Now that the weather’s starting to cool down a bit, Cherokee Countians are venturing out of their air-conditioned abodes, and looking for a little fall fun.
Based on my conversations with friends, a lot of folks my age in this neck of the woods have opted to delay their vacations this year, and not just because of unseasonably warm temperatures. While the most popular vacation spots charge premium rates during summer “high seasons,” you can score great deals if you’re willing to travel off-season.
This doesn’t work well for families that want to take their young children along for the ride. But those with older kids who can break away for extended weekends, or empty-nesters looking to enjoy time to themselves (or even those who can leave the kids with grandparents), may find fall travel is a far better option. This is especially true for those of us with ailments that can be exacerbated by the heat.
Several friends have requested that I offer a few suggestions for travel now through the end of the year, and I’m happy to oblige. I’ll mention four favorites: Walt Disney World in Florida, San Antonio, northern Ohio, and Hilton Head/Savannah.
Walt Disney World
My husband and I are about to celebrate 25 years of marriage, and our favorite anniversary destination is WDW. My sister lives there, so sometimes we freeload off of her and her husband for lodging. But for the past couple of years, we’ve been able to afford to stay a few days on resort property, thanks to the Salute to the Military Disney’s been offering. If you’re an AAA member, you can get discounts of about 10 to 20 percent; the cost of your annual membership is easily paid by your room savings from just one night there. But AAA members don’t get quite the steal the military does.
My husband retired after 21 years with the Oklahoma National Guard, so he and other retired and active-duty military personnel can reap big savings – as much as 40 percent off for a “deluxe” resort accommodation. WDW offers two other levels of resort, moderate and value, but the savings are less substantial with those. We walk a lot at WDW, but because I never know when I’ll have an arthritic flare, we prefer a resort on the monorail system, and all three of those are deluxes. Without a discount, one night at the Polynesian (depending on night of the week) can run you $500 to $550 during low season, in fall months. The rooms are substantially higher during peak season, and the Poly is generally the cheapest of the monorail resorts. So if you can get into a room for $250 a night, give or take, consider yourself lucky.
Without a discount, a one-day ticket to one WDW park can run around $90. But military folks can snare up to 12 four-day military promotional tickets for $138 each for family and friends, through Sept. 30. You get to choose either the “Water Parks, Fun and More” option, or the park hopper option, and for $27 more, you get both. I’d recommend the latter, because the two water parks are a hoot, even for codgers like us – and in September and October, the water’s warm in Florida. Some of the water slides are handicap-accessible. I’d suggest at least six days at WDW, because for $165, you can visit all four parks (and go back and forth between parks to take advantage of Extra Magic hours), plus the two water parks. (If you’re not military, AAA has good deals, too.)
Recently we learned WDW is continuing the military discount in 2013, so if you don’t have the time or money to book by the end of 2012, you have at least one more chance, albeit at a slightly higher rate. Nevertheless, you should try to go in September or October, when the prices are the best – and when you have two special events to capture your attention: the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, and Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party.
The F&W fest is a paradise for foodies like ourselves. We used to also enjoy the Taste of Chicago during the summer, but this year, the powers that be truncated that event to less than a week, and at a time of the year when we couldn’t travel. Epcot’s F&W is far more upscale, though prices at the tasting booths are no more expensive than those in Chicago (theme park admission is required). This year, F&W is Sept. 28 to Nov. 12, and features 29 booths offering cuisine from Argentina to Ireland, from Singapore to Germany – an incredible array of samplings you won’t get anywhere else. Each booth typically offers two savory selections, and one sweet treat, ranging from $3.25 to $6.50 each. And there are always wines, beers or spirits – sometimes all three, typically priced from $5 to $8. (For a complete list of this year’s booth offerings, see http://tinyurl.com/9h42dbd). You can nosh your way around the world, and take in attractions to boot. Before you do, drop by the welcome center and get a mini-gift card, to wear on your arm; it’s easier to access as you move from booth to booth.
Another cool thing about F&W is all the other activities that accompany it. The Eat to the Beat concert series is free, and it brings in bands folks my age will remember (like Starship, Night Ranger and .38 Special). Plus there are various private tasting events and sampler meals at the pavilions in the World Showcase. Last year, we went to a French cheese tasting, which was a little pricey at $70, but the evening wine and mixology seminars, which last about an hour, cost only $12 to $14. We checked out one last year featuring Xante liqueur. There’s a tequila tasting and food pairing event at the Mexican pavilion, for $70 (and it books fast), and several other yummy temptations. To check out F&W, go to http://tinyurl.com/crmsmj. The tabs on the left side of the page will let you explore the various special events.
Meanwhile, over at the Magic Kingdom this time of year, you’ll find the Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. My husband and I, despite being members of the Half-Century Club, are immature in some ways; we still ride roller coasters, and we still like the trappings of Halloween. This year, we’re even going in pirate costumes. The party runs from 7 p.m. to midnight on select nights, and costs extra – at least $50, and even more as you close in on Oct. 31. Here again, military people get a deal at $37 (military tickets must be purchased in person at a park). For the Tuesday night hauntings, the park is usually less crowded (both because the kids are in school and because the extra charge puts some people off). This means the lines are shorter for rides. As for the candy lines, those are distributed strategically throughout the park, denoted by an illuminated Goofy globe. You can get your little candy sack and go through as often as you wish.
If you need one more reason to go to WDW during the fall, here it is: You’re more likely to get into one of the popular restaurants. We’ve eaten at most of them, and our favorites (aside from Bistro de Paris in Epcot, which is closed for renovations) are: Les Chefs de France, Biergarten, Rose and Crown, and Coral Reef (Epcot); Narcoossee’s and Citrico’s (Grand Floridian Resort); California Grill (Contemporary Resort); ‘Ohana and Kona Cafe (Polynesian Resort); Shula’s Steak House (Dolphin Hotel); Yak & Yeti (Animal Kingdom); Bongo’s (Downtown Disney); and Hollywood Brown Derby and ‘50s Prime Time Cafe (Hollywood Studios). We also enjoy afternoon high tea at the Garden Tea Room, and for a very special, once- or twice-in-a-lifetime occasion, Victoria and Albert’s Restaurant. V&A, as I’ve noted before, serves some of the best food you’ll ever eat, in several courses with or without wine pairings (and I recommend with), but it’s cost-prohibitive except for the most special evenings.
I’ve reviewed various aspects of WDW before, and these are still available on our website. Just go to our homepage and type in some appropriate keywords.
I’m not sure why in movies, Cleveland seems to be the brunt of all jokes. I’ve been to Cleveland several times, and have yet to discover anything about it that justifies ridicule. It has a couple of fine museums, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and depending on the time of year, you can take in a football or baseball game. The Amtrak train passes through there, right along the lakeshore, and for me, that’s enough to commend it.
But the real attraction for Cleveland, in our book, is its proximity to Sandusky, and little burg about an hour west of the city that’s home to what we consider the best roller coaster park in America: Cedar Point. We’ve been several times, and if you’re roller coaster aficionados like we are, you owe it to yourself to head north this fall, if only to take in the magnificent Millennium Force, which drops you about 300 feet off the first hill, and reaches speeds up to 92 miles per hour – and it’s smooth as glass.
If you don’t like coasters, you probably won’t want to waste your time with Cedar Point, though it has a number of other attractions worth checking out. Compared to Disney and Universal parks, tickets are relatively cheap – less than $40, and even cheaper if you stay on property. But be warned: The on-site resorts are not lavish like those on Disney properties, but they’re every bit as pricey. We like staying at The Breakers just for the historic aspect and the convenience (it’s a stone’s throw from the park), but several folks we know prefer to stay off-property, and drive into the park.
Still, if you like seasonal fare, like Halloween spook houses with all the bells and whistles, Cedar Point’s hard to beat. “HalloWeekends” starts this weekend and runs through Oct. 28, and since it’s off-season, the room rates are much more economical, usually coming with a ticket package. The park’s open from 6 p.m. to midnight on Fridays, then from 11 a.m. to midnight Saturdays, and if you’re sticking around for Sunday fun, it’s from noon to 9 p.m. Not only can you take the challenge of 14 or 15 top-drawer roller coasters, you can get the – um, well, you can get something scared out of you to a degree that if you have a sensitive startle reflex, you might want to bring along a few adult-sized diapers.
It’s the “startle reflect” that the HalloWeekend “screamsters” prey upon to get your blood pumping. No rational adult is going to be “afraid” of someone in a costume, even if it’s splattered with fake blood and gore. But when the costumed individual jumps out at you from a hidden crevice, you’ll vocalize in surprise, if not fear. There are four haunted houses with different themes, and in parts of these, as you walk through, a bright light shines in your face so you can’t see what’s coming after you. One year, I remember that in a dusty area like a room in a flour mill, a flour sack suddenly reared up from the floor and growled. There are also several “scream zones,” where ghoulish creatures appear out of nowhere to freak you out. The screamsters don’t touch you, nor you them (that’s the rule), but the fear factor is superb – enough to take you back to spook trails and houses of your youth. And these are not cheesy; they’re the real deal.
Cedar Point is perfect for a long weekend of fun, and this time of year, you can often find good airfare deals to Cleveland; from there, you’ll rent a car. For details on the park, go to http://tinyurl.com/ 9fczxuh.
Those of you who have never ventured to this low-country island off the coast of South Carolina are missing a real treat. We went for the first time a couple of years ago during a business trip, and were impressed with the idyllic beaches, the resorts, and especially, the restaurants.
Hilton Head is a resort area; lots of the folks there are either retirees or wealthy people with second homes. Both of those traits could explain its reputation as another foodie haven. As far as activities, you won’t find much, except a num-ber of world-class golf-courses, horseback riding and bicycling. If you like hanging out on the beach, September and October are the best months. The ocean water couldn’t have been more perfect when we visited during that time, and it offers a perfect setting for relaxation.
Although foodies will be happy any time of year, if sunbathing and ocean swimming aren’t your cup of tea, choose January to book a Hilton Head excursion, and do your research to determine the dates of Restaurant Week. You’ll find incredible three- or four-course meals at some of the area’s best restaurants, for $20 to $28. We were there earlier this year, and couldn’t believe our luck. I don’t think I could ever get enough shrimp and cheese grits.
To get to Hilton Head, you’ll have to take a tiny little jet from Dallas, and you’ll land at the Hilton Head/ Savannah airport, but the drive is less than an hour. While you’re at it, set aside a few nights to stay in Savannah, where you’ll also find a plethora of divine restaurants. I recommend staying at the Kehoe bed-and-breakfast. The ambiance is exceptional, and so is the food. To see a recent, detailed review, go to http://tinyurl.com/92z7h79.
This rustic Texas metropolis is probably our favorite nearby destination for a few days of fun. Even if you only have four days to spare, you can have a great time on a modest budget that will buy you some accommodations, excellent meals, a day of fun at an amusement park, and a couple of nights along the Riverwalk, where you’ll find some real restaurant gems.
A weekend in San Antonio is the best introduction to the Amtrak train I can think of. Ridership is up 400 percent this year, so many people besides the members of my family are discovering just how relaxing and fun train travel can be. Even if you don’t get accommodations (a private room), the coach seats are roomy; they lean back and have a foot rest that will jut almost straight out. You will find yourself dozing off in one of these seats as the train rocks along the tracks – that is, if you’re not intrigued by the landscapes passing by. If you do get accommodations, your meals will be free, but remember that prices go up as the train fills up. I promise you, train food is far better than airline food. (With AAA, you get a discount.)
Let’s say you set aside Friday through Monday for your trip. The Heartland Flyer will take you from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth beginning at about 8:30 a.m., and then a couple of hours later, you’ll take the Texas Eagle to San Antonio. You’ll arrive at around 10 p.m., and I recommend staying right on the Riverwalk, either at the new Embassy Suites or the Drury Plaza Inn. Both are about a five-minute cab ride from the Sunset train station. After you freshen up at your hotel, you can take another quick cab ride and enjoy a late supper at the 24-hour Mi Tierra Restaurant and Bakery. It’s kind of a touristy place, but it’s a landmark, and you have to check it out at least once; inside, it’s Christmas all year-round.
After a night at your hotel, you’ll spend Saturday at Sea World, and don’t bother renting a car unless you have a large group; you can take the bus for a few bucks. After you’re back on the Riverwalk that evening, drop by Luke for dinner. This is one of Chef John Besh’s latest endeavors, and it’s French-German fusion cuisine that satisfies any palate. You can hang out later on the beautiful and energetic Riverwalk, and enjoy drinks or a cruise on one of the river barges. Sunday, you might take a tour (again by bus) out to Six Flags Fiesta Texas and hop a few coasters, then head back to the Riverwalk. You won’t want to miss Boudro’s for dinner; my husband likes San Antonio especially for the blackened prime rib at this restaurant, but there are other great items on the menu as well. And finally, at 7 Monday morning, you’ll get back on the train for a relaxing trip back to Fort Worth; the Heartland Flyer back to OKC; and then the drive back home. (Go to http://tinyurl.com/ d6dmz3q for more details.)
And there you have it – my best suggestions for fun fall excursions. If you have questions I might be able to answer about these places, just drop me a line.
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