Monthly Archives: November 2013

Travel to Europe: Go Off the Beaten Path

Traveling to Europe is an adventure in itself – exciting, highly anticipated and filled with myths.

Stop for a moment to think though and decide: to go off the beaten path or not.
Rent a car and explore the continent on your own, besides, distances are not what they are in the States. As old as Europe is, you’ll always find less popular but worth seeing places, and happily escape the tourist stampede.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) keeps an extensive list with unique cultural and natural sites, which are especially valuable for the common heritage of humanity. As of 2013, the list contains 981 sites of which 759 cultural, 193 natural, and 29 mixed properties in a total of 160 countries.

So when you travel to Europe keep in mind that you are going to see only a small fraction of the rich European heritage. However, you have to start from somewhere, and here are some suggestions out of UNESCO’s list.

Old city of Salamanca, Spain

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Spain, actually, ranks third on the list with the countries housing the greatest number of cultural sites, with a total of 44 points of interest, following Italy (49) and China (45).
Salamanca is an ancient university town near Madrid that has seen many invaders, ever since the 3rd century B.C. when the Carthaginians came. Then the Romans arrived, but couldn’t keep the territory and lost it to the Moors who ruled there until the 11th century. So you can imagine that the city displays monuments from different times and styles such as Romanesque, Moorish, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. Those styles are recognizable in the remarkable group of buildings comprising the city university. Along with Oxford and Cambridge, it is one of the oldest in Europe. It was established in the early 13th century and proclaimed itself “Mother of Virtues, of Sciences and the Arts.”

The Garrison town of Elvas and its fortress, Portugal

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This spectacular site dates back to 10th century and represents the largest bulwarked dry-ditch system in the world. Its main purpose was to guard a key crossing between Portugal’s capital Lisbon and Madrid, Spain. Inside the walls, you can see town’s barracks and various military buildings, churches and even a monastery. The fortifications began in 17th century when Portugal became independent. Their designer was Dutch Jesuit padre Cosmander, and it’s accepted that this is the best surviving example of the Dutch school of fortifications. A point of interest is the Amoreira aqueduct, built to withstand heavy sieges.

Maulbronn Monastery Complex, Germany

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Thought to be the best-preserved medieval monastic complex north of the Alps, the Maulbronn Monastery was founded in 1147 by the Cistercian Order. The main buildings inside the walls were erected sometime between the 12th and 16th centuries. An interesting fact remains that the monastery’s church is in the Transitional Gothic style which set the tone of Gothic architecture in Northern and Central Europe at that time. Another exceptional element of the complex is the sophisticated water-management system with a great network of drains, reservoirs and irrigation canals.

Tokaj Wine Region, Hungary

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If you travel to Europe, you should definitely try Tokaj wine. The whole region is an example of traditional land use. It has vineyards and settlements that have existed for over 1,000 years and are well-preserved today. Tokaj has wine cellars with very specific structures, as those of King Kalman in Tarcal date back to 1110. The cellars are either vaulted – typically an open space under a house, dug before the house was built; and excavated cellars, which were separate from the house. Usually the wine is stored and matures in casks of sessile oak. One of the most famous cellar network is in the Ungvari district and connects 27 cellars at different levels.

Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak, Bulgaria

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Located on the Balkan Peninsula in Southeast Europe, Bulgaria usually stays under the radar of American tourists, but the country has rich cultural heritage. Take the Thracian Tomb of Kazanlak that archaeologists say dates back to the end of the 4th century BC. The Thracians were an ancient tribe that was first mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. The Tomb was discovered in 1944, in the small central town of Kazanlak. Nearby, the archaeological digs revealed the capital city of king Seutes III, Seutopolis, also a part of a large Thracian necropolis. Inside the tomb, there are beautiful frescoes representing traditional burial rituals and the Thracian way of life. Specialists agree that the murals are exceptional examples of Thracian art.

 

Plan a family vacation your kids will remember and treasure

The holiday season will soon begin, and now is the time to start planning your travels. A family vacation around Thanksgiving or Christmas would only add to the festive mood and the loving spirit. Here’s an idea: instead of spending hundreds of dollars on gifts for everybody, why not take a trip with the children and even the grandparents?
Down the road, your kids would appreciate such family trips because they are a quality time spent together and enhance that feeling of closeness.

Besides, many sweet memories are being created in the process. It’s a well-known fact that kids become more attached to their grandparents if they have the chance to go on a trip together. Well, it’s simple. People get to know each other better when they are confined in a car, or a hotel, for a period of time. The shared experiences are priceless and the abundance of photos taken cannot tell it all.

So make the family vacation pleasant and memorable by considering the following points.

Pick the right rental car

Considering the great selection every rental car company has to offer, think what kind of vehicle would suit your needs best. If grandma and grandpa are coming, and so is Maxie, the chocolate lab, you’re going to need something spacious. You never know who would want to go napping in the back and when. You don’t want territorial fights while you are driving. Besides, a family vacation should be an enjoyable experience for everyone. Rent a van, or if you are doing a cross-country travel, why not even an RV?

Find the right hotel

When doing your initial research, ignore advertising material that is sprinkled with words such as “intimate,” “romantic,” or “candle-lit dinner”. Make sure the hotel is family-friendly, and it has an indoor or outdoor playground. Moreover, there would be kids constantly running around, so yours wouldn’t be the only ones disturbing the peace. People with small children should think of childproofing the hotel room by bringing outlet covers, plastic cabinet locks and whatnot.

If you’re planning to take the dog on the family vacation, find a hotel that accepts pets. You wouldn’t want to be running around looking for a pet-friendly hotel after 10 hours of uninterrupted driving.

Visit places that will teach your kids something

Washington DC

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Historical monuments along with historical or natural points of interest are all over the place. Do your homework and mark your possible stops. Show your children the beauty of the country as well as parts of its history. They will never forget it, like you’ve never forgotten the family vacations when you were a child. Most museums are open during the weekend and are closed on Mondays.

Eat healthy while on the road

This could take a little bit of preparation in advance. Have breakfast at home before you leave. Understandably enough, your first impulse would be to make a stretch at the first fast food joint out of convenience, or maybe because you’re used to it. Don’t. Buy a cooler. No matter the season, a cooler would come handy if you want to chill water or preserve a home-cooked meal. Avoid eating lots of carbs because they make you sleepy. Eat light while driving; pack some fresh fruit and vegetables so you can snack along the way. Bringing food from home would also save you money.

Plan activities for the whole family

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You are not going to create valuable memories for your children if you don’t think of something interesting to do once you’ve reached your final destination. Go to theme parks, or zoos, or events suitable for kids. Take them to a sports game; if the weather allows it, go on a picnic and let your kids socialize with other children. Local museums usually have workshops organized especially for kids; take them hiking, or horseback riding if there’s such an option wherever you are. In the evenings you can play board-games, play cards or other games – create a fun and loving environment they will remember for the rest of their lives.

Detroit Thanksgiving is testament to a defiant city

Detroit, Michigan, was once an industrial empire with a huge automobile industry, first made famous by the legendary Henry Ford. Yet only a short time ago the city filed for bankruptcy, facing a fiscal cliff that threatened its very survival amid cripplingly high unemployment rates and massive urban flight. Many likened Detroit to a war-torn metropolis.

Yet this iconic city, a standard bearer for America’s extraordinary diversity, has tried to fight back. This year, in spite of the financial emergency, there have been some encouraging signs of revitalization. These include new constructions such as the $82 million reconstruction of the David Whitney Building in downtown Detroit and the Woodward Garden Block Development in the city’s midtown area.

And every year, as it has done for almost a whole century, Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day parade assumes center-stage, providing a welcome opportunity to forget the city’s (and one’s own!) problems and have some fun. 

Thanksgiving Day Parade - 2012

87 – not out!

This year, Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Turkey Trot, sponsored by 5/3 Bank, takes place on Thursday, November 28. It is expected to attract more than 30,000 runners and additional parade attendees, providing a real fillip to the local economy. This, the 87th Parade, will start at Woodward Avenue and Kirby and end at Woodward Avenue and Congress in downtown Detroit. You too can enjoy the extraordinary spectacle of Detroit Thanksgiving when you take a car rental to the parade.

Thanksgiving Day Parade - 2012

A rich history

Detroit’s traditional Thanksgiving Parade began in 1924. Gimbel’s in Philadelphia was actually the first American department store to try its hand at parade sponsorship. But it was J.L. Hudson’s in Detroit (at the heart of the downtown shopping district) that first launched a parade that became enshrined in Thanksgiving traditions.

Hudson’s relinquished sponsorship in 1979 when it turned it over to the Detroit Renaissance. Sponsorship was then handed over to The Michigan Thanksgiving Parade Foundation and, finally, in 1990, the foundation’s marketing and operating division, The Parade Company, was created.

In 1985, shortly after the parade experienced a major sponsorship change, the Distinguished Clown Corps made its first appearance in the parade. Local businessmen can serve as clowns for a $1,000 donation and many distinguished folk have done just that.

Thanksgiving Day Parade - 2012

All the fun of the fair

The Detroit Thanksgiving Parade is truly one of the most colorful in America, featuring the distinguished clown corps, flotillas and balloons. Expect to see Disney characters, school marching bands, giant floats and some genuinely eccentric incarnations – people dressed as giant ants or sunflowers and, in the past, even some participants riding penny farthing bicycles!

Previous parades have also seen horse-drawn processions, Mounties, dancers dressed as movie characters and marchers decked out in Star Wars costumes as well as giant papier-mâché heads of film stars such as Tom Selleck.

Football and footfall

What would Thanksgiving in Detroit be without a good game of football? The Detroit Lions have hosted a game on Thanksgiving Day since 1934. This year, Ford Field in downtown Detroit hosts the Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay Packers at 12.30pm.

A Turkey Day Flop

The day after Thanksgiving, Friday November 29, is a holiday for many and Detroit hosts one of the biggest shopping days of the year. Consult your local Thanksgiving Day newspaper to acquire ads, coupons, and circulars that will give you big savings. Some deals will enable you to get an extra 10 percent off if you shop before 11am.

Other cities may have similar processions to Detroit’s, for example New York’s giant Macy’s Parade, but the Michigan parade is truly inimitable and one that just has to be experienced. So make a date to be in Detroit on November 28!

Teach Your Kids History While Traveling: 5 Family Vacation Ideas

Travel shouldn’t be only about moving from one place to another, while killing time by staring blankly out of a car or an airplane window. It should be about adventure and learning something new and exciting. Think up some fresh family vacation ideas, especially when you take your kids with you. Try to create an itinerary whereby the places you visit have some educational and entertainment value. Renting the right vehicle is vital, so the trip is comfortable and enjoyable for everyone.

Show your kids national historic landmarks. Teach them those important facts of American history that will stir their belonging and patriotism.
After all, what better way to learn the basics about the Civil War, for example, than to visit the actual battlefields?

The Antietam National Battlefield

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Southerners also call it the Battle of Sharpsburg because it took place near Sharpsburg, Maryland and Antietam Creek. This major combat in the American Civil War fell on Sept. 17, 1862, and it was the first to be led on Union territory. It is often referred to as the bloodiest battle in American history, for after 12 hours of an uninterrupted offensive, 23,000 soldiers were killed or went missing. In the end, the Confederate troops withdrew and Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, preventing the British and the French from recognizing the Confederacy.

Also, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland, houses 21 original Civil War photographs documenting the Battle of Antietam. Mathew Brady, considered to be the father of photojournalism, took them in 1862.

The Plimoth Plantation

Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism / Foter.com / CC BY-ND

There is no better place to go back in time and get a feel of how it all started. Plimoth Plantation offers a glimpse of the first original settlement, established in 1627 by English colonists. It is locаted in Plymouth, Massachusetts and it has gradually been recreated using facts from period paintings, artifacts and personal accounts as well as first- and secondhand records. To make the experience vivid and real, the museum employs interpreters who dress, act and speak as people did several centuries ago. They address visitors in the first person and are ready to answer questions as well as demonstrate skills in blacksmithing, animal husbandry, cooking and planting. If you take your kids there, check the Parent’s Guide on the museum’s website to find out about all the fun things you can do together.

The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum

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One of the greatest American protests of all time, the Boston Tea Party took place on December 16, 1773 and it jump-started the American Revolution. The Colonists wanted the same rights as true Englishmen and objected to being taxed without representation in the English parliament. And when one shipment of tea reached the Boston shores with an imposed tax the Americans had not authorized, the demonstrators destroyed the entire supply by dumping it in the water.

So this floating Boston museum is a treat for the entire family. Today, you can explore authentically restored tea ships; meet the colonists (role-playing actors) or dump tea overboard just like the Sons of Liberty did 240 years ago. If you have the chance, visit the museum on December 16 because the whole event will be reenacted, and it’s spectacular.

Lincoln’s Home National Historic Site, Springfield, Illinois

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This isn’t Abraham Lincoln’s birth house, but it’s the first one he ever owned. He lived there with his wife Mary Todd from 1844 to 1861, before becoming the 16th president of the United States. It contains 12 rooms on two floors. The presidential memorial includes also the four blocks surrounding the house and a visitor center. Back in 1887, Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln donated the property to the State of Illinois on condition that it would be open to the public free of charge and well-maintained at all times. Some other properties on that four-blocks perimeter are also preserved and open to visitors. The exhibits embody the spirit of the times and the life of Lincoln and his neighbors.

Cody, Wyoming

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The Wild West is a big part of American history, and it is strictly unique to this country. Probably the best place to take your kids to experience the murky times of when the gold rush was big is Cody’s Buffalo Bill Center of the West. So many things could be seen and touched at the five museums comprising the center. The kids could play cowboy or cowgirl, learn facts about the wild Buffalo Bill; collect information about Native Americans and the early ways of ranching. Nearby is the Old Trail Town where authentic Western buildings and cabins bear the spirit of times long gone, but a significant part of American history nevertheless.

 

The crimson tide: Four reasons why Beaujolais Nouveau 2013 is still an EVENT

You undress and take your place in a hot spring and submerge into a soothing liquid. You look down. You are bathing in crimson waters. Don’t worry, the liquid concerned is not blood! You have not accidentally stepped into some ghastly horror film! You are actually bathing in a Japanese spa, 80 km southwest of Tokyo.

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It may sound fantastical but such is the popularity of Beaujolais Nouveau wine that thousands of people will be flocking to this spa for 10 days from November 21.  And someone will even appear at regular intervals to pour some more of this precious substance into the spa – just like your mother with a kettle on bath night when the boiler ran cold!

For many wine connoisseurs around the world, November marks the build-up to this year’s decanting of this celebrated wine made from Gamay grapes grown in the Beaujolais region. Such is the enduring appeal of this wine from a relatively small region in France’s central “breadbasket” that houses 4000 vineyards.

The figures speak for themselves. In 2010, around 35 million bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau entered the market. Of these, around 7.5 million were sold in French supermarkets and 15.5 million to Japan, Germany and the US. Around 49 million liters of this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau 2013 are likely to be produced.

Here are four reasons why this French wine is such a favorite worldwide:

1. Quality

The wine comes from the vest of French grapes, all of which are handpicked. These are the only vineyards, along with champagne, where hand harvesting is mandatory. The wine has a fruity hue and the bitter tannins, normally found in red wines, are absent because the must is pressed early.

The wine may not excite all critics, of course. One wine writer, Karen MacNeil, has compared drinking Beaujolais Nouveau to eating cookie dough. Elsewhere on the net it’s been referred to as “kicked up grape juice”. But who cares about a few snobbish critics? Most people like it.

 

2. Tradition

The French love any excuse to uncork a few bottles and have a good party. There are about 120 Beaujolais Nouveau-related festivals held in the Beaujolais region alone. The most celebrated, Les Sarmentelles, is held in the town of Beaujeu, the area’s capital. The five-day festival features wine tasting, live music and dancing.

French law stipulates that the wines must be held until one second after midnight on release day which, it is also decreed, should be no earlier than the third Thursday of November.

“It’s the New Year’s day of wine. We celebrate the vintage – not just of Beaujolais, but all wines,” explains Patrick Fabre, proprietor of Paris bistro Aux Tonneaux des Halles.

Unlike other Nouveau wines, it doesn’t improve with age so you may as well drink it when it is first uncorked.

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3. A skilled marketing campaign

The release of the year’s Beaujolais Nouveau has become an event that everyone awaits with licked lips. A lot of that is due to the marketing ingenuity of Georges Duboeuf, “le roi du Beaujolais” – the king of Beaujolais.  Now 80 years old, Duboeuf managed to convert what was essentially an old wives’ tale – the idea that town criers once circulated French towns announcing the arrival of this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau vintage – into a perennial tradition.

La Cave de George Duboeuf, a wine shop in Paris with a cheerful pink facade, opens between 8am and 7pm on November 21, selling and offering tastings of various “primeurs” bottles. More than a fifth of Duboeuf’s annual production, about 4 million bottles, is Beaujolais Nouveau.

And where was “le roi” be for the first tasting of this year’s vintage? Monsieur Duboeuf will have been in Japan, which is perhaps testament to his wine’s success.

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4. Adaptability

Unlike most red wines, which are drunk at room temperature, Beaujolais Nouveau is best drunk at around 55 degrees. As such, it’s something of a party drink, not so much sipped as swigged. Americans like it with their Thanksgiving meal; it’s great with anything from pizza to turkey sandwiches and this is in a country where consumption of red wine is less than 30 per cent.  It makes a great transitional wine for anyone wanting to move from white to red.

Beaujolais Nouveau might have dipped slightly in popularity in France itself, but it’s still big in California and Japan (selling 12.5m bottles at its peak in 2004) and emerging markets.

So are you going to visit Beaujeu or perhaps the Hakone Yunessun spa in Japan? Wherever you go, there will be no escaping Beaujolais Nouveau 2013.

 

 

5 tips for planning a car rental across the pond

Motoring in Europe can be a challenge for the American psyche: the narrow lanes, the aggressive steering, the irritating tendency to drive on the “wrong” side in the UK, the complexity of dealing with different languages and … cue the screeching sound of fingernails on a blackboard … the horror of being on the road in ITALY.

Yes, driving in Europe does require a different set of muscles but with careful preparation you will only have to admire the Carabinieri from a distance.

Let’s be straight with each other. A car rental is great for some routes round Europe – in particular exploring little towns and hamlets ill-served by public transport – but not a great idea for really major cities. The key, as so often, is planning; know where you are going, establish your itinerary and sort out your transport accordingly. Here are five tips in the run-up to your journey.

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Prepare proper documentation

You will need travel insurance, a driver’s license and guidebook. Start packing at least a week before your trip and check that your phone provider allows you international access. And, yes, you will need a passport, the thing that Europeans always joke that Americans don’t need because they never travel. Prove them wrong! Retrieve it from the recesses of your cupboard, open it so you get used to the texture and feel of it and check the expiry date. Remember that ordering a new passport can take between 4 and 6 weeks.

Is your destination really car-friendly?

London is a case in point. What with gridlocked roads and the congestion charge and the relative ease of public transport, a car rental would be folly. Of course, that doesn’t mean we are recommending you travel on the tube at rush hour. But, for example, the Thames River cruise from Westminster pier to Greenwich would be far more enjoyable than being caught in traffic in the City of London. Driving around other busy European capitals is not necessarily the best option either.

Likewise, you would do better on two wheels in bike-friendly Amsterdam, or taking the tram in hilly Lisbon. If you do plan to hire a car in the UK, it would be advisable to pick up in a smaller city like Bristol or Bath. Steer clear of major destinations at the start and end of your trip and also avoid picking up at an airport. In Germany, for example, if you start your hire car at an airport or station, you will play an extra 20 per cent. Learn the rules of the road of the country you are visiting. Go to the US State Department site and click on your destination for more information.

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Book everything from the US

Always book the air fare before anything else. Then think about accommodation and the car rental. But every step of your journey should be pre-booked. This not only gives you peace of mind, it is also considerably cheaper than paying on a case by case basis in Europe where you don’t know what hidden expenses you may incur. If you get all your credit card fees out of the way in the US, then you know exactly what you have paid beforehand.

Budget carefully

You will always have to beware of hidden extras. Bring back a near empty tank to the drop-off point and you may find yourself with a 200 dollar fee for fuel plus a refilling charge. So fill up the tank and make sure you keep the receipt. Return the car early to avoid incurring late payments. Sometimes you are made to pay an extra day if you return your vehicle late.

If you want an automatic vehicle, order it well in advance but remember that in Europe it can cost an extra 100 to 200 dollars a week. Cars bound for Eastern European countries like Romania and Bulgaria, as well as the Soviet Union, will also cost more because rental companies are wary of such trips. Hopping between countries will also add to your bill. It’s as well to bear in mind that Italy has the highest car rental rates and Germany the lowest.

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Finally…choose a reputable company

Although many companies are available to you, it’s best to avoid very small ones. What happens if you break down in an isolated area and need help from your car rental firm? Avis, for example, has more than 350 locations in Germany alone. When you know you have a back-up in the case of an emergency you will drive more calmly.

 

 

In the Heart of a Southern Pearl: Blacksburg, Virginia

Blacksburg may be a small town in Virginia, but it has won some significant accolades.
In 2011, this community of almost 42,000 residents was crowned by Businessweek.com as the best place in the U.S. to raise kids. The same year, Southern Living magazine voted it the best college town in the South, home to the renowned Virginia Tech. So why not use the last days of the Indian summer for a family trip down there? Take advantage of Blacksburg car rental opportunities and see for yourself what this college town, that “everyone thinks is a fabulous place to live,” has to offer.

The best place to raise kids in the U.S.

At first glance, Blacksburg looks like yet another small town where the primary population is college students. But, according to Businessweek.com and its sixth nationwide ranking, it is the safest (and yet affordable) place for families to raise their children. The town, tucked between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, has amenities that encourage its inhabitants to do lots of sports, educational and social activities. Blacksburg also meets a bunch of other criteria that place it at the top, such as excellent schools and relatively low crime. The town’s residents are also highly educated with two-thirds aged 25 and older holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the survey. About 40% have a graduate or professional degree.

The best college town in the South

Virginia Tech Campus

Photo credit: mikemac29 / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Founded in 1872, Virginia Tech first began as an agricultural and mechanical land-grant college. It is located in the New River Valley, which is a picturesque area within the Jefferson National Forest, Claytor Lake State Park and the New River Trail State Park. All offer plenty of recreational opportunities. Biking is extremely popular, rural and suburban alike. Trails connect the urban areas with parks and forests. In fact, the New River Trail along the New River is the longest off-road biking trail in Virginia. If you don’t want to sweat and puff, check Blacksburg car rental options and drive around, it’s equally enjoyable. As for recreational activities, spelunking is an extremely popular sport with hundreds of caverns and caves to explore. Rafting, hiking, rock climbing, fishing, and golfing go without saying.

Blacksburg is a top college town in the South because it’s also a great opportunity for recent graduates and young professionals to find a job. The local economy and technology industry is regularly supplied with fresh blood from the engineering program. The town is also home to research-and-development businesses, startups and manufacturing companies.

Smithfield Plantation

Photo Credit: twitter.com

This rich with history site is adjacent to the Virginia Tech campus in the heart of Blacksburg. The plantation was built from 1772 to 1774 by the Revolutionary War patriot William Preston where he lived with his wife Susanna and their 12 children. Four of their descendants became Virginia governors, and many others were involved in drafting state legislation. Throughout the years, some of the Preston clan took part in the founding and growth of several universities, including Virginia Tech. The house is L-shaped, with spacious rooms and high ceilings. The style of the architecture and the details are typical of frontier homes.

Steppin’ Out Arts Festival

Once a year, downtown Blacksburg becomes an arena for the arts. More than 200 artists and crafts people from all over the U.S. are featured with their work. Residents and guests of Blacksburg can find original jewelry, pottery, fine art, furniture, textiles, yard art and gourmet foods and so much more.

Music is an essential part of the browsing experience or just for chilling out. Three stages host live performances, which gives the event an even more artistic feel. The festival is family-friendly, but it’s advisable not to bring pets because it gets really crowded.
In 2014, Steppin’ Out will take place on August 1st and 2nd.

The eternal thrill of Vegas

Just the name “Vegas” evokes instant images – monster shopping malls, marauding mobsters, gold-plated towers and sybaritic splendor. Above all, of course, gambling…the 24-hour playground of those enjoying the pulsating thrill of a possible windfall of unearned earnings or…betting everything on one last desperate, doomed dice roll at 4am.

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Jaundiced observers may see Vegas as a monument to artifice, greed and sleaze. Others see it as the most exciting city on planet earth. One fact speaks for itself; the city attracted 40 million visitors last year alone. And although the economic crisis has taken its toll on this extraordinary Nevada city, it’s still home to 15 out of 20 of the world’s largest hotels.

It’s no coincidence that Vegas has featured in so many movies, whether it’s Presley’s Viva Las Vegas or the Rat Pack’s Ocean’s 11 – moving on to Martin Scorsese’s sizzling profile of organized crime, Casino. Who can forget the psychopathic, pen-wielding mobster played by Joe Pesci? Be careful if he’s on the phone in any casino near you…

Or the doomed drunkard played by Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas? It’s a place that, of course, has its dark side, but only if you choose to see it so. It’s also the city of dreams, the ideal setting for a wedding or a romantic getaway.

Vegas may be designed to bankrupt the foolish gambler but it need not be that way. Set a ceiling on your spread and stick to it, down to the last nickel. If you lose, fair enough.  If you win, don’t get greedy. The “odds”, that elusive term common to gamblers, may ultimately be against you, but gambling IS fun. So if you like to bet on which raindrop will reach the bottom of the window first (although there’s little of that in Vegas) or in the words of former mayor Oscar Goodman – a fierce custodian of the city’s reputation – “which way a cockroach will move”, then this is your mecca.

Great perks accompany gambling in Vegas. Drinks in most casinos – the yard-long margarita being a particular favorite – are complimentary. So when you get to the fruit machines, take time to enjoy a good slug and don’t pull that handle too frequently. The biggest ever slot machine jackpot was 39 million dollars but be prepared to fall a little short of that. Of course, if you’re mega-rich and prepared to risk colossal sums, then, as Piers Morgan once proved in a documentary, a casino can take a million dollars off you very quickly!

A car is a great way to see Vegas. Don’t think about hiring a limo. That’s a cliché in Vegas and nobody will notice you. Parking is free almost everywhere and gas is cheaper here than in neighboring California. So a Las Vegas car rental will not break the bank.

Fancy going on a gondola in a replica Venetian canal? Or a trip up the Vegas version of the Eiffel Tower? Or staying in an Egyptian pyramid? You’re in business. Vegas caters to your every whim, especially if you’re a good customer. Are you pining for a mountain of caviar? It’s at your door, sir! Doubtless, certain establishments would deliver the Taj Mahal to your room if they could transport it!

And you’re in great company. The Venetian, which now occupies the site of the old Sands Hotel and Casino, was where the original Rat Pack – principally Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis – played to sellout audiences in the early 1960s. Howard Hughes and Tony Curtis were also former residents. Nowadays, you may find the likes of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears prepared to officiate at your party … for a price!

Werner Kunz / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Go down Vegas’ strip and you will see what was once the world’s largest hotel, the MGM Grand (3799 Las Vegas Boulevard) the New York, New York Hotel and Casino (3790 Las Vegas Boulevard) and – just opposite at number 3785 – M & M’s stores – four floors of chocolate fun – and Caesars Palace (3570 Las Vegas Boulevard), the Monte Carlo Hotel and Casino (3770 Las Vegas Boulevard) and the Trump Tower (2000 Fashion Show Drive – Las Vegas Strip) with its 24 carat-gold windows.

Werner Kunz / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

You can easily pay 25,000 dollars a night for the best accommodation in the city. But there are many places within the reach of mere mortals. Avoid coming on weekends when room prices spiral. Keep a cool head and enjoy yourself. Of course, if you ever get really fed up with the glitz, the desert is nearby. Just don’t bump into Mr Pesci; he may be disposing of a corpse or two behind those rocks!