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Artisanal America

Is there a better souvenir to bring home from a trip than something you’ll use every day?

Group travelers love to shop, and there’s no shortage of ready-made tourist merchandise waiting in destinations around the world. Much of it looks the same, however, no matter where your travels might take you. But if you search beyond the gift shops and retail centers, you might find something local, artistic, useful and handmade.

In other words, you might find a wonderful craft.

Artisanal craft traditions date back hundreds (and sometimes thousands of years) and can give travelers a window into the cultures and customs of the places they visit. And in destinations where crafts are popular, groups can often meet the artists for more personal experiences and perhaps even learn to craft something themselves.

Here are five destinations throughout North America where crafts are thriving and where group travelers can have great opportunities to enjoy them.


Southwest Virginia

In the mountainous southwest corner of Virginia, Abingdon and the surrounding countryside showcase a crafting tradition that has played an integral part in the local identity.

“This area was isolated for a very long time — really up until the 20th century,” said Amanda Leslie Livingston, marketing manager for the Abingdon Convention and Visitors Bureau. “People developed a culture of doing things for themselves, and a lot of the craft heritage comes from that very practical place. People wanted to make things well and make them beautiful, so it’s a combination of that practicality with the human instinct to make it the best you can. That’s why a lot of the heritage crafts are useful things, like chairs, stools or bowls.”

The Abingdon area has two major venues that showcase crafts for visitors. Holston Mountain Artisans is one of the oldest craft collectives in the country, with a variety of members who work in heritage Appalachian crafts. The organization has a storefront in downtown Abingdon where it sells its ironsmithing, quilting, woodworking, tapestry and other crafts. The group also hosts a major quilting event every April called the Block Party that features artisan quilts displayed around the city.

Another artisan network called Round the Mountain features crafters from throughout southwest Virginia. Their work can be seen at Heartwood, a regional craft and culture center that opened in 2011. In addition to its gallery space, Heartwood has resident artists that can give demonstrations for visiting groups. Round the Mountain has also organized a series of craft trails in the 19 counties surrounding Abingdon that take visitors to artists’ studios and workshops.

Along the way, visitors will have plenty of opportunities to purchase items both traditional and contemporary.

“You’ll find really exquisite handmade lace, all sorts of fiber arts and jewelry,” Livingston said. “In higher-end galleries, you’ll see things like handcrafted musical instruments. We’re seeing crafters try to use those traditional methods and techniques for new products, like using leather stitching to make an iPhone case. They’re finding ways to keep those crafts alive in a new culture.”


Anchorage, Alaska

“I’ve traveled a lot globally, and I always want to take something home that is representative of that place.”

David Kasser, vice president of tourism development and sales for Visit Anchorage, understands exactly why crafts, and particularly Native American crafts, are so popular with visitors to his city. The experience of visiting Alaska — soaking in its panoramas and admiring its cultural heritage — resonates deeply with travelers. When they’re looking for items to bring home, handmade crafts remind them of the beauty and spirit of the state.

Groups traveling through the area can find a number of ways to connect with the craft culture in Anchorage. A great place to start is the Anchorage Museum. Galleries on the top floor detail the timeline of Alaska and the native people who have lived there, and exhibits on lower levels showcase some of the best art and craftwork created by Alaskan locals, each of which communicates something of the state’s essence. After taking in the exhibits, guests can find merchandise in the museum store that reflects elements of this heritage.

Next, Kasser recommended that groups go to the village sites at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

“The facility has five village sites around a lake, and you have a representative from each of those different groups of people,” he said. “There are also native artists in the Hall of Cultures. You can meet the artists, talk with them and buy directly from them. You can get otter pelts, smoked moose hides, drums or dancing fans. You can spend as much time as you want chatting with them and buying work directly from them. It’s incredible to buy something from somebody that has put so much time into it.”

Downtown, the Alaska Native Art Foundation is a popular stop for travelers seeking handmade, traditional Alaskan crafts.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.