Where to go this summer?
For my money, the best place to vacation this summer is in a country few of us know much about: America.
Here are a few recommendations::
--Amtrak. It's become--finally--the train that can . As air fares continue to rise, Amtrak offers a wide variety of tour and fare packages that make a lot of sense, with plenty of options enabling travelers to stop in various cities en route.
Amtrak also has improved its service and reliability. Believe it or not, it has even improved its food service. On the Capitol Limited and Coast Starlight, meals are served on classically styled dinnerware, with metal flatware and tablecloths.
--Alaska. This state used to be a destination for only the most adventurous folks. This summer more than 30 cruise ships will sail Alaskan waters. It's a cruise vacation worth taking. And if you have the time (about three weeks), drive the Alaska Highway north to Skagway, then drive onto a cruise ship called the Stardancer and leisurely sail back to Vancouver.
--Vail, Colo. If you think this place closes when the snow stops falling, you're mistaken. It's one of the best all-around summer vacations available. There's white-water rafting, ballooning and horseback riding, plus water skiing and fly-fishing on nearby lakes.
--Wisconsin. Specifically, Madison. Madison is a manageable city surrounded by four lakes. It's not only the capital of Wisconsin but a center for cultural activity. Home to the University of Wisconsin, Madison is a frenetic place during the school year. In the summer months, it becomes a different, almost idyllic, environment.
Lake Mendota becomes a Cezanne painting in the late afternoon, as small sailboats and windsurfers crisscross the horizon. Don't expect luxury accommodations, but do expect a great time.
Madison is also a great hub. Make it your travel headquarters and head south toward Lake Geneva. Just 30 miles outside of Madison, in places such as Stoughton, Sun Prairie and Mt. Horeb, are some of the best antique finds in America; not just in small stores but at weekend auctions.
--Fire Island, N.Y. This 32-mile-long island boasts one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. No cars allowed--just bicycles and wagons. The only way to get there is by ferry across Great South Bay.
There are 19 separate communities on Fire Island, but few hotels. To truly enjoy the area, rent a house . . . but don't do it between Memorial Day and Labor Day. If at all possible, rent a house during September. Without a doubt, September boasts the best weather of the year, and no crowds.
And, if you must experience a foreign country this summer, some suggestions follow:
--Portugal. This country could be the last remaining bargain in Europe. That may be a strong reason to get you there, but it is by no means the only one.
From the moment you land in Lisbon you're struck that this is the kingdom of a dead empire. When I write about Portugal, it's as close to outright hyperbole as I ever get.
Why? The people are great, the food (especially the seafood) is exceptional--and inexpensive--and the pace is unhurried. There's great craft and pottery shopping.
In the Alfama district there's a restaurant I'd go to every week if I could afford the air fare. It's called Papa Acorda (pronounced assorda ). Great seafood, and, if you happen to be a dessert lover, order the chocolate mousse. This place doesn't serve it in petite champagne-type glasses, but with a ladle from a large bowl!
Some words of caution: In the summer months don't go to Portugal's Algarve. It's an otherwise beautiful area invaded during July and August by hordes of European tourists and dozens of charter flights. But from Lisbon north, you can't do any better. Try a lazy lunch at the Hotel Palacio in Estoril, then drive up the coast overlooking the Atlantic Ocean to Sintra and Cascais.
(TAP, the Portuguese airline, starts new service from Los Angeles to Portugal next Sunday.)
Then there's Madeira, the beautiful Portuguese island 600 miles out in the Atlantic. A short flight from Lisbon, Madeira is a great counterpoint to Lisbon, with a style that's an unusual mixture of Portuguese, North African and British influences. In Madeira it's easy to become a port authority, and hard to escape sampling this premier wine.
--The Caribbean. Who says it has to be a winter destination? Some of the best deals can be had during the summer months in Antigua, St. Martin and Peter Island. It's uncrowded, the weather is fine and you'll be able to unwind much easier when you got a $400-a-night room at less than half the price.
--Turkey. Within two years you'll probably have a hard time getting a reservation here. Slowly but surely, travelers are discovering the discreet charms of a country most Americans only vaguely--and negatively--remember from the 1978 movie "Midnight Express."