The Secret Hotels of Rome
True budgeteers will appreciate the irony: The only Rome hotel to rival the five-star Hassler (atop the Spanish Steps) for "Best Room with a View" is Albergo Abruzzi, a backpacker's haven overlooking the incredible 1,800-year-old Pantheon. Few cheap sleeps are so well situated, but among the best of the best, each has its own charms. I recently toured more than 70 Roman inns where doubles cost under $80 before choosing 20 that offer some combination of a good location, solid comfort, a modicum of amenities, and helpful management that strives to make each guest's stay a memorable one.
These Little Wonder Hotels run the gamut from spare hospices managed by nuns to a pensione serving kosher breakfasts, from international backpacker pads to classy joints where you'll have to snatch a room away from traveling Italian businessmen. Whether your dream address is a block from the Spanish Steps or from the ancient Forum, whether you want to crash around the corner from the train station or from the Armani showroom, you'll find the perfect room at one of these budget inns.
The hotels are found in four well-known neighborhoods: Centro Storico, Termini, Prati, and Trastevere.
The centro storico (historic center) is where most people want to be: Along the boutique-lined streets radiating from the Spanish Steps, or tucked into the knot of cobblestone alleys and antiques shops surrounding Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and Campo de' Fiori with its morning market and nighttime bar scene.
Rome's best bargains are clustered amid the Termini train station's nineteenth- century grid of bus boulevards, budget shops, and recent immigrants trying to scrape a living. Though central enough, this is Rome's least interesting neighborhood-dreary, dirty, and slightly disreputable (especially just south of the station), and a half-hour hike from the centro storico. I've pinpointed the shining gems of hospitality and stylish frugality amid Termini's sea of seedy flophouses and tour-bus chain hotels.
Across the Tiber River are Prati, a great, non-touristy neighborhood that surrounds the Vatican; and, to the south, the restaurant- and pub-filled alley-ways of a gorgeous medieval artisans' quarter called Trastevere.
Unless otherwise specified, all rooms come with private bathroom and telephone, credit cards are accepted, and the range of rates is seasonal; you pay top dollar roughly from Easter to October (but excluding August and sometimes July; rates used here based on E1=94¢). To call Rome from the United States, dial 011-39 before the numbers listed below.
Pensione Panda Via della Croce 35, tel. 06-678-0179, fax 06-6994-2151, www. hotelpandaparadise.com. 20 rooms, 12 with bath. Double room E62 ($58) without bath, E83ÐE93 ($78Ð$87) with bath. 10 percent discount for paying cash. No breakfast. For the best balance of comfort, style, and price in the very heart of Rome, the Panda wins hands-down. The washboard-vaulted ceilings are frescoed (second floor) or trimmed in stuccoes (first floor) over terrazzo flooring, wrought-iron wall sconces, and firm new bedsprings. Even rooms without private bath have sinks surrounded by antiqued stone tiles. That cash discount keeps it under $80. All that and it's just two fashionista-teeming blocks from the Spanish Steps amid Rome's toniest shops.
Hotel Smeraldo Vicolo dei Chiodaroli 9, tel. 06-687-5929, fax 06-6880-5495, www.hotelsmeraldoroma.com. 50 rooms, 44 with bath. Double room E68ÐE78 ($64Ð$73) without bath, E104ÐE114 ($98Ð$107) with bath. Breakfast E5ÐE8 ($4.70Ð$7.50). This is the first place in Rome I call for a room. You just won't find a better place at these prices in the very heart of Rome. You get burnished chestnut veneers, stone-tile floors, marble sinks, and all the electronic comforts of home (satellite TV, hairdryers, even A/C). The price for rooms with full bath rises above our $80 ceiling but all rooms have sinks and bidets. The industrious owners have also just renovated the old Hotel Piccolo (it's now called Hotel in Parione; tel. 06-6880-2560, fax 06-689-2330) across the street.
Casa Kolbe Via San Teodoro 44, tel. 06-679-4974, fax 06-6994-1550. 63 rooms. Double room E80 ($75). Breakfast E6 ($5.60). Those rooms that don't open onto the peaceful courtyard's palms and orange trees look instead across a little-trafficked street onto a romantically overgrown, semi-excavated portion of the ancient Palatine Hill. The Roman Forum entrance is just a few hundred feet away. The Kolbe exudes that somber quiet that only a former mon-astery can muster, but it's comfy enough. The built-in units are austere, with heavenly orthopedic beds sporting blankets in the most hideous shades of brown and yellow the 1960s had to offer.
Hotel Mimosa Via di Santa Chiara 61, tel. 06-6880-1753, fax 06-683-3557, www.hotelmimosa.net. 11 rooms, 7 with bath. No phones. No credit cards. Double room E67ÐE83 ($63Ð$78) without bath, E83ÐE98 ($78Ð$92) with bath. Breakfast E5ÐE6 ($4.70Ð$5.60). Tucked into a golden location between the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, the family-run Mimosa has somehow been overlooked by Rome's tourism machine, happily continuing to offer simple but sizable, clean, and comfy rooms at laughably low rates. Largish rooms one, two, and three were recently redone with quirky touches: wrought iron or brass bedsteads, sinuous mirrors, Oriental rugs, giant ceiling beams, or brilliant blue curtains. Only one room has A/C (an extra E10/$9.40).
Fraterna Domus Via Monte Brianzo 62, tel. 06-6880-2727, fax 06-683-2691, firstname.lastname@example.org. 18 rooms. Double room E78 ($73); students E30 ($28) per person. Breakfast included. If you don't mind monastic simplicity, tiny bathrooms with curtainless showers, and a decor that begins and ends with a small Crucifix nailed above the bed, this hospice just north of Piazza Navona run by a lay sisterhood may be the ticket. The beds are firm, the tile floors kept next-to-godliness clean. The bad news: An 11 p.m. curfew (but you might get a front door key if you stay a week). They also offer excellent full meals for a paltry E12 ($11), as I recommended in "The Little Wonder Restaurants of Rome" (Budget Travel, July/August 2000).
Albergo Abruzzi Piazza della Rotonda 69, tel. 06-679-2021. 28 rooms, none with bath. No phones. No credit cards. Double room E95 ($89). No breakfast. The Abruzzi is $9 over our limit, but what's a few bucks more when you can open your bedroom window and practically poke the Pantheon with a stick? Of course, there are no private bathrooms (each five-room floor shares just one and a half baths), no amenities whatsoever, no backbone to the mattresses, and no double-glazed windows to keep out the considerable pedestrian noise from this popular piazza. It takes a die-hard architecture buff and/or Rome aficionado to appreciate the Abruzzi's charms. For me, it's worth the annoying, late-night din for at least one morning of waking up to that view, which is best from the large corner doubles with windows on two walls.
Pensione Jonella Via della Croce 41, tel. 06-679-7966, fax 06-446-2368. 4 rooms, none with bath. No phones. No credit cards. Double room E52ÐE68 ($49Ð$64). No breakfast. Think of this as your budget penthouse: Way up on the fifth floor with no elevator and no reception desk (call when you get to the station and they meet you with the keys), but a killer location between the Spanish Steps and the Corso. The rooms are spacious and fitted with framed Roman prints and wonderful old Deco armoires and mirrors. Room 1 has an elegant bedframe and a balcony; enormous Room 4 fits four beds and a dining room-type table with plenty of room to spare. If you hear a message in Italian when you phone, stay on the line; it's just call-forwarding.
Residenza Brotsky Via del Corso 509, tel. 06-361-2339, fax 06-323-6641. 24 rooms, 19 with bath. Double room E50ÐE70 ($47Ð$66) without bath, E60ÐE90 ($56Ð$85) with bath. Breakfast E5 ($4.70). A boarding house straight out of a Fellini film-dusty and worn at the edges, but full of character and astoundingly cheap for its prime location on Rome's main passeggiata (strolling) street. A melange of worn old furnishings and oil landscapes crowds the spacious rooms, and bathrooms were overhauled in 2000. Brotsky's saving graces are the creaky parquet-floored breakfast room, narrow Room 10 with its Corso balcony, and the roof terrace's personable panorama of Roman rooftops, the Villa Borghese's umbrella pines, and St. Peter's dome beyond a thicket of TV aerials.
Hotel Des Artistes Via Villafranca 20, tel. 06-445-4365, fax 06-446-2368, http://www.hoteldesartistes.com/. 45 rooms, 32 with bath. Double room E45ÐE100 ($42Ð$94) without bath, E98ÐE179 ($92Ð$168) with bath. Breakfast E7.75 ($7.25). Discounts of E5ÐE15 ($4.70Ð$14) if you pay cash (usually). Paintings and prints brighten this frugal haven where some of the large rooms can sleep up to six (perfect for families). The beds are orthopedically sound and the arte povera furnishings are among the nicest I've seen. Rooms with stylish private baths come with A/C (bathless ones get a fan). The entire hotel-including the TV/chess/Internet terminal lounge-is nonsmoking, save the sunny roof terrace, where you can breakfast in summer. The price range reflects complicated seasonal variations; except during the busiest spring and fall periods, you will likely get a room with bath for under $80, especially if you pay cash. Check the Web site for deals.
Hotel Papa Germano Via Calatafimi 14A, tel. 06-486-919, fax 06-4782-5202, www.hotel papagermano.com. 17 rooms, 7 with bath. Double room E52ÐE68 ($49Ð$64) without bath, E68ÐE83 ($64Ð$78) with bath. Bed in shared room without bath E18ÐE21 ($17Ð$20). No breakfast. Gino believes that being a host involves more than just providing beds. Most small hotels suffer from a drafty, dreary feel, but Papa Germano is perhaps the most comfortable, cozy hotel in its category. First take a powerful mix of double-glazed windows, bright lighting, and richly patterned fabrics and futon chairs. Add modern climate control, amenities such as TV and hairdryer, and a relaxing lounge with Internet stations. Finish it off with those low rates and the warm welcome of the impressively friendly, hyperhelpful Gino, and you can understand why Papa Germano books up early.
Fawlty Towers Via Magenta 39, tel. 06-445-0374, fax 06-4938-2878, www.fawltytowers.org. 16 rooms, 5 with bath. No phones. No credit cards. Double room E62 ($58) without bath, E67 ($63) with sink/shower, E77 ($72) with bath. Bed in dorm E18 ($17) without bath, E23 ($22) with bath. No breakfast. Early flight? Try crashing around the corner from the Termini station at this easygoing hotel that emanates that youthful, friendly, backpackers-of-the-world-unite hostel ambience-but without the dismal dorm atmosphere or party-hard agenda. Rooms are basic, but the mattresses are new. About half the accommodations are private; half are shared, hostel-style (but with only four cots each). The (generally) young guests hang out in the TV room, solarium (microwave, fridge, Internet station), and flower-filled terrace, trading travel tips and often heading out as a group for pizza or a pub crawl.
Hotel Tizi Via Collina 48, tel. 06-482-0128, fax 06-474-3266. 24 rooms, 10 with bath. No phones. No credit cards. Double room E52 ($49) without bath, E62 ($58) with bath. Breakfast E7 ($6.60). The Tizi family actually lives here, so you'll find them and their purring Persian perennially hanging around their kitchen/ dining room across the hall from guest-room doors. Rooms enjoy fresh wallpaper and Murano-style chandeliers, and old blankets stretched across firm beds. Second-floor rooms sport swooping metal bed frames, high stuccoed ceilings, and older baths, while ground-floor accommodations are larger but more dismally furnished. They are renovating another ten rooms in the building.
Hotel Fenicia Via Milazzo 20, tel./fax 06-490-342, www.hotelfenicia.it. 14 rooms, 1 with toilet in hall (shower/sink in room). Double room E75ÐE85 ($70Ð$80); discounted in winter. Breakfast available during some months upon request E7 ($6.60). A gem amid a slew of budget dives, offering one-star prices for three-star comfort-including TV and A/C (which costs an extra E10/$9.40 to turn on). Spanking new modular units and firm beds rest on modern parquet floors surrounded by matching fabrics. The bathrooms are (for Rome) remarkably spacious. The hotel is spread across three elevatorless floors: The first (standard rooms), second (classiest digs), and fourth (older, and generally smaller, rooms-except rooms 18 and 20, which are big and newly refurbished and have tiny balconies). Most cheap hotels yell at you for doing laundry in the sink; the Fenicia provides retractable clotheslines in the baths.
Suore di Santa Elisabetta Via dell'Olmata 9, tel. 06-488-8271, fax 06-488-4066. 35 rooms, 25 with bath. Double room E51 ($48) without bath, E66 ($62) with bath. Breakfast included. Kindly Polish nuns have welcomed guests to their convent just south of Santa Maria Maggiore for more than 100 years. The rooms are spare and simple, but comfortable, with a painting or two in addition to the requisite crucifix. Like a prudish 1950s sitcom, the narrow twin beds are kept strictly separated in all rooms. Baths are old, but well cared for, and a few rooms have terraces. Guests can wander the panoramic roof terrace and the peaceful palm-shaded garden of orange trees, roses, and kiwi-vine arbors. Kids under 12 stay at a discount. The big drawback: An 11 p.m. curfew. Book well in advance.
Hotel Katty Via Palestro 35, tel. 06-490-079, fax 06-444-1216. 23 rooms, 15 with bath. Double room E26ÐE51 ($24Ð$48) without bath, E39ÐE77 ($37Ð$72) with bath. If you pay by credit card, add 3 to 5 percent to these prices. No breakfast. It's a bit of a walk from the station, but the kindly owner, bargain-basement prices, and quirky decor of the large, spare rooms earn the Katty a place amid Rome's budget bests. Rooms without bath are kitted out with battered modular furnishings but fantastic floors of chipped-stone mosaics. Private-bath rooms are brand new for 2002, with shiny tile floors, nice built-in units, A/C and minibar (in some), and double-glazed windows. A few have balconies on the courtyard. Rooms 203 (a triple) and 206 (a quad) sport frescoed ceilings. TV available upon request.
Across the river (Prati & Trastevere)
Hotel Colors Via Boezio 31, tel. 06-687-4030, fax 06-686-7947, www.colorshotel.com. 7 rooms, 1 with bath. No phones. No credit cards. Double room E68 ($64) without bath, E78 ($73) with shower/sink, E83 ($78) with bath. Bed in co-ed dorm without bath E20 ($19). No breakfast. The folks who founded Fawlty Towers (above) now run this fifth-floor walk-up near Vatican City. It's a few blocks from the best food shopping in Rome-indoor and outdoor markets, plus Franchi and Castroni, two renowned grocers-so you can put the communal kitchen and small shared terrace to good use. The simple, spacious rooms are vibrant in a supersaturated, whimsical, accident-at-the-Crayola-factory way. Only one room is shared dorm-style, and the largely young backpacking clientele tend to be of a more reserved, mature stripe. The washer/dryer costs less than a laundromat.
Locanda Carmel Via Goffredo Mameli 11, tel. 06-580-9921, fax 06-581-8853, email@example.com. 11 rooms. Double room E80 ($75) without bath, E85 ($80) with bath. Breakfast included. What very well may be Italy's only officially kosher hotel lies in a quiet corner just two blocks from Trastevere's daily market on Piazza di San Cosimato. In 2001 they spread wonderfully colorful quilts over firm new mattresses, and finally soundproofed the doors and windows. A battered wooden chair and bedside table constitute "furnishings," but all rooms have A/C, an (unstocked) mini fridge, and a TV. The solarium of squishy couches opens onto a lovely, plant-filled terrace shaded by vine arbors.
Pensione Lady Via Germanico 198, tel. 06-324-2112, fax 06-324-3446. 8 rooms, 4 with bath. Double room E85 ($80) without bath, E100 ($94) with bath. No breakfast. Staying here, in the heart of Prati, feels a bit like moving into an arty friend's apartment: There's the homey living room with its deeply cushioned couches and exposed wood ceilings (a feature that graces about half the rooms), a mix of Liberty and unfinished country-style furnishings, and framed prints on the walls. Only the bathless rooms fall into our price category, but all have sinks (one even has a shower).
Pensione Joli Via Cola di Rienzo 243, tel. 06-324-1854, fax 06-3600-6637, firstname.lastname@example.org. 18 rooms. Double room E83ÐE93 ($78Ð$87). Breakfast included. The drab entrance on a bustling middle-class shopping boulevard gives no hint of the lovely hotel high above, where spanking new furnishings and firm beds (personally tested by the staff) rest on polished plank floors. The Spartan baths, however, are overdue for an overhaul. In front rooms, you can hang out the window to glimpse St. Peter's dome; from those on the courtyard you can spy Rear WindowÐstyle on the Italian neighbors. TV is free for the asking. The moderately classier Hotel Florida (tel. 06-324-1872, fax 06-324-1857), taking up the three floors below, charges E70ÐE75 ($66Ð$70) for a double without bath and E93ÐE110 ($87Ð$103) with bath.
Pensione Paradise Viale Giulio Cesare 47, tel. 06-3600-4331, fax 06-3609-2563, www.hotelpandaparadise.com. 10 rooms, 8 with bath. Double room E50ÐE60 ($47Ð$56) without bath, E75ÐE83 ($70Ð$78) with bath. No breakfast. The Paradise doesn't enjoy the location or style of its sister Panda, but it's right at a Metro stop and only a few blocks from St. Peter's. Mirrors help open up the smallish, minimally furnished rooms. Still, the beds are new-and, in singles, wider than usual-and the sparkling baths sport heated towel racks (great for drying laundry). They're installing TVs this winter.
The Beach Resort of Isla Mujeres
The next time there's a cheap flight to Cancun, grab it! But don't even slow down for Cancun itself. Take a shuttle van directly from the airport to the Puerto Juarez ferry terminal and sail on to Isla Mujeres (Isle of Women). This small island (approximately five miles long by a half mile wide) has all you need: comfortable accommodations, calm beaches, good food, and inexpensive prices. Forget Cancun's high-rise hotels, expensive meals, and crowds. Isla Mujeres is within eyesight of that gaudy hotel strip but many miles away in ambience and price. Despite the boatloads of Cancun tourists who come on quick tours for part of the day, the island retains its relaxed atmosphere. English is widely spoken and American currency is accepted, although paying in pesos instead of dollars is often cheaper, and it is always courteous to learn as much of the language as you can. Arrival and orientation The shuttle trip from the Cancun airport to Puerto Juarez (on the northern edge of Cancun) takes about half an hour and costs 77-144 pesos ($8-$15) depending on the number of people sharing the van. Buy your ticket at the kiosk in the airport. The fast ferry from Puerto Juarez to Isla Mujeres takes 15 minutes and costs 35 pesos ($3.70) per person. The island is long, narrow, and nearly flat. The town of Isla Mujeres itself is on the north end and is only about 24 blocks. Most restaurants, shops, and small hotels are in this area. Moving south, the island narrows near a small airport and then widens into a residential area, and the south end of the island is the highest, widest, and least developed. When you arrive on Isla Mujeres, you will be in the downtown area on the north end of the island. The tourist bureau is across the street to the left. Taxis will be waiting to take you anywhere on the island for 7-20 pesos (75¢-$2.10). You are within walking distance of many downtown hotels, but for mid-island or south-end lodging, you will want a taxi. During the day, buses make the circuit around the island for three pesos (30¢). If you are staying in the residential area in the middle of the island and you like to walk, you can go on foot from the middle to either end in about 40 to 60 minutes. Rental vehicles on Isla Mujeres run heavily to golf carts or mopeds. Both are perfect for transportation around the island, and discount coupons for them are found on the island's Web site (www.isla-mujeres.net). A golf cart rents for about 400 pesos ($42) per day, with bargaining permitted. Beaches and picnics Most island visitors will spend their time on the beaches, visit the high-quality crafts shops (hidden among the T-shirt shops) downtown, eat in a different restaurant each evening, and relax in the warmth of the air and the people. Playa Norte has to be one of the country's best beaches. It is a public park right on the edge of downtown and it spreads its white sand along the beach and out into the clear, calm water. On my most recent stay, there weren't many people on the beach, although on Sunday afternoons there were small pleasure boats anchored in the area so a few more people were around. If the wind is too strong on the north side, just move around the corner to the west to Playa Caribe where the beach continues and locals congregate. Other beaches are found on the south end of the island in Garrafon National Park, somewhat beyond the end of the bus line. It consists mostly of beach, and since it is run by a concessionaire, there is an atypically high entrance fee of 144 pesos ($15). Don't pay it. Right next door is the Playa Garrafon de Castilla resort. For an admission charge of 20 pesos ($2.10), there is access to a small beach with good snorkeling around the pier and the artificial reef. There are chairs, tables, changing rooms, bathrooms, a snack bar, and a gift shop. Mexican beaches are very civilized. Little restaurants dot the edges, and tables and chairs and/or lounges are usually free or nominally priced. As long as you buy soda, drinks, snacks and/or meals, waiters are happy to serve you and (if it is not too busy) will watch your things while you swim. Where to stay and dine My own favorite, Villa Chiquita (998/888-0173, email@example.com), is about in the middle of the island in a residential area. The bus line runs half a block away, so it is convenient to everything. Owners Jose and Zandra built the four one-bedroom apartments only a few years ago, and they are spotlessly clean, well furnished, and extremely practical. (Having an apartment makes it possible to fix occasional meals and lunches for beach trips.) Units rent for 2,345 pesos ($245) per week or 335 pesos ($35) per day in high season (mid-December through April), and 239 pesos ($25) per night at other times (May to mid-December), with discounts for longer stays or small groups. A bonus: The local softball, baseball, and soccer fields nearby seem to have games every evening, and the local people are welcoming. Closer to the main activities is Hotel Roca Mar (998/877-0101, firstname.lastname@example.org), perched on a rocky, windward cliff with great views on the edge of downtown. While rooms on the ocean rent for 660 pesos ($69), you can get a town-side double room for 431 pesos ($45) in high season and still enjoy the lovely garden, pool, and restaurant, which also have views. Other recommendable downtown hotels include the family-run Hotel Osorio (998/877-0294), one block from Playa Norte and with a small courtyard. A double room is 258 pesos ($27). Que Barbara Studio Apartments (to book, contact Mornings in Mexico, www.sundreamers.com/mim/home.htm) is two blocks from the beach downtown. It has rooms with kitchenettes for 287-431 pesos ($30-$45) per night and 1,914-2,776 pesos ($200-$290) per week. Finally, toward the south end of the island, Mar y Sol Beachfront Apartments (also book through Mornings in Mexico) has three efficiency units right on a secluded beach just past the end of the bus line. They each rent for 287 pesos ($30) per night or 1,914 pesos ($200) per week year-round. Villas Punta Sur (998/877-0572, email@example.com), set amid palm trees and tropical vegetation, has six apartments renting for 431-479 pesos ($45-$50) for one bedroom and 622-670 pesos ($65-$70) for two bedrooms (high season, less by the week). Budget meals Your most memorable low-cost meal will be a tiken-xic (fish fry) at Playa Lancheros toward the south end of the island, where fish is caught fresh during the night, cleaned, split, and scored, then rubbed with salt and spices and placed in a handheld grate for grilling over an open wood fire. You watch the cooks in action. Fifty pesos ($5.25) brings enough for two to eat, along with seasoned rice and cabbage. Meals are served on Mexican time in early afternoon. La Cazuela M&J, which is open only for breakfast and lunch, is located next to the Roca Mar Hotel on Avenida Nicolas Bravo at the edge of downtown. Sitting at outside tables watching the sun and waves crashing on the rocky east coast is a really good way to start the morning. Breakfast specials include a fruit plate with yogurt and granola, cazuela mexicana (a baked dish of tortilla, ham, and refried beans covered with a fried egg and mild salsa), and omelettes, all served with coffee and all costing 35 pesos ($3.70), less a 10 percent discount with the coupon found on the Isla Mujeres Internet site. At Balcon de Arriba on Avenida Hidalgo, on a balcony overlooking the downtown street, you can have red snapper in a mild salsa, cole slaw, and rice with a cinnamon seasoning for 60 pesos ($6.30), or beef fajitas with spiced potatoes and cole slaw for 50 pesos ($5.25)-both of them memorable dishes, in my experience. And at Jardin de Delicias, a small French restaurant on Avenida Matamoros, two of us recently split a salad Nicoise (30 pesos/$3.15) and an order of filet of fish in garlic sauce (40 pesos/$4.20), which made for an entirely filling meal of tasty food. Walk along Avenida Hidalgo downtown and look at the menus posted in front of other restaurants. Pick one that looks good and enjoy. Excursions and visits Apart from beach-lolling, swimming, and dining, the top thing to do is visit the Tortugranja (turtle farm) at the south end of the island, where loggerhead and green turtles are protected while they lay their eggs, and their babies are then kept in tanks until they are released. Turtles of different sizes are also displayed in shaded pools for educational purposes, and there is a small museum/aquarium. The short guided tour here costs 20 pesos ($2.10), and you can spend the rest of the day on the nice beach. Because there are so many cheap fares to Cancun, Isla Mujeres is a real bargain. From luxury to budget, everything is available-and it's all superbly described on the island's Web site, www.isla-mujeres.net, which contains numerous recommendations to add to my own. Get there quickly before the word spreads!
Travel Insurance: When Do You Need It?
You need travel insurance when you go on a trip. Buying it before you leave is a necessary part of smart travel planning. But I'm not talking about the policies that insure you against the wings falling off in mid-air. Flight insurance is silly protection against an infinitesimally small risk. I'm talking about the many lesser travel mishaps that all the world except us regards as reasonably likely. Next time you're in a foreign country, go into a travel agency and look at the inside back cover of its tour brochures. There you'll find an insurance policy. Nearly all the English and French, the Germans and Japanese, the Latin Americans and Koreans, buy travel insurance when they go on a trip. Nearly all Americans don't. We are the eternal optimists, products of a frontier psychology, confident and smug. We're not gloomy worry-warts like those people from the Old World. And yet travel is an uncertain activity that can often go wrong. And we are fallible, fragile human beings whose life can never be entirely uneventful, and who sometimes fall sick while traveling, or need to cancel a trip for a dozen reasons, or interrupt it in mid-course. Just as bad, travel companies sometimes go out of business, stranding travelers abroad, or canceling travel with no word of a refund. We need travel insurance, and it's easy and inexpensive to obtain, the most basic type of coverage costing about $5.50 per every thousand covered. However, prices will vary by the type of coverage you choose and your age (an 81-year-old will usually pay higher premiums than a 35-year-old). You can buy travel insurance from a travel agent or tour operator, but you could have a problem should the company you purchase from go belly up. As well, some travel agencies press insurance that protects them and not you, should a mishap occur. We'd recommend making your own arrangements. You can purchase insurance directly from a half-dozen major companies that now issue comprehensive policies against every conceivable sort of travel mishap (illness, hospitalization, dire medical emergencies requiring evacuation home, trip cancellation for business reasons, trip cancellation or interruption because of the death or illness or a relative, tour operator insolvency, many more). The best-known name is: Travel Guard International, 1145 Clark Street, Stevens Point, Wisconsin 54481-9970, phone 800/826-4919, Web: travelguard.com. Its comprehensive policy insures against a wide range of travel mishaps and losses, including trip cancellation and interruption, financial default of the airline, cruiseline or tour operator, various medical problems, loss of baggage or delay in delivering baggage; and the premiums average $100 per person for protection up to a thousand dollars per person, $15 per person for protection up to $1,500, $200 for protection up to $2,000, $300 for protection up to $2,500, and so on (as we said before, these rates can vary). These are fairly standard premium costs charged by most travel insurance companies. See Travelguard's brochure (obtainable by calling the above number) for the precise details. Among the other reputable names for standard travel insurance (trip cancellation, luggage, and the like) are GlobalCare (800/821-2488), CSA Travel Protection (800/873-9855 or csatravelprotection.com/), Access America (800/334-7525 or accessamerica.com/), Travelex (888/867-9531 or travelex-insurance.com/) and Travel Insured International (800/243-3174 or travelinsured.com/). Among the prominent issuers of medical assistance policies (hospital insurance, physician care) for Americans traveling abroad are Wallach & Company (800/237-6615 or wallach.com/). Before you work with any of these companies, make sure that they cover "insolvency"; a number of major companies stopped covering the bankruptcy of a travel provider after September 11, 2001. Some companies specialize in medical evacuation insurance, agreeing to fly you to the nearest modern hospital from the jungle or island or mountains where you may have been far from civilization when you were suddenly struck down by illness. Among the big names in this field are are Travelers Emergency Network (TEN) (800/ASK-4-TEN or tenweb.com/), International SOS Assistance (800/523-8930 or internationalsos.com/) and Air Ambulance Card (877/424-7633 or airmedassistance.com/). What makes insurers balk If you're headed to the Caribbean during hurrican season when prices are cheap--travel insurance seems like a sensible purchase. By the time some policyholders figure out what's covered, however, they're battling it out with a claims adjuster. "The onus is on the insured to know what's in their policy," says Peter Evans, executive vice president of InsureMyTrip.com. "If it's not specifically stated, there's no coverage." Log on to insuremytrip.com, quotetravelinsurance.com, and tripinsurancestore.com to compare plans; what they cost, cover, and pay out varies widely. But after reviewing a policy, there's one important question left: When are you not covered? You bought insurance after a weather warning was issued "Preexisting conditions" aren't covered by health insurance, and events deemed "foreseeable" aren't covered by travel insurance. To safeguard against the weather, your insurance must be purchased before the National Weather Service (nws.noaa.gov) issues a storm warning. The weather's not bad enough Insurers will only pay when travel gets delayed or canceled. If the airlines and the cruise ships are operating, you can either go on the vacation or lose your money. Your cruise itinerary changes When a port is expecting a rough storm, cruise lines often substitute a different port where the weather is more promising. If the cruise takes place--even if the new ports are second-rate--the insurance company doesn't owe you a dime. Plead with the cruise line instead; it might give out vouchers for future cruises. You're not delayed long enough Benefits don't kick in the moment your flight is delayed. Instead, there's a waiting period--typically 5 to 12 hours, depending on the policy--before you can book a hotel for the night and expect to get reimbursed. The delays have made you want to cancel The initial flight on your seven-day trip to St. Thomas is postponed overnight, and you have to stay at an airport hotel (covered under your policy, thank goodness). The next day, flights are still delayed. You want to scrap the trip, but you can't--not if you hope to get reimbursed. With some policies, more than half of your vacation has to be delayed before you can cancel and be covered. The hotel is ruined, but the airlines are flying A hurricane hits Jamaica two weeks before your trip, ripping the roof off your hotel. If flights are running on your departure date, insurance might not do you any good. Even if your hotel is completely destroyed, most policies don't have to pay, as long as you can still get there. One exception is from Travel Guard, which words its policy more broadly than others and ponies up if the destination is ruined.
Caribbean Adventure Vacations
To some weary souls, a vacation in the Caribbean means baking in the sun and doing scarcely anything at all. To others the goal is the exact opposite-they crave physical activity, challenge, excitement. They come to hike and bike mountains taller than any in the United States, east of the Mississippi (in the Dominican Republic); to dive with an assortment of fish that could rival any aquarium in the world (in Bonaire); to try their luck bonefishing in the waters off Eleuthera, Bahamas. Here are nine of the Caribbean's finest outdoor adventures, all amazingly affordable: Diving Bonaire A mere decade ago, this island was known only to scuba enthusiasts; it was a clandestine gem discussed in hushed tones. Now that the secret is out, travelers are learning that nature thrives here both above and below the water. The reef's proximity to the coast is ideal for divers and snorkelers who want to swim with blue and yellow queen angelfish and orange trumpetfish in waters with visibility of 100 feet or more. Bonaire's semi-arid landscape is home to some 200 types of birds, including one of the world's largest colonies of pink flamingos (numbering some 15,000). On the water and managed by American diver Bruce Bowker, the Carib Inn (599/717-8819, www. caribinn.com) offers double rooms starting at $99 a night. Add six boat dives with unlimited air fills for $189 per person, and you and your loved one can be on a seven-night/ six-day dive package for $535.50 apiece. Windsurfing Margarita Just off the coast of Venezuela, the resort island of Margarita is known for trade winds that blow at a steady 15 to 25 miles per hour. Add water that's only waist-deep, and you have a locale that's ideal for novices and experts alike. Vela Windsurf Resorts (800/223-5443, www.velawindsurf.com) has been specializing in windsurfing vacations for more than 15 years. On Margarita, it's located on the south shore of the island, at El Yaque, one of its most popular beaches. Packages start as low as $400 per person for seven nights in a double room at Casa Rita, including all breakfasts and windsurfing rentals. Perched on a small hill overlooking El Yaque, Casa Rita is only a six-minute walk to Vela's windsurfing center. You can try the latest gear in the sport and opt for windsurfing lessons at its renowned school. Five one-hour group lessons cost $175. MultiSport St. John Only a few miles east of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John has virtually nothing in common with its overdeveloped neighbor. More than 60 percent of the island and its surrounding waters comprise Virgin Islands National Park, a mecca in the Caribbean for the active traveler. Twenty-two hiking trails weave through the arid and semitropical terrain past some 800 species of plants. On the shore, white-sand beaches lead to coral-covered bays (Trunk and Leinster are two of the best) where snorkelers spend hours mesmerized by the vivid neon fish. Arawak Expeditions (800/238-8687, www.arawak exp.com) takes full advantage of this locale by featuring St. John Adventure Week (consisting of seven nights on the island). During the day, you'll hike, snorkel, sea kayak, mountain bike, and dive St. John. In the evening, you'll be seconds away from the beach at Maho Bay Camps. Maho's owner Stan Selengut has reaped accolades for his eco-sensitive resort, where 114 tent-cottages are woven into the tapestry of the landscape. The cost of the trip is $1,295 per person. Sea kayaking the Exumas Stretching more than 100 miles from Beacon Cay in the north to Hog Cay in the south, the Exumas are some of the least-developed islands in the Bahamas. Starfish/The Exuma Adventure Center (877/398-6222, www.kayakbahamas.com), the first outfitter to open in the Exumas, offers seven-day/six-night (three nights camping, three in a hotel) trips through the islands for $875. Spend four guided days paddling in the pale jade waters of the Great Bahama Bank. You'll kayak some three to six hours daily, edging along another half-moon stretch of sand whose blinding whiteness obscures the islands' wild and scraggy interiors-a mix of twisted mangroves, gumbo limbos, and stunted palms. Clearly visible beneath the surface, the reefs are coated with green coral, lavender sea fans, and thronged with marine life such as schools of stingrays. You'll pass several more islands the size of boxing rings before arriving at your beach for the evening. Then spend the next two days on your own, sailing, kayaking, or mountain biking. All trips include food and camping equipment, and the season runs from November to June. No experience is necessary. Mountain-biking the Dominican Republic With the highest mountains in the Caribbean, Pico Duarte (10,417 feet) and La Pelona (10,161 feet), you can bet your sore bum that the Dominican Republic is a mountain-biking paradise. On Iguana Mama's (800/849-4720, www.iguana mama.com) nine-day/eight-night Dominican Alps Tour, you'll be zipping through the lush countryside past coffee plantations and cabbage fields, fording rivers where villagers wash their laundry, and climbing through forests to heights of 5,500 feet. All the while, you'll be surrounded by the Caribbean waters in the distance. For breaks, stop at the fruit stands and sample the fresh passion fruit, sweet lemons, and guanabana. The $1,450 price includes all meals, guides, and accommodations in small village inns. Add $150 for mountain bike rental. Surfing Barbados The rugged east coast of Barbados is a welcome mat for the Atlantic and its myriad of moods. On any given day, expect swells that break from 2 to 20 feet. This is especially true from September through December, when surfers congregate on the shores and catch the waves at Soup Bowl and Parlers, massive swells that can often break as high as 40 feet. From December to March, the more consistent waves are on the western coast, at Half-Moon Fort. Serving the surfing community for more than 50 years, the Edgewater Inn (246/433-9900, www.edge waterinn.com) is perched on a cliff in a tropical rain forest overlooking the Atlantic. Rooms start at $49 a night in summer and $69 a night in winter. Bonefishing Eleuthera Over 100 miles long, Eleuthera, one of the Bahamas' Out Islands, barely exceeds two miles in width. Firm white-sand flats and shallow water ring the island, perfect for hooking the elusive bonefish. On a clear day, you can wade knee-deep in the water and spot the shimmering scales of the darting bone. The challenge is getting one of these suckers to take your bait. A little patience, a graceful cast just beyond the reach of the school, and a bonefish just might take that fly and run off some 75 yards of line in a couple of seconds. You'll get the feverish feel of what it's like to be connected to a remarkably fast and furious fish. Britain-based Bonefish Adventure (011-44/1202-474-343, fax /1202-474-261, www.bone fishadventure.com) offers seven nights at the Rainbow Inn, all breakfasts and dinners, a rental car, and two days of guided fly-fishing for $1,173. Hiking Dominica Something of an anomaly compared to the rest of the Caribbean, Dominica gets visitors for its interior, not its beaches. Tropical rain forest covers much of the mountainous terrain, earning the island a reputation as the most rugged in the West Indies. Ken's Hinterland Adventure Tours (767/448-4850, www.kenshinterland tours.com) is the premier hiking guide on Dominica and, judging from his Web site, is a favorite with celebrities like Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, and Jimmy Buffett. In a weeklong package that includes seven nights' accommodation at the Fort Young Hotel and seven breakfasts, Ken's will take you on five excursions into the wilderness. You'll hike through rain forest in Morne Trois Pitons National Park to visit Ti Tou Gorge, where a waterfall lies hidden on the side of a mountain. You'll also crisscross Sari Sari River, jumping from boulder to boulder, to reach the pool at the bottom of Sari Sari Falls. The cost of this package starts at $690. Sailing the British Virgin Islands Sailors know the B.V.I. as legendary (and rather upscale) cruising grounds. Here, in places like Virgin Gorda, Peter Island, and Tortola, you'll find sheltered marinas with good anchorages, shopping, restaurants, and small hotels that are popular with yachters. Even better, you can sail to these various islands without venturing away from the reefs into the open ocean. But you won't have to worry about navigational charts on Madden Enterprises' six-day/five-night cruise around the B.V.I., since a skipper comes with you. Madden's 45-foot catamaran, which sleeps eight guests, has been plying these waters since 1980, so you can rest assured that the crew members will take you to all their favorite haunts. The cost of the trip, including all food, starts at $899. The boat is only available from April 15 through June 10. Call Madden at 800/262-3336 or access www. sailmadden.com.
Tax-free Travel Shopping
In foreign travel, there are few experiences that are more common and banal yet cause so much confusion as the tangled web of taxes, refunds, duties, and exemptions. The vicissitudes of just trying to figure out what you do and do not owe on a couple of souvenirs can get so complicated that most travelers throw their hands in the air, bite the bullet, and pay what all the governments tell them to. I say "governments" because there are actually two government levies involved in shopping in a foreign country-and the good news is that you don't have to pay either one of them. Like I said, there are two times a government tries to swoop in and take a percentage of your purchases. The 911 on the V.A.T. The first levy is a sort of national sales tax--most countries call it a "Value Added Tax," or VAT--that the country in which you are traveling charges on all purchases. Unlike state-imposed sales taxes in the US, this amount (which ranges anywhere from 3 to 22 percent) is already included in the sticker price on an item, so you rarely realize you're paying it. Foreign nationals are usually exempt from having to pay this tax on purchases (but not on such things as restaurant meals, hotel rooms, and car rentals), but since the VAT is already included in the price, you end up paying it anyway. The way foreign governments set this right is by allowing alien shoppers (that's you) to get that VAT refunded to them at the end of their trip by waiting in line at a counter in the airport--in the case of the EU, at the airport of the last EU country you'll be visiting. This means you must be sure you keep all receipts handy to fill out the VAT refund form at the airport (you mail this in after returning home). However, shops that have a "Tax Free Shopping for Tourists" sticker in the window can fill out the paperwork for you when you make your purchase. Quite a number of businesses belong to this network, including tons of mom and pop operations, not just those vast souvenir warehouses near tourist sights. Your only job after that is to drop the forms and receipts off at the airport counter, where they hand you a pile of crisp dollars and shiny new coins as your refund (yes, dollars, because getting local currency just before stepping on the plane to leave the country would be silly). One catch. To keep the line at this counter short, not every minor purchase counts for getting your VAT back. There is a minimum amount you must spend in a single store, which varies by country anywhere from around $50 to $200 (the VAT Calculator on the Web site globalrefund.com gives specifics for major countries) before the right to claim a VAT refund kicks in. That said, in those shops that honor the Tax Free Shopping for Tourist system can often do the paperwork for you even on smaller purchases. OK. So much for VAT. You save your receipts, you stand in line at the airport, and you either get cash back immediately (in the case of having those pre-filled-out forms from the "Tax Free Shopping for Tourists" shops), or they give you the stamped form and an envelope for you to fill out while waiting to board your plane, then you mail it in within 90 days of returning home. Eventually, you'll get in the mail a check for your refund. Sometimes this takes a week or two. Sometimes this takes six months. There is no rhyme or reason, so just be patient. "Duty Free" I'd like to pause for a moment and explain about the "Duty Free" shop in the airport, a phenomenon that dates back to the early transatlantic flights in the 1940s but these days means mostly homebound travelers wandering the airport carrying plastic bags stuffed with cartons of cigarettes and bottles of rum. The first scheduled transatlantic arrivals began touching tarmac at Ireland's Shannon airport in 1945; within two years, an entrepreneur named Sean Lomass had opened a kiosk he called "Duty Free" at the airport, and the idea (ahem) took off. The "duty" you are avoiding paying when you shop one of these places is the VAT, that local government tax, plus most import/export tariffs or duties. The practical upshot is that, on heavily taxed items such as alcohol, perfume, and tobacco, duty free prices can be up to 25 or even 50 cheaper than the normal local retail price. You save a bit on other items bought at the Duty Free as well--jewelry, clothing, tchochkies--but nowhere near as much as you do on the more tax-burdened products appealing to vice and vanity. It's a loophole merchants and governments have agreed upon, basically creating a little bubble between the security checkpoint and the ramp to the airplane where, for tax purposes, you're already considered to have left the country (this is why you can only buy from the duty-free when leaving). Note that since the EU is a single economic zone now, you can buy Duty Free only if you are flying to a country outside the EU (or are connecting a flight out of the EU that same day). That means if you have a ticket from, say, Rome to Paris, you can't do the duty free. (This, incidentally, has done a number on the bottom lines of Northern Europe's ferry lines, which once depended heavily on Duty Free shops for revenue and have already been struck severe blows by the newly emerged competition of the Eurostar train through the Chunnel, no-frills airlines, and the 7.8km Orerunsd Bridge linking Denmark with Sweden.) Now remember, I said you were avoiding the local taxes, duties, and tariffs on those purchases. Uncle Sam will still want to have his say about your purchases--whether Duty Free, "Tax Free Shopping," or simply stuff you bought overseas--once you get them home. I do declare! Once you arrive at a US airport, the US government reserves the right to charge you an import duty on any foreign purchase you bring into the country. In practical terms, they overlook souvenirs and such by allowing you to bring home a certain dollar amount of goods duty free. The amount you are allowed was for a very long time limited to $400 per person, but it was recently raised to $800 per person from most countries, $600 for most of the Caribbean. Fine art and certified antiques are exempt. There are some funky exceptions for folks returning from U.S. possessions and territories. There are also some fussy time-related rules largely aimed at airline employees and others who fly internationally more than once a month and return from trips abroad within 48 hours; it gets complicated, but basically those people can only bring in $200 a pop (this nasty little rule is mainly designed to keep flight attendants, pilots, etc. from become under-the-table importers/exporters). Beyond that $800 limit, customs reserves the right to charge you a duty, starting at around 3 percent for the first $1,000 over the limit. One way around this is, while still on the road, to mail to yourself up to $200 worth of items each day, marked "for personal use"--though this only makes sense if the postage rate will be cheaper than the duty. You may also mail up to $100 worth of items per person per day to friends and family marked as "unsolicited gifts" with a short list of the items contained and their values written on the outside of the package. Sending these loved ones an actual gift for them to keep, rather than just your personal purchases to hold on to for you, would be a nice touch. They also have restrictions on the physical amounts you can bring in on some items, especially those vices and vanities: 200 cigarettes, 100 cigars, and a ridiculously tiny limit of one liter of alcohol of any sort--wine, beer, booze, whatever. This is in addition to the long, odd list of things you may absolutely not bring back in to the US, or need special permits to do so, such as drug paraphernalia, plants, game trophies, firearms, art and ancient artifacts, absinthe, items from embargoed countries (Cuba, Iraq, Lybia, etc.) and a long, qualified list of meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, runny cheeses, and other foodstuffs. These are all items that the government considers "...would injure community health, public safety, American workers, children, or domestic plant and animal life, or those that would defeat our national political interests." Most of these rules have good reasoning behind them--the Mediterranean fruit fly epidemic that swept the West Coast and cost $100 million to fight back in the 1980s was traced back to a single piece of infested fruit brought home by a tourist. And let's not forget Dutch Elm Disease. Or Mad Cow. Those are all the regs of concern to most tourists. In practice, customs officials are pretty lenient as long as you are honest and don't break the set-in-stone rules, like trying to smuggle in prohibited foodstuffs. I've flown home from international destinations dozens upon dozens of times, and I always fill out the customs declaration form they hand you on the plane before landing as honestly as I can, listing all the goods I'm bringing home with a fair estimate of the cost. I've been waved through even when declaring $100 to $200 over the limit, when carrying four or five bottles of wine (really, "one liter" is so silly), with tins of pate (technically, canned meats are on the no-no list), and more borderline cases. You can get much more info, and more specifics, at customs.gov/. For specifics on which food items you can bring back, check out the rules aphis.usda.gov/travel.