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.

Real men don’t eat turtles in San Pancho, Mexico’s coolest beach town

When Frank Smith, a retired forest ranger from California, first came to San Pancho, an idyllic beach community on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, more than twenty years ago, turtle meat was all the rage.

It was on offer in the sleepy town’s four restaurants, their flippers were used to make cowboy boots and the eggs were sold to bars, which offered them to randy patrons. Turtle eggs can be a valuable commodity south of the border- many Mexicans believe that eating them gives men a Viagra-like boost in the bedroom.

Smith decided to move to San Pancho (formally known as San Francisco) because he wanted to do something to help what he calls “the most passive creatures in the world,” but local restaurants organized a smear campaign against Grupo Ecológico de la Costa Verde- a conservation group he founded to help protect the turtles and their eggs.

But Smith persevered and began to win over local people with the help of a public information campaign produced by the Mexican government. “They started putting up posters of beautiful women in bikinis, which said, ‘real men don’t eat turtle eggs,’” Smith recalled in an interview.
Over the years, Smith’s group has helped put numerous turtle poachers in prison, and today, none of the 22 restaurants in San Pancho serve turtle meat, although the eggs still need to be protected. Under Smith’s stewardship, San Pancho’s population of turtles has grown from 90 in 1991 to about 450 today.

During the mid June-mid November nesting season, Smith and his volunteers spend all night on the beach safeguarding the turtles as they lay their eggs, and between August and mid March, Smith can often be found on the beach in his dune buggy, releasing baby turtle hatchlings into the Pacific. (see photo above)

Would they survive? Most would not. Would they return to San Pancho? According to Smith, perhaps 3 out of 1,000 would come back to lay eggs on the same beach. But not for 11-16 years.

As the population of turtles has grown over the years, so too has the self-described “gringo community” of North Americans in San Pancho. If you’re looking to escape the winter doldrums but aren’t a fan of big, all-inclusive beach resorts, look no further than San Pancho. The town has a huge, sloping beach, affordable accommodation, and a nice variety of good restaurants, including some of the best shrimp tacos and flan you’ve ever tasted. It’s also a great place to study Spanish, volunteer at a non-profit, and surf.

A Populist with an 87,836 Square Foot Palace

The village was an impoverished backwater until it was embraced in the early 1970′s by Luis Echeverría, who was then the President of Mexico. Echeverría wanted to build a community which could serve as a model for Third World development. He brought electricity to the town, built homes, schools, a state of the art hospital, and a paved main street, which he named Tercer Mundo, (“Third World.”)

In fact, he named all of the town’s streets after third world countries, but saw no irony in landing his helicopter on the beach each week, as he oversaw construction of a magnificent 87,836 square foot beachfront palace just outside of town. He abandoned the property just before it was completed, and was chased out of office in 1976, amidst corruption allegations. His 11 bedroom estate can now be yours for a cool $54,000 per week.

The first time I attempted to visit San Pancho, I nearly lost heart and did not make it. The main road into town was under construction, and the alternate route was the kind of rutted disaster that keeps out-of-the-way auto repair shops in business.

As we bounced our way over one crater and then the next, not knowing how far we were from our destination or what we’d find once there, I wondered if I’d made a mistake in leading our caravan, which included my wife, our two young children, and my parents, out of Puerto Vallarta in search of a seaside arcadia.

When Elizabeth Taylor, who was married at the time, followed her lover, Richard Burton, to Puerto Vallarta during the filming of The Night of the Iguana in 1964, American paparazzi descended in droves on what was then a sleepy seaside resort. The resulting buzz turned Puerto Vallarta into a fashionable destination for American travelers, but today, the quiet, rustic appeal of old Vallarta can be elusive.

At any of the beaches close to the center of town, you’re likely to spend the bulk of your day fending off vendors offering t-shirts with slogans like: “Puerto Vallarta K-9 Police- Doggy Style Unit,” and “Puerto Vallarta CIA- Central Intoxication Agency.”

Your nose could be in a book, but lurking just above the boundaries of the page was someone calling out to you, “hey amigo- good price.” This was why we found ourselves on the rutted road, bouncing towards San Pancho one morning last winter.

I motored ahead, across the rocky road, despite dissent emanating from three generations, and two rows worth of minivan, and eventually arrived at a tiny parking lot by the town beach. As I stepped out of the van, I could hear the ocean- a loud roar of waves we could not yet see in the distance. We walked onto the beach and looked out at a vast, sloping beach, easily a mile long.

Ahead lay the pleasing crescendo of big waves. On both sides of us were restaurants, offering shade, cold beer and fresh seafood. It was a warm, weekday morning in January and there was nary another person in sight.

I set off, alone, down what looked like a nearly endless stretch of white powder fine sand, and, in the distance, I could see a rocky cliff, a whitewashed church, palm trees, and a solitary man, who appeared like a mirage, walking toward me wearing a white suit and a Panama hat. I had found exactly what I was looking for.

Time to Eat

The dining scene in San Pancho features everything from hole-in-the-wall taco stands to gourmet restaurants, and is hard to beat for a town of just about 1,600 inhabitants. Just a few blocks from the beach on Avenida Tercer Mundo #70, you’ll find Baja Takeria, which features sumptuous shrimp and fish tacos and burritas grilled and seasoned right in front of you.

Just down the street, look for a sign that says “Hay Flan,” in front of Cenaduria Delfin for some of the tastiest homemade flan you could ever hope to eat. San Pancho also has a handful of palapa style restaurants right on the beach where you can sit or lie in the sun or the shade, sip an ice-cold beer for less than $2, and order a plate of heavenly fish or shrimp tacos for less than $10.

Best of all, if you’d like to sit and relax for several hours before or after ordering, you are welcome to do so. And while you might encounter a few vendors, there are few distractions, other than the incessant crashing of waves down the sloping beach in front of you.

On my last evening in San Pancho, I sat on the beach, in the gloriously cool shade of a palapa, watching my sons play tag with a group of local children. And as I looked out at the limitless Pacific and their beaming faces as they chased their new friends up and down the huge beach, it was hard to come to terms with our imminent departure.

As my kids bathed in the extravagant, drowsy, orange glow of sunset, I knew that our odds of returning, newly paved road or not, were much greater than that of the baby turtles we’d sent off to sea.

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