'Stay nation': From Atlanta to Seattle, these destinations are a tank of gas away

Staycations may be the travel buzzword du jour, but who really wants to pitch a tent in their backyard and call it a getaway? Not us. Still, with the economy slumping and gas prices soaring, we're all looking for diversions that won't break the bank. USA TODAY asked six travel journalists based in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington to pick places no more than a tank of gas away.

• Downtown Atlanta

Recommended by:Jennifer Senator, dining and travel editor for Atlanta magazine Why:Hip, luxurious hotels are luring suburbanites into the various parts of the city. The just-opened W Atlanta in Midtown (with its bliss spa and Spice Market restaurant) is within walking distance of the High Museum of Art and Piedmont Park. In tony Buckhead, the new Mansion on Peachtree delivers a butler with every guestroom (plus vineyard-inspired treatments at its 29 Spa) and provides easy access to upscale shopping at Phipps Plaza and Lenox Square. In downtown Atlanta, the new Ellis and Twelve Centennial Park hotels and the rehabbed Glenn Hotel are within walking distance of crowd-pleasing attractions such as the Georgia Aquarium, CNN and the World of Coca-Cola. Don't miss:Straits, the new Asian-flavored restaurant owned by rapper/actor (and local resident) Ludacris in concert with chef Chris Yeo. What's the deal:The $89 MVP (Most Valuable Package) on sale through Sept. 21 buys admission to five popular attractions: an Atlanta Braves game, Georgia Aquarium, New World of Coca-Cola, Six Flags Over Georgia and Stone Mountain Park. Hotel discounts can be added to the deal. Information:800-285-2682; atlanta.net

• Harbor Country, Mich.

Recommended by:Lauren Viera, Midwest Getaways blogger at the Chicago TribuneWhy:An hour-and-a-half drive from Chicago's downtown Loop, this cluster of eight small communities in Michigan's southwest corner — aka "the Hamptons of the Midwest" — offers an appealing mix of beaches, you-pick-'em farms (blueberry season starts in early July) and shopping for antiques and art. About 15 minutes inland from the Lake Michigan beach town of New Buffalo, Three Oaks boasts a historic movie house showing classic films, live performances at the Acorn Theater, and a handful of galleries.Don't miss:The Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail, which strings together more than a dozen small wineries in the vicinity. What's the deal:Free Fourth of July events include fireworks and live music in New Buffalo.Information:Harbor Country Chamber of Commerce; 269-469-5409; harborcountry.org

• North Texas Hill Country

Recommended by:Sophia Dembling, Dallas-based author of The Yankee Chick's Survival Guide to TexasWhy:For folks who have done the central Texas Hill Country near Austin up, down and sideways, the rolling hills, river valleys and historic towns that stretch about two hours west and southwest of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex have similar attributes, only without the crowds. The tourism gears have only begun cranking here, and the area is rife with possibilities for discovery, from Granbury's classic courthouse square — one of the best in Texas — to scuba diving in cliff-lined Possum Kingdom Lake. Don't miss:The derelict Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, a relic of the town's glamorous past.What's the deal:Stay two nights at gorgeous Wildcatter Ranch in Graham (888-462-9277; wildcatterranch.com) and they'll pay for your gas both ways from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.Information:Travel Texas, 800-888-8839; traveltex.com

• Laguna Beach, Calif.

Recommended by:Catharine Hamm, travel editor of the Los Angeles TimesWhy:It's a classic, laid-back California beach town — but not so laid back as to cause brain atrophy. Set between Laguna Canyon and the Pacific about 50 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, its picture-perfect setting has long attracted artists — at last count, about 400 are in residence — along with almost 100 galleries. The Laguna Playhouse is the West Coast's oldest continually operated community theater. And summer brings a plethora of arts festivals, including the popular Festival of Arts Pageant of the Masters, Sawdust Art Festival and Art-A-Fair, that run in July and August. The rooms at the luxe Montage Resort & Spa have spectacular ocean views. For more moderately priced digs, try the oceanfront Vacation Village hotel. Don't miss:Pageant of the Masters, July 9-Aug. 30, a stage presentation in which classic artworks are re-created using live models and accompanied by an orchestra and narration. What's the deal:Free trolleys with extended summer hours circulate downtown and in the canyon so you can leave the car behind. Information:Laguna Beach Visitors & Conference Bureau; 800-877-1115; lagunabeachinfo.org

• Mount Rainier National Park

Recommended by:Brian Cantwell, NW Weekend editor of The Seattle TimesWhy:On a clear day, 14,410-foot Mount Rainier is a giant mound of white looming over Seattle, and its national park — around 50 to 100 miles from the city — is always worth another visit. There's a place 5,400 feet up the mountain called Paradise, and you'll know why when you see the wildflowers in July. Each side of the park is different, from the windy ramparts of Sunrise to the mossy forests and emerald rivers of Ohanapecosh. On the park's edge, rent a condo at Crystal Mountain and book a sunset dinner at the top of the ski lift. In Ashford, gobble blackberry pie at the Copper Creek Inn, then stick your nose in at Rainier Mountaineering's base camp, where you'll run into any number of Everest veterans. Kids might like a ride behind a steam locomotive on the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad. Or just bring hiking boots, since there's no shortage of beautiful trails.Don't miss:Paradise Inn, vintage 1916, which just reopened after a two-year renovation.What's the deal:A newly extended free shuttle system whisks weekend visitors from Ashford, 6 miles outside the park's Nisqually entrance, to Longmire, where a second shuttle takes you to Paradise.Information:Visit Rainier, 877-270-7155; visitrainier.com

• Charlottesville, Va.

Recommended by:Sherri Dalphonse, senior editor at TheWashingtonian magazine Why:Charlottesville, about 115 miles southwest of Washington, may be better known for its academic affiliation (it's home to the University of Virginia) and presidential pedigree (Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and James Madison lived here). But it also boasts a cornucopia of good restaurants rarely found in a town of 40,000 year-round residents. The eight-block-long Historic Downtown Mall is lined with home-grown eateries and one-of-a-kind shops. Check out the Main Street Market, a car dealership turned bakery, cafe, chocolatier and more, just off the mall's west end. Through October, kick off the weekend with Fridays After 5, free concerts in the amphitheater at the eastern edge of the mall. Plus there's wine tasting at 20-plus nearby vineyards. Don't miss:Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's hilltop estate.What's the deal:The $29 Presidents' Pass buys discounted tours to three popular historical attractions: Monticello, Ash Lawn-Highland (Monroe's home) and the 18th-century Michie Tavern.Information:Charlottesville Albemarle Convention & Visitors Bureau; 877-386-1103; pursuecharlottesville.com

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