It’s almost unfathomable. Canadians make 22.7 million overnight visits to the United States each year. That’s one night for two out of every three of us. But maybe that’s not surprising. Many of our nation’s largest urban areas are within a short drive of the American border, and as such, the United States makes for a relatively affordable getaway (depending on the exchange rate, of course!). That’s why border states (New York, Washington, Michigan) are some of the favourite destinations of Canadians, while the other top spots are literally hot spots (Florida, Nevada, California). Given the overwhelming number of Canadians travelling to the United States annually, we’ve dedicated the following feature to highlighting state-nickname-inspired destinations in each of these most-visited states. So read on. Hopefully you’ll discover something new about an old favourite.
NEW YORK . The Empire State.
One of the best ways to see New York state actually begins in Toronto, at 8:20 a.m., aboard train 7097, a.k.a. the Maple Leaf. Two hours later, passengers are in Niagara Falls, N.Y., ready to embark on the American leg of Amtrak’s Empire Service, which traverses 742 kilometres of the Empire State on its way to New York City. Sure, the Big Apple is still 12 to 13½ hours away, but taking your time is the whole point of this journey.
Begin by planning to break the trip into stages, staying the night at two or three of the route’s 16 stops to experience places you’d otherwise roll past with hardly a glance.
There’s Syracuse, for instance, whose panoply of events and attractions include the Craft New York Brewers Festival (Nov. 21, 2015), the Everson Art Museum and the Great New York State Fair (Aug. 25 to Sept. 5, 2016). In Rome, meanwhile, pay a visit to the Capitol Theatre, an 87-year-old, 1,788-seat art-deco jewel that shows new releases, classics and silent films — the latter with live accompaniment from the theatre’s original Möller organ.
Farther southeast and along the banks of the Hudson River is tiny Rhinecliff, home of the Rhinecliff Hotel, a former rooming house that’s been lovingly restored to its 1850s glory and has nine country-chic rooms, each with its own balcony and a view of the water.
New York City is just 145 kilometres distant now, and the final stretch of track runs through the heart of the gorgeous Hudson River valley, passing the ruins of Bannerman Castle, built by munitions dealer Frank Bannerman in the early 1900s, and the imposing walls of the United States Military Academy at West Point before arriving at Penn station and what promises to be an entirely more frenetic (but no less enjoyable) experience.
FLORIDA. The Sunshine State.
Compared with the opulence of the Ritz-Carlton hotel it’s located in, contemporary seafood restaurant Jack Dusty has an airy beach vibe, a raw bar featuring the catch of the day and a terrace with a postcard view of Sarasota Bay.
It’s a contrast that’s echoed in the city of Sarasota itself, which is at once the state’s cultural heart — think art museums, two symphonies, an opera house and a world-class ballet company — and the jumping-off point to more than 60 kilometres of quiet, white-sand beaches that line the Gulf of Mexico coast and the neighbouring keys, the long, skinny islands just a few kilometres offshore.
Siesta Key’s gorgeous namesake beach is regularly named as one of the best in the United States, Casey Key has one of the best shelling beaches in the region, and Manasota Key, the southernmost of the islands, has four stretches of sandy shoreline that can be found completely deserted at times.
On Longboat Key, meanwhile, there’s a championship golf course and one of America’s finest tennis resorts, The Resort at Longboat Key Club. On tiny St. Armands Key is St. Armands Circle, where you can stroll the pink brick sidewalks, popping into one-of-a-kind boutiques to shop for handmade crafts, high-end jewelry and clothing designed by locals, or settle down in the shade with a Cuban sandwich and a glass of sangria at the Columbia restaurant before beelining it back to the beach.
When you do, make for Lido beach on the key of the same name, which is just a short walk from St. Armands Circle — there’s no better place in Florida for getting that icing-sugar sand between your toes and diving into the Gulf’s warm waters.
WASHINGTON. The Evergreen State.
Sleepwalkers take heed. The two-storey guest room at the Cedar Creek Treehouse is anchored around the trunk and branches of a 200-year-old western red cedar — more than 15 metres above the forest floor.
But if somnambulations aren’t an issue, try a couple of nights in this astonishing, intimate treetop retreat near the Nisqually River entrance to Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park. In fact, the structure sits up in West Coast forest canopy very near the foot of Mount Rainier itself, a (currently resting) volcano and, at 4,392 metres, the Pacific Northwest Cascade range’s highest peak.
Designer, builder and owner Bill Compher, 65, started engineering his solar-powered tree retreat in 1981. About 20 years later, he and the family added a 30-metre-high observatory (an
octagon of windows aimed at Rainier and its neighbour peaks) as well as the “Stairway to Heaven” (a spiral staircase wrapped around a Douglas fir trunk) and suspension bridge that get you there. Always on hand if you need him during your stay, Compher lives up in his “floating treehouse,” a bright little chalet suspended 23 metres high between nearby trees.
The Cedar Creek Treehouse has room for just two adults at a time, so call well ahead. And know that while those capricious West Coast winters make for first-rate cross-country skiing, they can mean the sudden cancellation of reservations, too (regular bookings resume in March). The revitalizing evergreen-filtered air, the dwarfing effect of the trees and the total loss of mobile networks are sure to disconnect you from grown-up cares and duties, so have fun swinging in hammocks, stargazing through skylights above your bed and playing in the nearby national park and Gifford Pinchot National Forest. You’re sleeping in a treehouse, after all.
MICHIGAN. The Great Lake State.
For most of a bike ride around Mackinac Island, the soft crush of Lake Huron’s waves are the loudest sound you’ll hear. The quiet part of the 13-kilometre perimeter ends as Lake Shore Road turns into Main Street, where cyclists, pedestrians and horses congregate. No cars are allowed on the island, but during summer tourist season downtown has crowds of hundreds, bustling stores and the sugary smell of the island’s famous fudge.
Mackinac (pronounced MACK-in-awe) Island is a quintessential lakeside destination in Michigan (known as the Great Lake State since it borders four of five Great Lakes). Visitors hopping off a ferry can learn about nearby shipwrecks, study Fort Mackinac’s history or sail an afternoon away. Locals insist, however, that the best parts of the island are away from the crowds, on the more than 80 per cent of it designated as state park.
“You almost feel like you’ve got the island to yourself,” says horse-drawn carriage guide Aaron McCarthy of the park. His favourite spot is Tranquil Bluff, a trail that stretches from British Landing to Arch Rock, a limestone formation overlooking the water that’s been central to the area’s history. The island’s strategic location, just east of the Straits of Mackinac where lakes
Michigan and Huron meet, made it significant to the fur trade and the War of 1812.
Today, the island’s tall bluffs offer stunning views of the Straits and Mackinac Bridge, which joins Michigan’s peninsulas. Another great way to see the suspension bridge — the longest in the Western Hemisphere — is by boat (local cruises are available).
Once the lake freezes in winter, the island is reserved for more daring visitors (and about 500 year-round residents), drawn for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. A flight or the ice bridge become the only ways on and off the island, where most hotels close and the horses are
shipped to the mainland. As McCarthy says, “It’s a totally different dynamic in the winter.”
NEVADA. The Silver State.
You can make like a prospector in Las Vegas (striking it rich or striking out), but the Silver State’s nickname comes from its silver-mining past. So to truly explore Nevada’s silver lining, leave the Strip behind. The original boom began in 1859 with the discovery of the Comstock Lode ore deposit near Virginia City (a find credited with creating the state of Nevada).
Today, visitors to the town of about 850, a local getaway located 42 kilometres southeast of Reno on winding Route 341, can explore its heritage and get a taste of life in the late-19th-century Wild West. While Nevada’s silvermining history is shared by many communities (see “Mine craft,” right), Virginia City boasts an unmatched combination of authentic boomtown buildings (richly preserved, elegant, Victoria-era architecture) and experiences, with great dining and accommodations, too.
The main drag, C Street, is home to antique and jewelry stores, a rock shop, an old-time confectionary (Barrels-O-Candy), bakeries, soda and ice cream parlours, a milliner, gambling saloons (like the notorious Bucket of Blood Saloon), eateries and a number of museums. The surrounding hillside streets are lined with impressively restored homes and B&Bs, such as the regal Cobb Mansion — itself a living museum of period furnishings and opulence.
Historical walking tours of town are on offer, as are tours of local mines (the guides on the 25-minute Ponderosa Mine tour provide a witty sampling of life underground). And a V&T Railroad excursion aboard a vintage steam train through the area’s rugged terrain, replete with views of wild horses, promises a similar crash course in the history of the town’s heyday. Virginia City’s smalltown charm is the polar opposite of Las Vegas’s big-city bravado — a discovery worth making.
CALIFORNIA. The Golden State.
Walking through Bodie is like stepping into a sepia-toned postcard. Everything — from the battered buildings to the high-elevation hills — is a dusty brown, as if someone pressed a desaturation button. Hidden down a winding dirt road in a seemingly barren pocket of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range, it’s hard to believe that one of the richest gold strikes in California history happened here.
It was the mid-1870s when the local mine started producing millions of dollars’ worth of gold and silver. People predictably flocked to the area, and the town quickly grew. At its height, about 10,000 prospectors lived in this “sea of sin,” as one reverend referred to Bodie in 1881.
Life here was indeed rough. In addition to the usual hallmarks of an unruly populace — whiskey flowed freely in the town’s 65 saloons — the winter’s freezing, 160-kilometre-an-hour winds could pile snowdrifts six metres high. The euphemism “Have a man for breakfast?” meant seeing who had frozen to death on the front stoop overnight.
Alas, Bodie went from boomtown to ghost town in a matter of decades. The mines dried up and two huge fires, one in 1892 and a second in 1932, decimated all but 10 per cent of the town’s 2,000 buildings. Tourists now walk through what little of that remains.
Bodie is unusual in that what’s left is so well preserved. Peering through the windows of the school reveals books scattered over tables. Shops are still lined with original (albeit empty) liquor bottles. Visitors can wander past the old post office, past the Miners’ Union Hall and into the ransacked Methodist Church.
Officially a state historic park since 1962, Bodie is maintained in “arrested decay,” meaning the 100 structures are protected from further degeneration but won’t be restored. Regardless, the town is a hidden gem of the Golden State’s mining heritage.
This article was originally published in the November 2015 issue of Canadian Geographic Travel.