We travel bloggers are obligated by the Travel Blogger’s Oath to tell you, our dear readers, of places to go that you likely have never heard of, or at least haven’t considered going to. It is seemingly our job to convince you that certain of the places we’ve been, no matter how mundane, backwater, or devoid of any other redeeming tourist value they may be, are places you MUST go to. Now! Because, you see, only us travel bloggers are able to convince you of the visit-worthy qualities of places like Toefungus Tunisia, Pilodung Poland, and Touristkill Trinidad.
So, our friends, today’s blog is our mandatory blog to tell you where you should consider going on the off chance you haven’t made your summer travel plans already. The rigorous selection process begins, as many of our better blogs do, with copious amounts of rum and a sudden awareness that the place we happen to find ourselves in is pretty darn nice. This, we are very certain, is more because of our diligent travel planning and hours of careful research than because of copious amounts of rum. Or maybe not, it doesn’t really matter, as these are some pretty great places to consider finding yourself…with copious amounts of any liquor of your choice.
Let’s get this one out of the way pronto. I say that because we grew up here, but that doesn’t mean we’re biased in any way. It might be a bit ironic that, for most of our lives, the notion of vacation meant getting away from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but now that we’ve been gone for nearly a decade, it’s not just a matter of “coming home”.
We realized this just a couple of weeks ago. After we closed on our house in Atlanta, we hit the road again. After a visit to another place on today’s list, we headed to Biloxi. Lori’s sister Susan and her husband Randy (regular readers might know them as our sometime travel buddies) live in neighboring Gulfport, in fact next door to our old house. Coming here wasn’t because of a burning desire to visit Biloxi; it was that, being a spring break week, hotel prices on the Florida panhandle beaches (where we originally wanted to go) were ludicrously expensive. So we kept looking west until we were nearly home.
While they might not be as nice as those in Florida, there are beaches in Mississippi (if you want a great, unique beach experience, take the day boat out to Ship Island). If you’re into recreation, there’s lots of golf and deep sea fishing opportunities to keep you busy. So far as cuisine, the seafood here, fresh and prepared with a blend of country-cajun-creole styles, is about the best on the planet. And if you like to gamble, there are big-time casinos here; at those casinos you can sometimes land a 5-star room for $80, like we did.
This visit we stayed at the Golden Nugget (if you’re familiar with Biloxi casinos, it’s the old Isle of Capri), but we can also recommend the Beau Rivage and the Hard Rock, though they’re a bit pricier. The Golden Nugget boasts H20, an awesome-swanky Vegas-style pool area with cabanas and daybeds, some that seem to float in the middle of the water. For other great budget options, consider the Imperial Palace and the Island View in Gulfport. For authentic local seafood, though, you gotta leave the casinos. Ask the locals who work at your hotel for recommendations or check TripAdvisor.com.
|Jack London State Park, Sonoma, California|
Sonoma is better than Napa. There, I said it. And I mean it. We spent a good bit of time in both in the same recent year (2013), so we had a great chance to compare the two. Napa gets all the attention (their marketing budget must be quite a bit larger), but Sonoma is more than worthy of a dedicated visit without ever crossing over to the neighboring valley. Napa is the Four Seasons to Sonoma’s homey B&B hunting lodge owned by your distant cousin; Napa is the Mercedes-Benz to Sonoma’s wood-paneled station wagon that your fondest family vacation memories tumble out of.
There are great wines in both Napa and Sonoma valleys, but what you’ll find in Sonoma seems crafted more by the grape farmers and the wine lovers turned vintner, basically the people who truly love to make wine. That’s a generalization, obviously, and there are big multinational wine companies in both valleys, but the attitude of the small, local Sonoma wineries is just a little more down-to-earth. That’s not just our opinions: most everyone we’ve talked with who’s been to both say the same thing.
Outside of the realm of wine, Sonoma is also, and simply, a bit more interesting to visit. Napa is all about the wine, but Sonoma has a great (and reasonably priced, a big difference from Napa) restaurant scene, especially around the wonderful little town square. Sonoma’s Jack London State Park is more than worth a day, and is proof that Sonoma Valley is just a prettier landscape than Napa Valley.
It’s the other town we visited recently, just after we sold our house but before we wandered on to Biloxi. We’ve been a couple of times the last few years (we have family there), and it’s one of the places we could imagine settling down in eventually.
First off, it’s got all the trappings of big cities, including professional sports (the Jaguars), arts (the Jacksonville Symphony), and a major airport. It is, actually, only Florida’s 4th largest city with a population just over 1 million. Being a major city, there’s no shortage of restaurants and nightlife, and as we discovered this past visit (thanks to my cousins Amy and Anthony) a truly awesome craft brew scene.
Then there are the neighboring coastal towns. There’s Jacksonville Beach and neighboring communities, a continuous jumble of beach houses and duplexes wedged tightly together but somehow (miraculously so) retaining a homey feel. Up the beach is Amelia Island, a destination itself, and down the beach is Saint Augustine, a great melding of historical city (the oldest in America!), sandy beach loveliness, seafood, and nightlife.
Well, there you have it, our obligatory “You Gotta Go, America-edition” blog. Our runners-up and honorable-mentions include the Texas Hill Country, the city of Chicago, and Durango, Colorado.
Now, back to the rum and our next destination.