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Still looking for a place to travel to escape COVID-19? Try going off the beaten path

Going bigger doesn’t always guarantee the best travel experience

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Photo (c) Marco Bottigelli - Getty Images
As we move into the fall, there’s still a long line of Americans who haven’t gotten a break from the pandemic. Many are itching to do something that gives them a respite while visiting a destination that’s fresh and uncrowded.

Even though the Delta variant has added another stumbling block to travel plans, all is not lost. In fact, there are plenty of off-the-beaten-path destinations and side trips that are just as good -- if not better -- than marquee destinations. They also tend to be less crowded and more affordable.

Wine experience lessons

For any wine enthusiast, Napa Valley is high on the bucket list of wine meccas. But the Napa I found during my COVID-19 revenge tour of Northern California was a far cry from the one I last encountered in 1991. Wineries had reduced their opening hours, and there was bumper-to-bumper traffic waiting for anyone who wanted to pay for the “Napa experience.”

One lesson I learned is that “Napa” isn’t just the 18 square miles that many of the brand names call home; it’s more than 789 square miles where more than 375 wineries are open for tastings.

About 20 miles from the heart of Napa, I lucked into visiting a winery that produced a truly quality experience that was considerably less expensive than the tasting experiences of more well-known wineries: the Vezer Family Vineyard. The payoff for wine lovers is that the money Vezer saves from avoiding a walk-the-walk marketing game with the Napa biggies is put into letting their wines talk-the-talk at a price point that visitors may feel more comfortable investing in.

However, venturing off the beaten path north of Napa is where I really lucked out. In the Anderson Valley, there are another 60+ wineries and 25+ vineyards with brand names to match -- but no throngs of tourists to compete with. 

With a developing taste for Pinot Noir, I chose Lula Cellars to try and raise my knowledge on that varietal a bit. Again, I found a winery devoted to the art of winemaking and developing a personal, ongoing, membership-based relationship with wine drinkers. 

What spoke volumes to me was having someone to indulge my curiosity and take me through the entire narrative -- from why the vineyard’s hills are sculpted the way they are to how the grapes are harvested and what sensations the drinker is feeling on their palate.

That’s where Lula’s wine guide Dan Reed came into play. He guided me to a heightened sense of awareness and a Pinot Noir that was more than worth my travel time and money -- and it allowed me to leave my “Napatude” behind.

Into the great wide open

Stars like Clint Eastwood and countless photos of California’s Highway 1 turned Carmel and Monterey into travel destinations. While those places are remarkable, they’re also focused on generating a steady stream of tourists and tourist dollars.

My druthers now go to Mendocino County, two hours north of San Francisco. There’s less hubbub, but the area has all the coolness and culture that Monterey has. On top of that, it’s a portal to the Avenue of the Giants, where giant redwoods line up to create the most magical stretch of highway I have ever encountered, one that will quickly melt COVID-19 from your memory.

I’m not alone in my love for Mendocino County. On Bon Traveler’s list of 50 Epic Things to Do in California, 5 of the featured tips are located in the Mendocino area. One of those epic suggestions was the Glendeven Inn & Lodge. For me, the attraction of Glendeven was that it seemed to have developed an experience that married the beauty and simplicity of nature with coziness. The elixir for any pandemic avoidance tour, indeed.

Where else are you going to find a getaway that has a farmstead with llamas and chickens while being a short walk-in-the-woods away from the Pacific Ocean? There’s just no way to get eggs that are any fresher, and Glendeven makes them the centerpiece of every breakfast it delivers to guests’ rooms every morning. 

Another plum that Bon Traveler found in Mendocino County’s great wide open is a truly unique outdoor experience -- electric railbikes. Railbikes on Pudding Creek are two-person railbikes that you pilot along a historic train route flanked by towering redwoods and spots where wildlife like blue herons and osprey gather. Being in the open spaces and allowing nature to take care of social distancing makes the experience safe from the threat of COVID-19.

Good options in the Southern U.S., too

Among the travel writers I follow, I have an affinity for purebred wanderlusters -- the curious, I’ll-go-anywhere types. One of those is Lia Garcia, a travel blogger at PracticalWanderlust.com.

Since I covered northern California, I asked Lia if she could offer ideas for places in the South and Southeast U.S. that are cool, fun, still warm in the fall, and less crowded than other more renowned destinations. 

Her picks? Memphis as opposed to Nashville, and Savannah over New Orleans. I can tell you after having been to all four that I wholeheartedly concur with Lia’s choices. Here’s what she had to say…

Savannah, Georgia

  • “This charming, beautiful Southern town is home to one of the country's best art schools [Savannah College of Art and Design, where visitors can buy student-created art]. Full of perfectly restored historical homes and oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, the town is both quirky and mysterious -- much more here than meets the eye.

  • Savannah is incredibly haunted, thanks to a complex history dating back to before the Civil War. But Savannah was founded on egalitarian and humanitarian principles, and only allowed slavery once its peace-loving founder had left town. In the years that followed, the city was ravaged by Yellow Fever pandemics and Civil War battles. Take a ghost tour to learn about what's buried beneath Savannah's picturesque streets!

  • The stories of Savannah's enslaved community are told at the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters, a carefully curated and respectful museum that honestly portrays the lives of all of its residents. The Pin Point Heritage Museum tells the story of the Gullah Geechee community, founded in 1890 by freed slaves. Learn all about Savannah's rich history on the Genteel & Bard historic walking tour, complete with pictures and audio recordings to immerse you in Savannah's past. 

  • Try the tutti-frutti ice cream at Leopold's, a delicious rum ice cream full of crunchy Georgia pecans and colorful candied fruit. Truly the best ice cream in the country! Tutti-frutti was invented here, and it's still being made the exact same way as it has been for over 100 years.

  • Savannah is a foodie city, and whips up an amazing drink -- it's not called ‘The Hostess City’ for nothing. Order a Ramos Gin Fizz at the Alley Cat, attempt to find a key to enter the hidden Mata Hari speakeasy, and make your best guess at what's in the Chatham Artillery Punch, Savannah's contribution to the cocktail world.”

You can read more about Lia’s suggestions in her guide to the best things to do in Savannah. She also has a guide on all the weird, wonderful, and curious things that nobody tells you about Savannah, which you can check out here.

Memphis, Tennessee

Lia’s love of Memphis also comes through in her tips about the city. Here’s what she had to say about it:

  • “Memphis is the home of both blues and rock'n'roll, so you'll be dancing your whole trip! Don't miss a stroll down historic Beale Street after dinner to enjoy live music spilling from every doorway and park.

  • Visiting Sun Records and Graceland are the traditional must-do's, but head away from the crowds for a tour of Stax Records to learn about the inspiring history of soul music and the blues in Memphis!

  • Memphis was, sadly, the city where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. His legacy, and the legacy of the African-American Diaspora, is expertly curated in the National Civil Rights Museum. You'll learn all about the complex history of Civil Rights in the U.S. through powerful and immersive exhibits, and take a dive into the was-it-an-inside-job theories surrounding Dr. King's untimely death.

  • The BBQ in Memphis is some of the best in the country. And while BBQ opinions are contentious, I'm gonna go ahead and say it: Memphis dry rub ribs are the best in the country. There, I said it! Try them yourself at Central, across the street from the Civil Rights Museum.

  • Visit the Peabody Hotel and meet the Peabody Ducks! Yep, that's right: Memphis is home to some ducks that live in a luxurious, historic hotel. The Peabody Ducks live on a roof in a duck mansion and spend their days flapping around in a fountain splashing water at each other and making cute little quacking noises. It is, hands down, the cutest thing ever. And attending the Peabody Ducks' daily commute from the roof to their little fountain is a must-do activity during your trip!”

If Memphis sounds like someplace you’d like to visit, Lia put together a suggested weekend itinerary for ConsumerAffairs readers. You can find it here.

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