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Barge-ing through France . . .

. . . the Auberge du Soleil, and the next big (Caribbean) thing

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Barge Right In
For years, fully staffed luxury hotel-barges have offered travelers a unique way to meander through the French countryside in high style. But what about piloting a boat through the canals of France all by yourself? Self-drive houseboats (that's what the French call them) resemble true barges -- they're just smaller and funkier -- and are equipped with a solarium, a kitchen, and comfortable sleeping cabins. Simple to operate, your barge comes with maps and a full tank of diesel fuel. When it's time to shop, eat, or explore (rental bikes are available by the week), simply tie up to a tree or a portable metal stake and head ashore. Barge Broker (800-275-9794) leases self-drive houseboats from $1,000 per week for a simple two-person barge during the low season to about $3,000 for a deluxe six-person barge in the summer; Crown Blue Line (888-355-9491) offers similar vessels.

Here Comes the Soleil
Say the name Auberge du Soleil, and the inevitable response is a knowing sigh. Well-heeled romantics have been flocking to Napa Valley's pricey resort for fifteen years, charmed by its country cottages and olive-grove setting. So we've got high hopes for the just-opened, boutique-sized Spa du Soleil (707-963-1211). Inspired by the vineyards and orchards that surround it, the spa offers inventive treatments that include an Olive Leaf Body Exfoliation and a Grapeseed Body Masque, plus the usual selection of salon services. (All treatments cost $125 per hour.) Also, look for Auberge du Soleil's first sister resort, Esperanza, to open in Los Cabos, Mexico, next year.

Next Stop, GrenadinesFor some people, no sooner is a Caribbean destination proclaimed to be hot than it is replaced by the next big thing. First St. Barts, then Anguilla, and now the ultratrendy Turks and Caicos. So what's up next? Our money's on St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a collection of fertile islands with mirror-calm waters long favored by yachters, beach combers, and the occasional privacy-seeking celebrity. Travel agents who specialize in the Caribbean are already reporting a noticeable spike in interest, and upscale resorts are multiplying. If you want to get there before Starbucks, consider booking a room at Cotton House Resort on Mustique (800-826-2809) or at Carenage Bay (pictured above, 784-458-8000), which opened last year on Canouan. For further information, contact the St. Vincent and the Grenadines tourist office (800-729-1726).

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DISCOUNT VOLUMES For tips on affordable yet high-quality restaurants and hotels in Paris, we've always relied on Sandra Gustafson's guides, and, happily, updated editions of Great Eats in Paris and Great Sleeps in Paris (formerly Cheap Eats and Cheap Sleeps) are out in time to plan our next trip this spring (Chronicle Books, $14.95). STANHOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL In celebration of its seventy-fifth anniversary in May, the Stanhope Park Hyatt at Fifth Avenue and 81st Street (212-774-1234) will feature a new menu of Gatsby-era dishes and cocktails best enjoyed at its outdoor dining terrace facing the Met. TURKS DELIGHT Grace's Cottage, a Caribbean-Asian restaurant that could hold its own in the Flatiron district, just opened at Point Grace resort on Providenciales, in the Turks and Caicos (888-682-3705). We're already hooked on their pumpkin-and-coconut soup with toasted macadamias. L.A. SHOPS FYI Fashion Guide, the Zagat-like resource for NYC clothing stores, debuts its L.A. edition in April, with London, Paris, and Miami to follow this fall (F.Y.I. Fashion, Inc., $14.95).


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