Spring Getaways to America's Coolest Small Towns!

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
March 7, 2014
Robert on Wake Up With Al
Courtesy of Wake Up With Al

I had a blast appearing on The Weather Channel's "Wake Up With Al" on Friday March 7. We talked about some of Budget Travel's Coolest Small Towns 2014 as ideal spring getaways! (I didn't expect to sing Berlin, MD's signature bluegrass tune, "Cool Berlin," for an audience of 2 million!)

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A Spiritual Journey to Myanmar

Maureen Santucci, originally from the U.S., has made Peru her home for the past five years. She writes for Fodor's Travel Guide as well as various travel blogs when she isn't escaping off to the mountains to hike, teaching Tai Chi, or treating patients in her acupuncture clinic. If you're looking for a different sort of vacation, a spiritual journey to Myanmar is something to consider. It doesn't matter if you are already Buddhist or even have an interest in it specifically—visiting the temples, and perhaps, taking part in a retreat at a meditation center, can help you to tap into your own personal spirituality. Although you may think of Thailand, China, or Japan first with regard to Buddhism, Myanmar is approximately 90% Buddhist. The main form practiced is Theravada and the most common form of meditation is Vipassana, something that has become quite popular worldwide. There are several meditation centers in the country that welcome foreigners to their courses. Before taking short classes or courses, you must complete at least 10 days of a residential class, and during these retreats, silent meditation is observed for the entire day during the course schedule. No fees are charged for the courses, accommodations, or for food and donations are accepted at the end of the course that will help foot the bill for future students. If you're taking a shorter course, a tourist visa is sufficient, however if you wish to study for more than 28 days, you'll want to apply for a 90-day meditation visa which must be accompanied by an invitation from the center where you will be meditating. Among the many places you can study are the Dhamma Joti Vipassana Centre, the Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Centre, and the Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha Meditation Centre—all popular schools in Yangon that have branches in other areas as well. There are also a variety of universities, monasteries, and institutions that provide instruction in the history and practice of Buddhism. If you decide to engage in a course of meditation here, you may want to tour some of the country's many temples before and after as part of your experience. Bagan, one of the main tourist areas (although the country does not yet have a huge amount of tourism) has more than 2,000 temples on its plains, an excellent way to get yourself into the spirit of the journey you are about to begin. Afterward, you might want to take a trip to Mrauk U, a more remote region that is home to hundreds of religious sites in a very small area. Actually, anywhere you travel in Myanmar, you are bound to find temples, monasteries, and other religious sites dedicated to the teachings of Buddha. Although we refer to Buddhism as a religion, Buddha is technically not worshipped, and it is possible to belong to another religion and yet be Buddhist as well. There's no need to feel conflicted if you have a different faith but wish to study Vipassana or any other form of Buddhist meditation. For some, studying meditation is a way of renewing and strengthening a sense of spirituality in their lives. For others, it's a much needed escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life. In either case, taking time for a meditation retreat, especially in a country so dedicated to it, is a great way to establish a daily practice that can help you with stress when you return home.


Don't Miss These Summer Travel Sales!

Tour packages, hotels, cruises, and train travel are all on sale this summer. Here's what you need to know. HOTELS • Room rates start at just $99 a night this summer thanks to the Stay & Play Longer package, part of the Hilton Worldwide Caribbean Summer Sale happening now thru Aug. 31st. You'll get a fourth night free, a $100 resort credit per room per stay, and best of all, kids stay free. Participating hotels and resorts includeHilton Barbados Resort; British Colonial Hilton Nassau; Hilton Curaçao; Caribe Hilton, San Juan; Condado Lagoon Villas at Caribe Hilton;  Hilton Ponce Golf & Casino Resort; The Condado Plaza Hilton; Embassy Suites Dorado del Mar Beach Resort; Embassy Suites San Juan Hotel & Casino; El San Juan Resort & Casino, A Hilton Hotel; El Conquistador Resort, A Waldorf Astoria Resort; Las Casitas Village, A Waldorf Astoria Resort; Hilton Santo Domingo; Embassy Suites by Hilton Santo Domingo; Hilton Trinidad & Conference Centre; and Hilton Cartagena. • Marriott Hotels & Resorts want you to Celebrate Summer! Book your stay at one of 34 participating properties on the east coast, west coast, Hawaii, or in the central U.S. by Sept. 7th and enjoy room rates from $129 a night and up to $100 in resort credit per night that can be used towards dining, golf, spa services, and other on-property perks. Valid on stays thru Sept. 30th. • The Ka’anapali Beach Hotel in Maui is offering a special package this summer that gives you three nights' accommodations in a courtyard/pool view room, buffett breakfast for two at the hotel's Tiki Terrace Restaurant on the morning of your choice, daily rental car from Budget Rent A Car, and dinner for two at the Tiki Terrace Restaurant on the evening of your choice, from $757 per stay (based on single/double occupancy), a savings of 20 percent per person. Please refer to the Simply Simple package, valid now thru Jan. 4, 2016. • Planning to check out Orlando's legendary theme parks this summer? Save by staying at the Hilton Orlando, where family-friendly rooms start at $109 a night and give you access to special kid-friendly glow-in-the-dark games and other poolside activities now thru Labor Day. • You can save 65 percent on standard rates this summer at the Marigot Beach Club in St. Lucia. The Caramel Kiss Package starts at $99 a night and includes a spa treatment for two (caramel sugar scrub, chocolate facial, and caramel kiss pedicure), and daily breakfast. Valid from Aug. 1-31, 2015. • Don't miss the Experience El Yunque package from the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino that gives you 30 percent off overnight accommodations at the resort, a half-day guided excursion to nearby El Yunque National Forest for two, two bottles of water, snacks, and late checkout, from $279 a night. • The W Scottsdale in Scottsdale, Arizona, is offering special rates from $179 a night, a savings of 73 percent off regular high season rates. You'll get overnight accommodations at this luxe hotel, a W Scottsdale tote bag, sunblock and sunglasses, and a pitcher of Vitamin W, the hotel's signature cocktail, to celebrate. Refer to promo code VITAMINW when booking this deal online or call 877/822-0000 to book by phone. • Get ready for great views and savings in Arizona this summer. Room rates at the newly renovated Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock, located along the 7.5-mile Red Rock Scenic Byway, start at $168 a night. • Visitors to Greater Williamsburg, Virginia, can take advantage of several specials this summer. Offers include accommodations at the Best Western Historic Area with breakfast and two passes to Busch Gardens Williamsburg from $99.99 a night (available now thru Sept. 7th), and savings on stays of at least two nights at the Days Hotel Busch Gardens Area from $69.99 a night including complimentary daily breakfast (valid now thru Oct. 31st), among others. • Get to know Baltimore with the Best of Baltimore package by Hampton Inn & Suites Baltimore Inner Harbor. You'll get overnight accommodations, complimentary WiFi and daily breakfast, and a 'Baltimore's Best' goodie bag that includes local treats. The best part: 10 percent of the money earned from this package will be donated to the local food bank at St. Gregory's Church. Valid on stays now thru Sept. 6th. • You can save 20 percent when you stay at Generator's London and Paris Hostels now thru Aug. 31st. With rates starting at $86 for a private room for two, or from about $26 per person for a dorm-style bed, you'll be saving big and staying in the heart of the action. Whichever location you choose, you're in for a treat: Generator Hostels are designed to look more like boutique hotels and offer a variety of fun activities—from pub crawls to game and movie nights—to help you get to know your fellow travelers. TOUR COMPANIES • Intrepid Travel is offering a special 10 percent discount on all of their family-style tours when you book by July 31st (valid on travel thru July 31, 2016). Check the latest deals page often, and don't miss Intrepid Travel's last minute deals page for further discounts of up to 25 percent off last-minute getaways. • G Adventures has several specials this summer, including 15 percent off select trips to Colombia, the Galápagos Islands, Europe, India, Japan, the Middle East, Morocco, Peru, the Himalayas, Southeast Asia, East Africa, South Africa, Australia, South Korea, China, Costa Rica, and South American cruises when you book by July 31st. Check this page to see their current promotions. • Attention 18-35 year-olds: Contiki is offering 10 percent off European tours that are ten days or more when you book by July 8th—use promo code EUROPEMAGIC to save up to $554 per person (valid on travel thru Mar. 31, 2016). Keep an eye on their Last Minute Deals page if you're looking to have an unforgettable adventure for less. • JourneYou is offering a special package during the Buenos Aires Tango Festival, held this year from Aug. 12-25. The tour, happening Aug. 21-26, includes five nights' accommodations at the tango-themed Tanguero Hotel in the heart of the city, airport transfers, a guided city tour of Buenos Aires, guided wine tour and tasting, a night of milonga "a lo guapo," a tango show at Café de los Angelitos, daily breakfast, and one dinner, from $1,190 per person. CRUISES • You can save up to $479 per person thanks to this last-minute European cruise sale by MSC Cruises. Save $50 per person on interior rooms, $100 per person on ocean view rooms, $150 per person on balcony rooms, and $200 per person on Aurea Suites and MSC Yacht Club rooms. Book your cruise by July 31st and use promo code AIRCREDT. RAIL TRAVEL •Rail Europe is helping families save on train travel with some great deals on their rail passes. This year, up to two children ages 4-11 can travel for free with an adult on the Eurail Global, Eurail Select, Regional Eurail, and select single-country Eurail passes. Families traveling in Switzerland with children under 16, for example, can book a Swiss Travel Pass and save with the Swiss Family Card (kids ages 6-15 can travel free with a parent or guardian-the card itself is free, just request it when you book your pass). The German Rail Pass also offers free travel for up to two children between the ages of 6-11 with each paying adult. OTHER GREAT SPECIALS • You can save $250 instantly this summer when you book an air-inclusive vacation to Nassau Paradise Island in the Bahamas for at least four nights. Book your beach getaway by July 8th for travel by Dec. 18th. Blackout dates do apply between Nov. 22nd and 27th. Click the link above for more details.


The Hobbit’s Ultimate Guide to New Zealand

This article was written by Kyle Ellison on behalf of These are some of the staggering statistics behind the logistics of filming the latest in The Hobbit trilogy. Though much of the movies were shot in a Wellington studio, nine weeks were spent in the New Zealand countryside filming in surroundings that excite the imagination. From the rolling green hills of Matamata to the soaring peaks of the Southern Alps, the scenery of New Zealand is so phenomenally enchanting that it's almost too perfect to be real. In fact, while filming the movies, many of the cast expressed concerns that viewers would think the landscape was fake. How, they argued, could moviegoers believe that such stunning scenery is real? Where in the world do thundering waterfalls, turquoise lakes, volcanic pinnacles, and alpine glaciers all occupy a terrain with hardly any people? Luckily for travelers to New Zealand, this fantasy-world of rings and hobbits was shot in a very real place, and thanks to the convenience of movie-themed tours, it's easy to visit the same outposts where dwarves and trolls once voyaged. To take a walk in the footsteps of The Hobbit, here is our guide to many of the locations where scenes from the movies were filmed. NORTH ISLAND MatamataSeeing as most visitors fly into Auckland—and that the epic journey all began in The Shire—it only makes sense that Matamata should be the first stop on a Hobbit-themed holiday. This rolling pastureland three hours south of Auckland offers the famous setting for Hobbiton, and after the filming of Lord of the Rings, the Hobbiton movie set was completely dismantled and the area returned to pasture. For the filming of The Hobbit, however, Hobbiton was constructed from permanent materials, and the captivating hamlet of life-sized hobbit holes is now a permanent North Island attraction. In addition to visiting Bag End—home of Bilbo Baggins—you can enjoy a meal in the Green Dragon Inn made famous in the Lord of the Rings. While Matamata is only a short drive from Hamilton, many travelers choose to visit as part of a guided tour. There are multiple tours which depart from Auckland, others which also visit Waitomo Caves, and an exclusive option to arrive early to tour around Hobbiton prior to the opening. RELATED: Book Viator's exclusive tour to Hobbiton. PioPioSet in a remote section of the Waikato region, PioPio and the Mangaotaki Rocks were the famous site of Trollshaw Forest. At an area known as Denize Bluffs, huge shafts of rock plunge upwards from the forest and make the perfect setting for a secretive hideaway. Located 40 minutes south of Waitomo Caves and not far from the town of Te Kuiti, the setting itself is on private land and can only be accessed as part of a private tour. TuroaFor local Kiwi skiers and snowboarders, the Turoa ski area is a popular part of the largest skifield in New Zealand. For those on the trail of The Hobbit, however, the area around Turoa is better known as the entrance to The Lonely Mountain. Also known as Hidden Bay, this grassy tussock and rocky slope has the feel of an alpine outpost, and it's also the area from The Lord of the Rings where Gollum chased fish through the river. Not far away—on the opposite side of the mountain—is the volcanic section of Tongariro Park which was home to Mordor and the famous Mt. Doom. Given the somewhat remote location and the distance from major cities (4-5 hours from both Auckland and Wellington), the best way to visit the area around Turoa is by providing your own transportation. While here, be sure to do some hiking in Tongariro National Park, and the Tongariro Crossing is often considered as the best one-day hike in New Zealand. WellingtonIn addition to being the nation's capital, Wellington is the home of Stone Street Studios where much of the movies were filmed. It's also the home of the Weta Cave, which is the legendary studio of special effects where much of the magic was born. Only 20 minutes from downtown Wellington, the Weta Cave is a must-stop destination for anyone who is a fan of the films. Inside this iconic compound of creative imagination, you can come face-to-face with replicas of the characters and learn about how they were brought to life on screen. Though access to the Cave is open to the public, you can also visit as part of a tour which spends the day traveling to filming sights around Wellington. For Lord of the Rings fans, spend the morning touring the Gardens of Isengard and the walk along the banks of the Great River Anduin. After passing the site of famous Helm's Deep, attend the workshop at the Weta Cave for a full day of immersion in Middle Earth magic. SOUTH ISLAND Pelorus RiverAn hour west of the famous Marlborough vineyards—though not quite as far as the sunny coast of Nelson—Pelorus River is the only site in New Zealand where a collection of dwarves have rafted a river in wine barrels. The Pelorus River was used as an escape plan as a way to free the dwarves from Elvish imprisonment, and today is best visited as part of a guided kayak tour. For those who want to spend more time in the area, there is also a campground not far from the Pelorus Bridge where you can sit by the riverbank and re-enact the scene. QueenstownKnown to most travelers as the adventure capital of New Zealand, areas around Queenstown were also the setting for some of the film's most dramatic vistas. On the outskirts of town, The Remarkables mountain range which is so popular with skiing also served as the setting for the mysterious Misty Mountains. An hour to the west of Queenstown, not far from the town of Glenorchy, Earnslaw Burn is the name of the glacier where Bilbo and company visit when leaving Rivendell. Today, visitors can walk in the footsteps of The Hobbit by lacing up their hiking boots and walking the Earnslaw Burn Track. Along this walk through the Southern Alps, glacial waterfalls cascade their way down mountains with such dramatic splendor that they seem to spill from the sky. Twizel, Lake Pukaki, and Mount CookSituated high in the Canterbury interior, these expansive plains were the dramatic setting for many battles and panoramic vistas. Mt. Cook and the neighboring Southern Alps feature prominently in the backdrop of many aerial shots, and the turquoise-infused Lake Pukaki was the setting for Laketown—the city which is featured in The Desolation of Smaug. Small group Hobbit tours visit filming locations around Twizel, which itself is located over three hours from Christchurch. For those who are staying in the city of Christchurch, you can also take a Lord of the Rings tour to Mt. Sunday which was used as the setting for the city of Edoras. Strath TaieriLocated an hour outside the city of Dunedin, Strath Taieri and the Rock and Pillar Range are the remote outposts used for many of the chase scenes. The Hobbit cast members were forced to use helicopters to access many of the locations, although physically-fit hikers can access the craggy ridgeline by a series of walking tracks which weave through the hills. FiordlandFinally, the filming of The Hobbit could never be complete without a series of scenes featuring footage from Fiordland. Of all the footage which was gathered from Fiordland, the iconic landmark which is immediately recognizable is 1,900 ft. Sutherland Falls. Located along the trail for the Milford Track, this awe-inspiring waterfall forms the dramatic backdrop for when the hobbits are soaring on the backs of eagles. Even though the sets—with the exception of Hobbiton—have been completely dismantled since completion of the films, movie fans are guaranteed to be touched by the magic of walking in the beauty of the footsteps of The Hobbit. After all, New Zealand is a real place, and while it might now be crawling in dwarves and orcs, standing in the surroundings leaves little to the imagination. Book a private tour of Hobbiton from Auckland, or check out all Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit tours in New Zealand.


Escape The Cold With These Warm-Weather Travel Deals

I don't know about you, but I'm ready for spring. With more snow on the way this weekend for parts of the northeast, nothing sounds better right now than a quick getaway to somewhere—anywhere!—that is warm. Here, we've rounded up some great vacation deals, hotel specials, and travel sales to help you thaw out this winter. Hawaii • Picture yourself relaxing on the beautiful, legendary shores of Waikiki Beach. Hilton Hawaiian Village on Hawaii's island of Oahu (pictured above), is offering room rates from $199 a night, with access to Waikiki Starlight Luau, five luxurious swimming pools, and the longest waterslide in Waikiki. You'll also be able to try your hand at playing the ukulele or dancing the hula during your stay. • The Plantation Inn in Maui is offering more than 20 percent off with their "Moment in Time" package. You'll get three nights' accommodations in a Deluxe Lanai room, daily breakfast, dinner for two at Gerard's Restaurant on the night of your choice, a bottle of champagne with two glasses to keep, His and Hers Hawaiian robes to keep, and daily car rental, from $852 per couple. • You can find lots of hotel rates on Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii Island for less than $200 a night when you book through this website—you'll also save 10 percent on your vacation by booking with promo code AstonLife and sharing your #AstonLife experience on social media. Must show your #AstonLife post to hotel staff for validation. • Save 10 percent on your stay at various Aqua Hospitality hotels in Hawaii and Guam when you "Rock a Shaka" at check in. • Still craving that dream trip to Hawaii? Flights from the west coast between February and May range from $358 to $553 round-trip, while other travel deals to Hawaii can be found by visiting the Hawaiian Airlines website, the Alaska Airlines website, or by visiting Delta Vacations or United Vacations for great air and hotel (and sometimes rental car) deals. Florida • Enjoy rates from $144 a night when you book the Hilton Orlando's 30 Hour Day package, which gives you overnight accommodations, eary check-in at 10 a.m. and late check-out at 4 p.m., discounts of 15 percent at The Spa, and a 20 percent discount at the gift shop. When the theme park fatigue sets in, head to Hilton Orlando's lazy river, veg out at one of their two swimming pools, or take on the water slide. Valid thru Dec. 25, 2015. • Check out these special deals and vacation packages in Daytona Beach, including promotional rates during Bike Week Mar. 6-15, 2015. Arizona • Book three or more nights at The Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa in Tuscon, Arizona, by Mar. 30th and travel Mar. 2nd thru Apr. 6th and score rates from $189 a night—and a $50 gas card per stay. Kids will love The SlideWinder water slide, while adults can take on the resort's 27-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature course. Call 866-716-8108 or book online. Mention promo code LPPKG1 to get the special deal. Puerto Rico • Escape to Puerto Rico with stay at the Doubletree by Hilton San Juan for from $179 a night. You'll also receive fresh bakec chocolate chip cookies and handmade gourmet chocolates upon arrival, complimentary parking, breakfast, and admission to the Puerto Rico Museum of Art as part of their "Sweet Treats" package. Valid thru Mar. 31st. • Treat yourselves to Isla Verde Beach Resort's "My Puerto Rico Experience" package. You'll receive a 20 percent discount on a car rental, a 20 percent discount on Dragonfly Adventure Tours, and a special $75 resort credit per stay. From $185 a night; package is valid thru Dec. 21, 2015. • Book your stay at the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino now thru March to score rates from $175 a night this winter. • The Copamarina Beach Resort & Spa is offering rates from $150 a night for a romantic package that includes a one-night stay, daily breakfast at Las Palmas restaurant, a one-hour sunset cruise, couple's massage, one romantic dinner, and sparkling wine with chocolate covered strawberries upon arrival. Curaçao • Don't miss the "Relax A Little Longer" package at the beautiful Santa Barbara Beach & Golf Resort in Curaçao. You'll save 25 percent on stays of four nights or more and breakfast for two at Medi, the resort's Mediterranean restaurant. From $157 a night. Please call 855-590-2266 or book this deal online. Bahamas • Don't miss the Ultimate Spring Getaway package at the Abaco Beach Resort and Boat Harbour Marina in the Out Islands of the Bahamas, which gives you five days / four nights' oceanfront accommodations; two days of round-trip water taxi rides to nearby Guana Cay and Elbow Cay; daily breakfast; dinner for three nights at Angler's Restaurant; and complimentary use of the resort's tennis courts, fitness center, non-motorized watersports, and yoga classes; from $873 per person. Based on double occupancy; valid on stays between Feb. 27th and Apr. 12, 2015. Dominican Republic • Don't miss this package from that gives you airfare to Puerto Plata, six nights at the Lifestyle Tropical Beach Resort & Spa with access to their special VIP beach and parties, from $589 per person when you book by Mar. 31st for travel between May 1st and Aug. 31st. Mexico • has two great packages to Mexico: choose from one with airfare from Ft. Lauderdale to Cancun with four nights' accommodations at the Villa del Palmar Cancun Luxury Beach Resort & Spa from $769 per person (book by Feb. 28th for travel thru Apr. 30th), or one with airfare from Ft. Lauderdale to the Riviera Maya with four nights' accommodations at the all-inclusive Barcelo Maya Colonial and Tropical Beach Resort and $1,200 in resort credits per stay, from $669 per person (book by Mar. 23rd for travel between May 1st and Jul. 2nd). • Escape to the CasaMagna Marriott Puerta Vallarta Resort & Spa with rates from $109 a night when you book by Feb. 28th for stays thru Jun. 30th. Las Vegas • You can save on a trip to Las Vegas this winter by using the following promotional codes on when you book now thru Mar. 19th for travel by Jan. 31, 2016: Enter promo code WINTER25 to get $25 off your purchase of $250 or more; enter promo code WINTER50 to get $50 off your purchase of $500 or more; and enter promo code WINTER100 to get $100 off your purchase of $1,000 or more. Costa Rica • Head south and embark on an eight-day Costa Rica Sky to Sea biking tour from Access Trips. You'll get seven nights' accommodations, biking instructions according to your level by expert teachers, six days of biking through Costa Rica's scenery, all breakfast, three lunches, all transfers and ground transportation within the country, the services of a local naturalist guide, a river safari, and entrance to Costa Rica's National Parks. Land only package starts at $2,090 per person and does not include international airfare, bike and helmet rentals, or gratuities. Based on availability for departures on Mar. 22, May 17, Jul. 19, Nov. 1, and Dec. 20, 2015. Australia Qantas Vacations is offering several air-inclusive packages like the 11-Day Best of Australia: Melbourne, Reef, and Sydney package—from $2,559 with airfare from L.A., three nights in Melbourne, three nights in Cairns, and three nights in Sydney among other perks—and the 10-Day Best of Australia's Outback package—from $2,959 including airfare from L.A., two nights in Alice Springs, two nights near Uluru, and four nights in Sydney. Other Great Hotel Deals • Red Roof Inn is offering several ways to save: You can save up to 20 percent at select Red Roof Inn properties thanks to their Snowbirds promotion—use promo code 618909 when booking your stay now thru Mar. 31st. Are you a veteran or active duty military member? You and your family can save 15 percent on regular rates with promo code 619091 when you book and stay by Mar. 31st. The Red Roof National Pet Discount gives you 15 percent off rates at participating hotels when you stay now thru Feb. 28th with your four-legged friend (use promo code 605422). • Save up to 20 percent at 31 participating Marriott Resorts in California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas with their "More is Less" sale. Book by Mar. 5th for stays thru Mar. 31st and use promo code D3Q. Remember, the longer you stay, the more you'll save! • Rates at the Hilton São Paolo Morumbi, Hilton Barbados Resort, and the Caribe Hilton in Puerto Rico start at $99 a night and include a $50 per night on-property credit to use towards hotel restaurants, spa facilities, and golf, when you book one of their Leisure Escape packages.