Posted by: bkivey | 13 August 2010

Holiday Roads Pt.2

Following on from yesterdays introduction to vacation opportunities in the U.S., here are some more places to spend a week .

Florida

If you decide to spend a week in Florida you may want to consider consider basing yourself in the Tampa – St. Petersburg area around Tampa Bay on the Suncoast. Aside from the many attractions in the area there is easy access to some of the more popular destinations in the state.

Tampa International Airport (TIA) is a well-designed airport with convenient access to major highways. Drive across the Bay and set up camp in St. Petersburg. While there you can spend a day on the downtown waterfront which is a charming place of parks, shops, restaurants, and the Salvador Dali museum.

On the other side of the Pinellas County peninsula are the world famous Gulf beaches. Wide, white sandy expanses beckon travelers from all over. If you’ve ever seen a northern European ‘beach’, you’ll know why. Parking is usually easy to find close to the beach access. Don’t miss the opportunity to have a grouper sandwich in one of the many small restaurants in the beach communities. For a little different experience check out Gulfport, the artistic center of the Tampa Bay area, on the southern tip of the peninsula.

A little less than two hours to the east up I-4 is Orlando, home of Disney World. The Disney complex has mushroomed so that if you want to experience it all you should probably make it your sole destination, but if you just want to experience it for a day it’s an easy drive from Tampa Bay and you can relax on a nice beach afterward while watching the sunset.

If jostling crowds in a theme park isn’t your idea of a vacation drive another hour north to Daytona Beach or 45 minutes east to the Cape Canaveral complex. If you time your vacation right (check the NASA website) you can see a launch but if you want to see a US manned space launch you better hurry; there are only two  Shuttle flights left, and those will no doubt bring massive crowds, but the experience is worth nearly any inconvenience. The launch complex is well worth a tour even if there are no launches scheduled.

Miami is about four hours south of Tampa Bay down I-75 then across the Everglades on ‘Alligator Alley’. It makes an interesting two – day side trip but if you only have a week, driving out to Key West is a stretch, as it’s another three hours from Miami. The south of Florida  is worth a week by itself so maybe you can save it for the next time.

One caveat: if you don’t live in a southern climate you’re going to notice that the sunlight in Florida is visibly more intense than where you’re from. It is way too easy to badly burn in a very short time. Plan accordingly.

Georgia/South Carolina Coast

The distance between Brunswick, GA and Charleston, SC is only about 200 miles, but covering ground isn’t the point of spending a vacation in this part of the country, leisurely exploration of the tidewater area and some of the oldest towns in America is.

Savannah is a good place to start and use as a base for a week in this historic coastal area. Savannah has one of the largest National Historic Landmark Districts in the country and has many examples of antebellum architecture along with a number of historic city squares.

An hour south on I-95 will take you to the port city of Brunswick, but you don’t want to take the Interstate. A far more scenic and enjoyable experience can be had by taking US 17 through the Spanish moss draped trees of the coastal South. When you get to Brunswick be sure to check out the historic downtown area and sample a bowl of famous Brunswick stew as well as the seafood for which the region is known.

Charleston is a couple of leisurely hours up US 17 from Savannah and on the way in to the city you’ll pass a number of stands selling locally crafted baskets. Here again, the purpose is to enjoy the journey.

Founded in 1670, Charleston was at one time the capital of South Carolina and the city has restored much of the downtown to it’s antebellum magnificence. The city is eminently walkable so park the car and wander around. After you’ve admired downtown take Hwy. 703 across the bridge to Sullivans Island. From here you can catch a ferry to Ft. Sumter, where the  first shots of the War of Northern Aggression were fired.

This is a beautiful part of the country that rewards a relaxed approach to exploring. Keep in mind that it is located in the South so in the summer it will be hot and humid with thunderstorms in the afternoon and clouds of mosquitoes in the evening. If you can go in the Fall you may have a more pleasant experience.

Hawai’i

While Hawai’i isn’t a drive-to destination, too many people get to Honolulu and Waikiki and never go anywhere else in the Islands. That’s unfortunate, because there is a lot more to see than many people experience.

Summer is a good time to visit because hotel and condominium rates are reasonable, especially if more than one person shares a room. It’s entirely possible to get a one-bedroom condo in Waikiki during the summer for less than $150 a night, and you can walk down to the beach to watch the tropical sunsets.

While in Honolulu take a day to tour the Pearl Harbor area. There are several points of interest besides the USS Arizona memorial (worth a visit) including the Undersea Warfare Museum and the USS Missouri. To see everything here will take the better part of a day.

On another day you may want to visit the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, where you can see examples of Polynesian culture from all over the Pacific. When I was there the main building of the Museum was not air conditioned, so if you go in the summer it will be stuffy inside, but the artifacts are worth spending half a day here. If you tour the museum in the morning, you can spend the afternoon climbing to the summit of Diamond Head. This is a pretty good climb so be prepared. You’ll also need a flashlight.

A short drive east of Honolulu is Hanauma Bay, where you can spend a relaxing afternoon soaking up sun on the shore. There is a fee to get in. Along the road to the Bay there are several blowholes where you can see spectacular fountains of spray if the wind is right.

A relaxing day trip is a drive to the North Shore of Oahu. If you are visiting in the summer you won’t see the big waves, but there are a number of places where you can sit in the sun on a deck with a cool drink and watch the ocean. Ah, vacation.

A couple of day trips worth mentioning are excursions to Maui and the Big Island of Hawai’i. There are a number of fly-drive packages to Maui from Oahu that include roundtrip airfare and a rental car for the day for a reasonable price. From Kahului airport you can drive the very scenic and very winding Hwy. 360 around the southern half of the island while circumnavigating Mt. Haleakala. Along the way you can see the grave of Charles Lindbergh. This road is very narrow in places and is not well paved in others. Some of the sections are dirt road, and there are a number of large tour buses that can make navigating some sections of the road challenging. This trip around the island takes about six hours.

You can also drive to the top of Mt. Haleakala on Hwy. 378. There is a fee to drive to the top, but you’re going from sea level to 10,000 feet in only 21 miles, so it’s worth the drive.  At the top you’re above the clouds and can see Mauna Loa and Maun Kea on the Big Island to the southeast.

The other day trip of note is a journey to the Big Island. My trip here was the first time I’d taken an organized tour and it was a surprisingly good experience. It was nice to let a knowledgeable guide do the driving while pointing out a lot of items of interest I would have missed on my own. There were only seven people in the group so the structure of the tour was pretty casual. If you sit on the right side of airplane into Hilo you’ll notice that on the approach you’re looking up at the telescope installations on Mauna Kea.

Whether you are part of a group or on your own the main attraction on the island is Volcanoes National Park. There is a visitor’s center on the lip of the Kilauea caldera and a number of other interesting things to see here, including recent lava flows. When I was there a plume from the current eruption was visible and you can charter a helicopter to give you a closer look, but it’s an expensive option.

If you want to buy an aloha shirt or two shun the chain stores like Hilo Hatties and the ABC stores. Look instead in the smaller surf shops and look for the well-made shirt with the thicker material. You’ll pay more than the other places, but you’ll have a wider variety of designs to choose from and the shirts will hold up better years after your trip.

Fun anecdote: On a flight from Seattle to Honolulu the flight attendant announced with a straight face that the flight would be non-stop. Let us hope.

Travel tip: If you go to Hawai’i you may prefer to take Hawaiian Airlines. Alaska Airlines has flights to Honolulu but operates the 737 on those routes, and you do not want to spend six hours on a plane the size of a 737. Hawaiian operates the 767 widebody; a much more comfortable aircraft for a flight of that duration. Whatever the price difference may be, it’s worth it.

Pt. 3 tomorrow.

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