Budget Summer Vacation from Little Rock, Arkansas: Conway, hometown of American Idol Kris Allen

When David Cook won American Idol last year, I was curious about what there was to do in his hometown, Blue Springs Missouri. David Archuleta’s hometown, Murray City, Utah also caught my interest. Both hometowns looked not much more than shopping malls and high school football fields when shown on TV. Kris Allen’s hometown, Conway, Arkansas, however, seems to be a perfect budget travel vacation destination–really. How could it not be? It’s in the foothills of the Ozarks.

A quick drive, just 32 miles from Little Rock, Conway holds its own as a worthy budget travel destination with plenty to see and do. Besides boasting two colleges and a university, the small city is in close proximity to many of Arkansa’s state parks and historic landmarks. At the edge of the city are several lakes fit for boating, fishing and swimming. The one in the photo is Beaver Lake. That’s just the beginning of Conway’s pleasures.

Woolly Hollow, the closest state park is 18 miles from Conway in the Ozark foothills, and boasts Lake Bennet a sizable body of water that offers fishing, boating, and swimming. There are also hiking trails and camp sites.

For those interested in history, check out Woolly Cabin where the first settlers who came here lived. On various weekends there are special events and programs. One to keep in mind is the Annual Fun Day on June 19. The price is yummy. It’s free.

For one museum with one of the cheapest admission prices I’ve ever seen, also not far from Conway, head to the Plantation Agriculture Museum. The whole family can get in for $10. Adult tickets are only $3 and kids are $2. Under 6 is free. The museum highlights the agricultural history of cotton in Arkansas through World War II.

In Conway itself:

  1. Although rides on the Toad Suck Towboat aren’t possible, one of these boats that once crossed people from one side of the Arkansas River to the other is on display at the ranger’s office at the Toad Suck Ferry Lock and Dam in Toad Suck Park. The park is now touted as a great place for a picnic and watching boats go by. Besides, what a name!
  2. Another place that looks intriguing is Finton Sculpture Garden and Studio. I’m fond of outdoor sculptures that have a creative edge. Arkansas native, Finton Shaw’s assembled outdoor sculptures that fit my criteria of art I like to see. Some pieces have themes borrowed from other cultures. There is one titled “Girl from Madagascar” and another titled ” Shiva,” for example.
  3. Pickles Gap Village, also a Conway establishment is exactly right for kids and people who like to shop. It’s not a village where people live, but a collection of quaint stores and Kiddie Land that has rides and farm animals. The name comes from when a German immigrant overturned his wagon load of pickles when he was making his way across the creek. That’s the legend.
  4. For more area history, head to the Faulker County Historical Society Museum. The museum is housed in the original county jail.
  5. For entertainment, check out the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre. Throughout June, the festival has Taming of the Shrew, MacBeth, The Producers and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on the menu.

Where to eat: Try Gina’s Jewel Restaurant for homemade country style food. It’s been given high praises. The Chamber of Commerce says for every type of food you like, you’ll find it in Conway. Here’s a link to a dining guide with 137 entries.

Where to stay: There are plenty of slumber options ranging from Super 8 on the budget end to the Hampton Inn which isn’t that expensive either, includes a hot breakfast and within walking distance to the city’s center. For a one-of-a-kind option, check out The Ward Mansion Bed and Breakfast. This historic home turned tourist spot is steeped in elegance.

The attractions I’ve mentioned here are only part of what there is to do in Conway. Here’s a link to more links. When it comes to hometowns, Kris Allen’s wins the award as a unique getaway.

I wonder if someone will think to put his face in a corn maze, though? David Archuletta had that honor.

For map of Arkansas to see where Conway is located and what is nearby, click here.

The Post’s 100 weekend destinations from New York

The Summer of Travel is around the corner, and the New York Post has just compiled the most authoritative list of vacation spots within a stone’s throw of New York City.

Similar to Gadling’s Budget Summer Vacation guides, the Post’s 100 destinations are all within a few hours of the city, from Wilmington to Saratoga Springs to Manchester, Vermont. Each city on their custom destination page is clickable, giving information on how to get there, what to see, what to do and insider tips on how to maximize your visit.

Alternatively, you can sort the destinations by activity, filtering out City Breaks, Cool Towns or a variety of geological features.

The site is a massive resource for destinations on the East Coast, each city with comprehensive travel information, pictures and recommendations for where to stay and eat. Even if you’re not planning on traveling any time soon, stop by and peruse the destinations — you might get inspired.

Budget Travel: Liverpool, UK

Beautiful shot of Albert Dock by Pete Carr
: Liverpool. It’s not London, and that’s why it’s not nearly as expensive. But with the old-timey glamor of Albert Dock, a history rich with music, maritime lore, and football (soccer) glory, and a proximity to Chester and Port Sunlight Village, Liverpool is no second rate vacation destination. It’s a first rate European city and an exciting place to visit!

Getting in: The John Lennon International Airport is where it’s at. If you can’t get straight there from where you live, find a trip to Amsterdam, then EasyJet it over to Liverpool. It may take you out of your way, but the savings will likely be worth it, and taking a train from London with all your luggage is a major pain after a long flight. Plus, a layover in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport can be a pretty good time! Check out the facilities/amenities here.

Where to stay
: Gadling recommends that you stay at the Britannia Adelphi Hotel. This places you just uphill from all the best shopping and dining, near the train station (which you’ll need if you want to take day trips), and walkable to Albert Dock and the city’s cathedrals. The prices are reasonable and the rooms are lovely. There’s also a Marriott nearby if you are looking to cash in points.

What to see: Liverpool’s blue collar roots are well disguised in the trendy City Centre area. We recommend a walk down Bold Street to get you started with shopping, especially the trendy Karen Millen shop. While you’re there, you can eat a very cheap, delicious, healthy vegetarian meal at the exquisitely painted Egg Cafe (and gallery).

The Philharmonic Pub on Hope StreetReady for a pint? Head up to the Philharmonic Pub for a classy, relaxed atmosphere, and, if you can, catch whatever’s playing that night at The Liverpool Philharmonic Hall across the street! Note: The locals don’t say the “H” in Phil*H*armonic, and they will make fun of you if you do — that, or have no idea what you are talking about.

Now you’re on Hope Street. You might notice that at either end of the street, there is a giant cathedral. Visit both! The Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King (Roman Catholic) looks a bit like a spaceship, or like it might impale any falling angels, but is quite lovely inside. The Liverpool Cathedral (Anglican) is even grander, and definitely worth a tour (you can see all of Liverpool from the top), or at least a stroll through the lovely, probably-haunted graveyard. Hope Street also runs into Mount Street at The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts where you can catch — or pick up fliers for — all kinds of local music, theater, dance, and more. LIPA was started in 1996 by Sir Paul McCartney and has been spitting out West End stars and more ever since!

If you’re a soccer fan, don’t miss a tour of the Liverpool Football Club museum and stadium. Ask at your hotel for transportation arrangements.

And naturally, if you’re a Beatles fan, don’t miss the Magical Mystery Tour! The tour is run by primary school classmates of The Beatles, and is funny, informative, and a great way to see a lot of Liverpool. It ends at the infamous Cavern Club, which is still alive and well.

Another great way to see Liverpool is the Yellow Duck Marine Tour. The guides on the duck boats are hysterical, and they take you around Albert Dock, where you can also visit a lot of Liverpool’s chicest clubs, the Tate Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum, or just get your caricature drawn for a couple of pounds.

Lastly, if you want to get that posh British feeling, take a day trip to Chester. You can get there by train in about 45 minutes and spend the whole day eating crumpets, perusing parfumeries, and walking the wall that covers the entire perimeter of the city. Better still, stop in Port Sunlight Village on your way down. The village itself looks like something you might see in miniature form in a store-front display around Christmas, and it is home to The Lady Lever Art Gallery — a gallery you can totally do in a couple of hours which happens to be my personal favorite throughout the entire world. Don’t miss the basement full of Masonic artifacts.

A trip to Liverpool is worth your time, and, especially in comparison to London, really easy on your wallet!

Budget Travel: Boulder, Colorado

If there’s any city in the US that you could compare to Amsterdam, Boulder might be it. Located about forty-five minutes from Denver, Colorado, Boulder is widely known as a hippie hang-out and boasts some of the most liberal laws in the country. But like Amsterdam, there’s more to Boulder than it’s tie-dyed, dreadlocked image.

Fantastic outdoor activities like hiking, rock-climbing, bicycling, and white-water rafting lie within easy reach of the city, which is situated at the foot of the unique Flatiron rock formations (see below).

Boulder is also home to the main campus of the University of Colorado, which ensures that there’s never a shortage of cultural activities. A Shakespeare festival is held on the college’s campus each summer, and the Pearl Street Mall (below), a four-block pedestrian walkway in downtown Boulder, is home to street musicians and artists of all kinds, as well as some great local bookstores. The Boulder Farmers Market takes place on 13th Street between Canyon and Arapahoe on Wednesdays and Saturdays between May and October; don’t miss it.

Also located on 13th Street, the gorgeous Boulder Teahouse, a gift from Boulder’s sister city of Dushanbe, Tajikistan, is also well worth a visit. From 1987-1990, the ceilings, tables, and columns of the teahouse were all hand-painted or hand-carved in Dushanbe, and they were then flown to Boulder where they were eventually assembled. (Boulder, for its part, opened an internet cafe in Dushanbe, albeit 20 years late.)

Sounds great, right? But can it fit your budget? Of course it can!

If you plan on visiting Boulder during the summer, my advice to you is simple: rent an apartment on Craigslist. Thousands of students abandon their apartments during summer break, and many of them would be glad to rent them out for a week or two for even a nominal fee. Couchsurfing is another great (cheap) option, and there appear to be plenty of available hosts. For something more upscale, try the historic Hotel Boulderado. Built in 1909 and with the original Victorian interior, the hotel is simply stunning.

Boulder’s vibe is youthful but not immature, artistic but not pretentious. It’s a great destination for anything from a family vacation to a solo camp-out– and best of all, it doesn’t have to break your budget.

Budget Travel: Albuquerque

Summary: Albuquerque, founded in 1706 by a group of Spanish colonists on the banks of the Rio Grande, has grown into a sprawling southwestern city that creeps up the Sandia and Manzano Mountains to the east and out onto the mesa to the west where it meets the National Petroglyph Park Monument. On the southern end, Isleta Pueblo halts it’s sprawl, and to the north is Sandia Pueblo.

If you drive into the city at night from the west, it can look like stars. From a distance during the day, Albuquerque can look like an oasis. For an outdoor enthusiast, a history buff, or someone interested in the arts, there is an array of things to do that won’t break the bank or bleed your wallet dry. With the airport right at the city’s edge, and the train and bus stations close to downtown, Albuquerque is quite accessible, however, don’t stop here. I’d use Albuquerque as a stepping off place to see more of New Mexico, but take a few days to enjoy what it has to offer on your way in or out.

Getting In: Bus, train, plane, car, bicycle–you pick. Albuquerque is an accessible city with inexpensive travel options. Airlines have much competition which helps keep the prices down. Continental and Southwest are the best bets. Amtrak also has a stop here, as does Greyhound. Albuquerque is on the way to other places, so why not spend time here if you’re making a cross-country jaunt?

If you do arrive without a car, I’d rent one. It would make life easier and give you more options of places to go in the city in the quickest amount of time–as well as take drives to Santa Fe, Acoma Pueblo or Bandelier National Monument. In 2008, the New Mexico Rail Runner Express opened. It’s the communter train between Santa Fe and Belen and points in between.

There is an extensive city bus service and many tourist sites are accessible by foot from Central Avenue, the Albuquerque’s main artery that goes from east to west. Bring water along if you’re walking. It gets hot if you arrive after April and before October. It’s a dry heat, so if you perspire, you won’t end up soaked.

Although, I haven’t done this option, if you arrive with a bicycle, you can hop on a bike trail at the airport. Here’s a link to the details.

Where to Stay: As the largest city in New Mexico with the major airport located here, there is an abundance of places to stay. Think of a chain hotel, and you’ll find it. If you’re looking for funky, stay in one of the independently owned hotels on Central Avenue, part of historic Route 66. As a word of warning, choose carefully. A friend and I thought it would be fun to stay in one when I lived in Albuquerque and I think it might have been a flop house. Let’s just say one of the TV channels offered more than I anticipated and one didn’t need to pay extra. To find a recommendation, contact Route 66, the organization dedicated to keeping this historic road thriving. Stay close to Nob Hill, University of New Mexico or Old Town.

Where to Eat: Albuquerque is where you can eat your fill of Mexican food and never get bored. You’ll be asked if you want red or green chilie. Try green chilie at least once. One place to dry a dose of the good stuff for breakfast, lunch or dinner is at The Frontier across from the University of New Mexico. You can’t miss it since it takes up almost a whole block. Try the cinnamon rolls. I repeat. Try the cinnamon rolls. They are legendary.

Two other inexpensive places for great Mexican fare are Garcia’s Kitchen and Los Cuates. Garcia’s Kitchen started out in one location across from Old Town. Now there are seven. I’m partial to the original. There are two Los Cuates on Lomas directly across the street from each other. The south side of the street is the original. The north side has margaritas. Whichever Mexican restaurant you head to, enjoy the sopapillas with honey. Oh, how I miss those.

For a Route 66 dining experience, eat at the Route 66 Diner. Although the original burned in 1995, the rebuilt one reflects the time period.

To pick up food to take along on a bicycle or hiking outing, head to the La Montanita Co-op Market in Nob Hill.

Things to Do:

As a centerpiece to your visit, head to Old Town which is the oldest part of the city, but has been transformed into a area rich in shopping and things to do. The plaza is at the heart of the area and is where the 300 year old San Felipe de Neri Parish church, still stands. The church has a museum and a gift shop which reflect the Spanish influence.

You could browse Old Town’s shops for hours. Things to buy range from ticky tacky to high-end gorgeous. I’d browse before you buy. One thing to pick up that I think is a hoot is an adobe house incense burner. For wonderful arts and crafts, check out Amapola Gallery. It’s a cooperative that showcases the work of about 40 artists.

Also in the Old Town area are Rattlesnake Museum, Turquoise Museum, Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, and Explora, a museum that integrates art, technology and science. Also, there’s the National Atomic Museum. which gives a nod to Albuquerque’s military and nuclear science connections. This spring, the museum will change to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.

Not far from Old Town is the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, perhaps my favorite attraction. There’s a museum that covers the history and life of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. The gallery and gift shop is superb, plus the restaurant is a wonderful place to get a Tewa taco and green chile stew. If you want authentic Indian jewelry, this is where to get it. It’s high quality and reasonable. Take time to look at the murals on the outside walls of the building that surround the courtyard. For dance performances and other events check the calendar.

If you’re museumed out, Albuquerque is made for outdoor exploration. Bicycling is incredibly popular and something that’s doable in any season. Trails are extensive. For suggestions on where to bike, check out this page of RideThisBike.com. Here’s a link to bicycle shops to help you scout out a rental.

Test your mettle by hiking up Crest Trail in the Sandias. The trail goes up one of the mountainsides in a series of switchbacks. If you want to get to the top an easier way, take the Sandia Peak Tramway and hike back down. Bring a windbreaker or a sweatshirt, even in summer. At the top you can get chilled if you’ve hiked up. Trust me. I know. Although hiking in the Sandias offers the stunning views of the city and the challenge of pacing your climb to not poop out before the top, hiking in the mesa around the Petroglyph National Monument is also satisfying. Imagine who walked here before you.

In winter months, downhill skiing and cross-country skiing in the Sandias is another outdoor option. Because the temperatures in the city are much higher than the backside of the mountains, you could conceivably ski and golf on the same day. For the best and least expensive thing to do in Albuquerque, head away from the city and watch the sunrise or sunset.