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12 timely reasons to hit the United States in 2012
Sure, you miss family, friends and ice cubes. But here are the things that make booking a U.S. trip really worthwhile
The United States.
If you’ve heard of this place, or even seen it on a map, you’ll know that fitting a single attraction (let alone a dozen) into a visit can be a tall order -- especially if you’re in Maine and dying to stop by Six Flags Over Texas.
That means you've got work to do. Lucky for you, we've set up a dozen timely essentials to start checking off your list.
On your mark, get set …
1. Fenway Park turns 100
Major League Baseball’s oldest remaining stadium has overcome World Series curses, narrowly dodged the wrecking ball and outlived all those other “immortal” fields like Comiskey Park and Tiger Stadium.
In 2012, the place turns 100.
The official birthday will be celebrated on April 20 in a game against the New York Yankees -- preceded by a Free Fenway Open House on April 19.
2. Washington, D.C. in centennial bloom
Washington, D.C.’s National Cherry Blossom Festival is rooted in a gift of more than 3,000 flowering cherry trees, presented by Japan in 1912.
A century later, the grand gesture has bloomed into one of D.C.’s most anticipated seasonal events.
This year’s five-week-long, centennial springtime celebration (March 20-April 27) will suffuse the city with art, concerts, street parades, fireworks displays and lots of very pink trees.
The free opening ceremony on March 25 (reserve tickets ahead) features a great lineup at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
3. Six Flags -- now with even more scream for your buck
The world’s fastest and longest roller coasters may be in Abu Dhabi and Japan, but no one caters to scream machine fanatics across the theme parkscape like Six Flags -- home to steel game changers such as Kingda Ka (at 139 meters and 206 kph, the world’s highest and second-fastest roller coaster), X2 (the world’s first “Fourth-Dimension” coaster) and the aptly named Mind Eraser.
This year, the world’s largest regional theme park operator, with more than a dozen coaster-carpeted properties throughout the United States, is upping the ante with a new batch of cutting-edge thrill rides.
Among them: X-Flight, a groundbreaking wing coaster, at Six Flags Great America (outside Chicago); Lex Luthor: Drop of Doom, the world’s tallest vertical-drop ride, at Six Flags Magic Mountain (near Los Angeles); and a pair of new SkyScreamer swing towers at Six Flags Great Adventure (New Jersey) and Six Flags Fiesta Texas (San Antonio).
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4. Music and mansions in Newport, Rhode Island
Back in the Gilded Age, Newport, Rhode Island was America’s ballroom and beach chair epicenter -- the exclusive summer colony of the Vanderbilts and other late 19th-century industrialist A-listers who erected some of the most opulent “cottages” (i.e. mega-mansions) on the country’s most exclusive patch of shore.
Today, New England’s legendary leisure coast is open to all beach-lazing, ice-cream-licking, bicycle-renting summer throngs, who can freely tromp through many of those hallowed homes, like Belcourt Castle, Marble House and The Breakers.
Several historic properties are in the hands of the Preservation Society of Newport County and open for “combo-ticket” tours.
Music fans will want to earmark three long-running festivals held here each summer.
The chamber music-oriented Newport Music Festival (July 13-29) stages concerts in Newport’s famous mansions.
5. National Parks parade
Yellowstone and Yosemite, Bryce and Big Bend, Mesa Verde and Mount Rainier -- hundreds of natural recreational stunners shelter under the auspices of the National Parks Service.
But, given a few days and a stout pair of boots, we'd head for North Cascades National Park in Washington state, right near the Canadian border.
More than 300 glaciers, some 127 lakes, dozens of thundering waterfalls and the highest number of recorded plant species in any national park make this one of the most beautiful parks in the system.
And, would you believe it, only around 70 people per day visit annually to tramp Cascades' 650-kilometer-long trail network.
The bulk of them come July through September, but even with those late summer "crowds," North Cascades is still one of the most overlooked wonders in the country.
Take a look at the NPS home page for further inspiration. All national parks and monuments are admission free during National Park Week (April 22-29). Several will be hosting events and activities to mark the occasion.
6. Highway 1 on either coast
Route 66. Highway 61. US-20. There's no shortage of long and winding nominees for the Great American Road Trip. But for an unparalleled, two-lane, coastal odyssey, there’s really just one route (or two, with the same name) to sink your gas pedal into.
Depending on which ocean you’re looking at, Highway 1 runs the length of Florida or California.
Our favorite 160 kilometers of each:
Florida: A tip-to-tail roll down the Overseas Highway -- the southernmost stretch of U.S. Route 1 -- flanked by swaying coconut palms, turquoise seas, azure skies and green mile marker posts skipping over 42 bridges (count 'em) between Key Largo and Key West.
California: A gaping, zigzagging, fog-attracting, life-affirming, white-knuckling ride along the central coast’s spectacular, cliff-lined edge, Big Sur.
Also on CNNGo: 10 classic American experiences
7. West Virginia’s 21st annual RoadKill Cook-off
America’s epidemic of food festivals isn’t all about chili and apple pie.
Case in point: the annual WV RoadKill Cook-off (September 29).
Entering its 21st season in the old lumber town of Marlinton, West Virginia, this singular food fest -- now a Food Channel favorite -- stars moose, possum, snake, squirrel and other delicacies commonly found on the side of the highway.
If you’ve never tasted “Aunt Edna Lou’s Rancid Rabbit” or “Turkey Buzzard Vomit over Worms” (better than it sounds), there’s really no better time or place.
8. Golden Gate Bridge -- 75 years and holding
San Francisco’s iconic landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge was for decades the longest suspension bridge on earth after opening for business on May 27, 1937.
Today it’s the ninth. But whatever. If driving -- or better yet, walking or pedaling -- this 2.7-kilometer-long span on a gusty day with an approaching wall of Pacific fog on one side, San Francisco’s skyline on the other and those glowing orange bridge towers hulking from above fail to move you, then probably every other human endeavor has let you down as well.
In honor of the bridge’s 75th birthday, San Francisco’s Year of the Golden Gate Bridge culminates with a two-day waterfront Golden Gate Festival over Memorial Day weekend (May 26-27).
Events include an historic watercraft parade and several bridge-themed performances and activities between Fisherman’s Wharf and San Francisco Maritime Historical Park.
Also on CNNGo: 24 of the world's most amazing bridges
9. Neil Diamond is back -- again
How does one earn “Voice of America” status?
Turns out it’s by slugging it out in half-unbuttoned silk shirts crammed with chest hair for more than five decades and having a hit that’s actually called “America.”
Last year was a good one for fans of Neil Diamond, a 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee and Kennedy Center Honoree.
This one’s even better if you want to hear the 71-year-old, all-American pop icon belt out "Love On the Rocks" to a feral crowd of Baby Boomers holding up lighters.
That’s right, Neil’s hitting the road again -- on a 2012 North America “Greatest Hits” tour kicking off in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (June 1) and closing in (where else?) Las Vegas on September 1.
10. U.S. Virgin Islands shopping and beaching
There are good reasons all of those Caribbean package-deal hoppers flock to the shores of St. Thomas: frenzied duty-free shopping and stunning (though not exactly empty) beaches among them.
Same goes for the pristine serenity of St. John, occupied by a quiet national park, an easy 20-minute ferry ride away.
These two essential ends of the Caribbean spectrum find their yin and yang in the U.S. Virgin Islands, an American territory that remains one of the top U.S. tropical getaways.
This year marks the 60th Anniversary of the annual St. Thomas Carnival (March 31-April 29), a month-long celebration featuring calypso shows, food fairs, parades and general island partying that’s been hailed the “second largest Carnival celebration in the Caribbean.”
Also on CNNGo: 10 resorts for every type of traveler
11. Tree-spotting on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
The Society of International Railway Travelers calls the historic, 103-kilometer Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad “one of the best 20 railway experiences in the world.”
Between late September and early October, we call this full- or half-day chug through the remote southern Rockies the best American autumn experience on steam-powered wheels.
Board in either Antonito, Colorado, or Chama, New Mexico, for an old-school ride into the American West, past Carson and Rio Grande National Forests, old sheep ranches and ghost towns lit up with autumn color.
Along the way, you’ll push beyond 3,000 meters at Cumbres Pass (the highest pass reached by rail in the country) and back down through some of the largest, glowing aspen groves hiding on the edge of either state.
The Cumbres season begins May 26. Last ride is on October 21. Bring a jacket for optimum viewing on the train’s brisk outdoor car.
12. Main Street, America
Times Square, Bourbon Street and Sunset Boulevard may hog the spotlight, but the real American “Main Street” experience is hiding on, well, Main Street.
Y’know, in that little town just south of Chicago. Or an hour north of Miami. Where the brew pub is in the old courthouse, the lingerie shop is in the former bank building, the restored art deco movie theater is playing "Close Encounters," and the woman in the diner calls you “hon.”
According to the National Trust Main Street Center, a wing of the National Trust for Historic Preservation dedicated to nursing hundreds of vintage American communities back to health and wealth, Main Street, America is very much alive and worth straying off the beaten path to explore.
Frederick, Maryland. DeLand, Florida. Paducah, Kentucky. New Iberia, Louisiana. Libertyville, Illinois. Etc. All just down the road.
Check out the latest Great American Main Street Award winners -- and drop by anytime, hon.
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