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Trip Report 2 weeks in FL, Savannah and Charleston

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We just returned from our 2 week trip to the south. We were away from March 4-March 18. The weather was ideal, except for the last 1.5 days in Charleston where it was rainy and cold, but still warmer than where we live in the northeast.Our itinerary was as follows:3 nights in Boca, 3 nights in Sarasota, 1 night in St. Augustine, 1 night in Yulee, 1 night in Savannah and 4 nights in Charleston.

We flew into West Palm Beach where we picked up our rental can. After staying with relatives for 2 days in Boca, we headed to Sarasota , mainly for the purpose of seeing the Ringling Museum. We spent the whole day there from 10-6 and found the house and the circus museums fascinating. We paid $5 extra for a house tour and it was well worth it. The tour of the circus museum was free. In addition to seeing the Ringling Museum, we went to Fort Desoto in Bradenton and to Lido beach in Sarasota.

We stayed at the Hyatt Hotel in Sarasota. It is a very nice property, but has no beach of its own. The resort fee which is mandatory entitles you to "free" bicycle and kayak rentals on a first come first served basis. They must have very few kayaks because although we got to the dock early in the morning, we mussed getting their last kayak by a few minutes. We were invited to wait until one came in, but we were not willing to waste our time doing this.

Dinner one night was at Selva's Grille, an upscale "Peruvian" restaurant in downtown Sarasota. The meal was excellent, but the Pisco sours were awful, even after the bartender's second attempt to redo the drinks. I had lomo saltado, a Peruvian beef stir fry, and DH had skirt steak. Both were delicious. I would give this restaurant 4 stars for the food, service and ambiance (a little loud, but generally a good vibe), and less than one star for the drinks.

After 3 days in Sarasota we drove 4 hours to St. Augustine.

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    Before heading on to St. Augustine, I want to back up a bit to mention two other restaurants in Sarasota. Opa Opa is a small family run Greek restaurant where I had fantastic rib lamb chops, and a delicious Greek dessert. The service was very good, as the waitress noticed that my lamb chops were more well done than I had ordered and insisted on taking them back and having new one broiled for me. The second ones were perfectly cooked. I highly recommend this place, though it is hard to find. We also ate at Anna Maria Oyster Bar in Bradenton, a large, noisy, no ambiance restaurant with a large fish menu. DH and I both had fried oysters which were light, non greasy and very good. I recommend this place and would return if I were in the area.

    Now on to St. Augustine where we stayed at the Best Western Spanish Quarter, which was in a perfect location to walk to everything we wanted to see. We arrived in St. Augustine in mid afternoon and were able to spend 1.5 hours at the fort which is run by the National Park Service. We had a short introductory talk by a park ranger and then wandered through the various rooms which were set up with displays. The view of the water from the grounds is lovely. The $7 admission charge is well worth it, and it is free for seniors who have the Senior National Park Pass.

    At 5 o'clock we did a 2 hour walking tour of the historic sites in St. Augustine which I had taken from the AAA book. Although most of the "historic houses" were closed, we viewed the exteriors, as well as the interiors of some of the historic hotels which were on the tour. We had a very good dinner at MOJO Old City BBQ, ordering the 2 meat platter (ribs and pulled pork) which came with 2 sides of our choice (collard greens and sweet potatoe fries). We finished the meal with excellent banana pudding.

    The next morning we took the 10am tour of Flagler College which was excellent. Our guide was funny and informative and we learned a lot about Henry Flagler who was instrumental in developing FL. The building itself is gorgeous and photos are allowed. We followed this with a tour of Pena Peck House which was informative, and free.

    By now it was mid afternoon and I wanted to see a beach so we drove up the coast from St. Augustine to Fenandina Beach , stopping at a beach just outside of St. Augustine for a walk in the sand. We arrived at Fenandina Beach at about 5PM in time to take a one hour walk through town to see some of the 50 block area of Victorian style homes.

    As it was starting to get dark, we decided to head fro Yulee, our overnight stop. On the way we stopped at San Jose Mexican Grill for a great Mexican meal. I had chicken and steak fajitas and DH had a different Mexican dish. The portions were very large and the food was well prepared. As we only had a few more miles to drive to our motel we both had very good Margaritas.

    We arrived at Best Western Plus in Yulee at about 9:30, after our very full day of sightseeing.

    Next stop-Savannah.

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    Shelleyk, I was confused when I read of you going to "Ft Desoto" in Bradenton, as Ft Desoto is located in St Pete, the other side of the Skyway Bridge. I googled it and you must have been at Desoto National Memorial (which I wasn't familiar with), which is in Bradenton, while Ft Desoto with its famously beautiful beach are both in St Pete. Easy to understand the confusion with that tho! I'm hoping you hadn't gone to see the beach that has been voted #1 in the US, then were disappointed!

    Our son-in-law spent a winter semester with some students teaching in Peru, searches out Peruvian food, and has taken us to a different Peruvian restaurant in Sarasota. I looked at pictures of your grill and it's a far cry from the one we went to, which was just a tiny place in a strip shopping center. I'll have to see if he knows about Selva, so thank you for that! It looks very nice. Sorry about the drinks!

    Looking forward to the rest of your report, having also lived in Savannah and loved both that and Charleston. I'll be interested in which of those cities is your favorite, although the poor weather in Charleston could affect that. Such a beautiful cities, both Charleston and Savannah, similar but different!

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    LindainOhio-I have not yet learned to take "relaxing" vacations. To me the more I can see and experience in a day, the better. Hence, our very long days. Since DH and I are both retired, we do not need lots of time chilling out, as we do that every day at home. We don't play golf, so that too is not something we pursue on holidays. Beaches are great for walking and viewing, but I can only spend an hour or two at the beach, even if the water is warm enough to swim in, which it was not when we were there.

    OO-We spent 18 days in Peru several years ago, where we had our first Pisco sours. Maybe I am holding Selva's to too high a standard, but their Pisco sours were dreadful compared to what we had in Peru. Also, although Selvas bills itself as a Peruvian restaurant, the only truly Peruvian dishes on the menu were many different types of ceviche which they had as appetizers, ans the lomo saltado which I had in Peru. Selvas lomo saltado was similar to what I had in Peru, and was very good. Other than that, most of the other dishes on the menu were not particularly Peruvian, and could be found on most American restaurant's menus, with maybe plantains as a side instead of say brocalli.

    You are correct that we were at Desoto National Memorial. As a former political science and history major, I am interested in the history of any area visit. Hence, our choice to visit this site, which besides having the history component had beautiful walking paths through the jungle landscape, as well as nice water views. I had read about Ft. Desoto and its beautiful beach, but we did not have time to visit it on this trip.

    I had not been to Florida in at least 35 years, as we have traveled abroad for most of our vacations for the last 25 years. We had such an unexpectedly great time on this trip that I plan to return to FL next winter to do another driving trip, and I probably will build in some "relaxing time" on that trip Ft. Desoto and its beach is definately on my "to do" list for next year. Any other suggestions to add to the list would be appreciated.

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    We drove 1:45 minutes from Yulee to Savannah, arriving mid morning. We checked into the Andaz Hotel, conveniently located at Ellis Square. What was not so convenient was the parking situation. You can pay the hotel for valet parking or pay for self park at a nearby parking lot. Although we intended to do the latter, because we wanted easy access to our car, the Whitaker Street parking lot was full. Why? Because we arrived the Wed. before St. Patricks Day (the following Monday). Many people had arrived early for the celebration, and this combined with business people who work until 5PM filled the parking lot by 12PM.

    So instead of checking in and walking through the city, we decided to drive to St. Bonaventure Cemetary. We spent about 1.5 hours walking the lanes draped with Spanish moss, enjoying the views and the serenity of the place. It was a very relaxing way to begin our trip to Savannah. By the time we got back to town at about 4PM, the FULL sign had been removed from the parking lot entrance and we were able to park our car. We spent the next 2 hours walking some of the squares close to the hotel and walking down to the river to do the river walk.

    At about 6:30 went to our room which was very big, modern and had a nice assortment of toiletries, as well as snacks and non alcoholic drinks, which were complimentary. Although there was nothing wrong with the Andaz, it was much too modern for my taste. The check in desk is a six foot long table set up in a small, sparsely decorated lobby. The bar area is adjacent to this lobby which makes for lots of noise when the bar is busy. If I were to return to Savannah, I would choose to stay elsewhere.

    We had a 7:30 reservations at The Old Pink House, which I made about one month in advance. We walked 5 minutes from our hotel to the restaurant and entered a two story historic building, with a new addition which doubles the space.

    We were seated in the upstairs new addition. The room reminded me of a ballroom in an old mansion. The tables were beautifully set and there was ample space around each table. The room had a beautiful chandelier and fireplace. Although it was a new addition, it blended beautiful with the old historic part of the house. I loved the ambiance. It was a treat to be there, and we enjoyed a fabulous meal in a beautiful space..

    Our waiter, Josh was an expert at doing his job. He was informative about the food, and made suggestions based on our comments about what flavors we liked and disliked. His service throughout the meal was outstanding.

    Josh brought a beautifully presented bread basket with several different kinds of rolls, and a special butter spread. He suggested I order the grilled pork tenderloin with Bourbon molasses sauce, sweet potatoe with pecan vanilla butter and collards. He suggested DH order the pecan crusted chicken breast with blackberry bourbon glaze, which came with the same 2 sides I ordered. Both were delicious. We shared crab cakes as an appetizer and chocolate pecan pie for dessert. The crab cakes were excellent. The pecan pie was not the best I had on the trip, but it was good enough. This was one of the 2 best meals we had on our trip. I highly recommend The Old Pink House based on our experience.

    We walked back to the Andaz looking forward to our next day in Savannah.

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    Andaz is high end of the Hyatt product, and I agree with you Shelleyk--you are in Savannah. You are not looking for New York!! A time and a place for everything.

    Isn't Bonaventure spectacular?! Glad you started your Savannah portion of the trip in such a lovely place, and sorry you hit Savannah in the madness St Patricks Day can become, starting probably on Saturday this year!

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    OO-One of the reasons we spent only one night at the Andaz was because the St Patrick's Day madness actually began on Thursday. Originally I had a one night reservation at the Andaz for Wed night , with the option of staying the second night on Thursday (I asked at check in if this was an option and they said it was as they were not booked for Thursday night).

    When the beer trucks started rolling in on Wed. night, and stages were starting to be erected on Thursday morning, DH and I decided to check out of the Andaz on Thursday morning, sightsee a full day in Savannah on Thursday and leave Savannah on Thursday night after dinner. This plan worked out fine, as we avoided the traffic we would have encountered on Friday morning.

    My tip for anyone not wanting to be caught up in the madness, and drinking, of St. Patrick's Day is to avoid the Wed. before to the Wed. after St. Patrick's Day.

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    We were up early in order to spend a whole day in Savannah before moving on. We were given a late check out of the Andaz because we are platinum, so we left the hotel early and walked most of the squares, stopping to readi the signs about the history of the what took place in the square and/or who the square was named after. Many of the squares are surrounded by baeutiful, old houses or churches. As we walked south from Ellis Square, toward Forsyth Park, the squares and surrounding houses became more and more beautiful.

    We bought a combination ticket for 20pp which allowed us admittance to the Jepson Center for the Arts, the Telfair Museum of Art, and the Owens Thomas House. The 45 minute Hhouse tour of the historic Owens Thomas House was interesting and informative. The Jepson Center and Telfair Museum were more interesting for the architecture than for the art, which I considered second rate. The Jepson Center is in a very modern building. The Telfair is in a lovely, historic mansion (with a modern addition) which was turned into an art museum.

    We also had a guided tour of the Mckve Israel Temple, the third oldest synagogue in the US. I highly recommend this tour. We also viewed the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

    By 5:30 we had seen all that was on my "to do" list for Savannah, so we headed to the Crystal Beer Parlor for dinner before leaving Savannah. We were seated promptly and our order was taken. DH ordered a hamburger with Swiss and I ordered a bowl of oyster stew. The oyster stew was good, but the hamburger was mediocre, at best. The key lime pie special was the highlight of our dinner. Unfortunately, although I know many Fodorites like and reccommmend this restaurant, this was the worst meal of our 2 week trip.

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    We walked back to the Andaz to retrieve our car. Before leaving Savannah we stopped at City Market, an outdoor area of shops selling food and touristy souvenirs, to briefly listen to an Irish band that had been playing on a stage erected in the area, as well as to observe the crowd dressed in green which had started their St. Patrick's Day celebration a few days early. We thoroughly enjoyed our 2 days in Savannah, but were happy to leave before the St. Patrick's Day celebration got into full swing.

    We left Savannah and drove about 15 minutes to a Holiday Inn Express, a motel that would allow us an easier getaway the next morning than if we stayed in downtown Savannah overnight.
    After a good night's sleep, and a decent included breakfast, we were on the road to Beaufort, about an hour's drive away. After a brief stop in town to view the Waterfront Park and the historic houses, we were back in our car for another half hour drive to Hunting Beach State Park, our main destination for the day.

    This park is one of the nicest state parks I've been to, and our time spent there was one of the highlights of our trip. The scenery and foliage are absolutely gorgeous. We were there off season and on a weekday, so we had the trails almost to ourselves. There is a $5 pp admission fee which is well worth it.

    We started at the south end, walking out onto a fishing pier, reading the signs posted on the pier about the ecology of the area. We then hiked about a mile, through gorgeous tropical foliage to a beach area strewn with timber from a hurricane many years ago. It was very picturesque with great photo ops.

    We then drove to the north beach area which has a long, sandy walkable beach.. I paid $2 to climb to the top of a lighthouse for a bird's eye view of the surrounding area. IMO, the view from the ground was better, and those not choosing to climb the 176 steps to the top won't be missing much.

    We spent 5 wonderful hours at the park, hiking several trails and walking on the beach, before heading to Charleston, our stop for the next 4 nights.

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    Entertaining trip report; makes me want to go back to try the Old Pink House. When I went to the Jepson, there was an exhibit of the Italian Masters, so perhaps that contributed to make me not find the art second rate. Even at the Telfair, while I'm less enthusiastic about modern art in general, I remember certain paintings in the grand hall being quite captivating, particularly those of Savannah in the 19th century.

    It's interesting that you write that you had not been to Florida in 35 years but that this trip made you want to return. I went to Florida in 2008 (by fluke since my Bahamas vacation fell through) for the first time in 17 years and had an enjoyable time which probably resulted in two return trips since (2011,2013) to different parts of Florida.

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    Daniel- As we entered the Jepson, the lady at the desk told us that they were between exhibits, so we did not see much art there.. They did have a flower arranging exhibit that had been juried the previous day. it was interesting to read the judges comments concerning each flower arrangement, but it was not art. Had I paid a separate $12 admission to enter the Jepson, I would not have been very happy. But as it was part of the combination ticket, it was fine to take a quick look inside the building and leave. As for the Telfair, although I did not find any art there that drew me to it, I enjoyed the 2 period rooms on the ground floor, one of which had a lovely mural on the wall.

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    We drove 2 hours to Charleston arriving on Friday night at about 8PM. We stayed at the Comfort Suites in West Ashley, about a 10-15 minute drive to downtown. The hotel room was very large with 2 queen beds and a sitting area. It was very clean and looked newly furnished. The included breakfast was adequate, though it was the most limited and worst of our entire trip.

    That night we ate at the Glass Onion which was about a 4 minute drive from our hotel. DH and I both had fried oysters which were delicious. His came with mushroom risotto which need much more seasoning. Mine came with collard greens and sweet potatoe caserole. Both were well seasoned and delicious. For dessert we shared bread pudding which was moist and excellent, one of he best bread pudding I have ever had.

    Up until this point the weather was sunny and warm, but the forecast was for one more nice day, and then 2 days of rain. With that in mind, on Saturday, our last sunny day, we decided to do 2 separate walking tours, one covering north Charleston, the other covering south Charleston. It took us about 7 hours to cover the 2 tours, without making any indoor stops to see museums or houses. We ended the day at Magnolia for dinner. This we the second best meal of our 2 week trip. The food and service were wonderful and I highly recommend Magnolia..

    Next day-plantations

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    We ended the day at Magnolia for dinner. This we the second best meal of our 2 week trip. The food and service were wonderful and I highly recommend Magnolia..
    __
    I love Magnolia. DH and I had Christmas dinner there and it was wonderful.

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    Janet-If we lived closer we would be regulars at The Old Pink House and at Magnolia. Not only is the food delicious, but i think both give you good value for your money, especially if you concentrate on the food and limit the alcohol. Schmerl-Thanks for your kind words. I hope to finish this report tomorrow.

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    We allocated 3 full days to Charleston. On our second day we decided to stay in the West Ashley area and visit a plantations house and a garden. Since the forecast was for sun in the morning and rain in the afternoon, we decided to go to the garden early in the day and tour the plantation house in the afternoon. On the advice of our hotel's manager, we chose to go to Magnolia Garden, a fifteen minute drive from our hotel. We purchased a combination ticket for Magnolia Garden and a nearby conserved plantation house.

    Although it was too early in the season for us to see many of the flowering plants, the camelias and some rhodedendrun were in bloom. Even without a lot of color, this garden was simply stunning. It covers many acres, and is actually many different types of gardens ranging from a formal European garden, to a typical swamp garden. We spent 4 hours here before the rain began. I could have easily spent the whole day here wandering the many trails through the foliage, along the river bank and around the swamp. I would return here if/when I return to Charleston as I can see that depending on the time of the year you visit, the garden will look very different. I highly recommend Magnolia Garden for anyone who loves gardens and walking many miles of trails in a beautiful setting. For those that are not that enthusiastic about gardens, spending 1-2 hours here would probably be sufficient.

    In mid afternoon we drove one mile to take a tour of a plantation house which was conserved, bu not restored. This is one of the only plantation houses in the area that was actually used as a plantation house and is in its original location. Several times a day, a docent led discussion is offered on slavery and life on the plantations in the area. Since we had time we sat in on the lecture. At 3:30 we took a one hour docent led tour of the house which was excellent. Because the house was unrestored and unfurnished, the architectural details were very evident.

    At the conclusion of the tour we drove back to our hotel, a little wet and pretty tired. We decided to forego driving into Charleston for dinner, so we cancelled our reservation at Poogan's Porch, and instead opted to go to Bessinger's BBQ, a West Ashley restaurant that was recommended by our waiter at Magnolia. He said he remembered going there as a child and that although it was a buffet restaurant ( which I generally do not like) the food was very good. Unfortunately my assessment of the restaurant is very different from his.

    Most of the food was mediocre, although there was a lot to chose from. The mains were fried chicken which was very dry, fried catfish which was good, and pulled pork which was good, but needed more sauce. There were several different kinds of greens, but as with most buffets, they were soggy and overcooked. The desserts were bland and tasteless. The best I can say about our experience is that it was cheap-less than $35 for 2, including non alcoholic beverages. I would neither recommend nor return to this restaurant.

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    Shelley,
    I wish I had known you’d be eating on the West Ashley side for a second day, I’d have recommended at least four better restaurants. You’d already eaten at Glass Onion, but others would have been Al Di La (wonderful Italian place), Taste of Thai (good Thai), Sesame (for great burgers), and Char and Bar (good food, curious place). All would have met with your approval better than Bessingers, in my opinion. But then, I’m not a fan of pulled pork anywhere.

    I’m glad you liked Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. The grounds and swamp boardwalk are truly stunning, although later in the hot summer I wouldn’t advise strolling slowly through them. Is the plantation house you mentioned the main plantation house on the grounds? If so the house tour is good, and the guides are very informative.

    I’m glad you did walking tours of downtown Charleston. To me that is the best way to experience a town. You can plan your own time and stop and expand your exploring whenever you want. It seems like you did the same in Savannah. There, I agree that The Olde Pink House restaurant is a gem and actually, it is our favorite restaurant when we’re in Savannah. We also like the Crystal Beer Parlor. There’s something about a very good burger (and sweet potato fries) in a classic bar setting with the old, tall backed, wooden booths. You picked good restaurants. And, I’d choose the Planters Inn as a place to stay next time you’re there. You probably saw it since it is practically right beside the Olde Pink House.

    It appears like you had such a wonderful trip, and that’s great. Also glad to hear that you got to enjoy our beautiful coastal island park, Hunting Island State Park. It is truly gorgeous there.

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    kathleen-The decision to eat on the West Ashley side was a last minute decision based on the heavy rainfall. I will save your recommendations for our next visit to Charleston. I think you were the person who recommended Hunting Island State Park to me when I posted asking questions before our trip. If so, I am so grateful that you did as the day spent at this park was one of the highlights of our trip. To answer your question about the plantation house, it was Drayton Hall located about a mile away from Magnolia Garden. The combination ticket for both was $24, a savings of $11 over purchasing them individually. I was advised that Drayton Hall was a more "authentic" period house than the house on the grounds of Magnolia Gardens. Next time we visit Charleston, and I feel there will definitely be a next time, I would like to visit Middleton Plantation and Boone Hall Plantation. There is so much to do and see in Charleston that I could have easily spent 2 or 3 additional days there.

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    I like your report a lot. You call a spade a spade without ever sounding like a tripadvisor whiner.

    One of the things I like about this forum is how differently we all approach the world. I have been to all the places you have been including some of the same restaurants. I admire your taking time for lots of outdoor activity, and we try to do that, too, but I sure can't drive after dinner!

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    We visited Drayton Hall recently.

    We also appreciated their honest approach to life on a plantation. Other estates wallow in tours which highlight dinner parties and the socialite lives of thier owners. Drayton describes themselves as a concentration labour camp.

    Much of this history has been pretty much erased from British historical teaching, very little is covered by our education system. It was refreshing that in SC we experienced the hard facts of the salve trade.

    If you like nature trails, try Botany Bay Plantation on Edisto Island next time you are in the area. It has a stunning two mile straight road approach draped in Spanish moss, several trail walks and a beach of deadwood trees with a huge range of shells which cannot be removed.

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    Ackislander-Thanks for your kind words. I love being outdoors and always build lots of outdoor time into my trips. I try to leave the indoor activities such as house tours and museums for rainy days.

    Dickie_GR-Thanks so much for your mention of Botany Bay Plantation which I will definitely include on our next visit. I googled it and the photos of the beach and moss draped entrance are beautiful. It looks like a great day trip from Charleston.

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    On our final day in Charleston we awoke to light rain. We ate our included breakfast, checked out of the hotel, and drove into Charleston. It was St. Patrick's Day, but the town seemed like quiet, unlike what I pictured Savannah would be on this day. We parked at the Visitor Center ($1/hour or $16 for the whole day) and with umbrellas in hand walked 5 minutes to the Aiken Rhett House where we purchased a combination ticket for this house and the Nathaniel Russell House ($16pp for both houses).

    These two houses were recommended by the docent at Drayton Hall when I asked her opinion of the 2 houses she would go to if she could pick only two. I think her choices were excellent. The Aiken Rhett House is conserved (not restored) and the Nathaniel Russell House is beautifully restored. Seeing both gave us an excellent overview of different architectural styles used in Charleston housing. It also kept us out of the rain for several hours.

    The Aiken Rhett House is at the north end of Charleston and the Nathaniel Russell house is at the south end. We walked from one to the other in about a half an hour. On the way to the Nathaniel Russell House we stopped at Sr. John the Baptist Cathedral and at the oldest reform synagogue in the US. Both buildings were constructed at about the same time and the interiors looked similar.

    We left Charleston at 5 PM and drove about half an hour in heavy traffic to the Best Western Plus near the airport. We unloaded our luggage, checked in and drove to the rental agency to return our car. The hotel picked us up at the airport that night and drove us back to the airport the next morning for our flight home. The Best Western was fine for an overnight stop.

    Our US Air fight was on time. Our 35 minute connection time in DC worked fine , and we arrived at our home airport with no complications.

    We enjoyed our 2 week trip to Florida, Georgia and South Carolina and intend to repeat it next winter.

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