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.
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.)
Morocco's national drink: Berber whiskey
Melissa Kronenthal, who runs the blog Traveler's Lunchbox, recently visited Morocco. Here, she shares an anecdote from her trip and offers an insight into that country's culture. By the time we arrived at our riad, it was early evening in Marrakesh and we were starving. We were desperate to drop our bags as quickly as possible and set out in search of dinner, but the riad manager, Omar, had other ideas. He assured us we couldn't leave without first accepting some traditional Moroccan hospitality. "Our custom in Morocco is to offer all guests some refreshment," he said, escorting us up to the riad's expansive roof terrace, "and customary for all guests to accept it." "Alright," we acquiesced, certainly not keen to start our trip by contravening tradition, "what kind of refreshment do you offer?" "A glass of whiskey berbere, naturally," he said with a grand gesture, and disappeared. "Uh, okay," we said exchanging confused looks. Wasn't it awfully risqué to offer alcohol in a Muslim country, particularly with the mosque next door in plain sight? But before we could ponder the mystery further Omar was back, carrying a worn steel tray, two small glasses, and an ornate silver teapot. Of course, we should have guessed - whiskey berbere is nothing other than the tongue-in-cheek name for mint tea. The joke may have been casual, but the analogy isn't actually so farfetched, as we would soon discover. Like whiskey in Scotland, mint tea isn't a quaint tourist gimmick - it's a national obsession. Hot, sweet, and bracingly bitter, it punctuates Moroccan life like clockwork: mint tea to wake up, mint tea with pastries in the afternoon, mint tea to round out every meal. It's served with panache, poured from a great height out of bulbous silver pots into glasses barely bigger than thimbles; the aeration is important for developing the flavor, we were told, and the size of the glasses insures your tea will never get cold (and makes it easier to down the three obligatory cups that tradition dictates, I imagine). In a country where alcohol is forbidden and water is often of questionable quality, it's a beverage that has acquired tremendous practical and symbolic value, functioning as digestive aid, pick-me-up, negotiation facilitator and simple sustenance. I wouldn't be surprised if Moroccans have it running through their veins instead of blood. As we sat there in the growing twilight, sipping our tea and listening to the call to prayer reverberate across the rooftops, it seemed about as perfect a first taste of the country as we could have asked for. You can read more about Melissa's trip to Morocco by clicking here. For Budget Travel's advice on visiting Morocco and the Sahara Desert, click here.
All the cool kids are Zorbing
When one of our readers, Eric Tennen, recently went on vacation in Rotorua, New Zealand, he tried out a new thrill called the Zorb. As you see here, Eric was strapped into a small spherical chamber, which is cushioned by two feet of air inside a larger inflated ball.The ball was then pushed down the hill. Eric says, "It sounds simple, but it is scary, nauseating, and thrilling all at the same time. The hill itself is not entirely smooth, and in addition to rolling, it bounces, too. The scariest part is that you are by yourself, and once the ball starts rolling, there is no escape. While it is quicker than a roller coaster, it is much more intense because the speed and twists are magnified."Later this year, the Zorb will come to American shores, debuting at a theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., near the Dollywood amusement park. For Eric, the cost of the ride in New Zealand was about $30. If you can't wait and need to Zorb right now, you can find the ride in roughly a dozen countries, including Argentina and Hungary. Find a list of locations here.
Sweet Tahiti getaway
You already know that Tahiti is a set of serene islands in the South Pacific. But you may not know that it was once the home of indigenous tribes that practiced unusual customs. For example, the typical victorious warrior used to "pound his vanquished foe's corpse flat with his heavy war club, cut a slit through the well-crushed victim, and don him as a trophy poncho," according to anthropologist Lawrence Keeley. Um, on second thought, never mind about the customs. Tahiti is bliss incarnate, which is why you should consider booking a last-minute air-hotel package for a six-night stay from Air Tahiti Nui, starting at $1,252 per person…. From now until April 20, Air Tahiti Nui is discounting selected vacation packages. For example, nonstop airfare and a six-night stay at Club Bali Hai, Moorea, with departures from Los Angeles for $1,252 per person and New York City for $1,403. The package includes the fuel surcharge and insurance portion of the airfare, plus resort taxes. Additional taxes total $82 per person. Departure dates from Los Angeles are April 17, 24, May 8, 17, 31, June 9, 13, 20. Departures from New York City are April 6, 13, 27. Learn more by clicking here. You'll find other fantastic Real Deals, vetted every weekday by BT editors, when you click here. For guidelines on evaluating deals, click here.
Top 10 Most Visited Cities in the World
Where do Americans travel most outside the states? That was the question asked when compiling Budget Travel's Top 10 Most Visited Cities by U.S. Travelers. Paris? Definitely, no doubt. Florence? Maybe… what about Bermuda? Thanks to the travel experts at Expedia and their analysis of U.S. hotel bookings and flights abroad, we now know the answers. And to go along with our Top 10 Most Visited list, we've created a mini-guide for each city with the three must-see, must-do attractions for both new arrivals and return visitors. Can you guess all 10 top cities? Some of the answers may surprise you.SEE THE CITIES AMERICANS LOVE #10 NASSAU, BAHAMAS The Bahamas attracts millions of U.S. visitors to its busy capital ever year with picture-postcard promises of beautiful beaches and lazy seaside resorts. The reality—a busy capital filled with cruise ship day-trippers and beaches that are sometimes less than pristine—is a bit different, but the city still has its historic charms and the real paradise is just a boat ride away. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSBay Street The main concourse of downtown Nassau is a pleasant waterfront promenade with great dockside cafés and shops, although it can get overcrowded with tourists when cruise ships are in port.Beaches of Andros Island Sadly, the beaches in Nassau leave much to be desired, with the exception of Saunders Beach and Cable Beach to the west. Going further west, off the island and out to sea, a fast ferry ride to Andros Island (around three hours) will deliver you to the castaway beaches you were promised when you booked your trip.Queen's Staircase & Fort Fincastle Built by freed slaves in honor of Queen Victoria for emancipating the islands, the 65 limestone steps off an alley in downtown Nassau are a journey back to the 18th-century Bahamas, rising to Fort Fincastle, a defense fort for the British Royal Navy during the Caribbean's pirate days. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSFishing on the Bahamas The Bahamas is big fish country, with blue marlin, wahoo, billfish, and tuna all offshore and waiting for a lure. Renting your own charter boat for fishing is a bit pricey, but you can jump onto a group trip with other anglers through local companies like Born Free Fishing. Graycliff Manor The famous Graycliff Manor is a bit formal (jackets required for the gents). But for a taste of the Bahamas high life, it's an enchanting setting to enjoy an evening cocktail or glass of wine on the terrace of the 18th-century plantation house and watch the sun set over the Caribbean sea.Atlantis Resort Okay, so you skipped it last time, but if you have the cash ($100 for a non-guest day pass), head across the Nassau causeway to the ridiculous mermaid castle/casino/resort that occupies Paradise Island. Atlantis is a must-see for the sprawling extravagance of the beachfront megaplex, with many secret beaches for relaxing in the sun. OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: The antithesis of the big-money resorts in Nassau, Orange Hill Inn on West Bay Street is a quiet family-owned inn right on the beach (orangehill.com; doubles from $135). #9 PUNTA CANA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC The secret is out on Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. Already a popular beach destination for Europeans, the beach town is now on the American holiday radar as an inexpensive paradise within flight-hopping distance (it's just a two-hour flight from Miami). 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSBavaro Beach It's the busiest beach in Punta Cana, crowded on the weekends with resort guests and lively with restaurants and shopping plazas along the shore. But it's also one of the prettiest—a white-sand beach of crystal-clear water and offshore coral reefs that stretches for six miles, so there are plenty of opportunities for you to claim your own private spot in the sun.Santa Domingo The historic capital is a must-do day trip for any first-time visitor to the Dominican Republic. As evidenced by the numerous statues of Ponce de Leon and Christopher Columbus, the city takes its history seriously and many of the Spanish colonial buildings date back to the discovery of America, in 1492, when Columbus made landfall on Hispaniola (the island shared by Dominican Republic and Haiti).Indigenous Eyes Park Just inland from the beaches in Punta Cana is this jungle park of beautiful waterfalls and lagoons for swimming. It's a private nature reserve run by Punta Cana Resort & Club (non-guests can buy a pass, for $65, to spend the day hiking and swimming in the lagoons, which are also known as "indigenous eyes"). 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSSurfing on Macao Beach The sea may be rougher at Macao Beach, a stretch of golden sand shaded by palm trees to the north, but it's a much calmer and quieter beach than Bavaro. It's better for surfing, too; you can rent gear and take lessons at Macao Surf Camp (two-hour lessons from $60 per person) and afterward reward yourself with fresh grilled fish, fried plantains, and cold El Presidente beer at one of the local beach shacks on the sand.Canyoning in Cordillera Septentrional Adventurous travelers should head into the Cordillera Septentrional mountains for a chance to rappel down waterfalls into the gorgeous river canyons. (Tour outfitter Iguana Mama runs trips from $195 per person.)Casa Ponce de Leon Ponce de Leon may be buried in Puerto Rico, but the best museum dedicated to his life is located in his historic house in Santa Domingo (011-809/551-0118, $1.27 to enter). OUR FAVORITE HOTEL NH Punta Cana is a colorful and stylish resort on Bavaro Beach with plenty of modern perks like complimentary Wi-Fi and satellite TV (nh-hotels.com; doubles from $60). #8 BARCELONA, SPAIN Barcelona beats Madrid for the top city in Spain visited by U.S. travelers, especially 20-somethings on holiday in Europe. It's an arty, youthful city on the sea with a labyrinth of narrow streets and gorgeous plazas, branded by fairy-tale architecture from the quirky godfather of modern Catalonian architecture, Antoni Gaudi. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSLas Ramblas This wide boulevard slopes through Barcelona from Plaça de Catalunya in the city center all the way to Port Veil on the shore. The tree-shaded sidewalks are lined with shops, cafés, and souvenir kiosks; in the center of the road, street performers entertain the daily parade of tourists. Barceloneta The seaside neighborhood of Barceloneta is a perfect spot for an afternoon of wandering the quaint channel streets with a view of the ocean through gaps between tenements. Once you find your way to the beach, sit down and enjoy a glass of vino and tapas at Bar Electricitat in the market square.Parc Güell Set on the outskirts of the city, Barcelona's version of Central Park is a storybook land of strange stone pavilions designed by Gaudi among the green hills and trees. The park trails meander through the 37 wooded acres with mythical mosaic sculptures and curved terraces that look out over the city. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSEl Born This lovely neighborhood of narrow labyrinthine streets is a great spot to hang out with the locals, shop for vintage fashions, and taste the best of Catalonian cuisine at cubby-hole cafés and bars such as Casa Delfin.Sagrada Familia Love it or hate it, there's no escaping the sight of Gaudi's gargantuan drip-castle cathedral wherever you are in Barcelona. So if you skipped a visit the first time, it's worth a trip to the neighborhood of Exiample for a view of Sagrada Familia up close. It's a playful and profound structure that blends the whimsical curvature of Art Nouveau with the dark angularity of Gothic architecture. Barri Gotic This historic neighborhood of Gothic monuments reminds visitors of Barcelona's medieval past, before Gaudi put his stamp of eccentric modernity on the city. The wide plazas provide impromptu venues for Dark Ages-themed street performers. OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: Hotel Curious is a friendly boutique hotel near Las Ramblas in central Barcelona (hotelcurious.com; Doubles from $115). #7 MONTEGO BAY, JAMAICA The all-inclusive resorts on Montego Bay (and a chance to experience Rastafarian culture) make Jamaica one of the top Caribbean destinations for U.S. travelers. "Liming" (otherwise known as relaxing) on the beach is the order of the day and many vacationers don't venture far from their umbrella-shaded lounger. But if you do, there's plenty to explore on this Caribbean island. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSLiming on Doctor's Cave Beach and Seven Mile Beach Doctor's Cave Beach is the most popular beach in Montego Bay and chances are your hotel will be within flip-flop distance. If you have wheels, Jamaica's most famous stretch of sand, Seven Mile Beach, is a short drive away in Negril. On either beach, be sure to look out for the famous jerk stands and kick back Jamaica-style with spicy grilled chicken and the national beer, Red Stripe.Montego Bay Marine Park The coral reef from Tropical Beach to Rum Bottle Bay is an underwater nature reserve that's shelter to a wide array of exotic fish and sea anemones… and great snorkeling territory for visitors. Watch out for the Lion Fish, cute but poisonous!Dunn River Falls Nearby in Ocho Rios, a short adventure into the rain forest will bring you to Dunn River Falls, a 180-foot waterfall that you can climb down, passing from lagoon to lagoon as the river rambles downstream. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSLiming in Port Antonio So you've seen the tourist beaches of Montego Bay and you're looking for something more low key? Head east to Port Antonio and its magnificent beaches for a day in the sun.Rose Hall Great House One of the oldest plantation estates on the island, the 18th-century Georgian mansion on the hill is a glimpse at the colonial past of Jamaica when it was a British stronghold for the export of sugar cane. Beware: The house is said to be haunted by the ghost of Annie Palmer, a voodoo practitioner and wife of the plantation owner, who was murdered in her sleep during the slave uprising of 1830. If you're feeling brave, book the night tour ($30 per person for a two-hour tour).Blue and John Crow Mountain National Park A hike through the forests of this misty mountain park will introduce you to the oldest inhabitants of Jamaica—its species of exotic birds, monkeys, lizards, and the rare Giant Swallowtail Butterfly. OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: Casa Blanca Beach Hotel is a classic Jamaican hotel with old-world styling situated in the middle of Montego Bay's Hip Strip near Doctor's Cave Beach (876-952-0720, doubles from $80). #6 ROME, ITALY A modern city risen among the ruins of the greatest empire in history, Rome is No. 6 on our list as Italy's most popular destination for U.S. travelers. From the stone amphitheater of the Colosseum to the Roman Forum, where Caesar once spoke, and the immaculate Vatican City, Rome is a living monument to the ancient history of Europe. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSAncient Highlights: the Colosseum, the Forum, and the Pantheon Follow the shouts of the tour guides and trinket hawkers to the ruins of the Colosseum, where the spectators of ancient Rome cheered on gladiator death matches and lion fights from the stands. The historic steps of the Roman Forum and the House of Nero just around the corner, and the massive temple dome to the pagan gods, the Pantheon, is a short walk west with many lesser ruins along the way.Vatican City One of the most beautiful plazas in Rome leads to St. Peter's Basilica and the entrance to Vatican City. Of course, we sinners aren't allowed inside the Holy See, but the soaring marble interior of St. Peter's Basilica is a marvel worth its copper and no stop to Rome would be complete without a gander inside the Sistine Chapel at Michelangelo's Last Judgment.Villa Borghese North of the city center is Rome's largest public park, which is just as grandly designed as any of Rome's wonders, with 148-acres of trees from all over the world, lakes, and ancient villas. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSMAXXI The 21st Century of the Arts museum, designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid and opened in 2010, is Rome's grand foray into the modern art world. There are two museums here: the MAXXI collection of contemporary art featuring the likes of Maurizio Cattelan, and the MAXXI museum of architecture, dedicated to the art of architectural design and the modern-day wonders of the world (entrance $14 per person).Circus Maximus & Avertine Hill The former chariot-racing grounds aren't much to look at these days when compared with the other ruins, but the verdant Avertine Hill above Circus Maximus is an amazing lookout perch and great retreat from the tourist hordes.Testaccio & Ostiense These twin neighborhoods across the aqueduct from the ancient city center are the perfect place to wander, eat, drink, and experience modern-day Roman life (click here for a quick guide to the neighborhoods.) OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: Hotel Mimosa is a cheery 14-room palazzo within a short stroll of Vatican City (hotelmimosa.net; doubles from $92). #5 TORONTO, CANADA The modern city of Toronto straddles the shore of Lake Ontario with its blocky downtown of skyscrapers and needle-nose CN Tower. The fifth largest city in North America, the diverse population creates a vibrant cultural scene with many culinary delights. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSKensington Market Squared between Dundas Street W. and Spadina Avenue, this market neighborhood lined with ethnic groceries, fresh produce and spice stands, and tiny cafés is a great place to taste Toronto's amazing food scene. Be sure to stop by on Sunday when Kensington Market becomes a no-car zone.CN Tower The CN Tower, an olive-on-a-toothpick skyscraper rising 1,122 feet up into the Toronto skyline, has breathtaking views over the city, especially from a glass-walled elevator that takes you to the top at a snail's pace. There's even a rotating 360-degree restaurant for a sit-down meal afterward, if you can stomach it without getting dizzy.Distillery District The 19th-century warehouses and distilleries that once produced the famous Gooderham & Worts Canadian whiskey have new life as a meandering 13-acre complex of vaulted-ceiling restaurants, patio cafés, and art galleries set inside the historic brick buildings. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSHockey Hall of Fame Even if you're not a fan of the game, this hallowed hall of hockey inside Brookfield Place is a uniquely Canadian experience. Moody lighting fits the cathedral-esque interior, where visitors wander halls of lithograph portraits of NHL greats like Wayne Gretsky, gander at trophies and jerseys from championship games, and perhaps try their puck skills in the Be a Player exhibit (entrance $18 per person.)Queen Street West The center of the Canadian broadcast television and film industry, the neighborhood of Queen Street West has more than its share of artsy cache in a clutch of contemporary galleries, hip bars and restaurants, and trendy boutiques.Art Gallery of Ontario The turn-of-the-century museum holds the largest collection of Canadian art in the world, with more than 80,000 works from the first century A.D. to today, including a sculpture center dedicated to the work of Henry Moore. Especially impressive is the new glass-façade by Frank Gehry on Dunda Street West. OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: Hotel Victoriais a century-old grand dame with a modern interior in central Toronto (hotelvictoria-toronto.com; doubles from $130). #4 PARIS, FRANCE Millions of U.S. travelers flood the city of Paris every year to walk the romantic cobblestone streets of the Latin Quarter, kiss on the pedestrian bridges over the River Seine, marvel at the Gothic facade of old Notre Dame, or ride the elevator up the elegant iron legs of the Eiffel Tower for a grandstand view of the City of Light. And then, of course, there's the food… whether it's nibbling a fresh baguette from a riverside bakery or tucking into steak béarnaise at a tiny Montmartre bistro, everything tastes better in Paris. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSExplore the Latin Quarter It's hard not to fall in love with Paris's famous Latin Quarter. Whether you're sipping espresso at the Café de Flore (once the squatting grounds of Simone de Beauvoir and John Paul Sartre), listening to jazz at the underground club on Rue de la Huchette, or browsing books at Shakespeare & Company, you'll soon be lost in the nostalgia of Paris's storied past.Visit the Eiffel Tower You don't have to visit the Eiffel Tower to appreciate its 1,050-foot-high majesty of iron; it can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. But you should: The lines can be long and the surrounding area mobbed with tourists, but it's worth a ride to the top to see the City of Light from above ($11 to the 2nd floor observatory, $18 to the top). Wander Jardin des Tuileries and check out the Louvre (if you can get in) Musée du Louvre is by far the most famous museum in Paris (if not in all of Europe), so don't be surprised if you wait for hours to explore the Egyptian collection or for that glimpse of Mona Lisa behind glass (entrance $13 per person, closed Tuesdays). If you tire of the wait, don't distress: the grounds of the Louvre Palace and its adjoining Jardin de Tuileries is one of the most beautiful spots in Paris. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSNotre Dame The cathedral of Notre Dame on the Île de la Cité is something to behold even if you're just passing by on your way to the Latin Quarter. Inside, the soaring Gothic chamber of stained glass, pillars, stone crosses, and statues of the saints high above the grand altar are a treasure that the city holds dear.Rodin Museum The Rodin Museum is elegant in its simplicity, especially when compared with the Louvre Palace across the River Seine (entrance, $8). The 18th-century mansion of Hotel Biron holds a collection of Rodin's greatest work inside and out in the estate's gardens where visitors can explore and ponder for a while with The Thinker and other sculptures. Nightlife in La Bastille Still an icon of the French Revolution, the neighborhood of La Bastille is a nightlife playground for the youth of Paris, chockful of bistros, bars, music venues, and tiny nightclubs, especially along Rue de la Roquette. OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: But wait, what about the Montmartre? Well, if you take our advice, you'll be staying in Montmartre at Ermitage Hotel Sacre-Coeur, a 12-room B&B set inside a turn-of-the-century apartment building that's within walking distance to that beautiful white cathedral on the hill, the Sacre-Coeur (ermitagesacrecoeur.fr; doubles from $130). #3 SAN JUAN, PUETRO RICO Yes, it's a U.S. territory, but Puerto Rico can feel like a world apart. The laidback atmosphere of San Juan with its narrow cobblestone streets and pastel-color houses will make any traveler feel at home, especially after a night in Old San Juan, where young and old drink, play music, and dance to salsa music until the early hours. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSNightlife in Old San Juan It can get rowdy late at night in Old San Juan, especially on weekends, when everyone and their uncle mobs the streets for a wandering bar crawl with drinks in hand. But there's no better time to drink up the culture alongside the locals—join in with the locals at bars like Bodega Chic and Nono's and possibly get silly enough to participate in a sing-along in Plaza del Mercado (a.k.a. La Placita).El Morro This beautiful old citadel fort commands a sweeping view of the Caribbean Sea on the northwest tip of Puerto Rico and has held its own against time and the island's seaborne enemies since the 16th century (entrance $3). Beaches of Condado The seaside neighborhood of Condado has the most popular beaches in San Juan proper, a stretch of golden-sand shore on the eastern side of the city. Arrive early on the weekends to claim your beach-towel territory against the droves of resort guests and local families. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSSalsa Dancing at the Nuyorican Café Hidden off an alley inside a former Spanish convent, this tiny nightclub has been an Old San Juan institution for decades, renowned for its jazz music and weekend salsa dancing. A eclectic crowd of locals and tourists brave the crowds on the weekend to test their moves on the dance floor; if the line is too long or too tedious, pop over to Rumba, a newer salsa club down the street. Catedral de San Juan Bautista The second oldest Cathedral in North America is a rather modest Spanish colonial structure. Inside, you'll find the hallowed chambers of stained glass and statues worthy of worship (and the tomb of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon underneath). Day trip to Vieques Island In a paradise like Puerto Rico, where do the locals go to vacation? The answer is the castaway island of Vieques, a 45-minute ferry ride from the port of Farajado on the east coast. The main town of Isabella is quiet and pretty, but the real reason for the trip is the pristine beaches on the south coast (be sure to pack a picnic basket… there are few places to eat nearby the beaches). OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: Numero Uno Guesthouse is a darling 15-room inn right by the beach in the Ocean Park neighborhood of San Juan (numero1guesthouse.com; doubles from $99). #2 LONDON, ENGLAND London certainly hasn't lost its regal charms in the long march to modernity. And because the city is a gateway for further excursions into Europe, millions of travelers spend at least a day or two visiting the historic sites on the red double-decker lorries, attending theatre performances by Britain's greats, and enjoying a cool English pint (or three) while munching on fish-and-chips at one of the city's famous pubs. Just remember to mind your manners and your wallet: The British pound reigns supreme, at nearly twice the value of the U.S. dollar. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSRoyal Highlights: Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and the Tower of London The throne of the British Empire and the city's most famous historic sites are clustered within a short walk of one another in central London. Commoners can tour Buckingham Palace from July through September (or sneak a peek through the gates any other time of year); just down the road is Westminster Abbey, the iconic Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. A short cab ride along the Thames brings you to the Tower of London (which arguably offers the best tour and a chance to see the Crown Jewels).West-End Theaters London's West End neighborhood is the Broadway of England, known affectionately as "Theaterland." New London Theatre and Queen's Theatre are two great venues for new plays performed by Britain's greatest thespians, while smaller theaters like the Noel Coward Theatre often showcase well-known plays by British playwrights (like, say, Noel Coward), including new productions of Shakespeare plays. British Museum It was once said that the sun never set on the British Empire, and this museum dedicated to British history is true to that globe-spanning scope, with a collection that ranges from the armor of William the Conqueror to the 19th- and 20th-century colonial history of British ambitions. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSTate Modern Converted from a riverside power station on the Thames, the Tate Modern is a marvel of contemporary architecture and one of the most impressive art museums in the world, famous for its enormous (and often interactive) art installations and a collection of modern art from the early 1900s to today (entrance is free).East End Nightlife The once-gritty East End has been gentrified into the new epicenter of London nightlife—a haven of hip pubs, edgy art galleries, and nouveau restaurants, especially in the neighborhoods of Shoreditch and Hoxton. The London Eye Who wouldn't want to get into a Ferris wheel that soars up over 400 feet in the air? Don't worry, the wheel moves at a turtle speed and the bird's-eye views over London from the enclosed-glass observatories are absolutely spectacular ($24 per person). OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: Umi Hotel is a simple and fashionable hotel comprised of adjoining 150-year-old townhouses in London's Notting Hill neighborhood (umihotellondon.co.uk; doubles from $99). #1 CANCUN, MEXICO Cancun remains the No. 1 top destination for U.S. travel abroad, thanks to cheap flights from the States, 14 miles of beaches, and carnival-style nightlife that transforms the Z-shaped islet off the Yucatan Peninsula into a 24-hour party scene for college students every Spring Break. But if you think this former Mayan trading city is just a sloppy boozefest on the beach, you haven't experienced the real Cancun. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR FIRST-TIMERSSun, Sand, and Waves at Playa Tortugas and Playa Delfines The beaches of Playa Tortugas and Playa Delfines offer the full-spectrum of the Cancun beach scene: Playa Tortugas is a festive party beach with calm, tranquil water and bungalow restaurants/bars under the palms; Playa Delfines is an escapist beach with white sand for travelers looking to get away from the crowds (and perhaps catch a few waves).Day Trip to the Mayan Ruins Integrated into the downtown area, the plaza ruins of El Ray remind travelers of the city's ancient history as a Mayan trading port and give the urban layout a uniquely mythic look (and a kitschy cache to bankroll tourist dollars). But for a more immersive experience, take a day trip drive down Riviera Maya to the beachfront ruins of Tulum and the jungle temples of Coba (they're far less crowded and closer than Chichen Itza).Coco Bongo It would be a shame to leave Cancun without a glimpse of the most explosive, extravagant club the party city has to offer. Coco Bongo is a temple of excess to ridiculous proportions—a massive 1,800-person nightclub with nightly trapeze acts, rock-star impersonators, a rainbow blitz of roving spotlights, and hundreds of partiers dancing to DJ-spun hits on any platform they can climb onto. 3 MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS FOR RETURN VISITORSIsla Mujeres This tiny island off the coast of Cancun is a quiet escape from the madness of the mainland. The palm-shaded beaches are perfect for laying out in the sun after an intimate lunch at one of the island's restaurants, and the azure water seems made for an afternoon swim.Dipping Into the Cenotes The rain forest of the Yucatan peninsula creates a unique experience for travelers looking for adventure in the form of sunken cenotes—subterranean rivers and lakes that you can access via rappelling into caverns.Underwater Museum of Art Sure, Cancun and the Riviera Maya have plenty of offshore dive sites. But if your tank skills are up to par, one of the coolest spots to scuba dive is the Underwater Museum of Art, designed by British artist Jason de Caires Taylor, which, true to its name, is an underwater museum of sculptures laid out at the bottom of the sea. New to scuba? No problem. Scuba Cancun can set you up with a beginner's diving lesson and then a museum dive for $80. OUR FAVORITE HOTEL: The Royal Islander is a beachfront resort with humdrum décor but a great location (and a seaside pool) in the Zona Hotelera of Cancun (royalresorts.com; Doubles from $120).