The cultural mélange gave Old Malacca its singular, spicy Chinese-Malay cuisine and richly layered architecture. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has a Portuguese-era fortress, a Dutch city hall, Chinese cemeteries and shop houses, a sultan's palace and St. Paul's Church, where St. Francis Xavier served as a missionary.

Best of all, Malacca remains off the beaten track, though it's an easy hop from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and the beaches of southwestern Thailand.


Scottish Borders

When the pound was worth $2 about a year ago, many people believed they could never again afford to visit Britain. Since then, the British currency has plummeted to a seven-year low, meaning now is the time to check out flights to Heathrow.

London's cool, 250-year-old Kew Gardens is blooming, and Shakespeare still haunts Stratford-upon-Avon. But I'm putting my money on Scotland, especially the border country, an easy drive south of Edinburgh. The region, beloved by Sir Walter Scott, who lived at Abbotsford House near the town of Melrose, is still as gloriously wild and woolly as when it was a lair for outlaws, known as reivers.

The Borders, drained by the meandering River Tweed and bounded on the east by the rocky Berwickshire coast, is wide-open territory for walkers, bikers and equestrians. Established routes, including the South Upland Way and Berwickshire Coastal Path, cross lonely upland moors, skirt cliffs along the North Sea, wander through dark forests and pass fortress-like peel towers.

Meanwhile, there's succor for travelers in old market towns -- Hawick and Peebles come to mind -- and at historic estates such as Traquair House. There, bed-and-breakfast guests can sleep down the hall from the chamber where Mary Queen of Scots stayed in 1566.



Some trips you actually take; others you take only in your mind, which may be the case with Syria. The U.S. State Department says it harbors terrorist organizations and notes that it has been the scene of anti-American demonstrations.

So why does everyone I know who's been there -- including archaeologists and foreign correspondents -- say that Syrians are friendly to Americans and that tourists have not been the targets of violence?

They also say it's a Middle Eastern idyll, at the heart of the ancient cradle of civilization. Syrian cuisine, highlighted by hundreds of varieties of mezes, or appetizers, must be tasted to be believed, and the country's souks or marketplaces teem with treasures. Best of all, isolation has left it untrammeled and intense. I don't know how long that will last, so I want to go now.

My dream Syria tour would take in the capital Damascus with its Umayyad Mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites; the ruins of ancient Palmyra, where legendary Queen Zenobia mounted a rebellion against Rome in the 3rd century; Aleppo, a Silk Road trading mecca with a seven-mile-long covered souk, citadel and nearby Simeon, the Stylite monastery where the ascetic early-Christian saint lived atop a pillar for 37 years.


Utah Highway 12

Highway 12 gets my vote for most scenic road in the U.S., though few people know about it. Plus, it's in south-central Utah, where prices for just about everything are relatively low. Put it all together and you get a great, affordable Wild West vacation.

East of Bryce Canyon National Park, it takes a 120-mile bend across the rugged Colorado Plateau, which descends toward the Grand Canyon in a series of majestic cliffs known as the Grand Staircase. That geological feature gave its name to the region's 1.9-million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

The scenery along the way is one long hymn to the American West, including lonely little ranching communities such as Tropic and Cannonville, the weird sandstone chimneys of Kodachrome Basin State Park and 10,188-foot Powell Point.

From Head of the Rocks just north of the dusty town of Escalante, you can see the vast, impregnable Kaiparowits Plateau, lonely Henry Mountains and 100-mile-long Waterpocket Fold. Then the highway climbs over Boulder Mountain to the pleasant town of Torrey at the threshold of Capitol Reef National Park.