My 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Standing in the shadow of Freiburg‘s massive 13th century cathedral, swarms of hungry, determined Germans lined up at dozens of sausage stands, waiting to gorge themselves on long, skinny encased meats in round little rolls. I made the mistake of wading into the carnivorous, frenzied crowd and got pushed around like a child in a stroller sucking on a pacifier.
When in Germany, it is generally a good rule of thumb to avoid standing in between Germans and grilled meats. Some of the men were eating double decker hot dogs – two really long dogs stacked on top of each other with just a small little roll to carb up the fleisch. ‘Twas the afternoon before Easter but the deprivations of Lent already seemed like a distant memory in the heart of the Black Forest.
Europeans tend to be less religious than Americans, but Easter is celebrated with more gusto on the continent than in the US. As I write this, it’s 30 minutes to midnight on Holy Saturday in Freiburg, a market town in the Black Forest region of Germany, and the glorious din of church bells fills our second floor hotel room.
Travelers visiting the US during the Easter weekend might not even realize there was a major holiday, as most Americans don’t have either Friday or Monday off from work. But most Europeans take a four-day weekend and shops in many countries, Germany included, are closed on Friday, Sunday and Monday.
Freiburg is a beautifully preserved medieval town with a university founded in the 15th century. It’s a town of long, narrow gurgling canals, quiet gliding trams, street musicians, scarf-wearing blondes, serious looking people in titanium eyewear and packs of nocturnal, singing drunks.
Freiburg bills itself as a “Green City” and the old town is a pedestrian paradise that is completely closed to vehicular traffic. I live in a suburb of Washington, D.C., where walking can be hazardous so the huge crowds of pedestrians owning the streets feels a bit like a visit to another planet. The town, once controlled by Austria and then France, hosts an outdoor Saturday market and with the impending holiday, the entire city was bursting at the seams with shoppers, stocking up for Easter.
I didn’t want to queue up for the grilled meats, but I did have some incredible Schwarzwälder Schinken, known in the US as Black Forest ham. Within the EU, only Black Forest Ham from the Black Forest can be called as such, but in the US all bets are off, and companies are allowed to call any old crap “Black Forest ham,” even if it was made in Hackensack, New Jersey. What I tried in Freiburg was unlike anything I’ve ever had before. It was intensely smoky, very salty and melt-in-your-mouth delicious.
Aside from the outdoor Saturday market, Freiburg also has an incredible indoor food court called the MarktHalle, which has everything you could want, including Persian, Brazilian, Argentine, Indian and Thai. There’s no Auntie Annie’s or Orange Julius but you get to eat on real plates, using real silverware for a song. But braving the Saturday afternoon crowds is not for the faint of heart. (see video)
Freiburg is also a place where you will want to drink beer – lots of it. There are several small breweries in the area but my favorites were Martin’s Brau and Hausbrauerei Feierling, where small mugs of otherworldly beers can be had for less than 3 euros.
In “A Tramp Abroad,” Mark Twain wrote, “Where and how did we get the idea that the Germans are a stolid, phlegmatic race? In truth, they are widely removed from that. They are warm-hearted, emotional, impulsive, enthusiastic, their tears come at the mildest touch, and it is not hard to move them to laughter… They hug and kiss and cry and shout and dance and sing.”
They do indeed sing, after dark, when their bloodstreams are flowing rivers of beer. The Romans called this region the Black Forest because the dense forests blocked all light, making it difficult to see. But in Freiburg, one need not look very hard for good food and drink. Follow your nose and listen for the roving drinkers in song.
If you go: Freiburg (formally known as Freiburg im Breisgau is a two-hour train ride from the Frankfurt airport. It’s known as the sunniest, (1800 hours of sunshine!) warmest city in Germany, but that isn’t saying much. I stayed at the Hotel Kreuzblume, a small, stylish hotel with very nice rooms and good service, starting at 85 euros, located on a quiet pedestrian street in the old town.
Most hikers agree: the best way to really learn about a place is to experience it by walking or climbing. It inspired us here at Gadling to take a look in February at the world’s best hikes. There were so many great spots, in fact, we decided to follow it up today with 18 more. This collection of treasured, world-class hikes offers a variety of unforgettable experiences, and promises surprising personal growth with each one. Some have level terrain, while others climb soaring elevations. For the beginner and experienced hiker, there’s something for everyone in each location. Take a look at our picks below.
Pembrokeshire Coast, Wales
The most westerly spot in Wales, this mostly level, cliffside Pembrokeshire Coast trail provides contrasting colors – and inspiration. Along this hike you teeter precariously next to aggressive waves slamming into somber, 50 foot black slate cliffs. But the sun and magical clouds impishly create frequent rainbows that playfully coax you away from the dark edge and into meadows. Take the path that dips down into Abereiddy Bay, where you confront shiny black shale and sand. Stay in St. David’s, and see the 7th Century stone cathedral.
Zion, Utah, USA Zion’s wide range of hikes provides level, valley floor walks, or climbs amidst soaring, majestic rock formations. The Emerald Pools hike is an ideal, beginner’s one-mile walk. An intermediate path to Scout’s Lookout provides a gradual cliff face climb using switchbacks. At Scout’s lookout, a hiker’s decision awaits…There is a deceptively easy, one-mile path which continues up to Angel’s Landing. While other hikes are more physically strenuous, this one can stretch the psyche and nerve of even the most experienced hiker. Precarious, thousand foot drops appear within inches of your feet. The only way to get to (and from) Angel’s Landing, is by holding onto chains – bolted into the rock. Not for the faint-hearted, Angel’s Landing is perhaps the most popular destination hike in the park.
Swanage, Dorset, England
An easy weekend break from London via train, Swanage lies nestled into England’s southeast tip. Here, an established, old-resort charm defines this historic town; however, hikers are treated to an otherwise hidden assortment of eclectic sites that give multiple complexities to the town’s personality. Stay in a B&B, and take the Durlston Castle path past a fascinating, out-of-place Victorian folly. Nearby, is the stalwart Anvil Point lighthouse. The scenic path turns inland, and seemingly out of nowhere, you find yourself seeking refuge at a place that makes a lot of sense – a huge pub. Complete with live music, here you’ll find the best pint you ever tasted. The public bus back to town comes by every hour or two.
A four hour drive from Windhoek, Sossusvlei is the place on earth that seems most like another planet. Home to some of the world’s tallest sand dunes, these dramatic red shapes offer visitors unique visual inspiration set against the blazing sky. Climbing the steep dunes is a challenge for both kids and experienced hikers. Soaring sand ridges appear fragile, but sand grains quickly collect and form angles – banishing your footprints into obscurity. It’s tempting to get lost in all the redness – sit midway up a dune on its ridge, push it down and watch it form over you; you become part of this land. Constant wind and sun encourage dehydration, so your guide should bring plenty of water.
Black Forest, Germany
A well-traveled path meanders through this unforgettable forest that feels like home. Its magical embrace encourages the hiker in a patriarchal, protective way – enticing and beckoning you into the extended forest family. Stay at a B&B in Buhl (we like the Neusatz Pension Linz). After breakfast, head out through vineyards into the Schwarzvald toward the 13th century Windeck Castle. It’s hard to leave the forest’s embrace when you finally reach the castle clearing…do take time to have lunch at the castle and tour the ruins. Just don’t linger too long. The forest’s character changes on the way back. The woods’ earlier warmth evolves into a spooky, shadowy world that questions a hiker’s resolve. After all, this is where the Grimm’s Fairy Tales took place…
Antrim Coast, North Ireland
Across the North Channel from Scotland, Giant’s Causeway provides a shoreline hike amidst a vast collection of geometric, stone columns with an almost spiritual quality. A magnificent study in uniform, artistic rock formations, this “columnar jointing” illustrates how the earth’s magma designs its own ethereal architecture. These structures influence a hiker toward a heavenly, Gothic viewpoint. Stay at Smuggler’s Inn – an easy, 45 minute car ride from Belfast. If it’s summer and not windy, hike across the breath-taking Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.
Captiva Island, Florida Captiva Island is the prettiest beach hike we have ever found. Take a good hat, and before the sun gets intense, ride the tram from the Village to Captiva’s northernmost point. Head south along this other-world, barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. You’ll share this pristine shoreline with some of the world’s most interesting birds, dolphins and seashells. As you inhale this special sea air, somehow you understand why yoga becomes so important. Continue to the “Mucky Duck” along the beach for a traditional fish and chips lunch, then take the loop back through the island cottages.
Running over 3100 miles, the Continental Divide offers one of the most breathtaking hikes one will ever take in their life, here in the United States. When hiking this trail one will get the feeling of a life journey, see the epiphany in the hike itself, the divide, between the mountains and two states, like ones journey through life. With the average hike taking roughly six months to complete the entire trail this is a life feat, not a day in the park. This is on the list of the top ten hikes for those who are on a life journey, ready to conquer the world, define who they are, and take on the world.
Rock Bridge State Park, Columbia MO Rock Bridge was chosen out of pure experience, and good old memories. This state park is located in the heart of Columbia, Missouri and has been deemed a state park, there for saving it from becoming victim to economic growth and real estate expansion. The park sits on what is called Devils Ice box, which a famous cave, that all of the local schools venture out during science class for field trips, teaching students about the caves and for short expeditions through the park and cave.
Every year, the local high school will bring their students out for a day of orientation. Where they will be given a map, a compass, and a bottle of water, leaving them to go from check point to check point. This is where my hiking experience with the state park comes from, and has offered many memories, and education experiences. This is a park for the whole family, from bat caves to water springs, to miles of nature trails.
Horseshoe Bend, Spirit Lake, Iowa
When you are up north, roughly 12- 15 miles from the NW Iowa/Minnesota border, visit the Iowa Great Lakes and go hiking through Horseshoe Bend. How often can you go hiking through the woods, and come out and see the beach and freshwater lakes? This is a very diverse area and a lot of fun to visit, great for hiking and camping, fishing and swimming, great for a family vacation.
Superior Hiking Trail, Duluth, Minnesota
The Superior Hiking Trail is accessible at many points along the way — and getting on this relatively young trail (conceived in the mid-1980s) is definitely worth it. The 210-mile path extends through wilderness north of Duluth, Minnesota, to the Canadian border; a 40-mile extension is in the works. With knockout views of Lake Superior, the path draws 50,000 people a year, some of whom glimpse bear and moose. (Allow three weeks for the whole trail.
James Dilley Preserve, Laguna Beach, California
For a nice early morning or afternoon hike, you can venture out for a nice “circle track” hike through James Dilley Preserve, located on roughly 3 miles through Laguna beach trail and Barbara’s lake, with an elevation of around 300 + feet. This is a great hike for those looking for a naturalistic and challenging hike to add to your morning or afternoon exercise routine. This trail is going to be your one opportunity to see one of two natural Laguna Beach lakes. Canyon Trial is part of this loop hike, and this is a great workout routine addition.
Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina Grandfather Mountain is a privately owned mountain that has been protected by the owners, and yet shared at the same time. It is a family affair for sure. With several different things to do, and one of them happens to be hiking, on many of their trails, throughout the park, and the Mountain. Some of the mountains offer back trails, which offer cool, Spring like temperatures, offering wonderful and refreshing hiking weather. The mountain offers the opportunity to go across a mile long swinging bridge, see a 360 scenic view of the area, and is a natural habitat for several different endangered species giving you the unique opportunity to see them in their own element and homes.
Mount Scott, Oregon
A five-mile round trip on Mount Scott, the highest peak in Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, offers breathtaking views of the country’s deepest lake, formed by volcanic eruption 7,000 years ago. Along the way, you’ll step past 400-year-old whitebark pines, hardy high-elevation survivors. The view of Crater Lake is so stunning it will appear on Oregon’s commemorative quarter, starting in June. This hike isn’t for the fainthearted; you’ll gain 1,500 feet in 2.5 miles of climbing. But the 360-degree views of the lake, the Klamath Basin, and California’s distant Mount Shasta make it a great destination.
The Kerry Way Walking Trail, Ireland The Kerry Way is a walking holiday which meanders through beautiful Ireland’s largest peninsula, Iveragh and has been called Ireland’s finest walking route. Walking or hiking through the Kerry Way’s 135 mile waymarked trail is primarily inland taking you through river valleys, gouged out by glaciers of the last ice age but with sections giving superb coastal views. You follow a coastline full of inlets and bays, beautiful sandy beaches and unforgiving cliffs.
You will enjoy the hospitality and warmth of the towns and villages of South Kerry which developed here throughout the ages. Glenbeigh – Cahirciveen – Waterville – Caherdaniel, Derrynane – Sneem – Kenmare and Killarney. You walk past the rich archaeological remains which tell the story of the people who lived in the Kingdom of Kerry down through the years and you will marvel at the flora and fauna which changes around each turn in the trail.
North Country National Scenic Trail The North Country National Scenic Trail links scenic, natural, historic, and cultural areas in seven northern states(New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Dakota). The approximately four thousand mile long trail includes a variety of hikes from easy walking to challenging treks. When completed, through the efforts of many people, the trail will become the longest continuous hiking trail in the United States. From the Missouri River in North Dakota to the shores of Lake Champlain in New York, the trail allows hikers to experience a variety of features, from clear-flowing streams, to thick Northern woods, from vast prairies to clean lakes.
Topanga State Park Trek, Los Angeles, CA Topanga State Park begins in Pacific Palisades at the end of Los Liones Drive, just north of Sunset Boulevard. Leave the car in the parking lot at the end of the street. From there, follow the trail up to East Topanga Fire Road and follow that to the turnoff for the Parker Mesa Overlook.Switchbacks and steep hill climbs characterize the first two miles of this hike. With an elevation gain of about 1,300 feet, the hike is definitely a tougher climb. But you’ll get rewarded as you gaze out from your vantage point atop the bluff. Enjoy a picnic lunch or relax on a bench while taking in the overlook.