From Sea To Shining Sea, Some Of The United States’ Special Spots

From Sea To Shining Sea, Some Of The United States’ Special Spots

By Patti Nickell, Lexington Herald-Leader (TNS)

With the dawn of a new year of travel, I decided to reflect on some past destinations that I especially loved. These five places span the nation, and while they may not be the first spots on a traveler’s itinerary, each is a true American gem.

The East Coast: St. Michaels, Md.

It was the best wake-up call I’ve ever gotten. The sun rose — not timidly — but blazing its way over the coastal marshes lining Chesapeake Bay in this town straight out of a Currier & Ives print. From my bedroom at The Inn at Perry Cabin, I woke to this pyrotechnic display. Who needs an alarm clock?

Stepping onto my deck, I took a deep whiff of the salty air, and wondered if people who get daily doses of this clean, fresh oxygen take it for granted. Maryland’s Eastern Shore is a cornucopia of the good things life has to offer — tangy sea breezes, clear air, as many bicycles and sailboats as there are automobiles, and enough crabs, oysters and clams to make up a bountiful fisherman’s platter.

The Inn at Perry Cabin is a charming base for exploring St. Michaels, a town with only one fast food outlet (Subway), no malls and no traffic light within 11 miles. It does have a first-rate Maritime Museum where you can visit the Hooper Lighthouse, tong for oysters in the harbor or sign on as an apprentice in a boat building class.

You can also spend a day browsing Main Street antique shops and taking a walking tour of the historic district before tucking into a mammoth platter of crabs at St. Michaels Crab and Steak House, where as they like to say, “the only thing we overlook is the water.”


The Midwest: Amana Colonies, Iowa

Spread out in a loop across the fertile central Iowa countryside, the seven villages that make up the Amana Colonies were laid out in the middle of the 19th century and meant to be an ox-cart’s drive apart. Today, the Colonies are a National Historic Landmark, allowing visitors a window to the religious and secular lives of early German settlers.

Driving a rental car rather than an ox-cart, I was able to see a lot over a weekend visit. In the main colony of Amana, I sampled homemade fudge at The Chocolate Haus and dandelion wine at the Grape Vine Winery, and then watched basket weaving demonstrations at the Broom and Basket Shop.

In West Amana, I traipsed around an art gallery that had formerly been the village church. In South Amana, while shopping at Fern Hill Gifts and Quilts, I discovered that it had been the town’s general store when Jesse James and his gang robbed it in 1877. In Middle Amana, I discovered something else: if you want to try the breads and pastries at Hahn’s Hearth Oven Bakery, you better be there by 9:00 a.m. or risk disappointment.

Best Place to stay: The Guest House Motel in Amana. Best Place to eat: The Colony Inn in Amana where bountiful breakfasts will fuel you for the day. Best times to visit: If you’re into German festivals with lots of oom-pah-pah, go in May for the MaiFest or October for Oktoberfest.


The Mountain West: Big Sky, Mont.

Think “A River Runs Through” where rainbow trout practically leap onto fly fishermen’s reels; pack trips through aspen-studded meadows are a daily occurrence, and more than a few High Country guides resemble a long-haired Brad Pitt.

For city-dwellers starved for the great outdoors, this is paradise. For snow bunnies, Big Sky has a ski resort whose major peak, Lone Mountain, is 11,166 feet in altitude, and whose 5,800 skiable acres on three mountains and 400 inches of annual snowfall make it a winter mecca.

Still, it’s a destination for all seasons due to its proximity to Yellowstone, the nation’s oldest national park. Less than an hour’s drive away, the 2.2 million-acre park is a sanctuary for bears (both black and grizzly), wolves, bison, moose and elk. Like most visitors, I headed directly to Old Faithful, the most famous of Yellowstone’s geysers, which erupts every hour-and-a-half, spewing out thousands of gallons of boiling water.

I staked out my spot and was rewarded for my patience, not only with the geyser’s angry antics, but with the appearance of a nonchalant moose, ambling along apparently unmoved by the spectacle going on behind him.

As impressive as Old Faithful is, the park has other not-to-be missed spots such as Black Sand Basin and Emerald Pool where minerals and algae color the mud and water, giving them the look of an Impressionist painting.

Best place to stay: the 112-year-old Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone, a National Historic Landmark.


The South: Austin, Texas

Some cities just seem to have it all — history, beauty and vibrancy. Austin, the capital of the Lone Star State, is one of those. It’s location in the scenic Texas Hill Country, surrounded by a chain of seven highland lakes, makes it heaven for those who love hiking, boating and fishing.

If you’re a history buff like me, you will want to tour the pink granite Capitol Building (the largest state capitol in the country, with murals depicting the fall of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto, which garnered Texas its independence from Mexico); the Greek Revival-style Governor’s Mansion, and the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum on the campus of the University of Texas.

The former president’s widow, known during her tenure as first lady for her beautification projects, has her own memorial, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, showcasing more than 650 native plants. Mother Nature’s abundant handiwork is also on display at the Botanical Garden in Zilker Park and Umlauf Sculpture Garden.

As for vibrancy, anyone who has been watching Austin City Limits for the past four decades can attest to the fact that this city is a music lover’s dream. Sixth Street hasn’t become one of the nation’s most famous tourist destinations for nothing.

Best place to stay: The Driskell Hotel. Built in 1886 by cattle baron Jesse Driskell, it retains its Old West feel. If its columned lobby, marble floors and stained glass dome were good enough for J.R. Ewing, they’re good enough for the rest of us.

Best places to hear music: The Broken Spoke (“the last of the authentic Texas dance halls and damn proud of it!”); Antone’s, Austin’s best blues club; any of the clubs along Sixth Street.


The West Coast: Marina del Rey, Calif.

I love California’s stunning beach communities, from the glam appeal of Santa Monica and Laguna Beach in the south to the picture postcard charm of Carmel farther north. More off-the-grid than the others, and just a 15-minute taxi ride from Los Angeles International, Marina del Rey may not be as immediately recognizable. But after a weekend (or longer), you may emulate country crooner George Strait and leave your heart here.

As the name implies, it’s all about the marina: the largest man-made marina in the world, with slips for 5,000 boats. A favorite vantage point is Fisherman’s Village, a replica of a New England seaport where shops and restaurants abound and where cobblestoned paths lead to the marina.

Of course, the best way to experience the marina is to get on the water, whether by kayak, canoe, water taxi, sailboat or private launch. One of my favorite experiences was a Saturday night starlight dinner/dance cruise aboard the Hornblower luxury yacht, where I marveled at the waterside buildings draped in a dazzling display of twinkling lights.

Best place to stay: Marina del Rey Hotel is a welcoming oasis with an enviable marina location and a topnotch restaurant, Salt.

(Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer and restaurant critic. Reach her at

©2016 Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: The 1879 Hooper Straight Lighthouse anchors the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels and can be seen from both land and water. (Mark Sandlin)

First-Time Visitors To Vegas: Prepare To Be Overwhelmed

First-Time Visitors To Vegas: Prepare To Be Overwhelmed

By Patti Nickell, Lexington Herald-Leader (TNS)

LAS VEGAS — Las Vegas rises, Oz-like, from the scorched brown earth of the desert, an Emerald City whose hue is the color of money. Money, one casino employee joked, that comes from vice and virtue — its two biggest industries being gambling and weddings.

The Vegas mystique is writ large. Chevy Chase took a memorable vacation here; Hunter S. Thompson found “fear and loathing” here; Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis woke to the mother of all Hangovers here. Las Vegas — for better or worse — affects all comers.

Although legalized gambling came to this sleepy southern Nevada town in 1931, it was the 1960s that saw Vegas transformed into an international playground for the famous and infamous.

One of the most famous was eccentric billionaire oilman Howard Hughes, who after being asked to vacate his room at the Desert Inn, retaliated by buying the entire hotel. Around that same time, a trio of entertainers — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. — dubbed the “Rat Pack,” became regulars on the Strip. Las Vegas never looked back.

While iconic properties such as the Sands and the Dunes have given way to bigger, glitzier ones — the Venetian and Bellagio respectively — Vegas is still a town of one-name headliners. Dean, Frank and Sammy are gone; now there’s Britney, Reba, Donny and Marie.

And it’s not just the entertainers who have achieved a one-name level of fame. Check out the myriad of restaurants in the resorts, and you’ll find Gordon, Giada, Wolfgang and Emeril. In Vegas, it seems celebrity trumps everything, except, of course, money.


Unless you’re a regular, when you first arrive on the Strip, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of it all — the skyscraper resorts, neon signs and towering billboards. A good way to get your bearings is to purchase a GO Las Vegas Explorer Pass (choice of 3, 4, or 5 attractions and good for 30 days.)

Among the attractions your pass will get you into are the outdoor gondola ride at The Venetian Hotel and the High Roller at the LINQ, Vegas’ answer to the London Eye. You can walk on the wild side at the Mob Museum or stay on the right side of the law at CSI: the Experience. You can even party like Elton or Rod on the Rockstar VIP Club Tour.

Should you wish to do your own thing, just remember: taxis are expensive (second only to New York City) and distances between places — even on the Strip — can make for a long walk, especially in 100-plus temperatures.


Understated Vegas is not, with every property vying to out-glitz its competition. My first stop was the Bellagio, which dazzles with the Dancing Fountains spectacle on its artificial lake (get there early for a prime viewing spot); Cirque de Soleil’s most spectacular show, O, (which transforms the stage into a gigantic swimming pool) and the lobby Conservatory, which draws as many people as the casino.

The Conservatory changes its floral display five times a year — for each season and the Chinese New Year. An ocean-themed display was up during my stay. To say it’s eye-popping is an understatement. Giant seahorses cavort with equally large turtles; oysters open to reveal shimmering pearls, and a 7-foot mermaid lounges on a rock. It would have been spectacular even if the entire display hadn’t been fashioned of real flowers, which are replaced every couple of days as needed.

Other properties are equally over-the-top. The Venetian has gondoliers to take you on a ride through indoor and outdoor lagoons; Caesar’s Palace has a Roman-inspired shopping street featuring the best Italian brands — Ferragamo, Versace, Armani and Gucci — and Paris Las Vegas has a half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower.

If these properties are all about conspicuous excess, the Cosmopolitan is the very definition of cool. Large graphics that explode in a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes dominate the lobby, and make the often-lengthy check-in process at least entertaining.

Also entertaining is the Cosmopolitan’s Chandelier Bar. The multi-level bar, cocooned in rows of crystal beads, is meant to resemble, what else, a chandelier, but I felt more like I was sipping champagne in a giant jeweled spider web.

If the craziness gets to be too much and you need a quiet retreat, don’t despair. You can find one in the peaceful oasis of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Tucked away in an enclave, there are no garish lights or signs here, just the tranquil zen-like feel of an Asian garden.

I booked a table at MOZEN for lunch one day and had a delicious sushi/sashimi platter accompanied by a plum-flavored sake with delicate notes of blood orange and cinnamon. That was followed by a 60-minute massage in the Mandarin Oriental’s acclaimed spa. It was so relaxing that I was ready to take on the Strip again.


Almost as popular as gaming in Vegas are the shows. Everyone who is anyone in the entertainment world makes Las Vegas a regular stop. Everyone from pop stars to Cirque de Soleil, which has no fewer than eight shows running on the Strip (the Michael Jackson Thriller scene at Mandalay Bay will, pardon the pun, thrill you.)

However, if you are into nostalgia and want a look at Las Vegas in the days of glamorous showgirls, magicians and animal acts, save a night for Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino’s Saxe Theater production of VEGAS! The Show.

Beginning with Frank, Dean and Sammy, the show segues through all the great performers who left their mark here: Judy Garland, Elvis, Sonny & Cher, and Tina Turner come alive through talented impersonators singing and dancing their hearts out.


Forget the $3.99 buffets. Las Vegas is a food lover’s paradise. Your only problem will be how to squeeze in all the places you want to go in the time you have. During my three days, I managed three lunches and two dinners.

Aside from the previously mentioned MOZEN, lunch spots included TREVI at Caesar’s Palace and GIADA at the Cromwell Hotel (they do love capital letters here.)

Step out of the white-hot glare of a desert afternoon into the lavender twilight of the Eternal City at TREVI. Tables surround the Fountain of the Gods in the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace, which has been designed to resemble a Roman street, right down to the painted blue ceiling with fluffy white clouds. It may sound kitschy, but it really does give the feel of dining al fresco in Rome.

For a more sophisticated take on Italian cuisine, I had lunch another day at GIADA, the only restaurant of Food Network superstar Giada De Laurentis. The oval-shaped dining room in soothing earth tones of beige, cream and burnt orange has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Bellagio fountains.

The food matched the view. I started with a Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese dish with wild sage honey, and followed that with more cheese in the form of a lemon pesto grilled mozzarella and fontina cheese sandwich with heirloom tomatoes.

Dinners both nights were small plate affairs where the emphasis was on taste rather than size. Jaleo in the Cosmopolitan showcases the exquisite tapas of Barcelona-raised chef Jose Andres. Here, my chilled gazpacho, watermelon and tomato salad with goat cheese and pistachios and the signature shrimp tapa sauteed with garlic were accompanied by a 2005 Reserva from Bodegas Ontanon in Spain’s Rioja region.

Lago, overlooking the Bellagio Lake, is also known for small plates — Italian rather than Spanish (I loved the roasted green olive focaccia with pecorino.) The outdoor terrace is a great spot for dining, if you can get over the unsettling feeling that Donny and Marie are watching you eat from their billboard-size images on the side of the Flamingo Hotel.

From resorts to restaurants, gaming to golf, Las Vegas puts on a show that’s destined to run forever.

(Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer. Reach her at

(c)2015 Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Tourists line up in front of the Bellagio in Las Vegas to watch the water show in an October 2007 file image. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/TNS)