Editor’s Note: Some of the information below may be out-of-date. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were heavily impacted by Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria. Please visit caribbeantravelupdate.com, fla-keys.com or the specific hotel’s website for updates.
Forget those often pricey international flights and long customs lines, and get right to the beach at these best vacation spots. Here’s how to save and splurge once you’re there.
1. Puerto Rico
When the snow won’t stop, adding some sun in your forecast is as easy as booking a seat. Puerto Rico is a major Caribbean hub and one of the best vacation spots, so nonstop flights are plentiful and affordable. Being a U.S. territory means your passport is safe at home and your favorite brew might be on tap.
SAVE Vieques doesn’t charge see-and- be-seen prices. Even at the new El Blok (elblok.com), a curving concrete hotel with rooftop bar and plunge pool overlooking Esperanza, rooms start at $160. Play on white-sand beaches in the national reserve, and eat a cheap but delicious lunch of chicken pinchos at the Sol Food truck at the entrance of this best vacation spot.
SPLURGE Old San Juan’s Festival of San Sebastian, held the third weekend in January, is a street party jumping with parades and hip-shaking salsa. Make home base the nearby La Concha Resort (laconcharesort.com). And though there’s no shortage of authentic street food, slide into Iron Chef Roberto Trevino’s Bar Gitano for tapas that will blow your mind. — Zach Stovall
2. Big Island
Perhaps only one nonstop destination can offer the traits of so many other best vacation spots. From a polar to tropical climate, the Big Island in Hawaii is a one-stop shop for location envy. Winter means clear skies for stargazing atop the snowcapped peak of 13,796-foot Mauna Kea, and November brings scores of humpback whales migrating from Alaska.
SAVE Base yourself at Kona Seaside Hotel (from $110 a night, konaseasidehotel.com), where free breakfast and a killer location come cheap. September through November means better room deals and fewer tourists, so live like the locals. First up: a serious buzz at the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival (Nov. 6-15), followed by a trek in Volcanoes National Park, where a $10 bill gets you entry for a week. The hot spots (pun intended) are marked with trail maps at the Jaggar Museum, so head there first. On the way home, hit up Da Poke Shack (dapokeshack.com) for $10 ahi and avocado poke that’s served with a sunset.
SPLURGE No need to leave the resort for snorkeling. Just step outside your room to King’s Pond, one of seven pools at the Four Seasons Hualalai (from $795 a night, fourseasons.com). The 1.8 million gallons of “aquarium” carved from lava rock are home to sea turtles and eagle rays. Rinse off in your out- door shower before exploring the highs and lows of the Big Island. Sure, you could hike to Akaka Falls or down to the coast, but ground-level views just don’t cut it. Blue Hawaiian (bluehawaiian. com) offers aerials of the sky-high waterfalls of Waipio Valley and a peek into Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes on Earth. — Cami Miller
Sleepy sister islands Sanibel and Captiva off Florida’s Gulf Coast make Mayberry look rowdy. No high-rises. No traffic lights. Just small, colorful B&Bs and inns flanked by seafood shanties and shops full of every- thing seashell (yes, you need that reindeer ornament made entirely of coquina).
SAVE Winter’s almost here. Let the only ice in your life be an ice-cream cone at Latté Da after a day of shell collecting. Home to 250 types of seashells, this is the No. 1 shell- ing destination in the world. Head to Blind Pass, as Sanibel gives way to Captiva, where a giant shell mound might just be Florida’s tallest mountain. Sanibel and Captiva have an east-west orientation (as opposed to north-south like most islands), so the curve of the shoreline acts as a natural scoop for all the seashells that collect here. Find horse conchs, lightning whelk, tulip shells and sand dollars, as well as clam and oyster shells completely intact — just make sure you don’t pick up a live one. Count ’em all up back at the Captiva Island Inn (from $99 a night, captivaislandinn.com), a mere block from the beach, and order grilled grouper reubens from RC Otters next door to eat on the balcony of your cottage.
SPLURGE Splurging here means just a little more than $200 a night, and that gets you a room in high season at the South Seas Island Resort, Captiva’s swankiest property (beach villas from $239 a night, southseas .com). This resort village sits on 21⁄2 miles of talcum beach and 330 acres of wildlife preserve, so year-round residents here are great egrets, white ibis and bottlenose dolphins. Spy all of them on a sailing trip arranged by the resort to the satellite isle of Useppa (adults, $40; kids under 12, $25), a storybook town that drew power players like the Rockefellers and DuPonts in the ’20s. Dinner is at Sanibel’s beachfront Mad Hatter, where a sort of well-to-do whimsy sets the scene for dishes like goat-cheese pillows, coconut risotto and black-truffle sea scallops. Don’t forget about those 21⁄2 miles of beach back at the resort where you can walk off some of those calories before bed. — Audrey St. Clair
4. USVI, St. Croix
St. Croix is the biggest of the three USVI, but it feels more like the middle child. It’s not as high energy as St. Thomas or as sleepy as St. John. Year- round, all beaches are public and rarely crowded: You need nothing more than a towel to have fun — and snorkel gear to double it.
SAVE Stay at Hotel Caravelle (from $75 a night, hotelcara velle.com) and skip the car rental — you’re in the heart of Christiansted, St. Croix’s bigger burg. On the ground floor of this waterfront mainstay is Rum Runners, drawing a large local following thanks to consistent fare and heavy pours of Cruzan liquor in painkiller cocktails (guests of the hotel get 10 percent off ).
SPLURGE The pool at Villa Mill Point (from $5,900 a week, villamillpoint .com) is perhaps the isle’s best sunset-viewing perch. The other centerpiece of the hilltop hide-away is a 1700s sugar mill; from December to March, spot humpback whales from here. — Brooke Morton