Winter is generally considered the low travel period. Some, however, would argue that it’s the best time for travel. To boldly go where few venture in the off-season means saving money, avoiding crowds and, in some cases, it’s actually peak season. Consider these noteworthy spots when the temperature drops.
Throngs of tourists flock to see the colorful bubbling hot springs and faithfully erupting geysers in Yellowstone each summer, but in winter, the park shuts down, almost. Most roads are closed to cars, but you can still explore the park by snowmobile, snowcoach, snowshoe or snow skis. It’s a true winter wonderland blissfully free of crowds, filled with wildlife viewing opportunities and some of the hottest places on the surface of the planet surrounded by blankets of snow. There are plenty of groomed trails for snowshoeing and Nordic skiing where snowmobiles and coaches aren’t allowed, so it’ll just be you and Mother Nature at its steamy, snow-covered finest.
Winter is high season in the Keys, and they’re ready for tourists to return after Hurricane Irma. Key Largo and Key West were the least impacted, and things are mostly back to normal there. Many hotels and businesses along the Atlantic Coast side of the Lower Keys are still closed. The 113-mile Overseas Highway with its 42 bridges connecting the Keys is fully open and safe for travel, one of America’s great road trips. Authorities are asking that visitors avoid residential areas in the Lower Keys as they are still in recovery mode. All 10 state parks are reopened, and so is Dry Tortugas National Park.
For the latest info on what's open or not, check with the Monroe County Tourist Development Council at 1-800-FLA-KEYS or visit the news page at its website: www.fla-keys.com/news.
Red River’s Mardi Gras in the Mountains
In the early 1990s, a group of Cajun and Creole expatriates decided to bring Mardi Gras with them to the tiny mountain resort town of Red River, N.M. The result is the annual Mardi Gras in the Mountains celebration. It includes bead-throwing parades with local Krewes, costume balls, crawfish boils, plenty of Zydeco music and the annual burning of the Loup-Garou when people write their worries down on a piece of paper, pin it to an effigy of the spirit then set it on fire to burn all their troubles away. At the Red River Ski and Summer Resort adjacent to downtown, there’s plenty of family-friendly activities such as the Children’s Parade and the Gator Race down the slopes.
This year's Mardi Gras in the Mountains was Feb. 8-13, but you can start looking ahead to the next one: Feb. 28-March 5, 2019. Stay at the Auslander Condominiums for quick and easy walking access to the resort and the town. Rates start at $156. 303 Pioneer Road, Red River, N.M. 1-800-753-2311, www.auslandercondominiums.biz
Utah’s Sundance Film Festival
Park City, Utah, is known as a major ski resort town, but for 10 days each January, the film industry takes over when it hosts the Sundance Film Festival. The festival has events in nearby Salt Lake City and Sundance Mountain resort as well. But Main Street in Park City is where the heart of the action is, especially around the Egyptian Theatre. Main Street reaches critical mass during Sundance, filled with festivalgoers, paparazzi, locals, tourists, industry folks, ski bums and celebrities all meandering up and down the famed thoroughfare between events, screenings, bars, restaurants and shops. Passes and ticket combos of widely varying price points are sold beginning in October. Passes for the 2018 fest ran between $300-$3,500. During the festival, walk-up, individual tickets are available for many screenings.
Italy’s Cinque Terre was once a lesser-known gem of a spot along a rugged portion of the Italian Riviera. Then the five ancient fishing villages carved out of hillsides and connected by a hiking trail were discovered by travel writers and romantic wanderers who started singing the praises of the “five lands.” These days, it gets so crowded in the summertime that limits have been imposed on how many people can visit, but in the off-season, you’ll almost feel like you have the trails of this UNESCO World Heritage Site and national park to yourself. Sure, it’s chillier and wetter, but uncrowded and doable. Trail closures are common, so check current conditions before setting out.
Ostello 5 Terre in Manarola has private and shared rooms. Rates start at 28 euros (about $35) for dorm room, 80 euros (about $100) for private room, breakfast included. Via Riccobaldi, 21, 19017, Manarola, Italy. 39-0-187-920039 (add the 011 prefix when dialing from the U.S.), www.hostel5terre.com
New Orleans by bike
New Orleans has become more bike-friendly lately with dedicated bike lanes and shared lanes in certain neighborhoods. Fewer crowds and a mild climate make winter a good time to try a bike tour of the Big Easy. Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours in the French Quarter offers guided tours and rentals for solo exploration. Be sure to pick up the map showing which parts of town are bike-friendly and which aren’t (for instance, biking the central business district, or CBD, isn’t recommended). On a recent December outing, the guide stopped the group after crossing over into Faubourg Marigny and offered up a congratulation. “You have just done something that most tourists to New Orleans never do. You have left the French Quarter.”
Open since 1847, the Grand Hotel at Point Clear on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay in Alabama has long been called “the Queen of Southern Resorts.” This winter marks the grand “reopening” of the resort after an extensive renovation process. The Grand will become part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection once renovations are fully complete in May, but the resort is open for business this winter. Golfing, tennis, boating and beachcombing the resort’s private beach are common activities during the mild winter months. Also new for 2018, the Grand will host themed culinary weekends with immersive beverage and culinary classes.
Centrally located in the Historic District overlooking Madison Square and within easy walking distance to Forsyth Park, the DeSoto boasts one-of-a-kind skyline vistas of Savannah. When the 15-story structure was built in 1967 to replace the original circa-1890 building, it sparked controversy and energized the preservation movement in town. Ironically, the building was added to the Historic Hotels of America register last year when it turned 50 years old. After a multimillion-dollar renovation, the former Hilton property is reborn again as part of the Sotherly Hotels brand. As such, it now has more of a luxury boutique feel than that of a major chain, and features a casual pub and a finer dining chef-driven restaurant, as well as a lobby coffee shop.