q. I'm visiting Mexico soon, but I'd like to avoid the huge touristy places. I want something smaller with style. —G.F., Minneapolis, Minn.
a. For a chic alternative to the mega-resorts, check into one of Mexico's many boutique hotels. Two standouts from our World's Best Awards last year were Cancún's secluded Villas Tacul (Km 5.5, Blvd. Kukulcán; 52-98/830-000; doubles from $230), which has nine villas right on the beach, and Villa del Sol in Zihuatanejo (Playa la Ropa; 52-755/42239; doubles from $230), with adobe cottages just off the sand. But if you want quiet lodging far from the crowds, try the elegant 11-room Mesón Sacristía de la Compañía in Puebla (304 Calle Seis Sur, Callejón de los Sapos; 52-2/242-3554; doubles from $130), a colonial dream filled with 19th-century furnishings and Talavera pottery. If you fall in love with that antique oak table in your room, general manager Lourdes Espinosa can arrange for you to take home one just like it; the family sells pieces similar to those in the guest rooms, along with tapestries and religious art, in an adjacent gallery. Book through Mexico Boutique Hotels (fax 52-3/221-2255; www.mexicoboutiquehotels.com).
q. I recently lost my passport and had to turn down a trip when I couldn't replace it in time. If it ever happens again, what's my best bet for a quick turnaround?—C.P., Baltimore, Md.
a. Passports sometimes take weeks to process, but there are a few ways to obtain one quickly. You'll have to dig up your original birth certificate or a certified copy in order to prove U.S. citizenship; you'll also need proof of identity, such as a driver's license. Next: forms DSP-64 and DSP-11, available at any post office or online at travel.state.gov/get_forms.html (these files are compatible with both Windows-based and Macintosh computers, but to read and print them you'll need the Adobe Acrobat program, also available via this site). Once you've done the paperwork, you can speed up the filing process by paying an additional $35 fee (the cost of replacing your passport is $60), which guarantees a three-day turnaround once your documents have been received. Or, if you don't mind paying $150 or more, you could use an expediting service. Two of our favorites are Passport Plus in New York (800/367-1818 or 212/759-5540, fax 212/759-5805) and New Hampshire's American Passport Express (800/841-6778 or 603/431-8482, fax 603/431-8478; www.passporthelp.com).
q. Can you use credit cards in Cuba?—M.S., Seattle, Wash.
a. Yes and no. According to associate editor Heidi Sherman, who has visited the island twice in the past few years, you cannot use credit cards in Cuba that are issued by a U.S. bank (cards from Europe, Canada, and elsewhere are fine, though). Nor can you exchange dollars in Havana. "You can't get cash anywhere — no ATM's, no Western Union," says Sherman. If you run out of money or, worse yet, lose it, you'll have to rely on wire transfers from Toronto or London; both cities have branches of Cuban banks and are familiar with the complexities of these transactions.
We've always dreamed about a cooking vacation in France. Can you recommend a great trip?—P.P., Tucson, Ariz.
a. Illinois-based Epiculinary (888/380-9010 or 847/295-5363, fax 847/295-5371; www.epiculinary.com) provides luxe cooking tours through Europe and Mexico. Their Passport to Provence trip includes five nights' accommodation at the Hostellerie Bérard, a hotel-restaurant in La Cadière d'Azur, a medieval village 30 miles east of Marseilles. Chef and owner René Bérard conducts intimate classes in his kitchen, with lessons on bouillabaisse, ratatouille, and other Provençale dishes. The hotel also offers afternoon trips to nearby vineyards to select wines for your self-prepared meals. The package is $1,285 per person, double; airfare is not included.
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