Do you ever fantasize about going back to college? I do.
Not for the studying or the keggers, but for the variety of music, shows, galleries and hangouts. University towns also abound with sensational eateries that make it easy to gain the notorious Freshman 15.
This time of year, many colleges offer yet another temptation: colossal displays of fall color.
You can even find lodging on campuses. We're not talking minimalist dorms, but vacation-worthy accommodations that offer comfy beds, service from cheerful student-employees eager to recommend hot spots and cool events, and amenities such as book-stocked nooks. Not that you'll have time to read, given all the arboreal, cultural and culinary distractions.
After a friend convinced me that her alma mater, Indiana University in Bloomington, offered a perfect mix of culture and funky fun, we found accommodations right in IU's regal century-old student union. Its Biddle Hotel offers surprisingly elegant quarters within walking distance of dozens of wonderful ethnic restaurants. If not for nonstop museum hopping and leaf peeping, I might've put on the Freshman 15 in a weekend.
Here are several university towns where you can pair that favorite autumnal rite with boundless tuition-free fun. (Plan your trip to avoid busy home football weekends.)
Robin Soslow is a Florida-based freelance writer.
Blue Ridge Mountains - Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.
Golden-yellow highlights herald autumn in the Roanoke Valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In southwest Virginia's chunk of the Appalachian Mountains, layers of subtle and vivid color drape steep ridges slanting across the valley.
An hour's hike beneath colorful canopies along the creekside Cascades National Recreation Trail includes rewards such as a 66-foot waterfall. For views from the top, ascend challenging trails to McAfee Knob or Dragon's Tooth, an outcrop of quartzite spires. In October, color changes gradually, beginning in the high mountains and concluding on the lower slopes and valleys.
Drivers wind through delightful color along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Experience authentic Appalachian mountain music on the Crooked Road (thecrooked road.org), a heritage music trail. Stop at the Floyd Country Store (floydcountry store.com) for its legendary Friday Night Jamboree, a $5 alcohol-free barn-burner of gospel, old-time and bluegrass bands and flatfoot and clogging dancers.
Leaf peeping: Peak color middle to late October, depending on elevations and weather. Color changes first at the higher elevations. Optimal rainfall keeps leaves on trees longer and enhances color. Trees include yellow poplar, northern red oak and black oak.
Foliage reports: virtualblueridge.com/color-reports.
Fall color hotline: 828-298-0398.
Lodging: The Inn at Virginia Tech, green-certified lodging built in 2005 on campus, offers 147 modern rooms from $109. The inn's Preston's Restaurant sources from local producers and earned the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for 2013. It's about 30 minutes from the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail trailheads. innatvirginiatech.com.
Visitor info: visitroanokeva.com.