Travel Tips

Staff Picks: Our Favorite Destinations of 2009

Locations in this article:  Detroit, MI Pittsburgh, PA San Francisco, CA

Festive cheerAs you might expect, we here at travel quite a bit.

And when we’re not traveling, we’re usually researching, writing, or talking about travel.

So as we prepare to close out 2009, check out some our favorite places of the year …

Shelli Gonshorowski, Radio Producer – St. Petersburg, Russia

This June our show did a broadcast on Viking River Cruises ship docked in St. Petersburg. The show itself went off without a hitch, with great guests sharing their local perspectives. (In fact, I highly recommend going to the archives to listen!).

The Hermitage at nightThis was my first time in Russia, and I had the extra bonus of being there during White Nights. Through the month of June in this part of Russia the days stretch out for several hours, not getting dark until around 2 a.m. and then only for a couple of hours. So exploring St. Petersburg could be an all-day/all-night adventure.

The biggest surprise for me was how easily accessible the city was. Even though I don’t read or speak Russian, and there were barely any English sins, it was easy to find someone (usually a student) to help out.

Using the staff at Viking was an immense help to since they are all Russian themselves: many of them live in the area; have great suggestions on where to go and take the time to show you the map; and give you detailed instructions on how to get from point A to point B. There are also tours included in the package, but if you prefer to venture out on your own, it’s easy to do.

Listen to the St. Petersburg show online:

I recommend you take some time in St. Petersburg. There are so many churches, museums, art and architecture to see and explore—and thank goodness the food is amazing. Speaking of food, one surprise was that there is plenty of cuisines from other cultures—Italian, Japanese, Irish, etc. In fact the only time I actually found Russian food was on the ship!

My favorite restaurant by far was Schatior, which serves Italian food with a Russian twist. It’s located in a covered courtyard and right next to the famous Church of the Spilled Blood … a MUST see.

More must-sees in the Ask the Locals Travel Guide: St. Petersburg, Russia.

Sarika Chawla, Managing Editor – Bend, Oregon & Pittsburgh, PA

Traveling with Peter generally means a maximum of one or two nights in any destination, a frenzy of work-related activity, and a fantastic meal or two. Sightseeing and soaking in the local culture? Not so much.

Mmmm, beer on tapHowever, a quick trip to Bend, Oregon, allowed me just enough time to figure out that this little town has several qualities that I find attractive in a destination: mountain scenery, high desert, sophisticated-yet-laid-back locals, memorable food … and beer. Lots of beer.

Although I missed out on typical Pacific Northwest cuisine, dinner at the iconic Typhoon! ended up being some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had.

McMenamins Old St. Francis School, where Peter broadcast his radio show, is a quirky repurposed hotel housed in a former Catholic school. Along with 19 rooms, it also has a cozy pub that serves its own brews, and there’s even an offbeat movie theater complete with mismatched seats.

Overlooking the water, Bend, OregonSince it’s the Pacific Northwest, outdoorsy types abound. Not being an avid hiker/biker/trail runner/kayaker, I wonder if I would feel out of place in the long run. But from the few locals I did meet, it seems that Olympic aspirations are not required upon check-in.

Unfortunately, Bend’s biggest drawback for me is unavoidable: the weather. Fortunately, Bend winters aren’t as dreary and damp as other parts of the state, as it sits on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. But with temperatures currently hovering around 38 degrees with various combinations of rain and snow, even toasty visions of hot chocolate in front of a wood-burning fireplace couldn’t drag me to Oregon in the winter.

Click here to view a list of guests from Bend, or listen to the show online:

For more destination information, check out Ask the Locals: Bend, Oregon.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: talk about surprising destinations. I’ve puttered around the Pittsburgh area before, mostly visiting in-laws in the deep suburbs. But on a recent trip I decided to experience the city as a tourist, and was truly amazed by how much the city has to offer.

Pittsburgh ArchitectureBefore the G20 summit put the spotlight on Pittsburgh, the Steel City had a hard time shaking its reputation of a gritty, downtrodden blue-collar town—full of American spirit and can-do solidarity, but crumbling beyond repair. When I told people I was traveling to Pittsburgh, the general reaction was, “What for?”

Pittsburgh, of course, is notorious for an economic depression that rivaled that of Detroit, following the closing of the steel mills. But from its past emerged a silver lining: the city’s recession took place long before the global meltdown, so it had a 25-year head start to find alternate sources of revenue. Now, it’s among the forefront in health care and technology (particularly robotics), and is home to some of the finest universities in the country.

From a tourist’s perspective, I discovered that Pittsburgh is much cuter than I realized, with uneven brick roads and even brickier homes scattered among the hillsides. Downtown Pittsburgh, Point State Park where the three rivers meet, and surrounding areas like the Strip District have undergone major upgrades, and outlying neighborhoods like Dormont and Green Tree are surprisingly vibrant and walkable.

Get more great destination guides in our Off the Brochure series. Or check out more of Travelers’ Favorite Holiday Experiences.

Since we were exploring Pittsburgh from the tourist perspective, a must-do experience included dinner at Primanti Brothers, where I drooled over my husband’s plate of pierogies and kielbasa (“kolbassi” in Pittsburghese) even more than my own sirloin and cheese topped with French fries, cole slaw and tomatoes. Yes, the French fries are IN the sandwich.

Although there was no time to explore alternative transportation, I was intrigued by the bright and shiny subway, Zipcar stations and ample biking opportunities (you could technically bike the Great Allegheny Passage to Washington, DC). Throw in renowned sports teams (you can’t walk 10 feet without bumping into a structure or human being decked out in Steelers black and gold, but to be on the safe side, don’t ask about the Pirates), the new Rivers Casino, and a variety of cultural programming, and you’ve got a once-underrated city that’s fast becoming a destination in its own right.

Giant TurtleDan Bence, Editorial Assistant – Londres and Quebrada Arollo, Costa Rica

In March, I had the chance to spend a week volunteering in the rainforests of Costa Rica. I worked in Londres for the first few days, which is a four-hour bus ride south of San Jose. It’s small, with little more than a town square, school and a few shops connected by dirt paths.

We were welcomed by Milo, the town’s de facto mayor. Milo actually grew up in the U.S., but he fell in love with a local woman while on a surfing trip and never left. 
 After a long bus ride, we were ready to get right to work. But Milo explained to us that we had to leave our gringo ways behind us, specifically our strict schedules, deadlines and punctuality.

In Costa Rica, they run on “tico time,” a much more relaxed pace with a greater emphasis on friends and family. The locals get up with the sun and finish their work early, because in the afternoon, it gets too hot and sticky to do anything besides relax in the shade.

Slow boat in Costa RicaSo instead of working that afternoon, Milo showed us his farm and one of his ongoing projects—a patch of rainforest that he’s regrown from scratch. In addition to cultivating a volunteer program, Milo also educates locals and visitors on the importance of responsible eco-tourism and regrowing the rainforest.

Our natural clocks quickly adjusted to tico time. After mornings of work, we would spend the afternoons exploring the forests and swimming in the rivers. We even went on a day hike to Silencio Animal Sanctuary, which rehabilitates exotic animals used in the entertainment industry and returns them to the wild.

After a few days, we said goodbye to Milo and his family and moved on to Quebrada Arroyo, an eco-resort literally in the middle of the rainforest. The resort is cooperatively owned and operated by the families that live nearby. Like Milo, they are dedicated to teaching visitors about the importance of the rain forest and responsible eco-tourism.

We would do chores and projects in the morning, but aside from that, it was like spending a week in Indiana Jones fantasy camp. You could run down the path and cannonball into a natural spring, bathe in a waterfall like a shampoo commercial, walk foot-over-foot across a harrowing suspension bridge, and admire the mono titis (red-backed squirrel monkeys) scampering in the canopy above your head.

Check out another in-depth report on eco-travel in Costa Rica with Volunteer Vacations: Paying to Travel, Work and Save the Sea Turtles. For further information, check out Voluntourism Tips and Resources for a Hassle-Free Volunteer Vacation.

The families that run the resort prepare all the meals and lead guests on guided tours of the untouched rainforests. It’s also close enough to take a day trip to see the beaches and parks of Manuel Antonio.

After a week of jumping off of waterfalls and playing soccer with the locals, I had a hard time adjusting back to the gringo lifestyle. I think Milo had the right idea.

Matthew Calcara, New Media Manager – Sonoma Valley, California

Birdhouse Art at CornerStone SonomaThis March, I spent several days in Sonoma, California, but what could’ve been your standard family vacation of staring at grapes and drinking wine became something much more. Most everyone knows that the Sonoma and Napa Valley regions are home to some amazing vineyards and no shortage of wine tasting opportunities. And of course, we did partake in our fair share of tastings.

But the most interesting aspects of Sonoma were those that we didn’t expect—namely, the art and the quality of the less-famous restaurants. Sure, the Girl and the Fig, perhaps the area’s most famous restaurant aside from the French Laundry, offers delicious local food, but in Sonoma, even the most seemingly downscale restaurants feature fresh bursts of flavor. These restaurants also have the virtue of being relatively inexpensive in a region not known for its low, low prices …

Get more with our Ask the Locals Travel Guide: Sonoma, CA.

A pleasant and cozy surprise on Sonoma’s main plaza, the Sunflower Caffe seemed most popular with the breakfast/brunch crowd. As to why, my guess can be summed up in one word: omelets. From herbed goat cheese and spinach to a Southwestern mix of chicken, red chilies, tomato, Pepper Jack cheese, sour cream and chipotle-Tabasco sauce, the Sunflower Caffe offers hearty breakfasts perfect to start a long day of tastings. And forget Starbucks—at $4.75 the French Press (coffee) for two may have been the best money anyone in my family has ever spent on coffee.

Amid art at Cornerstone SonomaLooking for “down-home Sonoma?” Schellville Grill is a quirky local institution located far from the main Sonoma Plaza and consequently attracts far fewer tourists. But locals seek it out for the generous portions, low prices, and relaxed, homey atmosphere. And when I say “generous portions” I mean pancakes the size of your face. It’s also conveniently located on your way in or out of town if, like most visitors, you arrive via San Francisco. One downside: the bathrooms are not pleasant, which is annoying for a place that’s otherwise a great pit stop.

And finally, to work off some of those calories that you’ll inevitably gain in Wine Country, take a walk through the 9-acre CornerStone Sonoma, which boasts some unusual, arty shops alongside some of the most interesting art installations this side of the Jeff Koons invasion of Versailles.

Pinwheels - CornerstoneFrom a tree covered in what appears to be sea-green ping-pong balls to tacky plastic sunflower pinwheels transformed into a whimsical garden through sheer volume, CornerStone has no shortage of quirky exhibits.

And since it’s free and located close to a number of great wineries, it’s an easy stop to fit into any itinerary. As an added bonus, it’s not a particularly busy place—we had the gardens almost completely to ourselves.

-The staff of

Don’t miss more great photos with Andy Katz’s gallery: The Vineyards of Sonoma.

Check out more travel ideas in our Destinations section.

And check out more picks from top travelers with Travelers’ Favorite Holiday Experiences: Winter Wonderlands Around the World.