By John Rosenthal
RISMEDIA, March 12, 2007-(MSN.com)-Picking the right time to travel can make the difference between an unforgettable vacation and one that's memorable for all the wrong, crowded, cold, rainy or buggy reasons. So we've compiled a calendar of trips of a lifetime, one for each month of the year. Treat yourself to one or two of these vacations-so even if you can't go this month, you'll have something great to look forward to.
The warm Arizona desert takes on even greater appeal in March, when spring training baseball comes to town. Twelve teams play daily pre-season contests in the Cactus League, nine of them within 40 minutes of Phoenix. Games are quick afternoon affairs, with most of the big leaguers departing after four or five innings. That leaves plenty of time for 18 holes at Troon North Golf Club, or a spa treatment at the legendary Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort.
The pleasures of April in Paris are the stuff of movies, but the City of Light can't top springtime in Holland. The fields and gardens southwest of Amsterdam are at their most spectacular in April, when millions of tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, crocuses and other bulbs burst into bloom, creating a blanket of riotous colors that stretches for miles. The colors are so vivid that photographers from Fujifilm come here periodically to check their film's accuracy. For the complete Netherlands experience, rent a bicycle at Keukenhof Gardens and pedal your way around the bulb fields.
May: Yosemite National Park
America's most photographed national park is at its finest in May, when the snow-capped peaks of the Sierras melt into Yosemite Valley, creating the majestic waterfalls for which the park is renowned. You'll have even more pristine wilderness practically to yourself if you visit during the short window between the opening of the Tioga Pass Road (late May or early June, depending on snowfall) and the onslaught of summer crowds. The 39-mile Tioga Roads head out of the Valley (where 90% of Yellowstone's 3 million annual visitors spend all their time) into lightly used Tuolomne Meadows.
Summers in the Windy City are short, so Chicagoans fill them with as many outdoor events as they can think up. The Chicago Gospel Festival gets things started on a joyful note during the first weekend in June, followed the weekend after by the Chicago Blues Festival. At the end of the month, millions gather for the Taste of Chicago, when more than 60 restaurants dish out samples of their ribs, cheesecake, pizza and funnel cakes. Ravinia, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, begins its season of outdoor concerts in June, and the Cubs play 14 baseball games at Wrigley Field in June, plus another three against the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field (June 22-24) for hometown bragging rights.
The warm days and short nights of July create the ideal conditions for experiencing America's last frontier. You'll never see everything Alaska has to offer, but go ahead and try. Hike in Denali National Park; cruise through the fjords and inlets of the Inside Passage; ride a float plane into the wilds of the Kodiak peninsula to see bears; or kayak along the Katmai coast and watch sea otters napping on icebergs.
If there can be an ideal month to see a whole continent, it's Australia in August. That's winter Down Under, but Australian winters are more like Florida's and less like the snow and sleet onslaughts of the American Midwest. In August, conditions are perfect at Australia's two biggest natural attractions. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world's top snorkeling and scuba diving destinations, but between October and May, it's plagued by humidity and deadly box jellyfish. Ayer's Rock is a stunning place of mystic beauty, but Outback summers (December through March) are blistering. August is also lovely in Sydney, where cloudless 65-degree days are perfect for climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge or marveling at the Opera House.
September: Kenya and Tanzania
The time to go on safari is during dry season, when thirst drives huge concentrations of animals to dwindling numbers of watering holes. You're also more likely to see wild animals when they aren't obscured by the rainy season's lush foliage. In September, millions of wildebeest, zebras, gazelles and other herbivores migrate from Tanzania's Serengeti into Kenya's Masai Mara in search of water, and predators like lions and crocodiles track them in search of a meal. The incredible array of wildlife is one of the world's great spectacles.
The Green Mountain State dons a showy blanket of crimson and gold every autumn, drawing leaf-peepers from around the globe. Days spent biking, horseback riding, pumpkin picking or simply wandering driving back roads turn into nights spent by the fireplace at a charming country inn. Accommodations are more expensive this time of year, and for good reason: Almost anywhere you go in Vermont, you'll be surrounded by a picture-postcard scene, complete with spotted cows and covered bridges. Route 100, which runs the length of the state, is an excellent driving tour; the Long Trail, a 270-mile predecessor of the Appalachian Trail, is one of the finest hiking trails in America.
The end of the monsoon season brings warm, dry days to much of India. It also begins a season of celebrations-the grandest of which is Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights that commemorates Lord Rama's return from exile. The five-day party is celebrated throughout India with fresh flowers, the exchanging of gifts, and the lighting of candles and fireworks to symbolize the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil. Also in November is Rajasthan's Pushkar Mela, the largest camel fair in all of Asia.
December: New York City
Frank Sinatra liked New York in June, but most people prefer Gotham when it's wrapped up with a big red bow for the holidays. Visitors flood the Big Apple every year to watch the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, glide on the tiny skating rink below, take in a Broadway show and browse the windows of the big department stores. With the best of every cuisine in the world, and nightlife that rocks until dawn, where better than "the city that never sleeps" to spend the longest nights of the year?
Go to Maui in January and you'll be twice blessed. First, most of the holiday crowds have gone home already. And second, you'll catch the annual migration of Pacific humpback whales, which pass by Maui's warm waters on their way back to Alaska. You can take a whale-watching cruise to get up close and personal with these giant mammals, but you're just as likely to spot them leaping out of the water while you lounge lazily on one of Maui's gorgeous white-sand beaches.
February falls in the middle of South America's summer, so when Brazilians party, it's during weather warm enough to wear the world's skimpiest swimsuits. Rio's Carnaval is the mother of all celebrations-a decadent four-day party on practically every block, with colorful floats and thousands of samba dancers in outlandishly revealing costumes. But don't overlook equally entertaining festivities in Salvador (with an African flavor instead of samba) or Olinda.