ADVERTISEMENT

The Spas of Bohemia

By Paul Balido
January 12, 2022
View of a spa pool with a woman relaxing with flowers in her hair.
Darya Petrenko
Long famous for their "water cures," many scenic towns in the Czech Republic sell their charms for a pittance.

Today I am king--for 40 minutes, anyway, soaking under frescoed ceilings in the very tub that once held England's Edward VII. Gas bubbles dance in the warm spring water, soothing my skin (and, I'm told, lowering my blood pressure) as I doze off, happy as a clam: this regal indulgence, this rococo chamber worthy of a museum, is mine for all of 20 bucks. Welcome to Marienbad (Marianske Lazne in the tongue-twisting local language), one of three-dozen Czech spa towns where a day of Old World pampering, medical treatments, and three hearty meals can cost as little as 1,750 Czech crowns ($50) per person per day in low season (generally October through April)--less than a standard hotel room in most of western Europe (in high season, prices run from $71 to $95, still a decent deal if you don't mind the crowds).

Granted, some of these medical treatments might raise your own doctor's eyebrow. Traditionally, the spa experience centered around "taking the waters" (via soaking or drinking), and all sorts of claims have been made for their powers, from treating gout to infertility, even cancer. Think what you will, generations of Europeans have sworn by these methods, and many national health insurance programs even cover spa visits. These are not, after all, New Agey fad-farms, but long-established, traditional European health care institutions, though admittedly, time and tech have expanded the offerings to the likes of magnetotherapy, supposedly relieving pain by creating magnetic fields around the body, or the alarmingly named pneumopuncture, which injects gas into acupuncture points--clearly not for everyone. Not all treatments, though, are so out there, and plenty are bona-fide boons, including massage, physical therapy, and wonderful mineral water baths.

Here's how it works: you check into a spa facility and meet with a "balneologist" (doctor of spa medicine), who prescribes a course of treatment based on your afflictions (ideally three weeks or more, but they cater to Americans with one-week programs); this includes baths, therapy sessions, water-drinking regimens, whatever your condition calls for. An individualized diet plan is also forwarded to the kitchen (though, interestingly, in Eastern Europe the "diet" dishes are often soaked in butter). Special or additional treatments (such as my decadent soak in the King's Chamber) are payable on a per-item basis. Alternatively, you may also stay at a non-spa hotel, eat in excellent (and inexpensive) restaurants around town, and visit the spa as an outpatient.

Depending on the chemical composition of their springs and muds, different towns focus on different conditions; thus, while Trebon and Bechyne specialize in joints and muscles, Podebrady is for the heart, and Frantiskovy Lazne focuses on gynecology. For the first-timer, though, the best and most versatile introduction to the spa experience centers around two famous West Bohemian towns: Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary in Czech), the largest and most popular of all, and the quieter, more genteel Marienbad.

The easiest (albeit most expensive) way to do it is an all-inclusive package--airfare, lodging, treatments, and three meals a day--from the tour-operator arm of CSA, the Czech national airline; these run around $1,499 per person (double occupancy) for seven nights at the posh Hotel Imperial Spa in Karlsbad. You can save big, however, by calling local tour operators, such as Prague International and Helios.Via (see box), or contacting the spa directly and then buying your airfare through a consolidator (roughly $700 from the East Coast in high season). Once you arrive in Prague, a bus ticket to Karlsbad is only $2.65 for an air-conditioned two-hour ride, and the three-hour-plus train to Marienbad costs $3.35.

Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary)

Fizzy Water & Summer Hoopla: Surrounded by steep hills 100 miles west of Prague, this town's picturesque 600-year-old spa district has played host to aristocrats and celebrities from Russia's Czar Peter the Great to Beethoven to Karl Marx. Today it's a merry jumble of nineteenth-century extravagance, its facades shining once more after extensive restoration. Up and down the banks of the Tepla river, Germans, Czechs, and hordes of nouveau riche Russians take their constitutional walks, stopping at the 12 mineral springs to fill their lazensky poharek, a china mug with a built-in drinking straw (to be honest, the hot fizzy water tastes vile). Karlsbad also aims to treat the soul, and so it hosts a variety of concerts, balls, and jazz and film festivals. Summertime, in fact, can seem anything but relaxing, with teeming crowds serenaded by oompah chestnuts like "Roll Out the Barrel" at every turn. Fortunately, you can head for the hills along the many hiking paths on the outskirts, offering pine-fresh air and contemplative quiet.

Karlsbad Spas/Hotels: If quiet is important, the best local spa may be the Jadran, an intimate villa built in 1937 on a hill above town. With only 12 rooms, its recently renovated premises sparkle with luxurious furnishings, gorgeous private baths, stereo equipment, TV, fridge, and phone; there is also an in-house doctor and treatment facilities, all at a cost - including full board - of $119 based on double occupancy. The drawbacks: no elevator, and a longish walk uphill from town. Almost as plush, the art nouveau Astoria offers a much better location smack in the center of town. The lobby wows visitors with its marble, brass, and fresh flowers, and many rooms have been upgraded to light wood furniture, lace curtains, new bathrooms, and all the expected amenities; there is also a brand-new sauna and indoor pool adorned with classical tilework and pillars. The all-inclusive cost here ranges from a high of 154 euros per room in season to a low of 112 euros. Strangely, the priciest place in Karlsbad (204 euros to 240 euros per room) is also the ugliest.

The Thermal, a 15-story concrete eyesore in the center of the pedestrian-only spa district, has one of those cavernous lobbies so typical of hotels in the former Soviet bloc. Still, it attracts a significant clientele who appreciate its large medical staff, complete range of spa treatments, outdoor pool with naturally hot spring and thermal water, and recently renovated rooms with fabulous balcony views of the town and surrounding hills. For those who prefer a simpler, non-spa hotel, the Jiskra is the best bet: a fabulous townhouse just across from the posh Grand Hotel Pupp and dripping with crystal chandeliers and swirly Belle Epoque moldings. A grand staircase (and elevator) lead up to three suites fit for royalty, along with ten simpler rooms with TV, phone, and shared baths (41 euros per room in low season and 78 euros in high).

Karlsbad Cuisine: Restaurant prices in the Czech Republic can still amaze after a decade of capitalism, and Karlsbad is no exception. At the pleasant Bodam Rybi Restaurace, seafood's the specialty, served outdoors under chestnut trees or indoors in a cozy dining room lined with fish tanks. An entree of fried calamari goes for $2.50, and a generous portion of paella with shrimp, mussels, and sepia for $3.25. Game is served, too: roast duck with cabbage and dumplings costs $3, and venison steak with mushrooms, $3.85. Rather more elegant, the Regina Restaurace (in the Regina Hotel) is a grand affair with elaborate ceilings, soaring columns, chandeliers, and . . . clunky Soviet-era furniture. Two prix-fixe menus offer the likes of soup, roast pork with potato dumplings and cabbage, apple strudel, and coffee for $3.35; ... la carte, a fried filet of fish is $1.75 and palacinky (Czech-style crepes) with fruit and cream just 75[cents].

Just off the main drag along a quiet lane of fairytale fin-de-siecle villas stop for lunch or dinner at the excellent Sadova Kavarna Restaurace, a plainish dining room with outdoor tables overlooking an onion-domed Russian orthodox church. Lively music and dancing on weekend nights accompany great values like the trout baked in butter and lemon for $2.50. Sides, like the ubiquitous potato croquettes, run 42[cents], as do various small desserts, and the Prazdroj or Purkmistr beer is 53[cents] a glass.

To eat like a true Czech on a budget, though, head for Linie Rychle Obcerstveni. Just west of the Thermal Hotel, it remains a Soviet-style fast-food joint with modern touches like bright display cases. The thing here is gloppy salads heavy on the mayonnaise served with a rohlik (roll); the karlovarsky salat, for example, costs just 42[cents] for a filling 150g (five-ounce) portion of chopped salami, raw onions, and diced pickles in a runny white sauce. It's deeply satisfying in the way that only something utterly bad for you can be; ditto for desserts like the 33[cents] "spa cake," a sort of Napoleon overloaded with frosting. This is truly as Czech as it gets, and a great place for a quick and very cheap meal.

Marienbad (Marianske Lazne)

A Gracious, Low-Key Alternative: Eighty miles southwest of Prague, Marienbad offers a different kind of spa experience: quieter, more intimate--even genteel. It was, after all, founded in the nineteenth century and specifically designed for strolling, its paths winding amid landscapes that would honor an Impressionist painting. To walk here is to revel in the architectural grandeur of the Austro-Hungarian empire; indeed, one might almost expect to bump into Goethe or Chopin taking a constitutional or listening to the spooky canned melodies of the "Singing Fountain," the focus of the delightful spa district. Expect, in short, nothing of the gloomy atmosphere of the pretentious, old French film Last Year at Marienbad.

Marienbad Spas/Hotels: Hvezda means "star," and that's what this luxurious gem is among the local offerings. All rooms are appointed with stylish furniture and all the modern conveniences - save air conditioning, absent all over town. The meals in the plush dining room are top-notch, and a broad range of treatments is available, from hydromassage to gas injections to magnetotherapy; more complex procedures are referred to the nearby Nove Lazne, a grand old outpatient facility (see below). The daily cost, including all meals and treatments, is an amazing $93 per person in high season and $79 in low. For less expensive rates (5040 CZK- 5360 CZK), the Pacific offers clean, recently refurbished quarters that don't look quite as sharp but still do the trick. A more limited range of cures is offered here, with patients going to the Nove Lazne as well. A major highlight of the Pacific, though, is the restaurant (open to the public), a splendid affair in art nouveau plaster and gilt.

The much plainer Vltava Hotel offers oddly similar prices (3530 CZK-3910 CZK) and specializes in musculoskeletal problems such as the knees and the neck--all of which will appreciate the beautiful indoor heated pool, whirlpool, and dry sauna. Rooms are clean and perfectly serviceable, with TV, phone, and sometimes a fridge; there is a daily choice of six set meals.

If you opt to stay in a regular hotel, however, the Polonia is an excellent choice, right on the main street and a short stroll to the Singing Fountain and the main colonnade (covered walkway housing several springs). While the facade is awash in friezes and caryatids, the interior is rather functional; rooms are bright and cheerful, however, with furniture of recent vintage, most with TV, and telephone. All the baths boast new tilework and fixtures, too, though some rooms share a bath; the price range here is 55 to 73 euros.

Whether or not you stay in a spa hotel, sooner or later you will end up at the Nove Lazne, a twin-towered structure offering the widest range of cures in town. Built in 1896, by the following year it welcomed England's Edward VII to the above-mentioned King's Chamber. All the area spas send their patients here for advanced treatment at no extra cost--like the "Maria's gas" wrap, essentially a plastic sleeping bag full of natural CO(sub)2. Otto, an older German from Bremen, walked with a cane, he tells me; but now, after two weeks of gas wraps, no more cane - and his wife is happier, he winks (an alternative to Viagra, the wraps supposedly dilate all the blood vessels). There are other fun treatments like colon irrigations, hydrotherapy, underwater massage, and the like. You may also come with no referral and take only those procedures you wish; that $20 mineral water bath in the King's Chamber costs $10 in a regular tub; an underwater spray massage is $16, and Otto's arousing gas wrap goes for a mere $7.

Meals in Marienbad: Even if you have a full-board plan, it would be a crime not to broaden your gastronomic horizons, given local restaurant prices. The Classic Restaurant and Cafe, for example, is classic indeed, with candles, crystal, and an upscale crowd. Meals here range from $1.65 for a vegetarian asparagus with peaches au gratin to a whopping $4.95 for smoked salmon with potato pancakes in a horseradish cream sauce and salad; a glass of Moravian wine is 64[cents]. For dessert, superb, paper-thin palacinky are just 80[cent]. Just up a short ways on Hlavni trida, the main drag, is the aforementioned dining room of the Pacific Hotel, where stucco-frosted ceilings loom over elegant tables. Here, 83[cents] buys an appetizer of sardines in cod liver oil with onions, and the chef's specialty, the "Pacific" sirloin steak with peaches and roquefort cheese, will set you back only $4.75.

To eat outdoors, try the Cesky Dvur, serving traditional Czech cuisine in a neoclassical courtyard just off Hlavni. The service is quick and the svickova na smetane (sauerbraten in cream sauce with cranberries and bread dumplings, practically the national dish) is heavenly-- and only $3.60. The same price gets you a hearty beef goulash, also with dumplings; desserts, like (what else?) palacinky, run $1.65. The best deal, though, is the "Czech platter," a generous assortment of roast pork, smoked meats, and duck served with cabbage and dumplings--for all of $6.35. Economize even further at Restaurace Franz Josef, named after the Austro-Hungarian emperor who ruled from 1848 until World War I; a cartoon cutout of the old chap presides over the entrance to this rustic tavern with bench seating and lace curtains. Here, a bowl of cesnecka (garlic soup) is a mere 53[cents], while breaded carp with fries costs $2.25; ditto for the so-called "Tramp" pork steak, served with roasted potatoes and a side.

Finally, the pink-and-white Cafe de Paris in the Nove Lazne is a perfect spot to recover from your treatments--as I did following my kingly soak in Eddie's tub. As I savored a yummy wedge of fruit tart (97[cents]) and a cup of strong coffee (67[cents]), a Czech language disco-rap version of "Red River Valley" played on the radio--a perversely fitting comment on the state of this beautiful country, poised between its communist past and its westernized future, and still offering--for now--amazing bargains, spa and otherwise. Sleeps Amid Springs

To phone the Czech Republic from the U.S., first dial 011-420. KARLSBAD Sanatorium Astoria Vridelni 23; 17/322-8224, fax 17/322-4368 Thermal Hotel Sanatorium I.P. Pavlova 11; 17/321-1111, fax 17/322-6992 Jadran Spa House Balbinova 4; 17/322-5613, fax 17/322-1684 Hotel Jiskra Marianskolazenska 1; 17/322-6994, fax 17/322-6149 MARIENBAD Hvezda Goethovo namesti 7; 165/631-111, fax 165/631-200 Vltava Anglicka 475; 165/641-111, fax 165/641-200 Pacific Spa Hotel Mirove namesti 84; 165/651-111, fax 165/651-200 Hotel Polonia Hlavni trida 50; 165/622-4512, fax 165/624-785 Nove Lazne Reitenbergerova 53; 165/644-111

Info & Tour Operators

The Czech Tourist Authority (212/288-0830; czechcenter.com/) has helpful spa information.

For packages, contact: Czech Vacations/CSA Czech Airlines in the U.S., 877/293-4225 Balnea Praha Spa & Travel Service Narodni trida 28, 10000 Prague 1; 011-420-2/2110-5314, fax 011-420-2/2110-5307; balnea@anet.cz Helios.Via Dlazdena 5, 11000 Prague 1; 011-420-2/2421-3136, fax 011-420-2/266-140; helios@ms.anet.cz; tours.cz/helios Prague International Travel Agency Senovazne namesti 23, 11282 Prague 1; 011-420-2/2414-2752, fax 011-420-2/2421-1524; check-in@pragueinternational.cz, pragueinternational.cz/ Feasts Amid Fountains

KARLSBAD Rybi Restaurace Bodam T.G. Masaryka 10; 17/322-2473 Regina Restaurace Nuva Louka 3; 17/322-3241 Sadova Kavarna-Restaurace Sadova 51; 17/323-5132 Linie Rychle Obcerstveni Nabrezi Jana Palacha 2

MARIENBAD Classic Restaurant-Cafe Hlavni trida 131; 165/622-807 Restaurace Franz-Josef Hlavni trida 161; 165/5746 Pacific Mirov, namesti 84; 165/651-111 Cesky Dvour Hlavni trida 650; 165/626-273 Cafe de Paris Reitenbergerova 53; 165/644-040.

CLUB DISCOUNTS

Save up to 50% on Hotels

1 rooms, 1 guests
ADVERTISEMENT
Keep reading
Inspiration

The Mining Towns of Southern West Virginia

John Denver immortalized West Virginia's country roads with the song that's become the de facto state anthem, one that even visitors know by heart. My colleague Moira, who's riding shotgun and taking photographs, and I belt out the lyrics repeatedly during the course of our trip. South of Charleston, country roads crisscross raging rivers, bisect towns too small to show up on a map, and roll over the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. The triangle between Charleston, Beckley, and Lewisburg is almost heaven (as Denver croons and the state's license plates advertise), and not just because of the pleasant driving. There's also enough history to keep us intrigued, enough adventure to keep us active, and enough kitsch to keep us entertained every mile of the way. Day 1: Charleston to Beckley After landing in Charleston midmorning, we head straight for Beckley, home to Tamarack, a 60,000-square-foot circular mall dedicated to West Virginia arts and crafts. Though architecturally bizarre--its roofline resembles the Statue of Liberty's crown, painted fire-engine red--half a million visitors a year come to buy crafts (blown glass, quilts, and wood carvings), listen to musicians, and watch the artists-in-residence work in their glass-walled studios. Our loop through the building ends at the buffet restaurant, where Moira and I fill up on fried-green-tomato sandwiches and pan-seared locally farmed trout before hitting Coal Country. By the 1880s, the completion of the Chesapeake & Ohio and the Norfolk & Western railroads had brought thousands of miners to southern West Virginia. Beckley is the gateway to what's now known as the Coal Heritage Trail, a 100-mile stretch of boom-and-bust towns reaching south to the Virginia border. At the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine museum--a working mine from 1890 to 1910--we hop a battery-powered tram and venture 1,500 dark feet into the mountain, past mossy walls and under a dripping ceiling. Our guide, Joe Norkevitz, who worked for various local coal companies for 40 years, explains that Beckley miners spent their 16-hour shifts on their knees or backs, as the average coal deposits were only waist high. I start to feel claustrophobic, and it only gets worse as he goes on to explain the dangers of collapses and methane gas explosions. Above ground, a walk through the museum and coal camp provides a look at the stark life miners lived outside of the mountain. A simple stove, desk, and a narrow single bed somehow fit in a tiny shanty, no more than six feet wide by nine feet long. At the Country Inn & Suites nearby, Moira and I have a renewed appreciation for our standard room's size. Day One Lodging Country Inn & Suites2120 Harper Rd., Beckley, 800/456-4000, countryinns.com, from $75 Attractions Tamarack OneTamarack Place, Beckley, 888/262-7225 Beckley Coal MineNew River Park, Beckley, 304/256-1747, open April-October, $15 Resources Southern West VirginiaCVB 221 George St., Beckley, 304/252-2244, visitwv.com Day 2: Beckley to Lewisburg Today's plan is to take scenic Route 3 toward Lewisburg. At White Oak Mountain Sporting Clays, in Shady Spring, manager Joe Clinebell shows us the proper handling of a 12-gauge shotgun. Shooting clay targets is the fastest growing gun sport in the country, says Clinebell, who describes it as "golf with a shotgun." We walk through the woods from station to station, firing at targets that, depending on how they're launched, simulate the movement of rabbits, ducks, or pheasant. Moira has never picked up a gun before but still manages to hit a few. I don't do much better even though I've shot skeet several times recently. Clinebell suggests that keeping my eyes open as I pull the trigger would help my aim. Using up our 50 rounds takes about two hours. By then, we're good and ready to move on to Hinton, a railroad town founded in 1873 at the point where the Greenbrier, Bluestone, and New Rivers meet. On the outskirts, we stop for lunch at Kirk's. The restaurant proper isn't much to look at, but the view from the back deck--it juts out over the New River--is spectacular. Ducks float by below us, and the water churns near the rocky shore. I've heard that Kirk's has the best hot dogs around, and I'm not disappointed--the bun is perfectly toasted, and there's a heap of fries on the side. On Temple Street, the Railroad Museum--which displays old signals, pieces of track, and Pullman uniforms--doubles as a vistors center. We pick up a map and explore the many Victorian buildings that have put Hinton on the National Register of Historic Places. Ten miles past Hinton, we drive over the 6,500-foot Big Bend Tunnel, which John Henry helped construct in the early 1870s. There's an eight-foot bronze statue of him--bare-chested, with a steel-driving hammer in hand--at a turnoff just before Route 3 dives into Talcott. The road continues to meander through the Greenbrier Valley, famous in the early 1900s for its natural mineral springs and exclusive spas. The sulfur-rich water was thought to cure tuberculosis, and trains brought the wealthy and ailing from as far as New York City. We drive past the Pence Springs Resort, formerly the Grand Hotel, which was once one of the area's most luxurious spas. Following the Depression, the place did time as a girls' school and then as a women's prison before reopening in 1987 as a hotel. We cruise into Lewisburg by late afternoon. During the Civil War, the city was a Confederate stronghold until Union forces defeated the Confederate Army here in 1862. A walking tour of the historic district leads us from the Confederate Cemetery to the boutiques and antiques shops on Washington Street. That night, a well-known Lewisburg band called the Manhattan Jazz Quartet is playing at the Sweet Shoppe, a bar where the beer is cheap and there's never a cover. Moira and I listen to the final set before we call it a night at the Hampton Inn. Day Two Lodging Hampton Inn30 Coleman Dr., Lewisburg, 800/426-7866, hamptoninn.com, from $84 Food Kirk's Family RestaurantRte. 3, Hinton, 304/466-4600, hot dog $1.75 Sweet Shoppe125 W. Washington St., Lewisburg, 304/645-3214, beer $2 Attractions White Oak Mountain Sporting Clays2350 Hinton Rd. (Rte. 3), Shady Spring, 304/763-5266, $50 for gun rental and 50 target rounds Hinton Railroad Museum206 Temple St., Hinton, 304/466-5420, summerscvb.com, free Resources Greenbrier CountyCVB 540 N. Jefferson St., Lewisburg, 800/833-2068, greenbrierwv.com Day 3: Lewisburg to Fayetteville We're on the road early because we have to get to Class VI River Runners by 10 a.m. First-timers probably aren't inclined to choose a run that includes Class V rapids, but Moira and I have only one shot at the New River so we decide to make the most of it. (Actually, I insist we make the most of it.) An old school bus takes us the 15 miles to the put-in. As we switchback down a sickeningly steep mountainside to the river's edge, trip leader Eric Cormack goes over his safety spiel. I feel Moira's increasingly nervous glare burning a hole into the side of my face. "If you fall out of the raft, and some of you will," Eric warns, "don't panic, remember to face downriver, and keep your feet up." There are thousands of submerged boulders (the very things that create the white water). "You don't want to get stuck up under there," Eric says succinctly. As it turns out, the bus ride is the scariest part of the day. Our five-hour run along 13 miles of river includes stops for swimming and a picnic lunch. The rapids--with names like Surprise, Pinball, and (ahem) Bloody Nose--are exhilarating, but there's plenty of gentle drifting, too. Just before the pick-up spot, we pass underneath the New River Gorge Bridge, the world's second-longest single-span steel arch. Back at Class VI headquarters, everyone goes to Chetty's Pub to watch the video footage from our trip. (A videographer paddled alongside us in a kayak, taping every scream, spill, and high five.) I catch a glimpse of my face as our raft dropped over one of the more challenging rapids: I look positively deranged--scared out of my mind and loving every minute of it. I happily shell out $14 for a still photo of the moment. Moira and I go back over the bridge to Dirty Ernie's Rib Pit. Co-owner Connie Taylor tells us Dirty Ernie was the foul-mouthed, hard-drinking original owner. Crunching across peanut shells customers have tossed on the cement floor, we head to a booth near the jukebox. A plate of barbecued pork ribs and a cold beer is the perfect end to the day. Day Three Operators Class VI River Runnersoff U.S. 19, near Fayetteville, 800/252-7784, classvi.com, from $89 Food Chetty's Pubabove Class VI River Runners, Fayetteville, 800/252-7784 Dirty Ernie's Rib Pit310 Keller Ave., Fayetteville, 304/574-4822, open late April--mid Oct., ribs from $12 Day 4: Fayetteville to Charleston Leaving Fayetteville, we drive south to a small part of the 70,000-acre New River Gorge National River park. The town of Thurmond--or what's left of it--consists of a couple of abandoned storefronts and a railroad depot. It's hard to picture it as one of the busiest places around at the turn of the century, when there were 26 mines in the area. But Prohibition, competing rail lines, and the Depression took their toll, and by 1940, it was well on its way to becoming a ghost town. The restored Thurmond Depot is now a visitors center and museum, and it's here that we learn one of the town's most colorful tales. The Dunglen Hotel, also known as "Little Monte Carlo," hosted the world's longest continually running poker game. It lasted 14 years and ended only when neighbors from the other side of the river lost their patience and burned the place to the ground in 1930. If Thurmond is the New River's past, Fayetteville is its future. It's become a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Every third Saturday in October, a quarter of a million people flock to the area for Bridge Day, when hundreds of base jumpers parachute off the New River Gorge Bridge. In town, we walk down Church Street to the Cathedral Café, in a deconsecrated Methodist church. Sunlight streams in through stained-glass windows as we eat grilled panini--smoked turkey and avocado for me, three cheese for Moira. Back on the Midland Trail, the road clings to the mountain high above the gorge in a series of stomach-wrenching turns. Just past the entrance to Hawk's Nest State Park, one of the turns reveals a wildly painted Volkswagen beetle crashed into the side of a rusty corrugated trailer. It's called the Mystery Hole. Owner Will Morrison makes us promise not to tell what we see on the 10-minute underground tour, and he's the kind of guy you don't cross. Moira gets so discombobulated by the strange happenings (and perhaps my driving) that she ditches me for the parking lot. On our way to the airport, we give our favorite song another go: "Drivin' down the road, I get a feelin' that I should have been home yesterday." But as I look back and catch my last glimpse of the Kanawha River, I can't help wishing we had another day. Day Four Food Cathedral Café134 S. Court St., Fayetteville, 304/574-0202, panini $6.25 Attractions Thurmond Depot Visitor CenterRte. 25 past Glen Jean, 304/465-0508 Mystery HoleU.S. 60, at mile marker 44, 304/658-9101, mysteryhole.com, $4 Resources New River Gorge National River304/465-0508, nps.gov/neri Fayetteville CVB310 N. Court St., Fayetteville, 888/574-1500, visitfayettevillewv.com Finding Your Way Continental, Delta, and US Airways all fly into Charleston's Yeager Airport. For a midsize car, expect to pay about $100 for four days. Before you leave home, pick up a copy of Far Appalachia, in which Noah Adams (former host of NPR's All Things Considered) recounts his journey by jeep, bike, foot, and raft from the New River's source in North Carolina to its mouth at the Gauley Bridge. Day 1: Charleston to Beckley, 60 miles Yeager Airport Road becomes Greenbrier Street/Route 114. Follow signs for I-64 east/I-77 south (also called the West Virginia Turnpike). There are two $1.25 tolls. Take exit 45 for Tamarack; it's visible from the interstate. The Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine is off exit 44. Head east on Route 3 (Harper Road) for a mile and a half and make a left onto Ewart Avenue. After about a mile, you'll see the New River Park entrance on the right. Day 2: Beckley to Lewisburg, 58 miles Follow Route 19 south from Beckley to Shady Spring, then Route 3 east toward Hinton. White Oak Mountain is four miles up on the right. Continue east on Route 3 through Hinton, Talcott, and Pence Springs. At Alderson turn onto Route 63, and at Roncevert, take U.S. 219 four miles into Lewisburg. Day3: Lewisburg to Fayetteville, 57 miles Take I-64 west from Lewisburg and exit at U.S. 60 west, also known as the Midland Trail. At the junction with U.S. 19, head south toward the New River Gorge Bridge. Exit right at Ames Heights Road for Class VI River Runners. If you actually cross the bridge, you've gone too far. Warning: There are lots of cops on U.S. 19; observe the speed limit carefully. After rafting, get back on U.S. 19 south and cross the bridge. Fayetteville is on the other side of the New River. Day 4: Fayetteville to Charleston, 60 miles To reach Thurmond, take U.S. 19 south 12 miles to the Glen Jean exit. Follow the signs about seven miles down narrow Route 25 (no RVs). Backtrack to Fayetteville on U.S. 19. Cross the New River Gorge Bridge one last time and take U.S. 60/Midland Trail heading west to Charleston.

Inspiration

Chattanooga, Tenn.

My senior prom was at the Chattanooga Choo Choo. This piece of personal trivia never ceases to amuse people who haven't been to Chattanooga--a town of 160,000 in the hilly southeast corner of Tennessee. After asking me what it was like to have a prom at a train station (it was like any other prom circa 1988, where the girls wore taffeta in terrible colors--plus trains), they'll usually activate their jazz hands and launch into the Glenn Miller tune inspired by our famous locomotive: "Pardon me boys..." I actually grew up about 30 miles north of Chattanooga, in a small town called Cleveland. Both sides of my parents' families have been there for more than a century. Even today, the tallest building in Cleveland is only eight stories, so Chattanooga was our downtown. At night, driving over Missionary Ridge, I was entranced by the brightly lit sign atop the Choo Choo. Thanks to the careful synchronization of blinking lightbulbs, the train's wheels "moved" and smoke "billowed." It was thrilling. Missionary Ridge and two mountains--Lookout and Signal--form a boundary around Chattanooga. There are some snooty Chattanoogans who don't call moneyed Lookout Mountain by its full name: They call it The Mountain (pronounced "thee"). Signal Mountain is also well-to-do, though it has nothing on the old money of its imperious neighbor. Therefore, it's called The--"thuh"--Mountain. Meanwhile, Elder Mountain, southwest of town, is relegated to the lowest status of A Mountain. I've driven over the mountains into Chattanooga 25 dozen times in the past 10 years, but I can't remember if the wheels still roll on the Choo Choo's sign. It seems that the older and busier you get, the more likely you are to cease noticing things like that. It kind of sums up my relationship with Chattanooga: I never really saw what a great city it is until I became an adult. As a kid, I was too busy comparing Chattanooga to Atlanta, two hours south. And to my mind, Atlanta had the serious edge--if only because it's where Duran Duran played in concert. When I learned to drive, my attitude changed a bit. There was cool in Chattanooga; you just had to know where to look. Outdoor festivals weren't just a great way to see live music, but also a place where my underage friends and I could buy beer from clueless refreshment stand attendants. We never missed the Bessie Smith Strut, a blues festival named to honor one of Chattanooga's famous natives (the guy who played the principal on Saved by the Bell is a lesser-known local luminary). By the time I was a senior in high school, the city had started to rehabilitate the scuzzy downtown. When I returned after college to take my first newspaper job, it was a totally different place. There was even a brew pub. Yet soon enough, I began feeling a growing big-city itch, one that the occasional shopping trip to Atlanta couldn't help satisfy. So in 1995, I moved to New York City, where I eventually became the fashion editor at the New York Post. Two years ago, my sister Millie bought a cute one-bedroom bungalow in North Chattanooga, a favorite neighborhood among 20- and 30-somethings who flock there for the mid-century architecture. It was the kind of place I imagined myself living if I ever moved back home. It's artsy but not pretentious, and populated by all types, from elderly couples to young, single first-time homeowners. And it's cozy. Millie is greeted like a close friend at Pearls, a gallery that sells locally made jewelry, paintings, and outsider art. For years, my family has been going to The Mudpie, a coffeehouse with a thoughtfully wacky, thrift-shop-blew-up-in-here decorating scheme. The scrambled eggs with cheese are served over a homemade cathead biscuit. The name is old-school Southern slang that comes from the biscuits' heft and shape. I started missing stuff like that more and more. After nine years of playing Carrie Bradshaw--I too was a writer who spent an inordinate amount of money on shoes--I longed for a more slowish pace and a more smallish place. A year and a half ago, I made a mental list of sub-Mason-Dixon Line cities that would offer the calm I craved, but that also had a certain amount of sophistication. Charlotte and Birmingham were out: Neither has ever impressed me much. Miami, Atlanta? I was tired of concrete. And then--for a few serious minutes--I thought about coming home to Chattanooga. The moment passed. At 35 and well into my career in newspaper journalism, I'm still not ready for a town quite as slowish and smallish as Chattanooga. So instead I moved to Nashville, about 100 miles northwest. Now I make the trip to Chattanooga a couple times a month to visit Millie and my parents. And when I come to town, the fashion editor in me still has an outlet. I always make a point to hit a boutique in North Chattanooga called Susannas, where I can find trendy labels such as Marc by Marc Jacobs, Rebecca Taylor, and Citizens for Humanity. And I score random Lilly Pulitzer pieces at the Junior League Bargain Mart. Millie and I go for drinks at the North Chatt Cat, a hole-in-the-wall with Formica tables and scruffy regulars who could be truly starving artists or slumming millionaires. Sometimes my parents will come down on Saturday night and treat me and Millie to dinner at St. John's Restaurant, where we order foie gras and good wine that we can't afford to buy ourselves. But overall, my favorite spot is Chad's Records, the town's best indie music store. I once found a photo disc of Heart's Dreamboat Annie in Chad's stacks and I treasure it: There's nothing like watching Ann and Nancy Wilson's faces going round and round. Truth be told, though, the real reason to go to Chad's is to run into Chad himself, a 30-something indie rock guy. Women I know who don't even have turntables have spent hours in there flipping through records, just to see him smile. Lodging   Sheraton Read House Hotel 827 Broad St., 423/266-4121, from $109 Food   St. John's Restaurant 1278 Market St., 423/266-4400, foiegras $16   The Mudpie 12 Frazier Ave., 423/267-9043, biscuit $6.75   North Chatt Cat 346 Frazier Ave., 423/266-9466 Attractions   Chattanooga Choo Choo 1400 Market St., 423/266-5000, trolley ride $2 Shopping   Pearls Folk Art 202 Tremont St., 423/267-6779   Junior League Bargain Mart 3935 Hixon Pike, 423/870-9686   Susannas 921 Barton Ave., 423/265-4777   Chad's Records 326 Vine St., 423/756-7563

Inspiration

Maine's Mid-Coast

I've always hated lobster. My memories of childhood vacations in Maine are clouded by recollections of sitting grumpily at the picnic table of lobster shacks, morosely longing for a hamburger. My girlfriend, Frances, was of another mind. She prepared for our drive up Maine's Mid-Coast--from Portland to Penobscot Bay--by trying to work out ways to incorporate lobster into every meal, including breakfast. I was far more eager to revisit the Maine I loved from my past: offshore islands, Victorian fishing villages, the gargantuan L.L. Bean flagship store, and meandering drives along the narrow peninsulas. As for my feelings about lobster, I have to admit I became a begrudging convert: By the end of our trip it was me--claw cracker in one hand, plastic cup of Maine microbrew in the other--eyeing the largest guy in the tank. Day 1: Portland to Westport Island Our first order of business heading north out of Portland on Route 1 was a visit to DeLorme headquarters in Yarmouth. I had borrowed my dad's DeLorme map of the state. He'd highlighted his favorite drives, circled memorable towns, and scrawled notes all over. It was as good a resource as any guidebook, but this was to be my trip, and I wanted my own blank slate. DeLorme's lobby houses the world's largest spinning globe--130 feet around, over 41 feet high. At one-millionth scale, the massive globe has all the world's topographical information, but leaves out political borders. It's Earth as the astronauts see it--all I could think was how huge the Pacific Ocean actually is. We stopped next at the Desert of Maine, a kitschy 40-acre plot of miniature sand dunes. The site formed in the 1880s when over-farming depleted the soil covering a glacial sand deposit. Along with the striking dunes, the Desert of Maine complex has a train to cart you around, plastic camels for photo-ops, and a nature trail through a pine forest that promised remarkable wildlife wonders such as "trees and birds." In Freeport, I got to business trying on travel slacks at L.L. Bean. The town is one of the nation's most popular outlet shopping villages, with more than 150 stores. And it all started in 1917 when avid outdoorsman Leon Leonwood Bean opened his shop, now a 140,000-square-foot flagship. Frances had to drag me out of a dressing room to find lunch. Half a block down Main Street, we grabbed a table on the brick patio of the Lobster Cooker, a homespun version of a fast-food joint. It was my first lobster roll of the trip, and it was better than I remembered them to be. The soft, chewy bun and the mayonnaisey lobster were delicious. Squire Tarbox Inn, a 1763 farmhouse turned B&B, was so secluded that to find it we had to stop twice to consult the map. Owner Roni De Pietro, a retired flight attendant, showed us around the building and up an outdoor staircase to our room. Rough wooden beams lined the ceiling, and there was a lovely view over gardens sloping to a meadow with a pond. After settling in, we returned downstairs to the inn's little living room to snack on goat cheese, crackers, olives, and red wine from the honor bar, where we noted what we drank for our bill. Squire Tarbox is as well known for its meals as its rooms. Roni's Swiss husband, Mario--a veteran of top New York kitchens including The Four Seasons restaurant--prepared a dinner of chicken curry soup, grilled salmon, and potato-crusted haddock with a side of glazed carrots from the inn's organic garden. Back in our room, I left the door open awhile to take in the quiet and the darkness. A fluffy cat sauntered in, hopped up onto the bed's duvet, and settled down with us for the night. Day One Lodging Squire Tarbox Inn1181 Main Rd., Westport Island, 207/882-7693, squiretarboxinn.com, rooms from $99, dinner from $32.50 Food Lobster Cooker39 Main St., Freeport, 207/865-4349, lobster roll $14 Attractions DeLorme 2 DeLorme Dr., Yarmouth, 207/846-7100 Desert of Maine 95 Desert Rd., Freeport, 207/865-6962, $7.75 Shopping L.L. Bean 95 Main St., Freeport, 800/559-0747 Day 2: Westport Island to Waldoboro To say the town of Bath (pop. 9,266) is in the shipbuilding industry is a bit of an understatement; nearly half of the employees at Bath Iron Works are from the greater Bath area. And during the past 117 years, BIW has built more than 400 big boats, from tugs to missile destroyers. Down the road from BIW, the defunct Percy & Small Shipyard has been turned into the Maine Maritime Museum. I expected it to be dull, but was proven wrong by an intriguing mix of seafaring lore and shipbuilding secrets. An exhibit on lobstermen listed some common superstitions: They will not paint their boats blue, wear black, turn baskets or barrels upside down, or say the word "pig" while on board. Maine's Mid-Coast looks somewhat like a stumpy hand with more than a dozen long, scraggly fingers. The fingers are peninsulas and islands, most of which are connected by bridges. From Bath, we drove down one peninsula and onto Bailey Island, a small fishing village. At the docks, Cook's Lobster House was a near-perfect lobster shack. I had baked lobster stuffed with Ritz crackers. The baking dried out the lobster meat, but copious amounts of melted butter went a long way to making up for it. At Bowdoin College in Brunswick, we visited the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, a collection of Arctic arcana. (Did you know caribou hair is hollow?) The place was named for two alumni explorers, the more famous of whom--Robert Edwin Peary--became the first man to reach the North Pole, in 1909. We retraced our way south to Georgetown Island with one goal: to take a picture of me next to the sign for Reid State Park. After a lifetime of searching in vain for my name on a miniature license plate, this was something of a victory. The park also won me over with one of Maine's best beaches--a mile and a half of wide sand backed by marshy tide pools and a freshwater pond. Though summer temperatures around here average in the mid-70s, the water in the ocean never rises much past 60 degrees. Only the hardiest swimmers opt for the ocean, and it was too cold for us to contemplate either. In Waldoboro, a neon sign welcomed us to Moody's Diner, a classic joint with two neat rows of white clapboard cabins on a hill behind it. We relaxed for a few moments on our little screened porch before hopping back in the car to backtrack down Rte. 1 for dinner in Damariscotta. The town, which curls around a harbor, has a white church steeple poking above the trees. At King Eider's Pub, we had cold pints of local microbrew Kennebec River Magic Hole IPA, along with fresh, meaty river oysters and a hunter's soup of beef, sausage, potatoes, and veggies in a spicy broth. It warmed us up nicely. Day Two Lodging Moody's MotelRoute 1, Waldoboro, 207/832-5362, $43 Food Cook's Lobster HouseBailey Island, 207/833-2818, lobster $25 King Eider's Pub2 Elm St., Damariscotta, 207/563-6008, half-dozen river oysters $11 Attractions Maine Maritime Museum243 Washington St., Bath, 207/443-1316, $10 Peary-MacMillan Arctic MuseumHubbard Hall, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, 207/725-3416 Reid State Park375 Seguinland Rd., Georgetown, 207/371-2303, $4.50 Day 3: Waldoboro to Vinalhaven We fortified ourselves for the day with eggs, pancakes, and bacon at Moody's Diner before visiting Pemaquid Point. There's a real land's-end feel to the protruding finger of granite, which is eroded in the most gorgeous way. An 1827 lighthouse at the top of the outcropping is the same one pictured on the back of Maine's state quarters. Frances and I whiled away two hours scrambling over the rocks, peering at tiny crabs in tide pools. Just up the road we found a place that beat Cook's Lobster House, at least in terms of atmosphere. Shaw's Fish & Lobster Wharf is a one-room outfit with a sunny deck built out over a cove bobbing with boats. It was quiet accompaniment to yet another delicious lobster. The oddest souvenir shop I've ever seen, the Maine State Prison Showroom near Rockland, is stocked with woodwork made by inmates from the state pen up the road in Warren. Prices are low: oak bookcases for $139, intricate ship models from $55. I'm still kicking myself for not buying a Maine State Prison birdhouse resembling a jail, with little bars on the windows. It was a bit disconcerting, however, to browse a store staffed by convicts (plus a guard). Moving higher up the art scale, we stopped at the Farnsworth Art Museum in downtown Rockland to admire the work of 19th-century American painters, including Thomas Eakins and the Wyeth clan. Andrew Wyeth's father, N.C., started the family's habit of summering in Maine in the 1930s in nearby Port Clyde. After taking our sweet time at the museum, we parked down by the docks and boarded the ferry for the 75-minute ride to Vinalhaven Island. In the center of town, the Tidewater Motel is built right on top of a fast, narrow tidal channel. Our room opened onto a small deck over the water. From the window, we could look at the harbor, flecked with dozens of white boats. Owner Phil Crossman lent us a couple of bikes, and we rode a few miles out of town to Booths Quarry, a popular swimming hole. It was sunny but chilly, and the water felt freezing. Some teenage girls were splashing around, so I tried--unsuccessfully--to convince Frances to jump in with me. What I failed to consider was that these girls had been tempered by Maine winters. The second I hit the water, I catapulted back out of it with a yelp and sprinted back along the surface to shore. Frances found this hilarious. We biked back for dinner at the Harbor Gawker, an unpretentious restaurant looking out on a pond. The crab roll and clam chowder were simple and just right. Day Three Lodging Tidewater MotelVinalhaven, 207/863-4618, tidewatermotel.com, from $72 Food Shaw's Fish & Lobster WharfRoute 32, New Harbor, 207/ 677-2200, lobster $14 Harbor GawkerMain St., Vinalhaven, 207/863-9365, crab roll and clam chowder $10.75 Attractions Pemaquid Point207/563-6246, parking $2 Farnsworth Art Museum16 Museum St., Rockland, 207/596-6457, $9 Shopping Maine State Prison Showroom358 Main St. (Rte. 1), Thomaston, 207/354-9237 Transportation Maine State Ferry ServiceRockland, 207/596-2202, round-trip $12 Day 4: Vinalhaven to Portland In a little shopping center next to the docks, a back deck leads to the Surfside, a restaurant popular with fishermen, who roll in for breakfast as early as 4 a.m. Well after that hour, I wolfed down two eggs with kielbasa, crispy home fries, and thick slices of bread made from cornmeal and molasses, and Frances had blueberry pancakes. All the while, owner Donna Webster and her staff teased the other clients--friends who had come in to discuss The Bold & the Beautiful, and skateboarders declaring the food "wicked good." A ferry to the mainland dropped us back at our car, and we took a quick drive north to Camden. Giant old Victorians line the streets, a little river spills over a waterfall into the harbor, and fun shops fill brick buildings along Chestnut, Main, and Elm Streets. It all felt very Norman Rockwell. Camden was the end of the road for us. But before shooting back down to Portland, we picked up some turkey sandwiches at the Camden Deli for one more activity, a mile-and-a-half climb to the top of Mount Battie, outside of town. Just below the mountaintop, we found a sunny boulder to sit on, and pulled out our picnic. We took turns reading to each other from "Renascence," the 1912 poem that launched the literary career of local high school student Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poem was evidently inspired by this very view of Camden, the perfect Maine town, overlooking the perfect island-dotted harbor. Day Four Food Surfside RestaurantWest Main St., Vinalhaven, 207/863-2767 Camden Deli37 Main St., Camden, 207/236-8343 Attractions Mount BattieCamden Hills State Park, 280 Belfast Rd., Camden, 207/236-3109 Finding Your Way The ideal time for this trip is in high summer, when temperatures reach the mid-70s, and everything's sure to be open. Driving these parts requires a lot of jogging up and down Route 1; the goal isn't to get from Point A to Point B, but to detour into all the inlets. The exits on Interstates 295 and 95 were renumbered in Maine in early 2004, so be sure to use 2005 guidebooks and maps. A few notes: 1) The Squire Tarbox Inn is easy to miss. From Bath on Route 1, Route 144 sneaks up after the Montsweag brook crossing. 2) The ferry to Vinalhaven leaves out of Rockland. 3) The fastest route back to Portland from Camden is inland, via Route 90 to Route 17 to Augusta, then I-95 to I-295 south.

Inspiration

Secret Hotels of Tuscany

La Rignana A long way from the main roads in Chianti wine country, the refined retreat of Cosimo Gericke and Sveva Rocco di Torrepadula has two old guesthouses. The Fattoria, enlarged in the 18th century, is based on a structure more than 1,000 years old. It contains seven rooms with rustic furnishings and sloping brick ceilings laced with wooden beams. The rooms lack TVs, telephones, and A/C, though there is a common area with a stone fireplace that has satellite television and a modem hookup. The other guest building is the two-floor Villa Stella: eight rooms with plank floors and frescoes that are available on a nightly basis only in April, May, September, and October. (At other times of year, you must rent an entire floor by the week as a single unit--four rooms, each with its own bathroom, with a common kitchen and fireplace.) The Villa is open year-round, the Fattoria from late March to mid-November. There is a horizon pool amid the olive trees, with views of the rolling hills. The restaurant, in another cluster of farm buildings and under separate management, has tables on a patio and serves traditional Tuscan fare, including wide papardelle pasta with wild boar sauce, and delectable involtini (thin veal slices wrapped around cheese and prosciutto) stewed with zucchini disks. Doubles in the Fattoria $109--$122, with breakfast; Villa doubles $154, with breakfast; four-room apartment $3,846 per week. Near Greve in Chianti, 011-39/055-852-065, rignana.it. Podere Terreno Roberto Melosi left a promising hotel career at London's Savoy to become chef and host of an agriturismo--an inn on a working farm in Italy. His Paris-born wife, Marie-Sylvie Haniez, who had owned a modern art gallery in Florence, decided the only proper way to run an agriturismo was to share communal dinners with their guests in the French table d'hôte style. Together, they manage a restored 16th-century farmhouse, which has seven country-comfy rooms furnished with a hodgepodge of painted metal bedsteads, carved wood vanities, and worn terra-cotta floors. Credit for the vineyard's light, organic Chianti Classico goes to Marie-Sylvie's adult son, Pier Francesco, who gave up dirt bike racing to study viticulture and enology at the University of Florence. Wine obviously means a lot to the family: Vineyards encircle the house, and each guest room is named for a local grape. Malvasia, Trebbiano, Vernaccia, and Ciliegiolo are all on the east side of the house, which has the best vineyard views. In summer, guests enjoy that same view from the patio during three-hour family-style dinners that may include lasagne, steaks, and stuffed tomatoes. Roberto and Marie-Sylvie sit at either end of the long wooden table and do their best to keep the conversation lively, in multiple languages if necessary. On cooler days, dinner moves inside to a common room, where copper pots dangle from thick wood beams and the stone walls are decorated with oil paintings, ceramics, and Marie-Sylvie's collection of sun icons. The room's seven-foot fireplace, which dates back to the 14th century, is surrounded by armchairs and a sofa that Athena (Roberto and Marie-Sylvie's miniature schnauzer) is happy to share. In the spring of 2004, Podere Terreno's simple operation got a bit swankier, inaugurating a wine-tasting cantina and a tiny spa with a Jacuzzi and massage table. Doubles $231, with breakfast and dinner. Near Radda in Chianti, 011-39/0577-738-312, podereterreno.it. Castello Ripa d'Orcia Once you settle into a cavernous room in this medieval castle village three miles down a curving, bumpy dirt lane, the only contact with the outside world is the pay phone in the restaurant. Accommodations are gorgeous in an antique, minimalist sort of way: very rustic, with massive ceiling beams, thrilling countryside views, and no TVs to disturb the calm--just birdsong in the mornings and the chirping of cicadas on hot summer afternoons. There's a long, narrow garden with a fountain and sunning chairs, battlements once patrolled by soldiers (now guarded by flowerpots) that make for a nice stroll, and an old granary lined with books, gaming tables, and a fireplace for guests. The owner, Countess Laura Aluffi Pentini, is part of the Piccolomini family. They're a well-known clan in these parts: Several Renaissance popes came from the family, and the Piccolominis have owned the property since 1483 (the castle itself dates back to 1218). The Countess lives in the castle, but is only guaranteed to be around during check-in time (2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.), which adds to the feeling that, in passing through the tower gate, you've stepped out of the modern world and its frenetic pace. Doubles $147--$180, with breakfast, two-night minimum, open mid-March--October. About five miles south of San Quírico d'Orcia, 011-39/0577-897-376, castelloripadorcia.com. Fattoria di Vagli After two miles of dirt road winding through dense woods, a cypress-lined driveway leads to a 17th-century farmhouse surrounded by fields of corn, sunflowers, wheat, grapevines, and farro. The Vagli farm is a family operation, with Carla Ferri in charge. Her father tends the crops, her uncles shepherd the free-range pigs, cows, rabbits, ducks, chickens, and pigeons, and her mother works in the kitchen curing meats, making marmalades, and cooking for guests and the family ($23 for three courses plus dessert, without wine). Carla, meanwhile, looks after guests and the 10 rooms, furnished in a simple country style with hand-painted headboards and rough wooden beams. The rooms on the ground floor have exposed stone walls and are a bit smaller, but the abundance of light from large windows makes them feel airy. The suite with a fireplace costs $13 more, while the two units that share a bathroom cost $17 less--though those two also interconnect, so they're perfect for families. There are four free bikes for guests, and the dining room walls are lined with topographical maps to help you plan hikes and rides throughout the region--or just within the woodlands that cover most of Vagli's 800 acres. The grounds are so extensive, some guests never realize that there's a pool hidden in the fruit orchard. Once a week, a member of the family takes guests on a tour of the farming operation, which produces figs, olives, dried pork, and more. Carla also arranges guided hikes in the Castelvecchio nature reserve, which overlaps with the farm and includes the ruins of a medieval castle and village. Doubles $94, with breakfast. In Libbiano, north of San Gimignano, 011-39/0577-946-025, naturaesalute.it. Giovanni da Verrazzano Saturday is market day in the village of Greve in Chianti, when the main piazza is buzzing with vendors selling fruits, vegetables, porchetta (pork) sandwiches, and everyday necessities. The stalls are arranged around the statue of local sailor Giovanni da Verrazzano, the first European to discover New York Harbor. For the past 800 years, the hotel now named in this hometown hero's honor has watched over daily life on the triangular piazza. The 10 guest rooms are basic--some but not all come with a private bathroom, though modern terrazzo floors and painted metal bedsteads are standard. The location and the views are what set the hotel apart. The front rooms overlook the bustling square, while those in the back (nos. 4--7) have little private terraces with vistas over lichen-spotted roof tiles to the vast hills beyond. A larger room upstairs (no. 10), with its sloping ceilings and Persian rugs, claims similar views over the hills but no balcony. The restaurant, on a terrace atop one of the piazza's arcades, has fed hungry visitors to Greve since 1200. Doubles $127--$135, with breakfast. Piazza Giacomo Matteotti 28, 011-39/055-853-189, verrazzano.it. Castello di Gargonza On the crest of a mountain enveloped by forest sits a fairy-tale castle, with a 13th-century hamlet curled around the base of a crenellated tower. The hilltop village is Gargonza, fought over for centuries by the Florentines and Sienese, host to an exiled Dante in the early 1300s--and now entirely for rent. Gargonza's 27 houses, which like the castle are built of pale stone, serve as apartments and come with working fireplaces, kitchenettes, and 17th-century-style furnishings. There are also seven simple doubles (no kitchens or fireplaces) in one of the larger buildings. Converting the place into lodging for tourists was the only way Count Roberto Guicciardini--whose ancestors have been lords of the castle since 1700--could save the decaying village after the last of its farmers and artisans abandoned Gargonza in the 1960s. The central courtyard, with an old well and geraniums spilling from arcaded balconies, is a sort of open-air living room for guests. Likewise, the old olive press building functions these days as a common room with sofas, TV, and the breakfast buffet. Just outside the town's medieval walls is a swimming pool surrounded by fragrant rosemary and olive and cypress trees, and the excellent restaurant. Owner Neri Guicciardini, one of the count's sons, adds innovative flair to Tuscan classics. Doubles $130--$141 in B&B; $147--$232 in apartments. Off the SS73 west of Monte San Savino, 011-39/0575-847-021, gargonza.it. Villa Rosa in Boscorotondo Sabina Avuri, tall and thin with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, is one of the owners of this elegant and secluded dusty-pink villa on the twisting main road through the Chianti region. Her husband, Giancarlo, is a Tuscan straight from central casting, complete with open-necked shirts, trimmed moustache, wavy gray hair swept back from a proud forehead, precise facial expressions, and a thick Florentine accent. He spends his days managing their wine bar in Florence before making the half-hour drive home to help his wife prepare four-course dinners served on the back patio ($30). The villa was built by a French expat in the early 1900s, and many of the original elements remain: octagonal red and black stone floor tiles, little sitting rooms, and terra-cotta stoves that once warmed the rooms. The Avuris have added their own touches, including TV sets here and there, canopied beds under high ceilings, funky lamps and sconces made by a local design company, and a swimming pool on the hillside under a neighbor's grapevines. Rooms 2 and 4 have French doors that open onto massive terraces with views of the forested hills across the road. No. 7, on the top floor, has vaulted beams on the ceiling, soft blue washed walls, and small windows. In spring and fall, breakfast moves from the patio to the sunken cellars that once held barrels of vin santo, Tuscany's "holy wine," so sweet it's served for dessert. Doubles $115; $141 with terrace, with breakfast, open Easter--mid-November. On the main SR 222 road south of Panzano in Chianti, en route to Radda. 011-39/055-852-577, resortvillarosa.it. Il Poderuccio Don't be alarmed if there's no one around when you stroll across the lawn to the check-in desk. Chances are owner Giorgio Girardi is in the back tinkering with the tractor, while his wife, Renate, is in the gardens. Il Poderuccio lies just down the road from Sant'Angelo in Colle, a hilltop medieval village in the heart of Brunello wine country. Giorgio left an international banking career to restore this abandoned farm, and is proud to have strung vines along only half of his available acreage. Locals think he's crazy to limit his production of one of Italy's most famous--and famously expensive--red wines, but Giorgio prefers keeping the operation small enough to run single-handedly. Renate has filled six large guest rooms with thoughtful touches, such as mosquito screens (rare in Italy), plenty of towels (rare everywhere), and garlands of dried lavender perched on windowsills. There are pretty nooks throughout the property--benches under shade trees, a swimming pool in the olive grove, perfect stacks of wood. Breakfast is served in the sunny front porch in cool weather and during the summer shifts to the back patio with views straight out of a Renaissance painting--distant mountains above green and gold fields striped with vines and spiked with cypress trees. Doubles $109, with breakfast, open Easter--November. Near Montalcino, 011-39/0577-844-052. Six More Secret Hotels: For When You Want the City Experience If "countryside retreat" sounds to you like "stranded amid the vineyards," here are some great hotels in popular Tuscan towns. Il Giglio, Montalcino Rooms come with wrought-iron bed frames, beamed ceilings, and fabulous countryside views, all in the heart of the hilltown that serves as capital of the Brunello region. The best wine-tasting enoteca is in the crag-top castle just around the corner. Doubles $109, $126 with breakfast. Via Saloni 5, 011-39/0577-848-167, gigliohotel.com. La Cisterna, San Gimignano A series of ivy-clad stone buildings, backed by a piazza and its ancient well, hold 49 rooms, the best of which have views of the town's iconic towers and the rolling countryside. Doubles $105--$156, with breakfast. Piazza della Cisterna 23, 011-39/0577-940-328, hotelcisterna.it. Le Cannelle, Fiesole In an Etruscan hilltown 20 minutes from Florence by bus, Sara Corsi rents airy rooms with sleigh beds in an 18th-century convent restored by her father. Doubles $146, with breakfast. Via Gramsci 52, 54, 56, Fiesole. 011-39/0555-978-336, lecannelle.com. Mueblé Il Riccio, Montepulciano Modern rooms with minibars and A/C are 50 feet from the town's main Piazza Grande, which is lined with Renaissance palaces and wine-tasting cellars. Owners Giorgio and Ivana Caroti are inveterate travelers themselves; ask about countryside tours in one of Giorgio's classic cars. Doubles $109, breakfast $10 extra. Via Talosa 21, 011-39/0578-757-713, ilriccio.net. Piccolo Hotel Etruria, Siena The Etruria's rooms are rather bland yet functional, with A/C and the best location of any hotel in town: on a side alley a mere 164 feet from Siena's central Piazza del Campo. Doubles $103, breakfast $6 extra. Via delle Donzelle 3, 011-39/0577-288-088, hoteletruria.com. Piccolo Hotel Puccini, Lucca Owner Paolo Moncini is friendly and helpful, and his hotel has cozy rooms that are remarkably cheap considering they're across the street from Puccini's birthplace and half a block from the main piazza. Doubles $109, breakfast $5 extra. Via di Poggio 9, 011-39/0583-55-421, hotelpuccini.com.