Seeing the real India and my real home

Best experience: Every foreign traveler yearns for an unscripted, "authentic" encounter with the local culture. Mine came in Rajasthan last month, when my genial driver from Namaste India Tours reluctantly agreed to a detour to avoid construction on our way to Jaipur.

Veering down an unmarked road, we wound up in a village of about 600 people — half of whom clustered around our classic Indian-made Ambassador car when I stopped and asked to take photos. My visit happened to coincide with Diwali, a national holiday that has the popularity quotient of Christmas. Over the next few hours, I got the grand tour from residents whose joy and pride shone through in every frame.

After admiring the elaborate henna designs that sprouted on most of the women's hands, I was whisked into a courtyard for my own version. In gratitude, I offered the henna artist a bracelet I'd made. Demurring at first, she finally accepted … with a smile I'll never forget.

Worst experience: The biggest disappointment of 2007 had to be the weekend I hunted tornadoes across north Texas on a storm chaser's tour. Despite alluringly menacing skies and that Wicked Witch of the West music from Wizard of Oz playing an endless loop in my head, all I got for two long days in a stuffy van was fast-food-induced heartburn and a handful of quarter-sized hail. Toto and Dorothy, where were you?

Most unexpected experience: Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again — and during that journey, learn much about a place you already know. I grew up in southern Wisconsin and return every year, so I figured I'd be plowing familiar ground when I headed to John and Dorothy Priske's Fountain Prairie Inn and Farms this summer for a story on the state's new eco-tourism program.

But as I stood with John Priske in the soft light of an August morning, gazing over his restored native prairie and listening to his ruminations about how the late Wisconsin conservationist Aldo Leopold would have championed the growing "slow food" and "eat local" movements, I was both nostalgic and surprised by the quiet beauty of a state too often dismissed as flyover country.

Most memorable lodging: The gorgeous swath of California coastline known as Big Sur, my favorite place on the planet, is famous for swank inns with rates as breathtaking as their views.

When my husband and I headed there for a long spring weekend, we wanted to commune with nature, not Hollywood hotshots — but didn't want to pitch a tent.

The ideal compromise: Ripplewood Resort, a Mom-and-Pop hideaway where a spare but scrupulously clean cabin on the banks of the Big Sur River cost $143.55 per night. Perched on the deck with a bottle of local wine and steamed artichokes from nearby Salinas, we leaned back, listened to the gurgling river and toasted our good fortune at such a terrific find.

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