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The Euro has a tendency to scare off many would-be Europe vacationers, and by the time you do the currency conversions and add on credit card exchange fees, a two week vacation can be a costly if not rewarding exercise. Yes you can stick to a tight budget, stay in one-star (or less) hotels and stay out of the big cities, but you may want to consider taking the road less traveled and experience some of Europe's hidden gems. Many especially eastern countries are new (well, actually they are several hundred years old but their names are new) and others have only recently opened up to tourist markets. In countries like Slovakia, prices tend to be lower, the airfares to get you there are seemingly cheaper, the people are friendly (even if they don't necessarily speak English) and in my opinion the best part is that tourist numbers are lower so you're not fighting with marauding camera flashes to get the best shot. There's also a definite authenticity to traveling in a lesser visited country, experiencing cultural richness, and small towns seemingly untouched by 21st century innovations.

Slovakia is the perfect example of a country often overlooked on the international travel circuit. The fact that there don't appear to be many air-inclusive vacation packages originating in the U.S. is a testament to the fact that this is a country yet to be discovered by many tourists and that now is the perfect time to visit. Its capital, Bratislava (formerly Pressburg) is described as a city of new energy and old scars. Beautifully located on the Danube River, the city's colorful 800 plus years of history is on display and you can comfortably stay in this grand European capital for between $40 and $100 per hotel or penzión room per night, including a number of boat hotels located on the river itself. If your budget doesn't stretch to that, you can always stay at one of the many youth hostels or student hotels from a mere $8 per night. For a concise listing of accommodation options, visit www.spectacularslovakia.sk/ss2003/02_lodging_bratislava.html. For lovers of traditional folk architecture, be sure to visit Slovakian towns like ?icmany, Spania Dolina and Vlkolínec plus stunning medieval castles at Spissky, Devín, Plavecký Hrad, Beckov, Trenciansky Hrad, Somoska and dozens of other locations throughout the country.

There are six UNESCO listed cultural and natural heritage sites in Slovakia. STOPA - STS (tel. 421/9055-72406; www.travelslovakia.sk) is a Slovakian based tour company that runs a UNESCO Natural and cultural Heritage Tour. This private land-only seven night tour for two or more people includes transport, accommodations in small comfortable hotel/pensions, half board - breakfast and dinner, guide services, information materials, entrance tickets and fees. It visits the town of Banska Stiavnica, its monuments and surroundings, the village of Vlkolinec known for its traditional folk architecture, Spissky Castle, the most extensive stronghold in Central Europe, the town of Bardejov, Slovak Karst, and the Dobsinska Ladova Jaskyna (ice cave). The trip is priced at $960 per person if there are two people and the cost goes down if the tour takes more participants. STOPA also has a range of hiking, horse-riding, cycling, rock-climbing, historical and general tours of the country.

Our Slovakia (tel. 888/529-7150; www.our-slovakia.com) runs its "Treasures of Slovakia" tour once a year, and just our luck, it departed on July 2. But don't despair, there's still plenty of Slovakia to see on their "Three Countries - Slovakia, Hungary and Poland" trip. The ten day tour departs from New York on August 11, 2006 and is priced at $2,299 per person plus taxes or $1,599 land-only (single supplement is $349). The package includes round-trip airfare to Kosice, nine nights' accommodations in quality hotels, two large meals a day, bus transport throughout, castle and museum entrance fees and parties. Slovakian highlights include visiting the 14th century Krasna Horka Castle in Roznava, the Gemer region, Lucenec, Pod Polana, Banska Bystrica, Liptov, the Orava Castle, the Goral region, Novy Targ, Tatranska Bukowina, Zakopane, the High Tatra Mountains, Zamagurie, the castle of Stara Lubovna, a rafting ride down the Dunajec River to the Baltic Sea, Sabinov, Presov, and Kosice. In Poland see Krakow, Wieliczka and in Hungary, the region around the city of Miskolc.

Slovakia Green Tours (tel. +421/ 2524-91641; www.slovakiagreentours.com) offers an eight day "Best of Slovakia" tour that takes you on a journey from Bratislava and the Danube River to small rustic towns, historic castles and the mountains of the High Tatras. The tour includes airport transfers, seven nights' accommodations in fine hotels with half board, transport in a luxury bus, all entrance fees and an English speaking guide. Highlights include Trencin, Bojnice, Cicmany, Ruzemberok, Tatra Mountains, Strbske Pleso, Cerveny Klastor, Levoca, Kezmarok, Spis Castle, Banska Bystrica and Banska Stiavnica. The remaining departure date for this tour in 2006 is September 9 (it also runs in late May and early July) or for groups of six or more individual dates can be arranged. This tour is priced at $859 per person land-only.

Like many countries in central and Eastern Europe, Slovakia is known for its spas and hot springs areas -- there are twenty different regions/resorts dotted throughout the country. Slovakia Green Tours has a number of spa packages that make a wellness retreat both accessible and affordable. For example in the spa city of Bardejov, their "Relax Stay" packages are priced between $59 and $64 per person per night and that includes accommodations in your choice of two or three-star hotels, half-board (breakfast and dinner daily), an initial full medical examination, two healing procedures per day (everything from massages and baths to lymphatic drains and Calanetics) and drinking therapy (I'd like to think this means unlimited alcoholic beverages, but in fact it refers to specialized mineral waters). A minimum six night stay is required and these prices are for peak season May until September. Winter prices start at only $49 per night.

Slovakia is located in the middle of Europe so is easy to access by air, bus, train or driving. You can choose to fly into Vienna and take a one-hour shuttle bus direct to Bratislava, or fly in on one of the many European discount and traditional airlines that service Bratislava and Kosice airports. Sky Europe (www.skyeurope.com) is a central Europe based low cost carrier that offers flights to Bratislava from over 20 European cities including London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Athens, Rome, Paris, Barcelona and Copenhagen. It currently offers discounted fares from the U.K. to Bratislava from $35 including taxes. RyanAir (www.ryanair.com) and EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) also offer daily or twice daily flights out of London's Stansted and Luton airports.

For more information to help you plan your Slovakia vacation visit the official government tourism website at www.slovakiatourism.sk.

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