Where Is Everybody?
Four winter destinations that have it all, except crowds
(MONEY Magazine) – If you go skiing in Vail this winter, you'll find more than 100 trails of deep white powder and cozy mountainside lodges. If you go skiing in Big Sky, Mont., you'll also find more than 100 trails of deep white powder and cozy mountainside lodges. The difference? Vail gets roughly 1.5 million visitors a year. Big Sky? Around a fifth of that.
For every popular locale that attracts tourists in droves, there's another location that has much of the same, minus the maddening crowds (and the higher prices that popular destinations charge during their peak season). To find some below-the-radar winter getaways, we spoke with scores of travel agents to get their best secret picks. We also learned what you may have to do without (nonstop flights, endless dining options) and when's the ideal time to go. After all, the trick here is not only to get away from it all but also to get away from everyone else.
Instead of Vail...
Ski Big Sky, Mont.
THE EXPERIENCE For some, Vail equals skiing. For others, however, Vail equals "30-minute lift line." In Big Sky, Mont., snow and elbow room are in equal (and abundant) supply. This season, Big Sky and neighboring resort Moonlight Basin are offering a joint lift ticket for $78, just $13 more than Big Sky's normal pass. Lift lines are rare, so you'll have ample time to check out the two resorts' combined 230 trails. At night it's worth the 15-minute drive for dinner at Buck's T-4 Lodge, a local favorite that specializes in game dishes such as wild boar. And since skiing is really just an excuse to plop yourself in a hot tub, check out Big Sky's Saddleridge Townhomes, where two-bedroom condos start at $213 a night and come with their own private outdoor whirlpool--something you're not likely to find in Vail, even at twice the price.
KEEP IN MIND Only six cities (and none on the East Coast) offer nonstop flights to Bozeman, Mont. It's a one-hour drive to the resort, so count on a little travel time to get there.
DETAILS To stay: Besides the Saddleridge, the nearby Summit Hotel has ski-in/ski-out access; rooms start at $151; two-bedroom suites start at $387 (800-548-4486 for Summit and Saddleridge). To ski: Big Sky Resort (800-548-4486; bigskyresort.com) and Moonlight Basin (800-845-4428; moonlightbasin.com). To eat: Buck's T-4 Lodge (800-822-4484; buckst4dining.com).
Instead of Pebble Beach...
Golf Kiawah Island, S.C.
NOTE:  Estimated rounds played on main course in 2004, from Golfcourse.com.
THE EXPERIENCE Pebble Beach is fantastic. And at $450 per round of golf, it had better be. A half-hour from Charleston, S.C., Kiawah Island offers five championship courses and ranks among Golf Digest's 75 Best Golf Resorts, but its greens' fees are a fraction of what you'll find on the Monterey Peninsula. The most famous of the five courses is the Ocean Course, where all 18 holes have a view. The other courses meander around the Kiawah River and the island's marshes and lagoons, and with fees topping out at $200 in the winter (when daytime highs can reach 70°), a few rounds won't break the bank. Book one of the 228 ocean-view rooms at the new Sanctuary hotel and watch the waves from your balcony or, in some rooms, from your bathtub. Dining options range from Kobe-style beef at the Ocean Room to local favorites such as shrimp and grits at the Jasmine Porch.
KEEP IN MIND Winter temperatures can vary by as much as 40° from noon to midnight, so dress accordingly. And if you want more dining options than what's on the island, plan on a drive into Charleston (or pay for the resort's shuttle).
DETAILS To stay: Rooms at the Sanctuary start at $283 after Nov. 6 (877-683-1234; thesanctuary.com). Kiawah Island Resort golf rates range from $72 to $200 from December 2005 to February 2006 (800-576-1570; kiawahresort.com). The hotel's shuttle costs $35 to $120, depending on the number of people traveling.
Instead of St. Thomas...
Sunbathe in Mustique
THE EXPERIENCE Mustique, one of 30-plus islands in the St. Vincent-Grenadines island chain, is notable as much for what it has (endless beaches, mangrove forests, nature walks) as for what it lacks (high-rise hotels, cruise ships, scores of knickknack vendors trying to rip you off). Flights are available from Barbados, and once you land you can stay at Firefly, a hilltop inn that features in-room iPods, two swimming pools and private beachside cabanas. The inn's bar has hosted regulars Johnny Depp and Kate Moss, and the owner says you might even catch a glimpse of island resident Mick Jagger (if it's not past his bedtime).
KEEP IN MIND You must first fly to Barbados, which is a 4½-hour flight from New York City (about the total travel time to St. Thomas), and then take a one-hour flight on Mustique Airways to the island.
DETAILS At Firefly, winter rates (Dec. 1 through April 30) range from $825 to $925 a night for two people. That may seem steep, but the rate includes breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, sunset snacks, dinner, a motorized buggy, snorkel equipment and round-trip air fare from Barbados to Mustique. Compare that with the Ritz-Carlton in St. Thomas (upon which nearly 500,000 U.S. tourists descended last year): Ocean-view rooms there start at $799 without any extras, making the Firefly a relative steal (784-488-8414; fireflymustique.com).
Instead of Las Vegas...
Visit Las Vegas (off-season)
THE EXPERIENCE Vegas is like three vacations rolled into one: an urban experience with top restaurants, gambling and Broadway shows; a relaxing resort with pools and spas; and a family retreat with activities and attractions for the kids. Little wonder, then, that the city has become the No. 1 leisure travel destination in the U.S. That has attracted a huge amount of real estate and hotel development, including the newest 600-pound gorilla on the Strip, the $2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas resort. You could spend your whole vacation just at Wynn: A 50-story tower houses 2,700 high-tech rooms and suites, 18 restaurants, an art gallery with paintings by Van Gogh and Picasso and a theater that's home to the off-Broadway run of Avenue Q, winner of the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical. Next to the tower is an 18-hole golf course. Oh, there's also a casino.
KEEP IN MIND Between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the best time to get a hotel deal. Vegas is also quiet in early January--unless the Consumer Electronics Show is in town. This closed-to-the-public megaconvention will take place Jan. 5-8 in 2006 and can soak up almost all of the rooms in the city.
DETAILS From December through March 2006, rooms and suites at Wynn Las Vegas are priced from $249 to $750 a night (702-770-7100; wynnlasvegas.com).