By Borzou Daragahi, Natasha Rafi and Rob Turner

(MONEY Magazine) – Yes, it is presumptuous of us to name the 12 best places to spend a summer vacation. Perhaps even foolhardy. After all, most of us can already see in our mind's eye a place that all but defines the perfect summer idyll--and nothing can compete with that. But we at MONEY have our own criteria, and we think you'll agree that they led us to places of truly extraordinary appeal. We looked for places that would be worth spending a week or two, including side trips. They had to offer a healthy dose of nature at its most spectacular but not be retreats from civilization--that is, they would offer a wide variety of attractions, from outdoor adventure to cultural events and even fine dining. And, finally, we sought places that, for one reason or another, are great values--not cheap, but well worth the dollars you'd spend. Sound appealing? We think it does. So to find places that best fit the bill, a team of reporters spent several weeks intensively vetting ideas with travel experts and well-traveled civilians.

A couple of notes: We print phone numbers here, but online at, we also include Web addresses where you can find more information and a number of interactive travel-planning tools. Accommodation rates are for double rooms, unless otherwise noted. Here's what we found, from west to east.


When you think of California wineries, Napa and Sonoma are, of course, the places that jump to mind. But long before Napa was the center of wine culture in California, the rolling foothills of the Sierra Nevada were home to some of the most scenic and fruitful wineries in the state. Prohibition changed that--the wineries in this former Gold Rush area folded and didn't recover for nearly 50 years. Today it's home to more than 40 thriving wineries, many of them now producing celebrated vintages. Because most are smaller than their Napa and Sonoma counterparts, they usually attract fewer visitors and provide more access to the vintners themselves. That makes for a great chance to try some new wines and to learn about the winemaking process. Combine this with the area's Gold Rush-era historical sites and charming yet affordable turn-of-the-century bed and breakfasts, and you have the making of a great family vacation.

Most of the wineries in this region are located in Amador County, which lies south of Lake Tahoe and north of Yosemite, both of which would be beautiful, if crowded, side trips. Amador County is about a three-hour drive from San Francisco, but it's faster to fly into Sacramento, which is only about an hour away. Once you're there, most of the wineries are within a short drive of one another. The area's biggest is Sutter Home's Montevina winery in the Shenandoah Valley. Montevina, known primarily for its Zinfandel and Barbera varietals, opened a new 64,000-square-foot winery last year with a tasting room. Another celebrated Amador winery is Renwood Wines. Check out for a helpful guide (including restaurants and lodgings) with hours and maps.

There are also several gold mine tours from which to choose. Head for the Kennedy Gold Mine (209-223-9542) in Jackson, which provides gold-panning lessons (yes, there's still a little gold to be found). It's also a short drive to Coloma, where gold was first discovered in California in 1848.

There are dozens of inns in the area. Foxes Bed & Breakfast (800-987-3344) in centrally located Sutter Creek is housed in an 1857 Victorian inn and has drawn rave reviews over the years. Its seven rooms, some with wood-burning fireplaces and clawfoot bathtubs, range from $135 to $195 a night. For dinner, try Zinfandel's in Sutter Creek (209-267-5008), which uses local produce and wines, or Teresa's Place (209-223-1786), a legendary family-style Italian eatery.


Thanks to the relative strength of U.S. vs. Canadian dollars, all of Canada is a bargain for Americans. But with Vancouver, that's simply icing on the cake. Few other places in North America offer the attractions of a truly cosmopolitan city in such close proximity to a spectacular range of natural wonders.

Set between the waters of the Strait of Georgia and the Coast Mountains, Vancouver is a place of tremendous physical beauty. Take advantage of the city's gorgeous mid-70s summer weather with a walk or bike ride through the city's 1,000-acre Stanley Park, located on a peninsula just off the downtown business district. The summer festival season begins in late May with the Vancouver International Children's Festival and, starting in late June, continues with a succession of music festivals.

Vancouver is home to North America's third largest Chinatown, a world-class gastronomic mecca. The city's rich Asian culture also lets you take in sights that you can't find elsewhere on this continent, like the not-to-be-missed Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, which is the only Ming Dynasty-style garden outside China.

A mere 15-minute drive from downtown gets you to Grouse Mountain, which you can climb by foot or aerial tram for a spectacular one-mile-high view of the city and its surroundings. Another worthwhile day trip is the 1 1/2-hour ferry ride to the seaside town of Victoria, on Vancouver Island, with its lush gardens and 19th-century architecture. July and August are the best months to catch a closeup view of orcas migrating north through the gulf waters off Vancouver. And two hours from the city is the Whistler/Blackcomb ski resort, North America's largest, which has great off-season prices, a full range of outdoor activities and even summer glacier skiing.

The strength of the U.S. dollar makes many of Vancouver's best hotels affordable. The Parkhill Hotel (800-663-1525), which overlooks downtown and English Bay, offers rooms for about $60 (U.S.) a night. At the Pan Pacific Hotel (800-937-1515), often cited as one of the world's finest hotels, rooms start at $285 (U.S.).


Let's face it, when it comes to vacations with the kids, a trip to a Disney theme park is a parental obligation nearly on par with food and shelter. But is summer really the time to visit the Mickster? With sweltering, humid summer days in Orlando and backbreakingly long lines at Disney on both coasts, why not consider San Diego, with its near perfect dry summer weather, great family attractions and relatively few Disneyesque lines? From the San Diego Zoo to SeaWorld and the Legoland theme park--not to mention the miles of beautiful (and natural) beaches--it's a kid's paradise. Plus, it has the sophistication and heritage to appeal to adults.

The San Diego Zoo is a must under any circumstances. But the fantastic and little-known 21/2-hour vip tour may be worth a splurge ($450 for up to 14 people), especially if you're traveling in a large group. The zoo, after all, encompasses some 100 acres and seems even bigger with kids in tow (or on your shoulders trying to catch a glimpse of the baby panda). On the vip tour, a guide shuttles you around in a cart big enough for the whole family and offers behind-the-scenes access that enables kids to feed giraffes and camels by hand and even pet a rhino. Legoland, meanwhile, just outside town, has the rides and cartoon-figures-come-to-life you'd expect, as well as an astonishing array of miniature versions of world cities, rendered in extraordinary detail entirely out of Legos.

Downtown's historic Gaslamp district has undergone a renaissance in recent years, with scores of great restaurants and music clubs. Try either Dizzy's or Croce's Jazz Bar for some great live jazz. There are also a lot of unique museums here, many in the 1,200-acre Balboa Park, from the Model Railroad Museum to the San Diego Aerospace Museum.

For accommodations, one great choice is the high-rise Hyatt (888-591-1234) on the water, where room rates start at around $200. The views are spectacular, and it's walking distance to lots of restaurants and shops along the waterfront. Even if you don't stay here, have sunset drinks at the 40th-floor bar. For a taste of turn-of-the-century San Diego, try the Hotel Del Coronado (800-468-3533), the gorgeous 1888 resort on Coronado Island where Some Like It Hot was filmed. Rooms start at $250 a night.


The Grand Canyon justly deserves its status as the quintessential American summer vacation destination. And yet, between the mobs and the difficulty of getting a room, a cabin, a campsite or even a hiking permit, the summer is hardly the ideal time to go. If you must, however, avoid the hassles and crowds of the south rim by setting up your base a couple of hours to the southeast of the canyon, in Sedona--an art colony turned retirement destination turned mecca for the crystal-and-yoga crowd. Just south of Flagstaff, Sedona is mostly a classy, artsy town with splashes of New Age weirdness and excellent restaurants thrown in. Yes, summertime in Arizona is hot. But Sedona is about 15 degrees cooler than low-lying parts of the state. Accommodations range from the $275-a-night rates at the Enchantment Resort & Spa (800-826-4180) to a gaggle of $150-a-night bed and breakfasts ( and $109-a-night rooms at the Best Western Arroyo Roble Hotel (888-220-6493). Tickets go on sale May 1 for the September Jazz on the Rocks festival at Sedona Cultural Park, a natural amphitheater. And the area surrounding Sedona is so stunning that you may bypass the canyon altogether. Visit erosion-sculpted stone formations such as Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte. Hire a Pink Jeep (800-873-3662) all-terrain vehicle for a trip to the ancient Sinagua ruins and cliff dwellings just outside Sedona. And if you just can't stay away from the canyon, consider hiking in from the adjacent Havasupai Indian reservation, located to the west of the canyon's southern rim. Charter trips are available through Arizona Outback Adventures (480-945-2881). A four-day, three-night guided trek into the canyon, including camping gear, meals, pack horses and a helicopter ride to the base village of Supai, costs $780 per person. Children are welcome. STEAMBOAT SPRINGS COLORADO SKI RESORT IN THE SUMMER

Most Americans see the Colorado Rockies only as a place to visit in the winter and early spring, for downhill skiing. Too bad. There's actually more to do--from mountain biking and fishing to gondola rides--and far more opportunity to experience the region's natural beauty in the summer. What's more, with the tourism infrastructure--from restaurants to resort rooms to transportation in and out of the area--so bulked up to accommodate the crush of winter skiers and so underused in the off-season, great values are plentiful in the summer.

Colorado mega-resorts like Aspen and Vail have been successfully selling themselves as a summer destination for decades, but we prefer Steamboat Springs. With the capacity to accommodate some 18,000 visitors, Steamboat is still trying to grow its summer reputation--and to do so it's putting remarkably low price tags on classy accommodations. At the Sheraton Steamboat Resort (800-848-8878), which operates one of the country's premier golf courses and where virtually every room has a view of the surrounding mountains, rooms are $85 to $159 a night--less than half the ski-season rates.

There are actually two Steamboats, the modern ski resort and the adjacent, older town of Steamboat, still true to its ranching center roots (and home of the fascinating Tread of Pioneers Museum in a restored Victorian home). Together they offer a full range of outdoor activities. Take the kids to the twice-weekly rodeos at Howelson Park. And spend a spa day at the natural hot springs for which the town was named.


How many Americans know that along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan stretches nearly 500 miles of unspoiled coastline dotted with silky-soft sand dune beaches? From Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (a 21-mile expanse of beaches and desert-size dunes just an hour from Chicago) all the way up to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and to bustling Mackinac Island lies a summer vacation paradise that remains secret to most living outside the area. Except for the Indiana Dunes themselves, we suggest that you avoid the southeast coast of the lake, which has more than its share of kitschy tourist traps and weekenders from Chicago. Instead, head further north toward the "tip of the mitten." (To get there, you can fly into Traverse City or simply drive from Chicago or Detroit to the area around the towns of Charlevoix and Petoskey.) Among the many great places to set up base are Fisherman's Island, Petoskey and Young state park campgrounds or one of the area's many inns and hotels.

That far north, Lake Michigan is often too cold for swimming, even at the peak of summer. Head for Lake Charlevoix if you want to take a dip. Great day trips in the area include hikes through the 72,000-acre Sleeping Bear Dunes, a topographically rugged peninsula abutting 31 miles of Lake Michigan and filled with shifting towers of sand that grow up to 460 feet--said to be the largest such dunes outside the Sahara. And you're only about an hour away from the ferry to Mackinac (pronounced mac-in-naw). The island is busy with tourists but does have beautiful architecture--and no cars, just bicycles and horse and buggies. For a sleepier retreat that's ideal for nature hikes and contemplation, take the slow ferry to Beaver Island.

Ernest Hemingway, who summered near Charlevoix along Walloon Lake, complained back in the 1920s that the area was too crowded--but he was being a snob. Charlevoix is well off the beaten path even today. Don't expect to find good deals on accommodations if you traipse in without a reservation, but if you call ahead, they are available. At the Edgewater in downtown Charlevoix (800-748-0424), for example, you can rent a one-bedroom condo overlooking Round Lake--which lies between Lake Charlevoix and Lake Michigan--that sleeps four comfortably for $232 a night. Or you can spend a bit more for serious luxury: At the Inn at Bay Harbor resort community (888-229-4272), which opened just last year with a 27-hole golf course, marina and spa on the premises, rooms are $195 to $250 a night, depending on the day of the week. Visit the website of the Charlevoix Chamber of Commerce ( or contact Gateway Travel (800-423-4898) for more information on the region.


Just three to four hours west of D.C., Virginia's Shenandoah Valley offers majestic mountain scenery without the crowds of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the country's most visited national park. Nestled between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountain ranges and extending along a 175-mile corridor from Winchester to Roanoke, the valley's an ideal place for outdoor recreation as well as contemplation of numerous Civil War battlefields and landmarks. Coming from the capital, avoid Interstate 81 and take the scenic route: Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park and on to the Blue Ridge Parkway. We recommend Lexington as a base. The home of Stonewall Jackson before the Civil War and Robert E. Lee after, this charming town (pop. 7,000) houses Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute. Original 19th-century architecture gives the downtown an authentic feel, and the surrounding area offers 40 bed and breakfasts and 60 restaurants. At the downtown Hampton Inn (800-426-7866), built around a 19th-century manor home, a room big enough for four is $84 a night. A 10-minute drive out of Lexington gets you to rock climbing, river rafting and kayaking at the Goshen Pass. Also nearby is the Virginia Safari Park, a 180-acre drive-through zoo that opened last year. Reach Lexington's visitor center at 877-453-9822.


Located between the crowded oceanfront hotels of Myrtle Beach, S.C. and the Outer Banks is the historic city of Wilmington, N.C. Far less visited than these neighboring destinations, the area around Wilmington, stretching south to Cape Fear, is known for its white sand beaches and a string of smallish resort islands just off the coast. Wilmington itself, a city of about 76,000, has a 230-block restored historic district and a lively waterfront lined with restaurants and shops; it's also home to the country's third largest moviemaking facility. You can stay at Catherine's Inn (800-476-0723), a bed and breakfast overlooking the Cape Fear River, for $105 to $125 a night. But to get the most of the region's coastal beauty, we suggest making one of the islands your base.

Five-mile-long Wrightsville Beach, for example, is the most popular spot in the area and home to the Carolina Yacht Club, founded in 1853 and one of the oldest clubs in the country. The Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort (910-256-2231), which allows kids 12 and under to stay and eat free, charges $189 a night. For those seeking a more tranquil spot, Bald Head Island, located at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, is one of the most unspoiled beach and maritime forest areas on the Carolina coast. No cars or high-rise buildings are allowed on the island, which is accessible only by ferry or private boat. Try Theodosia's Bed & Breakfast (800-656-1812), which charges $170 to $250 a night, including use of the island country club and a golf cart for getting around. Then there's Figure Eight island, an ultra-exclusive oceanfront resort community where Al Gore's family and many a Hollywood celebrity have spent their vacations in recent years. Summer-home rentals there cost $2,500 to $5,500 a week (910-686-5775). Though generally more crowded, the Outer Banks, the southern tip of which is about three hours north of Wilmington, definitely make a worthwhile side trip. Especially appealing to kids are Ocracoke Island, where Blackbeard lost his head, and the string of surrounding islands, each with its own buccaneer and shipwreck lore. Contact Wilmington's visitor center at 800-222-4757 for more information.


No other city in North America so completely transports its visitors as Montreal, the cosmopolitan heart of Canada's French-speaking province--a taste of Paris just an hour from New York State. What's more, summer in and around Montreal is extraordinary. The weather is near perfect--70s and low 80s from June to August--and daylight lingers until as late as 10 p.m. Residents make the most of these precious months, so the streets are lively and full of entertainment. The season occasions a string of festivals, including a major jazz fete in late June and early July and Just for Laughs in late July when comedians take to the streets of the Latin Quarter.

Given the relative strength of the U.S. dollar, you get all this at a steep discount. As a result, extravagant three-or four-course meals can be had for what an entree alone costs in major U.S. cities. Lodging is also a bargain: Downtown's grand Fairmont Queen Elizabeth (888-441-1414) charges $131 (U.S.) a night. Auberge Les Passants (514-842-2634), a B&B in a 1723 house in Vieux-Montreal, charges $78 to $102 (U.S.).

Great day trips abound. The countryside around Montreal is filled with ski resorts that in summer offer guests golf, hiking and water sports. And Quebec City, located three hours away, is fascinatingly Old World in feel and more French than Montreal. Packed with historic sites and architecture, Vieux-Quebec is the only walled city in the western hemisphere north of Mexico.


On the southern coast of Rhode Island, three hours from New York City and 1 1/2 from Boston, you'll find an area of beautiful beaches, quaint inns and pleasantly affordable bed and breakfasts. Formally named Washington County, but popularly known as South County, it has more than a dozen fine public beaches, all less crowded than their counterparts on New York's Long Island. And compared with overexposed East Coast summer retreats like the Hamptons, Cape Cod and Newport, the charming Victorian towns of Westerly, Charlestown and Narragansett offer amazing values.

Westerly, the region's centerpiece, features a fine array of stately Victorian homes, a growing arts community and frequent concert and theater performances. Nearby Watch Hill, a Victorian-era resort village, has one of the oldest carousels in the country. The town of Narragansett is a lively summer resort with both modern hotels and elegant inns lining a long, eminently strollable pier.

Among the area's many public beaches, Charlestown's East Beach and Westerly's Misquamicut are among the local favorites. From July to mid-September, you can arrange whale-watching trips (which leave from Galilee) by calling 800-662-2824. Theatre-by-the-Sea, a short drive away in Matunuck, presents musicals and dramas in a playhouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It also puts on a festival of children's theater, presented every day from early July through late August--a great way for the family to salvage a rainy day.

Other highlights include the rocky landscape of Galilee, near the Point Judith Lighthouse, where local fishermen and lobstermen are busy at work. From there, you can take a one-hour ferry ride to see the long sandy beaches and Victorian inns on Block Island, where many people are happy to spend an entire vacation.

As for lodging in South County, a group of about 20 bed-and-breakfast owners operate a private referral service (800-853-7479), which will direct you to child-friendly options if you ask. Most choices are extremely reasonable. The Four Gables in Narragansett, for example, charges between $95 and $105 a night.


Like an even more picturesque version of northern New England without the history of mass tourism that makes parts of the Northeast feel canned, Nova Scotia is a wonderful mixture of coastal villages, vast tracts of forested wilderness, Old World traditions and even a bit of hip sophistication--all at 15% to 20% off, thanks to the strong U.S. dollar.

You can only get a taste of Nova Scotia in a single summer visit. To get there you can fly into Halifax, drive or take a ferry from Maine--11 hours from Portland or three hours from Bar Harbor. A compact university town teeming with young people, Halifax was recently spruced up for the 1995 G-7 Economic Summit and is worth a one-or two-day visit before heading out into the countryside for the balance of your trip. The Waverly Inn (800-565-9346), a flamboyant Victorian-era hotel in which Oscar Wilde stayed on his Canadian tour back in 1882, charges $65 to $125 (U.S.) per night.

Peggy's Cove, Mahone Bay and Lunenberg are highlights among the numerous picture-postcard fishing villages within a short drive of Halifax. But we suggest heading toward Cape Breton at the northeastern end of Nova Scotia, which contains some of the province's most picturesque scenery. This area was settled by Highland Scots, and their heritage has survived, almost untouched, in the accents of the locals and the Celtic music that you are likely to hear everywhere.

The town of Baddeck, the summer home of inventor Alexander Graham Bell, is ideally located on the shores of Bras d'Or Lake near major sights of the island, such as the Fortress at Louisbourg and Cabot Trail, the most scenic drive in Cape Breton. The Inverary Resort (800-565-5660), in Baddeck, is a good choice for families, with its fishing and paddleboats and nightly bonfires on the beach. Rates start at about $85 (U.S.) a night for a standard room.

Although the water throughout most of maritime Canada is too cold for swimming, a geographical quirk draws the warm water of the Gulf Stream into the straits between northern Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. So bring a bathing suit.

Prince Edward Island, Canada's smallest province, is also worth a visit, with gentle topography and gorgeous coastlines that make it one of the region's best places to bike.


During the winter, you might find the high-season prices of the best Caribbean resorts out of reach and the crowds out of hand. But in the summer, everything but the temperature cools off: Prices plummet, and you can treat yourself to some deeply discounted pampering. As for the heat, trade winds keep temperatures reasonable--in the 80s--and humidity considerably lower than in much of southern Florida. Plus, unlike the rest of the year, the Caribbean gets almost no rain in summer (unless a rare early-season hurricane strikes).

Some of the best deals we found were at high-profile, low-key resorts of the Virgin Islands. Prices for rooms next to the tennis courts at Rosewood's 170-acre, 177-room Caneel Bay (800-928-8889) on St. John drop from $400 a night in winter to $275 in summer; beachfront rooms from $750 to $425. One child can stay free. In keeping with Caneel Bay's history as a haven from a busy world, rooms have no phones or televisions. Guests get complimentary access to kayaks, snorkeling gear and tennis courts. Rosewood also operates the smaller Little Dix Bay resort (800-928-3000) in the British Virgin Islands. There, prices for a garden-view room fall to $275 from $550 in the high season. Another good choice is the Bolongo Bay resort (800-524-4746) on St. Thomas, a flashier, noisier resort where the rooms have cable and you can fritter the night away at the karaoke bar. A two-bedroom oceanfront villa there with a full kitchen is $270 a night, down from $445 in the winter.