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Road Trip: The Arkansas Ozarks

By Grainger David
January 5, 2006
hidden, valley, arkansas, fall, color
Cyclops53 / Dreamstime.com
Small-town America is being swallowed by suburban sprawl, but not in the Arkansas Ozarks. It's a land that has its priorities straight.

In the Arkansas Ozarks, every new place you come to seems to be the capital of something. Newton County is the state's elk capital; Mountain View is its folk-music capital. Even most non-capitals have a claim to fame. (See: Altus, Ark., "Home of the First Season of Fox'sThe Simple Life.") But don't make too much of all the big talk-one look and you can tell that these are tiny towns from another time. To my mind, however, it's the meandering roads between them that deserve all the acclaim. The mountains are crisscrossed with two-lane roads-most of which weren't paved until after World War II-that wind through oak forests to uncover sweeping views along ridges, and then dip into valleys along the Buffalo and White Rivers. Sleepy and slow, they force you to take your time getting from one town to the next, which is truly the point.

1) Little Rock to Jasper

I met my sister Maggie, who flew in from Savannah, Ga. We set out for lunch at one of Little Rock's famous hamburger joints, the Purple Cow. The burger was good, the milk shake better; the combination, in hindsight, was probably not the best way to start a long road trip.

Our first real stop was the town of Altus, capital of Arkansas wine country. You probably didn't know that Arkansas has a wine country. Neither did I. About 115 miles from Little Rock-and not en route to our evening's destination-Altus required a little detour. But I thought it was worth it, since the town has four of the state's five wineries. (A majority of counties in Arkansas, I was told, are Baptist-and therefore dry.)

To my delight, I was informed by a welcome to altus sign that this was also "Home of The Simple Life," the Fox reality show featuring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. There's the Sonic where the girls "worked"! There's the bar where Nicole poured bleach on the pool table! And yet Paris and Nicole didn't leave too much wreckage in their wake. Altus is still a small, quiet town. We stopped in at the visitors center on Main Street to pick up pamphlets about the wineries, half of which are a short drive up a mountain. My favorite was the first we saw, Post Familie Vineyards and Winery, which is run by the 12 Post children. A fellow named Zack (not a Post) poured us reds, ros}s, and a grape juice. The wine was just OK, but the place was wonderfully unfussy. I particularly liked the Altus Grape Juice.

Leaving Altus, we entered the Ozark National Forest, heading toward Jasper. Still recovering from our earlier burgers, we got snow cones at the Ozone Burger Barn. Up to this point, the drive hadn't revealed much more than oak trees and the occasional farm, and I was a little worried that we might get bored. (The Paris-and-Nicole rush passed quickly.) At that moment, however, I heard a rumbling sound in the distance, and a spunky 60-something couple pulled up on a pair of four-wheelers. In a matter of minutes, they'd peeled off their goggles, downed a couple of Cokes, and hopped back on their ATVs. As the duo rumbled away in a cloud of kicked-up dust, I was transfixed.

The best part of the day's drive was the last 15 miles south of Jasper on Highway 7, called Scenic 7. Essentially, the road to Jasper had been a gradual climb. We finally got an unobstructed view of the valleys off the side of the ridge we'd been ascending, known as the Grand Canyon of the Ozarks.

There isn't much more to the town of Jasper than an ice cream parlor, a Christian bookstore, and a little shop selling rocks and minerals. But Newton County, of which Jasper is a part, bills itself as the Elk Capital of Arkansas. In 1981, to encourage tourism, officials trucked in 112 elk from Colorado. The herd has grown to 550, and they roam free all over the area. Which is not to say that we saw any. The Ozark Caf}, a '50s-style diner, was still open when we got there just before 8 p.m. (Everything closes early in these parts.) Black-and-white photos of early settlers covered the walls. Maggie and I both had the fried catfish special, and then we split a piece of peach cobbler with ice cream. We found a nice room down the road from the town square at the Arkansas House Bed & Breakfast. The place reminded me of my grandparents' house: soft colors, floral wallpaper, and old, wooden bed frames.

2) Jasper to Eureka Springs

Our B&B offered free breakfast at the Boardwalk, a restaurant next door. We loaded up on biscuits and gravy, sausage, bacon, and hash browns. Then we set out to walk it off. Up the street, Emma's Museum of Junk was one of the better junk shops/thrift stores we visited. Maggie bought two old scarves for a dollar apiece. There wasn't much else to do in town, so we took a half-hour side trip down the mountain toward Boxley to hike the Lost Valley Trail.

The trail is a gentle climb along a riverbed leading to a deep cave. I was feeling adventurous, so I decided to try spelunking. To get more than 20 feet in, you need a good flashlight or headlamp. I borrowed a small one from a couple we met on the trail, but the cave still got very dark-quickly. At the back, it narrowed to a twisting, single-file passageway that led to a long, low, dripping room. I shimmied around, crouched under a ledge, and then turned back. A sign at the bottom of the trail explained that a little farther in there's a high-ceilinged cavern; during the wet springtime, it's the source of an underground waterfall.

After hiking down the trail, Maggie and I returned to Jasper, buying groceries, lures, and weekend fishing licenses at Bob's A.G. Supermarket and Do-It-Best. The Buffalo River is known for manageable water, great smallmouth bass fishing, and dramatic limestone bluffs above the shores. Both Maggie and I love to canoe and fish, and we planned to do a long stretch of the river, camping out overnight. (In preparation, we'd brought our own fishing rods, sleeping bags, and a tent.) We stopped at Dillard's (now closed), an outfitter where we rented canoes, life jackets, and paddles for $40, and left our car out back. A fellow named Bobby drove us to the river, and showed us on a map where he'd pick us up.

The Buffalo was slow, so we admired the bluffs. We caught a couple of small fish (which we threw back), and the day was pleasant enough. But the water was so low that we had to keep getting out to push the canoe over shoals. By the halfway point, we were ready to bail.

We happened to arrive in Eureka Springs at exactly the same time as a classic-car convention. The town's more affordable spots up the hill-like the Stonegate-tend to fill up early. Book ahead if you're planning to get in late.

3) Eureka Springs to Mountain View

Sunday morning I drove over to see the site of the Great Passion Play, a reenactment of Christ's last days. Performances take place five days a week from late spring through early fall in an outdoor amphitheater, located on a hill overlooking town. The full-blown affair sounded like more religion than I usually enjoy on vacation, so I checked out the site at 8 a.m., when it was sure to be deserted. A 67-foot-tall concrete Jesus was planted near the amphitheater, and soft organ music floated out from speakers on nearby pine trees.

The historic section of Eureka Springs is one of Arkansas' biggest tourist destinations. The town used to be known for the healing power of its springs; there's still a quaint, 19th-century feel here.

A bus built to look like an old-fashioned trolley runs a loop through the historic part of town. It's a quick way to see what's worth coming back to on foot. First we navigated the steep, winding roads through the busy town center, which felt like a well-behaved Bourbon Street. Then, the trolley began to climb a hill through the leafy neighborhoods where the locals live.

Twenty minutes later, we got off and walked up to the Palace Hotel and Bathhouse, Eureka Springs' only remaining baths. The best deal here is the eucalyptus steam and the clay mask treatment ($12 each), recommended as a pair. For the steam, I sat inside a wooden box that enclosed everything but my head, which poked out the top. I felt like a prisoner in a medieval torture chamber. The experience was anything but painful, however; it was a refreshing half hour.

The only thing left to do in Eureka Springs was walk around and eat. By this point, we were tired of southern food, so we went to New Delhi, an Indian restaurant run by Bill Sarad, a Mumbai native. We split a meal of lentils, vegetarian meatballs, and basmati rice.

We got into Mountain View around 8:30 p.m. The town is Arkansas's Capital of Folk Music, and this time the label fit. We saw several groups playing bluegrass in the town square. People were casually strolling around with instruments, moving from one ensemble to the next. Most of the instruments were stringed-guitars, banjos, mandolins-and the voices were flat and high. The entire town seemed to be out enjoying the festivities.

The only place still open for dinner was Kin Folks Bar-B-Q, a tiny building at the edge of the square, and that's where I ate my first Frito pie. It came in a French-fry tray, with three layers: Fritos on the bottom, chili in the middle, cheddar and onions on top. I still can't get over the incredible, disgusting genius of this idea. Plus, it happened to be quite tasty.

4) Mountain View to Little Rock

After my success with Frito pie, I was feeling lucky, so I made one final southern-food stop in Greenbriar, at Nelson's Wagon Wheel Restaurant. The sign had fallen down outside, the place was shabby, and the clientele was intimidatingly local. But the chocolate pie was a towering wonder of buttery greatness. It was one of the best-and biggest-slices I've ever had. I can see it now: Greenbriar, Arkansas's Capital of Chocolate Pie.

Finding your way

Both Maggie and I flew in and out of Little Rock, the airport with the most affordable flights. The best time for this trip is in spring, when the rivers run high and the caves are wet.

1. Little Rock to Jasper via Altus, 205 miles

For the direct route, take I-40 west from Little Rock to Russellville. Then catch Scenic 7 north to Jasper. That trip is 142 miles and should take about 2 hours and 45 minutes. If you want to see Altus and the wine country, which is 115 miles from Little Rock and adds another hour and a half, take I-40 west past Russellville to exit 41. To get up to Jasper, backtrack a little on 40 east, and then get on 64 east for three miles to 21 north. After about 30 miles on 21, you meet 16 east and then Scenic 7 north to Jasper.

2. Jasper to Eureka Springs via Yellville, 135 miles

Here's the prettiest way to get to Eureka Springs: 74 west to Boxley, then 21 north to Berryville, and then 62 west to Eureka Springs. If you want to go canoeing out of Yellville, that trip is about 62 miles and takes an hour and a half. From Jasper, go north on 7, east on 62/412, and south on 14 to Dillard's. Yellville to Eureka Springs is a straight shot west on 62.

3. Eureka Springs to Mountain View, 140 miles

Take 62 east to Mountain Home, then 5 south toward Mountain View. If you happened to miss the scenic stretch on 21 and 74, however, take 62 east to 21 south to Boxley. From there, take 74 back through Jasper to Hasty, where you'll meet 123 north, then 65 south, and then 66 east. One warning: On the map, 74 may look as if it connects to 65, but the road dead-ends after Mount Judea. Don't miss the connection from 74 to 123, which leads to 65.

4. Mountain View to Little Rock, 105 miles

Take 9 south to Clinton, and then 65 south. Follow that to Conway, and I-40. Signs will lead to the airport.

Day one

Lodging

  • The Arkansas House B&BHwy. 7, Jasper, 870/446-5900, thearkhouse.com, from $49

Food

  • The Purple Cow8026 Cantrell Rd., Little Rock, 501/221-3555, burger $4.75
  • Ozone Burger BarnHwy. 21, Ozone, 479/292-1392
  • Ozark CafeHwy. 7, Jasper, 870/446-2976, catfish $6
  • Post Familie Vineyards1700 St. Mary's Mtn. Rd., Altus, 479/468-2741

Day two

Lodging

  • Stonegate 2106 E. Van Buren, Eureka Springs, 479/253-8800, from $39
  • Boardwalk CafeHwy. 7, Jasper, 870/446-5900

Attractions

Shopping

  • Emma's Museum of JunkHwy. 7, Jasper, 870/446-5865
  • Bob's A.G. Supermarket and Do-It-BestHwy. 7, Jasper, 870/446-5164, fishing license $11

Day three

Lodging

  • Red Bud Inn428 Sylamore Ave., Mountain View, 870/269-4375, from $40

Food

  • New Delhi2 N. Main St., Eureka Springs, 479/253-2525, buffet $8
  • Kin Folks Bar-B-Q123 Washington St., Mountain View, 870/269-9188
  • The Great Passion Play935 Passion Play Rd., Eureka Springs, 800/882-7529, greatpassionplay.com, $23.25, kids $10
  • Historic trolley ride137A W. Van Buren, Eureka Springs, 479/253-9572, tickets $2

Day four

Food

  • Nelson's Wagon WheelHwy. 65, Greenbriar, 501/679-5009, chocolate pie $1.75
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Road Trips

Classic Road Trip Down the Pacific Coast Highway

Day 1: San Francisco to Carmel Shortly after we married, my wife and I discovered that the drive down Highway 1, California's coastal route, is much like young love: romantic, impractical, and filled with dizzying twists and turns. It was also crowded. Sara and I made our first trip together one summer on a day-and-a-half jaunt from San Francisco to L.A., a clip too quick to appreciate the views, but not fast enough for the leadfoots tailgating us. Over the next seven years, on subsequent trips south, we forsook Highway 1 for I-5, the big inland interstate, the highway of pragmatic middle age. But the beauty of the coast always beckoned. Sara grew restless (the seven-year itch?) for a scenic road trip. So we waited for winter, the sleepy season. We would be more mature this time around. When other cars breathed down our bumper, we'd pull aside instead of flipping them off. We'd hold hands. We'd watch the sunset. This highway--unlike most--was never meant to be hurried. It took 15 years to build, and even today, a lifetime after it opened during Franklin Roosevelt's tenure, it remains in a steady state of reconstruction--stretches of it buried under winter mudslides, or worn down by the ocean's constant kiss. The sky was clear and so was the road as we eased our way south of San Francisco. On the right side of the highway, waves frothed white against empty beaches. On the left, farmland formed a carpet of emerald green. We passed the crescent coastline of Half Moon Bay and then, 18 miles south, took a short detour to the town of Pescadero, known for its artichoke harvests. A friend had told us we wouldn't want to do without a slice of artichoke bread at Arcangeli Grocery Co. More bread than artichoke, it wasn't worth the side trip, but it tided us over as we cut back to the coast. Outside of Santa Cruz we shot north on Highway 9 to the mountainside town of Felton, where a local artist named Michael Rugg runs the free Bigfoot Discovery Museum. A cheery, bearish man, Rugg stood behind the counter when we walked in, relaying tales of Bigfoot sightings to a young, wide-eyed believer. Catching us eavesdropping, Rugg waved us over and showed us a term paper he wrote in 1967 as a Stanford undergrad: "A History and Discussion of the Abominable Snowman Question." It was more persuasive than some of his other exhibits, like the Milton Bradley yeti board game, or the tabloid headline, complete with doctored photo, hanging on the wall: "World's First Bigfoot Hooker." The museum is barely larger than a woodshed, but we managed to stay for an hour. I was delighted, though not entirely convinced, by a Roger Patterson film, a significant snippet from the canon of Bigfoot studies, which shows a large ape-man ambling along a wooded stream. "A lot of people say it's just a guy in a gorilla suit, but I know it's real," said a visitor, a man in his 40s with a dreamy stare. Like Bigfoot, Santa Cruz has a reputation for attracting plenty of eccentrics--a reputation promoted by the city, whose residents buy bumper stickers that read keep santa cruz weird. The Gelatomania Café downtown(now closed) is odd, all right. Run by Buddhists, it's an Italian ice cream shop that doubles as an oxygen bar. Sara got a scoop of chocolate gelato, while I shelled out five bucks to inhale air scented like the sea. That fragrance grew stronger when we got to Steamer Lane, one of the best surf spots on the West Coast. Dozens of surfers bobbed in the water, waiting for a fleeting shot at glory. The sun was hanging low by the time we arrived at the 17-Mile Drive, the famous gated loop that winds past landmark golf courses and zillion-dollar mansions. We paid $9 for the right to drive it, and left an hour later with a much clearer sense of how the other 0.001 percent lives. For dinner, we split a wood-fire pizza at Cafe Rustica, a homey restaurant in Carmel Valley, the inland stepsister to Carmel. It's a 15-minute detour off the highway, a small sacrifice for a good pizza. Food Arcangeli Grocery Co. 287 Stage Rd., Pescadero, 650/879-0147, loaf of artichoke bread $5 Cafe Rustica10 Delfino Pl., Carmel Valley, 831/659-4444, pizza $12 Activities Bigfoot Discovery Museum5497 Hwy. 9, Felton, 831/335-4478 17-Mile DrivePebble Beach exit off Hwy. 1 south, pebblebeach.com, car fee $9 Day 2: Carmel to San Luis Obispo We awoke at daybreak to visit Earthbound Farm in Carmel. An all-organic operation, Earthbound sells its own produce and freshly made foods from a quaint storefront. I got a Like-a-lada smoothie (made with pineapple, coconut, and banana), which I liked-a-sorta, but not as much as Sara's Mango Tango. We grabbed organic chicken sandwiches for the road, strolled through the aromatic herb gardens, and climbed back in the car, feeling refreshed and pesticide-free. It wasn't long before we arrived in Big Sur, once a magnet for beatniks, now a haven for artists and wealthy spa-goers. We turned right at unmarked Sycamore Canyon Road (the first paved road past the post office) and drove two miles to Pfeiffer Beach, where the currents have carved arches in the sandstone and greenstone rocks. It was just us and the seagulls. The Henry Miller Library, set in a shaded redwood grove a short drive south, was peaceful and meditative. "Library" is a misnomer, since you can't borrow anything. But you can buy books, read letters, and gaze at watercolors by the famous writer (and less-famous painter) who lived in Big Sur for 18 years. As we progressed, the views became more dramatic; every turnout in the road was a temptation to pull over and snap photographs. Sara gazed at the rocky shoreline, while I concentrated on not steering us off a cliff. Still, by the time we arrived at aptly named Ragged Point, Sara's queasy look was a reminder that on Highway 1, it's easier to drive than navigate. I'd read that Piedras Blancas was a winter hangout for elephant seals. The giant beasts were lolling about on the windy beach, as unself-conscious as experienced nudists. Signs informed us that we had come a few weeks too late to see the real highlight: the young being born and the seagulls eating the afterbirth. Shucks. Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, is a popular stop along this drive, but we decided to continue on to Cambria, where another obsessive built a very different kind of home. Nit Witt Ridge is the anti-Hearst Castle, constructed by local garbageman Art Beal, who used tire rims, beer bottles, abalone shells, anything he could get his hands on. Beal died in 1992, but a man named Michael O'Malley owns the place now and runs entertaining tours. O'Malley showed us one of Beal's bathrooms. Lovelorn for much of his life, the garbageman never fully gave up hope: He equipped the tiny room with his-and-hers toilets. San Luis Obispo, a college town with an easygoing surf-side vibe, holds a farmers' market every Thursday evening. We arrived just in time. The main street, Higuera, is closed to traffic for the occasion, so we took a streetcar. There were fewer farmers than restaurateurs operating sidewalk stands, but we couldn't complain. Sara got a burger, and I had a sausage. That night, we checked in to the La Cuesta Inn, a clean, comfortable hotel with soft beds and bathrooms with just one toilet. Lodging La Cuesta Inn2074 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo, 805/543-2777, lacuestainn.com, from $89 Food Earthbound Farm7250 Carmel Valley Rd., Carmel, 831/625-6219, ebfarm.com, smoothie $4 Activities Nit Witt Ridge881 Hillcrest Dr., Cambria, 805/927-2690, $10, kids $5 Henry Miller LibraryHwy. 1, Big Sur, 831/667-2574, henrymiller.org, donations accepted Day 3: San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara The Big Sky Cafe, downtown, serves all the great morning standards, plus a terrific posole, a pork and hominy stew. At our waitress's suggestion, we strolled into the parking lot across the street to see a local landmark called Bubble Gum Alley. It's a walkway between stores where, for decades, San Luis Obispans have been sticking their chewed gum. Sure enough, the alley was covered in the gooey stuff, some fresh and pink but most brown with age. Far from an example of public art, the alley struck me as a threat to public health. This part of the California coastline is still beautiful, but less rugged than up north. It's also more developed, scarred by subdivisions. We found refuge in Pismo State Beach, a winter breeding ground for monarch butterflies. They were flitting around the bushes and eucalyptus trees. In a tranquil clearing, a sign promised butterfly talks daily at 11 a.m. We waited. And waited. We watched the butterflies. No one came to talk, but it didn't matter. The butterflies were best observed in silence anyway. On the way toward Solvang, we cut inland through rolling wine country, the stunning vineyards featured in Sideways, and stopped at La Purisima Mission, founded in 1787. The Mission was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812, and it's since been faithfully rebuilt seven miles from its original location. The big, bucolic compound has low-slung Spanish-style adobe buildings and artifacts depicting life some 200 years ago. We were the only visitors in the sprawling place, and burros and horses grazed in a fenced-in pasture. Solvang is a peculiar place, a city that was settled by Danish immigrants that's now a tourist draw. It looked to me like Danish Disney World: windmills, wood-frame gingerbread houses, a store selling Christmas ornaments year-round. Even the Best Western has the chutzpah to call itself the Kronborg Inn. At the New Danish Inn Restaurant (now closed), we ordered smorgasbord, a buffet of meatballs, cabbage, and forlorn-looking salads, only to discover that smorgasbord is Danish for "lots of food we're not in the mood to eat." So we headed next door to Paula's Pancake House for delicious Danish pancakes--big, light, and dusted with powdered sugar. Late that afternoon, we started to see palm trees, nature's welcome to southern California. The Pacific Crest Inn, a no-frills motel in Santa Barbara, was remarkably inexpensive for a place only a block from the beach. An unadvertised bonus: The inn is also near La Super-Rica Taqueria. The Mexican restaurant was celebrated by Julia Child, and I'd heard so much hype about it, I was braced for disappointment. But the tamales, stuffed with chayote squash and topped with cream sauce, were the best I've ever eaten, and the salsa was hot enough to melt my teeth. Lodging Pacific Crest Inn by the Sea433 Corona Del Mar, Santa Barbara, 805/966-3103, from $59 Food Big Sky Cafe1121 Broad St., San Luis Obispo, 805/545-5401, posole $9 Paula's Pancake House1531 Mission Dr., Solvang, 805/688-2867, pancakes $5 La Super-Rica Taqueria622 N. Milpas St., Santa Barbara, 805/963-4940, tamale $4 Activities Pismo State BeachPier Ave., Oceano, 805/489-2684 La Purisima Mission2295 Purisima Rd., Lompoc, 805/733-3713, car fee $4 Day 4: Santa Barbara to L.A. As we loaded up the car, two young surfers passed us on their way back from the water. "Totally gnarly," they said, when we asked how the waves were. Our drive down toward Ventura was also pretty gnarly, skirting a coastline that seems to have sprung from a Beach Boys song. Turning inland, we merged with heavy traffic on the 405 freeway. On a hilltop in the Santa Monica Mountains, Los Angeles's Getty Center caused such a stir when it opened in 1997 that visitors had to make reservations. No longer. Still, it was crowded when we got there at 11 a.m., and the line for the tram--the only way up--was dishearteningly long. By the time we reached the top, about 40 minutes later, our schedule was too tight to tour the exhibits. But the building, designed by Richard Meier, is art enough--a gleaming modernist fortress of Italian travertine. The grand gardens are like a streamlined, modern version of those at Versailles, and a smaller cactus garden offers extensive variety--some round and squat, others tall and lanky, with arms outstretched like gunslingers. Beyond, a view of L.A. was spectacular but sobering--ocean to the west, smog to the south. Leaving the museum, we cut back west to Santa Monica. Main Street was crammed: cars, cafés, cool dudes. We stopped at Urth Caffé for prosciutto sandwiches. On our way out, a blond man in hip shades shouldered past us. "An actor!" Sara whispered excitedly. He's the one, she explained, who played the hero in that film we saw that time, the one with those chase scenes and the fate of the world hanging in the balance. "Are you positive that wasn't the sequel?" I replied. On the way to the airport, we hit apocalyptic traffic. In the course of our trip, we'd watched one of the world's loveliest highways grow into a groaning urban thoroughfare, not so much ugly as monotonous. We sat in silence, a couple on the cusp of middle age, happy and comfortable together, even if the highway we love had become a road we no longer recognize. Food Urth Caffé2327 Main St., Santa Monica, 310/314-7040, prosciutto sandwich $12 Activities The Getty Center1200 Getty Center Dr., L.A., 310/440-7300, getty.edu, parking $7 Finding your way Highway 1 runs south from the Golden Gate Bridge, cutting across the Presidio and Golden Gate Park. It also passes through neighborhoods that are usually clogged with traffic and not especially scenic. An easier way to pick up Highway 1 is to take Highway 101 south from San Francisco to 280 south, which meets Highway 1 near the coast. Mudslides and flooding sometimes close parts of Highway 1 in winter. For road conditions, call Caltrans at 916/445-7623. The Getty Center isn't on Highway 1. To get there, head east on Highway 10 and backtrack north on the 405. If Highway 1 is closed through the Santa Monica Mountains, stay on the 101 south to the 405 south.

Road Trips

Every Day Is a Winding Road in Ireland

It's time to ditch the itinerary and embark on what we call a Choose Your Own Adventure package. You get airfare, a car rental, a week's worth of lodging vouchers, and the freedom to hopscotch around the countryside, booking your next room just a day in advance. The trend began in Ireland in 1999, before spreading to Great Britain, France, and beyond. Barbara Peck test-drives one of the original deals. This past summer, having packed our two sons off to camp, my husband and I were ready for our first child-free vacation in years. Ireland, so compact yet so diverse, seemed perfect for a driving trip. Fortunately for me, David is handy at hauling luggage, driving a stick shift on the wrong side of the road, and lustily singing "Black Velvet Band." We agreed on flying into Shannon Airport rather than Dublin, so we could explore the wild western coast, especially the rugged hills of Connemara. Several companies offer Ireland deals that include flights, a rental car, and vouchers good at roughly 1,400 B&Bs belonging to the Town and Country Homes Association. All the packages have the same weeklong format: six nights in B&Bs or five B&B nights and one night at a hotel or castle. (Ireland and B&Bs are made for each other. The Irish are gregarious hosts, and many have been renting out rooms for decades; while hotels are rare in rural areas, there's always a B&B no matter how far you stray from the beaten path.) But unlike a traditional tour, where there's little room for spontaneity, these packages let you change your itinerary as you go, choosing a different B&B every night, or settling in if you find one that suits your style. After poking around online, I called several tour operators in hopes of speaking with a real person. Everyone was polite and patient, almost soothing. I especially appreciated the Irish lilt in the voice of Catherine, an agent at Brian Moore International Tours. But in the end I settled on Ireland.com, which offered the lowest rate and nonstop flights to Shannon on our preferred airline. A large envelope arrived a few days later, with e-tickets, accommodations and car-rental vouchers, an itinerary, a road map, and the 336-page Bed & Breakfast Guide. We had a rough plan: To steer clear of tourist hordes, I vetoed the famous Ring of Kerry, despite Dave's protest that it'd be like going to Arizona without seeing the Grand Canyon. Instead, we'd loop around the Dingle Peninsula before our castle stay at Adare Manor, then we'd head for Connemara. Following Ireland.com's advice to book our first night in advance, I combed through the guide, scrutinizing photos of Dingle B&Bs. Few fit my image of a quaint thatched cottage. Instead, they were mostly plain suburban houses built in recent decades. It's clearly a popular look to surround a house with asphalt; many B&Bs appear to have enough space to park a semi. I studied the two-line descriptions for clues (looking for gardens in particular) and e-mailed four Dingle properties to check availability. Within hours, all four replied in the affirmative. Ten days later we arrived at Shannon, where we picked up a Ford Fiesta from Dooley Car Rentals. Soon after leaving the highway we plunged into an impossibly green landscape where hedgerows were bursting with ferns and foxgloves. As we approached a confusing roundabout, Dave's eyes narrowed and the chorus of "Whiskey in the Jar" died on his lips. "Okay, which way is it?" he asked. Stalling for time, I offered what was to become my standard advice: "Just keep going around till we figure it out." Once we conquered the roundabout, our first B&B, Strand View House, was easy to locate. Mary Lynch showed us to an immaculate room in the back, with a view of flowering shrubs and a fieldstone wall on a hillside. The bed looked horizontal, which is all we cared about after our overnight flight. We took a brief nap, then got back in the car and drove across the Dingle Peninsula, stopping at Ireland's highest mountain pass, Conor Pass, to marvel at the motley patchwork of fields and lakes below. (Government officials recently announced that Dingle's name would change to An Daingean, a Gaelic word that means fortress and is apparently pronounced awn-dang-in. We called it Dingle, just like everyone else.) We covered a good part of the peninsula, along roads that in some places were so narrow I closed my eyes when a bus approached. In the early evening we retraced our steps to have dinner in the peninsula's biggest town, also known as Dingle. A contemporary bistro called the Chart House convinced us that the old Irish meat-and-potatoes cliché is a thing of the past. We devoured a mushroom appetizer baked with hummus and gubeen (a local cheese), and we lingered at the end over a rhubarb crumble with ginger ice cream. On the 30-minute drive back to Strand View House, we realized it's important to keep in mind where you'd like to eat when booking a B&B. Nobody wants to--or should--drive on winding country roads after a leisurely meal and some wine or Guinness. Waking in the middle of the night, I pondered the name of the B&B. Strand View House certainly implied a view of the strand--in this case, Ireland's longest beach. So why, when the other three rooms were unoccupied, had we been placed in back? I asked Mary about our room at breakfast, which was the best of our trip: amazing pancakes--more like crepes, really--and Ireland's excellent smoked salmon, served with scrambled eggs. We'd checked in early, she replied, so she'd given us the only room ready at the time. (The best room, Mount Brandon, has a stunning view of the ocean.) Before leaving, we handed over the voucher dated for the previous night's stay--so much nicer than a credit card or cold, hard cash. Adare Manor came next. The 18th-century stone castle, all towers and turrets, sits on 840 groomed acres, with a golf course and massive cedar, birch, and oak trees. Our palatial room--we received an upgrade for no discernible reason--was decorated in black, gold, and red, with a stone fireplace. And dinner in the Oakroom was outstanding: a table set with candelabra and white linens, a meal that included seared Atlantic scallops and herb-crusted rack of lamb, and a window overlooking the parterre. Though we were there on a package, we never felt like second-class citizens. The staff was unfailingly pleasant and courteous. We planned to wing it the following night--wandering around Galway until we came upon a B&B we liked the look of, and ringing the doorbell to see if there was a room. Bad idea. Galway's B&Bs were full--the photo in the Irish Independent of Matt Dillon at the Galway Film Festival should have tipped us off. In the late afternoon we stopped at a Tourist Information Center (they're all over the country; a big "I" marks the spot) to spend a half hour with the determined Vincent, who pledged to find us a room nearby. (Staffers at any TIC will perform the service for $5 per booking.) Vincent consulted his computer system and made several calls--all the while displaying his masterful gift of gab. The B&B he found, Lake Side Country House outside the town of Oughterard, turned out to be one of our favorites. "She sounds lovely on the phone," he confided after speaking with Mary O'Halloran, our host-to-be. Galway is a youthful, artsy city, full of people enjoying life. Dave and I strolled the maze of pedestrian-only streets, ducking into bookstores, listening to buskers playing flute and guitar, and inspecting sidewalk vendors' jewelry. After gorging on seafood at McDonagh's Seafood House--we should have split an entrée--we left to arrive just before sunset at Lake Side Country House, on the undeveloped shores of Lough Corrib, Ireland's second-largest lake. Joe O'Halloran has built a rock garden with the oddly shaped pieces of limestone he can't stop collecting (that one looks like a little fox! and there's a spaniel!), while a pasture beside the house provides a home for Connemara ponies and the chicken coop. Lake Side was a peaceful haven, though Dave was disturbed by the whirring sound made by the tiny electric shower ("I always thought water and electricity don't mix"). The next morning, yet another huge breakfast--besides juice and a selection of cereals, there were always eggs, usually accompanied by sausage, ham, tomato, and toast. Many of the B&B hosts are accomplished bakers, and we quickly developed a taste for Irish brown bread, slightly sweet with a cakey texture. At Lake Side, too full to get back in the car right away, we took a short walk down a country lane lined with blackberry bushes to see Aughnanure Castle, a six-story stone tower where O'Flaherty chieftains barricaded themselves against the British in the 16th century. Our kids would have loved reading about the resident bats and seeing the "murder hole"--an opening above the front door that allowed defenders to drop stones onto anyone who had managed to breach the fortified walls. From Oughterard, the landscape opens up to Connemara's high, lonely moors, with their peat bogs, fragrant wild roses, and countless lakes and streams. By now the generally rainy weather hadn't just broken--it had turned sunny and hot. Heat-wave hot. Few Irish B&Bs have air-conditioning, and we were soon lamenting the absence of even a fan in the bedroom. I booked our three remaining B&Bs the easiest way possible, by simply asking our host at one place to call the next. Each did so willingly, and offered helpful advice as to choices. We spent a night at Winnowing Hill, a hillside B&B with a solarium overlooking lush rosebushes, a manicured lawn, and, beyond that, the steeples of Clifden, Connemara's main town. Then, since I still yearned for a B&B with a lot of history, we traveled deeper into Connemara to Kylemore House, a high-ceilinged Georgian villa more than 200 years old, beside Lough Kylemore. Kylemore Abbey, a big-ticket attraction for Connemara, was a five-minute drive away. Built as a private home in 1867, the Gothic Revival castle later became a Benedictine abbey, whose nuns now run a girls' boarding school there. While the $13 entrance fee seemed pricey, for that we were able to view several beautifully restored formal rooms and take a 10-minute shuttle ride to the six-acre Victorian walled garden. Mitchell Henry, son of a Manchester cotton tycoon, spent four years building the castle for his wife and nine children. Only three years after moving in, his wife died in Cairo--a tantalizing detail (nine kids and she was vacationing in Egypt?) that made her death seem that much more tragic. Henry built the exquisite chapel in her memory. For our final night, to position us within easy reach of Shannon Airport, I reserved a room near Killaloe, a pretty village on the River Shannon. Carramore Lodge had a huge velvety lawn out front, flanked by colorful perennial beds and a goldfish pond. We'd come to expect the pink walls that we found in our room--every B&B we stayed in had pink walls, or pink sheets, or pink floral comforters, or a combination of all three. To escape the stifling heat, we passed the evening on the breezy roof deck of Molly's, a lively bar and restaurant at one end of the bridge that links Killaloe with its sister town of Ballina. Couples and families crowded around the tables, while teenagers milled about down by the river, in the way that teenagers do everywhere. At sunset we each raised a Guinness to toast our trip--and the last of these footloose days. We were ready to be parents again. B&B basics Book the castle first. Brian Moore International Tours and Ireland.com both offer nights at Adare Manor, Waterford Castle, Dromoland Castle, and Ashford Castle. BMIT can also book Cabra and Lalyseede Castles. Celtic Tours has even more options. Your choice will dictate at least part of your itinerary. I picked Adare Manor, which is near Shannon Airport, and found out when I booked that only one night was available there--our second. Since we were flying into Shannon, we couldn't roam too far from Adare on our first day. Fine-tune the package. Call tour operators directly and book only what you think is essential. As part of our Emerald Castle package, Ireland.com would reserve our first night at a hotel near Shannon Airport. Since we were arriving in the early morning--and had all day in front of us--we wanted to hit the road. I booked that night myself elsewhere and saved $5 because the hotel room would have cost more than our night at a B&B. Avoid the high season. Our visit was in early July. Later in the month and throughout August, many B&Bs get even busier, and it's recommended that you prebook both your first and last night. That'll take away a lot of your flexibility. Rooms in and around Dublin must always be reserved well in advance, as the demand is high. You'll pay an extra $9 per night in Dublin from June through September (in cash, directly to your host). Splurge appropriately. We chose B&Bs that had rooms with private baths. A less-expensive option gives you shared baths, sometimes in farmhouses. Our total with taxes and fees: $1,693 each, as peak-season flights were $1,000 per person. But once in Ireland, our only real expenses were meals and gas. Most tour operators offer low-season rates of $499 to $599 for the standard B&B package. Go manual. The basic packages include stick-shift cars. Upgrading to an automatic costs up to $50 more, depending on the season. Extra charges will include $67 for the Collision Damage Waiver, which is mandatory in Ireland (add it on when you book because it'll cost twice as much if you wait to buy it in Ireland); a government car-rental tax of $29 payable at pickup; and a possible $7 per day for an extra driver, even a spouse. Cars usually come with a CD player, so pack some Irish music--The Chieftains, Van Morrison, U2. Sneak a peek online. Log on to the Town and Country Homes website tandctrade.com to get a look at the B&Bs. Be sure to specify "vouchers accepted" so that you'll see only those that participate in the program. Confirm ahead! When you reserve a room, call to make sure that the B&B does accept vouchers--even if the Town and Country Homes website says it does. Apparently some hosts have withdrawn from the program, as it can take a while for them to be reimbursed (one owner told us she wasn't paid until December for a summer booking). Pack light. Though all the B&Bs we stayed in were comfortable, we were glad we didn't have much luggage, as space was tight. Many of our rooms had been retrofitted to hold a small bathroom with a shower (none had a tub). And in some cases, the sink was outside the bathroom, in the room itself. However, there's often a sitting room where you can spread out. While we'd expected to be able to trade B&B tips with Americans, we often found ourselves among Danish, Swiss, and English travelers. Who sells B&B packages?   Brian Moore International Tours Also has packages to Great Britain. 800/982-2299, bmit.com.   Celtic Tours Also offers Great Britain. 888/833-4373, celtictours.com.   Dooley Vacations An offshoot of Dooley Car Rentals. First night is prebooked. Also Great Britain and France. 877/331-9301, dooleyvacations.com.   EuropeASAP You won't know the airline or the exact departure date until after you book (enter two possible dates and you're guaranteed to get one). Also Great Britain and France. 415/750-5449, europeasap.com.   Ireland.com Ireland packages only. Unless you request otherwise, your first night is prebooked in a hotel near the airport. 800/896-4600, ireland.com/travel.   Sceptre Tours Ireland only. First night is prebooked unless you request otherwise. 800/221-0924, sceptretours.com. Lodging   Strand View House Conor Pass Rd., Castlegregory, Co. Kerry, 011-353/66-713-8131, strandview.com   Adare Manor Adare, Co. Limerick, 800/462-3273, adaremanor.com   Lake Side Country House Ardnasilla, Oughterard, Connemara, Co. Galway, 011-353/ 91-552-846, lakesideaccommodation@hotmail.com   Winnowing Hill B&B Ballyconneely Rd., Clifden, Co. Galway, 011-353/ 95-21-281, winnowinghill.com   Kylemore House Kylemore, Connemara, Co. Galway, 011-353/ 95-41-143, connemara.net/kylemorehouse   Carramore Lodge Ballina, Killaloe, Co. Clare, 011-353/61-376-704, carramorelodge.net Food   Chart House The Mall Rd., Dingle, Co. Kerry, 011-353/ 66-915-2255, three-course value menu $42   Oakroom Adare Manor, Adare, Co. Clare, 011-353/61-605-200, four-course menu $68   McDonagh's Seafood House 22 Quay St., Galway, Co. Galway, 011-353/91-565-001, entrées from $16   Molly's Bar & Restaurant Ballina, Killaloe, Co. Tipperary, 011-353/61-374-928, pint $4 Activities   Aughnanure Castle Oughterard, Co. Galway, 011-353/ 91-552-214, heritageireland.ie, $3   Kylemore Abbey Kylemore, Connemara, Co. Galway, 011-353/ 95-41-146, kylemoreabbey.com, $13

Road Trips

Driving the Florida Panhandle

Day 1: Tallahassee to Wakulla Springs Minutes after leaving the Tallahassee airport, my boyfriend, Ted, and I realize we're about to experience a side of Florida quite different from hard-partying Miami and built-up Orlando. This is the South: The airport abuts the Apalachicola National Forest, and the road out is lined by thick pines. The forests are so dense, in fact, that Ted makes uncomfortable jokes about expecting to hear "Dueling Banjos." Wakulla Springs State Park, 15 miles from the airport, has a freshwater spring that's 70 degrees year-round. Over the years, divers have explored the depths--at 185 feet, it's one of the world's deepest--and come back up with, among other things, the skeleton of a mastodon, a prehistoric elephant-like animal, which was found in the 1930s. Meanwhile, fishermen found Old Joe, a 650-pound alligator (shot between the eyes in 1966 and now in a vitrine in the lobby of the Wakulla Springs Lodge). We arrive at 10:30 a.m., just in time for a 40-minute boat tour on the Wakulla River, which runs through the park. Our guide is J.J., a young, handsome guy who loses points when he instructs us to call him Captain Crash. "Don't touch the alligators, because they'll touch back," warns the Captain. Beady eyes blink at us from the water, and touching what's attached to them couldn't be less appealing. On the shore, an anhinga, a black-and-white-feathered waterbird, is standing still, its large wings spread out to dry. Somehow it seems foreboding; the fact that the 1954 horror flick Creature From the Black Lagoon was filmed at Wakulla Springs comes as no surprise. Back onshore, I see a sign reading alligators--swim with caution. A more appropriate sign would say swim elsewhere. We move on to meet some friendlier animals at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. The 68,000-acre refuge is a protected winter stopover for migratory birds. We pick up a driving guide to the seven-mile Lighthouse Road, and dutifully veer off at each of the seven pullouts to admire marshes and man-made freshwater pools. From start to finish, ours is the only car on the narrow road; the action is confined to cabbage palms swaying on the shoulder. Signs along the road and walking trails list bird species to look out for, as well as relevant historical facts. Among other interesting tidbits, we learn that Native Americans and colonists used the bark of prickly ash trees to soothe tooth-aches, and made tea from wax myrtle as a stomachache remedy. Spring Creek is a small fishing community 13 miles south of Wakulla Springs. Spring Creek Restaurant, owned by the Lovel family, has an attached gallery that displays drawings of flounder and other fish by the son, Clay Lovel. The fried oyster sandwich is plump and delicious, and while eating, Ted and I flip through Spring Creek Chronicles, a two-volume paperback collection of short stories by the father, Leo, describing his "mullet catching, turkey shooting, offshore fishing, and law evading" activities. We're suitably intrigued and ask Leo, who's behind the counter, to elaborate. He tells us it was nothing serious: "Just fishin' with an outlawed net, but I'm still in court for it." The exchange somehow raises more questions than it answers. We join Old Joe, the monstrous gator, at Wakulla Springs Lodge, built in 1937. A family is playing checkers at one of the marble-topped tables in the lobby, which has hand-painted beams on the ceiling. Our room, which faces the springs, is furnished with a comfortable chaise and a four-poster bed. Ted falls asleep within seconds. Not me. I'm haunted by thoughts of what might be lurking outside. Alligators? Creatures from the Black Lagoon? Leo Lovel with an outlawed net? Lodging Wakulla Springs Lodge550 Wakulla Park Dr., Wakulla Springs, 850/926-0700, floridastateparks.org/wakullasprings, from $85 Food Spring Creek Restaurant33 Ben Willis Rd., Crawfordville, 850/926-3751, fried oyster sandwich $7 Activities Wakulla Springs State Park550 Wakulla Park Dr., Wakulla Springs, 850/926-0700, floridastateparks.org/wakullasprings, car fee $4 St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge1255 Lighthouse Rd., St. Marks, 850/925-6121, fws.gov/saintmarks, car fee $4 Day 2: Wakulla Springs to Apalachicola From Wakulla, we head over a five-mile causeway to St. George Island. At first, I'm disappointed--the Panhandle is famous for its 220 miles of sugar-white beaches, but all I see are masses of vacation homes on stilts. On the less-developed east end, there's more of what I'm looking for. The white sand at St. George Island State Park is dazzling, marked only with the tracks of blue herons. A nature trail winds through a pine forest to the bay side of the island. We're spending the night six miles farther west on the mainland in Apalachicola, which has a long history as a hub for the oyster, sponge, cotton, and lumber industries. Today, the warehouses and offices are mostly gone, replaced by restaurants, boutiques, and tourist shops. Despite all that, it feels more like a lovely, slow-paced village than a buzzing town. (Apalachicola got its first stoplight only weeks before we arrived.) A guy standing in front of the chamber of commerce says that if we want a lunch place with character we should head to Indian Pass Raw Bar, 18 miles west in the town of Indian Pass. From outside, the ramshackle, paint-chipped building looks abandoned. Inside, it seems like the whole town has showed up for lunch. There's hardly room at one of the long tables, which are covered with plastic checkered tablecloths. Each table has a roll of paper towels and a box of Saltines; both come in handy when sopping up the spicy seafood gumbo. It's a small bowl, but it's mighty filling. Returning to Apalachicola, we check in at the Gibson Inn. The grand Victorian was built as a hotel in 1907, and our room has an antique four-poster bed and wicker chairs. I'm glad we're not in room 309, where the ghost of a ship's captain is rumored to appear occasionally. We walk around town, looking at all the beautiful Greek Revival and Victorian buildings dating back to the 1830s. The men who made their money in the town's industries built stately homes, some of which have been turned into inns. We're happy to discover Tamara's Café Floridita. The original owner, Tamara Suarez, moved to Apalachicola in 1996 after 10 years as a TV producer in Venezuela. On a vacation, she fell in love with the town's quaintness, and thought--rightly so--that the locals could use a restaurant that served something other than fried fish. She recently sold the restaurant to her daughter and son-in-law, but the menu remains Latin fusion. Ted and I split four tapas (shrimp with garlic, mussels in wine sauce, crab cakes, and prosciutto with fruit). The crab cakes have a real kick, and we use bread to polish off the wine sauce loaded with capers, red peppers, and shallots. We're in heaven, and somehow we still find room for the perfectly tart key lime pie. Back at the Gibson Inn, we have a nightcap of mint juleps while sitting in rocking chairs on the wraparound porch. Lodging Gibson Inn51 Ave. C, Apalachicola, 850/653-2191, gibsoninn.com, from $85 Food Pass Raw Bar8391 C-30A, Indian Pass, 850/227-1670, gumbo $5.25 Tamara's Café Floridita17 Ave. E, Apalachicola, 850/653-4111, shrimp tapas $5.50 Activities St. George Island State Park1900 E. Gulf Beach Dr., St. George Island, 850/927-2111, floridastateparks.org/stgeorgeisland, car fee $5 Day 3: Apalachicola to Ft. Walton Beach Route 98 is the main road tracing the coast, and for 60 miles to the west, there isn't a whole lot to see other than stores selling spring-break souvenirs. We speed past Panama City, with its go-kart joints, video arcades, and body-piercing salons. In Seagrove Beach, we stop at Cocoon's, a deli and take-out market, to pick up tuna sandwiches and marinated artichoke salad. Then it's on to Eden Gardens State Park. Lois Maxon, a wealthy New York publisher, bought the former lumber baron's estate in the early 1960s and spent most of the decade renovating it and planting 11 acres of gardens. The Choctawhatchee River used to be the main artery for lumber barges, and we make a picnic in the park at a table beside the Tucker Bayou, an inlet of Choctawhatchee Bay, where the lumber was loaded and carted by barge up to Alabama and beyond. On a 45-minute house tour, the guide gives us the lowdown on Maxon's impressive antiques, which include the country's second-largest collection of Louis XVI furniture. The Panhandle of Florida is one of the only places in the country with coastal dune lakes. Because the lakes are filled with freshwater in addition to small amounts of salt water, migratory birds depend on them as a water source, as did Native Americans some 10,000 years ago. It begins drizzling just as we start walking down the two-and-a-half-mile Morris Lake nature trail toward one of the lakes at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. Still, we continue on through the wet sand, and the sound of the ocean gets louder. A shimmering lake appears between the dunes; lily pads are floating on the surface, mist is rising from the water, bass are jumping and flopping. A quick look is all we can manage before we race back to the car, drenched. Later, someone tells us that alligators live there, too, but luckily we didn't cross their path. Food Cocoon's4101 E. Hwy. 30-A, Seagrove Beach, 850/ 231-4544, tuna sandwich $5 Activities Eden Gardens State ParkC.R. 395 off Rte. 98, Point Washington, 850/267-8322, floridastateparks.org/edengardens, car fee $3, mansion tour $3 Topsail Hill Preserve State Park7525 W. Scenic Highway 30A, Santa Rosa Beach, 850/267-8330, floridastateparks.org/topsailhill, car $2 Day 4: Ft. Walton Beach to Tallahassee The rain has finally stopped by the time we wake up, but it's still a cold 50 degrees, which is fairly normal for winter. Clearly, indoor activities are in order. Every region in the country seems to be gunning for the title of the Next Napa these days, and this part of Florida is no different; in fact, there are five wineries on the Panhandle. At Chautauqua Winery in De Funiak Springs, a short video presentation gives the long view on local winemaking, pointing out that the first wines in the New World were made in Florida in 1662. To our delight, the tasting is free, and the Chautauqua goes all out, serving a total of 17 varietals--in small amounts--including chardonnay, merlot, and zinfandel. My favorite happens to be one of the specialties, the wildflower honey muscadine, a dessert wine made from local muscadine grapes. Because it's a chilly day, the tasting ends with a small glass of hot mulled wine with cinnamon and cloves.  With a late flight out of Tallahassee, we've got just enough time to visit Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, about an hour from the airport. I tend to experience claustrophobia, but ranger Frank Strickland assures me there are no tight squeezes. On the 45-minute tour, Strickland explains how water dripping through the limestone ceiling eventually dissolved the calcium and produced stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstone, a cave formation that resembles a frozen waterfall coating the cavern walls. Some of the especially unusual rock formations we see include a column in the form of a wedding cake and a large blob of flowstone that looks strangely like a pipe organ. It did to me, anyway. Then again, maybe I had a bit too much of that muscadine. Activities Chautauqua Winery364 Hugh Adams Rd., De Funiak Springs, 850/ 892-5887 Florida Caverns State Park3345 Caverns Rd., Marianna, 850/ 482-9598, car fee $4, cave tour $6 Finding your way Pensacola, on the Panhandle's western edge (and served by AirTran), can also work as a starting point for this trip. Note: Hurricane Dennis did some damage to Indian Pass Raw Bar as well as St. George Island State Park. The restaurant will be fixed up by early 2006. However, it's wise to call ahead for updates before visiting the area. A couple of navigational pointers: To drive closest to the beach, take 30A, which veers off Route 98 after Sunnyside; the Chautauqua Winery is at the intersection of exit 85 on I-10 and Route 331, off Business Park Road (it can be tricky to find).

Road Trips

Fill'er Up, Mate: Australian Road Trips

What you'll find in this story: Australia travel, Australia culture, Australia attractions, Australia itineraries, Australia lodging, Australian dining Our intrepid reporter takes us into the red centre, down the great ocean road, and to the remote southwest corner. 1. Into the Red Centre If Australia were folded in half like a book, the Stuart Highway would be its spine, forging through emptiness for 2,000 miles. Driving half of it is plenty, so I've flown to the dead center: the desert town of Alice Springs. North of "the Alice" there's barely a stoplight for 1,000 miles--about the distance from Dallas to Chicago--until the asphalt meets Darwin, on the Timor Sea. Like Germany's autobahn, the Stuart has no speed limit; unlike the autobahn, it's virtually barren. Every 45 minutes or so, a roadhouse appears mirage-like on the horizon, offering gas, beer, motel-style lodging, and a little "Where ya from, mate?" Aside from that, the land presents itself the way God made it. Hour by hour, sandy red earth gives way to spindly trees, brown escarpments, termite mounds as tall as kindergartners, and not much else. No cell phone coverage, no radio stations. There's nowhere else on earth to be so isolated while on good roads in your average rental car. A drive on the Stuart Highway evolves slowly, with developments marked by the odometer. Kilometer 36 north of Alice Springs: cross the Tropic of Capricorn. At 54: spot two wedge-tailed eagles feeding on kangaroo roadkill. At 83, 443, 906, and 1,222: nearly hit a kangaroo myself. At 142: tank up beside a "road train," Australia's superlong tractor trailers that pull three or four long trailers. At 202: Ti Tree, "the most central pub in Oz." No one blinks when truckers drain their beers and get right back in their cabs. Periodically, I pull over and cut the engine, just to feel the nothingness. I consider walking deep into the scrub but never make it more than 20 feet without worrying about snakebites--and being picked clean by wedge-tailed eagles. The pleasure of a Stuart drive is partly in stumbling across artifacts from man's attempts to make use of the bush. Beside the gas station in Barrow Creek (kilometer 294), a wooden telegraph repeater station from the early 1870s stands abandoned but perfectly preserved by the dry desert air. There's another in the expanse north of Tennant Creek (541). Barely rusted bits of telegraph wire and antique bottles still litter the grounds of both. The eerie ruins at Gorrie Airfield (1,103) once housed 6,500 personnel in World War II. Today, there are ghostly scraps of gray bitumen leading to an old fighter runway that's over a mile long. The walls inside most of the bush pubs along the highway are stapled over with bras, underwear, foreign currency, and business cards--a few of mine included--left by visitors from around the world. Basic rooms cost about $35; given the volume of cold Victoria Bitter on tap, by bedtime most customers aren't in a state to quibble over thread counts. Just about every pit stop is run by someone who could pass as the main character in a novel. The proprietor of the roadhouse at Wycliffe Well (393) has lined the walls with newspaper reports of local UFO sightings. The owner of the Wauchope Hotel (411) abandoned a 35-year career as a firefighter in Adelaide. The night before I arrive, 40 guys from a remote cattle station drove two hours over a dirt track to have a birthday party there; it lasted until dawn. At the pub inside the Daly Waters Historic Hotel (986), road-trippers gather nightly to be entertained by 14-year-old singer Patrick Webster, who brazenly flirts with waitresses 10 years his senior, and by Frank the Chook Man, who does renditions of folk songs as live chickens roost on his hat. Even the highway's banner sights seem like something a science-fiction writer might have cooked up. The two big ones are the rock that looks like Winston Churchill's head (652) and the Devil's Marbles, huge, rounded boulders jumbled together improbably in the desert (422). The wildlife is similarly otherworldly. Some visitors think, at first, that the stirring in the cabbage tree palms and paperbarks above the turquoise Mataranka Thermal Springs (1,220) comes from a bird of some sort. In fact, it's the squabbling of hundreds of thousands of flying foxes, big as beagles and hanging upside down while flailing their leathery wings. The gassy creatures poop everywhere, but that doesn't stop people from jumping in the water beneath them (750 miles of desert scrub will make anyone desperate for a soak). Around kilometer 1,575, the world comes sufficiently alive enough to drizzle. By the time the Stuart Highway terminates in Darwin (1,646), the humidity edges toward 100 percent, and I'm confronted with Internet cafés, traffic lights, and too many people for my Zenned-out brain to handle. Lodging   Wycliffe Well south of Wauchope, 011-61/8-8964-1966, from $30   Bluestone Motor Inn Paterson St. South, Tennant Creek, 011-61/8-8962-2617, from $75   Wauchope Hotel Wauchope, 011-61/ 8-8964-1963, from $55   Daly Waters Historic Hotel Daly Waters, 011-61/8-8975-9927, from $38   Barrow Creek Hotel Barrow Creek, 011-61/8-8956-9753, from $55 Food   Ti Tree Roadhouse Ti Tree, 011-61/ 8-8956-9741 Attractions   Devil's Marbles north of Wauchope, free   Mataranka Thermal Springs Mataranka Homestead Tourist Resort, east of Mataranka, 011-61/8-8975-4544, free 2. Great Ocean Road In the convict days, ships from Europe shortened the five-month journey to Sydney by sailing along Australia's southern coast, threading between Tasmania and the mainland near Melbourne, a perilous route through the rocky Bass Strait. The irony is that many ships went for months without seeing anything but water, only to literally crash into Australia. Just south of Melbourne, where I start my road trip, is enormous Port Philip Bay, which has 161 miles of coastline but a mouth that's only two miles wide. The channel roils with so much tidal water that seamen dubbed it the Rip. The area is notorious enough that when Australia's Prime Minister Harold Holt vanished while taking an ill-advised dip nearby in 1967, the government didn't launch so much as an inquiry. A few years later, the parliament did feel inspired to take action of a different sort a few miles south, at Bell's Beach, designating it a national surfing reserve. From a bluff I watch surfers in wet suits doggedly bob and paddle the same waves that host the annual Rip Curl Pro competition. The Surfworld Australia museum is in the adjoining town of Torquay. In front of the building, teenagers slam the pavement on beat-up skateboards, aware that this is one property they won't be chased off of. Inside, there's a hall of fame, a meticulous history section, and a continuous film festival of classic documentaries. The Great Ocean Road begins in Torquay and swerves along forested cliffs and swirling waters for 200-plus miles. I quickly learn that meals will be nothing fancy; the staple of the road's bakeshops is the meat pie (I like to dip them in tomato sauce like the locals do). Against my better judgment, at the Louttit Bay Bakery I try the Mitey Cheese Scroll, a platter-size swirl of cheese and moist bread that leaves me yearning for greens. My favorite stops for grub are at the pubs, where entire families hang out together. In an Airey's Inlet pub, I order a gin and tonic (it comes premixed in a can) and spot a boy no older than seven. He's perched on a bar stool, eating cheese puffs and chatting with the bartender like one of the gang. Cimarron, a B&B high above the town of Airey's Inlet, was designed and built in 1979 from native eucalyptus wood by Wade Chambers, an American-born professor. Scanning the thousands of books that line the walls, I tell Wade that I could get into the idea of moving, like he did, to this peaceful Aussie Malibu. Wade is an eager talker, and before we know it, it's past midnight. I switch on the TV--you can learn a lot about a place by what's showing late at night--and catch ads for livestock sales and lungworm poison. In the morning, wild parrots and white cockatoos peer into the windows. As I pull out of Cimarron, three bemused kangaroos blink at me before hopping into the trees. Several miles past Apollo Bay, another tiny vacation town, there's an easy-to-miss signpost: mait's rest. A path leads to a rain forest gully, trickling with streams, layered with ferns as big as beach towels, and pierced by shafts of sunlight. Australia is 70 percent arid, and it's shocking to see how much vivid green the other 30 percent of the land is able to muster. After an hour, an elderly couple appears. "Never seen anything like it," the woman says, craning her neck. It's a sight that would be famous elsewhere. Next stop is Otway Fly, one of the world's tallest treetop walkways, which opened in September 2003. Its steel catwalk system is 2,000 feet long, rising as high as 147 feet into a rain forest canopy of beech, blackwood, and ash. Seeing centuries-old forests from above, at bird's-eye level, is surprisingly compelling. Back on the coast, the Twelve Apostles finally come into view, like great sailing ships returning from a voyage. Fat, beige limestone pillars in the slate-blue water, the Apostles are worthy of their postcard fame. Crowds gather for the sidelong photo op from a promontory at Port Campbell National Park. A plump Australian blows cigarette smoke out his nose and says what we're all thinking: "They're so beautiful I could look at them all day." Meanwhile, hornet-like helicopters incessantly chop through the air. They're less annoying the minute I actually get in one. A 10-minute ride costs $58, and seven minutes after laying down my credit card, I'm snapping photos of the rumpled sheet of ocean below. The walking trails at Loch Ard Gorge, a mile or two on, explore the land above sea-worn tunnels, blowholes, and arches that have wrecked many a luckless ship. The gorge is named for its most infamous disaster--the Loch Ard went down in 1878 with 52 out of 54 passengers, even though it came to grief only about 20 feet from land. The air wheezes with sea mist as waves pummel the rocks and splash skyward. You can actually feel the earth tremble when the surges strike land. Lodging   Cimarron 105 Gilbert St., Airey's Inlet, 011-61/3-5289-7044, cimarron.com.au, from $115 Food   Louttit Bay Bakery 46b Mountjoy Parade, Lorne, 011-61/3-5289-1207 Attractions   Surfworld Australia Surf City Plaza, Beach Rd., Torquay, 011-61/3-5261-4606, surfworld.org.au, $5.60   Otway Fly Lavers Hill, 011-61/3-5235-9200, otwayfly.com, $9.30   Port Campbell National Park 011-61/13-1963, parkweb.vic.gov.au, free   PremiAir Port Campbell National Park, 011-61/3-5598-8266, premiairhelicopterservices.com, flights from $58   Great Ocean Road Tourism 011-61/3-5237-6529, greatoceanrd.org.au 3. The remote southwest corner I'm as far away from home as I can get without swimming--on the opposite end of the planet, with New York City somewhere beneath the soles of my feet--yet few places on earth seem more American. Driving south out of Perth, a city of skyscrapers, suburb tracts, car dealerships, and gas station mini-marts, things rhyme far more with Houston or Miami than with the pseudo-British settlements of eastern Australia. After a bland 100 miles or so, just below the town of Bunbury, the southwest tip of Australia juts into the Indian Ocean and the landscape bursts into a thousand shades of green. In the 50-odd miles between the northern and southern capes of the bulge is Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park, a coastline of thundering waves, untouched beaches, and death-wish surfers who brave curls with names like the Gallows and the Guillotine. In Yallingup, I check in at Caves House, amid gardens high above the moody sea. It's a creaking manor with a sweeping veranda, antique white-tiled bathrooms, and dark hallways lined with 1930s photographs of the staff dressed for tennis. I'm so enraptured by the time warp that in the morning I can't help gushing to the desk clerk. She nods sadly. "Glad you liked it," she says. "We got the word last week that we're all getting the boot." In a month, Caves House would be handed over to a company for conversion into a luxury resort. I drive to the coast's far southern tip, near Augusta, where the Indian and the Southern Oceans meet and chew furiously at the shoreline. Humpback and southern right whales are known to frolic in the foamy waters beneath the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse. When I ask about the seas, the lighthouse's middle-aged, cardigan-wearing ticket attendant mistakes me for a surfer. "Redgate Beach is going off today," she reports. "Be careful. There's a nasty rip." This remote corner of Australia is home to more than 60 wineries, which flourish thanks to sunny summers and surrounding waters that ward off frost and drought. It's called the Margaret River Wine Region, and the town of the same name is a laid-back artists' retreat of coffeehouses and galleries. Encouraged by raves from several people at a coffee shop in town, I lunch at VAT 107, which uses local organic ingredients for dishes like spicy quail, honeycomb ice cream, and grilled marron--a cobalt-blue freshwater crayfish that is native only to southwest Australia and can grow to more than a foot long. I rent a cottage for the night at Burnside Bungalows and Organic Farm. It's run by Jamie and Lara McCall, who fled Perth for the wine country a few years ago with their three young sons. Guests stay in airy, hand-built cottages with kitchens, woodstoves, and views over the paddocks, and they're even welcome to help themselves to food from the harvests--olives, macadamias, avocados, apricots, and mulberries. What really drew me to the region are the ancient, mammoth trees. The pale-bark karri trees are 150 feet tall, as big around as foldout couches. I cruise along on empty roads that undulate over hills, around pastures dotted with contented cows, and into miles of forests that feel as sacred as Gothic cathedrals. Now and then, brief bouts of rain appear, and the clean scent of wet soil pours through the open windows. It's car-commercial good. The forest hides some cozy lumber hamlets--toy-town-like and tinged with the aroma of freshly cut timber, where chimneys smoke and carpenters deal in exotic woods such as jarrah. Many village names use the Aboriginal suffix -up, which means "place of," lending the vicinity an endearing, fairy-tale euphony: Nannup, Manjimup, Balingup. Then there's Pemberton, home of one of the area's most prized attractions: the enormous Gloucester Tree, which for years served as a lookout tower for firefighters. Anyone may climb to its platform, which is 190 feet up, but the means of ascent is a helix of slippery metal pegs spiraling perilously into the branches. As evening sets in, I check into a two-room bungalow at Pump Hill Farm Cottages, stoke its potbellied stove, and uncork a bottle of Margaret River red. Out my back door, in total darkness, a cool rain rustles the leaves. I may be far from where I live, but I'm utterly at home. The chatter of the forest is a little unsettling at first, but by the time the fire dies out, I'm fast asleep. Lodging   Burnside Bungalows 291a Burnside Rd., Margaret River, 011-61/8-9757-2139, burnsidebungalows.com.au, from $125   Pump Hill Farm Pump Hill Rd., Pemberton, 011-61/8-9776-1379, pumphill.com.au, from $82 Food   VAT 107 107 Bussell Hwy., Margaret River, 011-61/8-9758-8877, vat107.com.au, tasting plate for two $22 Attractions   Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park 011-61/8-9752-5555, calm.wa.gov.au, free   Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse Quarry Bay, Augusta, 011-61/8-9757-7411, lighthouse.net.au, tours $6   The Gloucester Tree Burma Rd., Pemberton, 011-61/8-9776-1207, calm.wa.gov.au, $6.70 per car   Pemberton Tourist Centre 011-61/8-9776-1133, pembertontourist.com.au

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