It happens to the best of us: You look up and realize that spring break is coming up and it’s too late to plan that beach getaway. Well, shelve those plans for next winter, when you really need to get out of the cold. Spring is a great time to take a road trip to a nearby locale where you can enjoy the mild and pleasant temps — and there are so many places to choose from. Here are three mini-vacation destinations that are right in our own backyard.
Two Hours Away: Mystic, CT
Nearby Mystic is the perfect place to spend a few days when you want to relax in a charming, low-key setting. And with everything from the seaport to a nearby dinosaur park, there’s something that will pique the interest of everyone in your family.
What to Do: The biggest draw here is Mystic Seaport, an indoor-outdoor nautical museum that will appeal to young and old alike. Step aboard the last wooden whaleship in the world, learn to tie knots like a sailor, swab the deck in the children’s museum, build your own toy ship — the kids’ activities are endless and all set against the backdrop of the beautiful Mystic River. Also in the area is the Mystic Aquarium, with its many touch tanks and impressive beluga whales exhibit. Then there’s all the shopping: Spend a day browsing the cute shops and cafés in Olde Mystick Village, where you can pick up anything from a new kite at the Mystic Kite Shop to fresh fudge at Franklin’s General Store.
Where to Eat: If your family is big on grilled cheese, run — don’t walk! — to the Bleu Squid Bakery & Cheese Shop in Olde Mystick Village. The lobster grilled cheese was literally the best sandwich I’ve ever had. After you polish off your ooey-gooey lunch, choose one of the beautiful cupcakes for dessert. No one will leave unhappy. You’ll also have to make a stop at the place that put Mystic on the map — Mystic Pizza of Julia Roberts fame. It’s a complete tourist trap, and the pizza is pretty standard, but when in Mystic…
What’s Nearby: On the way back to Westchester, detour to Dinosaur Place in Montville, CT, a 60-acre park populated by more than 40 life-size dinosaurs. Also worth a quick stop is the Pez Visitor Center in Orange, CT. It’s a very small attraction, but you’ll get to check out the place where Pez dispensers are made and pick up some free candy to keep the kids busy for the rest of the ride home.
Three Hours Away: Lancaster, PA
Amish Country is only three hours from home, and there’s so much to do there. From pretzel-twisting workshops to a real-life steam train, the Amish know how to show kids a great time.
What to Do: The famous horse and buggy rides may be a completely touristy experience, but it’s something the kids will love to do. And if they’re train lovers, you’ll have to buy tickets to the Strasburg Railroad steam train, which offers a 45-minute round-trip ride through the Amish countryside. You can even dine on board! The Amish are famous for their pretzels, and shops selling the salty treats abound in this area; our favorite is Julius Sturgis, where the whole family can try their hand at pretzel twisting and sample a variety of flavors. If you’ve got really young kids, they’ll love Dutch Wonderland, an amusement park for the under 5 set. And before leaving the area, pick up a souvenir at Kitchen Kettle Village, a quaint but quite large shopping village where you’ll find locally made jams, ice cream, art, and the somewhat creepy faceless Amish dolls.
Where to Eat: Amish Country is well known for its home-style buffets, and our favorite is Miller’s Smorgasbord. This place is no Sizzler’s — the ingredients tend to be locally sourced, everything is made from scratch, and the food is fresh and tasty. My favorite part: There’s an impressive array of homemade pies at the dessert station (you can also purchase them whole). You won’t eat this well at any other buffet.
What’s Nearby: Just a short drive from Lancaster is the Turkey Hill Experience in Columbia, PA, which is definitely worth a visit. Milk a wooden cow, taste unlimited ice cream and iced tea samples, and make your own ice cream flavor from scratch. We spent more than three hours at this fun attraction.
Four Hours Away: Watkins Glen, NY
The Finger Lakes is a bit farther from us, at four hours and change, but the drive is worth it for the surreal scenery and outdoorsy vibe that you’ll find there.
What to Do: People come from across the country to experience the almost otherworldly hike at Watkins Glen State Park. I actually took that photo above — it’s not a computer screensaver! In just one mile of easy hiking along the Gorge Route (there are many steps, but nothing my 4-year-old couldn’t handle), you’ll encounter more than a dozen waterfalls and simply spellbinding views. After you’ve had your fill of magical scenery, interact with the cows, sheep, pigs and turkey at the Farm Sanctuary, a shelter for farm animals that aims to educate visitors about factory farming. Also make sure to spend a day on the Seneca Wine Trail, where you’ll find plenty of attractions for the adults, sure, but also Red Jacket Orchards, a sort of winery for kids, where they can sample juices, jams and fruits.
Where to Eat: We had a lovely time lunching at the laid-back and kid-friendly Village Marina, which offers quality pub food, local beers and wines, and a can’t-be-beat view of Seneca Lake — dine outside if the weather cooperates. For dessert, visit Colonial Pottery & Creamery, a small shop selling the best homemade ice cream I’ve had outside of Cape Cod.
What’s Nearby: The Corning Museum of Glass, in Corning, NY, is about half an hour south of Watkins Glen. The museum offers live glass-blowing demonstrations, glass-making workshops for adults and kids (mine made some really cool tic-tac-toe boards and pieces), and a large selection of Christmas ornaments at the enormous gift shop to commemorate your trip.
For more mini-vacation itineraries to New Paltz, Baltimore and Washington DC, check out this past post.