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.
Orange Beach, Ala.
Average highs of 62/60 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 56/51)
Most people don't automatically associate the phrase "beach retreat" with Alabama—but don't tell a local that. Alabamians are adamant that their Gulf Coast beaches are among the most beautiful in the country. The sand is 95 percent quartz, meaning it's snow-white and sparkles in the sun, and the waters are as blue as any you'll find in Florida. Nine-mile Orange Beach has everything you need—warm water, lots of room to spread out your beach blanket, and restaurants just off the sand. Dolphins love the waters around here so much that Dolphin Cruises Aboard the Cold Mil Fleet guarantees sightings (dolphincruises.com, 90-minute tours from $12).
REFUEL: Gulf Shores Steamer is a rarity in these parts: a beachside seafood joint that doesn't fry everything in sight. In fact, the folks here don't fry anything. Instead, the fresh fish, shrimp, crabs, and oysters are steamed or grilled—and always delicious (gulfshoressteamer.com, entrées from $12).
SLEEP: The beachfront 346-room Perdido Beach Resort is like a community unto itself, with four restaurants, an indoor/outdoor pool, hot tubs, and tennis courts (perdidobeachresort.com, from $119).
EASY ESCAPE FROM: Mobile, Ala. (54 miles; about 90 minutes by car), Pensacola, Fla. (29 miles; about one hour by car), St. Louis (four-hour flight to Mobile).
Average highs of 60/59 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 59/54)
Basics: In this South Texas hotspot, savvy travelers skip crowded East Beach (which gets overrun in March with spring breakers) and head to the more secluded West Beach or Galveston Island State Park. Both have wide expanses of sand that are perfect for trolling for shells or soaking up some sun. Once you're out of the water, the historic Strand district, along Strand Street between 25th and 11th, is worth a stop. Buildings from the 1800s have been restored recently and now house restaurants, antiques stores, and many galleries full of fine art and photography. The town's other big attraction is the Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Indoor Waterpark, which attracts families with its water chutes, speed slides, wave pool, and, for the adults, enormous 30,000-person hot tub with a swim-up bar (schlitterbahn.com/gal, from $33).
REFUEL: A few blocks inland from the waterfront is Postoffice Street, where you can get authentic gumbo and a cold brew at Gumbo Bar (2105 Postoffice St., gumbo from $9), known as the best place to get gumbo on the island, or try the crab bisque at Latin-influenced Rudy & Paco's (2028 Postoffice St., crab bisque $9).
SLEEP: Overlooking the wharf, the 42-room Harbor House has an old-school nautical vibe and is less than a 10-minute walk from downtown (harborhousepier21.com, from $89).
EASY ESCAPE FROM: Houston (53 miles; about one hour by car), Austin (212 miles; about four hours by car), Denver (two-hour flight to Houston), Chicago (three-hour flight to Houston).
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