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.
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– written by Dori Saltzman
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
Nod your head if you think there’s nothing more to Nassau than its proximity to the Atlantis Resort and Casino and a plethora of straw markets and high-end shops. I’d be willing to bet just about everyone reading this is nodding their head right now. I know that until recently, that’s what I thought. And because of that, Nassau was fairly low on my list of must-visit destinations.
But on a recent cruise visit to this port city, I learned there’s so much more than meets the eye.
I learned, for instance, that within just a few years of Christopher Columbus “discovering” the Bahamas, all the indigenous people had been wiped out and that technically everyone who today hails from there comes from immigrant ancestors.
I also learned that the Bahamas are a unique blend of British and American culture and influences. Though “founded” by the British in the early 1700’s and still a part of the Commonwealth, the Bahamian islands also played a role in the American Revolution and the Civil War, and were a hotbed of rum-running activity during Prohibition. In fact, some of Nassau’s architecture is classic American colonial, a vestige of its days as a home-in-exile for American loyalists after their side lost the Revolutionary War.
And for seafood lovers, I learned that conch (pronounced conk) isn’t just used for fritters and chowder. Because the conch shell is incredibly hard and durable, it’s often ground into dust and added to construction materials. A good many of the buildings in downtown Nassau are partly made of conch shell.
All of these facts and more were imparted to me by Alanna Rodgers, a young Bahamian entrepreneur whose Tru Bahamian Food Tours launched just two months ago. At least once a day Rodgers leads tourists on the three-hour Bites of Nassau Food Tasting and Cultural Walking Tour, giving participants the chance to try a variety of local foods and learn a great deal about the Bahamas from culture to history, architecture to government, and religion to pirates.
12 International Foods to Try Before You Die
The tour was the high point of my seven-day Bahamas cruise and offered a truly fascinating look at a country and port that is too often dismissed for its three S’s (sun, sand and shopping).
Among the culinary highlights of the tour were:
Baked macaroni and cheese at Bahamian Cookin’, the first stop on our tasting tour. While everyone else got conch fritters (I don’t eat shellfish), I had a yummy macaroni and cheese dish at this small restaurant, which is owned and operated by three generations of Nassau women.
Jamaican jerk chicken that didn’t burn going down. Turns out there are some 10,000 Jamaicans in the Bahamas, making up a significant subset of the population. At the hole-in-the-wall Pepper Pot Grill, the menu is pretty much whatever the chef decides to cook, but there are usually a couple of choices, and the jerk chicken was delicious without being overly spicy.
An invitation to the Governor General’s house for tea. Okay, so the Governor General didn’t actually invite me personally, but as part of the country’s People to People project all tourists are invited to a special one-hour tea party (4 – 5 p.m.) on the last Friday of every month (except December). During the event visitors can chat with the Governor General’s wife, sample local bush teas, watch a Bahamian fashion show and enjoy live music.
Chocolate. There’s nothing particularly Bahamian about the Graycliff Chocolatier, though the Italian family that owns it has lived in the Bahamas for many years. But for this chocoholic, stopping by for a freshly made caramel salted dark chocolate was divine. Many local ingredients are used in the chocolates, like coconut and pineapple, and the company is hoping to develop a local cocoa plantation.
Greek salad. The Greek salad itself was less of a highlight than learning that Greeks make up a significant part of the Bahamian merchant class, that they own most of the jewelry stores on Bay Street (downtown’s main street), and that the son’s owner is married to a former Miss Bahamas. Oh, and many Bahamian politicians stop by there for lunch – the Secretary of Foreign Affairs was there when we were.
How to Save Money on Food When You Travel
– written by Dori Saltzman
Although there’s still a few hours of December 21, 2012 left, we’re fairly certain the world isn’t coming to an end and thank goodness as there’s still so much more traveling to be done! In this week’s Friday Free-For-All, we want to get your travel-related fill-in answer to this sentence:
I’m grateful the world didn’t come to an end because now I’ll have the chance to _______.
To get you started here’s what a few people in the IndependentTraveler.com and CruiseCritic.com office had to say.
I’m grateful the world didn’t come to an end because now I’ll have the chance…
…to see the aurora borealis while dogsledding in the Arctic Circle. — Dori Saltzman, News Editor
…to chant “Eviiita” in front of the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires. — Ashley Kosciolek, Copy Editor
…to reserve a table in Munich for Oktoberfest and catch an All Blacks game in New Zealand. — Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor, CruiseCritic.com
…to visit all the National Parks I’ve never been to with my son and hit my seventh continent on a cruise to Antarctica. — Erica Silverstein, Features Editor, CruiseCritic.com
So, why are you grateful the world didn’t come to an end?
12 Ways to Feel at Home in a Foreign Place
–written by Dori Saltzman
One of my favorite ways to see and learn about a new place is with local tour guides. Nobody knows a place like locals do. They know not only the beaten path (about which they can often reveal little-known facts), but also those gems I’d never find on my own. But most important for me, they offer cultural insights into a community that only someone who lives, sleeps and works there could possibly know.
Today, I stumbled upon a new twist on the local tour guiding concept – guided tours from the homeless. This adds an entirely new layer onto what visitors can learn about a place, its people and culture. And the best part is, not only do visitors gain a new perspective on life in the destination they’re visiting, but they’re also supporting people who need help.
My introduction to the concept came care of the Prague Daily Monitor, which reported on a tourism project that employs eight homeless people as tour guides. According to the article, the guides offer “the narration of less known stories and visits to special interesting places,” in both Prague’s center as well as on the outskirts of the city.
Prague Travel Guide
The guides use their “long-lasting experience with living in the street” to choose the places they want to share with visitors. One book-loving guide, for example, takes tourists to lesser-known bookshops where second-hand books are available.
Other guides take visitors to the places homeless people and squatters inhabit.
Prague is not the first city to offer such tours. A quick Google search turned up similar tours in London, San Francisco and Amsterdam.
Some, like the London tours, visit tourist favorites, where guides point out the usual as well as offer insights into what it’s like to be homeless there. Others, like the San Francisco tour, take visitors to the “invisible” spots like homeless shelters, soup kitchens and workplace training programs.
Eight Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours
Would you take a tour led by a homeless person?
– written by Dori Saltzman
Today, during my usual lunchtime sanity break, I peeled myself from my desk and ventured outside in search of food. The wall of hot air that greeted me was stifling. To the chagrin of several women in the knitting store across the way, I immediately stripped down to my underwear. Okay, not really — but I did seriously consider it as I watched a small child attempting to fry an egg in the parking lot.
The latest heat wave here in the Northeastern U.S. has brought temperatures in the 90’s for the past several weeks, and it’s constantly got me wishing I were anywhere but here — anywhere that’s cooler than here, that is.
Take a peek below for four places and activities that I’ve been dreaming about almost daily of late. If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel cooler just looking at them.
Visiting Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
Swimming at Dunn’s River Falls, Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Skiing in Queenstown, New Zealand
Touring the (air-conditioned!) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Where would you like to cool off right about now?
– written by Ashley Kosciolek
On a Mediterranean cruise with six port calls in seven days — essentially the tapas restaurant version of European travel — you might only have 10 hours in port to get it right. Ironically, in many ways the half-day visit requires more researching and planning than a lengthier, more stationary stay.
Unless you have a local friend. Or the next best thing: a guide.
If you’re a fan of Julius Caesar, Augustus or Caligula (you weirdo), there’s nothing like Rome, near which our ship docked for the day (in Civitavecchia, a 12-euro train ride away). It’s an easy capital to visit in the sense that it’s eminently walkable. Just wear comfortable tennis shoes and stay hydrated via the fontanellas, the public fountains found in almost every square. But it’s a challenge in that its history is as dense as the Pantheon’s walls, and, as in other epic destinations, tourist traps sprout like barbarian hordes around the 2,000-year-old monuments.
As a wanderer, my previous experiences in the Eternal City comprised just that: ambling for what sometimes seemed like an eternity until I reached a Renaissance-era church or second-century ruin, not knowing what either really meant. This time — my shortest visit — would be different.
Our Favorite Places to Stay in Rome
Our group of three met Teresa, a U.S. expat turned Rome tour guide for Love Holidays (and a long-time friend of one of our fellow passengers). She took us through mini-tours of the Colosseum, the Pantheon and San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter’s Chains), and brought us to a low-key cafe filled with Italians enjoying sandwiches and salads. Bouncing questions off Teresa — did Nero really fiddle while Rome burned? Should I get the raspberry or apricot gelato? — went a long way toward making me feel like I wasn’t squandering my time.
“What do you guys want to do?” (followed by 20 interesting options) was a welcome conversation starter on more than one occasion.
11 Best Italy Experiences
Finding yourself such a guide, of course, is the trick, but it’s increasingly easy. TripAdvisor reviews, message board recommendations and friends with a penchant for gladiators can all steer you in the right direction. And a private guide isn’t necessarily that expensive; split among a party of four or five, you can expect to pay about 100 euros each (plus museum entrance fees, public transport and tip) for a full, eight-hour day. That’s less than cruise lines charge for the “panoramic” motorcoach tour — you know, those excursions that often leave 40 passengers in that hazy space between sleep and reality, heads thudding against windows at regular intervals.
For more information, see When Do You Need a Tour Guide?
– written by Dan Askin
Most tourists flock to Seattle Center to check out the view from the iconic Space Needle or to rock out at the Experience Music Project (EMP) Museum. But now there’s a colorful new reason to visit the Emerald City’s popular entertainment complex: Chihuly Garden and Glass.
This long-term exhibition of Dale Chihuly’s vibrant art-glass sculptures opened last month on a 1.5-acre plot next to the Space Needle. Chihuly’s distinctive style is familiar to many from his installations in places like the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas and the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia. Visitors begin inside, where darkened galleries display large-scale Chihuly installations like “Mille Fiori” (a garden made of glass) and a Persian ceiling where luminous hues bloom overhead. In another gallery, a boat laden with fancifully colored balls seems to glide across a black mirror lake.
Learn More About Seattle
Once you step outside into the garden, living plants and flowers mingle with Chihuly’s creations — tall, skinny stalks that look like birthday candles; sinuously curving vines and bulbs; and a spiky, brilliantly green sculpture that stretches toward the sky as though to mimic the Space Needle behind it.
Standard adult admission is $19, with discounts for seniors and children 12 and under. Joint admission to the Space Needle is available. You can also pay an additional fee to come back to Chihuly Garden and Glass after dark, to see the outdoor exhibitions lit up against a night sky.
Our 6 Favorite Seattle Hotels
– written by Sarah Schlichter
It was a hot day, and people walked for hours along a narrow, rocky path because there were no roads to where they were going. Everyone was walking together by the sea, which was very still and calm. They all seemed happy — because they were on their way to a seaweed festival!
The Fete du Goemon, or Seaweed Festival, takes place each year in the western Brittany region of France on the last Sunday in July (mark your calendar for the 29th). Drawn by a small poster in a shop window, I stopped by the festival to watch people drying seaweed in stone troughs, demonstrating how to extract iodine from it and how to use the rest in recipes or as fuel. There was also a band, long trestle tables laden with food and drink, and a stall selling such dubiously useful items as a seaweed comb and seaweed sandals.
Seaweed was once a tremendously important factor in this part of Northern France’s economy, but the money isn’t what it was and the demand for fuels has gone elsewhere. Now the old seaweed stations are mainly grassed over and draw only a yearly crop of curious people like me.
Sound strange? There are even weirder festivals out there! Below are some of the odder ones I found while planning this year’s activities. Hopefully they’ll inspire the more inquisitive among you to go and find your own unusual customs and bizarre gatherings.
Air Guitar World Championships: Oulu, Finland
Forget standing around watching a holographic Tupac flickering onstage. On the 22nd of August, you can watch some of the world’s most extroverted proponents of air guitar plugging in their imaginary instruments and taking to the stage at the 2012 Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland. The city, home to mobile phone giant Nokia, has been troubling the air waves this way since 1996, with the festival becoming a huge forum for ax men and women around the world to prove their mimesmanship (actual term). Current Finnish champion Puccini Vibre will be looking to continue his current form with a win at the festival, though many eyes are on the 2011 U.S. Air Guitar Champion Nordic Thunder (real name Justin Howard), who is expected to take the crown.
One Summer Festival That’s Not Worth the Trip
Naki Sumo: Tokyo, Japan
A crying baby ought to be bad luck. Not so in Japan, where a yearly festival seeks to oust evil spirits through babies’ tears. Every year, more than 100 babies are brought by their parents to the steps of the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, where they are made to cry by huge sumo wrestlers, who hold the babies up in the air above their heads. Weirdly, the babies usually seem unperturbed by this and, to avoid the bad luck that would be brought by the babies not crying, the sumo wrestlers end up pulling hideous faces and gently shaking them, with the temple priests even doing their bit to frighten the children with masks. This festival takes place every year at the end of April. Entrance is free.
The Best Places to Stay in Tokyo
Spam Jam: Waikiki, Hawaii
Waikiki draws big crowds to take part in surfing festivals, but those in the know come to check out Spam Jam, one of the biggest street festivals dedicated to Spam in the world! According to the Spam Jam Web site, Hawaiians eat more Spam than anyone else on Earth, and the springtime event aims to celebrate this with great food, dancing and family entertainment on two stages. There are Spam plays and Spam dancers and opportunities to pick up Spam t-shirts. The whole thing is in aid of the Hawaii Food Bank, a non-profit organisation that provides food for people in need. Start thinking about your plane tickets if you’d like to get involved with Spam Jam 2013, which will begin on the 27th of April.
Our Favorite Honolulu Hotels
– written by Josh Thomas
When you’ve only got one day in a new city, what do you do to make the most of it?
Maybe you pick one or two must-see attractions and concentrate your time there. Or you throw the itinerary out the window and let yourself wander from neighborhood to neighborhood, soaking up the atmosphere. Or maybe, as I did on a recent trip to Brooklyn, you take a tour.
In fact, I took two. As an independent traveler, I tend to avoid big coach tours — you know, the ones that have the canned narration over the P.A. system and only let you off the bus for two minutes at a time. I opted instead for two small-group tours that each focused on a particular aspect of the local culture — because even though my time was short, I still wanted a true taste of the place from a local’s perspective.
What Not to Do in a New City
In the morning, Matt Levy of Levys’ Unique New York led a “Graffiti to Galleries” tour with an emphasis on street art in both Williamsburg — Brooklyn’s latest “hot” neighborhood — and Bushwick, where crumbling factories are being reclaimed as canvases for young artists. The tour took us to places I’d have never thought to visit on my own.
Brooklyn native Dom Gervasi, founder of Made in Brooklyn Tours, focused his tour exclusively on homegrown shops and galleries, and the people who run them. We heard the stories of Dewey Oblonsky, who started her own colorful candy shop after being laid off after decades working in the fashion industry, and Lori Fields, who creates custom-designed sweatshirts at a place called Neighborhoodies. Forget the ticky-tacky tourist shops. For travelers who love to support small businesses and come home with souvenirs they couldn’t buy anywhere else, this is the tour for you.
Levys’ Unique New York offers customized tours for individuals and groups. Rates vary widely depending on the size of the group, but generally cost about $50 per person per hour for a private tour. Made in Brooklyn Tours cost about $35 per person for a half-day tour.
Want more ideas for exploring your next destination in depth? Check out Eight Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours.
– written by Sarah Schlichter