By Joe Brancatelli

 From Summer 1999

It's okay to admit it: you haven't planned your summer vacation yet, have you?

Not to worry. I've got five great American summer vacations in mind for you. They range from the rustic charm of New England to the omnipresent glitz of Las Vegas, and, better yet, you'll still get a reservation at these places a fair price.

No need to say thanks. Just send a nice souvenir.

HAWAII   America's tropical Pacific paradise is also America's bargain basement special this summer. Stung by a local recession and reeling from the absence of Asian vacationers, Hawaiian hotels and resorts are desperate the 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 hotels and guest houses. There's even a binful of bargains on Waikiki Beach, the bustling tourist town in the shadows of Diamondhead. One example: Forget the $170 published rate at the Waikiki Beachcomber (800-622-4646), which faces the busiest stretch of Waikiki sand. All summer, the Beachcomber's $140 "Room & Vroom" package offers a room and a rental car with unlimited mileage. And just to make your Hawaiian holiday complete, the indestructible Don Ho performs every night in the Beachcomber's showroom. (Get more details from www.hshawaii.com, which is the web edition of the state's official visitor's guide).

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, 15 restaurants, and a 424-room Four Seasons hotel. Need still more glitz and excess? 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 a Venetian theme and the Paris Casino boasts a 50-story Eiffel Tower, a faux Champs Elysee, and an Arc de Triomphe, all perfectly fitting for a town that already has a pyramid, a sphinx and its own miniature New York streetscape. This summer, USAirways Vacations (800-455-0123) is selling two-night, midweek packages as low as $235 a person, including roundtrip airfare and accommodations. (Want more information? Surf over to www.lasvegas.com or www.vegas.com, websites maintained by Las Vegas' competing daily newspapers.)

RAPID CITY   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-Holiday Inn, strip-mall mentality of Rapid City as real as it gets, Rapid City is also base camp for visitors heading to five unduplicated national treasures.

Twenty five miles southwest is Mt. Rushmore, where the gigantic granite busts of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt remind you that we once revered presidents, not forgave them. Fifty-one miles east is Badlands National Park, an eerie wilderness that will remind you what this country once was. 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. Call the Rapid City Convention & Visitors Bureau (800-487-3223) or surf to its website (www.rapidcitycvb.com) to plan your excursion.

   Should you be seeking shelter from the metaphorical storms, head for Lake Lanier. 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 a 18-hole golf course and plenty of tennis courts on Lake Lanier Islands. A homey website (www.lakelanier.com) offers good maps, 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 (800-HOTELS-1), a 250-room lakefront resort.

CONNECTICUT RIVER   Want a great place to get lost? Try The Connecticut River. It runs all through New England--it starts at the Long Island Sound, dissects Connecticut and Massachusetts, forms the border of Vermont and New Hampshire, and ends beyond the Canadian border--and the valley on both sides of the river bank is dotted with Americana.

You'll pass college towns (including Amherst and Hanover, home of Dartmouth), big cities (Hartford) and sleepy hamlets; several mountains named Sugarloaf; a slew of too-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 (800-258-0330) in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. There is no single website covering the region, but type "Connecticut River Valley" into any search engine, and you'll find hundreds of pages dedicated to various portions of the river

One last thought: If your only goal is to go somewhere cheap this summer, poke around the Internet. The web has emerged as the travel bazaar of last resort for airlines, hotels, and car-rental firms looking to unload the remnants of their inventory. All major U.S. airlines and hotel chains post last minute and weekend specials; many will also send you a weekly E-mail with specials valid for weekend jaunts to anywhere from Anchorage to Zurich. The fastest way to research weekend Internet offers is to surf over to Webflyer (www.webflyer.com), then click on the "Deal Watch" link. The interactive procedure allows you to search all available air, hotel and car offers by your city of departure and your chosen destination. And don't miss Worldwide Brochures (www.wwb.com); it has an inventory of 15,000 travel maps, guides, and brochures from vacation spots around the world. All are free for the asking.


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