From basking on the beach to kayaking off the coast, here are a few of our favorite trips that stretch your dollar as far as it will go. Most cost less than $250 a day, including all the essentials—hotel rates, sample airfares, and more.
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ST. JOHN, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS From $233 a day per person. Just a 15-minute ferry ride from St. Thomas, the undeveloped green hills, pristine beaches, and expansive national park (which covers two-thirds of the island) of St. John can fulfill any tropical fantasy.
WHAT TO DO Check into recycling guru Stanley Selengut's Harmony Studios (340/776-6240; www.maho.org), a 12-room solar-powered resort overlooking Maho Bay. Then go sea-kayaking with Arawak Expeditions (340/693-8312; www.arawakexp.com), take a hike through the park, or just sunbathe all day on Francis Bay.
THE MATH Doubles at Harmony Studios start at $185. USAirways has flights from Philadelphia to St. Thomas beginning at $418; from Las Vegas, United flights start at $505. The Transportation Services of St. John (340/776-6282; $3) runs regular ferries from St. Thomas.
WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA From $241 a day per person. Set on 1,700 wooded acres in southwestern Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands, Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa (800/422-2736; www.nemacolin.com) has every activity from skeet shooting and horseback riding to detoxifying seaweed wraps and massages.
WHAT TO DO Sign up for the resort's spring Escape Package and, along with a night's stay, you get your choice of a 50-minute Swedish Massage, a round of golf on the Links championship course, or an hour-long horseback ride.
THE MATH Residents of most Eastern cities can drive to save on airfare (the resort is 181 miles from Cleveland, 183 miles from Washington, D.C.). Weekend rates for the spring Escape Package start at $482 per night for two, with a room in the historic mountain lodge.
SAVANNAH, GEORGIA From $149 a day per person. With its mint juleps, Spanish moss, and 21 historic squares lined with antebellum mansions, no other Southern city conjures up images of genteel decadence quite like Old Savannah. In March, azaleas paint the sidewalks pink.
WHAT TO DO Wander one of the largest urban National Historic Landmark Districts in the country (2 1/2 square miles), glimpse ornate Victorian mansions from a trolley, or take a tour of brightly hued gardens with Savannah Walks (888/728-9255; www.savannahwalks.com). Visit Flannery O'Connor's childhood house (912/233-6014) and the collection of American Impressionist paintings (like Childe Hassam's Avenue of the Allies) at the Telfair Museum of Art (912/232-1177; www.telfair.org), the South's oldest art museum.
THE MATH Doubles at the Hamilton-Turner Inn (888/448-8849; www.hamilton-turnerinn.com), a Second Empire estate on Lafayette Square with 18 antiques-filled rooms, start at $169. Flights on US Airways from Phoenix to Savannah go for $389; from Milwaukee they're $193.
CHICAGO TO CALIFORNIA $230 a day per person. Travel from the Windy City to the Pacific Coast in just over 52 hours aboard the California Zephyr train known to railway buffs as the Silver Lady. See the wilds of the Wild West as you pass through six states—Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada—on your way to California.
WHAT TO DO Order a glass of Bordeaux, and then grab a seat upstairs in the Zephyr's Superliner Sightseer Lounge car to watch the epic Western scenery go by while the train chugs through the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada.
THE MATH Amtrak Vacations (800/937-7245; www.amtrak.com) has rail/air packages that include two nights in a standard two-person sleeper, all meals aboard the train, a night in San Francisco at the Sheraton Fisherman's Wharf, and a return flight from San Francisco to Chicago on United, from $1,377 for two.
SAN JUAN ISLANDS, WASHINGTON From $143 a day per person. The 743 evergreen San Juan Islands, formed by glaciers, are rich in wildlife but short on people (about 40 of the islands are inhabited). Orcas, Lopez, Shaw, and San Juan Island are the easiest to reach—just a three-hour bus ride from Seattle to the ferry that leaves from Anacortes. Once ashore on San Juan, head for the town of Friday Harbor.
WHAT TO DO With pods of orcas breaching offshore (from May through October) and bald eagles soaring above (year-round), the San Juan Islands are a prime spot for watching animals follow their instincts. The best way to do it: Paddle a kayak with Sea Quest Expeditions (888/589-4253; www.sea-quest-kayak.com; day trips $59) or board a wildlife cruise with Western Prince Cruises (800/757-6722; www.orcawhalewatch.com; half day $49).
THE MATH Doubles at Friday Harbor House (360/378-8455; www.fridayharborhouse.com), a 20-room boutique hotel overlooking Friday Harbor on San Juan, start at $130 and include breakfast. A flight from Denver to Seattle on Alaska Air is $260; on Northwest, flights from Nashville are $148. Ferries from Anacortes to Friday Harbor (206/464-6400; www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries; $8.20 per passenger off-peak) make the hour-long crossing seven times a day; the Airporter Shuttle (866/235-5247; www.enjoytheride.com; $56 round-trip) bus leaves regularly from Seattle's SeaTac Airport, taking you directly to the ferry terminal.
OAXACA, MEXICO From $240 a day per person. The vibrant zocalo and hilltop ruins of Monte Alban bring Malcolm Lowry-esque visions of Mexico to life, but food lovers head to Oaxaca for its mezcals and moles. Sample them at one of the city's markets (the best is Abastos), along with fresh tamales or chile-roasted grasshoppers (called chapulines).
WHAT TO DO Susana Trilling's Seasons of My Heart cooking school (52-951/518-7726; www.seasonsofmyheart.com) has daylong classes ($75) based on her PBS series and best-selling cookbook. The lesson begins with a trip to the market to buy ingredients and ends with a traditional five-course Oaxacan meal that you prepare from scratch.
THE MATH Doubles at the stylish, centrally located Hotel Casa Oaxaca (52-951/514-4173; www.casa-oaxaca.com) start at $100. Flights to Oaxaca on Mexicana from San Antonio (connecting in Mexico City) can be found for $635; from Los Angeles they're $569.
BELIZE From $345 a day per person. A quick flight to Belize and you're in the heart of a dense selva that delivers an adventurer's paradise: you can swing from vines, hike among ruins, and bump through Class IV rapids.
WHAT TO DO The Lodge at Chaa Creek (501/824-2037; www.chaacreek.com), a luxury nature retreat near San Ignacio, has an Adventure-Inclusive Package that comes with all meals, access to the lodge's hiking trails and butterfly farm, and unlimited onsite activities (bicycling, horseback riding, canoeing). Day-trips to the Mayan ruins of Tikal in neighboring Guatemala ($289 for four people) and tours of the Actun Tunichil Mucnal jungle cave ($95) cost extra.
THE MATH The package is $175 per person per night, with a three-night minimum. Direct flights from Dallas to Belize City on American start at $530; from Miami they're $512.
PORTO, PORTUGAL From $335 a day per person. Wander the waterfront of Porto, Portugal's industrial northern city. Its revitalized neighborhoods—trendsetting galleries in Baixa, Foz's and Ribeira's high-style restaurants and nightclubs—form the backdrop for Old Porto's burgeoning café society.
WHAT TO DO Tour Álvaro Siza's National Contemporary Art Museum (351-2/615- 6500; www.serralves.pt), in the modern gardens of the Serralves Foundation. Visit the wine cellars of the port-producing suburb of Vila Nova de Gaia and taste their most prized vintages. Grab a plate of ovos moles (egg tarts) and watch the beautiful people at Cafeina (100 Rua do Padrão; 351-22/610-8059); in the after hours, hit the River Café (271 Rua do Ouro; 351-22/619-9680), a dance club in a minimalist warehouse.
THE MATH Doubles at the Porto Carlton Hotel (351-22/340-2300; www.pestana.com)—a 16th-century, 48-room property on the Douro River, in the heart of a medieval corner of Ribeira—start at $158. TAP Air Portugal (800/221-7370; www.tap-airportugal.us) has flights from Newark to Porto for $768.
COUNTY CORK, IRELAND From $215 a day per person. Pick up your rental car at Shannon Airport (near Limerick) and head southwest through the green hills of County Cork (known as the Rebel County), where you can wind along coastal country roads and sample the best pub food in Ireland.
WHAT TO DO Make the port city of Cork your base of operations for touring counties Cork and Kerry—easily done in three or four days. Head for Kinsale in west Cork, known for its star-shaped late-17th-century Charles Fort and exemplary cuisine. Try the oak-smoked salmon or the roast Irish duckling at the Blue Haven restaurant (353-21/477-2209; www.bluehavenkinsale.com). Follow the 110-mile Ring of Kerry road along the perimeter of the Iveragh Peninsula, which offers views of the mist-cloaked mountains, lakes, and rustic villages for which Ireland is famous.
THE MATH Opened in 1845, the classic 90-room Imperial Hotel (353-21/427-4040; www.flynnhotels.com/imperial) has played host to writers such as Sir Walter Scott, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Charles Dickens; standard doubles start at $100. Sceptre Ireland (800/221-0924; www.sceptreireland.com) creates four-day fly-drive à la carte packages that include airfare on Aer Lingus to Shannon and a rental car with unlimited mileage. It's $426 per person from Boston or New York or $516 from Chicago.
Blue Haven restaurant
Imperial Hotel, Cork
Pestana Porto Hotel
If you want to stay in the old part of town this boutique property has balconies overlooking the Douro River.
Hotel Casa Oaxaca
The bare-bones hotel serves simple food and drink.
Friday Harbor House
No car required here. Ride the ferry through the San Juan Islands and the Salish Sea to San Juan Island itself, and walk two blocks to the Friday Harbor House where 23 modern guest rooms and suites have Arts and Crafts furniture, fireplaces, and oversize jet tubs, and most rooms have views of the harbor and pine-covered islands.
Room to Book: Any room with a full view of Friday Harbor and Brown and Shaw islands.
Made famous by its mention in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, this Second Empire mansion was first built as a private residence in 1873. Just steps from the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on Lafayette Square, the inn has 17 individually designed guestrooms which may contain 11-foot windows, antique four-poster beds, claw-foot tubs, and private entrances. Also available is a separate carriage house with three bedrooms and four baths. Afternoon wine and hors d’oeuvres are served in the parlor, and the included breakfast features freshly baked muffins and eggs Benedict with hand-carved ham.
Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa
Lodge at Chaa Creek
At the fothills of the Maya Mountains, this 365-acre jungle “eco-resort” sits on banks of the Macal River. Mick and Lucy Fleming opened the location in 1981 with an emphasis on providing a comfortable experience while cooperating with nature. Community causes benefit from the donation of 10 percent of their revenue (the “Chaa Creek Cares” program.) A staff of 135 maintains the 23 rooms, which are thatched with palm and filled with locally-influenced decorations and brightly-colored accents. Adventure tours include horseback riding, mountain biking, and trips to nearby historic sites. Avoid the Belizean rainy season by booking February through May.