Quick — what’s the best vacation in the world?
It’s a question we hear frequently. In our combined 40 years of travel writing, we’ve visited every continent except Antarctica, stayed at literally hundreds of hotels, and enjoyed experiences ranging from the sumptuous to the life-threatening. So people often ask us what we think is the world’s best travel buy.
The answer (drum roll, please)? is that it depends. It depends upon your personal tastes. It also depends upon the economy — but in a backhanded way. In general, the worse the economy, the better the traveling. When it comes to seeing the world, bad news is good news.
By that inverted standard, it’s shaping up as very good year ahead. Thanks to terrorism and SARS, travelers now have their pick of some super bargains, especially when it comes to exotic or offbeat destinations. How about renting a country cottage in Ireland, sailing a yacht down the Turkish coast, or visiting Shinto temples in Tokyo? If the idea of flying overseas gives you the jitters, you can get a great deal on a posh Quebec inn, a ski package in Whistler or a dirt-cheap golf getaway in PEI. Quite simply, there has never been a better time than now to hit the road. While we find it impossible to pick just one deal as the very best in the world, we think that any of these 12 bargains is sure to delight you.
If you’ve got $4,000, you can see the world. The Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM) Passport to the World lets you log some 25,000 miles on world airlines within 365 days for only $3,579. The only requirement is that you must stop in at least three cities for at least 24 hours and travel in only one direction.
Think of the possibilities: a sample itinerary from Montreal might take you to Detroit and Los Angeles, then on to Honolulu and Fiji before touching down in Sydney, Australia. You could then fly on to Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok before heading to Amsterdam. You’d have enough miles left over for a side trip to London before heading back to Canada. And you’d save a bundle — to book all those flights separately would cost $9,045 in low season, more than double the price of your round-the-world ticket.
The Passport allows you a maximum of 10 stops and your ticket must be purchased at least seven days before departure. To find out more, call the Round the World Desk, 1-800-447-4741, and ask for the International operator or visit www.klm.nl and click onto Worldwide & Regional packages. Packages are also available for 30-, 35- or 40-thousand-mile voyages.
As cruise ships add elegant supper clubs, rare-wine cellars and Asian-inspired spas to their onboard luxuries, the prices for many cruises are spiraling higher. But you can still save by shopping carefully. One way to find a deal is by sailing on an upscale ship belonging to an inexpensive line such as Carnival Cruise Lines’ Conquest sailing from hip New Orleans to balmy Mexico (1-888-CARNIVAL or www.carnival.com). You can also cut your costs by choosing an inside cabin on a ship’s lower decks, by sailing during slow periods (October to December, for instance) or by sticking to popular routes, such as Alaska, where competition keeps prices low.
If you’re a bit more adventurous, think about crossing the Atlantic Ocean — one of us has done it six times and loved every minute. While these voyages can be quite expensive, you can get a rock-bottom rate by shipping out on a repositioning cruise. This is the twice-a-year voyage that a cruise ship must make to migrate from its summer European routes to its winter home in the Caribbean, and vice versa.
On the Costa Atlantica, a 16-night trans-Atlantic cruise departing Dec. 5 from Genoa, Italy, costs as little at $1,149 (U.S.) — with meals and Italian lessons included. You’ll wind up in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., with stops at Marseilles, the Canary Islands, Barbados and five other Caribbean islands. Add an ocean view and a veranda, and the entire voyage is still only $1,749 (U.S.). The only catch is that these sailings have to be booked 120 days in advance, so it’s too late for this fall, but ships will do the eastward journey back in spring. To find out more, call 1-800-33-COSTA or visit www.costacruises.com, then book with your travel agent.
Lord of the manor
If you really want to know a place and its people, forgo humdrum hotels. By living like a local, you’ll save a bundle while experiencing a region to its fullest. For instance, we recently lived like country squires on the 470-acre Belle Isle Estate. This romantic slice of gorgeous green countryside, close to Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, is home to a 17th-century castle as well as several cottages. You can rent a cottage by the week or take a room in the castle for a dose of baronial splendor.
Our courtyard cottage was a tastefully refurbished cattle stable with a bedroom, bath, washer/dryer, living room with fireplace and well-equipped kitchen and dining area. Every evening, cows passed under our kitchen window as they trudged to the barn for their milking. It was a moment of pure bucolic magic.
On days when we felt particularly active, we ventured beyond the sheep pasture, into a walled garden with a tennis court. Or we visited the picturesque town of Enniskillen, where the owner of John Gillen & Son instructed us on the boiling technique for “balls of flour” — newly harvested spuds. And we were repeat customers for butcher Patrick O’Doherty’s rosemary-and-lemon-marinated pork chops. “And I might say you’re looking all the better since you started eating my meat,” he joked. By the end of our ten-day stay, we knew not only the butcher, but the baker and the bartender at Blake’s pub on a first-name basis.
Belle Isle, which won the British Airways Tourism Award in 1998 for the best accommodation other than a hotel, is surprisingly reasonable, especially in low season from mid-October to mid-April, when one week starts at about $400. For more information, call 011-44-28-66-38-7231 or visit www.belleisle-estate.com. If Belle Isle is too countrified for your tastes, you’ll find plenty of other self-catering holiday homes and cottages all over the Emerald Isle. For details, visit www.cottagesinireland.com. Or contact the Irish Tourist Board at www.tourismireland.com.
Aye aye, skipper
If you’ve ever dreamed of sailing your own yacht, look no further, mate. Sunsail maintains a fleet of more than 1,200 boats and offers both bare boat and skippered charters at 39 locations in 23 countries around the world. You can ply the Turkish coast by yacht, set out in a catamaran along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, or explore the islets by dinghy on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. There’s even a base in Tonga.
Prices are very reasonable. During low season (March 23 to May 3 and Oct. 12 to Nov. 8), a sail through the Greek isles in a three-cabin yacht costs about $960 (U.S.) total for up to six people for seven days. If you’re not sure of your winches or wind shifts, you can hire a skipper at a daily rate of $120 (U.S.) and up. A bonus: your captain can tell you which dots on the map are tourist traps and which are must-stops. What more could a crew want? Call 1-800-327-2276 or visit www.sunsail.com.
Tokyo is one of the world’s most expensive cities, both in terms of how much it costs to get there and how much it costs to stay there. That’s why we were blown away by the Wow! Tokyo package from Signature Vacations. This special offer, available Dec. 1 to March 1, treats you to nearly a week of cherry blossoms and Shinto temples for only $1,550 from Vancouver, $1,650 from Calgary, $1,569 from Toronto and $1,669 from Ottawa/Montreal. Considering that round-trip airfare alone would cost you at least $1,300 from Toronto, this is a bargain that’s hard to resist.
The package includes airfare to Tokyo, hotel transfers, five nights in a hotel, visits to shrines and gardens, sightseeing with an English-speaking guide, a one-day public transit pass and admission to the Edo-Tokyo Museum. For an extra $199, you can take the Bullet train to Kyoto, home of exotic shrines and beautiful traditional gardens. And you can extend your hotel stay in Tokyo or Kyoto for only $140 a night. For details (or to find out more about similar Discover Asia programs from Signature Vacations), consult your travel agent or visit www.signaturevacations.com.
Both of us are big fans of the exotic, retro and luxurious Fairmont Pierre Marques hotel, just 20 minutes from downtown Acapulco. Built in 1957 as the private retreat of multi-billionaire J. Paul Getty, this resort feels like a secluded country club. Guest rooms slumber amid tropical gardens while three swimming pools overlook Revolcadero Beach, the longest and least populated in Acapulco.
The jewels of the resort are two 18-hole golf courses: the gorgeous Princess course, surrounded by a stone and wrought iron wall covered in bougainvillea; and the Marques, a championship course, remodeled by Robert Trent Jones. The Marques, in particular, is a bird-watcher’s paradise with plenty of challenging carries over water, especially on the last five holes. But whether you’re golfing or sunning, you won’t find a more genial staff anywhere — from the marshal on the golf course who’ll help you fish for your lost ball, to the singing maid who leaves hibiscus blossoms on your pillow, to the waiters who positively beam while they refill your coffee for the fourth time.
Not to be missed is a trip to the La Quebrada in the old part of town, where cliff divers have been performing since the 1930s. We suggest the evening show when the torch-bearing athletes dive from a rugged cliff 35 metres high and disappear into the dark narrow and shallow (only 12 feet deep) chasm below. It’s truly a remarkable feat, one that makes golf seem like such an easy game.
Seven nights at the Pierre Marques start at $2,169, including airfare from Toronto, transfers to and from hotel, all meals, $350 (U.S.) beverage credit, daily activities and a round of golf per day at either course. It’s a deal considering that the greens fees alone at similar courses could run you $100 a round. Mandatory carts are extra. Book this “almost all-inclusive” Sunquest Vacation through your travel agent.
East Coast swing
Closer to home, Prince Edward Island is no small potato when it comes to golf. Our tiniest province boasts 30 courses. No wonder that Score magazine named the province as Canada’s top golf destination, and Golf Digest included it among its scorecard of the world’s 50 top golf destinations.
Despite all that acclaim, resort owners are practically giving away golf packages, especially in October and May shoulder seasons. At Rustico Resort, for example, $149 per person buys you three nights in a motel on the beach in the off season, breakfast daily, four days of unlimited golf on the resort’s 18-hole course and your choice of a round at any of the island’s courses, including the acclaimed Links at Crowbush Cove. Considering that greens fees at an average course cost more than $100, this is a steal. Of course, you can always tie on a bib and spend your savings on one of the island’s renowned lobster suppers. Call 1-888-PEI-PLAY or visit www.peiplay.com.
Aglow in the snow
Where can you wave your kids off on a supervised dogsled ride while you and your partner cosy up, brandies in hand, by a three-story six-sided fireplace? Or do lengths in an Art Deco pool before breakfast, immerse yourself in sea salt before lunch, lace up your skates on a frozen lake before tea, and then hear sleigh bells jingling as a team of horses pull you through the woods after dinner? Only one place that we know of: the Fairmont Le Château Montebello resort.
Situated between Ottawa and Montreal and within an easy day’s drive from Toronto, this cedar château was the slightly crazed dream of Swiss-American Harold Saddlemire. Back in 1930, he kept 3,500 workers laboring around the clock to fashion 10,000 cedar logs into the largest log cabin in existence. The resort has retained its woodsy atmosphere while adding modern spa and sports facilities. Especially in the winter months, it’s one of the best — and most reasonable — family getaways we know.
The Family Fun package, available between Jan. 2 and March 21, costs $350 per adult (up to two kids under 18 stay free) and includes curling, sleigh ride and 30-minute massage, two-night’s accommodation, daily breakfasts, two dinners, children’s activity program and one family admission to nearby Oméga Park, home to wolves and wapiti. In case that’s not enough, active types can enjoy the resort’s cross-country skiing, swimming, tennis, squash, skating and free entertainment. Between Dec. 1 and 22, their Winter Wonderland package gives you one night’s stay, full breakfast and Table d’hôte dinner for $155 per person. Call 819-423-6341, 1-800-441-1414 or visit www.fairmont.com.
Hostels are no longer just for backpackers and scruffy transients. You’ll discover families, seniors, newly married couples, even traveling business people looking for a deal at the newly named Hostelling International (HI) properties. For example, the HI-Toronto just across from St. James Cathedral at 76 Church Street, offers a night’s accommodation in a four-person dorm room for only $24. Internet access and laundry facilities are part of the package, while the obligatory chores that you may remember, such as clean-up duty and evening curfews, have been replaced by such perks as airport shuttles and luggage lockers.
The family suites at the Toronto hostel are an especially good deal. A couple with child in tow could have a double bed and single bunk, private bath and enough room for a desk and cupboard all to themselves. Cost? $70 (member price). (Kids under 17 sleep free.) In a city where nondescript hotel rooms can cost a couple of hundred bucks a night, that’s a steal.
Also a great deal are the Lake Louise Alpine Centre and the Banff Alpine Centre hostels. Both are listed in Hostelling International’s Top 10 in the world; they offer ski packages, digital photography workshops and even women’s wellness retreats. Further afield, check out HI’s six top international recommendations: Sydney, (rooftop pool), Santa Monica, Calif. (two blocks from the beach), London (restaurant on the premises) Paris (café and free cinema), Amsterdam (breakfast included) and Auckland, N.Z. (5-star backpackers’ rating).
For private and family rooms or special needs, book ahead. To find out more and to become an HI member ($35 for adults, kids 17 and under free), call 1-877-848-8737 or visit www.hihostels.ca.
Flight to freedom
Booking a winter vacation in the sun for your entire family can turn into a hugely expensive endeavor. A week at Club Med’s Punta Cana resort, for instance, would cost you at least $2,080 for each adult and $1,345 per child. The solution? Spin the wheel and take a chance on Club Med’s Family Escape program. It lets families with kids buy travel weeks at big discounts. The tab for an all-inclusive week, which includes all meals, drinks, entertainment and unlimited activities, starts from $1,090 per person (under twos are free) from Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. The catch? You won’t know exactly where you’re going until one week before you leave. You might be sailing catamarans in Ixtapa, Mexico, perfecting in-line skating at Punta Cana, Dominican Republic or riding the waves on a windsurfer at La Caravelle, Guadeloupe. You must travel between Nov. 1 and Dec. 13 or Jan. 3 to April 10. Call your travel agent or visit www.clubmed.ca.
Rocky mountain high
One of the most time-honored pieces of advice for value-hunting travelers is to schedule your trip so you hit destinations outside of high season. You not only save money, you also avoid crowds. For a great demonstration of that wisdom in action, consider the deals available to folks who are prepared to ski in the months just before and after prime time. In so-called value season (which runs from the slopes’ opening to December 12 and from March 29 until the snow is gone), Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains offer a three-day package (including hotel, two-day ski lift pass and transfers to and from Vancouver airport) for prices as low as $375. You can even ask for a room with a kitchenette so you can save on restaurant meals. The same package would cost from $555 in high season. Five and seven-night packages are also available. Call 1-800-WHISTLER or visit www.mywhistler.com.
Fidel’s two faces
You yearn for a cross-cultural adventure; your spouse just wants to lie on the beach. Now you can both get your wish with a Two-in-One combo vacation in Cuba. Unlike most Caribbean vacations, this week-long deal allows you to savor two different worlds. You’ll spend three days in historic Old Havana, where you can experience the faded grandeur and gritty reality of Fidel Castro’s socialist paradise up close; then you’ll move on to a Varadero beach resort, where you can sip a tall, cool drink after cavorting in beautiful blue waters.
Love it or hate it, your three days in Havana are sure to be memorable. As you watch a wedding party roll by in vintage Chevrolet Impalas or have your official photo taken outside the Capitol building by a photographer with a 1914 pinhole camera, you may feel as if you’ve tumbled back in time. But you can always fast forward to the 21st Century by dropping into the Café Taberna for an impromptu salsa lesson and a dose of the swinging Cuban music made popular by the Buena Vista Social Club. By the time you move on to Varadero, you’ll welcome the chance for four nights of rest and relaxation by the ocean. Prices for the combo week depend upon where you stay. The most economical option combines three nights at the ’50s-era Hotel Riviera (where gangster Meyer Lansky held court) with four nights at the beachfront Villa Cuba resort. This combo costs $1,129 from Ottawa, Halifax, Toronto or Hamilton.
Alternatively, fans of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana may want to bunk where many scenes from the novel were set, in the Moorish-style Hotel Sevilla in Havana, then continue on to the Coralia Playa de Oro resort in Varadero. The price for this plan, including hearty Cuban breakfast in Havana and full meal plan at the beach, starts at $1,219 in December. Both combinations are available from November through April from Signature Vacations. Visit www.signaturevacations.com, then book through your travel agent.
All prices, in Canadian dollars unless otherwise specified, were accurate at time of publication.