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Here's the secret to having the best summer ever: Put an amazing weekend trip (or three) on your to-do list. You'll have extraordinary travel adventures without using precious vacation days. And your friends will be totally jealous when they see your Facebook photos of beautiful canyons, sprightly harbor seals and Gilded Age mansions. Here are seven ideas for easy, unforgettable weekend trips that are within a day's drive of major U.S. metropolitan areas.
Blast off in a space shuttle
Get up close and personal with one of the most sophisticated pieces of machinery built by humankind. The space shuttle that logged 125,935,769 miles and spent 307 days in orbit is on display at its new home in the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The Space Shuttle Atlantis features fun interactive exhibits, including one that NASA astronauts call "the world's most realistic simulation of a vertical space shuttle launch." Strap in, count down and experience the ascension into space. (Watch a video of the experience below.)
Plan Your Trip: The Space Center is a roughly 75-minute drive from Orlando, the "Theme Park Capital of the World"; a 3.5-hour drive from Fort Lauderdale; and a 2.5-hour drive from Jacksonville. This excursion is also a nice option for cruisers sailing out of Cape Canaveral, as it's just a short drive from the cruise terminal.
Go wine surfing
This isn't what you might think. Unlike the water sport, "wine surfing" is perfect for the sedentary, uncoordinated, thirsty set. At Gourmet au Bay in Bodega Bay, Calif. — the only waterfront wine bar on the Sonoma Coast — customers can order a flight of three wines (of their choice) presented on a plate-sized surfboard. Ideally, the wine is consumed on the deck while gazing at the Pacific. A harbor seal or two might even make an appearance.
Wine surfing encapsulates what's so special about the Sonoma Coast: the combination of brine and wine. Spot gray whales from Bodega Head in Sonoma Coast State Park. (More than 20,000 gray whales migrate through the area annually.) Take in some actual surfing (or kayaking, or paddleboarding) with rentals and lessons from Bodega Bay Surf Shack. And when you're done frolicking with sea creatures, you can relax in front of one of those famous California sunsets with a locally sourced vintage.
Plan Your Trip: At the well-reviewed Bodega Bay Lodge, almost all rooms have bay views and much of the food comes from local family farms. It's easy to get to Bodega Bay (known as the gateway to the Sonoma Coast) from major metropolitan areas such as San Francisco and Sacramento; it takes less than three hours to drive from either city to Bodega Bay.
Climb giant sand dunes
"You must do the Dune Climb," says everyone who's ever been to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. It's the thing to do here. Towering sand dunes, which loom about 400 feet above Lake Michigan, afford beautiful views and a butt-kicking workout.
Once you've scaled the dunes and snapped a few selfies in front of the vista, take advantage of the picnic area at the base. Or cool off with a dip in Lake Michigan's clear waters — the dunes are terrific, but many people come here for the beaches. There are numerous beautiful ones at Sleeping Bear Dunes. Scuba diving opportunities abound as well. The Manitou Passage Underwater Preserve, right next to Sleeping Bear, is one of the best places to explore underwater shipwrecks in Lake Michigan.
Plan Your Trip: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a 5.5-hour drive from Chicago. Alternately, you can get there via short direct flights from Detroit, Chicago, or Minneapolis to nearby Traverse City Cherry Capital Airport. A good lodging choice is The Homestead, which offers various budget options (including Grand, Classic, or Simple accommodations) and views of Sleeping Bear Dunes or Lake Michigan from select rooms.
Learn the secrets of Gilded Age servants
Behold the fabulous homes on the craggy coast of Newport, R.I. from the Gilded Age era featured in trending films and television shows such as “The Great Gatsby” and “Downton Abbey.” In fact, scenes from the 1974 Gatsby film were shot at Rosecliff, one of Newport's 11 American palaces.
While much historical light has been shed on the lives of Newport's wealthy barons and heirs, a quieter yet perhaps more interesting social history is that of the many servants who lived and worked in Newport. For a behind-the-scenes look at what daily life was like for the common people of the early 20th century, take the new Servant Life Tour at The Elms, a dazzling mansion modeled after a French chateau. The tour will take you through the bowels of the manse: in servant entrances, up hidden staircases, and through boiler rooms. You'll hear true stories of the butlers, chefs, and maids who kept Newport's mansions cooking. Advance reservations are required for this popular tour, which frequently sells out.
Plan Your Trip: Newport is within driving distance of many major northeastern cities: It's a 90-minute drive from Boston and a 3.5-hour drive from New York City. Newport accommodations are notoriously expensive, but you can save quite a bit of money by staying in a guesthouse. Summer rates at the William Gyles Guesthouse start at $39 per night — an incredible bargain for the area. It's not fancy, but it's comfortable.
Visit an island in the sky
Utah's lyrically named Island in the Sky sits 1,000 feet above the otherworldly terrain of Canyonlands National Park. The “island” is the most visited spot in Canyonlands — probably due to the extensive views of the park afforded from this towering mesa. A camera is key: In this extraordinary place you'll undoubtedly snap the most beautiful photographs you'll take all summer.
The site's heavenly elevation belies its ease of access. Explore the Island via the Grand View Point Trail, a painless two-mile round-trip trek. (More challenging trails are available, too. See the trail map here.) Paved roads with scenic pullout areas — at which you can stop to view the colorful canyon landscape — snake through the Island.
Plan Your Trip: The Canyonlands National Park Visitor Center is a 5-hour drive from Salt Lake City and a 40-minute drive from Moab, Utah. Since Utah is blessed with national parks aplenty, you'll probably want to visit a few other natural wonders during your weekend trip. Find a three-day itinerary from Salt Lake City to Arches and Canyonlands national parks on the Utah Office of Tourism website.
Explore New York City by bike
You may have already heard the news: This spring, a bike-share program was finally established in the Big Apple. It's called Citi Bike, and it features 6,000 bikes available for instant use at docking stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn. So if you haven't yet biked the streets of New York, now is the time to try. The program offers a very fast and fun way to get from, say, your Brooklyn pizza shop to your Manhattan deli, especially when you’re faced with a route that requires complicated subway transfers and a lot of walking. Sometimes it's just easier to hop on a bike — and it's far cheaper than taking a cab.
Plan Your Trip: Although airfares for round-trip flights departing on a Friday and returning on a Sunday or Monday can be expensive, it's possible to find deals. At the time of publication, I spotted weekend flights from Nashville to New York's LaGuardia on American for $217 round-trip.
Or take the train. Amtrak is offering a 25 percent discount on Northeast Regional fares to New York when you book at least 14 days in advance.
Go on a weekend cruise
Afraid you might feel claustrophobic or seasick on a sailing? Embarking on a two- or three-night cruise is a smart strategy for testing the cruising waters. Take a "cruise to nowhere," which is essentially one that sails out into the open ocean, turns around and then comes back; or take a repositioning cruise, which is when a ship moves from one port to another and takes passengers along. Some short cruises include one or two port visits, as well.
Though they may sound ho-hum, cruises to nowhere can be a lot of fun, especially if you're on a new ship with innovative attractions. One of my favorite cruises ever was a round-trip voyage to nowhere and back on Norwegian Epic out of New York.
Plan Your Trip: You have lots of options here. In August, Carnival Glory is sailing a two-night cruise to nowhere out of New York. Onboard, you can imbibe at one of 22 bars and lounges, endure a massive caloric onslaught at Guy's Burger Joint, or simply sit on your balcony with a good book and gaze at the ocean. Rates start at $279 for an inside cabin and $449 for a balcony.
Also this summer, Disney Dream and Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas are sailing three-night Bahamian cruises out of Port Canaveral. Norwegian Sky is doing three-night Bahamas sailings out of Miami. There are also a few three- and four-night Carnival cruises going round-trip from Florida ports.