America: Roads less traveled | Travel and the economy

The sun slips below the horizon in Newport, Rhode Island. - Paul Keleher/Flickr
The sun slips below the horizon in Newport, Rhode Island.
— image credit: Paul Keleher/Flickr

Palm Springs. It is the first week of February, and Palm Springs has not seen a “winter” like this for years. Day after day, the cloudless blue sky frames the emerald golf courses and tennis courts. Locals pinch themselves to see if this fabulous weather isn’t just a dream. It isn’t. And snowbirds like me, whether we are from Mercer Island or Long Island, just smile and hope it lasts for one more day.

And yet from Palm Springs to La Quinta, the valley is near empty — surprisingly and bizarrely so, given that this is the heart of the tourist season. The chic couture dress shops and art galleries along El Paseo are dead, with no one on the tiny sidewalks and no one in the stores.

The massive Desert Hills outlet mall’s shops at Cabazon are keeping their “75 percent off” post-holiday sales going for a month longer than typical. Their business is to move merchandise, but they are not doing it.

The restaurants peppered along Highway 111 are doing half the business that they usually do in February. Reservations are not necessary this year.

Long-time Mercer Islanders Merle and Wayne Farmer reported the same paucity of tourists on their mid-January vacation to Maui last month. Empty airline seats, and lots of them, both going over and coming home.

The economy is taking its toll.

So here is an idea. Given that there are travel bargains from Australia to Austria to Andalusia this year, why not keep your more-valuable-than-ever travel dollars here in the United States? Why not explore the travel options for your upcoming spring, summer and fall getaways in 2009 here in America, where the dollars that you spend will help our economy while you are having a good time and exploiting real travel bargains, all at the same time? There are better travel values than ever this year, right here in America, so why bother to go afar to spend your travel dollars?

Here are 10 ideas for American vacations that are a little off the beaten path:

Northern New England

Northern New England in the spring and summer: Many visitors to the Northeast wait until October to explore the villages and hamlets of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. They have heard about the fall foliage all their lives and they go for the color. But spring and early summer are quieter and fresher seasons to visit, and you will hardly see a tour bus along the route. Maine’s lobster shops in Bar Harbor, Boothbay Harbor, Brunswick, Camden and Kennebunkport are each on their own worth two nights’ stay to explore antique stores, clothing shops, fishing and lobster boats, and restaurants. Inland in Vermont and New Hampshire — the towns of Hanover, home of Dartmouth College, and Sugarbush, in Vermont’s Mad River Valley — you will find near-empty farm roads and fields perfect for picnic lunches.

Charleston, S.C., and the Georgian Coastline

In March, April, October and November, these gems of the old South — including Savannah — are lazy, luscious vacations spots where cares can be put in the trunk of your rental car. Southern hospitality is real, and so is the cuisine. Spicy flavors let you know that you are not in Western Washington anymore.

Charleston has caught on with vacationers and retirees, so much so that it was the only city of size in the United States that did not lose value in its real estate market in 2008. The place is very likeable in the cooler months of the year. South of Charleston, the low country of Beaufort County, Kiawah Island and the Isle of Palms offer sugar-white beaches that stay warm and unpopulated in spring and fall.

Georgia’s Barrier Coast has surprising resorts and many less-developed areas for fun and funky exploring. One of the most popular is St. Simons Island. Definitely treat yourself to a couple of nights in Savannah’s world of elegant B&Bs, and be sure to re-read “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” while you are laying on the beach.

The wine country east of Santa Barbara

This is an anytime vacation-land because the gentle Pacific breezes keep Santa Barbara County warm but rarely hot, even in the summer. Aside from the town of Santa Barbara itself, the more rustic country villages of Solvang, Los Olivos, Buellton, Ballard and the Santa Ynez Valley offer the best wine touring, as well as golfing and horseback riding. If you find yourself wanting to put your toes in some sand or jump some Pacific Ocean waves, you are never more than a half-hour drive from south-facing beaches.

Beantown and Newport

I can’t in good conscience tell you that it never gets too hot in Boston or Rhode Island in the heart of summer, but for the most part, these are fun vacations from mid-April to November. I enjoy the history of Boston, its great Italian north end, and all of the other neighborhoods, many quite ethnic, that make up the town. From Concord to Quincy, from Lexington to Cambridge, this is a fascinating historical vacation in a town that remains as alive as ever. Here is a fact: one out of six Boston residents is a full-time university student.

Newport, R.I., is a favorite getaway for me, much preferred over Cape Cod. Newport is New England’s sailing capital, and the Tennis Hall of Fame is also located there. Want to play on grass tennis courts? You can. For beach lovers, you will find plenty of pleasant, well-kept public strands, many nestled near the historic summer homes of the 19th century titans of industry — J.P. Morgan, Vanderbilt and Jay Gould. Newport’s mansions are America’s equivalent to the chateaux of the Loire Valley in France.

Virginia in the fall

Autumn comes a few weeks later in the horse country of Virginia, so if you want fall colors, visit during the latter half of October and into November. I especially like Williamsburg and nearby Jamestown in the fall, when the schoolchildren are back at their desks. If you are vacationing in this direction, you will find Washington, D.C., busy with governmental agendas, but quiet when it comes to touring school classes which prefer to treat their capital trips as a May reward for a year of studying U.S. History. Make the loop from Washington to Charlottesville, Thomas Jefferson’s hometown, and then on to the low country of Jamestown and Williamsburg. Plan for at least a day in Williamsburg, and take as many meals as you can in Williamsburg’s historic restaurants.

Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico

The Southern Rockies are hauntingly beautiful, and these mountains are a magnet for artists and arts lovers. Both Santa Fe and Taos have attracted artists (Georgia O’Keefe) and writers (D.H. Lawrence) for a century, and the trend continues. I prefer Taos. It is a little less taken with itself, with its unpaved driveways, thick native culture, fewer “name” restaurants, and quieter tourism scene. At 7,000 feet of elevation, Taos stays cool at night, while its summer days can heat up. It is not unusual to see frost on June mornings.

North in Southern Colorado, the village of Pagosa Springs has a quiet following of nature lovers, including those who like natural hot springs. The blue highways that connect Santa Fe, Taos and the old mining towns of Southern Colorado are a driver’s paradise — pleasant curves and not much traffic, with milkshake stops about every 50 miles or so.

The Oregon Coast

Sometimes we overlook the obvious. Since the world has shrunk so much thanks to the Internet and jet travel, we forget our own backyard. If you have not driven Oregon’s Highway 101 for a few years, that may be the vacation you have been looking for. Astoria has shaped up and is looking more intriguing these days with several new hotels and restaurants, as well as a new aquatic center and old-fashioned streetcar service. Cannon Beach has been popular for years, but 20 miles south, Manzanita has flowered with some fabulous new beach homes. Newport’s two world-class aquariums are worth the trip, but I go for the fun of an evening dinner at the Table of Contents in the Hotel Sylvia. The beaches, sand dunes and lakes between Florence and Coos Bay are freaks of nature that offer miles of empty and private sunbathing dens. Down south, Bandon continues to attract golfers with its Scottish links-styled courses. Bandon’s golf is the closest thing to golf in the British Isles that one will find in North America.

Sonoma and Mendocino

Half the beauty of these two wine-and-more counties is that they are not Napa. Even in this year of austerity cutbacks, Napa will be busy. All the more reason to visit the birthplace of the Bear Flag Republic at Sonoma, and its agricultural cousins around the county — Sebastopol, Healdsburg, Kenwood, Bodega Bay, Occidental, hippie Guerneville and wild Jenner, at the mouth of the Russian River. You will find vineyards everywhere around Sonoma County, but also cideries, pumpkin patches, river running and the home of Luther Burbank, for lovers of things from the earth.

Mendocino is another two-hour drive north to the coast, and this foggy land of redwood trees and valleys of vineyards is home to one of the best public art centers in America. The Mendocino Art Center offers five weekday classes, weekend classes and a variety of ways for people to get in touch with their creative selves. Mendocino is also the setting for that romantic comedy with Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn, “Same Time Next Year.”

Montana this summer

Montana is so huge that you will never feel pressed for anything while you roll around under the big skies. Of course, there are Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, but I find myself hanging around Flathead Lake a lot. Bigfork and Whitefish, a few miles away, surprise with sophisticated shopping, dining and pubs. Both towns were chosen by travel author David Vokac among his 100 favorite towns with a population under 75,000 in the United States. Swimming, fishing and water sports are very fun here. Vacationers who enjoy history and culture will gravitate across the Rockies to Great Falls, home to America’s most beloved and honored western artist — Charlie Russell. His home and surroundings have been preserved and turned into a must-see museum. Lewis and Clark followers know that Great Falls was where the Corps of Discovery affected their most dramatic challenge, the 14-mile portage around the Falls. An impressive and new U.S. Department of Interior Information Center tells this story.

Bill Morton can be reached at

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