Frontiers of sun worship: getaways with no crowds

These little-known getaways offer sand, surf -- and no crowds.

If you’re tired of the usual winter sunspots, I feel your pain. Paying hefty sums to rub elbows with hordes of other tourists at look-alike resorts isn’t my idea of heaven either.

But there are alternatives. In my career as a globe-trotting travel writer, I’ve stumbled upon several up-and-coming locales. This new generation of winter getaways combine surf and beaches with fine accommodations and good food. Better yet, they’re still off the tourist track. To find out more, read on:

And English too!

It’s a blessing that The Beach Boys ignored Puerto Rico ( /1-800-667-0394) when writing Kokomo. Their catchy compendium of Caribbean place names diverted planeloads of tourists to Aruba and Jamaica, allowing this island to maintain its “best-kept secret” status. Resort packagers repeatedly overlook it. And the typical cruise ship barely docks long enough for passengers to race through Old San Juan, a walled capital roughly the size of Old Quebec City.

The city deserves better. Established in 1521, San Juan boasts the best-pre-served Spanish architecture in the entire Caribbean. Its narrow cobbled streets are lined with colonial churches, pastel-colored townhouses and enticing cafes that beg to be savored at a leisurely pace.

The spectacular mountains and dazzling ocean that surround San Juan are pretty impressive, too. And exploring them on your own is a breeze. As a semi-autonomous U.S. territory, Puerto Rico has reliable roads, effective emergency services and a solid tourism infrastructure. Moreover, English is widely spoken so even ‘fraidy cats like me can forgo the tour guide when visiting El Yunque Rainforest, an 11,000-hectare reserve notable for supersized trees, towering ferns, delicate orchids and dramatic waterfalls.

One giant leap for vacationers

Orlando is ground zero for theme-park aficionados, but discerning tourists may decide to give Disney World a miss and drive 45 minutes east to the Space Coast ( / 1-800-936-2326). This stretch of Atlantic coast is close enough to make Disney’s domain a day trip, but it also features idyllic beaches (which inland Orlando lacks) plus its own must-see sites.

For starters, there is Kennedy Space Center, a working NASA facility with a superlative collection of aeronautic antiques. The Visitor Complex comes loaded with interactive exhibits and offers daily chances to meet a real astronaut. Adjacent buildings house everything from a moon rock to a realistic training simulator that lets you take a virtual moon walk.

The Space Coast boasts down-to-earth attractions, too. At the Brevard Zoo, for instance, you can hand-feed giraffes and kayak through rhino territory. Rather rough it? Check out Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, America’s largest green turtle nesting ground, or Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

A different kind of wildlife is on display at Cocoa Beach Pier, the Eastern Seaboard’s premier surfing destination. Built in 1962, the 256-m-long structure has a funky, decidedly retro feel. People watchers can hang out on the beach, while wannabe Moon Doggies can learn to hang ten by signing on with one of several companies offering surfing lessons in the vicinity.

Life’s a beach

If you’re looking for an alternative to overcrowded Cancún, head west to the Gulf of Mexico ( After a four-hour drive from Cancún, you’ll reach a string of coastal communities around Progreso that offer a much quieter, gentler Mexican paradise. Along the emerald-green water, you’ll find clusters of upscale vacation homes instead of bland mega-resorts and local fishermen rather than raucous jet skiers.

Broad beaches that elsewhere would be filled with throngs (and thongs) remain blissfully empty save for an endless supply of seashells. At the wetland observation tower near Progreso you’ll see more pink flamingos than people. And 20 minutes south, at the Mayan ruins of Dzibilchaltún, you may find yourself the only tourist in sight as you join locals who come here to climb sublime temples and swim in the cenote ? a 44-m deep natural cistern that was once used for human sacrifices.

Mérida, about 15 minutes further down the road, is also off the tourist radar although the city’s colonial charms and chic amenities recently merited a story in Travel + Leisure magazine. To discover them for yourself, start with a horse-drawn calesa tour. Then browse through the myriad antique stores, silver stalls and traditional craft co-ops, or simply park yourself in one of the central square’s distinctive S-shaped benches (known as confidenciales) and watch the world go by.

Where to stay: where to get the best bang for your buck.