10 Great travel deals

Two very different globe-trotters reveal the best trips and top destinations for budgets of all sizes.

Between us, we’ve logged more than two decades of travel writing. We’ve flown to London for a weekend of theatre, ventured to Borneo for jungle golf, and dogsledded in Tuktoyaktuk in frigid February. We’ve backpacked, B&B’d and bussed it. We’ve also splurged on five-star hotels.

At this point, we’re used to friends asking us about great travel deals, and between the two of us, we can usually come up with some interesting suggestions, no matter what type of vacation the questioner desires. One of us (Anita) is a golf fanatic, who hates snow, loves gourmet food and wouldn’t set foot on a cruise ship. She usually travels with her like-minded husband. The other (Kate) roams the planet with her three kids (and sometimes pets and husband). When she’s not being pampered on a cruise, she prefers simple digs, winter sports and home-cooked meals.

The one thing we share in common is a never-ending appetite for unique vacations that deliver exceptional value for the money. Our top 20 ideas range from the mainstream to the offbeat, from budget steals to pricey indulgences, and from cool Canadian winter resorts to hotter, more exotic destinations like Hong Kong or Hawaii. You won’t find many of our suggestions in packaged brochures at the travel agencies. We’ve relied upon our own experiences as well as recommendations from other seasoned travelers to turn up these discoveries.

So take a look. You may be surprised to discover that you can afford that romantic Caribbean cruise, family trip to Disney, or cooking school in Provence. You may also be surprised to discover how many great travel destinations lie off the beaten track. Whatever your situation, bon voyage.

Log cabin luxury

Where better to curl up on wintry days than in Fairmont Le Château Montebello, the biggest log cabin in the world? We’ve recommended this 1930s resort, located about halfway between Montreal and Ottawa, to lots of families, especially those craving a truly Canadian experience. All of them have come back singing the praises of this one-of-a-kind destination and its abundant outdoor activities.

For starters, you can take a beginner’s lesson at the on-site curling facility, whirl around the ice rink that juts out onto the lake or suit up for a snowmobile tour under giant evergreens. True snow-lovers can borrow snowshoes or cross-country skis for a trek in the wilderness, or you can let the kids holler “mush” during a dogsled adventure behind a team of huskies. Afterwards, you can practice your lengths in the Art Deco pool, the largest indoor swimming pool in Canada (one of us actually learned to swim there), play indoor tennis or just warm your toes and challenge your partner to checkers by the imposing six-sided, two-story stone fireplace in the lobby.

Rooms start at $208; kids under 18 sleep free. A Family Fun Getaway weekend for two adults and two kids 12 and under, featuring a two-night stay, meals and activities, is about $600. Call 1-800-441-1414 or visit the Fairmont Web site.

How green is my cottage

Where on earth does one find what The New York Times judges to be “the best vacation value in the Caribbean?” Or what travel authority Arthur Frommer deems his favorite hotel? On a hillside overlooking Maho Bay’s white sand beach in the U.S. Virgin Islands, that’s where.

The unique tent cottages of Maho Bay Camps, inspired by eco-guru Stanley Selengut, are constructed mainly of recycled materials, including rubber tire floormats. Drawing their power from sun and wind, the hillside tents are connected by elevated walkways to avoid soil erosion that endangers the beach and fragile coral. When not marveling at the breezy eco-digs, guests can enjoy scuba, hiking or massage; they can also sit in on marine biology sessions with staff from the U.S. Parks Department or watch a glassblower turn empty bottles into art. There’s even a chance to work as an exchange volunteer in return for free accommodation. We can’t wait to attend one of the new yoga sessions or just kick back and admire the windswept view. Winter rates for this unique nature experience start from a very reasonable $110 (U.S.) per night for two people. Additional guests are $12, while children under 16 are free from May 1 to Nov. 15. Call 1-800-392-9004 or visit the Maho Web site.

My four days in Provence

Take one charming medieval hill town in Provence. Add a master chef. Mix in a sprinkling of enthusiastic foodies and let them loose in an authentic farmhouse kitchen for four days of instruction in the art of French cooking. What do you get? A foolproof recipe for a short but sweet gastronomic getaway known, fittingly, as Passport to Provence.

Even if you’re not a gourmet, this culinary tutorial is a wonderful way to experience the essence of this lovely region of France. All classes take place in a cliffside village, La Cadière-d’Azur, that’s blessedly off-the-beaten tourist track, about an hour’s drive from Marseilles. Neither T-shirt nor souvenir shop are to be found. The town’s one and only hotel, Hostellerie Bérard, is the ongoing passion of René and Danièle Bérard. He’s a master French chef and the chief instructor for the cooking classes; his wife runs the place.

Under René’s tutelage we mastered such classic Mediterranean dishes as seafood bouillabaisse, artichoke stew, ratatouille and lavender-infused crème brûlée. Naturellement, in true French tradition, we paused each morning for a little glass of rosé, some olives and a crust of baguette. In late afternoons, we’d visit nearby towns like Cassis, and sit by a harbourfront café sipping Kir Royales (an aperitif made with champagne and a splash of Cassis liquor). Ah, la vie en rose!

The Bérards’ cooking program runs from Sunday to Friday and includes five nights accommodation in a restored monastery, four days of cooking classes with lunch and wine, five buffet breakfasts, visits to wineries, markets, olive oil mills and a welcoming Sunday-night dinner. René’s English is better than our French, but to make sure you get your recipes right, a bilingual translator is always on hand. Classes run every month except January and August. Rates per person (based on double occupancy) for 2003 are $1,089 Euros (about $1,500 CDN). Lunches are so long and lavish, you’ll need to spend little, if anything, on dinner. Call 011-33-04-94-90-11-43 or visit the Hostellerie Bérard Web site.

Above it all

The chopper leaves you standing on a narrow ridge above a rushing mountain stream. No trails. Just you, your fellow hikers, a guide and 1,000 sq km of wilderness. It’s enough to make you giddy.

And the thrills don’t stop there. Three hours later, after your guide has shepherded you through some of the most spectacularly beautiful mountain landscape in southern British Columbia, the helicopter re-appears. Minutes later, you’re sipping Chardonnay and devouring smoked salmon canapés on the sundeck of the Cariboo Lodge, 125 km southwest of Jasper, Alta.

Wilderness vacations don’t get much more luxurious than these heli-hiking expeditions by Canadian Mountain Holidays. While the trekking can be as hard or as easy as you choose, rest assured that you won’t be lugging a heavy pack or shivering in a sleeping bag under the stars. Before and after your helicopter-assisted hiking, you’ll be bunking at one of CMH’s five affiliated lodges. The standard of comfort is high — rooms at the Cariboo Lodge, for instance, come with private baths and feather duvets on the beds. Staff can outfit you with rain pants, boots and everything else you need for a day on the trails. And at night, you’ll be able to swap tales with your fellow hikers over generous portions of gourmet food.

All of this doesn’t come cheap, but for the Canadian adventure of a lifetime, who’s quibbling? Two nights at the Cariboo Lodge with one-and-a-half days of heli-hiking start at $1,224 per person, based on double occupancy. The price includes meals, helicopter flights, guides, equipment and transportation from Jasper. Call 1-800-661-0252 or your travel agent. Or visit the Canadian Mountain Holidays Web site.

A double helping of Italy

Mama Mia, here’s a steal! The Duets package from Alitalia lets you create your own Italian odyssey. From about $1,100 (based on double occupancy from Toronto), you get an economy flight to an Italian destination of your choice, a second flight three days later to a second city of your choosing, and your return flight home. In past seasons, Duet travelers have been able to mix and match from among Florence, Genoa, Milan, Naples, Palermo, Perugia, Rome, Siena, Sorrento, Taormina and Venice.

But that’s not all. What makes this deal truly sweet are the extras. For no additional fee, Alitalia throws in six nights accommodation at three-to-five-star hotels (three nights in each city), daily continental breakfasts and a city tour or rental car. When you consider that we were recently quoted nearly $1,100 for a simple return ticket to Rome, you can understand why we’re so enthusiastic about Duets. For more information, call Italiatour at 1-888-515-5245, visit ItaliaTourUSA or book with your travel agent.

Spanish por favor

Ever wonder where Canadian diplomats go for Spanish language training before they head off to posts in Latin America? To the Centre for Bilingual Multicultural Studies in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Featuring tiny classes that concentrate on building your conversational skills rather than force feeding you grammar, this program has been proclaimed Mexico’s “best private language school” by the Los Angeles Times. It caters to everyone from U.S. senators to ordinary tourists who want to improve their Spanish in one of Mexico’s most beautiful towns.

We may have forgotten some Spanish verbs since we took our classes, but not the frosty cervezas on Cuernavaca’s shady main square. Known for its balmy semi-tropical climate and gorgeous architecture, Cuernavaca has long attracted the rich and famous, beginning with Hernando Cortes, who built his summer palace here in the 16th century. Now a museum, the palace is well worth a visit for its Diego Rivera murals depicting the history of the state of Morelos. Cuernavaca is packed with other historic attractions, but if you get bored the shops and night clubs of Mexico City are only a one-and-a-half-hour bus trip away.

A week of conversational classes at the Centre costs $200 (U.S.); a private room with bath in a local home with meals, cultural outings and transportation costs an extra $32 (U.S.) per night (as little as $19 if you share a room or bath). After a few weeks of instruction, you won’t think twice about obeying the campus signs, “Thank you for not speaking English.” Call 1-877-463-9428 or visit the Centre’s Web site.

Golftown, USA

T’was the week before Christmas and we were searching for stocking stuffers in a golf shop. Then a brochure on Myrtle Beach caught our eye. The prices seemed so ludicrously low that we made a few 1-800- calls. On Boxing Day we found ourselves stashing our clubs in the trunk and driving to what South Carolina calls “Golftown, U.S.A.”

The Grand Strand area of Myrtle Beach offers more than 100 fantastic courses and countless condos. In December and January, the temperature usually hovers in the 50s or low 60s (Fahrenheit, of course), which by our standards is just fine for a day on the links. But this is low season for southerners and time to slash prices. From Nov. 29 to Feb. 14, three nights accommodation in a two-bedroom condo and three rounds of golf begin at $179 (U.S.) per person based on a minimum of four people; six nights with six rounds begin at $359 (U.S.). After the game, head to Murrell’s Inlet where you can dine at a different seafood shack every night.

Considering that one round of golf elsewhere can easily cost you $100, what are you waiting for? Call 1-800-422-1587 or visit

Magical kingdom

You don’t need big bucks to visit Mickey and the gang at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. We discovered this by accident one March break when our family arrived to find that the hotels around the famous theme park were chock-a-block full. The only accommodation we could turn up was in Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, a 700-acre property that caters to those who want to pitch a tent, park an RV or stay in a log cabin.

Despite our initial misgivings, Walt Disney himself would have been delighted by what we found. In the evenings, families roasted marshmallows by the campfire, joined free sing-alongs with Chip ‘N’ Dale and enjoyed movie classics like Lady and the Tramp at the under-the-stars theatre. Those who hadn’t been exhausted by a day of Mickey Mania visited the Hoop Dee Doo Musical Review, a dinner show in the saloon theatre near the “trading post” (where you can pick up groceries), or took a horse-drawn hayride around the resort. At any time, we could hop on a boat that transported us (free!) to Cinderella’s Castle and the Magic Kingdom within minutes.

Campground prices start at the fairytale figure of $35 (U.S) per night for tents. And if your comfort level doesn’t include camping, you can always do as we did and bunk into a Wilderness Cabin, from $224 (U.S.) per night. Each log cabin offers kitchen, living space and sleeping for six. For this and other Disney deals, visit the DisneyWorld Web site or call 1-407-WDISNEY.

Peak experience

“Posh, not pricey,” announced an article in U.S. News & World Report when it recently proclaimed Whistler second (to Cozumel, Mexico) in the Best Vacation Value category. With all due respect to Cozumel, we think the Canadian ski resort should have been No. 1. Whistler and Blackcomb mountains offer the greatest vertical rise in North America with twelve powdery bowls, three glaciers and more than 200 marked trails. The Twin Peaks also boast the longest ski season in North America, from November to June. Maybe there’s something in the ultra-fresh air here, but we think Whistler’s got wonderful buns — the cinnamon ones, that is, at Chef Bernard’s — as well as the friendliest service of any ski resort that we’ve visited. Where else do they hand out hot coffee and tissues in the lift lines? No doubt, the rates will soar if the resort wins its bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics, but, this December, a mere $616 per person buys five nights deluxe accommodation at the base of the mountains (some units come with fully equipped kitchens), four-day lift passes and transfers from Vancouver. Check out deals in late spring, too, when there’s still mounds of white stuff. For more possibilities, call 1-800-WHISTLER or visit the Whistler Web site.

Join the Club

We’ve just discovered Moment’s Notice, a no-frills discount travel club that acts as a clearing house for cruise lines, airlines and tour operators. For an annual membership fee of $25 (U.S.), you get your pick of some great last-minute travel deals. For instance, we recently saw a 12-night Celebrity Cruise Line voyage from Santiago, Chile, to Buenos Aires, Argentina, starting Nov. 12 for only $789 (U.S.) — an enormous discount on the $3,000-plus list price. For daily last-minute deals, call 1-888-241-3366 or visit the Moment’s Notice Web site.

The Queen and I

Blimey! Off-season London, not counting the frenzied Christmas week, is a bloody good bargain ? and one that you can enjoy without having to fight through a crowd. We’ve had the tops of double-decker buses all to ourselves in February as we whizzed by Trafalgar Square. Even the line-ups at Buckingham Palace shrink to almost nothing.

To get to the scene, we recommend British Airways’ Taste of London package. It includes your flight from Toronto or Montreal as well as three nights in a hotel by the British Museum for $785 per person (double occupancy). Should you desire more regal digs, the airline will custom tailor packages at more luxurious hotels for under $999. Call 416-250-0880 or visit the British Airways Web site.

When you’re not shopping the sales at Harrods or applauding West End matinees, you can extend your budget with free attractions: Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park on Sundays, the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court on weekdays, and the Changing of the Guard. For more information on these and other London attractions, contact the British Tourist Authority at 1-888-847-4885 or go to their Web site.

Latin luxury

We used to shy away from all-inclusives. The term conjured up visions of cramped rooms, greasy buffets and all-you-can drink watery Margaritas at the swim-up bar. Then we discovered the Paradisus Playa Conchal Resort. This five-star gem on the northwest coast of Costa Rica is designed like a ritzy residential community. Shuttle buses carry you to your spacious suite and ferry you among a dazzling assortment of shops and restaurants, as well as the largest freeform swimming pool in Central America.

OK, we will admit there is a swim-up bar. But we rarely found time to visit it. Aqua classes, scuba and snorkeling lessons, and sunset cruises filled our days ? not to mention great golf. On the Garra Leon championship course, designed by Robert Trent Jones II and rated No. 1 in Costa Rica, our attempts to break par were witnessed by an ever changing audience of wildlife, from howling monkeys to exotic birds.

We left the Paradisus convinced that this is the all-inclusive resort for people who hate all-inclusives. Rates start at $1769 per person per week (based on double occupancy) and include return flights from Toronto and hotel transfers, all meals, snacks and drinks and most activities. For an extra $150 per person you get unlimited golf during your week. Book this Sunquest vacation through your travel agent or visit the Sunquest Web site.

You can afford to be smug

“This place is better than home,” crowed our snowboarding daughter. She had a point. Our comfortable three-bedroom quarters at Smugglers’ Notch in Vermont came complete with five TVs (one for each of us, so no fighting over the remote). We could ski straight from our door onto the slopes of the White Mountains, then in the evening bob around the outdoor heated pool under dustings of twinkling snowflakes.

No wonder that readers of FamilyFun magazine consistently name Smuggler’s Notch, about two hours from Montreal, as their No. 1 Family Resort. The folks at this four-season resort know what kids need and adults desire. There’s a childcare centre for babies, snowboard lessons for the kindergarten set, and mountain adventure camps for teenagers ? all of it at prices that appeal to parents’ wallets. To make the deal even more attractive, Smuggs accepts Canadian dollars at par throughout winter except for Christmas and Valentine weeks. A Club Smugglers’ package, starting at $109 per night for adults and $95 for kids 17 and under (for a seven-night booking), includes slopeside lodging, daily lift tickets and lessons, evening entertainment and lots of old-fashioned fun ? from nighttime tubing to family bingo games to free hot chocolate at the foot of the bunny hill.

Here’s another bonus. The resort’s unique Family Fun guarantee ensures that if you or your kids do not improve your winter sports skills during your stay, the resort will cheerfully return the cost of that portion of the package. What’s a smug snow bunny to lose? Call 1-800-451-8752 or visit

Oriental express

Hong Kong is frenetic, fascinating and foreign. It’s also a shopper’s paradise. We know of no better (or more economical) way for newcomers to experience this Oriental wonder than by signing on for Signature Vacations’ new Hong Kong Story (offered from Nov. 30 to March 31). You’ll experience tai chi and feng shui classes and take part in a Chinese tea ceremony. Also included are a guided city tour and a side trip to Lantau to visit the world’s largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha.

Offered exclusively through American Express travel agencies, the tour, starting at $1,765 (from Toronto, departures are also available from all major Canadian cities) includes airfare and five nights accommodation at the Concourse Hotel. Considering that the best price we could turn up for an economy-class return ticket from Toronto to Hong Kong was $1,350, the package strikes us as a great deal.

Shoppers wanting extra pocket money for bargaining in Hong Kong’s legendary street markets will be happy to receive up to $100 per person in free American Express Travelers cheques with the package. We bought a dozen designer knock-off watches for about $25 each (please don’t tell the execs at Rolex) and splurged on a custom tailored cashmere suit that cost one-third what it would in Canada. Find out more about Hong Kong Story from your travel agent or visit the Signature Web site.

Camping chic

Mention Europe and camping with small kids in the same sentence and friends look at you quizzically. But they don’t know about Canvas Holidays, a British organization that rents blue-and-orange tents on campgrounds all over the Continent. The canvas cottages come fully loaded with beds, electric lights, a separate kitchen area with gas stove and even a discreet bathroom area. Running water is just outside in a tap. Simply arrive en famille with your sleeping bags, fluff up the pillows, and voilá, you’re ready to roll up the flaps or head off to see the sights.

We’ve roamed Normandy and Brittany, staying at four wonderful Canvas Holidays locations ? one of them on the grounds of a 17th-century French château; another on the shores of the Atlantic. Other Canvas Holiday locations are equally spectacular. At Bella Tolla in Switzerland, you can ride a cable car up the glacier for breakfast, then enjoy a guided wildlife hike. The Venice campground is just a waterbus ride away from the magical city.

In low season, the total cost for a family of four at one of Canvas Holiday’s campgrounds is a low, low $185 or so for a minimum three nights’ stay. During July and August, the price rises to a still very reasonable $385. For a catalogue (you’ll want to visit every site), write Canvas Holidays Ltd., East Port House, Dunfermline, KY12 7JG, Scotland, UK, or visit the Canvas Holidays Web site.

Hawaiian road tripping

If you never got the chance to roam hippie-style in a magic bus, maybe it’s time to live the dream on the roads of sunny Hawaii. Imua Camper Co. rents vintage VW Vanagons on all four islands. Sleep in them, eat in them, and park in them for just $85 (U.S.) per night ? a real steal, considering an average-priced Hawaiian hotel room is $173 (U.S.). You’ll also save by cooking some meals. Full “Camp Kits” provide cooking equipment, bedding, towels and cleaning supplies. All you have to worry about is which fork in the road to take next. Call 1-808-896-3158 or visit their Web site.

Your house or mine?

If your idea of a good vacation is a free vacation, consider house swapping. The idea couldn’t be simpler ? you and your family live in another family’s house or apartment, while they live in yours ? but the benefits are huge. You pay no hotel or car rental fees, you enjoy all the comforts of home, and you get to see how other people really live.

We swapped homes with an Australian couple a few years ago and would happily do it again. Their house, complete with swimming pool and hot tub, was five minutes from the Surfer’s Paradise beach on Australia’s famed Gold Coast, a one-hour flight north of Sydney. The kitchen was fully equipped with gourmet gadgets and condiments and their neighbours treated us like old friends. You can find an equally good deal from any one of dozens of home exchange clubs. Some charge a fee; some are free. Many provide Web site listings only; others also produce catalogues.

We’ve both had good experiences with HomeLink International Canada. For $175 a year, HomeLink provides you with a color catalogue of swappable properties and useful information on drafting a home-and-car exchange agreement. For more information, contact Homelink at 604-987-3262 or go to the HomeLink Web site.

Big Apple bargains

A few days in New York can rip a hole in anyone’s budget, but wise travelers know how to keep the damage to a minimum. For instance, if staying at the Plaza is a bit rich for your bank book, check out City Lights Bed and Breakfast, a superbly run registry that offers you the chance to stay in a real home and live like a New Yorker for as little as $80 (U.S.) per night. We had a huge room, private bath and terrace in a swish Sutton Place townhouse on one visit. Another time we enjoyed a fully equipped three-bedroom apartment in trendy Soho. Whether your accommodation is hosted or unhosted, you receive a set of keys so you can come and go as you please. Call 212-737-7049.

While out on the town, you really should indulge yourself at one of New York’s finer restaurants. Twice a year, usually the third week of June and January, the metropolis celebrates Restaurant Week, when more than 160 fine eateries offer special prix-fixe, three-course lunch menus. This year, the lunches will cost just $20.03 (U.S.) ? a fraction of their usual price ? and you’ll savour the deal even more knowing that a portion of what you pay goes towards hunger relief organizations. Participating restaurants are listed on the Restaurant Week Web site and usually begin accepting reservations about a month prior to the start of Restaurant Week.

Another great find is Big Apple Greeters. Pick your neighborhood, and this organization will arrange for you to take a free tour with a resident New Yorker. We recently spent an afternoon in Central Park and found all sorts of surprises, including a place to fish and Yoko Ono’s memorial to John Lennon ? an International Peace Garden. Call 212-669-2896.

Crazy for Carnival

Confession time. One of us has never taken a cruise. Bahama Mama pool parties, glittering Vegas-type shows or electric slide dance contests frankly don’t appeal to everyone. But, if you want to get a lot of ship for little money and visit some interesting ports along the way, a Carnival Cruise Lines Fun ship might be your ticket. In fact, the “Most Popular Cruise Line in the World” is so confident that you’ll enjoy your Carnival floating holiday, they offer a money-back guarantee. If you’re not completely satisfied, alert staff before the first port of call. The line will refund the unused portion of your fare and fly you home.

Even if you don’t use the guarantee, you’ll find that cruises can be surprisingly affordable. A four-night cruise from Miami to Key West and Mexico in December starts at $691 (per person) and includes return flight from Toronto, all meals, entertainment and one of the best kids’ program afloat. A seven-night cruise to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands starts at $864. For more information, contact your travel agent.

Green Hawaii

We always figured that golfing in Hawaii was reserved for investment bankers and the independently wealthy ? until we discovered the discount packages offered by entrepreneur Dave Mills. While we’ve yet to meet Dave in person, we’d sure like to buy the guy a Mai Tai. He saved us a bundle.

Here’s an example of one of Mills’s packages: three nights accommodation at the posh Princeville Resort in Kauai with three days unlimited golf on 45 holes, followed by three nights accommodation at Kauai Marriott Resort with three days of unlimited golf on the Kauai Lagoons courses, a golf cart, a seventh night at the resort of your choice, plus Alamo mid-size car. The cost is $1,697 (U.S.) per person based on double occupancy, including all sales taxes and vehicle surcharges.

Yes, it’s a splurge but these resorts and links are fabulous. The renowned golf architect Robert Trent Jones II, who designed the Princeville course, remarked, “In all the world, I never expected to find a more spectacularly beautiful place to build a golf course.” The topography changes from pastoral plateau overlooking the ocean to jungle-choked ravines with natural hazards that range from waterfalls to forest. Translation: bring lots of balls.

After your round at Princeville, have a soak in the resort’s infinity pool overlooking the seductive coast where the Bali Hai scene in South Pacific was filmed and enjoy an Oscar-winning sunset. For more information on Dave Mills’ bargains, call 213- 368-GOLF, or visit