Best Places To Vacation Secluded beaches, fabulous skiing, a desert retreat, estates from the Gilded Age art new and old, space adventures--and Europe too. This year's picks have it all
(MONEY Magazine) – WHAT'S THAT CREAKING NOISE? The days are dark and cold, and everything and everybody seems worn down--that's the sound of midwinter.
Trust us, you'll feel better then if you start planning your escape now. Once again, MONEY has surveyed travel agents, tour operators, frequent vacationers, enthusiasts, and friends and family to find great places to vacation. We know you don't have a lot of free time, so we sought destinations that don't require too much travel time. We also know that you often spend winter vacation with an eye toward a single pursuit. But because couples--let alone whole families--don't always play together, we chose places diverse enough that everyone can find something to do.
Finally, this being MONEY, we put a premium on value. A good value, of course, is subjective. It certainly doesn't mean cheap--as you'll see--but it does mean that when you pack up to go home, you'll feel that your vacation was worth every penny you spent. So that's what we looked for. (The rates we found are subject to change.)
And then there were six.
[PALM SPRINGS] The California desert retreat of the stars comes back--and yes, there's great golf
When friends speak of a vacation in Palm Springs, chances are they really mean Rancho Mirage or one of the other suburban resorts that have exploded across the Coachella Valley. But long before celebrity golf championships and improbable green vistas appeared, Hollywood found refuge in bungalows and hideaways at the foot of the San Jacinto mountains. And now that Palm Springs--the Palm Springs of Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Lucille Ball--thrives again. Young entrepreneurs and designers have transformed hotels, homes and villas from the '30s to the '60s into small, idiosyncratic inns that keep faith with the past yet offer up-to-date amenities. They're typically less expensive than the brand-name resorts down valley too.
Many of these places line a handful of quiet palm-fringed lanes just off Palm Canyon Drive, the Springs' main shopping street. The Tennis Club District, as it's called, contains so much noteworthy architecture that it merits a walking tour. The Estrella Resort is the "it" hotel of the moment; even the smallest rooms are big by boutique hotel standards, with flat-screen TVs and DVD players (doubles from $209; 800-237-3687; estrellapalmsprings.com).
FORE-THOUGHT The Coachella Valley resorts proudly boast of some 110 golf courses in the area, but only about 40 are open to the public, so plan ahead. Half a dozen tee-time booking services can make reservations up to 90 days in advance at these public courses; you'll find slightly lower greens fees ($5 to $10 below posted rates) at Golf a la Carte (877-887-6900; palmspringsteetimes.com). Stand-By Golf (866-224-2665) offers discounts of up to 50% for next-day tee times; call at 5 p.m.
What about the 70 or so clubs that are truly private? It's an open secret that many of them will let an outsider on the links, provided he knows the right people and has $300. A good person to know is Steve Jacobson, who books people at about half a dozen private clubs through Advance Golf (760-835-7274).
LEAVING THE LINKS The valley's resorts were first known for their hot springs, and you can take the cure at more than 50 spas in the area. You'll appreciate such creature comforts after a morning hike among the twisted rocks and twisted trees of Joshua Tree National Park, an hour's drive from Palm Springs. It's a remarkable landscape, especially in dawn's early light--the desert as nature intended it.
Though some of palm springs' historic hotels appear on hotel-booking engines on the web, they are too small to work with tour wholesalers. So you're on your own.
DEALS Many of the small hotels do make special arrangements with the website PalmSprings.com. Mention the PalmSprings.com rate when you call the hotel, and you can take between 10% and 20% off. At Estrella this fall, the discount was $16 to $20. At L'Horizon, a '50s-flavored hotel in the former winter retreat of Lassie producer Jack Wrather, the discount is 25%--bringing the lowest room rate down to just $101 (800-377-7855; lhorizonhotel.com).
FOR MORE Contact the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention and Visitors Authority (800-417-3529; PalmSpringsUSA.com) for info about the valley; for the city of Palm Springs, call 800-347-7746 or visit palm-springs.org.
[PARK CITY, UTAH] Slopes for every skier's taste, with as much snow as Colorado and a lot fewer people
License plates in Utah proclaim it: GREATEST SNOW ON EARTH! And it's true: powder as fine and dry as in Colorado, and much more of it--up to 500 inches of snowfall a season. Skiers have finally taken notice of this--and of 3,000-foot vertical drops--but the Utah slopes still draw fewer visitors than their Colorado counterparts, even though they make for a cheaper vacation. Plus, the Utah mountains east of Salt Lake City are a lot easier to reach. Arrive in Salt Lake on a morning flight, and you can be on the slopes an hour after you leave the airport.
In fact, the three mountain resorts around Park City are promoting this happy geography all winter with a special program called Quick START: Show your boarding pass at the lifts the day you arrive, and ski for free. Together, Park City Mountain, the Canyons and Deer Valley comprise 334 trails on more than 8,000 acres. The Canyons, a few miles north of town, is Utah's newest and biggest resort and seemingly an uncharted wilderness, especially for better skiers. (Novices are warned away from its farthest reaches.) Park City Mountain, abutting town, is nearly as big, but it's more theme park than backwoods adventure. The runs are busier, with man-made adrenaline boosters--skiers and boarders careen off the 17-foot-high walls of the superpipe, slide down rails protruding from the snow, and launch themselves from jumps. Upmarket Deer Valley revels in stodginess and exclusivity. It strictly limits the number of skiers on its immaculately groomed trails (even the trees are trimmed for better slaloms through the woods), and snowboarders are banned.
Park City is all about options. A frequent and efficient free shuttle connects all three resorts; it's easy to sample them all with an interchangeable lift ticket. Options abound off the slope too. You'll find the galleries, boutiques and cultural distractions of the sort you'd expect at any destination that brands itself upscale. Park City is known for high-end dining at places like Grappa and Chimayo, but there are more than a hundred restaurants, plus scores of condos, hotels, lodges and B&Bs.
MOVIE MOGUL Though many industry types booked their lodgings last winter for next January's Sundance Film Festival, that doesn't mean you're snowed out. You can sometimes buy tickets for screenings for $10 at the box office, but to see the hot movies, it's best to buy a screening package or pass from the Sundance Institute in advance (from $200; 877-733-8497; sundance.org). Lodging is still plentiful in November, but it goes quickly.
HOTELS As usual at ski resorts, you'll pay more for accommodations near the lifts, but the shuttle makes proximity less critical here. The Radisson Inn Park City, about 1.5 miles from Park City Mountain, is a lot of hotel for rack rates that start at about $189 a night in winter--well-appointed rooms, two pools, two spas and a sauna (888-201-1718; radisson.com). At Shadow Ridge Resort, at the base of Park City Mountain's Payday Lift and a short walk from Main Street shops and restaurants, rooms are convenient but basic; doubles start at $185 and one-bedroom suites at $285 (800-451-3031; shadowridgelodging.com).
PACKAGES Go for a package; every tour operator we checked was cheaper than buying elements separately. When we looked in September for early February itineraries, Expedia.com paired best flights with best prices. But most Expedia properties are a trek from the slopes, and lift tickets are good at just one resort. The offerings at Delta Vacations were the most appealing--interchangeable lift tickets, good air fares and convenient flights.
THE BEST DEAL It's at the Canyons in the luxurious Grand Summit Resort Hotel, through Liberty Travel (888-271-1584; libertytravel.com). We found a four-night package from Chicago for about $2,300, including good flights, transfers and three days of skiing in the valley. Book it yourself and expect to spend $1,000 more.
FOR MORE Contact the Park City CVB (800-453-1360; parkcityinfo.com). Register at the website for the Quick START deal.
[THE BERKSHIRES] Country homes from the Gilded Age, plus great art in western Massachusetts
Back in the days when the American plutocracy could afford a separate estate--or two--for each season, the quiet Berkshires village of Lenox enjoyed a certain notoriety. The lions of the Gilded Age called the homes they built here cottages, but they were being modest, if not delusional. These were castles. The extremely rich are long gone, but a handful of the old places have been converted into luxury hotels for the merely well-off. Two of them cut their rates by up to a third in the winter.
In 1892, John Sloane announced his arrival to the equestrian class by building a Tudor-style cottage on 380 acres named Wyndhurst. He asked Frederick Law Olmstead to design the grounds. Today it's the seat of the Cranwell Resort, Spa & Golf Course, the spa being a $9 million facility that opened in 2002. A night in the mansion starts at $385 in winter, but all resort guests can lounge amid marble, oak and leather in the Great Hall Lobby (doubles from $165; 800-272-6935; cranwell.com).
The spa's the thing at Canyon Ranch, which occupies Bellefontaine, built in 1897 to resemble the Petite Trianon at Versailles. Lodgings are in a newer building; the mansion is dedicated to public rooms and wellness services. Guests are obliged to stay at least three nights (from $1,520, including meals and some treatments; 800-742-9000; canyonranch.com).
WINTER WORLD You can ski downhill at Jiminy Peak, Ski Butternut and Catamount, or cross-country at Cranwell. Or check out several world-class museums. MASS MoCA gets the buzz with oversize installations of contemporary art in a reclaimed 19th-century North Adams mill, but Williamstown boasts two sleeping beauties: the Clark Art Institute, with astounding French Impressionist paintings, and the Williams College Museum of Art, rich in American and South Asian art. The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, the artist's hometown, holds the world's largest collection of his work.
ROBBER-BARON REDUX Elm Court, built by William Sloane and Emily Vanderbilt Sloane, has just reopened as a B&B--operated by the Sloanes' great-great-grandson and his wife. Robert and Sonya Berle spent three years restoring 32,000 square feet of the mansion; they have another 38,000 to go. The four rooms range from $650 to $1,250, but it may be the closest you'll come to being a guest of the Vanderbilts (413-637-1556).
PACKAGES Cranwell offers both ski and spa packages at modest discounts off the winter rates. See text for contact info.
INNS A few other Lenox cottages have been resurrected more modestly. The Kemble Inn Bed and Breakfast offers lodging from $110 to $230 in Frelinghuysen, one of the oldest cottages, built by Chester A. Arthur's Secretary of State in 1881 (800-353-4113; kembleinn.com). Harley Procter's (of Procter & Gamble) Orleton is now the Gateways Inn (413-637-2532; gatewaysinn.com); its 11 rooms range from $100 to $330 in the winter. A night in an antiques-filled room of the Manor House at Seven Hills Country Inn and Restaurant, formerly Shipton Court, costs $100 to $250 (800-869-6518; sevenhillsinn.com).
FOR MORE Contact the Berkshires Visitors Bureau (800-237-5747; berkshires.org).
[COCOA BEACH, FLA.] For real-life excitement for kids of all ages, forget Orlando. Head for the Space Coast
Yes, it is possible to have a kid-centric vacation in Florida that doesn't linger in wallet-busting, mind-numbing Orlando. Head east to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean around Cocoa Beach. The area that Florida's marketers call the Space Coast has attractions to thrill--and challenge--children of all ages without pandering to them.
The Kennedy Space Center is an amusement park in its own right. Imax movies vividly tell the story of the international space station and the space shuttle program; then you can experience celestial claustrophobia in a replica of the shuttle Explorer before boarding a bus to the Space Center's restricted areas. The two-day premium Space Center ticket ($34 for adults, $24 for kids under 12) also buys entry into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. For an extra $22, the NASA Up Close tour visits the launch pads and landing facility, plus the massive Vehicle Assembly Building, where the shuttle awaits its next mission. For $19.99 ($9.99 for kids under 12), the Dine With an Astronaut lunch is a good deal for the meal alone (321-449-4444; kennedyspacecenter.com).
The Space Center's ATX (Astronaut Training Experience) is as close as most of us will get to an actual flight. The full-day program includes a session at the training simulators and a full simulation of a shuttle mission, as well as a VIP tour of the Space Center. Tickets are $225; book early (321-449-4400).
BACK ON EARTH Explore the quiet, untrammeled beaches at Canaveral National Seashore, where cars and other modern intrusions are prohibited and endangered species thrive. You might spot manatees, dolphins or alligators if you hike through the nearby Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, or take a boat ride along the Indian River Lagoon. Space Coast Nature Tours (321-267-4551; spacecoastnaturetours.com) offers cruises on the lagoon in a solar-powered boat with an underwater microphone. Older kids will gravitate toward Cocoa Beach, a top surfing spot. And when the time comes to cave in to your kids' pleas, Orlando is just an hour away.
WHERE TO STAY Cocoa Beach resorts are relaxed, and some of them have specially designed kids' programs. The Holiday Inn Cocoa Beach wows youngsters with a pirate-ship pool, sulky teens with a game room and surfboard and boogie board rentals, and everyone else with tennis, volleyball and shuffleboard courts as well as a fitness center (doubles from $50; 800-206-2747; hicentralflorida.com). The Resort at Cocoa Beach is a kid-friendly condo with playground, game room and even a movie theater (doubles from $165; 866-469-8222; vrivacations.com).
PACKAGES Pickings for Cocoa Beach are surprisingly slim. In September, Liberty Travel offered a four-night early February stay at the Holiday Inn for just $214, compared with $275 booking through Travelocity.com. On the other hand, the hotel/rental-car combinations from Liberty and Expedia require flying into Melbourne, Fla. Though Melbourne is a bit closer to the Space Coast than Orlando is, flights to Orlando are more plentiful and air fares are lower--when we checked in September, they were $30 to $50 cheaper from a variety of cities.
FOR MORE information about the Space Coast, contact the area's Office of Tourism (800-936-2326; space-coast.com).
[ABACO ISLANDS] The appeal of this archipelago in the Bahamas: seclusion and the freedom to do nothing
This is the truth about mass-market travel: It's hard to get away from the crowds in a place that's worth visiting. Especially in the Caribbean. Some 10 million American tourists will fly south to the islands this year, and most of them will use a package tour to get there. Those who seek seclusion usually travel great distances and pay dearly for it.
Which brings us to the Abaco Islands--the exception that proves the rule. The fact that this archipelago, first settled by British loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, is the second-biggest island group in the Bahamas isn't saying much; just 13,000 people live on 650 square miles. Many of its cays and fine white sand beaches are uninhabited. The airports are too small for jetliners and most of the hotels are too small to do business with tour operators. Vacations here remain affordable because it's just an hour's flight from Florida's Atlantic Coast.
But make no mistake: If you prefer not to escape the trappings of civilization entirely, you don't have to. At Nettie's Different of Abaco, guests leave telephones and televisions behind, but not relaxing massages or spacious and luxurious rooms; this is an ecologically oriented resort that emphasizes birding and bonefishing (doubles from $150; 242-366-2150; differentofabaco.com). On Green Turtle Cay, the Green Turtle Club is known for its fine food, great location and the rum punch served at its Yacht Club Pub. The hotel's superior deluxe rooms have hardwood floors and Queen Anne furniture (from $210, but two-night winter packages offer a small discount, breakfast and dinner; 242-365-4271; greenturtleclub.com).
There are, of course, "attractions" here--snorkeling, tennis--but the real attraction is the absence of such obligations. The islands abound in opportunities to do nothing but lounge on the beach or in a hammock beneath the coconut palms. Treasure Cay, where the sand is as white and soft as powdered sugar, is still not crowded--but if a few sunbathers are too much to bear, you can rent a boat and steer yourself toward more desolate shores.
FLIGHTS Continental Connection offers flights from Miami and Fort Lauderdale to Marsh Harbour and Treasure Cay, and from West Palm Beach to Marsh Harbour. American Eagle, Bahamasair, Island Express and US Airways Express also fly between the Florida coast and Great Abaco. You may find lower fares on connecting flights through Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach on Southwest Airlines, but it will take some digging, since most computer reservations systems don't pair Southwest with other carriers.
PACKAGES If you insist on buying a package to Abaco, Liberty, Expedia and American Airlines Vacations (800-321-2121; AAvacations.com) all do business with one or both of the islands' two biggest resorts, Treasure Cay Hotel Resort and Abaco Beach Resort.
FOR MORE The Bahamas Out Islands Promotion Board (800-688-4752; bahama-out-islands.com) can supply you with information about the Abacos.
[COZUMEL] This Mexican island offers some of the world's finest diving at the best price
Though it's too far to swim to, from shore you can see where the bottom drops out of the sea. A 3,000-foot channel separates the island of Cozumel from mainland Mexico, and life has blossomed at its edges: coral and sponge, brightly colored fish, even endangered Hawksbill sea turtles. Below, the blue gradually darkens to black, and with the current pulling you along, all a diver has to do is relax and take it all in as it passes by. On an especially clear day, your view might extend to 100 meters.
If the cobalt-blue angelfish seem bigger here than anywhere else in the Caribbean, it's due to the special character of this reef. Normally reefs are barriers that protect the mainland from ravaging weather, but here Cozumel protects the reef. Simply put, Cozumel offers some of the world's finest diving at the best price, thanks to this quirk of geography and to the travel promoters who have helped make this small island off the Yucatan peninsula a destination for everyone else. If you don't dive, you'll still find plenty to do, from the activities you'd expect to find at any beachfront resort to excursions deep into Mexican history. If you do dive, you may be reluctant to surface.
You can, of course, learn how to dive in Cozumel, but why waste vacation time? Learn at home before you go--a local dive shop can tell you how. There are scores of dive outfitters in Cozumel--most resorts have a shop on the premises--but while prices are competitive (figure about $50 for a two-tank dive), the operators are not all created equal. Diving is not without risks, and some shops manage them better than others. Aqua Safari ($55 for a two-tank dive; 011-52-987-872-0101; aquasafari.com) and Scuba Club Cozumel, a dedicated dive resort ($55 for a two-tank dive; 011-52-987-872-0853; scubaclubcozumel.com), get high marks from divers and dive shops in both the U.S. and Cozumel. Both dive shops also have a reputation for treading carefully on the fragile reefs.
SHORE LEAVE Beaches, of course, ring Cozumel, but they're hardly spectacular; many dedicated sun-seekers head to Playa del Carmen on the mainland, an hour away by ferry. Mexico's most mystical beach may be in Tulum, about 40 miles south of Playa del Carmen, where bathers laze on the white sand beneath a cliffside Mayan city some 1,100 years old. More high-minded visitors come to Tulum for the ruins themselves, and it's easy in Cozumel to find organized tours to Tulum and other archeological sites in Yucatan, such as the partially excavated structures at Coba. Trips to the Mayan center Chichen Itza are widely available; it's a daylong excursion by small plane that starts at about $120 per person.
HOTELS You can find a good room at a good resort from about $100 during winter in Cozumel. The Fiesta Americana (doubles from $110; 800-343-7821; www.fiestamericana.com) and Hotel Brisas Cozumel (doubles from $117; 877-454-4355; www.brisashotel.com) are popular with divers and tour operators alike. Hotel Brisas has fewer frills but is within walking distance of restaurants and clubs in town; the Fiesta Americana offers a little more hotel, but is much farther away. Not quite as far south of town, the Presidente InterContinental is Cozumel's plushest hotel, with prices to match (doubles from $240; 800-327-0200; intercontinental.com).
Despite its being widely packaged, finding the best way to book Cozumel isn't so simple. In September, we checked rates for the first week in February at four hotels from three U.S. gateways, and found that at least a third of the time, it was cheaper to book separately.
GOOD DEALS Two exceptions: US Airways Vacations (800-422-3861; usairways vacations.com) had good rates for connections through Charlotte, N.C. And tours from operators such as Apple Vacations (applevacations.com) and Funjet (800-558-3050; funjet.com) that use charter flights can sometimes--though not always--save you hundreds of dollars. Apple offered seven nights at Hotel Brisas Cozumel from Denver for about $1,500 (book by Dec. 5), almost $500 less than the next cheapest package and $700 less than booking air and hotel separately.
Robb Mandelbaum lives in New York City and writes frequently about travel.