10 classic American holidays – and their underrated alternatives

Even after two years of pandemic and panic, it seems odd to think of America as a closed door. The US is so popular a destination for British tourists – almost five million of us go there every year in normal circumstances – that the idea of it being locked and bolted is incomprehensible. Never mind the 3,000 miles of ocean which separate our countries. So familiar is the land of Mickey Mouse, of the Empire State Building, of Venice Beach, of Sunset Strip, that it feels more like a next-door neighbour than a trans-Atlantic entity.

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But then, such has been the fog that has enveloped us in the Covid era that America has felt remarkably distant; like a friend with whom you have partially lost touch. They have been wary. Nervous. Reluctant to return your calls. So the announcement that Uncle Sam is dropping all pre-departure testing for fully vaccinated visitors from Sunday night has the air of a significant reconnection.

It is the second step down a particular path, of course. The US reopened its borders to us in November, after 20 months behind barricades – but only if you were immunised, and only if you could prove Covid negativity via a test taken no more than 24 hours before travel. The latest loosening of travel rules won’t help if you haven’t been jabbed, but for those with the suitable QR codes on their phones, it is an important leap back towards holiday normality. Hello again Florida. How’s tricks, New York? Hi there, San Francisco.

And big reunions require such obvious statements. The in-depth discussions can wait for later. For now, it’s all about cheery greetings and quick reacquaintance. If you’re thinking of heading to America in the next couple of months, you may well be dreaming of the A-list locations. Of Manhattan and Miami. Of California sun. The greatest hits in a country full of them. But for every classic, there is an alternative: the shores of the Great Lakes, the forests of Washington, the wilds of New Mexico. Pick the America that inspires you the most – and celebrate a welcome return.

City breaks

The Classic: New York

The Big Apple is not just the greatest American city break. It may be the greatest of all city breaks. There it sits at the Atlantic’s edge, a cornucopia of skyscrapers and style, where you can gaze across the metropolis from the roof of the Rockefeller Center (topoftherocknyc.com), eat late in the Meatpacking District, and gaze at works by artists from Da Vinci to Pollock at the Met (metmuseum.org). And it shines in all seasons, whether for summer in Central Park or at Christmas in the store displays on Fifth Avenue.

A three-night stay at the four-star Fifty NYC hotel costs from £1,028 per person, with flights and transfers, through Kirker Holidays (020 7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com).

The Alternative: Philadelphia

Smaller than New York (though the sixth biggest US city by population nonetheless), Philadelphia justifies a longer stay. Wrapped in revolutionary history (the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall – where the Declaration of Independence was adopted – are both part of Independence National Historical Park; nps.gov/inde), it also gleams outside this crucial context. Its Museum of Art (philamuseum.org) – home to pieces by Picasso and Van Gogh – is one of America’s finest; the bars and eateries of South Philly are huge fun.

A four-night stay at the four-star Notary Hotel, flying from Heathrow on July 1, starts at £1,159 per person via British Airways Holidays (0344 493 0787; ba.com/holidays).

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Road trips

The Classic: New England

While Route 66’s 2,448-mile tattoo across the American torso will always attract travel romantics, the north-east corner of the country is the drama and beauty of the US road trip in one glorious package. Especially in autumn. If fiery foliage in one of Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island or New Hampshire is a cliché, then so be it. It is a trope that comes with rustic villages, bowls of clam chowder, rocky shores, and the chance for a dash along the arc of Cape Cod. Obvious? Yes. Wonderful? That too.

Original Travel (020 3958 6120; originaltravel.co.uk) sells a 14-day “Fly Drive New England” break which covers the region in detail. From £2,795 a head (with flights).

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The Alternative: The Great Lakes

The oft-written adulation for New England’s “Fall” finery usually fails to mention that the same arboreal fire-show is available 1000 miles to the west, in the trees of Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. Of course, the Great Lakes region is an ideal place for a road trip, even when leaves aren’t “ablaze”. Lakes Michigan and Huron shape Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. An unhurried journey round the former will inevitably drop you into Chicago.

Complete North America (0115 961 0590; completenorthamerica.com) dispenses a 14-night “Great Lakes Experience” which begins and ends in Chicago, loops around Lakes Michigan and Erie, and pauses at Niagara Falls. From £2,399 a head (with flights).

West Coast

The Classic: California

Discounting Alaska, the US west coast amounts to 1,293 miles on the rolling Pacific. A full 840 of them belong to California; three big cities (San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego) sit directly on them – making the “Golden State” a core element of the American travel experience. Any lengthy holiday might also take in the rugged majesty of Yosemite National Park (nps.gov/yose), the scorched terrain of Death Valley (nps.gov/deva), and the wineries of Napa and Sonoma – but the curves of Highway 1 remain utterly essential.

Scott Dunn (020 3733 5678; scottdunn.com) includes Sonoma, San Francisco, LA and Highway 1 in a 13-night “Ultimate California” trip. From £9,300 a head, with flights.

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The Alternative: Washington

Not the city, but the state which occupies the north-west corner of the US (again, ignoring Alaska). Washington owns 157 of those 1,293 west-coast miles, Many of them lie where the Pacific strikes the Olympic Peninsula, with its grey-sand beaches, rainforest trails and eponymous national park (nps.gov/olym). But the waterline also has one of America’s most exciting cities, Seattle, with its coffee shops and cool – while, if you go inland, there are wine areas (Columbia Valley) and peaks (Mount St Helens) as mighty as California’s.

Black Tomato (0203 026 7402; blacktomato.com) delivers the state in depth with an eight-night “Natural Beauty & City Slicking” tour – from £3,245 a head (flights extra).

Dust and Drama

The Classic: Arizon and Utah

When it comes to America at its most craggily spectacular, the itinerary dictates itself. It requires Arizona, the desert state where the Grand Canyon scars the soil for 277 miles. It also needs a hop into next-door Utah, where five national parks – Zion (nps.gov/zion), Arches (nps.gov/arch), Canyonlands (nps.gov/cany), Bryce Canyon (nps.gov/brca) and Capitol Reef (nps.gov/care) – make a virtue of the arid terrain, even before you stop at Monument Valley (navajonationparks.org). The USA of tyre tracks on sun-baked tarmac.

The 10-day “Wonders of the American West” group tour run by Insight Vacations (0808 3026468; insightvacations.com) covers the above from £3,463 a head, flights extra.

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The Alternative: New Mexico

For all its proximity to Arizona and Utah, New Mexico is the mystery box of travel in the American West, known only to the intrepid (and fans of Breaking Bad). But it rewards those who peer behind the dusty veil, at the relative normality of largest city Albuquerque and state capital Santa Fe (home to the floral art of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum; okeeffemuseum.org). Then at the nostalgia of Route 66 railroad town Tucumcari, into the depths of Carlsbad Caverns (nps.gov/cave), and at the oddness of alien-obsessed Roswell.

Bon Voyage (0800 316 3012; bon-voyage.co.uk) covers all the above in its 10-day “Journey through The Land of Enchantment”. From £3,229 per person (including flights).

Beaches and sun

The Classic: Florida

With the eternal exception of Alaska, no US state has more shoreline than Florida. Those wanting fun in the sun can be forgiven for spurning the oft-frozen beast of the far north for the Sunshine State and its 1,350 miles of seafront on both the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. Here are endless options for tans and indolence – ocean-facing hotspots Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach; Gulf-side resorts like Naples, Sarasota and Clearwater.

Abercrombie & Kent (0330 162 4375; abercrombiekent.co.uk) delivers Miami and Palm Beach in its eight-night “Florida Family Fun” trip – plus Orlando’s theme parks and the alligators of the Everglades. From £4,695 per adult and £3,330 per child, with flights.

The Alternative: Hawaii

That Florida has almost twice the coastline of Hawaii (“just” 750 miles) does nothing to diminish the appeal of the US’s fabled mid-Pacific archipelago. True, it demands a long journey of UK tourists (pretty much a day in the air), which makes it a less convenient choice for an American beach. But it quickly soothes the jet-lagged soul. Oahu has city thrills in Honolulu and Waikiki Beach; the “Big Island” has volcanic titans Mauna Loa and Kilauea; forested Kauai is Jurassic Park without dinosaurs; Maui has resorts aplenty.

Luxtripper (020 4538 2013; luxtripper.co.uk) ticks off all four of said islands with its 17-day “Island Hopping in Hawaii” break. From £6,353 per person (including flights).

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Music

The Classic: Memphis & Nashville

Music has long poured from America, but rarely with more panache than in Tennessee’s two most feted cities. Nashville is country music’s hub – proving so at its Hall of Fame (countrymusichalloffame.org; though visitors should also seek its new National Museum of African-American Music, nmaam.org). Memphis, meanwhile, has (the) blues and soul, in the venues of Beale Street and the former Stax Studios (staxmuseum.com) – even as the ghost of Elvis lingers at Graceland (graceland.com) and Sun Studio (sunstudio.com).

Intrepid Travel (0808 274 5111; intrepidtravel.com) visits both in a six-day guided “Tennessee Music Trail” that also offers jazz in New Orleans. From £1,726, flights extra.

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The Alternative: Minneapolis

To take a different look at American musical heritage, you might venture to Detroit and its Motown (motownmuseum.org) echoes (in which case, see “Great Lakes”, above). But for a sideways glance at US culture, head to the Minnesota city with a detailed cultural story. It is not just that Minneapolis has a thriving music scene, in venues as diverse as Fine Line (first-avenue.com/venue/fine-line) and Dakota Jazz Club (dakotacooks.com); it is that it was Prince’s home, and guards his legacy at his former studio (paisleypark.com).

America As You Like It’s 14-night “Minnesota & Wisconsin” tour starts and ends in the city. From £2,495 per person, with flights (020 87428299; americaasyoulikeit.com).

Big hitters

The Classic: Washington DC

Some cities reverberate to iconic songs. Others to the hum of power and politics. The US capital falls firmly into the latter category. It is impossible to wander Washington DC and forget that it is the heartbeat of a global heavyweight – the White House resplendent, the Lincoln Memorial a marvel in marble. But there is much to enjoy beyond the statement architecture – the museums, Apollo artefacts and artworks of the Smithsonian (si.edu), the bars of onetime “Black Broadway” U Street; the cool restaurant scene on 14th Street NW.

A week at the five-star Watergate Hotel (yes, that Watergate), leaving Heathrow on July 23, starts at £4,053 a head via Virgin Holidays (0344 4729646; virginholidays.co.uk).

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The Alternative: Texas

Washington DC is America’s epicentre. Texas likes to think it is. Indeed, the Lone Star State was an independent nation from 1836 to 1846. It retains some of this sovereign swagger in its old capital San Antonio (home to sacred site the Alamo (thealamo.org) – and its “new” capital Austin, where the capitol is one of the country’s grandest. There are enough bars and restaurants to fill a week in this vibrant city, but a tour of Texas should probably also take in Dallas and Houston – serious oil towns with steak-houses to match.

American Sky (01342 395 527; americansky.co.uk) visits each city (plus Fort Worth) with a 11-night “Self-Drive Talkin’ Texas” trip. From £2,099 a head, with flights.

Cruising

The Classic: The Mississippi

For all the length and variety – 12,380 miles, two oceans, one colossal Gulf – of the US coastline, the foremost option for an American journey by water stays inland. The River Mississippi is the country’s central artery; a 2,340-mile line of liquid which touches 10 separate states – from the cold shoulders of Minnesota and Wisconsin in the north to the woozy heat of Louisiana in the south. Should you choose, you can cruise almost all of it.

Viking River Cruises (0800 319 6660; vikingrivercruises.co.uk) offers “America’s Great River” – a 15-night sailing between New Orleans and St Paul (in Minnesota). Spaces are still available on three cruises this summer from £9,995 a head (with flights).

The Alternative: The Inside Passage

The most intriguing possibility for an American ocean voyage eschews the sun and sand of the Caribbean for something more forested, more remote – and, for some of the way, something non-American. The Inside Passage is a 1,000-mile corridor of sheltered sea, protected from the open Pacific by outcrops and islets. The meat to the sandwich is Canadian, along the hard edge of British Columbia. The bread is starred-and-striped – the bays and coves of Washington state in the south, Alaska’s peaks and glaciers in the north.

APT (0800 012 6683; aptouring.co.uk) sells a 22-day “Rockies Odyssey & Alaska Cruise” which devotes its last week to the latter section. From £8,845 a head, with flights.

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Skiing

The Classic: Aspen

There is a fair argument that, the pistes of the Alps aside, the USA boasts the planet’s most celebrated ski zones. Not least those which, burrowed into North America’s great snowy spine, decorate a state whose capital is known as the “Mile-High City”. In some senses, Colorado defines the Rockies as much as the Rockies define Colorado, offering superb winter-sports resorts like Telluride, Breckenridge and Vail. The kingpin, though, is Aspen-Snowmass (aspensnowmass.com), with its four inter-linked areas for chic descent.

Trailfinders (020 7084 6500; trailfinders.com) sells a 12-day “Aspen Snowmass Ski Holiday” from £3,369 per person, including flights to Denver and one-week lift pass.

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The Alternative: Stowe

To slightly appropriate an advertising slogan of yesteryear, New England isn’t just for autumn; it’s for winter too. Neither the White Mountains of New Hampshire nor the Green Mountains of Vermont have the height or frozen fame of the Rockies, but both deliver the thrill of downhill with gusto once the flakes tumble. Indeed, Vermont, for all its “Fall” prettiness, is perhaps more alluring in December and January. Stowe Mountain Resort (stowe.com) – which fans out around two peaks – offers 40 miles of skiable terrain.

American Affair (020 3424 6520; americanaffair.com) sells seven-night ski breaks to Stowe from £1,489 per person, including flights to Vermont regional airport Burlington.

Fun and games

The Classic: Las Vegas

For all its broad history and epic geography, for many of us, the most alluring American adventure is the one which involves grandiose themed casinos, the seductive purr of the roulette wheel and, if the mood takes, an elaborate stage show after a huge dinner. And the most obvious destination for this sort of giddy bacchanalia is the largest, loudest city in Nevada. Fashions change, hotel complexes rise and fall, but Las Vegas is always there in the desert, offering a 1000-watt smile and the promise that tonight is the night you win.

A week at the Bellagio, with its five-star fountains, flying from Manchester on July 9, starts at £1,855 a head, with Love Holidays (01234 975 975; loveholidays.com).

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The Alternative: Atlantic City

There is, of course, another fabled American enclave of slot machines and stay-up-late silliness. In truth, New Jersey’s best-known resort has an air of faded relevance, clinging to a decadent past – the clandestine booze of the Prohibition era; the nightclub boom of the Fifties and Sixties – in casinos with names like “Showboat”, “Tropicana” and “Golden Nugget”. But it has an unabashed sense of fun as well, especially when east-coast tourists descend upon it in high summer. And unlike its Nevada “rival”, Atlantic City has a beach.

A seven-night escape to the four-star Golden Nugget, flying from Heathrow to Philadelphia on July 23, costs £1,723 a head via Expedia (020 3024 8211; expedia.co.uk)

Covid rules 

From today, June 12, travellers need only show proof of being fully vaccinated. Unvaccinated travellers are not permitted to enter the USA.

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