As a travel writer open and game to exploring the offbeat and oddball within a few hours or one day's drive of New York City (Virginia to Maine), I've stumbled on some pretty bizarre, eccentric and/or downright weird things. Here's just a sampling from this year's explorations:
For more information on attractions, restaurants and hotels in each town, check out GetawayMavens.com.
1. Stamford, CT
The unapologetically sensationalist Jerry Springer Show was relocated to this corporate CT city from Chicago in 2009. The "Sultan of Salaciousness" tapes in Stamford on Mondays and Tuesdays, followed by Maury Povich, Trisha Goddard, and Steve Wilkos on other days. World Wrestling Federation (now Entertainment -- WWE) is also headquartered in Stamford. Other offbeat trivia -- the Presbyterian Church is in the shape of a fish, and quirky actor and Stamford resident, Gene Wilder serves on the board of the great independent "art" move theater, The Avon Theater.
2. Niantic, CT
The Book Barn: Mo and Randi White started buying and selling used books 25 years ago, and their little book nook has morphed into a 500,000 used book wonderland, with goats and turtles and assemblage of whimsical buildings on several acres. The "Ellis Island" shed holds "Recent Arrivals," while the "Haunted Barn" harbors Mystery and Horror novels. The Whites purchase around 10,000 books a week (from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; just let them know the number of boxes you're selling), and sell most for $1 to $5 each.
3. New Haven, CT
This University (Yale) and Theater Town (Schubert, Long Wharf, Yale Rep) has seen its share of strange episodes, but in late October, 2012, Hurricane Sandy toppled a tree on the New Haven Green, revealing human skeletons in its roots. Historians believe that the remains were of victims of a small pox epidemic sometime in the late 1700s, early 1800s.
4. Mystic, CT
Re-launched in 2013, and seaworthy once again, the Charles W. Morgan, originally built in 1841, is the world's last remaining Whaling Ship -- out of 2,700 that plied the world's waters in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Though built in New Bedford MA, it was cared for and restored at Mystic Seaport -- where it can be seen (and boarded) today.
5. Essex, CT
The first submarine was built in 1775 to thwart (ok, bomb) British ships during the American Revolution. Called, The Turtle, it looked like a whiskey barrel and was waterproofed with pitch. Sit in a replica of this innovative device at the engaging Connecticut River Museum -- in one of Connecticut's boatiest towns. Stay at the Griswold Inn, opened a month before the Declaration of Independence was signed in June 1776.
6. Wilmington, DE
The 330 ft. Exodus, the ship that carried over 4500 Holocaust survivors from France to British Mandate Palestine, was built in 1927 in Wilmington DE as a packet steamer for the Baltimore Steam Packet Company. Not in the greatest shape to begin with, it was overloaded with hopeful refugees bound for the Holy Land in 1947, and its story became a best selling book and top movie (starring Paul Newman).
7. Somerville, MA
Those who relish really bad, overwrought art will love the Museum of Bad Art (MOBA). In the basement of a vaudeville theater, selections are curated around themes. Some choices -- discombobulated anatomies, out of sync landscapes -- are hilariously terrible, but accompanying commentaries are just purely hilarious.
8. Worcester, MA,
This former factory town is also the "Birthplace of the Smiley Face," as hometown of Harvey Ball -- the advertising man who created that now-iconic merry yellow button-face. Worcester was also where Esther Howland, the "Mother of the American Valentine," founded the New England Valentine Co, after figuring out a way to mass produce a fancy, expensive English version of the card. Worcester is on the upswing, with a world-class art institution -- the Worcester Art Museum -- featured in the movie, American Hustle.
9. Salem, MA
After a mysterious fire shut down the Los Angeles set in 1970, eight episodes of the popular TV show, Bewitched, were filmed in Salem MA -- generating resurgent interest in the Salem Witch Trials. Though unrelated to witches, the excellent Peabody Essex Museum houses some of the strangest artifacts in the country. One -- a taxidermied penguin, brought back to America by explorers in the early 1800's was re-formed with a long goose neck. Apparently, people back then had never seen a penguin before and assumed the creature's neck had just shrunk in transit. The PEM also includes the 200-year-old Yu Yu Tang House -- a complete home relocated from remote southeastern China and rebuilt plank by plank, stone by stone.
10. New Bedford, MA
The City Hall building features the country's oldest continuously operating elevator -- a cushy 1906 Otis -- which anyone can ride. For free.
11. Red Bank, NJ
Kevin Smith, Director of the movie Clerks, and creator of Jay and Silent Bob, owns a comic book store called Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash in town.
12. Princeton, NJ
The only museum devoted to Albert Einsteinin the country is wedged between the woolens at Landau of Princeton -- across from the College Campus. Family owned Landau also happens to be one of the biggest sellers in the world of the classic Loden Coat.
13. Buffalo, NY
A never before built Frank Lloyd Wright gas station was finally constructed, from Wright's original architectural rendering, in 2014. It's on display in all of its copper-roof glory at the Buffalo Transportation Pierce Arrow Museum. In addition, the complete handwritten manuscript of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is on exhibit at the Buffalo Public Library -- in a quiet room for all to see.
14. Queens, NY
The great jazz musician synonymous with New Orleans, Louis Armstrong, actually lived in Queens, NY for the last 28 years of his life. He loved his Corona block so much, many say it was inspiration for his hit song, "It's A Wonderful World." Satchmo's home is open to the public for tours.
15. Katonah, NY
Two "Balloon" Chairs -- commemorating the first hydrogen air balloon flight in 1783 in Paris, sit modestly in the home of the county's first Chief Justice, John Jay. Jay's wife, Sarah, had accompanied her husband and Benjamin Franklin to France for the signing of the Treaty of Paris, and was there to see the world's first Hot-Air Balloon ascent. She brought these chairs home as souvenirs. John Jay Homestead will be open for tours in Spring 2015.
16. Saranac Lake, NY
This whole town was a Tuberculosis Sanitarium in the late 1800s, complete with "cure cottages," doctors and caretakers. Diagnosed with "consumption," Dr. Edward Trudeau came to this Adirondack town to take the "rest cure" in the mountains, and established the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium in 1885 after he seemed to have recovered. Throughout the late 19th century and early 20th -- until the advent of antibiotics -- the town industry revolved around TB patients; from high school kids who delivered meals to bedridden sufferers, to local homeowners who built "cure porches" onto their existing houses. The Saranac Laboratory Museum tells this story in the original research lab.
17. Lakeville, PA
One of the "coolest" attractions in the Pocono's is Sculpted Ice Works, an ice-block "manufacturing" plant and sculpture factory. Watch artists at work, even in the heat of summer, through windows into a large freezer room.
18. Butler, PA
Playthings, Etc., a great stand-alone toy store, is shaped like a silver stealth aircraft. The building is weird enough to entice cars on the busy road to pull over. But its what's inside that sends kids and kids at heart into loopy fits of joy. All educational toys and crafts are try-before-you-buy, so you'll encounter a happy, active crowd once you walk through the spaceship doors.
19. Philadelphia, PA
If you've ever had the impulse to watch thousands of harvester ants bury their deceased, hold a hissing cockroach, or see a Blue Death Feigning Beetle play dead in the palm of your hand, come to the Insectorium, which exhibits thousands of live and mounted insects from Africa, South America, and other exotic locations.
20. Winchester, VA
Check out the top floor of the Old Courthouse Civil War Museum. During the war, this courthouse served as a prison, and visitors can still see Civil War era graffiti etched into the plaster wall: It's a poem damning Jefferson Davis to hell. During the Civil War, the town of Winchester shifted allegiance between Union and Confederate sides a mind-boggling 72 times.