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.


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.

Italy’s New Ferrari Museum

ferrari museum modenaCan you imagine driving a 1935 Alfa Romeo 208 mph on a public highway? Or how about a limited edition Maserati that was once owned by Evita Peron? These are just two of the remarkable cars on display at the stunning new Enzo Ferrari Museum in Modena, Italy, which opened on March 10. The museum is adjacent to the boyhood home and workshop of Enzo Ferrari, the legendary driver and founder of Ferrari, and is located in a striking, bonnet shaped building that took 8 years and more than $20 million to build.


The museum tells the story of Ferrari’s life and how it fits into the greater context of the automotive history of the Modena region, known as The Motor Valley, home to Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Ducati and other luxury car manufacturers. Ferrari was a racecar driver before he founded the company that would become Ferrari and the museum shows some of the 1930’s era Alfa Romeo’s he raced in as a young man.

The exhibits on Ferrari’s life are interesting but the museum’s real attraction is the collection of more than two dozen classic cars, which come from private collections and will be rotated every six months or so. One of my favorites was the aforementioned 1935 Alfa Romeo Bimotore, a racecar that was designed with two engines. The drivers realized that the car’s two-engine design made it impossible to handle on a racetrack, so they took it out on a public highway near Florence and it set a record by topping 208 mph. Apparently there were no police wielding radar guns in those days.
But if I could take one of these cars home with me it would surely be the 1948 Maserati A6 1500. Only 61 of these beauties were made and vehicle #57 was reportedly owned by Evita Peron. I asked the museum curators what this and the other cars were worth and they could only guestimate that most were worth well over $1 million.

These days, owners of Ferraris and other luxury vehicles are being targeted by the Italian tax authorities for audits, so for those who love these cars but don’t want the scrutiny, this museum is a great place to dream.

If you go: The museum is a five-ten minute walk from Modena’s train station. Modena itself is a beautiful small city but you can also stay in Parma and visit Modena as a very easy day trip. The train ride is only 30 minutes and tickets can be had for about 5 euros each way. If you want to see some modern Ferraris, go to the older Ferrari museum in nearby Maranello. You can buy a joint ticket for both museums at either location.

Parma – Where You Can Drop A Grand On A Wheel Of Cheese

parmesan cheese wheel in parma The moment you walk through the doors of Parma’s Salumeria Verdi, one of the world’s great delis, the aromas of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma and other local delicacies arrest the senses. You want to place your order and string up a hammock so you can luxuriate in the sweet, smoky smell of the room.

You can find packets or little jars of the stuff in the humblest pizzerias and Italian restaurant all over the planet. That Parmesan cheese is practically flavorless, but if you visit the impeccably preserved Italian city of Parma, and other towns in the surrounding region of Emilia Romagna, you’ll discover that the cheese named after Parma and the nearby city of Reggiano-Emilia is an awful lot better than you realized.

Inside the Salumeria Verdi, my eyes are drawn to a collection of colossal wheels of the stuff sitting on shelves in the corner. “NOV 09” is engraved on the wheels on my right, meaning they’ve been aging for nearly 30 months. There is no chance I can fit one of these hulking goliaths of dairy goodness in my suitcase, but I want to own one. Not to eat, but to place on my mantle like a fine work of art. They look that good.

But the manager of the salumeria quickly disabuses my fantasy informing me that one of the 30-month aged wheels goes for about 800 euros, or $1,040. And these wheels aren’t even the most expensive ones – if the word “export” or “extra” is engraved on the cheese, it’s even pricier. For a moment, I ponder how my wife would react if I turned up back at the hotel with a $1,000 wheel of cheese the size of our suitcases. Someday, maybe.%Gallery-153199%
I settle for a panini with prosciutto crudo and Parmesano-Reggiano on fresh focaccia bread. The sandwich is wrapped elaborately, like a present, but I unwrap it immediately and conclude it’s the best sandwich I’ve ever had in my life before I even make it to the cash register.

Travelers can eat well anywhere in Italy, but the Emilia-Romagna region is to gastronomy what Lambeau Field is to football – sacred ground. Parma, Modena and Bologna are all well worth a visit, and if you can’t find something good to eat in these places, you aren’t trying very hard. They’re also great cities for pedestrians and cyclists, so you can burn the calories off while joining the stylish multitudes.

So why is the real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese so much better than the stuff that comes in those little packets you find inside your pizza box? For starters, the milk that’s used is from cows fed according to strict regulations and it has to be brought into the cheese making process within two hours of being milked. Then the cheese is allowed to age for at least 12 months and then every wheel is inspected and those that don’t pass mustard aren’t certified and branded with the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consorzio Tutela seal. They’ve been making this stuff in the region since at least 1200, so it’s not something they take lightly.

Serious foodies can visit a host of food museums in the vicinity of Parma – including ones devoted to Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, tomatoes, prosciutto and salami. I didn’t visit any of them, though, because I’d rather spend my time eating than studying. But the thing about food in Italy is that, often times, your most recent meal/snack/sandwich/cappuccino/gelato is the best one you’ve ever had. It gets very difficult to differentiate between one outstanding treat and another.

For example, on Thursday night, I had some nocciola gelato at a place called K2 Gelateria in Parma that seemed just about perfect. At the moment I was eating it, I deemed it the best gelato in the world. But then on Friday, in Lucca, I had one that seemed even better at a place called Le Bonta, a few minutes walk outside the city gates. Was it better or just more recent? In Italy, you’re always waiting for the next dish.

[Photos by Dave Seminara]