Here are some destinations you probably haven't considered, but each offers a great but uncrowded, unspoiled and affordable experience. Our candidates this week range from islands in Scandinavia and off the coast of Brazil to areas in Western Africa, Latvia and two surprises in North America:
Fernando de Noronha Island, Brazil
Yes, you've heard of Rio de Janeiro, but this island in northeastern Brazil, 200 miles off the coast, is the great unreported secret. In fact, Fernando is actually 21 islands. And smart Brazilians (and now smart TODAY watchers) go there. Not only are there great beaches, but Fernando is considered to be the best area for snorkeling and scuba diving in Brazil — in places like Dolphin Bay and Sancho Bay. Want to swim with the dolphins? No problem. Large schools of spinner dolphins can be found everywhere.
Fernando is also a great affordable destination for Americans now getting used to a battered dollar.
You won’t find any high-rise beachfront hotels here. You’re more likely to stay in a very affordable “pousada” (country inn) with just basic amenities. There are about 70 of these inns on the island, which should be booked in advance. Room rates start at about $45 a night for one-star, very rustic (no AC, “water warmed by the sun”) up to as much as $400 a night for a luxury accommodation. The most well-equipped pousadas are the Dolphin Hotel Pousada Ze Maria Paraiso (AC, a restaurant, a bar and pool), and Pousada Maravilha Inn.
Getting there: There are flights once a day from Natal and Recife on Varig or TAM (it’s about an hour flight).
Speaking of islands, how about the Faroe Islands in Denmark?
Faroe Islands, Denmark
First of all, where are they? It's a windswept archipelago located northwest of Scotland and halfway between Norway and Iceland, populated by shy, friendly descendants of the Vikings. And that's where you'll find Torshavn, known as the Smallest Capital in the World. Traffic? Crime? Pollution? Hard to find.
This is a destination you visit after you visit Denmark and you want to go where the locals escape on the weekends to explore the outdoors.
There are 18 islands, and the best time to go is between June and August when days are long. The western coasts are composed of sheer cliffs; the eastern coast slopes gently into sea. Activities include bird watching, fishing (May-August), rowing/canoeing, and hiking.
Affordability: Because it's a self-governing region of the Kingdom of Denmark, which is not a member of the EU, the Faroe Islands are Euro-free — which makes it somewhat more affordable.
Fishing is a way of life here, and travelers often come for the angling experience alone. The lakes and streams are teeming with brown trout, lake trout, sea trout and salmon. Sea trout and salmon can also be caught on the coast.
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Architecture includes Nordic grass-roof houses that actually bloom and change with the seasons. Other highlights include: St. Olav Church, Kirkjubour (the oldest preserved church) and the Magnus Cathedral, a 14th-century historical monument
There are several affordable hotels and guest houses in Torshavn that are in the city center and walking distance to the harbor. There is a Best Western for about $200 a night. The more local Hotel Hafnia is a four-star with a great rooftop view starting at about $220 a night. Considering the power of the Euro elsewhere, these are bargains.
Getting there: You can fly Atlantic Airways from points in Denmark, London, Shetland, London, Reykjavik and Stockholm. You can also sail on Smyril Line aboard the Norrna ferry from Bergen, Norway; Hanstholm/Denmark; Iceland; and Scrabster, U.K.
Bornholm is a destination that is practically unknown to American travelers. It’s an old fishing destination, and is now the second-most popular cruise destination in Denmark (partly because it’s safe to moor and disembark in bad weather).
Bornholm also has the highest density of arts and craft partisans and is a mecca for artistic types. Locals often open their workshops to visitors and there are plenty of galleries on the island (ceramics are a big deal here).
There are also ancient castles, villages and four “round churches,” of which there are only eight in all of Denmark.
In North America, two surprises:
It’s not just the capital of Wisconsin, it’s the hub, from which you can drive all over a state that most Americans merely fly over.
Why Madison as a hub? Because it's also the epicenter of farm tours/agri-tourism. The Hinchley Dairy Farm, about 30 minutes from Madison, is a working dairy farm that has been open to the public since 1998. Visit farm animals, take an antique-tractor-driven hayride, pet and feed goats, sheep and calfs, gather eggs from the henhouse, hold some newly hatched chicks, and even milk a cow! About an hour and a half away is the Larson’s Famous Clydesdale farm, where you can visit the enormous Clydesdale horses.
The Wisconsin Dells is the Waterpark Capital of the World, even in the winter.
Milwaukee may have once had more major breweries than anywhere else in America, but Madison is the capital of small craft breweries where you can experience true Wisconsin heritage (craft beers include: brewpub, microbreweries, regional craft breweries and contract brewing companies). In 2006, 6.7 million barrels of craft beer were produced in the U.S., up 12 percent from the previous year.
Check out Great Dane Pub and Brewing in Madison, where you can sample beers while watching the brewers at work; in between Madison and Milwaukee in Lake Mills is Tyranena Brewing Company, with live music, “hopluck” dinners and chili cook-offs.
Madison-area brew festivals include the Great Taste of the Midwest in August, the Great American Beer Festival in October, and of course, Oktoberfest in September.
Wisconsin is also a growing wine destination. Wisconsin wine includes traditional grape wines, as well as honey wine (mead) and various sparkling and nonsparkling fruit wines. The Wisconsin State Fair, which showcases regional agriculture, has held a Wine Garden event for 11 years running where you can sample Wisconsin wines.
Like antiquing? Madison is also the hub for one- to two-hour drives throughout the state to local farm auctions. Better rent a station wagon or a van, because in my own personal experience you're coming back with something that probably won't fit into that Taurus!
Hotel rates: Like many American cities, hotel rates vary from a moderate Best Western to luxury properties. The Crowne Plaza adjacent to the East Towne Mall (five miles from downtown Madison) is offering winter packages starting at just $99 a night for a double room. In summertime (a little more palatable for some) rates range from $115 to almost $200. GrandStay Residential Suites is starting at just $109 for a one-bedroom suite with a plus: a round of golf. For a more quaint B&B stay, check out Arbor House, an eight-bedroom historic home owned by John and Cathie Imes — breakfast includes herbs and fruits from the gardens, ranging from $110-$230 a night. The Speckled Hen Inn is a 50-acre country estate in Madison (less than 8 miles from the U.W. campus), featuring a Japanese garden, veggie and herb gardens and a baby orchard. Rates range from just $110-$185
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Halifax is steeped in maritime history. And of course, it also has the most photographed lighthouse in the world — the Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse (officially Peggy’s Point Lighthouse), located about 27 miles from Halifax.
But you also go to Halifax as one of the great seacoast hubs of Canada. Up and down the coast, you can find warmer weather than you might imagine, thanks to the Northumberland Straits. It's also a hub for local artists, the Nova Scotia Centre for Craft & Design and the Khyber Center for the Arts.
Try to include a Saturday in your trip, since Saturday means the local Brewery Market, where you can pick up locally made arts and crafts, as well as artisan cheeses, baked goods and sausages.
The biggest draw for visitors? Outdoor adventures. Try Point Pleasant Park at the southern tip of Halifax, which will transport you into deep wooded forests. You also go for music in the summer. In July is the nine-day Canada Atlantic Jazz Festival, not to mention the five-day-long Halifax Highlands Games and Scottish Festival that features all things Scottish: a PipeFest, drumming, highland dancing, demonstrations of Scottish country dancing and Celtic crafts.
Hotels abound here, for example, the Radisson is located in the center of the business district, featuring one-bedroom suites, and they're all affordable, with weekend rates starting at $129 a night. But for a real getaway, especially a romantic one, get outside of downtown Halifax and head to a B&B or an inn: The Heritage Hideaway is a Victorian home where guests enjoy a three-course candlelight breakfast, ranging from $110-$135 a night. The Seawatch Inn (about 20 minutes from downtown) is located on the Halifax Harbour, with high-season rates (May-October) ranging from $135-$155 a night!
And for East Coast Americans, it's easy to get there. Many U.S. airlines fly to Halifax from New York and Boston — and the flights are about 90 minutes. And if you're going to go to Halifax, you might as well head further east and north to:
Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
Cape Breton is an incredibly beautiful, remote and rugged destination. It’s bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the Strait of Canso.
You go to Cape Breton for great hiking and road trips: The five Scenic Trails: Ceilidh Trail, the Cabot Trail, the Fleur-de-lis Trail, the Bras d’Or Lakes Scenic Drive and the Marconi Trail. World Famous Cabot Trail is a 187-mile scenic drive through fishing villages, national park, and amazing coastline; it was named Canada's best drive by “Reader’s Digest” magazine.
But there's also golfing, boating/kayaking/canoeing, and even aerial tours.
This is a lovely spot for not just hotel stays, but to rent a cottage with your family, stay at a country inn, sleep in a B&B with the locals, or camp out in your RV. Even luxury accommodations are incredibly affordable: Oakwood Manor is situated on a 200-acre country estate off the Cabot Trail, built by the owner’s father in 1930, and costs $75 in the high season! The adorable Two Twittle B&B with incredible ocean views is only $50 to $75 a night including a full breakfast.
Getting there: Driving is a good option, with entry points at Canso Causeway at Port Hastings and the car ferries from Newfoundland. You can also fly into Sydney Airport on Air Canada.
And now, some real surprises:
Senegal is located about 5 hours from Western Europe and 7 hours from the Eastern U.S. It’s on the westernmost point of Africa.
It’s noted for its French and Arabic influences. French is the national language.
Why Senegal? You go there for their national parks, several of which have been named UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Parc National de Niokolo Koba is Senegal’s largest park, which features the last few elephants in Senegal, as well as lions, leopards, hippos, etc. Parc National des Oiseaux du Djoudj is a 39,000-acre bird sanctuary.
You also go for shopping — for affordable gifts. You’ll find carved gold, silver and bronze jewelry, antique beads, amber, pottery, hand-woven baskets, batiks and fabrics. Pick up your own “boubou,” the long billowy robe worn by locals.
In Dakar, the large markets are the place to be: The Marche Sandaga is a major one in downtown Dakar, crowded and chaotic (watch out for pickpockets). The Soumbedioune, just outside of downtown, is an open-air crafts market (it’s very on the brochure, but worth a visit). Lesser-known authentic markets are the Tilene in Dakar (food, spices, jewelry and cloth), and Casamance in the south of Senegal, where you can get hard-to-find products such as palm oil, dried shrimp and local honey
There's even an island recommendation: Ile de Goree is best known as the former slave trade station for the French. It’s now a tranquil island populated with cafes, art galleries, and long stretches of beach that make it a destination for locals.
Affordable hotels: The Sofitel Dakar Teranga is four-star hotel centrally located and starts at about $225 a night. The seaside Savana Dakar Hotel is a lovely resort facing Goree island that starts at about $180 a night. Go a little more upscale and head to the boutique Hotel Croix du Sud, also located in downtown Dakar, and it starts at about $300 a night. If you want to explore and stay in a smaller, local hotel, you can find rates under $100 a night.
Getting there: You can fly the national airline, Air Senegal. Otherwise, there is Air Afrique from JFK to Dakar. From Europe, airlines Sabena, Alitalia and Air France all service Dakar.
This is the sleeper destination. After a long period of Soviet occupation and repression, it is now an independent state, and Latvia is — relatively speaking — exploding when it comes to tourism. Riga has now become the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the Baltics. Some would even call it the new Prague. And because Latvia has not yet switched to the Euro, it becomes a more affordable destination.
Riga is also one of the three major seaports in Latvia, and is a mecca for water sports. Boating/canoeing/kayaking/rafting season runs April through September. You can even arrange to take a boat trip out to sea with Latvian fisherman to fish in the waters off Ronu Island or along the Roja River, and then enjoy a meal from your catch of the day.
Cycling is also a big deal here. You can ride through quaint villages or along the coastline.
The Riga Central Market is one of the oldest and largest in the Baltic states. It’s about 135,000 square feet, dedicated to food. There are food pavilions that are dedicated to separate categories of food, so be sure to stop by for a loaf of fresh-baked bread.
And speaking of bread, did you know that bread (particularly rye) is the pride of Latvia? At the Bread Museum, you can get hands-on lessons on bread-making. At various mills and farmsteads, you can learn age-old secret recipes and sample the wares.
Affordable hotels: Hotel Riga is a beautiful, historic building overlooking the Opera Garden, right in the city center. Currently, a weekend getaway is about $200 for a two-night weekend stay; if you’re traveling solo, you can stay at Hotel Riga for one night in a single room for $140. The Radisson is under $200 a night, and the brand-new Avalon Hotel in Old Town is just about $100 a night.
Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at PeterGreenberg.com.
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