Off-Season Beach Bargains
What It's Like: In winter, when temperatures hover in the low forties, the town slows down and reverts to its historic New England whaling town roots.
What to Do: Though the second-home real estate boom has displaced some year-round residents, enough shops and restaurants stay open to keep the town lively (as long as you don't go looking for dinner after 8 p.m.). Fly a kite on starkly beautiful beaches, enjoy Italian and Portuguese cuisine without waiting an hour for a table, and shop for antiques without getting jostled by other tourists.
Where to Stay and Dine: With fireplaces de rigueur and few guests around, B&B's offer ideal accommodations, even for travelers who prefer anonymity. Try Brass Key Guesthouse (off-season doubles from $120), a collection of nine restored buildings, including cottages, surrounding a private courtyard. For dinner, try The Red Inn, a 200-year-old inn and restaurant with a seasonal menu that features freshly caught fish, or experience a Provincetown tradition at the Northern Italian Ciro and Sal's.
San Juan Island, Washington
What It's Like: Even Heathcliff and Cathy would agree: dramatically gray and misty days are even more romantic when watched from a window seat in a cozy hotel room. If a beach stroll is on the agenda, bring a waterproof jacket; temperatures are in the low forties.
What to Do: Rent a bike or drive to Lime Kiln State Park and the Lime Kiln lighthouse, the last in the state to receive electricity. In high season, visitors to the islands stand elbow-to-elbow at ferry railings to view the rugged landscape—Douglas firs teetering on rocky bluffs, bald eagles tracing circles overhead—but take the foggy half-hour ride from Friday Harbor to Orcas Island in winter, and you'll be able to hear the otters slip into the water along the shore in the stillness.
Where to Stay and Dine: Snag a room with a view, a fireplace, and a jetted tub at the Friday Harbor House, a 23-room boutique hotel just uphill from the water (off-season doubles from $119). Have a burger and local beer at the San Juan Brewing Co. and the Front Street Alehouse (1 Front Street; 360/378-2337; www.sanjuanbrewing.com), or sample Asian flavors at Thai Kitchen (140 First Street; 360/378-1917).
Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
What It's Like: It's deliciously lonesome out here; no development is permitted on the island's beaches, so even the boardwalks that bridge the dunes from water to parking areas seem strangely unnatural. Still, bundle up a bit when you board the ferry in winter—temperatures are usually around 50.
What to Do: Bring a book and maybe a kite, lazily keep an eye on the harbor for the next ferry, eavesdrop on the fishermen at dinnertime, linger a little in shops to pick up local news. You'll find yourself slowing down to island time. That alone is worth the trip.
Where to Stay and Dine: Captain's Landing Hotel, Dockage & Suites (252/928-1999; thecaptainslanding.com; off-season suites from $110) offers private decks, harbor views, and full kitchens. Grab a sandwich at Flying Melon (252/928-2533) and have lunch on the beach, then enjoy the lack of crowds at local favorite Café Atlantic (252/928-4861), on the water.
Sea Ranch, California
What It's Like: The collection of unpainted wood houses tucked into the sea grass and dunes above the churning Pacific offers a quiet and romantic exploration of the glorious Redwood Coast. It's not even very cold: winter temperatures are in the upper fifties.
What to Do: Stroll along the cliffs and through the misty redwood forest. Down on the beach, there's a lunatic soundtrack of laughing gulls and barking sea lions; starfish and urchins pose in tidal pools; cartoony brown pelicans fly by in formation; and gray whales can often be spotted migrating north from February to April. Don't miss a hike up to the Sea Ranch Chapel, an architecturally whimsical (and moving) shout-out to sixties' pantheistic spirituality.
Where to Stay and Dine: Stay (and eat) in the Sea Ranch Lodge (off-season ocean-view rooms from $169), where the only guest room without an ocean view offers a private hot tub instead, or take advantage of an off-season third-night-free special at the lodge's vacation home rentals, Sea Ranch Escape.
South Padre Island, Texas
What It's Like: The 34 miles of beaches and dunes are wonderfully undeveloped. Pre-spring break months are not only mercifully deserted (there are fewer than 3,000 residents) but also warm; the mercury can climb to the mid seventies.
What to Do: Active sports fans can try windsurfing, kite-surfing, or sand-surfing. Board-free doesn't mean bored, though: opt for a horseback ride on the beach or paddle a kayak through back bays and inlets, jump a fishing charter or dolphin-watching cruise—or just drive out to the end of the northbound road, cross the dunes to an empty beach, and pretend you're on a deserted island.
Where to Stay and Dine: The Brown Pelican Inn (207 W. Aries; 956/761-2722; www.brownpelican.com; off-season doubles $110) is a charming bay-side inn with wraparound porches and eight generous rooms. South Padre Brewing Company will prepare your catch and serve it up with a local beer, while at Ted's (5717 Padre Boulevard; 956/761-5327; open daily until 3 p.m.), you can eavesdrop on Texas-style surf lingo and enjoy a Tex-Mex breakfast.
Chincoteague Island, Virginia
What It's Like: You won't find many humans around Chincoteague and neighboring Assateague in winter, but rich wildlife (minus the mosquitoes) remains, despite the mid-forties temperatures.
What to Do: Rent a bike: the flat terrain can tempt even the laziest cyclists to meander down quiet side roads to investigate plantation houses, small towns, and fishermen's landings. Ride over the bridge to Assateague and pedal the 15 miles of trails and roads along long stretches of empty white beaches. Deer, snow geese, dolphin, horseshoe crabs, and piping plovers live here, but there are signs of previous human visitors—plaques commemorating shipwrecks, a cemetery overgrown with sea grass, and a curiously placed lighthouse.
Where to Stay and Dine: The Refuge Inn (7058 Maddox Boulevard; 888/257-0038; www.refugeinn.com; doubles from $78, closed until March 1, 2008) is a low-key, low-profile hotel with oversize rooms right at the entrance of the Wildlife Refuge. The hotel rents bikes and has its own herd of Chincoteague ponies. Suites with full kitchens afford a little freedom from uninspired seafood restaurants. Drive up to Easton or St. Michaels for fine dining. See T+L's list of suggestions.
Port Orford, Oregon
What It's Like: Winter weather hovers in the mid fifties (only 10 degrees cooler than summer), and the rainy season tapers off at the end of January, so dress accordingly—you'll want to be outside while you're here.
What to Do: Visit the lighthouse at Cape Blanco, a stark, whitewashed sentinel at the westernmost point in the continental U.S.; below, waves thrash and churn around sea stacks and dump tangled driftwood on the shore. Then follow the rugged coastline 10 miles north to Floras Lake State Park and hike the trail to Blacklock Point, which ends at the edge of a long, curving stretch of 80-foot-high coastal cliffs, complete with a waterfall that plunges right into the ocean.
Where to Stay and Dine: Home by the Sea B&B (Port Orford; 877/332-2855; www.homebythesea.com; off-season doubles from $95) offers two snug rooms, both with picture windows over the dramatic coast. Enjoy some post-hike chowder and homemade pie at Crazy Norwegian's Fish and Chips (259 Sixth Street, Port Orford; 541/332-8601)—there's even free Wi-Fi.
What It's Like: All north woods, beach dunes, and lakeshore, this region was both Hemingway's boyhood vacationland and location of most of his Nick Adams stories. It's bracingly cold here in winter, with daily highs a little below freezing, but that doesn't keep anyone indoors.
What to Do: Sled, snowshoe, snowmobile, ice-skate, and ski both downhill and cross-country, all within view of the lakes. And to really embrace the charms of cold weather, take a winter raft trip through the snowy woods along the Jordan River.
Where to Stay and Dine: Weathervane Terrace Inn and Suite (111 Pine River Lane; 800/552-0025; weathervane-chx.com) has suites, with fireplaces, kitchenettes, and lake views from $79. For dinner, Stafford's Weathervane is a grist mill-turned-restaurant styled by Earl Young, the local architect responsible for most of the Hobbit-y stone buildings in town. Get a table near the meteorite and boulder fireplace or by the window overlooking the channel that runs between the lakes. For a truly local breakfast or lunch experience, head to Juilleret's (1418 Bridge Street; 231/547-9212).
Block Island, Rhode Island
What It's Like: Peace, quiet, and…cold. It's wonderfully deserted here in winter, but be fully prepared for temperatures that hover around freezing—the mainland is 12 miles away, and in winter the ferry runs just once a day.
What to Do: Walk the hiking trails along the cliffs and the 17-mile shoreline where harbor seals loll and bark amid driftwood and smooth beach glass. Even the traffic-free roads bordered by those picturesque fieldstone walls make you feel like taking a walk in a different era. The maritime solitude begs an engrossing novel: Moby Dick or The Shipping News sound just right.
Where to Stay and Dine: The several properties managed by The 1661 Inn are just about your only choices at this time of year. Rooms start at $55, but opt for a larger one with a fireplace and hot tub. Restaurant options are limited; try Club Soda (401/466-5397), Swashbucklers (401/466-2822), and the Albion Pub (401/466-9990).
San Simeon, California
What It's Like: Winter temperatures stay comfortable (in the fifties and sixties), perfect for spying two-ton elephant seals and migrating gray whales from the long stretches of empty beach.
What to Do: Walk the rugged, lovely coastline at William Randolph Hearst State Beach, with its coves and rolling breakers and the dramatic bluffs above studded with outcroppings of native Monterey pine. Set aside time to visit the vast Hearst Castle, the newspaper magnate's fanciful Shangri-la.
Where to Stay and Dine: Yes, the Cavalier Oceanfront Resort is a Best Western, but the king ocean-view rooms have wood-burning fireplaces and private patios, and are priced from $139 a night. Head down the coast to the next town, Cambria, for a nice dinner at the Black Cat (1602 Main Street, Cambria; 805/927-1600; www.blackcatbistro.com).
The Hamptons, New York
What It's Like: The celebrities have packed up croquet mallets, backed their SUVs over the commoners, and driven back to the city for the season leaving, in their wake, silence. With no traffic, no restaurant lines, no parking permit headaches, no party circuit, the Hamptons are at their loveliest in winter.
What to Do: Cooper's Beach in Southampton will fulfill both your beach-combing and star-gazing impulses with views of the glorious, blustery seascape as well as the graceful rooflines of beachfront estates. Then stroll along Main Street in Southampton and East Hampton and visit the posh boutiques and stores. Though some have closed for the season, you can still hit the likes of Scoop, Eileen Fisher, DKNY, and Saks.
Where to Stay and Dine: At the Southampton Inn (91 Hill Street, Southampton, 800/832-6500; www.southamptoninn.com), the same rooms that run $489 a night in summer can be yours for $149 in winter (tip: request a Designer Suite when booking). Grab a table at hotspots Nick and Toni's or Della Femina (99 North Main Street, East Hampton, 631/329-6666; www.dellafemina.com) where you'll actually be seated without a wait and get to focus on the food without fighting the urge to gawk..