The slowing economy doesn't mean you have to be holed up at home. With the global travel industry discounting like mad to heat up business in this winter of our discontent, there are great bargains to be had, domestically and overseas, in the sun and in the snow.
Here are five great winter vacations that won't break the budget.
Whistler and Vancouver, Canada: The Canadian dollar has retreated from parity with the greenback to 82 U.S. cents, making British Columbia's winter wonderland a bargain once again. Vancouver glistens with brand-new hotels such as the stylish boutique Loden and the luxury high-rise Shangri-la. The latter offers a sumptuous, Asian-inspired CHI Spa. Only 75 miles away, Whistler sits amid the sites of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. Those facilities are being test-driven now during the World Cup winter sports competition. Whistler sporting events continue into March, and tickets are available at great rates. A pass for the four-man bobsled competition on Feb. 7 goes for just US$4. If you'd rather be out there yourself on fresh powder with skis or snowboard, this Canadian mountain redoubt features 200 marked runs, 13 alpine bowls, three glaciers and five terrain parks, serviced by 38 lifts.
Belo Horizonte and Ouro Preto, Brazil: Remember, it's summertime south of the equator. Besides, most of Brazil is in the tropics, where it's always warm. Brazil is very affordable, especially in engaging, below-the-radar spots such as Belo Horizonte, this big country's third-biggest city, and Ouro Preto, a fixed-in-amber Portuguese colonial town. Both are in mountainous southeast Brazil in the state of Minas Gerais. American Airlines started flying to Belo Horizonte in November from Dallas-Fort Worth and Miami, and the airline is offering deals. Round-trip travel between Miami and Belo Horizonte in early February starts at $373 with economy super-savers and goes to $3,766 for American's newly upgraded business class. Minas Gerais ("general mines,'' after the state's historical industry) has unearthed a true travel gem in Ouro Preto, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located 90 minutes by car from Belo Horizonte. Set on verdant green hills speckled with red-roofed houses, centuries-old Baroque churches and South America's oldest working opera house, Ouro Preto sparkles. Few hotels break $100 a night, and the food (barbecued beef, pork, rice, heady cocktails) is reasonably priced and good.
Sonoma Valley, California: One hour north of San Francisco and west across the ridgeline from Napa, this pretty valley is an oasis of wineries, olive groves, spas, country-chic hotels and toothsome restaurants. The annual Sonoma Valley Olive Festival, running through February, celebrates all things olive, with local eateries and watering holes spotlighting olive martinis, tasty tapenades and free olive-oil tastings. The smartly renovated, circa-1920s Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, which sits atop its own thermal mineral spring, offers an "Olive Sonoma" special through February that includes a night in a fireplace suite or room, two martinis in the high-ceilinged, California Mission-style main lobby and a $50 spa credit. Better still is the hotel's "rejuvenation package, which includes a room, two massages and breakfast for two. A $627 value, this package is being offered from $399. Sonoma has dozens of wineries worth visiting for tours and wine tastings. Some tastings are free. One of the best options is Landmark Vineyards, set amid bucolic countryside that recalls Tuscany and known for crisp Overlook Chardonnay and unfiltered Pinot Noir Grand Detour, among others. If you're an olive oil aficionado, you can taste the good stuff, gratis, at the Olive Press, and see how extra-virgin California olive oil is made. Northern California is in its third year of drought -- bad for locals, good for visitors. Nights are clear, dry and cold; afternoons are sunny, dry and warm.
Sydney, Australia: The Australian dollar, too, has plummeted, falling from 94 U.S. cents a year ago to 66 cents now, lowering prices across the board for American travelers. The great deals Down Under will have you saying "g'day" to everyone in sight. One example: Tourism Australia is touting an eight-night, $2,550 per person package, available from Feb. 16 to March 31 -- the Aussie summer -- to gorgeous Sydney, with four nights in a Cityview Club Room at the InterContinental Hotel, airport transfers by car and breakfast, plus four more nights in a one-bedroom apartment at the 5-star Angsana Resort & Spa at the Great Barrier Reef. The price includes round-trip economy class airfare from Los Angeles to Sydney and internal Australia flights.
London: No, seriously. This may sound counter-intuitive, given that the British capital is usually one of the world's most expensive cities, but London hasn't been this affordable in years. And if it drizzles, so what? With its splendid galleries and museums, restaurants and theaters, there's no better place to be indoors. General admission is free to cultural treasures such as the National Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum and National Portrait Gallery. With the British pound trading at $1.40, the lowest since 1985, once-stratospheric prices are losing altitude, and that's a good thing for visitors who want a rich experience but don't want to ransom the Bank of England to get it. Even posh London hotels, long known for eye-watering rates, are coming down a bit. Como Hotels' boutique Halkin Hotel and trendsetter Metropolitan Hotel are knocking 200 pounds (about $280) off nightly rack rates through May 31.
A similar phenomenon is rippling through the English countryside: A superior double room at stately Middlethorpe Hall & Spa, in Yorkshire, booked through Travelocity on Sunday, March 29, costs just $137 a night. Post-winter, the situation gets pricier; the same room booked on Travelocity costs $332 on Sunday, Sept. 27.
OK, we said five great winter bargains, but there are many, so here's one more: Walt Disney Co. is offering seven-night stays and seven days of park tickets at Walt Disney World Resorts for the price of a four-night stay and four days of park tickets.
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