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North America's Fabulous Fall Festivals in the U.S., Canada and Mexico

Charis Atlas Heelan highlights the most vibrant festivals in North America this fall including seafood, hot air balloons, wine and much more.

Okanagan Fall Wine Festival, Okanagan Valley, BC, Canada - September 29 to October 8, 2006

More than half of British Columbia's 40 wineries are located in the Okanagan Valley, an area known for its picturesque landscape overlooking Okanagan Lake, with a climate providing the perfect conditions for wine grapes. Autumn in Okanagan Wine Country is the ideal season to watch the grapes ripen and indulge in harvest celebrations. The Okanagan Fall Wine Festival (tel. 250/861-6654; www.owfs.com) is an experience for lovers of fabulous wine accompanied by great food and unique events. This is the only wine festival in North America that takes place during the heart of grape harvest. Festival highlights include vineyard free tours of the Okanagan wineries, sample tasting of this year's newest vintages and a variety of special events, such as lunches, banquets and formal wine tastings which require tickets ranging in price from approximately $10 to $70. With over 165 events throughout the valley focusing on wine, food, education and the arts, it is one of British Columbia's most beloved festivals. The Okanagan Valley is located 312 miles east of Vancouver (driving time around 4 to 5 hours) or 125 miles north from the U.S. border in Washington State. There are also direct flights to Kelowna (the largest town in the region) from Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Hamilton (as well as from a few smaller centers in Western Canada).

The North Carolina Seafood Festival, Morehead City, NC - October 6 to 8, 2006

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Fancy some fish? Craving calamari or perhaps longing for lobster? This year marks the 20th anniversary of one of the largest and tastiest seafood festivals in the U.S., so mark the first weekend in October in your culinary calendar and head to Morehead City on North Carolina's Crystal Coast. The North Carolina Seafood Festival (tel. 252/726-NCSF; www.ncseafoodfestival.org) attracts thousands of visitors and besides sampling oceans of fresh seafood, you can also watch the "Oh Boy! Oberto Redfish Cup" fishing tournament on the waterfront, see the free Southern Outer Banks Boat Show, tour the Port, tour the Navy Frigate U.S.S. DeWert, a US Coast Guard Cutter and for a fee of $5 per person, the Kalmar Nyckel. When looking for seafood to eat during the Festival, look for vendors serving locally caught North Carolina seafood that will have a "Carteret Catch" flag flying or a sticker that says, "We Serve North Carolina Seafood." There is free parking and shuttle service for the Festival at the port.

The Albuquerque International Balloon Festival, Albuquerque, NM - October 6 to 15, 2006

This colorful Balloon Fiesta (tel. 800/733-9918; www.balloonfiesta.com) is the largest event of its kind in the world and the highlight of the ballooning calendar, featuring over 850 spectacular hot-air and gas balloons from more than 30 countries. Get up bright and early for the Dawn Patrol shows daily (5.45am) and if you need to sleep in a bit longer, the Mass Ascensions (when all participating balloons take off in formation and create a visual masterpiece of color and design in the sky) takes place at 7am on three of the event dates. Other highlights include evening balloon displays, balloon races, accuracy competitions, a special balloon shape rodeo, a wine fiesta (additional cost), fireworks, a chainsaw wood carving contest and even a world breakfast Burrito eating championship. Visitors can walk amongst the balloons, talk to pilots, and of course take balloon rides. The on-site Balloon Discovery Center offers interactive exhibits, model balloon making classes and presentations. General admission tickets are only $5.50 and are available for sale at the Fiesta's website.

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October Festival, Guadalajara, Mexico - September 30 to October 31, 2006

This year marks the 41st anniversary of the Guadalajara October Festival (www.fiestasdeoctubre.com.mx- Spanish language only). Mexico's second largest city (and capital of the state of Jalisco) plays host to this month-long fiesta celebrating Jaliscan culture and contributions - after all, Guadalajara gave the world tequila and the mariachi. The calendar includes craft displays, parades, art exhibitions, rodeos, football matches, folk dance displays, musical concerts, free entertainment daily in the fairgrounds of the Benito Juarez Auditorium and late night public feasts featuring the best of Jaliscan food and delicacies. The spectacular opening parade of bands, floats and Charro groups is held in downtown Guadalajara and spectators can soak up the sights and sounds of Mariachi bands as well as floats, ballet groups and local and national Charro groups.

Professional Bull Riders World Finals, Las Vegas NV - October 27 to November 5, 2006

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What a load of bullÂ?riding that is. The Professional Bull Riders World Finals (tel. 719/471-3008; www.pbrnow.com/#finals) is the culmination of the year's competition over two weekends - the first at the Mandalay Bay Events Center and the second at the Thomas and Mack Center - the contest brings together close to 50 tough riders strutting their stuff and taming some pretty scary beasts. Riders are judged and rated on their skills, the time actually spent on the bulls' backs and the degree of difficulty (based on the bulls themselves). Competitors must make it through ten rounds, riding a different bull in each. Why would grown men even contemplate this abuse? Well a prize purse of over one million dollars, plus the glory of being crowned the winner seems to be incentive enough. If watching grown men being tossed around like rag dolls isn't exciting enough, the event also includes the Dickies National Championship Bullfighting event (tel. 877/632-7400) which takes place from October 27 to 29 with $40,000 in prize money, a fashion show, blackjack and golf tournaments, "mutton bustin" and live entertainment. Tickets are available through the website for $30 to $160.

Taurids Meteor Shower, Hawaii - October 30 to November 7, 2006

Although these annual meteor shower displays are visible from mid September to the end of November 2006, the end of October and first week of November are peak viewing dates, especially in the clear Pacific skies of the Hawaiian islands. Considered the best celestial show all year, the Taurids Meteor shower falls magnificently over Hawaii and is a favorite with star gazers and professional astronomers alike because the meteors are particularly bright and slow-moving, so they are hard to miss. Optimum viewing will be from the ocean waters off the island coasts or from rural areas away from city bright lights. Even better, the sky is free and accessible to all. For more information about what the Taurids Meteor Shower is about visit www.comets.amsmeteors.org/meteors/showers/taurids.html

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Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) Mexico - November 1 to 2, 2006

If you choose to experience one festival in Mexico, this should be it. The blending of pre-Hispanic and Catholic cultural and religious traditions make for a colorful and magical occasion on Día de los Muertos, creating more a joyous celebration of life and tribute to the dearly departed than anything morbid and macabre like Halloween celebrated elsewhere. It is the time when the living remember their ancestors and the deceased are believed to visit the families they left behind. Visually, the festival is unsurpassed in its sheer size and popularity with most Mexican cities and villages celebrating with ornate street festivals, parades, cemetery visiting and feasts. There are two days of the dead - Día de los Angelitos, celebrated on November 1, dedicated to the souls of children (and more of a solemn occasion), and Días de Los Muertos, celebrated on November 2 for adult spirits but in many cities, the festivities begin on October 31. In the weeks leading up to the festival, shops are filled with decorations and candy with seemingly morbid themes - skeletons, coffins and skulls, and bakers work overtime to prepare the special "pan de muertos" (bread of the dead). Locals set up commemorative altars both in their homes and at cemeteries and on November 2, depending on which city and region you visit, there will be candlelit processions (with entire towns illuminated using either candles or lanterns to help the spirits find their way home), church services, giant puppet like skeletal figures parading through the streets and cemetery feasts with music blaring. The town of San Andrés Mixquic, near Mexico City, the island of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro and the city of Oaxaca are known for their spectacular Day of the Dead festivities.

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