9 Vacation Spots That Are Better (and Cheaper) Than the Places You Want to Go
La Paz, Mexico
INSTEAD OF: Los Cabos
WHY HERE? La Paz is located on the Sea of Cortez on the Baja Peninsula, and it has the same laid-back vibe as California's West Coast beach cities. The landscape is spectacular, from the marine-mammal-rich waters to a desert worthy of an Ansel Adams photo. The culinary scene is growing too, with enough upscale restaurants to rival those in Los Cabos, 87 miles (and a $25 shuttle ride) away. One caveat: Go before mid-July. Even the locals flee the August heat.
Average summer hotel rate: $117 vs. $257 in Los Cabos
La Paz, Mexico: Where to Stay & What to Do
STAY: A simple room at Hotel Perla, a 1940s landmark with bay views on the Malecón (boardwalk), goes for $75 a night. If you want amenities such as daily room service and an infinity pool, try the Costa Baja Resort & Spa (from $243), which runs 45%-off specials when you book more than 90 days in advance. Overall, the average double-occupancy hotel room in La Paz is $117, less than half what it costs in Los Cabos.
DO: Sign up for a day dive with PADI diving center Cortez Club ($140). Nearby Los Islotes is known for its sea lion colony; you might even spot schools of hammerhead sharks at Marisla Seamount. If snorkeling is more your speed, bring your gear to the turquoise waters and sandy coves of Balandra, 15 minutes from downtown.
La Paz offers an increasingly diverse menu of restaurants, from daring fusion to old-school Mexican street food, says editor Tomas Zyber of BajaInsider.com. Get a table for two at Las Tres Vírgenes, where dinner—wood-fire-grilled octopus and expertly prepared steaks—paired with wine costs under $100, Zyber notes. For cheap eats, line up with locals at Chino Tacos (dinner, $4 per person) on Antonio Navarro Street at the corner of Belisario Dominguez. Try the tacos al pastor (spit-grilled pork with cilantro, onions, and pineapple), carne asada, or spicy chorizo.
INSTEAD OF: London
WHY HERE? Looking for some foreign culture but don't want to brave a second language? There's always London. But since it's the most visited city in Europe, you'll also find some of the continent's most expensive hotels there (average cost: $268 a night). And then there's Dublin. With its small-city feel and Irish charm, the capital is as easy to drink in as a smooth pint of Guinness. Best of all: The dollar is even stronger against the euro (up 23%) in the past year than it is vs. the pound (13%).
Dublin: Where to Stay & What to Do
STAY: The hip new Dean Hotel (from $138), located downtown, is capped by a beautiful rooftop restaurant. If you don't mind a 20-minute walk or a cab ride to the city center, opt for a private room ($80) at the Generato Dublin, a design-forward hostel housed in a former Irish folk-dancing hall, located across the River Liffey in Smithfield.
DO: The Irish will tell you that their literary legacy is every bit as distinguished as the Brits', and they've got the names (Yeats, Beckett, Wilde) to make a case. If you're in Dublin on June 16, you'll be lucky enough to see the entire city celebrate native son James Joyce, who set his classic novel Ulysses here on that day.
You can celebrate a different kind of artistry in the Creative Quarter—South William, Drury, Wicklow, and Exchequer streets—home to many boutiques and a great place to find authentic keepsakes. "Try the Irish Design Shop for tea towels and porcelain birdhouses or, 10 minutes away, Jam Art Factory, where you'll find prints, artwork, and pottery," says Emily Westbrooks, author of Delightful Dublin.
When you've worn yourself out, you can rest your feet and your shopping bags at the recently opened Woollen Mills Eating House, serving Roaring Bay mussels and Howth cod (lunch, $25). If you're looking to splurge, Dublin also has five Michelin-starred restaurants. Jonathan Epstein, president of travel company Celebrated Experiences, suggests Chapter One, where chef Ross Lewis serves up rabbit with Parma ham and cured salmon with Atlantic crab. A four-course dinner is $75. A year ago you'd have paid $97 for the same feast.
INSTEAD OF: Los Angeles
WHY HERE? During the winter this city serves as Los Angeles' playground, filled with weekenders taking advantage of the posh resorts and haute design scene. At this time of year you can have it almost to yourself. Summer in this desert oasis isn't for everyone: The average June temperature is 87° F and highs can hit 110° (115° in August, when you really don't want to visit). But there are plenty of ways to beat the heat, says Françoise Rhodes of TravelingwithFrancoise.com, whether it's a morning hike through the nearby canyons or a lazy day by the pool.
Summer hotel rate: $105 vs. $156 in Los Angeles
Palm Springs: Where to Stay & What to Do
STAY: At the Triada Palm Springs, a Spanish-hacienda-style property with a cabana-lined pool, rooms start at $109 a night, 48% less than in high season. The Avalon Hotel Palm Springs, fresh from a major renovation, is set amid palm-dotted courtyards, burbling fountains, and three swimming pools, and has a top-notch spa. Rooms start at $150; at the hotel's sister property, Avalon Beverly Hills, they start at $279 for the same dates.
DO: The Indian Canyons, known for their stunning rock formations, make for a great morning hike, says Katy Carrier, founder of Palm Springs Style magazine. For shopping, head to the Uptown Design District, where you'll find furniture and home decor items. Bon Vivant is known for its vintage glassware, while Just Modern has a large selection of mid-century-inspired furnishings and artwork, Carrier says. Palm Springs has also established its own film scene. The main film festival is in January, but from June 16 to 22 is the International ShortFest, which showcases more than 300 short films from more than 50 countries. When you're ready for dinner, try the lobster ravioli at the decades-old Johnny Costa's Ristorante (dinner, $50), says Rhodes. If you're hungry for some true California roadside kitsch, pack a picnic and head to Cabazon Dinosaurs, about 20 miles west of the city.
INSTEAD OF: Santorini or Mykonos
WHY HERE? Naxos is anchored in the Aegean about halfway between Santorini and Mykonos, but it might as well be on another planet. The biggest of Greece's Cycladic islands, Naxos is studded with lush mountains and valleys polka-dotted by white-washed homes, all surrounded by a ribbon of gorgeous beaches. It's the kind of place that's still rural enough to spot the occasional donkey trotting down a cobblestone street, not to mention acres of tiered vineyards and olive groves. Of course that means that just about every restaurant you find has a legitimate claim as a farm-to-table outpost.
Cruise-ship dockings a year: 16 vs. 512 in Santorini
Naxos, Greece: Where to Stay & What to Do
STAY: Accommodations start at $25 a night, topping out around $360, whereas Santorini's prices start at $90 and skyrocket to over $1,000, on Expedia.com. Rooms at the Pension Sofi, a cheerful blue-and-white guesthouse draped in bougainvillea vines, cost only $39 per person (two-night minimum). The 30 spacious rooms at the four-star Lagos Mare Hotel, with a pool, bar, and sea views, are a steal at $120, says Mina Agnos, a Greek travel expert with Travelive.
DO: The best way to explore Naxos is on foot. Agnos can set up a Naxian Apollo walking tour (from $38), which tracks the island's history from ancient times to the present and includes town visits, archaeological sites, and a trip to the island's collection of kouros statues, which date back to the 8th century B.C. Afterward, grab a waterfront table at Geomilo, which serves traditional Naxian dishes such as Kleftiko of Za, made with local lamb, and cod with a garlic puree (dinner, $20).
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
INSTEAD OF: Traverse City, Mich.
WHY HERE? There are 407 national parks, and while it's not the most celebrated, Michigan's Pictured Rocks was the country's first National Lakeshore. The park sits on 42 jaw-dropping miles of Lake Superior coastline that's studded with eerie sand dunes, romantic waterfalls, and a stately lighthouse. But it's the multicolored sandstone cliffs, which seem to change color with every flicker of sunshine, that are the main attraction. That and the price of admission: It's free.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore: Where to Stay & What to Do
STAY: Michigan's Upper Peninsula is rugged territory; enjoy the park by roughing it. Pictured Rocks has three main camping grounds. Twelvemile Beach ($16), the most popular, features lake views through the trees. If you'd rather rest your head in a room with four walls, Munising, Mich., is about two miles away and features several family-owned properties. The Sunset Motel on the Bay (from $89) has free Wi-Fi and rooms with kitchenettes. In Traverse City hotels average over $150 a night.
DO: Get your bearings on one of Pictured Rocks' iconic hikes, suggests Susan Reece, the park's chief of interpretation and education. On the Chapel Falls trek, you'll weave through beech and maple trees en route to cascading waterfalls and Chapel Rock, which looks like an open-air temple (albeit one with a pine tree growing out of the roof). You can also follow the 1½-mile hike to the Au Sable Light Station, on the edge of a picnic-worthy beach. Keep an eye out for deer, beaver, and other critters. The best way to see the park's dramatic coastline is from the water: On a three-hour tour with Pictured Rocks Cruises ($37), a local park ranger will explain the area's geology and history as you pass stunning formations such as the Painted Coves and Lover's Leap.
INSTEAD OF: Bangkok
WHY HERE? At a time when so many Southeast Asian capitals are banking on what's new, Hanoi still embraces its rich history and communist roots. True, the bustling city has its share of skyscrapers and mopeds, but you'll also find French-inspired architecture and food—bonjour, bánh mì baguettes!—in its large Old Quarter. This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, making a visit to Ho Chi Minh's stilt house or the National Museum of Vietnamese History especially timely.
Annual tourists to Vietnam: 7.8 million vs. 16 million in Bangkok
Hanoi: Where to Stay & What to Do
STAY: Rooms at the recently renovated 80-room Boss Legend Hotel start at $82. The five-star Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi (from $225), housed in a sumptuous 1901 French colonial–style building, has hosted Charlie Chaplin, Graham Greene, and "Hanoi Jane" herself—Jane Fonda.
DO: Make the city's Old Quarter, which dates back to the 11th century, your home base. At Q Cafe—or one of the hundreds of other coffee shops—you'll find locals sitting on squat stools sipping café phe da, or Vietnamese iced coffee ($1) made with espresso and condensed milk. From there you can window-shop along the bustling city streets, where vendors sell anything from hardware supplies and birdcages to fine art. Stop in Ginkgo for graphic-printed T-shirts before slurping down a northern Vietnam staple, beef-based pho, at Tuyen Pho Cam ($3).
When you're ready to see a bit of the coastline, head to Ha Long Bay, three hours east of the city. Ha Long means "descending dragon," and the 1,600 islets jutting out of the Gulf of Tonkin do look like the moss-covered spikes on a submerged water beast. Most hotels offer day or overnight excursions; Boss Legend's day trip (from $45) includes lunch and kayaking.
Salt Lake City
INSTEAD OF: Denver
WHY HERE? Salt Lake isn't just a jumping-off point for skiers. Those snowcapped Wasatch Mountains also frame an urban playground that's become home to a lively art, restaurant, and cocktail scene.
Daily rental car rates: from $28 vs. $45 in Denver
Salt Lake City: Where to Stay & What to Do
STAY: Downtown has the best hotel selection. The Inn on the Hill (from $150) features 12 unique rooms and serves a complimentary hot breakfast. The Marriott Courtyard doesn't have the same boutique charm, but it was just renovated this year and rates start at $99. Hotels in Salt Lake are a bargain in general: $106 a night vs. $136 a night in Denver.
DO: To sip your way through the city, head to the up-and-coming Sugar House neighborhood, full of early-1900s cottages and bungalows. The Sugar House Distillery, which makes small-batch vodkas and rums, offers free tours. Shades of Pale, a popular Utah Brewery, also opened a new facility three miles west in SoDo (South Downtown). If you're looking to do some shopping, the Local Colors of Utah gallery is a co-op where you'll find pottery, photography, jewelry, and paintings from area artists. When you've worked up an appetite, try the Fresco Italian Cafe (dinner, $35), where dishes such as seared polenta and sun-choke agnolotti are complemented by a spot-on Italian wine list, says Josh Rosenthal of TheSLCFoodie.com.
There are also plenty of worthy day trips. New or expert anglers can sign up with Western Rivers Fly Fisher (from $315 for two), on the Provo River, about 50 miles to the southeast. The drive through the Wasatch Mountains alone is well worth it, especially when the wildflowers are in bloom. On Kayak.com cars rent for $28 a day in Salt Lake. In Denver, the average is $45 a day.
Cape Breton, Canada
INSTEAD OF: New England
WHY HERE? Cape Breton, a 4,000-square-mile island that juts out into the Atlantic about 650 miles northeast of Portland, Maine, is known for its untamed coastline, charming inns, and deeply rooted Celtic culture. The island receives about 365,000 visitors annually; Cape Cod alone squeezes in more than 4 million. Just crossing the Canadian border will fatten your wallet, as loons have dropped 14% in value against the U.S. dollar over the past year.
Average hotel rate: $89 vs. $192 on Cape Cod
Cape Breton, Canada: Where to Stay & What to Do
STAY: The waterfront town of Baddeck makes a great launching point for the surrounding countryside. Hospitality options include cottages—from $67 a night on NovaScotia.com—and cozy family-owned properties such as the Baddeck Heritage House (from $91), built in the 1860s.
DO: Get out on the water. On half-day trips (from $55) with North River Kayak Tours, you'll paddle alongside the giant sugar maples and peer up to scout for American bald eagle nests. If you'd prefer to stay on land, drive the cliff-hugging Cabot Trail, the 185-mile road that makes a loop around the island's northwestern region and offers prime whale-watching pit stops. Want to get even closer to a great ocean mammal? Sign up for a snorkeling trip with Captain Zodiac (from $40) in Cheticamp, located on the island's northwestern border, to bob alongside minke, pilot, and fin whales.
For dinner, Angelo Spinazzola of North River Kayak suggests the Bitehouse, a 12-seat restaurant located in a converted farmhouse that serves seasonal dishes such as scallops with caramelized cauliflower and grilled zucchini with local cheese ($40).
Average hotel rate: $89 vs. $192 on Cape Cod
INSTEAD OF: Cayman Islands
WHY HERE? While Aruba has long been on Caribbean travelers’ radars, its 66% hotel occupancy rate (in summer) is much lower than the rates for St. Lucia (84%) and the Caymans (76%). The island is also undergoing an impressive $1 billion investment in new hotels, public works, and an energy plan to be fossil fuel–free by 2020. Aruba is increasingly accessible too, with Houston recently becoming the 12th North American city to introduce a direct flight to the island.
Average summer hotel cost: $197 vs. $257 in the Caymans
Aruba: What to See & What to Do
STAY: Aruba’s range of accommodations means you don’t need to break the bank to stay in a lovely place, though an ocean view might cost you. You could opt for the Tamarijn Aruba (all-inclusive from $450 for two; three- night minimum) on Divi Beach, a waterfront property that also has a spa and a golf course. Further inland, at the charming Boardwalk Aruba, located in a coconut grove, casita rates start at $195 a night, says Susan Campbell, a senior writer for Aruba Nights. Guests also have free access to Moomba club on Palm Beach, as well as free lounge chairs and snorkeling equipment.
DO: In capital city Oranjestad, you can fuel up on empanadas stuffed with Gouda and ham at Mi Boca Dushi (lunch, $5) before renting bikes from Aruba Active Vacations ($25 per day). Cycle along the waterfront’s new 10-mile boardwalk or, if you’re looking for an empty stretch of sand, pedal to windswept Arashi Beach, close to the California Lighthouse.
On the island’s south side, you can pair sunset views with the catch of the day at Zee Rover’s ($20), a fisherman’s hangout turned restaurant, suggests Matt Boland, the executive chef of Aruba’s Divi Resorts. Specialties include red snapper and wahoo served with plantains, pan bati (a cornmeal pancake), and hot sauce made with papaya and peppers.