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TRAVEL Q&A

Landmarks of Russian Lit

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By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2008

Q. I would like to visit literature-themed sites in Russia, such as Tolstoy's estate and Chekhov's homes. Are tours available?

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Betsy Sherman, Falls Church

A. It's the sentence Tolstoy forgot to write: "Happy tours of the estates of Russian icons are all alike; every unhappy tour is unhappy in its own way." Contracting with a stateside travel agent is one way to improve your chances at a happy tour, one like Sokol Tours ( http://www.sokoltours.com, 877-657-6565). For about $600, the company will provide you with an English-speaking driver to escort your party on the three- to four-hour trip south of Moscow to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's home. ( http://www.yasnayapolyana.ru). Among the sights are the tiny, low-ceilinged room where the titanic "War and Peace" was birthed, the bedroom in which Tolstoy and his wife no doubt fought over his plans to disinherit her, and the author's unadorned grave site.

Also open to the public, 50 miles south of Moscow, is Anton Chekhov's Melikhovo ( http://www.museum.ru/mscreg/e7_hist.htm). Like generations of Russian schoolchildren, Olga Abramova took a field trip to the estate in her younger days. Now she works for the Russian National Tourist Office, which dispenses travel information and offers private tours of the country's literary landmarks ( http://www.russia-travel.com, 877-221-7120). "It's great for giving you insight into his writing," she said of Chekhov's home; there you can peek into many rooms, as well as the cabin-like structure where he penned "The Seagull."

Unhappy tours, if you're wondering, usually befall tourists who attempt to wing it. "Public transportation in Moscow is one of the best in the world," said Sokol's Artour Yatchenko, "but as soon as you're out in the countryside, it's babushkas and old buses." Babushkas? "Peasants, I mean." And finding a driver can be a hassle. "You need one who can deal with the police," as drivers are frequently stopped and their documents checked, he said.

Renting your own car is an option, of course, but "Moscow traffic is hell, and a wrong turn could add hours to your trip," Yatchenko said. In short, if you're not careful, visiting the birthplace of an epic could well involve an epic journey of your own.

My wife is a big fan of the movie "Somewhere in Time." Is the Grand Hotel on Michigan's Mackinac Island worth a trip?

Mike Tucker, Mount Airy

It is, and not only because no "Somewhere in Time" fan can die happy without a pilgrimage to the summer hotel where it was filmed in 1979. (In fact, dozens of devotees of the Christopher Reeve-Jane Seymour weeper convene there annually in October.) The Grand ( http://www.grandhotel.com, 800-334-7263) is just as famous for its marvelous, 660-foot front porch, reportedly the world's longest. Then again, even though breakfast and lunch are included in the price, rooms don't come cheap: Prices start at $465 a night during a terrific time to visit, Mackinac's popular Lilac Festival (June 6-15, http://www.mackinacislandlilacfestival.com).

But the splurge is worth it, according to readers of Travel Log, the Travel section's blog ( http://blog.washingtonpost.com/travellog). "If you can do it, you should," wrote one, while another enthusiast noted that the less-crowded months of "September and October are often incredibly beautiful." A third acknowledged that Mackinac's "a pain to get to, but there are ways to make the most of it. We drove up in a convertible from Milwaukee along the lake [Michigan] and enjoyed the scenery."

Send queries by e-mail (travelqa@washpost.com) or U.S. mail (Travel Q&A, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071). Please include your name and town.


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