Care-Free and Car-Free Destinations

Locations in this article:  Buffalo, NY Chicago, IL Santa Barbara, CA

Pay at Pump SignWith gas prices topping $4 a gallon nationally, maybe it’s time to take a vacation from driving.

What better way to make that happen and head to a place where cars aren’t necessary—or in some cases, not allowed.

The alternative?

Try bicycling, horse-back riding, carriage rides, sailing, and walking … it’s all part of the experience.


Santa Barbara is taking this car-less concept very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that it has an entire promotional campaign around it. What smells like a gimmick turned out to be a useful resource that makes traveling sans car seem not only accessible, but preferable.

For example, if you take the train to Santa Barbara, California, you qualify for the “car-free” discount at more than 20 hotels, some restaurants, and many activities. Just mention the “Car Free Vacation package” and wave your Amtrak or San Joaquin train ticket, and you can get 20 percent discounts on bike rentals or kayak tours with Pedal & Paddle (805-687-2912), and 20 percent off Segway rentals from Segway of Santa Barbara (805-693-7672).

While you’re wheeling along the beachfront Arts and Crafts show on a Sunday, don’t forget to sample the restaurants near State Street. Try local favorites like Dargan’s Irish Pub (live Celtic music on Thursday and Saturday nights), Zaytoon (Middle Eastern cuisine with belly dancers), and Pacific Crepes (practice French with the owners).

If you’re in town during the week, head straight to the cheese-and-wine tastings at C’est Cheese on Monday through Wednesday evenings (805-965-0318). Santa Barbara County is among the best wine growing regions in the country, so take advantage of the $5 discount on the Sustainable Vine Wine Tour that chauffeurs you to organic and biodynamic vineyards in nearby Santa Ynez Valley (805-698-3911,

Still thirsty (or still standing?). A company called Cloud Climbers Jeep & Wine Tours will take you along the old stage coach route, stopping for wine, and possibly a hike to see Chumash Indian paintings. These tours will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel door—because you don’t have a car, remember? 805-646-3200,

For more information, visit


Gas Station PumpsCross the water with whales and dolphins on the brisk catamaran ride from San Pedro, California, to Catalina Island. Islanders drive around in golf carts, but visitors can bike or hike around the island … Other than Avalon, you won’t find cars. Even in the main town of Avalon, it’s easy to walk from one spot to the next—like catching a movie at the Casino, and slurping up your ice cream next to the life-sized plastic buffalo outside Big Olaf’s ice-cream shop.

If that inspires you, visitors can spot the real buffaloes inland on a two-hour tour with Two Harbors Enterprises ($72; 310-510-4205). Many of the old Westerns were filmed on the island, and you can find your inner cowboy on a trail ride through the hills overlooking Avalon Harbor at Catalina Stables with Discovery Tours ($65; 310-510-0478).

Catalina is known for its water sports: kayaking, parasailing, snorkeling, scuba diving, ocean rafting and sailing. But if you don’t want to get wet, go underwater in a semi-submersible or take a ride on the glass-bottom boat with Catalina Ferries (800-626-1496).

Finish off the day with dinner at the Catalina Country Club, once the home to William Wrigley Jr.’s Chicago Cub’s spring training camp. Now, it’s a gourmet restaurant where you savor the sea breeze from the bay with flights of wine and champagne, grass-fed lamb, and saffron rice cakes with citrus marinated shrimp (310-510-7404).

For more information, visit


Mackinac Island (pronounced “Mack-in-awe”) in Michigan’s Lake Huron also relies on horse-power. In fact, you can rent a horse after breakfast and return by dinner. Stable hands will point you in the direction of their favorite trails, lead you out of town into the State Park and turn you loose—or, if you’d like company, they will come along at no additional cost ($35 an hour). Drive-your-own buggies are also available for touring the State Park.

If you’re feeling a little saddle sore, try a hike through old cemeteries to the highest point on the island, the ruins of Fort Holmes, or take a carriage ride. Carriage drivers have been taking visitors sightseeing since the 1800s (automobiles were originally banned from the island because they startled the horses). Historical reenactments of the 1820s fur trade, hearth cooking and crafts at Biddle House (home of Agatha Biddle, Chippewa Chief), and blacksmith demonstrations are in the park’s downtown historic buildings.

And don’t worry, while the island is family-friendly, it’s not as squeaky-clean as it sounds on paper. Bar-hopping is big on Mackinac. Seabiscuit Café and Grog has one of the best bartenders on the island: Carl Thalacker, who created “I Am Whitesnake” nights when island employees race to his bar in time for a drink and sing three Whitesnake tunes at the top of their lungs with the music cranked (some of the island’s elite have been known to dance on tabletops to this).

For family-friendly dining, try Woods Restaurant, which looks like where Shirley Temple might have met Teddy Roosevelt for tea and bourbon—they also have a one-lane bowling alley and an incredible jazz pianist. For an elegant evening out, dine at the Grand Hotel and see their summer art show, The Masco Collection in the Grand Gallery. Guests of the hotel are welcome in the Parlor after dinner for nightly demitasse and live music performed by The Grand Hotel Orchestra (1-800-33GRAND). Romantics may recognize the Grand Hotel from the Christopher Reeve/Jane Seymour film Somewhere in Time. For more information, visit


heavy trafficFire Island is 32 mile long a strip of land — geologically, it’s a large sandbar — off the coast of Long Island where cosmopolitan New Yorkers go casual for the summers. Only service and emergency vehicles are allowed, so bring walking shoes or a bike … there are also 19 separate communities on the island, so there’s a lot to explore. To take advantage of bargain hotel rates, come to the island before Memorial Day or after Labor Day, but if you prefer the summer scene, be sure to book well in advance.

Each of the island’s communities has developed its own unique identity, meaning there’s something for everyone. Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines are two of the most popular GLBT resort communities in the U.S. If you’re there on the July 4 weekend, you’ll witness “The Invasion of the Pines” by a boatload of drag queens! Cherry Grove boasts multiple galleries featuring local artists and even a theater scene. Ocean Bay Park and Kismet are known for their party and singles scenes, whereas Saltaire and Fair Harbor are known to generally be quiet and family-friendly.

Remember, there are 32 miles of unbroken shoreline, and you can also head inland to the boarded walks of Sailor’s Haven which will take you through marsh and woodlands. The Sunken Forest’s boardwalks wind through twisted trees shaped by salt spray, some of which are over 200 years old. All of this is run by the National Park service, since Fire Island is a national seashore.

For more information, visit


If you’re craving to jet abroad for your vacation, remember that the dollar still stands strong in South America. One off-the-beaten path option is Paqueta Island, or “the island of many shells.” Located in the Guanabara Bay, this island is accessible from downtown Rio de Janeiro by ferry, catamaran or hydroplane. And once you get there, travel is limited to bicycles and horse-drawn charretes ($10 for 30 minutes) on mud or gravel roads lined with vibrant century-old “flamboyant trees” native to Madagascar.

The island is known for its local folklore; along the main street is a Boabab tree called “Maria Gorda” (Fat Maria) that visitors kiss for luck, and in the Plaza San Roque, drink the water from the well while thinking of the person you love, and that person will be yours. (Another nickname for Paqueta is the “Island of Love.”) Even the rocks have legends, like Pedra dos Namorados on Jose Beach. If you toss three pebbles over your shoulder onto the top of the rock, the object of your affections will love you forever.

Other sites include the church “Igreja do Senhor Bom Jesus do Monte,” built in 1763, renovated in 1900, and the bright pink Casa de Artes Paquetá which hosts regular artistic and cultural events. Covanca beach is known to locals as the favorite for swimming, but Praia da Guarda is where you can find bars, restaurants, hotels, paddle boats and kayaks (which rent for $5/40min). For your first stop, visit the visitors’ kiosk in the center of the Pedro Bruno Plaza for maps of the island and information on restaurants and sites.

By Lauren Van Mullem for Visit her blog, Anglophile in LA at

Previously by Lauren Van Mullem:

Is a Bed & Breakfast Stay Right for You?

Voyage de Fromage: Destinations for Cheese-Lovers

Photography Tours: Hit Me With Your Best Shot

Sexy Hotel Getaways and Romance Advice for the Road

Unexpected Foodie Destinations

Global Gourmet, Food Gifting From Around the World

Dude Where’s My Horse? Dude Ranch Vacations