Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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Little destinations turn out to be big fun

In light of a tourist culture that tends to center on Top 10 destinations, it's always nice to learn of places that more relaxed, where the moment you settle in you feel right at home.

Here are a few more favorites from our collection of second and third-tier destinations:

Haines, Alaska, qualified for our list as soon as we got off the Marine Highway ferry from Ketchikan. There it was, the actual embodiment of the fictional Northern Exposure town. And the antithesis of Skagway, the ferries' next stop, with its cruise ship mentality and merchandising to match.

Haines is none of that. It lives off the inland ferry traffic and fishing, off the occasional cruiser that calls in, and from a lively arts community.

There's old Fort William Seward up on the hill, a museum or two, and several well-qualified outfitters who'll take you out for some deep sea salmon fishing, or into the back country to look for bears and eagles and trumpeter swans. We saw them all.

We also like to stay in a small family run motel, the Captain's Choice ( with sublime views across Portage Cove, rooms that are pleasantly furnished, if a bit dated, and a staff with a no-coddle, can-do attitude.

Another town that meets all our low pressure, tourist-lite criteria is Bergen in Norway.

With a fascinating, buzzing downtown, cobbled streets, and a quayside of medieval houses and open-air fish markets, Bergen also has high-quality shop-ops for woods and woolens and Eskimo art, and a funicular that erupts onto a mountain top with phenomenal views. In other words, plenty to do for culture vultures or shopaholics, or both.

But Bergen's real appeal for us has to be its strategic location.

The town is home base for the "Hurtigrute," the 100-year-old coastal ferry system whose ships leave daily for their six-day voyage north up Norway's rugged coast and round the North Cape to Kirkenes, stopping 35 times en route, and appropriately billed as "the world's most beautiful voyage." We've done it five times now, in summer and winter. (Norwegian Coastal Voyage, 800-323-7436).

Bergen also is the end station for the sensational train, ferry, and bus trip known as "Norway in a Nutshell," that begins in Oslo with a world-class railway ride to the breathtakingly beautiful hamlet of Flam, and then takes you on the ultimate fjord experience up the Sognefjord.

Switzerland is always a natural magnet for rail fans and has some of the most thrilling train journeys anywhere.

The little town of Samedan, a secret hideaway that we lucked into several years ago while looking for accommodations in the St Moritz area that were convenient for the Glacier, the Palm, and the Bernina Expresses.

Unpretentious but pretty and packed with colorful Romansh architecture, Samedan also has some amazing walks right off its doorstep, or just a short train ride away. And best of all, you don't have to be a super athlete to experience these fabulous hikes. Just gondola up, and walk down. Easy!

Right across the street from the rail station stands the Alpine-style Hotel Terminus (call 41-81-852-53-56) owned by the Morell family, all pine wood furniture, colorful flower baskets and gemutlichkeit. And the generously proportioned wienerschnitzels and rosti potatoes served up in its paneled restaurant are everything a hungry hiker could ever wish for.

On the other side of the world - and several time zones away - is the little Australian coastal resort of Palm Cove that has a very special place in our hearts.

A dozen miles up the Queensland coast from the more popular and touristy Cairns, Palm Cove has just about everything you could wish for in a relaxed holiday: A beautiful bay bordered with palm trees, a postcard-perfect beach, colorful shops, rentable apartments, and a pickup point for the Great Barrier Reef excursions.

There's also all manner of al fresco dining on everything from wood-oven pizzas to barramunda and crocodile tails. Priceless!

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