3 easy U.S. getaways to cure the winter blahs
These destinations are warm and easy to get to
As the holiday dust settles and some version of “normal routine” returns, most of us yearn for a winter holiday. Winter holiday often conjures up visions of warm, tropical beaches and drinks with little umbrellas served in coconuts. We’re all for that. But we have several favorite winter getaways in the United States that may be less expensive and easier to plan on a whim … like when you’ve just finished shoveling the snow off your driveway, again.
Death Valley National Park
B and I recommend Death Valley as a winter destination frequently, and everyone we tell comes back amazed and thanking us. Think of Death Valley and it’s likely an image of below-sea-level salt basins with cracked earth and scorching temperatures among the world’s hottest. A good place to avoid. This description is apt in summer months, but Death Valley is one of our favorite winter getaways.
A scenic 2.5-hour drive from the Las Vegas airport, Death Valley National Park is easy to reach. Rent a high clearance vehicle so you can drive the backcountry, including Titus Canyon (check with your rental car company to be sure this is allowed) or rent a jeep for the day in Death Valley.
Winter traffic in the park is light, so it’s great for bicycling. Death Valley is a long way from the nearest town, so stop for hiking snacks, etc. before entering the park. There are a few campgrounds in the park, but we stay at The Ranch at Death Valley by the visitor’s center. Its Furnace Creek location is central to many of the must-see places in Death Valley. The Ranch is simple lodging you would expect in a national park with good food on site. If you want to step it up, go across the street to the four-diamond Inn at Death Valley, which sits atop a spring-fed oasis and has welcomed guests since 1923 including the rich and famous. If you stay at The Ranch, plan on having dinner at The Inn and exploring the grounds.
Favorite things to do in Death Valley:
- Artist’s Drive, a one-way, eight-mile canyon drive which meanders washes and mountains. Time your visit for late afternoon and you’ll get beautiful photos as the setting sun paints the rock with warm color.
- Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the western hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level with massive salt flats as far as you can see.
- Devil’s Golf Course, which is not a golf course at all, but an expansive salt field left when water evaporated.
- Gower Gulch Loop is an all-time favorite hike of ours. It’s 4.5 miles and the scenery seems like you’re teleported to another planet.
- Scotty’s Castle is list-worthy, but currently closed for repair following damaging floods. Note it for a future visit.
- Titus Canyon is the most popular backcountry drive in Death Valley. You will need a high clearance vehicle; 4-wheel drive is helpful in case of recent rain. Check with park rangers before you go because it’s a 27-mile, one-way drive. Once you start, you’re committed.
- Zabriskie Point, Dante’s View and Harmony Borax Works are worthy stops and should be on your list.
We’ve stayed in the upper (Key Largo), middle (Marathon) and lower Keys (Key West) and love them all. Most visitors arrive in the Florida Keys via Miami’s airport. We recommend that you check flights to Fort Lauderdale when planning a Keys escape. The airport is a much smaller, easy to navigate, and traffic getting out of town is a breeze compared to its neighbor, Miami. As a bonus, we find the flights less expensive to Fort Lauderdale versus Miami.
The few people we hear from who dislike the Florida Keys cite their lack of beaches. So be prepared, you’ll find few beaches in the Florida Keys. Do your research ahead of time if beach a priority. Instead, spend time on a boat! This is the best way to experience the Keys with Atlantic Ocean on one side and calm bay on the other. You can rent and pilot your own boat, join a bay or offshore fishing charter, or enjoy a Keys sunset on a charter sailboat.
When you’re done boating, hop on a bicycle. Highway 1 runs the entire 100-mile-length of the Florida Keys. About 70 percent of route includes dedicated bike paths and bike lanes. There are great side trips off Highway 1 to see famous film locations or perhaps enjoy a beer at No Name Bar and leave your dollar on the wall. Mark Terrill, a local bike outfitter we recommend highly, has written a book, “Cycling the Florida Keys: Off the Beaten Path” if you want a handy guide.
Key Largo is the closest Keys town to the airports of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, best known for snorkeling and diving. The water is rougher in winter and cooler temperature requires a wetsuit, but we’ve had some great winter diving and snorkel adventures while others were trudging through snow and cold.
The middle Keys are often dubbed “sport fishing capital of the world.” We fish, but not extensively or even well, so we’ll let someone else decide if that title is fitting. What we do know is that the middle Keys have some marvelous resorts where we’ve spent amazing time with family and friends. Our favorite is Hawks Cay Resort, located at mile marker 61 on quiet Duck Key. It carries a hefty price tag, especially in winter, but the amenities and setting are unrivaled. It’s an easy two-hour drive to Key West so ponder that as a day trip.
Key West is best known of the lower Keys. There’s something for everyone here. Start with a quirky Conch Trail tour to learn the island’s history and fun facts. Then soak in the people and sights along Duval Street, timing your stroll for sunset at Mallory Square and its famous sunset celebration with live music, stunt performers and local arts and crafts. Once the sun sets, you are strategically in the middle of Key West’s downtown restaurants and bars to finish the evening
Venice/Santa Monica, California
A few minutes drive north of Los Angeles airport are the oceanside communities of Venice and Santa Monica, California. A typical January day finds high temperatures near 70 degrees and low in the 50s. Not too shabby as much of the country is shivering and hoping to get above freezing.
It’s a two-mile walk from Venice Beach pier to Santa Monica pier. They are so close and yet so far. The contrast of the two is what makes going here so much fun. Santa Monica is known for its historic art deco buildings, shopping, historic waterfront, aquarium and the west coast’s only amusement park on a pier.
Walk south towards Venice Beach and you’ll find a community described as creative and edgy. Venice boasts street performers and local vendors like Santa Monica, but also medical marijuana clinics and tattoo parlors. Top attractions include Muscle Beach, an open-air gym where Arnold Schwarzenegger launched his career, and Venice Skate Park where the career of many professional skateboarders got their start.
Head inland to walk the historic Venice Canals, launched as the “Venice of America” complete with canals, pedestrian footbridges and gondolas. The concept bombed and the gondolas are long gone, but it is great place to walk and take photos.
Once you’ve gotten your fill of the beach, head into the hills and canyons that surround Santa Monica and Venice. To shake off jet lag, we drove straight from the airport to the Los Liones Canyon trail, met our son and his wife who had flown down from San Francisco, and hiked our way up to vistas with million-dollar views of the Pacific Ocean and Santa Monica below.
We chose a Sunday morning to venture into downtown L.A., and were rewarded with largely empty streets for easy sight seeing. We included a hike in Runyon Canyon, situated in the heart of L.A. and popular with the locals. It’s not a place to escape humanity and find tranquility, but it’s fun hiking with the locals and the views are stunning, including the famous Hollywood sign.
Plan a couple of extra days for a side trip into the mountain community of Ojai. A popular weekend getaway for the L.A. crowd, Ojai is an oasis of quiet and calm set in the mountains with spas, galleries, wine tasting rooms, restaurants and local beer. Motor beyond Ojai on Highway 33 into Los Padres National Forest and enjoy hiking or a beautiful drive along winding roads with expansive views.