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 The Brancatelli File

joe FIVE GREAT SPOTS FOR LAST-MINUTE
AMERICAN SUMMER VACATIONS


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

July 29, 1999 -- The summer is half over and you haven't planned your vacation yet, have you?

Lucky for you, procrastination won't cost you.

Thanks to a confluence of economic and sociological events, there are still great places to go for a great American summer vacation. Here are five special spots where you'll still be able to get a reservation--and a good deal.

HAWAII
America's tropical paradise is also America's bargain basement this summer.

Stung by a local recession and reeling from the absence of Asian vacationers, Hawaiian hotels and resorts are desperate to woo mainland U.S. visitors back to the Aloha State. You'll find empty suites at the super-swanky beachfront resorts on the Big Island, a cornucopia of high-rise condominiums seeking customers on Maui and vacancies galore on the lush, green grounds of Kauai's guest houses. There's even a binful of bargains on Waikiki Beach, the bustling tourist town in the shadows of Diamond Head.

One example: Forget the $175 published nightly rate for an ocean-view room at the Waikiki Parc, a serene and sophisticated hotel just off the beachfront. All summer, the $158 "Room & Car" package offers accommodations, a rental car and free parking.

LAS VEGAS
It's not that Vegas won't be packing in the high rollers, low rollers and holy rollers all summer, it's just that hope--and new hotel rooms--spring eternal in the land of showgirls and snake eyes.

Even before the splashy, $1 billion Mandalay Bay resort opened with 3,700 rooms in March, Las Vegas boasted 109,000 places to sleep. The 60-acre Mandalay Bay is so big that it houses a -mile-long river, a swim-up shark tank and 15 restaurants. May brought the 3,000-suite Venetian Casino Resort and September brings the 2,900-room Paris Casino Resort. In case you couldn't guess, the Venetian has canals and the Paris Casino boasts a 50-story Eiffel Tower, a faux Champs Elysee and an Arc de Triomphe. It's all perfectly fitting for a town that already has a pyramid, a sphinx and its own miniature New York.

All the new construction means a frenzy of deals. All summer, for example, US Airways Vacations is selling three-night, midweek packages as low as $248 a person, including roundtrip airfare and accommodations.

RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA
If playing the slots and visiting replicas of famous places isn't your idea of paradise, then head for Rapid City, South Dakota.

Not only is the hotel-motel-strip-mall mentality of Rapid City as real as it gets, Rapid City is also base camp for visitors driving to five unduplicated national treasures. Twenty five miles southwest is Mt. Rushmore and 51 miles east is Badlands National Park. Also within a two-hour drive: Jewel Cave National Monument, an underground labyrinth of crystals; Wind Cave National Park, with 44 miles of underground tunnels and caverns; and Devils Tower National Park, an awe-inspiring rock formation that rises 265 meters above the Wyoming Plains.

LAKE LANIER, GEORGIA
Should you be seeking shelter from the metaphorical storms, head for Lake Lanier, Georgia.

Getting away from it all is rarely this easy: Nestled amid a 1,200-acre pine forest in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Lake Lanier is only about 45 minutes from downtown Atlanta. The lake itself, stocked with bass and crappie, is a fisherman's paradise. And there's an 18-hole golf course and plenty of tennis courts on Lake Lanier Islands. The homey LakeLanier.com Web site offers activities planners; a virtual bulletin board for summer rentals; a guide to hotels, motels and inns; and even a link to a weekly fishing report. If you desire all the sybaritic amenities with your serenity, try the Renaissance PineIsle, a 250-room lakefront resort.

THE CONNECTICUT RIVER
Want a great place to get lost this summer? Try the Connecticut River.

Despite its name, the Connecticut runs all through New England: It dissects Connecticut and Massachusetts and forms the border of Vermont and New Hampshire. The valley on both sides of the riverbank is dotted with Americana. You pass college towns (including Amherst and Hanover, home of Dartmouth), big cities (Hartford) and sleepy hamlets; several mountains named Sugarloaf; a slew of cute New England inns; dozens of places to navigate the river or ride a short-line railroad; thousands of antique shops and hundreds of factory outlets; and a covered bridge or two. You can even sleep at a classic American Summer palace like The Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.

This column originally appeared at Mapquest.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.