As we reach the final months of the year, the idea of a winter getaway to somewhere sunny—the Caribbean, Mexico, the Pacific—sounds sweeter and sweeter. But maybe the thought of shelling out big bucks for an overseas flight stops you cold or perhaps your passport has expired. No problem. Pick one of these seven warm-weather destinations (some might surprise you) that don't require a passport soaking up the sunshine.
Why: It's as exotic as you can get domestically and there's a range of stays, from family friendly to romantic five-star—most offering discounted rates through December 20. Plus, Hawaii has year-round sunshine and five major islands, each with a very different vibe: Oahu, home to bustling Honolulu, legendary Waikiki Beach, and award-winning restaurants such as Alan Wong's; Maui, famous for Kaanapali and Wailea, the secluded hamlet of Hana, and rugged Haleakala (a dormant 10,023-foot-high volcano); Kauai, with it's photogenic green peaks, dramatic Napali Coast trails, and Old Hawaii vibes; Hawaii, the Big Island, where adventure reigns in Volcanoes National Park, atop 13,803-foot Mauna Kea and on night dives with giant manta rays; and sleepy Lanai, which lures travelers in search of relaxation and golf.
Where to Stay: On Oahu, for a romantic splurge, book historic The Royal Hawaiian (from $350/night). On Maui, the Fairmont Kea Lani in upscale Wailea is an oasis of relaxation (from $529/night), while the recently renovated Makena Beach & Golf Resort is set just away from the island's bustle (from $229/night). On Kauai, enjoy stunning sunsets at the modern Sheraton Kauai Resort in Poipu (from $219/night) or book the St. Regis Princeville Resort for a five-star setting on picturesque Hanalei Bay (from $465/night). On the Big Island, try the recently renovated Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa at Keauhou Bay (from $169/night). And on Lanai, choose between Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay on the beach (from $397/night) and the upcountry charm of Four Seasons Resort Lodge at Koele (from $329/night).
Insider Tip: Interisland flights are relatively cheap (as little as $69) and quick (25-45 minutes), so divide your time between two islands. Three combos: Oahu and Maui (for spas and dining); Kauai and the Big Island (for hiking and history); and Maui and Lanai (for golf and luxury).
U.S. Virgin Islands
Why: It's a three-island playground—and one of the US Virgin Islands will be a perfect match for your vacation style. You can enjoy shopping, dining, and spa-ing on St. Thomas, home to the vibrant capital, Charlotte Amalie; laidback eco-tourism or romantic luxury on idyllic St. John with its crescent beaches and national parks (one is even underwater); or historic charm on St. Croix, with its Danish heritage and rum culture. Yes, it's the Caribbean with all of its great snorkel spots and exotic allure, but the US flag flies and dollars are the local currency.
Where to Stay: Two options on St. Thomas are the elegant Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas with its serene views of neighboring St. John (from $639/night), and the recently renovated and centrally located Marriott Frenchman's Reef & Morningstar Beach Resorts (from $259/night). On St. John, couples will love the updated wood-and-stone decor and seven secluded beaches of Caneel Bay Resort (from $539/night), while eco-conscious travelers should opt for the secluded Concordia Eco Resort (from $205/night). And on St. Croix, The Buccaneer mixes colonial architecture with 300 acres of relaxation (from $360/night) while the Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Beach Resort & Spa offers seclusion and great golf (from $237/night).
Insider Tip: If you crave the quiet of St. John or the quaintness of St. Croix but want to spend a day indulging in duty free shopping in Charlotte Amalie, hop a ferry from Cruz Bay on St. John or a seaplane flight from Christiansted on St. Croix.
Why: It's fun—in so many new-and-improved ways, from the nonstop revelry of South Beach to the recent burst in its restaurant scene. In Miami, you can chill out on the beach or by the pool, treat yourself to a spa treatment, dine at top restaurants like Michy's (Latin-meets-Mediterranean) and Yardbird Southern Table & Bar (deep-fried decadence), take an architectural walking tour to appreciate the city's Art Deco pedigree, or discover the art scene at the edgy Rubell Family Collection and eclectic Margulies Collection at the Warehouse.
Where to Stay: Do you want to party or be pampered? For the former, book a room in a renovated Art Deco hotel in South Beach, like the Surfcomber Miami, South Beach (from $260/night) and The James Royal Palm (from $449/night). To luxuriate at a lower decibel level, opt for a downtown hotel, like the sophisticated Mandarin Oriental Miami (from $499/night).
Insider Tip: While downtown Miami and South Beach are not very family friendly, laidback Key Biscayne is. With its bike paths and beaches, it's an ideal playground for kids who love to swim, cycle, and interact with nature—and you'll enjoy the luxurious amenities of The Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, Miami (from $369/night).
Why here: No destination mixes mid-century-mod hipster ambience and contemporary chic quite like Palm Springs, where iconic architecture, desert panoramas, and a cool pool culture make it a great (and often surprisingly affordable) spot for a getaway. Carve out time to ride the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for stellar views over the entire desert and a visit the Living Desert Palm Springs for its mix of native flora and fauna. Plus, the food scene is on fire—try Birba for modern pizza and pasta, Workshop Kitchen + Bar for seasonal menus and strong cocktails, Purple Palm for great people watching, and The Sandwich Spot for yummy sandwiches on amazing bread. In the intense midday heat, you'll want to hang by your hotel pool, and the one at the Ace Hotel comes equipped with hilarious floaties and bar service all day.
Where to Stay: This desert playground is home to everything from sprawling resorts to quirky boutique hotels. We like: Ace Hotel and Swim Club for its 1960s vintage vibe and party atmosphere (from $139/night), Alcazar Palm Springs for its sleek white décor and great rates (from $119/night), and Colony Palms Hotel for its historic glamour (it was a favorite of Hollywood stars from the 1930s to 1960s) and vibrant mosaic-tile décor (from $229/night).
Insider Tip: When you get a craving to indulge in dessert, head to Over the Rainbow Cupcakes to sample the day's made-from-scratch sweet treats.
Why: Romance, adventure, and nightlife converge on this island that's home to both the Caribbean's most photogenic colonial neighborhood (Old San Juan) and one of its most accessible rainforests (El Yunque). Puerto Rico also offers superb surfing and diving as well as eco adventures from zip-lining outside San Juan to caving in Rio Camuy. But what this island does best is come to life post-sunset, with cool eateries (like the innovative and upscale Pikayo and family owned and authentic La Fonda del Jibarito), sexy salsa clubs, and flashy casinos, especially in Condado and Isla Verde.
Where to Stay: In and around San Juan, opt for the luxury of Dorado Beach, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve (from $1,399/night); the Spanish colonial ambience of Hotel El Convento in the heart of Old San Juan (from $265/night); or the neo-retro design of La Concha, A Renaissance Resort (from $279/night).
Insider Tip: If you crave a low-key escape, stay on Vieques, a little island just off Puerto Rico's east coast. Here, enjoy deserted beaches (rent a Jeep and explore), a bioluminescent lagoon (visit when the moon is waning for the best effect), and the stylish W Retreat & Spa Vieques (from $469/night).
Why: It's home to some of Arizona's most stunning urban scenery—including landmark Camelback Mountain—as well as the state's top golf resorts. But sunny Scottsdale, where winter temps in the low 70s are more pleasant than summer highs in the 100s, also rocks its own artsy vibe with galleries, Native American jewelry shops, and local crafts and foods markets. Plus the city's culinary scene is red hot, melding Southwest flavors with French techniques (at Vincent on Camelback) and local produce with Arizona wines (at FnB). Don't miss a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Taliesen West, a sunrise hike up Camelback, and a spa treatment at the exotic Joya Spa at Montelucia Resort.
Where to Stay: From retro-chic to ultra-luxurious, Scottsdale's top resorts include downtown's Hotel Valley Ho with its restored 1950s decor (from $319/night) and Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia with its desert-meets-Mediterranean ambience and sweeping Camelback views (from $285/night).
Insider Tip: The 4,000 species of plants on display at the 140-acre Desert Botanical Garden are even more compelling when paired with vibrant, larger-than-life glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly, a special exhibition that runs through May 2014.
Caribbean by Cruise Ship
Why: Surprise—you can leave the US without a passport! How? Just take a roundtrip cruise to the Caribbean (or Mexico) that leaves from and returns to a US port, like Fort Lauderdale, Miami, or New York. These closed-loop itineraries require only that passengers present an original birth certificate and a valid photo ID (like a driver's license). You'll be able to experience the warmth and culture of multiple Caribbean islands in one week and you only have to unpack once.
Which Ship to Sail: The newest ships to sail the Caribbean on routes not requiring a passport are: Royal Princess, the glam 3,600-passenger ship christened this past June by the Duchess of Cambridge (aka Kate Middleton) and sailing from Fort Lauderdale to the Bahamas, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten (seven nights from $749 per person); MSC Divina, a 3,959-passenger ship that debuted in May 2012 with Mediterranean itineraries but will now sail year-round from Miami with port calls in the Eastern and Western Caribbean (seven nights from $499 per person); and 3,969-passenger Norwegian Breakaway which sails from New York on 7-14-night cruises to Bermuda and the Caribbean (seven nights from $449 per person).
Insider Tip: Avoid making these 10 most common first-time cruiser mistakes, like booking the wrong cabin for your travel needs and passing up specialty restaurants.
Photo credits: Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay courtesy of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts; St Croix via Dreamstime.com; Mandarin Oriental Miami courtesy of Mandarin Oriental Hotels & Resorts; Palm Springs via Dreamstime.com; Dorado Beach, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve courtesy of Ritz Carlton; Scottsdale via Dreamstime.com; Royal Princess courtesy of Princess Cruises