Hot Vacations at Cool Prices
January 24th, 2008
For the best deals on warm-weather getaways, you've got to head off the beaten beach.
Nicaragua Real Estate, Managua
Paradise has its price
That's the lesson that many would-be travelers learn this time of year when they begin desperately prowling for last-minute vacations to places like St. Bart's, South Beach, Cabo or Costa Rica. Alas, it costs a lot to hit the hot spots in the dead of winter.
Not willing to blow your 2008 IRA contributions on a one-week trip? Well, just between us, there is another option: Head to a lesser-traveled destination. You'll reap the benefit of lower prices and have more of the beach to yourself to boot.
Find one that suits your style here and get ready to start addressing those "wish you were here" postcards.
For the intrepid: Nicaragua
For the past few years, Costa Rica has been the darling of the adventure- and eco-travel crowd. But the country has seen a rush of development as a result (proof: It now boasts a Four Seasons, where rates start at $450 a night). So where to instead?
Nicaragua. Once known for weak infrastructure and political instability, the country has gained new fame as "the next Costa Rica." And it does indeed have similar attributes, including a Pacific coastline beloved by surfers, active volcanoes and expanses of rainforest. It's also now considered one of the safest Latin American countries.
Arguably, the country's best beach destination is the Pacific fishing village of San Juan del Sur. "There's a picture-perfect crescent bay," says Joshua Berman, co-author of Moon Handbooks Nicaragua. "And the beaches to the north and south are stunning."
Wherever you head, keep in mind that Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in this hemisphere, and as such it has roads that are bumpy and water that isn't always potable. On the plus side, since the dollar is strong against the local córdoba, you can get a topnotch room for $150 a night and a good meal for $15.
Where to stay: The country's top-rated resort, Morgan's Rock Hacienda & Ecolodge, is a half-hour from San Juan del Sur. "It's built sustainably into the landscape with luxury tree houses hanging over the ocean," says Berman.
Morgan's Rock Hacienda & Ecolodge is among Nicaragua's top-rated resorts - and starts at just $183 per person per night including meals.
Activities include hiking, kayaking and biking; most of the food is local. Rates, all-inclusive, run $183 to $293 per person per night.
For families with kids: The Dominican Republic
The D.R. may not have the star-studded cachet of other chichi Caribbean destinations, such as St. Bart's or Anguilla. But the country that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti does have a lot to offer to those with kids in tow, and at reasonable prices.
"The D.R. is an all-inclusive hotbed right now," says Ana Chavier Caamaño, author of "Moon Dominican Republic." "Because of this, it's a great place for money-conscious people who want to be treated well."
Meals are part of the package, and you don't have to fret about unanticipated expenses (a.k.a. Junior's demand for umpteen sodas a day). Besides that, the resorts offer almost around-the-clock kiddie activities that allow you and your spouse a little alone time.
The coastal area of Punta Cana, where many of the all-inclusives are situated, offers white sand beaches and coral reef snorkeling. Though the resorts are pretty insular, the best of them also help guests experience some local culture, from fried plantains to merengue music.
Where to stay: Petra Schmeckpeper, a travel agent with Carlson Wagonlit in La Crosse, Wis., suggests the Spanish-based Riu chain, which runs five resorts in Punta Cana, all with family programs. Weekly packages begin around $1,100 per person, all-inclusive.
Another option: Club Med Punta Cana. The resort offers kids' camps for children four months to 17 years. Rates start at $400 per person per day.
For culture seekers: Mexico's Riviera Nayarit
In terms of Mexican beach destinations, there are the obvious three Cs - Cancún, Cozumel and Los Cabos. But a less touristy, and therefore less pricey, alternative has emerged in what's being dubbed the Riviera Nayarit, a 100-mile stretch of Pacific coast just north of Puerto Vallarta.
The Riviera maintains the flavor of the "real" Mexico that's rare in the three Cs. Here roadside markets offer homemade candies and juices. Farmers transport produce via mules. And Mexican families congregate on the beaches, listening to Tejano music on portable stereos.
Make like a local in the fishing village Bucerias, the bohemian surfing town of Sayulita, or tiny San Francisco. These communities offer quality beaches with whale watching and snorkeling - and without a crush of Americans. But go now because 30 resorts will be built here in the next five years, says Erica Duecy, restaurants and hotels editor at Fodor's.
Where to stay: Duecy recommends the intimate B&B Casa Obelisco. It's in walking distance of the beach and Sayulita. Rates start at $225. Another option: Villa Amor, a resort that overlooks the ocean. Rates start at $110 a night.
For those in need of R&R: The Lower Florida Keys
South Beach has its strip. Key West is famous for its Jimmy Buffett-infused party vibe. But for those who want a quieter getaway, it's the Lower Keys that count. This 36-mile stretch of the 120-mile Florida archipelago is one of the most protected spots in the state.
Composed of a dozen or so islands and sandwiched between more touristy Marathon and Key West, the Lower Keys have strict limits on development (forget high-rise condos). The largest landmass - Big Pine Key, at 10 square miles - is home to a 9,200-acre deer refuge. And some keys, like Cudjoe, have no commercial center at all.
The area also feels decidedly tropical, and no wonder: Poised at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, it's the closest you can get to the Caribbean within the 50 states. And while the shores of other Keys are notoriously rocky, the Lower Keys' Bahia Honda State Park is a notable exception. It has been rated among the top beaches in the U.S.
All this adds up to a vacation spot where you can let your own rhythm take over: Have a late breakfast, spend the morning exploring by boat, then follow up with some serious beach bumming. If you get bored from all the R&R, you're at most a 40-minute drive away from boisterous Key West - the islands are all connected via bridges along the Overseas Highway.
Where to stay: These sleepy islands host few hotels - though Hawks Cay resort is a lovely exception. Situated on Duck Key, the resort just completed a $40 million overhaul. Post-renovation rates start at $275 - at least $100 less than comparable resorts in Key West
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