5 Places to Celebrate Spring

A weak dollar and sputtering economy don’t mean you have to stay home this spring. There are plenty of bargains to be had, like the ones we found below. We’ve tried to find the best prices available at places you’d want to go to even if money was no object. And you may be able to save a bit on the prices quoted by setting up destination deal alerts at travel booking sites like kayak.com; choosing hotels that aren’t centrally located; and eating where the locals do.

5 Places to Celebrate Spring - BudapestBudapest, Hungary

Why: Ancient and modern Europe meet in the winding streets of hilly Buda and busy Pest, two very different cities that became one in 1873. With its fantastic architecture, eccentric old coffeehouses, and lively contemporary culture, Budapest is an alluring mix of Old World elegance and New World high energy. Although Hungary hasn’t adopted the euro for its own currency yet, many hotels and tourist restaurants are already setting their prices in euros. Still, costs are lower here than in much of Western Europe.

Where to Stay: At the Art’otel Budapest, a quirky, modern hotel on the banks of the Danube. Rooms start at a reasonable $160. The Castle Hill historic center is about a 10-minute walk from the hotel.

Don’t Forget To: Stop by tiny baroque café Ruszwurm, which has served superb pastry since 1827. The café is tucked away on Szentháromság utca (Utca = Street) near the Matthias Church. Coffee and a pastry will set you back about $3.50 (cream slices are the specialty of the house).

Sample Air Fares: Fly to Budapest on Delta for $625 RT nonstop from NYC; LA to Budapest is $795 RT on Austrian Airlines; $746 RT Chicago to Budapest on Lufthansa.

Malpaís, Costa Rica

Why: Costa Rica is the perfect destination for travelers who seek adventure and relaxation. April is typically high season in Costa Rica, May through September is “green season,” with daily short, torrential bursts of rain. Hotel prices tend to be slightly lower in green season. This year, due to El Nina conditions, green season is expected to begin in April. It’s a fine time to visit — foliage is lush and the rains don’t last long enough to be a bother.

Don’t Forget To: Take in the tropical forests of nearby Cabo Blanco Natural Reserve, see the coast by horseback, and dine at Piedra Mar on the beach in Malpaís, where you can feast on lobster for $10-$12.

Where to Stay: Hang your hat at the Milarepa, a tiny luxury hotel. The most expensive room in the house is a beautifully decorated beach-front bungalow for $200 in April and $188 in May and June. Garden-view bungalows can be had for $30 less.

Sample Air Fares: $290 RT from NYC to San Jose on Delta; $313 RT from LA to San Jose on Delta; $328 RT from Chicago to San Jose on Delta.

Taos, New MexicoTaos, New Mexico

Taos has a unique vibe, a mix of counterculture happy hippie and funky hipster, all enlivened with the ancient traditions of Taos Pueblo culture. Part resort town, part natural wonderland, Taos boasts great shopping and restaurants but is far more laid-back than touristy-frenetic.

Don’t Forget To: Check out the Trading Post Café with its kiva fireplace for outstanding Italian food, and leave time to wander through Taos Plaza to see galleries filled with Native American crafts.

Where to Stay: You can hit the hay at the Taos Hampton Inn for $100 a night or spend a bit more ($150 a night) for lodgings at the Historic Taos Inn, with its New Mexican style décor and perfect location smack in the middle of Taos.

Sample Air Fares: Fly RT from NYC to Albuquerque for $279; fly RT to Albuquerque from Los Angeles on Delta for $239; American Airlines has RT flights to Albuquerque from Chicago for $299. Taos is a 135-mile-drive Albuquerque. Avis and Enterprise have base rates of $25 a day for cars.

St Lucia

Why? Green and gorgeous, St. Lucia is located between Martinique and St. Vincent, just north of Barbados. It’s been gently developed to provide just enough options for tourists, most of whom visit between November and mid-April. But from the end of April to the end of May, crowds are away, making this the ideal time to visit.

Don’t Forget To: Go diving and snorkeling in the island’s pristine waters and see if you can spot “The Thing,” which the tourism board describes as the “Loch Ness Monster on Vacation.” Visit “the world’s only drive-in volcano,” and take a careful walk around the bubbling sulfur pools.

Where to Stay: The Hummingbird Beach Resort, on Soufrière Harbour, houses guests in small seaside cabins. Most have views of the Pitons, the two peaks that have become St. Lucia’s best known landmarks. Rooms are simply furnished and the resort’s Hummingbird Restaurant serves great french creole dishes (even dedicated carb counters should sample the homemade bread). During low season (April-Dec 15), rates start at $55, and $100 gets you a cottage with a view of the Pitons and/or the ocean.

Sample Airfares: American Airlines can get you here for $572 RT from NYC; LA to St. Lucia is $529 RT on American; and it’s $529 RT to St. Lucia from Chicago on American.

Hawaii on a budget? You bet. Spring is the Island’s low season and there are some super bargains to be had. The steepest rate cuts — for flights and lodging — are on Oahu and Maui, but we suggest you meander off the beaten path and head to Kaua’i, the Island of Discovery.

Dont’ Forget To: Explore Waimea Canyon, take a boat tour of the wild Na Pali Coast, and visit Kaua’i’s Biggest Little Town, Hanapepe, whose main street is lined with cool little shops and art galleries, all housed in plantation-era wooden storefronts. Eat at the Hanapepe Café (808/335-5011; entrées from $16, fresh fish and many vegetarian dishes — the garden burgers are outstanding) and have tropical fruit-flavored ice cream for dessert at Lappert’s. ($3.50 for one scoop).

Where to Stay: Hang your hat at the Waimea Plantation Cottages, in one of the beautifully restored 1930s-era cottages (each with kitchen, grill, and lanai from $185, 4/14-6/6, ask about the fourth-night-for-free promotion).

Sample Airfares: US Airways will get you from NYC to Kaua’i for $668 RT; LA to Kaua’i is $404 RT on Delta; US Airways from Chicago to Kaua’i is $624 RT.

Sample airfares from Kayak.com are based on 30 days advanced booking for 10-day stays between April 1-10 2008.

Photo credit: (1) Photo by Alaskan Dude; (2) ©Istockphoto/ Nathan Chor.