Online travel suggestions that are off the beaten path

Though it may be a while before North America gets into the high summer festival season, here and around the world, there's some sort of communal celebration going on pretty much every day of the year. Concerts, parades, carnivals, and cultural, sporting, and quasi-sporting (see Wife Carrying) events take place wherever a sufficient number of inspired or bored (see Doo Dah Parade) people gather together. The events range from the intellectual to the frenetic - in some cases running from bulls, and in some cases running after cheese . (Best not to confuse the two.)

Now, with the arrival of spring, people are starting to make serious plans for their annual vacations, and the Web has no end of resources for those who have already selected their activities and destinations. But what about the undecided? Or those who would like to open themselves up to a world of previously unimagined travel possibilities? Or even those who would just like to spend some deliberately nonproductive time browsing global events they have no intention of attending? For all of the above, the following two sites would like to make a few thousand vacation suggestions.

Starting alphabetically, we have Festivals.com - a site that's been guiding surfers to celebrations around the world since 1995. With a home page almost entirely dedicated to various methods of getting the surfer deeper into the site, Festivals.com allows visitors to browse its database of more than 40,000 events - by performer or location - or find events through a series of Subject links (Arts, Music, Culture, etc.) that lead to category-specific home pages. From these home pages, expedition planners will find lists of events like the Riverside Theatre Shakespeare Festival in Iowa or Austin's Bat Festival (no, not baseball), and links to individual event pages - many of which hold impressively thorough collections of information.

If you'd rather browse geographically, interactive maps and pull-down location menus are available, while those with specific interests can make use of the site's Keyword search. But regardless of route, Festivals.com will eventually take you to the same detailed event pages - with lists of artists scheduled to appear at specific concerts, contact info, website URLs when available, detailed directions (though this could rob you of the chance to ask strangers for help finding the "Emma Crawford Coffin Race"), and even occasional photographs gathered from previous years.

Of course, it never hurts to get a second opinion when you're planning the perfect vacation, so WhatsOnWhen.com stands ready with a slightly different approach to achieving the same objective. While WhatsOnWhen has some of the same features as Festivals.com, such as a collection of distinct subjects (or "Themes" in this case), and a database searchable by category or location, there are clear distinctions as well.

First, while Festivals.com requires movement to at least a second level of the site before revealing any information about individual events, WhatsOnWhen anchors its home page with a welcoming handful of "Highlights" relevant to the time of year. The home page also holds a Video of the Week, Featured Guides (currently spotlighting a partial list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites), and Special theme collections, dedicated to such subjects as "Conservation" and "Great Art Collections." And while WhatsOn's listings lack event photographs, the site does have a small selection of videos. (Surprisingly, though, there is no Keyword search capability to hunt down specific entries in the database.)

For those making definite plans, WhatsGoingOn seems a bit more geared to the possibility that you might actually attend some of the events listed onsite, with such extra features as "Book Your Trip" links, printer- and e-mail-friendly page options, and the ability to register and create a personal onsite Scrapbook. And for the casual surfer, WhatsOnWhen holds the promise of idle entertainment with the "Bizarre" category in the Themes listing.

The Bizarre category is well named. It contains entries about such events as the World Bog Snorkeling Championships in Wales, baby jumping in Spain, waiter racing in Belgium, and Australia's unique take on the Henley-on-Todd Regatta. This last event takes place every year on a dry river bed in Alice Springs, some 900 miles from the nearest significant body of water, and is canceled on those rare years when there actually is water in the river.

Neither of these sites is a visual, navigational or interactive delight, and both have their shortcomings. Both, while extensive, are far from comprehensive (if you're serious about learning about an event or location, you should really do some dedicated searching on your own), and some of the content shows less than rigorous editing.

But both productions do serve the purpose of firing up the imagination. Even if you're not doing research for a vacation to a specific destination or within a specific timeframe, or for that matter, if you're just looking for something in the local area while you stay close to home, these sites can get you thinking about alternatives to the standard holiday patterns - or better yet, get you thinking about taking a vacation in the first place. In that context, Festivals.com and WhatsOnWhen each could almost be classified as a public service.

So ... what are you doing this summer?

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