Travels with a weak dollar

Where to go and what to do

Bill Morton
On Travel

True. There are Mercer Islanders who don’t have to worry much about the strength of the dollar as they weigh their travel fantasies for 2008.

This travel column is for the rest of us. Even old stand-bys like Canada and Mexico have to be looked at a second and third time. The US dollar has lost 40 percent of its value in just two years in Canada. I won’t go into my typical tirade about the long wait at the border, although in these times of the limp dollar, those lines may actually be shorter.

And Mexico? I’ll be taking an in-depth review south of the border in my travel piece next month, but no longer are its coastal resorts, from Cabo to Cancun, anything close to the bargains they were 20 years ago. Do we have NAFTA to thank for that?

So what’s left? If we would rather avoid tenting in state parks in 2008, what are some intriguing options? Where in the world can we travel to experience the joys of discovery and not discover that our wallet is running on empty? Take a look ...

Winter Getaways:

Argentina: The Economist magazine’s annual analysis of costs of living in the world’s 80 leading countries reports that Tango Country lies at a rock-bottom 54 percent of that of the United States. We are talking steak or prime rib dinners and all the trimmings coupled with local wines for under $15 a person. We’re talking Spanish language tutors for $5 an hour or less. Furnished apartments and condos in sophisticated and relatively safe Buenos Aires start at $250 a week. Tango lessons on the street are free! Want to visit Chile while you are there? Take a bus or train to Santiago and on to the beaches of Vina del Mar, with stops along the way to visit with gauchos, and you’ll pay well under $100. Sure, the round-trip tickets to Buenos Aires from Seattle are around $1,000, but you will pay more if you want to fly to Paris or Amsterdam this summer.

Florida’s Gulf Coast from Fort Myers up to the Redneck Riviera: With the mortgage crisis emptying homes in Florida, you might even buy a winter home when you are visiting. Prices have always been decent on Florida’s Sunshine Coast, and this winter will be no exception. If you want to avoid crowds, have beaches to yourself, and discover a less traveled side of America, drive toward Pensacola. Highlights along the way include Sanibel Island, Henry Ford’s Winter Home in Fort Myers, the Ringling Art Museum in Sarasota, Busch Gardens in Tampa, Tarpon Springs, Homosassa Springs, swimming with manatees, and Panama City Beach.

Spring Getaways:

The Empty Quarter, the North Loop: Joel Garreau’s 1981 revisionist geography, “Nine Nations of North America,” referred to the slightly populated Inland Empire areas east of the Cascade Mountain from Eastern British Columbia to the Four Corners of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, and everything in between as the “Empty Quarter.” I’ve always felt that bordering on the Empty Quarter was one of the lucky aspects of living in western Washington

From mid-April until the heat of summer hits in late June, this area greens out into nature at its best and is least traveled. Load up the SUV and head east toward Montana. Explore Flathead Lake, Glacier National Park, Yellowstone and The Grand Tetons literally on your own, since the annual European onslaught won’t hit until late June. I sat in a field of grass in Yellowstone on the first of May one year and saw no human or car for an hour. Buffalo, elk, a rabbit and a moose, but no people.

Other possible stops for this northern loop of Big Empty include Sun Valley. Over Memorial Day weekend one year, I had my choice of over 1,000 vacant, rentable and affordable condos at Sun Valley. Central Oregon’s Bend, Sisters and Hood River are quiet then too. Don’t forget Walla Walla for wine touring or Joseph, Ore., for art lovers. In Montana, the town of Great Falls is Charlie Russell country. Be sure to visit this fabulous Western artist’s home, studio and museum, as well as the new Lewis & Clark Portage Interpretive Center.

The South Loop of the Empty Quarter: Four Corners country gets real empty, but with the desert flowers ablaze, April through June is colorful and pleasantly warm. My favorites include Taos, N.M., with its Kit Carson home and Georgia O’Keefe art, and Moab, Utah, with its Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Moab has endless biking possibilities. Arizona is a trip in itself. The Grand Canyon state has several nodes of off-the-beaten-path interest. The Geronimo/Chiracahua Circle of Tombstone, Patagonia and Bisbee are crazy fun. A little cowboy, a little miner, a little Indian, a little Mexico. The high meadowlands of Show Low, Snowflake and Lakeside east of Phoenix is a little known delight. Red Rock country of Sedona, Oak Creek Canyon, Jerome and Prescott are fresh air heaven, and many feel that this is “vortex” country where mystic experiences are not uncommon.

Summer Getaways:

New England, New Brunswick, New Scotland (Nova Scotia) and New France (Quebec): Too many of us Americans only think of New England in terms of fall foliage. Sport lovers should be mindful that Cooperstown, N.Y. (the Baseball Hall of Fame); Newport, R.I. (the Tennis HOF); and Springfield, Mass. (Basketball HOF), are each an easy half-day drive from each other. Do you like lobster? Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia each have more cute bay-view restaurants serving lobster than France has creperies. Speaking of crepes, if you can’t let a year go by without an authentic French crepe, no problem. Cross the border for a day or two to get your annual quota of crepes in Quebec City or Montreal, each less than a two-hour drive from New England’s border.

The Pacific Beaches and Coast: If you want to stay on the West Coast this summer, I recommend Oregon’s southern coast and California’s north coast. From Florence, Bandon, Port Orford, Gold Beach and Brookings to Crescent City and down to artsy Mendocino, there are empty beaches, lighthouses and reasonable resorts and motels. Golfers know Bandon Dunes, but there are plenty of other links along the coastline. B&B lovers will appreciate the high bar that has been raised for overnights along this route, and Mendocino is heaven for romantic inns. Remember the movie, “Same Time Next Year,” starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn? Filmed in Mendocino — oh yeah!

Fall Getaways:

Wine touring gets better every year. Here in the Northwest between Walla Walla, the Columbia Valley, Yakima and the Willamette Valley’s Yamhill County centered at McMinnville, you can stock up for a year and not have to worry about customs. Each area is building its collection of quality B&Bs and resorts, and the restaurant scene is keeping pace.

If you want guaranteed sunshine and warm afternoons with your fall vacation, then you can get “sideways” in the Santa Ynez Valley just north of Santa Barbara. Work your way north up Highway 101 to Paso Robles, which is producing top-notch viogniers and sauvignons blancs. Two hours further north, you’ll be in Monterey and Carmel, where they are making good wines these days.

The Bounty of the Pacific Northwest is much more than wine. Spend a couple of days near La Conner in the Skagit Valley flats and discover home-crafted cheeses, fresh vegetables, shellfish and more. Cross the North Cascades highway and rediscover our central Washington fruit belt of apples, peaches, pears and apricots from Tonasket, Omak and Pateros on down to Entiat, Monitor, Selah and Toppenish.

Bill Morton can be reached at

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