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You can hardly open a slick travel magazine without finding at least one report proclaiming the latest "hot" destination. "Hot destination," of course, has many different meanings -- maybe it features some unique attraction, maybe some important event is scheduled, maybe a few big-name celebrities have been spotted there.

But "hot popularity" often equates to "hot prices," overdevelopment, commercialism and swarms of tourists. And, often, a little ingenuity will allow you to find most of the advantages with less of the hassle and often at lower costs.

This line of exploration was triggered by an e-mail from a reader, who raved about the combination of great resources and relaxed atmosphere he finds in Huatulco, Mexico. It's the ideal "non-Cancun," he reports, and is the place where affluent Mexicans go to vacation. It's on Mexico's Pacific coast, about halfway between Acapulco and the Guatemalan border, and easily accessible by airline. I've never been, but I'll take my reader's word about its charms.

Clearly, some destinations are hot because they're unique. If you want to attend the 2012 Olympics, you have to go to London; if you want to visit Walt Disney World, you're stuck with central Florida; and if you like swarms of tourists, gaudy lights and shows, Las Vegas is unique.

But I've also found many cases where you can enjoy the features of today's current "hot" destinations without the hassles and high prices, especially in Europe:

*For several years, Tuscany has been the "hot" part of Italy for quick visits and particularly for vacation rentals, but you can find a similar mix of great scenery, picturesque villages and outstanding local cuisine with less crowding and lower prices in nearby Liguria, Lombardy and Umbria.

*Similarly, Provence is the commonly accepted "hot" area in France for extended visits and rentals, a development encouraged by several entertaining books about expat life there. But the French people we know shun Provence as far too "touristy," and instead head for the Ardeche for their holidays. I also like Haut Savoie and the Ariege.

*A few years ago, just-freed Prague was hailed as the "new Vienna." Now Vilnius, Lithuania, is hailed as the "new Prague," and Tallinn, Estonia, is a likely candidate for the "new Vilnius." In fact, just about any Eastern European capital city has a lot to offer -- at prices well below London, Paris and Vienna.

You don't see quite as much focus on "hot" destinations in North America. We pretty well know that Florida and Mexico have zillions of miles of good beaches and beachfront communities that range from big, gaudy Miami to tourist-centric Cancun to Florida's "Redneck Riviera." We know that Minnesota has 10,000 lakes, with lots more next door in Wisconsin. We know that Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Washington and such are dynamic cities with a broad pallet of visitor options and attractions.

In some ways, the mirror image of "hot" is "secret." Here again, writers are fond of letting their readers in on some "secret" destinations or activities. I take issue with the concept. In my experience, nothing is really secret in the travel business. Areas that don't see many visitors are shouting their virtues to anyone who will listen, not trying to keep them anonymous.

How, then, to approach the prospect of a hot destination? If the heat is based on an event, you have no alternative. You have to go where the action is. But if the heat is based on hype from writers or celebrities, you can always look around for something similar, but a lot less expensive.