I love taking vacations that are truly vacations — where you feel rested and enlivened rather than over-scheduled and wrung out.
I’ve traveled a lot in the last few years, and I’ve found the best vacations for me are those that combine natural beauty, outdoor activities, great food, and interesting and fun attractions — without breaking the bank.
If you’re looking for summer vacation ideas, here are some of my favorite soul-stirring destinations:
Asheville, North Carolina
OK, I know I’m partial since I just moved to Asheville, but before I moved here, I traveled to Asheville frequently. It’s one of those places that just beckons you because it is so beautiful, funky, and fun. It’s a melting pot of health-conscious adventurers, hippies, artists, music-lovers, foodies, beer aficionados, and nature-lovers.
If you look at any list of “Best Places to Live,” you’ll find Asheville almost always makes the list. But you don’t have to live here to enjoy all this city has to offer. It’s also one of the hottest vacation destinations in the U.S.
Things to do:
Biltmore Estate. Visitors often put a trip to the Biltmore Estate on the top of the list, and it is spectacular. If you’ve never been before, then it’s well-worth a visit to tour the house, grounds, and winery. But once you’re done touring the Estate, you can explore more of what makes Asheville so special.
Here are some of my favorites:
Exploring downtown. Asheville is an extremely walkable town, and downtown Asheville is just bubbling with things to see, unique shops, street performers, art galleries, and some of the best restaurants (at affordable prices) anywhere (more on the food later). There’s always something fun happening, from the Friday night Drum Circle in Pritchard Park to art festivals, open-air concerts, beer tastings (did I mention there are 13 microbreweries in Asheville?), and live music performances in the many bars and restaurants.
Eating. I’ve been to many great food cities, but Asheville restaurants have some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. Maybe it’s because many restaurants feature farm-fresh local foods, or because you can find anything to suit your palette, from nouveau-Asian to a modern version of Carolina comfort food. One of my very favorite restaurants and an Asheville mainstay is Salsa’s, featuring Mexican/Caribbean food with a unique artistic spin and flavor combinations that will blow your mind. For more upscale fair, try Curate or Limones. Want great pizza? Check out Asheville Brewing, All Soul’s Pizza, or Marcos. Tupelo Honey has an amazing breakfast/brunch menu. You really can’t go wrong in Asheville — just walk around downtown and explore the culinary options.
Hiking/Biking/Kayaking. Asheville is nestled in the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains, and you can hop on the Blue Ridge Parkway just minutes from downtown. Off of the Parkway, you’ll find dozens of beautiful hiking trails, not to mention hundreds of trails and waterfalls within an hour’s drive of Asheville. Asheville is a very bike-friendly town, and there are mountain biking trails everywhere. If you like to be on the water, you can kayak or canoe on the French Broad River or drive a bit further to the Nantahala river for some whitewater rafting.
Other favorites. It’s hard to list everything I love to do in Asheville, but here are a few more favorites:
- North Carolina Arboretum to stroll, hike, or bike
- Spas and wellness retreats
- Biltmore Village for shops and cafes
- The Folk Art Center for crafts from artists from Southern Appalachia
- Various Farmer’s Markets around town for the freshest veggies, cheeses, breads, and other goodness
- River Arts District to watch artists at work
Where to Stay
The options here are endless, from quaint bed and breakfasts and mountain cabins to a luxurious room at the Biltmore Estate. Right around the corner from my house is a beautiful B&B that Ron and I discovered last week. It’s called The Beaufort House Inn, and it’s absolutely stunning and very close to downtown. The owners, Chris and Jim, gave us a tour of the house and grounds. It was built in 1894 by the mayor of Asheville and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Special Offer for Beaufort House Inn: Chris and Jim have graciously offered my readers a lovely gift of either chilled Champagne, Chardonnay or a Cabernet presented on a silver tray with glasses, as well as a box of four Godiva Truffles to anyone who mentions Live Bold and Bloom during the reservation process, either online or by phone. This is good for any month except October.
The Outer Banks
If you’re looking for a soul-refreshing, peaceful vacation (but with plenty to do), take a trip to the Outer Banks. The Outer Banks are long string of narrow barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina (and part of Virginia). From north to south the islands include Northern Beaches, Roanoke Island and Dare Mainland, and Hatteras. The Northern Beaches include towns like Duck, Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk (famous as the site of the Wright brothers first flight). I stayed on the beach at Nags Head when I visited.
Roanoke Island is quieter, quaint and pedestrian friendly with a long history dating back to the first English colony. Hatteras provides more solitude, with vast stretches of land devoted to sand dunes and sea oats. These beautiful islands are known for their unspoiled beauty, stunning beaches, and rolling sand dunes. Because the Ocean, the Sound and Gulf Stream further out in the Atlantic, all come together here, the area is a Mecca for wind sports and fishing.
Things to do:
Whether you like a beach town with lots of activity or a peaceful, quiet beach, you’ll find exactly what suits your taste in one of the towns along the string of islands. Here are some of my favorites:
Sitting on the beach. For me, vacationing at a beach town means spending hours sitting under an umbrella on the beach reading books (check out my summer reading recommendations here). The waves can get really wild, so it’s also a great place to surf or body surf. But I like reading, walking the beach, and watching people the best.
Wild Horse Tours. Descended from Spanish mustangs brought by European explorers to the Carolina coast, these wild horses still roam the Outer Banks. They can be viewed by taking a guided tour into the habitat preserved as a sanctuary for them. There are several outfitters who offer tours, and if you’ve never seen wild horses on a beach, you are in for a treat.
Jockey’s Ridge. Jockey’s Ridge is a 426-acre park with the largest natural living sand dune on the East Coast. Aside from jumping from the top of a dune into the sand, it’s a great place for kite flying, hang gliding, and hiking. It’s much more impressive in-person, as you’ve probably never seen anything like it. It feels like you’re on a foreign planet!
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. This is the tallest brick lighthouse in North America, and you can climb this sucker for some amazing views. Just be in good shape because it’s the equivalent of climbing 12 stories. The tour of the grounds and history of the lighthouse and keepers are also fascinating.
Wright Brothers National Memorial. This is the site of the world’s first controlled powered flight on December 17, 1903 by Orville and Wilbur Wright. It’s really a must-see, even if you aren’t a history buff. The Visitor Center has a full-scale reproduction of the Wright 1903 Powered Flyer, and the grounds include historical markers of each attempted powered flight. Surprisingly impressive.
Kite Boarding and Wind Surfing. I didn’t do this myself, but I couldn’t neglect to add this option, as The Outer Banks has been named the “Kite Boarding and Wind Surfing Capital of the East Coast.” The consistent winds, temperate weather, shallow sound waters and rolling ocean waves all provide great opportunities for wind sport enthusiasts.
Where to Stay:
Most of the accommodations are rental homes, which is my preferred place to stay at the beach. There are also plenty of hotels, B&B’s, resorts, and even camping. I’d suggest you check out the various towns and decide where you want to stay, and then pick lodging from there. Here’s a good listing of hotels.
Glacier National Park
Last summer I took my first trip to Montana to Glacier National Park. It was absolutely jaw-dropping. It will be hard to do this trip justice in this brief writing, but I’ll do my best.
The Park covers over 1 million acres, includes parts of two mountain ranges, has over 130 lakes, and boasts 1,000 different species of plants, and hundreds of species of animals (including mountain goats, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, moose, elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, coyote, and mountain lions).
There is so much to do in Glacier and so many parts of it to explore that you’ll really need to do some of your own research, but below are some of the highlights. (Make note: do not read Night of the Grizzlies before making this trip as I stupidly did. It’s like watching “Jaws” before a beach trip.)
Things to do:
Going-to-the-Sun Road. The 50-mile road is one of the most scenic, stunning drives in the world and is an engineering marvel. It bisects the Park and crests at the Continental Divide at 6,646-foot-high Logan Pass. You’ll get spectacular views and see every type of terrain in the park, from the crystal blue glacial lakes and cedar forests in the valleys to alpine tundra at the pass. This drive should be on your bucket list.
Hike to Hidden Lake. Take the Going-to-the-Sun Road to Logan Pass, and park at the Visitor Center. Behind the Center is a breathtaking hiking trail to Hidden Lake. The trail is completely open and exposed as you pass through the alpine meadows called the Hanging Gardens. You’ll have incredible mountain views, as well as panoramic views of Hidden Lake and the surrounding mountains when you reach the lookout. You’ll likely see mountain goats (they crossed right by us several times), bighorn sheep, marmots, and even wolverines. The roundtrip hike to the lake and back is 5.4 miles.
Hike to Iceberg Lake. Another hike not to be missed, this one takes you through a variety of terrain beginning with sweeping views of the mountains, followed by a dense section of pine forest. You’ll emerge from the forest to walk through an incredibly beautiful alpine meadow filled with a variety wildflowers, leading you to one of the most beautiful alpine lakes in Glacier National Park. The lake doesn’t get much sunshine, so ice and snow build up on the water, creating small icebergs.
There’s so much beauty in Glacier and the surrounding areas and so much to see. Some other not-to-be-missed favorites include:
- Hiking Grinnell Glacier (We missed doing this sadly, but know it’s a highlight.)
- Walking the Trail of the Cedars
- Stopping a Lake McDonald to canoe or walk.
- National Bison Range — This isn’t in Glacier. It’s about an hour’s drive away, but so worth it.
Where to Stay:
We stayed in an AirBnB hostel in the nearby town of Great Falls. This is definitely an economical alternative to staying in one of the Park hotels. We had about a 20-minute drive to the west gate of Glacier. Next time we’ll stay in one of the beautiful hotels inside of the Park. Lake McDonald Lodge sits right on the lake and is a quaint Swiss chalet style hotel built in 1913. But there are many other options for all budgets, including many campsites. Here’s a listing of hotel accommodations.
Waterton, Canmore, Banff in Alberta, Canada
We rented a car in Montana and after visiting Glacier, drove about two hours into Canada, stopping first in Waterton for lunch at the beautiful Prince of Wales Hotel overlooking Waterton Lake. We wish we’d planned to stay a day or two in Waterton, as it is so beautiful with many water activities and hiking trails.
Our plan was to visit Banff National Park and stay in the nearby town of Canmore. The drive itself from Great Falls, Montana into Canmore was amazing. Ron and I both agreed that the beauty of the Canadian Rockies and the lakes and rivers in the area were even more spectacular than what we saw in Glacier.
Here are some of our favorites.
Things to do:
Walk Canmore. Canmore is a quaint, beautiful town with great restaurants, parks, and shops. Running through the middle of town is the Bow River, and you can walk along the shores watching rafters or enjoying the sunset. Canmore is so picturesque you almost feel you’re in Switzerland.
Quarry Lake. We accidentally discovered this swimming lake in Canmore just driving around. It’s a small lake you can easily walk around, and the area connects to extensive trails for walking, biking and cross country skiing. Walk up a small hill on the side of the lake for a breathtaking view of the Rockies, the lake, and the surrounding fields.
Lake Louise. Lake Louise is the jewel of Banff National Park. When you first see the lake, it will truly take your breath away. The glacial water is so turquoise blue it doesn’t look real. You can walk or hike around the lake, rent a boat or canoe, or just sit on the shores and enjoy the views. Check out the iconic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel if you want a first-class visit or to have lunch or dinner.
Lake Agnes Tea House. Follow one of the most famous trails in Lake Louise to the Lake Agnes Tea House situated at 7,005 feet. You can enjoy stunning views of Lake Agnes and the Canadian Rockies while enjoying a pot of freshly steeped tea or a bowl of homemade soup, sandwich or dessert. All of the supplies for the Tea House are carried up the mountain daily on horseback.
- Drive the Icefields Parkway
- Tour the Cascade Gardens in the town of Banff
- Enjoy the Banff hot springs and spa
- Ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain on the Banff Gondola
- Rent a bike and enjoy the numerous bike trails with spectacular views all around you
Where to Stay
We stayed in a lovely Airbnb condo in the town of Canmore which is a short drive away from Banff National Park. I highly recommend staying in Canmore if you prefer a less-crowded, less touristy place to relax at the end of the day. There are dozens of lodging options in and around Banff for every budget. Here are some Trip Advisor suggestions.
In just a few weeks, we are headed to California to meet my sister and visit Yosemite National Park. From all I’ve heard, this will be yet another soul-stirring destination with unforgettable sites and experiences. I’ll keep you posted on Facebook and Twitter.
Where have you traveled for vacation that has been memorable and meaningful? Please share your favorite destinations in the comments below.