USA: Five of the best places to discover America’s great outdoors
Beyond the USA’s big-city thrills is a spectacular landscape promising wild adventures. Here are just some of our favourite places to experience America’s great outdoors.
Florida's southernmost key stretches out into the big blue Atlantic Ocean. On these tropical islands, you’ll find shimmying palm trees, sandy beaches and jumbled mangroves. If the Caribbean climate isn’t enough to cheer you up, a slice of fresh key lime pie is sure to put a smile on your face.
The gorgeous mangroves here stretch from Key Largo all the way to Key West, and the best way to navigate them is by kayak. Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned paddler, you’ll find a route to suit. Further out to sea lies America’s only living coral reef, the Great Florida Reef. Snorkel, scuba or even snuba (a mix of the two) to discover sculptural corals visited by tropical fish, moray eel, spiny lobster and sea urchin. If you’re an advanced diver, the Keys also boast exceptional wrecks to explore. Former transport ship USS Vandenberg is now the second largest artificial reef in the world, and the barnacled wreck of the USS Duane is likewise a haven for marine life. However you choose to do it, make the most of this archipelago’s panoramic ocean.
One of the best times to visit the Florida Keys is in December, when you can join the festivities of Christmas and New Year. Key West is famous for its televised ‘drops’ – parties where someone or something is lowered as the New Year countdown begins. The most fabulous of these takes place at New Orleans House, where drag queen Sushi rides an enormous shoe into the next year. There’s no winter chill to worry about, either; the weather in December is still warm and sunny, and there’s less rain and humidity to dampen days out.
Stay at A&K favourite Ocean Key Resort & Spa, a short walk from Sunset Pier and Mallory Square in Key West. Each of the ocean-facing rooms and suites features a private balcony, so you can sip a mojito looking out as the sun sets over Key West Harbour.
The ‘Tar Heel’ state of North Carolina has a landscape which undulates wildly. In the west, you’ll find the highs of the Appalachian Mountains, whilst the east coast is outlined by the sandy Outer Banks and lapped by the Atlantic Ocean. In-between, dense forest sprawls over valleys, begging to be wandered through all year round. It’s the perfect place to get out and explore.
As well as being America’s tobacco-growing capital, North Carolina is home to the nation’s largest private residence. Biltmore House in Asheville city is a grand chateau from the Gilded Age; it’s straight out of a fairy-tale, with its steeply-sloping roofs and ornamental details – including the odd gargoyle peering down at visitors. After touring the opulent house, explore the 26-square-kilometre estate, enjoy the flower-dappled gardens and sample the wine of the on-site vineyard. You can even stay here, amidst the magnificent grounds, in the Inn at Biltmore.
Of course, the true outdoors isn’t so exquisitely manicured. You’ll find untamed beauty in North Carolina’s famous national parks, most notably Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains – both forming part of the vast Appalachian Mountains. The Outer Banks to the east promise 320 kilometres of windswept beaches, tripped along by wild horses. It’s the perfect place to watch the sunrise over the Atlantic.
We recommend visiting North Carolina between September and October, when autumn transforms swathes of woodland into patchwork quilts of red and gold. Asheville is the ideal stop to enjoy the fall colours, or you can experience one of the most scenic self-drives through North Carolina’s national parks.
You’ll fall in love with Utah’s scenery. The rosy stone of the ‘Beehive State’ has been weathered into spectacular shapes over millions of years, creating an awe-inspiring landscape to explore. To see for yourself, visit Utah’s Mighty Five® National Parks during an A&K holiday to the USA. In Zion you’ll find dramatic table-topped mesas, while Bryce Canyon boasts bizarre sandstone hoodoos. The Island in the Sky – in the northern part of the Canyonlands National Park – offers epic views of rugged canyons, carved by the Colorado and Green rivers. Capitol Reef has its fair share of eye-popping rock formations, too, but wait until nightfall for a real treat; the park has been designated Gold Tier by the International Dark-Sky Association, so stargazers will be in heaven.
Another good reason to head outdoors here is Lake Powell. This huge man-made reservoir straddles Utah and Arizona, quenching the arid lands with sapphire-blue water. You can boat, fish, water ski, and wakeboard ‘til your heart’s content. For a truly unique way to experience the lake, hire a private houseboat. These vessels come well-stocked with provisions and home comforts, so you can cruise around in luxury – we especially recommend it for families.
To stay close to both Lake Powell and within reach of Zion National Park, book a room at Amangiri. Built to blend in with the photogenic surrounds, this hideaway typifies the splendour of Aman’s resorts; 34 indulgent suites, a world-class spa and a breath-taking swimming pool will leave you feeling pampered and relaxed.
Time your visit to Utah for spring, between April and May; or autumn, between September and November; the milder weather during these liminal seasons makes exploring the amazing national parks more comfortable.
Visit Arizona’s outback and you’ll find endless shrub-tufted desert, rocky outcrops, plummeting canyons and wide American roads. The drama of this arid landscape earnt it a role in big-screen hits from Thelma & Louise to The Lone Ranger, and the star of the show is undeniably the Grand Canyon. Carved by the Colorado River over mega-anna, this near-5,000-kilometre gorge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the natural wonders of the world. Gaze in awe at its other-worldly formations as you take on one of the many trails by foot, by bike or even by horse. There are plenty of vertigo-inducing vantage points for snapping photos, such as the aptly named Grandview, but to really appreciate the scale of this landmark you need to be sky-high; gain a vulture’s-eye view with a Grand Canyon helicopter tour.
As with much of southern USA, Arizona has a long association with the cowboy. Cattle ranches still dot rural regions, and many welcome tourists keen on trying their hand at horsemanship. So you too can become a cattle-wrangling, yee-hawing cowboy – or cowgirl – if only for a day.
For a different kind of ‘ranch’ altogether, bed down at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch. Each of the family-friendly property’s guestrooms and suites boasts either a private patio or balcony, offering views over the 11-hectare resort’s sun-drenched surrounds. Whilst here, take advantage of the outdoor activities on offer, including off-road driving around the Sonoran Desert, horse riding and Native American culture tours.
One of the best times to visit Arizona is between April and May, when wildflowers bloom and the desert springs to life. That famous scorching heat doesn’t come until summer’s in full swing, so you can expect comfortably warm, sunny days – ideal for exploring Arizona’s great outdoors.
The bright lights of Las Vegas have an enduring allure. Nevada’s most populous city hums, clinks and jangles with neon-lit casinos and nocturnal bars, especially along the famous Vegas Strip. While here, be sure to stop by the Bellagio Resort to see the iconic Bellagio Fountains in action. You can even take a behind-the-scenes tour underground to see how they work, followed by a champagne toast as the fountains dance along to your favourite song.
Las Vegas offers plenty beyond its buzzing urban centre, so take a break from winning chips to discover the scenic surrounds. You won’t have to venture far; the city lies amidst the sprawling Mojave Desert, with popular draw Red Rock Canyon even visible from the Vegas Strip. The yucca-mottled landscape of this National Conservation Area features astounding 1000-metre rock formations, and is home to a surprising array of wildlife; take a private desert tour and you may spot desert tortoise, wild horse, golden eagle, coyote, hummingbird, bobcat and mountain lion.
The best time to visit Las Vegas is between April and May, when pool party season is in full swing and the resorts are at their liveliest. April is also when Vegas Uncork’d takes place – a city-wide celebration of the best cuisine – so if you’re a foodie, you can take your fill of gourmet goodies. For accommodation in the heart of the city, stay at the unique Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas. Despite its spot on the Strip, the hotel is casino-free, and maintains a serene atmosphere from lobby to room – perfect for respite from the hustle and bustle outside.
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