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Fall Travel

Good deals, great times

For those itching to fly away this season, value is the watchword. These five trips will stretch your dollar while expanding your horizons.

September 13, 2009

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Note: Addresses are included when there is no website.

Austin, Texas: Deep in the heart of this laid-back college town is a love of the offbeat -- and that includes bat watching.

I’m lounging on a verdant patio watching a man in Groucho Marx glasses peck away at his laptop. To my right, two ladies with big hair and bright red lips howl, and howl, and howl. Nearby, a garage band launches into “Smoke on the Water.” A neon phallus hovers above. I check my watch -- almost time to see the bats.

No, I’m not in a David Lynch movie. I’m in Austin. People have a lot of preconceptions about Texas: It’s rich, it’s provincial, it’s a haven for conservative cowboys. Think of Austin as the cute, quirky friend who comes over for Thanksgiving dinner with Steely Dan albums under his arm.

Austin embraces its distinct un-Texasness. Two popular city slogans are “Keep Austin Weird” and “A Little Blue Oasis in a Big Red State.” This is a laid-back college town (the University of Texas flagship is here), and it caters to a young, creative population. It’s also the state capital, but Austin feels more collegiate than political. The city is packed with cheap Tex-Mex and barbecue joints, live music venues, and dance clubs (line-dancing is especially popular). Here, hipster-tinged hedonism reigns.

South Congress Avenue is the funkiest stretch of town. I’m at the noirish Hotel San Jose; just down the street is the Austin Motel, with its deliciously seedy sign that resembles either a cactus or a portion of the male anatomy, depending on your perspective. The thoroughfare feels a bit desolate midday; come sunset, the characters crawl out of the woodwork and the music starts to play.

Up the street is the Congress Avenue Bridge, home to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats. The bats lurk there from April through October, taking to the sky every evening to forage for food. Skip the paid tours and hang out on the bridge for a stellar view. Nearby, Sixth Street is replete with live music clubs and rowdy college kids; Joe’s Generic Bar (315 East Sixth Street, 512-480-0171) is the spot for die-hard blues fans.

Getting around is simple: Trolleys, called ’Dillos, shuttle revelers to and fro for 50 cents. But if you’re a barbecue-lover, you’ll want to rent a car and make the 30-mile drive to Lockhart, dubbed the BBQ Capital of Texas. This little spot in the middle of nowhere is home to dueling ’cue emporiums Kreuz Market (512-398-2361, kreuzmarket.com) and Smitty’s Market (512-398-9344, smittysmarket.com). Don’t expect fancy sides or sauces. Here, the meat stands alone.

A classic Austin night ends back on South Congress at the Continental Club (512-441-2444, continentalclub.com), a beloved spot for live music. Launched in 1957 as a swank supper club, it still looks like a set piece from American Graffiti. Here, the lights are low, drinks are strong, and everyone dances.

Why it’s a great value: Food and clubs have college-student price tags. Many attractions, like the Texas State Capitol (512-463-5495; tspb.state.tx.us) and the Lyndon B. Johnson Museum (512-721-0200, lbjlib.utexas.edu), are free. Also, fall is a great time to see Austin; school’s back in session and the bats are at their peak. How to get there and around: Southwest Airlines (800-435-9792, southwest.com) flies from Boston to Austin; recent fares for October were as low as $200 round trip, though you’ll likely have a layover. ’Dillo trolleys (512-389-7400, capmetro.org), named for the state mascot, shuttle throughout the city. Where to eat: Chuy’s (chuys.com) is a local chain of wacky, affordable Tex-Mex fun houses with mammoth portions. Mi Madre’s has the best breakfast tacos in the city (512-322-9721, mimadresrestaurant.com). In Lockhart, Kreuz Market is the authentic choice for barbecue. Where to sleep: You won’t find anything cheaper than the Austin Motel (512-441-1157, austinmotel.com). It’s clean and well located, with a pleasant pool and a cheerful staff. You’ll pay as little as $80 for a room with a full-size bed. Other tips: The patio at Hotel San Jose (512-444-7322, sanjosehotel.com) has one of the city’s best people watching happy hours; it’s just down the street from the Austin Motel. Rock aficionados should check out Threadgill’s (512-451-5440, threadgills.com), where Janis Joplin started. For line-dancing, head to the Broken Spoke honky-tonk dance hall (512-442-6189, brokenspokeaustintx.com). -- Kara Baskin

Guadalajara, Mexico: The Tequila Trail entertains as much as it educates, and that’s only a taste of the region’s vibrant flavor.

It’s an ancient tradition in Jalisco State, Mexico. The jimador in his wide hat and boots, the elegant arc of attack, the final swift plunging of the blade. Bullfight? Not exactly. It’s how you harvest blue agave plants for their cores, giant pineapple-like blobs that are chopped, roasted, and distilled here into the world’s finest tequila.

Watching the tough but smooth harvesters is just part of the spectacle for those on Mexico’s Tequila Trail, a series of estates and distilleries within about an hour’s drive from Guadalajara that produce Jose Cuervo, Herradura, Sauza, and other famous brands that end up in your margarita glass. You can visit any number of them on your own, as I did, or you can take one of the package tours based in Guadalajara and offered by several companies (tequilasource.com and tequilatours.com can help when planning). Some factories may charge for tours, but many are free, and at all my stops, the tastings were, too.

But you don’t have to drink a single shot of the stuff to have fun. The region around Amatitan and Tequila is far less formal than a Bordeaux or even a Napa route du vin and features scenic plateaus and mountains as well as the National Museum of Tequila (52-374-742-0012, Calle Ramon Corona 34, Tequila). On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, you can ride the Tequila Express (tequilaexpress.com.mx, website is in Spanish), a train that runs the 37 miles from Guadalajara to Amatitan and includes onboard mariachi music, snacks, and a tour of one of the estates.

Guadalajara, about seven hours northwest of Mexico City, is the nation’s second-largest city and a vibrant cultural center. One of the architectural highlights in the historic downtown is the Instituto Cultural Cabanas (52-333-668-1647, Calle Cabanas 8, Centro Historico), where you can stare up at famous murals by Jose Clemente Orozco. Tricky-to-pronounce Tlaquepaque (try TLAH-kay-PAH-kay) is a nearby town with shops and stands full of ceramics, paintings, and clothing.

For those who hit the Trail, each distillery shows off its own quirky air. At one stop, you can taste freshly roasted chunks of blue agave (it tastes a bit like rhubarb); at another, you get a crack at sticking labels on bottles or dipping the tops into wax for sealing. Patron Tequila has constructed a Hearst-like castle and gardens that are so wildly over the top that you’d swear a Bernie Madoff slept here. Tequila Cazadores struts out a Rockette-like troupe of cocktail cheerleaders, while Herradura exudes a posh Old World air. (To some, Patron and Tequila Cazadores are not considered part of the Trail.)

Jalisco is said to be the birthplace of horn-blasting mariachi music, and tourists at a couple of the estates are serenaded by strolling bands and skirt-whirling dancers. At one distillery, I was surprised to hear Mozart piped in over the speakers. “Oh, yes,” the guide told me as a convoy of forklifts rumbled past. “This is to create a soothing environment for the yeast.”

Why it’s a great value: Mexico is an overall bargain these days, and although Guadalajara is a favorite of local tourists, it’s off the radar for many resort-obsessed foreign visitors. How to get there and around: Continental had the best deals on flights from Boston to Guadalajara as of mid-August (800-523-3273, continental.com); with one stop in Houston, round-trip fares were as low as $414 on Orbitz.com. Rent a car at the airport (877-222-9075, alamo.com) or sign up for one of the organized tours, some of which will pick you up at your hotel. Where to eat: Locals swear by Casa Fuerte in Tlaquepaque (52-333-639-6481, casafuerte.com). La Tequila (52-333-640-3110, Avenue Mexico 2830, Guadalajara) offers some 250 tequila varieties served alongside tasty and inexpensive Mexican specialties. Where to sleep: Guadalajara’s restored Hotel Morales (52-333-658-5232, hotelmorales.com.mx) is where you want to be; it’s a short stroll away from downtown attractions but has a quiet elegance and rooftop terrace. Doubles start at $70. Other tips: On the northern edge of always-bustling Guadalajara is a scenic oasis called the Barranca Oblatos Huentitan (parquesguadalajara.udg.mx/huentitan/indexi .html). The park contains a canyon carved out by the Santiago River. This is the place to simply get away from traffic, watch the sun set, or keep an eye out for Mexico’s many brightly colored birds and butterflies. Many businesses will accept US dollars, but you should also carry some cash in pesos (a dollar equals nearly 13 pesos). Also, although Guadalajara is located far from the recent spate of violence near the US border, and a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention travel warning for Mexico on swine flu was lifted months ago, check the websites of the State Department (travel.state.gov/travel/travel_1744.html) and the CDC (cdc.gov/travel/) when planning. -- Peter Mandel

Paradise Island, Bahamas: At this yoga retreat, it doesn’t take long to shed your stress.

The typical vacation doesn’t allow much time for introspection. It’s all about discovering what’s out there: seeing the sights, shopping, and checking out that new restaurant everyone’s talking about. Exploring is exhilarating, sure, but it’s also exhausting. So to shake up my travel routine and shake off my overscheduled daily life, I escape to the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, with one goal in mind: Do nothing.

Well, next to nothing. At the ashram, a spiritual community dedicated to the study of yoga, the practice couldn’t be taken more seriously. And in exchange for an inexpensive beachfront stay, guests are asked to take it seriously, too. That means requisite meditation, chanting, and an asana (or posture) practice twice a day. And, at least while on the premises, no alcohol, meat, coffee, or TV, either.

“Some vacation,” I can’t help but think that first morning as the 5:30 bell rouses me out of a deep sleep. A silent walking meditation on the beach is scheduled for 6 a.m., followed by chanting, then yoga class, then finally brunch at 10 a.m. Despite the early wake-up call, by late morning I find myself surprisingly alert and energized, with a blissfully unscheduled afternoon ahead before the next class. I park it on a beach towel and make headway on the novel I’ve been trying to read for months.

From my spot on the cream-colored sand, mega resort Atlantis looms large, almost miragelike, in the distance. Throughout the day, I watch as fellow guests sneak over to get a caffeine fix at Starbucks. The resort is also home to a shopping center, high-end restaurants, and Dolphin Cay (888-877-7521, dolphincayatlantis.com), where you can swim with dolphins displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Other off-ashram water activities include jet skiing, snorkeling, and parasailing. For guests looking for even more diversions, the main part of Nassau is a five-minute boat ride from the retreat and has a lively downtown. On a typical vacation, these are things I’d jump at the chance to see and do. But this time, I stick with the less-is-more approach that drew me here in the first place, dedicating the precious few days of my ashram stay to reading, swimming in the turquoise-hued ocean, and talking with long-term ashram residents about what keeps them here.

Despite a delayed return flight, baggage trouble, and a killer burger craving, when I arrive home, my mom tells me I’m positively glowing, and my boyfriend of seven years says he’s never seen me look so calm. My stay didn’t result in the kind of life-altering epiphany many seek from an ashram visit, but for the first time ever I am back from a trip feeling rested and relaxed. And that’s a revelation in itself.

Why it’s a great value: At the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat (866-446-5934, sivananda.org/bahamas), the rooms and meals are Spartan at best. But there’s a pristine beach and yoga and meditation classes right on the grounds, so there’s no reason to leave (or spend) once you’re there. How to get there and around: JetBlue (800-538-2583, jetblue.com) flies to Nassau starting at about $200 round-trip. To get to the retreat, take a taxi to Mermaid Dock, where you can catch the center’s regularly scheduled boat to Paradise Island. Where to eat: At bustling Potter’s Cay Dock on East Bay Street in downtown Nassau, vendors in ramshackle stalls hawk just-caught seafood, including local favorites like crawfish. Where to sleep: Rates at the retreat range from $59 (tent space) to $139 (double room). There’s also a charge of $15 to $29 a day for the yoga program. Meals are included. At nearby Atlantis (888-877-7525, atlantis.com), the most affordable option is the Beach Tower (starts at $199). Other tips: Peak season starts in mid-December, so traveling in early or mid-fall can save you significant cash. Autumn is also the tail end of hurricane season, but with more storms typically hitting the US mainland than the Bahamas each year, the reward often outweighs the risk. -- Jenna Pelletier

St. Augustine, Florida: A pristine beach, majestic architecture, cozy streets, rich history. Who needs Miami?

I’m always disappointed in Florida. Whenever I hop on a plane in the cold and land in the warm sun, it takes only a day or so before I realize (once again) that I’m vacationing at one big coastal strip mall. Which is why I’m digging my toes into the white sands of Anastasia Island’s Anastasia State Park, where there are 4 miles of pristine wind-swept Atlantic Ocean beach, and savoring the moment. I think I’ve finally found my Florida paradise.

I’ve felt this way since I arrived in St. Augustine, a town situated on Matanzas Bay midway between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach in north Florida, and a few minutes from Anastasia Island (904-461-2033, floridastateparks.org/anastasia/). It looks different there than in Miami: With entire roads draped in sleepy Spanish moss, it feels more Savannah than South Beach. And from the moment you step into the warren of pedestrian-friendly cobblestone streets of historic St. Augustine, you’ll think you’ve arrived somewhere else entirely.

St. Augustine is the oldest city in America, settled in 1565, and its downtown is a series of low Spanish Colonial-style buildings. But there’s an added glitzy architectural appeal, thanks to Henry Flagler, a tycoon who in the 1880s tried to make St. Augustine the “Newport of the South.”

The great part is that you don’t have to spend much money to see it all. Flagler’s three majestic hotels are easy to spot and within walking distance of one another: The first, the Ponce de Leon, is now the centerpiece building of Flagler College, a gem of a campus worth strolling. The second, the Alcazar Hotel, is now the Lightner Museum (904-824-2874, lightnermuseum.org), housing relics of the Gilded Age. The third is the Casa Monica Hotel, designed by a Boston architect in 1888, which looks like a grand castle. (Grab a drink at the lounge. You’ll feel like you’re in a scene from The Great Gatsby.)

There’s enough to see and do in St. Augustine that I found myself wandering the streets for hours -- and not spending more than a few bucks. After exploring the many art galleries, window-shopping in the funky boutiques and charming gift shops, and enjoying a chocolate gelato from Cafe del Hidalgo (35 Hypolita Street, 904-823-1196), I found my way to the Plaza de la Constitucion, a park in the center of town where artisans sometimes sell their wares and where, in summer, free concerts are held on Thursday evenings.

I walked 10 minutes more to the grounds of the Castillo de San Marcos (904-829-6506, nps.gov/casa/index.htm), a monstrous stone-and-mortar fort looming over the harbor and built by the Spanish beginning in 1672. You don’t need to fork over the $6 entrance fee to enjoy it -- wandering the outside is fascinating enough. I sat on a high grassy hill overlooking boats bobbing lazily in the bay and decided I’ve had Florida all wrong. Maybe I could love it here.

Why it’s a great value: It’s Florida without the kitsch -- or the cost. Flights are cheap, hotel rates are reasonable, and all of the best sites are free or inexpensive. How to get there and around: Fly to Jacksonville. Last month, fares for September on US Airways were as low as $157 round trip from Boston (800-428-4322, usairways.com). Also check JetBlue for deals (800-538-2583, jetblueairways.com). While most of St. Augustine can be seen on foot, renting a car is recommended to get to nearby beaches. I found good rates at Alamo Rent A Car (800-327-9633, alamo.com). Where to eat: My favorite restaurant is The Tasting Room (904-810-2400, tastetapas.com), a lively wine and tapas spot, with live music every night, in the heart of the historic district. It’s worth the 10-minute drive to Cap’s on the Water (904-824-8794, caps- onthewater.com), a casual seafood restaurant and raw bar on the Intracoastal Waterway, where you can wander along the shore after dinner.

Where to sleep: Victorian House Bed & Breakfast (904-824-5214, victorianhousebnb.com) is a steal at $99 to $139 per night for a room with a queen bed in the historic district; suites are more.

Other tips: The weather in north Florida is different from locales farther south, and winter weather is unpredictable; temperatures can dip into freezing overnight. While there’s always a threat of a hurricane in the fall, it may be the best time to visit, since temperatures are still warm -- but the air is not unbearably humid, as it is throughout the summer. -- Brooke Lea Foster

Cape May, New Jersey: In this lovely corner of the Garden State, birders flock, foodies rejoice, and summer says a long goodbye.

On a trellised second-story deck overlooking a vineyard, my boyfriend and I were savoring a bottle of the winery’s award-winning chardonnay. A light mist blew off the fountain, keeping us cool in the afternoon heat. But this wasn’t Napa. I scanned the acres of lush grapevines and proclaimed, “You wouldn’t even know we’re in Jersey.”

The Jersey Shore isn’t all casinos, bad techno music, and Bruce Springsteen. Cape May, New Jersey’s southernmost point, nestled at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay, delivers on the Garden State’s nickname. And with its gaslight street lanterns, Victorian B & Bs, and storied birding seasons, it is blissfully stuck in time.

As many Cape Cod towns board up after the autumn chill, Cape May remains warm and active. October temperatures average in the mid-60s, so daybreak beach walks require only a sweat shirt. Thousands of birds (more than 325 species) and monarch butterflies attract naturalists to the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, a.k.a. The Meadows (609-861-0600, nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/), a premier wildlife refuge on the southwest tip of the peninsula where hawks, herons, and songbirds stop over on their migration south. Even if you’re not a birder, don’t miss these vast dunes and wind-swept marshlands -- a gem of conserved land on the otherwise tightly developed coastline. The Cape May Point State Park (609-884-2159, state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/capemay.html) is home to a 157-foot working lighthouse that’s open for climbing, and there’s a boardwalk trail system.

The city of Cape May, a National Historic Landmark District, is less than 3 square miles, so consider ditching the car and renting bikes to tour the ornate homes and eclectic art galleries. And you can walk the kid-friendly boardwalk and Washington Street Mall, a car-free promenade with enough fudge, taffy, and ice cream to pad you for winter hibernation. The mall isn’t just another stretch of over-familiar franchises; nearly every eatery and boutique is independently owned.

Despite its small size, Cape May won’t fail the foodies. The New York Times has called it one of the East Coast’s culinary capitals, and for the best value, seek out the BYOB restaurants. Because of state regulations, even this tourist town is granted only a handful of liquor licenses. The result? Chefs who don’t rely on alcohol sales know that success rides of the quality of their food. And corkage fees don’t exist here. Pick up a bottle from the Cape May Winery (609-884-1169, capemaywinery.com), home of that award-winning chardonnay, or let the kind folks at Collier’s Liquor Store (609-884-8488, colliersliquor.com) help you select a wine or craft brew for dinner.

For uncommon seabird and whale sightings, take the Cape May-Lewes ferry to Delaware (800-643-3779, capemaylewesferry.com), an 80-minute trip. If you bring your bike or car, after disembarking, it’s just a few miles to Milton, Delaware, home of the famed Dogfish Head Brewery. Enjoy a tour (302-684-1000, dogfish.com; reservations recommended) and craft-beer sampling. Just don’t overdo it for the return trip -- booze and boats generally don’t mix.

Why it’s a great value: Transportation from Boston is cheap, a rental car isn’t necessary, and despite plenty of high-priced fine dining, you’ll find reasonable food options, too. Plus, visiting in the off-season (after Labor Day) means no beach entrance fees. How to get there and around: Spirit Airlines (800-772-7117, spiritair.com) flies direct from Logan to Atlantic City International Airport for about $100 round-trip. Cape May is a 50-minute drive from the airport. Rent a car or use Tropiano’s private shuttle service (609-383-3402, tropianotransportation.com/ac). Where to eat: Do not miss breakfast at the legendary Mad Batter at the Carroll Villa Hotel (609-884-5970, madbatter.com) or seafood from The Lobster House (609-884-8296, thelobsterhouse.com), a waterfront restaurant with its own fishing boats. Where to sleep: Cape May is a B & B mecca. There are dozens of them here, each one as charming as the next. Beauclaire’s has off-season midweek room rates from $105 to $145, plus special packages (609-898-1222, beauclaires.com). Other tips: Cape May’s fall festivals and events are worth planning a trip around (capemaymac.org). Sunset Beach is, as you might imagine, an ideal place to be at dusk. And don’t forget to pack a bathing suit. Depending on the currents, ocean temperatures remain (reasonably) warm through the beginning of October. -- Jennifer L. Schwartz