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We have a winner!

By Budget Travel
October 3, 2012

Congratulations to Steve Jackson, who has won our Blog-Off Contest through a popular vote of online readers. Steve's winning essay is titled "Dear First-Time Vietnam Visitor." (Read it here.) He had originally published the piece on his blog Our Man in Hanoi, which narrated his experiences as an ex-pat living in Vietnam.

Steve now lives in Nicaragua, where he runs the aptly named blog, Our Man in Granada. We're excited to say that he will be guest-blogging here at This Just In starting the week of May 21. He'll also receive a $500 prize.

We applaud every writer who entered the contest. There were so many good submissions! And thank you to all the readers who took the time to help pick a winner.

Keep reading

Changes at JetBlue

Discount airline JetBlue booted its founder, David Neeleman, today. The company's board of directors removed Neeleman from his chief executive role as punishment for his recent poor management, which led to last February's canceled-flights fiasco. Let's take a moment to pause and thank Neeleman for having invented JetBlue and many of its innovative perks, which Budget Travel recognized last year with a 2006 Extra Mile Award: "Rather than removing amenities and nickel-and-diming customers with $7 sandwiches and $25 excess baggage charges, JetBlue actually added perks. The airline gives every passenger on an overnight flight a free Bliss Spa kit with earplugs, eye masks, mint lip balm, and a small tube of lemon-and-sage body butter moisturizer." More recently, Neeleman had his airline reconfigure the seats on its aircraft to provide between 34- and 36-inches of legroom. Travelers nationwide ought to be grateful to JetBlue for setting such a good example for the proper treatment of coach-class passengers. One more thought: Neeleman, 47, had an inspiring personal story. Growing up in Utah, he was the guy many teachers never thought would amount to much. Yet he overcame a debilitating brain disorder to eventually found a multi-billion dollar airline company, as detailed in this Fortune profile. All that said, JetBlue's handling of passengers last February was unconscionable. So let's hope this management change, justified or not, lets the airline get back on track soon.</p> <p> </p> <p>_uacct = "UA-1844627-1";</p> <p>urchinTracker();</p> <p>

Cool lodgings

Sleep in a cave house. Thousands of residents of the cathedral town of Guadix, Spain, live in cave houses, carved out of the surrounding sandstone mountains. These cave homes feature all of the standard modern conveniences, as you can tell by the TV satellite dishes that most of the cave dwellers have stuck above their doors. Curious? Then try renting one of these cave homes for a short stay. One agency, Cuevas Pedro Antonio, offers 19 rental units, each with a kitchen, a terrace view of the Sierra Nevada, and access to a pool. Room rates are about $120 a night, assuming a four-night stay. Details here. Guadix makes a convenient stop on a typical circuit of the popular destinations in Mediterranean Andalusia. (Hat tip to the Times of London) Sleep inside a windmill. On the Greek island of Zakynthos, two cape-top windmills are romantic places to stay, says Eleni Gage, a Budget Travel contributor. From the balconies of either of these windmills you can take in glorious views of the Ionian Sea. Rates vary by date, but expect to pay about $200 a night per family. Details here. The owners also offer small boat tours of the area's most popular attractions--including the Blue Caves, which are unusual rock formations over the Ionian Sea--at times of day when larger tourist boats aren't disturbing the scenery. Trips cost about $14 per person, and you don't have to stay at a windmill to take the trip. Details here. (On a related note, you can read about the secret hotels of the Greek Isles by clicking here.) </p> <p> </p> <p>_uacct = "UA-1844627-1";</p> <p>urchinTracker();</p> <p> Stay on your own private island in the South Pacific for about $200 a night.... This is a tip that's been passed along by an Australian real estate broker, Cheyenne Morrison, who travels four months a year by helicopter, seaplane, and occasionally boat to sell and inspect private islands. Since 2000, he's been Coldwell Banker's only international private island broker, with the whole world as his sales district. His islands fetch prices ranging from $67,000 to $75 million. Morrison brokers one island a month an average. And like everyone else these days, he blogs. Morrison recommends you consider visiting One Foot Island, a 5,000-square-foot islet in the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. One Foot Island (a.k.a. Tapuaetai Island) offers a single lodging option, called the One Foot Island Hideway, for merely $200 a night. "Almost nobody knows that you can rent this house and have your very own island at night," says Morrison. During the day, sailing cruises of nearby islands drop anchor and daytrippers stroll One Foot Island. Besides its quintessential tropical views, the island's lone attraction for tourists is a post office that is called the "smallest post office in the world." (The daytrippers generally come from nearby New Zealand and Australia, and visit on tour boats that stop at islands throughout the Aituitaki atoll.) At night, the sailing cruise ships shut down. With sunset, you become sole occupant of the island, commanding its 360-degree views. Morrison explains the island's personal appeal: "As a teenager, I read a great book called An Island to Oneself. It was written by Tom Neale, who lived 16 years alone on the remote Suwarrow Atoll. No amount of trying allowed me to say on privately-owned Suwarrow, but at least I can have the pleasure of having One Foot Island all to myself." Andrew McBirney and his wife Moyra rent out the two-story house. The seaside lodgings are Spartan, featuring a modern shower and flush toilet, kerosene lamps, and a gas oven and a BBQ grill. You need to bring your own food supplies from Rarotonga or you can order food supplies from Aitutaki Lagoon Adventures for next-day delivery. Unless you're intrepid enough to hire a local boat from Rarotonga, you'll probably rely on Aitutaki Lagoon Adventures to also provide your transport back and forth to One Foot Island for about $50 each way per couple. As already noted, rates start at $200 a night. (For booking information, click here or here.) Morrison has been to One Foot Island three times -- most recently last year. He says, "I remember waking up early one morning thinking the house was on fire. The walls were bright red and orange. Half-asleep I went outside to investigate, and I saw that the most magnificent tropical sunrise had painted the skies with a palette of blazing colors. The dazzling fire show lasted only 15 minutes, but--sitting on the veranda of my own tropical island--that was a perfect moment." Off the island's shore is one of the best places in the Aitutaki atoll, which the island belongs to, for snorkeling. "You can spend hours drifting through the shallows over the coral gardens, watching the fish dart around. It's like having a life-sized aquarium on your doorstep." Among the available day-long cruises of the area islands, Morrison recommends Paradise Islands sailing tours (aitutaki.net; $53 per person). Among restaurants on nearby islands, he recommends Tauono's Garden Cafe in Upper Amuri. "It's not a real restaurant in the proper sense," he says, "but actually someone's house. If you let her know in advance, the owner will serve you up a 'catch of the day' fish dinner with fish caught straight of the lagoon you were snorkeling in that day. You can dine out in the garden behind her house on one of a pair of picnic tables. This is real local style cooking, and a great chance to mingle with real locals." (Phone, 011 (682) 31-526) Before leaving the Aitutaki atoll, be sure to stop at "Island Night" at Samades Beach Bar because the local dancers insist they're the best in the Pacific, and they very well may be. (See Morrison's cool blog on private islands here. His recent blog post on One Foot Island can be found here.)

The truth about Chattanooga

A reader has written us to complain about a story that Budget Travel ran a couple of years ago, called "My Hometown: Chattanooga." (Read it here.) Lisa Lowe Stauffer, who is a native-born daughter of the city, says the article "wasn't bad, just superficial." She adds: "There's so much more to Chattanooga than funky shops and the Choo Choo." </p> <p> </p> <p>_uacct = "UA-1844627-1";</p> <p>urchinTracker();</p> <p> Now, personally, I still think very highly of the piece that Budget Travel ran. But I thought I'd share with you Stauffer's own, unedited take on this much-beloved city... Nestled along the Tennessee River, enclosed by mountains, Chattanooga is set in one of the world's most beautiful places. It has been a crossroads since the days when spear-throwing was a life skill. The Moccasin Bend National Park, slated to open to visitors in a couple of years, will explore this history with exhibits, archeology finds, and nature trails. Chattanooga's early incarnation, Ross's Landing, was part of the Cherokee Nation. Pivotal events of the Trail of Tears happened here. As the river front has been redeveloped in recent years, an outdoor art space, "The Passage," has been created to commemorate this Cherokee heritage. The Passage is located next to the Tennessee Aquarium (excellent fresh water exhibits!), along the Riverwalk, a 10-mile pedestrian/cycling trail that leads upriver from the boat landing. Tony's Pasta, just a couple of blocks off the Riverwalk, in the Bluff View Art district, is my absolute, hands-down favorite restaurant. When the Civil War raged, Chattanooga was at its center, with cannon fire, sieges, and stark battles up the side of Lookout Mountain, along Missionary Ridge, and in nearby Chickamauga, GA. If music interests you, Chattanooga offers everything from the Riverbend Festival each June with a myriad of musical groups, to a great symphony orchestra which performs in the beautifully-preserved Beaux Arts 1921 Tivoli Theater. If you're lucky, you can catch a showing of a classic movie at the Tivoli. It feels like stepping back in time. The Hunter Art Museum, a school field trip every few years when I was a kid, has grown to have a wonderful collection of American art, from Colonial to modern times. It's located in the Bluff View Art district. And outdoor activities abound. Lake Chickamauga offers several state parks. Boating, fishing, camping, water-skiing, and lazing in the cool water are perfect summer pastimes. (For state park information, click here.) Rock climbers can test their skills at places like The Walnut Wall (under a pedestrian bridge) and Sunset Rock. And just south of town, hang-gliders step off Lookout Mountain, imitating the hawks that circle in the unpolluted sky. (Learn more at Outdoorchattanooga.com.) So when you go to Chattanooga, lift your eyes to the mountains, swim in the lake, glide in the sky, walk by the river, eat fresh pasta, and think of me. After all, it's my hometown.--Lisa Lowe Stauffer

Inspiration

What is black water rafting?

Reader Stephanie Johnson of Manhattan Beach, Calif., recently shared with us a fascinating thrill she has experienced... On my most recent trip to New Zealand, I went on an adventure tour with my sister and a group of American college students. Our two-week tour dropped us in Waitomo, New Zealand, to go "Black Water Rafting." I had no idea what this activity could possibly entail, but I was up for the challenge. First, we practiced abseiling, which is like repelling, or roping down. Then we were off to a small platform from which we abseiled to underground caves. Out of the eight of us, I was number five. I slowly stepped off the platform and was completely supported by a rope and a sling. This was it. I lowered myself toward complete darkness through a tight tunnel, the end of which I could not see. Friends at the bottom cheered when I arrived underground. </p> <p> </p> <p>_uacct = "UA-1844627-1";</p> <p>urchinTracker();</p> <p> The next step was to ride on a zipline through the first cave. Once again, there was no visibility, but it was a thrilling ride to an unknown destination. Our guides pulled out two inner tubes. Those inner tubes would soon be the only thing holding us together and afloat. We were instructed to place the inner tubes on our behinds and jump off the ledge into the water. Not knowing how far down it was, we all hesitated, but we knew this would be the only way out. When we splashed into the water below, we weren't sure how we would move though the caves. We connected our tubes and were pulled by our guides. This was black water rafting! As we laid back and looked toward what would be the sky, we saw millions of tiny bright lights. Outside the sun was shining, but in the caves, the glowworms created a beautiful night sky of twinkling stars. We enjoyed the relaxing ride, but soon our bodies and minds would be put to the test. We waded through cold, dark water to the base of a gorgeous waterfall whose source was an above-ground spring. Our guides informed us that this would be the only way to get out. We would be challenged to climb up a series of three waterfalls in order to see the sunlight. There would be rushing water, wet rocks, tight spaces, and unexpected physical and mental challenges. I did my best. When I saw daylight, I knew I was close and I pushed ahead, making my way toward the last hurdle. I emerged from the caves with the highest feeling of accomplishment. This achievement deserved celebration, but first, we needed breakfast. To learn more about black water rafting in New Zealand, click here. You may also want to see our 2007 Cool Thrills List, complete with videos of selected thrills. (Note: Stephanie's email was edited for publication.)

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