HERE COMES THE SUN
America's 10 Best Winter Beach Retreats
White sand and warm waters are closer than you think. When winter's chill sets in, escape to one of these laid-back, sun-drenched spots—no passport needed.
Rincón, Puerto Rico
Average highs of 84/83 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 80/77)
In the midst of winter, nothing seems cheerier than the idea of Puerto Rico, where temperatures rarely dip below the 83-degree mark. For years, this peninsula on the island's west coast has been the surfing community's best-kept secret. Despite a recent rise in popularity, Rincón still has the low-key feel of a small town. The pro surfers head for the beaches on the north section of the peninsula, where the waves can reach up to 25 feet, but newbies tend to stick to the smaller swells on the south side. Puntas Surf School (Calle Vista Del Mar, 939/697-8040, puntassurfschool.com) offers lessons from $35, and the owners will have you standing on your board by the end of the session. If you'd rather leave the waves more-experienced to the surfers, try stand-up paddleboarding or kayaking. Or simply set up with an umbrella on the warm white sand on one of the area's 12 beaches, especially the centrally located, uncrowded Spanish Wall Beach, just north of the Rincón lighthouse.
REFUEL: Life in Rincón revolves around the water, so it's no surprise that the go-to spot for surfers and beachgoers alike is just steps from the sand. On the north side of the peninsula, Tamboo Tavern & Seaside Grill has a huge outdoor deck that faces the ocean, a menu full of island classics like crispy calamari and grilled tuna, and a cocktail list long enough to justify daily visits (besidethepointe.com, small plates from $6, cocktails from $5).
SLEEP: Also on the north side of the peninsula, the Casa Isleña Inn is a Spanish-style house with nine guest rooms, a tapas bar, and a terrace overlooking the water—perfect for spotting humpback whales in the winter (casa-islena.com, from $125).
EASY ESCAPE FROM: Miami (three-and-a-half-hour flight), Orlando (four-hour flight), New York City (five-hour flight).
Average highs of 78/78 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 77/76)
Kauai has managed to stay a little more under the radar than other Hawaiian islands, and that's what makes it so appealing. Hanalei, on the North Shore, is as close to magical as a town can get—lush green mountains, fields of taro, and rainbows every day. The horseshoe-shaped, secluded Hanalei Bay is the best beach for swimming and lounging on the golden sand, but if you want to get out on the water, sign up for one of the four-hour motor-powered raft trips with Na Pali Riders. You'll explore sea caves, go snorkeling, and almost definitely spot dolphins (napaliriders.com, from $89). Afterward, dry off with a hike along the Hanakapi'ai Trail, which follows the stunningly beautiful Na Pali Coast to Hanakapiai Beach and back, about four miles altogether.
REFUEL: You can't go to Hawaii without trying a plate lunch: a local specialty that consists of two scoops of rice, macaroni salad, and your choice of protein (often teriyaki chicken or seared ahi). Locals rave about the version served up at the Hanalei Taro & Juice Co., a restaurant owned by a family that's been farming taro in the valley for generations (5-5070A Kuhio Hwy. B, plate lunch from $3.50). Another option is the ahi tuna sushi rolls from The Hanalei Dolphin Sushi Lounge (hanaleidolphin.com, ahi rolls $6).
SLEEP: The four studio apartments at casual Hanalei Inn, just a block from Hanalei Bay, have full kitchens and an outdoor lanai with a grill, so you can save money by cooking meals during your stay. Plus, the picnic table looking out at the mountains is the perfect place to have your morning coffee (hanaleiinn.com, from $139).
EASY ESCAPE FROM: Honolulu (40-minute flight), L.A. (six-hour flight), San Francisco (six-hour flight).
Long Key, Fla.
Average highs of 77/75 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 73/70)
Smack in the middle of the Florida Keys, you'll find tiny Long Key, just over two miles long from end to end. Long Key offers an escape from touristy Key Largo, 40 minutes to the north. The isolated island is made up almost entirely of Long Key State Park, where the one-mile beach is perfect for tent camping; there are 60 fully equipped campsites to choose from. Or opt to stay in a more traditional resort nearby and visit the park to paddle a canoe through a series of lagoons and hike along trails. If the urge to explore strikes you, hop on the scenic Overseas Highway and drive over the bridges to Islamorada, to the north, or Marathon, to the south. But watch out—after a day or two on Long Key, anywhere else will feel overpopulated.
REFUEL: Long Key is so tiny that the restaurant selection is limited. Luckily, local Keys hangout Islamorada Fish Company Restaurant & Bakery is only a 15-minute drive away. Eat your fresh seafood on the outdoor deck; the fried conch is a particular favorite (islamoradafishco.com, entrées from $11).
SLEEP: Take in the pure white-sand beach from your waterfront room at the Lime Tree Bay Resort. When you aren't relaxing on the 44-room resort's private beach, you can play tennis, take out a complimentary kayak, or kick back in one of the many hammocks scattered around the property (limetreebayresort.com, from $89).
EASY ESCAPE FROM:Miami (95 miles; about an hour and 45 minutes by car), Fort Lauderdale (121 miles; about two and a half hours by car), New York City (three-hour flight to Miami).