Worth the Trip

What delivers good value for dollar on vacation? Atlantic editors and contributors share their thoughts.

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts two and three.)

Getting There is Half the Fun

Illustration by Diane Bigda HERE'S my favorite travel deal: I call Dawne, my travel agent, and she gets tickets for my two children (ages ten and six) and me for the sleeper car on the train from Whitefish, Montana, to Portland, Oregon. The sleeper on this train has a compartment at the very back that extends the full width of the car; there are windows on both sides. The compartment is big enough for two adults and two children, but my wife, who prizes a weekend to herself, doesn't go. Dawne reserves us that compartment, and on a Thursday afternoon the kids and I drive from our house in Missoula up to Whitefish. The trip takes about three hours, and we have a dinner of sandwiches in the car. The Whitefish train station is a big building in an alpine-rustic style, so picturesque that it's used in Amtrak ads. We put our bags on the platform and explore the station, and the kids run around on the lawn. At about nine-thirty in the evening the train arrives, the shine from its headlight preceding it along the rails of the curving track. The porter, Larry, says, "This must be the Fraziers," and helps us to our compartment. The beds are already turned down, with chocolates on the pillows. The kids clamber all over, going in and out of the upper berth about twenty times. We put on our pajamas and read stories, and as the train picks up speed through the dark northern forests, the kids go to sleep, and they sleep uninterruptedly through the night. I wake occasionally to a sensation of trundling comfort so profound that I might try to imagine it to put myself to sleep if I weren't in it already.

In the morning we get up and open the curtains and look at the sunrise on the mile-wide Columbia River, now beside us. We have a breakfast of juice and doughnuts that's laid out in the porter's room, and then we walk through the train a few times and sit in the observation car and notice our reflections in the glass as we go through the dark tunnels. At about ten o'clock the train arrives in Portland, and our friends Don and Jane, the people we have come to visit, meet us, and we pick up a lot of Cheetos and Cokes and videos for the kids on the way to their house. The kids are rested and happy; what would have been a day and a half of arduous driving has telescoped into a dream; and the tickets cost about $400 total, less than the plane.

All You Can Eat

IN years of travel I've never found a more satisfying experience -- fiscally, gastronomically, or, for that matter, spiritually -- than dining in the vegetarian restaurants of South India. Entering these Spartan, spotless rooms, you're shown to a tiny table, on which a fresh green banana leaf (the ecologically perfect disposable dinnerware) has already been unrolled. For a dollar or two you're entitled to a mound of fluffy white rice surrounded by a half dozen little hills of different vegetables -- all of them fiery, every one sublime. Waiters come by with buckets of clarified butter and sambar (a marvelous spicy gravy), which they ladle onto your rice; you're allowed as many helpings of vegetables as you wish, until you're full -- or until the chilies have made your lips start burning unbearably. Silverware is not an option. You eat with your right hand, delicately blending a vegetable into the edge of the rice mound, forming the mixture into a ball, and using your thumb to propel it into your mouth.

Why travel if not to challenge and change your ideas -- including those about something as basic as the proper way for food to get from the table to the tongue?


Make Yourself at Home

Illustration by Diane Bigda I FEEL about gourmet shops, particularly ones with prepared foods and ripe rare cheeses, the way some women are said to feel about shoe stores: I can't bear to pass one without buying something. (I also feel this way about paper stores, and pharmacies with sinuous carved Art Nouveau façades, whose interiors are lined with dark-wood glass-fronted cases.) Here is where I can see a new town's favorite dishes, just as the cook means to make them -- something I always itch to see before ordering at a restaurant.

But where to consume the wild-mushroom lasagne, or the veal stew with colorful chunks of peppers, or the sea bass en gelée, or any other dish best eaten at room temperature and not in danger of spoiling after a few unrefrigerated hours? Picnic options can be limited, and outdoor eating requires inconvenient amounts of plastic cutlery and paper towels. Besides, it's so much nicer to eat off china and use silverware.

My solution is to turn my hotel room into a restaurant, washing and squirreling away crockery from room-service breakfasts or asking the hotel's bar or restaurant for rudimentary equipment -- or, to be truthful if not honest, smuggling it when no one's looking. Linen is essential. I press into service hand towels or washcloths as napkins, and fresh bedside mats of polished cotton (standard in relatively modest European hotels, usually starched) as placemats. Among my first purchases after checking into a new hotel is an inexpensive flowering plant, which obviates begging or filching a vase.

The table -- or desk, usually cleared of television -- laid, I carefully unwrap and plate my prizes, which always include far too much bread and a piece or two of whichever cheese seemed least likely to reappear during my trip. Then I open a bottle of wine that I have collected during the day (my traveling pocketknife includes a corkscrew) or of beer brewed in the region.

Some of my most pleasurable and revelatory traveling meals have been thus consumed, the day's newspaper or a guidebook as companion. And, of course, when I'm traveling with a live companion, few ways of dining can be more intimate.


(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts one and three.)
Everything Is Relative

ONCE, I bought a new pair of gloves, and when my mother asked how much they cost, being a young man on my own by then, I told her. Thereafter, when I would arrive at my parents' for a visit, she would greet me with "Here's Beatty in his ten-dollar gloves! It's a wonder he speaks to us anymore." The point is where she set the bar of luxury and pretension -- worlds short of a Rolex. So if I had been told a year ago that spending $350 a night to stay at a swank hotel would ever seem like a good deal, I would have said that such a thing was inconceivable. However, during a recent trip my wife and I made to Los Angeles, the inconceivable happened. How it did is a tale of two hotels.

Illustration by Diane Bigda What I will call "Hotel Hip," which sits on a relatively quiet street in West Hollywood, has its fans, some of them celebrities who stay there regularly. The relevant arbiters consider it chic. Now, call me a clueless tourist, but I do not think that a room like the one we were given, inspired by the notify-the-next-of-kin interiors in Edward Hopper's paintings, is chic. I think it is a nightmare. We had reserved a smoke-free room; the hotel apologized but gave us instead one that smelled like an ashtray. In place of an honor bar was a snack dispensary to which, just like in the better gas stations, one fed money to get food.

I skip over the sliding-glass doors, the kind you see advertised ("Sliders!") in real-estate ads pitched to demolition-derby enthusiasts; the floor-to-ceiling plastoid drapes hiding the sliders; the dank patio ("Sliders to patio") and the Superfund site surrounding it, which wore a necklace of cigarette butts (filters, lipstick) across what appeared to be an AstroTurf surface. Magnanimously, I say nothing against the two-watt fluorescent light in the bathroom except that it made me want never to look at myself in the mirror again. But the three phone calls from someone asking for "Joe" bear mentioning. And the knock at our door at 2:30 A.M. was not the frank knock of a waiter come to stock Charleston Chews in the snack machine but a furtive sort of knock -- and for us it was the last straw. Although our reservations were for three days, we left at first light.

And repaired immediately to the Hotel Bel-Air, in a woodsy canyon just off Sunset Boulevard. The price was only marginally higher, but worth it -- the place has a rustic magnificence. A portrait of Grace Kelly, who stayed there when in Los Angeles, hangs in the main hallway, and grace is the note of the Bel-Air, of the great white swans in its garden lagoon, of the red-tiled roofs of the guest cottages, of the tasteful rooms -- ours was in lemon and white -- that you won't want to leave. Yes, a lunch consisting of a chicken sandwich and a fruit plate for $40 got our attention. And the $15 charge for a jar of peanuts in the honor bar did discourage late-night snacking. But with Hotel Hip -- considered a luxury hotel just like the Bel-Air -- in mind, we paid almost gladly.


Trading Up

COSSET yourself in inch-deep terry cloth all you want, but in the swankest hotel you're still a tourist in that town. With an apartment swap you get in -- and it costs you virtually nothing. Try to find a better deal than that.

In my first exchange last year I swapped my Manhattan apartment for a two-bedroom Amsterdam flat. My host, Marcel Oden, by coincidence also a journalist, met me and my friend with flowers and took us with a crowd of his pals to West Pacific, a trendy restaurant in a former gas factory (and not in most guidebooks). At the little grocery shops to which Marcel directed me, by my third visit the shopkeepers greeted me as a regular, abandoning English for a torrent of friendly if bewildering Dutch.

From the list of acquaintances Marcel left -- the novelist who could get us into parties, Marcel's parents, in the north, who could show us the waterworks -- I called Fred Allers, in Utrecht, who gave us a private tour of his medieval canal house, which dates from 1300. We sipped witte wijn by the water on a werven, a brick terrace along the quaint Nieuwegracht. He also taught us to say "lol" ("great fun"), cautioning us not to pronounce it "lul" (a vulgar male anatomical reference).

Maybe you could learn this stuff from your hotel concierge.

Marcel was a considerate guest at my house, as most home exchangers are. Karl Costabel, who for the past ten years has run HomeLink International, one of the two largest and oldest exchange programs (the other is Intervac), says he only occasionally hears of problems, and most of them are trivial. The members (for an annual fee of $93) are primarily affluent professionals -- professors, corporate officers, and the like -- and two thirds are repeat members, from about fifty countries and every American state. To avoid worry, Costabel recommends locking up precious things or taking them to a friend's house. You can also ask for references. He himself once exchanged his four-bedroom house in Hawaii for a French count's Paris apartment and the use of his Rolls-Royce and Maserati.

Maybe he and I are luckier than most. I don't know. But this year the professor who agreed to exchange his Barcelona apartment for mine decided not to come to New York after all. "Don't worry," he wrote me, "you can still have our apartment. We'll be in our country house anyway."


What Could Be Simpler?

Illustration by Diane Bigda
GOOD value comes to those who procrastinate. Sometime in late June we'll realize that we never managed to plan a summer trip, so we'll toss the cat into the back of the car and drive out of town. Of course, we have to avoid all popular destinations (notoriously bad values), because they're already booked, so we travel back roads through the kind of places that wouldn't rate one star in the Michelin guide. In this way we've gotten a sense of our country -- seen the light change abruptly in the middle of Oklahoma from the soft, hazy glow of the East to the brilliance of the West, and seen architectures, populations, and accents shift in the South as we travel from low country to wire grass to piedmont to highlands.

If the purpose of a trip is not just to see something new but actually to feel somewhere else, this kind of travel fulfills it perfectly. Sometimes we're forced to eat in Pizza Huts and sleep in unairconditioned cinder-block motels, but more often, as we slip in and out of the everyday life and distinct pleasures of rural towns so markedly different from the urban center where we live, we discover sights and tastes and charms we would never have anticipated: fireworks over the fields of Great Bend, Kansas; a concert on the village green of Oberlin, Ohio; the huge yellow hills of the Walla Walla Valley; the best fried chicken in Arkansas (and therefore probably the best in the world); the shady courthouse towns of mid-Georgia; blue-ribbon pie in Middlebury, Indiana; and tasteful old hotels, sometimes surprisingly grand, in towns like Arcata, California, and Marathon, Texas, and Harrodsburg, Kentucky. No one would think of making a special trip for any of these experiences, but in the end they're the things that make a trip worthwhile.


(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts one and two.)
The Goldilocks Strategy

Illustration by Diane Bigda

"YOU can't get a bad meal in Paris," more than one person told me before my husband and I went to France together for the first time. Alas, within twenty-four hours of arrival we had proved those happy souls wrong. As I recall, throughout that trip we kept on redundantly proving them wrong, though I caught a cold and, I'll admit, my gastronomic standards went to hell.

You can get wonderful food in Paris, of course, and I don't mean just exorbitant haute cuisine. Before our next trip we made lists, we made reservations -- we planned our meals as if we were Wellington preparing for Waterloo. We planned all except the first night, when we could count on being jet-lagged, out of sync, and out of sorts. Spontaneity, we supposed, would be the best plan.

We set out on foot as soon as we began to be hungry. It was a hot summer night. The first restaurant we came to was snug and cozy -- no, thanks. The next was Vietnamese -- all right, but not our idea of a welcome to Paris. The further possibilities were maybe a bit grotty, or insufficiently French, or not pretty, or too expensive, or . . . We disdained one fancy place on the grounds that we'd be expected to sit up straight there, and we were tired. Never mind Wellington -- now we were Goldilocks refusing to settle for a less than perfectly pleasing bowl of porridge.

We walked and walked. At last we came to a wide stone square, serene and gorgeous in the long, slanting light. People stood or lounged on a set of steps, awaiting the nightly opening of the Odéon, the architectural focus of the square. Across the way was a glass-fronted restaurant, La Méditerranée. We liked the setting, we liked the restaurant's looks, we liked the posted menu: not too haughty, not too louche, but juuuust right.

Inside we discovered that a set of murals, the china, and the crisp linens had been designed by Jean Cocteau. We were shown to a spacious table with a view. The food was fine -- not stunning, we didn't require stunning, but fine. The service was hospitable, and no one seemed to mind when we soon slumped a bit in our chairs. The bill was reasonable enough. The only thing was, we had such a long walk back to our hotel.


There's No Place Like It

I KNOW a place where a historic river -- a good canoeing river -- curls lazily within a mile-wide fen before passing alongside promontories called Rocky Narrows and King Philip's Overlook. A blue heron stands around every bend. The town on the river's eastern bank was founded the year Charles I lost his head, and a cellar hole in a forgotten copse marks the location of an early house, fortified against attack. The town is more crowded now, but large tracts of land have been put aside unspoiled, and grassy fields still stretch toward ridgeline windbreaks: you can walk around unbothered for hours, and yet remain close to food and drink and shops. A historical society is open for a few hours on weekends -- its artifacts may be a little threadbare, but they include the keyboard on which "Joy to the World" was composed -- and the surrounding area is dotted with specialty museums and small colleges that offer concerts and farms where you can pick your own. The general store doesn't bill itself as such -- but that's what it is, and it has a counter for serving coffee and a crew of morning regulars who will turn in unison to observe an unfamiliar face.

There are inns and hotels and bed-and-breakfasts nearby, but I always stay at a little place that comes with a kitchen and a screen porch, and even the use of a car. Better yet, part of the monthly cost of my lodging turns out to be deductible for federal-tax purposes. I can no longer recall the sensation of first happening upon the locale where I make my home. Dropped here suddenly from Oahu or Osaka, I would surely write postcards about my lucky find. I value visitors from far away for the fresh eyes they bring. If only I could get them to do the lawn.


Jack Beatty, Corby Kummer, and Barbara Wallraff are senior editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Cullen Murphy is the managing editor. Benjamin Schwarz is a correspondent. Ian Frazier, Francine Prose, Francine Russo, and Christina Schwarz are regular contributors.

Illustrations by Diane Bigda.

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1999; Worth the Trip - 99.10 (Part Three); Volume 284, No. 4; page 38-42.