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Who wouldn’t want to splurge on an exotic trip to a tropical locale in some far, flung destination or a cross-country trek across Europe? The problem for many is finding the time and the money to do it. Not only that, but it takes some planning ahead if you don’t already have a passport. The good news is that you can find some exotic places right in the United States, from the often overlooked U.S. territories to destinations that are even closer to home.
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Big Sur, California
If the Italian Riviera is on your bucket list, experience the feel of the stunning Mediterranean region before you can actually get there by visiting California’s stunning coastline. Here, the Santa Lucia Mountains rise alongside a dramatic coastline with picturesque beaches and even the occasional waterfall that plunges to the sand. This epic Mediterranean-style stretch of California coast has been called the “American Riviera,” and it’s one of America’s most stunning destinations. Take the scenic drive down Highway One from San Francisco to discover why this region has inspired and mesmerized so many writers, artists and poets with its dreamlike beauty.
Aleutian Islands, Alaska
While the Aleutian Islands aren’t for those who are looking for beaches and sunshine, they’re ideal for exploring nature in one of the most remote places in Alaska. Here, wildlife thrives amid the harsh climate, stormy seas and active volcanoes. It’s hard to find places that feel more remote than this. While there are a few settlements on some of the larger islands, you’ll see more animals than people. For wildlife watchers, the Aleutians can be an experience of a lifetime, with opportunities to view rarely-seen creatures among the dramatic natural backdrops. Birders come here from around the world to add unique species to their “life lists.” Marine mammals that live in the surrounding waters include grey, minke, humpback, orca and sperm whales as well as seals, sea lions and walrus.
Culebra, Puerto Rico
If Fiji is your idea of the ultimate escape but you aren’t able to venture that far, Culebra offers the ideal tropical destination in a U.S. territory a bit closer to the mainland, and its beaches rival that of those found in the South Pacific. Located less than 20 miles from the main island of Puerto Rico, Culebra still lies relatively undiscovered with a lack of large hotels, shopping and chain restaurants. You won’t find much of anything in the way of nightlife either, but on this 7-mile long island, you’re likely to spot leatherback turtles and the giant Culebra anole. You’ll also have the chance to see the bioluminescent organisms that light up some of the coastal waters after dark. Culebra has a non-commercial culture and an especially exotic atmosphere with its quirky independently-owned boutiques and eateries serving fresh, local fare.
Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
The most exotic hike in the United States can arguably be found in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park. Reminiscent of the Gobi or the Sahara, it sits between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the San Juan Mountains. These unique landforms that are the tallest dunes in the country, rise up to over 700 feet in height. Those who hike to the top are rewarded with panoramic views of nearly endless dunes. America’s highest sandbox offers the chance to try out sand-boarding and sand-sledding too. Because of its high elevation and frequently clear skies, this is also an incredible place for stargazing.
Denali National Park, Alaska
If climbing the Himalayas is what you dream of doing, check out Denali National Park in Alaska. It’s home to the highest peak in North America at 20,310 feet in height. That’s 10,000 feet shorter than Mount Everest, so it would be a good place to try out your skills. If you aren’t up for that much of a challenge, there are numerous hikes where you can take in views of the mountain from further away, including Horseshoe Lake Trail, which winds for 1.5 miles through spruce and aspen forests to beautiful Horseshoe Lake. Although mountaineering is a popular activity, flightseeing is another great option, or you can also take in the view from a number of scenic overlooks. While you’re here, watch out for wildlife, including the “Big Five,” grizzly bear, wolves, moose, caribou and Dall sheep as well as the chance to glimpse martens, lynx, beavers and fox.
Key West, Florida Keys
Stretching from Biscayne National Park in the north over 125 miles to Key West, this chain of islands hanging off the southern coast of Florida is the best place to experience the Caribbean without leaving the continental United States. The Caribbean-vibe makes the Keys feel a lot more international than back on the mainland. Main Streets are filled with colorful buildings, like in Key West where nightlife and cocktails, beachy boutiques, art galleries, snorkeling, sailing and kayaking all await. When you’re in need of a cultural moment, you can pay a visit to the former home of Ernest Hemingway. Of course, you’ll find plenty of delicious, fresh seafood too.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Santa Fe is the oldest state capital in the U.S., and as such, it has a very colorful history, including a historic main plaza that will make you feel as if you’re in an entirely different country. It’s renowned for its abundance of unique attractions, a wide array of art galleries, extraordinary museums and magnificent architecture. The adobe city is also famous for its transformative qualities, in fact, many come just for the area’s healing energy. Not surprisingly, for decades Santa Fe has also been a haven for artists, including Georgia O’Keefe. By staying in the downtown area’s historic La Fonda, you can walk to the Plaza to discover handmade jewelry and browse beautiful works of art.
St Augustine, Florida
This top Florida city is located just 30 minutes from Jacksonville, but it seems as if it’s a million miles away from the urban landscapes of Florida’s largest metro area. Filled with an old-world ambiance and historic architecture, you may feel as if you’ve stepped into Spain in St. Augustine. The oldest continuously occupied European settlement in North America was founded by the Spanish in 1565, after explorer Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles landed on its shores and named them after the Roman saint, Augustine. Many historic buildings still stand and can be visited today, like the Castillo de San Marcos, built in 1672, the historic city gate and the Plaza de la Constitucion. You can even walk in Aviles’ steps at the place where he came ashore near the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park just north of Castillo de San Marcos. During the holidays with the buildings lit with more than a million lights, you’ll feel as if you surely must be in some exotic, far, far, away place.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Step into Joshua Tree National Park and you won’t just feel like you’re in another country, you’ll feel as if you’re walking onto another planet. Filled with bizarrely-shaped plants indigenous to the region, like the Joshua tree, as well as ginormous boulders that rise hundreds of feet into the sky, the landscape has the appearance of a scene from a sci-fi flick. Joshua Tree National Park is a photographer’s, hiker’s, and climber’s dream, while the village of Joshua Tree has a unique charm as an artists’ enclave home to an eclectic mix of nature lovers, artists and hipsters in addition to a number of highly-rated eateries.
Olympic National Park, Washington
Olympic National Park is tucked away into the extreme northwest, home to a breathtaking wild coastline with forests dipping down to storm-lashed beaches as well as glacier-capped mountains, misty cliffs, cascading falls and a temperate rainforest that holds a vast primeval wilderness. Drenched in more than 12 feet of rain a year, the west side valleys flourish with the continent’s best remaining examples of a temperate rain forest, with Giant western hemlocks, Douglas-firs and Sitka spruce trees dominating the landscape while ferns and moss cloak the trees and forest floor. For adventurers that want to experience one of the country’s most beautiful places with natural landscapes like nowhere else, this may be your best bet.
Biltmore Estate - Asheville, North Carolina
If you thought you’d have to go to Europe to find a castle, you thought wrong. Biltmore Estate has never been officially named “castle,” but as the largest privately-owned home in the nation, it’s often referred to as such. This former mansion of George Washington Vanderbilt is so big that it even has its own winery along with spectacular, manicured gardens, especially brilliant in the spring, across the 8,000-acre estate. The 250-room French chateau-style mansion features a bowling alley, 65 fireplaces, beautiful medieval tapestries and an immense library. You’ll need at least two hours to explore the house. Plan to spend an entire day if you want to visit the gardens and conservatory, a farm with a petting zoo, old fashioned toys and farm equipment and the winery, where you can take a tour, learn about the wine-making process and enjoy a tasting.
Leavenworth, set on the eastern edge of Washington State’s Cascade Mountains, is a Bavarian village that is transformed into a virtual snow globe of Christmas magic during the holidays. Dubbed the “Bavarian snow globe,” it was turned into a replica German village in 1960 to promote tourism. It’s especially popular in December, with Christmas celebrated all month long and German holiday traditions in full swing. The annual Christmas Lighting Festival features plenty of old fashioned caroling, Christmas characters and practically an endless amount of dazzling lights.
Hawaii’s most stunning and least-developed island is unlike any other n the planet. While it requires a little more traveling to get there, it’s worth the reward with its lush, mountain landscape that feels world’s away from anything remotely American. Its breathtaking shores have been the backdrop for numerous Hollywood films serving as an other-worldly paradise, including “Jurassic Park,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the 2005 “King Kong.” A few of its standouts include the soaring cliffs of the Na Pali Coast, Waimea Canyon and Wailua Falls, which was featured in the 1970s television series “Fantasy Island.” No matter where you’re at on the island, there are few places where humans have managed to obscure its tropical beauty.
Napa Valley, California
California’s Napa Valley is as close as you’ll get to Italy’s picturesque Tuscany region, with its endless rolling hills and vineyards. If you’re looking for an especially authentic experience, be sure to stop by Castello di Amorosa Winery, an authentically-styled, 13th-century Tuscan castle constructed using historically accurate medieval building techniques. It functions as a winery and comes complete with a drawbridge, moat and a dungeon with a functional Renaissance-era iron maiden. Its frescoes in the Great Hall and Knights’ Chamber are hand-painted, with roughly 8,000 tons of Napa Valley stone hand-chiseled. The Hapsburg-era bricks, hand-forged nails, chandeliers and 500-year-old fireplace were all imported from Europe. The castle is open for tours, which include tastings, daily.
If you’ve been wanting to explore a Danish village, Solvang is the place to go. This town that was founded by a group of Dutch teachers in 1911 sits in the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley, paying tribute to Danish culture and literary hero Hans Christian Andersen. From shops and restaurants to office buildings, all have been built in Danish style. Explore European imports and high-end arts & crafts boutiques. Solvang, or “Little Denmark,” as it’s sometimes called, not only provides a great taste of Europe, but it’s a perfect place to base your stay for exploring Santa Ynez wine country.
Vail Village, Colorado
Vail was modeled after the mountain town of Zermatt in Switzerland. Here, you’ll truly feel as if you’re in the Swiss Alps with architecture boasting magnificent decorative woodwork, detailed doors and charming balconies. Some of the bars and eateries serve up Alpine cuisine, and of course, the majestic Rocky Mountains provide a similar Alps-style backdrop. While winter is a popular time for skiers to visit, the summer months here are ideal too, with a multitude of scenic hiking trails as well as the chance to watch for all types of wildlife. Many of the lakes and streams are renowned for trout fishing, and after dark, you’ll find live music on many of the downtown restaurant’s patios.
Mount Rainier, Washington
One of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world is home to another spectacular Alps-like landscape. On a clear day in the Puget Sound, you can view this majestic 14,411-foot-high mountain from many points throughout the area, but to truly feel as if you’re overseas, you’ll want a more up close and personal experience. You can walk through alpine fields dotted with colorful wildflowers, get up close to massive glaciers and see waterfalls cascading around nearly every bend. Some of the very best views are at Tipsoo Lake, where the towering mountain’s reflection can often be seen in the translucent waters.
Chinatown, San Francisco
Originally the port of entry for Chinese immigrants who arrived before the 1850s, today’s San Francisco’s Chinatown has grown into a dynamic center of Chinese culture. From the moment you walk through the gates at the intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into a totally different country. This vibrant ethnic destination is the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. You’ll find fish markets, produce, restaurants and retailers selling everything from staples to Chinese gifts and trinkets. Its narrow streets near the Financial District are made up of over 20 square blocks filled with interesting architecture and colorful décor. Don’t miss the oldest dim sum house in America, the Hang Ah Tea Room or the egg tarts at Golden Gate Bakery.