15 Winter Getaways
Whether you yearn to embrace the cold or escape it completely, these fifteen getaways—to sunny beaches, powdery slopes and dynamic metropolises—all provide respite from the gray-season blahs.
Jost Van Dyke, The British Virgin Islands
Learning to travel Caribbean-style.
My husband, Tom, and I were looking for a different kind of vacation—a change from our ordinary travel routine. For many people, this might mean an adventure of some sort, a journey to an exotic locale, hikes through rainforests, strange street food, dicey encounters with taxi drivers and turtle vendors. But we had already spent a lot of time doing just those things during our travels. And what we wanted to try now was an old-fashioned getaway, the kind where you lounge on the beach, umbrella drink in hand, trashy novel by your side, gin-clear sea stretched out before you.
But as our plane landed on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands (the largest of the country’s fifteen inhabited islands), I wondered if I would actually like this kind of escape. The B.V.I. is notoriously easygoing, a haven for bareboaters thanks to its reliably balmy temps and easy navigation. It’s not that I’m one of those itinerary-obsessed sightseers (try buying bus tickets in Chengdu, and you’ll soon acquire almost Zen-like travel patience); it’s just that I like to be challenged. I’ve traveled to many countries specifically because the journey would be difficult—because it would be hard to communicate, to navigate, to understand the culture. So this trip felt sort of decadent, maybe a bit too easy. It’s what we said we wanted, but could we really enjoy a place where there were no obstacles to overcome?
When we arrived at our final destination, Jost Van Dyke, a four-square-mile island a thirty-minute ferry ride away from Tortola, I immediately noticed an absence of the rampant Americanization I had expected. No big resorts, no chain restaurants, lots of dirt roads. I was surprised—I actually felt like I was in a foreign country. The island was rugged, but we would soon discover that creature comforts were easy to come by. And English, spoken in a pleasant Carib accent, made all the travel details easy. No haggling, no confusion.
A bumpy taxi ride over narrow windy roads carried us to our hotel. Whereas many Caribbean islands are flat and sandy, offering great beaches but little topography, Jost Van Dyke’s lush hills rise 1,000 steep feet from the turquoise sea and clamor with the sounds of birds and bugs. The Sandcastle Hotel, located on White Bay, is a tiny resort with five rooms. Our little beachfront bungalow was simple—rattan furniture, outdoor shower warmed by the sun—but the location was right out of a Jimmy Buffet song: a pure white beach with stereotypical bathtub-like Caribbean water. A few steps away from our front door, a hammock hung between two palm trees.
Here we were welcomed and catered to, but we weren’t cloyingly doted upon (Tom, in fact, played bartender during a staff appreciation night). We quickly made friends with the handful of other guests, including Jim, who visits twice a year and spends his trips camped out on a chair at the hotel’s infamous Soggy Dollar Bar drinking, handing out bits of sage life advice and reminiscing about the days before the island had electricity. It turns out that we were lucky to get reservations at all—thanks to its natural assets and the uber-graciousness of the staff, this unassuming hotel is often booked a year in advance.
The Soggy Dollar Bar was the center of activity during the day, supplying Carib-bean-style bar food (we liked the conch fritters and flying fish sandwich) and beachside rum drinks like the Painkiller, a rum, pineapple, coconut and nutmeg concoction invented here and now the unofficial national drink of the B.V.I. The bar’s name is derived from the fact that White Bay has no dock or pier, so yachters and sailors, who make up a huge percentage of the island’s visitors, can’t pull up to shore to get to the bar. Instead they have to swim for their drinks—drenching their cash in the process. Each day a gaggle of boaters from all over the world would arrive on the beach. We always felt a bit smug as they paid their soggy dollars for their drinks and eats (we, of course, just charged it to our room) and enjoyed their small bite of our twenty-four-hour cheeseburger in paradise.
There was a lot we could have done on Jost Van Dyke. We could have taken a trip to the “Bubbly Pool,” a spot where high tide creates a natural Jacuzzi, or taken the ferry into St. John to go shopping. We could have gone snorkeling, diving or hiking. But we didn’t. Everything about the island made it easy to embrace an attitude of joyful ease. During our five days at Sandcastle, we two hardcore travelers quickly slipped into an almost comically laid-back schedule: wake up, eat, beach, people watch (the bikini-clad boaters), lunch, cocktail, beach, cocktail, shower, cocktail, dinner, cocktail. We did go on one mini-adventure—a kayak trip to Great Harbour. But of course, we stopped on the way for a Painkiller at Ivan’s Stress Free Bar and Campground (leisurely service by day, self-serve bar by night, frequented by the likes of Jimmy Buffet, Keith Richards and Kenny Chesney). I’m almost always up for a challenging trek. But this time, I have to admit: Tom did most of the paddling. —o’rya hyde-keller
Hot Spots: Four more sunny escapes
* Caye Caulker, Belize
A favorite stop for knowledgeable Central-American travelers, this five-mile island has made its peace with tourism. Small-scale, locally owned development blends comfortably with the rasta-tinged Mestizo culture. The island is one mile west of the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world—if you’ve ever thought about getting certified to dive, this is the place. A half-day intro costs $200BZ, a three-day basic PADI certification $600BZ at Big Fish Dive Center (bigfishdive.com). You’ll see fish, coral, eagle rays, nurse sharks, manatees and dolphins, and formations like the 1,000-foot-wide Blue Hole. Spend the night at Caye Caulker Condos (from $110, cayecaulkercondos.com). Enjoy basic seafood cooking at the island’s twenty-five restaurants, and relax —this Caribbean-flavored island is famously tranquilo. For more info: gocayecaulker.com.
* Culebra, Puerto Rico
This seven-by-three-mile Caribbean island isn’t just the same size as Block Island; it’s also relatively undiscovered, slightly inconvenient to reach, and a haven for surfers, divers and well-heeled East Coast retirees looking to build vacation homes. Isla Culebra has a few key advantages over its northern sister, though. Temperatures hover between 70 and 90 degrees year-round. Hotel rooms can be had for under $100 (Casa Robinson, 787-742-0497), and the island allows camping ($20/night, Flamenco Beach Campground, 787-742-0700). The snorkeling is magnificent; besides coral reefs and tropical fish, green and endangered leatherback turtles are common because both nest in nearby Culebra National Wildlife Preserve. Caribbean fare such as fresh seafood and spicy pork dishes are the order of the day at the Dinghy Dock (787-742-0233), where tame tarpon hang out at the dock waiting for handouts. For more info: islaculebra.com.
* Tucson, Arizona
Winter is the perfect time to check out the dry desert of the American Southwest, and Tucson is a great base for exploring the Catalina Mountains, Sonoran Desert and Saguaro National Park. Skies are sunny 340 days a year, and daytime temperatures average 65 degrees in January. And the clear, dry weather makes for great night sky viewing. After a day spent outdoors, drive your rental car—a must in these wide-open spaces—to stargaze at Kitt Peak National Observatory ($39, noao.edu/kpno). Back in town, enjoy a margarita and chile rellenos at Las Cazuelitas (lascazuelitas.com), which has mariachi bands on the weekends. Fall into bed at the lush Arizona Inn (from $300, arizonainn.com). You’ll see why snowbirds opt to spend the whole winter. For more info: visittucson.org.
* Sanibel/Captiva, Florida
These twin islands off the Gulf Coast offer warm but not broiling winter temperatures, perfect for biking, tennis and golf. There are no high-rise hotels to sully the white-sand beaches, no chain restaurants and no traffic lights; instead, an unhurried atmosphere, lush vegetation and wildlife galore. Sanibel is the spot for active nature lovers; get up close with alligators at the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge (fws.gov/dingdarling), or ride on twenty-seven miles of dedicated bike paths. Captiva is smaller and more exclusive, perfect for honeymooners. Visitors stay at condos, not hotels. Rent a retro beach cottage from Beachview Cottages on Sanibel (from $189/night, beachviewcottages.com) or indulge at Captiva’s luxury South Seas Island Resort (from $300/night, southseas.com); enjoy rum drinks and fish tacos at Doc Ford’s, owned by fisherman-turned-novelist Randy Wayne White (docfordssanibel.com). For more info: sanibel-captiva.org. —Pippa Jack
Alta, Solitude and Park City, Utah
A testosterone-free trip laced with adrenaline.
I didn’t hurry to pack my bags at the sound of an all-women ski trip in Utah. First off, how would I meet men? Plus I hadn’t alpined since parabolic skis hit the scene a decade ago. I’m a cross-country convert, lured by its killer workout, no lift lines and bucolic trails. But by the end of a four-day, females-only tour to three of Utah’s famous powder towns, I’d gotten my downhill legs back and was glad no guys had witnessed the process from gangly to graceful.
Rusty-eyed, I boarded a 7 a.m. flight from Logan and was on the Alta slopes by 12:30. At the peak of Little Cottonwood Canyon, this seventy-year-old resort maintains a rustic feel. The apres-ski scene is more about sipping wine fireside than slamming vodka shots. At the Alta Lodge, guestrooms are devoid of televisions, and guests shuffle to breakfast in slippers. Its Sitzmark Bar (named for the divot left in the snow when you fall) chronicles the history of this former mining town with black and white photos.
Alta respects its elders. Snowboarding is not allowed, and the eighty-plus crowd skis for free. “The Wild Bunch,” a group of sixty- to ninety-year-olds, skis together regularly (they don’t mind if youngsters join them). Every Christmas, a skiing Santa leads snow plowers to black diamond experts in a torchlight parade down a mountain lined with Douglas fir and spruce trees.
Forty minutes away, Solitude resort was founded for a profane reason. Robert M. Barrett made his fortune as a Moab uranium miner during the early 1950s, moved to Salt Lake City and took up skiing. At Alta, he was denied restroom access because the resort used sewage tanks and was responsible for transporting waste down the canyon, so restrooms were reserved for guests. So Barrett decided to open his own ski area. He gobbled up every piece of land available in the canyon adjacent to Alta and started construction on Solitude in 1956.
Nestled between Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons, the resort has sixty-four runs and peaks at 10,000 feet. Its Nordic Center has twenty kilometers of groomed trails for classic and skating styles; another ten kilometers of snowshoe trails wind through a forest of birch and pine trees. Every January, the resort hosts a chocolate lover’s tour with free chocolate treats—from Cream O’Weber chocolate milk to Premium Ice Cream Creamies—for everyone on the moun-tain. Solitude Village was constructed in the nineties. With its European-style complex of condos, shops, skating rink, apres-ski haunts and spa, the village is designed for families.
Park City is an hour’s drive from Solitude. Boasting an elevation of 10,000 feet and spanning more than 3,000 acres, the resort is nirvana for intermediate to advanced skiers and snowboarders. Its Eagle Superpipe has twenty-two-foot walls, there are jumps that reach seventy feet and kids can visit a park with seven tubing lanes.
The asking price for Park City’s former miner’s shacks is evidence of its gentrification. Two- and three- bedroom, Easter-egg-colored Victorians start around $750,000. In the nineteenth century, when the shacks were affordable, Main Street was lined with brothels; as the railroad rolled past, miners made a pit stop for the night.
Now visitors can swoosh down to Main Street for lunch and hop a gondola back up the mountain. Downtown has no shortage of restaurants and watering holes to dismantle the myth that you can’t get a beer in this Mormon state. There’s The Spur, No Name Saloon and Bachus Wine Bar (with 200 wines by the glass). I sampled the local Polygamy Porter for its motto, ‘Why have just one?’ If you’re not a film buff, the annual Sundance Film Festival in January is the best time to ski because the crowds are off the slopes and in the theaters.
Although Park City can be a scene, it’s no Aspen. Former Olympic Gold winner Picabo Street is a ski ambassador for the resort and embodies how Park City remains down-to-earth despite the celebrities and altitude. She led us on a few runs and then, over nachos and beer, opened up about retiring from fame, broken relationships and becoming a single mom. It was the kind of exchange that could only happen in an all-women’s group.
A gaggle of females can sometimes result in queen bees and mean girls. But our group had none of that attitude. That morning, I had accompanied the expert skiers. My knees gelled when I saw the first icy decline as we skied off the chair lift. If it weren’t for the others cheering me on, I might still be at the top, anxious about the unknown. —denise dowling
Colder Than Here: Four more frosty retreats
*Lake Placid, New York
Live out your gold-medal dreams a five-hour drive from Providence at this charming Adirondacks village, home to the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. Make the Mirror Lake Inn (from $170/night, mirrorlakeinn.com) your base. Hit the slopes at top-notch Whiteface Mountain ($64 adult lift ticket, packages from $89, whiteface.com), where beginner slopes complement the black diamonds of the Olympic courses. Toboggan down a converted ski jump in town or dare the breakneck speeds of the Olympic bobsled course Complex —with a trained driver steering, of course. Olympics overload? Shop the Main Street boutiques, or work out the kinks with a massage at the inn’s spa. End of day, grab a fireside table at homey-but-upscale Veranda Restaurant (lakeplacidcp.com), one of many eateries geared to athletic appetites—which might be why President Clinton celebrated his birthday there in 2000. For more info: lakeplacid.com.
*Quebec City, Canada
A four-hour flight from Providence, this Canadian metropolis is like Paris without the jet lag, expense or attitude. Horse-drawn carriages travel on steep, winding cobblestone streets and pass by old stone buildings and cozy cafes where the largely Francophone inhabitants socialize. A great destination for walking, this is also one of the snowiest cities in Canada. The best time to visit is during Winter Carnival, held during the first two weeks of February and the largest winter carnival in the world. Visit the famed Ice Hotel (icehotel-canada.com) for a cocktail served in a glass made from ice (drink quickly), but spend the night at the much warmer Auberge Saint Antoine (from $206CAD/night, saint-antoine.com). For a meal you’ll never forget, try the Sunday brunch at Le Champlain in walled Old Québec (Fairmont.com/Frontenac). For more info: quebecregion.com.
This quirky town in Colorado’s Front Range is off the beaten track, but if you prefer small-town friendliness and a hippie vibe to Aspen glamour, it boasts a small ski mountain with plenty of Western powder. Check into a room at the rustic Sundance Lodge (from $89/night, sundance-lodge.com) and hit Eldora Mountain Resort ($56 adult lift ticket, packages from $77, eldora.com). For the non-athletically inclined, there is mind-boggling scenery, elks included, an easy drive to the west in Rocky Mountain National Park (nps.gov/room). In March, celebrate the Frozen Dead Guy Days—named for the cryogenically frozen man stored in a shed here—and if you still have an appetite, don’t miss tiny Kathmandu (nepalidining.com) where the inexpensive Nepalese specialties are a surprising match for this one-horse, high-altitude town. For more info: nederlandchamber.org.
People flock here for the sunlit nights of the summer solstice, but winter brings another show to the sky: the Northern Lights. Plus, the capital city’s famous nightlife continues unabated, peaking for the Winter Lights Festival February 19 to 22. Bring snowsuits for snowmobiling on the glaciers, but relax in your regular clothes amongst the funky modern architecture of the culturally uptempo city, where temperatures are about the same as Boston’s in winter. Better yet, take it (nearly) all off for one of the country’s many geothermal spas. IcelandAir is working hard to entice visitors, so last-minute flights and packages are available at deep discounts (starting at $400 for roundtrip airfare from Boston, transfers and two nights in a hotel, icelandair.com). A bargain to sample local delicacies like rotten shark, whole sheep’s head or brennivin, a liquor affectionately known as “black death.” For more info: visiticeland.com. —Pippa Jack
Charleston, South Carolina
The quest for a trip-worthy keepsake.
It didn’t take me long to love Charleston. Unlike cities closer to home like Boston and New York, it has a transparent warmth that shines through immediately. The people are outgoing and friendly, the food tastes like it came straight out of a doting grandmother’s kitchen, and it doesn’t hurt that the temperature often rises to seventy degrees in the middle of winter. For me, getting to know Charleston was like meeting someone for the first time and knowing instantly that I’d made a friend for life. After a long weekend of exploring almost every corner of this walkable city, I had many memories to take home with me: sipping beer with new friends at the rooftop bar of my hotel, the Market Pavilion, while looking out at the abutting harbor; trying on a red cashmere jacket at a local boutique only to be ushered outside by the convivial saleswoman who insisted I model it for the passing public; and dining on lowcountry-style shrimp and grits until I nearly turned pink.
The quieter moments stuck with me, too. One afternoon underneath the beating sun, a horse-and-carriage ride took me deep into the heart of the Old City, as the pre-Civil War section that was once walled off is called, where the narrow cobble-stoned streets lead to even tighter public alleyways. As the carriage rolled past, I caught glimpses of swirling wrought-iron gates that opened to lush formal gardens hugging grand antebellum homes.
Exploring the palm-tree lined streets of this history-laden city on foot was equally intriguing, and I made a point to frequently pass by the houses along Rainbow Row, a famed strip of brightly painted historical homes, drawn to the intense shades of coral and indigo that swathed the smooth exterior walls and the gas-lit lanterns that hung beside each front door, flickering warmly.
I chose a different walking route on my final morning, however, opting instead to head to the bustling center of town that houses the City Market, a series of low-lying brick buildings that shelter dozens of vendors. I was anxious to find something to buy, a memento to take home from my trip. I had searched many stores throughout the four days I was there, spending many hours on famed King Street, a draw for shopaholics with its enticing mix of resident-owned boutiques and upscale chain shops. And while these excursions did plenty to satiate my love of retail, I had hoped to find something that would be more emblematic of my trip than a pair of cute ballet flats.
I stepped through the hotel’s revolving doors, and the doorman, Harlan, greeted me with a tip of his top hat just as he had every morning. I headed just across the street to the market, which was already crowded at nine in the morning. Squeezing my way through the throngs, I began to make my way past stands selling Charleston T-shirts and sterling silver jewelry. A sweetness lingered in the air where sellers hawked benne wafers, a southern specialty consisting of little more than butter, sugar and sesame seeds, and candied pecans.
I got to the end of the first building, where a small group of shoppers was gathering. More artists than salespeople, the people who set up shop here at the beginning of each day consist mainly of elderly black southerners who spend their hours seated in folding lawn chairs weaving beautiful, sturdy (and unfortunately, too expensive for me) baskets from the sweetgrass that grows so copiously along the coast. The baskets, which vary in size and range in style from simple round designs to ornate works with intricate handles, are spread out on sheets in front of the weavers, spaces that have been in some families for generations. Baskets can take anywhere from seven hours to several weeks to complete depending on the complexity, which explains why they sell for several hundred dollars.
I stopped for a moment to admire the baskets and watched one older man weave, his fingers nimbly twisting the reeds into a bundle as he coiled it around and around to create the framework. I turned to continue on when something caught my eye—a bunch of roses made from the same sweetgrass as the baskets and delicately shaped into beautiful, blooming flowers.
I bought one for five dollars and returned to the hotel, satisfied that I had found what I had been searching for: a perfect symbol that embodied the past and present of this genteel city, something I could prop on a bookcase to look at often should my memory ever escape me. I packed the rose in my carry-on, careful not to crush the brittle stalks, and said goodbye to my new friend, promising to return again soon. —COURTNEY ANDERSON
Urban Exploration: Four more city sprees
* Berlin, Germany
Once the seat of the kings of Prussia, later a symbol of the Cold War, this evolving city still has two of many things: two symphony orchestras, two main train stations, two zoos. Orient yourself from the heights of the Reichstag, Germany’s seat of government (bundestag.de), then marvel at the Brandenburg Gate and pay homage at the Holocaust Memorial. Cheap rents in revitalized East Berlin neighborhoods mean a vibrant fringe-culture scene: Berlin is famous for its postmodern art and late-night clubbing. The hip rooms at Lux 11 hotel will get you in the mood (from 130 euros, lux11.com). Dining is inexpensive — street food is everywhere (try the currywurst) along with ethnic restaurants of all stripes. While cabs are pricey, public transportation is cheap and convenient. Even with the current exchange rate, your dollars will go far. For more info: germany-tourism.de.
* Montevideo, Uruguay
This leafy, historic harbor city has a climate just a little warmer than ours, but seasons that are the mirror opposite. Easygoing but resistant to change, the city feels like Europe thirty years ago. Hotel NH Columbia, near Old City, can be booked online and has a view of the river (from $75, nhhotels.com). Asado, or barbecue, is a popular meal. Chivitos, indulgent steak sandwiches with cheese, bacon, egg, roasted red peppers and olives, are a cheap lunch. Instead of coffee, try yerba mate, a tea that’s a mild stimulant, enjoyed with local pastries called bizcochos. Diversions include twelve miles of beaches, the Natural History Museum and the huge Tristán Narvaja flea market. Getting here will cost you at least $1,300 roundtrip from Boston. It’s a long way, but you won’t have jet lag; Montevideo is only one hour ahead of the East Coast. And since the Argentine financial crisis devalued Uruguayan pesos, you’ll spend 60 percent less than you would at home. For more info: discoveruruguay.com.
* Austin, Texas
A major city that feels like a funky college town, Austin also boasts a sunny subtropical climate, wildflower-strewn hills and recreational springs and lakes. Here UT students mix with high-tech workers and musicians galore. The capital city has endless cultural activities—from Ballet Austin to the South by Southwest film and music festival—and claims more music venues per person than any other city in the nation. Stay at downtown Hotel San Jose (from $90, sanjosehotel.com), and enjoy authentic Mexican food at Gueros Taco Bar (guerostacobar.com). Other not-to-miss activities: line dancing at the Broken Spoke (brokenspokeaustintx.com); the sunset emergence of millions of bats from under Congress Avenue Bridge; and (if it’s your thing) nude sunbathing at Hippie Hollow Park. Wherever you go, you’ll see the city’s most popular bumper sticker: “Keep Austin Weird.” For more info: austintexas.org.
* Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
When you’re done ogling the Liberty Bell, go find the vibrant young city emerging from Philly’s gritty urban neighborhoods. Dine at trendy gastro-pub Standard Tap (standardtap.com) in Northern Liberties; check out art galleries and theaters in Old City (oldcityarts.org); and cheer on famously unsuccessful sports teams at one of three new venues (the Eagles play at Lincoln Financial Field; the Phillies at Citizen Bank Park; the Flyers and 76ers at the Wachovia Center). It’s all within easy reach of historic charmer Penn’s View Hotel (from $145/night, pennsviewhotel.com). You won’t need to make the five-hour drive from Providence.
Instead, a flight from T.F. Green costs about $120 and takes just over an hour. Before you jet, sample at least one cheese steak: the original, gut-busting $6 Cheez Whiz version at South Philly’s Pat’s King of Steaks (patskingofsteaks.com) or a Kobe beef spin on the classic for a wallet-busting $100 at upscale Barclay Prime (barclayprime.com). For more info: gophila.com. —Pippa Jack
City Market photo by Bill Murton