The best books to read in every state in America
As soon as coronavirus arrived in New York City last winter, my brain became a tangle of anxious thoughts, pounding down on my already overtaxed amygdala. I had one salvation: a three-by-two map of America hanging in my living room. While most of my friends set their sights on the Balis and Bermudas of the world, my only travel goal has long been to visit every state in America. Ostensibly, this map’s point was to be the canvas for a smattering of pins until I created a multi-hued distribution upon all 50 sates. In actuality, the point was to accomplish something, to wrangle up America into a palm of pastel thumbtacks, to live a life full of stories.
Stories from a life of zigzagging our great terrain this past year, it turned out, would not be in the cards as travel restrictions and lockdowns made all too clear from the outset of this mess. But as I squinted once again at the pin-less sweep of real estate on my wall somewhere between Minnesota and Oregon early last spring, I realized I could still get to work on these travels, if I got a little creative.
Thus, my 50 states book project was born, where I embarked on a challenge to read a tome set in every state in the union. I still met people and places and things and disasters and triumphs, but I didn’t rent a car, or hop on a plane, or even scour the internet high and low for Clorox wipes to sanitize my hotel room. Instead, I let William Least Heat-Moon, Bill Bryson, and Paul Theroux lead me on road trips, I hung out with that guy who walked across America, Peter Jenkins, I chased redbirds in Kentucky with Sharon Creech, listened to crawdads singing in North Carolina, and I went on one hell of a bender with Hunter S. Thompson in Vegas. I spent a grand total of $233.96 buying used books on Amazon—less than an average one-night hotel stay in Chicago, mind you.
I read classic texts and obscure novels, fiction and nonfiction, humorous and heartbreaking, and it completely changed the way I think about travel. For one thing, given the titles I read, I can now unequivocally say the best adventures are the outdoors ones. My nationwide literary adventure had me walking around my own little nook of a park, Sutton Place Park in Midtown Manhattan, like I was a Thoreauvian naturalist (I’m not sure how he’d feel about the giant neon Pepsi Cola sign across the East River). In lockdowns, these books gave me inspiration to find meaning in the toughest of days knowing that This Too Shall Pass, and the road awaited me. It even helped me feel a little less pissed when my well-intentioned best friend would send me gorgeous mountain-y snapshots from her quarantine castle in the Hudson Valley. After all, I had just gotten back from a whirlwind stint in Iowa.
Perhaps counterintuitively, surveying a book from every state in America blurred the lines of my much-loved pushpin map. Alaska was Alabama was Kentucky was Kansas. On page 18 of my Michigan selection, The Deer Camp: A Memoir of a Father, A Family, and the Land That Healed Them by Dean Kuipers, I came across this passage: “The great American anarchist Edward Abbey is probably not a terrific role model for mature relatedness—by all reports, he had prickly relationships with other people and, like Henry David Thoreau, needed the solitude he so extolled. But in Desert Solitaire Abbey addressed that need to confront our position vis-à-vis the nonhuman world…” In a quick swoop of the pen, my Michigan author had referenced my Maine essayist and my Utah wordsmith. We’re all independent, yet linked. Separate, yet dependent. Alone in the woods, yet with your friends on the forest floor. Alaska is Alabama is Kentucky is Kansas.
Alabama Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep
Cep does a deep dive into Harper Lee’s true-crime book about reverend Willie Maxwell, an alleged serial murderer that never was finished and published. Her portrait of To Kill a Mockingbird’s scribe, Harper Lee, is just as fascinating as the unreal story of Maxwell.
Alaska Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
There’s hardly a stretch of 10 pages in this book without creased corners and underlining, in this enthralling account of a renegade college grad who abandons the conventions of traditional life on Alaska’s harsh frontiers.
Arizona Arizona Then and Now: People and Places by Karl Mondon
By the time I got to my Arizona selection, my eyes had glazed over from so. much. text. Thankfully, this assortment of archival photos from the Jeremy Rowe Collection juxtaposed with modern-day photography from Mondon was exactly what I needed. Nothing will beat the heavenly Grand Canyon, but the main street photos of towns like Bisbee and Winslow really made me nostalgic for wandering a new teeny town’s downtown for the first time.
Arkansas Hipbillies: Deep Revolution in the Arkansas Ozarks by Jared M. Phillips
Hippies of the Haight-Ashbury variety + backwoods hillbillies = “Hipbillies.” A fascinating perspective on this Southern counterculture from the 1960s and ‘70s, I was intrigued to learn about these back-to-the-landers’ incredible impact on the future of the Ozarks.
California The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Head to San Francisco in this award-winning gem from Tan that also brings you along to China in stories of immigrant Americans, the lives and pain they left behind, and the chapters they’ve built anew.
Colorado The Voyeur's Motel by Gay Talese
A journalist uncovers a heck of a world after receiving an anonymous letter from a peeping Tom who owns a hotel in Aurora and spies on unknowing guests. It’s creepy, it’s can’t-put-down, and it will definitely have you look around extra carefully after you check into a hotel room.
Honorable mention: Stories I Tell Myself: Growing Up with Hunter S. Thompson by Juan Thompson
Connecticut The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
Well, guess I need to see the 2004 movie starring Nicole Kidman now. Because, wow, what a book: When Joanna arrives in Fairfield County with her husband and kiddos from New York City an American horror classic ensues, from the same author as Rosemary’s Baby.
Delaware And Never Let Her Go: Thomas Capano: The Deadly Seducer by Ann Rule
This book has something for every kind of reader, true crime, politics, superb research, psychological nuances...the list goes on and on. You’ll stay up way past your bedtime finishing this one.
Florida Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Woman decamps from her busy life and heads to Captiva Island, off the coast of Fort Myers. Woman picks up various seashells and uses them as metaphors to reflect on life: work, relationships, struggles, joys. Turns out said woman is married to a Nazi (see: New Jersey), which ruins this poetic, rhythmic philosophical missive for me.
Georgia Between Georgia
Torn between two families, a husband and a best friend love interest, the tension is palpable in this Southern Drama with a capital D. As one reader referenced in the Amazon reviews, the saying "We don't hide crazy in this family. We sit it down on the front porch and give it a cocktail” was just made for this book.
Hawaii The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings
You know a book is that good, when the George Clooney movie version doesn’t even hold a candle to it. There’s a wife in a coma and her extramarital affair, a husband forced to reckon with raising his two daughters alone and being heir to a ton of primo real estate, and so much more that will leave you unable to think about anything else for a couple of days.
Idaho Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
I’ll be the first to admit I picked this book up for the eye-catching floral design on the cover, but I couldn’t put it down for the pathos bleeding through every page. When a mother kills her child, so much more crumbles and is lost, but the beauty here is in all that is found, practically, philosophically, and otherwise.
Illinois Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond
When I was an editor at Men’s Journal in 2016, I sat in the cubicle next to Mr. Diamond (remember these things called offices) and this book encpatures so much of who he is: wise, writerly, idiosyncratic, and a touch grumpy. Enjoy the ride as he commences a quest for the filmmaker behind Home Alone, Sixteen Candles, and National Lampoon’s Vacation.
Indiana The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
I’m still crying, but to be fair, how could you not be crying after reading this novel about two kids who love like there are thousands of tomorrows despite the terminal cancer diagnoses with which they’re both reckoning.
Iowa The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson
1950s-era Iowa is brought to life in this oft humorous memoir from the beloved travel writer. It really made this New York City kid feel like she was missing out on a quintessential childhood experience by never having attended a county fair.
Kansas In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
A true crime classic that revolves around the brutal slaying of four family members in a small town in Western Kansas and the detective work that ensues. The book was praised for utilizing novelistic techniques to describe the characters and their feelings, a trailblazer for the nonfiction genre.
Kentucky Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech
Lockdowns have had me returning to tween books (don’t judge me), and I don’t regret the walk down memory lane in the least, especially in the company of the protagonist Zinny. The industrious youngster sets out into the woods and grapples with grief, blossoming love interests, and frustrating family dynamics along the way. Don’t we all?
Louisiana Magic City by Yusef Komunyakaa
Step inside 1950s Louisiana in Komunyakaa’s hometown of rural Bogalusa in this harrowing collection of poems. Within, the talented poet tackles racism, sexuality, and economic inequalities with a swift, vivid hand.
Maine The Maine Woods by Henry Thoreau
What I would give to escape this city jungle and take a walk in the Maine woods right about now. Thankfully, Thoreau’s quintessential naturalist account of three trips into the rugged woods with philosophical musings intertwined with the detailed physical descriptions of all that Thoreau witnesses. Pretty foreboding for the mid1800s: “the mission of men there seems to be, like so many busy demons, to drive the forest out of the country.”
Maryland Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
Admittedly, I picked up this book because there was a tantalizing slice of pie on the cover. But I’m glad I did: Follow along for all that unfolds as one grieving Baltimore family learn about long-hidden truths and struggles to cope.
Massachusetts Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom
I mean, what can I say about Tuesdays with Morrie? In this blockbuster memoir-cum-biography, a journalist visits his beloved former college professor at home as he dies of ALS. A five-star book (albeit, with some four-star writing). A beautiful biography of a life well lived, and a workaholic writer who’s outlook is changed because of his inspiring teacher’s example.
Michigan The Deer Camp: A Memoir of a Father, A Family, and the Land That Healed Them by Dean Kuipers
It was easy to fall in love with Kuipers’ elegant prose in a story about an estranged father and his three sons and what happens when said absent dad tries to make amends after buying 100 acres of hunting property in middle-of-nowhere Michigan. It’s a memoir I know I’ll be recommending for years to come.
Minnesota Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
I had picked this book up because I was supposed to gather with a crowd of hundreds to see Erdrich speak at the 92nd Street Y this past month. Needless to say, that blessed packed auditorium never came to fruition, but I’m glad I still devoured this spooky, powerful account of a pregnant woman in a world where expecting mothers are held captive in hospitals.
Mississippi The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
I did it. I read a full Faulkner book. And while I probably would have understood more about this Deep South family and Dilsey, their black servant, had I read the SparkNotes, if only for the occasional heart-stopping quote like “Clocks slay time... time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.”
Missouri The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States by Walter Johnson
This Missouri native and now Harvard professor captures the oft overlooked history of St. Louis, tracing the city from Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition to modern times, with moving examples in each chapter. It’s a tough look at racism in our country from centuries past to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, but a look well worth taking.
Montana A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman Maclean
So far, I’ve lost one friend to Big Sky Country since lockdowns commenced, and I can now totally appreciate why. Penned by a retired English professor who commenced his fiction career at 70, this novella and accompanying short stories will have you eager to fly-cast and play cribbage amidst a backdrop of trout streams, drunkards, and whores (maybe not the whores).
Nebraska The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert
Venture to the 1898 Omaha World's Fair – filled with sinners and saints – as one ventriloquist stumbles upon a new love. The book has burlesque dancers, snake oil salesmen, and plenty of wild west drama and romance. In these strange times, what more could you want?
Nevada Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
Like The Plot Against America (see: New Jersey) I didn’t think this stream of conscious book would be for me, so I was amazed that I polished it off in three evening reading sessions. Vegas is wild, life is wild, and it’s all gravy baby in this fast-paced (psychedelic) trip.
New Hampshire Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving
If this doesn’t make you want to traipse around New Hampshire (minus an accidental murder and an unfortunate sheriff), I don’t know what will. The inventive novel takes detours to Iowa, Vermont, and more, as you get to know three generations of men and a rotating cast of women and feel particularly drawn to say goodbye to your smartphone for a while and retreat to 1950s Coos County, New Hampshire.
New Jersey The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth
In this lengthy novel, Roth reimagines a world in which Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh is President, creating fantasized historical fiction that has striking parallels to today’s dystopian America. The book focuses on Philip’s upbringing in Newark in the 1940s in a tight-knit Jewish community, with a brother desperate to leave and a cousin returning home from World War II missing a leg. Overall, this book a nice reminder for me that reading beyond your typical wheelhouse pays dividends. Check out the miniseries on HBO Max after you’re done.
Honorable mention: Shore Stories: An Anthology Of The Jersey Shore by Richard Youmans (Editor)
New Mexico House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday
After I told a friend in California about my little project, I was touched when this book arrived in my mailbox a few days later. This Pulitzer Prize novel by esteemed Kiowa journalist moved me in all the right ways during such a time of turmoil with the unforgettable Abel, a Native American man who returns to his reservation after fighting in World War II.
New York The Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger
In a time when it was easy to forget New York City’s boisterous splendor, it was comfort food to cavort around famed landmarks and reconvene with old Phoebs, Holden, and even pimply Ackley. As for “those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South,” I’m pleased to report they appear to be COVID-free and frolicking about even as hell and temperatures freeze over.
Honorable mentions: A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin; Here Is New York by E.B. White; Manhattan’45 by Jan Morris; An Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena; The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America by Russell Shorto
North Carolina Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
A haunting murder story with unforgettable characters, a moving love story, and evocative descriptions of nature’s wonders, all set in the marshlands of the Old North State.
North Dakota The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown by Blaire Briody
Part culture analysis, part travelogue, this book about the oil biz delivers on the premise of its title — especially on the wild front.
Ohio Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
From page one to the end, try putting this book down as it simply yet poignantly captures the realities of growing up in a family riddled with addiction and drama. P.S. If you watched the stekkar new Netflix flick, you’ll definitely appreciate reading the original memoir.
Oklahoma A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal
Dubbed “a love letter to a classic American city,” this love story in a Tulsa that straddles the line between dusty and sparkling is unlike any other you’ve ever read.
Oregon Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Okay, so it also covers California and Washington, but since the author lives in Portland, we’ll give this unique, achingly beautiful memoir to her stomping grounds. Chronicling one woman’s quest to hike the PCT in the cradle of grief, this memoir will change your outlook on everything from nature to family. P.S. Reese Witherspoon stars in the 2014 movie adaptation.
Pennsylvania Rabbit, Run by John Updike
This was the first Updike book I read, but it won’t be the last. I think one Goodreads reviewer nailed it: “Have you ever seen something noted because it is a representation of a specific thing? For example, a building might be marked with a plaque as a perfect representation of a type of architecture. Well, this book should be marked with a plaque as a perfect prose example of America in the late 50s/early 60s.” It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t progressive in its treatment of women, but man was it enthralling.
Rhode Island The Islanders by Meg Mitchell Moore
Get to know Anthony, Joy, and Lu, three strangers whose lives become intertwined on Little Rhody’s picturesque Block Island. They may call it a summer beach read, but I call it cozy quarantine perfection.
South Carolina The Last Original Wife by Dorothea Benton Frank
Set in Georgia and South Carolina, its a low-country love story that will leave you feeling Hallmark movie good. Also, the descriptions of towering trees, Sullivan’s Island, and Charleston restaurants, will help you indulge the armchair traveling spirit we all need right now.
South Dakota Deadwood by Pete Dexter
When the going gets tough, the tough head to Deadwood...at least in the 1870s if you’re Wild Bill Hickok or Calamity Jane. Expect searing grit. Booze, sex, betrayal, and murder in an action-packed work of fiction you won’t soon forget.
Tennessee Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
A searing fictional narrative that grapples with the effects of climate change and draws you into the world of a young woman living on a farm in an isolated sliver of Tennessee. If you’re a lover of the mystical monarch butterflies, this is definitely for you.
Texas God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State by Lawrence Wright
Diverse chapters covering everything from hurricanes and guns to music and Texan heroes, get a taste of this big, beautiful, and oft contradictory state. (Which, by the way, is so much more than Austin)
This best-seller reminded me of the understated, almost eerie grandeur of Utah (I once took a SUP yoga class in thermal waters within the Homestead Crater, a 10,000-year-old crater, about a half-hour outside of Park City, if that’s not enough trendy activities rolled int one) — and had me itching to return. Through Abbey’s elegiac prose, sourced from journals and reflections of his time spent as a ranger at Arches National Park outside Moab, you’ll yearn for the day when you can visit all of the natural wonders he describes for yourself, and with new eyes.
Vermont Stranger in the Kingdom by Frank Mosher
It’s a real treat to get lost in fictional Kingdom County, Vermont, in this tale that centers around a small town, a murder, and life in New England. Dealing with difficult themes like racism, Mosher manages to weave in humor and moral lessons without being preachy.
Virginia The Jezebel Remedy by Martin Clark
What happens when a married couple who are partners in law in a small Virginia town encounter a mysterious death of their most eccentric clients will leave you surprised at each twist and turn. One of my first quarantine reads last spring, it’s a veritable page-turner and welcome distraction from the relentless news cycle.
Washington Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
(Spoiler alert!) The last line of this courtroom drama regarding a case of a drowned fisherman on remote San Piedro Island was well worth slogging through the entire book for me: “Accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart.”
West Virginia Last Mountain Dancer: Hard-Earned Lessons in Love, Loss, and Honky-Tonk Outlaw Life by Chuck Kinder
This Goodreads review just about summed it up: “At turns uproariously funny and break-my-goddamn-heart sad, Last Mountain Dancer started off good and ended even better, set in a world where Hank Williams occupies the same spiritual space as the ubiquitous Jaaaaaysus.” Suffice to say, I’m looking forward to the day when I get to visit these country roads for myself.
Wisconsin Population: 485 — Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time by Michael Perry
I’ve visited my fair share small towns in Wisconsin like outdoorsy Door County’s fly-speck gem, Sister Bay, and Elkhorn to see the Dave Matthews Band play the much-hyped amphitheater that is Alpine Valley, but I’ve never ventured to one quite like Perry’s hometown of New Auburn, rendered beautifully in this unforgettable memoir.
Wyoming Wrapped and Strapped by Lorelei James
I like Harlequin romance novels, so shoot me. Hippie vegetarian meets hunky cattle farmer in a raunchy stint at the ole Split Rock Ranch and Resort in this “Blacktop Cowboys” series mass market paperback hit. Now I definitely want to visit Wyoming for the, um, scenery.
5 perfect rentals for plant lovers
The home gardening trend that bloomed during the pandemic has planted roots for the long term, with nurseries continuing to report record sales as consumers test and refine their green thumbs. Plant-loving travelers looking to take their plant parentings skills to the next level will be rewarded with stays at these five botanical vacation rentals courtesy of Vacasa, the leading full-service vacation rental management company in North America. As an added bonus, there are parks, greenhouses, gardens and more nearby, offering plenty of additional opportunities to enjoy nature’s beauty in full bloom. Source: Vacasa Arcadian Gardens (Sequim, Washington) - It’s fitting that this vacation home is in The Evergreen State, where an indoor koi pond—and hot tub—are surrounded by an impressive display of tropical plants that create a jungle-like oasis. Spend an afternoon at Pioneer Memorial Park, a beautiful 4-acre park and arboretum located right downtown and maintained by the Sequim Prairie Garden Club. Home Run House (Warren, Vermont) - This custom-built vacation home uses greenery to soften the steely gray of its industrial-style interior architecture, with a two-story living wall of plants and a forest of potted trees. Nearby, the Von Trapp Greenhouse in Waitsfield has been growing all of its own plants from seeds, cuttings, or divisions for more than 40 years. Source: Vacasa Mellow Marsh (Folly Beach, South Carolina) - Wicker baskets and plant stands dot the living area of this beachside rental, proving that even with a view of palm trees from the deck, a fiddle leaf fig tree can really bring a space to life. Head about 20 minutes inland to Charleston and stroll through acres upon acres of romantic blooms at the popular Middleton Place or Magnolia Garden. Source: Vacasa Yellowtail Home in the Meadow (Big Sky, Montana) - This Big Sky sun porch, complete with skylights, is decked out with a container garden of trees that artfully brings the outdoors in, but will keep any chilly evening temps at bay. An abundance of wildflowers line area hiking trails nearby, including Beehive Basin and Cinnamon Mountain, but remember to leave the colorful buds rooted—picking them is against hiker (and plant enthusiast) etiquette. Tabor Treehouse (Portland, Oregon) - As a house in a plant, this vacation rental gives guests the true “one with nature” experience. If that’s not enough, nearby Leach Botanical Garden (which unveiled a $12 million renovation this spring) is home to a diverse collection of more than 2,000 plants across its 16.5 acres Source: Vacasa This content has been provided in partnership with Vacasa.
6 great outdoor activities in Puerto Rico
1. Take a Tour of Old San Juan While Castillo San Felipe del Morro is closed until further notice, there are still plenty of interesting things to do in Old San Juan, whether you decide to go solo with one of GPSmyCity’s audio tours or with a group. Covid-compliant historical walking tours are available through Viator from $41 per person. San Juan Food Tours aims to keep patrons safe on its three-hour Flavors of Old San Juan tour (from $94 per person) and two-hour Rum Runners Craft Cocktail Tour (from $49 per person), while Spoon has similar health and safety protocols in place for its food and cocktail themed walking tours, ranging from $75 to $99 per person. To see San Juan from the water, East Island Excursions offers tours from $79 per person for daytime sailings or $95 per person for sunset sailings as long as guests fill out a health questionnaire before boarding. Misty jungle path through the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico. ©Dennis van de Water/Shutterstock 2. Get Back to Nature in El Yunque National Forest El Yunque National Forest is open but you’ll need to reserve an entry ticket online for $2 per vehicle ahead of time to visit the La Mina Recreation Area on Rd 191. Time slots between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. or 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. can be booked up to 30 days in advance. Note that La Mina Falls and Big Tree Trail will be closed for construction until 2022. Remember to keep your mask on and stay at least six feet from anyone outside your group. 3. Hike to Cueva Ventana (Window Cave) If you’re staying on the western side of the island or looking for an easy day trip from San Juan, Aventura Cueva Ventana (or Window Cave) near Arecibo is a fun place to go hiking, see petroglyphs and stone carvings left behind by Puerto Rico’s earliest inhabitants and check out the views from the cave’s window-esque opening. Tickets are $19 per person and there’s a $2 discount if you visit Wednesday to Friday. All visitors must comply with stringent hand-washing, mask-wearing and social distancing measures at all times. ©watcherFF/Getty Images 4. Explore Bioluminescent Bay by Kayak On the eastern end of the island, Island Kayaking runs guided tours (from $53 per person) to Bioluminescent Bay near Fajardo. You’ll be organized into kayaks per group—as in, you won’t be seated with strangers—masks must be worn throughout the tour and anyone with a temperature over 100.4 won’t be allowed to join. Their two-hour Glowing Bay Adventure tour takes you through a mangrove forest out to the bay, where tiny creatures called pyrodiniums bahamenses light up all around you whenever you move your paddle and kayak. 5. Visit a Rum Distillery While the Bacardi Rum Factory has halted its tours now, another historic rum distillery, Ron de Barrilito, is open. Rum tasting tours and mixology classes, available from $80 per person, must be booked ahead of time online as the number of guests will be limited to allow for social distancing. 6. Head to the Beach or Condado Lagoon If you’re a fan of sunbathing, surfing, boogie boarding, swimming, paddle boarding, kayaking or other recreational beach activities, it really boils down to this: stay with your own group, remain at least six feet from others and keep your mask on whenever you’re not in the water. Military tank left behind on Culebra Beach. ©Tinapat Kotumrongsak/Shutterstock
The best wineries in Virginia
The year 2020 has held some major ups and downs for me, but there is one wonderful milestone it has witnessed. It seems appropriate that in October, otherwise known as Virginia Wine Month, I finally hit my goal of visiting 100 Virginia wineries while visiting Stars in the Valley, a new (and tasty) winery that’s less than two years old. People are often surprised to hear that Virginia is home to nearly 300 wineries and is tied for the fifth largest wine producing region in the United States. However, wine has been grown in Virginia for over four centuries, dating back at least to 1619. Now, I could go into all the history about Jefferson’s struggle to produce drinkable wine at Monticello or the (re)discovery of a native Virginia grape by Dr. James Norton, but my guess is that you’re really here to find a weekend escape with good friends, good wines, and good views. One of the most important things to know about Virginia wine is that it will consistently challenge your expectations. It may seem obvious, but there is no single, universal way of making any specific type of wine. This is wonderfully evident here in Virginia. You may come across a chardonnay that is reminiscent of your Napa Valley oakey chards, that is to say tasting like a tub of buttered movie theatre popcorn, but then the very next chardonnay you taste may be a crisp, stainless steel with bright apple notes and no hint of butter or oak. Basically, there is something for everyone: whites so sweet they’ll make your teeth ache, full bodied reds, wines made from other fruit, and more. My quest to hit 100 wineries truly started with wanting to understand more about the wines I like so that I could stop wasting money at the grocery store, but it grew into so much more than that. As you're out tasting, no matter where you are, be sure to pay close attention to some of the grapes that show the best of what Virginia has to offer: Chardonnay, VIgonier, Petit Manseng, Cabernet Franc, Tannat, Norton, and Petit Verdot. Ask your wine educator their recommendations (and don’t forget to tip them!). Learn about basics like residual sugar and aging, as these will help you learn what to look for in the future. But most importantly, find what you like, and enjoy it! The best wineries in Virginia I hope to pass on some of what I’ve learned to you! After much humming and hawing, and countless hours spent looking at my Virginia wineries spreadsheet (yes, I have a spreadsheet), here are my favorite wineries across the state of Virginia! Best overall: Michael Shaps Wineworks, Charlottesville Virginia I first discovered Michael Shaps back in 2016 on a “Gals and Dogs” wine weekend in Charlottesville. It’s a slow meander up a gravel driveway, surrounded by light woods. You’ll actually have to drive straight past another winery to get there, but don’t get distracted, because what’s at the end of the path is definitely worth the wait. Not only has Michael Shaps multiple gold medals in the prestigious Virginia’s Governor’s Cup wine competition, he’s done so year after year. But what I love most is that his wine list is also the precise definition of “something for everyone.” Shaps makes wine both locally here Virginia and at his estate in Burgundy (for you old world aficionados). He makes boxed wine and wine for refillable growlers under a label called Wineworks that is meant to be high-quality yet also budget conscious -- perfect for those of you who’ve needed a little extra calming during these quarantine times. He also makes a sweet dessert wine that is literally named Raisin (not to be confused with raison!) d’Etre. If Charlottesville is too far away for you, Shaps also makes wine for a handful of other wineries, including Shenandoah Vineyards (off I-81) and The Barns at Hamilton Station (near Leesburg). I highly recommend the following wines: ● Michael Shaps Petit Manseng: You absolutely have to try my favorite grape to be grown in Virginia. The Petit Manseng was historically grown in France to make sweeter or dessert wines, but here in Virginia, you’ll often find them dry and bursting with tropical flavor. ● Wineworks BOX Rosé: Shaps was actually the first Virginia winery to offer “boxed” wine, and like all of his wines, there’s an attention to detail that produces quality but this time at a lower price point. A different blend annually, this light, dry rose is guaranteed to be your summer favorite! ● Michael Shaps L. Scott: This luscious red is a blend of Tannat, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, and it’s well-balanced to provide a round mouthfeel that is smooth and velvety, making it the perfect wine for the coming winter months and the corresponding hearty meals. Pippin Hill Winery in Charlottsville. Photo by Kathleen Saylor.Hidden Gem: Linden Vineyards, Linden, Virginia Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you all about Linden Vineyards, home to my other favorite winemaker in Virginia. Thankfully recommended to me a few years ago by a friend in the industry, I’m now passing along this insider knowledge to you. Linden Vineyards is a hidden gem, located on a hill overlooking one of three vineyards that are the sole source of Linden’s grapes, nestled mere miles away from I-66, about an hour from DC. Without a sign drawing in traffic from the highway, Linden has focused on creating quality wines that speak for themselves. And boy do they! Jim Law, the owner of Linden Vineyards, has built it into one of the pillars of Virginia winemaking. One of the older wineries in Virginia, Law broke ground nearly 40 years ago in 1983 and has been nurturing his vineyards ever since. He treats winemaking like an art form, and it’s truly evident in the outstanding wines that are produced year after year. It’s evident from the moment you walk in the door. There’s an air of seriousness blended with appreciation. You’ll not find kids or dogs running under foot here, just fellow wine lovers, an incredibly knowledgeable staff. And some of the best wine in Virginia. If you find yourself out that way, do yourself a favor and try some. Here are my favorites: ● Avenius Chardonnay: My personal favorite, that I remember years after tasting it. Avenius, named for one of three vineyards that produces all of the grapes for Linden, offers a minerality that complements nicely the fuller bodied nature of this Chardonnay. This tends to be more of a “Chablis” style Chardonnay in that it is well-balanced and not overly oaked. ● Claret: Now, if you’re like me, you may have thought that Claret was something that English gentlemen drank 200 years ago, but this one should change your thinking! Really, all a Claret is is a Bordeaux (often a red blend). If they still have it, I’d go for the 2015 vintage as it was a great growing season all around. It’s balanced and medium-bodied, and a great sipping wine! ● Best on a budget: Ox-Eye Vineyards is one of the few downtown tasting rooms I’ve visited in Virginia, but I dig it’s industrial vibe. You’ll find it nestled into an old brick storefront in Staunton, Virginia, a charming old town off I-81. They have an excellent list of wines in the $20 range. My favorite for the summer is their dry Riesling. ● Best Views: There’s a reason Pippin Hill Winery is a South Charlottesville favorite. You’ll see families and bridal showers meandering over their lush, gardened hills, making a day of being in this beautiful valley. They also have a vineyard-to-table kitchen that allows you to enjoy the most natural pairing of all: wine and food. My pick here would definitely be the Viognier. ● Best Organic: Nestled at the top of a rather steep gravel drive Arterra Wines is home to a winemaker who embraces a more minimalist technique, allowing the grapes to express themselves in the most authentic way possible. When you’re here, if it’s available, you must try their Malbec. ● Best Dog Day Out: If you’re like me, and you like a slightly slower pace, Muse Vineyards is the place for you. It’s low key, amazing wines, sedate hikes through vineyards, and you can take your furry friend right up to the tasting counter! While you’re there, don’t miss out on a classic Virginia varietal, the Cabernet Franc.
The best US lakes for recreation
Lake Powell Lake Powell is a reservoir in Glen Canyon National Recreational Area near the Utah and Arizona border. The water is a crisp blue, and snakes through the red rock canyon, offering plenty of opportunities for water sports and recreation. Visitors to Lake Powell can take a boat tour, go waterskiing and visit Cathedral in the Desert, a stunning rock monument located in Lake Powell. Its location near the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley provides an amazing opportunity for adventurers to have the road trip of a lifetime. Lake Lanier Lake Lanier is located in North Georgia, about an hour from Atlanta and a short drive from Chattanooga. It is a man-made reservoir made by damming the Chattahoochee River to provide electricity and flood control for nearby Atlanta. More than 10 million people visit Lake Lanier annually, with many of them using the Lanier Islands as a recreational hub. The Lanier Islands have plenty of lodging and dining options for all budgets, including tent camping and an RV park. Lake of the Ozarks Missouri's crown jewel of a lake sits in the middle of the state and offers a world-class destination. Visitors can find a plethora of land-based activities, restaurants and accommodations. In addition, there are countless marinas available to rent or store a boat. There are also 32 hiking trails near the lake, along with four caves to explore. There is inexpensive camping available nearby at Ozarks State Park and Ha Ha Tonka State Park. Pickwick Lake © Laura Brown / Budget Travel Pickwick Lake, Tennessee The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) created a series of 9 major dams across Tennessee during the 1930s and 1940s to bring affordable electricity and jobs to an area stricken by the Great Depression. Today, all the TVA lakes are great for water sports and recreation, but our favorite is Pickwick Lake, on the border of Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, just outside Memphis. Yellow Creek Cove on the lake is a constant party for boaters in the summer and features a rope swing into the water below. There is a great camping spot at Pickwick Landing State Park, where there is also a marina and available boat rentals. Big Bear Lake Big Bear Lake in Southern California, the ‘Jewel of the San Bernardino National Forest,’ prides itself on being open all four seasons for water recreation. Located 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles, it also can be accessed easily from Las Vegas or Phoenix. Big Bear offers a mountain atmosphere, with hiking trails, winter skiing, and summer swimming. The heart of Big Bear Lake is at Big Bear Village, a charming small town that serves as the region’s hub for dining and lodging. Make sure to check out the local festivals at The Village at Halloween and Christmas. Lake Tahoe © MariuszBlach / Getty Images Lake Tahoe Lake Tahoe sits on the border of California and Nevada, near Reno. It is the second deepest lake in the United States (after Crater Lake) and is known for its incredibly clear water and vibrant colors. Tahoe is known as a gateway for recreational adventure. Visitors can access hundreds of miles of beautiful hiking trails, as well as rent paddleboards and kayaks to explore the lake. Lake Mead Lake Mead lies outside of Las Vegas, and is the largest reservoir in the United States, formed by the Hoover Dam. Boating in Lake Mead is a popular activity, with four separate marinas available to rent or store boats. Lake Mead Cruises also takes a nightly cruise to the Hoover Dam and back. Lake Mead is heaven for fishing and offers some of the best sport fishing in the United States. Lake Placid © Chuck Robinson Photography / Getty Images Lake Placid Lake Placid in the Adirondacks is a classic New York mountain town, with views so legendary the town was selected to host the Winter Olympics in 1932 and 1980. In the winter, Lake Placid has amazing opportunities to snow ski and snowboard. In the summer, Lake Placid is a utopia for waterboarding and tubing. For those who own their own boat, there are several public launch points. For those on a budget, there are hostels off the lake for low rates or camping in nearby campgrounds or in the Adirondack backcountry. Lake Winnebago Lake Winnebago is a glacial lake in eastern Wisconsin, north of Milwaukee near Appleton and Oshkosh. It is a relatively shallow lake, known for great fishing in both the summer and the winter, with a prominent ice fishing industry. The lake’s most abundant fish are the Walleye, Perch, Sturgeon and Bass. Boats are readily available for rent at nearby Marinas. Boaters have access to more than 18,000 acres of water, including Lake Butte des Morts and the Fox River. Lake Winnepesaukee You can explore more than 250 different islands in New Hampshire’s Lake Winnepesaukee, or hike in the nearby White Mountains. There are a plethora of small villages on the shores of the lake, which can be reached by either boat or car, and each offers an individual flavor. Rent a boat and go waterboarding in the summer or plan a snowboarding adventure in the winter. When you’re ready to go indoors, check out one of the many breweries nearby, such as the Woodstock Inn Brewery in Woodstock. The nearest major city is Manchester. SPONSORED BY GEICOAs always, prior to travel, make sure you are up to date on your destination’s health and safety restrictions. See how much you could save when you bundle your car and boat insurance with GEICO. Carefully crafted collaboratively between GEICO, Lonely Planet and Budget Travel. Both parties provided research and curated content to produce this story. We disclose when information isn’t ours.Sponsored by GEICO