When planning your next vacation, it’s easy to fall back on trustworthy locales — destinations that you’ve visited before or have read about ad nauseam in travel mags and on social media. Yes, these stunning standbys are accessible and travel-worthy, but the hitch is that their secret is out. Throw caution to the wind and check out a less-familiar destination this time around. Get ready to revamp your bucket list with these seven adventures.
Considering a national park visit? Go to a state park instead.
National parks, vast spaces set aside for wildlife preservation, recreation, and cultural immersion, are definitely America’s best idea, but they can be quite crowded, especially in the summer months. Great Smoky Mountains National Park had more than 11 million visitors last year, Grand Canyon National Park welcomed over 6 million, and Yellowstone National Park had over 4 million tourists. In contrast, America’s state parks keep a much lower profile. Here are our favorites: Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah, Cape Disappointment State Park (yes, that’s its real name) in Washington, and Cathedral Gorge State Park in Nevada.
Niagara Falls State Park in New York (the country’s oldest state park) is widely visited, of course, but it offers a quintessential American experience that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Bonus: It’s free to walk into Niagara Falls State Park to see the falls and the park is open every day of the year. Check out the iconic Maid of the Mist boat cruise to get an up-close, in-your-face view of the falls, or go zip lining 2,200 feet into the Canadian Horseshoe Falls on MistRider Zipline.
Stay Here: If visiting the falls, stay at the Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndham Niagara Falls. You’ll be near Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino, the Niagara Wine Trail, Niagara Adventure Theater, Aquarium of Niagara, Cave of the Winds, and the Niagara Falls Visitor Center. The property is affordable, especially for families, and breakfast is included. If you want a more off-the-beaten path experience, the hotel can recommend hiking trails to explore.
Love Florence? Try Barga.
Italy has so many well-known and well-loved cities: Rome, Venice, Milan, Naples, Verona, and, of course, Florence, the capital — and most populous — city of the Italian region of Tuscany.
Instead, visit Barga, a beautiful medieval town in the Tuscan countryside in the province of Lucca. With only 10,000 residents calling the Media Valle, along the Serchio River, home, it’s charming, authentic, and removed from the hordes of tourists that you’ll find in the bigger cities. Visit the Duomo di Barga, located at the tip top of the town, which coils up a hill with narrow cobblestone roads and little shops and restaurants.
Fun fact: Barga is known as “The most Scottish town in Italy” due to a large number of Italians that emigrated to Scotland at the end of the 19th century and then returned home. You can see red telephone boxes on the streets of this little village, which were introduced from the U.K. Great times to visit are during the Festival Opera Barga and Barga Jazz Festival. In the warmer months, participate in a sagra, a large open-air communal meal (order the fish and chips, a nod to the Scottish history).
Stay Here: The Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa, a peaceful mountain-top hotel perched high in the Lucca landscape, overlooks 1,700 acres of landscaped grounds. Dine at La Veranda or, better yet, enlist the help of the head chef to lead you and your family in a cooking class. You’ll hand select ingredients in a local market; work in the kitchen, shaping pastas and stirring sauces; and then sit in a private room while you dine and sample Italian wines.
Thinking of road tripping? All aboard the Rocky Mountaineer.
Train travel is having a brilliant moment in the spotlight — and what could be more romantic than flying down a train track, up and over mountain passes, in the Canadian Rockies? Enter: Rocky Mountaineer.
Travel down Hells Gate, a railroad built in the 1880s, over a gorge that early explorers traversed. See the historic site of Craigellachie, where the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven into the ground. Venture through the spiral tunnels at Kicking Horse Pass and Yoho National Park (YOLO in Yoho!), and spend a night in Banff National Park.
Rocky Mountaineer’s First Passage to the West trip is really a dining adventure as well. You’ll have hot food on board; cocktails, tea, and hot cocoa; snacks throughout the day; and if you indulge in the Gold Leaf service, you’ll be able to visit the dining car and have an elevated experience with the other guests on board. The First Passage to the West, which travels along Kicking Horse River, is a beloved historic route that stops in Kamloops, Lake Louise, and Banff. Bonus: Rocky Mountaineer is the only passenger train to operate on the route. You’ll see locals wave and smile as you pass through small towns — everyone seems to adore the train and wait for its arrival.
Dreaming of Hawaii? Try Aruba.
Less expensive airfare is not the only reason Aruba might be a better choice than Hawaii this year. Aruba, an island country that is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, is unlike much of the Caribbean due to its lovely semi-arid dry climate and aloe vera- and cacti-strewn landscape. Bonus: Aruba is located outside of the Hurricane zone and the island experiences year-round warm and sunny weather.
Out of 110,000 inhabitants on the island, there are more than 90 different nationalities from all over the globe, enriching the experiences you’ll have as a traveler. Fun fact: Aruba has been named as the Happiest Island in the World in the Happiness Index Study and it’s easy to see why once you’ve met some of the people that live here.
While kicking it island-style, visit some of the natural wonders unique to the area: Arikok National Park; Bubali Bird Sanctuary; one of the many natural pools, bridges, rock formations, and caves; and the sand dunes. Families will love the Butterfly Farm, Aruba Aloe Factory and Museum, Alto Vista Chapel, Donkey Sanctuary Aruba, Guadirikiri Cave, Bushiribana Gold Mill Ruins, and the many flat white-sand beaches that this Dutch-Caribbean island is most loved for. Don’t forget to bring your camera as you’re wandering around Oranjestad — the multi-hued architecture here is gorgeous. So, brush up on your Papiamento (English is also widely spoken) and give Aruba a go.
Stay Here: Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino is not only known for its amenities and service, but also for its Palm Beach and that oh-so-serene ocean view. You’ll want to indulge in a Balinese-style treatment at Mandara Spa, dine at Ruth’s Chris Steak House and La Vista, and take advantage of the on-site concierge services to book sightseeing adventures like a Jeep tour, sailing, golf, scuba diving, and more.
Enjoy Seattle? Go to the San Juan Islands.
The Pacific Northwest is an adventurer’s paradise, and if you love kayaking and hiking, the San Juan Islands are definitely for you. For three nature-filled days, with the help of REI Adventures, you’ll paddle to your heart’s content, crossing channels and lagoons and picnicking along the way. You’ll be joined by a naturalist guide for insight into the local flora and fauna as well as the vibrant history of the area. Watch out for sea lions, harbor seals, and even a dolphin or two. At the end of the day, you’ll have a fantastic backcountry dinner, complete with Washington wines. Camping on Stuart Island will be an indelible experience and you’ll be far from the hustle and bustle of Seattle. If you want a female-only trip, join the San Juan Islands Women’s Weekend for an experience unlike any other.
Thinking of Cancun? Go to Panama.
Visit the crossroads of the Americas for a unique vacation, full of delectable eats, enchanting streets, and beachy vibes. Plus, there’s a sloth sanctuary: Gamboa Sloth Sanctuary and Wildlife Rescue Center. The Panama Canal, an engineering feat of strength and ingenuity, is one of the highlights of this destination. You can watch the gigantic container ships go through the lock system and then visit the insightful museum afterward. Definitely visit Casco Viejo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and enjoy on a berry-flavored raspado (shaved ice with syrup) prepared by a street vendor.
Stay Here: The Westin Playa Bonita Panama, a lovely beach resort with panoramic Pacific Ocean views, is only 20 minutes from Panama City and 30 minutes from Miraflores Locks. Cool off in one of the three infinity-edge pools, dine in one of the six restaurants (Oceanica and Tierra y Fuego are standouts), and indulge in a body scrub or massage treatment at Sensory Spa.
Adore the Wild West? Try the heart of the Midwest: Nebraska
“Nebraska. Honestly, It’s Not for Everyone.” Nebraska’s clever tourism marketing initiative has us in stitches, not only because it’s true — Nebraska isn’t for everyone — but also because this campaign is smart and waggish. So, here’s why you should consider Nebraska for your next vacation.
Nebraska is dark at night, which means the stars are bright, and in a world of heavy light pollution, it’s a dream come true to see the Milky Way so clearly. Arrange for a camping vacation at Merritt Reservoir. Or, try something quirky like tanking, which is an organized event where you float down a slow-moving river in a — wait for it — livestock tank. Carhenge is another fun photo-worthy place to visit — 39 stacked cars resemble Stonehenge (really!).
By far, however, the coolest Nebraskan phenomenon is the Sandhill Crane migration, where over a quarter of a million birds — that’s over 80 percent of the world’s population — roost and roam along the Platte River, creating one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the planet. The cacophony of sound as these creatures takeoff en masse at sunrise and land en masse at sunset is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. To see them, book a blind at Rowe Sanctuary, stay warm and see them from inside the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center’s Visitor Center, or stay at the Crane Trust’s Legacy Cabins for a VIP viewing experience.
As Jane Goodall said, “I’ve traveled far and wide, and coming to Nebraska, and seeing and hearing the cranes always restores my soul.”
Wendy Altschuler is a seasoned travel and lifestyle writer with more than a decade of clips in various publications: MSN, Delta Sky, Modern Luxury, Sun-Times Media, Tribune Brand Copy, Parents Magazine, Yoga Magazine, The Daily Meal, Spafinder, Red Tricycle, Eluxe Magazine, and many more. She is happiest when out exploring and adventuring or on a trail with her family and pup. Follow her on social @wendyaltschuler or visit her website: wendyaltschuler.com.