Top 10 US travel destinations for 2012

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The US: it’s a big place, and there’s a lot of ground for travelers to cover. So what’s buzzing for travelers in the coming year? It’s an annual tradition at Lonely Planet to try to answer that question, so the editors in our US office put their travel-noggins together to carve out a list of what’s new, interesting, and in some cases likely to be overlooked by travelers both domestic and international. Here are our 10 top picks that should be on your travel radar in 2012:

1. US Virgin Islands

In a year when travelers are apt to still be watching their wallets, this is our #1 choice for an American tropical getaway. It’s eternally 80 degrees, rimmed with white-sand beaches on turquoise water, and, yes, it’s a US territory. Each of the US Virgin Islands has their own identity: if you want a break from resorts, St John is nearly two-thirds a lush national park with tent cabins amid trees and hikes to secluded beaches – this sadly may be the last year for the Maho Bay Camps, a long-standing eco-resort which is the place to stay if you’re watching your budget; or try the St John Inn which offers great-value rooms with kitchenettes. For more action, the previously inaccessible Hassel Island, now part of Virgin Islands National Park (St Thomas), can be explored by snorkel or kayak. And word is that the Captain Morgan Rum Distillery on St. Croix will open its new visitor center in spring 2012 – ahoy!

2. Hudson River Valley, New York

It should be a given that any visitor to New York City breaks for a day or two ‘upstate’ in the Hudson River Valley, a slice of rural Americana just north. It’s a real city break, with leafy drives, wineries and plenty of farm-to-table foodie options that draw even spoiled-for-choice Manhattanites away from the city. A favorite spot to stay is straight out of a B-52s video. No surprise. It’s former ‘52 singer Kate Pierson’s Lazy Meadow, a renovated ‘50s cabin complex near Woodstock designed by the same pals who did up the ‘Love Shack’ for the video.

3. Cincinnati, Ohio

Seen Cincy lately? The pretty city on the Ohio River – off the main cross-country interstates – gets bypassed by many road trippers, but it’s quietly transformed itself in the last decade into a worthy weekend getaway. Life centers around the river – much which can be seen by foot: river walkways are best on the Kentucky side, reached via a couple bridges including John Roebling’s Suspension Bridge (a prequel to his famous Brooklyn Bridge). Narrow, twisting (and steep) brick roads of the Mt Adams district lead past 19th-century Victorian townhouses and the free Cincinnati Art Museum, while the once-dangerous, emerging Over-the-Rhine, just north of downtown, is home to the Findlay Market and a sprawling collection of historic Italianate architecture. Best, though, is the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, open since 2004, on the banks of the river where many slaves escaped to freedom in the 19th century.

4. Four Corners Region, Southwest USA

The most popular attractions of the four states sharing a border in the southwest – Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah – typically cluster away from the four corners, but this underappreciated region is a geologic, archeological wonderland. Even with a 100-mile radius, you can see the sandstone towers of Arizona’s Monument Valley, Hollywood stars in their own right, seen on a 17-mile loop or by Navajo-led walks – pop into one of Utah’s national parks, see Colorado’s Mesa Verde’s abandoned cliff dwellings on self-guided walks, then straddle all four states at once.

5. Culebra, Puerto Rico

Image by fuzzzypics

Looking for a beach? Don’t forget Puerto Rico, just a short hop from the US mainland. The island is rimmed with great beaches, but the best – and still a secret to most visitors – is the world-class Playa Flamenco, on wee, offbeat, laid-back island of Culebra, 17 miles off Puerto Rico’s mainland. Reached by ferry or flight, Culebra is great for beach-hopping, snorkeling or hikes in a wildlife refuge. You can find beachside apartments for $150/night, including Villa Flamenco Beach, while the personable, cheaper Palmetto Guesthouse offers free water-sports gear.

6. California Gold Country

Tahoe and Yosemite gets all the mountain love in California, but an hour closer to San Francisco (and cheaper and less crowded) is Gold Country. Towns that ooze century-old ambience are strung out like throw-back pearls along Hwy 49, a fun drive that passes stops like Jamestown’s historic train, a tiny gold town called Volcano (with no volcano), wineries (some even consider the region a contender to Napa and Sonoma), caves, gold-panning spots and a good overnight choice: the artsy town of Nevada City. Winter is also a treat with snow parks for kids and Bear Valley for hard-core winter sports – plus there’s sledding options galore. That’s how the locals do it.

7. Boulder, Colorado

The university town of Boulder is one of the most livable cities in US. Locals live with a mad crush on the outdoors, and adventure can be found at every turn. Main roads are filled with cyclists, except for the bustling ped-only Pearl St Mall lined with shops and great eateries and brewpubs. There’s also a bike path along Boulder Creek, which gets filled with tubers in summer. The Royal Arch Trail is a two-hour hike though a challenging red-rock canyon in town. And, in winter, don’t overlook Nederland’s goofy Frozen Dead Guy festival, 17 miles west.

8. Hawai’i: The Big Island

For too long, ‘Hawai’i’ has meant Honolulu, but a rise in direct flights from the US mainland to Kona, on the Big Island, mean the draw of this magical place has never been easier. Plan to stay as long as you can, considering its wide variety of attractions: Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Kealakekua Bay snorkeling, hikes into caves and waterfalls along the lava field at Hilina Pai, or just bumming on the island’s best beach at Hapuna.

9. Chicago

Chicago’s going to be busy in 2012, with G8 and NATO summits based here – though the main attraction lies outside politics. Instead, occupy the Magnificent Mile! Chicago has incredible art offerings at places like the Art Institute and Millennium Park, some of the country's best restaurants and world-class festivals like Lollapalooza and Taste of Chicago. And the Obamas’ old neighborhood on the south side – Hyde Park – is seeing more visitors for its lakeside walks and a look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘prairie style’ Robie House, up this year for World Heritage Site status.

10. Yellowstone National Park

The world’s first national park – turning 140 next year – attracts nearly four million visitors a year, but just a trickle go in winter; consider it. Rates are lower (the Old Faithful Snow Lodge has rooms starting at $95, a fraction of summer rates), and the scenery has its own wintery majesty, when waterfalls turn to curtains of ice, geysers shoot higher and boiling rivers billow with steam. You can get about by ski shuttles, snowshoe (rangers lead free tours) or – best yet – cross-country skis, as hiking trails of all levels transform into some of the country’s best trails. Why wait for summer?

This article was updated in March 2012.