Let your vacation plans heat up as the weather starts to cool down. Check out our travel editors' picks for the ten best places to get away this autumn, and tell us what you think in the comments.
International Balloon Fiesta
Photograph by Danita Delimont, Alamy
Albuquerque, New Mexico
All eyes will be on the skies over New Mexico's largest city October 6-14 for the 41st Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. More than 600 hot air balloons are expected to lift off in mass ascensions from launch fields spanning the equivalent of 54 football fields.
This fall also marks the final chance to join in New Mexico's yearlong 100th birthday celebration. Special statehood centennial events include "Dinosaur Century: 100 Years of Discovery in New Mexico" at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. In October, the exhibit focuses on some of the state's earliest and largest residents—giant dinosaurs.
Spend a weekend at Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Organic Farm, located in the city's pastoral North Valley. Designed in 1932 by John Gaw Meem, the "Father of Santa Fe Style," the 20-room guesthouse combines luxurious lodging with field-to-fork dining. During your stay, get a hands-on taste of farm life by working in the gardens or fields, or milking a goat and collecting eggs in the "Barnyard Animals 101" program.
Devil’s Pool at Victoria Falls
Photograph by Yvette Cardozo, Alamy
Dry season (September to December) atop the world's largest waterfall produces the rare opportunity to dunk in arguably the highest—and most dramatic—natural infinity pool on Earth.
At the lip of the 360-foot-high falls is Devil's Pool, accessible via Livingstone Island on the Zambian side of the Zambezi River. (Most tourist viewing areas are on the Zimbabwe side.) In fall, when the river is at its lowest and slowest, a natural rock retaining wall allows swimmers to safely jump into the pool, float to the edge, and look over the falls without being swept down.
Stay within walking distance of the falls entrance at the luxurious Royal Livingstone Hotel, or stop by the colonial-style complex in the afternoon for a sumptuous high tea. End the day watching the sunset from the hotel's Sun Deck, a restaurant and bar built over the Zambezi, or walking the rain forest trails to look for bushbuck and vervet monkeys.
National Apple Harvest Festival
Photograph by John Pavoncello
For two weekends in October (in 2012 it's October 6-7 and 13-14) the pint-size boroughs of Arendtsville and Biglerville celebrate fall by the bushelful at the annual National Apple Harvest Festival.
In addition to all things apple—locally grown fruit, fresh-pressed cider, homemade dumplings and sauce, pie eating and bobbing contests—there are hay rides, scarecrow displays, antique and classic car shows, chainsaw carving demonstrations, and arts and crafts from more than 300 vendors.
The South Mountain Fairgrounds festival site is only ten miles northwest of Gettysburg National Military Park, where unprecedented visitor traffic is expected in 2013 for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3). Beat the crowds and summer heat by combining a crisp October apple weekend with a battlefield park tour.
For a general's-eye view of the battlefield, make advance reservations for a horseback tour led and narrated by a licensed battlefield tour guide. Family-owned Hickory Hollow Farm offers one- and two-hour small group options through November. Space is limited, and no riding experience is required.
Great Masurian Lakes
Photograph by Edgar Rodtmann, laif/Redux
Northeastern Poland's Masuria region is a sparsely populated land of 2,000 lakes and thickly forested islands located about 170 miles from Warsaw. A network of rivers and canals makes it possible to lake-hop throughout the region via kayak, small yacht, or sailboat.
Summer is high season, and winter weather typically arrives early, so plan a September or October visit for a fall foliage bike ride or hike through Augustow Forest (home to European bison, elk, and boars) and Pisz Forest, part of Masurian Landscape Park. The park includes Luknajo Lake, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and mute swan breeding ground.
Several walking trails in surrounding villages and towns (including Elk, Ketrzyn, Gizycko, Mikolajki, Mragowo, Ryn, and Wegorzewo) connect visitors to Teutonic castles, baroque churches, World War II bunkers, and other historic sites.
Central Masuria—encompassing Lake Niegocin and Lake Sniardwy (the region's largest)—has the most developed tourist infrastructure. Navigate the area with local, English-speaking guides on a private or small-group Stay Poland tour.
Alba International White Truffle Fair
Photograph by Patrick Piel, Gamma/Getty Images
In northwest Italy's Piedmont region, truffle hunters and their hounds scour the lush woodlands each fall for buried treasure—the white Alba truffle. Also known as White Gold, the world's most prized and pungent tubers (pictured above) are named for Alba, a medieval town located about an hour's train ride southeast of Turin. Alba is also known for its wine, jam, and nocciola (creamy hazelnut chocolate).
All are celebrated during the Alba International White Truffle Fair, staged every weekend from early October through mid-November (this year it's October 6-November 18). The festival kicks off with the town's traditional Donkey Palio, a historical reenactment featuring spirited donkey races and a grand procession of a thousand locals attired in full medieval garb. Visit the World Market to sample and purchase pricey truffle-infused olive oil, sea salt, butter, creams, sauces, pasta, and risotto.
In the evening, head to the vine-covered hills where guests at Villa La Favorita, a bucolic working farm-cum-inn, enjoy free samples of the Nebbiolo d'Alba and Grignolino Piemonte wines produced on-site.
Fall Foliage Viewing
Photograph by Mixa/Alamy
Japan's northernmost and second largest island has a rugged frontier spirit and landscape. Beyond the boundaries of its capital city, Sapporo, Hokkaido is largely an unspoiled natural paradise—home to abundant wildlife (including sika deer and Hokkaido brown bears), towering mountain ranges, remote virgin forests, and volcanic caldera lakes.
Peak koyo (fall foliage) season begins in Daisetsuzan National Park (Japan's largest) in mid-September, rolling south in stages across the island. Natural factors dictate the exact koyo calendar, but the golden, orange, and crimson display typically blazes brightest in isolated eastern Shiretoko National Park and World Natural Heritage Site in late September; in Sapporo in early October; and at the southern tip of the island in Onuma Koen and Hakodate by mid-October.
Denver-based Samurai Tours arranges self-guided koyo itineraries for solo travelers who want to explore Hokkaido at their own pace. Packages typically include transportation, airport transfers, and nightly lodging in traditional ryokans (Japanese-style inns) or onsen (hot springs) resorts, as well as the support services of a local, English-speaking staff.
Charles Dickens's 200th Birthday Celebration
Photograph by Rex Features/AP
Located 64 miles southwest of London, Portsmouth is a bustling seaport city located mainly on Portsea Island. The city's naval tradition dates back to 897, when King Alfred the Great set sail from here to battle the Danes. But it's Portsmouth's literary tradition—specifically the 200th birthday of native son Charles Dickens—that's in the spotlight this year.
Dickens 2012 events include the special City Museum exhibition "A Tale of One City" (through November 4) depicting life in Portsmouth circa 1812-1870, and free guided walking tours departing from the entrance to the Historic Dockyard. (Schedule at least a day here to dive into British naval history, including climbing aboard the H.M.S. Warrior, the world's first iron-hulled, armored warship.)
In addition, the Charles Dickens' Birthplace Museum is extending its season until November 4. Walking through the small, fully furnished Regency home helps bring Dickens's Victorian England childhood to life. Included in the collection is the sofa (transported from Dickens's Gad's Hill Place home in Kent) on which the writer died of a stroke at age 58.
Pictured here is a member of the Pickwick Bicycle Club, named in honor of Dickens. The group formed in 1870, the year of Dickens's death, and is the oldest cycling club in the world.
Photograph by Frans Lemmens, Hollandse Hoogte
Fiordland National Park, New Zealand
Spring weather typically arrives in September in Fiordland National Park, the World Heritage Site located on New Zealand's South Island.
The most accessible fjord is Milford Sound, described by Rudyard Kipling as the "eighth wonder of the world." Waterfalls, rain forests, and stunning cliffs line the glacier-carved sound, home to dolphins, seals, sea lions, and penguins. Winter snow hangs on here, so October and November are safer for making the dramatic 74-mile drive (or bus ride) along winding Milford Road from Te Anau ("Gateway to the Fiords") through the park to the sound.
Queenstown tour operators Real Journeys and Southern Discoveries lead luxury, glass-roof coach trips through the Southern Alps to Milford Sound, where guests can board a scenic nature cruise or paddle the crystal clear waters by kayak. For multiday park visits, book one of the luxurious guest rooms or loft-style log cabins at upscale-rustic Fiordland Lodge overlooking Lake Te Anau.
Photograph by Bill Morrow
San Diego County, California
Extend your summer vacation—without the vacation crowds—in the southwesternmost county in the United States. September and October (rainy season arrives in November) in San Diego County is still warm and sunny enough to snorkel among abundant sea life in La Jolla Cove, learn to kite surf (above) at Mission Bay Park, and hike down sandstone bluffs (via dirt access trails) to the surf and sand at San Onofre State Beach.
Sprawling San Diego County covers as much territory as the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, and offers activity options to fit any age or interest. Rent a convertible and cruise historic Highway 101 along the Pacific coast from La Jolla (known as San Diego's Beverly Hills) to Oceanside, site of California's largest mission and the California Surf Museum.
During October, there's free admission for kids ages 3-11 at the San Diego Zoo, and through November, guests of all ages can sign up to camp overnight at the zoo's Safari Park through the popular Roar and Snore Safari program.
Great Allegheny Passage
Photograph by Paul G. Wiegman
Cumberland, Maryland, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The 141-mile Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) rail-trail winds over the rivers and through the woods of western Maryland and southwestern Pennsylvania. Built mainly on abandoned rail beds, the packed, crushed limestone route is free of motorized vehicles. A 15-mile-an-hour speed limit ensures a leisurely pace for cycling, hiking, strolling, and birding. Spend a weekend, or a full week, exploring part of the route and the historic trail towns along the way.
Frostburg, Maryland (mile 15), hosts the Appalachian Festival, September 14-15, on the Frostburg State University campus. Free events include regional music and dance, goat milking and beekeeping, and traditional arts and crafts. October 5-7 is PumpkinFest in Confluence, Pennsylvania (mile 60), and the West Newton, Pennsylvania (mile 114), Miracle on Main Street Parade and Light Up Night is November 24.
Extend your ride all the way to Washington, D.C. (about 334 miles total) via the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath. Mountainside Bike Tours specializes in custom Washington-to-Pittsburgh itineraries. Options include lodging, gourmet meals, luggage transport, and side trips to Antietam National Battlefield and Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater.
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