I love visiting the area I affectionately call Czexas, about a 90-minute drive west of Houston via Interstate 10. Settled by Bohemian and Moravian immigrants in the mid-1800s, these pastoral communities maintain their proud Czech heritage in everything from music to food, language, architecture, and culture. October is festival season, and the towns come alive with old-fashioned church picnics and lively street fairs.
Although the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center in LaGrange is worth a visit, I prefer to base myself in quaint Schulenburg. The area is filled with historic sites, museums, and antique stores to peruse, and the churches in the communities of Dubina, High Hill, Praha, and Ammannsville are awe-inspiring with their hand-painted interiors based on traditional Czech designs.
Local, family-owned meat markets and bakeries showcase all manner of Czech foods. For breakfast, I get kolaches (pastries filled with fruit or cheese) and klobásník, (savoury ones filled with sausage), from the Kountry Bakery. Lunch consists of smoked meats and homemade sausages at City Market in Schulenburg, or Kolacny's Barbecue and Novosad's Meat Market in Hallettsville. And, for a cold one with a side of Texas polka, Schulenburg’s historic Sengelmann Hall and the Moravia Store are an absolute must, whether to dance or just soak it all up. - Claudia Alarcón
I promised my Italian boyfriend that he’d see alligators, and the Shark Valley did not disappoint. A 10ft (3m) long behemoth sunned itself on the side of the road, just a few steps away from us, jaws open to absorb heat on a chilly day. Soon, we’d see ‘gators at every turn, as well as turtles, fish, birds – so many birds – and even a family of deer. Mother Nature was clearly in charge here, indifferent to the gawking humans with their cameras and binoculars.
Just an hour before, we'd been having breakfast on bustling, busy Miami Beach.
Shark Valley Visitor Center is on the northern boundary of Everglades National Park, easily reachable from Miami via US 41. Here, visitors don't see a primordial, mosquito-filled swamp, but the true “River of Grass” about which local conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas so tenderly wrote in the 1940s. Clear, clean water flows swiftly through sawgrass plains, and it’s teeming with life. (The waters feed into the nearby Shark River, which gives the park its name and is home to numerous species of sharks.) For those wishing to see an incredible concentration of Everglades wildlife, Shark Valley offers a remarkable glimpse of natural Florida as it once was. See it via tram ride, or better yet, hire a bike and take the 15mi (24km) loop through the preserve. Just remember to brake for alligators. - Elizabeth Heath
Driving east from LA past the glittering resorts of Palm Springs, a sense of doom sets in as the dying Salton Sea appears on the horizon. Once a playground, where stars like Sinatra performed in its mid-century heyday, the motels and yacht clubs of California’s so-called “inland Riviera” were abandoned by the 80s, as rising salinity killed off the fish and the dream.
It’s a desolate landscape for sure – until we turn off Hwy 111 at Bombay Beach and our hearts lift with signs of life. This town built for 1,000, and where only 100 diehards remain, boasts a drive-in, an ersatz art museum, even an “opera house,” thanks to a crew of creative optimists who, every spring, make it magical for the Bombay Beach Biennale.
We’re here for a taster of the festival, marveling at the art installations which are now permanent and, unlike the other attractions, can be experienced any time. Those not taking in a movie, as we do, come to see live ballet and opera, slurp oysters in a St Tropez-style beach club, or dance the night away in view of a neon Save Me sign hanging wistfully over the water. “It’s more a movement than a festival,” co-founder Stefan Ashkenazy tells us.
The inland sea may never be repopulated, but we feel exhilarated to walk the deserted streets, join a surreal dinner party in a derelict house hung with chandeliers, and be part of something exciting happening, against all odds, in a place time forgot. - Anthea Gerrie
I always discover something new and unexpected at this 71,000-acre (271km2) coastal wildlife sanctuary, about an hour north of San Francisco. If I have a couple of days, I like to hike in and pitch a tent at the small Coast Campground, with its easy access to the beach. One of the park's four backcountry campsites, it requires a backcountry camping permit. The weather can be changeable, with thick, coastal fog most mornings and evenings, so I've learned to dress in layers with a waterproof jacket in my backpack whatever the season.
Hiking trails cover 150mi (240km) through scenic fir and pine forest hilltops and beach trails. The Bear Valley Visitors Center provides maps and info for activities including hiking the Limantour Spit Beach Trail, visiting the historic Point Reyes Lighthouse, or gray whale watching and elephant seal viewing from the overlook at Chimney Rock.
If I close my eyes, I can picture the Coastal Miwok, the peninsula's first human inhabitants, living peacefully off the land and its waters for more than 5,000 years. The only federally protected seashore in the western US, Point Reyes was rescued from potential development and incorporated into the National Park System in 1962.
Horse riding with a guide from Five Brooks Ranch is one of my annual spring or summer highlights. And on dark, moonless nights, pre-scheduled bioluminescence night kayaking tours in the glowing tidal waters of nearby Tomales Bay are an unforgettable experience. - Frances Rivetti
Point Reyes is approximately 30mi (48km) north of San Francisco off winding Highway 1.
The summer sun warms my bare shoulders as I plunge my carbon paddle into the dark, sparkling water. Gliding by the massive Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on my stand-up paddleboard, I head south on New York City’s mighty Hudson River, overtaking the tall skyscrapers and weathered piers flanking the shore. The blue sky is clear and the waterway busy with ferries, speed boats, and jet skiers. I wave to tourists gawking at the NYC skyline from the deck of the Circle Line harbor cruise as it sails past me.
It’s easy to forget that Manhattan is an island. Over the past two decades, the Hudson River has become my year-round paddling playground, providing a mini-escape from fast-paced city life.
As I continue south, scores of sailboats dance in the distance, criss-crossing New York Harbor. The Statue of Liberty, my destination, comes into view as I reach Battery Park, where the water grows bouncy from the wakes of the imposing, orange Staten Island Ferry and Liberty Island ferries. Delicately balancing on the choppy water near Lady Liberty, I gaze up with an awe that never fades, no matter how many times I see her. After a final peek, I turn my board north and paddle back to my boathouse. - Stefani Jackenthal
SUP lessons and daily tours are available from MKC Kayak at Pier 84.
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Get gorgeous scenery without the crowds in Goblin Valley, the North Cascades, the Great Sand Dunes, and the Buffalo National River.
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