Contributing writers Natalie Compagno and Greg Freitas find the best Tools for the Traveler each month, mapping out the most efficient ways to see a destination and the best techniques to stay on top of the deals. Filled with the latest guidebooks, apps, maps, news, where to stay, and what to do, this column gives travelers everything they need to make the most of their trip.
Shoulder season is travel industry-speak for what travelers know instinctively: Go when there are fewer people and it will be less expensive and more enjoyable. What some people don’t know about this “off season” is that some destinations have deals and unique offers that extend throughout the year. We found three very distinct places where visitors can get their beach, mountain, or countryside fix—and it’s not too late to book and go!
Aruba is One Happy Island but some are avoiding the Caribbean after this past hurricane season. Don’t miss out—Aruba is south of the hurricane belt and was left untouched. The weather is remarkably consistent, in the 80s virtually every day with cooling trade winds, and the azure water is always warm.
KLM added more flights from Europe, JetBlue has offered discounts to encourage post-Irma travel, and the island is ready for fun. Get there before Thanksgiving to take advantage of some discounts, or sign up for Airfarewatchdog.com to jump on last-minute deals.
Where to Stay
Any hotel on the west side offers an ideal location; Palm Beach and Eagle Beach are routinely rated among the best beaches in the world. We love the friendly, well priced but still upscale Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino in Palm Beach. It embraces the water sports and nightlife people seek. The hotel boasts the largest casino on the island, but the Aruba Marriott also offers an enticing blend of local cultural offerings. You can learn to cook local Aruban dishes like Keshi Yena (Gouda cheese stuffed with chicken and spices) at one of the many cooking classes. Its concierge takes pride in setting up local excursions and activities, like beach tennis lessons (many say it was invented in Aruba) or snorkel sails to famous wrecks in Boca Catalina or Arashi Reef to view tropical fish.
The Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino now offers a new Wellness Upgrade with a yoga mat, healthy snacks, and Aruba Aloe products provided for an extra charge. Cooking classes can be tailored to fit within the program as well. Aruba Marriott has the largest spa on the island, Mandara Spa, as well as a large pool and swim up bar. A highlight is the toes-in-the-sand, popup sunset restaurant Atardi. Reservations are suggested but shoes are not.
Aruba is renowned for being the island in the Caribbean where locals and tourists seamlessly mix. In Oranjestaad don’t miss De Suikertuin (Sugar Garden), a charming bistro set in a traditional cunucu house. It serves delectable Dutch and Caribbean local fare, and hosts theme nights with visiting guest chefs.
Beloved local beer Balashi is the perfect beach libation, but when the sun goes down more substantial brews beckon. Make a beeline to Local Store, on a dusty side road off the main drag in Palm Beach. A fun hang for locals and tourists alike, the lively bar offers live music, board games, an eclectic craft beer selection, and prepares the best burgers on the island.
The desire to bus while traveling is strong, but confusion and connections often interfere. Not so with Arubus. Its basically stop at every hotel group on the island, and directly in front of the airport. It could not be easier. Fare: US $2.30 one way.
Aruba is a dynamic island with new hot spots popping up constantly. You can keep track with the Aruba Travel Guide, which you can use on either Android or iPhone. Produced by the local tourism board, the free app is available offline and includes discounts and maps, as well as the latest restaurants, shops, discounts, and a trip planner.
Moon Handbooks Aruba contains 250 pages of insider tips from longtime resident Rosalie Klein. We enjoyed the historical insights, as well as the adventurous spirit to break free from the mega-resorts. One highlight was a visit to historic California Lighthouse at Arashi Beach on the northern tip of the island. Don’t make our mistake and decide to walk there at high noon. It’s HOT.
Montana’s big skies and clear starry nights lure city slickers from coast to coast. Shoulder season in Montana has a specific elk-hunting connotation—so for our purposes off-season in the Treasure State comes after Labor Day weekend and before the winter holidays.
It snowed in Missoula on October 3, the earliest snowfall in 34 years. Without exception, every single person we spoke to said their favorite thing about living there were the winters. The Big Sky area, 40 miles from Bozeman and 20 miles from the entrance to Yellowstone National Park, is the fastest growing area in the state with three resorts and one of the largest ski areas in the country. Bozeman has over 12 direct flights from around the country, including new service from Dallas-Fort Worth.
Where to Stay
Dude ranches have gone deluxe, but no one does high-end glamping quite like The Ranch at Rock Creek. It curates the entire cowboy experience from first light to last round up; the upshot is an all-inclusive experience combining great food, drinks, and lodging, with many outdoor activities. The design is ranch chic done tongue-in-cheek, informed by 100 years of Hollywood’s fascination with Western style. Each of the 29 dwellings is unique, with cozy but large lodge rooms, glamping cabins, and a converted barn, all equipped with mountain bikes to conveniently get around the property.
Friendly, energetic guides can accompany you on virtually any adventure, and their expertise is broad—whether riding horses, hiking, mountain biking, aiming bows or pistols, fly fishing, or simply pouring a whiskey from the local distillery. The Silver Dollar Saloon adds a wealth of indoor options, including bowling, ping pong, billiards, karaoke, or watching a game or movie in the private screening room. It’s a truly unique Wild West experience—guests are invited to ride in a real, restored Wells Fargo stagecoach. The 150-year-old carriage pulled by two Belgian mares is number 6 of only 10 still in existence.
Go through December 20 or after the holidays to take advantage of lower prices, sometimes 30 percent less and with just three-day minimums. The all-inclusive aspect makes it great for groups.
Just 75 miles from Missoula, the Gem Mountain sapphire mining town of Phillipsburg is well worth the trip, either to or from the Ranch at Rock Creek. You can tour the mines, buy buckets of dirt, and find real sapphires. Those with a sweet tooth must visit revered local candy store The Sweet Palace. The destination shop produces over 50 kinds of fudge alone. Non-prospectors can enjoy the afternoon at Philipsburg Brewing Company, which has a sun-facing outdoor patio and brews many of the choice craft beers served at the Ranch.
Montana is a gigantic state, nearly as large as California, but getting around by car is so much faster. Visitors will gawk and double take when they see the sign for the first time, but it’s true: Montana recently passed laws increasing the speed limit to 80 MPH on some highways. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.
Montana’s favorite son was novelist James Welch, who wrote from his own experience about the struggles and culture of the local Blackfeet tribe. Two of his best are Winter’s Blood (1974) and Fool’s Crow (1986).
The British Countryside
The words conjure up images of a dramatic landscape, cliffs rising from the ocean, and misty moors. These stunning backdrops are also home to great history and culture—Shakespeare, the Brontës, Dickens, and the Industrial Revolution, to name a few. Avoid high-priced, crowded London and escape to the countryside—its charming castles and towns have stories to tell.
Launching its first tours this year, U.K. Countryside Tours offers an intellectual approach to visiting this vast area. The concept of “people introducing people” brings the past to life. They focus on the history and stories of the universities, manors, gardens, and cities by bringing experts and scholars into the experience. After touring Jane Austen’s home, her library, Bath, and Winchester, you can have dinner with a Jane Austen enthusiast who tells tales and history to the group.
Noted tours are The Mayflower Pilgrims, England’s Music Powerhouse and Great Lives: Dickens, Darwin and Churchill, where the beginnings of U.S. history, British music, and important figures are celebrated through knowledgeable hosts. The tours give access to people and experiences that would be impossible otherwise, such as the Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge. He wrote to some of the greatest minds in the world and his letters are still being restored. They give new insights into the theory of evolution and how Darwin came to his conclusions. Groups can view them firsthand and speak with scholars taking part in the program.
Tours range from one day to multiple days and can be tailored to specific interests. Private tours are available. Hotels, transportation, and some included meals make it cost effective with easy logistics.
Where to Stay
Another newbie—the Tamburlaine hotel—sits conveniently near the train station in Cambridge just a short ten-minute walk to the city center. Named after the play by Christopher Marlowe, the hotel has a similarly dramatic environment with books as art and nooks for reading. There are four different menus provided throughout the day with afternoon tea. Book direct and get 10 percent off room rates.
Don’t overlook British cuisine. Many of the pubs prepare excellent fare and you can also rub elbows with the locals. Did you know that England makes great sparkling wine as well? Jim Dixon, founder U.K. Countryside Tours, will point out interesting microbreweries, distilleries, and sparkling wines in the region. Sip the bubbly at Denbies Wine Estate, Nyetimber, or Chapel Down Winery.
Most people rent cars since it gives maximum flexibility, but it can get pricey. The train is an excellent way to see the sights if you plan routes in advance. Tours provide transportation, taking the hassle out of it, but itineraries are then set.
Download Live Train Times UK for up-to-the-minute arrival and departure times, platform information, and even the number of cars. Trainline UK is another useful app that allows you to buy tickets up until 10 minutes before departure.
Janet Browne’s biographies of Charles Darwin, Voyaging and The Power of Place, are must-reads for history buffs; fiction lovers can’t go wrong with Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters. For guidebooks, the Dorling Kindersley’s DK Back Roads Great Britain offers history, scenery, and a guide to all the local inns and pubs.
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By Natalie Compagno and Greg Freitas for PeterGreenberg.com