In honor of my beloved country's 232nd birthday, I want to share ten of my favorite places to visit in the U.S.A. (in no particular order, and definitely not exclusive):
Best Hike: Denny Creek and Slide Rocks in Snoqualmie Pass, WA. This is a great hike with kids -- only about 2.5 miles through stunning old-growth forest -- and the payoff is a natural water slide that feels great on one of those uncommonly hot Northwest summer days. Bring a plastic shopping bag for your bum, and slide away!
Best Park: Forest Park in St. Louis, MO. Ever since they re-made Forest Park in honor of the 100th Anniversary of the 1904 World's Fair, this sprawling park has become a stunning showcase of Belle Epoque beauty. From "Shakespeare in the Park" and paddle boating on the restored waterways in the summer to the impressive art and history museums in the winter, there is every reason to visit Forest Park year-round.
Best Botanical Gardens: The Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, MO. Another jewel in St. Lou, MoBot is far and away the most ravishing botanical gardens I have ever visited. I think it would be impossible to grow tired of visiting, as the flora is so extensive, and the visiting art displays are so intriguing. It's a winner with kids, too, as they've got a killer children's play area (Old West theme), an English hedge maze, and endless other things on which climbing is allowed.
Best Museum: The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. I first visited this group of museums when I was nine, and it has been my standard of excellence ever since. Honorable mentions, though, would have to include the Field Museum in Chicago; my favorite from childhood, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; and, for its limited scope, you cannot beat the Laura Ingalls Wilder House Museum in Mansfield, MO.
Best Kick-Ass Mansion Owned By an Eccentric Millionaire: Hearst Castle in San Simeon, CA. There are more candidates for this very specific category than you might realize: Winchester Mystery House, Biltmore, innumerable ones in the South, I'm sure. But, Hearst Castle has to take the cake. Not only is it excessively grand and verging on tacky -- as any great house ought to be -- but the lingering Hollywood mystique, combined with the heartbreaking pathos of W.R. Hearst's love affair with Marion Davies make this an easy place to lose oneself in speculation. Keep your eyes open for photos that include Carole Lombard when you take a tour.
Best Beach Town: Laguna, CA. This is a sentimental choice for me. I spent many, many weeks of my childhood summers in Laguna, as it was a favorite of both my mother and my father, and it will forever remain in my mind as the quintessential beach town. I don't even think the beach is that great -- very stony, rather than sandy, if memory serves -- but the atmosphere is appropriately casual chic, with plenty of funky shops and outdoor cafes.
Best Beach: Virginia Beach, VA. Warm Atlantic currents and milky-white sand make this one of the best beaches in America, in my opinion. It also comes across as more locally visited, rather than so touristy, which is refreshing.
Best Place to Shop: University Village, Seattle, WA. I just love this outdoor shopping plaza, and I don't care who knows. It has my favorite shops all together in one place: Eddie Bauer, B&N, The Land of Nod, Hanna Andersson and more! It's a great place to walk around with your requisite Starbucks concoction in your hand and drink in the PNW-ness.
Best Road Tripping Highway: Here is a tie: 101 that runs up and down the coast of California is gorgeous; I-90 that crosses the top half of the continental U.S. takes you through a different kind of American beauty. If you love road trips like I do, either one is a good bet.
Best City: Oh dear. I love Seattle, New York, and St. Louis so very much, but I think that I may have to pick as my favorite (mostly because it so surprised me) Chicago, IL. You cannot beat the atmosphere of this city -- add to that the innumerable cultural doings and great food and easy mobility . . . it's one heck of a great town.
And this is one heck of a great country. Happy Independence Day!