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.
5 Ways to Be a Better Traveler in 2019
The tumbleweeds of wrapping paper have blown away, everyone's back at work, and the watercooler chatter no longer revolves around shopping nightmares or New Year’s resolutions. But the latter is still on your mind. Or it should be, at least. According to a University of Scranton study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, about 45 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, but only about 8 percent follow through on them. In addition to broadening your outlook, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, and meeting new people, travel presents an opportunity to make an impact, if only for a moment. We rounded up a few ways you can resolve to be a better jet-setter, and here's the best part: By working towards these resolutions, you'll have to force yourself to travel more. Tough job, right? 1. Get Off the Beaten Path When visiting a new city, your itinerary can be so much more than the familiar landmarks and museums. While we’re not encouraging you to skip out on the iconic sites, we are lobbying for you to set aside time for a city’s many nooks and alleys and far-flung neighborhoods. That’s often where you’ll find the lesser-known gems and personalities that give the city its energy. One of the best ways to explore is to find walking tours that cover the sites you’ve never heard of. Many of them are designed by locals with specific interests, so it’s easy to find a themed excursion. Plus, hanging out with locals is the ultimate way to get an insider’s recommendations. Take, for instance, “Wildman” Steve Brill (wildmanstevebrill.com), who leads tours in the five boroughs pointing out edible plants, nuts, and the like, while Queens Food Tours (queensfoodtours.com) introduces you to the culinary treasures in New York’s most diverse borough. In Chicago, Chicago Pedway Tours (chicagopedwaytours.com) leads you through the series of little-known indoor passageways that wind through the city, an especially great option during Illinois’s extreme winters. The closely knit local restaurant world is the theme of Juneau Food Tours (juneaufoodtours.com), and Portland, Oregon’s renowned coffee and beer scenes are the focus of Third Wave Coffee Tours (thirdwavecoffeetours.com) and Beerquest Walking Tours (beerquestwalkingtours.com), respectively. Lace up! 2. Stay Fit on the Go (Progressman/Dreamstime) It's happened to the best of us: You wonder if the sneakers and workout clothes that you've packed are laughing at you as they languish in your suitcase. When you're on the road, it’s easy to make excuses for abandoning your plans to hit the hotel gym or pool. It is vacation, after all. But the excellent thing about working out when you travel is that not only is it a chance to break out of your routine—and your comfort zone—and try something new, it’s an opportunity for a full-on local experience. Biking is a common choice and easy to find in many cities, but you might also consider finding running club or boating house, both ways to immerse yourself in your surrounds and get your heartbeat up while you’re at it. Jaz Graham, fitness entrepreneur and group instructor in New York City, suggests trying an activity you’re not accustomed to, just to switch things up. Many spinning and yoga studios, boxing gyms, and rock-climbing facilities offer drop-in classes. Just be sure to do your research before you go so you can make any necessary reservations. 3. Keep It Local (Littleny/Dreamstime) It seems obvious enough: If you’re visiting a city, you’ll be pouring money into the local economy, right? Yes and no. Thanks to a phenomenon referred to in industry jargon as “economic leakage,” tourism dollars that are spent on businesses with international headquarters or global parent companies are ultimately funneled out of the city. But the solution is easy: Seek out independent hotels, locally owned businesses, and restaurants that source ingredients from nearby suppliers. Shop at stores and markets that showcase locally made products. Food festivals, food halls, and food trucks are all excellent ways to maximize your access to local chefs and entrepreneurs and sample their wares. 4. Tackle That Bucket List In other words: save money and budget more for travel. There are everyday ways you can do that, like cooking at home more and reining in the impulse purchases. (Personally, this travel fanatic puts away every five-dollar bill that lands in her wallet. Trust me, it adds up.) Then there’s the holy trinity of travel planning: Buy tickets as far ahead of your travel dates as you can, be flexible, and consider flights with layovers or transfers. Choosing airlines that fly to secondary airports is another tactic that experts recommend. It might require a drive to your final destination, but it could save you serious cash. Plus, it’s a good way to take in a landscape that you might not otherwise discover. Our digital age offers some easy hacks that could help you score a better deal. If you’re looking for a specific destination but you’re flexible with your dates, turn on Google Flight alerts to receive notifications when a ticket price goes down. Sites like hopper.com also continuously scan the internet for lower rates. Even simpler? Sign up for airlines’ newsletters. They’ll often offer packages or announce sales in advance. 5. Consider the Environment Refraining from asking housekeeping to change your sheets and towels every day or, better yet, choosing to stay at eco-minded hotels are certainly good earth-conscious moves, but there are many steps you can take to travel more sustainably—things as simple as keeping a water bottle with you so you use fewer disposable plastic bottles and avoiding plastic straws and Styrofoam. Unfortunately, the carbon footprint of flying is a necessary evil. Air travel is required for many vacation destinations, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that a commercial airplane produces a little over 53 pounds of carbon dioxide per mile, according to BlueSkyModel, a carbon dioxide emissions tracker. Andy McCune, a travel photographer and co-founder of Unfold, an app that provides templates for creating stories on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, suggests buying offset credits. “The money will fund projects that reduce carbon emissions in other ways, offsetting your footprint. Some airlines like Delta and JetBlue offer their own carbon offsetting programs, supporting a wide variety of projects like land use and renewable energy,” he says. He also encourages supporting progressive airlines like KLM, which is testing biofuels, an energy source that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 85%.
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.
The Wild Side of Louisiana
If the word “Louisiana” makes you think only of Mardi Gras, we’ve got a whole new world of adventure for you to discover. In fact, the state’s nickname, “Sportsman’s Paradise” hints at what visitors have in store: state parks, miles of trails for hikers and cyclists, coastal wetlands, swamp tours, an array of colorful birds, and much more. Here, a walk on Louisiana’s wild side. STATE PARKS Louisiana makes it easy to “get wild” with endless state parks with opportunities for cycling, hiking, fishing, boating, paddling (on lakes, bayous, and swamps), and birdwatching. And if you want to spend the night out under the stars, Louisiana’s state parks offer camping and picnic areas, well-equipped cabins, and RV parks. We’ll share a few state park options, and we encourage you to explore further at louisianatravel.com. For visitors who truly want to experience wild Louisiana, Palmetto Island State Park, in the southern corner of the state, is an excellent choice, with native cypress and palmetto trees delivering that iconic swamp vibe. The Vermilion River and other waterways and bayous are perfect for exploring via kayak or canoe. Don’t miss the chance to hike a portion of the seven-mile Cypress Trail, stop by the excellent visitor center, or even spend the night in one of the park’s rental cabins. For a park experience a little closer to the city, we love Bayou Segnette State Park, in Jefferson Parish, just outside New Orleans. Kids and grownups alike will enjoy the wave pool, the chance to see (from a safe distance) alligators, bald eagles, and other swamp residents, and floating cabins right on the water. Fontainebleau State Park, outside the Northshore town of Mandeville (about an hour’s drive from New Orleans) combines paddling and hiking opportunities with local history — the park was once the site of a sugar mill, and the visitor center provides fascinating historical background. Fontainebleau also boasts a beach and water playground, a lovely place to relax. SWAMP TOURS Louisiana’s swamps have a mysterious allure thanks to their beauty, classic trees and moss, and, of course, the alligators we are all fascinated by and a bit wary of. One of the best ways to satisfy your thirst for a swamp adventure without getting too far out of your personal comfort zone is by taking a guided swamp tour. Your guide can introduce you to swamp wildlife and also to “secret” restaurants near the marshes where you can get the ultimate authentic taste of Cajun cuisine. Watercraft options range from tour boats, airboats, and kayaks. Reliable swamp guides can be hired at New Orleans Kayak Swamp Tours; Atchafalaya Basin Landing & Marina in Henderson (gateway to the incredible Atchafalaya wilderness, the largest river swamp in the U.S.); and Dr. Wagner's Honey Island Swamp Tours, exploring the 108 square miles of the beautiful swamp. Don’t forget to pack your cameras or smartphones for shots of colorful birds, gators, deer, and azaleas in season. CANOEING & KAYAKING POVERTY POINT (Bonita Cheshier/Dreamstime)For a taste of Louisiana’s amazing array of paddling opportunities, the Bayou Macon Paddling Trail, which takes you from Poverty Point State Historic Site to Poverty Point Reservoir State Park, is a great choice. It delivers flowering plants, butterflies, egrets, herons, wild turkey, white-tailed deer, palmettos, cypresses, oaks, sycamore, and cottonwood, and also takes you back in time to Poverty Point, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was home to the earliest advanced society in America, dating back as far as 1650 BC. Choose between an 11.9-mile paddle, that can take most of the day for beginners, or a more manageable 6.5-mile paddle. CYCLING TAMMANY TRACE One of Louisiana’s finest places to cycle is Tammany Trace, with natural beauty around every bend in the trail. And the Tammany Trace trailhead is an excellent place to park your bike and enjoy fun activities with something for every family member in the small town of Abita Springs. Enjoy the impressive new Abita Springs playground, right near the trailhead, then make a pit stop at Abita Brew Pub for comfort food like poboys — and you must try the crawfish cakes for a true “taste of Louisiana.” CAMPING KISATCHIE NATIONAL FOREST We’ve already mentioned several amazing state parks where camping is not only affordable but also one of the best ways to get up close and personal with wildlife and nature. But Louisiana is also home to an incredible national forest that campers will love: Kisatchie National Forest, named for a local Native American tribe, comprises over 604,000 acres of bayous, cypress groves, old growth pine, gorgeous overlooks, and wild hiking trails. In one corner of the forest is the preserve where horticulturist Caroline Dormon lived and worked in the 1920s. Dormon was the first woman employed in forestry and convinced the US Forest Service to establish Kisatchie as a National Forest. Her cabin and her many plant drawings can be seen at the Briarwood Nature Preserve in April, May, August and November. BIRDING AND BEACHES ON GRAND ISLE (Shane Adams/Dreamstime)Traditional sandy beaches are not common in Louisiana, but Grand Isle, at the end of the state’s Highway 1, delivers sand dunes and the lapping waves of the Gulf of Mexico. The island’s state park is renowned for its pier, campground, and opportunities to collect unique seashells. But one of the main attractions is the vibrant variety of birds — both the natives and those that stop at Grand Isle in their migratory path. Keep your eyes (and cameras and binoculars!) peeled for waterfowl, songbirds, and raptors. Is it any wonder John J. Audubon spent so much time in Louisiana painting birds? Ready to plan your wild Louisiana getaway? We heartily recommend a visit to LouisianaTravel.com for trip inspiration and tips on lodging, food, and itineraries.