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.
Average highs of 66/66 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 59/58)
San Diego is a small town with big ambitions: The revitalized Gaslamp Quarter, with its shops and restaurants, feels urban, but the crashing waves of the Pacific nearby create a vibe that's your quintessential classic American beach village. However, the best way to experience it all is to hit the boardwalk. At Pacific Beach, known for its wide stretches of sand and perfect surfing waves, rent a beach cruiser from Cheap Rentals and ride the three-and-a-half-mile stretch to South Mission Beach, passing all manner of local characters along the way: scantily clad in-line skaters, vacationing families, throwback '60s hippies, and even the random guy on a unicycle who always seems to make an appearance (cheap-rentals.com, rentals from $5 per hour).
REFUEL: The massive breakfast burrito with eggs, sausage, and fresh avocado at beachside Kono's Surf Club is a San Diego rite of passage—as is the line that snakes out the door and around the corner (704 Garnet Ave., 858/483-1669, breakfast from $3.50).
SLEEP: Beach shacks in the area sound charming...until you see the shag carpet, wood-paneled walls, and sagging mattresses. Tower23 is a welcome departure from the norm, with its modern, glass-box look, neutral-palette rooms filled with teak furniture, and a hip indoor/outdoor restaurant and bar with a view of the ocean (tower23hotel.com, from $179).
EASY ESCAPE FROM: L.A. (120 miles; about two hours by car), Phoenix (one-hour flight), Seattle (two-and-a-half-hour flight).
St. Simons Island, Ga.
Average highs of 62/62 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 54/51)
One of four islands that make up Georgia's Golden Isles (a collection of barrier islands just off the southeastern coast), St. Simons is known for its centuries-old moss-draped oak trees, historical landmarks, white-sand beaches, and 99 holes of golf. Cars are allowed on the island, but the leisurely pace of life here will make you want to stay away from anything with a motor. Instead, rent a beach-cruiser bike from Ocean Motion Surf Co. and pedal your way past King and Prince Beach, plantations, the lighthouse, and Christ Church, originally built in 1820. The ride covers about 14 miles, and there are plenty of stops to admire the scenery, so allow at least a half day (912/638-5225, rentals from $12).
REFUEL: There are a few token steak and chicken dishes on the menu at The Crab Trap, but nobody orders them. This place is all about the fresh seafood, particularly the boiled crab. Round out your meal with corn on the cob, battered French fries, and an order of the beloved hush puppies (thecrabtrapssi.com, entrées from $9).
SLEEP: The oak trees on St. Simons are so treasured that the Village Inn & Pub was built around them—not one tree had to be cut down during construction. This place is as charming as it gets: The reception area is a restored 1930s cottage, the English pub is outfitted with a huge stone fireplace, and each of the 28 guest rooms is named for a historical figure with some significance to the island, such as Sid Lanier, a poet, novelist, and composer (villageinnandpub.com, from $120).
EASY ESCAPE FROM: Savannah (84 miles; about two hours by car), Atlanta (282 miles; about five hours by car), Charleston, S.C. (193 miles; about four hours by car).
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).