Sandwiched between Italy and Croatia, tiny Slovenia avoided all the drama and trauma of Yugoslavia's breakup. Bombs never cratered the streets of Ljubljana -- a front-runner for the title of "the new Prague" -- and no armies surrounded crystal-blue Lake Bled, with its charming medieval town and castle. The limestone caves and wine-growing soils of the Karst valleys remain unravaged, and refugees never overran the Slovenian Alps.
The result: Slovenia packs in an intense variety of landscape and culture at a reasonable price, especially if you like biking, hiking, skiing or driving. And it's close enough to Italy -- less than five hours from Venice by train -- to make a great add-on trip if you don't want to make it a journey of its own.
Ljubljana is a city of strolls and café society, with elegant bridges and a wide range of architectural styles. It has the charm of Prague, but hasn't been overrun yet. Most classy Slovenian hotels have their own websites, but don't necessarily appear on search engines. Download the country's official hotel guide (Adobe Acrobat required), which has prices and web addresses to find your lodging. The Grand Hotel Union (www.gh-union.si), Ljubljana's most prestigious, has double rooms starting at €177, but you can easily get rooms in town for much less. The Hotel Park (www.hotelpark.si), a modern building just outside the historic city center, offers clean, basic doubles for €70 ($88.41). True adventurers, though, should stay in the former prison cells of Hostel Celica (www.souhostel.com), where the tiny rooms were individually redesigned by artists but still feature their original iron-bar cell doors. A two-bedded cell with shared bath costs SIT 10,500 ($57) per cell; interacting with Slovenia's young artists, who hang out at the hostel, comes free.
Head out of Ljubljana to see the diverse landscape that makes Slovenia a special destination. Within a few hours' drive or train ride, the country has a teeny bit of Adriatic coastline, some dramatic Alps, wine country, and karst -- a network of navigable limestone caves.
In the north, most tourists base themselves around Bled, a charming medieval town with a castle on a crystal-blue lake. Rent a bike and head up into the hills, or hike out into Alpine meadows. The official Bled tourist website, with hotel and apartment listings, is at www.bled.si/eng/sredina.htm.
The caving centers of Slovenia are at Postojna (www.postojnska-jama.si/en/cave.htm) and Predjama. The huge cave at Postojna is as close to a natural theme park as Slovenia gets, with a special tourist train leading into its depths. A few miles away, Predjama castle (www.postojnska-jama.si/en/castle.htm) is actually embedded in a cliff.
Renting a car is convenient, but frequent, affordable trains connect most Slovenian destinations; a ride between Ljubljana and Bled, for example, takes under two hours and costs a mere SIT 1190 ($6.27) each way. One train per day, the "Casanova," runs between Ljubljana and Venice, taking about four hours.
Most tour packagers combine Slovenia with Croatia. But New York-based travel agency Slovenia Travel (tel. 212/358-9024; www.sloveniatravel.com) has an all-Slovenia six-night package featuring Ljubljana, Lake Bled and farm country for prices starting at $410, double occupancy, plus flights.
Getting to Slovenia looks expensive at first, but there are tricks you can use to make it much cheaper. Air France and Lufthansa both fly from the US to Ljubljana, and you can also connect through various European airports onto the Slovenian carrier, Adria Airways. We found an $820 fare, including all taxes and fees, from New York from Orbitz (www.orbitz.com) for May dates.
Adventurous budgeteers can do better, though. Book a super-cheap flight to London and then transfer to budget airline EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) from London's suburban Stansted airport, which has one flight per day to Ljubljana starting as low as £52.98 ($97.31) round-trip. (We only found the lowest fares by searching for dates months in advance, though.) If you don't feel like staying in London overnight, you can take a bus straight between Heathrow and Stansted for £24 ($44) round-trip -- allow two hours for the ride.
Low-fare airline Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) can get you near, if not into Slovenia even more cheaply. They fly from Stansted to Trieste, Italy and Klagenfurt, Austria, both minutes from the Slovenian border by train or car. There's one flight per day to each destination, and fares are even cheaper than EasyJet's -- we found plenty starting from £53.46 ($98.20) round-trip seats available, with fares dropping in theory to as low as £26 ($47.76) round-trip.
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