Cheap-But-Fun Travel Destinations for 2012

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So if someone told you there was a national survey of travelers, and three of the hot destinations for 2012 were in Florida – well, you wouldn’t be surprised, right?

But what if none of those three was Miami or Orlando or Key West?

The budget travel site TripAdvisor has released its annual list of Vacation Hotspots on the Rise for 2012. While it’s sorta self-serving – the travel site basically compiled the list from its own users and editors – there’s still some value in checking it out. That’s because the best vacation values are often off the beaten path, and on this list, you probably haven’t even heard of some of these places. Here are the top 10, along with my admittedly biased views of the ones I’ve visited…

1. Nashville, Tennessee

“Country music is the lifeblood of Nashville,” TripAdvisor says. I hate country music – but I’ve had a blast in Nashville before. Perhaps that’s because I love kitsch, and there’s plenty of that in Tennessee’s capital. Of course, you’ve got the Elvis Presley Museum, which has an Elvis limo with his hit records pasted on the headliner. But my favorite attraction is The Parthenon. This is a faithful full-scale recreation of the ancient Greek temple. And, of course, it’s not in ruins – so in some ways, it’s actually cooler than going to Greece. (Maybe this is just me, but whenever I see ruins, I always wonder: What did it look like before it went to hell?)

2. Austin, Texas

“History buffs can head to the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library and Museum,” TripAdvisor says. Yeah, right. Nightlife buffs can head downtown, because there probably isn’t a smaller town with a bigger original music scene anywhere in the nation. Check out this list of top Austin bars – I’ve been to only three of them, but I can attest to their funkiness.

3. Fort Myers, Florida

“Most visitors go to Fort Myers for the deep-sea fishing, the golf courses, and the famous white sand beaches that line the Gulf Coast,” TripAdvisor says. “Attractions include the winter estates of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, as well as nearby Naples and the islands of Sanibel and Captiva.” True enough, but here’s what they left out: While Nashville and Austin are great for young single folks, Sanibel and Captiva are quiet romantic getaways. No surfers on the beach (because Gulf waves are only ankle-high), no neon nightclubs lining the shores, and some of the most eccentric dining experiences in the country. (Check out The Bubble Room – and yes, the website is as weird as the restaurant.)

4. Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

“Set against the misty blue backdrop of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Pigeon Forge is a gateway to 500,000 acres of Appalachian wilderness,” TripAdvisor says. “If hiking over 800 miles of mountain trails and camping in dense ancient forests is a step too far, travelers can head to Dollywood for rollercoasters and waterslides.” I’ll have to take their word for it, because I honestly never heard of this place before. But now I kinda want to go.

5. Pensacola, Florida

“For travelers seeking some great Florida beaches without a mega-resort or theme park atmosphere, Pensacola might just be the place for a perfect weekend,” TripAdvisor says. “Home to Gulf Islands National Seashore, the city offers some of the best fishing and boating in the area.” What’s not said: Pensacola is not the Florida you think you know. Located in the Panhandle of the state, it’s actually in another time zone (Central). If you prefer a more Deep South approach to your vacations, this is as close as it gets in the Sunshine State.

6. Louisville, Kentucky

“In addition to equestrian endeavors and bluegrass roots, Louisville boasts a range of exciting attractions the whole family can enjoy,” TripAdvisor says. “Baseball fans will love the Louisville Slugger Museum, a celebration of the sport’s legends.” Perhaps TripAdvisor is a family site, so it shies away from pointing out drinking options, but Louisville has something called the Louisville Whiskey Tours. And given that Jack Daniels is based there, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Louisville is liquorville – I’ve eaten at some amazing barbecue joints that pair their sauces to bourbon like some restaurants pair cheeses to wines.

7. Branson, Missouri

“While entertainment is nonstop on The Strip – a seven-mile stretch of live music, restaurants, theme parks and more – this hospitable town is also a paradise for outdoor recreation,” TripAdvisor says. “The rolling hills offer 200 miles of trails, while three scenic lakes are havens for fishing and water sports.” Never been, now want to go.

8. Scottsdale, Arizona

“With more than 200 golf courses in the area, ample spas and wellness resorts, and cultural attractions such as master architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter studio, the city is the perfect weekend antidote for life’s stresses,” TripAdvisor says. I’ve had pals who love golf (I hate it) and say the courses rival Florida’s and California’s. The wives hit the spas, they hit the links, and then they meet up for dinner.

9. St. Augustine, Florida

“Savor a restorative drink in St. Augustine’s Fountain of Youth National Archaeological Park, site of the conquistadors’ arrival in what is now the United States,” TripAdvisor says. “Travelers can also take a break from history at a local beach, or indulge in some retail therapy among the many arts and crafts stores.” I’ve been to St. Augustine both as a child and an adult, and I can tell you one attraction is superior to all the others regardless of your age: the Castillo de San Marcos. Or as visitors and even locals call it: the fort. It’s more than 300 years old, overlooks the water, and is impeccably preserved. Best of all, almost none of it is off-limits. You can hang out in the dingy sleeping quarters, lean out over the parapets, even check out one of the toilets that empties into the ocean.

10. Charleston, South Carolina

“Southern charm, hospitality and history imbue Charleston, one of the most well-preserved cities in the United States,” TripAdvisor says. “History buffs will relish the old plantations and numerous historical museums dedicated to the Civil War and the Old South.” This is yet another city on my list.

So did you notice this list almost entirely focuses on the southern half of the country? That means not only better weather, but often cheaper stays than in, say, California or New York. But whether you pick one of these destinations or not, before you embark, consider these tips…

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