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March 15, 1992|JERRY HULSE

Puerto Vallarta has been taking a bashing lately. Travelers complain that the Mexico resort has grown too big, too expensive. Granted, Puerto Vallarta is spreading, but there are still hotel bargains. As for growth, blame it on travel writers and the film "The Night of the Iguana." After the movie, new hotels rose. Restaurants/boutiques began doing a lively business. Europeans as well as Americans zeroed in on Puerto Vallarta.

When I arrived in Puerto Vallarta in the '60s, there was only one taxi. That and a horse cab. Streets were mostly unpaved and the town was showered with dust as the lone taxi hurried in from the airport. I slept on the beach the first night (the only major hotel, the Oceana, was full). But that was OK because the weather was pleasant (maybe youth had something to do with it). I remember awakening and taking a swim and then strolling over to the Oceana for breakfast and a beer (they had no orange juice, so beer had to do). In those days Puerto Vallarta was a dream. Uncrowded. A few fishing boats. I always had hoped to hole up in PV and have a try at that novel I never seem to get around to writing.

The last time I was in Puerto Vallarta, my favorite beach was a bit more crowded. Still, streets in the old section were cobbled, which is hard on tires but great for atmosphere. Along with others, I mourn for the old days when there were fewer tourists, but if you want to avoid the big resort hotels (and high prices), here are a few suggestions:

--Hotel Las Palmas, P.O. Box 55, Puerto Vallarta 483000. Rates: approximately $55 for a double.

--Hotel Playa de Oro, P.O. Box 78, Puerto Vallarta 483000. Rates: $45/$60.

--Hotel Molina de Agua, P.O. Box 54, Puerto Vallarta 483000. This is a cottage hotel alongside the Cuale River. Guests pick mangoes from the trees, sunbathe at the pool or beach. Rates: $45/$72.

--Hotel Buena Ventura, P.O. Box 8B48350, Puerto Vallarta 483000. Rates: $56/$65.

--Playa Conchas Chinas, P.O. Box 346, Puerto Vallarta 483000. Rates: $28/$76. Guests dine next door at El Set, a popular seaside restaurant whose menu tells of "another lousy sunset in paradise." Tables terraced over the sea. A guitarist strums romantic melodies. Lobster, red snapper, frog legs, shrimp, steak, Mexican fare.

These hotels are for vacationers on a budget. The new rates (subject to change) are provided by the Mexican Government Tourism Office, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 224, Los Angeles 90067, (213) 203-8191.

At Home Overseas: American-International Homestays is adding new options to its list of overseas destinations. The latest: Germany, Hungary, Poland, Siberia, Mongolia. These are mostly 17-day trips. Packages (from $1,990) include round-trip air from New York, accommodations/meals at homes of English-speaking families in Budapest, Krakow, Berlin, Ulan Bator, Irkutsk (at Lake Baikal) in Siberia. Participants spend one week each with two different families in two cities. (Hosts volunteer as guides on sightseeing jaunts.) Originally, the company launched its program with home-stays in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Details from American-International Homestays, Route 1, Box 68, Iowa City, Iowa 52240, (800) 876-2048. (Customized group/land-only trips also available.)

Booked for Travel: Check your bookstore for the new Berlitz Guides, published previously by Penguin. Eighteen titles. England/Wales, London, Ireland, Hawaii, Australia, the Caribbean, Mexico, San Francisco, New York, France, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Northern Italy, Southern Italy. Nine editions are already on the shelves. Others to be available by the end of April. These aren't your run-of-the-mill, nuts-and-bolts guides. Rather, they are aimed at the sophisticated, independent traveler. Information supplied by dozens of writers who live/work in the various destinations. Berlitz Guides are loaded with maps, touring advice. Listings of hotels/inns (with current prices). Besides offbeat attractions, the guides provide general information as well. (The London guide discusses the Underground, buses, taxis, tourist passes, rental cars, excursions.) Costs of the guides vary from $10.95 to $16.95.

Meanwhile, Zagat's latest restaurant guide features Hawaii. Upwards of 300 restaurants on Oahu, Kauai, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, the Big Island, plus updated reviews of 45 hotels/resorts. Some 600 volunteer diners contributed to this survey. Co-edited by the highly respected, Honolulu-based travel/food writer, Jocelyn Fujii. Zagat's Hawaii guide names such popular restaurants as Roy's on Oahu, A Pacific Cafe on Kauai and Merriman's on the Big Island (one of my favorites). Other Zagat guides cover 25 cities/regions in the United States. On sale in most bookstores for $9.95.

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