Q We've been looking at Danube cruises. Packages we've found include tours and meals aboard the ship, but we want to explore on our own and eat at local restaurants. Is there a cruise line that offers the convenience of a floating hotel without the amenities?
A In Europe, river cruises fall into two categories -- barges and ships -- but unfortunately, you can't mix and match your boats and rivers. Short of a raft, the most barebones vessel in Europe is the DIY barge, in which you captain a slow-moving barge through rivers and canals, stopping in villages to load up on provisions and see the sights. Up a notch are crewed river barges, which cater to larger groups (six to 150 passengers), follow an itinerary and include gourmet meals (vs. the usual gorge-fests). Barge tours are most common on waterways in France, Scotland and Ireland -- but not the Danube.
For this major navigational river, which flows through such cities as Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest, you will find mainly small cruise ships. Though similar in style to ocean liners, the river cruises differ in size (80 to 150 people vs. thousands), as well as dining. "On river boats, meals are included, but they are gourmet European cuisine," says Naomi Kabak, vice president of development for Worldwaterways.com, an online resource and booking site for small cruises and barges. "They are not mammoth buffets."
Dining costs are folded into the overall price, but you are not required to eat onboard and are free to venture into the port towns for lunch or dinner. In addition, most shore excursions are optional and cost extra, but for those that are included, you can skip out and tour independently. However, remember that you're now in charge of scouting out the sights you want to visit and setting up tours and transportation from the ship. For Danube ideas, contact the tourism offices of Austria, Germany, etc.
In the river cruising world, the most established Danube-sailing companies include Peter Deilmann Cruises (800-348-8287, www.deilmann-cruises.com), for high-end sailing; Viking River Cruises (877-66-VIKING, www.vikingrivers.com), which offers onboard lectures, demos and theme dinners; and Amadeus Waterways (800-626-0126, www.amadeuswaterways.com), which has a more modern fleet of ships. For a comprehensive list of European river cruises and barges, see Worldwaterways.com, 800-833-2620, www.worldwaterways.com.
My family and I are spending a week in Laguna Beach, Calif., between Christmas and New Year's. What are some sites and activities we should not miss?
Fans of MTV's frothy reality show "Laguna Beach" -- touted as "the real O.C." -- know the lighter side of this SoCal city. The visitors bureau even offers a map of shooting locales and the cast's hangout spots. Yet, Laguna Beach is hardly Teen Beat on the beach.
Swank boutiques and cafes flank Ocean and Forest avenues, while more than 20 art galleries line Gallery Row. The Laguna Art Museum also features California artists, and the city's walls, benches and public spaces are adorned with art installations (check the visitors center for a walking tour and brochure). For kitchen-made art, the Laguna Culinary Arts cooking school offers cheese tastings that the over-21 set can pair with wine.
About eight miles south, boats depart Dana Point daily on whale- and dolphin-watching excursions. You can also see pinnipeds close up at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, a nonprofit that rescues, rehabs and releases seals and sea lions found distressed along the shoreline. In addition, the South Coast Wilderness Parks offers 19,000 acres of marine preserves and conservation land ideal for hiking, biking and horseback riding.
Though December is a tad chilly for swimming, Main Beach and Aliso Creek Beach will be warm enough for sunbathing. You can also surf, snorkel, kayak and skimboard in the various coves -- just insulate with a wet suit.
The city's biggest winter event is the Sawdust Art Festival, during which art and Santa converge in a winterland bedecked with lights and "real snow." The event runs four weekends in November and December, and while it ends before Christmas, more holiday activities will be announced in November.
To help organize your visit, the Laguna Beach Visitors & Conference Bureau (800-877-1115, www.lagunabeachinfo.org) has compiled thematic itineraries, such as Sports Safari and Canyon Capers, and can supply specialized maps and other info. In addition, if you care to wander outside the city limits, Disneyland is only a half-hour's drive to the east and the real (fake) "O.C." is filmed just north in Newport Beach.
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