Q Our family enjoys snorkeling in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands in winter, but it's expensive. Can you suggest a similar environment in the mainland United States?
Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
A St. John is basically the pinnacle of the snorkeling experience, says Jason Bennis, marine policy manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group. It's not easy to duplicate the Virgin Islands' combo of beautiful beaches, warm water and rich marine life off the coast of the U.S. mainland in winter. California has the good snorkeling-beach combo, but the water is not tropical, so you'd need a wet suit. And while there is excellent snorkeling off the Florida coast at such sites as Biscayne National Park, the Dry Tortugas and the Florida Keys, you won't find the pristine beaches of the Caribbean.
If you can forgo the beach, Bennis says Dry Tortugas National Park, about 70 miles west of Key West, Fla., is the "crown jewel of U.S. snorkeling." One of the country's smallest and most remote national parks, the cluster of seven islands is accessible only by boat or seaplane out of Key West. Its 64,700 underwater acres are home to spectacular coral reefs, a sunken ship that wrecked in 1901 and the moat surrounding Fort Jefferson, one of the largest coastal forts. Depths are up to 20 feet, and water temps are in the 70s off-season, about as warm as the air. Limited camping is available, and fishing and dive charters can be arranged in the Florida Keys or Naples, Fla. Info: Dry Tortugas National Park, 305-242-7700, www.nps.gov/drto; Biscayne National Park, 305-230-7275, www.nps.gov/bisc; Florida Keys, 800-FLA-KEYS, www.fla-keys.com.
There are lots of good snorkeling sites off the Florida mainland, but the water will be nippy in winter. Jeff Nadler, a spokesman for the diver educational organization PADI and an experienced snorkeler, says there are reef lines all along Florida's Gold Coast (roughly from Fort Lauderdale to Miami), 30 to 50 yards offshore. "You just have to have the right protection," he said. "Wintertime in Florida, the water temperature is probably going to be 60 to 68 [degrees Fahrenheit]." Nadler recommends checking with dive stores along the coast for tips. A list of dive operators is available on the PADI Web site, www.padi.com; click on Dive Travel Adventures, then Travel, then Destination Guide.
Where can I find a grandparent/grandchild or family trip to Italy for summer 2006? I'd like to travel with my 14-year-old granddaughter.
Elizabeth S. Lourie
Several companies offer intergenerational trips to Italy next summer, with prices all over the map:
* Grand Circle Travel, a Boston senior tour operator, has an 18-day trip to the Amalfi Coast and Tuscany with several departure dates next summer. The trip includes a home-hosted lunch with a Sorrento family and a visit to a school, so your granddaughter could experience snippets of everyday Italian life. Stops include Rome; Sorrento, with tours of the town, the Amalfi Coast and Pompeii; and Montecatini, with tours of Montecatini Terme and Florence. The cost in June is $3,195 per person double from Baltimore and $3,295 from Washington Dulles, and includes lodging and most meals. July and August 2006 dates and prices will be announced in September. The trip offers two add-ons: a four-night pre-trip extension in Rome ($545) and a four-night post-trip stay in Venice ($595). Details: 800-959-0405, www.gct.com.
* Elderhostel, a Boston nonprofit educational travel organization for seniors, has a trip focusing on life in ancient Rome July 1-16. The program is designed for grandparents and grandchildren aged 9 to 11, but Elderhostel spokesman Adam Hurtubise says it's also appropriate for teenagers. The 14-night trip includes illustrated lectures and field trips, and requires extensive walking (two to three miles a day). The tour starts in Rome, where participants are based for eight nights before taking a train to Naples and a bus to Sorrento (five nights). Despite the company's name, lodging is in hotels, not hostels. Cost is $4,229 per person double, including lodging, most meals and air from Washington Dulles ($2,942 without the air). Details: 877-426-8056, www.elderhostel.org.
* Grandtravel, a Washington tour company dedicated to "helping grandparents create lasting memories for themselves and their grandchildren," has a 12-day trip to Venice, Tuscany and Rome scheduled for July 5-16 and July 11-22, 2006. Highlights include a train trip through the heart of Tuscany, a Venetian mask workshop, a visit to the islands of Murano and Burano, a cooking lesson with a Tuscan chef, and hiking, biking and boat-riding on a 16th-century Tuscan farm. Cost is $7,690 per person double, which includes lodging, ground transportation and most meals, but not airfare. Details: 202-247-7651, www.grandtrvl.com.
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