12 Offbeat Travel Ideas For 2013

valetta maltaMy annual New Year’s Eve tradition is to reflect on all the places I visited during the year and plot out where I want to go in the New Year. 2012 was a banner travel year for my family because we put all of our things in storage for five months and traveled extensively in Europe and North America. We gorged ourselves on donuts and thought we got scammed in Western New York’s Amish Country, learned how to flatfoot on Virginia’s Crooked Road, were heckled and intimidated at a soccer game in Italy, and drank homemade wine with the only two residents of the village of San Michalis, on the Greek island of Syros.

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For those of you who have made resolutions to hit the road in 2013, here are 12 travel experiences and destinations, most of them a little or very offbeat, that I highly recommend.


amish donuts12. Donut Crawl in Western New York’s Amish Country

Unlike Lancaster County and other more well known Amish areas around the country, Cattaraugus County’s Amish Trail is a place where you can experience Amish culture, and let’s be honest here – candy and donuts – without all the tourists and kitsch. I love the Amish donuts so much that I went in January and again in July. Because there aren’t many tourists in this region, you’ll find that many of the Amish who live here are just as curious about you as you are about them.

11. Soak Up Colonial Era History in Marblehead, Massachusetts

I’ve been visiting family members in Marblehead for nearly 20 years and I never get tired of this beautifully preserved, quintessential New England town. Marblehead gets a steady trickle of day-trippers from Boston – but don’t make that mistake – book a B & B in this town and dive into one of America’s most historic towns for a full weekend.

10. Save The Turtles, Eat the Fish Tacos and Ride The Waves in Safe, Scenic San Pancho, Mexico

If you want a low-key beach vacation in Mexico but aren’t into big resorts or large cities, look no further than San Pancho, which is only an hour from the Puerto Vallarta airport. It’s about as safe as Mayberry, and you can volunteer to help preserve marine turtles, eat the best fish tacos you’ve ever had and surf and frolic on a huge, spectacular beach.



sicilian man in gangi nicola seminara9. Visit Gangi, Italy’s Most Charming Hill Town You’ve Never Heard Of

Italy is filled with enchanting hill towns, but many of them are besieged with tourists. If you want to check out a lovely hill town in Sicily’s interior that hasn’t changed much in centuries, check out Gangi, where you’ll find everything you could want in an Italian hill town: a perfect central piazza, a medieval street plan you will get lost in, and perhaps the world’s best gelato at the Seminara Bar (no relation to me).

freiburg germany8. Eat the Real Black Forest Ham in Historic Freiburg, Germany

Freiburg is a gorgeous, highly underrated city in Germany’s Black Forest region that is a pedestrian and gourmand dream. Here in the U.S., companies can get away with calling any old ham “Black Forest ham” but in Freiburg, you can sample the real deal and you will taste the difference.




7. Discover Old Time Music on Virginia’s Crooked Road

Southwest Virginia has a 253-mile music heritage trail that’s a glorious little slice of Americana where you’ll find terrific homespun music played by passionate locals who have Old Time Music in their blood. Don’t miss venues like the Fries Theater and the Floyd Country Store and bring your dancing shoes.




enzo ferrari museum modena italy6. Check Out Evita Peron’s Ride at Italy’s New Ferrari Museum

I’m not even a car buff, but I loved visiting the new Enzo Ferrari Museum in Modena, a picture-postcard small city in Emilia-Romagna, near Parma, that doesn’t get nearly as many tourists as it deserves. The museum pays tribute to the founder of Ferrari, who was born in the house next to the museum, and the automotive heritage of the Motor Valley, home to Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Ducati and other companies that make vehicles suitable for rap stars, professional athletes and others who like to be noticed.




5. Eat at the World’s Best Greek Restaurant in San Michalis, Syros, Population:2

Syros is just a short ferry ride away from Mykonos but it gets only a tiny fraction of the tourists and I’m not sure why. It’s a gorgeous little island, with a thriving port, great beaches and To Plakostroto the best Greek restaurant I’ve ever been to, located in a striking, end-of-the-world village where you can see six neighboring islands.




4. Experience Bluegrass Nirvana at the Rosine Barn Jamboree in Kentucky

Every Friday night from March through early December, local musicians gather to jam at an old barn and general store in Rosine, Kentucky, the tiny little town where Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music was born. This might be the best free music jam in the whole country and best of all, the regulars are the sweetest people you will ever meet.




samos3. Patmos & Samos Not Santorini and Mykonos

I’m obsessed with the Greek Isles. If I could spend my holidays in just one place anywhere in the world, it might be here. But I get a little frustrated by the fact that most Americans visit only Santorini & Mykonos. Both places are undeniably beautiful, but there are dozens of less expensive, less crowded islands that are just as nice. Patmos and Samos, in the eastern Aegean, are absolutely gorgeous and aren’t as crowded or expensive. Samos is known for its wine & honey, while Patmos is home to one of the most interesting monasteries in Greece.




obama pasticciotto2. Eat an Obama Pasticciotto in Italy’s Heel

The fact that Salento, a peninsula in Italy’s heel, has a chocolaty, gooey desert named after President Obama is just one reason to visit this very special but relatively off-the-radar part of Italy. Lecce is a baroque dream, a lively place with a great passegiata, unforgettable food and wine, very friendly people and fine beaches in the vicinity.




1. Make Friends in Valletta, Malta

I had but one day in Valletta and I spent a big chunk of it trying to track down a retired Maltese civil servant who chided me for misrepresenting the country at a school model U.N. in 1986, but I saw enough of this city to want more. Valletta is a heartbreakingly picturesque port, with gently decaying sandstone buildings, warm people, dramatic Mediterranean vistas and artery-clogging pastizzis, which were my favorite treat of 2012.

Conned By The Amish?

amish buggy trafficWe like to believe in the inherent honesty and virtue of the Amish. They are devout people who eschew material comforts in favor of simple living. In a country where the almighty dollar is king, and the gotcha capitalist ethos of say-anything-to-sell-it rules, they stand apart, as craftsmen who sell what they make with their own hands at fair prices with no nonsense. Or do they?

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I’ve been patronizing the Amish shops in Cattaraugus County for many years and have always believed that the Amish sold quality, handmade items at great prices. But I had an experience at an Amish shop recently that led me to believe that at least some of the Amish might be no less immune to deceptive salesmanship than anyone else.amish shopTwo years ago, my wife and I purchased a small, supposedly handmade Amish throw rug from the Wengerd family shop on Dredge Road in South Dayton, New York, and, although the rug was very cheap, we loved it. It’s not a beautiful rug, but every time we look at it, it reminds us of a place we love and a people we greatly respect. In July, we were back in Cattaraugus County and made another visit to the Wengerd family shop, which is located on a desolate road, deep in the Amish belt, where horses and buggies outnumber vehicular traffic, 2-1.

I asked the young man with a characteristic Amish bowl haircut if they bought the rugs or made them on premises.

“My sister makes them right here,” he said rather convincingly.

Given the low prices- $18 for a small rug or $39 for a larger one, I should have been skeptical, but it’s hard to know how an Amish teen would value their own time and labor, and I wasn’t prepared to believe that the God-fearing Amish would lie like a rug.

amish rugI bought a nice, big multicolored rug and just as we were about to get into our car, which was parked at the end of their two-buggy driveway, a FedEx truck came barreling down the lonely road.

“FedEx comes out here?” I said to my dad. “But how can the Amish even order anything without phones or Internet?”

Rather than pull out right away, I waited to see where the truck was going, and, sure enough, it pulled up right in front of the Wengerd family’s shop. The driver hopped out and began to unload long, spherically shaped bundles that looked very much like carpets. The young man who sold us the rug had retreated into the family home after we left the shop in front of the house and didn’t come out to greet the truck. We wondered if he didn’t want to come out and sign for the bundles with us in sight.

The driver must make deliveries to the shop regularly because he went right into the unlocked shop and plopped the big bundles down. When he came back out, we asked him if they were carpets.

“Sure feels like it,” he said.

I drove off, feeling a bit shaken and confused. Were the Amish ordering carpets from China and passing them off as handmade? How would they do that without phones, cars or access to the Internet? How could I be so dumb to think I could get a handmade rug for $39?

I returned home and drafted a letter to the Wengerd family to ask them to clarify where the rug was made, because I was curious to see if they’d respond. Three days later, I received the following letters in reply.

Mr. Dave Seminara,

In response to your recent letter, about the rugs, our daughter and her husband make the rugs that we sell in our shop, that is correct. The blue rolls of fabric that FedEx unload that day came from Arkansas. It is quilt lining. We do not buy rugs from China or any other place. When my wife read your letter she was laughing so hard that I asked, What is so funny? I hope this explains it all, if not feel free to come out and see for your self. I want to thank you for writing about your conserns.

Levi Wengerd

Hello,

You wrote about the rugs. I just had to laugh that you thought that we get our rugs through FedEx. The items we were getting when you were here was a wide fabric for quilt backings 118 inches wide. Our daughter Amanda makes all those rugs as our son told you. They have 2 looms and they weave these rugs through the winter and now they don’t have enough rugs for what we sell so they are busy with the looms again!

Elizabeth Wengerd

The handwritten letters immediately restored my impression of the Amish as an honest people who are unwilling to swindle people to make a buck. But why had I been so quick to assume the worst? As American consumers, we are subjected to so much false advertising and bogus sales claims that it’s easy to become cynical to the point where even the Amish are suspect.

Still, I was curious to know more about how Amish families like the Wengerd’s can do business without access to the Internet or telephones, so I sent them a reply asking to know more. Perhaps not surprisingly, they never responded. Sometimes the things that glitter really are gold but don’t expect the Amish to clue you in on all their secrets.

Return Of The Forbidden Amish Donut

amish donutsGod bless the Amish and their otherworldly donuts. In January, I wrote a piece about the “forbidden” Amish donuts and other treats available in Cattaraugus County, New York, and this week I returned to the area for yet another feast. As I wrote in the previous piece, the Route 62 Amish corridor in Western New York is convenient to nothing and en route to nowhere, so anytime I make a trip there, it’s a serious detour.

On my last visit, I practically had to twist my wife’s arm to make the 60-mile detour, and this time, she flat-out refused to go.

“You’re going to drive 60 miles to buy a donut?” she asked condescendingly.

“It’s not just a donut,” I replied. “I’m probably going to get a whole bunch. And there’s the chocolates too.”

My mother, who lives near Buffalo, only 60 miles away from Amish country, but never goes there, was even harsher.

“You’re not going all the way down there for donuts,” she commanded. “We have a place right down the street called Paula’s, which has even better donuts than the Amish.”This sounded like blasphemy to my ears, but after noticing that the place has 38 reviews on Yelp with an average rating of five stars, I figured I had to at least give the place a shot. So my mom and I went to Paula’s the following morning and I bought a half dozen donuts.

glazed donuts paulas buffaloHow good were they? I have to admit, they were very solid. But their glazed donuts (right) are heavier, and more cake-like than the Amish ones, and most of the glazing caked off and was sitting in little bits on my plate after I finished it. Not only that, the Paula’s donut costs 15 cents more than the Amish one and is about half the size. With all due respect to Paula’s, their product is good, but it’s not a sell-your-soul-to-the-devil-it’s-so-good Amish donut.

The following day, I told my wife and mother – the Amish donut heretics – that I was taking my dad and my two sons, ages 2 and 4, to get some Amish donuts and chocolates with or without them. They elected not to come and we called it a men’s Amish excursion.

I felt nervous as we pulled up in front of the Miller family home at 12624 Rt. 62 in Conewango Valley for two reasons: I always live in fear that they’ll be out of my favorite maple-glazed donuts, and I’d printed out a copy of the Forbidden Donut story I wrote and planned to give it to them.

I’ve written close to 1,000 stories for a wide variety of publications over the years, but, thanks to email, I have never actually printed out a story, hand delivered it to the person I wrote about and then stood there as they read it. But one cannot email the Amish, and I wanted them to see what I wrote about their magnificent donuts, so this was the only option.

amish baked good shopIn the winter, the Millers sell their baked goods inside their home but in the summer, they use a shed out front, so I stepped into the little shed, surveyed the shelves and panicked when I saw no donuts.

“Please tell me you have some maple-glazed donuts,” I said to the teenage Amish girl sitting at a small counter in the shed.

“They’re all gone,” she said. “Yuri took the whole tray we baked to a wedding.”

I repeated the second half of her statement in complete disbelief. He took the whole tray to a wedding?

“What wedding?” I asked, probably sounding like a lunatic. “Where is it?”

The teen measured me and the wild look in my eyes and wisely chose to change the subject.

“Well, we do have some regular glazed donuts I could give you,” she said.

I took a deep breath and felt a huge sense of relief. I did not want to return to Buffalo with no donuts, only to have the two heretics say, “You drove 120 miles round trip and they didn’t even have donuts!?”

amish foodI bought a half dozen of the sweet, beautiful monsters and asked to speak to the teen’s mother. Her mom came out and I introduced myself and handed her the printed copy of the article for her inspection. She stood there reading it on the side of the shed as I bit into my first donut and felt overcome in a wave of euphoria. It wasn’t quite like the maple-glazed baby – damn you Yuri – but it beat the crap out of Paula’s donut and any other one available in a shop.

I watched Mrs. Miller and took delight in noticing a sly, little smile and a sense of satisfaction on her face as she read the piece. But after a minute or two, she looked up from the paper and said, “My name is not Sarah, it’s Barbara!”

I wrote the piece based upon my recollection and had confused her with another Amish shopkeeper I’d met that day. Whoops. But she didn’t seem bent of shape about it, and although she didn’t say so, I could tell she liked the article because after she read it she was beaming.




My dad, my two year old and I sat in the car devouring our donuts in the mid-day sun, as my four year old stubbornly insisted on eating a ring pop rather than the world-class donuts.

“Can we go to the candy shop?” he asked.

Only in Amish country does one not think twice about bringing kids to a donut and bake shop and then proceeding directly to a candy store, but when in Rome, right? So our happy little sweets caravan moseyed over to Malinda’s Candy Shop at 12656 Youngs Road, and I presented Malinda with a copy of the piece I wrote.

She sat and read it while we perused $3 bags of peanut butter bars, coconut clusters, chocolate covered pretzels, cashew clusters and chocolate covered Oreos and then elected to get one of each.

amish kitchenMalinda smiled as she read the article but didn’t offer a comment or opinion on what I wrote. But I knew she liked it, because when I asked to film and photograph her kitchen, where she makes the chocolates, the last time I was there she said no but this time she said, “Well, it’s not very clean but sure, go ahead.”

We made a few more stops, dodging horseshit and buggies in the region’s wonderfully quite, bucolic, hilly country lanes and then returned home to share the booty with the two unbelievers.

“Was it worth it?” my mom asked, her mouth half full of cashew clusters.

“Damn right it was,” I said.

amish donutLong live the Amish, and their killer donuts and sweets.

Update July 17: I received a message from a reader (see photo right) who took a detour to get some forbidden donuts and they report that by 4 p.m. the donuts didn’t taste very fresh. Nonetheless, they still enjoyed the experience but this is probably a good tip. There are no preservatives in these donuts and they’re probably best in the morning, right after they are baked. The photo above is of Timmy with some forbidden donuts.



The Amish: Not Exactly Foreign

During a capstone communications course I took in college, our desks were arranged in the shape of a circle. This was done in an effort to enhance communication within the class and it worked well for me. We spent some time discussing subcultures within their larger cultural context. My professor’s slideshow on the topic displayed photos of Australian Aborigines back-to-back with the Amish. Many of my classmates were bona fide New Yorkers, as perplexed by the culture of the American Amish as they were the Australian Aborigines. But the Amish weren’t exactly foreign to me, at least not as foreign as the Aborigines. There are 249,000 Old Order Amish throughout the U.S. and Canada and, as far as I know, zero Aborigines. When the professor asked me to relay my experience with a specific Amish family to the class, I did as she requested, with the faces of my classmates forming a quiet, circular audience.

I grew up in Marietta, Ohio. The Amish don’t live in Marietta, but they do live nearby. We saw traces of them everywhere in town, but the people themselves were missing. Handcrafted furniture made by the Amish showed up in our stores. My friends Alex and Abby, who were twins, weren’t Amish, but their relatives were. And I knew enough to know that the Mennonites, who I once saw modestly lifting the hems of their floor-length dresses and wading in the pool beneath a waterfall in Hocking Hills, weren’t the same as the Amish.When I was 8 years old, my parents took my siblings and me to an auction on a sunny Saturday morning. We traveled what seemed like hundreds of miles at the time, but was actually closer to forty. Being only 4-foot-something, I remember this day as being crowded and boring because I couldn’t see anything. When we left, we took a beautiful antique sewing machine with us. The conversation on the way home wasn’t about the purchase, though. Instead, my parents guiltily discussed the Amish couple they’d beat out in the auction for the sewing machine. Not only did my parents place the highest bid on the sewing machine, but, without pause, they also struck up conversation with the Amish bidders before leaving.

My mother had jotted down the address of the Amish woman, Ruth, in post-auction conversation. Not one to miss a beat when it comes to keeping in touch, my mother soon after sent her first letter to Ruth. The two women began corresponding with each other one handwritten, cursive letter at a time. Moved by guilt, God, or both, my mother had decided to give the old sewing machine to the Amish family. Accompanying the machine would be an old wood-burning stove that had been dormant in our unfinished basement for years. Both the stove and the sewing machine were housed in the garage for a week or so while my father sanded, scrubbed, and polished them. We arrived at their farm in Chester, Ohio, two months after the auction.

The animals and the land were the things I noticed first and because of that, I leaped excitedly out of our aging Toyota Tercel. Rabbits, cows, pigs and ducks scurried away from me in clusters as I ran toward them. The land had been transformed into grids. Carved into the hillside, the rows of half-grown crops made neat lines that blurred into the hazy horizon. One of Ruth’s many daughters offered me a handful of unripe berries, and I noted the unpleasant, bitter taste. She asked if I wanted to try milking a cow (I did). We walked together down to the cow barn. My arms grew tired after only a few minutes. Not much milk had accumulated in those minutes. The cow’s hoof knocked into the metal bucket, spilling my paltry collection. We climbed the hill to the house where the adults had been familiarizing themselves with one another and exchanging gifts. The shiny sewing machine and stove looked out of place in the spartan living room and my mother was clutching a handmade quilt and an apple-filled wicker basket.

We visited Ruth and her family of 7 living children (the eldest son had drowned after a bridge collapsed some time ago) regularly thereafter. Through these visits, I learned small things about the Amish in passing. We could not take pictures of the family members, for instance. I learned not to talk about hairstyles, clothing, or anything else that might make the girls feel uncomfortable. I didn’t really talk to the boys in the family and it seemed as though that was the way everyone preferred things to be. As I grew older, visiting their family became more difficult. I started listening to rock music and that wasn’t something any of Ruth’s children had ever heard, or would ever hear so long as they refrained from using electricity. They weren’t allowed to read the books I was reading; they would never see the movies I loved. The more I began to individually develop, the less I had in common with the family. Had I taken on farming, homemaking, or religion as personal interests, perhaps there would have been more for us to discuss. By the time I began middle school, the best my parents could do was drag me to Ruth’s house kicking and screaming and the tantrum itself was evidence of yet another thing we did not have in common: Gelassenheit.

At some point in time, my mother must have started feeling the disconnect herself. She and my father once visited the family several times a year. These days, they don’t visit at all. Now that my mother keeps in touch with most of her friends through email, her natural gift for keeping in touch seems to have been hampered by the handwritten letter, so they exchange long letters only at Christmas. The letters have the same dull edges and climatic points that a year’s worth of Facebook statuses would.

While visiting the Amish Country near Warsaw, Indiana, last December, my friend slowed the car he was driving through the cold and heavy rain as a horse and buggy passed us. The orange triangle affixed to the bed of the buggy was the only thing visible through the mist. The sky was dark and I imagined the man inside the buggy was eager to get home to his family, and for a moment, the horse and buggy didn’t register with me as unfamiliar. I then imagined the attentive faces of my classmates in that communications course as I told them about my experience with the Amish. My experience associated me with them in the context of that classroom in New York City much more than my actual self was ever associated with them in reality – not exactly foreign, no, but not exactly familiar.

Brutal Attacks on Ohio Amish Community

Forbidden Amish donuts

There is probably only one element of Amish life that would appeal to Homer Simpson: the donuts. I grew up in Western New York State, and every time I return to the region to visit my parents, I get Amish donut fever. Unlike Homer Simpson, I have never sold my soul to the devil for donuts. I’ve never had to, because in Cattaraugus County, New York, about sixty miles south of my hometown of Buffalo, I can get the best maple glazed donuts in the world for 75 cents.

The problem is that getting to New York’s largest community of Old Order Amish involves a long detour, even when I’m approaching Buffalo from my current residence in N. Virginia. On a road trip to Buffalo in July, I nagged my wife about stopping for Amish donuts to the point of exhaustion, but when you’re driving eight hours with two toddlers in the backseat, adding time onto the trip is a tough sell, and I wasn’t able to close the deal.

After being denied the donuts this summer, I was hell bent on getting some on my next trip to the area over the Christmas break. These donuts are so sublime that, the night before we were due to get them, I had a nightmare, in which I arrived at the bake shop only to discover that there were: you guessed it, no more donuts.

There are several Amish families in the towns of Leon, Conewango, and Randolph which offer excellent donuts and other baked goods. But there is one woman, Sarah Miller, at 12624 Seager Hill Rd (Rt. 62) in Conewango Valley, whose donuts are truly worthy of Michelin stars. On Fridays and Saturdays in the winter, and Monday-Saturday in the summer, she sells an array of pies, breads, cookies and glazed and maple glazed donuts of the highest quality at ludicrously low prices.

Just as we were about fifteen miles from my little forbidden donut retreat this past Saturday, my wife made a foolish, last-ditch attempt to get me to forgo the donut detour.

“You don’t understand,” I pleaded. “I need those donuts!”

My wife said that I was “incredibly selfish” and I didn’t bother to argue. As we walked into the Miller’s drafty, dark kitchen I looked around and saw cookies, cakes, pies, fudge. Pretty much everything but donuts.

“Please tell me you have the maple-glazed donuts,” I said, to Yuri Miller, Sarah’s impressively gray-bearded, pencil-wielding husband and cashier.

“We sure do,” he said, pulling out a tray of a dozen of the massive, beautiful creatures from the back pantry.

I bought three of them, along with a loaf of pumpkin bread and the damage was just $4.25. I was worried that after all the donut fantasizing, they wouldn’t be as good as I remembered them but as soon as I bit into my maple glazed slice of heaven, my fears were immediately laid to rest. The donuts are as big as a baby’s head, but are as light and airy as a feather. The maple syrupy goodness is shear bliss. I asked Sarah what the secret to her insanely good donuts was.

“I really don’t want to tell you my secrets,” she said, “because if everyone knew how to make these, they wouldn’t be special.”

The Amish are obviously known for their austere lifestyle, but for me, a visit to the Amish of Cattaraugus County is all about decadence and indulgence. Aside from the donuts and baked goods, I also always stop at Malinda’s Candy Shop at 12656 Youngs Road in Conewango Valley. Malinda sells bags of incredible homemade chocolates- peanut butter bars, clusters, fudge and the like, all for about $3 a bag. Every few months, she pays someone to drive her into Buffalo to buy chocolate and then whips up the sweet concoctions in her tiny little kitchen, adjacent to her shop.

Cattaraugus County is well worth a visit even if you don’t have a sweet tooth. New York State has just started to promote the area’s “Amish Trail” as a tourist destination, but I’ve been visiting the area for years and have never seen a single tour bus. It’s a pretty area of rolling hills and muddy gravel roads with more horses and buggies than cars. The lively, historic ski town of Ellicottville is about twenty minutes north of the Amish Trail and is a great base to explore the area.

Because there are few tourists in the area, you’ll find that the Amish won’t shy away from talking to you, unless you try to take their photo. Aside from the sweets, you’ll also find handmade toys, dolls, rugs, quilts and furniture.

On my last visit to the region, after we left the Miller’s bake shop, my wife popped in a video for my toddlers in their matching backseat video consoles and it dawned on me that, to the Millers, we probably seemed like aliens from another planet. I gave one of the three donuts to my wife, who grudgingly conceded how dreamy it was. Maybe not worth selling one’s soul for, but certainly worth a 50 mile detour.
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