Travel Tips

Unexpected Summer Destinations: Death Valley, Aspen, Florida, Palm Springs

Locations in this article:  Brooklyn, NY Fort Lauderdale, FL Miami, FL New York City, NY Orlando, FL Tampa, FL

Beach surfersThere may only be one month left of summer, but even if you haven’t managed to hit the road yet for some R&R there’s still time to pull a vacation together.

Instead of Yosemite, Myrtle Beach, the Hamptons or any of those other well-trod, time-honored favorites, why not make a beeline to somewhere a little less predictable?

To give you some inspiration, we’ve gathered a few ideas of our own.

Even though some may seem counter-intuitive—and others may seem downright crazy—you may be surprised at how much fun you can have (and how great the deals are) in these unexpected summer destinations.

Death Valley

Death ValleyKnown for its distinctive geological landmarks and desert wildlife, California’s Death Valley National Park is high up on many wish lists of places travelers want to see before they die.

However, considering that sizzling summer temperatures can top 120 degrees, in the shade, you’d think most people would want to avoid the park in the hot season.

But the opposite is actually true. Visitors flock to the park in summer—in fact, the biggest increase in visitation over the last few years has been during the summer months. Park rangers say that the majority of the hot-weather tourists come from cool, wet countries like Germany and the UK seeking a blast of hot, dry adventure.

More Death ValleyRather than hiking or camping in the broiling heat, summer visitors are best advised to tour the park from the comfort of their air-conditioned cars. Roads leading to scenic highlights such as Artist’s Drive, Titus Canyon and the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns are accessible to most vehicles. Instead of sweating it out in a tent (which is not only uncomfortable, but potentially dangerous), stay overnight at one of the three comfy lodges in the park: Furnace Creek Inn, Stovepipe Wells Village or Panamint Springs Resort.

Despite the heat, there are some outdoor activities that are safe. Swimming at the Furnace Creek Ranch is one way to cool down, or you could head to a higher elevation. While temperatures on the valley floor can be dangerously high, hiking trails such as Telescope Peak Trail (11,000 feet) and Wildrose Peak Trail (9,000 feet) only top out in the 90s.

Check out more options with Personal Picks: Travel Editor Jane Wooldridge on Four Cheap Family Travel Destinations.

Even at these relatively modest temps, hikers must not underestimate the heat. Carry an abundant supply of water, and wear correct clothing and footwear. (And since these trails are for experts only, amateurs should not even consider it.) It’s also recommended to register with the ranger station so that if you suffer heat-stroke or an injury, someone will notice you’re missing and come looking for you. Death Valley National Park –

Anywhere in Florida

Florida orangesThough Floridians know their state is a summer recreation paradise, many out-of-staters tend to think of it as merely a spring-break party spot or a mecca for New Englanders seeking refuge from frigid winters.

Despite the heat and oppressive humidity, Florida is not a bad place to spend a couple of weeks in summer. It’s got a couple of key things going for it that can help beat the heat: water, and lots of indoor activities.

Although Florida is home to some of the top-ranked beaches in the nation, there are plenty of places besides the ocean where you can cool off. If you’re up for an adrenaline rush, the whitewater rapids of the Suwannee River at Big Shoals State Park (near the Georgia border) are the only ones in the state to have earned a class III whitewater classification.

Or if you’d prefer something calmer, try swimming with the manatees at Crystal River Manatee Tours in Crystal River, about 50 miles north of Tampa. For $79 per person, you can snorkel with the gentle creatures, enjoy a dockside lunch, and take an afternoon airboat tour.

Jules Undersea LodgeOf course, staying indoors is the easiest way to avoid the sticky humidity, but that doesn’t mean you have confine yourself to your air-conditioned hotel room. In fact, you can actually bring the outdoors indoors at the Jules’ Undersea Lodge on Key Largo island. This is basically an underwater research lab which has been retrofitted with two bedrooms to allow guests to stay overnight.

It is one of the world’s only truly underwater hotels, and can only be entered by scuba diving to a depth of 21 feet. Guests can either relax in the comfortably outfitted quarters and watch the marine life from within, or take unlimited dives in the lagoon to explore the ocean firsthand. Prices start at $375 per person per night.

Jules’ Undersea Lodge is one, but check out more of the World’s 10 Most Unusual Hotels.

If you’re looking for family recreation, make a trip to Wannado City, an indoor educational theme park in Ft. Lauderdale where kids learn decision-making skills. Parents stand by while their kids choose an occupation, learn how to handle money, and interact with other “kidizens” of the community.

Ice Bar OrlandoLiterally some of the coolest nightlife in Florida can be found in Orlando at the city’s Ice Bar, a chilly watering hole carved from ice and kept at a constant 27 degrees. Next door to the Icebar there is also a normal-temperature Fire Lounge for those averse to sub-freezing environments. Admission is $20 and reservations are required.

A good time to avoid the crowds is mid-to-late August when most Florida schools are back in session and families have packed up and gone home. This is when many Florida hotels offer late-summer deals, including those associated with the major theme parks. For example, at select Disney World resorts, you can book a stay for as low as $69 per night for select dates between July 22, 2009 and October 3, 2009.

More on Florida travel:

Aspen, Colorado

Though snow-blanketed mountain vistas and world-class skiing draw many tourists to Aspen during winter vacation months, savvy travelers know that the town is great for summer getaways filled with cultural and outdoor recreation activities.

Late Fall Stream in ColoradoNot only does Aspen have a variety of trails for hikers of all levels, but you can also avail yourself of the many rock-climbing, fly-fishing, golfing, and rafting opportunities. Those interested in defying gravity can elevate themselves either by taking a hot-air balloon ride, or paragliding over the scenic Aspen countryside.

This city also has massive cultural appeal. Thousands flock to the Jazz Aspen Snowmass festival every summer, which features dozens of jazz and world music performances as well as a music education program. Most of the events take place in June, but there is also a Labor Day program which features eight nationally known acts this year including Elvis Costello, the Black Eyed Peas and the Allman Brothers Band.

Wheeler Opera House Aspen If jazz is not your thing, Aspen even has its very own opera venue, the Wheeler Opera House. In addition to opera, Wheeler offers an eclectic program of lectures, theater, dance, film, and community events.

Foodies and craft-lovers will also find Aspen a welcoming place as it’s home to the Aspen Saturday Market, which encompasses a farmers market, a craft fair and a local chef competition. The market operates every Saturday between June 16 through October 27 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., rain or shine.

To entice visitors to come and stay, Aspen offers great deals on lodging and activities. With the Aspen Summer Pass program you can get discounts on arts and cultural events, outdoor activities, dining and nightlife, shopping, and family recreation if you book two nights’ accommodation in one of the participating hotels. Even better, if one of those nights is a Wednesday you’ll get 50 percent off that night, or you can buy three nights and get a fourth night free. The promotion is valid from until October 31, 2009.

Get more information on traveling to Aspen anytime with our Ask the Locals City Guide: Aspen, Colorado.

Palm Springs, California

Though Palm Springs attracts a lot of folks from out of state in winter, in summer it becomes primarily a playground for southern Californians. You’d think that locals might gravitate toward more exotic destinations in the summer, but even they can’t resist the laid-back allure of Palm Springs.

Like Death Valley, Palm Springs (and the entire Coachella Valley) is also prone to sweltering temperatures from May to October, but with careful planning it’s possible to enjoy the area without breaking a sweat. Because the desert sun is most unforgiving around midday, fans of the outdoors should schedule their activities during the early morning or evening. Higher elevations are cooler too.

Palm Springs Aerial TramwayThe Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, known as the world’s largest rotating tram, carries visitors 8,500 feet up Chino Canyon to Mt. San Jacinto State Park in just 10 minutes. At the top you’ll find breathtaking views of the Coachella Valley, and trails on which wilderness buffs can take hikes or guided nature walks. The tram costs is $22.95 for adults, $15.95 for kids ages 3-12.

A fun place for families to cool down amid the afternoon heat is Knott’s Soak City USA. Open from mid-March until Labor Day, it is the only water park located in Palm Springs, and boasts 18 water rides and attractions—enough to keep the kids entertained until dinner time. Prices range from $20-$30 per person, with discounts available if you buy four or more tickets at a time.

Since the 1920s, Palm Springs has been a getaway spot for many of the biggest stars in Hollywood, many of whom owned homes there. Visitors can get a glimpse into the past by taking a chauffeured tour around town with Palm Springs Tours & More to see places ranging from Elvis’ honeymoon hideaway to Lucille Ball’s winter retreat. Some are even available to rent for parties and overnight stays. (Palm Springs Tours & More, 760-329-2205)

Humvee AdventuresIf you want to explore the desert but would rather leave the driving to someone else, why not take a tour in a luxury Humvee? For $99 per person, various tour companies will take you in either the early morning or late evening to places such as the San Andreas Fault or Joshua Tree National Park. Night tours will let you experience the brilliance of the Milky Way as the vehicles take you to the back country of Joshua Tree, where only park rangers and four-wheel-drive vehicles are allowed to go.

Since summer is low season in Palm Springs, some incredible deals on accommodation can be found. The Palm Springs Tourism Bureau offers links to dozens of hotels, spas and attractions offering as much as 50 percent off winter rates.

New York City

Brooklyn New YorkYes, Gotham in summer has the reputation of being a stinking, sweating cesspit. But if you pick an air-conditioned hotel and avoid certain places at certain times of day, you can have a quite a comfortable experience. Plus, many locals head out to the Hamptons or the Poconos for days and weeks at a time, so you’ll practically have the place to yourself.

New York has a reputation for being extremely pricey too, but you’ll be pleased to know that there are actually numerous free activities. In addition to the year-round freebies such as no-admission-fee museum days, free walking tours, gratis park tours, and complimentary transit links, there are some activities that are specific to summer.

One cannot visit the Big Apple without checking at least one or two of the world-class museums. The Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim are free on Friday evenings, while the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters are free, but with a suggested donation. If you want to take a closer look at certain specialty areas, the American Indian Museum, the New York Transit Museum and the Museum of American Folk Art are all free, all the time.

Statue of LibertyCentral Park is the heart and soul of New York, but many are intimidated by its sheer size. To get some easy lessons in its history, geography and diversity, head to the Central Park Conservancy. They offer 10 different free guided tours of the park that highlight various areas and topics from sports and recreation to waterways and vistas.

New York is also famous as a cultural hotspot, which you can also experience through the numerous free music performances and festivals. Shakespeare in the Park (in Central Park) runs from late May to late August and is a perennial favorite. The performances don’t cost anything, but you’ll still have to get tickets, which are available on a first-come first-serve basis on the day of the performance. Start lining up early—as early as 6 a.m. if it’s a hot show with good reviews.

If music’s more your thing, check out the Washington Square Music Festival, which is in its 51st year. Over several weekends in July you can listen to quality jazz and classical music played by locally and nationally famous names.

Getting around New York can also be accomplished for low or no cost at all. If you’re staying in lower Manhattan, the free Downtown Connection bus stops at various points such as Battery Place (the ferry port for Statue of Liberty tours) and Bowling Green (for the American Indian Museum). If you need to get further afield, consider buying a subway MetroCard. A one-day Fun Pass costs only $7.50 and gets you unlimited subway and bus rides.

You can’t camp in New York, but there are other ways to stay for cheap. Marriott Hotels is offering the “Find Your New York” summer accommodation package (through September 7, 2009) with rooms starting at $179 per night. Packages include a travel guide and subway map, a $50 credit on a future stay at a Marriott or Renaissance hotel, a Disney-on-Broadway gift, plus additional perks (which vary by hotel) such as daily breakfast, museum tickets, free kids’ meals, and shopping discounts.

By Karen Elowitt for, with contributions from Chloe Ghoogassian and Ashley Honma.

Get more ideas on where to go with our Travel Destinations section.