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7 Great Little-Known Winter Escapes

Find unique experiences without the packed beaches and overpriced hotels


spinner image view of jupiter inlet from the lighthouse
The view from the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse.
LagunaticPhoto/Getty Images

If you’re a regular winter traveler, no doubt you’ve encountered the crowds and hassles of the typical tourist destinations. Let this be the season of reason. We spoke with several people over 50 who talked up their communities as off-the-beaten-path ideas for your next vacation. You just need to pack your curiosity, sturdy shoes and a sense of adventure. But go ahead and bring a swimsuit, too.

Jupiter, Florida

spinner image sunset over the jupiter inlet lighthouse in jupiter florida
The Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse is 108 feet tall.
ddmitr/Getty Images

Average high temperatures: upper 60s–70s in January and February; 70s in March

Don’t let the lavish mansions or surrounding golf courses fool you. Jupiter, some 90 miles north of bustling Miami, is a laid-back beach town. “Until I-95 bisected Jupiter in the 1980s, it was a quaint little coastal seaside town with a freshwater river that was filled with freshwater animals like alligators and otters,” says Rick Clegg, 66, a Jupiter resident since 1979. “Now it’s a lot more accessible but still has a small-town feel.”

Sitting at the confluence of the Intracoastal Waterway, the Atlantic Ocean and the Loxahatchee River, Jupiter begs to be explored by boat or paddleboard. Talk about serene: One 7-mile stretch of the river is off-limits to motorized craft. “You’re almost entirely in the shade of the grand cypress canopy,” Clegg says. “It feels prehistoric.”

But we all know that the beach is one of Florida’s main draws. Jupiter has nearly 3½ miles of beaches, some ADA accessible and others dog-friendly. “At every high tide, aquamarine water floods into the Jupiter Inlet and is simply rapturous,” says Clegg. While there, check out the 108-foot-tall Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse. Hardy travelers can climb to the top, but you don’t have to go all the way up to appreciate the views.

When you need to dry out, catch a spring training game, starting in February, at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium, where the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins play.

Don’t miss: Learn about sea turtles and participate in their recovery at the nearby Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach. It includes an outdoor “hospital,” several aquariums and a beach from which healthy turtles return to the ocean.

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Ocean Springs, Mississippi

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Crowds gather at the Peter Anderson Arts & Crafts Festival.
Fred Swalinas/Ocean Springs Champer

Average high temperatures: 50–60s in January and February; 60s in March

The Secret Coast: Even locals call it that. Mississippi’s Gulf Coast is a 62-mile stretch of scenic shoreline that includes ​29 miles of white sand beaches, and Ocean Springs serves as a great home base, especially if you like art. The late, famed painter Walter Inglis Anderson, a preeminent 20th-century Southern artist, lived in Ocean Springs. See his work at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art. Walter’s brother Peter was a renowned potter, and the annual Peter Anderson Arts & Crafts Festival is a major Gulf Coast event, says Anthony DiFatta, director of education at the museum. “We’re like Mayberry with culture,” he says.

When you’re ready to enjoy the outdoors, take an 11-mile ferry trip to Ship Island in the Gulf of Mexico. Offering only day-use facilities (restrooms, showers, a pavilion and a concession stand) and no overnight resort hotels, Ship Island feels secluded, with pristine waters. Ocean Springs, by contrast, is more built up, with restaurants, boutiques and brick enclosures on the beach for bonfires. Mature oak and magnolia trees line the sidewalks of this charming town.

Don’t miss: The legendary Ruskin Oak measures more than 28 feet in diameter and sits in a suburban lawn. To see this sprawling tree is to experience the lush landscape of the South.

Fredericksburg, Texas

spinner image guests taste wine at the torre di pietra winery in central texas
Guests taste wines at the Torre di Pietra Winery in central Texas.
Eric Gay/AP Images

Average high temperatures: upper 50s and 60s in January and February; 60s in March

France has the lavender fields of Provence. Texas has the wildflower meadows of Hill Country. Spanning about 25 counties near the geographical center of Texas, Hill Country is a rolling, geographically complex region. At its heart is the small city of Fredericksburg, famous for its German heritage as well as its vineyards.

Susan Johnson, 68, is quite familiar with Fredericksburg’s charms, having lived here since 2002. About a decade ago, after she retired from a corporate career, curiosity led her to plant some tempranillo vines and try to grow grapes. Now Johnson works seven days a week running Texas Heritage Vineyard and Winery. It’s one of the region’s more than 50 wineries, many of which have tasting rooms and are stops on winery tours — reservations required.

Although the limestone-rich soils can grow a range of varietals, Mediterranean species thrive in the strong Texas heat and the area’s alkaline dirt. “We have to educate our customers because our wines aren’t always the most well known,” she says. “They’re not the traditional cabernet, merlot or chardonnay. But the wines themselves are delightful.” Many of the wineries consider themselves “small batch,” meaning they do not distribute through a wine broker and instead sell their libations directly to customers, bars and restaurants.

On that local dining scene, plenty of restaurants host live music at least once a week, which means that “a person can see bands and hear live music any night,” Johnson says. After a few days of eating good food and drinking nice wine, move your body up nearby Enchanted Rock, a 1.6-mile out-and-back hike with about 435 feet of elevation gain. “It’s absolutely beautiful there,” Johnson says.

Don’t miss: Fredericksburg is also home to the National Museum of the Pacific War, which houses World War II artifacts and pays homage to the life and career of local native Adm. Chester W. Nimitz.

Saba

spinner image a woman hiking through the jungle on saba island in the carribean
Saba’s tropical trails are good for hiking.
robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

Average high temperatures: 80s in January through March

This Caribbean island, a Dutch territory, is only 5 square miles, and days revolve around hiking, diving and art. “There are people who come here and after three to four days are completely bored,” says artist Anna Keene, 71. “And then other people feel like they have discovered paradise.”

Though Saba’s shoreline can be treacherous, a harbor provides safe haven for boats, and a breakwater at Cove Bay creates a safe ocean swimming area. But to truly appreciate Saba’s pristine waters and vibrant sea life requires a boat ride into the Saba National Marine Park, which protects sea life and coral reefs. Exploration requires a guide from one of Saba’s dive shops, and divers will encounter healthier reefs than in other parts of the Caribbean, says Otto de Vries, 56, a scuba instructor.

There is one other way that Saba is different: The island — an active volcano — has no groundwater source, requiring locals to collect rainfall and desalinate seawater. “We don’t take long showers or luxurious baths on Saba,” Keene says. “Travelers should know that in advance.”

Don’t miss: Dive spot Man O’War Shoals stands out for its vibrant sea life: sponges, black coral and lobsters.

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Sea Ranch, California

spinner image left the exterior of the sea ranch lodge right the interior of the sea ranch lodge in northern california
Views of the Sea Ranch Lodge from outside and inside, in Northern California.
Courtesy The Sea Ranch Lodge

Average high temperatures: mid-50s in January; 60s in February and March

Planned communities might not seem like tourist destinations. Then there’s this oceanfront retreat, contained within a 10-mile stretch of magnificent coastline and intended as a second-home community for San Francisco residents in the 1960s.

The architects set out to build homes, a lodge and other community buildings that worked well with the landscape, says Donlyn Lyndon, 87, one of those architects and now a full-time resident. Design features that were innovative at the time include sloped roofs that work with the wind coming off the Pacific. Half of the 7,000-acre area was preserved as a commons, and hiking trails proliferate. “From the beginning it was very clear that there would be trails that would let you see the landscape without intruding into it,” Lyndon says.

Today Sea Ranch draws visitors from around the world. In addition to hiking and eating, whale watching is a popular pastime, as is seeing the harbor seals in the rookery.

Don’t miss: The Sea Ranch Chapel enlivens the senses with its stone floor, redwood interiors and colorful stained-glass windows.

Waimea (also called Kamuela), Hawai‘i

spinner image left sunset over makalawena beach right cowboys in waimea hawaii
Sunset along the Pacific, west of Waimea, left; ranches prevail in the hills nearer to town.
Greg Vaughn / Alamy Stock Photo / ZUMA Press, Inc

Average high temperatures: 50s in January through March

Some 40 miles northeast of the famed beaches of Kona on Hawai‘i’s Big Island is a picturesque ranch town where rolling hills nestle between two volcanoes. Renowned for clean mountain air, cool temperatures and lush forests, Waimea (pronounced WHY-may-uh) is “the most beautiful place on earth,” says native artisan Micah Kamohoalii.

It’s also the heart of Hawai‘i’s paniolo, or cowboy, culture and home to the state’s largest working ranch. Waimea is a quiet and peaceful refuge, ideal for travelers who want to experience authentic Hawaiian culture, says Neil “Dutch” Kuyper, 56, president and CEO of the Parker Ranch. “If you need Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Whole Foods, this is not the town for you,” Kuyper says. “But if you want a couple of farmers markets where you can get good groceries, and you appreciate a good view, it’s perfect.”

Waimea also serves as a home base to explore the island’s storied beaches without paying premium prices at oceanfront resorts.

Don’t miss: At the Paniolo Preservation Society, visitors learn how the first cattle were gifted to Hawai‘i in 1793 and how Mexican vaqueros mentored Hawaiians on ranching.

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Jerome, Arizona

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The road into Jerome, Arizona, where artists and locals have brought a mining town back to life.
Nick Fox / Alamy Stock Photo

Average high temperatures: 50s in January and February; low 60s in March

In its heyday as the home of one of the world’s most lucrative copper mines, Jerome had a population of roughly 15,000 people. But plummeting copper prices in the 1950s decimated the town, shrinking the population to around 50.

Jerome might well have disintegrated into Arizona’s high desert landscape if not for resourceful renegades who made their way here in the 1960s and found an inexpensive refuge, says Judy Jaaskelainen, 78, a member of the Jerome Artists’ Cooperative Gallery. “That’s when the hippies and artists came in,” she says. “Artists are not generally wealthy, but they are innovative.”

These new residents found beauty and opportunity in the historic buildings, says artist Marjorie Claus, 76, also part of the Jerome Artists’ Cooperative Gallery. “They’re the businesspeople of today,” she says, “contributing to the community and making a tight-knit place.” The buildings are fixed up now, as Jerome’s population has swelled — to about 500 residents.

Travelers can sate their thirst and hunger at saloons and restaurants located in the same places where miners drank and dined a hundred years ago. From the hillside town’s perch at an elevation of about 5,200 feet, visitors can find unimpeded views of the nearby Verde Valley and, farther north, the San Francisco Peaks, Claus says. In 1966, Jerome was designated a National Historic Landmark District, which limits new development and retains its charm. “There are no gas stations in town, no Walmart,” Claus says. “Jerome is small, and it will always be small. But there is still so much here to explore.”

Don’t miss: In a town as historically rich as Jerome, it’s worth taking a tour to understand the storied past. Jerome Ghost Tours may not uncover actual ghosts, but they will deliver an extensive and entertaining history of the town and area.

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