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.

Video Tour Of Historic New England Graveyards

old tombstone Cemeteries can be inspiring. I know a lot of people who will go to great lengths to avoid visiting hospitals, nursing homes, cemeteries and anyplace else that reminds them that one day they’re going to die. I won’t admit to being a fan of hospitals and nursing homes, but I like visiting old cemeteries.

They give us a glimpse into history and remind us of our own mortality. If you’re caught up in your day-to-day life and need to be reminded of the big picture, visit a cemetery and you’ll be reminded that life is short and we all end up six feet under at one point or another, rich or poor, black, white or yellow.

New England has some of the country’s oldest and most interesting cemeteries. My favorite is Old Burial Hill in Marblehead, Massachusetts, one of America’s most beautiful and oldest settlements. The cemetery was founded in 1638, some nine years after the town was first settled, and it offers a glimpse at the history of the town, plus a view of the historic center and the sea. There are more than 600 revolutionary soldiers buried at Old Burial Hill but most aren’t marked.

old burial hill marbleheadMany of the oldest tombstones have ghoulish likenesses of crude winged skulls, which tells me that our forefathers weren’t as squeamish about death as we are. Take a look around Old Burial Hill and you’ll understand why – life in Colonial America was precarious and health care was nonexistent – there are scores of babies and young adults buried here.

If you’re in the Boston area and you like visiting old cemeteries, definitely check out the circa 1659 Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, which is right down the street from the Old North Church in the North End, and the city’s oldest cemetery, King’s Chapel, founded in 1630 right in the hear of the city.

[Photos and Videos by Dave Seminara]

Marblehead, Massachusetts: America’s best preserved historic town?

marblehead massachusetts Tourism boards across the country have long struggled to find innovative ways to market destinations large and small, inviting and mundane. We have “historic districts” that have been turned into vast parking lots; towns that play up tenuous connections to living and deceased celebrities; states that promote Amish tourism even though the Amish simply want to be left alone; hokey festivals; and any number of other contrived gimmicks to try to get you to come visit.

West Virginia is Wild and Wonderful. Pennsylvania promises that You’ve Got a Friend There. New Mexico is The Land of Enchantment. In Kansas, There’s no Place Like Home. Louisiana is a Sportsman’s Paradise. Virginia is for Lovers (and pathological drivers, in my estimation).

Massachusetts likes to call itself The Spirit of America. That might sound a bit grandiose but there is a town on Boston’s North Shore that I think is the best-preserved historic town in America. The American landscape gets more homogenous by the day, but Marblehead, perched on a dramatic finger of land on the Atlantic Ocean just thirty minutes north of Boston, was founded in 1629 and has improbably managed to retain many of its historic homes, cemeteries and churches.

Tourists descend on Colonial Williamsburg like packs of hungry hyenas on the trail of a fresh carcass, but somehow, Marblehead’s atmospheric streets remain largely tourist free. The town is the birthplace of the U.S. Navy and remains one of the east coast’s premier yachting centers, with three yacht clubs and a host of regattas. It isn’t close to a highway or train station and that’s probably why it has managed to avoid the strip mall scourge that’s plagued so many old towns around the country.

On the edge of Marblehead you’ll find a Starbucks, a CVS and some other chain stores, and there are big box retailers ten miles away, but Marblehead’s historic core is filled with independent shops and restaurants with nary a national chain in sight. Everything is pretty much Wicked Local. But the town’s biggest draws are the colorful 18th and 19th century homes, many with nameplates showing the name and occupation of their original inhabitants, and its spectacular natural setting on the Atlantic Ocean.

Marblehead is an undeniably upscale place with its fair share of millionaires but unlike other cutesy historic enclaves, it also has its share of lower income residents and budget friendly dining and drinking options. I have family members who live in Marblehead, so I’ve been visiting this town for more than twenty years and I never get tired of it. Aside from the beauty and the charm, it’s a real community where people know each other well and wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else.

Here’s what to do in Marblehead.The Muffin ShopIn a town filled with history, you might wonder why I’m sending you to a muffin shop. Well, for the muffins, obviously, but this place is more than just a damn good place to add to your waistline with homemade muffins or lobster rolls made fresh each morning. It’s the heart and soul of the town and if you want to meet locals, you’ll find them lingering here in groups over breakfast every morning. But come early because they never seem to bake enough to keep up with demand.

old town marblehead massachusettsOld Town – Get lost on the backstreets of Marblehead’s Old Town. There is no single neighborhood in the country that gives one a better flavor of what life was like in Colonial America.

Shops along Washington Street – There are a host of interesting, if pricey, shops here including the new Atlantis & Cloudveil outdoor specialty shop.

Crocker Park – A great place to sit and watch the boats go by.

The Driftwood – One reviewer on Yelp called this hole-in-the-wall eatery “Swamp Yankee territory,” and I couldn’t agree more. Another great spot to meet locals.

Devereux BeachThis great little beach is dramatically situated at the foot of a little body of land referred to as Marblehead’s Neck.

marbleheadHit the Neck – Take a drive or bike ride out to the very end of the Neck and enjoy the unbelievable view from the benches in Chandler Hovey Park next to the Marblehead Lighthouse. On the way back to town check out the Old Corinthian Yacht Club. Just try to look like you belong and you probably won’t be asked to leave.

Old Burial Hill Cemetery – One of the most atmospheric old cemeteries in New England and it offers a spectacular view to boot.

Fort Sewall – This was an armed fort used to defend against British invaders in the War of 1812. If you have kids, they’ll enjoy sitting on top of the cannons and looking out onto the Atlantic.

Dark and Stormy on the Waterfront – Have a tall 16-ounce dark & stormy, rum and ginger beer, cocktail at Maddi’s Sail Loft and visit the Barnacle for an early, harbor-side dinner.

old tombstone marbleheadGetting there – You can take Express Bus 441 or 442 from Haymarket downtown right to Marblehead’s Old Town but it takes a good hour. If you drive, follow route 1A, which isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds. Signs on this twisting road can be elusive.

Images by Dave Seminara, Rick Harris and Garden State Hiker on Flickr.

Marblehead–colonial jewel of New England

In a country dominated by big box stores and strip malls, it can be easy to forget our past, but there are occasional spots that are so well preserved they overwhelm you with a sense of another age. Marblehead, Massachusetts, is one of them.

Founded in 1629, Marblehead soon became a prosperous fishing village. In the 18th century it was home to privateers (a politically correct term for pirates sponsored by the government) who attacked British shipping in the Atlantic. When the American War of Independence started it was Marblehead men who crewed the first ship in the American navy, the Hannah. The town also supplied crews for the boats that ferried Washington over the Delaware river. You don’t get more Yankee than that!

But that promising beginning did not lead to greater things. Marblehead became a sleepy fishing and yachting backwater. This was just what it needed. “Development” generally passed it by, allowing the Colonial houses and winding, cobblestone streets to survive intact. I’ve been all up and down the New England coast and I can think of few places that evoke the 18th century like Marblehead. When antiquarian and horror writer H.P. Lovecraft first saw it in 1922 he was so taken with its beauty he used it as inspiration for his fictional town of Kingsport, the setting of several of his stories. Don’t worry, there are no sinister denizens summoning up unclean gods, just wealthy New Englanders with an appreciation for the past.

The best way to see Marblehead is to simply wander in the old town center, where historic homes cluster around the harbor. You’ll spot buildings that are two or even three centuries old, and while you may be familiar with this sort of architecture, seeing so much of it is what’s truly impressive. It’s a bit like a Yankee Pompeii, where the vistas once admired by periwigged gentlemen can still be seen and entire blocks once inhabited by America’s early merchants are still preserved. The homes of 17th century fishermen and the cemeteries of Revolutionary War heroes are much as they were. Don’t forget to stop by the J.O.J. Frost Folk Art Gallery to see the work of the famous local artist and the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum. These two stops will give you some historic background to the town.

Marblehead is great for history buffs, but it’s a popular fishing and yachting destination too. I’m not much of a sailor (although I did catch a sand shark off Cape Cod once) so I don’t have any first-person experience with this side of the Marblehead experience, but the beautiful harbor and numerous yacht clubs show a lot of promise. Vicarious landlubbers can get a splendid view of the harbor from Fort Sewall, dating back to 1644.

[Photo courtesy Judy Anderson]