NEW YORK – Between economic woes and travel advisories, summer vacation may seem like an endangered event, but there's no need to quash escapist desires while living in a country bursting with offbeat destinations.
“For a long time, Americans had money to take the family to exotic locales, but they are watching their pennies right now,” said Cathy Keefe, spokesperson for the Travel Industry Association of America. “They are looking for an authentic American experience.”
A recent TIA study found that 82 percent of Americans plan to take at least one trip this spring or summer, and a whopping 71 percent say they aren't interested in traveling overseas, mainly due to the economy and war.
But from sea to shining sea, there are endless choices for travelers seeking a unique experience.
“In Santa Fe, there is the world’s largest folk art museum. It’s incredible and nobody knows about it,” said Matthew Link, associate editor of Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel magazine.
Link also advised while in South Dakota -- where travelers flock to see Mt. Rushmore (search) -- visiting another mountainside carving nearby that is bigger than all the presidential heads combined.
Crazy Horse Memorial, a carving of the famous Native American, has been in progress for over 50 years. Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who started the project after winning an art competition, died in 1982. But work on the massive sculpture continues and it will be 641 feet long by 563 feet high when it's complete.
If you travel to the Sunshine State, join the nearly 60, six-toed cats (descendents of Papa’s original pets) roaming the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum in Key West, Fla., where the legendary writer lived and wrote for over a decade.
Regardless of the destination, an adventuresome approach can make all the difference, said Don George, global travel editor for Lonely Planet travel guides.
“Some of my best travel experiences in the U.S. have happened because I’ve done something a little different," he said.
During a stay in Honolulu, George wanted to attend a luau with the locals — and found one on a recommendation from his hotel's concierge.
“It was entirely local people and everyone was very friendly," he said. "I grabbed a paper plate and ate from a buffet of food made by the locals. It was wonderful.”
Also, forgoing seasonal constraints can save big bucks, according to Link.
“A lot of ski resorts are now pushing their summer programs, having festivals and offering activities like rock climbing and river rafting," he said.
Even major cities have their quiet sides. In San Francisco, most tourists head to Fisherman’s Wharf for waterside entertainment, but George advises hitting the beach.
“San Francisco has a huge beach that most people don’t think of,” he said. “You really get a wonderful sense of being at the edge of the continent.”
And George recommends visiting small-town festivals to get a feel for a new area.
“If you’re in Connecticut this summer, check out the Strawberry Festival in Middlebury,” he said. “There’s strawberry shortcake, art exhibits and games. It’s a local summer celebration that’s so wonderfully American.”
Many road-bound explorers get their kicks on Route 66, but there is plenty of pavement to explore.
“What we’re seeing is a return to old-fashioned family vacationing, when you piled into the car and drove along scenic routes,” said Keefe. “A lot of families are taking kids to places they went to growing up and very American kitschy places that you find along highways and byways.”
To help those seeking adventure at the wheel, TIA and the Department of Transportation created See America’s Byways, a Web site offering itineraries along America's 25,000 miles of roads.
But before you hit the highway, George advises planning your trip so “off the beaten path” doesn’t turn into a puzzling voyage of pitfalls.
“Sit down, spread out brochures, guidebooks and maps," he said. "That’s part of the pleasure of the trip, anticipating what you are going to see."
Niche attractions and funky local finds can cure any summertime wanderlust, but take your time, advised George.
“Don’t try to do too much, you’ll have a much richer experience," he said. "Slow down and enjoy what is right in front of you.”