The California Bucket List: Your daily guide to the best adventures and experiences in the Golden State

Discount vacations for 2009

Place: Las Vegas

Why it's a hot ticket in 2009: Bargains, bargains, bargains. Remember when Sin City was synonymous with "cheap getaway"? It seems like ages ago. After the gambling mecca went glam and morphed into a chic adult playground, some weekend rooms on the Strip zoomed past $200 and into the stratosphere (the atmospheric zone, not the casino-hotel).

No more. The economic downturn has humbled Vegas, which toward the end of 2008 was logging about 10% fewer visitors than the year before. Average hotel rates were down more than 9%.

Stalwarts such as the Luxor on the Strip and Golden Nugget downtown were recently offering rooms at less than $50 per night. Of course, you can still pay more than $300 a night for a weekend stay at fancier or newer places, such as Steve Wynn's latest Strip behemoth, the all-suite Encore. But the point is this: You no longer have to be rich to lounge in style.

And when you spend less for your sleep, you'll have more money for the slot machines or blackjack tables. Maybe the winnings can pay off your mortgage -- or not.

Information: Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority

-- Jane Engle

Place: Thailand

Why it's a hot ticket in 2009: Because it's as beautiful and exotic as ever, and there are some good deals being offered to woo back tourists after political unrest shut Bangkok airports for a week late last year and drew protesters into city streets.

With a new government coalition, strengthened by a good showing in parliamentary by-elections, the situation was recently stabilizing, and the State Department removed a travel alert from Thailand.

The Tourist Authority of Thailand has launched a campaign, called Thailand Super Deal, to offer free room nights and other discounts at dozens of hotels.

Information: Thailand's official tourism website

-- Jane Engle

Place: Yosemite National Park

Why it's a hot ticket in 2009: You can always bet on Yosemite to get crazy busy on summer weekends. But if you can get to Yosemite Valley any other time -- and score overnight accommodations -- you have a chance at some beautiful solitude, especially in the hours before and after the day-trippers come and go. The number of park visitors who stay overnight has been heading downward in the last decade. And with the National Park Service's Nov. 21 move to close 233 tent and solid-wall cabins for safety reasons (falling rocks from Glacier Point), only 1,503 hotel rooms, cabins and campsites remain in Yosemite Valley. (In 1996, before several rockfalls, floods and planning decisions prompted reductions, there were 2,353.) If you're up for a winter visit, it'll be lonelier still: The park gets five July guests for every one it gets in January.

Information: Book campsites at, hotel rooms and other park accommodations at

-- Christopher Reynolds

Place: Warsaw

Why it's a hot ticket in 2009: The big year in Warsaw is going to be 2010, the 200th anniversary of composer Frédéric Chopin's birth. But if you go before the hoopla starts, you can visit scores of Chopin sites and take advantage of cheaper hotel rates, which are generally lower than those in Western European capitals. For instance, in early April, doubles at the stylish Warsaw InterContinental will start at around $140 a night, and there are plenty of nice guesthouses for half that amount. The city is nuts about Chopin, who died in Paris in 1849 but left instructions for his heart to be returned to Warsaw for interment.


-- Susan Spano

Place: Jurmala, Latvia

Why it's a hot ticket in 2009: The dollar may have gained ground against the euro lately but it still doesn't go far on the other side of the pond -- unless you head way off the beaten track. Ever heard of the Jurmala Riviera? It's a 20-mile chain of beaches on the Gulf of Riga not far from the Latvian capital and touts its mud and mineral water. It was once favored by Communist Party officials, including Leonid Brezhnev and Nikita Khrushchev. It's hit on hard times but is now coming back; prices are low and many spots fly blue flags, the ecological seal of approval granted by the not-for-profit Blue Flag Program of Denmark.


-- Susan Spano

Place:Athens, Georgia

Why it's a hot ticket in 2009: That's right, Athens, Georgia, not Greece. This destination turned up on this year's list of Dozen Distinctive Destinations from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a group known for having good taste and an eye for style. But don't think Athens is sleepy and all musty history. Athens touts itself as a great mix of hip -- home of the B-52s and R.E.M. -- and history, with 15 neighborhoods on the historic preservation list. Notable must-dos: visit four 19th century mansion museums and take a driving tour of 21 historic African American sites.


-- Mary Forgione

Place: London

Why it's a hot ticket for 2009: You've wanted to go to London for years now, but it would have been too painful to see your precious dollars obliterated when they're exchanged for pounds. Guess what? You're in luck. The dollar has gained against the pound. Now when you hand over $10, you get 7 pounds back, about 2 more than you would have gotten in July. This is the most favorable exchange rate the dollar has seen versus the pound since 2002. And you better hurry too. Some currency forecasters expect the pound to rebound within a few months. Break open your piggy bank and go see Big Ben, the London Eye and Harrods while they're still within reach.

-- Jason La

Place: Joggins Fossil Cliffs, Nova Scotia, Canada

Why it's a hot ticket for 2009: It's a new year. You want to vacation abroad but you're broke. Mexico used to be an option but now you're worried about your safety. What do you do? Do what many Hollywood movie studios did and go to Canada.

If you're an archaeology buff or nature lover, check out Joggins Fossil Cliffs in coastal Nova Scotia in eastern Canada. Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, the cliffs have been called a "coal age Galápagos" for their vast cache of fossils. At the cliffs, you'll see well-preserved fossils of animals, plant life and footprints. Take a guided tour offered by the Joggins Fossil Centre or explore the scenic grounds on your own. Either way, you're in for a 300-million-year-old treat.

Information: (888) 932-9766,

-- Jason La

Place:San Elijo State Beach

Why it's hot in 2009: On a sun-splashed beach north of San Diego, California state park officials in 2005 launched the nation's largest deployment of Wi-Fi access for park visitors, adding to the ever-growing outdoor trend known as "glamping" or "glamour camping."

But wireless Internet service is not the only comfort from home offered to campers at San Elijo State Beach, about 40 miles north of San Diego. This 171-site park is one of the state's most well-appointed camp sites, with real flush toilets, hot showers, pay telephones, laundry facilities and a camp store where visitors can buy groceries, firewood and ice.

Roughing it? Hardly.

As a generation of American's raised on iPods, Nintendo Wii and Guitar Hero reaches adulthood, the "glamping" trend is expected to grow, according to many trend watchers, including the giant New York-based ad agency, JWT.

The scenario goes like this: Members of the pampered, digital generation will camp more next year to try to save on travel expenses to cope with the worsening economic crisis, but they will refuse to do without all of those conveniences from home. Thus the rise of "glamping" and the growing popularity of parks such as San Elijo State Beach. (You can see a list of state parks that offer wireless Internet at

Information: (760) 753-5091,

-- Hugo Martín

Place: Laos

Why it's a hot ticket for 2009: Considered by many to be the hidden jewel of Southeast Asia and long an underground favorite of adventurers and backpackers, Laos is one of the last places in the region where you can still feel the atmosphere of the old colonial Indochina. Its capital, Vientiane, is laid back and full of charm -- a marked difference from the busy mega-metropolises of its neighbors.

Laos has spent the last decade recovering and rebuilding from the ravages of war, but it's starting to feel the effects of globalization and development. Foreign investment is changing the landscape. This year, experience the unique Lao way of life before it's gone for good: trek through jungles; volunteer for a week or two; take a slow boat up the Mekong River; stop by a temple and chat with the young monks who are eager to practice their English.

Travel tip: If you plan on going to Laos in January or February, make sure to book your hotel several months in advance; it is high season for foreign and Lao travelers alike and accommodations in the bigger towns will be scarce.


-- Chi Vu

Place: Dong Hoi, Vietnam

Why it's a hot ticket for 2009: This small coastal city in central Vietnam is a good stop from which to explore Phong-Nha Ke-Bang National Park's monumental cave system and surrounding jungles (all of which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The jungles have been largely off-limits up to now, but with the installation of new eco-trails in late 2008, hikers of all levels can now access the dense jungle and the numerous awesome satellite caves. If you get tired from hiking up mountains or looking at rock formations, you can take the half-hour motorbike ride back to Dong Hoi, which has a world-class resort and spa and pristine beaches that are empty around noon. The Dong Hoi Airport also opened for business a few months ago with flights to and from Hanoi.


-- Chi Vu

Place: Virginia City, Nevada

Why it's a hot ticket in 2009: Reno is an easy and cheap destination for Southern Californians, so it's worth taking a 23-mile detour to visit Virginia City, a Gold Rush-era town that was founded in 1859. This destination also made the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 2009 list largely for the 19th century homes that sit on steep slopes, mining-town style. It's a taste of frontier life with false-front Victorian buildings and period saloons. Must-do: See the desk Mark Twain used when he was a reporter for the local newspaper and take a ride on the restored steam engine of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad.


-- Mary Forgione

Place: Melbourne, Australia

Why it's a hot ticket for 2009: For reasons nobody can fully explain, oft-overlooked Melbourne has emerged in recent years as one of the world capitals of street art, a rival to cities such as Berlin and London.

The sheer volume of it is staggering and impossible to miss. The walls, even in and around the city's central business district, are adorned with spray paintings of playful robots and kung fu fighters, political figures and pop culture icons, cartoonish creatures and pretty ladies.

Jake Smallman, one of the authors of "Stencil Graffiti Capital: Melbourne," speculates it has something to do with the huge number of dark alleyways (good cover for spray painting in the wee hours) that wend through the city center. "There are just as many alleys as main roads in Melbourne," he said, noting that while the street art started appearing in the 1980s, it has "exploded in the last 10 years." Read more on Melbourne:


-- Hope Hamashige

Place: Kelabit Highlands, Borneo

Why it's a hot ticket for 2009: Australian anthropologist and World War II hero Tom Harrison called this place "the last frontier of the tropical world." It's home to descendants of headhunters and is one of the most isolated places on Earth, reachable only by plane.

The Kelabit people are what make the highlands glow. About 70 years ago, the Kelabits were headhunters, collecting in caves the heads of any people brave or foolish enough to enter their land. In the 1960s, the Kelabit fought against the Indonesians who live just across the nearby border in Kalimantan.

Today, you can still see elderly Kelabits sporting the elongated earlobes that stretch to their shoulders, stylish back in the day when they were collecting heads and decorating their own. The Kelabit are now considered among the friendliest people in the world. Read more on Borneo's Kelabit region:


-- John Henderson

Place: Uruguay's wine country

Why it's a hot ticket for 2009: Uruguay's emergence as a wine tourism destination and exporter of fine wines is no accident. Since the late 1980s, vintners in this nation of more than 3 million people -- a population far outnumbered by cows -- have been replacing Muscat and Labrusca grapes used for locally consumed jug wines with the more worldly Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, Merlot and their best-kept secret, Tannat.

Atlantic breezes keep the Juanicó region's vines well-ventilated despite the moist, subtropical coastal climate, and the combination of well-drained clay soil and 220 days of intense sunshine annually produces growing conditions similar to those of France's Bordeaux region.

On the whole, Uruguayan wines have a lower alcohol content and are often described as "softer and more approachable" than their French cousins. Tannat, named for its high tannin content, was brought over from France by French Basque immigrant Don Pascual Harriague in the 1870s. Blended wines made with Tannat grapes, which comprise 25% of Uruguay's vineyards, are increasingly popular.

Read more on Uruguay's wine region:

Information: and

-- Claudia Capos

Place: Cambodia

Why it's a hot ticket for 2009: Yes, take in the Angkor temples; their silent majesty as they endure the ravages of time and humanity will resonate with even the most jaded visitors. But Cambodia is more than just Angkor Wat. Take the road less traveled in Cambodia and go on one of the many buses through the heart of the countryside. Visit the northern provinces, like Ratanakiri, home to mostly ethnic minority groups. There, you can rest in a lakeside hotel room for a pittance, swim in the pristine Yeak Loam Lake that sits atop a dormant volcano, and visit hidden waterfalls. Or stop by the small town of Kratie to catch sight of the rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River.

Whatever you do in Cambodia, just be a conscientious traveler and keep your eyes open for signs of exploitation: Increasingly, ethnic minorities are tricked into giving up their land to rapacious developers and sex tourism is an open secret in the country.


-- Chi Vu

Place: Cape Town, South Africa

Why it's a hot ticket for 2009: The dollar has strengthened considerably against the South African rand since the beginning of last year. In 2009, get the most out of your dollars with a trip to Cape Town, host of the 2010 World Cup. As the city readies for the tournament, visitors can expect improved infrastructure, including a planned high-speed rail, and increased security.

When you're in Cape Town, don't miss the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, the District Six Museum (which tells the story of forced displacement during apartheid), and be sure to explore Bo Kaap, a religiously diverse area that's home to the first mosque in South Africa. (Ask at the Bo Kaap Museum for a tour guide.) There are beautiful and manageable hikes up Table Mountain and Lion's Head. Neighboring Simon's Town, an hour by train, is home to wild penguins.

If you are here in late June or early July, consider taking a daytime bus up the Garden Route, a scenic stretch along coastal South Africa, to the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. Talented musicians, singers, actors, filmmakers and dancers come to this festival from all over Africa. It is unforgettable.

Information: To read more on the Grahamstown National Arts Festival:

-- Catherine Sweetser

Place: Vanuatu

Why it's a hot ticket in 2009: If you're looking for a little island adventure in 2009, Vanuatu, the site of the ninth season of the TV show "Survivor" in 2004, may be the getaway for you. Last year, UNESCO recognized the 83-island chain in the southwest Pacific by inscribing locations associated with central Vanuatu's last paramount chief, Roi Mata, in its list of World Heritage sites. The sites include the chief's residence and burial site.

A tropical nation, Vanuatu is warm most of the year, but travelers would be wise to avoid its rainy season, usually from November to April. Accommodations on the islands range from budget to luxury, with budget hotels starting at about $25 a night. Vanuatu is accessible by plane from Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.


-- Jason La

Place: Doha, Qatar

Why it's a hot ticket in 2009: Dubai may be all the rage in the Middle East, but if you're looking for a more low-key excursion along the Persian Gulf, Doha may be more to your liking. Though currently low on people's radar, Qatar's capital shows promise of becoming a leading Middle Eastern destination. Luxury hotels akin to those in Dubai are quickly rising in the city. By the end of 2010, four Starwood hotels and resorts are expected to open. This spring, the Grand Hyatt Doha is set to begin welcoming guests.

The city's improving infrastructure is also making it a more alluring destination for tourists. Doha introduced a public bus service in 2005, the city's first mode of public transportation.

When you're in Doha, check out its many malls. You may find lower prices in Doha's shops than in Dubai. And if you're up for a desert excursion, trek to its nearby singing sand dunes, named for the humming noise that emanates from the fine grains.


-- Jason La

Place: St. Maarten/St. Martín

Why it's a hot ticket in 2009: St. Maarten and St. Martín, two independent states, one tiny Caribbean island. The island carries the distinction of being the world's smallest land mass (about a third of the size of Washington, D.C.) shared by two independent states. Amid fears of declining Caribbean tourism, visitors to each of these tropical locales can expect to find deals this year.

St. Maarten hotels are offering a special on spring and winter travel. Spend seven nights or more at one of seven participating hotels and resorts and get 15% off each night's stay plus a $100 voucher for use at island spas, restaurants and entertainment venues. Hotels must be booked by the end of January for stays from now to April 30.

Over on St. Martín, the newly opened Radisson St. Martín Resort, Marina & Spa is offering a "Winter Warm-up" sale that includes 20% off select rooms and 36% off select suites plus complimentary buffet breakfast. Rooms and suites must be booked by the end of February for stays between now and April 18.

Information: and

-- Jason La

Place: East Timor

Why it's a hot ticket in 2009: For the avid eco-tourist or whale watcher, 2009 may be the year for East Timor. At the end of 2008, scientists discovered a hotbed of whale and dolphin activity off the waters of the Southeast Asian nation. The researchers identified at least 1,000 of the marine mammals in one day alone. The finding helps confirm the existence of a migration route for marine animals in the deep oceanic waters off East Timor. Diving is already a popular activity for tourists to the country.

Though East Timor has been marred with violence since its independence in 1999 from Indonesia, the U.S. State Department reports that social and political tensions in the country died down in 2008. It does warn tourists to be careful around sites associated with past violence, including Dili, East Timor's capital.


-- Jason La


Why it's a hot ticket in 2009: Our 44th president is a son of the 50th state, which promises to focus plenty of attention on Oahu. But more than that, visitor numbers are way off because of the wretched economy, and there are bargains (plenty of one-night-free specials with certain hotel stays) to be had. After Aloha and ATA went out of the passenger business last spring, airfares shot up, but those, too, have come back down, falling as low as $319 (several dates in February on Hawaiian). Add to that a hotel room that's as low as $105 a night at the Aqua Palms Resort & Spa, a boutique gem near the Hilton Hawaiian Village, and you're talking reasonable. What's that? I think I hear Hawaii calling.


-- Catharine Hamm

Place: Tibet

Why it's a hot ticket in 2009: In an effort to revive Tibet's tourism industry, China is stepping up efforts to draw more visitors. The Chinese government plans to invest 350 million yuan ($51 million) in 2009 and 2010 to improve roads and tourist facilities in Tibet, according to state media. In 2006, the Qinghai-Tibet railway was completed, providing rail access to Lhasa from Beijing.

Often referred to as "the roof of the world," Tibet resides north of the Himalayas, its average elevation almost 16,000 feet. A land steeped in religion, Tibet houses many holy sites, including Potala Palace, a sacred site for Buddhist pilgrims and former home of the Dalai Lama.

Although tensions in Tibet have died down since the protests in March, travelers should be mindful that 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of the defeat of the country's independence movement and the exile of the Dalai Lama.


-- Jason La

Place: Belize

Why it's a hot ticket in 2009: With the growing unrest in Mexico, travelers looking for a nearby international destination should look to Belize. Bordering Mexico and Guatemala, Belize is an English-speaking country (it's formerly a British colony) in Central America with a Caribbean flavor.

Although it's not much larger than Massachusetts, Belize brims with natural and cultural attractions. The Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world, lies off the country's coast. Snorkeling and scuba divers flock here, the extensive system of caves attracts avid spelunkers. Once a part of the Maya empire, Belize houses many of the civilization's ruins, including Caracol, one of the world's largest ancient Maya archaeological site.


-- Jason La

Place: Tasmania

Why it's a hot ticket in 2009: A relatively unspoiled island, Tasmania is a prime destination for eco-tourists. Protected areas such as forests, parks and reserves comprise roughly a third of the island. UNESCO recognizes the Tasmanian Wilderness as a World Heritage Site. Australia's smallest state, the island's size makes its sights more accessible. Popular activities on the island include hiking, biking and other outdoors activities.

With its vast tracts of protected land, Tasmania is home to many unusual animals, including the Tasmanian devil and the now extinct Tasmanian tiger. Since 2006, a facial cancer has wiped out half of the devil's wild population. The disease has driven the bear-like marsupial, popularized by the cartoon character, the Tasmanian Devil, to the precipice of extinction.


-- Jason La

Place: Calgary, Canada

Why it's a hot ticket in 2009: When you think of international tourist destinations, you may overlook Canada. With travel budgets tightening and the rise of the U.S. dollar relative to the Canadian dollar (20% since the beginning of 2008), you may want to reconsider. Calgary, host of the 1988 Winter Olympics, is a good place to start. It lies in Alberta Province, just a few hundred miles north of the U.S. border. And Forbes magazine named it the world's cleanest city in 2007.

Calgary hosts numerous festivals to plan your trip around, including the Calgary Stampede that celebrates Western Heritage (July 3 to 12), GlobalFest with its signature international fireworks contest (Aug. 17 to 29) and Wordfest, a six-day literary festival that typically takes place in October.


-- Jason La

Place: Punta del Este, Uruguay

Why it's a hot ticket in 2009: A region of Uruguay comprising several towns, Punta del Este is a playground for South America's rich and famous. Celebrities such as singer Shakira, designer Ralph Lauren and supermodel Naomi Campbell frequent this coastal resort. Though possessing a reputation for luxury and glamour, Punta del Este is losing some of its exclusivity as its fame grows. Now is the time to partake in the resort's eclectic architecture, upscale clubs, casinos and lush beaches.

Punta del Este's pristine beaches make it a popular spot for aquatic activities, though the resort offers much more. Attractions include Casa Pueblo, an art museum designed by Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró, and Punta del Este Lighthouse, built in 1860.


-- Jason La

Place: Reykjavik, Iceland

Why it's hot in 2009: Ever since the króna, went into free fall in autumn, Iceland has become almost, well, reasonable again. But a bargain? Not quite, although its sky-high prices have fallen down to Earth, as I learned in December.

Before the crash, prices for Iceland's domestic goods had run at least 20% more than comparable American products. Spending $100 in a restaurant for a bottle of middling California Merlot was not unheard of.

Today, many prices are on par with those in the U.S. -- at least, on the East or West coasts. At Reykjavik's Café Paris, a breakfast croque-monsieur costs about $6; a lunchtime meal of goulash soup with Icelandic lamb and bread, about $13. Six Clementine oranges (wildly refreshing after days of Iceland's bland and heavy traditional fare): a buck.

Information: or

--Madeline Drexler

Place: Beijing

Why it's hot in 2009: It was hot in 2008. Now that Beijing has had its moment in the Olympics spotlight, it has cooled way off, as Olympics cities often do. Plus it's winter in a city that experiences 132 days of freezing temps each year, and when the wind blows off the Mongolian Plateau, you can feel those icicles in your bones. And speaking of a big chill, the economy isn't helping either; tourism is said to be off by as much as 10%.

All of which makes it an ideal time to see the capital. The America Asia Travel Center has a seven-day package that centers on Beijing, including Olympic sites, that begins at $998 (taxes and other fees are not included). See


-- Catharine Hamm

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