TOP TEN FINDS
Sometimes serendipity needs a helping hand. Here's a slew of places where you can relish a sense of discovery
FERN RIMTARN RESORT
MAE HONG SON, THAILAND
In Thailand, a country that is neither cool nor particularly quiet, the Fern Rimtarn Resort, set in the mountainous northwest province of Mae Hong Son, is a little-known, temperate hideout with a commitment to calm. The Fern's 17 wooden bungalows, built on a former rice paddy and tucked into their own private jungle thickets, are simple but upscale, with
comfortable twin beds, handwoven tribal rugs, and screened windows on three sides to catch the evening breeze.
The resort is staffed by hill-tribe people from neighboring Shan villages who can point you to several hiking trails or arrange overnight treks. Take one of the Fern's mountain bikes to explore the local villages, hit the natural hot springs just to the resort's south, or run the Pai River in a bamboo raft. Then head back for a dip in the pool and a
peppery plate of ump kai, a chicken and lime-leaf curry. Roomy bungalows with bathroom and porch go for $25–$32 per night, double occupancy; those with air conditioning are $40; the price includes breakfast for two. Call 011-66-53-611-374 or fax 011-66-53-611-377. —Sara Corbett
SAN BLAS ISLANDS, PANAMA
You know you've gotten away from it all when the coconut trees on your resort island outnumber the people three to one. Kwadule, a tropical islet the size of a football field, has no TV, phones, or residents. The island's simple resort encompasses six plain bungalows perched on stilts over the turquoise Caribbean, a dining cabin that serves freshly
caught fish and lobster, some snorkeling equipment, and lots of sturdy hammocks slung between palm trees. The guest cabins have single and double beds, hot showers, small terraces over the water, and colorful molas (the renowned Kuna textiles) adorning wild cane and bamboo walls.
Owned and operated by the Kuna Indians, Kwadule is small enough that you can easily swim around the entire island, so take your snorkel gear to observe the parrotfish, jack, and nurse sharks that dwell among the surrounding coral reefs. But the primary activity here is hammock-lounging while you savor the solitude—at dusk, all but a few of the
seven-odd staffers return to their home island, leaving guests in the sole company of the coconut trees. Rates are approximately $180–$210 per person for the first night, $99 each additional night, including the round-trip 40-minute flight from Panama City to Corazón de Jesús, a 15-minute boat ride from Corazón to Kwadule, all
meals, and an excursion to nearby Tiger Island to buy local handicrafts. Call 011-507-269-6313. —Lance Gould
A serene spot in the heart of the Balkans? It's not as far-fetched as it sounds—Bulgaria has been at peace since World War II. Two hours south of Sofia is one such spot, the Rila Monastery, which dates from the tenth century. Hemmed in by the densely forested 6,000- and 7,000-foot peaks of the Rila Mountains in southwestern Bulgaria, the monastery
looks like something the Wizard of Oz would have dreamed up if he'd been Eastern Orthodox. A gold onion-domed church and a medieval stone tower sit at the center of a courtyard surrounded by several stories of rooms linked by wooden balconies.
For about $8–$10 per person, you can join the resident monks and spend the night in a cell furnished with three single cots, a table, and chairs. Some of the cells have modern bathrooms; others share facilities. The nearest village is more than 15 miles away, but within steps of the monastery you'll find several restaurants serving grilled kababs
and other Bulgarian specialties for about $4.50. In the morning, head for the pine- and beech-forested hills—the monastery is connected to a network of hundreds of kilometers of marked hiking trails. For reservations call Balkan Tourist USA at 800-822-1106. —Luba Vangelova
THE BATHS AT CITRUSDAL
Lolling in a hot spring with a view of snowcapped mountains in the distance isn't most people's idea of Africa. In fact, even in Capetown, a two-hour drive south of Citrusdal, The Baths remains known only to Capetowners a full 260 years after the artesian well underneath the resort was first discovered.
Hidden away in a kloof, a deep glen, at the end of a long road that winds through orange orchards, the Victorian-style buildings recall an earlier era. The mineral-rich baths, pools, and Jacuzzi are a perfect unguent for a body that has hiked or mountain biked all day along the 20 or so miles of trails—easy, meandering paths that take you into the
hills of fynbos (heath) right behind the resort or farther afield into the rugged Cedarberg Mountains, where Sneeuberg Peak tops out at 6,654 feet. The vast Cedarberg Wilderness Area, with its 158 miles of unmarked but well-defined trails, is being used as a pilot sanctuary for the reintroduction of leopards.
The Baths is made up of six one- and two-bedroom chalets and 12 duplex flats, all with basic furnishings, sitting areas, private baths, and kitchens. The closest restaurant is 10.5 miles away, so bring your own food. There are also ten campsites on the property. Try going to The Baths midweek because weekend space is hard to come by. Rates are
$28–$52 per room per night for two to six people; phone and fax 011-27-22-921-3609. —Ted Botha
SIMONTON COURT ISLAND RESORT
KEY WEST, FLORIDA
It's easy to miss Key West's Simonton Court—the wooden sign is virtually invisible, and there's nothing else to suggest you've reached an inn of any magnitude. But step inside the gate and you're engulfed in a hidden oasis of flowering vines, ferns, and palms. Back in the 1880s, the entire two-acre compound, made up of six two-story cottages and
one six-bedroom Greek Revival mansion, was a cigar factory. Ask for the mansion's Bird of Paradise room and you'll get a third-floor hideaway with polished pine floors, Roman tub, period antiques, and a staircase spiraling up to a widow's walk. The cottages each have a master bedroom, one or two baths, a full kitchen, and a hot tub.
Swim in one of the four pools or have the inn arrange catamaran snorkel trips (half-day, $38 per person) or charter deep-sea fishing for wahoo, tuna, and barracuda ($200 per person per day for up to four people). For a kayak excursion around the Lower Keys, call Mosquito Coast (full day, $45 per person; 305-294-7178). Or cruise around Old Town by bike
with historian Sharon Wells ($18; 305-294-8380), who prowls the hidden lanes and gardens you might otherwise drive right by. Double rooms with continental breakfast are $185–$435 from December 15 to April 30, $155–$335 the rest of the year; 800-944-2687; www.simontoncourt.com.
KHATA BAY, MALAWI
For clued-in international backpackers and budget travelers trekking the corridor between eastern and southern Africa, Njaya Lodge is the oasis of choice. High on a steep wooded hillside, the airy lodge houses a restaurant, bar, lounge, and a treetop terrace overlooking 365-mile-long Lake Malawi. Under the mango trees below the lodge lies Chikale Beach,
where you can sail, windsurf, or bodysurf.
If village headman Chief Mukumbira drops by, you can learn about local culture. Then visit the nearby fishing village of Nkhata Bay or hop a ferry to other slow-paced lakeside villages. Choose a mat in the dorm ($3 per night), one of 11 bamboo chalets on the beach ($4 per person), or one of five stone cottages ($20–$25 per night). In addition to a
full menu of good home cooking, the lodge's restaurant offers a prix fixe dinner ($3) every evening—and burgers and fries for the homesick. Allowing for erratic phone lines, contact 011-265-352-342; www.africanet.com/njaya. —Ann Jones
SAN CRIST&OACUTE;BAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO
When Danish ethnologist and explorer Frans Blom and his photojournalist wife, Gertrude, founded Na Bolom (House of the Jaguar) as an anthropological research center in 1951, they never expected it to garner attention as a hotel. The Bloms, seeking to bring recognition to the indigenous peoples of Chiapas, set up a fine museum, a 10,000-book library, and
15 rooms for visiting scholars. Currently run by a nonprofit organization, Na Bolom now makes the rooms available to travelers.
Na Bolom is situated on a quiet cobblestone street and housed in a handsome colonial mansion built around a lovely courtyard. The inviting rooms, each with a fireplace and private bath, are decorated with beautiful Indian weavings and artifacts, as well as Gertrude Blom's haunting black-and-white photographs of the isolated Lacandon people. The
restaurant serves home-style dishes like roasted chicken with vegetables from the backyard organic garden, and you'll share a table with Indians, anthropologists, and volunteers. Delve into one of the library's anthropological tomes to plot your own foray into the wilds of Chiapas, or let the staff suggest hikes and plan excursions to nearby Palenque and
other archaeological sites. All rooms are $44 per night; call 011-52-967-8-14-18.—Granville Greene
"Up the Down road" 25 miles southeast of Belfast, you'll behold the turrets and battlements of twelfth-century Killyleagh Castle. Since the early 1600s the Hamilton family has owned these French chateau–style digs in County Down, a haunting landscape overlooking Strangford Lough and the blue Mourne Mountains. Guests can rent one of three apartments
appointed with antiques and family portraits in the thick stone Entrance Towers.
Just outside your fortified lodging lies the path to the bay, with its sandy beaches, grassy inlets, and tidal flats. To get a closer look at the Isle of Man and the Lough's entire span, hike to Slieve Donard (2,796 feet) in the Mourne Mountains. Or trace smugglers' steps along Brandy Pad, the trail once used by eighteenth-century runners of liquor,
tobacco, tea, and silk. Whatever path you take, you'll encounter typical Celtic features: church steeples, medieval stone towers, prehistoric stone circles, and trimmed hedgerows.
Strangford Lough's marine nature reserve offers sheltered all-weather diving with good visibility among 15 wrecks and 2,000 species of marine life (call D.V. Diving, 011-44-1247-464-671). Other nautical options include sea fishing for big skate, turbot, whiting, and haddock (for charters, call John Murray at 011-44-1247-728-414); sailing and powerboat
courses; and bareboat charters (call Killyleagh Yacht Club, 011-44-1396-828-250).
The castle has two two-bedroom apartments that each sleeps four people; there's also a three-bedroom unit that sleeps five ($104–$168 per night). All units have fully equipped kitchens. Contact 011-44-1396-828-261; www.fjiordlands.org/strngfrd/kil apts.htm.
COW BAY, QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA
This secluded hostel two and a half hours north of Cairns is like the wait-a-while palm that grows in the surrounding tropical rainforest—you may have trouble freeing yourself from its grasp. Fortunately, it ensnares you not with tiny thorns but with a laid-back attitude and pristine surroundings. Crocodylus has a small swimming pool on the 20-acre
premises, but you're more likely to want to dive into the Pacific Ocean (a fringing reef is only five minutes away via bus, followed by a half-hour boat ride) or trek to one of the area's vine-overhung swimming holes, located about a mile and a half away.
Other organized activities include canoe and kayak trips along the coast (four-hour canoe trips, $26 per person; two-day kayak trips, $104 per person), horseback rides at a tea plantation (half-day rides, $29 per person), and hikes in the rainforested foothills of the Alexandra Range, whose highest peak tops out at about 4,000 feet ($8–$12 per
Guests sleep in large tent-style huts with bunk beds, shared baths, and verandas ($10 per person per night) or in private "suite" huts with double beds, tables and chairs, verandas, and private baths ($36 for up to two people; each additional person pays $7). Prepare your own food in the communal kitchen or dine at the hostel's restaurant, which serves
roasted meats and vegetarian pastas. Call 011-61-7-4098-9166. —L. V.
SUE&NTILDE;O DEL MAR
Part hacienda, part beach bungalow, Sueño del Mar exudes that lazy charm we've come to expect from remote Central American hideaways. The five open-air rooms (no windowpanes, just screens) are furnished with handpainted Balinese sheets, locally made wooden furniture, and dangling mobiles of exotic shells. While the open-air showers and the
sweet-smelling ylang-ylang trees will tempt you to linger, there's much to do at this B&B on the Nicoya Peninsula, which is fronted by vast Playa Langosta and a killer break revered by surfers.
After an alfresco breakfast of papaya smoothies, homemade cinnamon rolls, and plantain fritters, you can take your pick of the hotel's surfboards, boogie-boards, snorkeling gear, or mountain bikes (there is a seemingly endless number of backcountry trails and old jeep roads), or enjoy a jungle ride on one of Sueño's five horses. You can kayak and
bird-watch for wood storks, white ibises, egrets, and roseate spoonbills in surrounding Las Baulas National Marine Park, or take a walk at dusk to watch a lumbering leatherback turtle lay her eggs on the beach. If you'd rather not stray too far, just grab a Pilsen and loll in the shade of a guanacaste tree, work out on the trampoline, or swim in the
oceanside pool. Doubles are $85–$150 per night; call 011-506-653-0284; e-mail: sueno firstname.lastname@example.org. —Amy Marr