Q: I recently stayed at an agriturismo in Italy and would love to have a similar experience closer to home. Any suggestions? —Greg Stahl, Mesa, Ariz.
A: “American growers are taking a cue from their European counterparts by letting you experience the country life. Feather Down Farm Days (512/524-1817; featherdown.com) has three working farms in New York and Illinois where you can stay overnight and help tend the garden or gather eggs. Three Shepherds Farm offers a three-day cheese-making course in Warren, Vermont. In the Shenandoah Valley, sustainability guru Joel Salatin leads Intensive Discovery Seminars—where you’ll learn about raising poultry and eco-friendly farming—at Polyface Farm.” —T+L special correspondent Shane Mitchell
Q: My husband and I are interested in going on a cruise in Alaska this fall. What are our best options? —Liz Baton, Huntsville, Ala.
A: The Silver Shadow from Silversea Cruises (7 days from $4,097 per person, double) calls at three historic ports, including Skagway and Juneau—ideal for a first visit. A new wildlife-minded excursion from Celebrity Cruises (celebritycruises.com; 7 days from $719 per person, double) sails round-trip from Seattle and through Tracy Arm, a fjord with hundreds of harbor seals. For a small-ship experience (51 to 69 cabins), Cruise West (cruisewest.com; 7 days from $4,199 per person, double) recently introduced Alaska’s Inside Passage, which traverses narrow inlets to Wrangell, a fishing town with ancient rock carvings. Even more ships will enter Alaskan waters next year: Disney Cruise Line and Oceania Cruises announced one- and two-week itineraries starting in spring 2011.
Q: When comparing flights to Europe online, I’ve come across variations in taxes and fees even when the total ticket costs are nearly equivalent. Why is that? —Jeff Weinstein, Dayton, Ohio
A: It’s simply a matter of presentation—some sites bundle certain taxes and fees with the base price up front, while others do so later at the time of booking. This explains why you might find, for example, a trip to Geneva on United Airlines that’s $505 for the ticket, plus $379 in taxes and fees, for a total of $884, while the same route on Delta may be $770, plus $130 in taxes and fees, for a total of $900. There are nearly 100 different fees that can figure into ticket costs—many are stable, but others fluctuate and can really add up: individual airports charge fees for their own upkeep, governments can charge taxes for international departures and arrivals, and booking entities often tack on extra charges for booking by phone or flying multiple air carriers.
Q: Can you recommend weeklong guided biking tours through the Pyrenees? —Amy Chang, Fort Lee, N.J.
A: Cycling Classics ($795 per person; through mid-October) has a five-day program that allows you to acclimate 1,200 to 6,500 feet each day. More-experienced cyclists may opt for the outfitter’s 10-day Crossing the Pyrenees (from $2,000 per person), which spans 500 miles, from Biarritz to Collioure, along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Meanwhile, the challenging 10-day Pyrenees Sea to Sea trip from Trek Travel ($5,395 per person, starting September 1) features daily rides that average more than 60 miles and 7,000-plus vertical feet through French Basque foothills and remote Spanish towns.
Disney Cruise Line
Disney is the best cruise line for families. What may surprise you is that the 1,760-passenger Disney Magic and Disney Wonder are gorgeous ships, even without Disney touches like character appearances and first-run movies. Show productions are tops on the high seas, as is the kids’ programming, which includes a chance to make “Flubber” and play detective. Cabins are larger than the norm, and a unique dining system has you eating in a different venue each night. Adults get their own entertainment “district.”
New and Newsworthy: In summer 2010, the Magic returns to Europe, adding port calls in Russia and Tunisia. New 2,500-passenger ships debut in 2011 and 2012.
Price: Weeklong cruises from $799 per person.
Geographic Areas: Caribbean, Bahamas, Mediterranean, Baltic.
Oceania’s three identical midsize ships—the 684-passenger Insignia, Nautica, and Regatta—are geared toward a crowd that wants to explore interesting ports and enjoy a taste of finery— including gourmet cuisine (menus are overseen by Jacques Pepin), personalized service, resort-like pool decks, and nice accommodations—without paying a steep price. Think of Oceania as an affordable Silversea. There is no need to pack the tux, though; these ships are as casual as country homes. (In 2009, Canyon Ranch signed on to operate Oceania’s spas.) Two newly commissioned ships, the Marina and the Riviera, will join the fleet by 2012.
Geographic Areas: Mediterranean, Baltic, Asia/Far East, Transoceanic, Caribbean, South America, Mexico, Australia.
Silversea’s fancy, pampering experience is delivered on six sleek, 132- to 540-passenger ships, done up in contemporary décor, with gourmet cuisine, spacious ocean-view suites, free booze, and top-notch service—the solicitous crew even shines your shoes and brings room service, course by course. Steaks are prepared the way you like them. And yes, the bartender knows your name. An impressive guest lecture series includes famous chefs. The line also operates the upscale 132-passenger soft adventure ship Prince Albert II.
New and Newsworthy: The 540-passenger Silver Spirit debuted in 2009; it’s the line’s first new ship in eight years. Silver Wind recently had a multimillion refurbishment including a new observation lounge and spa.
Price: Weeklong cruises from $2,638 (plus air–inclusive offer).
Geographic Areas: Mediterranean, Northern Europe and Baltics, Africa and Indian Ocean, Far East, South Pacific, Caribbean, South America, Central America, New England/Canada,
Three Shepherds Farm
Owned and operated by the Faillace family, Three Shepherds Farm produces artisanal cheeses made from cow or sheep milk, and aged in straw-bale cheese caves. The farm is also famous for their cheese-making classes. One-day or three-day courses are available in the study of French and Italian cheeses, focusing on seven varieties and production methods unique to these countries. An advanced class concentrates on more obscure selections such as mold-ripened cheeses, and explores the art of cheese aging. Individual and group class rates are available.
Sustainability guru Joel Salatin leads Intensive Discovery Seminars—where you’ll learn about raising poultry and eco-friendly farming.
Cycling Classics arranges bicycle tours for groups, guided bicycle vacations, and self-guided tours for individuals through France. (As a joint U.S. and France venture, they maintain offices in France as well.) Specializing in tours for high level cyclists wishing to challenge themselves like the pros, the company arranges routes through the French Alps, the Pyrenees, and Mont Ventoux along with others in Belgium and Spain. The company also offers top quality carbon road bikes for cyclists to rent and can work with those who desire less challenging routes.
The challenging 10-day Pyrenees Sea to Sea trip features daily rides that average more than 60 miles and 7,000-plus vertical feet through French Basque foothills and remote Spanish towns.