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Travel Q&A: Spelunking Near Washington; Renting a Villa in Tuscany

By K.C. Summers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 9, 2009

Q. My 13-year-old daughter and I are interested in going spelunking near the D.C. area. I don't really know where to go or what preparations and precautions to take. Can you point me in the right direction?

Joe Ganley, Vienna

A. Great idea, bad timing. The mid-Atlantic area is home to some world-class caving sites, but because of a deadly syndrome that is killing bats in unprecedented numbers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is discouraging recreational cave activity in much of the northeastern United States.

The problem is white-nose syndrome (WNS), a mysterious fungus that sickens and kills hibernating bats. The condition was first documented in Upstate New York in 2007 and has since spread as far south as Virginia. It's suspected that cavers might be transmitting the fungus on their clothing and gear when they travel from cave to cave, so the wildlife service has issued an advisory asking cavers to curtail all activity in affected and adjoining states. Details: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/white_nose.html.

Bob Hoke, a spokesman for the D.C. branch of the National Speleological Society, said that his group is complying with the requested moratorium and has no group trips planned until at least next spring. He pointed out, though, that the non-wild caves in the area -- including Virginia's Luray, Endless and Grand Caverns -- are still open and encouraged people to visit them for a taste of what's underground.

When wild caving does resume, Hoke said there are good "introductory" caves near Martinsburg and Shepherdstown, W.Va., about a two-hour drive from Washington, and along Interstate 81 in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

Remember that caving alone is highly discouraged, so contact the NSS for info on guided and group trips: http://www.caves.org/grotto/dcg.

My husband and I are planning to rent a villa in Tuscany next summer. Can you recommend any sources for information about villas and reputable agencies that handle rentals?

Ann Pokoyk, Derwood

Renting a villa is a romantic and authentic way to experience this lovely region, and options range from cozy farmhouses to palatial estates with maid and butler service. But with more than 650,000 Google hits for "renting a villa in Tuscany," how to choose? A few pointers:

-- Rent from an established company, not an individual. A company may be pricier, but you'll have more options if things go wrong.

-- Drooling over online catalogues is half the fun, but a personal reference from a trusted friend, colleague or neighbor is the best way to find a reputable company. Barring that, ask for references from past customers, and check them. Don't rent from a company that refuses to put you in touch with previous clients.

-- Ask the company how long it has been in business and check its rating with the Better Business Bureau if it's based in the United States.

-- Insist on a written contract and read it carefully.

-- Use only agencies that publish photos of their properties. Yes, pictures can be misleading, but at least you'll have some idea of what the place looks like.

-- When calculating the cost, ask about such extras as agency fees, cleaning fees, utility bills and security deposit. Factor in the cost of a car rental if the villa is in a remote location.

-- Buy trip insurance.

-- Pay by credit card so you'll have some recourse in the event of a dispute.

For more advice on Tuscan rentals, check "Your Own Private Tuscany: A Guide to Italian Vacation Rentals" by Lynn Jennings (Trafford Publishing).

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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