Money Magazine 12-14-01
The Web Less Traveled

Finding offbeat travel destinations online.
By Paul Lukas

NEW YORK (Money) - The Internet is full of useful sites like Travelocity and Cheap Tickets, where you can find cut-rate air fares, but for the most part they're useful only if you already know where you want to go. I'm more interested in travel Web sites that spur my imagination or help me find the types of places I like to visit. Those places include roadside oddities, family-run businesses, cultural history sites and anywhere else that helps me learn about the American landscape. With those parameters in mind, here are my favorite travel-related Web sites. They range from government-sponsored to amateur-operated, but each one has proved to be a valuable resource.

A good place to start is Road Trip USA, the companion site to the excellent guidebook of the same title. Author Jamie Jensen understands that getting there truly is half the fun, and he does a great job of sharing the stories behind small towns, historical sites, classic diners and regional culture, never coming across as either too serious or too kitschy. Almost all of the book's text is available on the site, broken down into 11 cross-country driving routes, any portion of which can be accessed via a series of clickable maps. No other site so closely matches my own travel tastes, and every other site I'm about to profile is in some way either an extension or a subset of this one. First rate.

A universal travel quandary is where to eat. I generally prefer places that haven't been discovered yet by Zagat, and I've found that the best source for this advice is Chowhound, which features regional chat boards frequented by people who are serious about their food. The eateries under discussion run the culinary gamut from White Castle to white tablecloth, and if you post a query -- say, "What's the best soul-food restaurant in Savannah?" or "Where can I get a really great steak in central Idaho?" -- you'll usually get a bevy of knowledgeable, passionate replies. For a good backup, try Roadfood, which features foodie authors Jane and Michael Stern. And if you're particularly fond of diners, you'll find great listings at Diner City.

The next big question is where to spend the night. I love old mom-and-pop motels, not only because of their beautiful neon signs and cool architecture but also because Mom and Pop usually have great stories to share. Such places are becoming increasingly scarce, but fortunately there's Motel Americana, which features wonderful photos and postcards, travelogues and a clickable map that can help you find neat motels throughout most of America. Run by Andy and Jenny Wood, who maintain the site just because they get a kick out of it (making them sort of mom-and-pop Webmasters), this is one of the best travel-related examples of how the Web can transform a personal obsession into useful information.

Now that food and lodging are covered, what about stops along the way? Years of American travel have convinced me that the National Park Service is our most underrated government agency, and its excellent Web site has detailed information on all 385 national parks, monuments and other treasures. Virtually every NPS facility is beautiful and educational, with a good mix of nature and history, and the more you visit, the more amazed you'll become by America's remarkable landscape diversity. Plus, you'll have the rare experience of feeling your tax dollars are being well spent.

No trip is complete without a little roadside kitsch, and the king of that particular hill is Roadside America. If you're looking for the Criminals Hall of Fame Wax Museum or the World's Oldest Traffic Light, this is the place. Also useful is the World's Largest Roadside Attractions site, which has info on such things as the World's Largest Hockey Stick and the World's Largest Ball of Barbed Wire (yes, really).

What else? If you enjoy seeing the work of eccentric self-taught folk artists like the late Howard Finster -- and I can tell you from personal experience that these people make for unforgettable encounters -- the Outsider Pages can point you toward hundreds of accidental aesthetic geniuses. If you want to get away from it all, Ghost Towns has excellent information on scores of abandoned communities. For nostalgia, Carousels.com lists every working merry-go-round in America. Comprehensive drive-in movie listings are available at Drive-In Theater. And if you just want to see gorgeous countryside, National Scenic Byways Online has information on America's most picturesque driving routes.

Finally, two quirky gems: One of my favorite aspects of American regionalism is the way each state has a distinct design for its state highway route signs. Some, like New York's, are simple black-and-white templates; others, like Minnesota's, are colorful and more elaborate. You can see them all at State Highway Markers.

In a similar vein, I love the WELCOME TO... signs that greet us at state borders, and apparently so does Roger Johnson. His wonderful Welcome to America site features photos of him standing alongside such signs in all 50 states. Now that's the kind of travel dedication I can appreciate.

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