Can you recommend a company that does horseback tours of Ireland?
—K.D., Glen Ellyn, Ill.
With its mountains, castles, beaches, and coastal villages, the Irish countryside is best explored from the back of a horse. Most riding tours follow established trails and involve several hours in the saddle each day, with accommodations at bed-and-breakfasts, farms, castles, or hotels. Equitour (800/545-0019; www.ridingtours.com) offers nine organized group itineraries to Ireland, many of which can be customized to suit beginners and advanced riders alike, as well as exclusive riding holidays. Cross Country International (800/828-8768; www.equestrianvacations.com) specializes in trips for more experienced riders, arranging intensive training in dressage, polo, and show jumping. The company will set up additional equestrian activities, such as visits to the Royal Dublin Horse Show in August. Both CCI and Equitour also offer tours in other countries.
Equestrian Holidays Ireland (www.ehi.ie) lists facilities approved by the Association of Irish Riding Establishments; you can search the Web site with particular criteria in mind (such as cross-country riding, or trips that cater to children or are at an intermediate level). A word of caution: earlier this year, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Northern Ireland closed some establishments in the border area; while quarantines were lifted May 11, travelers should consult with outfitters on trail closings before planning trips to rural areas, or call the Irish Tourist Board's information line (800/223-6470). One last thing: Be honest about your riding abilities or you might get dragged away by a wild horse.
My husband and I are thinking of going to the Alaska State Fair, in Palmer, in late August and early September. Any suggestions on a nice hotel?
—J.W., St. Louis, Mo.
The fair features the usual eclectic mix of animal shows, amusement rides, and backed goods; see the schedule on-line at www.alaskastatefair.org.
If you want to be close to the action, you can try to book a room at Palmer's historic Colony Inn (325 E. Elmwood; 907/745-3330; doubles from $85). But there's not much to do in Palmer (an hour's drive north from Anchorage) besides the fair — an eclectic dog-and-pony show featuring baked goods and amusement rides — so we suggest staying in Anchorage and making day trips to the fair. The Hotel Captain Cook (939 W. Fifth Ave., Anchorage; 800/843-1950 or 907/276-6000; www.captaincook.com; doubles from $250) sets the standard for genteel grandeur in Alaska, with three restaurants and views of the Chugach Mountains and Mount McKinley. The Swan House Bed & Breakfast (6840 Crooked Tree Dr.; 907/346-3033; doubles from $159) has two antique-filled rooms and a guesthouse.
If you're driving to the fairgrounds from Anchorage, start early — Glenn Highway can get congested. You can also take the train (Alaska Railroad; 800/544-0552; www.alaskarailroad.com); the trip may be slow, but it's scenic.
I recently booked a cruise and was upgraded to concierge service. I know what a concierge does in a hotel, but what does he or she do on a cruise ship?
—C.S., San Francisco, Calif.
Basically, a concierge makes your life easier. According to Diana Orban, spokesperson for the Cruise Lines International Association, certain cruise lines have concierges who attend to the personal needs of guests booked in suites or premium cabins. That includes things like unpacking bags, fetching champagne, serving hors d'oeuvres, making appointments for massages, and so forth. On Celebrity Cruises, concierges will shine your shoes and bring you board games. Crystal Cruises has butlers on the penthouse deck, plus a concierge desk where all guests can get help with shoreside restaurant and tour bookings, flight changes, and rental cars. Holland America Line has fitted the Amsterdam and the Rotterdam with a "concierge deck" that's similar to the club floor in a hotel: a seating area with free drinks and snacks.