10 Greatest Escapes in America

Get away without going far away. These amazing destinations are fun, beautiful, and just a few hours from home.

December 13, 2010

Ready for a little time off? We searched the country to find fabulous vacation spots. Whether you're looking for a weeklong family trip, a romantic escape, or an adventurous back-to-nature holiday, we've got the perfect place for you. So head out and experience some of the astonishingly beautiful corners of the nation.

Coastal Splendor
Big Sur, California

Dramatic cliffs covered in redwoods soar above the Pacific Ocean. The climate is temperate, the sunsets breathtaking. If you're looking for utopia, Big Sur should be on your short list. About three hours south of San Francisco on Coastal Route 1, this 90-mile stretch between Carmel and San Simeon is one of those rare sanctuaries—an unspoiled wonderland of fragrant old-growth forests and delicate monarch butterflies that attracts artists and dreamers from around the world.


The Growing Edge retreat is perched on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. This airy modern guesthouse is not only a relaxing place to rest and realign your priorities, but it also offers holistic treatments—such as personalized sessions in yoga, meditation, and ayurvedic mind-body therapies—for those so inclined.

Whatever you do, make time to visit the area's best-kept secret: Pfeiffer Beach. Take the first paved road south of the post office for two miles to the shore.

Rooms, $140 to $225 per night, double occupancy; growingedge.org. For information about the area, log on to bigsurcalifornia.org.


Dream Retreat

Chetek, Wisconsin

Sometimes real luxury isn't breakfast delivered to your door each morning, fireside massages, Egyptian cotton towels, and goose down duvets. Sometimes it's all that and getting to take a vacation without the kids—yours or anyone else's, for that matter.

The deluxe, out-of-the-way, couples-only Canoe Bay lodge is a slice of serenity on 280 forested acres in northwestern Wisconsin. With just 38 guests at a time, it can seem so quiet, you may think it's just you two.

Although there are numerous things to do—kayaking, canoeing, hiking, fishing, swimming—proprietors Dan and Lisa Dobrowolski find that most couples spend their time relaxing alone on their private decks. The big activity: heading to the lodge for the fabulous five-course chef's menu (which might include pan-roasted free-range chicken in a sage sauce with buttermilk potatoes, or wild rice?dusted Wisconsin rainbow trout in a cranberry beurre blanc) and choosing a bottle from the award-winning wine list. Rooms, $325 to $875 per night, double occupancy; canoebay.com. No children; no smoking indoors or outdoors.


Island Oasis

Isle au Haut, Maine

Live out your nautical fantasy at Keeper's House Inn, a romantic seaside B&B that's beside a working lighthouse built in 1907. The only way to get to this haven, six miles off the coast, is by mail boat. After just one visit to the inn, where there's no phone or e-mail, and no more than 10 guests, you'll never again want to face the madding summer crowds of the typical Maine tourist town.

After breakfast, borrow a bike from the inn and go exploring. More than half the island is part of Acadia National Park and features 18 miles of shore and forest trails. Take the road to Isle au Haut village (population: 45), a lobster fishing hamlet, for a trip back in time: Popsicles at the general store cost 27 cents, and the town hall hosts square dances.

Nights at the inn are lit only by the glow of gas lamps and wood-burning stoves. After a dinner of fresh local seafood and peach pie, fall asleep to the sound of the waves lapping the rocky coast, and dream about coming back next summer. Rooms, $310 to $385 a night per couple (May 20 through October 23; includes meals); keepershouse.com


Beauty and the Beach

Cumberland Island, Georgia

This barrier island in Georgia is one of the great secrets of the East Coast: a rare unspoiled gem of wide, beautiful, pristine beaches and old Southern charm. Visit with your family and you'll quickly understand why glamorous couple JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette chose to be married there in 1996.

Once maintained by the Carnegie family as a private estate, this 17 1/2-mile-long, five-mile-wide strip of arcadia was designated a National Seashore in 1972. After playing in the surf and relaxing on the shore, you can tour some of the ruins of the Carnegie family's mansions and have a picnic under magnificent live oak trees. Cumberland Island is also a breeding ground for sea turtles and home to herds of wild horses that roam freely.

Check in to the Greyfield Inn, a graceful mansion built in 1901 by Thomas Carnegie and currently run by his great-great-grandson, Oliver. Check out the property's two cottages; the larger one has a deck from which you can watch the horses graze in the marshes until the sea turtles come home. Rooms and cottages, $395 to $575 per night, double occupancy; greyfield inn.com. For information about the island, go to cumberlandisland.org.


Soothing Sanctuary
Taos, New Mexico

It's fitting that the valley whose natural beauty inspired such visionaries as Georgia O'Keefe, D. H. Lawrence, and Ansel Adams would be home to a new vision of the future: ultraluxe, yet ultra-sustainable tourism. El Monte Sagrado Living Resort & Spa, a sanctuary and "rejuvenation center" at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Taos, is a treat for the stressed-out soul. All 36 of the resort's lushly appointed rooms are decorated in the style of a different nation or region of the United States, and the property's celebrated De la Tierra restaurant features locally grown and organic food. Spend your days being pampered at the Living Spa or swimming in El Monte Sagrado's chlorine-free, environmentally friendly pools and hot tubs.

This $50 million piece of adobe heaven is the brainchild of former newspaper magnate and environmental entrepreneur Thomas Worrell Jr. El Monte Sagrado uses water-recycling systems, alternative building materials, and energy-saving programs; in four years, according to Worrell, the resort will be off the electricity grid. Rooms, $325 to $1,095 per night, double occupancy; elmontesagrado.com


The Emerald Isles

San Juan Islands, Washington

This Puget Sound and Gulf of Georgia archipelago—midway between Seattle and Vancouver Island—is a verdant, well-preserved vacationer's paradise for families and adventurers alike. From kayaking on the placid waters off San Juan Island to biking the circuit around Lopez Island (the flattest of the bunch) to climbing 2,409-foot Mount Constitution on Orcas Island, these lush isles offer a long list of activities for the outward bound. And for lazy days, there's the fragrant Lavender Fields Day Spa on San Juan Island; Orcas Island Pottery, with its beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces; excellent guided birding tours; and a wide choice of whale-watching trips.

A centrally located place to stay during your archipelago-hopping adventure is the 82-acre Lakedale Resort on San Juan Island. Convenient to both bustling Friday Harbor (where the ferries arrive) and quaint Roche Harbor, this kid-friendly property offers spacious rooms in the main lodge, waterfront log cabins, and campgrounds. Rooms, $169 to $209 per night, double occupancy; log cabins, $229 to $279; lakedale.com. For information about the islands, see guidetosanjuans.com.


Country Charm

Asheville, North Carolina

Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers meet, surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains, lies the small metropolis of Asheville. With its laid-back vibe, great restaurants, superb art galleries, and rich musical history, it feels like the Santa Fe of the East.

The combination of rural Appalachian appeal and unexpected sophistication makes this university town an ideal spot for almost any kind of vacation. Take a tour of the Biltmore Estate, George Vanderbilt's 1895 mansion, which features a winery (and 250 rooms!); visit the town's many craft galleries; and browse the numerous bookstores, vintage clothing shops, and organic markets. Kids and outdoorsy types will be thrilled with the hiking, mountain biking, and white-water rafting opportunities in the area.

The perfect home base for your explorations: Highland Lake Inn—A Country Retreat, about 30 minutes south of Asheville. Suitable for families or couples, this lovely lakeside getaway has a menagerie of goats, donkeys, chickens, and peacocks and offers fishing, canoeing, yoga, and massages. Rooms, $109 to $239 per night, double occupancy; cottages, $179 to $409; hlinn.com. For information about Asheville, go to ashevillechamber.org.


Home on the Mountain Range
Tabernash, Colorado

Look out the window of your luxe log cabin and marvel at 4,000 acres of lush forests, rolling hills, and the spectacular Rockies. Is that a moose in the distance? Welcome to the magic of the Wild West.

Outdoor enthusiasts and greenhorns alike are flocking to Devil's Thumb Ranch to experience the thrill of saddling up and setting out to explore the real mountain country. In summer, take your family horseback riding, hiking, kayaking, and fly-fishing. In winter, try the 78 miles of trails for skiing and snowshoeing.

This is not your typical dude ranch: Owners Bob and Suzanne Fanch carefully constructed and restored the buildings on the property, and the ranch recently earned an award from the Environmental Protection Agency for its earth-friendly practices, which include heating its log cabins with a geothermal pump.

The Fanches are as sensitive to their guests' needs as they are to the environment. After a hard day of play, you can unwind with a massage in the spa and dine on natural beef and organic vegetables. After all, even cowboys need a little TLC. Rooms and luxury cabins, $189 to $750 per night, double occupancy; devilsthumbranch.com


Wild Adventure
Willow, Alaska

Escape from e-mail, cell phones, and any other contact with the modern world at deep-in-the-woods Birch Pond Lodge. Seventy-five miles north of Anchorage, this remote refuge sits on 100-plus beautiful acres of birch and white spruce forests and has jaw-dropping views of snowcapped Mount McKinley. The lodge is filled with comfortable overstuffed furniture; the property's two cozy cabins, handcrafted from trees felled by spruce bark beetles, feature wood-burning stoves and solar power. Favorite daytime activities include hiking into the neighboring 22,685-acre Nancy Lake Recreation Area; paddling lake to lake in a canoe; tracking moose, lynx, and marmots; or taking a salmon-fishing trip in one of the crystal-clear rivers. After an invigorating day of nature, you'll love returning to the lodge for a hearty dinner of freshly caught fish, delicious local produce, and hand-cranked ice cream.

If you dare visit Birch Pond in winter, when the temperature can drop to 30 degrees below zero and the snow can reach four feet, there are some rare treats in store for you: dog-sledding trips, cross-country skiing in the park, and nighttime excursions on skis to see the awe-inspiring northern lights. Rooms, $380 to $500 per night, double occupancy (two-day minimum stay; includes meals and activities); birchpondlodge.com


City of Delights

Austin, Texas

The capital of Texas is the capital of cool. You can choose from 100 different musical acts, have dinner at the movies (Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, drafthouse .com), and witness a million-and-a-half bats swooping out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge at sunset—all in one night. This vibrant city, in the south-central part of the state, is an intriguing blend of urban area and wilderness. Bustling streets lined with museums, caf? shops, and office buildings surround parks, lakes, and nature trails. The Barton Creek Greenbelt (part of the 24,000-acre Balcones Canyonlands Preserve) is in the middle of the city, and it's the place to go for hiking, rock climbing, and tubing down the creek. Nearby, you'll find even more natural beauty, including the gorgeous displays at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (wildflower.org).

While there are many great places to stay, check out the Hotel San Jos?n South Congress Avenue. Renovated using recycled and nontoxic building materials, the hotel is literally a breath of fresh air. Ask the staff to point you in the direction of their favorite barbecue joint (Austin is home to some of the best in the country) or try the local goat cheese at Wink (512-482-8868), one of the city's new gastronomic hot spots. Rooms, $85 to $290 per night, double occupancy; sanjosehotel.com. For information about the city, see austintexas.org.


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