1. Grand Rapids & Lake Michigan’s Gold Coast
Beach bums, beer lovers, and art enthusiasts agree: there’s a lot to love about western Michigan this year. Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second-largest city, was voted best beer city in the US by the national Beer Examiner blog in 2012 and 2013, and its beer-tourism revolution rages on. Over 25 craft breweries pour in the area, and events like Cool Brews Hot Eats and the Winter Beer Festival (both in February), and the Summer Craft Beer Festival (August), keep the city festive year-round. Hops aside, the secret about Grand Rapids’ fabulous art scene is getting out. In addition to the impressive blooms and Rodin sculptures in the Frederik Meijer Gardens, and the excellent Grand Rapids Art Museum housed in a cool LEED Gold certified building, Grand Rapids is home to the world’s largest art competition, ArtPrize, in which more than 1700 creatives display their masterpieces.
A mere 30 miles away sprawls Lake Michigan’s Gold Coast, perhaps the USA’s most unexpected beach getaway. Some argue that these shores rival Hawaii’s and Southern California’s. Along 300 miles of seemingly endless beaches lie sugar-white dunes, wineries, antiquing, U-pick orchards and berry farms, cider houses, Hemingway haunts – you can even go surfing. In Michigan! So if you never thought you could head to the Midwest for a Cape Cod-esque beach vacation, think again.
2. Yosemite National Park, CA
Much to the world’s delight, after the national parks’ temporary closure due to the government shutdown in 2013, Yosemite’s majestic peaks, thunderous waterfalls, and flower-peppered subalpine meadows are welcoming visitors again. Relax under the gaze of the valley’s monolithic El Capitan and Half Dome, or attain stunning views by climbing to Inspiration Point and Yosemite Falls (North America’s tallest). The crowds thin – as does the air – as you penetrate the park’s pristine backcountry, where you can hike for months. And through summer 2014, the park and gateway communities will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant, signed by President Lincoln and a precursor to the modern National Park System. This milestone act was the first time a federal government set aside a piece of land purely for preservation by and for the people. Thanks, Abe!
3. Boston, MA
Hot on the heels of another Red Sox World Series win, in January 2014 Boston is hosting the 100th annual US Figure Skating Championships, where the US Winter Olympics team is determined. Come spring, the gaze of international sports fans – if not the world in general – will turn to the Boston Marathon. Despite concern that the bombings in 2013 would deter entrants from the 2014 race, this will be the second-biggest Boston Marathon ever, with 36,000 runners flooding the course. And once summer hits, the city’s usual festivities are in full swing: all sorts of festivals abound, beer gardens and restaurant patios overflow, and a thriving arts and entertainment scene keep Bostonians content as the humidity yields to stunning, vibrantly colored autumn. Year-round, the past is very much alive here: follow in America’s revolutionary founders’ footsteps on the Freedom Trail, stopping to imbibe a bit of history at the Bell in Hand Tavern, the oldest tavern in the USA.
4. Central Coast, CA
Often dismissed as flyover country between San Francisco and Los Angeles, this surreally scenic stretch of the Pacific coast is California at its best. Laid-back beach towns, sea-hugging Hwy 1 (one of the USA’s most iconic roadways), cliff-top lookouts, hidden coves, sea lion colonies and other wildlife, fantastical Hearst Castle, Spanish missions, pleasant weather (even if it’s foggy) and no crowds. Dip inland to the up-and-coming Paso Robles wine country for scenery rivaling Napa and Sonoma. Back to the coast, after gasping at the raw beauty and energy of the 100-mile stretch of craggy coastline that is Big Sur, stop at the world-renowned, ecoconscious Monterey Bay Aquarium, who celebrates their 30th birthday this year. (To beat the aquarium crowds, buy tickets in advance and arrive when the doors open. The jellyfish exhibit is otherworldly.)
Outstanding farmers markets dot the coast. Check out Santa Barbara’s on Tuesday afternoons and Saturday mornings, and San Luis Obispo’s, which turns into a full-on street festival every Thursday evening.
5. Jersey Shore
Perhaps the most famous and revered part of New Jersey is its sparkling shore. Stretching from Sandy Hook to Cape May, the coastline is studded with resort towns ranging from tacky to classy. Hurricane Sandy in 2013 and the more recent fire on the Seaside Heights boardwalk devastated the Shore; as the recovery efforts continue, the 2014 summer season will be an important one for local communities. So come embrace the kitsch and you’ll discover a coastal extravaganza filled with family fun: beaches, dunes, lighthouses, amusement rides, go-karts, funnel cakes, bike trails, fishing, shopping, galleries, and more. It’s mobbed in summer, but in spring and autumn you may find yourself wonderfully alone on the toe-kissing sands.
Highlights include Wildwood, a kitschy slice of 1950s Americana and home to the state’s widest beach and the grand-daddy of Jersey Shore boardwalks. And of course, there’s the legendary, not-exactly-Vegas-but-kinda Atlantic City, whose famous 8-mile boardwalk was the first in the world. The fun ends at southernmost Cape May, with stunning Victorian architecture, sweeping beaches, and the only place in Jersey where the sun rises and sets over the water.
Post-Sandy, Asbury Park’s downtown is getting a revamped, revitalized image. The Antique Emporium of Asbury Park has two levels of amazing finds.
6. Kansas City, MO
Wide open and inviting Kansas City is famed for more than its 200 fountains (on par with Rome). Over 100 barbecue joints feed the city’s grateful denizens (and tourists), and the jazz and blues scenes serve as an anchor for a vibrant African American community. Kansas City’s intriguing and walkable neighborhoods warrant exploration, from the 1920s shopping district of Country Club Plaza to the Crossroads Arts District, which lives up to its name, and Westport’s alluring locally owned restaurants and bars.
Particularly appealing to World War I history buffs: Kansas City is home to the National WWI Museum. As 2014 marks the war’s centennial, major celebrations and events will ensue, and the museum’s adjacent Liberty Memorial is getting a $5 million renovation for the festivities.
Take your appetite across the border into Kansas City, Kansas, for incredible BBQ at Oklahoma Joe’s. People fly in for their ‘burnt ends’, the crispy ends of smoked pork or beef brisket. Amazing.
7. Cumberland Island, GA
One of the most underdeveloped places in the US, Cumberland Island is magical. Picture virgin beaches, windswept dunes, feral horses, wild turkeys, tiny fiddler crabs, beautiful butterflies, skittering armadillos, mossy old oaks, breathtaking sunrises… that’s Cumberland. Most of this unspoiled paradise, the largest of the Sea Islands in terms of continuously exposed land, is national seashore. On the ocean side are 18 miles of pristine sandy beach you’ll have all to yourself. The rest is maritime forest, marsh, mudflats, tidal creeks, and astounding ruins of the Dungeness mansion, once owned by the Carnegies. The whole lot is laden with hiking trails – 50 miles of ’em – and backcountry camping is permitted.
St. Mary’s is the island’s gateway, and where the mainland facilities and ferry terminal are located. Stafford Beach has some of the best sands in the South (excluding Florida, of course), and the magnificent old Greyfield Inn houses non-campers and the only restaurant on the island.
8. Las Vegas, NV
It’s always happening in Vegas, baby. But this year there’s more to discover than how much your savings have been depleted, especially as this dazzling rhinestone of a city attempts to draw more lower-rolling tourists in 2014 (per-person gaming revenue has dropped by 30% since 2006). Fremont East and the Arts District near downtown are blossoming into vibrant neighborhoods in their own right; the former has recently developed into an artsy hub – this is where the locals come to eat and drink. Lots of hip new bars, cafes and galleries – not to mention the Burlesque Hall of Fame – give revelers excellent reason to venture off the Strip. For the Strip-bound, the world’s tallest observation wheel (aptly named the High Roller), part of Caesars’ new $550 million LINQ ‘district,’ is slated to open center-Strip in mid-2014.
For high-octane thrills, find time between Blackjack hands for Vegas Indoor Skydiving, go-karting at Fast Lap, or ziplining with Flightlinez.
9. Sun Valley, ID
Sun Valley is the perfect alternative to Colorado’s ritzy resort areas, especially in summer when costs and visitor numbers are smaller. Camping, hiking, mountain biking, fly fishing, cultural events, and great food abound. In winter, world-class skiing can be had at the first purpose-built ski resort in the US, and you can ride the lifts with swanky Hollywoodsters in a refined and pretty place, sans fast-food joints and condo sprawl. Also absent: crowds and lift lines!
The stunning location is as impressive as the snow, and nearby Ketchum retains its authenticity and rustic beauty despite the seasonal deluges. A bit further on, Stanley – which might be the most scenic town in the US – is nestled on the crook of the Salmon River, thus a perfect launch site for killer rafting with the aptly named Sawtooth Mountains providing a dramatic backdrop.
Ernest Hemingway, who is buried here, had a deep affection for Sun Valley, and allegedly completed For Whom the Bell Tolls in the Sun Valley Lodge’s room 206 in between fishing and hunting excursions with buds Gary Cooper and Clark Gable.
10. Lana‘i, Hawaii
This unique speck of paradise boasts empty beaches, snorkeling and diving, shipwrecks, petroglyphs (!), otherworldly rock formations, red-dirt roads, rugged hiking (or 4WD) trails, and one of our favorite poke (raw fish salad) markets in the state. Lana‘i’s candy-colored plantation-style homes and teeny town center – yes, there’s only one town – offer a sense of isolation and small-island charm. It’s also about to undergo some serious change – and many say for the better.
The smallest of the visitable Hawaiian Islands is currently a mix of Hawaiian and Asian cultures, ritzy pools and rugged shores, and luxury and down-home travel experiences. Oracle bazillionaire Larry Ellison purchased 98% of the island in 2012, and his plans for Lana‘i are reputedly going to honor these distinctions while opening more high-end resorts and doubling the population. While some fear Lana‘i will become a playground for the wealthy, at least the playground will be, as Ellison puts it, ‘a laboratory for sustainability’ – and parts will still be accessible to budget-minded travelers, even if only by day-trip from Maui. Many feel this is all good, some not so much – it remains to be seen, but either way, see it now before it morphs.
Don’t worry, all the care goes into the food, not the décor, at the bare-bones Blue Ginger Café. Muffins hot from the oven are a must.