Are you dreaming about a big trip in 2010? Finances a little tight? Take a look at the following destinations. Magic, excitement, and adventure, yes. But for the budget-conscious world traveler, it’s equally important that these are places where your dollars will stretch a long, long way. As a travel writer, I am lucky enough to have experienced all 10, but I would love to visit them all again as a vacationer.
Vietnam packs a lot into its borders. Highlights include the misty Halong Bay with its fairytale seascapes of limestone outcrops and islands; the Mekong Delta with its floating markets; the old Vietcong tunnels in Cu-Chi near Saigon – now officially known as Ho Chi Minh City. (Don’t worry about getting stuck: one tunnel has been widened especially for westerners.) Backpacker beds are exceptionally cheap, but decent hotels often cost less than $ 40. A filling bowl of pho bo beef noodle soup or six seafood spring rolls costs less than a dollar. In local catering establishments, Saigon Export beer costs 40 cents per bottle.
For the ultimate traffic story to tell the people at home, head to Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Every attempt to cross the road turns into a heartbreaking adventure. Not only are you struggling with psychocyclos (rickshaw bicycles), there are thousands of motorbikes and scooters whose riders consider a red traffic light as a suggestion rather than an instruction. The best place to experience total chaos is from a cyclo rickshaw.
Lithuania, Eastern Europe
The southernmost of the Baltic states, visitors usually pair Lithuania together with Latvia and Estonia. However, you can easily spend a week alone in Lithuania. Quirky towns like Vilnius and Kaunas are steeped in art, music and historical curiosities … mushroom scented forests and farmers riding hay carts … mysterious locations steeped in pagan traditions … the windy sands of the Curonian Spit where you can beach – comb for amber.
Mid-June would be a good time to go. The ancient pagan festival Rasos, a national holiday in Lithuania, marks the summer solstice. It is all night long singing, dancing, bonfire jumping, hunting for ‘magical’ ferns and floating streamers along rivers. Despite some serious alcoholic parties, most people manage to stay awake to greet the sunrise. As for the prices, what about $ 2.54 for three potato pancakes with smoked salmon and sour cream and $ 1 for a glass of Svyturnys beer?
From the laid-back colonial city of Granada you can do a lot in a week in Nicaragua: tackle volcanoes … take Spanish classes … visit Masaya craft market and also the villages where rocking chairs, hammocks and pottery are made … explore the cloud forests and coffee plantations of Selva Negra … talk to ex-pats in the beach surf town of San Juan del Sur … go to colonial Leon, where you can meet native Indians.
Sitting in a rocking chair with a cold Victoria beer is a pleasure that generally costs less than $ 1 and spending more than $ 7 on a meal is difficult. The Alhambra Hotel on Granada’s main square costs just $ 30 a night.
Goa, South India
India is more than fascinating, more than anything you will ever experience anywhere else. The easiest introduction to this teeming country is the coastal state of Goa. Baking under a tropical canopy of banana, coconut and mango trees, this sleepy world of Arabian Sea beaches, inland waterways and herb-laden winds is stamped with more than a few memories of ancient Portugal. You’ll find sunrise yoga on the beach, full massages for $ 8, dolphin rides for about $ 6, and colorful hippie markets.
With four beers, two people can eat in a beach hut for under $ 10. And if you want to cut your spending to the bone, there’s accommodation in basic beach chalets for just $ 8 a night.
Porto and Northern Portugal
Famous for its port wine lodges (yes, they do offer free samples), Porto is Portugal’s second city. A historic Atlantic trading port, with a tangle of alleyways hung by wash, crashes into a waterfront lined with boats, nets, and seafood restaurants. Cod skins (bacalhau) hang outside supermarkets with original Art Nouveau tiled facades; Sao Francisco Church has a gold leaf interior that would make King Midas drool. Don’t miss the Bolhau food market or the Torre dos Clerigos, Portugal’s tallest bell tower. From the top, you get a great view of the tousled cityscape of churches, bridges, and houses with red roofs.
By EU standards, the price of restaurants, accommodation and public transport across the region is astonishing. Trains and buses are an affordable way to take exploratory day trips along the coast and inland from terraced vineyards and green river valleys. Don’t miss Braga and the thousand-step staircase of Bom Jesus Church. On holy days, some pilgrims take these steps on their knees.
After the split of Serbia, Montenegro is Europe’s newest holiday destination – and also the world’s newest independent nation. In addition to three-course meals for $ 7 and rooms in private homes for $ 10, you’ll find a land of rugged mountains with a conversion-backed Adriatic coast of light gray stone bays, beaches, and villages. The sea glistens like blue topaz, and medieval walled towns with crumbling fortresses and palaces are often adorned with the winged lion emblem of the Venetian Republic.
Now paint in monasteries buried in crevices and fishing villages with red-tiled roofs and deep green shutters. Roman mosaics … olive groves … lakes with water lilies … deep gorges and the mighty Boka Kotorska, Europe’s southernmost fjord … the border town of Ulcinj with its minarets and stories of the pirate slave trade.
Alpine? It is undeniable that Switzerland is one of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet. But unless you’re armed with an expense account, I can promise you that exploring the mountains, lakes, and medieval towns will wreak havoc on your finances.
Winter or summer, neighboring Austria has just as much of the alpine wow factor … plus the splendor of the city of Vienna and Salzburg. And it is a lot cheaper than you may think. In the Tyrolean village of Fendels, for example, you can rent a furnished apartment for two people in a chalet for only 175 euros ($ 230) per week. Surrounded by hiking trails, the village of Fendels makes a great base – the Tyrolean Oberland is close to the borders of Switzerland and Italy. (Go to the Austrian Tourist Board website at http://www.tiscover.at and you will find much more self-catering accommodation at similar prices.)
A melting pot of Malaysian, Chinese and Indian culture, Malaysia offers powder-white beaches and virgin rainforest full of wildlife; the bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur and the historic port city of Malacca; cheap seafood and cheap spa indulgence; sailing, snorkeling, diving, fishing, golf and island hopping.
With a distinctly Chinese flavor, Georgetown, the capital of Penang Island, is one of Malaysia’s most important curves. You will encounter snake temples, arcaded shops and small workshops that specialize in mahjong tiles and dice; Kong-Tick craftsmen who make funerary paper artifacts; fish dries as laundry in the open air. About 2,000 fishing families live on the waterfront of Weld Quay in rickety wooden homes on the Clan Quay jetties.
On the Greek island of Crete, Chania is a city not to be missed. The former capital of Crete, its history goes back 5000 years. In the skinny alleys of the old town, you’ll find icon workshops … winches hang in dusty musical instrument repair shops … bursts of white jasmine falling from arches … cats napping on balconies … the unlikely sights of a pencil-thin minaret above church towers and a mosque squatting on the water.
Strung with streamers of colored light bulbs, the old Venetian harbor of Chania at dusk is truly the stuff of romance. The water glistens in waves of crimson, sapphire and emerald, the Venetian lighthouse emits a beaded wink and stalls do a constant trade in pistachios. Alleys that were quiet in the afternoon throng with the locals taking the volta – the evening stroll. Even in July and August, you’ll find studio apartments here for under $ 40 a night … and good food for $ 10.
Bohemia, Czech Republic
Prague is teeming with tourists, but few people realize what the rest of the Czech Republic has to offer. One of the regions is Bohemia, blessed with an enchanting mosaic of castles, painted Rapunzel-style houses and turrets, straight from a tale of sword and sorcery. At Cesky Krumlov, you can view a medieval bear pit complete with bears. Sedlec, a suburb of Kutna Hora, has a chapel completely decorated with human bones, right down to the chandelier.
Many cities have stupas … lofty “plague pillars” decorated with chained devils. They commemorate the liberation of the plagues that flooded Europe during the Middle Ages. Then there is Karlovy Vary, the oldest of the major spas in Bohemia. With spa water bubbling throughout the city and free to collect for visitors, it’s a beautiful spot with sugar-plum baroque buildings, flowery parks and shops sparkling with Bohemian crystal.