Some popular tourist spots are better to visit when it's cold at home

Monday, January 7, 2013

Birds have it right. When winter blows in with colder temperatures, snow and ice, our feathered friends head south to sunnier climes.

We talked to local travel agencies about the best destinations for the winter. Many of them may be too hot and humid (really, don't we get enough of that here?) to visit in the summer, but are just right for January and February travel.

FLORIDA/SOUTHERN U.S.

The Sunshine State is one of the most popular destinations for winter travelers, according to Carolyn Kempf, owner of Elite Travel. "It seems like common sense, but there's good weather, lots of house rentals," she says.

Kempf says the Florida Keys and the Tampa area are frequent destinations. "Baby boomers are still very active," she says. "They're not laying out on the beach. They want play golf, ride their bike, take a walk in the morning."

For retirees taking extended or long-term vacations, Florida also offers easy access to short excursions, either within the state or out of the country.

"Out of Florida, you can catch ferries and dayboats to the Bahamas," Kempf says. "Flights from Fort Lauderdale and Miami (to the islands) are very inexpensive. You can also pick up three-day cruises."

Jennifer Morgan, an agent with 1st Class Travel in Cape Girardeau, says cruises are a great option for a winter vacation. "There are things to do on the boat," she says. "Most have casinos and shows; it's like a city on the water."

The South in general is popular for winter travelers. "We have a lot of people go to Gulf Shores; it's an easy drive," Kempf says. "You can catch the train in Carbondale or Memphis and head to New Orleans."

Another easy drive that isn't quite as crowded is Galveston, Texas. "No one thinks of going there," Kempf says. "It's not hot (there), but there's better weather than this (in Southeast Missouri). There are a bunch of historic hotels and homes."

Savannah, Ga., also claims several historic buildings as part of its attraction. "A lot of people love it," Morgan says. In addition to historic attractions, including a very popular ghost tour, visitors enjoy eating at Paula Deen's restaurant.

SOUTHWEST U.S.

In a December 2011 poll, Travel and Leisure readers voted the Phoenix/Scottsdale, Ariz., area the No. 3 winter destination. (San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Honolulu were No. 1 and 2, respectively.) Kempf agrees, saying winter is prime season for the Arizona city. "The weather could not be better," she says. "There's golfing, airfare is inexpensive and flights are nonstop."

Of course, Las Vegas is always a popular destination, but it is a lot more affordable in January and February, Kempf says. They "discount show tickets to lure people there."

Morgan also counts Sin City as a good place for a winter vacation. "When you go to Vegas, you've got choices for tours to Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon," she says.

Kempf says taking a train ride to the Southwest is a good winter vacation. "Take Amtrak to Santa Fe or Albuquerque and look at the pueblos. Or (there's a train) that starts ... in St. Louis and goes to Flagstaff."

SOUTH OF THE BORDER

"Cancun is a very popular destination," Morgan says. "It's still warm, you're going to get 80-degree weather for the week." And it's an easy trip: Just a three-hour flight from St. Louis.

"A lot of the Caribbean is that way," Morgan says.

And staying at an all-inclusive resort, either in Mexico or a Caribbean island, makes planning for the trip easy because everything you need is taken care of.

Kempf says a new destination that is proving to be extremely popular is Huatulco on Mexico's Pacific Coast. "Look at a map," she says. "It's almost impossible to get there by road. It's on the Pacific Coast and blanketed by a mountainous area." Nonstop flights are available that take just three and a half hours from St. Louis.

COLD WEATHER FUN

Maybe fun in the sun isn't your style. There are plenty of other winter destinations.

"We actually get people who like snow, but not here," Kempf says. "We book at lot in Gatlinburg. They get to stay in a cabin someone else cleans and then go to the shops."

If shopping is what you love, Kempf suggests Minnesota. Yes, Minnesota in the winter. "Going to Mall of America is a cheap, fun weekend," she says. "It's an hour flight from St. Louis and you can get hotels right at the mall for $60 to $70 a night. There's shopping and amusement and water parks inside."

Closer to home, Morgan says Branson is always a good option. "It's got shopping, shows and outdoor things to do."

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