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.
St. Petersburg, Fla.
Average highs of 71/69 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 64/62)
Not so long ago, St. Pete's was considered the land of the silver-haired, but in the past few years, an influx of trendy restaurants, coffeehouses, and galleries—and the young people who tend to follow those things—has revived the sleepy spot. Downtown is particularly hopping, with Kahwa Coffee's roasting plant and a hip espresso bar at its heart (kahwacoffee.com). And St. Pete Beach, with its white sand and turquoise waters, stretches along the Gulf of Mexico for five sun-kissed miles. The warm Gulf is a popular hangout for dolphins—spot one from a three-person WaveRunner, a Hobie sailboat, or a kayak from St. Pete Beach Waverunners (stpetebeachwaverunners.com, from $20 an hour for kayaking).
REFUEL: Traditionally, restaurants in St. Pete have been high-end and stuffy or low-end and divey. St. Pete Brasserie is something else entirely, with a menu full of serious-but-simple French food and inventive cocktails served in an edgy, industrial-looking space (stpetebrasserie.com, entrées from $12).
SLEEP: The 1-year-old Postcard Inn on the Beach has been the talk of the town lately—drawing from the bright colors of South Beach with its own laid-back surfer vibe in each room. Outside, the beach bar has old license plates nailed to the weathered-wood siding, and in the courtyard, a fire pit surrounded by Adirondack chairs is the perfect place to wind down after a day at the beach (postcardinn.com, from $99).
EASY ESCAPE FROM: Tampa (22 miles; about 30 minutes by car), Orlando (106 miles; about two hours by car), D.C. (two-and-a-half-hour flight).
Laguna Beach, Calif.
Average highs of 67/69 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 58/57)
Done the right way, this SoCal beach town (made famous by a reality show of the same name) can be incredibly down-to-earth. After all, some of its first citizens were not glamorous teenagers or housewives but early 20th-century struggling artists such as William Wendt and Lolita Perine.The arts still play a big role here, thanks to the Laguna Art Museum, galleries along the waterfront, and the Laguna Playhouse. Still, the seven miles of classic California coastline are the big draw. Beaches fill up during the summer, but in the winter months they're blissfully crowd-free—especially 1,000 Steps Beach, just off 9th Street (don't let the name scare you; there are actually only 230-something steps leading down to the beach). The waves are perfect for boogie boarding, and the views—golden cliffs and multimillion-dollar houses, some with elevators—are pure southern California. Post-beach, drive a mile and a half along Laguna Canyon Road to Laguna Canyon Winery, where you can sample award-winning reds and whites in the cozy, low-lit barrel room (lagunacanyonwinery.com, tasting fee $10, waived with bottle purchase).
REFUEL: The first thing you'll notice when you walk into Sorrento Grille Martini & Wine Bar is the intoxicating smell coming from the fruitwoods and grapevine cuttings that fuel the grill. Order a few small plates with one of the 11 original martinis or nine classic cocktails. Specialties include the oysters on the half shell, which would be great by themselves, but the shallot-grape mignonette and the watermelon-cucumber relish they're served with transform them into something special. Pair the oysters with the Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top Brut, a sparkling wine from France (sorrento-grille.com, entrées from $14).
SLEEP: Originally built in 1929, La Casa del Camino has a range of accommodations from La Casita, a Craftsman-style cottage that sleeps six, to the impossibly cool rooms created for the 2010 Casa Surf Project, when 10 designers each remade a different suite (casacamino.com, from $149).
EASY ESCAPE FROM:L.A. (50 miles; about one hour by car), San Diego (73 miles; about 90 minutes by car), Chicago (four-an-a-half-hour flight).
Grand Isle, La.
Average highs of 67/63 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 65/61)
In the winter, the population of this barrier island off Louisiana's Gulf Coast shrinks back down to its 1,600 permanent residents from its summer high of 14,000. But temperatures remain warm enough to sunbathe, and you can do so without the crowds. Anglers adore this island thanks to the more than 280 species of fish in the surrounding waters, and many flock to Grand Isle State Park to fish in its calm waters. Those not obsessed with reeling in The Big One head to the beaches. Although the 2010 oil spill closed all beaches on the seven-mile-long island this summer, a three-mile stretch of golden sand recently reopened in August, with a full rollout coming soon, after an intensive cleanup effort.
REFUEL: Most of the restaurants on Grand Isle specialize in—what else?—fresh fish, particularly catfish and trout. So make like a local and indulge in the fish sandwiches and po'boys at Starfish Restaurant (3027 Hwy. 1, 985/787-2711, sandwiches from $4.50).
SLEEP: The old-fashioned, no-frills Cajun Tide Beach Resort sits beachside and caters to anglers with a fish-cleaning room, a screened-in cooking room, and enough barbecue pits for guests to cook up feasts from the day's catch (cajuntidebeachresort.com, from $50).
EASY ESCAPE FROM:New Orleans (109 miles; about two hours by car), Baton Rouge (160 miles; about three hours by car), Chicago (three-hour flight to New Orleans), Detroit (four-and-a-half-hour flight to New Orleans).