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.

The Music Of Virginia’s Crooked Road

crooked roadIt’s Thursday night in Fries, a lonely little, old mill town in Southwest Virginia with a population of 484 souls. I’m with my wife and two boys at the old Fries (pronounced FREEZE) Theater listening to a jam session with a room half full of senior citizens. Admission is free, donations are accepted and hot dogs go for a buck and a quarter at a makeshift concession stand in the corner of the room.
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There are 15 musicians sitting on plastic chairs in a circle under harsh fluorescent lighting, most of them senior citizens, and as they tear into their first tune – a catchy little instrumental number powerful enough to wake the whole slumbering town – I realize that there is nowhere in the world I’d rather be than right here in this old theater listening to a room full of soulful country folk playing the music that’s in their blood.


fries virginiaFries is our first stop on The Crooked Road, Southwest Virginia’s 253-mile music heritage trail, where old-time Appalachian music and Southern hospitality are alive and well. My boys join the seniors on the makeshift dance floor and before I know it, we’re part of the gang, tapping our feet to haunting renditions of tunes like “Ashokan Farewell,” made famous by Ken Burns and his series on the Civil War, and “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow.”

I’ve paid big bucks in various corners of the globe to see famous musicians whose entourages are bigger than this whole room, but I can’t recall ever enjoying an evening of music the way I’m savoring every melodic moment of this one. My sons introduce us to Ray Vaughan, a 76-year-old house painter wearing a mesh John Deere hat who is showing them how to dance. Vaughan tells us that Fries is the birthplace of Henry Whitter, the first musician to record a country song on a 78 record. His grandson still lives in town.


Vaughan tells us that people in Fries live, breath, eat and sleep music. He’s one of 11 children and each played an instrument.


“The young kids around here mostly go for other types of music,” he admits when I ask why there aren’t any young people in the room. “They’ll pick it up as they get older though. This music here won’t ever die ’cause the songs are just about livin’ the way life is in this area.”


We chat with some of the musicians and learn why they sound so good: they jam here every Thursday night and look forward to it all week long. I ask a few of them, all in their 70s, why they do it and each has essentially the same answer: it keeps us young and it’s who we are.

crooked road hillbilllyOn Friday, we venture an hour further southwest to Floyd, a delightful small town with country flair and an artsy vibe and make our way to the Floyd Country Store to check out their famous Friday Night Jamboree. The place is, as its name suggests, an old general store with ice cream, food, music and other products for sale. But the place is full with an eclectic mix of locals and travelers, some from as far away as Scandinavia and Australia, to listen to old time music and dance to their heart’s content.

After a gospel outfit completes a pleasant, hour-long warm-up set, a band called Roscoe P and Coal Train takes the stage and electrifies the crowd, which packs the compact dance floor. Everyone wants their photo with Leo Weddle, a regular who wears bib overalls and has but three teeth left.


“I’m pretty much famous,” he tells us. “I’ve danced with people from all over the world. You can’t imagine how many people have taken my picture.”


Weddle tells us that his wife died of cancer four years ago, and he had a rock removed from his gall bladder in 2009. The worst part of the debacle was that he wasn’t able to make it to the jamboree for a good six months. He says that he now has to get kidney dialysis three times a week, but he never misses a Friday night at Floyd’s Country Store.


“Old Time music is in my body,” he says. “I was raised up with it. It’s in my bones. We’re born that way.”

The music is so infectious that we join the crowds on the dance floor and even my little boys practice their flat-footing with a little help from the locals. I wonder why the band we’re listening to isn’t famous and why it costs just $5 to get in. But maybe that’s exactly why the scene and the night are so unforgettable. If I had just one night left on earth, this is exactly where I’d want to be.


On Saturday, we head west on the appropriately crooked Rt. 58 west through a delightfully pastoral landscape to Hiltons, a tiny little country settlement just a stones throw from the Tennessee state line for a concert at The Carter Family Fold. The Carter Family is more or less royalty in the world of country music and the Fold was established next to the old family homestead in 1979.


As we step into the Fold and pay our $7 cover charge, I gravitate to a snack bar that’s manned by a pair of blue-haired volunteers. For $1.50, they serve me the best slice of coconut cake imaginable, and the night only gets better when The Whitewater Bluegrass Company, a terrific five-piece from Asheville takes the stage. The crowd at the Fold is a bit more local than in Floyd and a few of the seniors in the audience have blankets draped over their laps to ward off the autumn chill.


Children flood the dance floor and one woman does a waltz with her dog Opie. She tells us that he was found at the Fold nearly dead and has become something of a mascot in the place.

“He loves music,” she said. “He’s here every Saturday night.”

I can’t help but conclude that Opie is indeed a very lucky dog.

map of the crooked roadIF YOU GO: I would start a Crooked Road music tour in Fries, on a Thursday night at the Old Fries Theater, then hit the Floyd Country Store on Friday and on Saturday, I’d check out the Fold or I might look for some live music in Galax, a great little town that hosts the world famous Old Fiddlers Convention every August, right in the heart of the Crooked Road. I also recommend a stop at Heartwood, a great place to eat, drink, listen to live music and pick up souvenirs made by local artisans. It’s right off of I-81 in Abingdon.

There’s also a live show every Friday night at the Rex Theater in Galax, but if you go there, you miss the Friday Night Jamboree in Floyd. The Hotel Floyd is a great base if you can get a room there; if not the Hampton Inn in Galax is also a good option.

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[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]