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Washington

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Free breakfast, iPod docking stations, and coffee makers are nothing compared to some of the whacky hotel amenities we found. From vintage record players to pet psychologists, here are five quirky — and dare we say somewhat outrageous — amenities that can be found at hotel chains across the country.

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CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort and Spa - 620It’s the last month of summer. Make it count with a memorable weekend away. Whether you crave an island vacation in the Caribbean or a few days steeped in American heritage, these last-minute deals for August (and beyond) will satisfy both your wanderlust and your thriftiness.

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Storm King Art Center - 620 - Erik Anestad

It’s always a struggle for culture-enthusiasts in the summer: Go to the park and soak up the sun, or go to the museum for some arts. If that’s an argument you always enter with your travel companion, we have the answer for you. Visiting any of these six sculpture parks in the United States is guaranteed to solve your dilemma. The pictured Storm King Art Center in the lower Hudson Valley of New York state, for example, is a 500-acre landscape of fields, hills, and woodlands that provides the setting for more than 100 large-scale abstract sculptures. More here.

orcaBy now you’ve likely heard about the controversy surrounding SeaWorld. As a result of the documentary film Blackfish, and its exposure of what animal rights advocates claim is mistreatment of the orcas used in SeaWorld shows, calls for a boycott of the marine mammal theme park chain have grown. The debate goes on: SeaWorld released an open letter stating that, among other things, their research on captive whales benefits those in the wild, but the Oceanic Preservation Society then rebutted the claims.

And there are signs that public opinion is turning against the theme parks. The company recently posted a 13 percent drop in attendance. If you the claims have gotten the better of your conscience and you’re looking for an alternative, here are seven places in North America where you see the same animals that you’ll find at SeaWorld, but in their natural habitats. Read more

CruiseOne of the great things about river cruise ships and other small vessels is the opportunity to locally source food, beer, and wine. Unlike large cruise ships, which haul aboard tons of frozen foods at the start of each voyage, smaller ships can pick and choose from local and regional farms, breweries, and wineries along their itineraries, buying what they need for a smaller number of guests.

One of the leaders in this concept is the American Queen Steamboat Company, which has just launched its newest river paddlewheeler, the 223-passenger American Empress. Read more

HikersonknifesedgeIn some ways, the book (and soon-to-be-released movie) Wild serves as a what-not-to-do guide to the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT — don’t over pack, don’t hike in untested boots, and don’t underestimate the weather. Author Cheryl Strayed certainly made some mistakes, but, by learning the hard way, she also got quite a few things right.  Here’s a brief overview on how to hike the Pacific Crest Trail:

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MilfordTrackLast month, we honored the newly-opened, 134-mile-long John Muir Way with a few suggestions for other long-distance walking routes in Scotland. If that’s whetted your appetite for more challenging hikes, here are a five trails to start prepping for, from California’s epic Pacific Crest Trail to a simple four-day trek in New Zealand.  Read more

Hotel VintageWe always keep an eye out for offers at recently renovated or redesigned hotels. Why? Offering the same perks as a newly opened hotel (think new beds, bath tubs, and pools), you can also expect the same level of service as a property that’s been open for years, without all the growing pains. As an additional perk, you will often find special offers and discounts around the re-opening.

Case in point, Kimpton’s former Hotel Vintage Park in downtown Seattle has just undergone a $6 million transformation, reopening as Hotel Vintage last week. In keeping with their Washington wine theme, the stylish boutique hotel is offering an “Uncork the New Vintage” re-opening special, with rates starting at $209 per night for a queen room. Plus, guests can choose one of the following perks:

John C. Campbell Folk School - throwing and raku firing - 620For the artsy traveler, what better way to get acquainted with a destination’s culture than to learn a local craft? Participating in a workshop can be a daylong venture or even a weeklong retreat. Plus, whether you’re making moccasins or birch boxes or farmstead cheese, you’ll end up with a handmade souvenir to take home. Here, four immersive programs that let you do just that: Read more

Museum of Natural History - WhaleWe’re big fans of museums, wherever we go. And we’d never begrudge an amazing exhibit due support, particularly at smaller institutions that could use the help. But there’s no reason why travelers shouldn’t take advantage of free nights at various museums across the country. And there are more museums that offer suggested, donation-based entry than you might think.

Two notes before jumping into our roundup of free and pay-as-you-wish museum programs: First, this is not a definitive list, though we do plan on updating it regularly. Second, if you’re a Bank of America credit or debit card holder, don’t forget to check out the Museums on Us program. Flash your card (and ID) at 150 museums and cultural institutions across the country and you’ll get in free on Saturday and Sunday during the first full weekend of every month.  Read more

new-york-city-rock-center-ice-skating-istock 620x400If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to travel more in 2014, this offer from Amtrak may be the perfect fit: You’ll save 25 percent or more on travel from and to major Northeast destinations when booking at least 14 days in advance. Plus, with the unpredictable winter weather, riding the train provides a more reliable and comfortable way to travel this season. Read more

Five Great Places for CoffeeCoffee, one of the world’s most universally beloved drinks, offers a taste of local culture with every sip, in whatever form it’s served (small but strong, organic and Fair Trade Certified, topped with whipped cream, or spiked with whiskey). Inspired by cool fall temperatures and a recent #TTOT (that’s Travel Talk on Twitter, a hashtag travelers should definitely check out if they’re not familiar with it), here we spill the beans on five destinations where caffeine-craving travelers can get their fix.

Vienna: The coffeehouse, or Kaffeehaus, is as much a staple of Viennese culture as the waltz and opera. In recent years, the number of traditional coffeehouses has dwindled as owners face competition from modern chains (yes, Starbucks has several locations here) and increasing real estate costs, but enjoying a cup is still a must-do during a visit. From decades-old institutions with soaring ceilings and immaculately dressed waiters to boho-hip joints that draw a young crowd, you can find the perfect spot for any sipping style.

Can’t-miss spots include Café Sperl, a gorgeous architectural gem that has been around since 1880; Café Sacher, known for its decadent Sacher-Torte; and Café Landtmann, with live music, a celebrity clientele, and live music.

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Red Rocks
For most concertgoers, heading to a local venue is a chore accomplished for one reason: to see a band or artist. The venue itself almost never plays a role in one’s decision to purchase a ticket, but as travelers, we know that the occasional venue speaks just as loudly as the act that’s filling it. For music lovers, there are a handful of venues that are routinely placed on a higher pedestal, and for good reason, whether for their acoustics, scenery, or sheer ability to attract concert-goers to such remote locations as:  Read more

Winter predictably sees travelers heading to tropical islands for their vacations, but what about the cooler weather islands? There are a few advantages to heading someplace where you’ll be packing a sweater rather than a swimsuit: less crowds, better deals, and plenty of interesting things to do.

Here are a few of our favorite cold-weather island getaways.

Shetland Islands, Scotland

Up Helly Aa, ShetlandYou’ll have to wrap up warm if you’re planning to visit Shetland in winter, but you may be rewarded with a sight of the Northern Lights; its far-north location makes it the best place in the British Isles to see them. Besides the aurora borealis, winter brings unique festivals, such as Up Helly Aa, a Viking fire festival held in Lerwick on the last weekend of January.

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Yellowstone National Park

UPDATE: Five national parks in Utah have re-opened, though the government shutdown remains in effect. CNN reports that since October is one of the busiest months for visitors exploring Utah’s stunning canyons, deserts, and million-year-old rock formations, the state has decided to fund the re-opening of five national parks (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion), plus three other sites (Natural Bridges, Cedar Breaks national monuments, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area) with its own money. The sites are scheduled to re-open fully on Saturday October 12 for at least the next 10 days, with plans to continue funding the parks if the shutdown drags on further.

Of the many facets of day-to-day life that will be directly affected by a government shutdown (healthcare, IRS, the military) that begins today, travel and tourism concerns are relatively low on the list. However, for travelers who booked their trip months ago – not to mention tourism offices who rely on those visitors actually showing up – the closures can seriously upset your plans. Though flight and hotel bookings (and, thankfully, public transportation) remain unaffected, some itineraries (especially to destinations in the Western U.S.) will have to be re-arranged entirely.

Of the thousands of worthy sightseeing spots in the U.S., 401 of them are national parks. These include everything from preserves like Florida’s Big Cypress Swamp to monuments like the Statue of Liberty to the massive, hugely popular Yellowstone National Park, which receives over 3.5 million visitors per year. A full database of sites can be found here. Below, we’ve compiled five of the most-visited national park sites, coupled with alternative sites you can visit instead. Read more

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