As we approach October, our senses seem to reach back to remembrances of lazy, summer days; of lemonade so icy cold the glass would sweat in rivulets; of the sound of children playing in the streets; of being off from work and having had the opportunity to act like a kid again ourselves. And the question pounds at the sidewalls of our mind: where has the summer gone? Our instincts strive to get the feeling back, at least one last time before the fall of temperatures, the fall of all leafy things, the fall of the sun behind low, semi-permanent winter skies. It is the human condition here in the great Midwest. There are places, however, to recapture our fancies. Three October selections come to mind – below is a list of my favorite fall travel ideas throughout the United States.
St. Pete Beach, Florida in October is lovely. Summer rains have pushed away, leaving warm and sunny skies in their wake. That big ol’ white-sand beach beckons our toes to be covered in its warm granules. The gentle surf reaches its arms to wash away the tension in our legs. Folks at the volleyball net need one more player, folks nonjudgmental of our talents, or lack thereof. The summer crowds have gone home, the winter crowds are yet to come, and the Spring Break crowds haven’t even decided where to spend their great energy burn-off yet. It is October, and the beach at St. Pete is fairly less occupied.
Of things to do here, The Salvador Dali Museum in nearby St. Petersburg has a large display, an intriguing display of the master’s surrealistic works. Fort De Soto State Park, down near Mullet Key, has fine beaches and nature trails and the fort itself (with its 12-inch seacoast rifled mortars). Beyond that is Egmont Key: a ferry ride from Hubbard’s Marina in Fort De Soto, this state park has sunken ruins or grass flats for snorkeling. You may well see tortoises, American oystercatchers, and even snowy egrets during your adventure.
If you have an extra day, traveling to Tampa to visit Busch Gardens is a pleasant thrill. Like Disney World, this amusement park is divided into sections. But here, the different areas of the park are nearer to each other; the pathways more tuned to nature, much prettier, and closer to the park’s garden theme. You don’t need to have children to enjoy this 58-year-old jewel. There is a myriad of rides for all ages. (I am especially fond of the two water rides.) The baby park is also, however, quite colorful and enjoyable. Busch Gardens is chock-full of wildlife, from meerkats and roos to spotted hyenas and crocodiles. You will enjoy your visit.
Where to Stay
St. Pete Beach has an abundance of lodging opportunities; including the opulent Don Cesar, with its iconic pink escarpments framing the south end of the beach, and the contrasting low-cost Howard Johnsons. The Bon-Aire Resort, which is mid-priced for the area and mid-beached in location, may be another choice worth looking into. They have a large variety of rooms, most with kitchens/kitchenettes, all within a quick saunter to the beach or to either of its two small swimming pools. There is a beachside grill and a great view from the motel’s seawall for a world-famous St. Pete Beach sunset.
Dining in St. Pete’s Beach
The strand along Gulf Boulevard has an array of restaurants. Crabby Bill’s is a beachcomber’s delight with its rooftop tiki bar. It has beach access, so you can wander before or after your meal to look for seashells. Both the atmosphere and the menu are festive; the menu features spicy delights. I recommend you try the grouper! P J’s Oyster Bar, at the north end of the strand, is also casual, but a quieter place where more locals hang out. Though dubbed an “oyster bar”, their barbeque ribs, steak, and shrimp are also worth a try.
Down on Pass A Grille Way, south of The Don Cesar, is another notable seafood place called Sea Critters Cafe. They have an eclectic appetizer menu sporting such things as gator bites (real alligator meat) served with horseradish, conch fritters with a raspberry pepper sauce, “Hog Wings” (pork shanks) served with buffalo or barbecue sauce, and crab cakes with key lime aioli. If you have room for more, you can pretty much count on your lunch or dinner selection to be quite good, be it Reuben or Cuban, scallops or sirloin. Can you stomach more? Try the homemade key lime pie or funnel cake fries.
Visit Western Texas
If St. Pete Beach is too similar to the warmth of summer, our next selection may be a better compromise, a cocktail mix of summer and autumn together. West Texas is home to an arid climate and the staked plains of the Llano Estacado. A bit further south, down El Paso way, rise fossilized reef mountains known as The Guadalupes. Then, about a 2-hour drive from El Paso, El Capitan rises like a king’s castle above the Chihuahuan Desert floor. It claims its piece of the azure skies and marks one’s entrance into Guadalupe Mountains National Park. You can easily see why our government has maintained this awesome place for the use and enjoyment of nature lovers everywhere.
Staying Active in West Texas
When considering fall travel in the United States, not only are the daily temperatures more reasonable than in summer in Western Texas, but there is also plenty of areas where fall wears her colors in dramatic display. Hiking the 2.5-mile trail of McKittrick Canyon is like walking into an artistic rendering of contrasts. The McKittrick Trail follows a dry stream bed through typical desert vegetation such as agave, ocotillo, Spanish Dagger, juniper and Claret Cup Cacti. If you are lucky you may even spy a rare Texas Madrone, with its signature blood-pink bark.
Further up the canyon trail, the stream begins to flow and riparian vegetation becomes more plentiful (and increasingly more crimson), with oak and ask and Bigtooth Maple. The high point of the trail is known as “The Notch” and will offer the trekker expansive desert and canyon perspectives. This is wilderness here, so you may not readily find luxurious accommodations nearby. The park has campgrounds, though sites and shade are hard to come by. However, it is well worth it. Looking for more camping opportunities or fall travel ideas? You can head further north, across the line into New Mexico.
Once you cross the border, you will find an RV park in White’s City; the Carlsbad KOA is further up US 285. There are motels in Carlsbad, but if you are looking for something a little more unique, a stay in Roswell may be more to your taste – especially if you are interested in extraterrestrial lore. Driving west to El Paso from Guadalupe Mountains for a hotel stay is definitely a possibility as well.
Besides finding a home base for you and your loved ones in New Mexico, you may also wish to visit another national treasure here: Carlsbad Caverns National Park. It too boasts giant yucca and other desert plants and cacti. But spelunking into the earthen reaches of the caverns is the “must” here. It will reward your eyes and fill your soul with its hanging stalactites and its ocher and purplish walls. Also unique is the “natural entrance” – which resembles a pair of lips, as if nature were blowing you a farewell kiss before your decent into the cavern complex.
If our first two selections still seem to be a desperate hanging on to the summer months, the third, then, is surely a big, warm embrace of the season.
Door County, Wisconsin
Door County, Wisconsin is a space gloried in the gold and crimson leaves of the slanting October sun. A peninsula jutting like a long finger into Lake Michigan’s cyan colored waves, it reaches out toward Porte des Morts and the upper peninsula of Michigan beyond. Such northerly latitudes bring fall sooner, but denser with the smell of wood smoke and more tart with the tastes of apple cider and cherry pie.
Door County is well-loved and becoming more popular every year – so let me make you aware of a few places off the beaten path you might enjoy. Accommodations in Door County are cozy and ample, especially in and around Sturgeon Bay, so one should not have too much trouble finding a fine place to stay. The Landmark Resort sits on 40 prime wooded acres near Egg Harbor and is reasonably priced. They have plenty of amenities and the cliff views of Green Bay are quite nice. The Main Street Motel is conveniently located in the heart of Fish Creek and places the traveler within walking distance of many shops and restaurants.
Getting Active in Northern Wisconsin
Fish Creek also happens to be home to one of the finest state parks in the entire United States (however I hope they never crown it a national park; it would lose its ambiance). Peninsula State Park, as it’s called, is a collection of coves, ravines, beaches and bike paths. It is a wonderment in fall and should certainly be explored (at least in part) by hiking and biking; rental bikes are available just outside the park’s Fish Creek entrance. Though highly visited, it is a wooded wonderland you can’t miss.
At the northern end of the park is the state park’s golf course. One thing Wisconsin boasts nearly as much as its cheese and beer is the number of golf courses it has. The one at Peninsula has a memorable cliffside par 3. It can be crowded at times, so I also recommend checking out the Alpine course of Egg Harbor (which also has a cliffside par 3) and Maxwelton Braes, near Bailey’s Harbor.
North of Bailey’s Harbor and also on the lake side of the peninsula is the Mink River. A pristine estuary of Rowley’s Bay, it is an excellent waterway to kayak or canoe. It is also known for great bass fishing and is a temporary home to almost 200 bird species to boot. Monet would have loved to recreate the Mink’s water lilies on his canvases. Be sure to take a moment to lie back in your canoe, close your eyes and take in all the sounds of birds, bugs and lapping waters.
Antiquing Up North
You can’t go to Door County and not go antiquing – especially when considering the beautiful weather and any fall travel ideas. There are a multitude of stores and shops all featuring country novelties. I propose spontaneously pulling over if you happen to see one that catches your eye. Save time by heading south of Egg Harbor, where there are two different shops across from each other on Route 42. Bay Trading is more like a warehouse and the owner always offers engaging conversation – and you might even get a chance to barter pricing; he is an obliging trader. Old Orchard Antique Mall is a lot like a museum and they showcase many of their artifacts in clever displays.
Dining in Door County
More than any other thing, Door County is known for its food and October is harvest time of the year. Cherries are at the top of the list. You can purchase them whole and raw at any orchard or jarred and sweetened from almost any store. Nothing can accurately describe the taste of a slice of Door County cherry pie – it must be experienced firsthand. Many stores and perhaps 95% of all restaurants here serve cherry pie, so you won’t have to search far.
There are many, many restaurants on the Door Peninsula, so I will only name a few. For breakfast, I highly recommend The White Gull Inn of Fish Creek. An enticing menu, but I still usually only order their Good Morning America’s Best Breakfast: cherry-stuffed French toast (and bacon, of course). For lunch, journey back to Sturgeon Bay and visit Sonny’s Pizzeria, which overlooks the marina and serves Chicago-style pizza. I always go for the pizza buffet so I can try all the offerings and still go back for more. A word of advice: save room for a piece of the cherry cobbler pizza. It is quite the way to end a meal.
For dinner, head north to Ellison Bay. There are several places that do Door County fish boils, but I recommend The Viking. Theirs seems more traditional than others, and there is something about the fire engulfing the kettle under the darkening skies of Ellison Bay that really sets the tone. Not to mention, the sweetness of tender whitefish melting in your mouth, fresh from the boats docked nearby, can’t be missed.
A Final Parting Thought
If you do make it to Door County during the fall, you must also take a moment to appreciate the full moon rising from the shores of Lake Michigan as the sun simultaneously descends, plummeting beneath the blue waters of Green Bay. You don’t even have to move your feet to experience awe – the stars that emerge, after the sun has folded his wings (stars that aren’t a regular occurrence for those of us from areas where the lights are too bright) will make you feel again like that kid you always were.
Check out more of John’s work on his website www.zenlifetraveler.com