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: Ft. Lauderdale

When we flew into Ft. Lauderdale, our original plan was to stay only long enough to drop our daughter and my dad off at their cruise ship before heading out of town for a couple of days. Instead, on a whim, we found ourselves checking into San Souci Resort Hotel for three nights and looking forward to coming back after a jaunt to Orlando once the cruise ship returned.

For an affordable vacation complete with beaches, places to stroll and shop, excellent food, and easy access to the Big Cyprus Seminole Reservation and the Everglades, consider Ft. Lauderdale as a non-fussy destination option. I didn’t expect to be so pleased. As a note, we were there a few days before Christmas and two days after. This was not the college Spring Break version.

Getting In: With AirTran Airways flights as a choice, Ft. Lauderdale can be a very inexpensive flight. Depending upon when you book, Delta and Continental may also offer deals. We flew on Continental for a song. Greyhound is also an option with a bus terminal that’s open 24 hours a day. You can also get here by train. Amtrak has a station.

Where to Stay: We found San Souci by turning left off of the Intercoastal Waterway to check out the retro style motels and hotels just two blocks away from the high-rise beach front versions. We opted for the kitchenette room which added to our budget since we shopped for breakfast and lunch food at a grocery store.

There are several hotels like this one in addition to more swanky options. According to the owner of San Souci, because so many people come to Ft. Lauderdale as a jumping off place for cruises and don’t stay in town, competition for business is fierce. That’s good news for bargain hunters.

Where to Eat: We found places to eat by asking for recommendations and being on the lookout while driving around in our rental car. Ft. Lauderdale is filled with places to eat, and in general, I’d say the competition keeps prices down.

  • Sukhothai Restaurant on E. Sunrise Blvd. We headed to this Thai restaurant twice. Once for dinner and the other time for lunch. Both meals were superb and I’ve been to Thailand four times, so I know good Thai food.
  • Mi Casa Su Casa on Griffin Rd. We went here based on a recommendation. On Tuesdays the margaritas are $.99 with a dinner entree. On Mondays, kids eat free. One adult meal= one free kid’s meal. Happy hour is 4-8 in the bar.
  • Flanigan’s Seafood Bar & Grill on West Davie Blvd. Ask about special deals. We ordered a pitcher of beer and ended up with a free order of chicken wings. This was a fun place to eat and terrific for kids.
  • Las Vegas Cuban Cuisine on E. Oakland Park. With a hankering for Cuban food, we had to head here.

What to See and Do:

In Ft. Lauderdale:

We spent much time at Ft. Lauderdale’s main beach by the Intercoastal Highway and at Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.

Besides the beach–there are eight in the Ft. Lauderdale area, head into Hugh Taylor Birch State Park. The park, located across the Intercoastal Highway from the beach, was a tucked in gem that I happened upon. The property used to be owned by Birch, but now offers canoeing, hiking, and places to bicycle and skate for a nominal entrance fee. We rented a canoe for an hour. Birch’s house has been turned into a museum that highlights the nature of the area.

If we had had more time, I would have gone to the Bonnet House Museum and Gardens. Hugh Taylor Birch first gave the property to his daughter as a wedding gift. Her husband, an artist, finished the house after her death from breast cancer. Now it’s on the register of National Historic Places.

Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to take a boat ride along the canals that go from the Atlantic Ocean to the Everglades either. Next time.

Here’s another detail to keep in mind. During March you can catch the spring training games of the Baltimore Orioles at Ft. Lauderdale Stadium.

Near by:

The Big Cyprus Seminole Reservation Along with the Billie Swamp Safari, the reservation boasts the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum with exhibits about the history and culture of the Seminole Indians. Give yourself enough time to walk along the nature trail to the living history Seminole village.

About the Billie Swamp Safari. What a blast! We sprung for the package deal that included the airboat ride through the Everglades, the swamp buggy eco tour and the animal show. The swamp buggy tour goes through wetlands and cyprus where bison, deer, water buffalo, wild hogs, hawks, eagles, alligators and more roam free. Some are native. Others are rescue animals.

Here’s a link of the Greater Ft. Lauderdale’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau Web site that lists other inexpensive or free things to do. One item that caught my attention is the Old Dillard Museum, a historic building with exhibits that center on the African American heritage of Ft. Lauderdale.

As a note, if you book a hotel through the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau Web site, you’ll receive a free Beach Starter kit that includes a beach towel, beach ball and flip flops.

Budget Travel: Boston

Though it seems a world away from the paradise I live in now, Boston was my home for three great, memorable years, and continues to hold a special place in my heart. Often regarded as America’s true college city, “Beantown” (named because of the city’s influx of baked beans during the “triangular trade” when molasses was plentiful) is alive and kicking. Where else in the States is finance, literature, sports, and education so vibrant? No where. Kick it in Boston in the dead of winter or the height of summer – any time, freezing sleet or blazing sun, this city is packed with awesome history, sights, and sounds.
Getting in:
By bus/train – Boston is essentially the hub of New England, so that means nearly every bus or train line will at least make a pit stop in South Station. There are now cheap $20 one-way bus fares to and from New York City where the motor coach is complete with movies and wi-fi. Expect trains to take the same amount of time (if not more), but twice the price. (I found my last train journey to Boston six months ago to be quite miserable, so would advise taking the bus instead)

By plane – Hooray for Virgin America (my new favorite continental airline)! There are plenty of flights to Boston through this awesomely comfortable, low-cost carrier, or there are tons of flights to Boston on United.

Where to stay:
A most comfortable and surprisingly affordable option in the North End (or Little Italy), one of Boston’s gastronomy centers, is La Capella Suites. There are three nicely decorated suites available on the 4th and 5th floors of this 70 year-old chapel (thus, its name). Rooms start at just $100 in the winter or $140 in the summer. The city’s best Italian restaurants and nightclubs are just steps away.

The cool 19th century townhouse Encore is the other great option in Boston’s gay-friendly South End. There are four guest rooms that are comparably priced with La Capella.

Both of these accommodations are on T-lines, and close to the center of town.

What to see:
Faneuil Hall – Clam chowder, lobster bisque, Urban Outfitter, the Freedom Trail, Duck and historical tours… Also known as Quincy Market, Faneuil has it all. It’s just as popular among Bostonians as it is tourists.

The Freedom Trail & the Boston Common – There is no other place in the United States where you can learn about America’s Revolution. The Freedom Trail is a 2.5 mile red-brick walking trail that leads you to 16 nationally significant historic sites, every one an authentic American treasure. Take a stroll along the Trail on your own using a handy online map, or have a native Bostonian guide you and tell you the dramatic story of America’s freedom from Britain.

Newbury Street – If you didn’t get your fill of shopping at Quincy Market, browse the hip boutiques along Newbury Street in the Back Bay, the quintessential Bostonian neighborhood. You can protect your pocket by sidling up to one of its many sidewalk cafés and people-watch your day way.

A BoSox game at Fenway Park – Don’t be daunted by the ridiculously steep ticket prices. If there’s one thing you must experience in Boston, it’s a Red Sox game. There is something totally electric about being in Fenway Park. Where else in the world is there so much baseball history in a single team and a single ballpark? Babe’s curse has been reversed, but the Green Monster and Pesky Pole live on. Even if you’re not a sports fan, you will be a Red Sox fan once you set foot on Yawkey Way.

Budget Travel: Seattle


Mention “Seattle” and what’s likely to come to mind are coffee, microbrews, and weather. But look a little closer at the local’s city, and you’ll find a place appreciated for the arts and green space. Defined and inspired by its waterways, evergreen forests, seven hills, and mountains on either side, the Emerald City is a place that begs to be explored by land and sea. It may have a reputation for having the most literate population in the US, but the city is just as unpretentious as it is metropolitan. It has a reputation for its weather, but Seattleites will tell you that it’s not really as rainy as you might expect. Just the same, it’s a city that’s not as expensive as you might expect–Seattle can be a budget destination after all.

Getting In:
You can fly into the Seattle-Tacoma Airport (SEA) on a number of major airlines, including American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, and United, but you’re most likely to find a deal on Alaska Airlines/Horizon or Southwest.

Amtrak trains offer another option–they’ll drop you off at King Street Station in the International district.

Rather than take a taxi from the airport, get dropped off downtown by the Gray Line Downtown Airporter, which departs every 30 minutes (between 5:30 a.m.–11 p.m.). You’ll only pay $11 one-way, or $18 round-trip. Those with a more adventuresome spirit (and a slimmer wallet) can catch the Metro bus ($1.50 off-peak/$2.25 peak hours)–near door 6 of the baggage-claim area.

Once you reach downtown, you’ll definitely want to make friends with the bus. Sure, you could hoof it, but why bother when buses are free within the Free-Ride Area, anytime from 6:00 a.m.–7:00 p.m.

Where to Stay:
The only hostel downtown is Green Tortoise, but what a great location it has–right across from Pike Place Market. Their recent relocation has made a huge improvement in facilities and cleanliness, and they offer free breakfast daily (with waffles and eggs), and free dinner three times a week. Dorms come in at $25–36, and rooms are $77–90. Check out their current special: save $4 on the fourth night in a dorm room.

For another reasonable option, head to the College Inn Seattle in the University district. The historic building that dates back to the 1909 Alaska-Yukon Exposition is big on atmosphere. You may have to share a bathroom, but that’s what brings the rates down to $55–90.

What to See:
Here’s a newsflash: there’s more than one viewing tower in town. Everyone knows about the Space Needle ($16), but for half the price you can get a tip-top view of the city from Smith Tower ($7.50). The view from the 35th floor observation deck may showcase more of downtown than the Queen Anne district, but the price is right. Check the calendar in advance to make sure that it’s open.

Spend a weekend morning browsing one of the area’s farmer’s markets–especially the University (year-round on Saturdays) and Fremont districts (year-round on Sundays), where music and crafts are as much of the experience as the fruit-sampling. And of course, there’s the most famous market in town: Pike Place–theatrics and tourists aside, it’s a lively place to find everything from produce and seafood to flowers and crafts.

Pick a day of the week, and you’re likely to find an art walk. Tour the different neighborhoods while you tour the art:

First Thursday: Pioneer Square
First Friday: Fremont
Second Tuesday: Capitol Hill
Second Thursday: West Seattle
Second Friday: Belltown
Second Saturday: Ballard
Third Thursday: Upper Queen Anne

Local museums also help you save a few dollars, but you have to know when to find their free days. The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) is free on the first Thursday of the month (and to seniors aged 62+ on the first Friday, and to teens aged 13–19 from 5:00–9:00 p.m. on the second Friday). The Seattle Asian Art Museum is free on the first Thursday of the month (and to seniors aged 62+ on the first Friday, and to families on the first Saturday). The first Thursday of the month (5:00-8:00 p.m.) is the best time to visit the Gehry-designed Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum. Frye Art Museum is always free–every day.

Grunge may be dead–even here in its birthplace–but Seattle still loves its music; and it shows in the music festivals–several of which are amazingly free. Northwest Folklife Festival, which will celebrate its 100 anniversary in 2009, runs every Memorial Day weekend and showcases ethnic, folk, and traditional arts. If you’re in town in June, you’ll want to join the Fremont Fair, which rings in the Summer Solstice with a parade, crafts, music, and food. The popular Bumbershoot–every Labor Day weekend–may not be free, but $80 is well worth the range of bands that you can take in with the 3-day pass.

Fresh air is free and boating options are abundant in outdoorsy Seattle. The easiest way out on the water is by taking a ferry to Bainbridge Island ($6.70 round-trip), where a front-row view of the city skyline is guaranteed. Bring your bike with you for an extra dollar, or rent one on the island. Or else, propel yourself on the water. Combine a trip to the Washington Park Arboretum or Gas Works Park with a kayak rental through Agua Verde Paddle Club (single $15/1 hr; $25/2 hrs; double $18/$30) or a canoe/rowboat rental through UW Waterfront Activities Center ($7.50/hr; closed November–January). For a free alternative, set sail on a classic wooden boat through the Center for Wooden Boats–half-hour rides are free from 2:00 p.m.–3:00 p.m. every Sunday.