For many of us, vacations are the highlight of the year. Travel takes us away from the everyday and expands our world. It also, unfortunately, lightens our wallets. In these tough economic times, travel budgets have been pinched and we've been staying closer to home. • So in 2010, we looked for deals, among them cheap hotels, bargain cruises and airfare that didn't require a second mortgage — as if we could get one anyway. The year might be best remembered for what we hoped wouldn't happen. We had our fingers crossed that we wouldn't be directed to the full-body scan booth or get an uncomfortable pat-down from airport security personnel. We wished as hard as we could that oil from the massive Gulf of Mexico spill wouldn't wash up on Florida's pretty west coast beaches, then find its way to the Keys, around the peninsula and up the eastern seaboard. And we certainly hoped our cruise ships wouldn't get tossed around like the Brilliance of the Seas in the Mediterranean or the Clelia II in Antarctica. Or have to be towed back to port after a fire, as the Carnival Splendor was on a recent Mexican Riviera cruise. • Still, in a year when we watched our pennies and kept an eye on global travel mishaps, there were golden experiences to report, some of them driving distance from Tampa Bay. Here are memories from the road this year.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.
Best place to take stock
Watching person after person go close to the edge of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and fling up their arms in tribute, below. The glory of nature continues to shock and awe there, and deep breaths, along with deep thoughts, are required.
Most surprising rooftop bar
In 2004, Punta Gorda was devastated by Hurricane Charley. The resilient town has bounced back with aplomb. We checked it out, gin and tonic in hand, from the rooftop bar of the Wyvern Hotel (101 E Retta Esplanade; (941) 639-7700), which overlooks pretty Charlotte Harbor. It's hard to tell that a Category 4 storm ever blew through.
Best hotel lobby for getting away from it all
Grabbing a rocker by the oversized fireplace or claiming a comfy sofa at the Lake McDonald Lodge in Montana's Glacier National Park. Then staring up at the three-story lobby supported by massive cedar logs and decorated with mounted big game and American Indian-inspired chandeliers. We didn't want to leave. Ever.
Cheapest cheap thrill
The 350-voice Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing patriotic songs in rehearsal in Salt Lake City for its Fourth of July performance. The stirring spectacle is free to the public every Thursday night, and so is the Sunday morning live radio broadcast. It's difficult not to join in from the audience even if you know your voice isn't good enough to join the choir.
Best place to see a celebrity whose name isn't Kardashian
Former President Jimmy Carter teaching Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga. Along with a Bible lesson, there was talk of politics and other world affairs. Besides Carter, Plains also pushes peanuts.
Most literary blast from the past
Watching Tom Sawyer and his beloved Becky walk the streets of Hannibal, Mo. The young re-enactors serve as town ambassadors in this milestone year for Mark Twain, which includes the 125th anniversary of the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the 100th anniversary of the author's death. The view from Hannibal likely hasn't changed much.
Best place to get your streak on
The new NASCAR Hall of Fame Museum in Charlotte, N.C., allows the mere mortal to discover what it's like to drive a car at mama-told-you-not-to speeds.
Easiest ship to get lost on
The Norwegian Epic boasts an ice bar, two bowling alleys and 20 restaurants on its towering 19 decks. Many OMG-sized ships have been launched in recent years, and who really knows or cares which one is the champion behemoth at the moment. But we enjoyed the game-changing Epic for all of the over-the-top reasons, including the hold-on-to-your-bathing-suit waterslide.
Iconic tourist attraction still worth seeing
Yellowstone National Park's Old Faithful spouts scalding water more than 100 feet every 80 minutes or so. Seeing it on TV or in a movie doesn't compare to watching the geyser blow in person. It's most beautiful early in the morning or as the sun is setting.
Most astounding travel moment of the year
Realizing that a pair of 6-inch scissors accidentally left in a camera bag had made it through carry-on airport security checks in Tampa, Las Vegas and Sacramento, Calif.