Yes, the Euro and the pound have been killing the dollar. But that doesn’t mean a European vacation is entirely out of the question. You just have to be smarter about where you go. We turned to Tom Marchant of the U.K.-based travel service Black Tomato for assistance. Marchant’s two-and-a-half-year-old company, which he runs with two college friends, specializes in helping what he describes as “time-poor” clients locate destinations and activities that haven’t been steamrolled by the worldwide Tourist Industrial Complex. (The firm’s name, by the way, refers to an exotic fruit that is coveted in Russia.) Black Tomato has just launched a Website for U.S. customers (blacktomatotravel.com) and plans to open an office in New York before the end of the year.
Marchant’s advice to American travelers is twofold: Head east, where the exchange rates are weaker and regional cultures stronger, and if you must hit the major postcard countries, be prepared to stray from the beaten path. We asked him to make suggestions in three broad categories of travel.
FOR LOCAL CULTURE
“Stay at the Machine House (from $127; 407-2400-3658 or zabola.com). It’s an inn set in private parkland, at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. Unbelievable scenery—a crumbling castle, a stunning lake. You’ll be amazed at the utter silence; it’s right out of a fairy tale. Combine it with a long weekend in Bucharest, which is like what Moscow used to be before the Western influence got out of control.”
“My mother’s Finnish, so I’m biased. But this is a wonderful area. There are a thousand lakes, with the purest water you can imagine. Tahko introduces you to the simple, life-affirming rituals of Finnish culture. Everybody’s got a cabin, called a mökki, with their sauna right on the lake. You can drink cloudberry-infused Champagne. There’s also a great beer called Lapin Kulta—you’ll want one or two of those right after your sauna. If you can get a big group together, the place to stay is the Villa Pekka ($11,200 per week for up to ten people; inquire through Black Tomato), which has a magnificent view of its own lake and interiors by Finnish design star Tiina Ruotsi.”
FOR FOOD AND WINE
Troödos Mountains, Cyprus
“The mountains are the border between the Greek and Turkish parts of the island where they produce fantastic white wine. You come back home raving about Cypriot wine, and people might look at you funny. But you’ll know something they don’t. And the food is good and simple, goat farmers making cheese and amazing lamb, of course. You can rent out a private residence there or stay in a small inn, like the Mill Hotel (from $130, including breakfast; 357-2292-2536 or cymillhotel.com).”
San Sebastián, Spain
“It’s a coastal town, so there’s quite a few tourist traps. But you don’t have to go far down a back street to find amazing local restaurants with great cheap wine and an unspoiled atmosphere. Plus you’re well situated to take side trips, like, say, three days in the Rioja wine region, where you can stay in boutique hotels, eat some of the world’s most amazing food, and cycle through the hills to burn it all off.”
FOR OUTDOORS AND ADVENTURE
Lake Bled, Slovenia
“This is a real escape from the world, a beautiful lake framed by the Julian Alps. I remember going out to the middle of it one morning on a boat with my girlfriend. We had a warm flask of coffee and watched the sun rise over the surface of the water, which had not a single ripple. There’s plenty of hiking and biking options, too, caves to explore, mineral springs. Stay at the intimate Vila Bled (from $363; 386-4579-1500 or vila-bled.com) and row to the pilgrimage church on its own island in the center.”
“Okay, so it’s not exactly cheap. But this is the best resort in all of the Alps. Mont Blanc dominates the town, with a smaller range of mountains all around it. You spend the days mountain biking or rafting in the streams. In the evening, there’s a vibrant nightlife, but not discothèques. More like restaurants and bars that have been there for generations. You have your Verbiers and St. Moritzes, which are incredibly lovely, but Chamonix is the place to go.”