America is a big country full of bigger views, from sea to shining sea. From stunning natural formations to architectural wonders, these ten sights rise above the rest.
Sedona, Ariz.: Literally cinematic in their breathtaking scenery, the sandstone formations of Red Rock Country served as movie backdrops for decades of classic Hollywood westerns, though they could also stand in as a set for an alien world. The area's sandstone towers, canyons, and sculpted buttes glow in many shades of orange and red, captivating visitors ever since the first Native Americans settled here 11,000 years ago. More recently, it's become a beacon for artists, hippies, spiritualists and similarly New Age-minded individuals. It should go without saying that it's also outstanding hiking and biking territory.
Pittsburgh, Pa.: The panoramic view of central Pittsburgh from atop Mt. Washington has long been considered one of the best skyline views in the world. The "mushroom" overlook platforms sit at an elevation of 400 feet, accessed by a historic funicular dating from 1877. From here, one can absorb how Pittsburgh is embraced by three rivers and the striking iron bridges that cross them. You can also add a meal to the view along the site's "Restaurant Row."
Kauai, Hawaii: Along Kauai's northwest shore sits Na Pali ("the cliffs"), a 15-mile stretch of rocky, vividly colored coastline. It's possible to hike parts of this steep, magazine photo-worthy terrain, namely the 11-mile Kalalau Trail which traverses sea cliffs and five valleys before ending at Kalalau Beach, but this is only recommended for people with superior hiking skills. It's also possible to view the cliffs during a catamaran or kayak trip, though the sea can be rough. If money is no object, opt for the helicopter tour.
DenaliNational Park, Alaska: The name "Wonder Lake" sounds like it belongs in a Disney film, which fits its cinematic, mirror-finish sheen reflecting Mt. McKinley (North America's tallest mountain) in the distance. Wonder is a "kettle lake," a depression filled by water from rapid glacial melting/retreating. A meandering nine hour drive north of Anchorage deep inside Denali National Park, the lake is accommodated by abundant campgrounds in the park. Visitors should wear long sleeves, bug spray and even a headnet; the mosquitoes there are legendary.
Brooklyn, N.Y.: The New York skyline, in terms of compact awe and beauty, is arguably the prettiest in the country. One of the most exquisite views of this stunning architectural formation is that from the tables of The River Cafe at One Water Street, under the Brooklyn Bridge. From here one can also see the Statue of Liberty and the action on the East River. The Café itself is a notable special occasion experience, as more formal attire is required.
Lake Superior, Minn.: The North Shore of Lake Superior is comprised of seven state parks, the historic Split Rock Lighthouse and a driving route that has been designated as an "All-American road." The route is dotted by cliffs, rocky beaches, rolling hills, tree-covered ridges and small towns catering to tourists with local restaurants, quaint shops and art galleries. Push inland for pristine rivers and waterfalls running towards Lake Superior. Hiking is popular here, allowing visitors to explore the area's wilderness, streams and waterfalls, including Minnesota's largest waterfalls at Grand Portage and Tettegouche state parks. According to locals, fall is the best time to visit.
Washington, D.C: The combination of nostalgia, national pride and sheer beauty marks the view from the Lincoln Memorial steps. A mere 87 steps up from the mall and reflecting pool, the panoramic view includes the Washington Monument and, in the far distance, the Capitol. Many historic events have taken place here, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, which was witnessed by some 250,000 people. Both the sunrise, cresting behind the Capitol Building and Washington Monument, and the sunset from this spot are superb.
Arches National Park, Utah: In terms of outstanding natural vistas that are relatively easy to access, Park Avenue in Arches National Park is hard to beat. The walk to the vista is an easy low-impact one-mile trek, filled with natural stone arches (of which the park has over 2,000), pinnacles and — a photographer's dream — massive, balanced rocks, all under a vast sky. Crowds in the park are thinnest from late November through early March.
Grand Canyon, Ariz.: No list of the best views in the U.S. is complete without the mother of them all, the layered, red-orange brilliance of the Grand Canyon, specifically from the 13-mile Rim Trail. The trails into the canyon itself are only recommended for very experienced hikers and campers. However, the Rim Trail is flat, mostly paved, profuse with panoramic views and dotted with shuttle stops along the way to come and go around the trail as one pleases. Generally, the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset (aka "the golden hours") are the best times to catch the multi-colored rock face at its most vibrant. For sunset specifically, Hopi Point and the less crowded Mohave Point are ideal spots.
Grand Targhee Ski Resort, Wyo.: Located on the western slope of the Tetons, near Alta, Wyoming, the snowy views from this resort are about as expansive as one can find in the USA. On a clear day, standing on Lone Peak, one can see four states, two national parks, the peaks of Middle Teton, Mt. Owen and Mt. Moran and, squinting hard enough, even climbing parties on Grand Teton. The resort gets about 500 inches of snow each year, so once your brain can't process any more sweeping views, get yourself into a snowcat for the best access to the area's snowy expanses. The drive through the Teton Valley to the resort is no slouch in the views department either.
Ken Burns shares secrets of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Burns says that there's a great drama to the Smoky Mountains. Creation of the park forced the removal of existing towns and "not everyone wanted to be removed."
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Ken Burns sat down with USA TODAY and shared some of the secrets of America's national parks. Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan are the creators of the PBS documentary "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," available via ShopPBS.org.
USA TODAY8:16 a.m. EDT August 18, 2014
The natural beauty in the parks begs to be explored.(Photo: Ann Foschauer)
While the U.S. national parks celebrate nature at its best, Burns says that there's a great drama to the Smoky Mountains. Creation of the park forced the removal of existing towns and "not everyone wanted to be removed," Burns said.
"Remember they're leaving dead family members in the family cemetery ... or churches that they worshiped in all their lives. A lot of people were grandfathered in and permitted to stay there until they passed away and then it became a part of our common wealth."
Burns says that one of the best things about this park is its intimacy. All you "need to do is park and get off the many, many roads of this large park and see that blue mountain haze that is part of this beautiful mythological place." Watch the video above to hear what two trails are Burns' favorites in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
A singer, actor, and heartthrob known for his sensual dance moves, Elvis Presley is an icon in American culture. He starred in 31 feature films and once held the largest number of platinum, multiplatinum and gold certifications of any artist in history, in addition to selling more than a billion records worldwide. No one can dispute the King's royal status within the music industry.
After his death in 1977, thousands gathered at his Memphis, Tenn., home of 20 years – Graceland – to mourn his passing. Since Graceland opened to the public in 1982, millions of fans from around the world have come to visit the estate, which is now a National Historic Landmark. If a pair of blue suede shoes gets you all shook up, plan a visit to the King of Rock 'n' Roll's palace during your Memphis vacation.
At age 22, Elvis purchased the Colonial Revival-style mansion and transformed the two-story, 10,000-plus square-foot facility into a more than 17,000-square-foot lavish mansion boasting 23 rooms. When Elvis bought the home for just over $100,000 it stood as a symbol of success as he promised his parents he would one day put an end to all their financial troubles and take care of them. Though this wasn't Elvis' only home, this was his home base, where family and friends would come to visit. The public can only explore the first floor of Graceland, however, and much speculation swirls about what rests out of sight on the second floor.
Upon entering Graceland, you'll wander through the foyer, living room, dining room and the bedroom of Elvis' mother. The first few rooms showcase plush 1960s décor with accents such as a 15-foot-long sofa and 10-foot-long coffee table. The rooms show the chic atmosphere in which Elvis entertained formal guests.
The second floor is not a part of the public tour as a way to respect Elvis. However, one of the four bedrooms was set aside for the King's wardrobe and the other as his office. A third room was a master bath and the fourth was the bedroom of his daughter, Lisa.
Living Room & Music Room
This room saw many transformations over the years as Elvis put his styling touches to work. Currently, blue draperies frame the windows but are switched out for a bright red during the holidays. This is a much more toned down look than the room wore in the 1970s, when bright red satin draperies, red shag carpet and red velvet furniture were the focal points on the room. When Graceland opened to the public in 1982, older furnishings were brought out of storage to restore a look of the property from earlier years. Keep an eye out on your tour and you may spot some elements from the red era. Beyond the living room is the music room where a baby grand piano commands attention.
Graceland's Jungle Room
One step inside the room and the meaning behind the name is apparent. Not only will you find a waterfall, but the décor is fashioned after Polynesian and Asian influences. This room, one of Elvis' favorites, reminded him of Hawaii, a spot where he did a lot of recording, film-making and vacationing with his family. Take note of the large circular chair where it is said that Lisa Marie Presley often took naps and had a prime spot for the big-screen TV. The jungle room transformed into a recording studio for a few months in 1976 as Elvis was having a bout with his health.
In the racquetball room, a two-level lounge area, you will find everything from a refreshment bar to a radio and intercom system for the building. Vinyl sofas and chairs, a Schimmel upright piano and a Marantz stereo system also remain. Deluxe built-in stereo speakers are above the shatterproof glass wall that allowed safe from-the-lounge viewing of games in progress on the racquetball court.
You can also see many other objects on display that embody the character of Elvis including his gold and platinum records as well as a wall of foreign record awards. The graves of the King and his family members also are accessible for visitors to pay their respects. The somber sight is the last stop on the Graceland tour.
Elvis in Memphis
The legacy of Elvis Presley isn't confined to the wrought-iron gates of Graceland. Step outside his home to gain a deeper appreciation of the King's life. Sun Studio is regarded as the studio that launched Presley's career 60 years ago with his recording of "That's All Right." Located just east of Memphis' Beale Street Historic District, the studio also catapulted the careers of other legends, such as Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, B.B. King and Jerry Lee Lewis.
To really dive headfirst into Elvis the man, snag a spot on Backbeat Tours' Hound Dog Tour, which guides you through the King's history: his first apartment, where his first broadcast played, and some of his ex-girlfriends' homes, for example. If you're looking for a deeper understanding of Memphis where Elvis lived most of his life, the American Dream Safari highlights some of the city's hot spots – locations that made music history through the likes of the King, Cash, and Al Green.
Touring Elvis' old Memphis haunts sure can work up a thirst. Staying within the '60s themed touring, pull up a chair at High Cotton Brewing Co. The 1,000-square-foot taproom has an old school, rustic feel and serves up enticing Scottish Ale, ESB, Saison, and special and seasonal brews.
YOKOHAMA, Japan -- Touring Japan by cruise ship got a lot easier this year as industry giant Princess added dozens of sailings around the country. But are the voyages right for you?
We spent nine days last month on one of the new trips -- a "Kyushu and Onsens" itinerary around the southern half of Japan on the 2,670-passenger Diamond Princess -- and found it a relaxing, easy and relatively inexpensive way to explore some of the more off-the-beaten-path areas of the country. Been-there-done-that cruisers looking for something new no doubt will find it alluring, and it's an intriguing choice for travelers who are nervous about getting around Japan on their own.
Just be warned: The stops on the itinerary and others Princess is offering around Japan aren't necessarily Bucket List destinations. Unfortunately, some of the most wonderful places to see in Japan are inland from major ports. Several of the coastal cities where the Diamond Princess stopped on our trip -- Beppu and Kagoshima, for instance -- are the sort of places one visits on a third or fourth visit to Japan, if at all. Of five stops on the itinerary, only Nagasaki was a truly must-see destination. Read our first-hand account of the sailing.
That said, we found plenty to hold our interest during the calls. Beppu, a spa town built over a geothermal area, offers a string of nine small hot spring areas with mud pots and geysers known as The Hells. It's a bit touristy (there's an admission charge for each of the areas, which are packed with gift shops, food vendors and other attractions) but worth a visit for those who haven't been to more impressive geothermal sites such as Yellowstone National Park. In Kagoshima, passengers will find a 17th century Japanese garden that's worth a stroll or can take an excursion to see the Samurai houses of feudal-era Chiran.
For now, Princess is the only line catering to English-speaking vacationers with regular sailings around Japan, though several other lines including Celebrity and Cunard offer occasional voyages with Japan stops. Some thoughts on the pros and cons of touring Japan by cruise ship:
1. It's easy. Like cruises in other parts of the world, the Princess voyage offered us the chance to travel to several areas of Japan without having to change hotels or navigate the local transportation system -- a proposition that is particularly appealing in a land where English isn't widely spoken and signs often are just a jumble of Japanese kanji. While traveling to historical Kyoto from Tokyo is relatively straightforward (via a non-stop, two-hour bullet train with stops announced in English), getting a taste of more far-flung destinations in the southern and northern parts of Japan such as Beppu or Otaru can get complicated. The Diamond Princess sailing wiped away the hassles of a Japan trip, delivering us to the doorstep of multiple destinations.
2. It's a good value. Starting at around $100 per person per day, the sailing was a relatively affordable way to tour a country that is known as being one of the world's most expensive. Hotels in Japan can run several hundred dollars a night, and restaurants are famously pricey as is transportation. A one-way train ride between Tokyo and Nagasaki runs about $300 per person. Contrast that with the price of transportation between the Tokyo area and Nagasaki on the Diamond Princess, which is nothing -- at least, it's worked into the fare, which includes transportation along with a room and meals.
3. It's familiar. One of the great charms of Japan for a North American traveler is how different it is than home. From the cuisine to the way people dress to the way they interact with strangers, it can be wonderfully peculiar to a Western eye. But it also can be scary for some. Princess' new sailings let foreigners dip a toe into the culture without jumping in too far. Not a fan of sushi, shabu shabu and tonkatsu? No problem. A classic American steak-and-potato dish is awaiting you back on board after a day of touring.
1. It only scratches the surface. As noted above, many of Japan's most spectacular destinations, from temple-filled Kyoto and Nara to towering Mount Fuji -- are in the interior of the country and can't be reached directly by cruise ship. Sure, Princess offers day tours from the port stop of Kobe to Kyoto, but with two hours in a bus each way and limited touring time, it's not an ideal way to visit the iconic destination. Kyoto is a city best visited on a land-based vacation, as it's easily reached by train from air hubs Tokyo and Osaka. The places at which the Diamond Princess can stop -- from Kagoshima to Sapporo -- often are less significant as Japanese destinations go, though usually charming enough for a day visit.
2. Touring time is limited. A notable drawback to Princess' Japan itineraries is that its ships sometimes arrive at terminals far from city centers. In ports such as Kagoshima, Princess has had to arrange lengthy shuttle rides for passengers to reach interesting areas. When combined with relatively tight port calls -- in Beppu, passengers get just 6 1/2 hours on land -- the result can be limited time for passengers to explore. Add in the fact that the typical Japan itinerary includes several sea days during which the country isn't being visited at all, and the total time spent experiencing Japan on a cruise will be far less than the time spent experiencing the destination while on a land-based trip.
3. There's less interaction with locals. In a corollary to the above, we had much less time to actually come face-to-face with the people of Japan while on the Diamond Princess than we did during several days of touring by land. The port calls are just too short, and there's much less time for the sort of wandering off for an impromptu meal or shopping that would force an interaction with a local.
Our advice: If you're thinking of trying a cruise around Japan, pair it with some land touring of the country that, at the least, includes several days in Tokyo and several days in Kyoto. The two cities offer the best of modern and historic Japan, respectively, and are must-sees. Combined with land touring to such major destinations, a Princess cruise that includes visits to lesser-visited cities along Japan's coastline and several days at sea makes for a well-rounded trip.
For a deck-by-deck tour of the recently revamped Diamond Princess, click through the carousel below.
Affectionately dubbed "Holland of the Tropics," Curacao is a melting pot on bold display with more than 100 nationalities calling the cosmopolitan island home. Forty- four miles off the Venezuelan coast and a three-hour hop from Miami, the island is below the hurricane belt making it a popular choice for travelers who can do without the angst of weather delays. Thirty-eight curvy beaches ring the coast. With a pastel-painted promenade, delightfully narrow streets and gabled colonial architecture in the capital city of Willemstad, Curacao is Caribbean chic at its finest. For an authentic slice of island life, check out our list of the coolest must-dos in Curacao.
Eye-candy for photographers, this 19th-century structure was built to protect the island from pirates. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage site boasts unrivalled views of Willemstad and more than 50 cannons still inside its coral walls. Reimagined by the Renaissance Curacao Resort, the former soldiers' barracks now house designer boutiques, restaurants and bars where funky bands play after dark. For an afternoon respite, the resort's clever faux-sand beach slopes into a pool filled with saltwater siphoned from the ocean right behind it.
Good-sized barracudas follow divers at Punt'i Piku across the channel from Barbara Beach; fishermen shoot the breeze at one end of Daaibooi Beach as snorkelers cavort with sponges and star corals below the surface. At Divers Leap, sea horses perch near the sea wall that is spectacular with an abundance of deep-water fish. A convenient home base for a diving vacay, Hilton Curacao makes it easy with "Dare to you Dive" that includes the room, snacks and excursions organized by Caribbean Sea Sports, the resort's new PADI-certified dive center.
In an 18th-century plantation house overlooking the salt pans of St. Marie and the flamingo sanctuary of Willibrordus, Nena Sanchez Gallery is a vibrant feast for the eyes. Inspired by the flowers, cottages, banana trees and people of the island, her brightly-colored paintings and statuesque sculptures are popular buys with tourists and locals who also flock to her "Paint to Relax" workshop held every second Sunday of the month. A second gallery is now open in Willemstad.
Easy to remember because its address is also its name, No. 5 at 5 Penstraat — one of the most historic streets on the island — comes with a Belgian chef, a Dutch owner and a menu that marries French flavors with Italian recipes. A jazzy soundtrack, discreet service, and a shareable steak grilled medium-rare with a pesto swirl alongside have earned the tiny eatery high marks for a romantic dinner for two. East of the Queen Emma Bridge, Kome is owned by a pair of culinary whirling dervishes from Florida who love showing off their frenetic exhibition kitchen to hungry diners. Get there early for the fried chicken and Funchi Fries (think French fries but with a smooth middle made from corn meal) and the addictive tomato jam (like ketchup but better) made with onions, nutmeg, cloves, hot peppers and cinnamon.
Arrive before 7 a.m., when Venezuelan schooners unpack their wooden fishing boats that double as their living quarters. Setting up shop along the water on the Punda side of Willemstad, rows of fruits, vegetables, herbs and fish plucked from the sea are for sale at the Floating Market. Next door in the big round building, vendors in the New Market hawk everything from handicrafts to homemade honey in reusable bottles.
Behind the Post Office in Willemstad, Marshe Bieuw is a no-frills food court dishing up 'krioyo' or local fare served at communal tables decorated with jars of pickled onions and hot peppers. Hearty plates of goat stew, stewed chicken and kingfish with sides of plantains and funchi will run USD$22 for two, including tip and drinks.
A big hit with aficionados who crave the distinctive cheeses of Holland and Switzerland, Royal Dutch Cheesery in the Renaissance Mall now offers cheese classes and wine pairings. Palate pleasing for newbies and connoisseurs, reservations are recommended as classes fill up fast.
Take the air-conditioned bus from Willemstad (USD$1.50 for a one-way fare) to Jan Thiel Beach. East of Willemstad, the beach is popular with families who come to enjoy lunch at the Papagayo Beach Club where the fresh tuna salad — ask for the vanilla-tinged salad dressing — is divine. At the dive shop on the sand, snorkel equipment can be rented and day tours arranged.
Heading to Westpunt towards Mount Christoffel, the island's highest point, the scene is less crowded than at the tourist meccas on the opposite end of the island. Keep your eyes open for the rock walls that were built by slaves in the 1700s and their small houses that are now museums. Snack bars serve iguana soup; gaggles of goats cross the highway, and plenty of small beaches make for lively distractions. A stop at Shete Boka National Park is worthwhile for the uninterrupted vistas of the rugged coast and a seat at a picnic table, where sharing a salted fish sandwich with a drizzle of Willy's piquant pepper sauce is as local as it gets.
Open only on Friday, Equus is the neighborhood joint of choice for juicy skewers of beef and chicken grilled on a brick fire pit. Buckets of beer, garlic-smeared toast and dipping sauces come with the long strands of cubed meat that dangle from giant hooks hung over each table. With Country & Western tunes punctuating the air, no menus, no cutlery and a cash-only policy, dinner is an un-guide-book gem. Low tech without a website or Facebook page, the best option for directions is via email:
Throw one back
The oldest bar in Curacao is also one of the most charming. In the non-touristy neighborhood of Otrabanda, Netto Bar has been around for six decades and although it's a bit worn around the edges, shots of the signature green rum or Ròm Bèrdè still fuels sprightly conversations about football and politics among locals who gather every day at Happy Hour.
For the fifth year, the North Sea Jazz Festival heats up the island on August 29 and 30 with marquee names like soul superstar Smoky Robinson and hip crooner Bruno Mars. Concerts are staged at the World Trade Center with after-parties island-wide until the sun comes up.
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