Americans are gearing up to hit the road and the air during the upcoming two months in search of the ultimate spring break destination—and record-breaking gas prices don’t seem to be holding them back. Despite the squeeze on family budgets, hotel and air bookings have increased significantly over 2011, according to American Express booking data.
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“Everyone seems to be ready to get away for spring break or visit family in another part of the country,” says Katie Bower, an American Express travel specialist, citing statistics that show air sales have increased by 13% and hotel sales are up by more than 8%.
Top domestic destinations this year include cityscapes such as New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco and warm-weather hot spots such as Miami, Honolulu, and West Palm Beach.
The top spot for hotel bookings? Las Vegas aces it. Meanwhile, college students will rock out at Arizona's Lake Havasu and the Colorado River; South Padre Island on the Texas gulf; and assorted beaches along the Florida coast. If you want to avoid the girls-gone-wilder scene, shake off winter doldrums with one of our Top 10 Ultimate Spring Break Getaways.
San Diego, CA
For the young set
Sunshine, sandy beaches and gently swaying palm trees: San Diego is the prototypical Southern California destination. And it’s as kid-friendly as they come, with the world-class San Diego Zoo topping the list of standout attractions. Blessed with a mild climate, San Diego offers countless opportunities to get outside and play, whether at a beach or at a theme park such as SeaWorld, Legoland or San Diego Wild Animal Park.
And there’s a wide range of accommodations, from budget to luxury, which makes it the perfect place for a family spring fling.
Start the day at Mission Beach, where you can build a sand castle or play in gentle surf; then visit Balboa Park, the perfect place to go for a museum stroll. The park has 1,000-plus acres with 15 museums to choose from, among them the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, San Diego Natural History Museum and San Diego Model Railroad Museum. Looking for a thrill? Surf’s up at the San Diego Surfing Academy, which has lessons year-round for students of all ages. Or hop a ferry to Coronado and bike miles of paths.
Sun and baseball
Hey, batter: Swing into spring and get a head start on the MLB season in Scottsdale, AZ, where Cactus League games are scheduled through April 4. Scottsdale, just east of Phoenix, is the off-season home to the San Francisco Giants, Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks. You don’t need to be a baseball fan, however, to get excited about spring training games. There’s nothing better than sitting in the stands on a balmy day eating a hot dog and drinking a beer, even if you don’t know the difference between a Bronx cheer and a bullpen.
The region has much to offer in addition to baseball. Scottsdale is known for its luxury hotels, high-end shopping, 100-plus art galleries and world-class golf courses. In addition, Phoenix offers non-stop nightlife, major museums and the Desert Botanical Garden, featuring some of the world’s most unusual plants. A spring bonus: many wildflowers and cactus will be in bloom.
Also on tap; Every year through April the outdoor amphitheater at the Scottsdale Civic Center Mall comes alive with Native American music, dance, art and traditional foods. And people interested in learning more about local tribes can visit the Heard Museum, which specializes in Native American art.
Celebrate spring with a red-white-and-blue holiday in the nation’s capital. In addition to its historical significance and spectacular museums, you’ll be there in time for the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which this year marks the 100th anniversary of the gift of 3,000 trees to the United States from Japan.
The festival, which focuses on the blossoming of thousands of cherry trees on the Tidal Basin, is scheduled March 20 through April 27, but officials are always a little worried about the peak bloom date. This year they’re more nervous than usual because of a mild winter, which may mean an early bloom. But that hasn’t affected plans for a major centennial celebration, which will include a parade, concerts, fireworks and a kite-flying festival.
And there’s much more to see and do in the capital: monuments, museums, the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian, the list is long and impressive. One popular way to tackle the city is with a hop-on-hop-off trolley tour, which is flexible enough to give you time to see the things that mean the most to you. Another favorite is a nighttime tour of the city, which is stunning when lighted. And if your timing is right, there’s always the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, scheduled for April 9.
Yosemite National Park
A natural high
Park it at one of the natural wonders of the world, awe-inspiring Yosemite National Park. Spring is one of the best times to visit Yosemite, if you want to avoid the crowds. And there's plenty to see, whether or not there's snow on the ground. Waterfalls will roar, the lakes will mirror the crystal clear sky and Half Dome will rule over its subalpine domain.
One of the first wilderness parks established in the United States, Yosemite is best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles, there are deep valleys, wide meadows, ancient giant sequoias and a vast wilderness area. Many areas are closed in spring—in fact, some may not open until summer—but Yosemite Valley is accessible by car all year. Year-round lodging is available, ranging from tent cabins to a high-end motel, and shops, museums and information centers welcome guests.
The park has about 145,000 visitors during March, about one-quarter what it gets in August. So you won’t have to fight crowds, and in some parts of the valley, you may find yourself staring up at a thundering waterfall with no one else around to spoil your photo.
Lanai Island, HI
Get a passport to the past on a Hawaiian island that has so few tourists you can stake claim to your own deserted stretch of beach. Lanai, once a Dole pineapple plantation, now offers visitors a handful of great hotels and a low-key, lost-in-time ambiance that will make you believe you just stepped off a Pan Am Clipper, circa 1950.
Small and sparsely populated, Lanai has miles of open space and no traffic or traffic lights. The busiest spot on the island is the village of Lanai City, with a handful of clapboard mom-and-pop restaurants, gift shops, two small markets and the 89-year-old Hotel Lanai. The lion’s share of tourists stay at one of two Four Seasons Lanai resorts, Manele Bay—an expansive beachfront hotel perched atop a red-rock cliff-- or at Koele, in the interior of the island. Koele is one of the state’s most unusual hotels and is designed to look like a Chinese-style hunting lodge tucked among the pines.
There’s snorkeling, hiking, horseback riding, yoga and golf. Or you can stake out one of those deserted beaches and call it your own.
With nearly 100 feet of snow since Jan. 1, Telluride has managed to plow through winter with plenty of powder, unlike many other U.S. ski resorts. Add to that the mountain village’s spectacular scenery and you have a great spring getaway destination.
Telluride, once a rough-and-ready mining town, has a Wild West flavor that blends well with its luxury hotels, high-end shops and gourmet restaurants. The old town is just eight blocks wide and 12 blocks long and filled with Victorian-era homes, clapboard storefronts and historic buildings. It’s connected to the upper town of Mountain Village, located at 9,500 feet, by a free gondola. Skiers and boarders love the combination. So do A-listers such as Tom Cruise, Oprah and Ralph Lauren, among others. Forbes Magazine described Telluride as the place where celebs kick back and blend in.
Some of the ski resort’s popularity can be traced to its scenery; the village offers some of the most awe-inspiring mountain views west of Switzerland. Tucked into a box canyon and surrounded by the highest concentration of 14,000-foot peaks in North America, Telluride is often called one of the most beautiful resorts in the Rockies. Off-season it’s known for its music and film festivals, but when there’s snow, winter activities and après-ski rule.
Amelia Island, FL
Some of the nation’s rowdiest spring parties take place in Florida, but there are places along the state’s golden shoreline where visitors can avoid the frenzy. Amelia Island, located off the state’s northeastern coast, wins the award for its peaceful, relaxed ambiance. As a matter of fact, the 13-mile long island also takes honors as one of the North America’s Top 10 Islands, according to Conde Nast Traveler.
With pristine waters, long sandy beaches and abundant native wildlife, Amelia Island offers plenty of things to do. It’s one of the few places in America where you can ride horseback on the beach. Catch a wave, kayak, or comb the white beaches for shark’s teeth and shells.
Golfers can tee up on 117 holes of golf; shoppers can visit Victorian-era Center Street and a sprawling 50-block area of homes and buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Amelia, a barrier island, has a tumultuous past full of pirates, shrimpers, confederates, and international takeovers. It’s the only place in America that has flown eight different flags. And it’s easy to get to: It’s 30 minutes from Jacksonville International Airport and 15 minutes from I-95.
Natchez Trace Parkway
Dreaming of freedom and the open road? Turn that fantasy into reality on the Natchez Trace Parkway, a legendary 444-mile Deep South drive through 10,000 years of American history. The Parkway, a unit of the National Park Service, runs from Natchez in southern Mississippi through Alabama and Tennessee to a point just south of Nashville.
It follows a trail that was originally forged by buffalo, then enlarged by Native Americans following the “trace” of the buffalo. Eventually, frontiersmen, missionaries and settlers traveling between the Cumberland and Mississippi rivers began using the original footpath. Today’s visitors can drive, bike or hike the scenic parkway, which preserves the original route. At several places along the highway, the original footpath can still be seen.
If you choose to drive, start with a breakfast of hot biscuits and country ham at famous Loveless Café, a 60-year-old institution located outside Nashville at the northern end of the Parkway. The route rolls past farmland, swamps, foothills and waterfalls, passing several historic sites, including the Meriwether Lewis Museum, the Mississippi Craft Center and Colbert Ferry, where Gen. Andrew Jackson paid $75,000 to transport troops across the Tennessee River.
Golf and gardens
Warm up to spring, y’all, in Charleston, SC, where visitors find charm, history and plenty of Southern hospitality. Explore an antebellum mansion, go beachcombing along 90 miles of scenic coastline or clip-clop over cobblestone streets in a horse-drawn carriage.
And that's just for starters. Charming Charleston—just voted the nation’s friendliest city by Travel & Leisure magazine-- has something for everyone: Golfers can test their mettle at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort, which will host the 2012 PGA Championship in August. Home decor fans can visit Historic Charleston Foundation’s 65th Annual Spring Festival of Houses & Gardens, scheduled for March 22-April 21. Kids can learn about nature at the South Carolina Aquarium, which rescues injured sea turtles.
Don't miss Ft. Sumter National Monument, where the Civil War began, Battery Park and White Gardens, on the shore of the Charleston Peninsula, and the recently renovated Old City Market, where you can find authentic handmade Lowcountry souvenirs. Charleston welcomes four million annual visitors and one of the best times to visit is in the spring, when flowers are in bloom and summer heat hasn't descended.
How about spending spring break in Newark, NJ? It might lack the sunny, chi-chi appeal of some popular spring fling locales, but it offers something else: a chance to pay it forward by doing volunteer work for United Way. Newark is one of the sites chosen for United Way’s 2012 Alternative Spring program.
Throughout March, volunteers from across the country will converge on the city to work hand-in-hand with local educators tutoring students. Another site is in Tucson, AZ, where volunteers will work with children and youth who belong to Boys and Girls Clubs in the region.
United Way’s program is just one of many volunteer efforts keyed to spring break. Experts say the programs are gaining popularity in the United States. In some cases, volunteers can choose from domestic or international programs. Many of the programs require advance planning, but some, such as Habitat for Humanity, refer last-minute volunteers to their local programs.