The US is a wonderland of established quantities. The sand of the Florida coast. The top of the Empire State Building. The marble dignity of the Lincoln Memorial. The red steel of the Golden Gate Bridge. The hot geysers of Yellowstone National Park. It is weighed and measured, snapped and celebrated – and, when it comes to tourism, known and loved.
And yet, it can also be an enigma – a country which offers travel experiences that are deeply idiosyncratic. For all that has been closed to British and European visitors for much of the past two years, a journey into its midst just as it has reopened does not need to be an exercise in the obvious – the Statue of Liberty will keep for another holiday; Sunset Strip will glow on another afternoon. The 15 adventures detailed here are almost uniquely American, whether they involve ghosts in Arizona and ghouls in Maine – or cowboys in Kansas, conmen in Kentucky, or pre-Columbian cities in the quiet of Illinois.
1. Speak easily in the hidden Big Apple
Has a legal imposition ever been more effective in promoting the thing it was designed to quash than America’s banning of alcohol from 1920 to 1933? A century on, Prohibition is a byword for evening glamour: whisky cocktails in speakeasies, passwords whispered at unmarked doors. New York was one of the thirstiest cities; it is estimated that, by 1925, it had up to 100,000 drinking dens. Big Onion charts the era with its Satan’s Seat walking tour of the Central and West Villages (bigonion.com; £22.50). Please Don’t Tell, meanwhile, revives the spirit and spirits of the East Village (pdtnyc.com).
How to do it: A seven-night dash to the four-star Kixby hotel, flying from Heathrow on December 11, costs from £2,495pp, with Virgin Holidays (0344 472 9646; virginholidays.co.uk)
2. Listen to echoes of the mob in upper Kentucky
New York and Chicago both had their spells of dancing to gangland’s tune. Both are well documented, in sepia tones, in brighter times. But one town has been so decriminalised that its mob past is barely visible. Between 1920 and the mid-1980s, Newport – which holds so northerly a location in Kentucky that it rubs shoulders with Ohio (both the river, and the state on the opposite bank) – was a gangsters’ paradise, full of illegal bookies, casinos and speakeasies. American Legacy Tours (americanlegacytours.com) wanders cleaned-up streets with its Newport Gangster Tour (£22), while, over the water, Cincinnati enjoys its own resurrection tale in one of America’s best craft brewing scenes.
How to do it: Cincinnati is at the beginning and end of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, sold by North America Travel Service (0333 323 9099; northamericatravelservice.co.uk), from £1,579pp, with flights