From a traveler’s perspective, there are two reasonable responses to the prospect of a long, cold winter: embrace the chill and seek out the most spectacular winter destinations, or follow the warmth, wherever you can find it.
If you’ve had your fill of icy sidewalks and overheated buildings, no one will blame you for choosing option two. For US travelers, you don’t even need to leave the country to ditch the scarves and mittens.
Whether you’re after a beach escape, a wildlife adventure or a dose of big-city culture, here’s where to find fun in the sun this winter.
Santa Barbara, California
Just under two hours northwest of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is the kind of getaway destination perfect for beach strolls and canyon hikes. Celebrity sightings are common here (Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Jennifer Lopez and Oprah Winfrey are among the area’s most notable residents), while the real attraction is its upscale yet relaxed beach town energy. Stroll the State Street Promenade for unique shops, artisanal food and wine stores and plenty of outdoor dining options. Follow State Street all the way to West Beach where the more adventurous can rent kayaks and stand-up paddleboards and those just out for a great view can stroll Stearns Wharf.
Key West, Florida
Key West is at the furthest end of the Florida Keys, with its own culture that is distinctly more edgy and eclectic than its neighbors to the south. This southernmost point on the continental USA is a 7-square-mile oasis of famed literary history, fresh seafood and plenty of hopping bars. Among the top things to do, don’t pass up the chance to sail during sunset, visit The Ernest Hemingway Home and marvel at the many colors at the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory.
Palm Springs, California
Palm Springs has its own type of cool going on year-round, but it’s rarely the type that shows up on the thermometer. Winter nights can have a bit of the dry cold of the desert, but the average high temperature never dips below 70°F. Palm Springs as a winter oasis is hardly a well-kept secret: it’s high season around the Coachella Valley, but the variety of old-school motor court motels and mid-century modern rentals for your private pool parties means there are options. For those craving a bit more activity than poolside lounging, Joshua Tree National Park and the oddball charm of the Salton Sea (with sights like the International Banana Museum) are less than an hour away.
There’s a simple reason 15 Major League Baseball teams relocate to the greater Phoenix area for training before the real season starts: the weather is phenomenal. Phoenix gets 299 days of sunshine every year on average. In the middle of summer, when temperatures regularly shoot past 100°F, you might wish for a little less sun — but the clear blue mid-70s days of late winter are perfect for outdoor fun. If you’re not there for the baseball, you can at least see why the ballplayers call it the ‘Cactus League’ at the Desert Botanical Gardens, where the succulents and spiny plants of the desert mingle with art exhibitions, or hit the trail and explore the sandstone formations of Papago Park, or South Mountain Park, a favorite among trail riders.
The Everglades, Florida
Maybe those baseball teams are onto something because while one part of the league is in Arizona, the rest are warming up in Florida. It’s common for Florida to have the warmest temperatures in the US mainland during the winter: the warmest state overall, the warmest city and the warmest beaches. The warmest national park in the system outside of Hawaii is frequently the Everglades. It’s also the dry season there, making it one of the most popular times of year for visitors, and one of the best times of year to spot wildlife. The drying of the marshes makes wildlife congregate in smaller areas, and migratory birds are doing what you’re doing: flying to Florida in search of warmer climes. Drive the Southern Everglades Highway south until you run out of continent at Flamingo, a great place for spotting manatees.
St John, US Virgin Islands
Looking for warm weather and the feeling that you’re a long, long way from home? St John might fit the bill. Virgin Islands National Park covers two-thirds of the island, preserving many miles of shoreline as well as underwater reef habitats. Traveling with kids? Try Maho Bay, known for its shallow, calm waters popular among snorkelers and green sea turtles.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Winters in New Orleans aren’t exactly hot and sunny — January and February average in the mid-60s — but it’s certainly a welcome change from anywhere snowbound, and the crowds are at their lowest before Mardi Gras swings into town. But it’s New Orleans, so there’s always a party going on, even in winter. Bonfires are lit along the levees every Christmas Eve, a tradition that is supposed to help guide the arrival of Papa Noël, the Cajun Santa Claus. The annual Tet Fest thrown by the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church to celebrate the Vietnamese New Year (late January or early February) is an important day for New Orleans’ large Vietnamese population and a festive fair full of delicious eats for all comers. The mild days of winter also make for pleasant exploring of the backstreets on one of the Crescent City’s many bike tours.
The Hawaiian Islands do get more rain in winter, and they do get a bit cooler. But let’s be real: the ‘cooler’ winter in Kihei means an average high of 81°F instead of 87°F. Kihei gets 276 days of sun a year, on average. A parka won’t be necessary. There are a few simple tips for picking a spot in Hawaii over the winter: 1. Stick to the south and west coasts of each island to maximize your chances of sunny days; 2. Winter surf can be stronger, but there are always gentler options, like Kalepolepo Beach Park for kids, or Ulua Beach for top-notch snorkeling; 3. Fares peak over the holidays, but there are always deals in early winter before spring break, particularly to Oahu and Maui where most direct flights arrive.
For sun-seekers heading to Georgia, you could do quite well by stopping in Savannah and never leaving. But head just a little further out to the coast to find a world of barrier islands and twisting waterways to explore. Tybee Island and its popular beaches sits just a half-hour drive from Savannah, the start of a string of subtropical islands dangling down the coast of Georgia, all with mild winter weather, but each with its own personality. Sapelo Island is home to a small village of Geechee, descendants of Africans who were enslaved on the plantations on the island until the 19th century. Nature lovers can book wildlife tours of Sapelo’s estuaries through the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve Visitors Center. Historic, multicultural Brunswick serves as the gateway to Georgia’s Golden Isles, including resorty St. Simons, and Jekyll Island, historically a playground for the wealthiest American families.
South Padre Island, Texas
Get to South Padre before spring break and you get Texas’s popular seaside resort town at its quietest. The 50-acre South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center with multiple blinds, a viewing tower, and boardwalks through the dunes, is an ideal spot for watching our feathered friends who overwinter on South Padre, as well as alligators and sea turtles. Isla Blanca County Park’s beach is the most popular with its access to shops and restaurants, but you can be rewarded with a bit of tranquility by exploring the dunes of Edwin King Atwood County Park or the long stretches of sand of the North End.