Q Where can I find a kayaking tour in Costa Rica? And how can I tell if these are legitimate companies?

Mimi Pollow


A With water from coast to coast and rivulets in between, you could easily spend your entire vacation paddling around Costa Rica. And while Cynthia Dunbar, manager of REI Adventures, concedes that Costa Rica is known more for its hiking, jungle expeditions and white-water rafting, she says there's no shortage of kayaking opportunities.

For example, the Caribbean side has warm, flat water and colorful reefs as well as the Tortuguero National Park, where you can kayak Rio Suerte. On the opposite side, the Pacific has cliffs, jungle nudging the coastline and a stronger tidal flow (but not wavy enough to pop you off your boat). In Manual Antonio National Park, you can glimpse monkeys and rainbow-colored birds overhead. Inland, the river tributaries slice through the jungle, home to snakes, small crocodiles and poisonous dart frogs. Though you can take a land break, Dunbar warns of "things along the shoreline -- stingy, jungle kinds of things."

When scouting out a kayak tour, look for companies affiliated with such travel associations as the American Society of Travel Agents (703-739-2782, www.astanet.com), which lists a number of agents who specialize in adventure trips in Latin America. The Costa Rica Tourism Board (800-343-6332, www.visitcostarica.com) also posts travel operators on its Web site that are approved by its tourism institute. Also check the trips run by established adventure companies, such as Gorp.com and REI Adventures, which has an eight-day Jungle and Seascape trip for $2,325 per person double (land only). Info: 800-622-2236, www.rei.com/adventures.

Before booking, ask the company if its instructors are certified and speak English, and inquire about the age and make of the equipment. Says Dunbar: "While Costa Rica's tourism infrastructure is quite good, you are in a new place and you want to be safe." So wear your life jacket and don't pet the monkeys.

I'd like to go somewhere warm for my 30th birthday. Unfortunately, it's Dec. 26, which is an expensive time to travel. Any suggestions for warm places that are budget-friendly?

Anna K. Amendolare


Christmas is a festive season for a birthday, but a tough time to travel: Airlines black out those dates, and hotels and cruise lines spike their rates in anticipation of holiday vacationers.

If you can depart (and return) before Christmas Day or after the New Year, you might be able to find inexpensive airfare and/or packages to the Caribbean. For example, a five-night Apple Vacations package (www.applevacations.com) to Nassau departing Dec. 11 costs $858 per person double; a similar package leaving Dec. 22 is nearly twice as much. Also, if you can take off with little notice, many travel Web sites try to unload unsold packages just days before the holidays. Check Fare Deals (800-347-7006, www.faredeal.com) and 11thhourvacations.com (888-740-1998, www.11thhourvacations.com).

Domestic destinations might be less tropical but a bit more economical. Key West, Fla., for example, has average winter temps of 77 degrees. To save on airfare, fly into Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and drive about 190 miles south; lodging ranges from resorts to campsites. Info: Florida Keys tourism council, 800-FLA-KEYS, www.fla-keys.com. On the opposite coast, San Diego is the City of Perfect Weather, and though winter temps can drop to the mid-60s, you can rent a car and drive to Mexico for a blast of hot sun and beach. Info: San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, 619-236-1212, www.sandiego.org.

My husband and I want to take a train from Seattle to Anchorage. Do you know of any train routes?

Di Quynn-Reno

Queenstown, Md.

You can take a boat, a car or a plane from Seattle to Anchorage, but not a train -- there are no tracks connecting the two cities. A ferry runs from Bellingham, Wash., to Whittier, Alaska, where you can then hop aboard an Alaska Railroad train to Anchorage ($52 one way). The ferry takes a week to cross the Gulf of Alaska and includes a layover and a ferry switch in Juneau; cost is $529 per person one way. For ferry info: Alaska State Marine Highway, 800-382-9229, www.akmhs.com.

Once in Alaska, traveling by train is one of the best ways to enjoy the scenery. Three of Alaska Railroad's trains depart from Anchorage -- the Coastal Classic, the Denali Star and the Glacier Discovery -- and stop in such towns as Seward, Fairbanks and Denali. The company also organizes day tours, such as the Spencer Glacier and Float Tour ($159 per person), which includes a chill ride among icebergs. Info: 800-544-0552 www.alaskarailroad.com.

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