12 Offbeat Travel Ideas For 2013

My 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.

12. 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.

9. 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).

8. 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.

6. 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.

3. 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.

2. 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.

Gangi: The Italian hill town the guidebooks forgot to mention

Have you ever fallen in love with a place that doesn’t merit a mention in most guidebooks and felt conflicted about the its obscurity? On the one hand, you don’t want it to be “discovered,” but on the other, the snub feels like a bit of an insult, even for you, the newcomer who just fell for the place. This is how I feel about Gangi, an obscure, remote 12th century hill town tucked away near Sicily’s Madonie Mountains.

Gangi is well off the tourism trail, and only 24 people have bothered to “like it” on Facebook. But in my family, it is our Jerusalem, Mecca, and Athens. My grandfather, Carmelo Seminara, was born in the town in 1880 and lived there until emigrating to the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century. My father talked about Gangi so much during my childhood, that by the time I visited Gangi myself for the first time, I felt like I already knew the place.

Gangi’s old town hasn’t changed much since my grandfather left almost a century ago. You can see the town’s pyramid of stone buildings, newer ones on the bottom, older on top from miles away as you approach. The road that leads up into the ancient center is so steep, narrow and intimidating that only those who live in town, have raced the LeMans course before, or who have a death wish should consider driving up to the very top of the town. Want to walk up? Better have a damn good pair of shoes, strong calves and a clean pair of lungs. You’d have to be on crack to even try to read a street map of the place- just keep going up, up, up until you reach the town’s heart, the Piazza del Popolo, or collapse in exhaustion trying.

The first time I tried to drive up the center, I made it about half way and then chickened out. Even when you have the road to yourself, a simple trip is harrowing. When a car tries to come at you going in the opposite direction, one party needs to back up and come to some kind of agreement regarding how the situation will proceed. I would pay good money to see someone try to drive an Escalade up into the Piazza.

The modern traveler cannot help but notice what isn’t in the old town of Gangi- no restaurants, no internet cafes, art galleries, hotels, wine shops, tourist information offices, souvenir stands, or any other business that caters to those who don’t live in the immediate area. What Gangi does have is a tangle of ancient streets and narrow dwellings populated by proud people that all know each other and still buy their bread, milk and veggies from men who drive by in trucks and hawk their wares by broadcasting over makeshift bullhorns.The pace of life is glacial and no one would have it any other way. Life in ancient Gangi revolves around the picture-perfect Piazza del Popolo, which features the Chiesa Madre, a remarkable 17th century church that contains a few dozen mummified priests in its basement, and an attractive town hall building with a clock tower.

In the corner of the piazza sits the Seminara Bar, which is owned by Pino and Mimma Seminara, wonderful people who make what I consider to be the world’s most perfect homemade gelato, right in the small back room of their shop. My family has no connection to the Seminaras- in Gangi, the name Seminara is a bit like Smith- but they treated my wife and I like members of the family from the first time we walked in the door and introduced ourselves.

The weather can change very fast in Gangi, and at night, it can be a mysterious place. Fog often rolls into the upper town and enshrouds the whole place in a haze of mist so dense that you may not be able to find your car or the place you are staying in.

To really appreciate the town, you need to stay up in the old town overnight, and that means asking around for a room or apartment to rent. At night, you can trek up and down the quiet, ancient streets amongst medieval churches and old stone dwellings or you can make the passegiata along the town’s corso, nodding to the old men who sit in one part of the square and grinning at the teenagers who play with their cell phones and kiss their boyfriends with gusto.

As we said goodbye to the Seminaras and to Gangi, I felt as though we weren’t just outsiders passing through the place, but rather, descendants of Gangitanis returning home. But Carmelo made a choice to leave the place, and as a result, we could never really fit in there, no matter how long we stayed or how much Italian we learned.

Gangi- like many hill-towns all over rural Italy- is a place that does not embrace change or outsiders. Perhaps, this was precisely what Carmelo didn’t like about it, but Gangi’s stubborn refusal to change is also a great reason to check the place out before it’s too late. Or, better yet, find your own favorite hill town.

Visiting Gangi

Gangi is a scenic hour to hour-and-a-half drive from Cefalu. Bus service is infrequent, so it’s best to rent a car, park it at the base of the town and walk up to the old town. We asked around and rented an apartment in Gangi, but there are also at least three agriturismos that offer food and lodging in the vicinity of the town: Tenuta Castagna, Gangivecchio, and Casale Villa Raino‘. I’ve eaten at the first two establishments and they are both excellent. The gentleman we rented an apartment from is Vincenzo Blasco, who lives at 42 Via G.S. Antonio. (telephone- 339-643-2483) Don’t miss the otherworldly gelato at the Seminara Bar in the Piazza del Popolo. Within a short drive of Gangi, there are several other atmospheric hill towns that are well worth visiting: Polizzi Generosa, Petralia Soprana, Sperlinga and Nicosia to name a few.

Photo of the Day – Sicilian man

This elegant gentleman was captured in Sicily by Flickr user TravelSeminar. The weathered creases that line his face, the pulled back curtains and shy grin all suggest a moment of welcome and openness. It’s the perfect visual accompaniment to a brand new year – take it as an invitation to get your own travel plans off to a great start. Here’s wishing you all the best in 2012!

Have any great travel shots of your own? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.