Summer Hotspot: Baltimore, Maryland

If scenes from “The Wire” are the only images that come to mind when you think of Baltimore, it’s time to reevaluate. The city is a hodgepodge of distinct neighborhoods, including historic Fells Point, where you can take your pick from more than 120 pubs, and quirky Hampden, where you still might be able to spot a beehive hairdo straight out of a John Waters film. Although Baltimore is only a stone’s throw away from Washington, D.C., and a short drive from Philadelphia and New York, it’s a charming, comfortable city with its own culture and a lively arts scene. Plus, the city has several events happening this summer that are worth a trip.This summer, Baltimore will ring in a three-year celebration commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 with the Star-Spangled Sailabration, a maritime festival that will bring dozens of tall ships and warships to the city’s bustling Inner Harbor from June 13-19. The Inner Harbor is a pretty public space filled with shops, museums, ships and restaurants. It is overlooked by Federal Hill, a park that sits on a prominent hill that was a lookout during the Civil War and the War of 1812. Don’t miss the American Visionary Art Museum, just to the west of Federal Hill, which is filled with oddball outsider art. On Thursday nights during the summer, the museum plays movies on the side of the building facing Federal Hill, which turns into a makeshift amphitheater.

From August 31 to September 3, IndyCars will race around a 2.04-mile temporary circuit set up around the Inner Harbor for the Baltimore Grand Prix. The circuit passes many Baltimore landmarks – including Oriole Park at Camden Yards – and contains 12 turns, one of which is an adrenaline-pumping hairpin turn. Race fans from around the world are expected to descend on the city and the crowds are expected to surpass 150,000 people.

Also in the Inner Harbor, Phillips Seafood – known for creating the first ever crab shack in Ocean City – recently moved to a new space in a restored power plant along the water. When doing so, Phillips opened up a huge new crab deck that juts out in the water. Visitors shouldn’t miss the true Chesapeake Bay experience of ordering up a bucket of clams and cracking them open in the sunshine. Wash the crabs down with Baltimore’s most famous beer, National Bohemian (better known as “Natty Boh” to Baltimoreans – just look for the can or bottle with the mustachioed man), and you have a true Baltimore experience.

Don’t forget that there is a lot to do in Baltimore beyond the Inner Harbor, including Artscape, the largest free arts festival in the country that features funky art cars, musical performances and plenty of neat art to peruse.

[flickr image via sneakerdog]

Summer Hotspot: Hawaii’s Big Island

With summer temperatures that rarely climb over 90 degrees and just as infrequently drop below 70 degrees, Hawaii’s Big Island is an automatic summer hotspot in terms of climate. But aside from the perfect weather, the Big Island brings plenty more to your vacation experience for summer 2012. There’s a lot to explore on the Big Island. Volcanoes, waterfalls, various shades of sandy beaches, trails and numerous other outdoor activities make the Big Island a big win for nature lovers. With increased flights for 2012 from the Continental US to Kona, it’s now easier than ever to get there. Alaska & Hawaiian Airlines began daily non-stop service from San Jose and Oakland, California to Kona.

The Big Island is the biggest island within the Hawaiian Islands. Spanning 4,028 square miles, The Big Island, formally referred to as Hawaii Island, is bigger than all of the other Hawaiian islands combined. Home of five volcanoes, this island is the go-to spot if you want to see lava in action. Waterfalls are abundant and beach sand comes in white, black, green, gray and several shades in between. Adventurers flock to the island for hiking, biking, backpacking, camping, surfing and snorkeling (and these activities are just the beginning of a long list).

Other summer 2012 incentives for visiting the Big Island:

Summer Hotspot: Havana, Cuba

Havana‘s crumbling mansions, cobblestoned streets and vibrant salsa beats have long been a mystery to Americans kept off Cuba‘s shores by historic trade bans.

But in the past year, travel to Cuba has become much easier, starting with the lifting of certain restrictions by the Obama administration last January. That move was followed in April by a new set of Treasury Department guidelines, which makes travel easier for journalists, religious and educational groups and people-to-people exchanges. And now, even non-affiliated Americans can visit Cuba through new authorized tours from companies like National Geographic Expeditions and Friendly Planet Travel.

But with the loosened restrictions come the traveler’s fear that Cuba’s unique atmosphere will become distilled (read: ruined) with the inevitable onslaught of American tourists. If the Havana you envision doesn’t include a McDonald’s in the Plaza des Armas, this summer is the time to plan a visit. And with new, chartered flights from 12 US cities, travel to Cuba has never been easier.

Art lovers will particularly be drawn by the 11th Havana Biennial, which runs from May 11 to June 11. With a focus on “non-Western art,” the Biennial will bring together more than 115 artists from 43 countries. The festival has traditionally aimed to represent concerns and conflicts in the developing world, and this year’s event will explore the relationship between visual productions and the social imaginary – that is, the way artists imagine their surroundings and express themselves through cultural and historical references. With Cuba in such a state of transition, the Biennial will offer a unique opportunity to explore the country’s rich history, conflicted present and unforeseen future through art. Who knows what Cuba will be like for the next one?

[Flickr image via Anton Novoselov]

Summer Hotspot: Montreal, Quebec

Hungry for some culture this summer? Skip the jet lag, high exchange rates and long museum lines in Europe for one of North America’s most cosmopolitan and best warm-weather destinations: Montreal.

The charms that contribute to Montreal’s growing cultural reputation are already evident year-round, ranging from its cosmopolitan European-style cafes, a top-notch range of award-winning restaurants and a lively music scene. But summer is truly when Montreal comes out to shine, a time when May-August average temperatures hover in the 70’s and international-quality music festivals like MUTEK and Jazzfest draw partiers from around the globe. Design-conscious bargain hunters will find plenty to like in Montreal too. The city was named a UNESCO City of Design in 2006, and bursts at the seams with design-centric accommodations like Hotel Gault and fashion boutiques in the newly resurgent Old Montreal.

Those looking to add in a dose of the great outdoors won’t be disappointed either. With Montreal’s wildly successful Bixi bike-sharing program now in place at more than 5,000 locations city-wide, it’s easier than ever to pedal out for an exploration on the city’s 300+ miles of bike lanes and trails. For a more casual outdoor experience, stop by Montreal’s sprawling Mount Royal Park with a picnic lunch and just enjoy the warm weather.

Best of all, Montreal is still a relative bargain for budget-seekers. Compared to the Euro (currently $1.30:1), the Canadian Dollar still trades at a more wallet-friendly $1:1. Meaning you can spend those extra travel savings on a few more bottles of Quebec’s delicious La Fin du Monde Belgian-style brew, produced in nearby Chambly, Quebec.

[flickr image via madabandon]

Summer Hotspot: Anchorage, Alaska

Summer months in North America open up a whole realm of possibilities for travel into higher latitudes. As the deep frost starts to fade and the rivers pick up speed, Alaska turns into a beautiful respite from the sultry weather in the contiguous 48 states.

Pick any reason to make the journey. The Pacific Northwest air that blankets all of southern Alaska is crisp and clean, a noticeable contrast from the city air in New York and Chicago. The landscape is dramatic with mountains soaring out of the dark blue Pacific, snow capped peaks lining the horizons and dark green conifers rolling through the valleys. Wildlife is everywhere, from the ambling moose wandering the fertile plains to the bears and goats dotting the mountain trails. It’s far enough away to feel like a different country yet is filled with the same old fast food and Walmart standbys that you know and trust at home.

If Alaska enjoyed the same weather year-round as it did in July it would be the nation’s most populous state. Instead, visitors enjoy big open spaces, friendly, relaxed residents and over 650,000 square miles of rugged beautiful landscape free of the hustle and stress of the lower 48. In short, Alaska is a blessing.

Considering these virtues, one would expect that the cost of travel to Alaska would be sky high, but surprisingly, ticket prices don’t go up that much over the summer months. Airfare varies from $450-$750 for passage through the summer months with Anchorage hosting the majority of inexpensive flights (though Fairbanks and Juneau can always surprise you).

The dirty little secret about airfare to Alaska isn’t the cost of the ticket though; it’s the cost of the mileage award. Most airlines batch Alaska in with the rest of North America (as well they should) when they calculate the cost of mileage tickets. This means that an economy ticket between Miami or San Diego and Anchorage can only cost 25,000 miles round trip – the same cost as a flight between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Compare the distance between those two flights and it’s easy to see the value.

[image courtesy Erin Drewitz]