An evening in Venice? Divino! Springtime in Paris? Très romantique!
Certain world cities are so imbued with their own mystiques that their names stand alone, without need to mention the country. Their elegance and polish are tempered with quirkiness and local color. The architecture whisks you back a few hundred years. There’s at least one famous body of water, and the kind of history they make movies about. There are horse-drawn carriages, monuments you want to pose in front of, and food is a raison d’etre.
With all due respect, we have places like that in the United States, too.
For those thinking that a U.S. vacation seems especially prudent this year, we suggest a stroll among the ghosts, wisteria, and monuments beneath moss-draped oaks and soaring church spires of Savannah. Or Mediterranean-imbued Naples, where enclaves of Italianate mansions border emerald golf courses and the sugary sands of the Gulf of Mexico.
In Newport, you can join the crew of a 12-meter racing yacht like the one Ted Turner captained to bring home the America’s Cup, dine in the country’s oldest tavern, and peek into the opulent summer “cottages” of America’s Gilded Age. Laid-back Mackinac Island requires you to leave your horseless carriage at home and seep into 18th-century Victoriana.
On Miami’s South Beach, where “eccentric” is an understatement, you can visit the great fashion designer Gianni Versace’s lavish Rococo palace, explore the world’s largest Art Deco district, and party till dawn among the beautiful people. Quirky, cultural San Francisco lures romantics, foodies, and movie buffs. In San Antonio, where Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett died defending The Alamo, you can dine aboard a gondola on the Rio San Antonio and sip the finest cactus juice margarita north of the border.
Neon, Glitz, Art Deco, and Bling
South Beach, Miami
Insiders call it SoBe, party central for superstars, top models, and producers (also wannabe superstars, top models, and producers), where '50s-era, chromed-up pink Cadillacs and aqua Thunderbirds cruise among bikini-clad inline skaters. If you don’t have your vintage Caddy with tailfins handy, any sleek convertible will do.
Walk with Miami Design Preservation through the neon and pastel Art Deco district of funky, whimsical architecture of the 1920s and 1930s. Golf on the Doral Resort’s world-famous Blue Monster. Nurture your inner shopaholic with serious bling at Bal Harbour Shops. Attend a ballet at the glam Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
Gorgeous, young, scantily clad females easily get past the doorman-guarded velvet ropes of the sizzling-hot SoBe clubs on their own. Others are smart to hire a personal concierge to make the introductions. For a small fee, VipSouthBeach.com will secure tables at the bar, restaurant, and lounge of your choice, as well as VIP invitations to the night’s hippest parties.
For elegant Deco: See and be seen at The Tides, www.tidessouthbeach.com. The Betsy, a 1930s-era, Southern Plantation style boutique hotel, just reopened after being renovated to the max. (www.thebetsyhotel.com.)
Fountains, Squares, and Spanish Moss
Movie blockbusters “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and “Forrest Gump” have helped keep sensuous Savannah on the map. Besides her famous squares, cobblestone streets, and showy springtime azaleas, this Southern belle claims America’s most authenticated haunted house.
Settle into a centuries-old mansion-turned-inn, where a glass of sherry at turndown is de rigueur, or an antebellum cotton warehouse-turned-hotel. Take a carriage ride around the 15-by-30-block Historic District. Lunch on fried chicken at Paula Deen’s place. Take historic tours by day and lantern-lit ghost tours by night. Notice the Parisian accent in the French Gothic cathedrals, sidewalk cafes, the artsy Paris Market, even an olive-oil-tasting room. Try French gourmet takeout from très chic Papillote.
Did I mention quirky? Luxurious tuck-ins include the beautiful Ballastone Inn, a former 19th-century bordello (www.ballastone.com); the stately Mansion on Forsyth Park, once a cream of society funeral home (www.mansiononforsythpark.com); and The Mulberry Inn, previously the Coca Cola bottling plant (www.savannahhotel.com). Room 204 of the 17 Hundred 90, Savannah’s oldest inn, is believed to be haunted (www.17hundred90.com).
And don’t miss the classy Kessler Collection’s Bohemian Hotel Savannah Riverfront, tucked among the cotton warehouses. www.bohemianhotelsavannah.com.
For longer stays, book a privately owned historic home: www.savannahgetaways.net.
Think Outside the Squares
Bonaventure, a former plantation where the famous and infamous rest beneath ancient oaks and stone angels, is America’s most beautiful cemetery. Beyond the marshes and tidal creeks lies Tybee Island, a quirky, retro beach community.
Posh Eco-Glam, Mediterranean Mecca
Get your Mediterranean fix in this polished Florida resort town defined by piazzas and fountains, fine art galleries, world-class shopping, impressive performing arts halls, and seaside palaces. In stark contrast, the Everglades and thousand-year-old swamps embrace it, so you can do the eco thing, the romance thing, and the culture thing, then shop till you drop into a world-class spa.
Play a round in the land that claims the most golf holes per capita in America. Fish from the historic Naples Pier or charter a trip into the mangrove-fringed backcountry of the Ten Thousand Islands. Go swamp stomping with a naturalist, then dress for an evening stroll beneath the twinkling fairy lights along “the Avenues” of Old Naples, the shopping Meccas of Third Street South and Fifth Avenue South.
Haute (and Not So Haute) Culture
Pick up some doggie perfume or a chocolate alligator at funky, colorful Tin City. The former oyster-shucking plant houses kitschy souvenir shops and dockside seafood restaurants. Over an ornate stone bridge lies Bayfront, an unabashedly upscale enclave of galleries, restaurants, and boutiques.
The Sea Salt Cure
Tranquil Gulf beaches and spa indulgences outnumber even the golf holes. Check out the Golden Door Spa at the Naples Grande Resort or the renowned Spa at the Ritz-Carlton, Naples. Immerse yourself in treatments of seashells, seaweed, and sea salts, and then finish the cure at Sea Salt, a trendy new bistro on Third Street South.
Hire a French vis à vis horse-drawn carriage for a romantic tour of Old Naples; champagne bucket and ice on request . www.charlenesclassiccarriages.com.
At Naples’ northern tip are the glamorous seaside Ritz-Carlton, Naples (www.ritz-carlton.com), LaPlaya Resort (www.laplayaresort.com), and Waldorf Astoria Naples (www.waldorfastorianaples.com). The dazzling Philharmonic Center for the Arts and the over-the-top European style shopping Meccas of Waterside Shops and Mercato are nearby. In Old Naples, check out the Inn on Fifth (www.innonfifth.com), or the Naples Bay Resort and Spa (www.naplesbayresort.com).
Tequila, The Alamo and Riverwalk
Dallas glitters. Houston radiates vitality. But the humble frontier town of San Antonio has the “cradle of Texas liberty,” the Spanish mission of San Antonio de Valero, aka The Alamo, and Paseo del Rio, aka Riverwalk.
Paseo del Rio is a 2.5-mile cobblestone promenade along the banks of the San Antonio River, characterized by arched stone bridges and shaded by mature cypress and hardwood trees. Luxury hotel balconies overlook boutiques and galleries, Tex-Mex restaurants and saloons, shops, and the colorful umbrellas of alfresco cafes. Sightseeing gondolas cruise the river, and water taxis get you to Spanish missions, museums, and cathedrals.
Indulgence is sweet; affordable indulgence is sweeter. Travel & Leisure magazine called San Antonio America’s most affordable city. Splurge on posh La Mansion del Rio (www.omnihotels.com); classic-meets-hip Hotel Valencia (www.hotelvalencia-riverwalk.com) or the sophisticated Mokara Hotel & Spa (www.mokarahotels.com), with its sensuous spa and rooftop pool. Think marble baths, 300-thread-count Egyptian cotton linens, faux mink bed throws (Valencia), and Southwestern antiques.
Body and Spirits Indulgence
Have the Texas Tingle body wrap or a mesquite and cornmeal body scrub, followed by an aromatic rosemary massage at the Watermark Spa, then head to Boudro’s for its signature Prickly Pear Margarita or a mighty fine Texas Red Eye bloody Mary.
Surprise! Two of the best French restaurants in the West thrive in Spanish/Mexican San Antonio. Le Reve kicks it up a notch with mouth-watering prix fixe multi-course feasts ranging from $80 to $100. (www.restaurantlereve.com) Reservations strongly advised.
For a feast San Antonio style, book a private river gondola for two, catered by the restaurant of your choice (www.riosanantonio.com).
Yachts, Taverns, and Mansions
Ah, Newport . . . steeped in the excesses of the Gilded Age, the Rhode Island refuge where America’s royalty entertained lavishly in their palatial summer “cottages.”
You may run into a Vanderbilt-in-residence while touring The Breakers, the family’s 70-room palace, modeled after a 16th-century Italian palazzo. You’ll learn juicy Astor family secrets on the theatrical Victorian Servants Tour of the Astors’ Beechwood.
Stroll the Seaport
Explore the galleries and shops housed in the original maritime buildings of Newport’s centuries-old working seaport. Sail at sunset aboard a wood-hulled schooner, or crew on an authentic 12-meter yacht, just like Ted Turner’s America’s Cup-winning Courageous. Feast on local lobster or rack of lamb at the White Horse Tavern, circa 1697. Hike the glamorous 3.5-mile Cliff Walk, between the mansions and the raging Atlantic surf.
Polo and Topiary Gardens
Attend a Saturday polo match at Glen Farm, set on a 17th-century manorial estate. Tour the gardens and mansion of Blithewold; stroll among leafy elephants, bears, and bunnies at Green Animals Topiary Garden.
Enjoy Gilded Age pampering in a suite at the circa 1873 Chanler at Cliff Walk, the Bellevue Avenue mansion of Congressman John Winthrop Chanler. The Chanler, with its oh-so gracious staff, is appointed with period antiques, 400-thread-count Fili D’oro linens, and amenities worthy of society’s elite. (www.thechanler.com). Inn lovers: Try the intimate La Farge Perry House (www.lafargeperry.com), former home of Commodore Matthew Perry’s granddaughter. Innkeeper/chef Midge Knerr serves up elaborate breakfasts in china-and-crystal elegance.
Tasty, Sophisticated, and Irreverent
Is it an elite community on a hill, a Victorian picture book, a haven for eccentrics and burnt-out hippies, or an artsy Mecca of haute couture and even more haute cuisine? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and more. Get your bearings with one of Foot Tours’ themed comedic walking tours. There’s “Shake & Bake -- Just Add Rubble” (earthquake theme); “Hobnob with Gobs of Snobs” (Nob Hill); “Nude, Lewd, and Crude,” (Strip joints and comedy clubs); “Come Out to the Castro” (gay/lesbian neighborhood); “Flashback -- The Summer of Love” (psychedelic Haight-Ashbury); and more. Ticket prices average $30, but what the heck, buy five for $100. They’re hilarious and informative too: www.foottours.com.
Shop till you drop on sophisticated Maiden Lane, laced with couture saloons and boutiques, bistros, and fine galleries; browse the chic culinary-themed boutiques and cafes at Ferry Building Marketplace. At the Tuesday and Saturday farmer’s market, you can inspect the produce alongside San Francisco’s most celebrated chefs.
Be a Tourist
Oh, go ahead: Take the ferry to Alcatraz, ride a cable car; do Chinatown and the Japanese Tea Garden; climb steep, crooked Lombard Street. Ogle the orchids at Golden Gate Park’s Conservatory of Flowers and Fisherman’s Wharf’s giant Dungeness crabs. Do dinner and jazz at The Cannery, formerly the world’s largest peach cannery.
Visit famous film locations with San Francisco Movie Tours, from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to Robin Williams’ Mrs. Doubtfire and the Tom Cruise/Christian Slater interrogation in “Interview With the Vampire”.
Or, as legendary singer Otis Redding might do, take a bag of Ghirardelli chocolates and do some leisurely sittin’ on the dock of the bay.
Mandarin Oriental San Francisco. Unparalleled luxury. Stupendous Golden Gate Bridge views. $500-$600/night (www.mandarinoriental.com/sanfrancisco).
Horse and Carriage Days, Orchestra Nights
Remember Newport’s Astor “cottage?” Ancestor John Jacob Astor got rich on the fur trade amid the streams and forests of frontier Michigan. Mackinac, population 500, is the laid-back Victorian version of Newport, with its May-to-October social season. You may recognize this drenched-in-adorable Lake Huron isle from the romantic Christopher Reeve/Jane Seymour movie, Somewhere in Time.
Mackinac, with its warm days and cool nights infused with the fragrance of lilacs, is also the summer home of Michigan’s governors. Sorry, no cars allowed since 1898. But you can walk or bicycle anywhere, and there’s always a horse and carriage.
Don’t Forget the Fudge
Besides getting married and riding around in your formal wear in a carriage, fudge buying is the top visitor pastime. The 17 (count 'em) fudge shops claim to sell 10,000 pounds of fudge daily. Tourists, therefore, are “fudgies.”
Bring your camera to the colorful horse-and-carriage parade during the 10-day Lilac Festival and sink into a fudge-induced coma at the annual Fudge Festival.
Naturally, you’ll stay at the legendary Grand Hotel, the 19th-century Victorian grande dame with its 660-foot-long rocking chair porch. The resident orchestra performs in the parlor nightly to accompany your after-dinner demitasse. Rates start at $254. Rooms with actual names, such as Napoleon, Jane Seymour, Lady Astor, or named for a U.S. first lady, can set you back up to $750 (www.grandhotel.com).
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