The Travel Has-Been Hall Of Fame: Yesteryear’s Forgotten Destinations

 @MarkJohansonIBT
on January 18 2013 4:01 PM

Read a guidebook for the United States from when your parents were your age and you may be surprised at what you see. Some hotspots that once welcomed the New York elite and Hollywood’s biggest stars are now merely relics of a bygone era. But why have these once-popular getaways fallen on hard times, and what do they still offer anyone willing to march against the sands of time? Have a look:

The Borscht Belt, N.Y.

The Catskill Mountains, less than two hours north of New York City, represented the ultimate retreat and offered up a slice of the American dream to millions of city dwellers from the 1920s to the 1970s. In particular, the leafy region attracted hordes of newly middle-class Jewish vacationers during the 1960s when it earned its nickname “the Borscht Belt” (the Jews' answer to the “Bible Belt”). The rolling hills were chockablock with bungalow colonies, summer camps and resorts whose stages were proving grounds for the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Joan Rivers and Woody Allen. Ironically, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 triggered the region’s decline as Jews who once found themselves excluded from other resorts set off for new destinations further afield. A decline in rail service from Manhattan and an increase in air travel meant that by the mid-1990s, the Borscht Belt was little more than a ghost of its former glory.

Why you should still go today: “The image of the Catskills, in the minds and imaginations of people in the metropolitan New York area and in the wider nation beyond, is unappealing at best, negative at worst.” These are the words of the Catskill Park Resource Foundation, which hopes to raise $5 million to help the region ditch its Borscht Belt past and move forward anew. Most of the famous resorts like Grossinger’s and the Concord are long gone, but the region isn’t short on natural beauty and still makes for an ideal getaway from Manhattan. In reinventing itself, the Catskills hopes for a second chance.

Daytona Beach, Fla.

Here’s the good news: The Spring Break crowd has flocked to wilder shores, the “Girls Gone Wild” team went with them and Daytona Beach is remaking itself into a family-friendly resort. Problem is, the city’s reputation for late-night parties and beer-guzzling bikers remains, and said families have yet to arrive in droves. Daytona has billed itself for nearly a century as “The World’s Most famous Beach,” and, like many towns with self-aggrandizing titles, the hype doesn’t necessarily match up with reality. Something about Daytona has grown bleak over the past decade, despite efforts by developers to redevelop the Main Street Peer into Ocean Walk Village. Perhaps it’s the aging 1970’s condos and rundown beachfront hotels. Perhaps it’s the fact that, because the party has moved elsewhere, it’s taken some of the city’s excitement with it.

Why you should still go today:  Home to Nascar and an international center for racing, Daytona still attracts large crowds every year for the Daytona 500. It also boasts some decent museums like the Marine Science Center, Museum of Arts and Sciences and the Daytona 500 Experience. If not for Daytona itself, make the journey for nearby Ponce Inlet, a quaint fishing village that has staved off the unsavory developments of its northern neighbor.

Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Niagara is perhaps best known as a place where people wear one of two things: barrels or veils. The border-straddling cities of Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Niagara Falls, Ont., issue between 1,500 and 2,000 marriage licenses annually and, in a good year, receive a combined 12 million visitors. But these numbers pale in comparison with what the region saw in its heyday. With the appeal of the honeymoon capital diving over the past 50 years -- along with half of the New York side's population -- the region has once again turned to gimmicks like Nik Wallenda’s tightrope walk last summer to put some extra cash in the hands of its residents, two-thirds of which (on the American side) subsist largely on welfare or social security, according to U.S. Census data.

Why you should still go today: Niagara Falls has become a case study in what can happen to natural landmarks if the government allows unchecked development. It was in many ways responsible for the very creation of the National Park System, which ensured that other natural wonders would not become spectacles. But what’s done is done, and the waterfall itself is no less impressive than it’s ever been. While the Canadian side is certainly glitzier and more developed, Niagara Falls, N.Y., has unjustly paid for its attempts to keep its corner of the Falls more natural. Some, like local resident, author and historian Paul Gromosiak, believe the key to changing the town’s downtrodden reputation lies in focusing on the region’s history and further preserving its abundant natural elements rather than relying on circus acts or casinos.

Pismo Beach, Calif.

You’re better off skipping the clams at Pismo Beach these days, though they were the seaside resort’s biggest attractions in the first half of the last century. California’s Clam Capital overharvested the critters long ago and the ones you’ll find in the ubiquitous chowders aren’t likely to be local. Today’s Pismo Beach is one of motorcycles and muscle cars, neon-colored dune buggies and bumbling RVs. The town still attracts about 2 million visitors a year, but it has mostly fallen off the radar for all but the most devoted fans who relish a slice of old-school Americana.

Why you should still go: There are several things that are illegal nearly everywhere else in California that are still possible in this coastal holdout, like driving on the beach, setting up a camp and building yourself a fire. Pismo’s modus operandi is “Classic California,” and in many ways it’s the antithesis of the state’s more popular beachside resorts. There are no multimillion-dollar mansions and no trendy restaurants, and shops are limited to the taffy and T-shirt variety. It’s defiantly old-school and nothing if not down to earth -- and that’s precisely why Pismo Beach still makes a decent place to kick back, grab a beer, eat some fries and relax.

Detroit, Mich.

Fueled by the booming automobile industry, Detroit was home to just under 2 million people during the 1950s. Over a million of them would flee the downtrodden Motor City by the 21st century, leaving in their place crumbling hotels, ruined movie houses and abandoned schools. What was once America’s fourth-largest city and a beacon of innovation is now better known for its staggering crime rate and urban decay -- things that have scared most visitors away. Detroiters, meanwhile, claim their city is unjustly characterized and gets a bad rap in the media. Either way, there is no denying that it’s lost some its luster.

Why you should still go today: The ruins of Detroit can be looked at in one of two ways: An unnecessary eyesore or an absorbing panorama showcasing the wider story of post-industrial America. If you’re inclined toward the latter, then Detroit offers a Pu-Pu platter of architectural marvels that serve as a testament to its former grandeur. And don’t forget some of America’s greatest musicians came out of Motown, including Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and The Jackson Five. Their legacy remains in the city’s vibrant music scene.

The Poconos, Penn.

Less than two hours from Philadelphia or New York, the Poconos have been a popular escape destination since the first hotel opened in the Delaware Water Gap in 1829, though the mountainous region really took off in the 1960s and 70s, when it was known as “The Honeymoon Capital of the World.” Most hotels that went up during the region’s boom included honeymoon suites replete with specialty hot tubs shaped like hearts and Champaign glasses. Indeed kitsch was king for a time, but by the late 1990s, the rustic resorts felt sorely outdated. Regional associations hoped new ski areas like Big Boulder would help revive the tourism industry, but the Poconos simply couldn’t compete with bigger and better resorts further north and west.

Why you should still go today: The Poconos has fared better than most of the destinations on the list, thanks in no small part to the millions of dollars invested in improving the region’s facilities. In recent years, the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania have welcomed a casino resort, performing arts center and massive indoor water park. These new facilities certainly complement the scenic landscape, but the Poconos’ enduring draw will be its outdoor offerings for hikers, boaters, fishermen and nature enthusiasts.

Orchard Beach, N.Y.

Conceived as the “Riviera of New York,” this WPA-funded engineering marvel in The Bronx was once a place to see and be seen -- though most 21st century New Yorkers don’t even know it exists. The grandiose Orchard Beach Pavilion opened in 1936 with an 8,000-car parking lot; changing rooms with rentals, showers, laundry and 5,000 lockers; and a 500-seat formal café. By the looks of pictures on display at the Museum of the City of New York, Orchard Beach was truly a sight to behold, but the location’s main attraction, the sea, has taken its toll on the concrete building. Moreover, the amenities of a bygone era have been deemed unnecessary and are, sadly, no longer available.

Why you should still go today: Though it’s seen better days, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has called the Orchard Beach Pavilion one of “the most remarkable public recreational facilities ever constructed in the United States,” and the NYC Parks Department says the beach still draws tens of thousands of families on a hot summer day (a rather generous estimate by most accounts). Dilapidated as the site may be, it boasts a long promenade, playgrounds, picnic areas, more than a dozen sports courts and the longest stretch of sand around (roughly a mile). It’s also just across the bay from City Island, whose lobster restaurants and bobbing boats give it an aura that’s more Cape Cod than New York.

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