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Distinctive summer destinations abound

Off-the-beaten-path attractions lure visitors

By Amy Cox

Thinking beyond the usual vacation suspects may save travelers money and headaches from crowds.
Summer Trips
Arts, Culture and Entertainment

(CNN) -- Forget the lights of Las Vegas. Look past the Big Apple's mouth-watering sights. Distinctive destinations abound in the United States, far beyond the perennial favorites.

"We expect that Americans are going to set out to explore the United States more," said Paul Eisenberg, senior editor of Fodor's Travel Publications. "Our feeling [after the September 11, 2001, attacks] was that people were going to want to explore their own backyards more and that's probably going to continue this summer."

Leisure travel is expected to grow about 3 percent in 2004, according to a Travel Industry Association of America report. Much of that increase will come from road trips close to home this summer, said TIA's marketing and research director Andrea Stokes.

"People are finding out about places where they don't have to maybe spend as much money, yet they're great destinations that they can drive to and spend a little bit of time," she said.

Economic factors are also keeping travelers closer to home. Because of the relatively low value of the U.S. dollar, Americans' money won't go as far around the globe as it has in the past. Record high gas prices have helped hike up the cost of airline tickets, too, along with the amounts drivers are paying at the pump.

Thinking beyond the usual vacation suspects may not only help travelers spend less, it may keep them away from the crowds. Experts say saving money while saving your sanity increases the chances for a better travel experience.

Some travelers, having had enough of tried-and-true trips to amusement parks and other well-traveled spots, say they prefer something off the beaten path.

"I've done Disneyland. I'd rather just go walking around someplace and see some historical stuff than see Disneyland," said Karen Mallardo of Boston, Massachusetts. "You just seem to learn more and appreciate how other people get around and live."

If traveling by car, Stokes advised taking scenic byways, thus making the journey itself the vacation.

"The back roads, the lesser-known roads are taking you through places where you could really experience the culture of the particular state you were in or the particular region of the country," she said.

A smaller destination may also be a benefit for those traveling with children.

"Kids in particular often enjoy the less-visited attractions because you might find that the quirkier places appeal better to their interests," said Fodor's Eisenberg. "And they're not as overwhelmed as they would be [in a larger place]."

Outside the theme park box

In Florida, for example, instead of heading to the biggest and most crowded sights, Eisenberg recommends exploring off the beaten path.

"There are some wonderful, wonderful parts of Florida beyond Orlando," he advised. "And I would venture to say that there are even parts of Orlando that people don't even see when they're there because they don't realize there's a scene outside the theme parks."

Eisenberg calls the Florida Panhandle one of the most enigmatic and alluring parts of the state.

"Starting with the Panhandle and going south, you can avoid the major cities and find [vacation spots] for a reasonable amount of money and still have a true Florida experience," he said.

Even big cities, such as Atlanta, above, can contain hidden tourist treasures away from the crowds.

But even large cities have their unexplored or unappreciated sights, as Bill and Shirley Ghauri discovered. The couple from Santa Rosa, California, decided after the September 11, 2001, attacks to vacation around the United States in a renewed appreciation of their country.

A weeklong trip to Atlanta, Georgia, was part of that resolution, Shirley explained. After adhering to guidebooks for some of the most popular sights, the couple sought out locals and regional publications for information on a music festival, small city neighborhoods and lesser-known restaurants.

"You find out things you didn't know," Shirley said. "Until we started getting into this, there was a lot that Atlanta offers that we never knew about at all. I think it's just a question of zeroing in on a destination, looking into it and realizing, 'Oh, wow.'"

Eisenberg echoes the California couple's tactics for finding distinctive destinations.

To get the most out of a vacation, he advised, always ask yourself, "Is there a way for me to avoid the usual suspects and [focus] on a town or region that's going to be less popular, potentially less expensive, and also undiscovered?"

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