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T H E 1 8 GROUP G R R O U P TRAVEL LE ADER T H E of southeast Tennessee, spring brings the beginning of rafting season as runoff from melting spring snow brings high water and temperatures get warm enough for visitors to venture into the water. The New River and Gauley River in West Virginia are considered some of the best rafting destinations in the country, and outfitters there begin operating trips in late March and early April. The height of the water can vary widely during that time, so guides plan their routes daily to take advantage of the best conditions. In Tennessee, near Chattanooga, rafting on the Ocoee River gets underway with dam releases on week- ends in mid-March. Groups can take half-day rafting trips on the Middle Ocoee on weekends throughout the spring. Full-day rafting excursions begin in mid- May and continue throughout the summer. K E N T U C K Y H O R S E R A C I N G Thoroughbred racing is widely beloved through- out Kentucky, second in popularity only to college basketball perhaps, so after basketball season ends in March, locals are anxious to get out to the racetracks in April to enjoy the beauty of early spring and the pageantry of racing. In Lexington, the spring meet at Keeneland Race Course gets underway in early April and lasts for three weeks, affording visitors great opportunities to try out their new sundresses and hats. Then, at the end of the month, racing starts at Churchill Downs in Louisville. The famous Kentucky Derby takes place on the first Saturday in May, and the meet continues until July. Groups can take behind-the-scenes tours of both racetracks and enjoy priority seating and other special amenities during meets. S A N A N T O N I O C E L E B R AT E S The residents of San Antonio don't exactly endure difficult winters, with average daytime temperatures in January and February topping out in the mid-60s Fahrenheit. But locals still find reasons to celebrate spring with a pair of events that have become signa- tures of the city. Taking place over 10 days in late April, Fiesta San Antonio is a citywide celebration of the area's Mexican heritage. Highlights include athletic events, concerts, cultural performances and lighted boat parades on the River Walk. Groups will enjoy the colors, f lavors and sounds of Latin pride, as well as the beautiful Texas weather. In May, the city follows up with Culinaria, a week- long festival around town that showcases the many gastronomical delights created in area restaurants and wineries. Visiting groups can enjoy chef demonstra- tions and all manner of food at a number of daytime and evening events. A L A S K A C RU I S E S Alaska is one of the most beloved tourist desti- nations in North America, but due to its northern latitude and extreme weather, much of the state is practically uninhabitable during winter for all but the heartiest of souls. For that reason, the f lood of visitors to Alaska is limited to the months between late spring and early fall. Many trips to Alaska involve cruises, and ships start sailing from port cities such as Seattle and Vancouver in late April. These cruises cover the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska, the first part of the state to thaw, and often include stops in ports such as Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan, as well as views of gorgeous glacier fields. Passengers on these early cruises take a bit of a chance on weather, as spring can still be quite cold in Alaska, but they benefit from fewer crowds and favorable cruise pricing. N AT I O N A L PA R K L O D G E S O P E N Some of America's most beautiful national parks are in the mountain West, where harsh winters can make it difficult for lodging staffs to offer full service to visitors. And though parks such as Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Glacier National Park in Montana are open to visitors year-round, it is the opening of park lodges that marks the begin- ning of spring and the busy tourist season for these destinations. Yellowstone has become known as a bit of a winter hot spot, so Old Faithful Snow Lodge offers accom- modations for selected weeks during cold weather. But most of the park's other accommodations, including Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Lake Yellowstone Hotel, begin to open in late April, with others open- ing in May. In Glacier, Apgar Village Lodge and the Prince of Wales Hotel open in May, with other accommodations following in June.