Close to home, but pack a passport: Andros Island, the Bahamas
The Bahamas offers every kind of vacation experience. Floridians might be most familiar with the close-at-hand fun of Bimini or the resorts of Grand Bahama. But for a different kind of Bahamas adventure, try the large but sparsely populated Andros.
Flanked by a massive barrier reef and spotted with mangrove swamps and tidal pools, Andros offers the Bahamas’ most diverse nature. Divers and snorkelers will want to try the reef, while fishermen will be drawn to the Tongue of the Ocean, which just off Andros drops off 6,000 feet and offers all sorts of big game fish. On land, hikers and birdwatchers will find enough to keep interested for days.
Andros is sparsely populated, with less than 10,000 people residing on the island, mostly clumped in small towns and villages along the main road. That doesn’t mean the place lacks for accommodation though, with several longstanding resorts leading the way.
Where to stay: The island is peppered with small cottages and resorts. The Andros Island Beach Resort also offers kayaking and other excursions, as well as an excellent tiki bar with food in Nicholls Town. More information: Bahamas.com
In Florida: Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
“Prairie.” Not a Florida-sounding word. Kind of like discussing the beaches of Kansas. And while this prairie is technically more of a freshwater marsh, it still offers a sprawling slice of Florida nature – with plenty of urban amenities not far away.
The park’s 21,000 acres south of Gainesville offer hiking, bicycling and horseback riding. (There’s a 16-mile paved trail for cyclists who aren’t quite so adventurous.) You can canoe or kayak, and there’s a 50-foot observation tower to take in all of what is a highly diverse natural habitat.
If you want to add some history and Americana to the trip, the park sits just outside the town of Micanopy. It bills itself as “the town that time forgot,” and a look at the compact downtown’s colorful 19th-century buildings and mature moss-covered trees gives an idea of why. Not much farther north sits Gainesville – and when most of the students have gone home, you might just be able to get into a restaurant or bar.
Where to stay: The park offers full hook-up camping for RVs and trailers as well as hike-in-only primitive camping. There are a number of hotels and B&Bs in nearby, historic Micanopy – and even more places to stay just up the road in Gainesville. More info: floridastateparks.org/park/Paynes-Prairie
In the Southeast: The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina
What is it about Floridians and North Carolina? Everybody else comes here, and we decamp to the Tar Heel State.
Not that there’s no good reason for this. The mountains of western North Carolina offer the kind of trip that satisfies everybody – the golfer, the nature enthusiast, the urban sophisticate, the kids who demand at least one theme park on the trip.
In terms of hiking, it’s tough to know where to start. Between the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, Great Smoky Mountains National Park which straddles North Carolina and Tennessee, and a number of state and local parks, trails and nature are impossible to miss. One of the most popular hikes is Pisgah’s Looking Glass Rock. It’s almost seven miles of uphill climbing to get there, but boy is it worth it when you do.
The whole family can head across to Tennessee for Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s theme park that’s as wholesome a day out as you’ll find. Then there’s the city of Asheville – small, but packing a big punch. Known for its Americana music scene and as one of the best craft-beer cities in the eastern US, its thriving arts and culture scene can be enjoyed for a lot less money than, say, a weekend in New York.
Where to stay: You’re spoilt for choice. There are a number of campgrounds, private vacation rentals and hotels throughout the region. For real luxury, try the Inn on Biltmore Estate, the luxury hotel on the grounds of the Vanderbilt family’s famed Biltmore House. One other tip: Summer is high season in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so don’t presume you can head up without reservations. More info: ncblueridge.com
Elsewhere in America: St. Louis
As a central time zone tourist destination, the Missouri city tends to get overlooked in favor of Memphis to the south or Chicago to the north. But this is a fascinating city with lots to do and plenty to explore. Opened in 1876 and host to the 1904 Summer Olympics, Forest Park is one of the US’ grandest public parks. Its 1,371 acres in the city’s west end include a zoo, a science center, an art museum and the Missouri History Museum. (That last one’s worth a visit even if you’re not big on Missouri history; it’s one of the nation’s most creative tellers of our national story.)
North of the park, the University City neighborhood is home to the Delmar Loop, the city’s bohemian quarter, while south of the park you find the Hill, an old Italian-American neighborhood. You can get a healthy argument going between St. Louis people about which is the best mom-and-pop Italian restaurant on the Hill.
Downtown in the summer you’ll see plenty of red; few cities unite behind their baseball teams the way St. Louis gets behind the Cardinals. And yes, no trip is complete without a ride up the city’s most famous landmark, the vertigo-inducing Arch.
If you don’t feel like renting a car, most of St. Louis’ major attractions and popular areas are within walking distance of the city’s MetroLink rail system, which also connects to Lambert International Airport.
Where to stay: Like most major US cities, St. Louis offers a vast selection of hotels from budget to high-end. One fun option is the Cheshire, a British-themed boutique hotel just off the southwest corner of Forest Park. More info: explorestlouis.com