Whether you're knee-deep in snow or looking for a post-holidays pick-me-up, consider heading south to chill out, thaw out, and soak up some much-needed Vitamin D. No more than a quick flight (or drive) away, these destinations make for an ideal long weekender for the 9-5 crowd. Read on for the island getaways, poolside party scenes, and lively coastal towns that know how to bring the heat.
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A crossroads of South America and the Caribbean, this coastal city has a colonial center made for wandering. Spend your days doing just that, making sure to hit the on-the-verge Getsemani neighborhood with its refreshing authenticity, food carts, and crumbling walls covered with soulful street art. When the sun starts to drop, commandeer a table at one of the bars topping the huge old wall that surrounds the city. They're a touristy-but-fun place to catch the sunset and a buzz that'll carry you into the night, which should see you on the dance floor in a hall like salsa-club Cafe Havana. (Pro tip: Pair Cartagena with a stop in the incredible, highly underrated capital city of Bogota.)
Where to stay: Spacious rooms, a rooftop plunge pool, made-to-order breakfasts, and reasonable rates make the Hotel Quadrifolio a top pick.
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Turks & Caicos
Technically in the Atlantic, though it self-identifies as Caribbean, this island chain has some of the region's best beaches. Start off your trip on Providenciales (called Provo by everyone): Walk down famed seven-mile-long Grace Bay Beach, snorkel the offshore reef, and camp out for an afternoon at Da Conch Shack, voted one of the world's sexiest beach bars by The Travel Channel thanks to its fresh conch (an alleged aphrodisiac) and rum (mixed into an infamous punch). Then, spend a couple days on Middle Caicos, an island of around 275 residents, best explored by 4-wheel drive.
Where to stay: Right on Grace Bay, the Sibonne Beach Hotel is smaller and older than the mega-resorts flanking it, but it also has a lovely pool, great on-site restaurant, and low price point. On Middle Caicos, the chilled-out Blue Horizon Resort is a collection of five cabins and three small villas on a bluff above Mudjin Harbor (above).
With orange-grove-covered hills, an artistic bent, and a quaint downtown drag, this town has long possessed a "turn on, tune in, drop out" vibe that's like catnip to rockers, actors, and other creative types looking for a pace slower than L.A. And today, its cool factor unchecked, a new wave of devil-may-care bohemians has revitalized the city with the openings of cool hotels, inventive cafes, and artisan shops like Summer Camp (above).
Where to stay: If you like mid-century furniture, poolside lounging, shuffleboard, and exploring via free beach cruiser, you'll love the Ojai Rancho Inn in a revamped motor lodge.
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Big Island, Hawaii
Save for a freak act of weather, this is the only location on this list where you could be beach bound in the morning and standing ankle deep in snow in the evening. Yes, it snows in Hawaii, occasionally dusting the summit of dormant volcano Mauna Kea, which reaches 13,796 feet and holds an observatory you can visit. Other than weird weather, the Big Island has small cowboy towns, lava-flow viewing on Kilauea volcano, waterfalls pouring into pools just asking for a cannonball. And then there are the beaches, which span from yellow to black sand and host sea turtles, surfers, and sun worshipers depending on the day.
Where to stay: "Rooms" at the newish Lava Lava Beach Club are beachfront stand-alone cottages with private lanais and outdoor rock showers. Since the cottages sleep four, they're a great option for a pals' trip. Another very special stay: the Holualoa Inn surrounded by 5,100 coffee trees.
Ambergris Caye, Belize
A long, thin wisp of an island, Ambergris is party central for some, a scuba destination for others, and a do-nothing-but-relax getaway for everyone else. Pick your poison. Most hotels line the island's eastern edge, while the sandy-streeted main town of San Pedro sits in the south. It's an easy trip by boat-taxi though, which, along with golf carts, is the go-to mode of transportation around here. Restaurants are typically casual affairs with plastic chairs around off-kilter tables, but their down-home charm only serves to make their jerk chicken and fresh fish taste all the better. And nightlife comes in the form of beach bars, hotel bars, and dance clubs.
Where to stay: When the porter shows you to your casita at Matachica (above), you'll be elbowing your travel buddy like 'this can't possibly be ours.' But it is. The beach is behind you, the bar's around the corner, and San Pedro is just a quick boat ride away. Paradise found.
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New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans is like a classy southern dame who knows a little voodoo, religiously honors cocktail hour, and has a Brooklyn hipster for a grandson. There are gracious old mansions for peeping into, old warehouses reimagined as art galleries and hip bistros, and pockets of growth energizing downtrodden neighborhoods. Not to mention, there's always a party in the French Quarter whether a parade, wedding march, or impromptu street show. During the summer, humidity brings down the city like a wet blanket, but come wintertime, it breaks, allowing for mild days and clear nights.
Where to stay: Though the breakfast biscuits, fresh strawberry jam, and chicory coffee are nearly reason enough to stay, the French Quarter's Soniat House has a lovely courtyard and rooms spread throughout three combined 1830s townhouses.