Today is Valentine’s Day, and travel sites will be filling your inbox with lists of romantic hotels and destinations. All will feature wonderful things for couples to do together, and dreamy suites with large bathtubs — including some shaped like hearts and filled with Champagne and chocolates.
But isn’t all of that a little … cliche? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to get an e-mail for Valentine’s Day recommending that you and your loved one visit the Parisian catacombs or tour a historic prison? We think so. We’ve put together a list of four destinations to visit that wouldn’t normally be associated with Valentine’s Day.
Feel free to add your own to the list!
The Parisian Catacombs: A romantic hangout for the “Twilight”-loving crowd it might be, but for most of us the 18th-century catacombs located beneath the streets of Paris are a bit creepy. Still, what better place to be if you want an excuse to cuddle really close to your loved one?
Best Places to Stay in Paris
Alcatraz: Also referred to as “The Rock” (hmm, that seems appropriate for Valentine’s Day, actually), Alcatraz is a small island in San Francisco that housed an infamous federal prison from 1934 to 1963. Couples looking for an illicit thrill can give each other a peck on the lips in the (reportedly haunted) cell in which Al Capone once lived.
Verona, Italy: Actually not an unromantic destination at all, Verona is a city located in northeast Italy with an artistic heritage and Roman ruins. Alas, Verona also is known as the place Romeo and Juliet met their doomed end.
Intercourse, Pennsylvania: A rather appropriately named town for Valentine’s Day, don’t you think? This quaint tourist town in Amish Country was used during the filming of the Harrison Ford movie “Witness.” Visitors can check out the local crafts, take a buggy ride or visit the Quilt Museum.
12 Places Every Chocolate Lover Should Visit
– written by Dori Saltzman
There’s a lot going on in February. At this point, most people are pretty excited for some Presidents’ Day downtime and the impending flowers and chocolates that Valentine’s Day will bring. But what about Groundhog Day? Even though it’s already passed, it’s still something to celebrate, particularly if you’re in an area of the United States that’s prone to large amounts of snow.
The quirky holiday and its lovable mascot have put Punxsutawney Phil’s home town on the map. Tens of thousands of visitors come to Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to watch the little groundhog make his annual appearance each February 2. Legend says that if he sees his shadow when he emerges from his hole in a tree stump, we’re in for six more weeks of winter weather. (In case you missed it, Punxsutawney Phil told us spring will come early this year.)
Phil isn’t the only animal to draw curious tourist crowds. A man-eating crocodile named Lolong was a prime attraction in Bunawan Township, Agusan del Sur province, in the Philippines, until February 10, when he died at the approximate age of 60. The town’s mayor and other dismayed locals are now planning an official funeral for the reptile. Lolong measured more than 20 feet in length, weighed about a ton and had been accused of eating several residents before townspeople embraced his presence as a tourist attraction.
In Your Face: 9 Up-Close Animal Encounters
Another famous animal — and tourist favorite — passed away last year. Lonesome George, a one-of-a-kind tortoise who was first spotted on the island of Pinta (part of the Galapagos Islands) in 1971, gained notoriety for being the last of his kind in existence. Although several attempts were made to mate him after his relocation to Santa Cruz Island, none was successful. George died in June 2012, driving his particular species to extinction. At the time of his death, he was estimated to be more than 100 years old.
Which famous animal is your favorite? Be sure to tell us in the comments below.
– written by Ashley Kosciolek
Quick quiz: Can you name all 44 U.S. presidents? Er … neither can we. But that won’t stop us from using their special day as an excuse for a mid-winter long weekend getaway!
In honor of George and those who came after him, here are five presidential-themed U.S. destinations to consider.
It might seem like an obvious first pick, but if you love all things presidential then you can’t beat Washington D.C. Beyond the White House, the Capitol and the world-class network of the Smithsonian museums are plenty of other ways to fill a long weekend. To learn more about the city’s fascinating history, take a walking tour with Free Tours by Foot (the company offers an interesting option focused on Lincoln’s assassination) or Walk of the Town.
If you’d prefer to eat your way around the city, try DC Metro Food Tours, or browse the ethnic offerings in the trendy Adams Morgan neighborhood.
Our Favorite Washington D.C. Hotels
Mount Vernon Estate
George Washington and his wife Martha called this estate home for more than 40 years. Learn about George and Martha’s life and enjoy their legacy at their home along the Potomac River. In honor of Washington’s 281st birthday, admission is free on February 18, and the estate will open one hour early. There are several events scheduled over the weekend including book signings, discussions, musical salutes and a wreath-laying ceremony at Washington’s tomb.
Mount Vernon is located in Northern Virginia, just 16 miles from Washington D.C. The estate is accessible by car and public transportation.
The Black Hills of South Dakota are home to an incredible granite sculpture of four past presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. There’s more to do here than just ogling the big heads; guided tour options include a Ranger Walk, Sculptor’s Studio Talk and a Heritage Village tour that highlights the customs of local Native American communities.
Other activities in the area include the Black Hills National Forest, which boasts the highest point east of the Rockies, and Badlands National Park, with its amazing landscapes. Crazy Horse Memorial, the largest sculptural undertaking in the world, is also nearby.
The 10 Best U.S. National Parks
Gettysburg National Military Park
The year 2013 is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, and the military park’s calendar is filled with events to commemorate the Civil War’s bloodiest battle. President Lincoln delivered one of the most famous speeches in American History, the Gettysburg Address, on the property.
Events scheduled over Presidents’ Day weekend include educational talks, an art exhibit, tastings at a nearby winery and the chance to “meet” President Lincoln in the Hall of Presidents.
Washington Crossing Historic Park
On Christmas night in 1776, George Washington and his men crossed the Delaware River and marched to Trenton, New Jersey, in a surprise attack against the Hessians during the Revolutionary War. The area is now a historic park, which will hold a birthday party for Washington on February 17 — complete with a cake cutting at 1:30 p.m. (Admission is a measly $1.)
Washington Crossing is a bucolic village located in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just down the road from the artsy riverfront community of New Hope.
– written by Lori Sussle
Welcome to our new Friday Free-for-All here on “Have Tips, Will Travel” — a dedicated discussion post where we invite your responses! This week, we’re chatting about what to see in your home town.
There’s nothing better than arriving in a new place and getting advice and insight from a local. So if a traveler from afar came to your own neck of the woods, how would you use your expert knowledge to give him or her the best possible experience?
I’ll start. My home town is the sleepy riverfront borough of Yardley, PA, population 2,434. On a nice day, the first place I’d take a visitor would be the towpath beside the Delaware Canal, part of a state park that runs all the way through town and beyond. The towpath is a favorite spot for locals to jog, bike and walk their dogs — and it’s a great place to look for wildlife too. Aside from the perennial ducks and geese, I’ve seen turtles, deer, great blue herons, swans, raccoons, even a fox.
Now it’s your turn. What would you show a visitor in your home town?
– written by Sarah Schlichter
“‘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 on July 23 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. And don’t forget: This year is the start of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
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.
Get more summer vacation ideas!
– written by Dan Askin
The 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which begins April 12, commemorates a conflict that preserved the United States and ended slavery, albeit at the cost of some 625,000 soldiers’ lives. That’s a sobering figure, yet this sesquicentennial is not all memorials, re-enactments and conventional battlefield tours. The occasion has also inspired a lot of offbeat Civil War tours and events — some wacky, some enlightening — thanks to a few folks with horse sense, tours that tell the oft-neglected African-American story, one baritone and 100,000 ghosts.
Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry: Harpers Ferry, WV
Of the gazillion ghost tours offered in the U.S.A., Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry stands out. That’s partly because John Brown’s failed raid on Harpers Ferry (1859) is said to have created a lot of ghosts, and partly because guide Rick Garland, a dead ringer for Jeb Stuart, is a spellbinding storyteller. This baritone and pianist also offers intimate O’ Be JoyFull performances of Civil War period music. “I play a lot of Stephen Foster, who invented American popular music,” says Garland. “I’ve also seen veterans cry over ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home.’” Surely not because of the price: just $10.
The Civil War and Slavery Walking Tour: Charleston, SC
This tour is “offbeat” because of its emphasis on the oft-neglected African-American experience. After you’ve visited Fort Sumter, where Secessionists first fired at Union troops on April 12, 1861, take this two-hour walk with Old Charleston Tours. Goosebump moment: When guide Michael Brown points to where Robert Smalls, a slave, “borrowed” a boat and sailed off into Charleston Harbor to escape bondage. He later joined the U.S. Navy and risked death, or worse, by piloting a Union warship right back into Charleston Harbor.
Segway Tours of Battlefields: Petersburg, Spotsylvania and Richmond, VA
To some people, Segways on these hallowed grounds (90,000 casualties) are a sacrilege; to others they just look goofy. But folks, they are practical. “These battlefields are huge, so most people can’t cover them by foot,” says Trent Adams of Segway of Richmond. “And unlike cars, Segways let you explore the parts of Petersburg National Battlefield Park in the order in which events happened. Besides, on Segways, you can ride into the fort, and you can ride right up to the crater.”
Crater? Union soldiers created it when they set off gunpowder in a mine. “The explosion,” says Adams, “was kind of bigger than they’d expected.” Segway of Richmond, whose tours start at $45, is also rolling out (heh heh, a little Segway humor) a new Civil War tour of Richmond. For Segway tours of nearby Spotsylvania National Battlefield, contact Old Town Seg Tours.
Buckboards and Bikes: Antietam National Battlefield Park, MD
With 23,000 casualties, the Battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, was the bloodiest 12 hours of the Civil War. After the battle, hundreds of civilians rode onto the fields in buckboards to pick up the dead. You can visit Antietam in an authentic, hand-made buckboard, too; contact Bonnymeed Stables: (304) 876-1307 or firstname.lastname@example.org ($75). You’re also allowed to ride bicycles on many Civil War battlegrounds; Pedal and Paddle offers rentals ($30 – $40) and shuttles to Antietam.
The Haunted Hearse: Vicksburg, MS
The Union’s victory in this Mississippi city split the Confederacy in two: ergo, lots of unhappy ghosts. History buff Morgan Gates takes up to six passengers at a time for Haunted Vicksburg Tours ($25) in a most appropriate vehicle: a hearse. But how do you see ghosts, or anything else, from inside a hearse? There are, in fact, five windows, and Gates has also mounted a videocam on the hearse that streams on an inside monitor. “There’s a lot of paranormal activity now because of the upcoming anniversary,” says Gates. Uh, okay.
Horseback Riding Tours: Gettysburg, PA
Site of the turning point of the Civil War, Gettysburg offers every imaginable way to revisit history, from traditional tours to SegTours’ guided tours of the sprawling battlefield, as well as numerous ghost tours, including Ghosts of Gettysburg excursions run by author and historian Mark Nesbitt. Perhaps best of all, Artillery Ridge offers two-hour horseback tours of the battlefield ($75 per person) with recorded narration, and Hickory Hollow Farm offers horseback tours with a licensed guide ($55 an hour). Riding across the Gettysburg battlefield, you get a profound sense of how this terrain looked to the mounted troops. These rides follow the same route up the Union-held ridge that the right flank of 12,000 Confederates took in Pickett’s Charge. At the top you get a sweeping view of the battlefield, but Pickett’s men didn’t get that far. So on July 3, 1863, the whole direction of the war changed.
Ghouls Across the Globe: Seven Thrilling Ghost Tours
– written by Ed Wetschler, the executive editor of Tripatini.com, the travel social media site a.k.a. “Facebook for travelers.”
During spring, when frozen fields evolve into painterly kaleidoscopes of color, certain destinations shine. While Holland is arguably the most famous spot for flower aficionados, with Provence, France being a close second, there are plenty of domestic destinations that can compete with the big bloomers. Here are a few of our favorite places to see roses and rhododendrons in the U.S., with bonus travel deals to match.
1. Philadelphia International Flower Show
The Philadelphia International Flower Show, the world’s largest indoor display of flowers, is a world-renowned affair (the show is even highlighted in that famous book, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die”). The event takes place each spring at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, which transforms into a wild array of eye-popping floral exhibits, featuring everything from fantastical arrangements to full-on gardens brimming with colorful blooms. This year, the theme is “Springtime in Paris,” and the show will take place from March 6 through March 13.
The Deal: The Windsor Suites Philadelphia is currently offering a special flower show package, which includes accommodations, two tickets to the show and breakfast for two, starting at $169 per night.
2. Yellowstone National Park
Carpets of wild irises, shooting stars, yellow violets, ladies’ tresses and countless other wildflower species take over Yellowstone National Park from May through August (head to the park in June and July to catch the peak). Expect rolling meadows full of flowers and shocks of electric-pink blooms growing from forest floors during late-spring and summer months. Take a ranger-guided hike to learn about Yellowstone’s variety of flowers from a park expert.
The Deal: Parade Rest Guest Ranch, which is located near the Yellowstone park entrance, is currently offering special spring rates for stays from May 20 through June 12.
3. Portland Rose Festival
Portland, the “City of Roses,” an urban center where pretty gardens seem to sprout on every corner, welcomes spring with its annual Rose Festival. This year’s celebrations take place from the end of May through mid-June. The high point of the whole shebang is the Grand Floral Parade, a must-see frenzy of floats, flowers and music. Other fun events include a rose lighting ceremony with fireworks and a heart-pounding dragon boat race on the Willamette River.
The Deal: The Red Lion Hotel Portland, which is located right on the Grand Floral Parade route, is offering special Rose Festival rates starting at $99 per night.
4. Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve
Vibrant orange, yellow and red blankets of poppies appear in the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, located about a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, in early spring. Look for blooms to arrive as soon as March. The peak period for viewing eternal fields of flowers generally happens in mid-April. The reserve has eight miles of quiet trails that are perfect for hiking, photography, wildlife spotting and picnicking.
The Deal: When you stay at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Lancaster, California (the city of Lancaster is next to the Poppy Reserve), save 20 percent on your weekend stay.
5. National Cherry Blossom Festival
Our nation’s capital transforms into a breathtaking blush-pink panorama of blooming cherry trees each spring. Thousands of trees popping with color near icons like the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial make for stunning photographs. On top of that, the Cherry Blossom Festival features more than 100 performances and events — many of which are free — including guided tours, fireworks and even a 5K run. The festival runs from March 27 through April 11.
The Deal: Book a Cherry Blossom Festival package at the Melrose Hotel and get accommodations, dinner for two and a late check-out with rates starting at $156 per night.
– written by Caroline Costello
Early this week, I was called to report for jury duty in Doylestown, Pennsylvania — a town I’d never visited, even though it’s only about 40 minutes from my home. Of course, most of my day was spent twiddling my thumbs within the gray confines of the jurors’ lounge at the courthouse, but a 1.5-hour lunch break gave me a much-needed chance to escape the building and explore.
The courthouse is in the heart of Doylestown’s downtown district, with its handsome historic buildings and flower-bedecked iron lampposts. An hour and a half wasn’t much time to grab lunch and wander around, but my brief stroll was long enough to pass several intriguing sights — a used bookstore, a local brewery — which I filed away in my head for a future visit.
I ate lunch outside on the patio of Cafe Alessio, an Italian restaurant on the corner of Court and Main Streets, then whiled away the rest of my break in the small park next to the courthouse. This green, quiet space is dedicated to “Bucks County Hometown Heroes” — local soldiers who’ve died overseas in the last decade. (Among the photos was a man from my own home town, who died in Iraq at age 25.)
I’d stuffed a few travel magazines into my bag that morning to help me kill time, but here in the park I found myself less interested in glossy photos of exotic places than in watching what was going on right in front of me: people streaming in and out of the courthouse, a postal worker emptying a blue mail receptacle, a man setting up a ladder to work on the facade of a 19th-century building.
As I sat there, soaking in my surroundings and wishing I had my camera, I was reminded that traveling isn’t just about going far away from home. On a deeper level, traveling is a way of observing the world, of seeing and appreciating with fresh eyes — even just a few miles from your own home town.
What nearby places have you enjoyed lately?