“Food just tastes better when eaten outdoors,” says avid picnicker Leila Brown, who takes off from her Portland, OR, home (weather permitting) for an alfresco meal among sun-dappled orchards in St. Cloud Park on the Columbia River—or on the dramatic, dune-filled Oregon Coast—any chance she gets.
Summer officially begins the most popular time of year to picnic, with thousands taking to scenic byways, mountain parks, beaches, and lakeshores to enjoy the simple pleasures of homemade food with Mother Nature. And the benefits of outdoor dining are plenty: space is not an issue, it’s more affordable than a restaurant, and nothing quite compares to a lazy afternoon with family and friends eating watermelon under the shady canopy of a tree.
While the picnic spot possibilities are endless, there are many officially designated areas for outdoor dining across the country, especially in our 392 national parks. Along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, which wends 469 miles through stunning Appalachian mountains, there are some 15 picnic areas and 275 parking overlooks alone.
“A favorite spots for a picnic is the James River Picnic Area (milepost 63.8). You can cross the river on the walkway beneath the Parkway and watch swallows swoop and dive from their nests under the bridge,” says Ann Childress, Blue Ridge Parkway Chief of Interpretation & Education.
Today, the picnic trend is bigger than ever, with outdoor dining clubs popping up from Tokyo to New York City in the past few years, and design-centric companies creating a new generation of products for the eco-conscious picnicker, from biodegradable cutlery to edible baskets made from bread.
And these days, with so many hotels offering en plein air meals, travelers don’t have to miss out on the perfect picnic op. Guests at Maine’s White Barn Inn wanting to explore the coast can request a wicker hamper packed with lobster rolls; the Grand Wailea on Maui prepares Kau Kau Koolers with sushi rolls to go; and this month, The Plaza Hotel in New York City debuts a new European-style food hall by star chef Todd English, where anyone can pick up gourmet fixings for a picnic in Central Park.
Once your basket is packed, where do you go? Since locavore chefs know food and are often out on country back roads and at markets meeting farmers and purveyors, Travel + Leisure asked some of the country’s top names for their picnic spot recommendations—and preferred picnic eats.
Richard Knight and James and Meagan Silk, the award-winning team from Feast in Houston, look forward to inner-tubing on the Guadalupe River in New Braunfels, TX, when the temperatures rise. And on the East Coast, a half hour outside of Boston, the serene setting of Walden Pond calls to executive chef Will Gilson, when he’s not in the kitchen at Garden at the Cellar in Cambridge and the Herb Lyceum in Groton, MA.
Lauded chef Suzanne Goin, who once worked with Alice Waters at locavore mecca Chez Panisse and who runs Tavern, Lucques, and The A.O.C. in Los Angeles, suggests escaping to Point Dume in Malibu—preferably with fried chicken and garlicky roasted veggies—to spot dolphins and enjoy the crashing waves. “I never understood eating at those picnic benches by the parking lot.”