The month of May brings Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer. With vacation budgets shrinking, many folks are opting to use their free time for day trips or long weekend jaunts. They’re on the lookout for close-to-home destinations, easily accessible by car, that offer all the qualities of a great vacation: a little bit of history, cultural options, outdoor fun, shopping — and great places to sleep and eat. From Massachusetts to New Jersey, we’ve scouted out nearby areas that fit the bill. So pack the car and the kids, and roll out for summer fun!
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Natural wonders: The unique Albany Pine Bush Preserve
Photograph courtesy of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission
Outdoor activities in the Capital District are — surprisingly — numerous and varied.
By Jennifer Leba
Much like the moment when technicolor is finally added to The Wizard of Oz, the city of Albany suddenly throws off its gray shroud and bursts to life in the late spring and summer months. Everywhere, it seems, people are dining outside, music can be heard in the parks, and the Hudson beckons to old and young alike. It all kicks off on May 9 with the 61st annual Tulip Festival. On May 27, 30,000 people are expected at the annual Art on Lark festival, which shows that big city about two-and-a-half hours to the south that it’s not the only place with a happening art scene. (Don’t miss the Sidewalk Chalk Art Contest.)
But there are many more reasons to visit the Capital Region throughout the summer. If you’re like me, the words “pine barrens” immediately conjure up images of South Jersey. But you may be surprised to learn that the 3,010-acre Albany Pine Bush Preserve, located between Albany and Schenectady, is recognized as one of the world’s best examples of an inland pine barrens ecosystem (there are only about 20 around the globe). There’s a unique diversity of animals and plants to be discovered, but many folks who come to hike or mountain bike on the 18 miles of mostly flat trails are hoping to lay eyes on the preserve’s most famous resident — the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly, which only appears in May and June. “It’s quite easy to spot them,” says Wendy Craney, communications and outreach director. “But we suggest that people join one of our organized butterfly walks; it enhances the experience.” Other organized programs at the preserve include bird watches, family camp activities, and lunchtime hikes on the first Friday of each month. The Discovery Center, which opened in 2007, is a hands-on, interactive nature center that walks you through everything you can expect to find in the preserve. You can also rent paddle boats on Rensselaer Lake or go kayaking with L.L.Bean, which runs a discovery school where you can test out the latest equipment.
Ride your tour bus into the Hudson with Albany Aqua Ducks
Photograph courtesy of Albany Aqua Ducks & Trolleys
One of the more unique ways to get out on the water is with the Albany Aqua Ducks. If you’re not familiar with these amphibious vehicles — they start out as a bus and transform into a boat as they splash into the river — they’re a wonderful way to tour the city’s main sights. (You can also opt to tour Troy instead.) Most standard tours last 90 minutes and cost $26 for adults, $15 for children 4-12. This summer, in honor of the Quadricentennial celebrations, you may be lucky enough to have Mr. Henry Hudson himself as your guide. Oh, all right, he’s just an actor, but he’ll be dressed in full Henry Hudson regalia, and will regale you with stories of his own trip up the Hudson. (His boat, by the way, did not turn into a bus.)
Summer is perhaps the most pleasant time of year to visit the USS Slater, the nation’s only remaining World War II Destroyer Escort that’s still afloat (there were originally 563 of them). Take an hourlong guided tour of this Navy vessel that scouted for enemy submarines and kamikaze planes while escorting ship convoys across the Atlantic. If you still can’t stand to go indoors, catch live musical theater at Playhouse in the Park in Washington Park (coming this summer: High School Musical).