North Carolina

10 Unique City Tours Around the World

Posted May 5, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com

(Photo: Magic Bus)

See a completely different side of a city when you break away from the mob of tourists following the guide with the red umbrella. On these 10 unique city tours, you'll venture into the Bronx with an old-school rapper, see abandoned buildings in Portugal's second city, and go longboarding through Amsterdam's most famous park. You're sure to come home with a camera full of authentic experiences that most visitors miss.

 

(Photo: Bats Over Congress Avenue Bridge via Shutterstock)

Never Unpack Your Travel Items

Crowds gather from March through October on the Congress Avenue Bridge to see a natural spectacle that has earned the resident bat colony celebrity status in Austin. Each night at dusk, 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from beneath the bridge, swirling like a black ribbon into the sky. For a unique perspective on the mass exodus, watch it from the water on a Congress Avenue Kayaks bat tour. With a small group of 10, you'll paddle under the bridge in sit-on-top kayaks. After encountering the bats, you can venture out on your own to see other sights on the water.

Details: The 90-minute kayak bat tour departs at sunset in season and is $30 for a two-person kayak.

Insider Tip: You can also watch the bats from the Four Seasons Hotel Austin's lobby lounge, which serves a "Batini" cocktail. Plan an August visit to coincide with the city's annual bat festival.

 

(Photo: Magic Bus San Francisco Tour)

1960s Summer of Love Tour, San Francisco, California

It's all peace, love, and bubble-spewing on this psychedelic hippie bus that takes you on a trip back to San Francisco's 1960s counterculture. The Magic Bus Tour stops at landmarks of the city's hippie movement; you can even join in a drum circle (this time without the purple haze). On the bus, a groovy guide/actor will share interesting stories and rock out with you to the music of the era. It's a multimedia adventure that evokes the decade's politics and attitudes through live action and video projections on the bus's retractable window screens. The tour hits Chinatown and the North Beach spot where Jack Kerouac hung out. You'll see Golden Gate Park and the crossroads of Haight and Ashbury streets, home of the Summer of Love, in a whole new light.

Details: The two-hour tour is $55 and starts at Union Square.

Insider Tip: Bring a jacket or sweater. It can be chilly at Golden Gate Park even if it's warm downtown at the tour's start.

 

(Photo: Rob Moody)

Downtown Yoga Tour, Asheville, North Carolina

Take your downward dog downtown in Asheville, North Carolina. On this Travelling Yogini Tour, you'll strike a pose and connect with your breath in several of the city's iconic spots. A yoga guide will start with beginner-level stretches and, as you move from Pritchard Park to the Flat Iron Building to the artsy Chicken Alley district, the poses will become more challenging. By the time you finish with a cooldown and meditation, you'll have heard about Asheville's history and architecture. Between flowing in and out of poses, you'll meet street performers, artists, and others who are out exploring the city.

Details: The 90-minute downtown tour is $20.

Insider Tip: Along the way, the yoga guide will point out funky boutiques and specialty shops, giving you interesting tidbits on the history and products so you can plan your apres-yoga shopping route.

 

(Photo: Berlinagenten)

Urban Home-Visit Tour, Berlin, Germany

Want an invitation to sit in a Berliner's flat and chat over coffee or beer? The Urban Living Tour, the ultimate insider's tour, will introduce you to three different Berliners in three different neighborhoods. You'll get to go inside their homes and spend an hour visiting and checking out their decor. The hosts you'll meet will depend on who is in town on the day you're visiting. It could be a set designer in an underground courtyard apartment or a photographer with an uber-luxe pad on a main thoroughfare built in the Stalin era. While you snoop around and see how they live, you'll hear about what drew them to the city and what they love about it.

Details: The 4.5-hour tour includes visits to three private apartments, drinks and sweets, sightseeing between the visits, transport, and a private guide. Prices vary based on how many people are taking the tour; see website for details.

Insider Tip: Keep an open mind and come with questions.

 

(Photo: Dominic Stevenson)

City Tour Led by Homeless Guide, London, England

See London through the eyes of someone who lives on the city's streets. Unseen Tours hires and professionally trains homeless and formerly homeless people to lead its walking tours of London Bridge, Camden, Shoreditch, and Convent Garden. See the stark contrast between historical landmarks and sites where the guides have slept, hear riveting personal stories, and discover tucked-away places few others ever experience. The tour ends at either a pub or a cafe, so you can carry on with your guide or group in a discussion that ebbs between the politics of street begging and the effects of gentrification on the East End.

Details: The tour runs $9 to $14 per hour and usually lasts about 90 minutes.

Insider Tip: On each tour, the company reserves two free spots for those who are either unable to pay or are accompanying someone as a caregiver. Wondering how much of the ticket sales goes back to the guide? About 80 percent. Unseen Tours was the winner for best tour operator for local experiences in the World Responsible Tourism Awards 2011.

 

(Photo: Thinkstock/iStock)

'Worst' Walking Tour, Porto, Portugal

This tour in Portugal's second-largest city is the antithesis of a tourist trap. Avoiding all of Porto's polished postcard-perfect sites, it takes visitors past decrepit homes and crumbling shops. Started by three out-of-work architects who stuck around after the country was hit hard by the recession, The Worst Tours will show you the not-for-tourists sites and guides will tell stories about the old markets and abandoned buildings, helping you understand what's behind Europe's economic crisis. Learn about Porto's architecture, history, politics, and urbanism from a few people who are "OK with not being popular or cool or the best in anything, least of all touring."

Details: Tours are two to three hours and are free.

Insider Tip: Let your guide know which parts of the city you've already visited and what your interests are, and he or she will create a route that shows you things you haven't seen.

 

(Photo: Urban Adventures)

Gwana Music Tour, Essaouira, Morocco

New this spring, the Gnawa Music Experience tour gives you a unique encounter with one of Morocco's off-the-charts popular trends: trance-like Gnawa music and its acrobatic dance moves. You'll be introduced to the addictive music's Afro-Moroccan culture and customs in the medina, where musicians will be jamming. Then, you'll step inside hidden domains typically inaccessible to visitors: You'll go into the home of a dancer to see him perform, watch a troupe master play a traditional lute-like instrument in his private quarters, and visit a temple where sacred rituals drive out evil spirits.

Details: The evening tour costs around $100 and lasts two to three hours.

Insider Tip: Both men and women should dress with respect, covering everything from the shoulders to the knees. At the end of the tour, your guide can recommend places to go dancing where you'll hear Gnawa music fused with Western and Latin music.

 

(Photo: TripAdvisor LLC)

Hip-Hop Tour, New York, New York

With a legendary hip-hop artist as your guide, Hush Tours will give you a truly entertaining experience in the Bronx and Harlem, the birthplace of the culture. Here, people on the street might recognize and give shout-outs to the Hush Tours guides—Grandmaster Caz, Kurtis Blow, and others—as they delve into four aspects of hip-hop culture: DJing, MCing, B-boy and B-girl dancing, and graffiti artistry. You'll see the important landmarks and check out where Biggie, Nas, and Jay-Z grew up on this fun tour.

Details: Tours range from two hours ($32) to four hours ($75).

Insider Tip: Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. At one point on the tour, you'll learn hip-hop moves and try them out on the streets.

 

(Photo: LiveToronto)

Date-Night City Tour with a Photographer, Toronto, Canada

Nothing against snapping a selfie with your iPhone, but on LiveToronto's Date Night Tour, you'll get enviable pics (without your arm) for posting on Facebook or printing in a photo book. Depending on your interests (sports, architecture, music, etc.), your personal paparazzo will plan a walking route to hit Toronto's key sites and set up photo ops. As you explore downtown's icons and hidden gems, your photographer guide will share interesting details about each landmark while capturing everything from classic poses to silly shots. Choose your own adventure: You can include the Harbourfront, the base of the CN Tower, Osgoode Hall, Roundhouse Park, and others.

Details: The 60-minute private tour is $100 to $200 per couple and includes 50 fully edited digital photos, which will be delivered within 24 hours.

Insider Tip: Don't surprise your significant other with this date-night tour—there are too many things to consider beforehand (including hair, nails, and a second outfit or pair of shoes for another look). The company runs tours for families and corporate groups, too.

 

(Photo: Vondelsurfing)

Longboarding Tour, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

You won't find this longboard tour through Vondelpark in your guidebook or officially operated by any local tour company. But check Vayable.com and there it is: Vondelsurfing, offered by a "semi-professional amateur" longboarder named Milan V. In the new sharing economy, websites like Vayable.com connect you with a vetted local guide. Here, Milan V. puts you on a long skateboard in the middle of Amsterdam's most popular park, hands you a rope, and pulls you behind a fixie bicycle for a couple of hours. It's a chance to see the park like a true hipster Amsterdammer, says Milan V., who has hosted beginners as well as seasoned longboarders.

Details: The two-hour tour is $24 and includes all gear, a drink, and photo/video of your ride.

Insider Tip: Vondelsurfing is fun in pairs of two, so you can switch and watch how the other is doing.

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 10 Truly Unique City Tours Around the World.

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13 Best National Parks to See in the Fall

Posted October 29, 2013 by SmarterTravel.com

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U.S. national parks are beautiful to begin with. But when the deciduous trees that blanket so many national parks become aglow with radiant fall foliage, the spectacle is astounding. You might need to pack a sweater, but you can snap gorgeous photos, partake in special activities, and, of course, enjoy the colors of autumn when you plan a trip this season.

Although fall means fewer crowds (and perhaps the chance to more easily spot wildlife) in popular parks, the weather can be unpredictable, and some facilities even close up after the summer season. Be sure to contact your park for details on what's open and what's not before planning your trip.

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Acadia National Park, Maine

Acadia might be the first place that comes to mind when you think of fall colors at national parks—the destination attracts thousands of leaf peepers in autumn, so be prepared for some crowds. But it's totally worth it—traverse the park's more than 125 miles of hiking trails to discover amazing views, take a ranger-led bird-watching walk among the changing leaves, or rent a kayak and take in the scenery from the water.

When to Go: Peak fall colors generally pop up around mid-October. Check the region's leaf status on MaineFoliage.com.

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Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, Texas

You might be surprised to learn that the Texas Hill Country is a prime place for leaf peeping down south. Head to Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, where you can get a side of American history with your foliage. The park is home to the LBJ Ranch (also known as the Texas White House), which is surrounded by wild brush country. Here, sumacs, oaks, and haw hollies become awash with intense fall hues during autumn.

When to Go: You'll likely find the best foliage from mid-October through November.

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Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

This park's famed cave system—more than 400 square miles of explored underground caverns that make up the world's longest—is the reason most visitors make the trip. But don't overlook the scenery aboveground. Forests of oaks, hickories, gum trees, and dogwoods on rolling Kentucky hills become a mosaic of fall colors this time of year.

When to Go: Check KentuckyTourism.com for updates.

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Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

We love the sweeping views of water and the eyeful of beautiful fall colors that Sleeping Bear's sky-high dunes afford during this time of year. Visitors can get even better views from the air: Board a helicopter or hot-air balloon and view fall foliage on an aerial tour.

When to Go: You'll find peak colors in the region from mid-September through early October. Check Michigan.org's Fall Color Map to see the status of local foliage.

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Valley Forge National Historical Park, Pennsylvania

Just a short drive from Philadelphia, Valley Forge is the site where General Washington and his Continental Army camped during the Revolutionary War. Here, visitors can learn about life in the 18th century as well as explore an expanse of lush parkland, including more than 3,000 acres of grassland, wetland, and deciduous forest, which become awash with rich colors in autumn.

When to Go: Weekly foliage reports are posted on Pennsylvania's official tourism website.

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

There are about 100 native tree species in America's most-visited national park, most of which turn kaleidoscopic come fall. Changing leaves are complemented by autumn wildflowers: delicate asters and other varieties furnish pops of color.

When to Go: Get weekly reports on the state of local foliage on the National Park Service website.

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Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Since Shenandoah's more than 300 square miles of parkland are so heavily forested, it's a gorgeous place to be when the seasons change. Look for oak and chestnut trees, which are abundant in the park, as well as splashes of autumn pigment from sassafras, sumac, and poison ivy. (Yes, poison ivy leaves change color in the fall. Just don't get too close.)

When to Go: Take a peek at the park's Mountain View Webcam for a real-time look at the changing leaves. Expect the best colors in mid-October in more elevated parts of the park and late October to early November in more low-lying areas.

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Glacier National Park, Montana

Fall foliage in this enormous, wild expanse of alpine forests and Rocky Mountains in Montana is quite the sight. But fall is a wonderful time to visit if you want to see wildlife, too. The National Park Service website says that there are fewer people in the park and more animals—including grizzlies, wolves, and eagles—out and about during autumn.

When to Go: Peak fall colors generally appear at the end of September and beginning of October.

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Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park's jaw-dropping sky-high cliffs provide the perfect points for seeing miles of mesas and forested land decked out in reds, oranges, and golds. Climb to the top of Zion's massive sandstone cliffs to get sweeping bird's-eye views of the autumn scenery.

When to Go: Zion shows its best colors in late October.

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Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia

Peep the leaves in well-tread Harpers Ferry, where 70 percent of the land is covered with forest. Fun fall activities sweeten the deal: Visitors can explore living-history museums on Shenandoah Street or make traditional 19th-century tin housewares using period tools.

When to Go: Follow Harpers Ferry on Facebook for the latest foliage updates. According to the page, the leaves are already beginning to change.

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Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Ohio

Close to Cleveland and hugging the winding Cuyahoga River, this national park is a Midwestern sanctuary for fall foliage seekers. There's so much to do: Hike along more than 125 miles of trails, take part in an EarthCaching adventure, or go bird-watching (look out for the bald eagles). One of the most relaxing ways to enjoy the fall colors is to hop onboard the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, which rolls through the park past lush woods, meadows, the Cuyahoga River, and historical small towns.

When to Go: The best colors flourish in mid-October. Check the Fall Color Report for real-time updates.

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Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, Wyoming

These parks are so close that they almost touch, and they offer amazing autumn colors against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains, waterfalls, forests, and lakes that reflect the changing leaves. Hikes, horseback rides, and ranger-led treks are fabulous ways to see the foliage. Or get a bird's-eye view with a hot-air balloon ride or a trip on the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram.

When to Go: Head to Wyoming in September and early October to see the foliage. Read more on the Wyoming Office of Tourism website.

 

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This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title 13 Best National Parks to See in the Fall. 

 Follow Caroline Costello on Google+ or email her at at editor@smartertravel.com.

 

Greensboro LEEDs the Way as an Affordable and Sustainable Destination

Posted October 5, 2010 by Kate Hamman

Greensboro With a name like Greensboro, it's not surprising that this North Carolina city is turning its focus to sustainable practices. Here, you can stay in an over-the-top-green hotel, dine on upscale farm-to-table dishes, and support local vendors at a farmers' market, all the while keeping your savings intact.

Stay
Proximity Hotel: Designed and constructed following Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design's (LEED) standards, the Proximity Hotel is green from the ground floor up. More than 70 sustainable practices have been incorporated into the hotel, including a solar-paneled rooftop and recycled materials. Each room features seven-foot-tall windows that offer ample natural lighting and views of the outdoors. Rooms start at about $189 per night.

Eat
Green Valley Grill: As a sister property to the Proximity Hotel, the Green Valley Grill uses fresh local ingredients in its European-inspired cuisine. By upholding the belief that "the nearer the farm to the fork the better the flavor," the restaurant creates tantalizing dishes such as parmesan-crusted chicken and lemon-rosemary duck breast. You can also sample North Carolina wines to pair with your dinner. Entrees start at $15.95.

Shop
Farmers' Curb Market: Opening in 1874, the Farmers' Curb Market is one of the oldest in North Carolina and to this day becomes a veritable smorgasbord of local crafts, produce, meats, and treats every Saturday morning during the summer. Many vendors' goods come straight from the farm, where they were handpicked fresh that morning. Items are priced accordingly, but the way you'll feel about supporting the local industry is priceless.

To search for flights and compare prices to Greensboro, please use our price-comparison tool.

(Photo: Proximity Hotel)

Eat Your Heart Out in Carolina Beach

Posted June 9, 2010 by Jaclyn Liechti

Carolina Beach Carolina Beach offers a family-friendly beach atmosphere, complete with an old-fashioned boardwalk. Kids of all ages can enjoy spinning at the local amusement park, playing on the sandy shores, or camping at Carolina Beach State Park. If you're looking for good, clean, summer fun, this town is the place to be. Free live music and fireworks light up Thursday nights through September, making entertaining the entire brood on a budget an easy task.

Shop
The Fudgeboat
: The Carolina Beach boardwalk holds many treasures, but The Fudgeboat is one that definitely shouldn't be missed. A 38-foot wooden boat hull displays delicacies made from fresh pecans, walnuts, caramel, and more. In fact, you might even be tempted to say "that's a yacht of fudge!" Taste your way through peanut butter chocolate fudge, vanilla fudge, chocolate amaretto fudge, and more--all of which is made in the store right in front of you! Be sure to bring along a coupon for a free half-pound of fudge.

You can use our tool to compare airfares to Wilmington, the closest major airport, from multiple travel providers.

(Photo: mediamama1 via Flickr. CC Attribution. http://www.flickr.com/photos/mediamama1/)

Family-Friendly Vacations in the Outer Banks

Posted February 25, 2010 by Jamie Moore

Outer Banks Think the ultimate summer vacation is one spent entirely in flip-flops? The casual sand and sun scene of North Carolina's Outer Banks is ideal for families on a budget. You won't have to stray too far from the beach to eat breakfast with the locals, fly a kite on a massive sand dune, or uncover (toy) pirate treasures.

Eat
Sam & Omie's
: This 70-year-old Nags Head legend originally opened as a place for local fishermen to grab a bite to eat before heading out to sea. Still popular among locals, Sam & Omie's serves classic breakfasts in a barefoot and beachy atmosphere just steps from the sand. Try the crab and eggs Benedict; it's well-worth the $12.95. Kids love the hot cakes.

Play
Jockey's Ridge State Park
: If you can slog your way up to the top of the largest sand dune on the East Coast, amazing views and perfect kite-flying wind are your reward. Colorful kites and hang-gliders often dot the sky at this 420-acre Nags Head park with enough sand to fill six million dump trucks. Pick up a unique kite at nearby Kitty Hawk Kites, whose hang-gliding experts teach lessons in Jockey's Ridge State Park near the visitor's center.

Shop
Teach's Hole
: Strap on an eye patch and let out your best pirate arrrrrgh. This Ocracoke Island store—filled with pirate patches, flags, play pistols, and treasure chest booty of all kinds—is named after Edward Teach (a.k.a. Blackbeard), who once sailed these waters. Bet you won't hear any complaining from your young mates about learning history during their vacation as they explore this store and its fun Blackbeard exhibit.

You can use our tool to compare airfares to Norfolk, the closest major airport, from multiple travel providers.

(Photo: North Carolina Division of Tourism)

Greensboro LEEDs the Way as an Affordable and Sustainable Destination

Posted May 1, 2009 by Kate Hamman

NC-Greensboro-ProximityHotel-DEF With a name like Greensboro, it's not surprising that this North Carolina city is turning its focus to sustainable practices. Here, you can stay in an over-the-top-green hotel, dine on upscale farm-to-table dishes, and support local vendors at a farmers' market, all the while keeping your savings intact.

Stay
Proximity Hotel: Designed and constructed following Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design's (LEED) standards, the Proximity Hotel is green from the ground floor up. More than 70 sustainable practices have been incorporated into the hotel, including a solar-paneled rooftop and recycled materials. Each room features seven-foot-tall windows that offer ample natural lighting and views of the outdoors. Rooms start at about $189 per night.

Eat
Green Valley Grill: As a sister property to the Proximity Hotel, the Green Valley Grill uses fresh local ingredients in its European-inspired cuisine. By upholding the belief that "the nearer the farm to the fork the better the flavor," the restaurant creates tantalizing dishes such as parmesan-crusted chicken and lemon-rosemary duck breast. You can also sample North Carolina wines to pair with your dinner. Entrees start at $15.95.

Shop
Farmers' Curb Market: Opening in 1874, the Farmers' Curb Market is one of the oldest in North Carolina and to this day becomes a veritable smorgasbord of local crafts, produce, meats, and treats every Saturday morning during the summer. Many vendors' goods come straight from the farm, where they were handpicked fresh that morning. Items are priced accordingly, but the way you'll feel about supporting the local industry is priceless.

To search for flights and compare prices to Greensboro, please use our price-comparison tool.

(Photo: Proximity Hotel)

Hilton Hotels Adds Eco-Roofs to Baltimore, Asheville Properties

Posted August 29, 2008 by Zak Patten

Solarpvarray Who says eco-travel has to mean wearing mosquito netting while avoiding quicksand in a Central American rainforest? Certainly not Hilton Hotels, which is about to have a pair of properties with greener roofs—and last time I checked, neither Asheville nor Baltimore is anywhere near Costa Rica.

What's most interesting about these two projects is that they achieve eco-positive status in two completely different ways. According to Green Lodging News, Asheville's new Hilton Hotel in Biltmore Park Town Square is focused on cutting emissions and fuel costs by installing a "large-scale solar water heating system" on its roof. The new system is expected to supply the 165-room hotel with over 2,000 gallons of hot water per day, and save an estimated $10,000 per year in energy costs, all while giving the hotel a much smaller carbon footprint. In doing so, the Hilton Asheville is set to become one of the first major hotel s in the country to use the sun's energy to heat its water. Combined with "an energy optimization program, the use of recycled, nontoxic and local materials, and the installation of Low-E materials throughout the entire hotel," the fancy solar roof may make this one of the greenest big hotels in the U.S.

The new $300 million, 757-room Hilton Baltimore is also going green, but instead of solar panels, the roofs on its east and west buildings will be home to a 32,000-square-foot garden. With six species and tens of thousands of plantsthis won't look like Grandma's backyard. As The Green Meeting notes, such roofs "are used to provide urban habitat to wildlife, reduce storm runoff, improve air and water quality, lower temperatures and boost aesthetics." So while you may not be able to take an environmentally friendly shower at the Hilton Baltimore, at least all those plants are a lot nicer to look at than a roof full of solar panels. Either way, it's nice to see Hilton blazing an eco-travel trail—without all the bugs.

(Photo: dvorak.org)


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