Live Like a Local in the Florida Keys
The 125-mile-long stretch of islands just south of the Florida mainland have been drawing diverse settlers and visitors, from Europe, the Caribbean, and the continental U.S. for centuries, forming one of the most vibrant and inviting cultural melanges anywhere in the world. For travelers, that means jaw-dropping natural beauty sustained by the Keys’ commitment to environmental stewardship, a tasty array of ethnic cuisines (Bahamian seafood, Cuban specialties, and more), and outdoor activities above and below the waters of the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Florida Bay that keep visitors coming back year after year. Here, the best of the Keys, including “live like a local” tips from the savvy residents, conservationists, and forward-thinking business owners of the Keys..
DIVE INTO KEY LARGO
Key Largo is an excellent first stop in the Keys. It’s the longest and northernmost island in the chain, a 60-minute drive from Miami International Airport, and a perfect place to start relaxing and taking in the natural wonders of the region. Bordered by the Atlantic, Florida Bay, and Everglades backcountry, Key Largo has earned the nickname the Dive Capital of the World. Take your pick of scuba, snorkeling, fishing, and much more—beginners can easily learn the basics of diving while on vacation. The star attraction is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The state park draws more than 1 million visitors per year for both on-land hiking and cycling trails and underwater adventures, and you’ll love snorkeling the shallow waters of the colorful reef with hundreds of species of fish and more than 50 varieties of coral. For a one-of-a-kind underwater landmark, don’t miss the adjacent Key Largo Dry Rocks, with its nine-foot-tall sculpture “Christ in the Abyss.” Experienced scuba divers will love exploring Key Largo’s Spiegel Grove, which includes a sunken vessel that’s become a prized artificial reef. After the sun goes down, enjoy a cocktail at Caribbean Club, where scenes from the 1947 classic film Key Largo, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, were shot. “LIVE LIKE A LOCAL” TIP: For some visitors, renting bicycles and pedaling from Key Largo all the way down to Key West is at the top of their bucket list. Key Largo Bike and Adventure Tours, operated by one-time Louisiana cop Mark Terrill and one-time Ohio bar owner Patrick Fitzgerald, offers a variety of bikes suitable for the journey.
FISHING & MORE IN ISLAMORADA
Islamorada means “purple island” in Spanish, but the 20-mile-long village, bordered by Florida Bay and the Atlantic, actually includes not one but four of the Florida Keys: Plantation, Windley, and Upper and Lower Matecumbe. Islamorada will be your next stop on your drive south from Key Largo, or either a 90-minute drive from Miami International Airport or a 40-minute drive from Florida Keys Marathon Airport if you’re set on starting your Keys vacation here in the Sport-Fishing Capital of the World. And that nickname is more than just a local boast: The warm waters of the Gulf Stream pass as close as 10 miles offshore, drawing prized sport fish such as sailfish, marlin, kingfish, wahoo, mahi-mahi, and tuna for small-boat anglers to pursue offshore. Those who prefer to cast from piers or shore will enjoy catching tarpon and bonefish (you can also try a local tradition by hand-feeding tarpon off the docks at Robbie’s Marina). When you’re not fishing or diving Islamorada’s reefs full of tropical fish, coral, and sponges, you’ll love the vibrant arts and culture scene in the Morada Way Arts & Cultural District with its art galleries, monthly Third Thursday Art Walk, and wide array of restaurants: Take your pick from fresh-caught seafood, comfort foods like burgers and pizza, and a variety of great ethnic flavors from the melting pot that is south Florida. “LIVE LIKE A LOCAL” TIP: Our late 41st president, George H.W. Bush paid many visits to the Islamorada area before, during, and after his presidency and was an avid proponent of catch-and-release fishing for tarpon, bonefish, and permit. Participating in catch-and-release is a fine way to pay tribute to the “kinder, gentler” president and his legacy.
FAMILY FUN IN MARATHON
The city of Marathon is made up of several keys, with Vaca Key as the epicenter. Settled by fruit farmers from the Bahamas and fishermen from New England more than 200 years ago, Marathon allegedly got its name thanks to the workers who constructed the Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad more than a century ago, working a “marathon” schedule of nights and days. Today, Marathon is a magnet for families and boating enthusiasts, with its own airport (it’s also a one-hour drive from Key West International Airport and a 2.5-hour drive from Miami International Airport). Visitors love driving on Seven Mile Bridge, just south of Vaca Key, savoring the perfect water views and the Old Seven Mile Bridge, which was once part of the Over-Sea Railroad. Kids of all ages will enjoy a visit to Pigeon Key, the original headquarters of the railroad construction, home to models, artifacts, and an educational video. Families will want to spend time exploring local hardwood forests and white-sand beaches, fishing for tarpon or diving the local reefs, and kayaking the incredible backcountry waters. But be sure to set aside time for the Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters, including a 200,000-gallon tank containing tropical reef fish (and the opportunity to watch divers feed the fish), the truly magical Instagrammable experience of swimming with dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center and seeing environmental stewardship in action at the Turtle Hospital. “LIVE LIKE A LOCAL” TIP: Marathon resident Rachel Bowman is the only female commercial lionfish fisherman in the Keys, catching up to 400 pounds per day of the invasive species and selling it to local restaurants and Whole Foods Markets; when you order delicious, flaky white lionfish off the menu in Marathon or other regions of the Keys, Bowman says you’re helping to reduce the predatory fish’s numbers and preserve native species such as snapper.
EASY ADVENTURES IN BIG PINE AND THE LOWER KEYS
We admire the devotion to the environment shown by Big Pine and the Lower Keys, nicknamed the Natural Keys for the district’s advocacy for sustainability and preservation. Here, a 30-minute drive from either Key West International Airport or Marathon International Airport, visitors will find abundant opportunities to enjoy the natural environment while staying within their personal comfort zone—easy adventures you’ll love and brag about when you get home. Bahia Honda State Park provides one-stop recreation opportunities with one of the most beautiful beaches in the U.S. according to Budget Travel and many travel polls and studies, campsites, and watersports. Get to know the endangered Key deer, smaller cousins of the more common white-tailed deer, at the National Key Deer Refuge. Try snorkeling (even beginners can master the basics in a few minutes) Looe Key Reef for Technicolor coral and marine life such as tropical fish, sponges, and more. Bring your binoculars and camera (or smartphone) on a kayak or canoe paddle or shallow-draft boat ride to Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, covering 375 square miles of water and islands between Key West and Marathon, where white herons and other migratory birds put on quite a show. You’ll find ample campgrounds and RV parks in the Big Pine and Lower Keys area, allowing you to savor the natural environment of the Natural Keys 24/7 during your visit. “LIVE LIKE A LOCAL” TIP: Support the environmental mission of the Natural Keys by heeding the 10 Keymandments, assembled by locals to help residents and visitors alike give back to the communities and habitats of the Keys: (1) Adopt a coral (by making a charitable donation, and, of course, don’t touch coral when you are diving); (2) Support the wildlife (by donating food or money, or volunteering time at a local wildlife center); (3) Take out the trash (which can mean literally removing debris from the water, and not contributing to it); (4) Capture a lionfish (an invasive species); (5) Leave a digital footprint (take photos of the Keys and share them with friends and family); (6) Hike it, bike it, or hoof it (these are all low-eco-impact activities); (7) Catch dinner (fishing for bonefish, tarpon, and permit is plentiful just about anywhere in the Keys); (8) Use a mooring buoy at dive sites (instead of an anchor); (9) Conserve vs. consume (continuing the same reuse, reuse, and recyling practice you employ at home while on vacation); (10) Get off the beaten path (explore hiking and cycling trails, kayaking, and canoeing).
NIGHTLIFE & WATERSPORTS IN KEY WEST
Even in the unique, gorgeous world of the Keys, Key West is a destination apart, a world unto itself. With its own airport, and located closer to Havana than it is to Miami, this southernmost point of the Keys (and the continental U.S. itself) is known for its buzzing nightlife and great food and drinks, but also for outdoor recreation and watersports that rival any other destination in America. Here, the influence of the Bahamas, Cuba, Spain, American literary giants like Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, and LGBTQ residents and visitors come together to form a culturally diverse and delicious getaway. For a taste of the town’s Caribbean community, visit Bahama Village with its revitalized homes and shops, marketplace, and eateries. Speaking of seafood, hop aboard the Conch Tour Train, named for the Caribbean delicacy, for a guided tour of the area. The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum draw not only fans of American literature but also those curious about the life of one of Key West’s best-known party animals; you can tour the influential author’s writing studio and pick up a copy of his novel set in Key West, To Have and Have Not. Enjoy a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park, spend some time at the Key West Aquarium (devoted to the marine life of the Keys and offering guided tours, shark feedings, a “please touch” tank, and more), or hit the links at the Key West Golf Club. Another form of wildlife you’ll enjoy meeting are the denizens of the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, featuring a 5,000-square-foot tropical habitat under a glass dome, more than 50 species of butterfly, and even colorful birds like flamingos. Drop by the Instagrammable buoy that marks the southernmost point in the continental U.S., just 90 miles from Cuba. And, honestly, where else in the world will you find a nightly celebration of the setting sun, as you will at Key West’s Mallory Square, complete with cocktails, street performers, and the always-captivating colors of the sun going down over the Gulf of Mexico. “LIVE LIKE A LOCAL” TIP: Stop by Frangipani Gallery to see the work of local artists, including Larry Blackburn, the current King of Fantasy Fest (Key West’s annual 10-day October festival devoted to creative costumes and masks) and a prominent Key West-based photographer and board member of the AIDS Memorial.
To learn more about the Florida Keys and help plan your trip, visit fla-keys.com.
Estes Park, CO: Where to Eat, Play & Stay
Any way you look at Estes Park, Colorado, it calls your name. Its natural beauty surrounds and enchants visitors, from the heart of downtown to its vibrant “backyard,” Rocky Mountain National Park, with its iconic peaks, array of wildlife (including the main draw, majestic elk), and miles of rivers, lakes, and streams. In winter and early spring, the town is in close proximity to some of America’s prime backcountry skiing and snowshoeing areas, minus the sticker shock that comes with Colorado’s resorts (skiing here is actually free). In summer, you can spend most of your day outdoors exploring nearby forests, parks, and waterways, or chill at a local festival, music concert, art gallery, or farmers market. In autumn, Colorado’s eye-popping golden aspen leaves rival the fall foliage of any region in the U.S., and the annual elk rut draws visitors from across the U.S. Hungry? Estes Park is a place where you can play all day then sit down to an exquisite meal accompanied by exceptional wine. With all that Estes Park has to offer, we’ve assembled a handy guide for visitors, including something for just about every travel personality, from foodies to outdoors enthusiasts to those just seeking a relaxing place to kick back and savor a starry sky (either with the naked eye, binoculars, or at the town’s very own observatory), a rippling mountain stream, or unique shopping. And with one of the finest systems of public transportation of any community of its size, it’s no wonder that Budget Travelers have named Estes Park one of the Coolest Small Towns in America. WHERE TO EAT For many travelers, one of the main attractions of being on vacation is the opportunity to chow down on some truly great local food and expanding their culinary horizons. (Maybe that’s why “eat” is the first word in the phrase “eat, play & stay.”) When it comes to hungry travelers, Estes Park delivers something for every taste and budget, from upscale finery to fast-and-good and everything in between. One of the reasons the food scene here is so rich is its relationship to the land and the wild game of the region: Diners who are eager to try menu items such as local bison or elk or mountain trout are rewarded with the freshest possible fare. (You’ll find elk on the menu at nearly 20 percent of Estes Park eateries.) More familiar western comfort foods abound as well, as do any array of ethnic traditions. Just a few examples of popular eating experiences that have generated buzz in recent years: Sip local Colorado craft beer along with your gourmet burger at Latitude 105 Alehouse; sip a cold margarita along with your bison (or chicken, beef, or pork) burrito at Peppers Mexican Grill; or drink in views of Rocky Mountain National Park from your table as you enjoy fresh-caught trout or locally raised lamb at Bird & Jim. WHERE TO PLAY (Fiskness/Dreamstime) Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most-visited national parks in the U.S., and certainly the crown jewel of Colorado’s parkland. Open year-round, the park beckons every traveler, from those seeking easy trails and wildlife perfect for hiking and photography practically under their nose to those who are looking for the thrill of rock climbing, horseback riding, or ice climbing. For a popular overview, drive Trail Ridge Road, a National Scenic Byway (at more than 12,000 feet, the highest in the U.S.) that takes you from Estes Park to Grand Lake. Visitors of all ages will love the ranger programs devoted to wildlife such as black bear, elk, moose, mule deer, and the iconic bighorn sheep; forest stewardship; geology; the night sky; and more. Kids will especially enjoy the NPS’s educational and fun Junior Ranger program, which ends with the presentation of an official badge. Camping is always the most affordable way to immerse yourself in a national park, but sites fill up fast and you should make a reservation six months in advance. Skiing and snowshoeing are two of the best ways to navigate the mountains around Estes Park not only in winter but also in early spring, with March and April being two of the very best months for that great combination of snow and sun that skiers crave. It’s a short drive to some fine ski areas, including Eldora, Echo Mountain, and the Hidden Valley zone within Rocky Mountain National Park. Experienced backcountry skiers may want to try the terrain in Rocky Mountain National Park. (Steven Miller/Dreamstime)Outdoors enthusiasts will never want to leave Estes Park, and why would they? The truly adventurous can go rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and mountain biking in some of the most challenging and jaw-droppingly beautiful terrain in America. The moderate thrill seeker will love learning to fly fish, climb, or ride a horse, and hiking the miles of trails in search of Colorado’s smaller wildlife such as the snowshoe hare and the great-horned owl. And what if you just want to kick back and relax? In winter, snuggle with that special someone by a roaring fire and watch the snow outside your window; in summer, enjoy watching the sunset over the mountains and the range of light from bright yellow to gold to red to blue as day gives way to night; year-round, pack binoculars for a spectacular view of Colorado’s dark starry skies. Points of interest and events around town are seemingly endless, and vacationers of every kind will find something to do. Art lovers will spend hours browsing exceptional galleries and regular public art events in warm weather. Avid shoppers will find that the only challenge is how to get their haul of unique locally produced clothing, jewelry, packaged foods, and souvenirs home in their suitcase. And an array of other events including outdoor concerts, historical commemorations, and celebrations of Native, European settler, and other ethnic cultures will keep every family member engaged in Estes Park’s substantial history and vibrant cultural scene. WHERE TO STAY Ready to start planning your Estes Park vacation? The town’s lodging options are as varied as its food, outdoor activities, and cultural offerings. Take your pick from camping in Rocky Mountain National Park to bunking down in one of the cabins at the YMCA of the Rockies (winner of the 2018 Budget Travel Award for Value Resort) to booking one of the many hotel rooms, suites, cabins, and vacation homes available around town.
Budget Caribbean Rentals With a View
As winter wears on, our thoughts turn to the white sand, blue seas, and temperate climes of the Caribbean. An island vacation may sound like a splurge, but you don't have to be loaded to make it happen. Although rates do shift based on season and availability, we've found 10 places that'll allow you to stretch your travel budget without sacrifice—all with amazing scenery and amenities, for less than $200 a night. 1. Dominican Republic: Las Terrenas (Courtesy Airbnb)On a hilltop overlooking the resort town of Las Terrenas, on the Samaná Peninsula in the Dominican Republic, this two-bedroom apartment offers mountain views from its private terrace, and that’s just for starters. Located in Monte Placido, a gated community with six other properties, its shared amenities include an infinity pool overlooking the countryside and the ocean, with a lounge area and a gas grill, plus a sprawling yoga studio that’s half wooden deck and half cave. It sleeps up to six adults and two kids, and the expat couple that runs the place can help arrange tours, meals, and even spa services. airbnb.com 2. Curaçao: Willemstad (Courtesy Airbnb) In a resort on Curaçao’s southwest coast, a 20-minute drive from the capital of WIllemstad, this stand-alone alone villa boasts modern interiors and creature comforts, just steps away from the beach. Take a dip in the private pool, rinse off in the outdoor shower, and sip a cocktail while you gaze at the sea from the comfort of your terrace, or venture over to the property’s infinity pool for a picture-perfect swim. Christoffelpark, the island’s largest national park, isn’t far by car, and the owners are happy to offer tips and suggestions. The house accommodates four people, and comes equipped with Apple TV, just in case you need a break from all of that natural beauty. airbnb.com 3. Martinique: Le Diamant (Courtesy HomeAway) With private access to a small strip of unsullied beach and unobstructed waterfront views for taking in both sunrises and sunsets, this two-bedroom villa offers tranquility and scenery at a modest price. Located on the outskirts of Le Diamant, a small town on Martinique’s south coast, it’s a destination best suited for those in search of peace and quiet—you won’t find much nightlife here, just a few hotels and restaurants spread out over the 1.25-mile public beach. Embrace the solitude and channel your inner homebody: Hit up the nearby local fishermen for their catch of the day, fire up the grill, and enjoy a dinner al fresco as you watch the sun slip into the bay. homeaway.com 4. Dominican Republic: Cabarete (Courtesy VRBO) A Spanish Colonial-style home that sleeps up to seven, this Cabarete abode has a private pool right off the sand, a manicured garden, an enclosed, ground-floor patio, and an open-air shower—the perfect amenities for a week or two of outdoor living. The upstairs master bedroom has ocean views, and there’s a caretaker on the property—and two dogs!—who will make you feel right at home. Plus, your airport transfers are covered, so you won’t have to worry about a thing upon landing. Walk into town to partake in the vibrant nightlife and waterfront dining scene, or stick with sun and fun: Cabarete is known for its water sports, and you’ll have easy access to the best kitesurfing, windsurfing, and just plain surfing spots from your beachside perch. vrbo.com 5. Jamaica: Montego Bay (Courtesy Airbnb) A 20-minute walk from Montego Bay’s Hip Strip and the white sand and clear waters of premiere swimming spots like Doctors Cave, this two-bedroom apartment is close to restaurants, bars, and beach alike. Located in a residential building with a communal rooftop pool offering stellar ocean views, it sleeps up to seven and provides a unique peek at life in a real island community. A driver from the Jamaica Tourist Board is on call to show you around—arrange for the $30 airport-pickup option, and he’ll take you to the grocery store to stock up on provisions, with a stop for jerk chicken along the way—and the owner can help arrange excursions around the island—think day trips to Negril, rafting on the Martha Brae river, and the refreshing rock pools and waterfalls of Westmoreland’s Mayfield Falls. airbnb.com 6. Saint Lucia: Marigot Bay (Courtesy HomeAway) A two-bedroom apartment in a hilltop villa a short drive from Castries, the island’s capital, this private flat offers the best of both worlds: There’s a secluded cove for snorkeling and swimming, just a few minutes away via a nature path, and Marigot Bay’s action-packed water-sports scene is nearby too. Take advantage of the kayaking, paddleboarding, and sailing opportunities on the bay, then retreat from the hustle and bustle to your private verandah, where you can listen to the birds singing as you look out over the gardens and pool. A serene escape with easy access to both mountains and sea (there’s a hiking trail not far away), it has a 20-foot-high tree deck that’s perfect for catching the sunset, fitness equipment, and more. Plus, when you check in, you’ll be greeted by a friendly face bearing an icy-cold pitcher of rum punch—a warm welcome indeed. homeaway.com 7. Dominican Republic: Las Terrenas (Courtesy Airbnb) Also located in Las Terrenas, this villa was designed by an Italian architect to make the most of its location, with stunning views of the Atlantic from every room, not to mention soaring ceilings, contemporary furnishings, and a gorgeous, private salt-water infinity pool overlooking the ocean. There’s a patio with cushy couches, so you can recline and take in the sunset in comfort, as well as a fully equipped kitchen; fend for yourself, or ask the management to arrange your meals and experience some great Dominican cooking firsthand. Located mere yards from Playa Coson, it’s not far from other regional beaches either, like Playa Rincón and Cayo Levantado, and it makes a good base of operations for exploring the area—Los Haitises National Park and El Limón waterfall are both nearby. Pro tip: Plan your trip for February through April, when the humpback whales come out to play in Samaná Bay. airbnb.com 8. Curaçao: Sint Michiel (Courtesy HomeAway) In the heart of a Curaçao fishing village off the well-trodden tourist trail, this two-bedroom villa faces the ocean and boasts direct beach access, a private dock, an outdoor shower, and a lush tropical garden. Sit on the brick-lined patio and watch the dolphins passing by, or jump in and join them if you’ve got the nerve; you'll also have a great vantage point here for spectacular sunsets. Sint Michiel is known for its scuba diving, and some of the best schools on the island are within walking distance. Newbies can take a guided tour or sign up for a night dive with a nearby pro, but you can also bring your own equipment and descend to the depths from your own front porch. homeaway.com 9. Bonaire: Kralendijk (Courtesy VRBO) East of Curaçao, you’ll find the Dutch island of Bonaire, a tiny, easy-going place with a laidback way of life—and a lack of traffic lights. You’ll have to get creative to get here, as plane tickets can be pricey and routes difficult to navigate, but if you play your cards right and time your airfare-shopping properly, you’ll be rewarded with a dreamy vacation destination that puts sustainable travel front and center, from coral-reef preservation to carbon-offsetting initiatives. This three-bedroom villa sits on a secluded hill outside of town, 10 minutes from the shops and restaurants of Kralendijk (the capital city and main port) and a quick drive to the dive sites on the northern side of the island. On the property, you'll find brightly colored tropical birds singing in the trees, plus a private pool with a deck and a shady cabana, all with views to the ocean. vrbo.com 10. Cayman Islands: Cayman Brac (Courtesy VRBO) Grand Cayman may get the lion’s share of the love, but northeast of the popular cruise-ship port is Cayman Brac, a haven for divers, snorkelers, and hikers too. This beautiful beachfront house sleeps six, and it’s steps from the sand, with a private jetty, a Caribbean-facing verandah, and hammocks, chaise lounges, and Adirondack chairs throughout for ultimate outdoor relaxation. On the bluff behind the house, there’s a parrot reserve where you’ll spot native Brac parrots and vitelline warblers, and on the southeastern cliffs, you can watch the brown booby birds building their nests. Go for a trek on the bluff, launch your kayak from the jetty, go shore diving, or simply settle in for some star-gazing. vrbo.com
Ultimate Mississippi Road Trip: Blues, Food & Fun
Get ready to hit the road and explore the best of the Magnolia State, from rock n’ roll in Tupelo to Delta blues in Clarksdale, from the peerless cultural legacies of Oxford and Jackson to delicious restaurants in vibrant downtowns. Here, complete with driving routes and top picks in every town, the ultimate Mississippi road trip. TUPELO: HAIL TO THE KING OF ROCK N’ ROLL (Calvin L. Leake/Dreamsime) When it comes to Instagrammable destinations, it doesn’t get any more epic than the monumental statue of Elvis Presley in Tupelo, where the King of Rock n’ Roll was born. Soak up the atmosphere in Tupelo’s vibrant downtown and visit Tupelo Hardware Company, where Presley’s mother bought him his first guitar. Little did Gladys Presley know that her boy would grow up to synthesize the country, bluegrass, and blues traditions into a new musical genre that would take the mid-century world by storm. From downtown, head into the all-Elvis-all-the-time scene at the Elvis Presley Birthplace, where you can tour the small house where the King was born, spend some time chilling in Elvis Presley Park, and absorb the history, artifacts, and fun at the Elvis Presley Museum. Hungry? A meal fit for the famously ravenous King himself awaits at Neon Pig, where the “smashburger” combines several cuts of meat, including legendary Benton’s bacon. OXFORD: A COLLEGE TOWN WITH SERIOUS LITERARY CRED (Ken Wolter/Dreamstime)Less than an hour’s drive from Tupelo on US 278 E, Oxford is a fitting transition from Mississippi’s pop music royalty to its serious literature. Tour Rowan Oak, the family home of Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner, who immortalized the region in his funny and touching stories set in fictional Yoknapatawpha County. The grounds are worth a stroll even if you’re not enraptured of the famous author’s work. Oxford also happens to be a renowned college town, home to the University of Mississippi, where visitors can tour the Center for the Study of Southern Culture devoted to literature and folklore, and the unique Blues Archive with its recordings, photographs, and personal artifacts of Mississippi’s blues masters. Hankering for some live music? The historic Lyric Theater, painstakingly restored to its original splendor, plays host to major acts, and the Gertrude C. Ford Performing Arts Center hosts an array of concerts. MISSISSIPPI BLUES TRAIL: BIRTHPLACE OF A UNIQUE MUSICAL ART FORM About an hour and 15 minutes from Oxford on MS-6 W, the town of Clarksdale is the gateway to the Mississippi Delta region and the incredible Mississippi Blues Trail, which takes visitors through a few key towns that played a role in the development of this uniquely American musical art form. Immerse yourself in the music at the Delta Blues Museum, which chronicles the lives and careers of local blues legends such as Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and others, including the cabin in which Waters lived as a child. At the end of your day, you can refuel and take in some live blues all at the same time at Clarksdale’s Ground Zero Blues Club. Nearby Indianola is best known as the home of B.B. King, with the excellent B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center commemorating the life and work of the guitarist and composer who served as perhaps America’s best-known ambassador of the blues to the world via his recordings, live concerts, and television appearances. You can visit King’s grave, learn about the history and development of his work and the Delta blues tradition in general, and get up close and personal with musical instruments and memorabilia that bring the music to life. Around the corner, stop by Club Ebony, which has been serving up blues music, soul food, and beer since the 1940s. Further along Highway 82 on the Blues Trail, the town of Greenwood has a rich musical tradition and is the final resting place of bluesman Robert Johnson, of whom little is known. Johnson died in his twenties and left behind a small body of recorded blues guitar and vocal recordings that have nevertheless inspired musicians across the U.S. and the world, including the Allman Brothers and the Rolling Stones. Stop by the Blues Heritage Gallery to learn more about Johnson’s short life and body of work. And there’s no reason to leave Greenwood hungry, with an array of excellent eateries along historic downtown’s brick-paved streets. Try Giardina’s Restaurant, a historic restaurant located downtown within The Alluvian, a boutique hotel. JACKSON: CAPITAL OF FOOD & FUN Less than a two-hour drive from Greenwood on MS-17 S and I-55 S, Mississippi’s capital, Jackson, boasts world-class shopping, museums, restaurants and culture. Visit the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, both of which opened during the state’s recent bicentennial in 2017. The Mississippi Museum of Art, is also here, celebrating the work of contemporary local artists as well as past masters; the museum’s garden is worth a visit for its exquisitely curated plants and flowers. Literary fans will flock to the Eudora Welty House, in the Belhaven neighborhood, where the home and garden of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author make an impression almost as spectacular as her novels and short fiction. Close out your day with a stop at Bully’s Restaurant, honored by the Southern Foodways Alliance, for traditional soul food like ribs, fried chicken, and locally sourced catfish. MERIDIAN: ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT About an hour’s drive from Jackson via I-20 E, Meridian is the site of the brand-new, 60,000-square-foot Mississippi Arts & Entertainment Experience, which celebrates the work of Mississippi’s creative folks with interactive exhibits devoted to Elvis Presley, B.B. King, Jimmy Buffett (who hails from Pascagoula, MS), and Jimmie Rodgers, known as the King of Country Music.
Locals Know Best: St. Louis, Missouri
Ten years ago, if you asked Tamara Keefe where she thought she’d be today, she definitely would not have said St. Louis. In 2008, she moved to the city from California “kicking and screaming,” as she puts it. But her resistance was futile. Within six months, she had fallen under its spell and to this day she declares St. Louis is her one true love. The owner of Clementine’s Creamery, which has two scoop shops in town and a third opening in the spring, joins a number of other culinary entrepreneurs who’ve made the city their home, creating an accidental community of bakers, butchers, brewers, and craftspeople who see to it that locals have fresh baked bread, handmade kombucha, and plenty other delicious eats each day. Add to that the astonishingly low cost of living and a multitude of cultural options, many of them free, and it’s clear that the risk of falling in love with this town is high. (And that’s to say nothing of how Midwesterners are “gloriously friendly people,” Tamara quickly learned.) We checked in with Tamara to learn more. A City of Neighborhoods One of the many things that’s easy to love about St. Louis is its assortment of distinct neighborhoods. And there’s enough to do in each of them that you can spend the day and still leave not having done it all. Tamara has a fondness for Lafayette Square, the city’s oldest and most historic district that’s seen a lively community grow around its historic fixtures and sprawling park. Tamara recommends starting a day there with breakfast at Sqwires (sqwires.com), a secret among locals known for its killer brunches (smoked brisket hash, anyone?) and its bloody mary and mimosa bars on the weekend. Walk it off with a leisurely stroll through the boutiques and galleries along Park Avenue, the main drag. An eatery like Polite Society (politesocietystl.com) is a top pick for lunch, with plates like wild boar ravioli among the many choices. “It’s funky American cuisine and they do it right,” Tamara says. Nearby is one of her scoop shops, so definitely drop in to try one of her boozy creations, like maple bourbon or chocolate milk stout. (Those are the “naughty” options. She’s got “nice” liquor-free ones, too, like gooey butter cake.) Unwind at the end of the day with a drink at Planter's House (plantershousestl.com), which Tamra calls a “sexy little cocktail bar.” Cherokee Street (AKA: Cherokee Antique Row) is another neighborhood that’s worth a wander. With its many antique stores, it’s a Shangri-La for vintage lovers who can easily spend hours sifting through inventories of furniture, home goods, jewelry, clothing and much more. One standout is Dead Wax Records, an overflowing vinyl shop owned by one of the same people that runs the Mud House (themudhousestl.com), a coffee shop nearby that Tamara recommends. Once you’re all shopped out, cap off the day at Chaparritos, Tamara’s go-to for amazing chili verde and mean margaritas. A Hub of Culture If you live in St. Louis, it’s easy to see—and hear—your tax dollars at work. Many museums are free, the zoo is free, there’s an outdoor theater, the Muny (themuny.org), where nearly 1500 seats are offered for free at every performance, and St. Louis is home to one of the country’s most celebrated opera companies, which you can see for as little as $12. “The arts are huge here and it’s really important for them to have access to it—for everyone to have access. It’s not just for the elite,” Tamara says. “Coming from SoCal, where you pay outrageous prices for everything, it’s just awesome.” Every city has a movie theater--or several--for regular entertainment, but St. Louis's main cinema, the independent, old-time-style Chase Park Cinema in the historic Chase Park Plaza hotel, comes with an added delight. His name is Jerry and he plays the vintage organ before every show and sees people off after the movie with a Hershey's Chocolate Kiss. Tamara estimates he's been there for decades. "Everyone knows him, everyone looks forward to it," she says. Nature Calls Should you need a break from the city, there are a few ways for heeding the call of the wild. Castlewood State Park, for one, features walking and running trails that snake along the Merrimack River. There are cliffs that make perfect perches for a picnic lunch. Tamara suggests stopping at Parker’s Table at Oakland and Yale (parkerstable.com) a wine and food market where you can pick up provisions like sandwiches, soups, and the house sausages for the day. For kids, there’s an uncommon nature sanctuary. The Butterfly House at the Missouri Botanical Garden (missouribotanicalgarden.com) is a glass-walled conservatory that’s home to more than a thousand tropical free-wheeling butterflies. “They land on eyelashes, hair, clothes," Tamara says. "It’s so sweet and kinda magical. You feel like you’re in a Disney movie.” Daytripping Everywhere you go these days it seems like you're close to a wine country, and St. Louis is no exception. About 90 minutes west, Hermann (visithermann.com), a village settled by German immigrants, is Missouri’s wine region. A concentration of wineries could certainly keep you entertained for a full day. Break up the wine tastings with a stop at Old Stone Barn (oldstonebarn.com), a working hay farm that doubles as an antique emporium. Another destination if you want to hit the road is Cottleville, and old-timey town with still yet more antique shops and charming B&Bs. Stone Soup Cottage (stonesoupccottage.com), a restaurant in an old house with just enough space for ten tables, is worth the trip alone, says Tamara. Perch yourself on the wraparound porch and start your evening gazing at the stars. Dinner, chef’s choice, consists of whatever’s fresh off the farm that day, so expect a wholesome meal.