Choosing a weekend travel destination for Memorial Day requires more considerationthan for most holidays, if only because the temperate loveliness of late spring spreads across America so equally. The harsh weather of winter has long passed in the North, humid heat waves have yet to spread in the South and everything glows with serenity just about everywhere. No matter where you live, at least one of these destinations should excite your imagination without ravaging your wallet.
Given the focus of the holiday, a historically appropriate destination would be Annapolis, Maryland. Long ago, it served as the capital of the U.S. for nearly a year and is now home to the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Start by getting a room at one of the three Historic Inns of Annapolis, all in the quaint historic downtown district, or if you’re not traveling with children, find a bed-and-breakfast to add even more charm. (The closer to the bay you can find one, the better.)
During the day, take a mild afternoon walk to the free Maritime Museum to see cutaway boats and an 850-gallon oyster aquarium in the old Pearl brand oyster packing plant, then head to Boatyard Bar and Grill for Maryland’s famously delicious blue crabs. (Don’t miss the Sunday special of half off oysters and clams!) After dinner, take in the classic stage show 42nd Street at the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre (tickets $20). Make sure you tour the historic St. Anne’s Church and the Maryland State House before Monday, though, as they will close for the holiday.
Over in Indianapolis, Indiana, each Memorial Day transforms the conventional Midwestern city into one of the biggest parties in America. The Indy 500 attracts more than 250,000 people to its stands, and the rest of the city caters to them throughout the weekend. At the actual Motor Speedway, you can “glamp” (that is, glamorously camp) in a weatherproof tent near the inside-the-track attractions. If you’re traveling with kids, take advantage of the IMS Kids Club for special autograph sessions, pedal-car racing, a bounce house and other family-oriented activities. If you don’t have kids, though, the third-turn “Snake Pit” party area will keep you busy in other, equally fun ways.
Attending the Indy 500 will cost at least $25 a head, but you don’t have to attend to take advantage of the rest of Indianapolis’ attractions. The IPL 500 Festival Parade starts marching through downtown on Saturday at noon, full of marching bands, giant floats and costumed characters. The kids will love watching from up close on Pennsylvania Street, but those without children will love watching from the Elbow Room Bar’s patio.
Olympic National Park, WA
For those looking to go west, Olympic National Park in Washington state would make the perfect Memorial Day weekend excursion. Anyone looking to completely get away from schedules, traffic and crowded events should head this way for over 1 million wide-open acres, all of which are lovely in late May. If you’re not up for roughing it at a campsite, reserve one of the picturesque, full-kitchen cabins around Lake Quinault and drive to your destinations. (You can get 15% off some cabins if you reserve at least a week in advance.)
Hike a short trail that includes a canyon-crossing footbridge to the black rocks and triple torrents of Sol Duc Falls. If an equally exhilarating but more manageable hike sounds better, visit the 90-foot Marymere Falls near Lake Crescent, surrounded by giant old-growth trees. The lake itself provides swimming and canoeing in pristinely clear water with views of singularly large trout species. Toward the southern end of the park, Kalaloch Beach has miles of rugged boulders, amazing sights and the occasional bald eagle.
In the south, North Carolina neighbors Duke and UNC both entered the NCAA basketball tournament with top-5 rankings this March, so the greater Raleigh area has already been on everybody’s mind. City planners in 1792 modeled Raleigh after then-U.S.capital Philadelphia, so a historical atmosphere permeates the city, which you can see on display at the popular NC Museum of History (closed on Memorial Day). Duke’s campus in Durham also radiates old-world charm and would be a great place to take the kids for a late spring picnic.
If you’re interested in more than just sightseeing, go to the century-old City Market on Blake Street for a truly Southern Sunday brunch at Battistella’s and then wander through the many boutiques and art shops. If the kids get restless, head west to Pullen Park and enjoy the one-dollar carousel, train and boat rides. If the kids are a bit older and you want a more active outdoor experience, walk or bike the stunning Neuse River Trail outside of the 440 loop. For dinner, don’t miss Bida Manda’s Laotian cooking on Blount Street.
Speaking of college basketball, Arizona also performed remarkably well this season. Their hometown of Tucson doesn’t have the same late-May attractiveness as Raleigh — but the state’s northern city of Flagstaff does. Wherever you stay, you can easily visit outdoor attractions like the Sunset Crater (a 900-year-old volcano) and the Arizona Snowbowl (with skiing year-round). Perhaps most importantly, you can reach the Grand Canyon in about an hour and a half.
When you’re not out in the wide-open beauty around the city, enjoy culinary gems like Josephine’s Modern American Bistro, where you should sit on the patio, and don’t skip the Pork Osso Buco. Or if you prefer something more affordable (and less formal), Diablo Burger serves locally sourced meat on English muffin buns. Afterward, the live music and great beer at Flagstaff Brewing Company might help you digest all those Flagstaff delectables.
Memorial Day’s serendipitous arrival in late spring makes the country’s whole geography ripe for an extended weekend exploration. Each of these five destinations stands out as the best-of-the-best places to go in the final weekend of May, regardless of where you’re coming from. Memorial Day’s long weekend provides the perfect time, and excuse, to travel.
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