As borders reopen, big data shows us where everyone is planning to go — and what to avoid. Why not skip the hotspots and instead experience the American outdoors, in all its autumnal splendor.
It’s open season in America. This week, the United States reopened borders to non-essential travel for the first time in 20 months. And travelers are raring to go.
Already, Delta Airlines reported a 450% increase in international bookings versus the six weeks prior to the announcement. Looking ahead, roughly 66% of Europeans plan to travel during the fall and winter seasons, according to a new poll by the European Travel Commission (ETC). As for where they’re all headed — the most popular travel destinations in the US are Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Orlando, and the South Florida Atlantic Coast, according to new data released by Airbnb this month. Google Travel data reflects similar results in popularity, with the addition of Joshua Tree National Park.
If you’re craving sun, rest, and wide open spaces coming out of this pandemic, you’ll want to avoid the chaos of the crowds. The following destinations are ancillary — each a few extra hours from the gateway cities that make America so accessible. But they’re well worth the effort, not for status or luxuries, but for their storied histories, natural wonders and soulful hospitality.
1. Catskills, New York
This upstate New York idyll is named for its Catskill mountain range, a lush, unpeopled stretch of fall foliage now festooned in every shade of brown, red russet and gold. At sunrise and sunset, the entire landscape is bathed in an almost otherworldly light. The kind that makes you want to get up early just to bear witness, with a hot cup of coffee in your hands and the only sound the creak of your wooden rocking chair.
That’s the spirit of the place: Arrive as strangers, leave as friends. At least, that’s the tagline for my personal favorite, the new Urban Cowboy lodge, which stakes its claim to about 70 acres alongside protected land known as Big Indian Forest Preserve, the largest stretch of uninterrupted forest in the Catskill Mountains. Owned and designed by Lyon Porter, the 28-room lodge is a Brooklyn hipster’s take on adult camp for urbanites looking to explore ‘wilderness.’ The joke is, you’re so close to organic restaurants, handcrafted bourbon cocktails, and oversized copper soaking tubs, no one here is actually roughing it. For a real forest bathing experience, head to one of the 12 hiking trails in the surrounding area, which vary in difficulty from beginner to advanced.
If you want a thrill on property, brave the outdoor sauna for a morning detox, emerge somehow renewed, run barefoot down the hill to the entrance and hop into a freezing cold fishing hole, which the locals call a creek. Because cold plunging — haven’t you heard — is the latest hipster health trend (that’s been around forever).
This 105-square-mile island off the coast of Cape Cod looks like a postcard from almost any angle. The cedar shingle houses, the cobblestone streets, the flower boxes in each window sill, the beach bike culture, and fresh caught seafood are just a few of the everyday charms that make this place so delicious and delightful. While most vacationers come for the summer season, some of the best attractions in town come to life in autumn and winter (such as lower room rates).
It takes a cold, clear night to see a stunning view of the Milky Way at Nantucket’s Loines Observatory. Its telescopes offer a window onto Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s great red spot. But most exciting during my visit was a real live shooting star that streaked across the night sky before burning into stardust, like magic. And soon, the island will be laureled in holiday lights to host its annual Christmas Stroll, when all the local shops open their doors, Santa makes an appearance, and yuletide carolers fill Main Street with song. (It’s both tradition and a merry way to keep shoppers from heading off island).
Getting here, too, is easier than you’d think. Just pack up the car, drive to Hyannis, Cape Cod and take the public ferry over to Nantucket in an hour. For a fancier trip, hop on single engine Pilatus PC 12 prop plane with Tradewind Aviation, which typically run up to seven flights a day between Westchester airport (HPN) and Nantucket.
3. Big Sky, Montana
If you’ve seen the tv series Yellowstone or the film A River Runs Through It based on Norman Maclean’s novel, you’ll have some sense of the rugged expanse that is Montana. There’s a reason the titans of the business world and Hollywood celebrities come here to hide out. It’s so wide open, the concept of privacy still exists. And when they say wilderness, they mean it — black bears, rainbow trout, eagles, and all. Apart from spectacular fly fishing, glamping, horseback riding and cattle ranching, you’ll also find world-class skiing to rival anything else in America.
It’s a little known fact that Big Sky Ski Resort has more skiable acres than Telluride and Jackson Hole combined. And it’s about to get better. On Dec. 15 the area’s first five-star resort, Montage Big Sky, will open with 150 rooms and ski-in, ski-out access. One&Only Resorts has also broken ground in Moonlight Basin, and when it opens (dates undisclosed) this will be the luxury brand’s first U.S. location. In the meantime, the best place to stay is called the Green O, in nearby Greenough, Montana. It’s the romantic and secluded adults-only outpost from the owners of Paws Up, a well known family resort that comes with all the trimmings (ATV rides, cattle drives, and multi course tasting menus).
Now that Bozeman Yellowstone International airport welcomes direct flights from 29 major hubs, including New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles — Montana is about to become America’s winter wonderland.
4. Savannah, Georgia
You’d be remiss to visit the States without a visit to the South, and its flowering sister city Savannah. To stroll beneath the live oaks and Spanish moss squares of this charming old town is a history lesson in itself. As this is the oldest city in Georgia, landmarks are the norm rather than the exception. If you want to know what happened here, just look around. So much of the American Civil War, slavery, and the evolution of the South is memorialized in its 19th century monuments, its graveyards, and its carriage houses. History is even carved into the red bricks that pave the wide easy sidewalks for curious passersby.
There are many things to do in Savannah — eating well and drinking heavily, chief among them. But young people are finding new ways to enjoy the entrepreneurial and artistic spirit of the place, and many decide to attend the private university Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in midtown. As a tourist, my personal favorite stop is a visit to Jim Williams’ Mercer House Museum, which houses the collector’s still-intact private art collection. Williams is the subject of one of the most best-selling true crime novels of all time, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. How much of the story is true, you can decide for yourself. But this is the place to ponder it.
5. Calistoga, California
This town has everything you’d expect from California wine country: panoramic mountain and vineyard views with a serious oenophile following. Specifically, this area is known for its bottles of big, bold Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as hand-crafted blends of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel. (Leave the chewing gum at home).
Though it is located in Napa county, Calistoga has a small town feel compared to the commercialism of downtown Napa. It is peppered with hot springs and hiking trails, and you only need a bicycle to see the entire town. Lately, the big news here is a new 85-room resort. This November marks the grand opening of the Four Seasons Napa Valley Resort and Residences (so named despite its Calistoga location).
It is the only resort situated within a working winery on a 4.7 acre vineyard, meaning you can now enjoy tastings and tours without getting in a car. The best perk? As a Four Seasons guest, you’ll get priority reservations at the Elusa Winery and its restaurant during harvest season, a time when most Napa tours are sold out months in advance.
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