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Average highs of 84/83 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 80/77)
In the midst of winter, nothing seems cheerier than the idea of Puerto Rico, where temperatures rarely dip below the 83-degree mark. For years, this peninsula on the island's west coast has been the surfing community's best-kept secret. Despite a recent rise in popularity, Rincón still has the low-key feel of a small town. The pro surfers head for the beaches on the north section of the peninsula, where the waves can reach up to 25 feet, but newbies tend to stick to the smaller swells on the south side. Puntas Surf School offers lessons from $35, and the owners will have you standing on your board by the end of the session. If you'd rather leave the waves more-experienced to the surfers, try stand-up paddleboarding or kayaking. Or simply set up with an umbrella on the warm white sand on one of the area's 12 beaches, especially the centrally located, uncrowded Spanish Wall Beach, just north of the Rincón lighthouse.
Average highs of 78/78 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 77/76)
Kauai has managed to stay a little more under the radar than other Hawaiian islands, and that's what makes it so appealing. Hanalei, on the North Shore, is as close to magical as a town can get—lush green mountains, fields of taro, and rainbows every day. The horseshoe-shaped, secluded Hanalei Bay is the best beach for swimming and lounging on the golden sand, but if you want to get out on the water, sign up for one of the four-hour motor-powered raft trips with Na Pali Riders. You'll explore sea caves, go snorkeling, and almost definitely spot dolphins. Afterward, dry off with a hike along the Hanakapi'ai Trail, which follows the stunningly beautiful Na Pali Coast to Hanakapiai Beach and back, about four miles altogether.
Average highs of 77/75 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 73/70)
Smack in the middle of the Florida Keys, you'll find tiny Long Key, just over two miles long from end to end. Long Key offers an escape from touristy Key Largo, 40 minutes to the north. The isolated island is made up almost entirely of Long Key State Park, where the one-mile beach is perfect for tent camping; there are 60 fully equipped campsites to choose from. Or opt to stay in a more traditional resort nearby and visit the park to paddle a canoe through a series of lagoons and hike along trails. If the urge to explore strikes you, hop on the scenic Overseas Highway and drive over the bridges to Islamorada, to the north, or Marathon, to the south. But watch out—after a day or two on Long Key, anywhere else will feel overpopulated.
Average highs of 71/69 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 64/62)
Not so long ago, St. Pete's was considered the land of the silver-haired, but in the past few years, an influx of trendy restaurants, coffeehouses, and galleries—and the young people who tend to follow those things—has revived the sleepy spot. Downtown is particularly hopping, with Kahwa Coffee's roasting plant and a hip espresso bar at its heart. And St. Pete Beach, with its white sand and turquoise waters, stretches along the Gulf of Mexico for five sun-kissed miles. The warm Gulf is a popular hangout for dolphins—spot one from a three-person WaveRunner, a Hobie sailboat, or a kayak from St. Pete Beach Waverunners.
Average highs of 67/69 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 58/57)
Done the right way, this SoCal beach town (made famous by a reality show of the same name) can be incredibly down to earth. After all, some of its first citizens were not glamorous teen-agers or housewives but early 20th-century struggling artists such as William Wendt and Lolita Perine.The arts still play a big role here, thanks to the Laguna Art Museum, galleries along the waterfront, and the Laguna Playhouse. Still, the seven miles of classic California coastline are the big draw. Beaches fill up during the summer, but in the winter months they're blissfully crowd-free—especially 1,000 Steps Beach, just off 9th Street (don't let the name scare you; there are actually only 230-something steps leading down to the beach). The waves are perfect for boogie boarding, and the views—golden cliffs and multimillion-dollar houses, some with elevators—are pure southern California.
Average highs of 67/63 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 65/61)
In the winter, the population of this barrier island off Louisiana's Gulf Coast shrinks back down to its 1,600 permanent residents from its summer high of 14,000. But temperatures remain warm enough to sunbathe, and you can do so without the crowds. Anglers adore this island thanks to the more than 280 species of fish in the surrounding waters, and many flock to Grand Isle State Park to fish in its calm waters. Those not obsessed with reeling in The Big One head to the beaches. Although the 2010 oil spill closed all beaches on the seven-mile-long island this summer, a three-mile stretch of golden sand recently reopened in August, with a full rollout coming soon, after an intensive cleanup effort.
Average highs of 66/66 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 59/58)
San Diego is a small town with big ambitions: The revitalized Gaslamp Quarter, with its shops and restaurants, feels urban, but the crashing waves of the Pacific nearby create a vibe that's your quintessential classic American beach village. However, the best way to experience it all is to hit the boardwalk. At Pacific Beach, known for its wide stretches of sand and perfect surfing waves, rent a beach cruiser from Cheap Rentals and ride the three-and-a-half-mile stretch to South Mission Beach, passing all manner of local characters along the way: scantily clad in-line skaters, vacationing families, throwback '60s hippies, and even the random guy on a unicycle who always seems to make an appearance.
Average highs of 62/62 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 54/51)
One of four islands that make up Georgia's Golden Isles (a collection of barrier islands just off the southeastern coast), St. Simons is known for its centuries-old moss-draped oak trees, historical landmarks, white-sand beaches, and 99 holes of golf. Cars are allowed on the island, but the leisurely pace of life here will make you want to stay away from anything with a motor. Instead, rent a beach-cruiser bike from Ocean Motion Surf Co. and pedal your way past King and Prince Beach, plantations, the lighthouse, and Christ Church, originally built in 1820. The ride covers about 14 miles, and there are plenty of stops to admire the scenery, so allow at least a half day.
Average highs of 62/60 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 56/51)
Most people don't automatically associate the phrase "beach retreat" with Alabama—but don't tell a local that. Alabamians are adamant that their Gulf Coast beaches are among the most beautiful in the country. The sand is 95 percent quartz, meaning it's snow-white and sparkles in the sun, and the waters are as blue as any you'll find in Florida. Nine-mile Orange Beach has everything you need—warm water, lots of room to spread out your beach blanket, and restaurants just off the sand. Dolphins love the waters around here so much that Dolphin Cruises Aboard the Cold Mil Fleet guarantees sightings.
Average highs of 60/59 in December/January
(Average water temperatures of 59/54)
In this South Texas hotspot, savvy travelers skip crowded East Beach (which gets overrun in March with spring breakers) and head to the more secluded West Beach or Galveston Island State Park. Both have wide expanses of sand that are perfect for trolling for shells or soaking up some sun. Once you're out of the water, the historic Strand district, along Strand Street between 25th and 11th, is worth a stop. Buildings from the 1800s have been restored recently and now house restaurants, antiques stores, and many galleries full of fine art and photography. The town's other big attraction is the Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Indoor Waterpark, which attracts families with its water chutes, speed slides, wave pool, and, for the adults, enormous 30,000-person hot tub with a swim-up bar.