Budget Italy: Yes, You Can Afford Amalfi
Nowhere else on earth quite compares to Italy's Amalfi Coast. You've seen the pictures: A highway that hugs the hillsides. Colorful towns that perch along cliffs, as if to say, "Quick! Grab us—along with our buffalo mozzarella, limoncello, and caponata—before we tumble into the sea!" And, of course, the people strolling the streets, kicking back on the beaches, and embodying the expression La dolce far niente ("The sweetness of doing nothing"). If you're like me, you've probably regarded Amalfi's awesomness as a little too rarefied for the likes of you. With must-see neighbors to the north (Rome, Florence, and Venice, anyone?) and what we've presumed to be a prohibitive price tag, this gorgeous stretch of Italy's Campania region has languished on the margins of our travel list. That's going to change. While it's possible to drop a small fortune in pursuit of a sun-drenched dream here in the enchanting countryside outside of Naples, it is also possible to grab your piece of the Amalfi without breaking the bank.
The simplest way to see the Amalfi region is on a day trip from Naples. Viator.com and other tour operators offer easy, reasonably priced round-trip sightseeing tours via bus or private car. Sure, you'll soak up some sole, but you'll leave wanting more. The next step up is a multi-day excursion from Naples or Rome, in which you can spend a few days (a typical tour from Rome may include three days' sightseeing and two nights' accommodations for under $400). This will be more than a window on Naples, the Amalfi, and the ruins of Pompeii, but it's hardly an immersive experience. For that, G Adventures offers the opportunity to live in an agriturismo on the Amalfi Coast for a week, with tours of the nearby towns, restaurant and home-cooked meals, for less than $1,800 (not including airfare). If you're ready to explore sans tour guide, book a flight to Naples (flights from New York start around $1,200, but to get the earliest notification for fares, follow all the major airlines on Facebook and Twitter and subscribe to their e-newsletters), grab the convenient public rail line, the Circumvesuviana, to Sorrento, and travel at your own pace along this string of jewels along the water.
Often the first stop for visitors to the Amalfi, Sorrento is perhaps the picture-perfect Amalfi town because of its photogenically tiered buildings adorning the hillside that rises from the water. Remember, this is such a popular arrival point that it will probably strike you as a bit touristy, and that breathtaking cliff sort of precludes a conventional beachgoing experience. But don't overlook the authentic charms lurking behind the tourst façade. Elizabeth Minchilli, author of the bestselling apps Eat Rome, Eat Florence, and Eat Venice, notes that while vendors at every turn will attempt to sell you bottles of limoncello (the signature lemon liqueur of Southern Italy), there are lesser-known local favorites to be savored. "Try fried fresh-caught anchovies," suggests Minchilli, "and caponata, a local salad made with cornbread, tomatoes, tuna, basil, and mozzarella." Casa Astarita is a comfortable and affordable B&B (casastarita.com, from $150).
Yes, Amalfi is the name of the region (officially Costiera Amalfitana) and of one of its towns. Centuries ago, this little village was a dominant force in the Mediterranean shipping trade. These days, it's more about hoisting cold beverages than sails. Ideal for leisurely strolls, you can cover most of Amalfi in a few hours, window-shopping and snacking along the way. Ready to bump your walk up to the next level? Gillian Price, author of Walking on the Amalfi Coast, recommends, "Take a walk on the old mule tracks, the Sentiero degli Dei ("Pathway of the Gods"), a breathtaking route high above the spectacular coastline. It links the hillside village of Bomerano (above Amalfi) with gorgeous, trendy Positano. Should you need a guide, contact local expert and English-speaking Giovanni Visetti (giovis.com). While in Amalfi, enjoy a Caprese salad, lentil soup, and lemon risotto with prawns at Da Gemma Trattoria (trattoriadagemma.com).
Here, big-city style meets coastal sun and fun. You can spend an entire day or more browsing Positano's boutiques and ceramics shops, and the prestigious Franco Sinesi gallery is a must for modern art lovers. And, of course, an upscale town like Positano is a perfect place to indulge in more great food. "Delizia al Limone is a luscious, soft sponge cake with delicate lemon cream," enthuses Price. "And Sfogliatelle are layered pastries stuffed with candied fruit and ricotta." If you're looking to spend a night or two here in affordable luxury, the former palazzo Albergo California (yes, Eagles fans, that's "Hotel California") won't disappoint (hotelcaliforniapositano.it, from $200). And when you're ready to hang with Positano's jetsetters, belly up to the sleek, modern Next2 bar-dinner can be pricey, but you can soak up the vibe for the price of a tasty local cocktail (next2.it).
You might call Minori your window into the real Amalfi Coast. This is, after all, where Italians themselves are likely to visit on vacation, and you'll definitely notice a more relaxed, less touristy scene here. And speaking of real, the executive chef at Minori's Hotel Villa Romana, Giuliano Donatantonio, leads cooking classes that let you take home some of the secrets of Italian cuisine, recipes included (hotelvillaromana.it, weekend special includes two nights, breakfast, and one dinner for two from $260; learn more about cooking classes at travelingtoitaly.com). The town is also home to a limoncello factory that offers tours-and tastings!
In Paestum, you can do more than just eat fresh mozzarella and tomatoes like everybody who visits the Amalfi does—here, you can actually see how the light, creamy cheese is made daily. Drop by Tenuta Vannulo (vannulo.it) for a tour of an operating buffalo mozzarella factory. Minchilli suggests, "Enjoy fresh mozzarella grilled on lemon leaves till just warmed and oozing." And you can thank the somewhat forbidding-looking water buffaloes who live on the grounds of Tenuta Vannulo for contributing their milk to the uniquely heavenly cheese!
When visiting Italy, there are a few simple rules of thumb that always pay off. One, "If it was good enough for a doge, it's pretty much going to be a nice place to visit." Here in Praiano, the doges (dukes) are long gone, but the relaxing atmosphere and lovely mountainside make this one of the Amalfi's off-the-beaten-path gems. Enjoy an afternoon at the local beach and the Chiesa de San Luca.
"Catch a ferry to Capri, where the Roman emperors built their holiday villas," recommends Price. Indeed, Augustus and Tiberius made Capri their home-away-from-home, and these days hydrofoils from Positano and Amalfi will get you there for about $22 (a few dolllars extra for luggage). If you like your rocky seashores mixed with Roman ruins, world-class cafes, and more than a hint of the artsy crowd that put this island on the travel map in the 20th century, Capri might be the highlight of your Amalfi adventure!
Best Restaurants for Budget Travelers in VENICE
Osteria da Alberto Calle Larga Giacinto Gallina (just before the bridge) +39/041-523-8153 Alberto is simply an unassuming, relaxed restaurant located between Campo San Giovanni e Paolo and my favorite church in Venice, the Santa Maria dei Miracoli. It's not new, and you're not going to find any modern twists on classics. Instead—especially if you go at lunch—you're likely to find regulars (tourists and well as locals) tucking into heaping plates of the daily pasta. La Palanca Fondamenta al Ponte Piccolo 448 +39/041-528-7719 The island of the Giudecca, though easy to get to, remains firmly off the beaten tourist track. One of the best ways to enjoy it is to stop by La Palanca for lunch. Make sure you reserve though, since it's always full of locals. Perched at the edge of the Fondamenta al Ponte Piccolo, the views out over towards the Zattere are like sitting within a Canaletto. Recent daily specials included linguine with local carciofi violetti and big, firm chunks of coda di rospo (monkfish). Perfectly cooked pasta, with massive amounts of both fish and artichokes. And their special: linguine al nero di seppie, They don't do dinner, but you can stop by for great cichetti and a glass of wine. Trattoria la Rampa Via Garibaldi (right in front of the market boat) +39/365-649-0277 The Holy Grail in Venice—at least for foodies—is finding that little hidden away place where locals go. In a city like Venice—which makes its living from the hoards of tourists who come here each year - these simple places are a dying breed. But Trattoria alla Rampa is the exception. The small restaurant, with a hand painted sign outside, is located in an area of Venice where few tourists venture. Just north of the Biennale gardens, the small streets leading off of the wide Via Garibaldi are hung with laundry belonging to the mostly working class families that live here. La Rampa opens its doors at 5 a.m. Yes. You read that right. They open that early because that is when the men who live in this neighborhood - police men, firemen, garbage men and other workers - head off for the day. They stop by La Rampa for a quick breakfast and the place remains open for the rest of the day until just after lunch. Portego Castello San Lio 6014 +39/041-52-29-038 This little baccaro is a good stop for both cichetti (of which they have a lot of) or else a real sit down meal. Like a real baccaro the place opens in the morning, at 10:30. If you just need your first ombra of the day, that's fine. But if you're feeling in need of a snack, the selection is terrific. Go up to the counter, and choose yourself. The top shelf is taken over mostly with thick crostini topped with things like bacala, sardines, anchovies, tuna and salami. If you want to be truly Venetian, stop by at the end of the day, before dinner, for a glass of wine and a few cichetti. It's all cheap and cheerful, paper plates and plastic glasses. Marisa Fondamento Cannaregio, Cannaregio 652B +39/041-720-211 Be prepared to sit back and enjoy whatever comes to the table at this very rustic trattoria, in Cannareggio, not far from the train station. . It will either be "meat night" or "fish night," but that's about all you'll be told in advance. At lunch time this place fills up with workers: gondoliers, construction workers, etc. Big portions of hearty and filling home style cooking. At night things are a bit more sedate, with multi course meals being enjoyed by tourists as well as locals. Ready to bring home a taste of Venice? Try this slightly adventurous but super-easy recipe: Spaghetti con Nero di Seppia One of the iconic dishes of Venice, the easiest way to make it is to buy squid ink packaged and ready to go. For 4 to 5 servings: About 1 pound of squid cut into small pieces 1/2 cup or 8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 4 garlic cloves sliced 1 pepperoncino crushed 1/3 cup dry white wine 4 tomatoes without the skin and seeds puree (pomodori pelati) 2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley 1 pound spaghetti Heat olive oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet until hot but not smoking. Saute garlic and pepperoncino, stirring, until fragrant (gold) about 30 seconds. I discard the garlic pieces or I leave in a couple of pieces. Add squid pieces and saute, stirring one minute. Add the wine and let simmer for two minutes (stirring). Cover and let simmer until squid is tender, then remove pan from heat. In a small bowl, empty packaged squid ink. Add two tablespoons water and stir the mixture. Add this mixture to the pan while stirring (let the pan cool before adding the mixture because it may solidify). Add the pureed tomatoes, cover, and simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes. Add the parsley a few minutes before the end of cooking. When the pasta is cooked and drained keep 1/3 cup of water just in case the squid sauce is dry. Add the pasta to the pan and stir, adding a bit of the pasta water as well. Serve immediately with crusty bread and a fresh green salad.
10 Awesome Celebrity-Narrated Audio Tours
We talked with the creative geniuses behind several big-deal celebrity audio tours for the scoop on how the stars were involved and what to know before you go. You can listen to four of the tours right now! In the meantime, we're holding out hope for an aviation museum tour featuring audio by Samuel L. Jackson. 1. Steve Buscemi: Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia Believe it or not, the audio tour for the eerie, once-abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary—famous for locking up Al Capone—was recorded a full seven years before Steve Buscemi nabbed the role of mobster Knucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire (LISTEN TO THE TOUR!). As director of public programming Sean Kelley tells it, Buscemi himself volunteered to help the museum while scouting a movie at Eastern State more than a decade ago. Kelley took him up on the offer, and Buscemi recorded the tour in four hours at Carnegie Hall, after taking the subway into Manhattan from his place in Brooklyn. "He couldn't have been nicer," Kelley says. Now that Boardwalk Empire has gained so much traction, the penitentiary advertises Buscemi's tour prominently on its brochure, the website, and in the building itself. Want to hear something uncanny? When Capone was arrested and subsequently thrown into the slammer at Eastern State, he was driving from Atlantic City to Chicago, presumably after a meeting with the real-life inspiration for Knucky Thompson. What to know: The audio tour is three hours long, so allow enough time to hear it and visit the entire property. Photography buffs, bring your smartphone and your camera. There are so many bizarre artifacts and historic nooks to shoot here (including the dilapidated prison hospital and Capone's cell, complete with oriental rug), you'll rule Instagram for the day. Professionals, consider paying the $10 tripod fee, valid all season (admission $14, easternstate.org). 2. Sarah Jessica Parker, Naomi Campbell, Shalom Harlow: Victoria and Albert Museum, London The massively popular exhibit Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty has hopped across the pond from New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The show, which celebrates the late fashion designer's dramatic, imaginative clothes, debuts March 14. In the original audio tour, "Sarah Jessica Parker revealed how she was in awe of the designer during fittings for a custom piece, and when the two of them rode together to the Met’s ball, they remained respectively shy of one another," says Blaire Moskowitz, marketing manager for Antenna International, the company that produced the McQueen audio tour and several others on this list. What to know: The exhibit runs through August 2, but buy your tickets now: Tickets are sold by timeslot, and some are nearly full (admission about $27, vam.ac.uk). 3. Clint Eastwood: Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA The brand-new American Western Art wing of the Tacoma Art Museum has a familiar voice. Clint Eastwood's gravelly tamber narrates classic imagery of the west, including bucolic landscapes, mountain men, prairie animals, and cowboys immortalized by painters and sculptors like Thomas Moran and Alexander Phimister Proctor, plus contemporary works from Georgia O'Keeffe and Native American artists including Kevin Red Star. What to know: After you've seen the art indoors, take the free Dale Chihuly mobile walking tour, which guides you through downtown Tacoma to visit the artist's glass installations. Just call 888-411-4220 on your cellphone and listen; Chihuly himself narrates part of it (LISTEN TO THE TOUR!) (admission $14, tacomaartmuseum.org). 4. Angélica Aragón: Frida Kahlo Museum, Mexico City, Mexico While recording the audio tour for the bright-blue Frida Kahlo Museum, popular Mexican actress Angélica Aragón mentioned to the sound engineer that her grandmother used to be part of Kahlo's small circle of friends years ago. The museum hadn't known that! Aragon was initially hired for her gravitas and dignified voice that felt perfect for Kahlo's story—now even more so. What to know: Complement your visit to Kahlo's museum with a trip to the Anahuacalli Museum, also in Mexico City (admission about $4), which houses pieces from Diego Rivera's large pre-Hispanic art collection (admission about $6, museofridakahlo.org.mx). 5. Jeremy Irons: Westminster Abbey, London Oscar winner Jeremy Irons has the distinction of narrating the English-language audio tour for Westminster Abbey. Fitting, considering Irons played Pope Alexander VI on Showtime's The Borgias (LISTEN TO THE TOUR!). Travelers also have good things to say about the 90-minute verger-led tours of the abbey's notable spots, including the tomb of Saint Edward the Confessor, Poets' Corner (Chaucer and Dickens are buried there), the Cloisters, and the Nave. If you'd rather worship at the abbey than tour it, there is never a fee for that. What to know: Prep for your visit by downloading the abbey's free podcasts (itunes.com), which range from recordings of choral concerts to lectures (worship is free, admission about $30, verger tours about $8, westminster-abbey.org). 6. Dolly Parton: Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville, TN Would you expect anything less than vocals from Dolly Parton herself at the Country Music Hall of Fame? Step into the Hall of Fame Rotunda, a skylighted room emblazoned with bronze plaques for each member of the Hall of Fame, and you'll hear her voice on the audio tour. As Dolly says, "This special room is round, to ensure that every Hall of Fame member has a place of equal importance, and the members’ plaques are placed randomly around the room—except for the newest members, whose plaques can be found alongside the painting." The painting she speaks of is Thomas Hart Benton's The Sources of Country Music, a canvas depicting fantasy musicians ranging from gospel singers to hoedown dancers, commissioned in 1973. What to know: Along with the must-do rotunda portion of the museum, 2015's lineup includes separate exhibits featuring the careers of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Tanya Tucker, Ronnie Milsap, Alan Jackson, and Kenny Rogers (admission plus audio tour $27, countrymusichalloffame.org). 7. Jerry Seinfeld, Scarlett Johannson, and more: Central Park, New York City Name your favorite NYC-affiliated personality (Susan Sarandon! Anne Hathaway! Pat Kiernan!), and chances are he or she narrates one of the 41 locations on Central Park's newly updated audio tour, accessible from your cellphone via the Official Central Park App or by dialing the guide's phone number (LISTEN TO THE TOUR!). The most-accessed parts of the tour are the sculpture of Balto the sled dog (John Stoessel), Bethesda Terrace (George C. Wolfe), and the bronze Alice in Wonderland statue (Whoopi Goldberg)—but they're perennially popular locales, guide or no guide. Still, it can't hurt to have Brooklyn's own Oda Mae Brown on your side. Fun fact: All of the celebrities recorded the tour pro bono. What to know: When you download the Central Park app for the tour, you'll also get interactive location-based maps of the park, event listings (many of them free), a souvenir shop, and an index of points of interest with photos (free app, free entrance to the park, 646-862-0997, centralparknyc.org). 8. Jamie Lee Curtis: World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, Honolulu, Hawaii Adding a very personal touch to the Valor in the Pacific National Monument, Jamie Lee Curtis reveals during the 75-minute USS Arizona Memorial audio tour that her father fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II. In her own words: "In 1945, he witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay from the signal bridge of his submarine tender, USS Proteus." What to know: Head to the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center first; from there, you can walk to the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park and take the Ford Island shuttle to the Battleship Missouri Memorial, the USS Oklahoma Memorial, and the Pacific Aviation Museum. Walk-in tickets are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, so arrive early to boost your chances of getting in on the spur of the moment (free admission to the monument, audio tour is $7.50, nps.gov). 9. Joanna Lumley, Alan Rickman, David Nighy, and more: St. Mary's Church, Fairford, Gloucestershire, England Last year, after St. Mary's Church introduced its two-hour audio tour featuring a slew of famous UK actors like Joanna Lumley and Hayley Mills, attendance doubled to 75 people per day, all eager to hear the celebrities describe the church's vibrant Medieval stained-glass windows in detail. (Rumor has it Sir Ian McKellan declined, as he's an atheist.) Churchwarden Mike Godsal says Lumley's portion of the audio guide is the most popular. Of course, that could be due to the fact that she voices the tour's introduction, but we like to think it's because everyone wants to hear booze aficionado Patsy Stone from Absolutely Fabulous talk about church. What to know: All 28 windows date from 1501 to 1515, making St. Mary's the only church in the UK to boast a complete set. If you'd like a personal guided tour, contact the church office by phone or email (free admission, 01285-712611, stmaryschurchfairford.org.uk). 10. Kevin Bacon: NY Skyride, Empire State Building, New York City Okay, yes, NY Skyride, on the second floor of the Empire State Building, has only one Yelp star and is rated as a "terrible" "scam" on TripAdvisor, but die-hard Kevin Bacon fans who have $42 to blow are in for a treat. Take a seat in front of an 18-foot screen, and Bacon—or his voice, anyway—"flies" you around New York City in a "virtual tour simulator" contraption for half an hour. Worth the cash? Probably not. But if it this sounds like a blast to you, we won't judge. What to know: Buyer beware. This ride is not affiliated with the Empire State Building Observation Deck, so try it at your own risk. Many travelers say they were suckered into buying a combination ticket by a street vendor outside the building's entrance, so understand what you're getting into before handing over any cash (admission $42, skyride.com).
Where to Go in 2015!
Research suggests that 40 percent of American don't take all their vacation days. We're here to change all that! We've rounded up 10 brag-worthy places that are affordable and having their moment in 2015—the year we hope you'll take ALL your vacation days. Not sure which of these 10 amazing destinations is right for you? Take our QUIZ to find out! 1. Northern Italy Best for: Big-city culture and natural beauty Why 2015. If you've always wanted to go to Italy, this is the year to do it. Expo Milano (expo2015.org), a World's Fair event expected to bring in more than 20 million visitors, starts May 1 and runs through Oct. 31. The theme is Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life and so far more than 130 countries are participating in this global effort to promote a healthier lifestyle and sustainability worldwide. What to do. There's so much more to Milan than shopping. Stroll the easy-to-navigate streets of Milan's historic city center and visit the Duomo, one of Italy's most spectacular churches—the view from the top is well worth the $15 price of admission. Craving the countryside? Don't miss Lake Como, a beautiful natural haven home to George Clooney and hundreds of tiny picturesque towns like Gravedona, Bellagio, Brunate, and Como that are begging to be explored. For a little adventure along the Italian Riviera, try Portofino, a beautiful seaside resort town just a two-hour drive from Milan—you can also get there by taking the train from Milan to Santa Margherita Ligure, Rapallo, or Genoa and connecting to Portofino by boat, bus, or taxi. Where to stay. Hotels in Milan can be expensive, especially when conventions are going on. For a unique, authentic Italian experience, try staying in a local neighborhood rather than a pricey chain hotel—Airbnb has a number of options all over town starting at just $75 a night for a one-bedroom apartment in the city center. In Como, stay at Hotel Barchetta Excelsior for great views of the lake, the perfect spot to serve as your base for exploring the rest of the area by boat or funicular (hotelbarchetta.it, from $159). Stay at B&B Tre Mari Portofino for beautiful views of the Piazzetta and the Ligurian Sea below (bebtremariportofino.it, from $122). 2. BALI Best for: Dreamy beaches and romance Why 2015. If you've considered this Pacific paradise off-limits financially, this may be your year. Hotel prices on the Island of the Gods—the most popular tourist destination in Indonesia—are down 12 percent, according to the Hotel Price Index. What to do. Take your pick: Relax on a distinctive black-sand beach (the color comes from iron, titanium, and other minerals deposited by Bali's once-active volcanoes), get in the water for world-class surfing and diving (if you're so inclined), explore the island's jungle interior with its volcanoes and 10,000 temples (including the popular hillside temple Pura Luhur Batukau), or just hang by a hotel pool in one of the friendliest, gentlest environments on earth. When you're ready for the Balinese version of a bustling metropolis, Ubud will delight you with its stunning royal palace and traditional market. (And you shouldn't miss a chance to hear the island's unique gamelan music, played primarily on traditional percussion instruments.) Whether you plant yourself on a beach or in the heart of Ubud, remember that you've come to Bali to be soothed into a state of perfect relaxation by the natural beauty and unique music and cultural traditions of this perfect island. Where to stay. The Indigo Tree, in Ubud, is a short distance from the major sites but feels like a comfy cocoon, with coconut trees, a pool whose turquoise hue rivals the ocean's, and lovely views of the island's jungles and rice terraces. Want home-cooked meals served poolside? Just ask (indigotreebali.com, from $70). 3. NASHVILLE Best for: Music and hip neighborhoods Why 2015. The buzz about Nashville has reached a fever pitch for 2015. No longer a sleepy country music mausoleum, the newly hip city has reported 48 straight months of growth. Go now, and you'll be visiting the town at the height of its renaissance—but before everyone else is in on the secret. What to do. Anywhere you wander in Nashville—whether you're ducking into historic Hatch Show Print letterpress shop downtown or waiting for your flight at the airport—you'll hear gorgeous live music wafting out of doorways. Free music is so prevalent in the city that there's an app for finding it: the Nashville Live Music Guide (free on iTunes, Google Play). Cello, guitar, or drum, Nashville is all about that bass: Just ask Music City resident Jack White, of The White Stripes, who built an outpost of his Third Man Records here. The Nashville Symphony wins Grammys, and the Country Music Hall of Fame isn't your grandfather's museum: Upcoming exhibit Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats spotlights the city in the late 1960s/early '70s. Food-wise, fuel up with Nashville's signature hot chicken, cayenne-slathered fried bird proffered by several joints in town. Hattie B's generously provides diners with five heat options, from "no heat" to "burn notice." Where to stay. Hotels in the heart of downtown are difficult to find for cheap, but the brand-new Fairfield Inn & Suites in the Gulch comes close (marriott.com, from $129). Plus, it's within walking distance of Party Fowl, a new chicken restaurant that pours $4 local drafts during happy hour and mixes craft cocktails like Kill the Wabbit. Up for something funky? Hotel Preston, halfway between the airport and downtown, can loan you a pet fish for the night (hotelpreston.com, from $101). 4. GREAT BARRIER REEF Best for: Diving with beautiful coral and tropical fish Why 2015. Flight prices to Cairns have dropped nearly 30 percent, and package deals are down more than 40 percent, according to Expedia. What to do. Get up close and personal with the planet's biggest coral reef system, including more than 1,000 varieties of tropical fish, plus dolphins, reef sharks (totally harmless to divers!), sea turtles, and more. The Great Barrier Reef offers more than 1,400 miles of snorkeling and scuba diving, and you don't have to be an experienced diver to drink it all in. Hop aboard a catamaran or sailing ship from the coastal city of Cairns to the reef, then get as adventurous as you wish—explore in a glass-bottom boat or try snorkeling with the help of experts. Experienced scuba divers can sleep on a boat for several nights (known as a "liveaboard" excursion in these parts) and spend most of their days in the water exploring the depths that snorkelers can't. And don't forget that the nearby Whitsunday Islands offer sugary beaches that rival the underwater spectacle! (For day trips and liveaboard trips from Cairns, visit reeftrip.com. To explore the Whitsunday Islands, including snorkeling and kayaking the reef, visit isailwhitsundays.com.) Where to stay. Cairns is the closest major city to the Great Barrier Reef, and airfares to Cairns from Cali, though always pricey, are as low as they've been in years. In between reef adventures, relax at the Hotel Cairns, which feels like a traditional Queensland plantation, with elegant rooms and some private balconies (thehotelcairns.com, from $97). 5. ISTANBUL Best for: High style and world-class shopping Why 2015. Istanbul was named the world's No. 1 travel destination by TripAdvisor, but paradoxically, hotel prices are falling because of unrest in other parts of the Middle East, according to the Hotel Price Index. What to do. Immerse yourself in the intoxicating environment of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar (a souk that includes dozens of ancient streets and thousands of shops) and you'll realize that there's a whole other level of shopping to aspire to! The city so nice they named it thrice (Constantinople, Byzantium, and now Istanbul) straddles Europe and Asia and is the world's greatest coming-together of Eastern and Western cultures, food, and music. Don't miss the Hagia Sophia, a cathedral-turned-mosque that's now a UNESCO World Heritage site; the iconic minarets of the Blue Mosque; and gorgeous Greek and Roman ruins. Take your pick of cuisines, including Asian fusion and Italian—but to truly savor Turkish food like a local we strongly recommend authentic kebabs and fresh-caught fish. And don't forget to get outside the big city, too: We love the Turkish Riviera on the country's southwestern Mediterranean coast (long popular with Eastern Europeans), and the wild, otherworldly mountains of Cappadocia—where you can hike from village to village filled with structures that were carved out of volcanic rock, or get above it all in a unique hot-air balloon ride! Where to stay. The Ascot Hotel, on Istanbul's Büyükada island, delivers affordable opulence and a resort-like vibe, with crystal chandeliers, private balconies, a beautiful pool, and a Finnish sauna, just a short ferry ride from the city's bustle (ascot.com.tr, from $118). 6. BARCELONA Best for: Food and art Why 2015. Americans finally seem to be flocking to a sweet spot that's long been a great vacation getaway for Europeans: Cataluña (Catalonia), a region in southern Spain that includes trendy cities like Barcelona as well as off-the-beaten-path places like Sitges, Figueres, and Montserrat. Rates are on the rise, but still more affordable here than in other parts of Europe. What to do. Get your Gaudí on by visiting La Sagrada Família, Park Güell, and La Pedrera at Casa Milà—just be sure to book your tickets online ahead of time to avoid being locked out of something you came all the way to Barcelona to see. The options are endless: Stroll La Rambla, get your fill of tapas and sangria, visit La Boqueria market, relax on the beach at Barceloneta, watch the free Magic Fountains of Montjuic light, music, and fountains show, or see a flamenco show at Tablao de Carmen. Viator offers several day trips from Barcelona for those wanting to visit nearby Montserrat Mountain, Sitges, or artist Salvador Dalí's former home in Figueres (viator.com). Where to stay. Use Barcelona as your base for exploring this part of Spain, as most places can easily be done as day trips from the city. Hotel Novotel Barcelona Cornella (novotel.com, from $87) is located midway between downtown and Barcelona-El Prat Airport, but there are lots of other Accor Hotels that offer budget-friendly options throughout the city, and the metro is really easy to navigate. 7. CAMBODIA Best for: Exotic, spiritual sites like nowhere else Why 2015. It doesn't get more exotic than Cambodia, with its enchanting ruins and intoxicating blend of cultures. The good news is that, according to the Hotel Price Index, hotels in Siem Reap, gateway to the unforgettable Angkor Wat temple complex, are down 10 percent, while hotels in the capital Phnom Penh are down 3 percent. What to do. Angkor Wat, in northern Cambodia, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest religious monument in the world, covering nearly 500,000 acres. With archaeological relics that date back as far as the 9th century and Cambodia's distinctive Khmer architecture on display, Angkor Wat represents Cambodia's Hindu and Buddhist heritage. We suggest you set aside at least three days to take in Angkor Wat's splendor at a relaxed—and respectful—pace that leaves time for peaceful contemplation. Get there via taxi, which will run you about $25. And, yes, you can take an elephant ride around some of the structures for about $10 to $20. Cambodia offers at least two drastic contrasts to Angkor Wat: Spend a few days in Phnom Penh for the unforgettable sights and tastes of the big city, or get way, way, away from it all on Koh Rong, or "Monkey Island," said to be the site of a real-life King Kong and home to one of the most beautiful white-sand beaches in the world. Where to stay. Hanuman Alaya Boutique Residences, Siem Reap, with its traditional Khmer decor, includes an outdoor pool (perfect for a post-temple cooldown!), and on-site spa and Khmer-style restaurant (hanumanalaya.com, from $81). 8. DENVER Best for: Kicking it "Amsterdam style" Why 2015. Denver first made news back in 2013 when Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana; since then, a number of cannabis tours and "420-friendly" hotels have sprung up to accommodate the initial tourism surge. Also worth checking out are Denver's booming brewery and food scenes: Take a free behind-the-scenes tour at The Great Divide Brewing Co. or Breckenridge Brewery, or check out several neighborhood hotspots on the Denver Brews Cruise for $42 per person. Don't miss Denver Restaurant Week Feb. 20 through Mar. 1, where you can score fancy multicourse dinners from $30 per person. What to do. Art lovers can view contemporary masterpieces by Matisse, Picasso, and O'Keeffe at the Denver Art Museum free of charge the first Saturday of the month (tickets are normally $13 for adults, $10 for students and seniors, $5 for ages 6–18). Get back to nature at Denver Botanic Gardens, a beautiful place to visit in every season—be on the lookout for intricate displays by visiting artists like Dale Chihuly ($12.50 for adults, $9 for children ages 3–15). Kids will love the Denver Zoo, which has several free admission days in 2015. Admission is $13 for adults, $9 for children ages 3–11. Where to stay. The Hampton Inn & Suites Downtown Denver is located just three blocks from the 16th Street Mall, a 1.5-mile-long pedestrian plaza lined with more than 350 shops, bars, and restaurants—keep an eye out for street fairs and festivals here year-round. Sports fans will love the hotel's proximity to Coors Field, the Pepsi Center, and Sports Authority at Mile High (hamptoninn.hilton.com, from $149). 9. COLOMBIA Best for: Adventure and colorful festivals Why 2015. Vibrant festivals, exotic flora, acclaimed coffee plantations, and diverse terrain from rain forests to Caribbean beaches are all authentically Colombia. Security in large cities has improved in recent years, the U.S. State Department says, and thanks to increased supply, hotel prices in Bogotá are down 11 percent. Go now and use the hashtag #colombianotcolumbia to broadcast your whereabouts: Execs dreamed it up this year to promote a country eager for visitors. What to do. Catch a glimmer of Colombia's mining tradition via pre-Hispanic artifacts at the Gold Museum in Bogotá before snapping a panoramic shot of the metropolis from Mount Monserrate's summit. Crime and cocaine have given Colombia a bad rap that tourism officials want to shake; that said, if the country's gritty history and/or TV's Entourage have piqued your curiosity, Pablo Escobar tours exist in Medellín. For a gentler experience, August's Medellín Flower Fair celebrates the "city of eternal spring" with a silleteros parade—participants carry blooms on their backs. Romance your partner amid bay views from the walled city of Cartagena, then scan its plazas for vendors selling arepas de huevo (fried cornmeal bread with an egg tucked inside). A packed itinerary calls for a swig of caffeine: Colombia's Coffee Triangle, in the rural Paisa region, has UNESCO World Heritage status. Tour a finca (coffee plantation) like Hacienda Venecia in Manizales to see beans go from plant to mug. Where to stay. Go affordable, isolated, and eco-friendly by living on a coffee farm—Hacienda Venecia's shared-bathroom lodgings start at $35 a night; the Colombian Coffee Cultural Landscape guide has more options (rutasdelpaisajeculturalcafetero.com). In Bogotá, travelers like Hotel Augusta's central location (hotelaugusta.com.co, from $66). Five-star digs are a bargain at Cartagena's La Passion Hotel Boutique, a Spanish Colonial house with a rooftop pool (en.lapassionhotel.com, from $139). 10. EGYPT Best for: History and brag-worthy sights Why 2015. Recovering from political unrest after 2011's ousting of president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt saw its worst tourism numbers in decades in 2013, with hotel occupancy in some cities at zero percent. The country is poised for an uptick in visitors this year, and you can be a part of the recovery by taking advantage of rock-bottom hotel rates, bargains at bazaars, and short lines for legendary antiquities—as long as you take safety precautions. What to do. Float along the Nile in a traditional sailboat called a felucca for a few hours—or a few days. Ask your hotel to book one, or negotiate a rate with a tout at the docks in Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan. Now that you have practice haggling, bargain with vendors at Cairo's Khan Al-Khalili market, a souk stocked with everything from exotic perfumes to toy camels; just be prepared to get the hard sell. Reward yourself with a cup of mint tea at El Fishawy café. Marveling at the Great Pyramids of Giza is a quintessential postcard experience, but indoor exhibits deliver too: The Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo houses artifacts unearthed from King Tutankhamen's tomb, including his iconic blue-and-green-striped burial mask. Have a staring contest with its obsidian and quartz eyes...if the curse doesn't faze you. Where to stay. Major hotel chains like the Marriott, Hilton, Fairmont, Starwood, and Radisson all have outposts in Egypt, many for less than $125 a night. Want an unforgettable vista when you wake up? The American-owned Pyramids View Inn B&B looks out onto the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids (pyramidsviewinn.com, from $30). One reliable way to ensure that you have a safe trip is by booking your vacation through an operator, like Your Egypt Tours (day trips from $20, youregypttours.com). A special note on safety in Egypt: Although there is no current Travel Warning about Egypt in effect, staying alert and practicing good personal security measures is imperative, says a U.S. State Department official on background. Be vigilant in crowded tourist areas, and avoid demonstrations as well as dark isolated areas, especially if you're a woman—female tourists have reported being groped in public places and taxis. Traveling outside of the Cairo metropolitan area can be unsafe, and the northern Sinai area is dangerous. The Egyptian Tourism Authority recommends sticking to cities like Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, and Aswan for cultural tourism and the beach town Hurghada for watersports. Before you go, read through the U.S. government's Traveler's Checklist (travel.state.gov).
Awesome & Affordable Hotel Spas
We serenity-seekers are all too familiar with this scenario: You book a dreamy getaway to escape the grind and reclaim your sanity for a few days. The hotel you scored a great deal on is spectactular. Your room is airy and luxurious. But when you unfold that slick brochure listing the property's spa services, you see the exorbitant prices—$185 for a 60-minute chakra-balancing ritual? really?!—and your heart drops a little. Springing for any of the treatments would blow the money you'd set aside for important extras, like beachside piña colada floaters. "Spa services and treatments at some hotels are more expensive because the hotel or resort's operating expenses and overhead can be more expensive than a smaller day spa or chain—and that overhead is reflected on the spa menu," says Mia Kyricos, chief brand officer at Spafinder Wellness, Inc. Still, Budget Travelers deserve every perk that tranquil vacations offer (including luxe spa treatments!), so we collected the best under-the-radar spa-insider tips to help you bliss out without going broke. First, a little expert intel on how to save at any hotel spa. Click through after Secret #5, and we'll reveal six unique hotel spas that offer posh treatments at sensible prices. Spa savings secret #1: Casino spas are surprisingly cheap. "As a rule of thumb, many casino resorts and hotels have very attractive spa pricing," Kyricos says. Look for à la carte "express" treatments, like a simple manicure or basic facial, to snap up a service for a fraction of the price of the usual longer, more elaborate menu item. Spa savings secret #2: Show up far earlier than your appointment time to create your own personal spa day. One thing that hotel spas have going for them that your neighborhood beauty parlor doesn't? Sprawling, up-to-date spa facilities that you can use gratis. "A spa treatment at a hotel often includes use of pools, saunas, steam rooms, relaxation lounges, etc., extending a one-hour massage to a full 'spa day' experience," Kyricos says. "These extras may not be available at a day spa." Peel yourself off your beach chair early (more difficult than it sounds!), and take advantage of every spa station: They advertise that invigorating cold marble plunge pool for a reason. Spa savings secret #3: Always ask about discounts and special packages, especially during non-peak hours or seasons. Even at swanky spas, there are bargains to be had. According to Spafinder Wellness 365's most recent State of Spa Travel Report, the "deal culture" in spa marketing is here to stay, even though the economy has improved—32 percent of travel agents reported that spas were more aggressive with special pricing and packages last year over the year before. Fifty-three percent said deals were equally strong. Ask your hotel directly about specials, but you can also position yourself for a flood of hotel spa discounts and credits by browsing sites like Groupon.com, LivingSocial.com, Travelzoo.com, GiltCity.com, and Spafinder.com, Kyricos says. We searched Groupon and found a hefty $120 discount at New York City's Eventi Hotel on two treatments, including the Jet Lag Recovery Body Scrub. Spa savings secret #4: When in doubt, choose the massage. "A massage is generally the best value, and few things beat the benefits of a truly therapeutic massage," Kyricos says. One exception: If there's an identically priced facial that lasts just as long and involves a smorgasbord of expensive serums, fruit extracts, and masques, you'll get your money's worth and then some. Spa savings secret #5: Absurdly high prices? Bring the spa to you instead. Say what? Yep! In today's app-happy culture, if you can't afford the spa on property, you can summon an outside technician to come to your hotel room—and you don't have to make movie-star money to swing it. The PRIV app dispatches beauty and wellness pros in New York, L.A., and London who can give you a 30-minute chair massage ($45), gussy you up with a braided 'do ($30), and more—tax and tip included. Hair- and makeup-centric Glamsquad, based in New York, L.A., and Miami, lets you choose a specific hairstyle post-blowout, like "chic, beachy waves" or "sleek, straight, and shiny" for $50. A special manicure category will launch later this year, nailphiles. Now, where should we relax first? These hotel spas have been noted by insiders for their reasonable rates and excellent value: 1. The Roosevelt Spa at Gideon Putnam Resort: Saratoga Springs, New York Therapeutic individual mineral baths that start at only $30 per 40-minute soak are what Michael Tompkins, chairman of the International Spa Association and CEO of Hilton Head Health weight-loss resort, likes best about the Gideon Putnam Resort's certified-green spa's menu. Rich history accompanies the bucolic small-town setting: People have long traveled to "take the cure" in Saratoga's legendary waters, and former president Franklin D. Roosevelt himself commissioned the current iteration of the spa, which opened in 1935. After you thoroughly prune in the bath, tack on a Signature Roosevelt Massage, starting at $55. Hot tip: Treatment rates are discounted Monday through Thursday (services from $20, rooms from $112 per night, gideonputnam.com). 2. The Spa at Trump Hotel: Las Vegas, Nevada Who'd have thought The Donald would go el cheapo? Technically, the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas isn't a casino hotel, but its prices are just as appealing, Kyricos says. (Perhaps the hotel's proximity to the slots encourages spa deals to filter in by osmosis.) Through January 31, 2015, the spa's Trumptations 25-minute express treatments, such as the Desert Hydrating Facial and Express Manicure & Pedicure, are $50 with this printable coupon (services from $40, rooms from $115 per night, trumphotelcollection.com). 3. The Hills Health Ranch: British Columbia, Canada Voted the best budget-conscious wellness experience by Spafinder in 2014, The Hills Health Ranch lets you build your own all-inclusive spa package from a menu of affordably priced services, most of which incorporate local rosehip oil that's cold-pressed right on property. Staff picks include the 50-minute full-body Rosehip Seed Scrub ($89) and the Hydro Foot Spa—15 minutes of delightful water-pummelling followed by a 24-minute foot and lower leg massage ($59) (services from $17, rooms from about $110 per night, spabc.com). 4. Cannery Pier Hotel Spa: Astoria, Oregon Every full-body wrap and facial at the Cannery Pier Hotel's spa is less than $100—even the Marine Minerals Wrap, which swaddles your body in kaolin clay, marine fango, and organic kelp. A regular 60-minute massage? A reasonable $70. If there were ever a time to be "that person" who spends an entire day in the spa, this is it: A three-and-a-half-hour itinerary of sauna time, a body wrap, a soak, an hour-long massage, and a custom facial—plus spa snack!—is $245, which might as well be free in hotel spa world. Tompkins likes this property, a former fishermen-owned cannery with stunning Columbia River views, for the town's stellar fishing and charming shops (services from $2, rooms from $179 per night, cannerypierhotel.com). 5. Zentropia at Grand Palladium Vallarta: Riviera Nayarit, Mexico Spanish hotel chain Palladium Hotels & Resorts recently launched its Zentropia Palladium Spa & Wellness brand, made up of five different spas at its properties in Mexico, Ibiza, and Jamaica. The most affordable spa of them all is at the Riviera Nayarit location, part of the all-inclusive Grand Palladium Vallarta Resort & Spa, where you can spring for fun, somewhat frivolous services in a zen tropical environment for pennies—and isn't that what an affordable beach vacation is all about? Have a salon technician give you a single braid for $2, try out a set of false strip eyelashes for $10, or surprise your partner with a 50-minute couples' massage—accompanied by two free mimosas—for $150, less than half of what you'd pay at a luxury resort in Punta de Mita (services from $2, all-inclusive accommodations from $147 per person per night, zentropia-spa.com). 6. Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa: New Mexico Quirky and local, the treatments at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa are inspired by the property's 147-year-old history as a health resort; its mineral waters considered by early Native Americans to be sacred. Nowadays, 11 pools of varying temperatures contain four different types of purportedly healing mineral water: lithia to alleviate depression, iron to boost immunity, soda to aid digestion, and arsenic to heal skin conditions (access from $18). The 25-minute Signature Milagro Relaxation Wrap is only 12 bucks, but this isn't just any spa wrap—it's an ancient ritual: You're wrapped in a light cotton blanket, then a heavy wool blanket to encourage the release of toxins, all while soothing music plays. Not feeling particularly earthy? The Native American Blue Corn & Prickly Pear Salt Scrub is $50 as a 25-minute add-on; spring for 50 minutes for $85, and a scalp massage and herbal oil hair therapy treatment is included (services from $12, rooms from $139 per night, camping and RV rates from $20, ojospa.com).