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san francisco golden gate bridge nightAs the Senior Editor of IndependentTraveler.com, one of the inevitable questions I’m asked when someone finds out what I do for a living is “What’s your favorite place?” Or the equally impossible-to-answer “What’s the best trip you’ve ever taken?” Honestly, I’d have a hard time just narrowing it down to my top five. You might as well ask a mother to choose between her children.

Of course, if you travel long enough, you’ll also develop a list of places that maybe you didn’t love as much. In the Huffington Post, fellow travel writer David Landsel has come up with a doozy on places he’d rather not see again: 10 Terribly Overrated Destinations (And Where To Travel Instead).

Landsel dubs San Francisco a “grotfest,” disses Denver as “a weirdly bland, Midwestern snore” and rejects the entire Caribbean region in one sweeping stroke (“Too many of the islands are depressingly violent, pathetically corrupt and/or hopelessly dysfunctional”). Ouch.

He also takes issue with Asheville, North Carolina, describing it as “a bottlenecked blot on a lovely landscape” and a “physically and emotionally fragmented mountain town full of people who seem really annoyed by everything.”

But after returning from my second visit there a few months ago, and having included it in IndependentTraveler.com’s favorite spots for a weekend getaway, I have to disagree. Maybe Landsel should have come with me and my mom to one of Asheville’s Friday night drum circles, when it feels like the entire town gathers for a lively, joyful musical party that goes for hours.

And Asheville’s food is “just fine”? Bummer — he must’ve missed out on the decadent, dinner-plate-sized sweet potato pancake at Tupelo Honey Cafe, topped with spiced pecans and peach butter. I’m still dreaming about it.

9 Places You Haven’t Visited — But Should

Of course, everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion. My own let-down list would probably include Belfast, Northern Ireland; Atlanta, Georgia; and Aix-en-Provence, France. I’d heard good things about all of them, but somehow they just didn’t speak to me. That said, I’d be willing to give them all a second chance; maybe I was in the wrong neighborhood, or simply the wrong mood.

So lest any readers out there are considering avoiding places like Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Costa Rica or Chicago on the strength of this article, allow me to throw my own advice into the ring: take the trip and see for yourself.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

There are certainly reasons to avoid leaf peeping in its usual incarnation. You could easily overdose on quaintness while choosing the plumpest pumpkin or dearest antique. If you shy away from scores of children wielding candied apples while running wild through cornstalk mazes, you may want to skip the season altogether. Understood.

But you’d be missing some glorious sights, whether you go simply for the visual treat or allow the colors to enhance a trip with an entirely non-related agenda. Don’t allow the scarecrows to chase you away. Indulge. Here are some places we wouldn’t mind visiting during the autumn months. We may even enjoy a crisp apple or some pumpkin ice cream along the way.

Take the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway up the Hotake Mountains, near Nagano, Japan. From both the double-decker gondolas and the observation deck, you’ll enjoy a glorious view.

hotake japan



Explore the monasteries of Echmiadzin, Armenia. Perhaps sight a few khachkars, outdoor stone slabs carved with detailed motifs, which can still be found although many have been destroyed.

khachkars armenia



Drive the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway through the beautiful Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains. This National Scenic Byway, which runs through Virginia and North Carolina, is bordered with deciduous trees, such as oak, dogwood, hickory, buckeye and ash.

blue ridge parkway



Skip Paris in the springtime and visit in autumn. The fall foliage in Jardin du Luxembourg easily rivals its colorful May blooms.

jardin du luxembourg paris



For more lovely landscapes in autumn, don’t miss the Butchart Gardens, just north of Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. You’ll find a serenity impossible to locate in a corn maze.

butchart gardens




Eight Unique Ways to Experience Fall


Where will you take in the fall foliage this year?

– written by Jodi Thompson

Just like Kate, you can walk down the aisle of an iconic historic treasure to marry a prince. Okay, we can’t guarantee the prince part (a partner with princely qualities is a good substitute), but we do know of a few historic attractions that are the perfect places for a fairy tale wedding in the style of European royalty — and a ticket across the pond won’t be required for the event.

Castles built by America’s royalty, from Gilded Age robber barons to, well, authentic royals (think Hawaii), make for spectacularly impressive weddings. Your event may not be viewed on YouTube by half the world, but it will be an occasion to remember, with a grandiose 250-room chateau, splendid gardens or a six-story medieval-style castle setting the scene for your nuptials.

Don’t feel left out if you aren’t walking down the aisle anytime soon. These attractions are open for tours as well as weddings.

Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California
When a newspaper tycoon of the Gilded Age builds his dream home, moderation is negligible. Fifty-six bedrooms and 61 bathrooms are a must. A world-class collection of priceless art, a private zoo and two lavish swimming pools are obligatory. And perfectly manicured gardens bursting with color? William Randolph Hearst had to have them, so he surrounded his American castle with acres of exotic plants, from elegant cypress trees to vibrant pomegranate hedges, inspired by gardens in Italy and Spain. All in all, the place makes a sensational backdrop for a royal-esque wedding. Couples can tie the knot on one of the castle’s many terraces, with the surrounding emerald San Simeon hills and the castle’s white Mediterranean Revival-style towers stretching to the sky behind them.

 Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle



Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina
Biltmore Estate, the largest privately owned home in the United States, seems straight out of a fairy tale. The Vanderbilt mansion was built in the 1800′s in the romantic architectural style of French chateaus, with tall spires and steeply pitched roofs. The gardens of Biltmore, where weddings are held amidst cool lily ponds, stone walls, ancient cypress trees and blooming beds of delicate flowers, extend for nearly 8,000 acres. Read more about Asheville.

Biltmore Estate



Boldt Castle, Heart Island, New York
Nestled in New York’s Thousand Islands region, Boldt Castle is a living tribute to love. The six-story castle was commissioned by American hotelier George Boldt to honor his wife, Louise. Construction began in 1900, and the Boldt family visited the castle regularly as it was built, staying in nearby Alster Tower. But work on the structure ceased suddenly in 1904 when Louise died and a heartbroken George Boldt abandoned the project that he had shared with his beloved partner. The incredible 120-room castle was left unfinished for 73 years until it was restored in the 1970′s. Today, couples can arrange a wedding on the appropriately named Heart Island, where the Boldts’ massive medieval-style castle stands as a magnificent monument to marriage.

Boldt Castle



Iolani Palace, Honolulu, Hawaii
The United States is home to a single royal palace, about which American travelers can proudly brag to British locals on trips to the U.K. It’s Honolulu‘s Iolani Palace, the former home of King Kalakaua and Queen Lili’uokalani. The palace, built in 1879, sits on land that is believed to be the site of an ancient Hawaiian place of worship, a sacred area known as a “wahi pana.” Weddings can be held on the royal palace’s lawns beneath swaying palm trees and Indian banyan trees.

Iolani Palace



Rosecliff, Newport, Rhode Island
Dance and dine under painted ceilings in the ballroom at Rosecliff, the only Newport mansion that is available for weddings. Newport is the storied site of some of the United States’ most lavish mansions. The area was the summer vacation spot of choice for Gilded Age American elites like the Vanderbilts and the Astors; their opulent homes sit on acres of beautifully landscaped gardens near dramatic coastal cliffs. (There’s even a 19th-century topiary garden with bushes cut into the shapes of animals nearby.) Rosecliff, built for the Oelrich family in the style of Versailles, was featured in the film “The Great Gatsby.”

rosecliff



– written by Caroline Costello

When I pulled into Shelby with a group of other travel writers and tour operators, I had no idea that our arrival was big news — until we wound up on the front page of the local paper. “Focus on Cleveland County: Travel pros visit for a taste of our area,” ran the headline in the Shelby Star the next morning, complete with full-color photos.

We may have been the news of the day, but this little town in western North Carolina will soon be making its own headlines. It’s the future home of the Earl Scruggs Center, which will feature “music and stories of the Carolina Foothills” — including, of course, plenty of information on Scruggs himself, an internationally recognized banjo player and bluegrass musician who hailed from the Shelby area. (Among the exhibits will be banjos and other instruments played by Scruggs and his contemporaries.) The museum is scheduled to open in early 2012.

Not into bluegrass? Scruggs is only one of Shelby’s claims to fame. Come to town in the fall and you could catch the annual Liver Mush Expo, celebrating one of the region’s culinary delicacies. Pig liver and other parts (including the snout) are combined with cornmeal to create a liver mush loaf, which is sliced, fried and served in a variety of ways. I tried it on bread with jelly, and then with cheese and eggs — and can affirm that it tastes better than it looks! (The flavor is a bit of a cross between sausage and scrapple.) You can sample this “poor man’s pate” all year round at the friendly Shelby Cafe.

liver mush shelby cafe mustard livermush


Save some time for strolling around downtown, or rather Uptown (a moniker deliberately chosen because it was more cheerful). Shelby boasts three main historic districts as well as a bevy of cute little boutiques and specialty shops. I stopped in the Cleveland Country Arts Council building, where a pottery show and sale was running, and boggled at the low prices for beautiful, locally made art. Also worth a visit is the Don Gibson Theatre, a restored Art Deco venue that hosts musicians, films and comedy acts.

North Carolina may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of wine, but the number of wineries in the state has more than quadrupled in the last 10 years — and the Shelby area is getting in on the action. It’s easy to drive a loop around the region’s three wineries: Baker Buffalo Creek Vineyard & Winery, Owl’s Eye Vineyard and WoodMill Winery. Be sure to sample a few muscadine wines, which are local to the Southeast and offer high levels of healthy antioxidants (about 20 times as much as a Merlot).

If you’ve got kids in tow, make time for a stop at the Shelby City Park, with its historic 1920′s “carrousel” and miniature train. It’s just 50 cents each for a ride.

owls eye vineyard winery shelby north carolina

bankers house shelby north carolina historic

cleveland county courthouse shelby north carolina



– written by Sarah Schlichter