Travelers face two reasonable responses to the prospect of a long, cold winter: embrace the chill and seek out the most spectacular winter destinations, or follow the warmth – wherever you can find it.
If you’ve had your fill of icy sidewalks and overheated buildings, no one will blame you for choosing option two. And US travelers don’t even need to leave the country to ditch the scarves and mittens.
Whether you’re after a beach escape, a wildlife adventure or a dose of big-city culture, here’s where to find fun in the sun this winter.
Santa Barbara, California
Just under two hours northwest of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is a getaway destination perfect for beach strolls and canyon hikes. Celebrity sightings are common here (Prince Harry, Meghan Markle, Jennifer Lopez and Oprah Winfrey are among the area’s most notable residents), yet the real attraction is its upscale yet relaxed beach-town energy. Stroll the State St Promenade for unique shops, artisan food and wine stores, plus plenty of outdoor dining options. Follow it all the way to West Beach, where the more adventurous can rent kayaks and stand-up paddleboards and those just out for a great view can stroll Stearns Wharf.
There’s a simple reason 15 Major League Baseball teams relocate to Arizona for training before the real season starts: the weather is simply phenomenal, with Phoenix getting 299 days of sunshine every year on average. In the middle of summer, when temperatures regularly shoot past 100°F, you might wish for some relief – but the clear-blue-sky, mid-70s days of late winter are ideal for outdoor fun.
If you’re not there for the baseball, you can at least see why it’s called the “Cactus League” at the Desert Botanical Garden, where the succulents and spiny plants of the desert mingle with art exhibitions. Or hit the trail and explore the sandstone formations of Papago Park, or pedal through South Mountain Park, a favorite among trail riders.
The Everglades, Florida
Maybe those baseball teams are onto something: while half of the league is in Arizona, the rest are warming up in Florida. The Sunshine State has the warmest temperatures on the US mainland during the winter, and the warmest national park (outside of Hawaii) is the Everglades. Winter is the dry season here, making it one of the most popular times of year for visitors – as well as for spotting wildlife. The drying of the marshes makes animals congregate in smaller areas, and migratory birds are doing just what you’re doing: flying to Florida in search of warmer climes. Drive the Southern Everglades Hwy south until you run out of continent at Flamingo, a great place for spotting manatees.
South Padre Island, Texas
Get to South Padre before spring break and you can enjoy Texas’ popular seaside resort town at its quietest. With multiple blinds, a viewing tower, and boardwalks through the dunes, the 50-acre South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center is an ideal spot for watching feathered friends who overwinter here, as well as alligators and sea turtles. Isla Blanca County Park’s beach is the most popular, thanks to access to shops and restaurants – but you can be rewarded with a bit of tranquility by exploring the dunes of Edwin King Atwood County Park or the long stretches of sand of the North End.
Key West, Florida
At the furthest end of the Florida Keys, Key West has a celebrated culture that attracts sun seekers from all over the USA. The 7-sq-mile oasis offers famed literary history, fresh seafood and plenty of hopping bars. Don’t pass up the chance to set sail during sunset, visit the Ernest Hemingway House and marvel at the many colors at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory.
Palm Springs, California
Palm Springs has its own type of cool going on year-round – but it’s rarely the type that registers on the thermometer. Winter nights can have a bit of the dry cold of the desert, yet the average high temperature never dips below 70°F. Palm Springs as a winter oasis is hardly a well-kept secret, and though it’s high season around the Coachella Valley, the variety of old-school motor court motels and mid-century-modern rentals for private pool parties means there are always accommodations options. For those craving a bit more activity than poolside lounging, breathtaking Joshua Tree National Park and the oddball charm of the Salton Sea (with sights like the International Banana Museum) are less than an hour away.
St John, US Virgin Islands
Looking for warm weather and the feeling that you’re a long, long way from home? St John in the US Virgin Islands might fit the bill. Virgin Islands National Park covers two-thirds of the island, preserving many miles of shoreline as well as underwater reef habitats. Traveling with kids? Try Maho Bay, known for its shallow, calm waters popular among snorkelers and green sea turtles.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Winter in New Orleans isn’t exactly hot and sunny – January and February average in the mid-60s – but it’s certainly a welcome change from anywhere snowbound, and the crowds are at their lowest just before Mardi Gras swings into town. But since this New Orleans, there’s always a party going on, even in winter.
Bonfires are lit along the levees every Christmas Eve, a tradition that is supposed to help guide the arrival of Papa Noël, the Cajun Santa Claus. The annual Tet Fest thrown by the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church to celebrate the Vietnamese New Year (in late January or early February) is an important day for New Orleans’ large Vietnamese population, and the festive fair is full of delicious eats for all comers. The mild days of winter also make for pleasant exploring of the backstreets on one of the Crescent City’s many bike tours.
The Hawaiian Islands do get more rain in winter, and things do get a bit cooler, it’s true. But let’s be real: the “cooler” winter in Kihei means an average high of 81°F instead of 87°F, with 276 days of sun a year. So a parka won’t be necessary. There are a few simple tips for visiting Maui in winter. Stick to the south and west coasts to maximize your chances of sunny days. Avoid stronger surf by heading to gentler beaches, like Kalepolepo Beach Park for kids or Ulua Beach for top-notch snorkeling. Skip the holiday crowds and seek out a deal in early winter, before spring break. Then sit back, and soak in the sun.
Sun-seekers heading to Georgia could do just fine by stopping in sensational Savannah and never leaving. But head just a little further out to the coast and you’ll find a world of barrier islands and twisting waterways to explore. Tybee Island and its popular beaches are just a half-hour drive away – the start of a string of subtropical islands that hug the coast of the Peach State. All feature mild winter weather, and each has its own personality.
Sapelo Island is home to a small village of Geechee, descendants of Africans who were enslaved on the plantations on the island until the 19th century. Nature lovers can book wildlife tours of Sapelo’s estuaries through the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve Visitors Center. Historic, multicultural Brunswick serves as the gateway to Georgia’s Golden Isles, including resorty St Simons, and Jekyll Island, historically a playground for the wealthiest American families.