Travel Guides

Hiking The Grand Canyon from rim to rim

 

Travel Ekspert's Note: Mark Koehler is Senior Vice President of priceline.com’s Airline Ticketing Service group.
 
Of all the visitors to the Grand Canyon, only 1% to 3% actually hike down into the canyon. The majority of those hikers descend less than 1,000 feet. What awaits the minority who do make the trek all the way to bottom of the canyon is a view that is as breathtaking as the one from the top.
 
I’m in that minority. I’ve been making rim to rim treks across the Grand Canyon with friends and family members for 10 years now. It’s called a rim to rim hike because we descend from the South Rim to the Colorado River along the North Kaibob trail and then ascend the other side to the North Rim. In all, it is roughly 24 miles across the canyon with a descent of over 4,500 vertical feet down to the Colorado River and a North Rim ascent of over 6,000 vertical feet.  The hike will take an average of 12 to 15 hours to complete.
 
Temperatures at the bottom can reach or exceed 100 degrees. Hikers will experience 13 different climate zones along the way. Each zone is unique due to differing temperatures, vegetation, animal life and age of erosion. The effect is that the canyon will continually change its look as you’re hiking through it.
 
A rim to rim trek takes intense physical preparation. I’ve run 5 marathons. Hiking across the Grand Canyon is actually harder than a marathon in terms of physical exertion and mental focus. But I would also say that the hike is more achievable for a person who is in reasonably decent physical condition and looking for an adventure. 
 
 
In all of the marathon races I have run, my main focus was simply on finishing and measuring my time. Hiking the Grand Canyon is a more enjoyable process. It is beautiful. The scenery changes constantly.  You stop to take pictures. And yes, you will experience all of the physical challenges you would expect on a hike of this duration, including fatigue, exhaustion, blisters, dehydration and soreness. 
 
Anyone interested in trying a rim to rim hike should set the date at least a year in advance to get physically ready. The North Rim is only open from May 15 – October 15, so your hiking window must fall into that time frame. It is important that the training be a combination of cardio training and weight training. The cardio is to build stamina and strengthen the legs. The weight training should emphasize your body core since you will be carrying a pack weighing roughly 15 pounds for 12-15 hours. 
 
My cardio training varies significantly so I don’t get bored. I use an elliptical, bike, and treadmill in the gym. I do preparation hikes on local trails. I will even go for just long walks through my local town. I would think that nearly any form of exercise is beneficial. Exercise that focuses on the legs and climbing/descending is even more beneficial. 
 
 
There are a few aspects to the hike that are hard to replicate in training, such as temperatures in excess of 100 degrees. The North Rim elevation is roughly 8,250 so there is the aspect of thin air. The climb out of the canyon over last 5 miles of the hike has an average terrain grade in excess of 30%. Combining an elevation grade of 30% or more, plus extreme heat, plus thin air is hard to duplicate. And you will experience this phase after you have already hiked 18-19 miles. It is a great physical endurance test to climb out and finish the hike.
 
Here’s a tip – hiking the Grand Canyon from the north rim to the south rim is easier than doing it the other way around. That’s because the north rim is 1,400 vertical feet higher than the south rim. Taking the longer and more taxing south to north route usually involves finding overnight accommodations at the south rim. If you plan at least a few months in advance, you will have no issues in getting a room. 
 
Once you complete the hike, there’s that small issue of getting back to your departure point. It’s a 210-mile, 5-hour drive back around.  Trans Canyon Shuttle offers shuttle van transportation to tourists and hikers. They are extremely friendly people and the shuttle rate in 2009 was $85 per person for the one-way ride.
 
Getting There
 
The Grand Canyon area is served by three airports. All three have fares available through priceline.com. Phoenix is approximately 225 miles away, a 4 to 4.5 hour drive.   You can also fly into Flagstaff where the drive to the canyon is only about 100 miles. Airfares are generally cheaper to fly into Phoenix. Flying into Phoenix or Flagstaff means you’ll start your hike at the South Rim and the hike will be south to north.   
 
A third option is to fly into Las Vegas. The drive from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon is approximately 230 miles. Flying into Las Vegas will have you entering the canyon at the North Rim, hiking north to south, which is the easier route since the uphill portion of the trek will be shorter. I personally prefer the more strenuous south to north route.
 
Where To Stay
 
If you are starting at the South Rim, there are two areas to stay. There is the town of Grand Canyon, AZ, where there are several hotels and at least a couple of brands that most people will recognize. 
 
Additionally, one can stay in lodging right at the South Rim. These properties range in price and amenities. All are very clean, offer the best value and are literally right next to where your hike will begin. The drive from the town of Grand Canyon to the South Rim is about 15-20 minutes. Who wants to do that at 1:30 in the morning? Lodging at the Grand Canyon can be found at the following link: http://www.xanterra.com/.
 
 
If you fly into Las Vegas and hike in from the North Rim, there is very limited lodging on that side of the canyon. In fact, there is only one place:
 
My last bit of advice on staying at the Grand Canyon is to reserve early. 
 
What to Bring
 
Your Grand Canyon is strenuous and will take 12 to 15 hours. Bring food, water, Gatorade (or equivalent), a small medical kit (mole skin, ointments, band aids, etc), a roll of toilet paper (you can be a considerable distance from a bathroom so be prepared), a spare pair of socks and sun block.
 
Loose-fitting hiking clothes, sturdy hiking socks and a well-broken in pair of hiking shoes will fill the bill. A 12-15 hour hike means that you’ll begin while it’s still dark, so you’ll need a hiker’s headlamp, and probably some type of hat. 
 
Plan on carrying 2,000 to 3,000 calories worth of food that offers a blend of carbs, protein, sugars and salts. All are critical over the course of the hike. Many foods do not hold up under the heat or under the movement of a pack. I usually carry mixed nuts (salted), dried fruits, M&Ms (these do hold up in the heat believe it or not), granola bars, and Pop Tarts. Be careful not to take foods that are overly fiber based. You’ll burn all this off, plus some, during the hike. 
 
As for water, I carry five ½ liter water bottles and a container of powdered Gatorade. There are places to replenish your water along the hike. Carrying powdered Gatorade allows you to make it when you want it, but otherwise having water to drink. Consume a lot of water to avoid dehydration.
 
Photo Credits - David Furey, Corey Vezina 2009.

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Travel Ekspert Guide to Charleston, SC

 

 Walking the streets of Charleston, South Carolina’s well-preserved historic district, it’s hard to imagine that perhaps no other U.S. city has struggled so hard to survive over the four centuries since its founding. Raided by pirates, besieged by the British, burned to the ground during the Civil War, demolished by an earthquake and flooded by hurricanes, Charleston’s history is one of continual rebuilding after natural or manmade disasters.

Today, Charleston is a much more peaceful city that draws tourists with a rich inter-weaving of history, architecture and food. History buffs can spend days exploring the Revolutionary War and Civil War sites and plantations. For more recent history, there’s Patriots Point with the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier and other World War II and Cold War vessels. 
Several historic homes from the 1700s and 1800s are open for tours, complete with rare period antique furnishings. Foodies will revel in the fact that Charleston has attracted so many talented chefs to expand on the city’s traditional low-country cuisine. White-sand beaches are close by on Sullivan’s Island. Most surprising to me was the large number of children-specific attractions and activities throughout the city.
So, here we go with The Travel Ekspert’s guide to Charleston:   
     
History
Founded in the 1600s, Charleston is located at the intersection of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers and the Atlantic Ocean. Charleston made its fortune growing and exporting rice, tobacco, indigo and cotton. Crops were typically grown on large inland plantations using slave labor. By the late 1700s, Charleston was the 4th largest port in the U.S. behind New York, Boston and Philadelphia. In 1860, the city had the highest average per-capita income in the U.S. It showed, as plantation owners and shipping magnates built substantial three- and four-story mansions distinct with their verandas and elaborate ironwork trim.
Charleston played important roles in the Revolution and the Civil War. After achieving the first victory of the Revolutionary War, Charleston was ultimately captured by the British and occupied for the duration. A little more than a century later, South Carolina seceded from the U.S. and fired on Union-controlled Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor to start the Civil War.  
 
What To See and Do
Historic Sites
I recommend starting off with a visit to the Charleston Museum and Visitors Center on Meeting Street. It gives a good overview of the historic sites in town. There’s a full-scale model of the CS Hunley, a Civil War era submarine out front (the actual Hunley sank and has since been recovered, but that exhibit is only open on weekends). And there are interactive kids exhibits, including a scale model of a city mansion where they can don colonial attire and play period childrens games.
It’s tough to single out a few sites, but I have some favorites. Like visiting Yellowstone and not seeing Old Faithful, no visit to Charleston is complete without visiting The Battery at the southern tip of the city, where you can still see the cannon and mortars that fired on Fort Sumter. Then head over to Liberty Square to catch a ferry out to the fort. Combined price for the ferry and a fort tour is $16 for adults and $10 for kids. It’s also a great way to cool off and get a city view from the harbor.
Over on Sullivan’s Island is Fort Moultrie, the site of several forts built to protect Charleston. It was here during the Revolution that cannonballs from British warships bounced off the first fort’s palmetto log fortifications (hence the palmetto tree in the state’s flag). Notable past residents of the fort include Seminole Chief Osceola and Edgar Allen Poe, who apparently was more of an author than a soldier. The fort has a small entry fee. Nearby is a fun themed burger joint called Poe’s that’s worth a stop.
My third favorite historic site is another kid-pleaser – the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. Here is where the pirate Stede Bonnet and crew were imprisoned before their hanging at The Battery. Kids can explore the dungeon with its animatronic figures. Parents, keep a weather-eye on all the pirate gear in the gift shop. The Exchange was where South Carolina elected delegates to the Continental Congress and also played host to George Washington. Adults $7, kids 7-12 $3.50. 
Houses and Plantations
There are no fewer than a half-dozen historic houses open for tours. The houses stretch all the way from the Visitors Center to The Battery, a distance of 20-plus city blocks. Admission and a tour is typically $10-$15 per person. Tour houses include the Joseph Manigault House, the Heyward-Washington House, the Aiken-Rhett House, the Nathaniel Russell House, the Edmondston-Alston House, the Calhoun Mansion.
House tours are generally of the first and second floors. First floors include the dining rooms and parlor/offices where the planters/shippers met business associates. Sleeping rooms and entertaining rooms for guests were on the upper floors, where dust and odors from the street couldn’t reach and sea breezes could. Since Union forces pretty much gutted Charleston, most of the furniture today is from the period, while some is original to the specific house. All of it is pretty spectacular craftsmanship. Note the unusual rollers on much of the furniture, providing the ability to shift from one window to another to catch a breeze.
Hands-down, my favorite tour was the Edmondston-Alston House, where Jessie, our tour guide, knew every inch of the house and its furnishings. After explaining that the house overlooking The Battery had been used by Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard to supervise the bombardment of Fort Sumter, she pointed out the telescope in the corner that he had used and took us out to the veranda to stand where he stood and imagine the sights and sounds of all the cannon and mortar firing. And no tour concludes without testing out the joggling board, a contraption peculiar to Charleston that’s a cousin to the see-saw and allows riders to climb aboard and get the sensation of riding in a horse-drawn carriage.
Largely because rice can’t grow in brackish water, Charleston’s major plantations were located up-river a dozen or more miles away from the seaport. Plantations available for touring include Middleton Place, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Boone Hall Plantation, the Charleston Tea Plantation, Drayton Hall and the Charles Pinckney Plantation. The Pinckney Plantation is free. Admission to the other plantations can run anywhere from $10 to $45 for adults, or $7.50 to $30 for children. Most of the plantations give visitors the option to pay only for the activities they want, such as a house tour, entry to the gardens, carriage rides and special programs.
We visited Boone Hall and Middleton Place. Boone Hall boasts a long entry drive to the main house, lined by live oaks and Spanish moss. No one knows for sure, but some say the entry provided the inspiration for Tara in Gone With The Wind. Boone Hall also has an original collection of slave cabins with excellent audio and artifacts covering various aspects of slave life. The slave exhibit is included in the entry fee.
Middleton Place features expansive 17th century gardens with acres of flowers, live oaks, Spanish moss and working rice fields. The time-warp feeling visitors get here make the gardens worth the trip by themselves. On the house tour, be sure to explore the bookshelves and curio cases. You’ll find things like a pass signed by Abraham Lincoln that allowed a member of the Middleton family to cross enemy lines to attend a relative’s funeral, and the Appomattox Courthouse parole papers that allowed a Confederate soldier from the family to return home after the war. The plantation also has a stable area with exhibits on candlemaking, rice growing, barrel making and more. Watch your step by the water. The working rice fields have working alligators.
Tours
Charleston offers a variety of tours. The one-hour carriage ride (typically $20/person) is recommended. The guides provide solid overviews of the city and its history. Bring something to take notes on addresses and areas you may want to check out in more detail once the tour is over.
Numerous walking tours of the historic district are available. Some have physical guides. One resident, Tommy Dew, has created self-guided tours that can be downloaded to iPhones and iPod Touches from the iPhone app store. Kids in particular will be thrilled by Charleston’s ghost tours. And there are culinary tours that take visitors around to various restaurants to sample the low country cuisine and maybe even take a cooking class.
 
Where To Stay
Charleston had a wide range of hotels and B&Bs, and there are three basic considerations to make. One, what’s your price point. Charleston can go all the way from $50, 2-star chain hotels out by the airport, to $300 and up for luxurious 4- and 5-star hotels and B&Bs in the historic district. Check here to see the hotel price map for Charleston.  Two, how much driving and walking do you want to do? With the exception of the plantations and Sullivan’s Island, most of Charleston’s attractions are centrally located. After your feet get tired, Charleston offers a $5 unlimited daily ride bus pass. It may make sense to pay a few dollars more to stay closer to the action.
And three, do you want a standard hotel, or would you prefer a place with more of a historical feel? We chose the French Quarter Inn, a smaller boutique hotel located right next to the old City Market on Church Street and midway between the Visitors Center and The Battery. With a winding central grand staircase, gaslamps, a private outdoor walled garden/patio and large guest rooms with equally large baths, The French Quarter Inn makes visitors feel like they’ve entered one of the grand houses on The Battery. A particularly welcome touch is the nightly wine & cheese reception for guests fresh in from hours of walking the Historic District.
Other popular hotel options in different price ranges include The Francis Marion Hotel, The Harbourview Inn, The Renaissance Charleston and The Best Western King Charles Inn. Check here to see all the Charleston hotels available through priceline.com. 
Priceline.com's hotel guide for Charleston will show you the top hotels for families (Hampton Inn & Suites, Charleston/West Ashley, Residence Inn Charleston Riverview, Springhill Suites Charleston West, Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Charleston, Hampton Inn Charleston-Historic District), for business travelers (Hampton Inn Charleston Historic District, Holiday Inn Charleston Airport & Convention Center, Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Charleston North, Quality Suites Charleston, Sleep Inn Charleston), the top romantic hotels (French Quarter Inn, Vendue Inn, Mills House Hotel, Andrew Pinckney Inn, Hampton Inn Charleston Historic District), and priceline.com customers overall top hotel choices for the city (French Quarter Inn, Harbourview Inn, Vendue Inn, Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Charleston North, Embassy Suites Hotel Airport Convention Center)..
 And remember, you can always use priceline.com’s Name Your Own Price hotel service for discounts of up to 50% in Charleston.
 
 Where to Eat
On my first trip through Charleston about15 years ago, it was all about the low country cuisine – shrimp, crab, fish, grits, okra, collard greens, sweet potatoes and some barbecue thrown in for good measure. That’s all changed. Within the past few years, Charleston has had an influx of new-blood chefs who focus their menus around the freshest local produce, meats and seafood available.
Much like the hotels, Charleston diners have to make some hard choices regarding how much of their bankroll they’re willing to part with. Visitors on a budget might want to check out some of the pricier restaurants for their lunch menus, which offer the same quality food with smaller portions at a lower price.   
Traditional low country meals, like shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes or fried chicken at places like Jestine’s Kitchen, Hominy Grill or The Noisy Oyster, will run a budget- and family-friendly $10-$20. Surroundings are low-key but, hey, you’re there for the food.
Diners looking for reasonably priced traditional seafood, beef and chicken in a more upscale setting should try Hank’s, a longtime Charleston fixture on Church Street. For $7 a bowl, the she-crab soup is another local specialty, a subtly flavored mixture of cream, sherry and crab that is one of the restaurant’s signature dishes.
Among the fresh-ingredients/new chef entries to the Charleston restaurant scene, take a walk down East Bay Street. The restaurants are all lined up with menus in the windows. Entrees are typically $25 and up. Dinner for two, with wine and appetizer, at many of these restaurants can quickly run north of $100. Some, like Robert’s, have multi-course tasting menus that start at $83 per person.
Unless you live in a major city, you’re not likely to have ready access to chefs and menus of this caliber, so the experience is definitely worth the investment. Restaurants in this category to consider include FIG, Slightly North of Broad, McCrady’s, Tristan, Magnolia’s, Blossom's and Cypress.
 
Getting There
Since Charleston is a major city, airfares are quite reasonable. For example, priceline.com had an October fare from New York City to Charleston for $218. Priceline.com's Inside Track feature will show the best days to fly and other tips for getting the best deal on your airfare to Charleston.  You can also Check here to see fares from your city.

Rental cars are also available on priceline.com. A mid-size car for that October trip was available on priceline.com for $30 a day. Travelers can save even more by using priceline.com’s Name Your Own Price services for airfare, rental cars and, of course, hotels.

 

Food photo credit Charleston Convention & Visitors Bureau.  Photo credit for all other images Lyle J. Ek 2009.


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March in Bermuda

 

Situated off the Carolinas, about a two-hour plane ride from most East Coast cities, Bermuda is the easiest way for time-strapped tourists to get a quick sun fix with a Caribbean vibe. Which helps explain why, during its April-November high season, the 21 mile-long island can feel like one big Disney World during school break.
Off-season however, Bermuda is a different place. Photographers can snap away without waiting for strangers to get out of the shot. There are always empty bus seats. Restaurant reservations are recommended instead of required. The choice hotel room you’d wrestle a charter group for is available for the asking. Spots at the pool or beach – take your pick. And most important, low season means lower prices for a destination that can be pricey.
For all these reasons, off-season is my favorite time to visit Bermuda. But the best time, I think, is the last part of March, just before the seasonal prices change over. Daytime temperatures  have started to climb into the 70s, ocean temperature is in the mid-60’s, flowers have started to bloom, creating that natural perfume that permeates the island.
Bermuda Basics
Bermuda is British with distinctly American overtones. Driving is on the left-hand side of the road. Many hotels serve afternoon high tea.   Bermuda shorts with stockings cut just below the knee are still worn, even with jacket and tie. The Bermuda dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollar and, more often than not, your change will come in U.S. currency. Distances are quoted in miles and temperatures in degrees fahrenheit. Oh, and your taxi driver or waiter may be a millionaire. The average value of a single family house in Bermuda is $1.4 million.
Visitors cannot rent cars in Bermuda, only motorized scooters. Rentals average around $50 a day or $200 a week. Bicycles are cheaper, but the terrain in some parts of the island is very hilly. Taxis are expensive – a 12-mile ride from the airport to Southampton, which is about 2/3 of the way around the island, costs about $45. If you’re on a budget, Bermuda’s bus system is the way to go - $12 a day for unlimited rides. Plus, it’s more fun to sit back and concentrate on the scenery instead of negotiating the narrow roads. Island ferry service is also worth checking out.
Accommodations
Priceline offers the full gamut of Bermuda accommodations, from smaller bed-and-breakfast type hotels to the larger resorts. The smaller hotels can be booked for around $100 a night in low season, while the full-service resorts start around $280 a night.
This year, we chose the Fairmont Southampton, mostly because we weren’t sure how much sightseeing we were going to do and the Fairmont was the kind of place where, if you wanted to, you could step out of the cab and never leave the property for the duration of your stay. The Fairmont sits atop the highest point on the island and, consequently, has every room equipped with a private balcony. At the bottom of the hill is a private beach with tennis, snorkeling and scuba available. Walk around a corner and you’re on the public Horseshoe Bay Beach, which connects to a string of pink-sand beaches that can be walked for miles. The Fairmont Southampton has its own executive golf course on site, with exclusive access rights to the nearby par-70 Riddell’s Bay course. Toward the end of March, The Fairmont had four of its on-site restaurants open (more come on-line once high season starts). In addition to the heated outdoor pool, the hotel has its own spa and indoor pool. The indoor pool is open to all guests at no charge in the evenings.
Food
Since food and beverages grown or produced outside Bermuda have to be shipped or flown in, things are more expensive, although not as much as you might think. Over the years, Bermuda has added many gourmet quality restaurants. The food is spectacular and some of the prices can be, too. For example, one of our dinners in The Waterlot, an elegant Southampton steak house, ran $160 for two. Wine is imported (no surprise) and prices, even by the glass, will be noticeably higher than in the States. Families and travelers on tight budgets may want to look for everyday restaurants frequented by the locals. They’re easy to spot, with entrée prices often in the $15-$25 range and, often, an interesting assortment of local dishes. For a real budget-friendly alternative, find a grocery store. We found one in Hamilton that had a hot buffet section where you can line up alongside local businesspeople and purchase a hearty, affordable lunch. We tried the curried mussel and curried goat pot pies (popular fare for spectators at the cricket matches) for $4.50 each, and both were quite good.
Attractions

One of the great things about Bermuda is that you can spend as much or as little as you like on attractions and still have a great time. The public beaches are free and are jaw-droppingly beautiful. Rent snorkel gear (or bring it with you) for hours of fish watching and even some shipwreck spotting. Many of the historic forts guarding Bermuda, like Fort Hamilton, are well-preserved and free to explore. Dockyard on the far end of the island charges a reasonable $10 fee to enter the Keep area and see the Commissioner’s House and Maritime Museum.  The town of St. George's has replicas of stocks and dunking stools, with regularly scheduled free re-enactments that are sure to keep the kids entertained.

Golfers can expect to pay resort prices for greens fees and carts. Other attractions on the island include tennis, scuba diving, deep sea fishing, whale watching, natural caves, dolphin encounters and even a perfume factory.

Watch for more travel reviews from The Travel Ekspert.

Photos copyright Lyle J. Ek

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Yellowstone National Park

I don’t know how many people east of the Mississippi can say this, but I’ve been to Yellowstone National Park more times than Disneyworld.

There was always something more magical about Yellowstone than the magic kingdom. It could have to do with observing animals without glass or fencing in between. Maybe the thrill of the not-quite-predictable geyser shows. The rainbow hues of the hot pools. Or enjoying a simple campfire on a clear, starry evening. All of it keeps us coming back to Yellowstone. Recently, my wife and I returned again, this time with cameras, instead of children, in hand.
Getting There
Situated in the northwest corner of Wyoming, Yellowstone is a challenge to reach. The trains that used to bring seasonal tourists are no longer running, which leaves two main options. Drive (done that – from Connecticut no less), or fly and rent a car. Check here to search for flights and fares from your city. The closest major airport is Salt Lake City, which is 300 miles south of the park. A round trip fare from New York in July is $318. Other options include Idaho Falls (110 miles southwest of the park), Bozeman (90 miles north of the park), Cody (60 miles east of the park) and Jackson Hole (60 miles south of the park). All of these airports have flights year round. FYI, we chose to fly into Jackson Hole, even though the flights and rental car were more expensive, because it was closer and gave us more vacation time in the park.
Rental car prices will vary by airport. Check here to search rates at the various neighboring airports. A mid-size rental car, picked up in Salt Lake for a July trip, had a weekly rate of $194. Roads in the park are well-paved, so an SUV or 4-wheel-drive isn’t necessary, unless you’re visiting during the potentially snowy late spring or fall seasons.
Where To Stay
Camping is obviously the cheapest option. Depending on whether you’re tenting or bringing in a pop-up, trailer or RV, and how primitive a site you want, campsites range from $12 to $35 a night. Some can be booked in advance, while others do not accept reservations. Typically, the campgrounds closest to the attractions are no-reserve. Earlybirds have the best chance of scoring a site as they free up.
Note – Signs will be all over the place, but bears do occasionally find their way into the campgrounds. Keep food in sealed containers in the trunk (not in the tent), or hung high off the ground over a tree branch. Don’t bring food, including candy, into a tent. Don’t wash dishes in the campsite.
For those who prefer the comforts of more permanent four-walled accommodations, the good news is that Yellowstone has a combination of affordable and pricey lodging, both inside and outside the park.
Outside of Yellowstone’s gates, the closest towns with lodging include Gardiner, Silver Gate/Cooke City, East Yellowstone and West Yellowstone. Check here to search hotel rates for towns outside Yellowstone. Be careful in choosing where you stay. Yellowstone is a huge piece of natural real estate and the driving distance to the sights can be lengthy.  For example, from Gardiner, its 5 miles to Mammoth Springs, 26 miles to Norris Geyser Basin, 56 miles to Old Faithful and 42 miles to Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. From the West Yellowstone, it’s 26 miles to Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon, 28 miles to Norris, 30 miles to Old Faithful and 49 miles to Mammoth.
Hotels inside the park can run from an inexpensive $64 a night for a Roosevelt Lodge cabin, to $159 and up per night for The Old Faithful Inn. Visitors to the Inn will be surprised to find that rooms have no TV, radio or Internet access, and many have shared baths. It’s all an effort to recreate the experience from the early days of the park. The rustic log-hewn architecture of the Inn makes it worth a trip even just to walk around inside. The experience of even one night in the historic building, enjoying a cup of hot chocolate by the roaring multi-story stone fireplace, is something not to be missed, although the hotel is already booked solid for most of the summer season.
Park Fees
Yellowstone charges $25 per car for a 7-day pass that includes Yellowstone and the nearby Grand Tetons National Park. Don’t lose the pass, as you’ll need it each time you re-enter either park.
Getting Around Inside The Park
Yellowstone is 3,472 square miles big, so expect to spend some time in the rental car. Also expect to drive slow. The park speed limit is 45 mph, with 35 mph and 25 mph zones sprinkled in. Toss in the frequent traffic jams for bear sightings and bison crossing the road (a real treat) and things slow down even more. There are pull-offs every few hundred yards for sightseeing. Be warned – Yellowstone has raised traffic ticketing to an art form. Speed or park outside the designated areas and your stay will get more expensive in a hurry.
For those preferring not to see their wildlife from behind the wheel, the park has reintroduced a fleet of charming yellow tour buses, throwbacks to the early 20th century. The onboard guides are knowledgeable and seem to have an uncanny knack for being in the right place when wildlife appears. Visitors can also see the park via stagecoach, wagon or horseback.
What To See
Yellowstone can be enjoyed on many levels, depending on your group’s ability and appetite for physical exertion. All of the “marquee” attractions are reachable by car and most are a short walk from the parking lot. Many of the attractions are also wheelchair-accessible. Repeat visitors will tell you that the best way to see the park is to get off the main roads and trails and do some hiking into the back country that makes up most of the park. These hikes, which can run several miles, can yield private viewings of secluded mud pots, geysers, waterfalls and wildlife.
Some of Yellowstone’s best-known attractions are:
Old Faithful Inn and Old Faithful geyser basin. Worth at least half a day. Check eruption times and get there early for a seat to watch Old Faithful spout. After the show, take a walk along the geyser basin, where you’ll find dozens of large and small geysers and hot springs that get their multiple color hues from different types of algae. Watch for bison and elk along the trail.
Norris geyser basin. Meandering walkways take visitors past more geysers, hot springs and mudpots. The rising steam and sulfurous odor creates a surreal atmosphere.
Mammoth Hot Springs. Here, multiple rock terraces have been created and continue to evolve from the slow escape of liquefied minerals. The colors streaming from some of the natural structures are especially vivid. Lots of elk in this area as well.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. From various observation points, visitors can see the canyon and its various waterfalls.
Safety
Call it morbid fascination, but on my last visit, I bought a book titled “Death In Yellowstone: Accidents And Foolhardiness In The First National Park” by Lee Whittlesey. The book chronicled visitors since the 19th century who had experienced fatal encounters with the wildlife, fallen into Yellowstone’s canyons, and deliberately or mistakenly entered the park’s many hot springs at boiling temperatures.
Through signs and its employees, Yellowstone does its best to remind visitors that they are in a wilderness that, without the proper care and awareness, can turn dangerous. Yellowstone lies in a collapsed volcano caldera and it is the constant volcanic activity that creates the geysers, boiling mudpots and hot springs. While they look pretty and harmless, many of these geothermal features contain boiling temperature water. As they bubble away, the earth’s crust right around them becomes thin and brittle. Stay on the marked paths and wood walkways.
Wildlife in the park should be treated with similar care. After a ranger warned about visitors getting too close to the bison and being gored for their efforts, I recall a lady asking (and I’m not making this up) why the park let the animals loose if they were dangerous. Of course, that’s the point. In Yellowstone, visitors can see and photograph bison, bear, elk, deer, antelope, coyote, wolves and eagles in their natural environment. The trick is to view them from a distance that gives the animal its space and gives you ample time to back away if things get too close and personal.
Photography
I’ll mention this since my last trip was a photo safari. I strongly recommend visiting Yellowstone with a digital SLR, interchangeable lens camera with the following lenses: a wide angle lens for scenics, geothermal features and landscapes, a normal portrait length lens, and a telephoto zoom. For the telephoto, the longer length the better, since some of the animals, particularly bears and wolves, will only be seen at a distance. Check around and you’ll find that local photo shops will rent a digital SLR kit, including the longer lenses, very reasonably.
Photos copyright Lyle J. Ek

 

 

 

 

 


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Tour de France in 2009, The Return of Lance Armstrong

 

The 2009 Tour de France is going to be special.
 
Lance Armstrong, possibly the world’s most impressive athlete, has come out of retirement to race in this year’s Tour de France, which runs from July 4 to July 26th. This year’s race will also be special because, the 21-stage race will not only cover much of the French country-side but also cross into Germany and Spain. 
 
Following the race for its entirety of almost a month could be prohibitively expensive. But there are ways to see a lot of the race and not blow the budget. Here are some tips based on my experiences following the Tour de France in 2005.
 
In February of that year, Armstrong announced he would retire and make 2005 his last Tour de France. After hearing the news I made a few phone calls to some friends, and within an hour we had a group of 6 people who were willing, ready, and able to take an adventure of a lifetime.
 
I planned a 10 day trip that would allow us to see four stages of the race, including the finish in Paris, and three days away from the race on a beach in Spain. We stayed in smaller hotels with great rates, and dined like kings and queens with our savings.
 
The official website of the Tour de France (http://www.letour.fr/indexus.html) offers a good look at the race route.  Fans are well advised to avoid driving as much as possible, because the race will certainly take precedence over normal traffic, and if you aren’t familiar with the area you don’t want to end up following a detour and getting lost or even missing the race. I would advise using the French railroad system, which is quite good and an excellent way to get around.
 
It’s also a good idea to choose destinations that host multiple stages of the race. That way, you spend more of your time watching the event and less of your time moving from city to city and hotel to hotel. This turned out to be incredibly important, because we soon learned that following the tour was an all day affair that left everyone very tired. For example, in 2005, the city of Pau hosted a finish line, a “rest day,” and a starting line. After long days filled with walking, the familiarity of returning to the same hotel for several nights was comforting. 
 
 
If your preferred destination city doesn’t have any available hotels, look around to find nearby cities with rail service to your venue. I couldn’t find any vacant hotels in Pau so I consulted an excellent map to see what the nearby cities were.  I like the maps provided by ViaMichelin (http://www.viamichelin.com) because they not only show you cities, roads, airports, and railroads, but also the names of the mountain passes that the Tour announcers frequently mention.  My group chose to stay in Lourdes, which was not very far from Pau and was itself a tourist destination with plenty of lodging and restaurants. (http://wikipedia.org/wiki/Lourdes). 
 
 
 
 With our base camp in Lourdes we were able to see George Hincapie win the Stage on top of Pla-d’Adet in St-Lary-Soulan. At the finish line in Pau as we cheered for Lance Armstrong and the rest of the Discovery Team, we were interviewed by the OLN television (now known as Versus). A day later, at the starting line in Pau we got up close pictures of Jan Ullrich, Levi Leipheimer, Rasmussen, Thor Hushovd, and many other great cyclists!
  
 
For 2009, here are some cities that will host multiple stages of the Tour de France:
  • ·         Montpellier
  • ·         Barcelona, Spain
  • ·         Vittel
  • ·         Colmar
  • ·         Annecy
  • ·         Bourg Saint-Maurice
 
Montpellier will host a finish for one stage of the race and the start of another.  Montpellier also is special because it is the location chosen for the Team Time Trial, a favorite event for many TDF followers. Finding a vacant hotel in Montpellier might be possible if you have lots of money to spend or if the size of your group is small. On the other hand if you book a hotel in the nearby town of Beziers you can use www.raileurope.com to book a round trip ticket to Montpellier for as little as $18. Finding hotels in Beziers is simple, you can use: www.priceline.com, www.booking.com or even, www.activehotels.com.
 
After we had watched 3 of the mountain stages we were exhausted, so we hopped on the train and went to San Sebastian (aka. Donostia), Spain for a long weekend.  Here we sampled the Tapas and drank the local wines in the old town.  We strolled the beach of Playa de la Concha and relaxed.
 
 Finally, what trip to France would be complete without a trip to Paris? So after two days on the beach we hopped back on the railroad and took the high-speed TGV back to Paris. This all-day affair turned out to be one of the most enjoyable highlights as we talked about the trip, reviewed our photos, napped, or simply sat back and watched the countryside speed by. 
 
In Paris we took more terrific photos of the cyclists, met up with some new friends that we had made in Pau, ate at a Five-Star restaurant, and even did a tiny bit of sightseeing.  In planning the Paris leg of the trip I consulted each member of our group directly. I was certain that after 8 days and nights together the group was eager to each do their own thing.
  
So now that you have the scoop on how to plan your travel here are a few suggestions for viewing the race and perhaps even getting some nice photographs.
 
First off, get up early, get there early, pick your spot and don’t leave it once you’ve got it. Some spots are so jam packed with spectators that it is easy to get jostled out of the way, when the riders approach.
 
If you pick a sprint section on a day that is mostly flat then you can be certain the riders will pass you in a huge group – known as a Peloton. You’ll know they’re approaching when the crowd gets louder or when you start to see motorcycles with cameramen riding piggy-back. If you’re planning on photos in an area like this, I would advise against a long lens such as a telephoto or a zoom. While those might be the best lenses for the occasion they are really only effective if you have ideal placement, which is usually reserved for the press photographers. I would advise using a wide-angle lens, the wider the better to capture the action. In some cases the riders are so close to the crowd you can reach out and touch them (DON’T DO THAT – you could get arrested). On Pla-d’Adet, some riders literally rode underneath my camera! With a zoom lens I would have missed it.
 
You might consider a zoom lens for some of the mountain stages, maybe not to get pictures of the riders as they are passing close by but perhaps to get some of them from above as they snake their way through the hairpin turns.
 
So there you have it, my simple advice on seeing the Tour de France. The only other thing I would advise would be to bring plenty of water if you are seeing a stage away from a town. Be safe.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 


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Visiting the D Day beaches of Normandy

 

By 1944, Hitler had over-run Eastern and Western Europe, and only the English Channel separated the Third Reich from Great Britain. As the months went by, Germany created its “Atlantic Wall” – a seemingly impregnable string of concrete bunkers and artillery emplacements. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill surmised that the only way the war could be won was by going on the offensive and taking the fight to the Germans in a coordinated invasion of occupied France. The day chosen for the D-Day invasion was June 6. Allied troops landing on unprotected beaches to confront the gun emplacements suffered tremendous casualties before securing their objectives.
Veterans of the landings often spoke of the horrific images and sounds that stuck with them for decades after that day. For today’s visitor, it’s still the sights and sounds, albeit very different ones, that make Normandy an unforgettable pilgrimage.
In the parking lot at the American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach, hundreds of visitors made their way to the manicured entrance. The air was filled with revolving languages – French, English, German, Japanese, Russian. All talk dialed down to a hush as they walked through the columns of the Memorial and looked out over the reflecting pool to the neatly rowed landscape of 9,387 marble crosses and Star of Davids stretching from the woods to the cliffs.
A carillion began to play. The tune wasn’t the expected church music; instead the bells were ringing The Star Spangled Banner. They were followed by a single bugler, who stepped out among the rows of crosses to blow Taps. A few veterans hunting for specific graves stopped their searches to come to attention, while adults and children of the various nationalities stood in respectful silence.
Visitors who are physically up for it can walk a series of zig-zag steps down to Omaha Beach, which was one of the assault points assigned to the American forces, and scene of the day’s biggest casualties. If you go, walk to the water’s edge, turn around and imagine the difficulty of the assault, with hundreds of yards of beach, followed by high, vegetation-tangled cliffs.
A trip to the D-Day beaches can be done in a long day, but the scope of the invasion was so large that I recommend taking two days to fully appreciate it. Two days also provides the opportunity to venture inland to see towns like Caen and St. Mere Eglise, where British and U.S. paratroopers dropped in to cut German supply and reinforcement routes. St. Mere Eglise is where the 101st Airborne profiled in Band of Brothers saw their first action.
Normandy is in the northwest part of France, approximately 150 miles from Paris. The French highway system is excellent and they drive on the right side of the road, making it very U.S. driver-friendly, even in the small towns, although the roads there can be tight. There are lots of tolls, so understand the currency values before getting on the road and have coins on hand.
Driving to the ocean from Caen will bring visitors to Sword, Juno and Gold Beaches, where the British and Canadian troops landed. These are pretty quick stops, since there wasn’t much German resistance built up in this part of Normandy and the three beaches show little evidence of being battle sites. Continuing west along the coast, the next stop is the military port of Arromanche-les-bains. This is where the British Navy filled barges with cement, then towed them and sunk them close to the French coast to create an artificial harbor that was used to offload tanks, trucks, artillery and supplies. Remnants of the harbor can still be seen today. The story of the harbor’s daring creation is told in the D-Day museum at Arromanche. Entry is 6.5 euros for adults and 4.5 euros for children, and is well worth it for the films, interactive maps and collections of military memorabilia.
A little further west are the German gun emplacements and concrete bunkers at Longues-sur-Mer. These are worth a stop because they are among the best-preserved and most intact structures on the route. Sure to be a big hit with kids. Again, think of the massive firepower these emplacements were able to direct onto the beaches.
Omaha Beach is about 8 miles west of Longues-sur-Mer. Continuing past Omaha, you’ll come to Point du Hoc. Here, a team of 260 Army Rangers was assigned to scale the rock cliff with grappling hooks and eliminate the gun emplacements trained on nearby Omaha and Utah Beaches. Two-thirds of the Rangers were lost in the assault.
Point du Hoc vividly illustrates the raw power of war. Prior to the assault, U.S. Navy battleships concentrated their big guns on the clifftop. Today, Point du Hoc remains a kind of man-made moonscape, without as much as five consecutive feet of level ground. The tangle of twisted reinforcing rods and shattered concrete bunkers makes you wonder what it was like for the Germans, many of the Czech and Polish conscripts, who sustained that bombardment.
West of Point du Hoc is the last major beach, Utah, which also was an American landing zone. Utah had less German resistance and the smoother rolling landscape reflects it. Utah has some emplacements and also has several of the inverted-cross anti-tank obstructions.
If You’d Like To Go
Normandy hotels for the June 6th anniversary of D Day are booked solid, so I shopped an alternative trip for the Memorial Day period, departing May 24 and returning May 31. 
Airline Tickets
It’s better to visit early or wait until the fall, since the airfares once you reach mid June start to climb north of $700 per ticket, depending on departure city, to Paris. For the Memorial Day trip, priceline.com had fares of $538 from New York’s JFK to Charles DeGaulle airport. Check here for latest fares and availability.
Ground Transportation
A couple options here. You can take the train www.raileurope.com from Paris to either Caen or Bayeux, which are both close to the D Day sites (Bayeux is also home to the Bayeux Tapestry exhibit). In either city, you can rent a car and see the sites yourself, or book a tour.
In Paris, priceline.com had compact rental cars from $344 for the week, or $404 for a mid-size car. Rentals were cheaper in Caen, $299 for a compact and $359 for a mid-size. Check here for the latest rates and availability. A tour is a little bit easier on your otherwise designated driver, since he/she can sit back and enjoy the sights, but a full-day private D Day tour for a group of up to six people can run almost $600.
Hotels
Priceline.com offers a robust lineup of hotels throughout the Normandy region, with the majority clustered in the larger towns close by the ocean. Check here for rates and availability. Start your hotel search in the cities of Caen or Bayeux, then explore the drop-down box which will show other nearby towns. All will be less than ½ hour drive to the beaches.
Prices can vary quite a bit depending on the type of hotel you want. In Caen, the smaller properties include the 25-room Rex Hotel at $73 a night, or the 50-room Hotel Clarine at $86 a night. In Bayeux, accommodations can go all the way up to the Chateau de Bellefontaine at $226 a night.
Food

The food in the Normandy region of France reflects the abundance of seafood and dairy livestock. Mussels (moules) and sole are favorites from the sea. Many dishes come in rich butter or cream sauces. Be sure to try the local dishes, since they are very different from what you’ll find in Paris and other regions of the country.

Photos copyright Lyle J. Ek, 2008


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Seeing London on a budget

Photo by Keith Lopez (c) al rights reservedMay/June is a great time of year to visit London. The ubiquitous black umbrellas are tucked away and the sun finally comes out for what seems like the first time in months. Parks are full of flowers and people feed the ducks by the pond. Pubs put picnic tables on the sidewalk for an outdoor option. The summer crowds haven’t arrived yet, giving you a great view of the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace.
 
The one drawback of London, at any time of year, is that it can be notoriously expensive. When money is tight, it may seem like this is a destination that’s well beyond most budgets. However, like many cities, the trick is in knowing where to go to get the most bang for your buck. You can survive quite well as a cheapskate in London.
 
From the moment you poke your head out of the Underground (The Picadilly subway line is a nice, cheap way to get from Heathrow to downtown London), you’ll have the chance to admire red phone booths and double-decker buses, some of the icons of the city. To get your bearings, instead of the subway, take a ferry boat along the Thames. You’ll enjoy a relaxing ride as the onboard guide points out the major landmarks. The price is only twice the cost of a subway ride.
 
The afternoon could be spent at the nearby Museum of London (free), with historical artifacts dating back to Roman times, or at the Tower of London (not free – 16 pounds for adults, 9 pounds for children). Then, at 5 p.m., meander over to St. Paul’s Cathedral to marvel at the architecture and take in the nightly evensong chorale concert (free). And finally, it’s time to find your hotel (try to find one in downtown since transportation in the city is pricey) and ask about popular local dining spots nearby.
 
Photo by Jessica Ek (C) All Rights Reserved.Everyone can find something to do in London, even if you’re on a tight budget. Free museums abound, such as the British Museum (home of the Rosetta Stone), the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Modern art gallery, and the Natural History Museum. A free, and usually crowd-less, treasure can be found at the British Library, where visitors can peruse the only surviving Beowulf manuscript, Canterbury Tales, Beatles lyrics scribbled by Paul McCartney on napkins, the original Alice in Wonderland manuscript, the Magna Carta, and much more.
 
Theater fans can get 50% rush tickets at many theaters and tickets to the National Opera House go for 3 pounds if you get your ticket at 10 a.m. the day of the performance. Anyone looking for a souvenir to bring home may want to visit one of the city’s many markets, where items will be much less expensive than at Harrods, and unique pieces are waiting to be uncovered.
 
If You’d Like To Go
 
Photo by Keith Lopez (c) all rights reserved.Airline Tickets
 
Airfares to Europe are down substantially over last year. For example, on May 19, round-trip tickets from New York City to London in May and June could be found for as little as $453 per person. www.priceline.com/flights/
 
Ground Transportation
 
photo by Jesica Ek (c) all rights reservedGetting around London is pretty easy via public transportation. If you’ll be there for a week, consider getting a Tube Pass, which is good on buses and metro. The train system, which runs throughout Great Britain, is another good option. Ferry service is available for traveling up and down the Thames. If you’re brave enough to drive on the left, priceline.com has rental cars available. On May 19, priceline.com was offering compact rental cars starting at $207 a week www.priceline.com/rentalcars/.
 
Hotels
 
Priceline.com offers hotels in London on both a published-price and on a Name Your Own Price basis. www.priceline.com/hotels/ Budget travelers will want to use the Name Your Own Price option. Recent priceline.com hotel customers have been successful making bids as low as $85 a night for 4-star hotels in the Kensington/Knightsbridge area, and $100 a night for 4-star hotels in the Bloomsbury/Marble Arch area. Bid examples do not include taxes and fees. Even the published hotel rates are excellent this year. On May 19, priceline.com had hotels available around London for as little as $60 a night.
 
Food
 
Pubs usually have cheap, decent food, like bangers and mash, and they’re the perfect place to stop for a pint and some lunch or dinner. There are also great fish and chips places across the city that hand you your food in unprinted newspaper. Or try one of London’s many Indian restaurants. Consider getting Indian takeout and eating on a park bench to cut down on costs.
 
Former priceline.com intern Jessica Ek spent a semester studying in London on a student’s budget. In recent years, her global travels have taken her and her husband, Chris, to southern France, where they lived for a summer; South Africa, where they went on safari; Malta, and the jungles of Thailand, which they negotiated on foot and elephant-back. To see Jess’ travel photography, visit www.jessicaek.com.
 
Oh, and yes – she is the daughter of The Travel Ekspert.

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The Travel Ekspert's Guide to Newport, Rhode Island

 

With a history spanning back to the mid 1600s, Newport, RI, has lots to interest visitors. And many of its best attractions are free.
Like most early New England towns, it was founded by groups seeking religious and political freedom, which helps explain why the area boasts strong Jewish and Quaker heritages. On the not-so-proud side, the seaport’s most noteworthy early forms of commerce included slavery and piracy. (Note: If your hotel is out on Goat Island, that’s where they hanged pirates). 
During the Revolution, Newport flip-flopped as a naval base for the British and the French. In the 1800s, before the nation’s railroad network was broadscale, wealthy southern plantation owners would sail north to Newport to summer in the cool ocean breezes. They were later joined by shipping and railroad millionaires like the Vanderbilts and the Astors who, during the Gilded Age (which followed the temporary abolition of the federal income tax), built palatial summer “cottages”.
Newport has other distinctions.  Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy established “Summer White Houses” there. The U.S. Naval War College is here. So is the International Tennis Hall of Fame. And, from 1930 to 1983, the America’s Cup sailing race was contested in the waters off Newport.  
Getting There
Newport is 34 miles from Providence, or 71 miles from Boston.  For flights and fares, check www.priceline.com/flights/.
Once in Newport, I strongly recommend leaving the car at your hotel, or at the Visitors Center at 23 America’s Cup Avenue. It’s tough to find parking spots in the historical areas, especially during the peak summer tourist season. Newport offers inexpensive trolley service that extends all the way from the downtown shopping, dining and historic areas and visitors center out to all the mansions and the not-to-be-missed Cliff Walk. An unlimited day trolley pass costs $6. Trolley stops are clearly marked all over town. Your feet will thank you.
Where To Stay
Depending on the day, hotels right in Newport can get pricey. When that happens, I recommend either checking out a hotel in neighboring Middletown, or making a bid through priceline.com’s Name Your Own Price hotel service. If you’re lucky, and the hotels have extra inventory, the Name Your Own Price savings can be pretty spectacular (I know – I’ve done it). 
If you’re using our published-price hotel service to select a particular hotel, I have three favorites – the Newport Marriott, which is on the water and right next to the yacht club; the Hyatt Regency on Goat Island (remember the pirates); and the Hotel Viking, located at the top of Newport’s Historic Hill.
For those who want to blow the budget for a truly unique experience, some of the newer cliffside “cottages” have been transformed into resorts, with spacious rooms, spas and world-class restaurants that enable guests to experience the Gilded Age for a night. The Castle Hill Inn, with its Turret Suite and Beach Houses, is one such example.
What To Do
The Mansions. Ride down Bellevue Avenue from the Tennis Hall of Fame and watch as the architecture spins out of control.  First up are the “stick-built” wooden structure homes like the Isaac Bell House and Kingscote. Opulent, but not eye-popping. Then the grand-daddies of cottages come into view – The Elms, Marble House, Rosecliff and the grand-daddy of them all, the 70-room Breakers. These monster marble-and-granite palaces were built to mimic Versailles and the Italian Renaissance palazzos. In many cases, entire room interiors from European estates were ripped out and shipped to Newport to be reconstructed piece by piece. Watch out for gold leaf, marble and crystal overload. It’s amusing to note that each new mansion was designed to out-do the current best mansion on the block – a keeping up with the Joneses run amok.
Newport mansions are frequently seen in the movies. Famous ballroom dances at Rosecliff include Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in The Great Gatsby, and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jaime Lee Curtis in True Lies.  Gatsby is a particularly good movie to get you in the mood for Newport before visiting. 
Tours of the mansions can be bought individually or in packages. A 5-mansion package is $31 for adults, $10 for children 6-17. A tour of The Breakers plus one other house is $23 for adults, $6 for kids. Visiting The Breakers alone is $18 for adults, $4.50 for kids. Admission is a bit on the steep side, but consider that it is the primary source of income for maintaining these huge, aging properties. Having seen all of them, I have a suggestion for those on a budget. The Breakers is by far Newport’s “signature” mansion, so it’s worth a visit. For a second mansion, swing by Ochre Point. It is now the Administration Building for Salve Regina University. The opulent furnishings have given way to office furniture, but the sweeping interior is no less impressive – and it’s free to visit.
Cliff Walk. Newport only has a few beaches. Most of the coastline is edged in rugged cliffs. A scenic walkway constructed along the cliffs lets visitors stroll and view the ocean to one side, mansions to the other. There’s no admission charge to use Cliff Walk, which extends 3.5 miles from Easton’s Beach on Memorial Boulevard all the way to the east end of Bailey’s Beach off Bellevue Avenue. The half of Cliff Walk closer to Easton’s Beach is pretty flat and an easy walk; the half closer to Bailey’s Beach is extremely rugged and should only be attempted by experienced hikers. If 3.5 miles is too much, take any of the connecting side streets along Bellevue Avenue that lead to the ocean and Cliff Walk. When you’re done, walk back up to Bellevue and find the nearest trolley stop. Remember – only the walkway itself is public property, so no trespassing on the mansion lawns.
The Casino and International Tennis Hall of Fame. Just as the name sounds, the Newport Casino on Bellevue Avenue was a private club (men only) where bored millionaires would escape their cottages to gamble at cards and play tennis on the lush grass courts. The Casino is now home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Admission to the Hall of Fame museum is $10 for adults, $5 for children. However, it’s free to enter The Casino, see the grass courts and imagine the rich playboys lounging in wicker chaises, drinks in hand, watching a match. If you’re lucky, you may even get to see a match yourself. Or, for the ultimate experience, bring your whites and reserve a court for a set.
Other Diversions. Even the most dedicated landlubber might enjoy a sailboat ride or go on a whalewatching excursion. Local surf shops will rent you a board and wetsuit (but be sure the red tide isn’t in before they do). Beach-goers will need to take note that some Newport beaches are residents-only. Easton’s Beach is public and there is no fee to use it. Take a guided tour of Newport’s Fort Adams, built in 1824 and the largest coastal fortification in the U.S.
Shopping and dining is mostly concentrated in the area down by the Visitors Center. Some shops offer interesting reproductions of decorative items used in the mansions. One-of-a-kind finds in the bookshops include a primer on Victorian etiquette and a guide to the “language of the fan”, which debutantes waved to secretly communicate with young men under the noses of their chaperones. Seafood is the order of the day in Newport restaurants. Most offer New England’s version of “comfort food” – lobster, scallops or scrod in a butter or cream sauce under a blanket of crushed Ritz crackers.

And – as long as you’re in the area and you have a car, you should be aware that there are several interesting places to visit within short driving distances, including the Connecticut casinos, New Bedford’s Whaling Museum, Mystic Seaport and Aquarium, Plimoth Plantation and, of course, Cape Cod. 


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Visiting Washington For July 4th A Capitol Idea

  
The Fourth of July is fast approaching and if you're looking for somewhere to go, Washington, DC is at the heart of the Independence Day celebrations. Just be prepared for crowds. It won't be as crazy as January's Inauguration, but it will still be busy. To get the most out of the weekend, here are some highlights of what's going on and how to see it.
  
Fourth of July Events
Of course, the big attraction in DC over the Fourth is the concert with fireworks on the National Mall. To get a good viewing spot you'll need to get downtown early, or find a hotel or restaurant with a rooftop terrace. There will be an Independence Day Parade earlier in the day. 
 
Neighboring towns will also be having fun festivals and fireworks displays that will be a bit less crowded. The About.com DC guide (http://dc.about.com/od/specialevents/a/4thofJuly.htm) has a comprehensive list of Fourth of July events that weekend in DC, Maryland, and Virginia.
 
Other Activities
The weekend doesn't necessarily have to revolve around fireworks and parades. There are many other activities going on that weekend that are enjoyable and free. Every Friday night during the summer, there’s Jazz in the Garden. From 5-8 p.m., a band plays in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. The café sells drinks and appetizers. 
 
Every evening at 6 p.m., the Kennedy Center features a Millennium Stage performance. It’s free and has new performers each night. And, if you come down for the weekend of the fourth, you’re just in time for the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival. The Mall will be filled with booths, stages, and food stands featuring different cultures around the world. To find more activities, search through the DC Cultural Events Calendar (http://www.culturaltourismdc.org/calendar2532/calendar.htm).
 
Free Attractions
In addition to events, there’s always much to see in the nation’s capital that’s absolutely free. Nature lovers will enjoy Rock Creek Park, where there is a zoo, a fort to explore, picnic sites, and trails to hike or bike. There is also the National Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, which are full of blooms in the summer. For anyone interested in visiting museums, all the Smithsonian Museums are free, as are the National Geographic Explorer’s Hall, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Art. Even if you’ve seen the museums before, there are always interesting temporary exhibits and the American History Museum has reopened following extensive renovations. 
 
The monuments throughout the city also make for popular attractions. The best time to see the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Washington Monument and others is at night. The crowds are lighter, the air is cooler, and everything is beautifully lit.
 
Where to Eat
There are surprisingly few reasonably priced places to eat near the Mall, especially if you want more than a hot dog from a vendor. Most of the museums have restaurants which are decent but overpriced. For a quick bite, try Ollie’s Trolley (http://www.olliestrolleydc.com/) which has good burgers and lots of tables. If you’re looking for more variety, the Old Post Office Tower (http://www.nps.gov/opot/) has a food court on the ground floor. And after lunch you can take the elevator up to the top for free to see a birds’ eye view of DC.
 
Getting Around
Stay near a metro. The metro runs pretty far out of town, so you can get a good deal at an outskirt hotel while still having the ability to get downtown quickly and easily. To make sure you are staying in a convenient location, visit the DC metro website and check out the feature that overlays the metro map on a road map (http://www.wmata.com/rail/maps/map.cfm).
 
 Driving will be difficult over the holiday weekend. If you do drive, the best way in from Virginia is Route 66 to Constitution Ave. If you're coming from Maryland, you probably want to take either 16th street or Rock Creek Parkway.
 
Finding Deals
DC over the Fourth is a high-demand vacation. However, there are deals to be found. Airports include BWI, National, and Dulles. National is the closest, but buses into DC from BWI and Dulles are cheap and flights to those airports are plentiful. 
 
On June 22, we went shopping on priceline.com for some July 4th weekend trips to Washington. Roundtrip airfare from New York to Washington was $184 per person, from Chicago $242, and from Atlanta $303, including all taxes and fees. Click here to check airfare from your city.
 
Published rates for hotels in the downtown area for the 4th weekend are running around $225 a night. That rate can be cut significantly by choosing neighborhoods a Metro stop or two outside the city proper, or by using priceline.com’s Name Your Own Price hotel service. For example, we see priceline.com customers being successful with offers of $79 a night for 3-star hotels in the Dupont Circle/Woodley Park area of the city.
 
It’s also possible to book Priceline vacation packages to Washington that include round-trip airfare and hotel. For example, we found a 2-night package including round-trip airfare from Boston to Washington and accommodations at the 3-star Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites in Alexandria (a short Metro ride from DC) for $213 per person. For a 2-night airfare-plus-hotel package from Boston, with accommodations at The Madison, a 4-star hotel downtown, the price was $310 per person.
 
The Fourth of July is a fun and exciting time to be in town, but if you really want to see DC for less, you can always skip the fireworks and schedule a trip for fall.  Later in the year the weather is nicer, the museum lines are shorter, and the hotels have more availability.
 
Jessica Ek is a former Washington, DC, resident who now resides in the more bucolic suburbs of Maryland with her husband Chris and puppy Loki. Recent travels have taken them to southern France, where they lived for a summer; South Africa, where they went on safari; Malta, and the jungles of Thailand, which they negotiated on foot and elephant-back. 
 
To see Jess’ travel photography, visit www.jessicaek.com. 
 
 

 

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Insiders Travel Guide to Atlanta

It's not called Hotlanta for nothing, and that's especially true in the summer.  But don't let that scare you.  Atlanta is an excellent and very affordable summer travel destination for individuals, couples and families. 

The Main Attractions
Zoo Atlanta is one of the best places in the country to watch the different animal species in special habitats.  Thrill seekers will enjoy Six Flags, which boasts the South’s largest water theme park.  Have you ever been to the world’s largest aquarium?  Well, here’s your chance, with the Georgia Aquarium right in the heart of Atlanta.
If you’re in the mood for shopping or just want to have some fun then swing by Underground Atlanta which includes restaurants, a shopping center, bars and nightlife entertainment. This city can intrigue the mind of any age with CNN global headquarters, the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, and the Imagine It! Children’s Museum of Atlanta.
Free Attractions
If you’re on a budget, there are still many ways to enjoy yourself. The Centennial Olympic Park was built when the Olympics took place in Atlanta in 1996 and now it is a 21-acre park with daily events including festivals, concerts, and art shows. The High Museum of Art contains some of the most elegant pieces of art from around the world and they periodically offer free days to visitors.  If you enjoy the great outdoors, then be sure to check out the Silver Comet Trail about 15 minutes northwest of Atlanta, where visitors can walk, jog, bike, or roller skate along the paved 61-mile-long trail.
Places to Eat
Atlanta has many places to satisfy your hunger from nearly every ethnic background. Some of the city’s top restaurants include Rathbun’s, Benihana’s, Grand China, Luckie Food Lounge, Holeman & Finch Public House, and Crawfish Shack Seafood. More affordable restaurants are Buckhead Diner, Murphy’s, the South City Kitchen and Busy Bee’s.
Getting From Here to There
One of the best transportation systems in the country, Atlanta’s MARTA bus and train system is very easy to use and costs only $1.75 to ride. Not to mention that it has a station directly in the Hartsfield - Jackson airport right next to the baggage claim area. MARTA connects you directly to many attractions in the city and puts almost every part of Atlanta within reach up to about a half hour from the metropolis. The trains come to every stop within a maximum of 15 minutes and bus stops are on nearly every corner. Also, for an entertaining ride with the kids or significant other downtown offers horse and carriage rides around the city

 

Finding Deals

 

Atlanta is a fun city all year round, but summer is an especially heavy tourist season.  With lots of competition for airline tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars, priceline.com can come in handy for bargain hunters.  

For a sample weekend Atlanta getaway July 30- August 2, we found airfares as low as $229 from Chicago, $243 from New York and $254 from Boston.  Click (www.priceline.com/flights) to check airfares, schedules and availability from your city.

When searching for hotels keep in mind that rates during the week are more likely to be slightly cheaper than on the weekends. For a typical summer weekend, we found a 3.5-star hotel in Midtown Atlanta for $104 a night and a 3-star hotel in Buckhead for $99 a night on a Name Your Own Price basis.  Rates tend to be lower in the Perimeter or College Park areas which are about 10 minutes from the city. There’s no telling what you deals you can get a hold of, just click (www.priceline.com/hotels) for more info.

When visiting Atlanta remember to pack light because this city is very hot in the middle of the summer. Also, you want to keep a bottle of water around when walking because the humidity can get a bit overbearing. However, this place is full of action and anyone who knows what a good time feels like is sure to have a blast. 

 

 

 


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