The end of the millennium brings undiscovered nug-gets and new twists on old travel favorites, plus some great deals on places where the dollar is especially strong.
Here's a look at 10 hot spots and trends for 1999.
Think north and south of the border -- plus a long haul west to the Hawaiian islands for some of the best buys in travel this year.
The U.S. dollar has risen to more than 1.5 times the value of the Canadian dollar -- its highest level in 140 years -- up 37 percent since 1991, when the Canadian dollar was strong. But prices have not gone up accordingly, meaning bargains whether you're catching a hot play or Blue Jays baseball action in Toronto, a proper English tea in Victoria on Vancouver Island or having a tres French experience in Montreal.
An example: Yankee Holidays (800-225-2550) is offering a $130 per person package in Montreal that includes preferred access to the fabulous Monet exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (which runs Thursday to May 9); two nights accommodations with full American breakfast at top hotels such as the Marriott Chateau Champlain, Le Centre Sheraton or Renaissance Hotel du Parc; dinner at the Montreal Casino; and discount coupons. Collette Tours (800-832-4656) offers a similar package, including round-trip airfare on Air Canada from Reagan National Airport for $289 a person.
Mexico, the top foreign destination for U.S. travelers, gets cheaper almost by the day. The dollar has zoomed up 30 percent against the peso in the last year -- current rate is 10 pesos per $1. For the best deal, call a Mexican resort or hotel directly, especially small hotels outside those big tourist resort areas where prices may be pegged to the dollar.
Particularly good values can be had in old charming colonial towns such as Guadalajara, San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato, where you'll find top-rate lodgings at less than $100 per room per night, according to Cecelia Morfin, director of public relations for the Mexican Government Tourism Office in Los Angeles.
For example, in Guadalajara, the pleasant Hotel de Mendoza (800-221-6509), in the heart of the historical area, charges about $70. In Merida, famed for its colonial and archaeological sites, the Hotel Casa del Balam (800-624-8451) charges $80. A big breakfast will set you back just $6; dinner out can be as little as $10 for a four-course meal. Also, good buys are souvenirs, clothing, arts and crafts, and taxis -- always quoted in pesos. For help in planning, contact the Mexican Government Tourism Commission at 800-446-3942.
Hawaii is suffering its worst tourism slump in ages, to a large extent because of the economic crisis in Asia, which usually provides a third of the state's visitors. That means big bargains at hotels trying to fill empty rooms by discounting or upgrading. The average room rate at Hawaiian resorts is less than $130, the same as two years ago, and hotels are throwing in free meals, rental cars and free extra nights, bringing that figure much lower in reality. Contact the Hawaii Visitors Bureau at 808-923-1811.
Other bargain destinations: Hong Kong, Australia and Thailand, all suffering from the currency woes of Asia and the Pacific.
Park it here
On the domestic front, national parks have never been hotter -- attracting families eager to see the strongholds of America's vanishing wilderness. Rooms at national park lodges in the heart of these wildlands can be great deals.
For example, accommodations in Florida's Everglades National Park (800-600-3813) start at $95 a room during the winter high season, now through April; $65 May through Oct. At Montana's glorious Glacier National Park (602-207-6000), $60 to $85 gets you a room or cottage with bath at the cozy motel-like Swiftcurrent Motor Lodge deep in the wild eastern section of the park. You can walk right onto a slew of great trails from your room, chow down at the lodge's reasonably priced Italian Gardens restaurant and listen to the sounds of nature at night.
For information on national parks, check out the park service's Web site: www.nps.gov. Reservations for campsites at 23 of the most popular parks can be made up to five months in advance online (reservations.nps.gov) using Visa, MasterCard or the Discover card; or call 800-365-2267.
If you would rather not do it yourself, join a group park tour. Backroads Tours (800-462-2848) runs more than two dozen six-day hiking, cycling and rafting trips (with camping or inn stays) to national parks, including Acadia, Great Smoky Mountain, Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Arches, Canyonlands, Grand Canyon and, in Canada, Banff and Jasper. Many departures are specifically designed for families or solo travelers.
In Florida, Wilderness Inquiry (800-728-0719), which welcomes physically and mentally challenged as well as able-bodied individuals, offers six-day canoe adventures in Everglades National Park. TrekAmerica (800-221-0596) runs a 10-day hiking and/or cycling trip through the Southwest that takes in Arizona's Monument Valley, Zion, Arches and Grand Canyon national parks, with Native American guides leading horseback explorations of Navajo country.
Forget Europe by motor coach this year. Walking trips -- either on your own or with a group -- are de rigueur for seeing the country and meeting the people.
France is particularly popular with do-it-yourselfers, with dozens of well-marked trails around the country aided by guidebooks detailing suggested routes. "France on Foot" by Bruce LeFavour (Attis Press, $24.95) describes 110,000 miles of footpaths on the country's national trail system, with recommendations for accommodations and dining. The French Government Tourist Office's France-On-Call hot line (202-659-7779) can provide loads of helpful maps and booklets.
The hottest group tours to Europe are quick escapes that get you there and back in less than a week (including flying time) to meet the scheduling challenges of dual-income couples. Top companies in the walking-trip field are Chicago-based Abercrombie & Kent (800-323-7308), which runs guided excursions around France, England, Scotland, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Ireland and Italy; and Butterfield & Robinson (800-678-1147), a Toronto-based outfitter that runs trips to France, Ireland, Italy and Spain.
The tropical beat
For folks who like their tropical escapes big and bold -- with loads of splashy activities -- the newly expanded Atlantis Resort at Paradise Island, Bahamas (800-285-2684), is the place to be this year. It's a fantasy land that nearly outdoes Disney (at a cost of $480 million to developer Sol Kerzner). The 2,300-room mega-resort, aiming to re-create the feel of its legendary lost-island namesake, has 8 million gallons of water around the property -- aquariums stocked with tropical fish and sharks, water that circulates around underground mazes of "ruins," a life-size replica of a Mayan temple that spouts a five-story water slide and assorted other pools and water rides, and a slew of restaurants, major casino action and daily activities. Package prices start at $219 a person, double occupancy, for two nights.
At the other end of the spectrum, tiny Jake's Place (part of the Island Outpost chain; 800-688-7678) on Jamaica's untouristy south coast Treasure Beach has 10 funky oceanside cottages in an eclectic mix of Jamaican, Mexican, Greek and Catalan styles. Down-to-earth prices start at just $75 a room a night.
Folks who have been there, done that in the rest of the Caribbean are chafing at the bit for the U.S. government to ease restrictions on traveling to Cuba. For those who can't wait (and wait and wait), consider the Kentucky-based Neighborhood Development Corp.'s one-week federally approved educational excursions to Havana, priced at about $1,000 (call 502-637-2591).
For golf lovers, the family- friendly Buccaneer Resort on St. Croix (fully recovered from its devastating series of hurricanes, but still somewhat of a secret, with no chain hotels) offers gorgeous greens along rolling hills with stunning sea views and airy oceanfront suites that fill with the sound of crashing surf. Rates start at $185 daily a room including full breakfast (800-255-3881). For an adrenalin rush, take the new rain-forest and west-coast cycling tour with St. Croix Bike and Tours (340-772-2343) or head out for a day of sailing and snorkeling around Buck Island, a U.S. national monument with a wonderful underwater trail along a huge reef teeming with coral and brilliant Day-Glo-colored sea life. Contact Big Beard Tours at 340-773-4482.
More hot hotels: San Juan's legendary, newly renovated El Convento (800-525-4800), originally a 17th-century Dominican convent in the heart of the old city that features an open-air courtyard with live music and towering tropical plants. And for the ultimate in a sybaritic escape: Cap Jaluca (888-858-5822) in Anguilla, with Moorish-style villas and endless white-sand beaches.
Adventure travel's new hurrahs
Nearly 100 million Americans took adventure-related vacations in the past five years, according to the Travel Industry of America, and demand is surging, especially for offbeat excursions.
If the call of the distant wild lures you this year, think camel trekking in India (Mountain Travel/Sobek; 888-687-6235); elephant explorations in Nepal (Country Walkers, 800-464-9255); or canoeing Zimbabwe's Zambezi River (Wilderness Travel; 800-368-2794), with elephants on one side of you and hippos on the other and nights in comfy tents.
Got Everest envy? Try trekking Tibet the (relatively) easy way (REI; 800-622-2236), sticking to low-lying villages where the scenery and wildlife are as awesome as the Himalayas get, but the physical demands and dangers are minimal.
In Central America, Costa Rica offers rain forests, great beaches and a neat new sport -- zip-lining along tree-tops deep in the jungle. Participants are strapped into a harness with a multitude of safety lines and outfitted with heavy leather gloves for speed control, then use a pulley system of ropes and cables to hoist themselves 100 feet up to a platform in the first tree. Then, attached by a strong hook to heavy cables strung several hundred feet between giant ceiba trees, they zip from tree to tree, rappelling down to earth from the final platform. One place running the program is the Hotel Villablanca in the private Los Angeles Cloud Forest Reserve (011-506-228-4603). Lodgings in one of the hotel's down-to-earth casitas are about $90 daily.
Health spas turn inward
At the cutting-edge health spas this year, you won't see guests exercising till they drop or submitting to mindless shriveling in the hydrotherapy pools. Guests are taking advantage of downtime to improve their mental health and emotional well-being by joining theme weeks in life enhancement. At Tucson's Canyon Ranch (800-742-9000), the most forward-looking spa in the country, women can choose from weeks devoted to the Mid-life Journey, an Executive Women's Retreat for balancing the demands of high-pressure jobs, private and family life, and a couples retreat called Sex Body & Soul aimed at enhancing partners' physical and spiritual intimacy.
The budget-priced Oaks at Ojai (800-753-6257) offers three-day Art & Soul weekends, where women get painting lessons along with their workouts. Rates start at about $150 per night per person, double occupancy, including all meals and activities.
The Hotel Spa Ixtapan, a luxury spa in Mexico (800-638-7950), has begun offering Spanish lessons to guests along with pampering treatments. Packages start at $390 per person double occupancy for four-night packages.
Also hot on the health-spa scene: new day-spas run by the big names -- Canyon Ranch is opening a series of SpaClubs around the United States to give day-trippers a taste of what goes on at the resort's retreats in Tucson and Massachusetts' Berkshires. The first SpaClub is scheduled to debut this spring at Las Vegas' Venetian Resort (888-288-5228).
Also going the day-spa route is California's swank Golden Door Spa, recently acquired by Grand Bay Hotels (call 888-472-6229). The chain plans to open Golden Door day- spas at each of its resorts and hotels, including properties in Toronto and Puerto Rico's northeast coast this winter, and later Philadelphia, Chicago and Miami. Other resorts due Golden Door day-spas: the Boulders in Carefree, Ariz.; the Lodge at Ventana Canyon, Tucson; the Peaks in Telluride, Colo.; and Carmel Valley Ranch in California.
The Greenhouse (800-515-9099), a swank women's spa near Dallas, has opened 11 day-spas around the United States, from Chicago to Manhasset, N.Y., Denver, Boca Raton, Fla., and Beverly Hills.
New wave of cruises
Cruises, once the preserve of older folks who spent their days waddling between their deck chairs and endless meals -- with an occasional city bus tour at a port or two -- are making a sea change to attract younger travelers and families.
Mammoth ships such as the new Grand Princess, at 109,000 tons (a measure of space, not weight) the largest ship afloat, are floating resorts offering as much variety in activities and dining options as most land-based resorts. Taller than Niagara Falls and four times longer than New York's Grand Central Station, the 2,600-passenger Grand is stuffed to the gills with amusements. A huge virtual-reality center allows passengers to "hang-glide" over the Grand Canyon while they actually are coasting along the Caribbean or Mediterranean. There's a nine-hole putting green, volleyball, basketball and paddle tennis courts, a swim-against-the-current lap pool (one of five pools), nine restaurants (including a 24-hour buffet) and a stained-glass wedding chapel. The junior set, meanwhile, has its own basketball court, Jacuzzi and separate game centers for tots and teens.
Making a big splash at the other end of the spectrum are intimate cruises aboard tiny, yacht-like boats such as those operated in Alaska by American Safari Cruises (888-862-8881). Aboard the company's 12- to 20-passenger cabin cruisers, guests watch the Inside Passage's passing scene from the steamy comfort of their deck-top hot tub or while paddling up close and personal in easy-to-maneuver sea kayaks.
Most cruise lines are trying to lure families. The new Disney Magic has an entire deck of supervised children's activities and an adults-only dining room for parents seeking a romantic break. Carnival Cruise Lines ships (including the new Paradise, the world's first totally nonsmoking ship) offers Camp Carnival, a day-long roster of supervised activities for different age groups, including kids' formal "coketail parties" and a sleepover night at the children's clubhouse. Even Holland America, once solely geared to the senior set on its Alaska cruises, has introduced adventurous shore excursions specifically for the junior set -- making cruising with the folks or grandfolks even more fun.
Canal boating in Europe has gotten a new twist with self-drive programs for independent travelers. Crown Blue Line (800-355-9394) rents self-driven canal boats in France, Holland, Ireland and Germany. Weekly prices start at $1,320 for a two-person boat in France.
Back on American turf, how about barging Old Man River? The new 100-cabin R/B River Explorer (888-650-5041) operates four- to 10-day trips along the Mississippi starting at about $740 per person, double occupancy.
Museums, museums everywhere
Whether your interests run to rock and roll or Native American lure, there's a brand-new museum to satisfy your curiosity.
Anchorage, home to Alaska's largest native community, this spring opens the Alaska Native Heritage Center, an ode to the Inuit, Aleut and Indian cultures, with five model villages ringing a lake (907-263-5170).
In Scottsdale, Ariz., the new Museum of Contemporary Art opens next month, adding nouveau culture to the ever-hot golf scene.
In Los Angeles, the Japanese American National Museum has expanded into a big new pavilion with room for 30,000 artifacts, photos and home movies documenting 130 years of Japanese life and culture in America (213-625-0414).
Next fall, Seattle opens the nation's latest rock-and-roll museum, the Experience Music Project, which presents the legacy of the city's grunge-rock phenomenon. Here you can get a look at the guitar the late Kurt Cobain smashed at a benefit for Bosnia and make like a guitar superstar in the sound lab.
Want to be sure you get into the most popular museums, despite crowds? Reserve ahead. Among the hottest tickets: the Getty Museum in Los Angeles (310-440-7300), the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain (011-34-9-4435-9080, 27-11-888-1160), and, despite its fifth anniversary, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (800-400-9373 for advance tickets at a small service charge for the otherwise free admission).
Fido comes, too
Does leaving your beloved canine companion at a kennel make you feel guilty even before you've left home? Bring him along. Hotels welcoming pets are on the upswing. Virtually all Four Seasons hotels and resorts (800-332-3442) welcome dogs, and you can expect pooch treats in the room -- munchies in a silver bowl, squeaky toys or perhaps the dog's name spelled out in biscuits on a little doggie pillow. The Four Seasons Boston even has a room-service menu for dogs, including entrees such as doggie tapas, grilled chicken with fresh corn, chopped sirloin with raw egg, and, for dogs with dietary restrictions, "alternative cuisine" choices. For dessert, there are assorted ice creams or sponge cake with whipped cream.
At New York's SoHo Grand Hotel (800-965-3000), owned and operated by Hartz Mountain Industries, the pet-food people, 75 of the 369 rooms have been reserved for guests with pets. Canine amenities include salon "peticures," a day-care service, sightseeing by leash and a pet-limousine service to chauffeur Rex around town.
Newest spin: Take your trusty pooch abroad on group Doggie Walks run by Europeds (800-321-9552). The one-week guided trips amid the farmlands and medieval castles of France's Dordogne or Provence regions run about $2,500, including lodgings and most meals.
And on the horizon
Eat your heart out, Captain Kirk. Zegrahm Expeditions (888-772-2366), which last year began selling $98,000 seats on outer space "cruises" intended to lift off in 2001, is blazing new (underwater) trails into inner space. For $35,500 a plop, the company will take guests far below the ocean's surface in deep-diving, two-passenger submarines to observe unusual marine life, mysterious geological formations and shipwrecks off coastal and Arctic Canada.
Most exciting are expeditions to the rusting hulk of the Titanic, which sank in 1912 and rests more than two miles below the North Atlantic off the coast of Newfoundland. Passengers will descend in the same MIR submersibles used in the filming of last year's Hollywood tear-jerker starring Leonardo DiCaprio. (The company that owns the salvage rights to the wreck has sued to block tourist dives, but some accommodation is expected to be worked out before the trip's intended July launch date.)
"The last frontier on Earth is the deep oceans, and that's where our most experienced travelers want to go," said Scott Fitzsimmons of Quark's new DeepSea Voyages division. "These folks will get to go deeper than any scuba diver could go, but without needing any special training or skills, since the atmosphere stays the same in the submersibles as on land. They'll fly through the sea looking out big picture windows as marine creatures come right up to the glass, curious about the new neighbors."
Pub Date: 01/24/99