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10 underrated destinations, from Texas Hill Country to Montenegro and more

If you want to keep up with the Joneses vacation-wise, fly to Miami or Rome. But if you’re after neighborhood bragging rights for discovering under-the-radar destinations, check out some of the following spots. Choosing a less-well-known locale for your next holiday will pay off not only in traveler’s cachet — it will also mean fewer crowds and cheaper accommodations, two big pluses for savvy tourists with a sense of adventure. Here are domestic choices and some ideas for journeying abroad.

PUGLIA, ITALY

The southern region that forms the heel of
Photo Credit: Getty Images

The southern region that forms the heel of Italy’s boot, Puglia has all of the attractions of Tuscany or Umbria, without the crowds.

Monopoli, midway between the Brindisi and Bari airports, makes a good home base. Check into the Don Ferrante Hotel (donferrante.it), an elegant inn with views of the Adriatic. Then explore Monopoli’s ancient ruins, its dense labyrinth of houses, churches and monasteries, and its seaside cathedral. Dine at Osteria Perricci for cavatelli with seafood (Via Orazio Comes 1).

Drive to Lecce, known as the Florence of the South for its 40 or so Baroque churches and numerous palazzi. For Pugliese cuisine at its best, go to Alle due Corti (Corte dei Giugni 1) and order traditional dishes like fried tagliatelle with chickpeas. Stop for apricot gelato at La Ciccio Gelateria (Via G. Marconi 19).

To see some trulli, the famous cylindrical peasant houses with beehive roofs, visit Alberobello, a town which boasts whole streets of the structures. The pure white city of Ostuni, set on a hill and surrounded by olive groves, is dazzling. Osteria del Tempo Perso (osteriadeltempoperso.com), built inside a cave at the top of the old town, serves classic Pugliese dishes.

In the countryside are a number of “masserie,” or estate farms, where olive oil and wine are produced. Many, including Masseria Salinola (masseriasalinola.it), offer lodging for tourists who want to experience Italian farm life and maybe take a cooking class or two. Pictured: The old port in Monopoli, Puglia.

INFO viaggiareinpuglia.it/hp/en

ST. AUGUSTINE, FLORIDA

St. Augustine is the nation's oldest city,
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Sean Pavone

St. Augustine is the nation’s oldest city, founded in 1565, decades before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Attractions include historic structures such as Castillo de San Marcos (nps.gov/casa/index.htm), a limestone fortress built by conquistadors. At the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park (fountainofyouthflorida.com) you can drink from the same spring that Ponce de Leon discovered. In the 19th century, St. Augustine became a millionaires’ playground. Visit architectural follies from the period, such as the Villa Zorayda Museum, a 1/10th scale replica of part of the Alhambra, built by hardware magnate Franklin Smith. St. George Street is lined with shops and restaurants. Market to Market (tierrafina.com) carries a large selection of Mexican and Spanish Talavera pottery. Stop by The Hyppo (thehyppo.com) for gourmet ice pops. This being coastal Florida, there are white sand beaches, deep sea fishing and golf. For fresh seafood in a modern setting, try Catch 27 (catchtwentyseven.com). The Ice Plant offers craft cocktails and locally sourced fare in a restored 1927 ice house. The Casa Monica Resort and Spa, in an 1888 Spanish-style courthouse, is the most luxurious downtown lodging. The St. Francis Inn (stfrancisinn.com), on the National Register of Historic Places, is conveniently located in the Historic District and has a pool and garden with lush banana trees and bougainvillea.

INFO visitstaugustine.com

HELSINKI, FINLAND

Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen are so yesterday. For
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Arpad Benedek

Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen are so yesterday. For the latest in Nordic art, design, architecture, and cuisine, head to Finland’s capital.

The Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art (kiasma.fi/en) showcases the latest Finnish works. The Design Museum (designmuseum.fi/en) features native talent like Alvar Aalto and Marimekko. The Temppeliaukio Church, designed by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and quarried out of the natural bedrock, is a popular venue for concerts because of its superb acoustics.

A half-dozen Michelin-starred restaurants dot the city. Try Chef & Sommelier for wild and foraged vegetables. At Ask (restaurantask.com), you might get reindeer with carrots and hazelnuts one night and beets with smoked duck the next. Ogle rye breads, berries, cheese, and smoked fish at the Old Market Hall (vanhakauppahalli.fi/en).

Sauna bathing is an essential part of Finnish culture. Loyly (loylyhelsinki.fi/en), a stunning new sauna complex on the Helsinki waterfront, allows travelers to sample three different types of saunas in a high-design building. Or experience the Baltic like a local at the Allas Sea Pool complex, where a saltwater pool offers ice-swimming in the winter.

Rest your head after all of this sightseeing, shopping, eating, and bathing at the Glo Hotel Art (glohotels.fi/en), a whimsical mock-Medieval building with modern Finnish furnishings in the charming Design District. Pictured: Pedestrians walk along Aleksanterinkatu, a main shopping street in downtown Helsinki.

INFO visithelsinki.fi/en

 

 

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA

The beneficiary of Andrew Carnegie's fortune and birthplace
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Sharon Dominick

The beneficiary of Andrew Carnegie’s fortune and birthplace of Andy Warhol, gracious and growing Pittsburgh is as worthy of a visit as its higher profile Rust Belt counterparts Chicago and Detroit. For a glimpse of Pittsburgh’s glorious Gilded Age, visit the Victorian greenhouse at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens (phipps.conservatory.org), a 13-room glass structure with seasonal displays, donated to the city in 1893 by real estate baron and Carnegie associate Henry Phipps (whose Lake Success mansion, built in 1919, is now part of Great Neck South High School). The Frick Art and Historical Center (thefrickpittsburgh.org), an Italianate mansion stuffed with Renaissance masterpieces, offers free entry. The Andy Warhol Museum (warhol.org) is the global keeper of the artist’s legacy, with 900 paintings, 100 sculptures and 2,000 works on paper. Check into the hip ACE Hotel (acehotel.com/pittsburgh), which occupies a formerly abandoned YMCA. Amenities include in-room turntables and vinyl selections curated by local DJs. For on-trend dining, head to farm-to-table Spoon (spoonpgh.com), or Streets on Carson (streetsoncarson412.com), featuring street food from around the world. Save room for the city’s famous specialty, the Primanti’s sandwich (primantibros.com), which is stuffed with turkey, salami or roast beef and french fries.

INFO visitpittsburgh.com

NORTHERN GUATEMALA

If the crowds at Machu Picchu scare you,
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Simon Dannhauer

If the crowds at Machu Picchu scare you, travel to the shockingly deserted Mayan ruins of the northern region of the Petén Basin in Guatemala for a quieter pre-Columbian experience. The quickest, safest, and most comfortable way to get there is to fly from Guatemala City to Mundo Maya International Airport.

Tikal (tikalpark.com) has five monolithic temples that pierce the rain forest canopy. The surrounding jungle offers bird and wildlife spotting opportunities galore. Uaxactun, a more recently excavated site with elaborately decorated temple platforms, has a museum with artifacts. Yaxha, set on the banks of a lagoon, was the third largest Mayan city in the region and its ruins include the remains of over 500 structures linked by causeways. Visit Yaxha late in the day to watch the sun drop into the bright blue water.

Stay at La Lancha (thefamilycoppolaresorts.com), Francis Ford Coppola’s 10-room lodge. Rooms are decorated with local furniture, fabrics and folk art and have decks with hammocks. The hotel has a restaurant featuring Guatemalan specialties, and a charming bar a short hike away, overlooking Lake Petén Itzá. Horseback tours of the property pass by small overgrown ruins. Canoes for exploring the lake are complimentary. Pictured: The ruins in Tikal.

INFO visitguatemala.com/en

 

 

 

ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA

This small city in the Blue Ridge Mountains
Photo Credit: Getty Images/Raul Uminate

This small city in the Blue Ridge Mountains has an appealing combination of culture, architecture, scenery and food. The vast 19th century Biltmore Estate (pictured, biltmore.com), built by George Vanderbilt, displays artwork by Renoir and John Singer Sargent. It also offers luxury accommodations at an inn on the property. Asheville is a hiker’s paradise, with some of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi. The Downtown Art District is filled with galleries and museums, and in the nearby River Arts District, former factory buildings house artists’ studios. Music venues include The Orange Peel (theorangepeel.net), a concert hall featuring local, regional and world-famous acts. Twelve craft breweries are scattered about the city, giving visitors a chance to sample dozens of local brews on any given day. There is Carolina barbecue at the 12 Bones Smokehouse (12bones.com). At Biscuit Head (biscuitheads.com), where the slogan is “Put Some South in Your Mouth,” the biscuits are smothered in inventive gravies such as sweet potato coconut. For more exotic fare, try Red Ginger Dimsum and Tapas (redgingerasheville.com) or Mamacita’s Taco Temple (mamacitastacotemple.com). Downtown accommodations include Victorian B&Bs such as the Beaufort House Inn (beauforthouse.com). Aloft hotel (aloftashvilledowntown.com) offers trendily decorated, reasonably priced rooms with installations by local artists throughout.

INFO exploreasheville.com

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA

On Vancouver Island, visitors can kayak, hike, bike,
Photo Credit: Alamy

On Vancouver Island, visitors can kayak, hike, bike, and fish all day and enjoy sophisticated food and luxurious lodgings at night. The biggest city, Victoria, combines elements of First Nations culture with the legacy of the British Empire.

One of the finest collections of totem poles in the world is in Thunderbird Park (royalbcmuseum.bc.ca). Traditional afternoon tea is served at the James Bay Tea Room (jamesbaytearoomandrestaurant.com). Whale-watching boats leave from Fisherman’s Wharf. Eagle Wing Tours (eaglewingtours.com) guarantees a whale sighting or your money back. King George VI stayed at the Fairmont Empress (fairmont.com/empress-victoria) when he toured Canada in 1939, and Queen Elizabeth checked in most recently in 2002.

Nanaimo, the island’s second largest city, relates to both the forest and the sea. Take a 20-minute floatplane ride to get a bird’s-eye view (sunshinecoastair.com). Hire a guide (sundowndiving.com) to snorkel with the seals. The fish doesn’t get any fresher than in the unconventional sushi rolls at the Firehouse Grill (firehousegrillnanaimo.com).

Tofino, on the wild west coast, calls itself “the naturalist’s Riviera.” The area includes part the largest area of intact temperate rain forest left on Vancouver Island. Rent a paddleboard or take a tour in a traditional cedar canoe (tofinopaddle.com). Pick up some tempura ling cod tacos at the Tacofino truck (tacofino.com), parked in the Live to Surf (livetosurf.com) parking lot. For finer dining, there is the Spotted Bear Bistro (spottedbearbistro.com), which serves upscale comfort food with a Pacific Northwest twist. The Wickaninnish Inn, set on a rocky promontory over the churning Pacific Ocean (wickinn.com), is a cozy retreat after a day of birding and bear watching. Pictured: Victoria Harbour at night.

INFO vancouverisland.travel

SANTA YNEZ VALLEY, CALIFORNIA

Most people think north when planning a California
Photo Credit: Getty Images/CrackerClips Stock Media

Most people think north when planning a California wine country vacation. But the Santa Ynez Valley, just 35 miles from beachy Santa Barbara, is a worthy if less-well-known choice. The 120-plus wineries located there are mostly boutique and family-owned, so there’s a good chance that you’ll run into a winemaker in the tasting room. Rustic towns each have their own vibe. Solvang (pictured), settled by Danish immigrants in 1911, has a Scandinavian flavor. Check into The Landsby (thelandsby.com), a boutique hotel with sophisticated Scandinavian décor. Pick up your morning pastries at Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery (olsensdanishvillagebakery.com). The Gold Rush-era charm of Los Alamos’ Bell Street has attracted celebrities who’ve opened tasting rooms: Kurt Russell is co-owner of The Wine Saloon, and Emilio Estevez has Casa Dumetz (casadumetzwines.com). Buellton boasts Mendenhall’s Museum of Gasoline Pumps and Petroliana (mendenhallmuseum.com). The cowboy town of Santa Ynez has been the location for many a Western. Check out the display of stagecoaches at the Historical Museum (santaynezmuseum.org). The gracious Santa Ynez Inn (santaynezinn.com) has a Tesla charging station if you’d rather drive than bike. S.Y. Kitchen (sykitchen.com) serves Italian-inspired California farmhouse cooking, and in addition to an extensive list of local wines, you’ll find craft cocktails such as the Valley Girl (vodka, dried elderflower, strawberries, mint, lime).

INFO visitsyv.com

MONTENEGRO

This tiny nation on the Adriatic, tucked between
Photo Credit: Getty Images

This tiny nation on the Adriatic, tucked between Bosnia and Albania, has rugged mountains, picturesque villages and charming beaches. Explore beautifully preserved Kotor, a medieval maze of marble-paved streets dotted with churches and quiet squares.

Under Venetian rule for 350 years, the bayside city’s gates are still emblazoned with the winged lion of St. Mark. Venetian-style palaces still stand. Elaborate walled fortifications snake from the water all the way up the hill to form a protective and picturesque ring around the town. Visit the Maritime Museum (museummaritimum.com) for some historical background, and then wander, stopping for a platter of cheese and a glass of local red Vrnanac at the Old Winery (Stari Grad 488). Consider staying a little bit outside the walls, at Palazzo Radomiri (palazzoradomiri.com), an 18th-century captain’s house built on a waterfront promenade with luxurious rooms, a pretty pool and complimentary yoga classes with a view.

Short drives from Kotor (Montenegro is about the size of Connecticut) include Perast, an ancient seaside town closed off to traffic where you can bathe in the Bay of Kotor and take a short boat ride to an incredibly picturesque monastery, Our Lady of the Rock, on a nearby island. Climb to the Njegos Mausoleum, built into the second highest peak of the Lovcen National Park, where on a clear day you can see to Albania and Croatia. Pictured: A lion statue in the old town Perast, Montenegro.
INFO visit-montenegro.com

 

 

TEXAS HILL COUNTRY

If road tripping is your thing, you might
Photo Credit: Alamy

If road tripping is your thing, you might take a scenic drive through Texas Hill Country. Pick up a car in San Antonio or Austin. Stop for barbecue at legendary Cooper’s Old Time Pit Barbecue (coopersbbq.com) in Llano, where the brisket is cooked low and slow over mesquite coals. Check out Bandera, the “cowboy capital of the world,” where the bar stools at O.S.T. Restaurant (202 Main St.) are fashioned from saddles. Spend the day at Krause Springs (krausesprings.net), outside Spicewood, where a spring-fed swimming hole is supplemented by a waterfall, a grotto and a rope swing. Each charming small town along the way has its own attractions. New Braunfels boasts Gruene Hall (gruenehall.com), the state’s oldest dance hall and a venue for country music. Witness the flight of the world’s largest bat colony at the nearby Bracken Bat Cave. Stay at the Faust Hotel & Brewing Company (fausthotel.com), built in the 1920s and recently updated with plenty of period style. With 45 wineries, Fredericksburg is Texas’ No. 1 wine destination (pictured: Becker Vineyards). Check into the frontier-era Maria’s Austin Street Retreat (austinstreetretreat.com). Stylish Otto’s (ottosfbg.com) serves nouveau German food, a nod to Fredericksburg’s original settlers.
INFO txhillcountrytrail.com

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