Having grown up in Long Valley, N.J., which is possible the most boring place in the entire world, I usually can’t appreciate towns that run a little bit slower and take a journey just to make it to the nearest supermarket. Instead, my Long Valley upbringing has simply made me into a bona fide city dweller who needs to constantly be within 15 minutes to the nearest mall, plethora of restaurants, gas stations, airport, bars and other attractions.
However, when my boyfriend, Mike, invited me to visit his parents with him in Lake Ariel, Penn., a small village in Wayne County about an hour and 45 minutes away from my home in Morristown (which is about my cap for time I can spend in the car) I was pretty psyched. It had been a stressful couple weeks and I figured it would be nice to spend a relaxing few weeks in the countryside.
Although I can’t recall much about staying in my grandmother’s outdated bungalow in an area of Carolina Beach full of stumbling drunks and cigarette butts about six years ago, I do recall, quite vividly, our one day trip to Wilmington, about a half an hour drive north.
I remember strolling through the residential historic district, and, even though I couldn’t have cared less about what the tour guide had to say about iron gate styles or wraparound porches, I do recall feeling pretty mesmerized by these stately, colorful homes full of personality and bursting with history, intricate details, elaborate flowers and a deep, cool shade.
I also remember making our way to the commercial historic district, where we flitted in and out of niche boutiques and wandered throughout the cobblestone streets. For someone well acquainted with busy, modern cities like New York, I was pretty enamored with true-Southern Wilmington and its ancient charm at a time when I had yet to visit any other Southern destination.
Now that I’m 25-years-old, most of my friends (and I) are starting to find their way. Finally, those closest to me are escaping from the one-traffic-light town that we grew up in and are heading to New York City, across state lines, to small cities throughout New Jersey, and, of course, to Philadelphia.
Whenever another one of my friends packed up for Philadelphia, I cringed a little inside. It’s an uncomfortable hour-and-45-minute drive from my house and, possibly since I’ve mostly only been there under the cover of night, I’m used to odd happenings on shady streets and staying in dirty apartments. It’s a big, hipster change from my existence in ritzy, clean Morristown.
However, with not much else going on during a boring Sunday and having spent way too much time without seeing my best friend, Aaron, I buckled down in the car for the long journey to visit him for the day.
Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida has never been on my must-see list. In general, I try to avoid places that are filled with children.
However, when my best friend, Dona, invited me there for her birthday to stay in a timeshare that her family owned, I couldn’t really think of a reason to say no. I wanted to celebrate Dona’s 25th birthday with her, I wouldn’t have to book a hotel room and I could go for just a portion of the week that Dona was staying for with her college friends, so I could only take two days off of work. Plus, things have been stressful lately, and I figured I could use a few days away to decompress.
For only $250, I snagged a round-rip flight to Orlando. I can’t remember the last time that I felt so relaxed.
As a classic clutcher of a glass-half-empty, I’m always aware when visiting a new city that I’m probably not going to eat quite as well as I do at home in New Jersey, where I know my fair share of hidden gem restaurants as well as what spots are grossly overrated.
Unfortunately, when traveling, I don’t have this kind of advantage. Instead, I’m at the whim of what restaurants are within walking distance of my lodging, passing recommendations from Uber drivers and how many stars a particular eatery as garnered via a quick Google search.
However, during my recent stay in Durham, North Carolina, for a wedding, I have to say that for one of the only times in my life, every restaurant that we sampled was simply fantastic. Here’s my recap.
Although I’m a seasoned backpacker, I’m definitely not a camper. After a long day of traveling, getting caught in the rain, being stuffed into crowded bars and wandering dirty streets, I appreciate a hot shower, a warm bed and indoor plumbing.
The only time other time I went camping before last weekend, I went with three other people and we all stuffed ourselves into a two-person tent and ate hot dogs for every meal. It wasn’t exactly ideal. So, I was a little hesitant to go camping with my boyfriend, Mike, and his friend Adam to see Phish for three days in Saratoga Springs while camping at Lee’s Campground, about seven miles away from the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC).
Operating as the minority in my Courier News, Home News Tribune and Daily Record newsroom, I am not a sports fan. I probably couldn’t name 10 professional athletes, I have never had a proclivity toward a certain team and I’ve been hopelessly bored at every game I have ever been to.
For this reason, my co-workers were confused when I told them that I was taking a weekend trip to Baltimore, which is widely known for its long and storied sporting history.
Was I heading to Camden Yards, they wanted to know? Were the Ravens going to be home? Would I be checking out any sports museums?
All of this talk made me nervous. Would there be enough for a nonsports fan to do in a city where one co-worker drove over four hours there and back in a single day to see an Orioles game?
Luckily for a nonsports fan like me, Baltimore has a lot more to it than a few games.
Baltimore is a hub of American history, and it is also the site of the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, which was the home and business place of Mary Pickersgill, who sewed the garrison flag Francis Scott Key witnessed flying over Fort McHenry that inspired him to write our national anthem.
Check out the house, which was built in 1793, from Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and hop on a self-guided tour for $8.
According to the belief of some, Carminantonio Iannaccone, owner of Baltimore’s Piedigrotta Bakery, is the inventor of tiramisu, making it a must visit for those with a sweet tooth. Iannacone said that while he was living in Treviso, Italy, in 1969, he opened a restaurant, also called Piedigrotta, and created a dessert based on the “everyday flavors of the region” — coffee, mascarpone, eggs, Marsala and ladyfinger cookies.
Piedigrotta, which is open Tuesday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sundays until 6 p.m., started business in 2002 in Baltimore’s Little Italy and remains a popular stopping point for dessert lovers visiting the city.
If you’re looking to get a taste of the wilderness while still staying in the city, then head to the National Aquarium, which features a living collection of more than 20,000 fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and marine mammals living in award-winning habitats, along with periodic talks and shows held throughout the day.
Through October, the Aquarium is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends, but hours change seasonally. Adult tickets cost about $40 a person and reservations are recommended.
The largest city in Maryland is crazy about Edgar Allan Poe, who called Baltimore home at both the beginning and end of his life. Besides countless restaurants, bars and trinkets adorning the city featuring Poe’s likeness, including Annabel Lee Tavern, which celebrates the author with a kitschy flair, fans can visit his home and museum in the city.
The National Historic Landmark, which is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the weekends from May 23 through Dec. 27, costs $5 and features a self-guided tour that takes visitors through the celebrated writer’s home. They can also head to his grave site at the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in the city.
The city districts that cater to tourists, such as the Inner Harbor, Fell’s Point and Little Italy, are very walkable areas, but there is also a much more interesting way to get around — the Baltimore Water Taxi. Even if you’re more than happy to wander, grab an $8 single ride ticket or a $14 all-day pass to travel to 13 stops on the Water Taxi’s trail to get a different view of the surrounding area.
Plus, just as they have been doing for the past 35 years, the Water Taxi employs locals who can give you the insight that you need on what to do, where to stay and where to eat during your visit.
Baltimore may be known for its sports, but it’s got a lot more under its baseball cap — including American history, a famous horror author, lots of sea animals, a trip around the Harbor and the world’s first tiramisu.
As serious weather warnings sent New Jerseyans flocking to their nearest grocery store to stock up on batteries, water and canned goods during the weekend of Oct. 3, I was on a four-hour drive to Seneca Lake to stay in the one place you don’t want to be during a storm — a cabin.
Seneca Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, theoretically is a very pleasant place to be as fall sets in on the Northeast. Surrounded by gentle autumn breezes, the passing waves of the lake water and the changing colors of the leaves, Seneca Lake is an ideal place for fall-lovers to kick off the festive season.
Since my camping trip to Seneca Lake was booked months in advance and the weather looked unfortunate yet not tragic, we embarked, with some hesitation, on our planned getaway.
However, staying in Burdett in a Seneca Secrets cabin, a collection of three rustic yet updated cabins on the east side of the lake for $150 a night, in 40-degree weather with only a wood stove to keep warm, wasn’t the way I envisioned waiting out the storm, which, granted, hit New York a lot less hard than it did New Jersey.
Turns out, though, it wasn’t so bad after all, as Seneca Lake’s attractions need a lot more than a few drops of rain and chilly weather to shut down.
Obviously, the most practical activity to do on the worst day of weather was to cruise some of the area’s 32 wineries, which make up the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. Each winery is a three-minute drive or less from the next alongside various roads running parallel to Seneca Lake and generally charge $5 to taste about six wines of your choice.
Although the weather didn’t lend itself well to hanging out on many of the wineries’ lush grounds or exploring their vineyards, it did work for relaxing in the tasting rooms, which reflect the personality of the winery. Plus, knowledgeable winery employees enthusiastically share stories and facts about their house-made wines and sometimes host tours of the production facilities.
Most wouldn’t think of a farmer’s market being the go-to place for a rainy day, but luckily, the Windmill Farm and Craft Market, about 25 minutes from Burdett through a relaxing country drive, primarily houses its vendors indoors within four buildings.
Vendors include those that sell baked goods, produce, antiques, home goods, clothing, jewelry and food items to 8,000 to 10,000 people every week, and have been doing so for the past 28 years.
Rain or shine, everyone needs to eat, and a full day of wine tasting and shopping will make any tourist crave a hearty meal. Restaurants and wineries in Seneca Lake love their local goods, and the Stonecat Café, an acclaimed organic regional restaurant nested in Hector, is no exception.
Open for lunch, brunch and dinner for the past 17 years, the Stonecat Café regularly hosts live music within its homey restaurant, including a jazz band during their weekly Sunday jazz brunches. As the season changes, the menu does as well, making for a truly unique autumn meal at its tables. Before you leave, make sure you check out their herb, flower and vegetable garden in the backyard, which remains bright and buzzing no matter the weather.
Although Watkins Glen State Park, the third-place pick in the USA TODAY Readers’ Choice Poll for Best State Park in the U.S., is best enjoyed in pleasant weather, there was no way that I was missing the 19 waterfalls of the park descended from the 200-foot cliffs along the two-mile gorge trail.
Through the trail, visitors can wander over and under waterfalls and through the cool spray of the Cavern Cascade. In the autumn, the surrounding forest is in full effect, presenting an enviable and colorful backdrop to the flowing waterfalls.
Right around the corner from Watkins Glen State Park is downtown Watkins Glen, which contains a few charming streets of turn-of-the-century homes as well as little shops such as O’Shaughnessy Antiques, a quirky vintage shop with antiques, estate jewelry, vintage designer clothing, vintage books, home furnishings and other odd finds from Louise O’Shaughnessy.
Other shops on the strip include the Fingerlakes Fiber Yarn Store, O Susannah Quilts and Gift, Watkins Glen Sporting Goods, Putty Jug, an antiques dealer, Coins Bought, a coin dealer, Country Haven Treasures, a furniture store, and Village Variety Shop, a used book store.
Seneca Lake, a haven for all things autumn with its changing fall foliage, quiet drives, independently owned wineries and shops and quaint cabins overlooking the lake, is a place best enjoyed in the pleasantry of sunshine. However, a little rain didn’t get in my way of getting my first taste of the season in the Finger Lakes — and since you won’t have a storm blocking your trip, nothing should get in the way of your visit to this haven of fall.
SENECA LAKE ATTRACTIONS
Stay at Seneca Secrets, a collection of three rustic, yet updated cabins located on the east side of the lake in Burdett for $150 a night, which include two rooms, two full-size beds, one bathroom, a kitchen and living room. Visit senecasecrets.com or call 908-922-8518.
Taste wines on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, which include 32 wineries that are generally located about three minutes from the next. Prices vary per tasting, but usually, wineries charge about $5 to sample six wines of your choice. Visitsenecalakewine.com or call 877-536-2717.
Shop at the Windmill Farm and Craft Market, which has over 200 vendors selling baked goods, produce, antiques, home goods, clothing, jewelry and food items. It is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every Saturday until Dec. 12. Visitthewindmill.com or call 315-536-3032.
Hike through Watkins Glen State Park, which features 19 waterfalls descended from 200-foot cliffs along a two-mile gorge trail. Vehicle entrance fee is $8 and park is open year-round. Visit nysparks.com/parks/142 or call 607-535-4511.
Wander through downtown Watkins Glen, which contains a few charming streets of turn-of-the-century homes as well as little shops. Visit watkinsglenchamber.com or call 800-607-4552.
With some of the best beaches in the country, combined with a laid-back, classic Lowcountry vibe, it’s no surprise that 2.5 million sun-hungry visitors flock to Hilton Head Island every year.
What many of these tourists don’t realize, however, is that there is a much friendlier and alluring hidden gem of a town less than 10 miles away.
Bluffton, South Carolina, on the banks of the May River, is filled with pre-Civil War homes, ancestral churches, locally owned restaurants and one resort community that has been rolling in praise while remaining understated.
Many resort communities have an aura of tackiness, filled with obnoxious colors, loud music and crowds. However, the Inn at Palmetto Bluff, a Montage resort, which contains an inn, cottages, cottage suites, vacation homes, a church, restaurants and a plethora of outdoor life bounded by the May, Cooper and New rivers, sets itself apart in a reposition of functioning as its own village.
Winding, quiet streets in a centuries-old maritime forest filled with live oaks and red cedars, the classic Southern homes in the Inn at Palmetto Bluff operate as a neighborhood with amenities and activities.
Palmetto Bluff certainly hasn’t gone without recognition. It was ranked in 2014 as the No. 1 hotel in South Carolina and No. 2 in the country by the U.S. News and World Report, as well as Conde Nast Traveler’s No. 1 resort in the U.S. and No. 11 resort in the world in 2013, among many other awards.
The accommodations, which feature touches such as vaulted ceilings, fireplaces and verandas with views of the surrounding Lowcountry, are priced from $1 million to $3 million for purchase and from $425 for a cottage stay that sleeps four to $1,170 a night for a village home stay that sleeps eight for rent.
Although this does price out many visitors, you don’t need to be a Palmetto Bluff guest to enjoy some of the resort features.
Buffalo’s, a corner café open for breakfast and lunch across from the community chapel in Wilson Village, sits parallel to the May River, with a menu offering salads, sandwiches, pastries and bar items.
Other restaurants in the community include RT’s Market, a neighborhood general store, and the River House Restaurant, a farm-fresh eatery with a deep Southern feel.
Perhaps the biggest draw of Palmetto Bluff, however, isn’t what visitors can find indoors but what they can find outdoors in the 20,000 acres of the property. By hopping on a bike, horse or by foot, tourists can explore the Bluff trails or waterways by kayak, canoe or paddleboard.
While on the water, fishermen can drop a line for largemouth bass and bream, as well as saltwater fishing for tarpon, cobia, redfish and sea trout.
Palmetto Bluff also houses a 1913 60-foot antique motor yacht that is one of the last remaining pre-World War I gas-powered yachts, restored and available for tours and private charter at any time.
Back on land, Longfield Stables is home to the community’s equestrian facility, a 173-acre farm surrounded by 15 miles of trails.
Besides getting a workout outdoors, visitors can also check out the Bluff’s fitness centers, movement studio, heated horizon lap pools overlooking the May River and award-winning day spa.
No resort community is complete without a golf club, and May River Golf Club, a par-72 course, holds sand from Ohio at Jack Nicklaus Signature Course along 7,200 yards running on the banks of the May River. Golfers of all skill levels in a state-of-the-art practice facility can play at the Bluff’s course, consistently ranked among the best in South Carolina.
However, it’s not all about taking from the land — it’s about giving to it, too. The Palmetto Bluff Conservancy is a nonprofit organization that protects the natural resources of the property, funded by every home sale on the site.
To showcase and protect other forms of community beauty such as local artists, public art shows are also routinely held on the property in a medium that allows visitors to interact with artists, as well as blues, jazz, Southern rock, Lowcountry stomp and bluegrass artists and performers.
Although tourists looking for the laid-back, timeless feel of South Carolina tend to head to Hilton Head Island, a more genuine Southern experience can be found just a few miles away in Bluffton — and thanks to Palmetto Bluff, the same resort element of luxury found on the island can be found in the small town, too.
Where: 476 Mount Pelia Rd. in Bluffton, South Carolina, about eight miles from Hilton Head Island
Rates: Accommodations currently are priced from $1 million to $3 million for purchase and from $425 for a cottage stay that sleeps four to $1,170 a night for a village home stay that sleeps eight
Whether it’s an Ocean Avenue full of beach rats, Seaside Heights full of rowdy teenagers or supposed dirty beaches, many have something bad to say about the famous coastline ruling the East Coast.
However, when we think of some of the biggest town names of the Shore — Wildwood, Belmar, Atlantic City — one place that tends to escape the list is Cape May.
For the same reasons that Cape May is set apart from the “typical” Shore town, it’s also an ideal Shore spot to bring mom as Mother’s Day creeps up on us this weekend and spring is in full bloom.
Walk Victorians that line streets
Unbeknownst to most weekend beachgoers, the entirety of Cape May is designated as a National Historic Landmark because of the concentration of Victorian buildings in the three-square-mile city. Instead of being roped off from tourists with entrance fees tacked on, people live in these 600-or-so homes and they make it count.
You can live in these homes for a brief time, too — take advantage of more than 30 antiquated bed-and-breakfasts in the Victorian district that ooze regality and charm. The historic bed-and-breakfasts often offer antique furnishings, gourmet breakfasts, afternoon tea and period features, bringing a stay not equated with most other lodgings on the Jersey Shore from about $125 a night.
If you wander through the shady, laid-back town, you’ll quickly notice that the colorful Victorian homes are adorned with elaborate gardens, eccentric details and people casually enjoying their tea on wrap-around porches. This makes the city feel very comfortable, lived in and real.
Don’t miss the Emlen Physick Estate on a leisurely walk, a Victorian house museum that will take you back to the era through the home’s architecture and décor throughout 15 restored rooms for $12 a person.
Lounge on some of best U.S. beaches
The city boasts the cleanest beaches around. It’s probably partially because the neat and tidy beaches, such as Higbee Beach or Poverty Beach, cost $6 a day, but nonetheless, the Natural Resource Defense Council has designated the 24 Cape May beaches one of its 38 cities of “Superstar Beaches” due to the quality of the water.
Although it may not be warm enough to swim during Mother’s Day weekend, the season doesn’t officially start until Memorial Day Weekend, meaning you can skip the $6 daily pass and simply enjoy the bright beaches and clean sand.
Also check out Cape May Point State Park, which is full of beaches, marshlands, an exhibit gallery as well as nature trails throughout its 235 acres. The park is also known as one of the best places in North America to view bird migration, making birding one of the most popular activities for outdoorsy visitors at the park.
You can also climb to the top of the Cape May Lighthouse for $8 a person at the park. Built in 1869, you’ll join the 100,000 people who hike the 199 steps to the top each year and get a stellar view of the end of the state, where Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Sample local food and wine
The Washington Street Mall, in the heart of the Victorian district in a walkable distance from the beach and most central bed-and-breakfasts, only contains shops that are privately or family owned and are a great stop for visitors to head to an ice cream parlor, café, restaurant or clothing boutique.
One of my favorite Washington Street Mall restaurants is A Ca Mia, which operates as a bakery, art gallery and Northern Italian restaurant inside a building constructed in 1872. Try the crab cake Italiano, oven-baked crabcakes with fresh crabmeat, peppers, spinach and pine nuts served with caper aioli and capellini in a tomato pesto sauce for $22 for one cake or $31 for two.
The Lobster House, on Cape May Harbor, is a great alternative to pricey seafood dining with the hometown, lazy feel of a boardwalk restaurant. With a modest price tag for outdoor seating, you can grab some menus, mark it up with friends and family, and head over to the bars to grab your crab cakes, clam chowder and oysters on the half shell at market price and enjoy them on the deck across the bay from million-dollar homes and yachts and plenty of gulls.
The Cape May Winery and Vineyard, about five miles from the tourist center of Cape May, can provide a $6 wine tasting cap to a seafood dinner from down the street. Sample wines throughout four vineyards from 70 acres of the property from one of the three tasting rooms or the wooden deck overlooking the vineyards.
With pastel Victorians and cool streets full of weeping willows, the city boasts wallet-friendly yet memorable family attractions that are ideal for a day trip or a long weekend by the beach to celebrate the number one woman in your life — mom.
CAPE MAY ATTRACTIONS
Emlen Physick Estate is a Victorian house museum which contains 15 renovated rooms that can be toured for 45 minutes for $12 a person at 1048 Washington Street and can be reached at 609-884-5404.
Bed-and-breakfasts in Cape May range from $160 to $400 a night for Mother’s Day weekend. Around 30 are throughout the city, most concentrated near the ocean and central Victorian district.