The West Texas desert seems an unlikely home for high fashion. But along a desolate stretch of U.S. Highway 90 near Marfa, Texas, travelers can stop at a Prada boutique.
Unfortunately for shopaholics, the doors of "Marfa Prada" are sealed—it's not a functioning store, but a permanent art installation designed and built by Scandinavian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset in 2005.
If discovering the unusual is your idea of a dream trip, Marfa might be just the place for you. But there are plenty other hidden gems scattered across the country, ranging from natural wonders like Arches National Park in Moab, Utah, to urban attractions like the rooftop sculpture garden on top of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
To generate a collection of such unique sights and experiences across America, we polled a panel of five travel professionals: Patricia Schultz, author of "1,000 Places to See Before You Die"; Kellie Pelletier, vice president of communications for Kayak.com; Michelle Finkelstein, vice president of sales for the New York-based travel agency Our Personal Guest; Peter Nicas, chief executive of ProfessionalTravelGuide.com, and Cindy Sheaffer, editorial director of ProfessionalTravelGuide.com. We collected all their nominations and included those that appeared consistently on the experts' lists.
Fortunately, expert advice doesn't equate to expense: Not only are airfares and gas prices significantly more affordable than they were at this time last year, traditional tourist destinations are offering discounts to keep people coming.
"This is actually a great time to travel for those who have the money," says Sheaffer. "We're seeing more deals than ever. Hotels are offering special discount rates, free nights, lots of packages and other creative incentives."
And some of these destinations and experiences are far off the beaten path, where your dollar tends to go farther.
Some of the best travel experiences can be had outside America's well-known luxury hot spots. That's why all of our hidden gems offer something local, charming or unique—a departure from the typical tourist destination.
Schultz recommends travelers spend their hard-earned dollars at Turtleback Farm Inn. The seven-room inn is a hideaway on the San Juan Islands, an archipelago about 100 miles northwest of Seattle.
"[It's] where the Seattleites go to decaffeinate," says Schultz. A working sheep farm nestled in the foothills of Turtleback Mountain, the Inn offers easy access to hiking, kayaking, whale-watching and other outdoor diversions. A room for a weekend night in July, when the weather is optimal, goes for $115-$195.
Finkelstein suggests shucking shellfish at the Tomales Bay Oyster Co. near Point Reyes, Calif. The state's oldest continuously run shellfish farm is "nothing fancy, but it's incredibly charming," says Finkelstein.
In the midst of a recession, it's tempting to hold onto money and not travel. But there are plenty of bargains to be had.
Dollar-friendly destinationsMany are available on travel sites like Kayak.com and Travelocity.com. Others can be found directly through hotels—for example, New York's swanky Hudson Hotel is offering one night's stay plus two free-drink coupons at the posh Hudson Bar—all for $164, a steal in pricey New York.
Besides cheaper lodging, travelers are benefiting from lower transportation costs this summer as well. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the average domestic airfare was down 4 percent in the fourth quarter, from $360 to $347. It's a small savings, to be sure, but one that adds up for families.
For those staying grounded, car travel is more affordable than last summer. A gallon of gas now costs $2.40, down 38 percent from the national average of $3.85 a year ago, according to the American Automobile Association.
"We expect travel within the U.S. to be strong this summer," says Sheaffer. "And, of course, the high-end travelers are still out there. They just aren't shouting about it; instead they are rather quietly taking their luxury vacations."
So there's no reason you shouldn't be inspired to take your slightly more unusual vacation, luxury or not.
© 2012 Forbes.com