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Europe Made Easy

SET SAIL
Because of its all-inclusive nature and prepaid cost in American dollars (not to mention its large passenger capacity), cruising remains surprisingly affordable despite fluctuations in the economy.* • Don't believe it?Crystal Cruises did the math, comparing a 12-day European voyage on its newest ship, Crystal Serenity, to a 12-day, four-city overland visit. The tallies: a luxury land-based trip for two, including airfare and five-star hotels, would cost an estimated $18,640, versus $15,773 for the voyage. • Check Princess Cruises' Web site (www.princess.com) for the latest specials. Recently posted: a 17-day transatlantic sailing in May that starts at $3,200. • Save up to 50 percent on one of many European departures on Silversea Cruises (www.silversea.com). A seven-day trip from Barcelona to Rome is going for $5,070, down from $9,790. Costa Cruises (www.costacruises.com) is cutting its prices on summer sailings by as much as 30 percent: seven nights in the western Mediterranean start at $2,000.
—Hillary Geronemus
*All prices listed are for two passengers.

HOMES AWAY FROM HOME
Renting a villa is not only cheaper than staying at a hotel; it also allows you to better experience a community and its culture. You can find great values through Rhode Island-based WIMCO (800/932-3222; www.wimco.com). The two-bedroom La Capinera, in the village of Montopoli near San Gimignano, Italy, was just listed at $1,785 a week for June. • B&V Associates (800/546-4777; www.apartmenthotels.com) rents furnished apartments in major city centers. Prices are well below those of hotels and include weekly maid service. In Marseilles, flats start at $93 for two guests and $123 for four, per night. • For a classic country experience, check out the inventory at Barclay International Group (800/845-6636; www.barclayweb.com). Among their cottages is the Ballybunion, which starts at $611 per week (with maid service) in County Kerry, Ireland. The property sleeps six and is within walking distance of the famed Ballybunion links.
—D. K.

THE MOUNTAINS
Transylvania

Although famous for one particular resident—you know, sallow complexion, rather sharp teeth, loves the nightlife—Transylvania is more than just the home of Dracula. Separated from the rest of Romania by the Carpathian Mountains, the region makes up one-third of the country and counts Saxon citadels, Gothic cathedrals, and painted monasteries among its man-made treasures. The mountains that fired up Bram Stoker's imagination—and stood in for 1860's North Carolina in Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain—are also an affordable alternative to the Alps, with as much untouched wilderness, at a more reasonable rate. THE CITY The Carpathian Mountains bisect Romania in a backward "L" shape; the southern interior section is known as the Transylvanian Alps. To access the region, hikers set out from the medieval city of Brasov, the first Transylvanian town on the road north from Bucharest (Brasov is near tourist-magnet Bran Castle, Dracula's homestead). Before heading for the hills, explore the largest Gothic cathedral between Vienna and Istanbul: Black Church, built in 1385, on Piata Sfatului, Brasov's main square. Also near the action on the plaza is the 69-room 1910 Hotel Coroana (62 Republicii St.; 40-268/477-448; www.aro-palace.ro; doubles from $76); its sister hotel, the 1939, 100-room Aro Palace (9 Eroilor St.; 40-268/478-800; www.aro-palace.ro; doubles from $135) will complete a major overhaul by the end of the year. THE COUNTRY The jagged Fagaras Mountains rise from the Transylvanian plains 35 miles west of Brasov. From there, it's another two-hour drive to Statiunea Sambata, where the real hiking begins. Walk two hours to the no-frills Cabana Valea Sambetei (40-268/315-756; doubles from $24); next morning during breakfast on the deck, you can fuel up before attempting to climb nearby Mount Moldeveanu, at 8,343 feet the highest point in Romania. Five miles away, in the village of Sambata de Sus, the 17th-century Brancoveanu Monastery's interior walls are covered in religious paintings done in the iconic Christian Orthodox style. At glacial Lake Balea, 6,560 feet above sea level, most hikers stay at Villa Paltinul (40-269/524-277; www.balea-lac.ro; doubles from $30), the small, rustic hunting chalet of the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The manager, Olaru Marius, has kept all 10 rooms intact, including the Ceausescus' bedroom, with its wooden ceiling and brocaded bedside drapes. From the lake, the trail follows the main ridge to Negoiu Peak, Romania's second-highest mountain; hikers descend into the village of Cartisoara, then take the local bus to Statiunea Sambata, about three hours away. GUIDES Certified members of the Romanian Association of Mountain Guides (www.agmr.go.ro; one-day guided trips $87 for up to seven people) lead off-the-beaten-path treks; Iulian Cozma (40-744/327-686; www.mountainguide.ro; $87 for up to seven people), a private guide, can also arrange tours through the Fagaras region. Tour operator Pure Adventures just added a seven-day hiking trip through Transylvania (www.pure-adventures.com; from $739 per person, six-person minimum). TIP The Romania Tourism Board (www.romaniatourism.com) lists special offers on Austrian Air flights, as well as hotel and tour packages.
—Sunshine Flint

THE COAST
The Hebrides

"When God made time, he made plenty of it" goes a local saying, and it captures the spirit of the Inner Hebrides. These 400 islands off Scotland's west coast are sprinkled with crofting villages and port towns, and life moves at a slow pace. Staying in small hotels or B&B's on unspoiled bays is the best way to experience the Celtic flavor of the isles, and by island-hopping aboard Caledonian Macbrayne ferries (44-8705/650-000; www.calmac.co.uk; eight-day passes from $87), you'll have the flexibility to linger when enchantment strikes. BUTE A five-minute ferry ride from Wemsyss Bay on the mainland, the Isle of Bute combines lush pastures and white sandy beaches with craggy cliffs and wild upland hills. Its capital, the seaside town of Rothesay, has an ancient ruined keep, a golf course, and a palm-fringed Victorian esplanade. Stop at the West End Café (1-3 Gallowgate; 44-1700/503-596; dinner for two $31), an award-winning fish-and-chippery, but leave room for homemade ice cream (vanilla recommended) from Zavaroni's (20 Argyll St.; 44-1700/502-928; cones for two $2.50). • A few miles out of town you'll find the Gothic Mount Stuart House (44-1700/503-877; www.mountstuart.com; tours $14), home to the Marquesses of Bute (check out the Henry VIII bedroom, based on Holbein's portrait of the king). • You can stay overnight in a spacious room at either Balmory Hall (44-1700/500-669; www.balmoryhall.com; doubles from $229), a former merchant's house above Ascog Bay, or in the village at Ascog Farm (44-1700/503-372; doubles from $73), a 200-year-old farmhouse where peacocks roam the garden. GIGHA From Bute, hop a ferry to the Kintyre Peninsula, take an hour's scenic drive up the coast, then leave your car on the mainland and ferry again to the tiny Hebridean gem of Gigha—in Norse, "God's Island." Gigha lives up to its name with abundant wildlife, carpets of native flowers, and the azalea-filled Achamore Gardens. The island's narrow tracks and hidden sandy bays are best explored by bicycle (rented from the village store) or on foot. The Gigha Hotel (44-1583/505-254; doubles from $206) has a lively bar and a restaurant that serves freshly caught seafood and local cheeses. But the best option is to rent a cottage and make it your base: secluded Ardailly House (rented through the Gigha Hotel, 44-1538/505-254; from $548 per week), a converted crofter's home, sleeps five and has dramatic sunset views of the isles of Islay and Jura. ISLAY AND JURA For a day trip, head to Islay, a magnet for whisky lovers, with seven distilleries (Lagavulin and Laphroaig are best for those who like a "peaty" flavor). After tasting the single malts, explore the ancient settlements called crannogs, or laze on Seven Mile beach—all white sand, seals, and icy turquoise Atlantic rollers. • A stone's throw from Islay, the ruggedly beautiful Jura (population: 200 humans, 5,000 deer) has the most unforgiving wilderness of all the Hebridean islands. George Orwell wrote 1984 in a white farmhouse he described as "extremely un-get-at-able," which you can now rent. His beloved Barnhill (44-1786/850-274; from $923) sleeps six. MULL The most popular of the inner isles, and justifiably so, Mull is a 45-minute ferry trip from Oban, on the mainland. But hiking over its majestic hills, you are as likely to see a golden eagle as you are another tourist.You'll want a car to navigate the steep streets of the capital, Tobermory, whose pastel-colored waterfront houses make it the most attractive port in western Scotland. Grab a bite at the Anchorage (54 Main St.; 44-1688/302-313; dinner for two $103), a fish restaurant on the main street, or from the Fish-and-Chips Van (dinner for two $15) on the pier before retiring to one of the 28 rooms in the Victorian-era Western Isles Hotel (Tobermory; 44-1688/302-012; doubles from $110). Or, if you prefer deep country, the traditional Laggan Farm B&B (Lochbuie; 44-1680/814-206; www.lagganfarm.co.uk; doubles from $92) offers all the wild magic of a peaceful Highland glen.• From Mull you can take boat trips to the neighboring small islands of Iona (to see the famous abbey and ecclesiastical ruins), Staffa (which inspired Mendelssohn's overture Fingal's Cave) and the Treshnish Isles (for bird- and whale-watching). TIP Visit-Scotland.com, the tourist board Web site, lists last-minute deals and detailed information on every corner of the Hebrides, inner and outer.
—Charles MacLean

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