While the world may be coming to Pittsburgh Sept. 24-25 for the G-20 summit, the resulting traffic snarls, security restrictions, school and university closings and workplace disruptions may translate into one thing for many families here:
Here, we offer five last-minute, long-weekend getaways within driving distance of Pittsburgh. Each will help recharge the batteries as well as reconnect with your family. They vary depending on budget, personal interests and how much time you're willing to spend behind the wheel.
You probably equate sand and surf with summer, but late September is actually a great time to head to Ocean City, Md. or other destinations along the East Coast. On most beaches, the crowds have disappeared, the nights are cooler and the Atlantic Ocean is still warm enough to splash around in.
Even better, most hotels offer September specials that are anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent off in-season rates. In Ocean City, a two-room oceanfront suite for three nights at the Princess Royal costs less than $500 at www.ococean.com, and comes with a full kitchen in which to prepare your own meals; an oceanview room in the luxury Clarion Resort Fontainebleau Hotel (it has two pools and free wireless) costs $239 a night.
Deals also abound with vacation home rentals. A 1,500-square-foot, three-bedroom bayside condo with a private boat slip can be had for as little as $200 a night at www.homeaway.com while a 2,050-square-foot, four-bedroom town home directly on the beach is discounted to $360 a night and sleeps 10.
For campers, nearby Assateague Island National Seashore offers sites for tents, trailers and recreational vehicles for $20 a night. Reservations are recommended and can be made six months in advance at www.nps.gov.asis.
Sunning and swimming are obvious draws -- Ocean City's 10 miles of beaches rank among the safest in the United States because of its clean water, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. But there's plenty of other activities to keep everyone busy. Sept. 24-27 just happens to coincide with Sunfest, a family-oriented festival at the Ocean City Inlet lot and beach with food, live music, free children's activities and arts and crafts.
There also are four public fishing piers (no license is required), shopping at Ocean City Factory Outlets, a Life-Saving Station Museum ($3) and of course arcade games, Ferris wheel rides and salt water taffy on the boardwalk. Info: http://ococean.com or 1-800-626-2326..
Just because they're not in school doesn't mean your kids' brains have to take a vacation. What better way to teach them our country's history than to put them in the middle of it? Pair a trip to historic Gettysburg (www.nps.gov/GETT), site of the turning point in the Civil War, with a visit to Valley Forge National Historic Park near King of Prussia (www.nps.gov/vafo), where George Washington's Continental Army famously wintered (and suffered) during the Revolutionary War.
The 6,000-acre battlefield in Adams County on which more than 51,000 Union and Confederate troops died during the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 has always provided a sobering history lesson; it's impossible to walk its fields and not reflect on the importance of the events that triggered President Lincoln's famous address.
Now there's a newly expanded, $103 million Museum and Visitor Center ($10.50 adults/$6.50 children 6-18) at Gettysburg National Park to help put it in even better perspective. A cyclorama places visitors in the middle of the action at Pickett's Charge, and there's also a film and hundreds of artifacts that paint vivid portraits of the battle and its circumstances. At night, further channel the past with a candlelight walking or ghost tour; on Sept. 26, attend an outdoor antique show on Lincoln Square. Rooms at the historic Best Western Gettysburg Hotel start at about $150.
Valley Forge turns the wheels of history back to 1777. In addition to ranger-led walking tours of the encampment and costumed interpreters at the Muhlenberg Brigade area on weekends, you can tour the 18th-century house General Washington rented for his headquarters. An "After Hours" tour has you dining with Martha Washington before relaxing around the campfire to listen to soldiers' tales ($55 adults/$50 students). Rates at the Comfort Inn Valley Forge National Park are as low as $115 a night. Info: www.valleyforge.org.
If you'd rather explore 18th-century American life south of the Mason-Dixon line, combine a trip to Colonial Williamsburg (www.history.org) with a visit to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello (www.monticello.org). Both prove Virginia is indeed for lovers, of history.
In Williamsburg, you can watch historic trades in action, see African American life interpreted on a recreated middling planation, tour 300-year-old homes and gardens and eat authentic Colonial meals at a tavern. A 3- to 365-day pass costs $58 for adults and $29 for kids; rooms at the Embassy Suites Williamsburg start at $135 a night on travelocity.com.
Jefferson's 43-room home outside of Charlottesville and showpiece gardens have always drawn crowds. Now there's a new reason to stop by. Nearly a decade in the making, the new $43 million Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center Monticello offers four exhibitions and a film that offer insight into the life and ideals of our nation's third president, and why his legacy is still significant. Tickets cost $20 for adults and $8 for children ages 6-11. Rates at the Doubletree Hotel Charlottesville average $135 a night at www.travelocity.com.
If you're leaving town to avoid the global spotlight the summit will shine on Pittsburgh, it might seem strange to head for a city that blazes 24/7. Unless, of course, you're talking New York City (www.nycgo.com).
Hotels can be surprisingly affordable: The Holiday Inn Midtown at 57th Street has rooms starting at $225 per night at www.nycgo.com, while the New York Marriott Downtown is as low as $319 a night. The Buckingham Hotel's "Subway" package costs $259 a night with a two-night minimum through Oct. 1, and includes a $40 MetroCard and family pack of afternoon snacks.
Favorite activities include a Broadway show (be sure to visit the TKTS kiosks in Times Square and South Street Seaport for half-price tickets), people-watching at Rockefeller Center and a visit to the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island (www.nps.gov/STLI).
There also are museums galore (the American Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side is amazing) along with incredible eats. You can't visit NYC without tasting the dim sum in Chinatown or homemade pasta in Little Italy.
But there's some free stuff, too, that will delight and entertain. The Downtown Alliance (www.downtownny.com) offers free 90-minute walking tours of Lower Manhattan every Thursday and Saturday at noon, along with free bikes for sightseeing. Battery Park, one of the oldest parks in the city, offers stunning views of New York Harbor. And nothing beats a stroll through the Central Park.
Some would argue that Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island, Ohio, rivals Penn State University for the title of Party Central. But it's actually a great jumping off point for exploring the cluster of islands dotting Lake Erie's western basin (http://visitputinbay.com).
Ferries that carry cars and passengers to town departs from Catawba, Sandusky or historic Port Clinton (for prices and schedule, visit www.millerferry.com or www.jet-express.com). Once there, rent a kayak, bike or golf cart and go exploring; sportsmen might consider chartering a fishing boat and angling for walleye and perch on Lake Erie. South Bass Island also has two caves, a nature and wildlife center and Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial, built to honor those who fought the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. An elevator takes you to an observation platform 312 feet above the water.
Accommodations range from campsites and bed-and-breakfasts to hotels, motels and vacation rentals. An on-line reservation site can be found at www.lake-erie.com.
And when you're tired of the water? On Sept. 26, you can enjoy one of the PIB's oldest traditions: the 34th annual Clam Bake (3-7 p.m.) sponsored by the PIB fire department. Tickets are $23 per person. Or, consider driving back to Pittsburgh via downtown Cleveland and spending a few hours at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum ($22 adults, $13 kids age 9-12; www.rockhall.com), or stopping in Sandusky, home of Cedar Point amusement park ($44.99 ages 3-61; www.cedarpoint.com). Nothing screams "vacation" quite like a roller coaster.
D.C.'s most famous resident is cooling his presidential heels in the 'Burgh. So why not return the favor and head for our national's capital? Politics notwithstanding, so much of what makes this city worth a visit is that most of its sights are to the public: the 19 museums that comprise the Smithsonian Institute, the many monuments on the National Mall, the U.S. Capitol and White House, Arlington Cemetery and the new Ford's Theatre Museum.
Attractions with entrance fees include the International Spy Museum ($18 adults, $15 children 5 to 11) and George Washington's beloved Mount Vernon ($15 ages 12 and older).
When you've tired of the indoors, take the Metro's red line (a day pass costs $7.80) to the National Zoo (Woodley Park-zoo/Adams Morgan or Cleveland Park stop). It's 2,000 animals include Tai Shan, only the third Giant Panda to be born and thrive in the U.S. Or take in a show Sat./Sun. at 1 and 4 p.m. at the planetarium at Rock Creek Park. At 9:30 and 11 a.m. Saturdays, there are free shows at the National Theatre (tickets are first-come, first-served).
Other activities include shopping in Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria; a narrated cruise on the Potomac River; and pizza at Busboys and Poets at 14th and V streets or a chili half-smoke at the landmark Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street between 12th and 13th streets (Obama stopped by for lunch in January). If you enjoy baseball (and don't mind cheering for another team) take in a game at Nationals Park. Tickets are discounted 40 percent at nationals.mlb.com.
Rates at the boutique Latham Hotel in Georgetown and River Inn on 25th Street in Foggy Bottom start at $99 a night (www.thelatham.com, www.theriverinn.com). The Quincy, a new contemporary all-suite hotel on L Street, near the White House, is offering a $129 weekend rate (www.thequincy.com) with an advance purchase.
Since most everything else is gratis, you won't even mind paying DC's astronomical fees for overnight parking.
Gretchen McKay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1419.