Autumn is here, and with it comes much more than beautiful foliage — it also brings a bounty of festivals that will engage all five senses. Catch your breath at the sight of hundreds of hot air balloons filling the New Mexico sky, savor the taste of fine wines in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, or breathe in the tropical scents at a Hawaiian parade of flowers. Sound appealing? These are just a few of the opportunities that await autumn travelers. Read on to learn more about five distinct North American festivals that are worth the trip this fall.
Keene, New Hampshire: Keene Pumpkin Festival
Nothing says fall like a pumpkin — or even better, 30,000 pumpkins! That's what you'll see at the annual Keene Pumpkin Festival on October 20, when the quintessential New England town of Keene, New Hampshire will be overflowing with jack-o-lanterns, lining the streets and stacked on huge towers.
Live music, crafts, hayrides, fireworks, a kids' costume parade and a pumpkin pie eating contest keep visitors entertained, but the high point of the day is the official jack-o-lantern count — when everyone finds out whether they've brought enough pumpkins to break the Guinness World Record for the most jack-o-lanterns lit at one time. Keene held the top spot from 2003 until last year, when the town's record was overtaken by a larger festival in Boston. Bring your own jack-o-lantern (or several) and help Keene get back on top this year! Admission is free, but there is a $5 charge for event parking.
Oranjestad, Aruba: Aruba Music Festival
If you'd happily trade fleeces and foliage for sun and sand, grab your swimsuit and head down to the Southern Caribbean for the annual Aruba Music Festival, scheduled for October 5 and 6. Performances are held just outside the capital city of Oranjestad and feature a wide variety of musical acts on a secondary stage before the headliners — Richard Marx on Friday night and Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees on Saturday night — take the main stage. General admission tickets are $40. The festival sells out each year, so we recommend booking in advance.
Albuquerque, New Mexico: Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
For mesmerizing beauty and sheer grace, there's nothing like the sight of hundreds of vibrantly colored hot air balloons drifting through the desert sky of New Mexico. It's all part of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which will take place October 6-14.
Events kick off as early as 5:45 a.m. each day with a "dawn patrol," in which balloons are inflated and launched in a choreographed musical performance. Mass balloon ascensions follow at 7 a.m. many mornings (see the full schedule here), while evening offerings include fireworks shows and a Balloon Glow, a magical event in which the balloons are lit from within like colorful paper lanterns. Admission is $6 for ages 13+ and free for younger children, with a parking fee of $10 per car.
Hawaiian Islands: Aloha Festivals
A two-month-long celebration of traditional Hawaiian culture, the Aloha Festivals encompass more than 100 events on six islands. If you're visiting Hawaii this fall, there's probably a festival event going on somewhere near you. Highlights include Oahu's Floral Parade on September 15, Maui's Ukulele Festival on October 14 and Kauai's Hawaiiana Festival (featuring dancing and other cultural traditions) on October 19. Admission prices vary, and some events are free. In many cases you can get a discount on admission with the purchase of a $5 Aloha Festivals ribbon; proceeds from ribbon sales support the festival.
Okanagan Valley, British Columbia: Okanagan Fall Wine Festival
Located in southern British Columbia, the Okanagan Valley is home to some 65 wineries, which are at their most beautiful in the golden light of autumn. The wineries celebrate the harvest each year with the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival, featuring 10 days of live entertainment, tastings, vineyard tours, educational seminars, and delicious lunches and dinners. With 170 events taking place all across the valley, the festival is designed for visitors to create their own itinerary. Wineries are open during the day for free tours and tastings, and in the evenings they serve multi-course dinners paired with award-winning wines. (Dinner prices range from $50-$180 CAD per person.)
The festival runs from September 28 through October 7, and on weekends will feature special large-scale consumer tastings with dozens of wineries under one roof. Admission to these events is $48 CAD (purchase your ticket ahead of time at Ticketmaster.ca), and includes tastings, a souvenir wine glass, and a free taxi back to your home or hotel. The full schedule of events can be downloaded as a PDF file here.