By Erik Torkells
If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the city. Bypass a New York City vacation for value stays within driving — or train — distance to the metropolis.
1. Hudson Valley, N.Y.
How many places are so beautiful they’ve inspired an entire art movement? Drive up the Hudson River and hop from town to town. Storm King Art Center, on the western side, is home to extraordinary outdoor art, including Maya Lin’s “wavefield.” Continue the art quest at Dia:Beacon an old Nabisco factory in Beacon. It’s filled with contemporary art. The town of Hudson, meanwhile, is antiquing central—most every storefront is selling antiques. Then take a stroll at Walkway Over the Hudson State Historical Park, where a 19th-century railroad ridge is now open exclusively to pedestrians. Rail trails lead from either side of the bridge, so you can keep on walking…. As for a hotel, rooms at the four-star Tarrytown House — located on a private estate — start at $167 for the first weekend in August.
2. Litchfield County, Conn.
When the temperature is 90 in New York City, it’s generally more like 80 in Litchfield, the northwest corner of the Connecticut. You can stay in Danbury, which isn’t in Litchfield but has plenty of hotels, including the Ethan Allen Hotel (from $108 a night), which is owned by the furniture company. An amazing new restaurant, Community Table, has opened in an old house in Washington: It serves Manhattan-quality locavore food at a fraction of what you’d pay in the city. On a less sophisticated note, at the Goshen Fair on Labor Day weekend, you can watch tractor pulls, livestock judging, lumberjack contests, fiddler concerts and more. The area also has a lot of fun shopping, from the New Milford swap meet to tag sales to thanks-I’m-just-browsing antiques stores, as well as lovely hiking in places like the Steep Rock nature preserve.
3. Wildwood, N.J.
One of the kitschiest towns in the East, Wildwood is the Jersey Shore with all the neon trimmings — plus the beach, of course. The carnival-like boardwalk has fun for kids of all ages (including those of us who never grew up): miniature golf galore, roller coasters, water parks, go karts, old-time photos…. For you art-school types, the town also stakes a claim to the country’s highest concentration of mid-century architecture.
4. Connecticut Coast
A lot of us forget about the Long Island Sound when we think about the shoreline, which is a shame, because the Connecticut coast north of New Haven has something for everyone. There are classic New England small towns, like Madison and Guilford: Stop by the fantastic independent bookstore in Madison (R.J. Julia), then head to the town beach—and on your way back, pop by Ashley’s Ice Cream, a Connecticut chain. For a little more excitement, drive up to Mystic, which has all manner of maritime-themed attractions. If you’ve never been on a submarine, by all means visit the U.S.S. Nautilus. Stay in New Haven, where good hotels are cheap in summer — the Omni New Haven has rooms from $134. Plus, you can go for clam pizza at Pepe’s, which many folks think is the country’s best.
If we’re talking about cool in the hipster sense, you gotta give props to Philly: The city has an arts scene and food scene that you only find in cities where rents are cheap enough that young people can take a chance and try something. (In other words, not New York.) To save money getting there, take a New Jersey Transit train from Penn Station to Trenton, then transfer to SEPTA for service to Philly. (The total one-way cost is as little as $19.) Explore neighborhoods like the Old City, Northern Liberties and Manayunk. The locals aren’t too cool for ice cream: Capogiro Gelato Artisans is worth seeking out.
Formerly the editor of Budget Travel magazine, Erik Torkells has written for many other publications, including Travel + Leisure, the New York Times and T Magazine. He has appeared on MSNBC and “Good Morning America” on Orbitz’s behalf.