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North America’s Top Christmas Markets

The cozy smell of chestnuts roasting on open fire pits. A warm cup of mulled cider cradled in your mittened hands. Soft flecks of snow falling as you walk among shop stalls filled with glittering merchandise that just begs to be gifted.

Europe, and Germany especially, are famous for their traditional holiday markets, but the scene above can be relived right in your own backyard. Take a seasonal spin through this showcase of 10 amazing Christmas markets around North America to find one near you.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2014. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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Beach Island LGBT

The Best Caribbean Destinations for Gay and Lesbian Travelers

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Dreamy tropical vibes prevail across the Caribbean, where the people are as warm as the waves. But when it comes to LGBT-friendly Caribbean destinations, some islands are keener to roll out the rainbow welcome mats.

As a region, the West Indies encompasses 13 independent nations; plus about a dozen more territories that are part of the United States, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. It’s those latter islands where gay and lesbian travelers usually feel more at ease since local laws around homosexuality and same-sex marriage match those of their parent countries.

That’s not to say that gay and lesbian travelers won’t feel safe or welcome in less-progressive destinations. But rather than plan vacations to one of the dozen Caribbean islands where homosexuality is criminalized (surprising, but true), most travelers simply prefer to vacation where they’ll feel comfortable.

In fact, according to a 2019 survey, 86 percent of LGBT travelers admit that a destination’s policies toward the LGBT community are at least somewhat important when deciding where to travel. Conducted by the IGLTA Foundation and Airbnb, the survey also revealed that 51 percent of LGBT respondents are “very unlikely” to travel to a country where being LGBT is illegal. Still, the world is evolving when it comes to acceptance and equality—including in the Caribbean, where more and more cities are hosting Pride celebrations and flying rainbow flags.

LGBT-Friendly Caribbean Islands

Here’s a closer look at the most gay-friendly Caribbean destinations.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

san juan sunset

The fourth-largest Caribbean island is a gay-friendly U.S. territory that’s home to 3.1 million residents, with at least as many visitors every year. In the capital city of San Juan, LGBT visitors can enjoy Puerto Rican hospitality in its historic downtown, where the culinary and nightlife scenes are booming. In the beachfront neighborhood of Condado, the Atlantic Beach Hotel and Oasis Lounge are regular gay hotspots, both just steps away from the low-key gay-beach area. For a resort that’s lesbian-friendly too, the recently renovated San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino is a favorite for its central location on the beach, spacious balcony rooms, plus live salsa music on weekends.

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In the Santurce neighborhood, La Placita is a public market by day and busy social scene by night. Among its strip of bars is El Patio de Lila, a gay-friendly watering hole that’s especially happening on Friday nights. Nearby, head to the trendy restaurant Santaella or the more casual Jose Enrique for some of San Juan’s best dining. Or sample the city’s tastiest delights by joining one of Spoon Food Tours fabulous walkabouts, where knowledgeable guides can tip you off to LGBT goings-on.

Bonus: Puerto Rico is home to two of the Caribbean’s biggest LGBT Pride events. The Puerto Rico Pride march and festival takes place in San Juan each May, while Boqueron Pride (near Cabo Rojo) follows in early June for a splashy weekend beach celebration.

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Aruba

colorful chairs on beach in aruba

True to its Dutch heritage, the Lesser Antilles’s island of Aruba is a proud Caribbean paradise ever eager to welcome LGBT travelers. The month of June is the island’s official Pride month, launching a series of events to celebrate diversity in and around the capital city Oranjestad. Resorts and hotels all over Aruba are welcoming but count on the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino and Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino for Pride season packages, plus adults-only pool and beach areas. Oranjestad also is home to District 7, an LGBT-centric nightclub, lounge, restaurant, and inn (which was once a simpler gay bar called Jimmy’s Place).

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Curacao

view of willemstad curacao

Like Aruba, Curacao is a Dutch territory that’s progressive and inclusive, a trademark of the Netherlands. But to welcome gay and lesbian Caribbean visitors, this small island goes the extra mile by being an active member of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA). Plus, the island offers queer travelers guidance with handy PinkCuracao, an online travel resource with recommended hotels, restaurants, tours, boutiques, and more. Floris Suite Hotel Spa and Beach Club Curaçao is the go-to gay hotel in Willemstad, where adult guests can enjoy luxury, privacy, and views of the island’s famously-blue waters. Among Curacao’s flirtier spots is MooMba Beach Club, perched on the island’s most gay-friendly beach and serving up cocktails, live music, fresh seafood, and weekend barbeques.

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This island loves to celebrate, and every September it hosts the five-day Curacao Pride festival with a slate of activities in towns, on beaches, and on the water. Come February (or March), Curacao Carnival becomes winter’s most colorful, all-welcoming celebration.

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St. Martin/St. Maarten

st maarten town view

St. Martin/St. Maarten is one Caribbean island that’s doubly gay-friendly. As the world’s smallest territory shared by two nations, St. Martin enjoys all the liberties of the French Republic on its northern half, while the southerly St. Maarten is a member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. No matter which side you visit, you can enjoy the island’s easygoing atmosphere.

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LGBT travelers can take their pick of gay-centric beaches to swim, sunbathe, and snorkel, especially Happy Bay Beach and the clothing-optional Orient Bay Beach (both on the French side), and Cupecoy Beach (Dutch side) where nude sunbathing is common. Visitors can discover lesbian- and gay-owned businesses with handy Gay Sint Maarten, which offers listings for the entire island. For fun in Dutch Philipsburg, don’t miss the long-running cabaret and drag show L’Escargot, and open-air dancing at Bliss on Maho Beach. Or head to Club Eros to dance at one of the island’s main late-night gay bars in the French town of Marigot. (Tip: Locals often refer to the island by its airport code “SXM.”)

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St. Bart’s

The French island territory Saint-Barthélemy, nicknamed St. Bart’s, enjoys the same marriage equality as France, as do its sister islands of Martinique, St. Martin, and Guadeloupe. But more than the others, St. Bart’s is among the most gay-friendly Caribbean destinations overall—thanks in part to its ritzy reputation as a celebrity vacation hideaway. The wee island measures just 10 square miles, and LGBT travelers can enjoy relaxed attitudes, even without any official gay bars or Pride events. But at all-welcoming/gay-leaning Saline Beach, travelers relax with or without clothes. And you can patronize gay-owned businesses like colorful Le Pasha boutique and La Cantina bar in Gustavia; and saucy Le Ti cabaret and tavern in Pointe Milou.

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U.S. Virgin Islands

view of st croix us virgin islands

To the east and south of Puerto Rico are the U.S. Virgin Islands, comprised of St. John, St. Thomas, St. Croix, and several minor islands. Their cluster anchors the northern Lesser Antilles, and together they’re among the most gay-friendly Caribbean destinations. Each of the three main islands is blissfully welcoming to all travelers (some of whom take day trips from the neighboring British Virgin Islands), and rainbow stickers adorn many a local business.

St. Thomas has its share of both upscale and casual hotels, restaurants, and attractions, concentrated mainly in Frenchtown (near the cruise ship port). But St. Croix is more populous and has a fun, active LGBT community. Among a handful of gay guesthouses on St. Croix is Frederiksted’s Sand Castle on the Beach, a hit for same-sex weddings and honeymoon packages. Plus, each June St. Croix ushers in STX Pride, with a month full of LGBT events that continue year-round. The organization’s motto is “the most gay friendly island in the Caribbean,” and based on its long roster of local hosts and sponsors, it’s clear how inclusive the destination really is.

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10 Fun Things to Do in Wildwood, New Jersey

There’s nothing like summer at the Jersey Shore, where you can spend your days relaxing on the beach and your evenings playing mini golf, riding roller coasters, and eating ice cream on the boardwalk. But while the beach and the boardwalk are the main draws, there are many other fun things to do in Wildwood, New Jersey—one of the most popular family resorts on the state’s southern coast.

The Best Things to Do in Wildwood, NJ

[st_content_ad]If you get restless sitting on the beach, active options in Wildwood, New Jersey, include biking, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding. History buffs will appreciate Wildwood’s collection of 1950s and ’60s architecture. And there are plenty of day trip possibilities if you want to add a change of scene to your Wildwood vacation.

A note on geography: What many people think of as Wildwood, NJ, is actually three municipalities that share an island: Wildwood Crest, Wildwood (also known as Wildwood by the Sea), and North Wildwood. Cresse Avenue divides Wildwood from Wildwood Crest, and 26th Avenue marks the boundary between Wildwood and North Wildwood.

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Each municipality has a slightly different vibe—Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood have a quieter, more residential feel than lively Wildwood itself, where you’ll find the big amusement parks and the bulk of the boardwalk. But each town runs seamlessly into the next, so you can take advantage of all the fun things to do in New Jersey’s Wildwoods, regardless of where you stay.

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Enjoy the Beach

Wildwood new jersey beach

During peak season at some New Jersey beaches, it can feel like you’re elbow to elbow with the family under the next umbrella. That’s not a problem in the Wildwoods, home to the state’s widest beaches. Here, it’s easy to find your own personal stretch of sand for sunbathing, reading, building sandcastles, or playing cornhole.

Wildwood Beach has recently started allowing beachgoers to park right on the beach, for a fee that starts at $10 per day (it goes higher during special events). And if you’re not up for the long walk to the water across the hot sand, you can hire a beach taxi to cart you and your boogie board to the waves. Or you can head to North Wildwood, where the beaches are significantly narrower than those in Wildwood and Wildwood Crest.

Bonus: Access to Wildwood beaches is free all year long.

Hit the Boardwalk

Wildwood-Jersey-Boardwalk

Wildwood Boardwalk stretches about two miles from Cresse Avenue in the south to 15th Avenue in the north. During summer, it’s a kaleidoscope of activity: Kids scream from the tops of roller coasters, bright yellow Sightseer trams trundle by with their perpetual refrain (“Watch the tram car, please.”), seagulls wheel overhead, and the air is redolent with the sweet smells of funnel cake and cotton candy.

The boardwalk’s shops, arcades, amusement parks, golf courses, and eateries can easily keep you entertained all day long. If you get tired, hop aboard one of the eco-friendly electric tram cars, which run the length of the boardwalk, typically from 11:00 a.m. until whenever the amusement parks close that day. You can pay per ride ($3.50), purchase a hop-on-hop-off daily wristband ($7), or buy a book of single-ride tickets ($15 for 5; $29 for 10; $60 for 25). These iconic tram cars have been shuttling beachgoers and up and down Wildwood’s boardwalk since the summer of 1949.

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Ride the Rides and Slide the Slides

Three massive piers stretch from Wildwood’s boardwalk across the beach, featuring roller coasters, water slides, and other rides of all sizes—including a giant Ferris wheel that provides panoramic views over the Atlantic Ocean and Wildwood, NJ. Families will never run out of things to do at Morey’s Piers, encompassing three amusement park areas and two water parks.

Offerings for little ones include an old-timey carousel and kid-sized trains and boats. Thrill seekers should head to Adventure Pier for a heart-pounding ride on the Skycoaster, which hurtles you more than 100 feet into the air above Wildwood Beach.

Take a Morning Bike Ride

wildwood jersey bikers

Biking is one of the most popular things to do in Wildwood, thanks to the island’s many miles of dedicated bike paths. You can pedal the entire length of the island from the Wildwood Crest Dunes Bike Path up onto the boardwalk and then along the Mulberry Bike Path and seawall in North Wildwood, for a 12-mile round trip. (Note that bikes are not permitted on the boardwalk after 11:00 a.m. on weekdays or 10:30 a.m. on weekends.)

Bring your own wheels, or rent bicycles or surreys from local operators like Zippy’s Bikes, Crest Bike Rental, and D R Bradley Bike Rentals.

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Behold a Blast from the Past

wildwood-jersey-starlux

What sets the Wildwoods apart from just about any other Jersey Shore community is its collection of motels, diners, and other historical buildings from the 1950s and early ’60s. Neon signs, plastic palm trees, bright colors, and angular roofs are hallmarks of this retro architectural style, dubbed “Googie architecture,” or “Doo Wop architecture,” after the music of the era.

You can learn more at the Doo Wop Preservation League Museum, housed in a former 1960s diner. This small, colorful museum features a collection of signs, furniture, and memorabilia from the Doo Wop era. The museum also runs “Back to the ’50s” trolley tours on select summer nights to show visitors the best Doo Wop architecture around town. Call (609) 729-4000 for information and reservations.

Can’t get enough Doo Wop? Stay in one of the Wildwoods’ dozens of midcentury-style motels, including the Starlux Boutique Hotel in Wildwood, Caribbean Motel in Wildwood Crest, or Lollipop Motel in North Wildwood.

Savor a Great Meal

wildwood-jersey-breakfast-surfing-pig

Think “Jersey Shore food,” and you’ll probably think pizza and ice cream. Of course, you can find plenty of both in Wildwood, NJ: Try Sam’s Pizza Palace, which has been serving up great slices since 1957, or Cool Scoops for sweet treats in a ’50s-style ice cream parlor. But Wildwood also has plenty of other options for hungry travelers.

One favorite fine-dining option in Wildwood, NJ, is Beach Creek Oyster Bar & Grill, where you can enjoy seafood and steak on a deck overlooking the bay; come at sunset for great views. Pacific Grill Wildwood, for its part, offers a reasonably priced three-course prix-fixe menu nightly, along with à la carte dishes such as crabcakes and braised short ribs.

For more casual fare in Wildwood, NJ, head to Maui’s Doghouse, where you can choose from more than 30 hot dog toppings, like beer-cooked sauerkraut, homemade chili, spicy brown mustard, and spinach sauteed in garlic and white wine. The final product comes to you in a plastic dog bowl. Also in North Wildwood is The Surfing Pig, serving up burgers, barbecue, and seafood with a side of lovely bay views.

Get on the Water

Wildwood-Jersey-Jet-Skis

In the Wildwoods, the ocean and bay offer more than just pretty views. Fun things to do in Wildwood, NJ, on the water include fishing, kayaking, surfing, and wildlife watching. You can even take a swashbuckling “pirate cruise.”

The Starlight Fleet offers fishing trips as well as whale- and dolphin-watching excursions. At Lakeview Docks, you can rent WaveRunners, kayaks, fishing boats, swan-shaped pedal boats, and standup paddleboards. And Ocean Outfitters offers surfing lessons and board rentals.

Play a Round of Golf

golf

There are several golf courses within an easy drive of Wildwood, NJ. In Cape May Court House, about a 15-minute drive from downtown Wildwood, Laguna Oaks offers 10 holes spread across 200 acres. And the beautiful 18-hole course at Cape May National Golf Club was built around a private bird sanctuary.

If mini-golf is more your thing, you don’t have to look far. Popular courses in Wildwood, NJ, include Island Miniature Golf, which also has a rock-climbing wall; Dragon’s Lair Mini Golf, a medieval-themed indoor blacklight course; and Harbor Light Golf, which also sells ice cream.

Check Out Special Events in Wildwood, NJ

wildwood-jersey-international-kite-festival

Some of the best things to do in Wildwood, NJ, only happen once a year. Wildwoods International Kite Festival kicks off summer on Memorial Day weekend, followed by other annual events like the National Marbles Tournament in June, the New Jersey State Barbecue Championship in July, and the Wildwoods Baby Parade in August. Autumn brings the Wildwoods Food & Music Festival and the Fabulous ’50s & Beyond Weekend, both held in October.

For more information about what’s on during your trip, refer to the Wildwoods’ events calendar.

Take a Day Trip from Wildwood, NJ

cape-may-houses

The Victorian charms of Cape May are just a 20-minute drive from Wildwood, NJ. Here, you can bike through the historic district, take a carriage ride, or visit the Cape May Lighthouse. The Cape May County Park & Zoo makes a fun—and free—day trip with children.

If casinos and big-name entertainment are more your things, Atlantic City is less than an hour’s drive from Wildwood, NJ.

Ready to hit the beach? See What to Pack for a Jersey Shore Vacation: 28 Essentials from SmarterTravel’s sister site, What to Pack.

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Sarah Schlichter traveled to the Wildwoods as a guest of the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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5 Reasons to Visit the Jersey Shore in the Off Season

The Jersey Shore is synonymous with summer—think ice cream, amusement parks, and long, sunny days on the sand. But while most visitors flock to New Jersey beaches between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the quieter months of the year have their own pleasures. Below are a few reasons why you should visit the Jersey Shore in the off season.

Cheaper Rates

[st_content_ad]In August, I found a rate of $334 per night at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City on a weekend, but they’re just $243 per night over a weekend in October. Off-season prices drop even further at the nearby Golden Nugget, which costs $514 a night in August but just $289 a night in October.

Vacation rentals offer similarly dramatic discounts for stays outside the summer months, and many B&Bs are also affordable, especially on off-season weeknights. If your dates are flexible, planning your trip during the off season could be the single best way to save money on a Jersey Shore vacation.

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No Crowds

Especially on summer holiday weekends such as Labor Day or the Fourth of July, visitors often find themselves sitting in long lines of traffic en route to New Jersey’s barrier islands or swimming shoulder to shoulder beside dozens of others in the ocean. But come late September or early May, you’ll find that the crowds have melted away. This is the time of year when beaches are blissfully uncrowded, and it’s easy to find your own oceanfront stretch of sand.

In particular there are few families at the Jersey Shore in the off season, which makes this a good time of year for seniors or couples looking for a quieter romantic getaway.

Pleasant Weather

Not a fan of the summer heat? While the ocean temperatures may not be ideal for swimming much past mid-September, Jersey Shore air temperatures are typically mild enough in April, May, September, and October to enjoy biking, strolling the boardwalk, or relaxing on the beach with a good book—though you might need to bring a sweatshirt or light jacket.

Biking at the Jersey Shore in spring and fall is especially nice, not just because of the pleasant temperatures but also because of the lack of traffic. With fewer people in town, it’s easier and safer to ride along the streets and boardwalks.

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Festivals and Special Events

The summer months boast a series of baby parades, fireworks, and concerts on the beach, but there’s still plenty of action up and down the Jersey Shore in the off season. This includes music festivals like the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May, held in November, and the Fabulous 50s and Beyond weekend in Wildwood every October. Foodies shouldn’t miss Belmar’s New Jersey Seafood Festival in May or the Que by the Sea BBQ Festival in Seaside Heights, held each September.

To find more events, check out VisitNJ.org or ShoreVacations.com.

Holiday Celebrations

Winter is by far the quietest season at the Jersey Shore, but things liven up around the holidays. The historic town of Cape May is a particularly festive spot to visit during Christmastime, when its Victorian homes are decorated with twinkling lights and traditional greenery. Consider a Christmas Candlelight Tour or Holiday Lights Trolley Ride to get in the spirit.

On New Year’s Eve, events include family-friendly First Night festivities in Seaside Heights and Ocean City, complete with fireworks. Other fireworks displays are held in Atlantic City and Sea Isle City. Many people even start the New Year with a polar plunge into the ocean in communities such as Asbury Park, Ocean City, and Brigantine.

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10 Underrated Music Festivals in the U.S. and Canada

Coachella. Bonnaroo. Lollapalooza. These music festivals are legendary, but if you’ve already been there and done that—or if you need even more live music in your life—why not add a few less famous festivals to your must-visit list?

Underrated Music Festivals in the U.S. and Canada

[st_content_ad]Each of the following underrated music festivals offers something special, from concerts in a canyon to wine- and bourbon-tasting bars. And they’re all located in American or Canadian destinations with plenty of other attractions for travelers, such as vibrant cities or nearby national parks.

Hangout: Gulf Shores, Alabama

Get summer started early with a weekend on the beach at Hangout. Held in mid-May, this festival features not only big-name acts like the Killers and Kendrick Lamar, but also beach volleyball games, an area with summer camp activities (think tug of war and s’more toasting), and even a booth where you can kiss and cuddle puppies.

If you go: Turn it into a longer vacation by renting a beach house and soaking up the Gulf Shores sun for a few extra days.

Sled Island: Calgary, Alberta

Each year a different guest curator selects some of the artists that perform at this eclectic music festival in June. On the bill are up-and-coming bands in a wide variety of musical genres, so you’re almost guaranteed to find some new favorites at Sled Island. You can also take in comedy acts, film screenings, and visual arts.

If you go: For a longer trip, combine your time at the festival with an excursion to Banff National Park (about 90 minutes away).

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Firefly: Dover, Delaware

Camping is part of the fun at Firefly, held each June in a wooded area of Dover, Delaware. Sit out on the grass and catch acts like Eminem or the Arctic Monkeys, then grab a local craft brew from the on-site brewery and relax in the Nook (bring your own hammock!).

If you go: Dover is within driving distance of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and the Brandywine Valley, so there are plenty of options to turn your musical weekend into a mini-vacation.

Field Trip: Toronto, Ontario

Each June, Field Trip draws people to Toronto for more than just music. Between sets you can have a laugh at the indoor comedy stage, explore a gallery of music photography, keep the kids entertained at the family-friendly day camp, and nosh on diverse food from suppliers around the city. The musical lineup is nothing to sneeze at either; past acts include Feist, Broken Social Scene, and A Tribe Called Red.

If you go: Make time to check out Toronto’s major sights, such as the CN Tower and the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Forecastle: Louisville, Kentucky

Head to the Louisville waterfront in July for good views, good music, and good bourbon at Forecastle. Past headliners include acts like My Morning Jacket, the Black Keys, and Beck, with plenty of local and emerging bands to round out the lineup. You can learn about—and, of course, sample—Kentucky’s famous whiskey at the on-site Bourbon Lodge.

If you go: Extend the experience post-festival by driving along the state’s Bourbon Trail.

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Essence Festival: New Orleans, Louisiana

Dedicated to African-American music and culture, the Essence Festival draws some of the country’s most popular entertainers to New Orleans each July. Past acts include John Legend, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, and Chaka Khan. Aside from memorable concerts, the festival also includes empowerment seminars, networking events, and a large marketplace featuring handicrafts and other items.

If you go: Take a few extra days to soak up the Big Easy’s main attractions, from the French Quarter to the Garden District.

Outside Lands: San Francisco, California

Outside Lands, held each August, features heavy-hitting lineups with headliners like the Who, Radiohead, Paul McCartney, and Lana Del Rey, alongside an eclectic collection of up-and-comers. Between sets you can sip local wines and enjoy foods that go far beyond the usual festival fare (think chicken tikka masala burritos, banh mi sandwiches, and Baja-style fish tacos).

If you go: The festival’s location in Golden Gate Park makes it easy to combine a few shows with sightseeing elsewhere in San Francisco.

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Moab Music Festival: Moab, Utah

It’s hard to find a more spectacular location to take in a concert than the red-rock canyons of Moab. While some performances at the late-summer Moab Music Festival are in traditional venues such as schools or halls, others are outdoors among sandstone rock formations accessible only by hike, whitewater raft, or jet boat. The lineup features a mix of chamber music, jazz, Latin, and more.

If you go: Don’t miss a visit to nearby Arches National Park.

Festival de Musique Emergente (FME): Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec

The founders of this late-summer music festival describe it as “inclusive,” an apt label for an event where about half the shows are free and genres range from folk-rock to rap and electronica. As its name suggests, the Festival de Musique Emergente (or Emerging Music Festival, locally known as FME) focuses on up-and-coming artists, many from Quebec. Some performers sing in French, others in English, and the venues are scattered around the small city of Rouyn-Noranda, including intimate halls, outdoor stages, and even the shores of Lake Osisko.

If you go: Make time for a hike in nearby Aiguebelle National Park.

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Celtic Colours: Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

For more than 20 years, the Celtic Colours festival has celebrated Cape Breton’s rich history of Celtic music and dance. Fiddles, bagpipes, and Gaelic singers take the stage for up to six concerts a day, all against the backdrop of Cape Breton’s vivid autumn colors. (The festival is held in October.) You can also attend lectures on local history, go for a guided walk, and check out visual art exhibitions.

If you go: Don’t miss a visit to Cape Breton Highlands National Park, where hiking trails lead to spectacular coastal views.

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10 Ways to Have an Authentic Trip to Mexico

There’s more to Mexico than spring break, tequila, and beaches. And while tourist areas like Cancun and Cabo San Lucas are popular for a reason, all-inclusive resorts and overcrowded beach areas don’t always make for an authentic experience. The good news is, you can still make your trip to Mexico a non-touristy one. From Maya museums to historic festivals, the country offers a lot more than just palm trees and swim-up pool bars.

Tips for an Authentic Trip to Mexico

Read on for 10 insider tips that will lead to a more authentic trip to Mexico, even if you’re headed to a busy city or resort area.

Go for a Festival

Whether it’s for Day of the Dead or Mexican Independence Day, you’ll have a more culturally rich trip to Mexico if you visit during a celebration or festival. These events are an outlet to learn more about the country’s history and traditions, and are packed with exciting experiences.

Here are some popular holidays to plan a trip to Mexico around:

  • Diez y Seis: Mexican Independence Day, September 16
  • Dia de la Raza: Day of the Race (date Christopher Columbus arrived in North America), October 12
  • Dia de Los Muertos: Day of the Dead, October 31 to November 2
  • Dia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe: Our Lady of Guadalupe (patron saint of Mexico), December 12
  • Las Posadas: Christmas Season kickoff, December 16
  • Dia de Los Santos Reyes: Three Kings Day, January 6
  • Semana Santa: Holy Week, Lent and Easter
  • Carnaval: Mardi Gras, dates vary with the Easter calendar
  • Benito Juarez Day: Third Monday in March

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Be a Picky Eater

Don’t settle for the onsite restaurants at your resort. Instead head to a destination known for its food, like Oaxaca or Puebla, which are known for mole and chalupas.

If you’re in the Cancun area, book a dinner at La Joya at the Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun Resort. Unique to the restaurant, it offers a video-mapping culinary experience that is out of this world: The eight-course meal tells the history of Mexico through visual effects and food.

And no matter where you go, ask for the region or town’s local specialty—for Isla Mujeres its tik’n xic seasoned fish.

Visit a Museum  

No matter where your trip to Mexico takes you, there’s a variety of museums worth visiting. Mexico City is known as the art capital of the country, with dozens of museums like the Museum of Popular Culture Coyoacan/San Angel and the well-known Museo-Estudio Frida Kahlo & Diego Riviera. Even Cancun has a newly opened (2012) Maya museum—Museo Maya de Cancun—complete with an archeological site and thousands of artifacts.

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Go to a Small Beach Village

There are plenty of quiet beach towns left in Mexico, and some aren’t far from popular tourist areas. Sayulita in Riviera Nayarit is just north of Puerto Vallarta and known for its laid back surfing vibe, even though it attracts tourists. Or head to car-free Yelapa, accessible by water taxi from Puerto Vallarta.

If you’re looking for a trip to Mexico’s Riviera Maya, head to nearby Punta Allen, located in the Sian Ka’an Bioshperhe Reserve. Also in Quintana Roo, you’ll find Puerto Morelos in between Cancun and Playa del Carmen—it’s much quieter than its resort neighbors.

Shop at Markets 

While it might be hard to skip out on the touristy gimmicks, your best bet for authentic Mexican markets are in Guadalajara and Mexico City.

In Guadalajara, Mercado Libertad can’t be missed—literally: The massive market is home to more than 2,800 vendors. For something smaller, head just outside the city to Tlaquepaque or Tonala, which are known for handicrafts and authentic Mexican art.

In Mexico City, you’ll find spectacular food and clothing markets, like Bazaar Sabado, Mercado de la Merced, and Mercado Artesanal de Coyoacan (located in Frida Kahlo’s home town).

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Take the Bus

If you’re an experienced traveler who speaks some Spanish, taking the bus in most of Mexico’s tourist-frequented areas is safe and affordable. In Cancun, many buses are brand new and will get you to popular spots, as well as sights outside the main strip. Head to the local bus station ahead of time and ask for information on your desired route. In Yucatan for example, there are local buses, long-distance buses, and a mini-bus line. Depending on your trip, you can chose from first-class, second-class, plus class, and luxury buses. Find more specific information on Mexico buses here. 

Volunteer

If you’re really looking for an authentic trip to Mexico, you can volunteer through a variety of programs. International Volunteer HQ has options ranging in length from one to 12 weeks. Participants are based in the popular city of Merida, and have the option of choosing from five projects, including animal care, childcare, and Maya agriculture.

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Swim in a Cenote

Cenote, or swimming caves, are well-known in the Yucatan Peninsula, so you can easily get scammed into a tourist-packed trip. Instead, head to the city of Valladolid and venture to the area’s cenotes on your own—Oxman, Xkekhen, Samula, Zaci, and X’Chanche are all within driving distance (you can even walk to Zaci) and are less crowded than the ones tour operators will try and sell you on.

Bonus: Valladoid also has Maya ruins, Ek Balam, home to a taller step pyramid than the crowded Chichen Itza’s.

Explore a UNESCO World Heritage Site

There are 34 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Mexico, including 10 historical cities, making infinite options for an authentic trip to Mexico. From agave landscapes to the historic centers of Mexico City and Xochimilco, there’s plenty of ways to add culture into your trip to Mexico.

For a full list of historic sites, visit UNESCO’s website.

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Speak the Language

While you can get by with English in most parts of Mexico, especially in resort areas, you should challenge yourself to speak Spanish. Ease your way into it by trying to order food in Spanish, and you’ll feel like a local before you know it.

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Ashley traveled to Cancun courtesy of Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun Follow all of her adventures (big and small) on Instagram and Twitter.

Editor’s Note: The U.S. State Department includes some of the mentioned states in its Mexico travel warning. You can read more about the travel warning to Mexico here.

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Active Travel Adventure Travel Arts & Culture Experiential Travel Photography Road Trip Romantic Travel Senior Travel Solo Travel Student Travel Sustainable Travel Travel Trends Weekend Getaways Women's Travel

10 Fall Vacation Ideas Beyond Leaf Peeping

Every year in late September and early October, travelers are flooded with suggestions for when and where to see the autumn explosion of color. I love fall as much as anyone, but driving through a covered bridge in New England isn’t the only way to enjoy it. Below are 10 fall vacation ideas that go beyond leaf peeping.

Fall Vacation Ideas

Not willing to give up on seeing autumn’s annual display? Many of these options will put you in the midst of colorful foliage (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least), so you won’t miss out even as you’re pursuing other unique fall vacations.

See the Northern Lights

[st_content_ad]Are the northern lights on your bucket list? After the fall equinox, your chances of seeing them increase considerably as long days give way to long nights in the higher latitudes. Iceland is one good place to check them out without paying a mint; Icelandair and WOW air offer inexpensive flights from a number of U.S. cities.

If Iceland seems too cold, try the Lofoten Islands in Norway, where the Gulf Stream creates one of the largest positive temperature anomalies in the world (that is, these islands are way warmer than they ought to be).

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Watch a Meteor Shower

There are three major meteor showers this fall. The Orionids go through November 19, peaking on October 22; the Leonids from November 5 to December 3, peaking on November 18; and the Geminids from November 30 through December 17, peaking on December 13. All three are viewable from anywhere in the world, with the Leonids being stronger in the Northern Hemisphere; just make sure you get as far out of town as possible to escape light pollution.

Look at the Stars

Fall is also a great time to stargaze; many of the best viewing places are less crowded than they are over the summer months, but they’re not yet so chilly at night as to make them uncomfortable.

The National Park Service offers tips and recommendations for star gazing, including a list of parks with night-sky programs, and this roundup from National Geographic offers a heap of international options as well. Or consider planning your fall vacation around the Jasper Dark Sky Festival in Jasper, Canada, in mid-October.

You don’t have to go into the deep wilderness to see the stars; there are several resources for finding dark-sky locations near home. Try Dark Site Finder or LightPollutionMap.info.

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Go Bird-Watching

Migratory birds are on the move during fall, and bird-watchers are on the move following them. There are countless bird-watching locations, and many have festivals to match; All About Birds has an interactive map of some of the best ones.

Go on Safari

Fall is part of the dry season in many parts of Africa, a time when animals begin to gather near water sources in large numbers. The dry season varies considerably by region, with fall marking the end of dry season in some locations, and the beginning in others. This calendar is a helpful resource.

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Witness a Butterfly Migration

Who needs to go leaf peeping when you can take in the magnificent colors of thousands of monarch butterflies? The annual monarch migration starts in October each year, and there are several places to see them in large numbers. Big Sur is an excellent choice; find more information here.

Go Whale-Watching

Whales are on the move during fall as well, in oceans around the world. For U.S. locations and dates, see these recommendations from Local Adventurer. For several international options, see 10 of the Best Whale-Watching Destinations.

Check Out a Fall Festival

Festivals are one of my favorite fall vacation ideas because there are so many to choose from. The most famous one is—of course—Oktoberfest, which takes place in dozens of cities around the world, not just Munich. Check out The 10 Best Places to Celebrate Oktoberfest 2017 for ideas on where to raise your beer stein this year.

If you’re more interested in religious cultural festivals, travel to Mexico at the end of October for the Day of the Dead, a popular holiday celebrated in destinations across the country. Or consider Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, which is a visually rich experience featuring countless candles, costumes, decorations, and fireworks.

Finally, there’s nothing like the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the world’s largest balloon festival. Each morning you can turn your eyes to the sky and see balloons in all shapes, sizes, and colors drifting overhead.

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Enjoy the Wine Harvest

The annual vineyard harvests in California, Italy, and France are the perfect fall vacation ideas for oenophiles in late summer or early fall. By the time of this writing the harvest season is winding down, but there are still plenty of grapes to be picked; this calendar can help you figure out where and when to go.

Celebrate the Solstice

To mark the end of the fall, consider one of these winter solstice celebrations, including a lantern festival in Vancouver, the Burning of the Clocks in Brighton, England, and the Dongzhi Festival in China.

For a few more ideas, see 8 Winter Solstice Celebrations Around the World.

What are your favorite fall vacation ideas? Let us know in the comments!

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Ed Hewitt is a seasoned globetrotter who brings you a biweekly glimpse into the latest travel news, views, and trends—and how they could affect your travel plans.

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Food & Drink

5 Summer Travel Traditions You Should Start

“‘Tradition’ is a synonym for ‘rut,’” tweeted @wandering_j in response to a call out for unique summer travel traditions. We beg to differ — especially if your tradition is to visit a different island park each summer, or to charter a boat and explore places unknown. Not that there’s anything wrong with the yearly beach pilgrimage to Wildwood for family fun, arcades and deep-fried Oreos, but we’re going unique here. Check out our five, then share your own inspired ideas for summer travel traditions.

1. Trace the Beer and Food Festivals

For the connoisseur or boozehound, Beerfestivals.org’s July calendar lists dozens of fests throughout the U.S. and beyond. I think this year, I’ll start at the Philly Zoo’s Summer Ale Festival. Attendees can drink River Horse’s Hop Hazard (or brews from a list of other outfits) and eat local cuisine while supporting the zoo’s mission to “bring about the x-tink-shun of extinction.” Or brave the summer heat for New Orleans’s Tales of the Cocktail festival, which offers cooking demos and cocktail tastings at the end of July. Finally, we had to mention @TravelSpinner’s suggestion: Head to Suffolk, England for “Dwile Flonking,” which Wikipedia says “involves two teams, each taking a turn to dance around the other while attempting to avoid a beer-soaked dwile (cloth) thrown by the non-dancing team.” Now how could you miss that?

2. Escape to an Island State Park

Florida’s Bahia Honda Key comprises a state park with a natural beach (you’ll quickly get used to the strong seaweed smell), fishing and snorkeling, kayaking, rare plant spotting, and hiking. Head up to the old Bahia Honda Bridge, part of the iconic Overseas Highway, for a view of the island and its surroundings. You can rent cabins or rough it at a campsite (a store and shower facilities are available on the island). Across the country, trekkers can camp at California’s Channel Islands, a chain of uninhabited islands with a unique ecosystem. The islands are said to resemble California as it was B.S. (before smog). Activities for campers (back country and official campsites) include surfing, hiking, and seal and sea lion viewing.

3. Explore a Destination by Chartered Boat

Visiting a place by boat is often the best — and sometimes only — way to go. If you can pull together 3 – 20 like-minded friends (the more you gather, the more you can divide the costs), you can charter a boat for a cruise of Alaska’s Inside Passage, which is made up of islands unlinked by road. There are various choices, from two- or three-nighters to a week or more; all come with cook and captain. Meals and snacks are included in the costs, and often feature “catch of the day”-type fare, as well as crab and shrimp bakes. Excursions may include beach and rain forest hiking, fishing, kayaking (most charters are equipped with kayaks and smaller skiffs), wetsuit diving, whale watching, and visits to hot springs and waterfalls — all there to be enjoyed whenever the opportunity presents itself. For more tips, see Planning a Trip to Alaska.

4. Relive History

Some of the most important (and bloodiest) battles of Civil War occurred during the summer months. @PolPrairieMama mentioned that she heads to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and Antietam (in Sharpsburg, Maryland), where 23,000 soldiers were killed in 12 hours, for summer reenactments. The big annual Gettysburg Civil War Battle Reenactment runs from July 1 to 3 and features live mortar fire demos and battles — but there are enough battlefields and reenactments to fill a lifetime of summers.

5. Become a Home Team Groupie

Leap-frogging on an annual manly bonding trip taken by IndependentTraveler.com Editor Sarah Schlichter’s father and brother, we’re hitting the road with an arbitrarily chosen sports squadron. A quick glance at the Philadelphia Phillies’ schedule reveals a West Coast swing from August 1 – 10, during which the team plays the Colorado Rockies for three, the San Francisco Giants for four and the Los Angeles Dodgers for three. Three vastly different cities, climates, ballparks, landscapes. Next year we’ll pick a different team on a different swing. Anything but a rut.

— written by Dan Askin

Categories
Arts & Culture

5 Spring Festivals Around the World

Sitting at my desk in New Jersey with the temperature hovering just below the freezing point, it’s hard to believe that spring has arrived. But spring it is, and people around the world will soon be celebrating the season of renewal.

Spring is a perfect time to travel in many destinations. Not only will you find smaller crowds and possibly even pay less (since high tourist season in many places doesn’t start until summer), but you may also stumble upon unique cultural celebrations such as the ones below.

Here are a few spring festivals from around the world to watch out for if you’re ever in the neighborhood around the time of the spring equinox.

Las Fallas Festival: Valencia, Spain

A spring festival celebrating St. Joseph’s Day (March 19), the origins of Las Fallas go back in time to the days when wooden lamps, called parots, were needed to light carpenters’ workshops during the winter. As spring — and St. Joseph’s Day (the patron saint of carpenters) — neared, workers ceremoniously burned the parots, which were no longer needed for light. Over the centuries, the ceremony evolved into a five-day celebration involving the creation and eventual burning of ninots: huge, colorful cardboard, wood, papier-mache and plaster statues. The ninots remain on display for five days until March 19, when at midnight they are all set aflame, except for one chosen by popular vote and then exhibited at a local museum with others from years past.

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Whuppity Scoorie: Lanark, Scotland

The arrival of spring is celebrating in the small town of Lanark, Scotland, on March 1 with the delightfully named Whuppity Scoorie. During this celebration, local children gather at sunrise and run around the local church three times, making noise and swirling paper balls on strings around their heads. After the third lap, the kids race to gather up coins thrown by local assemblymen. No one is quite sure how the ritual began; the first written descriptions date back to the late 19th century.

Junii Brasovului: Brasov, Romania

The “Youth of Brasov” festival is held on the Sunday after Eastern Orthodox Easter every year and involves seven groups of young men bedecked in Romanian folk costumes and uniforms riding colorfully decorated horses through the streets of the city. The parade also features traditional Romanian songs and dances, and culminates in each of the men throwing a scepter into the air to see who can hurl it the highest. The parade finally works its way up to a mountain field above the city where a community barbecue is held. The earliest written records of the ritual parade date back to 1728.

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Nowruz: Iran

Nowruz is celebrated on the first day of spring, which is also considered the beginning of the new year in the Persian calendar. It is a secular holiday of hope and rebirth, though its origins trace back to Zoroastrianism, which was the predominant religion of ancient Persia. It is celebrated in Iran, as well as Azerbaijan and most of the “stans” (Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan). Rituals typically involve building bonfires to jump over them.

Holi, India

Also known as the festival of colors, Holi is an ancient Hindu festival celebrated annually as the spring equinox approaches. The ceremony represents the arrival of spring, the end of winter and the victory of good over evil. It is a happy occasion marked by singing, dancing and a free-for-all of color, where participants do their best to paint others with dry colored powders and colored water. Holi dates back as far as the fourth century, though it may in fact be older.

What spring celebrations do you know of around the world?

— written by Dori Saltzman

Categories
Arts & Culture

Tomar, The Heart of Portugal

Author: Christine Copeland
Date of Trip: July 2006

Tomar (central Portugal) is in a lovely unspoilt part of the country where tourism is still unobtrusive and so lets you enjoy the real flavour of the culture. It is relaxed and welcoming with an amazing amount of history to wonder at.

The Convento do Cristo, or castle, established in 1160 overlooks the town and needs a whole morning at minimum to explore. It looks down on cobblestone streets and tiny shops with individual styles of bygone years. There are castles, aqueducts, magnificent cathedrals and of course there is the pilgrimage town of Fatima close by. Dinosaur footprints, caves and wine tours bring more variety to the holiday and the food is simple, so very tasty and such a good value that it’s hard to resist making it a gastronomic holiday.

From Tomar you can easily visit both Lisbon and the original capital of Portugal (Coimbra) which is another lovely city on the Mondego river– a university town with lively town life and a fascinating children’s model village using traditional Portuguese houses for their models. Alternatively you can take a trip to the Atlantic coast where the beaches are practically deserted. Or try the lakes and forests for a feast of smell and sight sensations from the pine and eucalyptus trees, plus a swim/ski or canoe in the fresh, clear water.

Already in Tomar they are preparing for 2007 — there will be a massive festival that has been part of its tradition for hundreds of years. Young women parade through the decorated streets wearing headdresses weighing, on average, 22 kilos and at a height equal to their own. There is a week of festivities and activities starting with a procession of young boys, then a competition for the most beautiful decorated street in the town which is judged on the Friday (6th July) and then the whole town celebrates the night away in a riot of colour and light. This is the lead up to the grand procession on Sunday (8th July 2007.) The festival is only held once every four years, so if you miss it there is a long wait for the next one!

Categories
Road Trip

Sacramento: Road tripping with Maguiver

Author: HotelCharlotte
Date of Trip: August 2007

We did it again, another one day adventure. This time to Sacramento. If you think living with “Maguiver” is fun, perhaps this little getaway story will show a downside to living with someone who can fix just about anything.

As is often the case, we decide at the very last minute if we can get away or not. This time, it looks good and Victor wants to go to the State Fair. I am not sure why, but if anything grabs his attention, I like to do it. We also have to pick up some stuff from SF and decide to leave Tuesday afternoon for the California State Fair, spend the night on the Delta King in Old Town Sacramento then hustle off to San Francisco in the morning and back to Groveland by the evening.

So off we go, leaving the hotel at 2, we plan to be at the fair by 4:30. We get as far as Oakdale before stop at the busy Beacon for gas. Getting the gas is no problem, but the van won’t start again afterward. Victor reminds me that he thought he told me we needed to change the alternator. So now I have, for the first time in my life, enjoyed the pleasures of pushing a vehicle to affect a rolling start. Once the vehicle is going fast enough that you think you can’t catch it if it gets away, Victor jumps in and pops it into gear. We aren’t successful. It’s 100+ degrees, the road is flat or slightly uphill and cars constantly flowing into and out of this gas station around our stalled and now wrong directioned vehicle. This is not the funnest moment of my life. After a few failed starts we get some help pushing from some very nice gentlemen who may have themselves been in this position at some point in their lives. Success!

Now we are headed through Oakdale and Victor suggests a stop at the Kragen Auto Parts shop, and asks that I remind him NOT to turn off the van. I do. I remind him again and again and he doesn’t turn the van off. We get the part, toss it in the back of the van and start rolling towards 99. We like the back roads and “shortcuts” and so head into Stockton via the central valley maize maze.

Finally on highway 99 and under an hour from our goal Victor mentions that all of the gauges seemed to have stopped working and the van isn’t driving right. Oh…maybe we should stop? Do you know the emptiness north of Stockton, before Elk Grove? This is where we roll into a commuter parking area and blessedly find a big tree to provide shade while “Maguiver” replaces the alternator. I reread a previously read magazine.

I hear mumbles over the next hour and a half such as: “where’s my something or other tool” and “$#@!” but am confident that eventually we will head somewhere….I have triple A.

We are finally ready to go, but we have to do another one of those heart thumping running starts, this time with no hope of helpers. But we do it and he is all a grin and I file away my AAA card for the next time.

Did I mention this van doesn’t have air conditioning? So the only release from the 100+ degree heat we have is driving with the windows open and the breeze cools as it dries the sweat. Well, now its rush hour and the road is bumper to bumper, stop, roll a few feet, repeat. No breeze to cool!

I suggest we just head to the hotel for a refreshing shower and nice dinner. We can skip the fair. This is when the “motivation” for the fair as a destination makes itself clear: Wine! I should have know it wasn’t the midway, the rides, the music, the screaming kids….Victor wanted to see who medalled at the fair and if there were new finds to be had. I saw no need to argue with this.

Off we go, along with everyone else just off work, to the Fair. This is such a huge venue, I can’t imagine how many people are inside the gates at one single moment. The attractions are endless from the performance stages to the motor cross route to the rides, games of change, the County building, the farm displays and the list goes on and on. We never felt crowded, but we knew we weren’t alone.

We wander our way to the wine center and get up to the bar for our overview. We are an easy couple to work with, as we are only tasting whites and are looking for specific items to fill out our Cafe Charlotte menu. We taste some Chardonnays, very sweet this year. We try a Sauvignon Blanc, more sweetness. Seems to be a theme running through the show. Sweeter is better? Not for us. Best of Show was 2-buck Chuck, the Trader Joe’s exclusive Charles Shaw, Chardonnay. This has brought about a great deal of interesting speculation on the process, the judges, the wine….but isn’t our choice for tasting today.

For parking, two entrances fees, two little glasses of wine each, the wine guide, 3 bottles of water and $70 later, we are out of the Fair grounds and headed into old town Sacramento where the Delta King rests on the river for a shower and dinner. As we are parking the van I note to Victor that his front tire is low. By the time we are completely parked, it is sitting square on the ground—flat. Okay, and yes, the spare is in the garage, of course. This doesn’t really bother me since we discovered fix-a-flat a few years ago.

We check in and have the reception call us a cab to take us to the nearest auto parts store where for $37 we get a nice roundtrip “tour” of downtown and two cans of the trusty spray. Dinner on the Delta King is delicious. We order the calamari to start and the sauces are both wonderful. I get the seabass for dinner, Victor orders the steak and we are both pleased with our choices. We have an after dinner glass of wine on the veranda and very much enjoy the outdoor setting and privacy that is so often missing from our Charlotte life. The next morning we head back into the restaurant for breakfast only to learn after a great deal of discussion that breakfast is no longer part of the Bed, Boat & Breakfast formula. Odd, it was last time we were there and conspicuously not mentioned upon reserving and checking in. I don’t mind that they aren’t including breakfast, I do mind that they failed to mention this to a repeat guest who might be anticipating an included breakfast.

We head out to take care of our flat tire and find some good coffee and a bite before taking off for SF. Vic whips out his can of fix-a-flat, attaches the hose and we both watch as the air rushes right back out through the gaping crevasse in the tire. Thank goodness I have that triple A card! We call and are soon on our way with two new front tires.

We change our plans and just decide to go home, it is too blazing hot for 7 hours on the road and well, there is just a lot of stuff to do. So off we head south on 99. I am reading the wine guide when Victor asks me if he should take Grant Line Road. I really don’t care. He says it comes out at Manteca. So Easterly we head for about an hour. Seems longer than it should be without any identifying features. I am almost done reading the wine guide. Looking up I see a sign that says Freeway left. That isn’t possible. The freeway can only be behind us and in front would be highway 49 if anything….Hmmmm, so where are we? Eldorado Hills. Guess what, we are headed to Tahoe. Great! I suggest maybe we just go, head over the Sierra, hit 395 south to 120 and over Tioga Pass. Victor thinks I am crazy. Instead we head to Placerville and get on 49 South. All is well.

Until we hit Shingletown and miss the 49 left turn. We figure whatever road we are on will loop around, based on the direction of the shadows, it looks to be going in the right direction…..Driving, driving, and we finally reach the next town…Eldorado Hills! Isn’t this exciting! Perhaps we should buy some property here, it seems to have some sort of natural draw.

We are now both tired and hot and have 3 hours to go. Maybe we should have gone to SF! We finally make it home and settle into our usual tasks of keeping the hotel up to snuff. I have agreed with myself that I will never take a distance ride in That Van again. Living with the creative skills of a Maguiver is wonderful, but my Maguiver has developed a level of quiet confidence such that troubles others tend to avoid with simple but regular checks often become our next fix-it challenge.

I will always carry a triple A card in my wallet.

Categories
Oddities

One Summer Festival That’s Not Worth the Trip

We all know one person who makes the yearly trek to, say, the Philadelphia Folk Festival or Burning Man. They wouldn’t miss the opportunity to pitch their tent in the Schwenksville mud or the Black Rock City dirt. It’s all about the music at Old Pool Farm or the — um — art in the Nevada desert.

However, we can’t quite wrap our heads around the Avon Heritage Duct Tape Festival in Ohio. Duct tape? Sure, it’s great for travel mishaps, such as securing a broken piece of luggage, and we’ve all used it around the house. We’ve even chuckled at the creativity of folks who fashion a wallet or dress out of the sticky stuff. But a three-day festival? Stick me to my seat! There’s even a parade that starts at the high school and ends at the cemetery. We might need a six-inch piece of the stuff to tape our mouths shut so we don’t scream.

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If celebrating duct tape is your thing, the annual Avon Heritage Duct Tape Festival will be held in June in Avon, Ohio, the home of Duck Tape brand duct tape. The Father’s Day weekend event claims to draw more than 40,000 duct tape enthusiasts, likely helped by its lack of admission or parking fees. The first 500 attendees will even receive a free roll. (We’re just a bit concerned how that roll might be used by the end of the day when festival goers get tired and cranky with each other.)

There will be a free animal show (live animals, sans tape). And to make the festival even more irresistible, an artist will display his duct-tape portraits of Bob Dylan, Mother Teresa and other celebs. We can’t make this stuff up.

If you’re looking to add a few more quirky events to your calendar, consider these equally intriguing festivals. The SuperHero Street Fair is held in San Francisco in August. Just imagine donning your Spider-Man jammies and joining all the other boys and girls in their Batman codpieces and Super Woman bustiers. We certainly hope they secure all rooftop access doors to prevent overzealous leaping of tall buildings in a single bound.

No super powers? Visit the Gilroy Garlic Festival in nearby Gilroy, California, and you’ll be able to repel people in a single breath. Or try another natural repellent by waiting until October for the Alabama Butterbean Festival. Either may come in handy at the Great Texas Mosquito Festival in July.

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How about you? Is there an annual festival you never miss? One you’ve always wanted to attend?

— written by Jodi Thompson

Categories
Outdoors

6 Cozy Winter Getaways

Brrrrr … snow is falling, lakes are crusting over with ice, and you’ve dug your heavy coat out from the back of your closet. Winter is here, and we’re ready to embrace it! You don’t have to strap on skis or head for the tropics to enjoy traveling this winter — we’ve rounded up six fabulous destinations where you can find frosty festivals, snowy scenery, cozy B&Bs, low-season crowds and other pleasures of the season. So pack your bags with your favorite scarf and mittens, and let it snow!

Editor’s Note: Speaking of snow, be sure to prepare yourself for potential storms with our Winter Travel Tips. Allow yourself plenty of time to get home in case you’re snowed in.

Salzburg, Austria

Whether it’s “The Golden Flute” or “The Hills Are Alive,” a visit to this musical city will leave you humming a happy tune. Summer may be prime festival season in the birthplace of Mozart, but Salzburg becomes a winter fantasy land at this time of year, with its ancient stone buildings and towering mountain peaks wreathed in snow. Come early in the season and browse Salzburg’s traditional Christmas market (mid-November through December 26), full of handmade crafts and seasonal treats like mulled wine and hot roasted chestnuts.

Outside of the holiday festivities, winter in Salzburg brings smaller crowds around the city’s major sights, which include the towering Fortress Hohensalzburg, the breathtaking Dom (cathedral) and the historic house where Mozart was born. If you’re more into musicals than Mozart, take a “Sound of Music” bus tour to see various locations from the famous Julie Andrews film, including the fountain that was the setting for the song “Do-Re-Mi.” Complete your cozy getaway with a stay at the historic (and reasonably priced) Altstadthotel Weiss Taube — or splurge on digs at the more luxurious Hotel Sacher.

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Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota

If you’re willing to brave a few sub-zero temperatures, you’ll be well rewarded in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Stately St. Paul and ultra-modern Minneapolis, located about 20 minutes apart on opposite sides of the Mississippi River, each celebrate winter with their own seasonal festivities. Colorful parades fill the evenings throughout the holiday season during Minneapolis’ Holidazzle, while the venerable St. Paul Winter Carnival, a tradition since 1886, brings residents of both cities together in late January and early February for ice carving and snow sculpting competitions, public ice skating, parades and more.

Can’t make it for a festival? These friendly, cosmopolitan cities draw visitors with indoor (read: heated) sights like the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, and the most visited attraction in the state: the gigantic Mall of America, about 20 minutes south of both cities. (Break out your credit card — there’s no sales tax on clothes!) Best of all? You may not even need to step outside to get around, as both cities have networks of climate-controlled skyways connecting dozens of downtown buildings. For accommodations, try the romantic LeBlanc House Bed and Breakfast in Minneapolis, or the floating Covington Inn — a towboat permanently docked on the Mississippi River overlooking St. Paul.

Charleston, South Carolina

If you’d rather take your winter in milder doses, Charleston‘s temperate climate should do the trick. Even if the mercury rarely falls below freezing, this gracious Southern city embraces winter each year with a seven-week Holiday Festival of Lights in November and December. Drive along a three-mile path amidst millions of twinkling lights in the James Island County Park; then ditch the wheels to visit Santa’s Village, toast marshmallows, check out sand sculptures and gingerbread houses, and ride the carousel at Winter Wonderland.

Even after the holiday festivities are over, winter travelers can enjoy the off-season in the always lovely cobblestone streets of Charleston, with smaller crowds in the city’s museums, estate homes and forts. You can also enjoy reduced rates at dozens of Charleston’s historic inns and B&B’s. Our favorites are the Governor’s House Inn, boasting an elegant crescent staircase and opulent guest rooms, and the friendly King George IV Inn, which offers comfy, reasonably priced rooms with fireplaces.

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Montreal, Canada

If you’re seeking a winter wonderland with a European feel, look no further than the French-Canadian city of Montreal. Its yearly Fete des Neiges (Snow Festival) is a three-week celebration of all things fun and frosty, featuring ice sculpting competitions, snow tubing slides, a 1.5-kilometer ice skating path along the St. Lawrence River, dog sledding rides and horse-drawn sleigh rides.

But even if you can’t make it to Montreal during the festival (held from late January to early February), there are plenty of chilly pleasures to be found here — like hiking or cross-country skiing through the crunchy snow in Mount Royal park, or strolling through an Old Town that looks even more magical with its gray stone buildings blanketed in white. When you’re ready to come in from the cold, head for the Underground City, an enormous network of boutiques and other shops connected to the city’s major downtown metro stations and hotels. Spend your nights at the gorgeous Hotel Nelligan, a boutique property in the Old Town, or Le Petit Prince, a downtown B&B with funky-elegant rooms and creative breakfast.

Denver, Colorado

Winter in Denver has obvious appeal to snow bunnies, but even non-skiers will find plenty to keep them busy in the Mile High City. The snow-covered Rocky Mountains provide a magnificent natural backdrop to the city’s urban attractions, including the Denver Art Museum (with its excellent collection of Native American works) and the revitalized lower downtown area known as LoDo — where the shopping and bar-hopping are fabulous all year round.

To enjoy the unforgettable winter scenery, head out of town and take a drive along the Peak to Peak Highway, which runs from Central City to Estes Park and offers stunning views of the Continental Divide along nearly its entire length. Not far outside of Denver is the laid-back college town of Boulder. At night, curl up in front of your fireplace at the cozy Gregory Inn, or go upscale at the stylish Hotel Monaco.

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Reykjavik, Iceland

Winter may bring short days in Iceland’s capital, but it also offers a chance for visitors to view the northern lights with one of several tour operators that run viewing trips out of Reykjavik. (Go early in your trip for the best shot at seeing the lights; if you come up empty due to unfavorable weather conditions, many tour operators will let you try again the next night.)

During the day, explore the city’s many art museums and galleries (including the National Gallery of Iceland) and checking out the magnificent Hallgrimskirkja church. Of course, the ultimate place to warm up is a thermal pool or spa, which Reykjavik has in abundance. The most famous, the Blue Lagoon, is located near the airport, making it an ideal first or last stop on your trip to Iceland. Properties we love include the well-located Reykjavik Residence Hotel and the cozy Snorri’s Guesthouse.

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Categories
Cities

Grand Rapids, Michigan: My Hometown

Author: sightseeingsue
Date of Trip: April 2006

Grand Rapids is a medium-size city with a huge heart, and Midwest Michigan’s fastest-growing travel destination.

Grand Rapids, or GR as us locals call it, is a perfect combination of cosmopolitan flair and Midwestern hospitality, making this a top tourist destination as well as a great place to live. Spending some time here, you will quickly discover why it has been called an “All-American City” three times. Located on the west side (the best side) of Michigan and roughly a 2.5 hour drive from Detroit, 3 hours from Chicago, and about 30 miles east of Lake Michigan, makes this a prime location for short or extensive stays.

Living here most of my life, I have watched this once third largest city rapidly explode into Michigan’s second largest city in a matter of years. GR encompasses an area of approximately 45 square miles with its city’s population around 197,800 (per the 200 census) and its metropolitan area nearing 1,000,000. The Grand River is our primary waterway that runs through town, and we are unfortunately ranked the 9th cloudiest city in the US. Our downtown has seen revitalization in the past few years, and now offers over 50 different restaurants, a bustling entertainment district, museums, sports/concert arena, hotels and a state of the art convention center amongst its list of attributes. Originally known as the “Furniture Capital” but now better known for its office furniture industries, it is home to many multi-national headquarters including Steelcase, Herman Miller, Haworth, Alticor (formerly Amway), Wolverine World Wide and Meijer stores.

GR was the first city in the US to add fluoride to its drinking water in 1945 which has reduced cavities by over 60%. Other industries that were major producers include apples (largest in MI), peaches, celery, carrots, onions, corn, wheat and Christmas trees. We have also been noted by Fortune magazine as one of the Top 10 Best Cities for Business in the U.S.

A regular tradition in town is our Arts Festival held every first weekend in June, but we also offer other cultural festivals throughout the year. A visit to GR wouldn’t be the same without stopping at the Frederik Meijer Gardens/ Sculpture Park, or without playing a game of golf at one of our 28 public courses. Don’t miss out on our newest beach, Millennium Park, and do take a short drive to Lake Michigan for a day of shopping, sunning, boat watching, or to enjoy a meal. Grand Rapid truly is a medium-sized city with a huge heart.

Gerald Ford Presidential Museum/Library is a newly-expanded museum where you can step inside a full-scale replica of the Oval Office, see original Watergate burglar tools, as well as other exhibits of our 38th President’s life.GR was originally known as the “Furniture Capital” but now is more recognized for it’s office furniture industries. Located downtown and offering dozens of exhibits, some of which will give you a glimpse into the history of our city, is the VanAndel Museum.

Amway Grand Plaza is our most famous and swankiest hotel, andis located in the heart of downtown on the banks of the Grand River. This hotel has the only 5-star rated restaurant in Michigan — the “1913 room” — as well as several other great eateries. The BOB — short for “Big Old Building” is a must stop for a grand evening of dinner and entertainment. This converted warehouse, located across from the VanAndel Arena, offers several different restaurants and clubs on 4 floors. So, whether you are looking for a place to dine, a place to do a little dancing, or want to catch a comedy show, you will find it here.

The VanAndel Arena is a 12,000 plus seat (not a bad seat-in-the house) arena that has drawn concert performances from top-named artists, housed big named family shows, held numerous seminars, rodeos or monster truck shows, and is home to Rampage Football and our Griffin’s Hockey teams, making this a first-rate facility. If you are in town for one of these events, you will probably end up at this venue.

We just refer to the “Art Festival”as the “Festival” and the locals know exactly which one we are referring to, as we hold several throughout the year. The Arts is our biggy and draws huge crowds each year. A better name for it should be called the Foods-n-Arts festival it offers numerous ethnic food booths, sure to satisfy anyone’s taste buds. This festival is also a place for local musicians, performers (dancers, singers, artist, storytellers) to showcase their talents each year.

The Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park is astate-of-the-art, 125-acre park that holds one of the most comprehensive sculpture collection around and with one of its most famous being the “Leonardo da Vinci horse”. It also offers numerous gardens, the largest tropical conservatory in Michigan, and in the summer holds concerts held in its outdoor amphitheater. A must see while in town. Please, don’t let the cloudy days scare you away!

The Gerald Ford International airport is served by eight passenger airlines with nonstop flights to 16 major cities. It is conveniently located near I-96 and M-6, and only a short distance from US-131. Short-term, long-term, express shuttle, and valet parking are all available. They offer four on-airport car rentals with other car rental and limo services available via the transportation board. A taxi ride will set you back around $30 for a trip to downtown GR, but several downtown hotels offer shuttle service for your convenience as well.

Several major freeways encircle Grand Rapids, one being the interstate I-96 which if you are going west on ends near Spring Lake, and if going east takes you towards Detroit. I-196 runs off from I-96 and goes through town (you can hook up to N/S-131 at the river from this freeway) and continues on until ending up near Holland. M-6 our newest by-pass freeway can be picked up from I-96 near Lowell, and taken to N/S-131 near 68th St. (south of town) or continue on until hooking up with I-196 towards Holland. A frequently traveled road is the East-Beltine but actually runs north and south rather than east and west. Take this road south and you will end up on one of the busiest road in GR called 28th Street. Here you will find everything, and anything and all the major chain hotels/restaurants, except a hospital. We rarely experience traffic jams unless an accident has taken place, but the freeways do get congested during the early morning rush and evening compute. We do get a fair amount of snow and ice (being on the fringe of the snow-belt) during the winter months, but with our experienced, hard working road crews we find that the roads are quickly salted and plowed when needed. We also now offer many walking trail and parks around the area if you want to get a little exercising while in town. Overall this town is easy to get around and you never have to plan your day or activities around rush hour traffic, like in some other major cities.

Now, more about the Grand Rapids Arts Festival! Are you into the arts? Do you love good food? Enjoying listening to great music? Can you appreciate good dance performances? Then make sure to visit Grand Rapids during the first weekend in June each year. Festivities start promptly at noon and last until 5PM Sunday evening.

The “Festival” is one of West Michigan’s largest draws each year, capturing the hearts and stomachs of around 500,000 visitors. This 3-day festival is always held the first weekend in June, rain or shine. Noted for being the largest all-volunteer arts festival in the nation and an event where all exhibits and performances are totally free of charge.

The festival started 37 years ago, being an excellent way to celebrate the works of local artists. It opened with only two stages, a few food booths, and encompassed a small area held on the plaza in front of City Hall. Today, major streets downtown are closed, numerous ethnic food booths are found everywhere, and it has now grown into six stages for area performers to showcase there talents.

My favorite part has to be eating at the food booths. All booths are run by area churches or non-profit organizations, and provide us with delicious favorites with many celebrating their cultures. To the groups, this is usually their biggest money- makers so offering the best tastes aren’t taken lightly here, especially with all its competition that weekend. Where else can you get meat-on-a-stick, Souvlaki, egg rolls, elephant ears, ice cream treats, grilled shrimp kabobs, or polish golumpki or peogios (my all-time favorite) all in one venue.

The festival is a favorite for all ages. For the kids, the finger-painting, chalk the walk, or face painting areas are always packed. For the teens, hanging out with friends at one of the rock or country bands performing on stage is always extremely popular, and it doesn’t cost a dime.

The possibilities are endless for the more mature-aged folks (I’m in this category). For music sit back and enjoy the spectacular sounds of the symphony, a jazz band, polka band, family gospel singers, or church/school bands or choirs. Catch a performance from area dance studios, (my nieces and nephew are always on stage for this weekend), listen to a storyteller or poet, or browse the art exhibits found around the grounds. A large tent is set up each year which houses the work of the local artists — sketch drawings, photographic prints, jewelry, water/oil paintings, or sculptures all for sale.

Informational programs are available for a donation highlighting every event, listing times for performances, and mapping out the different foods booths locations.

With the hard work of around 20,000 volunteers, generous financial support of area folks and Mother Nature’s help for decent weather, this festival comes alive each year and is meant to be experienced by all. So stop by and check it out…you won’t be disappointed or leave hungry!

Coming to Grand Rapids wouldn’t be the same without stopping at one of its most favorite attractions — the Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. This magnificent charm was made possible by the generosity of Fred and Lena Meijer who donated all the funds and their entire sculpture collection to get this project underway.

It is the second most-popular cultural destination in Michigan with 600,000 visitors annually, and is funded almost entirely by private donations. “Meijer Gardens” as we call it, has inside it’s 125-acres Michigan’s largest tropical conservatory, the nations most extensive carnivorous plant house, outdoor gardens, boardwalks and nature trails, the most comprehensive outdoor sculpture collection in the area, library, amphitheater, gift shop, classrooms and conference rooms, and a café. See why more than 3 million visitors have flocked to this place in the last 10 years?

This is a horticulturist’s heaven with its ever changing botanical exhibitions. The Conservatory is a 5-story, indoor, 15,000 feet greenhouse filled with tropical plants found around the world; which include massive palms, exotic orchids, bamboo and banana trees which are displayed amongst ponds, fountains, and charming sculptures spotted everywhere. The temps are always in the 80ºs inside, making this a haven on those cold winter days. Other indoor gardens offer seasonal displays of beauty. You may visit during a bonsai exhibit or an English cottage themed tour, but whenever you do, you will always find an impressive array of nature to be discovered and experienced.

Go outside to experience the sculpture park, which features over 170 different pieces from over 30 renowned sculptors. You’ll also findabundant seasonal plantings, which surround the winding paths of this section. Each season you will be surprised by all there is to explore. With its wetlands and other variety of foliage seen everywhere, you will understand why it’s also a bird lover’s paradise. The most famous sculpture in this collection is Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse. At 24 feet tall, it’s the largest bronze equine sculpture in the Western Hemisphere, and one of only two in the world.

During March and April, the butterfly exhibit is the most popular, with over 6000 tropical butterflies let lose to flutter inside freely inside the conservatory. It’s amazing to see them land on your hands, head or shoulder. This is one of my favorite exhibits.

Christmastime is magical at the gardens. Its display of over 40 international trees, horse-drawn carriage rides, carolers singing, strolling the grounds, and the awesome vision of over 300,000 twinkling lights makes this a holiday treat. Newly added was the Polar Express Railway exhibit.

From June through September, an outdoor concert series is offered, showcasing some great entertainers at the gardens amphitheater. This is a great place to spend time outdoors amongst the beauty of the gardens with wonderful musicians and friendly people.

Open daily from 9am to 5pm, Tuesdays 9am to 9pm. Adults are $12, students and seniors are $ 9, children are between $6 and $4, and children under the age of 2 are free. Guided tours are available and everywhere is handicapped accessible.

With temperatures in the 70’s, the sun is finally showing itself. After having been cooped up all winter and in need of some cardio, I grabbed my camera and headed for the John Ball Park Zoo. It had been a quite a while since I had shown my face here and wanted to see first hand why a proposal was on the ballet for a new and improved zoo to be built. Did we really need it? After just a few minutes, I had my answer. The zoo had hardly changed since I was a kid, and I had no doubt how I would vote on the upcoming proposal.

John Ball Park Zoo is a small zoo — around 140 acres, which is clean and well maintained, but only really enjoyed by the kids. Yes, we have the usual bears, eagles, elephants, chimpanzees, wolfs and lamas, but the cages are small and the exhibits lack interest. The indoor aquarium and the penguins/gulls exhibits, though small, are pleasant to observe.

There’s a petting zoo area allowing kids to get up close and personal with different barn animals, such as goats, chickens, roosters, sheep as well as turkeys. When I was walking around I was repeatedly being harassed by this huge turkey. He definitely got me a little flustered and kept following me everywhere (possibly scared of my camera).

I read they are getting a new Sting Ray Lagoon, which is a 5,000 gallon outdoor touch pool featuring Cownose and Yellow Spotted Rays. This will provide visitors with the opportunity to not only see, but to touch, feel and experience the sting rays. This exhibit will be the only exhibit of its kind in Michigan. That is a good start, but not enough to get visitors flocking to this park.

Unfortunately, the citizens around the zoo and city officials fought to keep the zoo from expanding in recent years and we lost the proposal for a new wildlife park to be developed, by a small margin. All the land was going to be donated by the generosity of Fred Meijer and would have been a wonderful place to visit as well as to get more people to Grand Rapids.

I do however, applauded the hard work of the staff as well as the many volunteers who devote many hours in making the John Ball Park Zoo an educational experience, as well as a fun place for children from the area who may not get an opportunity otherwise to see these animals. It’s not top-rated, but I guess for some, it is better than nothing.

Parking is free, and the park is open every day except Christmas. Regular hours are 10am-4pm, extended to 9am-6pm starting May 20th for summer hours. Free admission, December-February and weekdays during March and November. It’s located at the corner of Fulton and Valley just 2 miles west of downtown GR and has an easy access from the I-96 expressway. Admission: Adults (14 – 62 years) $6, Children (4 – 13 years) $4, under age 3- free, seniors- $4.50.

Imagine bright lights shimmering through the floor of an ice rink, popular music playing, light snow falling, the smell of hot chocolate in the air, and you skating hand in hand with that special someone under the starlit sky…sound a little romantic? It is, and maybe that’s why so may people flock to Rosa Parks Circle on those cold winter nights. Come fora little fun, ice skating, romance, and, on some occasions, that special marriage proposal for the “Star-light” Skating Experience. Winter isn’t the only time to visit Rosa Parks Circle, as spring and summertime bring hosts of sweet-sounding free concerts for your listening pleasure.

Artist Maya Lin (designer of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.) designed a sculpture within a public park called Rosa Parks Circle, which is located in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids in Monroe Center. Her design consists of three distinct areas suggesting the differing states of water: liquid, solid, and vapor. The core of the park is the “Ecliptic” (intersection plane of the earth’s orbit with the celestial sphere, along which the sun appears to move as viewed from the earth), which is a 13,000-square-foot oval outdoor amphitheater (with a stage) that transforms into an ice-skating rink during the late fall and winter and hosts many festivals and concerts during the warmer months. The park’s other two components include a small tree-enclosed reflecting pool and a secondary pool emitting water vapor.

Enclosed in the structure’s floor are 166 fiber-optic lights that shine through the ice at night and are patterned after the midnight sky over Michigan on January 1, 2000 (start of the third millennium). Two lights that shine through represent the planets Jupiter and Saturn, and another light portrays the North Star. Now add in FREE skating and a warming hut with refreshments and you may see why this place is such a hot spot in winter.

During the summer, every Wednesday night at 6pm from mid-June through July (2006: June 14th to July 26th), a “Blues on the Mall” concert series hosted by GR’s local classic rock radio station (WLAV-FM) is held, presenting wonderful blues performances, and it is totally FREE. In addition, this great location is the ideal meeting spot for area business professional or residents who live downtown to congregate at during lunch hour, to enjoy each others company or to enjoy their meals.

There are several parking lots nearby to park at, or if you are lucky, you might even find a free after-hours parking meter. The park is located in Monroe Center, right off Monroe Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids, and is very close to many of the downtown hotels. The skating is free, but skate rental is a couple of bucks. Skating is open during the day as well as nighttime. Hours vary. There is a nice police presence downtown, so you should free safe while down here.

It’s family friendly, totally teen, and an awesome adult experience. I can’t think of why you wouldn’t like this place.

While browsing through our newspaper’s “Weekender,” we ran across a 2 for 1 coupon for dinner being offered at the “Tavern on Kraft” restaurant. We love to try new places, so we reached for the scissors and did a little snip-snip-sniping.

28th Street is a road you can find just about anything on, it’s our busiest street by far and Tavern on Kraft is located right off 28th on Kraft. This place has an absolutely ideal location, easy to get to and easy to find.

It was only quarter to five, maybe we’d beat the dinner rush and from the looks of the cars in the parking lot…we had. We entered into a very dimly-lit corridor which had two brown micro-suede couches, two coordinating chairs, a coffee table and a “please wait to be seated” sign… but we were all alone. Our first thoughts…nice place, but are they even open? Shortly, a young lady popped out of the kitchen. She informed us that,”We don’t open until 5pm on weekends, but I would be happy to seat you.” Our table was located in the back of the dinning area, next to a huge floor-to-ceiling brick fireplace.We weren’t alone. Another early-bird couple was there, finishing up their fish and chips baskets.

The room was tastefully decorated with wainscoted walls all in earthy tones and had an upscale casual tavern-style feel to it. There was a long, L-shaped bar in the front area that is partitioned off, but still able to see through the etched glass. The only thing that seemed a little out of place was the vaulted ceiling directly above us which had a hand-painted mural of the sky on it. It wasn’t the whole length of the room just in the middle area…. a little odd in my opinion.

The menu was not overwhelming with choices featured for lunch and dinner. A few appetizers, six sandwiches (Reuben, burgers), entrees of pasta, fish-n-chips, chicken and a few steaks. That’s about it. We both settled on the NY steak ($15) and paid the extra $1.50 to include a bowl of home-made french-onion soup.

The steaming hot soup was delicious, our steaks done perfectly, the mix of zucchini and summer squash fresh and tasty and some fried potatoes that weretasty as well…but no bread or rolls, what’s up with that? We should have passed on the dessert, as it was by far the smallest slice of cheesecake ($4) I have ever been served.

Probably catering more to the working-class professionals, but fit for anyone, this place offers a relaxed atmosphere to enjoy a meal or after-work cocktails. On Wednesday through Saturday evenings, live bands perform and the place offers dancing. Full bar, featuring a large list of martinis, beers, wines, and other specialty drinks, and on some evening they offer all-u-can-eat specials. So, with its reasonably priced good tasting meals, music, dancing, cocktails, and an outdoor deck in the summer, I give this place a thumbs up.

Categories
Business Travel

6 Months Living in Bulgaria

Author: silfanny
Date of Trip: February 2003

I worked in Sofia for six months. I spent six months travelling to many places in the country.

Highlights: Hike in Mount Vitosha, climb the Rila mountain, go to Rila Monastery, skiing in Borovets, go to Melnik and drink local wine, see the Local Festival in Koprivtitsa, visit Veliko Turnovo, swim at beaches in Varna and Vourgas, walk in Tsar Osvoboditel Blvd Sofia.

Quick Tips/Suggestions: Always bring hand-wash and some napkin with you. Watch out for your wallet all the time as there are many gypsies waiting for opportunity to snatch it. Learn some basic Bulgarian words before leaving. Taxi drivers tend to charge higher fees to foreigners.

Best Way to Get Around: Walking, bus, MRT.

Koprivtitsa Folklore Festival: It is a one day festival, held in an open field. Everyone is dressing up in their traditional costumes. It’s definitely worth seeing. You get there by train from Sofia and then take a bus. Put on your walking sandals because the only way to see the city is to walk.