With the dawn of a new year of travel, I decided to reflect on some past destinations that I especially loved. And while these three places across the nation may not be the first spots on a traveler's itinerary, each is a true American gem.
Patti Nickell, TNS
Maryland: St. Michaels
It was the best wakeup call I've ever gotten. The sun rose, not timidly but blazing its way over the coastal marshes lining Chesapeake Bay. From my room at the Inn at Perry Cabin, I woke to this pyrotechnic display. Who needs an alarm clock?
Stepping onto my deck, I took a deep whiff of the salty air and wondered if people who get daily doses of this clean, fresh oxygen take it for granted. Maryland's Eastern Shore is a cornucopia of the good things life has to offer — tangy sea breezes, clear air, as many bicycles and sailboats as there are automobiles, and enough crabs, oysters and clams to make up a bountiful fisherman's platter.
The inn is a charming base for exploring St. Michaels, a town with only one fast-food outlet (Subway), no malls and no traffic light within 11 miles. It does have a first-rate Maritime Museum, where you can visit the Hooper Lighthouse, tong for oysters in the harbor or sign on as an apprentice in a boat-building class.
You also can spend a day browsing Main Street antique shops and taking a walking tour of the historic district before tucking into a mammoth platter of crabs at St. Michaels Crab and Steak House, where, as they like to say, "The only thing we overlook is the water."
Montana: Big Sky
Think A River Runs Through It, where rainbow trout practically leap onto fly fishermen's reels; pack trips through aspen-studded meadows are a daily occurrence; and more than a few High Country guides resemble a long-haired Brad Pitt.
For city dwellers starved for the great outdoors, this is paradise. For snow bunnies, Big Sky has a ski resort whose major peak, Lone Mountain, is 11,166 feet in altitude, and whose 5,800 skiable acres on three mountains and 400 inches of annual snowfall make it a winter mecca.
Still, it's a destination for all seasons due to its proximity to Yellowstone, the nation's oldest national park. Less than an hour's drive away, the 2.2 million-acre park is a sanctuary for bears (both black and grizzly), wolves, bison, moose and elk. Like most visitors, I headed directly to Old Faithful, the most famous of Yellowstone's geysers, which erupts every hour-and-a-half, spewing out thousands of gallons of boiling water.
I staked out my spot and was rewarded for my patience, not only with the geyser's angry antics, but with the appearance of a nonchalant moose, ambling along apparently unmoved by the spectacle going on behind him.
As impressive as Old Faithful is, the park has other not-to-be-missed spots such as Black Sand Basin and Emerald Pool, where minerals and algae color the mud and water, giving them the look of an Impressionist painting.
California: Marina del Rey
I love California's stunning beach communities, from the glam appeal of Santa Monica and Laguna Beach in the south to the picture-postcard charm of Carmel farther north.
More off the grid than the others, and just a 15-minute taxi ride from Los Angeles International, Marina del Rey may not be as immediately recognizable. As the name implies, it's all about the marina: the largest man-made marina in the world, with slips for 5,000 boats.
The best way to experience the marina is to get on the water. One of my favorite experiences was a Saturday night starlight dinner-dance cruise aboard the Hornblower luxury yacht, where I marveled at the waterside buildings draped in a dazzling display of twinkling lights.
Patti Nickell is a travel writer and restaurant critic in Lexington, Ky. This story appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader.