The specific prices described in this article have now passed, but it remains online so that the resources named will be of future use to travelers.
At a time when fuel, food, and even the price of postage are more expensive than ever, an affordable summer vacation may seem to be slipping out of reach. But there are still plenty of places, both in the U.S. and abroad, where travelers can enjoy beautiful beaches, outdoor adventures, wine tastings and spas, and unique cultural experiences -- without breaking the bank. Below are my ten top budget destinations, from romantic getaway spots to family faves to exotic destinations for adventurous travelers.
Here they are, in no particular order:
Berkeley Springs, West Virginia
America's first spa town -- even George Washington came to take the waters here! -- is still a delightful and very affordable spot to get pampered. At the historic Bath House in Berkeley Springs State Park (tel. 304/258-2711; www.berkeleyspringssp.com), a soak in 102-degree thermal waters and a Swedish massage starts at just $40.
Berkeley Springs offers quaint shops, horseback riding, golf, excellent hiking (in nearby Capacon Resort State Park) and, of course, lots of history. Many travelers combine a stay here with the Washington Heritage Trail self-guided driving tour, which follows the first President's footsteps through the Eastern Panhandle of the state. Area accommodations are reasonable, starting at $70 (down to $45 in nearby Martinsburg), and even less if you camp.
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota
One million acres of wilderness traversed by 1,300 miles of canoe-able waters makes Boundary Waters a spectacularly beautiful area and a top pick for nature lovers and fisherman. The fecund waters here are fin to fin with trout, walleye, bass, and northern pike.
Experienced outdoors people simply grab a canoe, a fishing license ($17-$24), a camping permit (done by lottery, average $44 per group), supplies, a tent and go. For novices, local outfitters like the Rockwood Lodge (tel. 800/942-2922 or 218/388-2242; www.rockwoodbwca.com) in Grand Marais will supply all equipment and food for 2 to 4 adults for 5 days for $342. Other reputable outfitters and tour companies include Wilderness Outfitters (tel. 800/777-8572 or 218/365-3211; www.wildernessoutfitters.com) and Gunflint Northwoods Outfitters (tel. 888/226-6346 or 218/388-2296; www.gunflintoutfitters.com).
Midcoast of Maine (Rockland, Maine)
Rough and tumble Rockland now boasts a blossoming arts scene, helmed by the superb Farnsworth Museum (a top-notch collection of American art with works by Maine natives Andrew Wyeth and Louise Nevelson). You'll also find a slew of small galleries and a fine dining scene spearheaded by an enterprising group of Culinary Institute of America grads. It's also one of the two top harbors in Maine for Windjammer cruises; kayaking is terrific, too. Since it is so centrally located, it's a good jumping-off point for visits to pricier resort areas like Kennebunkport, Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park, and Camden. Rockland offers a wealth of mom-and-pop motels and cute little inns; it's not difficult to find places to stay here, in the peak of high season, for as little as $85 a night.
The Wisconsin Dells
Let's hear it for "The Waterpark Capital of the World!" More than 20 waterpark resorts soak visitors in this scenic city on the Wisconsin River. That comes to more than 200 waterslides combined, as well as watercoasters, ocean-wave simulators, raft rides, and extreme tubing for all ages. Day passes to the larger waterparks are usually around $30 to $35; check the Visitor & Convention Bureau's website at www.wisdells.com for complete listings and links to area parks. Room rates at the big resorts can be steep but less expensive motels abound, with rates starting at just $40 per night.
The Oregon Coast, including Willamette Valley
The choice for romantics: Inland lies Willamette Valley, awinery-laden mecca for oenephiles and foodies (and a much cheaper vino experience than Napa). Towards the sea is a misty, beautiful coastline dotted with lighthouses and historic towns (such as Astoria, the oldest community west of the Mississippi River).
Highlights includethe Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area; Yachats, an artistic community with excellent eats and un-crowded beaches; and along the coast, spectacular fishing, wildlife viewing, and leisurely beachcombing and kite-flying. An Oregon Pacific Coast Passport (tel. 800/551-6949; www.oregon.gov) grants access to all of the state and federal parks and recreation areas for only $10 for a 5-day pass or $35 for an annual pass. Many area accommodations are moderately priced from $75 a night, cheaper if you camp.
The Dominican Republic
The Dominican Republic is the king of the affordably priced, all-inclusive package destinations, especially during the summertime when all Caribbean isles slash prices to lure visitors.
SuperClubs' Breezes Puerto Plata Resort, Spa & Casino(www.superclubs.com) offers package deals that include accommodations, all meals and premium brand cocktails, unlimited use of sports facilities, and hotel taxes, with no tipping allowed. A recent price check yielded rates of $70 per night per person from June to August. Also, CheapCaribbean.com (www.cheapcaribbean.com) has a selection of all-inclusive packages starting from as low as $499 per person for 5 nights.
Newfoundland remains an almost criminally overlooked destination in Canada. This craggy island, known as "The Rock," offers some of the country's best views in the summertime, when you can spot icebergs, puffins, and whales off the Bonavista Peninsula. St. John's is a small, bustling city that makes a good jumping-off point for exploring the foggy Avalon Peninsula, home to puffin colonies and caribou herds. And Gros Morne National Park (a World Heritage Site) offers excellent bird-watching, fishing, and hiking. Campground fees range from $18 to $30 (tel. 877/737-3783 or 514/335-4813; www.pccamping.ca). To save the most, avoid conventional hotels and stay instead in the tiny B&Bs that dot the region and sometimes charge as little as $50 a night.
The Maya Riviera, Mexico
Sparkling white sand beaches, cerulean waters, Mayan ruins, and dozens of water sport opportunities have long made the Maya Riviera a go to place for fun in the sun. In the past several years, a Hurricane Wilma-driven makeover has turned it into a playground for chic, luxury seekers as well.
The sheer volume of hotels and condos on this coast keeps competition stiff. But the air/hotel packagers are getting deals individuals can rarely match. Vacation Travel Mart (www.vacmart.com) is selling a full 5 nights/6 days at the Grand Oasis, including all food and drink, most activities and airfare from the U.S. from just $724. In certain lesser known areas, like the beautifully preserved Colonial city of Campeche, hotel prices drop to just $45 a night.
Peru is a country with a surplus of great adventures, many of them an excellent value for the money. From Cusco, a scenic train journey can take you to Puno and Lake Titicaca, where you can visit the floating islands of Uros on a day trip ($12) or enjoy a true cultural immersion by staying overnight with a family ($15).
The most elegant city in the county is perhaps Arequipa, known for its white volcanic stone buildings and a worthwhile jumping-off point for an excursion to the Colca Valley to observe giant condors. Southern Peru is a top surfing destination, and the Peruvian jungle is not to be missed -- enter in the north via Iquitos, near some of the Amazon's best lodges. For those interested in the famed Machu Picchu, local companies such as Peru Treks (www.perutreks.com) will take you on an all-inclusive 4-day trek for as little as $300; American-based companies such as Adventure Center (www.adventurecenter.com) offer 7-day Cusco and Machu Picchu tours for $595. Accommodations across Peru are largely budget priced ($30 a night on average), thanks to the backpacker hordes.
The strength of the euro has made much of Europe a budget-buster for American travelers, but it's also an opportunity to explore less heavily touristed areas of the continent -- such as Bulgaria. Bulgaria, Europe's oldest state (established in 681), doesn't yet have much of a tourism infrastructure, but it's quite safe and boasts ancient monasteries and beautifully preserved medieval villages along with affordable spas and Black Sea beach resorts. Visit the country's tourism agency at www.bulgariatravel.org. Accommodations usually range from $50 to $100 for budget B&Bs and guesthouses and full Mediterranean meals can be had for just $6 or $7.