Washington-dc By Alistair Wearmouth

In case you haven’t yet been bombarded with the term, “staycations” are the travel world’s buzzword for budget-friendly family vacations that lie within driving distance — usually no more than several hundred miles — of your front door. “Staycationing” first entered the lexicon with last summer’s high gas prices, but it has taken on new resonance with the current economic meltdown.

Here in the Washington, D.C, region, we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to places to visit without needing to step foot in an airport. In fact, our local museums, monuments, and parks provide for the ultimate in staycationing ease. Why venture out when it’s all here on our doorstep?

However, in this roundup of my five best spring staycation picks, I’m going to steer clear of the region’s usual suspects — Philly, Baltimore, Virginia Beach, for example — and instead hone in on a handful of alternatives that you may consider for your next close-to-home family vacation.

1. Berkeley Springs, West Virginia
Why It’s Great: Usually billed as the ideal romantic getaway for time-starved D.C. power couples, the mountain town of Berkeley Springs actually makes for a surprisingly good family vacation. (After all, it was good enough for George Washington and his family in 1776.) Leave the spa lounging to the grown-ups and let the kids net crayfish and minnows out of the streams and pools in Berkeley Springs State Park, the town centerpiece. Pay a visit to the Museum of the Berkeley Springs, located above the main bathing area in the Roman Bath House (open to kids ages 6-12 when bathing with a same-sex parent), where you’ll learn about the town’s history as well as the geological underpinnings for its bubbling spring-fed waters.
Road Miles: 109 miles
Good for ages: 6-12, 13-17
An Alternative to: The Greenbrier Resort, West Virginia
Where to Stay: The Best Western Berkeley Springs Inn is a moderately priced in-town option that offers family-friendly amenities like a pool and free breakfasts.

Family vacation 2. Charlottesville, Virginia
Why It’s Great: It’s hard to avoid the footprint of history in the D.C. region, and the town of Charlottesville is no exception. Home to the 20,000-student University of Virginia, the college here was first established in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson on land owned by James Monroe. How’s that for historic bonafides? Charlottesville’s other main attraction is Monticello, Jefferson’s hilltop home where tours offer an interesting glimpse of his life, writings, and inventions. Located in the foothills of the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains, the Charlottesville area offers easy access to outdoor attractions including hiking, canoeing, and skiing at nearby Massanutten and Wintergreen ski resorts; Massanutten also features an indoor waterpark. Charlottesville’s large student body assures an eclectic mix of eateries and entertainment to suit all tastes.
Road Miles: 116 miles
Good for ages: 6-12, 13-17
An Alternative to: Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia
Where to Stay: Lots of good options here, particular as many properties cater to families with kids prospecting the university. The Omni Charlottesville Hotel, which caters to younger guests with its Omni Sensational Kids program.

3. Lewes, Delaware
Why It’s Great: Historic Lewes is just a few miles north of the twin towns of Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach, both popular summer havens for the inside-the-Beltway crowd. But before weekend traffic out to D.C.’s closest beaches gets too jammed, head to Lewes for a fun family vacation that combines both history and nature. First settled by the Dutch in 1631, the small and walkable historic core features a number of buildings dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, not to mention some decent shops, galleries, and eateries. Of course, it’s not all about boring history, with family-sized fun in the form of bike rides through nearby Cape Henlopen State Park, offshore sportfishing excursions, and a kite-flying festival on the beach each April (bring your kite regardless, as conditions here are ideal). Mom and Dad might also appreciate a quick tour of the Dogfish Head brewery in nearby Milton, too!
Road Miles: 122 miles
Good for ages: 6-12, 13-17
An Alternative to: Virginia Beach, Virginia
Where to Stay: If you’ve got older kids (ten and up), try the Lazy L at Willow Creek, a rustic B&B that offers a good mix of amenities as well as a communal kitchen area where you can prepare your own meals (http://lazyl.net/index.html). Try the Sleep Inn & Suites in nearby Rehoboth, which will be opening two-room family suites and an outdoor splash pool in spring 2009 following extensive renovations.

Family vacations 4. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Why It’s Great: The Pittsburgh Steelers, this year’s Super Bowl champs, are just one more reason to head to the Steel City for your Mid-Atlantic family staycation. While its Keystone State sister city Philadelphia tends to get all the column inches for its well-regarded historic and family-friendly attractions, Pittsburgh boasts its own excellent mix of culture, art, history, and flat-out fun. Highlights include dinos at the world-renowned Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 2,000-plus animals at the Pittsburgh Zoo, and the seven themed zones of wet-and-wild fun at Idlewild theme park, located just outside of Pittsburgh. The adjacent Laurel Highlands — featuring skiing, whitewater rafting, bike trails, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater — offer lots of added incentives for calling in sick and extending your road trip.
Road Miles: 245 miles
Good for ages: 6-12, 13-17
An Alternative to: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Where to Stay: The riverfront Sheraton Station Square is conveniently located to the downtown attractions and Station Square shops and eateries, or try the SpringHill Suites Pittsburgh in the family-friendly North Shore ‘hood, close to the Carnegie Science Center, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and the Warhol Museum (the hotel also offers a free shuttle to other area attractions within three miles of the hotel).

5. Southwestern Virginia
Why It’s Great: Tiny Damascus (population: 1,072) in the far-southwestern corner of Virginia calls itself “Trail Town USA” because of the lattice of national and regional trails, including the Appalachian Trail, that skirt the town. In particular, kids will love cruising the 35-mile Virginia Creeper Trail, a multi-use rail-trail that offers a fun ride from Abingdon to near Whitetop on the Virginia-North Carolina state line (Damascus sits roughly in the middle). A number of Damascus-based bike shops can help with rentals and shuttles to and from the trailhead, meaning you don’t have to sweat the return leg of this mostly flat, scenic trail. Other options for the outdoors-inclined include hiking to Virginia’s highest point, 5,729-foot Mount Rogers, or horseback rides through Grayson Highlands State Park and on the Virginia Creeper Trail. If you can’t find somewhere suitable to stay in pinprick Damascus, gateway towns for this region include Marion and Abingdon, both of which lie off the I-81 corridor.
Road Miles: 368 miles
Good for ages: 13-17
An Alternative to: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Where to Stay: Try the elegant General Francis Marion Hotel in Marion.

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Alistair Wearmouth is an editor at Away.com. With two young children now in tow, his travel perspective has shifted seismically from digging out the best backpacker hostel in Kathmandu to coping strategies for toddlers on a trans-Atlantic flight. His world travels have taken him through Europe, India, Nepal, Japan, Southeast Asia, the Canadian Rockies and beyond.

Tagged: Family time, Orbitz Parent Panel, Travel Tips

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