NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT
What better way to say goodbye to winter than sipping margaritas on a sunny beach or exploring a charming mountain village? Soon the spring break crowds will be taking over many popular destinations, so there’s little time to lose. Here are some of the best places to make the most of the final days of the season.
THE SLOW COAST OF CALIFORNIA
Pack a few things in the car and head off on a leisurely exploration of one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline the United States has to offer. A few dozen miles south of San Francisco, west of Silicon Valley and north of Santa Cruz, there's a region known as the Slow Coast. It's filled with mountains, forest trails, organic farms, wildlife, and wineries, and visitors can fill the waning days of winter here with walks along the beach, tidepool explorations, mountain hikes, and taking in live music while sipping a locally made wine.
Recently named "One of the World's Top 10 Best Value Destinations," by Lonely Planet, Jacksonville is a last-minute getaway that won't bust a budget. Not only is it warm year-round; there are miles of beaches, endless surfing opportunities, and a variety of live music. Yet another popular activity here: exploring America's largest urban park system either on foot, by bike, or guided kayak tour.
THE BERKSHIRES IN MASSACHUSETTS
A rural region in the mountains of western Massachusetts dotted with small villages and towns, the Berkshires offer an idyllic winter experience mixed with a giant dose of Americana. There's a flourishing farm-to-table food scene, thriving arts institutions and charming inns that date back hundreds of years. Among the most notable is the the The Red Lion Inn, of Stockbridge. The cozy property was built in 1773 and became famous from its appearance in Norman Rockwell's "Main Street at Christmas."
With its horse-drawn carriages, cobblestone streets, and pre-Civil War architecture, Charleston is a real-life Charles Dickens scene. Don't miss strolling through the elegant French Quarter and Battery districts, where the pastel antebellum houses are particularly abundant. Among the city’s many affordable and free offerings, the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art is highly recommended. If beaches are on your list of must-see places, Charleston has those, too. Just a few minutes from the city is Sullivan's Island, known for its pristine sand.
A western city that's at the heart of Nevada's craft beer scene, Reno Tahoe also offers eclectic cafes and gastropubs throughout its midtown district. If a little snow is needed to complete the experience, the region is synonymous with world-class skiing (the snow-covered Sierra Mountains are just outside the city) and visitors can embrace their inner child at one of many sledding and tubing venues. Heavenly ski resort offers a 500-foot tubing hill that's been called one of the best in America. And don't miss taking the 2.4-mile gondola ride at Heavenly, which ferries visitors to a mountaintop observation deck for a panoramic view of Lake Tahoe.
Yet another destination recognized by Lonely Planet as one of the world's top-value choices for travelers, Arizona is an outdoorsman's paradise. Wind down the winter season with camping and hiking. Perhaps pay a visit to Saguaro National Park while passing through Tucson. And don't overlook the Grand Canyon this time of year -- it's far less crowded than summer. Before heading home, check into one of Scottsdale's legendary spas for some pampering, or play a few rounds of golf at one of the area's many courses.
MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST
California isn't the only state with an inviting stretch of coastline. A journey along the Mississippi Gulf Coast offers beaches, golf, the opportunity to indulge in fresh seafood and perhaps try your luck at a casino. Visitors can take a sunset sail through the Mississippi Sound, home to the highest concentration of bottlenose dolphins in the U.S., or try kayaking through the waterways. Get a dose of culture at the Frank Gehry-designed Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art ($10 for adults 18 and up, $8 for seniors), or see the "business end" of the Saturn V rocket at NASA's Infinity Science Center. Popular places to stay include Bay Town Inn in Bay St. Louis, Hard Rock Biloxi, and the Inn at Ocean Springs.
HILTON HEAD, SC
If spending the final days of winter practicing golf swing sounds like a small slice of heaven, look no further than Hilton Head. It’s warm enough to enjoy days spent outdoors, with the bonus of not having to deal with the crowds that flock there in summer. Golf Digest has included Hilton Head in numerous top 10 lists including Top 10 Best Value, Top 10 Best Weather and Top 10 Best Courses. There are more than 30 courses on the island.
A region known for unforgettable geography ranging from expansive desert to canyons, mountains, and quaint seaside towns, Baja is reached easily from San Diego. Drive past Tijuana and spend a few peaceful days communing with nature on the earth's second-longest peninsula. Think fish tacos, sipping drinks, and watching the sun set.
Set on an island in the St. Lawrence River, Montreal, with its cobblestoned streets and Gothic Revival Notre-Dame Basilica, is charming pretty much anytime of the year. But come winter, the snow-covered city takes on particularly romantic and inviting air. If the weather is too chilly, head down into the Underground City, which boasts an array of shopping and several connections to the city's metro system.