HERE COMES THE SUN

America's 10 Best Winter Beach Retreats

White sand and warm waters are closer than you think. When winter's chill sets in, escape to one of these laid-back, sun-drenched spots—no passport needed.

By Beth Collins, Wednesday, Nov 17, 2010, 7:23 PM

At secluded Hanalei Bay in Kauai, Hawaii, winter temperatures remain in the high 70s (Courtesy Hanalei Inn)

Rincón, Puerto Rico
Average highs of 84/83 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 80/77)
In the midst of winter, nothing seems cheerier than the idea of Puerto Rico, where temperatures rarely dip below the 83-degree mark. For years, this peninsula on the island's west coast has been the surfing community's best-kept secret. Despite a recent rise in popularity, Rincón still has the low-key feel of a small town. The pro surfers head for the beaches on the north section of the peninsula, where the waves can reach up to 25 feet, but newbies tend to stick to the smaller swells on the south side. Puntas Surf School (Calle Vista Del Mar, 939/697-8040, puntassurfschool.com) offers lessons from $35, and the owners will have you standing on your board by the end of the session. If you'd rather leave the waves more-experienced to the surfers, try stand-up paddleboarding or kayaking. Or simply set up with an umbrella on the warm white sand on one of the area's 12 beaches, especially the centrally located, uncrowded Spanish Wall Beach, just north of the Rincón lighthouse.
REFUEL: Life in Rincón revolves around the water, so it's no surprise that the go-to spot for surfers and beachgoers alike is just steps from the sand. On the north side of the peninsula, Tamboo Tavern & Seaside Grill has a huge outdoor deck that faces the ocean, a menu full of island classics like crispy calamari and grilled tuna, and a cocktail list long enough to justify daily visits (besidethepointe.com, small plates from $6, cocktails from $5).
SLEEP: Also on the north side of the peninsula, the Casa Isleña Inn is a Spanish-style house with nine guest rooms, a tapas bar, and a terrace overlooking the water—perfect for spotting humpback whales in the winter (casa-islena.com, from $125).
EASY ESCAPE FROM: Miami (three-and-a-half-hour flight), Orlando (four-hour flight), New York City (five-hour flight).

Kauai, Hawaii
Average highs of 78/78 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 77/76)
Kauai has managed to stay a little more under the radar than other Hawaiian islands, and that's what makes it so appealing. Hanalei, on the North Shore, is as close to magical as a town can get—lush green mountains, fields of taro, and rainbows every day. The horseshoe-shaped, secluded Hanalei Bay is the best beach for swimming and lounging on the golden sand, but if you want to get out on the water, sign up for one of the four-hour motor-powered raft trips with Na Pali Riders. You'll explore sea caves, go snorkeling, and almost definitely spot dolphins (napaliriders.com, from $89). Afterward, dry off with a hike along the Hanakapi'ai Trail, which follows the stunningly beautiful Na Pali Coast to Hanakapiai Beach and back, about four miles altogether.
REFUEL: You can't go to Hawaii without trying a plate lunch: a local specialty that consists of two scoops of rice, macaroni salad, and your choice of protein (often teriyaki chicken or seared ahi). Locals rave about the version served up at the Hanalei Taro & Juice Co., a restaurant owned by a family that's been farming taro in the valley for generations (5-5070A Kuhio Hwy. B, plate lunch from $3.50). Another option is the ahi tuna sushi rolls from The Hanalei Dolphin Sushi Lounge (hanaleidolphin.com, ahi rolls $6).
SLEEP: The four studio apartments at casual Hanalei Inn, just a block from Hanalei Bay, have full kitchens and an outdoor lanai with a grill, so you can save money by cooking meals during your stay. Plus, the picnic table looking out at the mountains is the perfect place to have your morning coffee (hanaleiinn.com, from $139).
EASY ESCAPE FROM: Honolulu (40-minute flight), L.A. (six-hour flight), San Francisco (six-hour flight).

Long Key, Fla.
Average highs of 77/75 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 73/70)
Smack in the middle of the Florida Keys, you'll find tiny Long Key, just over two miles long from end to end. Long Key offers an escape from touristy Key Largo, 40 minutes to the north. The isolated island is made up almost entirely of Long Key State Park, where the one-mile beach is perfect for tent camping; there are 60 fully equipped campsites to choose from. Or opt to stay in a more traditional resort nearby and visit the park to paddle a canoe through a series of lagoons and hike along trails. If the urge to explore strikes you, hop on the scenic Overseas Highway and drive over the bridges to Islamorada, to the north, or Marathon, to the south. But watch out—after a day or two on Long Key, anywhere else will feel overpopulated.
REFUEL: Long Key is so tiny that the restaurant selection is limited. Luckily, local Keys hangout Islamorada Fish Company Restaurant & Bakery is only a 15-minute drive away. Eat your fresh seafood on the outdoor deck; the fried conch is a particular favorite (islamoradafishco.com, entrées from $11).
SLEEP: Take in the pure white-sand beach from your waterfront room at the Lime Tree Bay Resort. When you aren't relaxing on the 44-room resort's private beach, you can play tennis, take out a complimentary kayak, or kick back in one of the many hammocks scattered around the property (limetreebayresort.com, from $89).
EASY ESCAPE FROM: Miami (95 miles; about an hour and 45 minutes by car), Fort Lauderdale (121 miles; about two and a half hours by car), New York City (three-hour flight to Miami).

St. Petersburg, Fla.
Average highs of 71/69 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 64/62)
Not so long ago, St. Pete's was considered the land of the silver-haired, but in the past few years, an influx of trendy restaurants, coffeehouses, and galleries—and the young people who tend to follow those things—has revived the sleepy spot. Downtown is particularly hopping, with Kahwa Coffee's roasting plant and a hip espresso bar at its heart (kahwacoffee.com). And St. Pete Beach, with its white sand and turquoise waters, stretches along the Gulf of Mexico for five sun-kissed miles. The warm Gulf is a popular hangout for dolphins—spot one from a three-person WaveRunner, a Hobie sailboat, or a kayak from St. Pete Beach Waverunners (stpetebeachwaverunners.com, from $20 an hour for kayaking).
REFUEL: Traditionally, restaurants in St. Pete have been high-end and stuffy or low-end and divey. St. Pete Brasserie is something else entirely, with a menu full of serious-but-simple French food and inventive cocktails served in an edgy, industrial-looking space (stpetebrasserie.com, entrées from $12).
SLEEP: The 1-year-old Postcard Inn on the Beach has been the talk of the town lately—drawing from the bright colors of South Beach with its own laid-back surfer vibe in each room. Outside, the beach bar has old license plates nailed to the weathered-wood siding, and in the courtyard, a fire pit surrounded by Adirondack chairs is the perfect place to wind down after a day at the beach (postcardinn.com, from $99).
EASY ESCAPE FROM: Tampa (22 miles; about 30 minutes by car), Orlando (106 miles; about two hours by car), D.C. (two-and-a-half-hour flight).

Laguna Beach, Calif.
Average highs of 67/69 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 58/57)
Done the right way, this SoCal beach town (made famous by a reality show of the same name) can be incredibly down-to-earth. After all, some of its first citizens were not glamorous teenagers or housewives but early 20th-century struggling artists such as William Wendt and Lolita Perine.The arts still play a big role here, thanks to the Laguna Art Museum, galleries along the waterfront, and the Laguna Playhouse. Still, the seven miles of classic California coastline are the big draw. Beaches fill up during the summer, but in the winter months they're blissfully crowd-free—especially 1,000 Steps Beach, just off 9th Street (don't let the name scare you; there are actually only 230-something steps leading down to the beach). The waves are perfect for boogie boarding, and the views—golden cliffs and multimillion-dollar houses, some with elevators—are pure southern California. Post-beach, drive a mile and a half along Laguna Canyon Road to Laguna Canyon Winery, where you can sample award-winning reds and whites in the cozy, low-lit barrel room (lagunacanyonwinery.com, tasting fee $10, waived with bottle purchase).
REFUEL: The first thing you'll notice when you walk into Sorrento Grille Martini & Wine Bar is the intoxicating smell coming from the fruitwoods and grapevine cuttings that fuel the grill. Order a few small plates with one of the 11 original martinis or nine classic cocktails. Specialties include the oysters on the half shell, which would be great by themselves, but the shallot-grape mignonette and the watermelon-cucumber relish they're served with transform them into something special. Pair the oysters with the Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top Brut, a sparkling wine from France (sorrento-grille.com, entrées from $14).
SLEEP: Originally built in 1929, La Casa del Camino has a range of accommodations from La Casita, a Craftsman-style cottage that sleeps six, to the impossibly cool rooms created for the 2010 Casa Surf Project, when 10 designers each remade a different suite (casacamino.com, from $149).
EASY ESCAPE FROM: L.A. (50 miles; about one hour by car), San Diego (73 miles; about 90 minutes by car), Chicago (four-an-a-half-hour flight).

Grand Isle, La.
Average highs of 67/63 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 65/61)
In the winter, the population of this barrier island off Louisiana's Gulf Coast shrinks back down to its 1,600 permanent residents from its summer high of 14,000. But temperatures remain warm enough to sunbathe, and you can do so without the crowds. Anglers adore this island thanks to the more than 280 species of fish in the surrounding waters, and many flock to Grand Isle State Park to fish in its calm waters. Those not obsessed with reeling in The Big One head to the beaches. Although the 2010 oil spill closed all beaches on the seven-mile-long island this summer, a three-mile stretch of golden sand recently reopened in August, with a full rollout coming soon, after an intensive cleanup effort.
REFUEL: Most of the restaurants on Grand Isle specialize in—what else?—fresh fish, particularly catfish and trout. So make like a local and indulge in the fish sandwiches and po'boys at Starfish Restaurant (3027 Hwy. 1, 985/787-2711, sandwiches from $4.50).
SLEEP: The old-fashioned, no-frills Cajun Tide Beach Resort sits beachside and caters to anglers with a fish-cleaning room, a screened-in cooking room, and enough barbecue pits for guests to cook up feasts from the day's catch (cajuntidebeachresort.com, from $50).
EASY ESCAPE FROM: New Orleans (109 miles; about two hours by car), Baton Rouge (160 miles; about three hours by car), Chicago (three-hour flight to New Orleans), Detroit (four-and-a-half-hour flight to New Orleans).

San Diego
Average highs of 66/66 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 59/58)
San Diego is a small town with big ambitions: The revitalized Gaslamp Quarter, with its shops and restaurants, feels urban, but the crashing waves of the Pacific nearby create a vibe that's your quintessential classic American beach village. However, the best way to experience it all is to hit the boardwalk. At Pacific Beach, known for its wide stretches of sand and perfect surfing waves, rent a beach cruiser from Cheap Rentals and ride the three-and-a-half-mile stretch to South Mission Beach, passing all manner of local characters along the way: scantily clad in-line skaters, vacationing families, throwback '60s hippies, and even the random guy on a unicycle who always seems to make an appearance (cheap-rentals.com, rentals from $5 per hour).
REFUEL: The massive breakfast burrito with eggs, sausage, and fresh avocado at beachside Kono's Surf Club is a San Diego rite of passage—as is the line that snakes out the door and around the corner (704 Garnet Ave., 858/483-1669, breakfast from $3.50).
SLEEP: Beach shacks in the area sound charming...until you see the shag carpet, wood-paneled walls, and sagging mattresses. Tower23 is a welcome departure from the norm, with its modern, glass-box look, neutral-palette rooms filled with teak furniture, and a hip indoor/outdoor restaurant and bar with a view of the ocean (tower23hotel.com, from $179).
EASY ESCAPE FROM: L.A. (120 miles; about two hours by car), Phoenix (one-hour flight), Seattle (two-and-a-half-hour flight).

St. Simons Island, Ga.
Average highs of 62/62 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 54/51)
One of four islands that make up Georgia's Golden Isles (a collection of barrier islands just off the southeastern coast), St. Simons is known for its centuries-old moss-draped oak trees, historical landmarks, white-sand beaches, and 99 holes of golf. Cars are allowed on the island, but the leisurely pace of life here will make you want to stay away from anything with a motor. Instead, rent a beach-cruiser bike from Ocean Motion Surf Co. and pedal your way past King and Prince Beach, plantations, the lighthouse, and Christ Church, originally built in 1820. The ride covers about 14 miles, and there are plenty of stops to admire the scenery, so allow at least a half day (912/638-5225, rentals from $12).
REFUEL: There are a few token steak and chicken dishes on the menu at The Crab Trap, but nobody orders them. This place is all about the fresh seafood, particularly the boiled crab. Round out your meal with corn on the cob, battered French fries, and an order of the beloved hush puppies (thecrabtrapssi.com, entrées from $9).
SLEEP: The oak trees on St. Simons are so treasured that the Village Inn & Pub was built around them—not one tree had to be cut down during construction. This place is as charming as it gets: The reception area is a restored 1930s cottage, the English pub is outfitted with a huge stone fireplace, and each of the 28 guest rooms is named for a historical figure with some significance to the island, such as Sid Lanier, a poet, novelist, and composer (villageinnandpub.com, from $120).
EASY ESCAPE FROM: Savannah (84 miles; about two hours by car), Atlanta (282 miles; about five hours by car), Charleston, S.C. (193 miles; about four hours by car).

Orange Beach, Ala.
Average highs of 62/60 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 56/51)
Most people don't automatically associate the phrase "beach retreat" with Alabama—but don't tell a local that. Alabamians are adamant that their Gulf Coast beaches are among the most beautiful in the country. The sand is 95 percent quartz, meaning it's snow-white and sparkles in the sun, and the waters are as blue as any you'll find in Florida. Nine-mile Orange Beach has everything you need—warm water, lots of room to spread out your beach blanket, and restaurants just off the sand. Dolphins love the waters around here so much that Dolphin Cruises Aboard the Cold Mil Fleet guarantees sightings (dolphincruises.com, 90-minute tours from $12).
REFUEL: Gulf Shores Steamer is a rarity in these parts: a beachside seafood joint that doesn't fry everything in sight. In fact, the folks here don't fry anything. Instead, the fresh fish, shrimp, crabs, and oysters are steamed or grilled—and always delicious (gulfshoressteamer.com, entrées from $12).
SLEEP: The beachfront 346-room Perdido Beach Resort is like a community unto itself, with four restaurants, an indoor/outdoor pool, hot tubs, and tennis courts (perdidobeachresort.com, from $119).
EASY ESCAPE FROM: Mobile, Ala. (54 miles; about 90 minutes by car), Pensacola, Fla. (29 miles; about one hour by car), St. Louis (four-hour flight to Mobile).

Galveston, Tx.
Average highs of 60/59 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 59/54)
Basics: In this South Texas hotspot, savvy travelers skip crowded East Beach (which gets overrun in March with spring breakers) and head to the more secluded West Beach or Galveston Island State Park. Both have wide expanses of sand that are perfect for trolling for shells or soaking up some sun. Once you're out of the water, the historic Strand district, along Strand Street between 25th and 11th, is worth a stop. Buildings from the 1800s have been restored recently and now house restaurants, antiques stores, and many galleries full of fine art and photography. The town's other big attraction is the Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Indoor Waterpark, which attracts families with its water chutes, speed slides, wave pool, and, for the adults, enormous 30,000-person hot tub with a swim-up bar (schlitterbahn.com/gal, from $33).
REFUEL: A few blocks inland from the waterfront is Postoffice Street, where you can get authentic gumbo and a cold brew at Gumbo Bar (2105 Postoffice St., gumbo from $9), known as the best place to get gumbo on the island, or try the crab bisque at Latin-influenced Rudy & Paco's (2028 Postoffice St., crab bisque $9).
SLEEP: Overlooking the wharf, the 42-room Harbor House has an old-school nautical vibe and is less than a 10-minute walk from downtown (harborhousepier21.com, from $89).
EASY ESCAPE FROM: Houston (53 miles; about one hour by car), Austin (212 miles; about four hours by car), Denver (two-hour flight to Houston), Chicago (three-hour flight to Houston).

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