We are six sisters getting together for a week in July. We love the beach, dining out, shopping and spa time. Can you recommend anywhere halfway between Toronto and D.C. that would be great for this get-together?

Helen Miller


As the eye travels, the midway point between Toronto and Washington is somewhere along the border of Pennsylvania and New York, near the town of Towanda, Pa., which has a river but no real Gidget scene.

But there are some other options, starting with Providence. The Rhode Island capital, which is 543 miles from Toronto and 405 from D.C., is a compact city that has a lively dining scene (scope out Federal Hill) serving every type of global cuisine (Portuguese and Italian are specialties); a number of day spas, such as Spadyssey (75 Dorrance St.), which has body wraps of various flavors; and trend-setting shopping on Thayer and Wickenden streets. Brown University also adds some culture -- and bands-and-beer nightlife -- to the scene. Best of all: Many of the state's 100-plus beaches are nearby, as are preppy-yachty Newport and pastoral and unpretentious Block Island, a quick ferry ride away. Info: Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-233-1636, www.pwcvb.com, or Rhode Island Tourism Division, 800-556-2484, www.visitrhodeisland.com.

Heading northwest, into New York's Adirondacks, is Saratoga Springs, where boaters and beachers kick back on Saratoga Lake and Brown's Beach and, about 25 minutes north, Lake George, which also has a beach and a steamboat. (Distances: 379 miles from Toronto, 398 from D.C.) Spa State Park has the Roosevelt Baths and Spa (800-732-1560, www.gideonputnam.com), for all your soaking needs, as well as golf, a performing arts center and an automobile museum. For dining, there are 82 restaurants on or off Broadway, the main drag. "It's a real foodie destination," says Gavin Landry, president of the Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau (518-584-1531, www.discoversaratoga.org), which has a listing of restaurants and shops.

A little lopsided in distance (430 miles from Toronto, 206 D.C.), but no less pretty, are the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, where you can pick from 150 lakes, 5,618 waterfalls and 170 miles of river. Shopping ranges from antiquing to outlets, and with four counties to choose from, there's no shortage of spas or dining. Info: Pocono Mountains Vacation Bureau, 800-762-6667, www.800poconos.com.

Can you advise me on a good area in France to spend the Christmas holidays or where holiday events are scheduled? We prefer not to spend much time in Paris.

Martha Mihaly Black


France celebrates Christmas much like America, with family feasts, piles of presents and trees twinkling with bright lights. The main differences: They eat foie gras and call Santa Pere Noel.

While cities and villages throughout the country celebrate the holiday, the cheer is especially festive in the Alsace region, which has dozens of Christmas markets selling homemade ornaments, Nativity figurines, traditional food and more. Strasbourg, for example, has one of the country's largest and oldest markets, which is set up in front of the Strasbourg Cathedral. The town also has La Petite France, a wonderland of gingerbread bakeries and Christmas shops; holiday-themed exhibits; an ice skating rink; and the Great Christmas Tree. Info: www.strasbourg.fr/StrasbourgFr/GB.

For Christmas with an ocean breeze, the Riviera town of Menton also gets all dolled up for the holidays, with a market, Nativity scenes and festival. Info: www.villedementon.com.

If you're in Paris, go see the Gallic version of the Rockefeller Center tree at Hotel de Ville, site of many holiday festivities. And while many families eat their Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas day lunch at home, you can dine on traditional holiday fare at gastronomies, which are often open during the holidays. Expect oysters with your goose or turkey, and a dessert of la buche de Noel, a yule log made of chocolate and chestnuts. Info: Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau, http://gb.parisinfo.com.

For general information about France: French Government Tourism Office, 410-286-8310, http://us.franceguide.com.


Charlotte D. Jones of Washington has some suggestions for touring St. Petersburg, Russia (May 15). Jones recommends going off-season. "Four of us went in early November 2002 and had a wonderful time. Yes, the temperatures were hovering around freezing and it snowed an inch or two each day, but for us that only enhanced the beauty of St. Petersburg. More importantly, there were few crowds at any of the sites we visited, such as the Hermitage, which I understand can be very busy in the summer." Jones booked her one-week tour of Moscow and St. Petersburg through Crown Travel (800-853-6453, www.the1way2travel.com).

Send queries by e-mail (travelqa@washpost.com), fax (202-912-3609) or U.S. mail (Travel Q&A, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071).