bebe, and Magoo, a trio of abandoned dogs rescued and spoiled absolutely silly by the McGowans.
Staniel Cay Yacht Club, 954/467-8920, stanielcay.com, doubles from $135, per person all-inclusive $173.
In the center of the 100-mile-long Exuma island chain, a half-hour flight from Nassau, is tiny Staniel Cay, a popular port for the sailing set that's home to just 80 full-time residents. The Yacht Club is a five-minute golf-cart ride from the airstrip (there are only a handful of cars on the island). Couples and families love the club's nine pastel-colored cottages, seven of which have private balconies that jut over the crystal-clear water. There's a small beach next door and more dramatic stretches of sand accessible by foot or golf cart, but most people are here to play skipper.
A Boston Whaler is docked outside each cottage; guests are given a map and encouraged to explore on their own. There are so many deserted islands nearby that the unspoken rule is if a beach is occupied, move on to the next. Thunderball Grotto, where part of the Bond film Thunderball was shot, is a favorite for snorkeling. Just north of the grotto, at Major Spot, surf-swimming pigs will circle your boat, expecting to be fed. Four miles beyond Major there's a group of tame nurse sharks who don't mind posing for pictures.
Though you can pay for lodging and extras à la carte, a package that covers lodging, all meals, taxes and gratuities, a Whaler (with fuel), a golf cart, snorkeling gear, and round-trip transfers is often the better value. The Yacht Club also offers charter flights from Fort Lauderdale ($400 round trip), and you can be here in less than three hours from the mainland--instead of just wishing that you were.
Native American Country in Arizona
The drive up to the mesa-top village of Walpi, on the Hopi Indian Reservation in northern Arizona, takes only a few minutes. But you will remember it for a lifetime. From high-desert flatlands, the rough, narrow road suddenly leaps up the side of a sheer cliff in a couple of twisting jumps, barely clinging to a precipitous drop-off. In centuries past, the Hopis climbed to Walpi's lofty perch on perilous trails to escape their enemies. Today's road, open to visitors, seems only slightly less daunting. A visit to ancient Walpi, which hugs the mesa's rocky tip an awesome 600 feet above the countryside, is just one of many adventures awaiting you on a five-day, 800-mile drive-budget-priced, of course-into Arizona's scenic Indian Country, touring both the Hopi and surrounding Navajo reservations. If you've got another day or two, the nearby Apache tribes also invite visitors. A most affordable adventure Look forward to enjoying plenty of exciting Old West-style fun. But perhaps more important, the trip rewards with an up-close look at the culture and lives of these intriguing peoples, struggling to retain their historic identities in a beautiful but harsh land. If you're lucky, you might catch a ceremonial dance, fair, or rodeo. This educational aspect-a look at Indian culture beyond the cliches fostered by all those Westerns-adds considerable value to the modest prices you'll find in these areas for food and lodging. In a way, entering Navajo and Hopi territories is like visiting a foreign country-make that two foreign countries. They do things differently, and they speak unique languages among themselves. But these are less-distant lands, easily reached by car or a cheap flight to Phoenix. Unlike Europe, they are inexpensive. In summer high season, a room for two people in a quality motel-either on or off the reservations-costs only $60 to $100 a night, often with breakfast included. The price drops to as low as $30 a night if you'll accept a shared bathroom. Everywhere I went, good family restaurants featured full dinners that began at less than $10 per person. I got hooked on Navajo tacos-a huge, plate-size hunk of Indian fry bread liberally topped with ground beef, chopped tomatoes, lettuce, onions, melted cheese, and an optional hot pepper sauce. For about $7, a single serving set in front of me looked like a mini-mountain. Delicious as it was, the hearty dish proved more than I could eat. Just as I would abroad, I sampled all the local foods, which usually proved the cheapest. What I liked best was the chance to meet Navajos and Hopis in their villages. Many are rather shy about talking to tourists. It's just not their way. But you can usually engage in conversation with a potter, wood-carver, or basket-maker, many of whom market their art from their doorsteps. Even if you don't buy-although you will find some terrific bargains-it's interesting to watch them at work. My wife, who collects the colorful, hand-carved kachina (or katsina) dolls of the Hopis, especially enjoys hearing the carvers explain why they chose a particular design. Along the way, you will visit (as we recently did) massive Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "shay"), once a secret labyrinthine refuge for the Navajos, and the equally spectacular Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the red-rock realm where Hollywood director John Ford filmed such Western classics as 1938's Stagecoach, starring John Wayne. The cliff-hanging stone pueblos of the Hopis, such as Walpi, are among the oldest continually inhabited residences in North America. But don't be tempted to snap a photo; the Hopis ban the use of cameras. As you drive, keep an eye out also for Navajo hogans, the traditional six- or eight-sided shelters that many still use. Some are built in the old style with log walls and earthen roofs; others make use of plywood and other modern materials. And stay alert as well for livestock on the road-the Navajos maintain an open range. Cattle, ponies, sheep, and goats roam free without fences. I had to brake quickly one day for a large flock of sheep meandering down an otherwise empty road. They were only shepherded-as far as we could tell-by a small dog. Totaling more than 18 million acres (larger than many states), the Navajo and Hopi reservations occupy an often stark, desertlike landscape, yet one that is surprisingly beautiful in its wide-open emptiness. Almost anywhere you look, odd rock formations thrust skyward, teasing the eye. Lofty mesas give way to deep gorges painted in hues of red and yellow. Pygmy forests of juniper and pi-on, a source of edible nuts for the region's early inhabitants, add splashes of green. I reveled, too, in summer's mild, dry climate. At elevations ranging from 4,000 to 7,500 feet, the area turns chilly enough at night for a sweater. Getting started The logical starting point is Phoenix, served by such discount airlines as Southwest (800/435-9792, southwest.com) and ATA (800/435-9282, ata.com). Although summer is the high season for lodging in northeast Arizona, it's low season in Phoenix because of frequent 100-plus-degree days. You can find a good motel room for no more than $50 near the airport, if needed before or after the drive. Better yet, car rental rates in the desert tend to be a bargain. For a one-week rental in mid-August, Alamo (800/462-5266, alamo.com) quoted the lowest price, $141 for a compact car with unlimited mileage. Next lowest was Enterprise (800/736-8222, enterprise.com) at $144. The lodging rates listed below represent the total cost per night for two people traveling during the peak summer period. Day one Plan to land in Phoenix by early afternoon. This gives you plenty of time to complete the pleasant 190-mile drive northeast via State Routes 87, 260, and 377 to Holbrook, a modest but interesting former frontier town on the southern edge of the Navajo Reservation. Less than an hour from the airport, you climb through a forest of stately saguaro cactus into high, cool mountains, fragrant with the scent of pine. Located just off I-40 along Historic U.S. 66, Holbrook and neighboring Winslow offer the cheapest lodging prices on this drive. I scouted out several motels I could recommend, charging about $50 to $60 a night. But another half dozen or more, in desperate need of refurbishing, advertised single rates as low as $20 a night. It's up to you. In midsummer, they all had vacancy signs lit. To really save, consider making either town your headquarters, visiting the sites on this itinerary as a series of day trips. The two towns are just north of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and west of Petrified Forest National Park. In Holbrook, the livelier of the pair, stay comfortably at the 63-room Econo Lodge (928/524-1448), $49; 61-room Comfort Inn (928/524-6131), $64; or 70-room Best Western Arizonian Inn (928/524-2611), $70. Nearby is Jerry's Restaurant, which features a ham-steak dinner, $7.29. In Winslow, make it the 55-room Motel 6 (928/289-9581), $60; or the 46-room Super 8 (928/289-4606), $53. Falcon, the Family Restaurant, a longtime local favorite, is the place to eat. Try "Steak a la Mexicana," $7.99. Info: Holbrook (928/524-6558), Winslow (928/289-2434). Navajo nation Day two Just 15 miles north of Holbrook, State Route 77 enters into the sprawling Navajo Reservation (or Navajo Nation, as it is also called), the border crossing noted by the rumble of the cattle guard beneath your tires. As if to emphasize the tribe's open-range policy, cattle graze beside the highway, their swishing tails in danger of being whacked by the fender of your Ford. Today's drive covers just 125 miles via State Routes 77 and 15 and U.S. 191 en route to the town of Chinle and the nearby Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Give yourself plenty of time at the canyon. Almost immediately, you'll be captivated by the views, which in this open country seem to stretch forever. Far to the west, a thunderstorm flashes across a flat-topped mesa. Just ahead, strange black cones thrust from a field of sagebrush, geological formations like incipient volcanoes that fizzled centuries ago. My wife and I pointed out the hogans we saw along the road. Often, younger Navajos live nearby in modern houses equipped with electricity and plumbing; their parents or grandparents favor the old ways. About 30 miles from Chinle, take the five-mile detour to Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site. Opened in 1878, it's the oldest continually operating trading post in the Navajo Nation. The main trading area, selling groceries, looks as if it has changed little in 124 years. In the adjacent rug room, browse through stacks of handwoven rugs, noting the variety of traditional designs. The little ones begin at about $95; many larger rugs are priced at $4,500 or more. (Don't worry; down the road, I'll show you cheaper crafts that make fine souvenirs or gifts.) In the visitors center, Mary H. Begay, adorned in tribal jewelry of silver and turquoise, demonstrates the weaver's art, fashioning a rug in the style of the Teec Nos Pos community in New Mexico. In the 1840s, Canyon de Chelly, stretching 26 miles in a maze of passageways, served the Navajo as a stronghold, and the tribe remains protective of it. To enter, you must go with a paid Navajo guide or on an escorted tour-although there is one exception. Most visitors hop aboard one of the tourist trucks outfitted with open-air seats. The truck plows along the sandy road winding beneath the canyon's narrow, 1,000-foot-high red stone walls. A half-day excursion costs about $50 per person. To avoid paying, take the north- or south-rim drives and peer into the canyon from above. You'll be quite satisfied, I promise. The best overlook is at Tsegi on the south rim, which offers an extended view up and down the canyon. Far below, a farmer tends his vegetable garden, and here and there a cow wades in shallow Chinle Wash. I spotted one of those tourist trucks bouncing past in a cloud of dust. To get into the canyon, head for nearby White House Overlook. A 2.5-mile (round-trip) trail descends to the canyon floor, where you can see the White House cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi, who preceded the Navajo here. It's the one descent into the canyon for which you don't need a guide. Chinle's three motels, all inviting, happen to be some of the most expensive on this trip: the 102-room Best Western Canyon de Chelly Inn (800/327-0354), $89; 108-room Holiday Inn (928/674-5000), $99 to $109; and 73-room Thunderbird Lodge (928/674-5841), $101. The Thunderbird cafeteria, a favorite of Navajo families, serves a terrific sirloin-steak plate for under $10. Or stay about 20 minutes north at the 15-room Many Farms Inn (928/781-6362), a school training Navajo youth for hotel careers. A twin-bed room with shared bath costs $30 a night. Contact Navajo information (928/871-6436, discovernavajo.com). Day three Next stop is Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, another red-rock wonder, about 100 miles northwest of Chinle. If you caught John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon on the late-night movie, you'll recognize giant Elephant Butte, John Ford Point, and other odd rock formations rising from the valley floor like modernistic sculptures. To get there, take U.S. 191 to Many Farms, State Route 59 and U.S. 160 to Kayenta, and U.S. 163 to Monument Valley. Admission is $5 per person. For another $25 each, join a Navajo-led van tour, which makes a 17-mile, 90-minute loop through the valley (tours leave from the visitors center). But at no extra cost, tackle the rough, rutted road in your own car-always keeping an eye alert to wandering sheep. On the van tour, which I recommend, the guide provides insights into Navajo life, noting that the valley is sacred to the tribe. He even introduced us to a Navajo woman who invited us into her hogan, furnished in lovely rugs. The closest affordable lodging is in Kayenta, about 25 miles south. Choices are the 54-room Best Western Wetherill Inn (928/697-3231), $108; and the 73-room Hampton Inn (928/697-3170), $89 to $109. At the Wagon Wheel Restaurant, I couldn't resist the "Navajo Burger," two patties on fry bread with beans, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and french fries-a full dinner at $8.95. Drive seven miles south to Tsegi and stay more cheaply at the 58-room Anasazi Inn (928/697-3793), $69. Perched on the edge of a gorge, it boasts great views. In Tuba City, 70 miles south, you'll find three more options: 15-room Dine Inn Motel (928/283-6107), $70; 80-room Quality Inn (928/283-4545), $88; and 32-room Grey Hills Inn (928/283-4450), another hotel training school; with shared bath, $52. Day four Surrounded by the Navajo Nation, the little Hopi Reservation preserves a culture that in many ways is different from the Navajos. For one thing, the Hopis shun irrigation for dry farming, instead nurturing crops that can survive on rainfall. Unfortunately, as is the nature of peoples everywhere, the two neighbors have squabbled for generations over land and other issues. You will get hints of the dispute in tribal newspapers found in shops, gas stations, and cafes. Most Hopis live in 12 villages on or near First, Second, and Third Mesas, three huge rocks shooting up from the valley. From Tuba City, eastbound State Route 264 crosses (in succession) Third and Second Mesas and nudges up against First Mesa. Today's drive, about 130 miles, cuts through Hopi lands on routes 264, 77, and 87, returning you for the night to Holbrook or Winslow. Atop Second Mesa, stop at the Hopi Cultural Center, where a small museum details the tribe's history. Check here about ceremonial dances open to the public. Next door is the reservation's only tourist lodging, the 33-room Hopi Cultural Center Motel (928/734-2401), $90 weekdays, $95 weekends. At the restaurant, I bought a $1.95 package of "piki bread," a flaky, Hopi-style tortilla made of blue corn and baked on a hot stone. Save plenty of time to explore the village of Walpi, high atop First Mesa. Daily 45-minute walking tours ($5) depart frequently from the Ponsi Hall Cultural Center (928/737-2262). Loretta, our guide, explained that the steep road we had just negotiated was built only a few years ago, easing life for the mesa's 200 residents. Most live in two adjoining villages; only five families remain in Walpi, which dates back to 1690. Unlike its neighbors, Walpi lacks running water and electricity. Former residents, living on the valley floor, return on ceremonial occasions. A number of artisans, young and old, sell kachinas and pottery from their homes, usually for considerably less than you would pay off-reservation. We noted their old negotiating tactic of offering one price only to immediately lower it if we didn't seem interested. In this way, my wife paid $50 for a brightly painted Crow Mother kachina, which featured a small image of Walpi. "You can't take photos of the village," said artist Jolie Silas, "so I carve it into my dolls." The best buy, though, is a "cradle" doll, a small kachina traditionally given to newborn girls. At $10 (you may have to bargain), they make a memorable souvenir. Hopi information: 928/734-2401, hopi.nsn.us. Day FIVe: Return to Phoenix, perhaps through Petrified Forest National Park or the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. From Holbrook, take State Routes 77 and 73 south through Fort Apache, connecting to U.S. 60 into Phoenix, about 200 miles. Keep in mind as you drive that Arizona is home to 21 Indian reservations or communities. They might tempt you back on another journey into Native American cultures. Arizona information: 888/520-3434, arizonaguide.com.
Venturing Into West Texas
Panoramic sunsets and whimsical doll museums. Paranormal phenomena and 1940s-era motels. High art and cowboy kitsch. Across the expanses of Big Bend Country, at Texas's extreme southwestern border, attractions run from oddball to sophisticated, quaint to amazing. Mining and ranching towns have transformed themselves into tourist destinations, each locale working its own little niche. Meanwhile, Big Bend National Park, the main draw, needs no gimmick. As the Rio Grande turns east, rough desert converges with mountains, creating a landscape that'd make a giant feel small, an egoist insignificant. Just remember that this kind of isolation doesn't come easy. Marathon, the first stop on this road trip, is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the nearest airport, Midland International. And Midland International isn't what anyone would call a hub. Day one: Midland to Marathon The initial part of the drive from the airport to Marathon is, in a word, hideous. On either side of the road, barbed wire encloses flat oil fields that stretch to the horizon. Only a belch of smoke from the occasional refinery breaks the monotony. Then, somewhere around Fort Stockton, everything changes. The rusty pumps and industrial wasteland disappear in favor of the desert hills and valleys of Big Bend Country. Cactus flowers bloom along the highway and roadrunners periodically scurry across the road. As it materializes in the distance, the tiny town of Marathon (the last syllable rhymes with "sun") looks like nothing more than a few feed stores and mobile homes. But as you arrive in the center, its nature becomes apparent. Upscale shops and galleries line the main street, most in adobe buildings with well-tended gardens. There's even a day spa. A leisurely afternoon helps me adjust to the slow pace of Big Bend Country. When I ask someone to name the most popular entertainments, he says, "Sunset watching and stargazing." I poke about in the shops and galleries, chitchat with locals and other visitors. The name Texas comes from the Spanish word tejas, meaning friend. Although welcome, misanthropes and recluses may find themselves uncomfortable. Two Marathon hotels are attractions in their own right. Opened in 1927 by a prosperous banker, the luxurious Gage Hotel quickly became the region's social epicenter. It eventually fell into disrepair, but a lush 1992 restoration returned the brick-and-adobe structure to its former glory. On any given night, all of Marathon's visitors and quite a few locals gather in the elegant bar and courtyard. Just west of town on I-90, the less expensive Marathon Motel & RV Park has a vintage 1940s ambience, with its original neon sign and windmill. Postcards and posters sold across Big Bend Country feature the sign, which boasts that the rooms have TVs. From a small wooden building on the premises, the owner also operates what is pretty much the only radio station available out here (100.1 FM). When I knock on the door, the DJ/desk clerk invites me inside the booth for a tour and offers to take my requests. The motel's adobe courtyard has a fireplace and a shrine to the Virgin Mary; it's a great place to enjoy the sunsets, which are straight out of a Technicolor Western. Afterward, I head back to the Gage for dinner, drinks, and, indeed, stargazing. Day two: Marathon to Terlingua The drive to Big Bend National Park takes about 45 minutes; the entrance is nothing more than a small gate, usually unattended. (Park headquarters is at Panther Junction, another 30 minutes' drive.) Once inside the gate, most evidence of civilization vanishes. Gone are the fences and livestock, leaving only the brutal desert and distant mountains and mesas. Vultures circle overhead, but the cactus flowers that splash the land in yellow and purple somehow make them less intimidating. The speed limit drops to 45 mph, and I follow it. I'm tempted to go faster, but driving at lower speeds prevents pollution, and gives me a chance to stop for the two coyotes that dash in front of my car. The park teems with wildlife, and if you don't see a coyote, you'll likely see a deer or a javelina (also called a peccary). Though they're plump and pig-like, javelinas aren't pigs; park rangers insist they're only distantly related. Native only to the American Southwest, these non-pigs inhabit every corner of the park, moving about in groups and eating prickly pears. They're the mammals most often spotted by visitors. Just don't approach: They smell mighty bad. The 801,163-acre park can't be seen in a day, so I choose to explore the green and mountainous Chisos Basin. Its temperatures tend to be moderate and its trails well maintained, and it's home to the only full-service restaurant in the park. The Basin's twisty mountain roads (with the prerequisite daunting precipices) mark the beginning of bear and mountain lion country, but the map assures me that sightings are rare and attacks rarer. I take the medium-level Window Trail hike, which winds into the basin and affords utterly gorgeous views of the mountains, the desert, and waterfalls caused by recent rains. In the midafternoon, I drive into Terlingua, historic ghost town and self-styled chili capital of the world, famous for an annual cook-off. Skip the newer part of town, with its souvenir stands and river outfitters, and drive to the ghost town proper. Its squat stone buildings are on the side of a hill a few miles up the road. Most have been restored by artists and other eccentrics. Walking around the old mining village is encouraged, but signs warn you not to disturb the many private residences. Public buildings include the former jail (converted into restrooms), a partially renovated church, and an upscale gallery. My favorite spot is the peaceful, crumbling cemetery, where rocky graves and makeshift crosses memorialize doomed fortune hunters. If you have a yen to shop, the Terlingua Trading Company sells souvenirs to fit every budget--from small carved crosses ($6) to unassuming woven baskets ($600). After carefully putting down the basket, I wonder if some of the adventure tourists milling around might have more cash than their looks imply. Day three: Terlingua to Marfa Marfa, the ranchers' town made famous by the 1956 movieGiant, attracts visitors on three fronts. It has the James Dean connection (he lived here during filming). The town also has the Marfa Mystery Lights, unexplained colored lights that appear outside of town. Then there's the art: Marfa is home to one of the world's largest private art installations. After a quick stop for coffee at the Marfa Book Company, I arrive in time for the Chinati Foundation tour. Big-shot minimalist artist Donald Judd set up the Chinati in 1986 so he and select cronies could show large-scale, permanent works. He chose an old cavalry base for the cheap land, cavernous buildings, and lovely vistas. Judd created big aluminum boxes and laid them out in rows, while his friend Dan Flavin made fluorescent-light displays. The Chinati can only be seen via guided tours Wednesday through Sunday. Part 1 starts at 10 a.m. and lasts for a couple of hours. After a lunch break, Part 2 begins at 2 p.m. Good shoes, sunglasses, and water are recommended; the walks between buildings are long. Minimalist art isn't for everyone. I like it rather than love it, and when the effusive praise of aluminum boxes becomes too much, I can at least admire Judd's ambition and the enthusiasm of the art scenesters who make the pilgrimage. Back in town, I peek in the lobby of the Hotel Paisano, decorated with enough animal heads and leather furniture to make a rancher proud. It's where the cast of Giant, including James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor, stayed during filming. The movie is perpetually screened in the lobby, and you can buy related T-shirts and trinkets at the front desk. After sundown, I go in search of the Marfa Lights. First reported in the 1880s, the lights dart and bounce above the ranch land between Marfa and Presidio. Or so they say. Different people have different explanations: reflecting headlights, swamp gases, evidence of alien visitors and/or government conspiracy. Assorted tourists and I wait at a viewing center west of town on Highway 90, but a local says that going east of town on 90 gives you the best odds of seeing them. I try that, too. It's rather like waiting for Godot. Day four: Marfa to Midland Since I have a late-afternoon flight, I stop at Fort Davis, a countrified resort town near the Davis Mountains. Stables offering trail rides are plentiful, and the shops sell plaques with aphorisms like never squat with your spurs on. Astronomers consider isolated Fort Davis "the darkest place in the lower 48," or so says a guide at the University of Texas's impressive McDonald Observatory. Touring the giant telescopes pleases the scientific part of my personality the way the Chinati pleased the artsy side. If you're not into telescopes, outdoorsy attractions include Davis Mountains State Park and the Fort Davis National Historic Site. Meanwhile, the free Neill Doll Museum nearby houses a strange, impressive collection. I head back to Midland through some lovely mountains and ranch land. Savor the view: Midland and Odessa's industrial scenery reappears before you know it. Finding your way Midland International is served by Sun Country, Continental, Southwest, and American Eagle; many flights connect via Houston or Dallas. Fall is high season: Rains cause the desert to bloom and the air to cool. 1. Midland international to Marathon 168 miles Arrive early: Marathon is over two hours from Midland/ Odessa. Take I-20 west to Hwy. 18. At Fort Stockton, get on Hwy. 385 south to Marathon. Stay at the Gage Hotel, the Marathon Motel, or the Adobe Rose Inn. Meals at the Gage are $20-$30 per person, but the food and ambience are excellent. Marcie's Kitchen, at the Marathon Motel, serves only breakfast. 2. Marathon to Terlingua 110 miles From Marathon, take Hwy. 385 to the west entrance to Big Bend. Leave the park via the western gate and Hwy. 118. Take Hwy. 170 to the Terlingua ghost town and Lajitas. Chisos Mountains Lodge is the only full-service restaurant in Big Bend, but all the stores sell snacks and sandwiches. (Cell phones rarely work, and the heat kills, so bring plenty of water. Carry cash because there are no ATMs.) The Hungry Javelina, a roadside stand on Hwy. 170, serves burgers and hot dogs. Dinner at the Starlight Theatre and Bar in Terlingua is a must. There are no hotels in the ghost town, but there are a few nearby. Stay inside the park at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, or near Terlingua at the Chisos Mining Company or the Longhorn Ranch Motel. 3. Terlingua to Marfa 110 miles From Terlingua, take Hwy. 118 to Alpine, then U.S. 90 west to Marfa. Grab coffee downtown before heading to the Chinati Foundation. Stay at Hotel Paisano or the Riata. Jett's, in Hotel Paisano, serves decent American food. 4. Marfa to Midland 200 miles Take Hwy. 17 to Fort Davis (about 20 miles). Continue on Hwy. 17. Sometime after Balmorhea, it will become I-10 for a few miles; take Hwy. 17 north, when it exits I-10, to Pecos. At Pecos, get on I-20 east and it'll lead you to the airport. The ride from Fort Davis takes approximately three-and-a-half hours.
Insiders' Guide to Lake Superior
For much of the way around massive Lake Superior, the highway edges so closely-and so continuously-to the shoreline that I could almost imagine I was piloting a high-powered speedboat rather than my mundane little rental car. I dashed in and out of hidden coves, anchored (well, parked) at sunny beaches, splashed through a sudden, blinding rainsquall, and reveled hour after hour in the beauty of the seascapes in front of me. Could a sailor in a real boat have had it much better? If you love the sea, a five-day, 1,400-mile circle drive around Superior-the largest body of clean, fresh water in the world-is a terrific and inexpensive way to indulge that fancy. Good lodging and dining come at budget prices, especially along the Canadian side of the lake. I stayed in a small, beautifully maintained motel with a view in the village of Wawa, Ontario, for just CAD$62 (US$42, tax included). A savory dinner at the nearby Cedar Hof Dining Lounge, one of the province's most popular restaurants, set me back an easy CAD$15.95 (US$10.85). Beyond this, much of what you will want to see or do is free, or almost so. I was surprised and, yes, dazzled by the abundance of spectacular waterfalls dotting the way. Most are located in state or provincial parks, where the entrance fees are nominal. Countless rivers cascade from high ridges just before they empty into the lake. I popped in and out of my car again and again to catch the never-ending show. In Minnesota, I paid $4 (per car) for an all-day pass to a half-dozen waterfall parks. This is a drive into wilderness country, a winding route through the still mostly pristine land of the deep North Woods. The famed Voyageurs-the fur-trading canoe men who passed this way in the late eighteenth century-might feel quite at home, even today. If you circle the lake counterclockwise, as I did, the lake on your left seems as wide and forbidding as the ocean. On the right, thick evergreen forests, both awesome and intimidating, march in unbroken ranks to the distant horizon. For miles, nothing seems changed from the past except the highway ahead and all those big, yellow road signs warning you to be alert to moose in your path. I never did see one. Not surprisingly, the lakeside towns cater year-round to outdoorsy folks. In summer, take gear to hike, fish, bicycle, canoe, and kayak. Some may be brave enough to plunge briefly into the frigid waters of Superior. (I made it in up to my knees.) But many smaller lakes just off the highway promise sandy beaches and warmer swimming. Winter brings the snowmobile crowd and cross-country skiers. This is a land, too, of fascinating tales. Maritime museums and historic lighthouses tell the sometimes tragic story of Great Lakes shipping; hundreds of ships have gone down in these vast waters. Some wrecks have never been found. At Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, watch freighters navigate the historic Soo Locks linking Lakes Superior and Huron. Tour the rebuilt fort of the early Voyageurs at Minnesota's Grand Portage National Monument. The Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth puts the spotlight on giant lake sturgeon and other Great Lakes species. None of these places will dent your budget. And, oh, yes, once or twice a day a Las Vegas-style casino will tempt you inside. I'd like sudden wealth, too-but keeping to a tight budget, I set a limit of $20 total, which I lost, a few quarters at a time. It's my way of having a bit of gaming fun without regrets. Getting started Since this is a circle drive, start almost anywhere and loop back again. I began in Sault Ste. Marie, because I got what I thought was a bargain airfare from my hometown. But I was socked with a heavy car-rental bill because, after paying for a nonrefundable ticket, I learned that both rental agencies at the airport limited me to 800 free miles, and I drove more than 1,100. Dumb planning on my part. Subsequently, my Internet research suggested Minneapolis as a starting point, offering a combination of good airfares and car rentals. The drawback is that Minneapolis is 150 miles from Lake Superior in Duluth. You add 300 miles round trip to the distance I covered. The Minneapolis-St. Paul airport is served by four discount airlines: AirTran Airways, America West Airlines, American Trans Air, and Frontier Airlines. When I checked, four car-rental agencies were offering a week's compact rental with unlimited miles for about $160. They were Budget (800/527-0700), $153; Enterprise (800/736-8222), $150; Alamo (800/327-9633), $159; and Payless (800/729-5377), $169. I paid $72 for gas. I've routed this drive counterclockwise. From Duluth east to Sault Ste. Marie, lake views are somewhat limited because no road clings continuously to the shoreline. But from Sault Ste. Marie north and west back to Duluth-a distance of about 700 miles-you're rarely out of sight of the lake. The trip may start off slowly, but it ends with a bang. To some, the daily distances might seem somewhat long. But mostly the drive covers lightly traveled roads through little-populated areas. Before you go, order a free copy of the 77-page Lake Superior Circle Tour Adventure Guide, which describes things to see and do. Contact any of the tourism offices mentioned below or pick up a copy at the first information center you come to. On the road Day one Minneapolis to Duluth, 150 miles. Catch an early flight to Minneapolis to give you time in the afternoon to explore Duluth's exciting Lake Superior waterfront. Duluth is the leading Great Lakes port-about 1,000 lake and ocean vessels call here annually-and one of the busiest in the country. Make your first stop the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, a free U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facility at Canal Park in downtown Duluth. It provides an excellent introduction to shipping lore. You might catch a freighter sailing into port; the museum posts an updated schedule of expected arrivals and departures. Most ships enter empty and depart full. I was particularly interested in a large, illuminated map that helped me identify the harbor's major terminals. The Midwest Energy Terminal loads coal brought by train from Montana onto carriers supplying electricity-generating plants in the lower Great Lakes. Iron and coal are the two most important cargoes. There are also six grain elevators capable of holding 55 million bushels. Elsewhere in Canal Park, step aboard the William A. Irvin (adults, $6.75), a former iron ore and coal carrier turned museum ship, for a 60-minute escorted tour. Save an hour for another Canal Park attraction, the Great Lakes Aquarium & Freshwater Discovery Center ($8.95). Here I learned that Superior is about 350 miles long, 160 miles wide, and holds 3 quadrillion gallons of water. I suppose the huge, whiskered lake sturgeon-almost as big as sharks-feel a bit cramped, even in the aquarium's giant, 103,000-gallon tank. And while at Canal Park, enjoy dinner at one of its busy restaurants. Little Angie's Cantina & Grill offers a nice roasted-chicken enchilada plate ($8.99), served outside on the lake-view deck. Or walk uphill to the Radisson Hotel, which features a revolving rooftop restaurant, called JJ Astor, with sweeping harbor views. With the early-bird special (4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday through Thursday), every entree is $7.95. Details From Minneapolis, take I-35 north, exiting at Canal Park. Stay just off I-35 at the 99-room Motel 6 (218/723-1123), $45 weekdays/$53 weekends; or the 59-room Super 8 (218/628-2241), $82 weekdays/$91 weekends. For dining, see above. Information: 800/4-DULUTH, www.visitduluth.com. A mini-cruise Day two Duluth via Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Bayfield, Wisconsin, to Marquette, Michigan, 300 miles. Get an early start to catch a budget-priced mini-cruise at Apostle Islands. En route, the road scrambles alongside Superior; stretch your legs in the little port towns of Port Wing, Herbster, and Cornucopia. Outside Bayfield, the road passes acres of strawberry patches. Buy a pint for snacking. Apostle Islands is a cluster of 21 mostly unpopulated islands just offshore from Bayfield, a pretty town draped gracefully across a forested hillside. One way to see the islands is by tour boat; the three-hour "grand tour" (10 a.m. to 1 p.m.) costs $39.95. Or save by taking the 20-minute ferry crossing ($8 round trip) to Madeline Island, the easiest of the Apostles to reach. The ferry docks at La Point, a tiny village of shops and caf,s. The ride is short, but it's your chance to get on the water cheaply. After crossing into Michigan, look for Van Riper State Park ($4 per car), just east of the town of Michigamme. Break up the drive here with a swim at the park's fine sand beach. No, the lake's not Superior, but it's a lot warmer. In Marquette, head for the Marquette Maritime Museum ($5) overlooking Superior to learn more about legendary shipwrecks, such as the freighter Henry B. Smith, which vanished in 1913. Then join the museum's escorted tour of the still-operating Marquette Harbor Lighthouse. Details From Duluth, take I-535 east into Wisconsin, linking to U.S. 53 and U.S. 2 east. After 15 miles, take State 13 north and east to Bayfield and Apostle Islands. Continue on Route 13 until it rejoins U.S. 2. Head east on U.S. 2 to Wakefield, Michigan, picking up State 28 into Marquette. Stay at the 41-room Brentwood Motor Inn Budget Host (800/999-7055), $48; the 52-room Value Host Motor Inn (800/929-5996), $55; or the 80-room Super 8 Motel (906/228-8100), $67. For seaport flavor, try the Portside Inn in downtown Marquette; the chicken quesadilla plate is $10.95. Information: 800/544-4321, www.marquettecountry.org. On to Canada Day three Marquette via Sault Ste. Marie to Wawa, Ontario, 315 miles. About 40 miles down the road, the little port city of Munising is the departure point for a two-and-a-half-hour cruise off Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (10 a.m., $25). The park is named for a 15-mile-long wall of brightly hued shoreline rock, which centuries of harsh Great Lakes weather has carved into arches, spires, and other odd shapes. Or admire good land-based views of the cliffs from Miners Castle, a large rock formation reached by car. No entrance fee here. If you missed touring the museum ship in Duluth, a second chance awaits aboard the Museum Ship Valley Camp ($8) in Sault Ste. Marie. An ore carrier built in 1917, it's now open for self-guided tours. Climb to the pilothouse to get a captain's view of the huge vessel. Five blocks east, visit the Soo Locks Visitor Center, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facility, where you might see a freighter bound up-lake or down. The locks can average about 16 ships a day. A small museum describes how they work. Cross the International Bridge into Canada for the return drive west along Superior's wild North Shore. For two days, the lake rarely will be out of view. Ahead is a ruggedly majestic realm of rocky coves, pebbled beaches, high cliffs, countless small lakes, endless miles of tall firs, and Superior's sparkling blue waters. At Lake Superior Provincial Park, south of Wawa, stop at Agawa Rock ($4 per car). A short, rough trail descends steeply to the rock, a towering boulder at water's edge. A historic site, it bears many red-ocher paintings made by ancient Ojibwa Indians (as the Chippewas are known in Canada). But beware: The wave-washed viewing ledge can be slippery. Three long ropes have been installed so that those who tumble from the ledge into the lake can pull themselves back up the steep side. In Wawa, I got a chuckle out of a trio of giant geese, emblematic sculptures standing as tall as a house. In the Ojibwa language, Wawa means "land of the goose." At day's end, relax with a swim in lovely Wawa Lake in the heart of town. No charge. Details From Marquette, continue east on State 28 to I-75 north into Sault Ste. Marie. Cross the International Bridge and follow the signs to Canada 17 west (the Trans-Canada Highway) to Wawa. Stay just south of Wawa at the 14-room Mystic Isle Motel (800/667-5895), CAD$62/US$42; or in Wawa at the 32-room Big Bird Inn (705/856-2342), CAD$54/US$37; or the 18-room Algoma Motel (705/856-7010), CAD$62/US$42. Dine at the renowned Cedar Hof Dining Lounge, specializing in German dishes. Enjoy the Wiener schnitzel plate with homemade spaetzle, CAD$15.95/US$10.85. Information: 800/367-9292, ext. 260, www.wawa.cc. Into the North Woods Day four Wawa to Thunder Bay, 300 miles. A great day for sailing, even behind the wheel of a rented car. Skirt broad bays, crest lofty ridges, and plunge into the awesome North Woods. This leg ranks as one of the finest water-view drives in the world. At Terrace Bay, stretch your legs on the short hike to Aguasabon Falls, where a slender stream cascades over a steep cliff into a sheer-walled canyon. At Rainbow Falls Provincial Park, hike through dense woods to a pair of waterfalls splashing down a narrow, rocky channel. Elsewhere in the park, swim in the warm (sort of) water of Whitesand Lake. At Ouimet Canyon Provincial Park (CAD$1/US66> per person), take the one-mile loop trail to a viewing platform overlooking the impressively deep chasm. Details From Wawa, stick to Canada 17 all the way. Stay in Thunder Bay at the 50-room Super 8 (807/344-2612), CAD$75/US$51; or the 60-room Best Western Crossroads Motor Inn (807/577-4241), CAD$95/US$65. Dine elegantly at the Timbers at the Valhalla Inn. The evening buffet is CAD$14.95/US$10.15. The maple-glazed pork chop entr,e, ... la carte, CAD$20/US$13.60. Information: 800/667-8386, www.visitthunderbay.com. Waterfall way Day five Thunder Bay via Duluth to Minneapolis, 350 miles. For the first 200 miles, the road hugs the lake. But here it is overshadowed by the many roadside waterfalls. The first is just inside the U.S. border at Grand Portage State Park. An easy, ten-minute walk leads to the thundering High Falls of the Pigeon River. The one-day fee ($4 per car) is good for all Minnesota state parks. At nearby Grand Portage National Monument ($3), pause briefly for a history lesson. In 1784, this protected bay became the site of a major fur-trading post. Each spring until 1803, Montreal fur buyers journeyed here in canoes paddled by a backwoods navy of Great Lakes Voyageurs. They rendezvoused with the traders, who bought furs from the Indians. To reach the fort, the traders had to portage the last eight miles. A stockade fence, the Great Hall, kitchen, and other structures have been rebuilt, and costumed interpreters re-create frontier life. I spent an interesting half hour with Erik Simula, a birch-bark-canoe maker in buckskin, who introduced me to the fine art of harvesting and thrashing Minnesota wild rice. Afterward, stop at Judge C. R. Magney State Park, where a mighty waterfall disappears into the open mouth of Devil's Kettle, a pot-like rock formation. Turn in again at Cascade River and Temperance River State Parks for more waterfall hikes. At Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, climb the stairs of a restored lighthouse. At Gooseberry Falls State Park, scramble on the rocks at the foot of yet another grand tumble of water. Back in Duluth, celebrate the end of the drive with a final Superior view. And then head for Minneapolis and home. Details From Thunder Bay, take Route 61 south, connecting at the U.S. border to Minnesota 61 south. In Duluth, pick up I-35 south to Minneapolis.
Gaming in Nevada: Time to Think Reno
What comes to mind when you think about a casino vacation? If it's 3,000-room megaresorts, celebrity chefs, and pirate battles, then you may have been among the almost 34 million people who visited Las Vegas last year. Thirty-four million! Now for some, that's just dandy - the bigger the party, the better. But lately, even dyed-in-the-felt Vegasphiles have been grousing that their beloved casino haunt is being overrun now that the last of the several new 4,000-room hotels has opened. Time to think about an alternative? Time to think Reno. Think Reno and you won't conjure images of fire spewing and waters spouting from man-made volcanoes and lakes. You'll first entertain more modest associations, such as three-digit room counts, employees who smile, and a great oyster bar at John Ascuaga's Nugget in the neighboring city of Sparks. But these are just warm-ups to the Reno area's main event, which is anything but man-made: an outdoor wonderland of golf, skiing, and sightseeing, compliments of two dozen links, a score of downhill resorts, snow-capped mountains, and an alpine lake without peer. Dubbed the "Biggest Little City in the World" in 1927, Reno is no Las Vegas, but it doesn't try to be. The city has developed its own style based on its most marketable attributes: outdoor beauty, recreational opportunities, a come-as-you-are casualness, and affordability. And is it ever affordable! The area's large number of casinos ensures a high level of competition, which sets Reno's bargain quotient at a level second only to its big-sister city to the south. Two ways to win The key to enjoying Reno is knowing what to expect. If you're used to Las Vegas, you have to be prepared for the differences. For example, Las Vegas boasts 18 of the world's largest hotels. Reno has none; its largest hotel is the 2,000-room Hilton (not even in the Las Vegas top 20). Remember that lofty 34-million visitor count? Reno turnstiles admitted a mere 5.1 million last year. In almost every manner, the pace is slower and the glitz factor is lower. As one wise soul put it: If Las Vegas is a sparkling diamond, then Reno is a partially polished peridot. Still reading? Then you're a candidate to honestly love Reno. There are two ways. The first and most reliable is to use the city as a home base for day trips. Reno is the perfect gateway, not only to the Sierra Nevadas, Lake Tahoe, and the ski areas, but for a sightseeing excursion to Virginia City, or even an extended trip to San Francisco or Northern California's wine country, both about 200 miles away. The second way is to simply go to Reno for Reno, taking advantage of the best that the 30 or so casinos in the area have to offer, perhaps coordinating a visit with one of the city's nonstop summer events. Whatever your base strategy, planning in advance will pay big dividends. The first move is to obtain the "Reno, Sparks, Lake Tahoe Visitor Planner." No casino locale has an informational guide in the same league as this one. And it's free. A toll-free call to 800/FOR-RENO will secure it in quick order. The planner provides extensive hotel descriptions and vitals, RV parks, special-events listings, suggested sightseeing itineraries, maps (both city and area), a list of travel wholesalers you can query for package-rate savings, and some stunning photos that will fire you up about your trip. You can also log on to the tourism authority's very good Web site at www.renolaketahoe.com. High-end rooms at bargain rates Upscale or downtown-and-dirty? Unless you want to go the ultra-bargain route, the best combo of price and quality is captured by going for the gusto. The good news is that upscale prices in Reno still qualify as bargain-rate lodging. In a random (mid-summer) check of hotel rates for this article, the most expensive we could come up with for standard rooms was $119 on the weekend and $65 on a weekday, both at Harrah's (800/ HARRAHS). Those were the highest! Weekday/weekend rates of $49/$79 at John Ascuaga's Nugget (800/648-1177), $49/$89 at the Reno Hilton (800/648-5080), $49/$99 at the Atlantis (800/723-6500), and $59/$109 at the Peppermill (800/648-6992) qualify as downright steals. Now is as good a time as any to mention that these latter four hotel-casinos are the cream of the Reno crop. All are perimeter joints, two situated to the east (Nugget and Hilton) and two to the south (Atlantis and Peppermill) of downtown, which contains the primary casino concentration. Downtown Reno has had a tough go of it in the recent past, during which many of the older Reno casinos have closed for good. Gone are the Mapes, Nevada Club, Riverside, Virginian, Riverboat, Holiday, even the famous Harolds Club. Using its huge Bowling Stadium as an anchor, downtown hopes to mount a comeback with the dozen casinos that remain, but for now, there's not much to recommend it. Of course, the financial inducement to take the downtown-and-dirty route can be mighty. Our survey found weekday rates of $49 at the Eldorado (800/648-5966), $32 at both the Sundowner (800/648-5490) and Pioneer (800/879-8879), and $24 at Fitzgeralds (800/535-LUCK). If you're using Reno as a home base, there's a great case to be made for spending $24 a night simply to store your gear and crash at the end of the day. Truth is, Reno is an easy town to rate-shop, so all you really need is a general idea of what's where to evaluate the prices you encounter. The core of downtown contains Harrah's, the Flamingo Hilton (800/648-4882), Cal-Neva Virginian (877/777-7303), Fitzgeralds, Circus Circus (800/648-5010), Eldorado, and the relatively new Silver Legacy (800/687-7733). The latter three are linked via elaborate skywalks housing restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and shops; together they constitute the focal point of downtown. Located away from the core, on the downtown's outskirts are the Comstock (800/266-7862), Pioneer, Ramada (888/RENO-777), Sands Regency (800/648-3553), and Sundowner. You'll find lower prices here because the locations are less convenient. To the east and south perimeter casinos already mentioned, add the Silver Club (800/905-7774) and Western Village (800/648-1170) in Sparks, and way out some ten miles west of town, the burgeoning Boomtown (800/648-3790), and you've got the whole roster of Reno-Sparks hotels. Upscale meals, moderately priced Filling up a dining card in Reno isn't difficult. Excluding the rock-bottom plays detailed later (see our section called "Bargains on Parade," further along in the article), there are two must-dos. The first is John's Oyster Bar at John Ascuaga's Nugget. Open since 1959 and operating out of the same location since 1979, John's recipe for awesome seafood soups hasn't changed in four decades. The restaurant's inspiration was New York City's Oyster Bar at Grand Central, but try getting an oyster pan roast, overflowing with the little critters, at Grand Central for $9.95! Chowders, cocktails, Louies, and oysters on the half-shell are served with half-loaves of fresh bread and an update of the day's events compliments of the in-house-produced Today's Noon News. Dine early and there's a good chance you'll see John himself sampling the wares; on rare occasions, you might even spot him doing a bit of cooking. Must-do number two is a trip to Louis' Basque Corner. Northern Nevada has a rich Basque heritage, and the area is peppered with restaurants serving the region's unique cuisine-lamb, tongue, oxtails, rabbit, paella - at long tables in the traditional all-you-can-eat family style. But Louis' is the top choice: It has the formula down, the price is right (about $16 for dinner), and it's only a two-block stroll from the center of town. Reno's buffet scene has taken a little longer than Las Vegas's to catch fire, but the creativity gap is beginning to close. The best spreads in town, ordered by price (from $10 to $15 for dinner), are at the Peppermill, Ascuaga's Nugget, Atlantis, and Eldorado. Also recommended is the incredible Baldini's (800/845-7911) value buffet discussed below, and the famous steak buffet at the Silver Club. Though pedestrian in general, the Silver Club's $6.99-er comes with all the sirloin steak you can stomach. And these aren't skinny shoe-leather jobs, mind you, but slabs thick enough to get them cooked, according to the grill chef, "exactly the way you want, if you're lucky." Moving up to the low high-end, there are the good value-priced steak houses, such as those at the Sundowner, Cal-Neva Virginian, and Western Village. Many of these offer neat little early-bird menus that chop an already puny tab in half. Recommended mid-rangers include La Strada (Italian) at the Eldorado, Art Gecko (Southwestern) at Circus Circus, Orozko (Mediterranean) at Ascuaga's Nugget, and the venerable Steakhouse Grill, also at the Nugget, where a toteboard tells you that 3,186,576 steaks (whoops, make that 3,186,577..., 578..., 579) have been served since 1956. Two gorgeous Italian restaurants, MonteVigna at Atlantis and Romanza at the Peppermill, take it to the next level. And for the biggest dent Reno can levy on your wallet, head to the Peppermill's highly rated White Orchid. But a scanty club scene Whereas Reno holds its own in the food department, its entertainment situation is significantly less developed. This is not a place to find the latest in touring musicals, high-tech production shows, top-flight impressionists, or cutting-edge magic. In fact, there's barely even a star presence. Only the Celebrity Showroom at Ascuaga's Nugget maintains a regular schedule of headliners, even if the likes of Robert Goulet, David Brenner, and Tony Orlando seem about ten years removed from their showroom heydays. Reno showrooms are "intimate," and tend to house small-scale production shows that seem to mark time between the appearances of the occasional second-tier headliner. In a pinch, you can always count on the tried-and-true comedy clubs, of which there's usually more than one to choose from on any given night. Taking up some of the slack is a vigorous nightclub and bar scene. Finally, if you really want the Vegas-style show up north, you can take the ride to Lake Tahoe, where the stars still come out. Bargains on parade One universal trait of bona fide casino destinations is the availability of the super bargain. Since the goal is to hook you on the fishline of one of the negative-expectation casino games, it's necessary to throw out some bait. Reno's got the tactic down cold. With only about a third of the Las Vegas casino count, Reno deals aren't as numerous, but in a head-to-head comparison of each city's best, David may actually beat Goliath. The first place that comes to mind when discussing Reno food specials is the Cal-Neva Virginian, where the granddad of local breakfasts, the 99[cent] bacon-and-eggs special, is still available daily from 10 p.m. till 8 a.m. in the Top Deck restaurant. This breakfast is such a standard in Reno that it constituted legitimate big news when 24-hour availability was rescinded earlier this year, replaced during prime time with a $1.74 version ("with more bacon"). You can also treat yourself to a big hot dog and bottle of Heineken at the Gridiron Grill for $1.50; Cal-Neva claims to be the largest seller of one-bottle-at-a-time Heineken in the entire country. The Cal-Neva's trump card, though, is another Top Deck special that even Las Vegas couldn't sustain: A complete steak dinner for $1.99, available from 10 p.m. till 6 a.m. It's an eight-ounce sirloin steak, rolls, vegetable, choice of potato (including baked), and one trip to the salad bar. You'll want to save the check, displaying a tab of $2.13 after tax, as a souvenir. Stiff competition comes from Baldini's, a quirky locals' casino located halfway between downtown and Sparks, where Pepsi is so prevalent (a la Cal-Neva's Heineken) that it all but doubles as currency. Baldini's has 49[cents] hot dogs, 89[cent] burgers, a dozen chicken wings for $2, and a whole rotisserie chicken for $4.99. But its claim to fame is a buffet with a taco bar, a baked potato bar, and a working Mongolian grill, where cooks stir-fry beef, chicken, and pork with a vegetable mix of your choosing. A few other casino buffets have Mongolian grills, but not with prices like $3.99 for breakfast, $5.99 for lunch, and $6.99 for dinner. It gets better. Kids are half-price, you get a card good for a 25 percent discount on unlimited visits just for signing up for the slot club, and you can get half off the price of your first buffet with a coupon from Baldini's "Super Bonus" funbook (you'll need out-of-state ID and a voucher available at the tourist center in the Bowling Stadium). The diner at the back of the little Nugget slot joint in downtown Reno hasn't changed in nearly 45 years. Eighteen red stools face the counter and another eighteen face the back wall. Try the "Awful Awful" burger for $3.50, or the chef's special dinner, which changes daily, for $3.95. The Sundowner's $1.99 plate of spaghetti with garlic toast, available 24 hours a day, is another that's been around forever. Back to Plan A It would take another article of this size to thoroughly explore all the possibilities in the Reno-as-gateway scenario. The key trip you should take, if only to look around, is the 40-mile jaunt (plus another 20 to the casinos on the south shore) to Lake Tahoe. The payoff for the steep climb up and over majestic Mt. Rose is a view of the lake suitable for memory framing. This sight is surpassed only by the breathtaking visage of Tahoe's Emerald Bay. To call the Lake Tahoe recreational area an outdoorsman's paradise doesn't begin to do it justice. Golf in summer and skiing in winter? Duh! Try 10 golf courses and 13 alpine ski resorts, a number of them world-class. Now add bicycling, hiking, swimming, speedboating, sailing, rafting, waterskiing, windsurfing, jet skiing, scuba diving, sport fishing, bungee jumping, skydiving, horseback-riding, tennis, bowling, ballooning, paragliding, rock-climbing, cross-country skiing, sleigh riding, snowboarding, ice skating, and snowmobiling. Do one, do all - possibly in overlapping seasons. If you expend a little effort, you can find all sorts of ways to package these activities for big cost savings. Last May, for example, Fitzgeralds advertised $49 and $59 ski packages to Mt. Rose, Alpine Meadows, or Squaw Valley that included a room at the casino, all-day lift ticket, and transportation. The tourism authority produces several planning guides to specific activities. You can track them down via the main planner and Web site referenced earlier. Advantage play "Advantage play" is a gambling term that describes any method for getting an edge at a casino game. The concept can also be applied to a trip to a casino destination. Advantage play for Reno begins the moment you book your flight. Try to get a seat on the left side of the airplane. Depending on your approach path, you'll be rewarded with a great aerial view of either Lake Tahoe or the city. And don't run straight for a cab at the airport. Unlike Las Vegas, almost all the Reno casinos provide airport shuttles (plus, Tahoe Express shuttles travelers from the airport to Lake Tahoe's south shore about a dozen times a day). Right off the bat, pick up one of the freebie magazines (e.g. Best Bets or Fun & Gaming) and page through it immediately. They're great sources for entertainment leads and discount coupons for shows and meals. Also, visit the tourist center at the Bowling Stadium for more of the same. If you come with kids, the best arcades are at Atlantis, Reno Hilton, and Boomtown. The best book to read before you come is the Nevada Handbook by Deke Castleman. The best place to get a book once you get there is Ron Teston's Gambler's Book Store at First and Virginia. The biggest special events are the Reno Rodeo in June, Hot August Nights in August, and the Best-in-the-West Rib Cook-off, Great Reno Balloon Race, and the National Championship Air Races in September. For a cool diversion, have lunch, dinner, or a drink at the Liberty Belle Saloon and Restaurant, which is named after the first slot machine, developed in 1898 by Charles Fey. The bar's owned by two of Fey's grandsons, and on display are some of the inventor's machines, including his Liberty Belle. And finally, whatever you do, check out the great bathrooms next to the Romanza restaurant at the Peppermill. Trust us.