I'm looking for a weeklong barge tour in France that specializes in fine wine, beautiful scenery, and historic sites. Where should we go?
—J.R., Wheat Ridge, Colo.
Barges ply the waterways of several French regions, each with choice food, wine, and scenery. Perhaps the best-known itinerary is the Canal du Midi, which cuts through the rolling forests and vineyards of the Languedoc in southwestern France. September — grape-harvesting month — is the best time to go. The Canal de Bourgogne and the Saône River are among the waterways that traverse Burgundy, the gastronomic heart of France, replete with medieval cathedrals and walled cities. The Canal de Briare in the upper Loire Valley, finished in 1642, passes many notable châteaux and an aqueduct designed by Gustave Eiffel. Alsace-Lorraine, Provence, and Champagne-Ardenne are other areas worth considering.
You can take a guided trip or go it alone. French Country Waterways (800/222-1236; www.fcwl.com) offers instruction and specialized luxury tours, as does Abercrombie & Kent (800/323-7308; www.abercrombiekent.com). Rive de France (33-1/41-86-01-01; www.rivedefrance.com) and Crown Blue Line (44-160/363-0513; www.crownblueline.com) are two popular self-barge operators. By no means are you limited to France; barging is popular in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, and the Low Countries. Anglo-Welsh Waterway Holidays (44-177/924-1200; www.anglowelsh.co.uk) is the largest operator in the U.K. Jody Lexow Yacht Charters (800/662-2628; www.jodylexowyachtcharters.com) matches would-be bargers with vessel owners throughout Europe, as does the Barge Lady (800/880-0071; www.bargelady.com). For late-breaking discounts and other deals, check out www.bargespecials.com.
Can you recommend some moderately priced restaurants in Lisbon?
—E.N., Sacramento, Calif.
No problem; there are hardly any expensive restaurants in Lisbon. It's difficult to drop more than $50 per person, including wine, at even the priciest spots. Some of our favorites: the loftlike Alcântara Café (15 Rua Maria Luisa Holstein; 351-21/362-1226; dinner for two $56); Pap'Açorda (57—59 Rua da Atalaia; 351-21/346-4811; $46), a fashionable place in the Bairro Alto; Bica do Sapato (Avda. Infante D. Henrique, Armazém B; 351-21/881-0320; $56), a trendy, multilevel spot on the Tagus; and Espaço Lisboa (16 Rua da Cozinha Económica; 351-21/261-0212; $38), which serves modern Portuguese cuisine in what used to be a vast slaughterhouse. If you want to splurge — relatively speaking — try the legendarily rococo Tavares Rico (37 Rua da Misericórdia; 351-21/342-1112; $93), which dates from 1784. But one of the true joys of visiting Lisbon is finding a hole-in-the-wall that delivers a plate of luscious bacalhau and a bottle of vinho tinto for $5.
We're planning a trip to Italy but can't find any source that rates the hotels. Is there a way to check?
—A.H., Brooklyn, N.Y.
The Italian government awards hotels one to five stars, based on the quality of rooms and amenities provided. One star means a simple room with a shared bath. A two- or three-star establishment is typically a bed-and-breakfast or a room with a private bath. Four- and five-star hotels uphold the highest standards of service and comfort. Each classified hotel must display its rating on the façade of the building, and the Italian State Tourist Board lists all rated hotels on its Web site (www.enit.it). Of course, a three-star pensione may be more to your liking than a five-star grand hotel, so you should rely on word of mouth, guidebooks, and a trusted travel agent as additional resources — as well as our annual World's Best Awards, coming this August. By the way, Belgium, France, Great Britain, Portugal, and Spain also have state-run systems that use similar criteria.