"Travel," said Mark Twain, "is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness ... nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him." Travel is also difficult to pull off on a regular basis, especially if you're burdened with inertia, sloth, fear of the unknown, chronic procrastination, misplaced priorities, or delusions of workplace indispensability. Conquering such personality flaws is what New Year's resolutions are all about, and resolving to spend 2005 exploring the myriad pleasures our planet has to offer is a gratifying and possibly life-altering way to do exactly that.
A year of memorable trekking can be difficult on one's ever-dwindling bankroll. But travel covers everything from a weekend jaunt to Yosemite to a yearlong, round-the-world voyage; the trick is to choose a smorgasbord of destinations near and far, casual and costly, and to space out your excursions over the course of the year -- say, one jaunt per season.
Begin now, in the dead of winter, with San Francisco at its most numbingly gray and wet, and think about the Bahamas, which are neither. Blue of sky and white of sand, with the warm Atlantic lapping its shores in undulating shades of aqua and emerald, this gorgeous chain of islands just off the Florida coast is especially inviting right about now, with its mid-70s temperatures, sultry island rhythms, and flotilla of umbrella-bedecked rum concoctions. A few years ago a friend and I scored a package deal from Land & Sea Travel (305-965-1085) that included a round-trip cruise from Ft. Lauderdale to Grand Bahama Island and four nights at a very nice resort for a princely $300. You can snorkel and water-ski, if you like that sort of thing; the casinos are swellegant; and the conch is plentiful and delicious. (Tahoe is a frostier and handier wintertime option for those who embrace snow and roaring hearths and whatnot; I especially like South Shore with its Heavenly Valley tram and Harrah's cornucopian Forest Buffet.)
One of the best places to be when spring arrives is right in our backyard. Mt. Tamalpais is a pleasure year-round, but it's at its best when slopes are blanketed with wildflowers, creeks and waterfalls burble and splash from the winter rains, and crags and meadows and forests smell of warm earth and flora basking in sunshine. The best way to experience its splendors: Pack a knapsack with overnight essentials, hop a Golden Gate Transit bus to Mill Valley (call 511 for info) and head up Throckmorton Avenue to the start of the Dipsea Trail. After nine miles of alpine terrain, glorious panoramas, and nature in full bloom, you'll find yourself, pooped but happy, at Stinson Beach -- a fine weekend getaway, particularly if you stop at the friendly, affordable Redwoods Haus B&B (868-1034). Golden Gate Transit operates a weekend shuttle out of Stinson after March 12 if you don't want to trek all the way back to Mill Valley. (An excellent, farther-afield springtime option: the tiny hilltop town of Ravello on the Amalfi Coast of Italy. It offers cobblestone streets, no cars, freshly made pasta and gelati, dazzling vistas overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, and nightly fireworks in the town piazza.)
Those who don't particularly flourish in torrid weather find that many getaway options are damnably hot and humid in the summer months -- unless the options are south of the Equator, where winter prevails and even the most tropical locales are positively temperate. Take Rio de Janeiro, one of the most enticing cities on the planet. Not only is our summer season an economically feasible time to visit -- big, beautiful oceanside rooms at Hotel Praia Ipanema (55-21-2540-4949) go for a mere $100 per night -- the weather's sublime. The 20-hour plane ride from S.F. to Brazil is daunting, but once you hit Rio, the living is easy and fairly cheap, with expenses about one-third of what they are in the U.S. The mountains and beaches are dazzling, the world's loveliest music can be heard on every street corner, all-you-can-eat buffets of skewered meats and farofa predominate, and those sweet, potent, ever-present caipirinhas make everything seem even lovelier. (Of course the weather's mighty fine up in the Wine Country as well, and it's a helluva lot closer; I'm especially partial to Healdsburg, home of Bistro Ralph, the Ravenous Café, and band concerts in the town square every Sunday afternoon.)
With most everyone back at work, the air crisp, and those off-season rates in effect, fall is my favorite time to travel, particularly around the U.S. The problem is the wide variety of attractive autumnal destinations to choose from. Solution: Amtrak's Explore America package (800-872-7245). For a mere $280 to $430 (depending on region) you can travel all you like for 45 days, with three stopovers of your choice. It's a great way to see some beautiful and otherwise inaccessible parts of the country, meet an entertaining cross-section of people, and visit a trifecta of cities at a fraction of the cost of air travel.
A recommended itinerary: Take the Zephyr over the Sierras and the Rockies to Chicago and spend several days enjoying Wrigley Field, the Art Institute, and the world's best pizza, barbecue, hot dogs, and Italian beef. (Call the charming yet inexpensive Surf Hotel, blocks from Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan, at 312-528-8400.) Then head to Burlington, Vt., in time for the natural phantasmagoria that is New England in the fall, taking in the occasional rustic graveyard and Ben & Jerry's factory tour betweentimes. (Check out the Liberty Inn at 802-862-5754.) Next it's down to New Orleans for Halloween, a more manageable variation on Mardi Gras but eye-filling nonetheless, with time out for turtle soup at Galatoire's, oysters at the Acme, and a contemplative sazerac in some Garden District courtyard. (The c. 1830 Creole House at 888-251-0090 is not only opulent, friendly, and reasonably priced, it's right in the French Quarter, half a block from Donna's Bar & Grill, one of the best jazz joints in the country.) And finally, after crossing the Southwest, enjoying a two-hour stopover at L.A.'s gorgeous Union Station (conveniently adjacent to Olvera Street and soul-stirring Mexican food usually unattainable north of the Tehachapis), and heading up the coast on the Starlight, you can reflect on a year well spent, and well broadened.