Cape Neddick, Maine, with its iconic "Nubble" lighthouse, is an easy escape from Boston. Along the way, soak up the sun in Cape Ann, Massachusetts (stay at the Blue Shutters Beachside Inn, Gloucester, from $125), grab a great lobster roll in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and know that you're spending a bit less than all those folks crowding New England's more famous cape.
Sure, people who live in San Francisco have it pretty good. But they still like to escape, and when they do, it's often down the Pacific Coast Highway to Big Sur. Here, the winding highway, oceanside cliffs, colorful beach, and enchanting forests have been casting a spell for generations. It's a short drive from Monterey's bustling wharf and world-class aquarium (stay at Casa Munras, Monterey, from $147), and if your road-trip appetite is whetted by Big Sur, keep going down to San Simeon to see the amazing Hearst Castle.
Shh. Most Americans have never even heard of the "Cape Cod of the Midwest," but Door County, Wisconsin, is a relaxed peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan that has been luring visitors for years. Also known as Cherryland USA for its tasty annual crop, this is a place to skip rocks, chow down at a traditional fish boil, and pile your ice cream cone high. And, yep, watch the sunset. Stay at Lodgings at Pioneer Lane, Ephraim, from $109.
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, is a short escape from New Orleans, and just a few hours here will show you why the place was voted one of America's Coolest Small Towns 2013 by Budget Travel readers. Before you hit the sugary beach, take in the vibrant art scene in the historic old town, visit distinctive Creole cottages, and get yourself a big ol' Mockingburger at the Mockingbird Cafe. Stay at Bay Town Inn, from $149.
Courtesy Ellis Anderson
One of our favorite road trips is across the Badlands of South Dakota, where you can get your cowboy (or cowgirl) on, drink in stunning western terrain, and, of course, say hello to four U.S. presidents at Mount Rushmore. Stay at State Game Lodge in Custer State Park, from $115.
Relaxing at the Elms Resort and Spa in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, from $139, is another regional secret. Spend some time here and you'll have to decide whether you're going to (a) brag to all your friends that you enjoyed this place before they did or (b) keep the secret all to yourself.
Courtesy Elms Resort and Spa
We New Yorkers enjoy a good getaway now and then, and Historic Hudson Valley, a collection of restored homes and historical sites along the river, is just the ticket. In fact, you can actually get here with a train ticket on the Metro North commuter rail line. Homes such as Washington Irving's Sunnyside and the Rockefeller estate are inspiring and educational, and the village of Sleepy Hollow (yes, for real) offers seasonal graveyard tours for the truly daring. Stay at Alexander Hamilton House, Croton-on-Hudson, from $135.
Courtesy Sleepy Hollow Cemetery
Denizens of the DC area like to hit the Blue Ridge Highway for an escape into the Shenandoah Valley. It has all the makings of a relaxing weekend, or it can be the gateway to an extended exploration farther south into the historic battlefields, forests, and mountains that beckon. Stay at Mimslyn Inn, Luray, Virginia, from $160.
Hood River and the Columbia River Gorge, outside Portland, Oregon, offer a wild getaway not far from the city center. Here, orchards, wineries, and a truly forward-thinking food scene reward the weekend road tripper. Stay at Seven Oaks Bed and Breakfast, from $160.
Yountville, California, is a relatively short drive from the Bay Area, but it's a world away in climate (warm and dry) and lifestyle (we dare you not to stop and smell the flowers, or taste the wine). Though Napa Valley's upscale restaurants and spas give the area a certain reputation, Budget Travelers can pack a locally sourced picnic lunch and explore the backroads for less than you'd think. Stay at Maison Fleurie, from $145.
Joshua Tree National Park, California, is about as different from Los Angeles as a place can be, and maybe that's why it's a beloved escape for hard-working Angelenos seeking something nearly spiritual in their weekend away. Soak up the otherworldly flora, ogle a night sky like nothing you've ever seen, and try to take some of the feeling of Joshua Tree back home with you. Stay at Sagewater Spa, Desert Hot Springs, from $195.
Saugatuck, Michigan, on the "Gold Coast," is a favorite getaway of Chicagoans. Ride the chain ferry across the Kalamazoo River to Oval Beach, where you can swim or watch the little-known Midwestern surfing scene. Stretch your road trip up the lakeshore and you'll see classic lighthouses, enjoy secluded beaches and dunes, and savor superb seafood. Stay at Best Western Plaza Hotel Saugatuck, from $99.
Big Bend National Park is a stunningly beautiful place right on the border between Texas and Mexico. It's a relatively little-known national park, and doesn't get too crowded (temperatures are moderate in winter, but it does get hot in summer). The views of the mountains and Rio Grande are sublime, and knowing you're in on one of America's great secrets is a reward of its own. Stay at Gage Hotel, Marathon, from $215.
Take a bite out of Maryland's Eastern Shore, including a stop in Ocean City, one of our favorite boardwalks and an easy escape from DC, Baltimore, and other mid-Atlantic metro areas. Stay at Sun ‘N Fun Motel, Ocean City, from $181.
Virginia Beach offers several spectacular stretches of sand along the Atlantic, and the chance to truly let go and get the most out of your weekend. Our favorite memory of this fun beach town is the porpoises frolicking in the water. We can't promise you'll see them, but we sure hope you do. A wide variety of affordable lodgings are available in Virginia Beach.
No plans this weekend? No problem. These easy escapes will get you out of town on a moment's notice. All you need is a tank of gas, an adventurous spirit, and the willingness to drop everything.