Just when the bleak, dull drudgery of Oklahoma weather in January and February threatens to become too much to bear, that beautiful mid-March respite known as spring break pops up on the horizon, beckoning with promises of adventure and indulgence. Though most spring break vacations are booked several months in advance, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of options out there now, waiting for you to take advantage. From salty seas to mountain lakes, the slopes to the vineyards, we’ve talked to the travel experts and gathered some terrific last-minute spring break ideas sure to blow your mind … no matter what type of recharge your batteries require.
► Grand Lake, Colorado
During spring break, there are few places in the country more popular than the ski slopes of Colorado. Whether you’re talking Aspen or Breckenridge, Vail or Steamboat, for the month of March, the state’s slopes are packed. One way to make the most of the mountains’ fresh powder and incorporate more of the Rockies’ breathtaking scenery, while avoiding the crowds, is to consider staying in the town of Grand Lake. This charming, sleepy mountain town, situated on the lake of the same name, is the western gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Grand Lake itself is known as the “Snowmobile Capital of Colorado” and consistently ranks in the top 10 snowmobile destinations in the United States. There are 300 miles of trails (150 of which are groomed) and hundreds of snowy playgrounds for riders of all abilities. In addition to snowmobiling, it is in close proximity to Rocky Mountain National Park, where by way of cross-country skis or snowshoes, visitors have access to some of the Rockies’ most spectacular terrain and wildlife. Neighboring Winter Park offers not just skiing but fat biking, dog sledding and sleigh rides, to name a few.
Where to Eat
The Fat Cat offers arguably the best breakfast buffet in Grand County, and no trip to these parts is complete without tossing a few peanut shells on the floor, sipping a local brew and tearing into a steak and lamb fries at the Sagebrush Barbeque and Grill.
Where to Stay
The Western Riviera, with courtyard cabins, lakeside cabins and a motel and housing options located right on the shore of Grand Lake, is an ideal place to set base camp for your winter adventure.
► South Carolina Wilderness Getaway
For a wilderness-oriented and fishing-centric spring break adventure, one of the country’s greatest untapped gems is the Mountain Lakes region of South Carolina. This verdant, mountainous region nestled into Oconee County is home to hundreds of miles of hiking trails and more than 150 waterfalls, and boasts a variety of world-class fishing opportunities in local lakes and from streams and rivers.
The remote and undeveloped 9,000-acre Lake Jocassee – the area’s most beautiful – holds five state fishing records and is home to smallmouth, redeye, white and spotted bass, as well as catfish, carp and rainbow, brook and brown trout. Rent a charter with Fishski Business for a day on Jocassee and follow it up with a day at the nearby Lake Hartwell, where 15-pound stripers and hybrids are in abundance. After two days on water, trade in your boat for waders and head to the Chauga or the Chattooga River to wade into pristine streams and fly fish for beautiful browns and rainbows.
Where to stay
Don’t let the oft-humble moniker “state park cabin” fool you. The Cabins at Devil’s Fork State Park offer the only public access to Lake Jocassee, and are more akin to an upscale rental home than lakeside cabin.
Where to dine
One need not go further than Paesano’s in Seneca for an upscale, locally owned and beautifully executed authentic Italian dining experience. If it is barbeque you crave, Piggaso’s is a home run.
► Wine and Adventure in Carmel, California
When one thinks of wine tasting and California, it is typically Napa’s rolling hills, famed tasting rooms and James Beard Award-winning eateries that come to mind. If, however, you still want to enjoy some of California’s finest wine and dining while having access to the state’s most beautiful coastline, redwood forests and quaint art communities, consider, for your spring break wine tasting adventure, a trip to Carmel.
Tucked into the Santa Lucia Mountain Range, Carmel Valley is a 20-minute drive from Carmel and features a variety of wines and beautiful tasting rooms sure to fill not just your stomach but your entire vacation. The 10-mile stretch of Carmel Valley Road is dotted with more than a dozen tasting rooms; among those not to be missed are The Durney-Heller estate, Bernardus, Georis, Joullian Vineyards and Boekenoogen.
Once you’ve had your (responsible) fill of wine, take a drive and cruise down the Pacific Coast Highway to check out the parks of Big Sur, which are without a doubt the most beautiful in the world. First is Point Lobos State Reserve. Farther south are the stunning cliffs of Garrapata. Ten miles down the road, you enter the redwoods of Big Sur and Pfeiffer Beach. The often-photographed Pfeiffer Falls is another 20 minutes south down the winding Pacific Coast Highway.
Where to dine
While Pebble Beach is most often equated with golf, the eclectic and internationally influenced menu at The Bench, located at The Lodge in Pebble Beach, offers private dining with fire pits and sweeping views of Pebble’s famed 28th hole.
Where to stay
Located just outside the charming Carmel Village, La Playa Hotel is nestled into an ethereal neighborhood just a short walk from Carmel’s primary, powdery beach.
► Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, Alabama
With its extremely long stretches of powdery sand and ethereal sunsets, a trip to this Alabama beach community is abundantly worthwhile. Gulf Shores is equal parts family fun, relaxation and adventure. There are many ways to explore the beach and beyond. On the water, visitors can kayak, surf, parasail or even scuba dive on a sunken ship. A bike ride along the crashing surf and on into Gulf State Park is a great way to experience some of the area’s inland territory, and you might even spot wildlife such as an alligator in one of the park’s lagoons. Alabama’s Gulf Shore is also home to one of the Gulf of Mexico’s largest fleets of charter fishing boats. Set out onto the Gulf and you can bring your fileted catch back to one of several restaurants – they will prepare it to your liking in what is known as a “Hook and Cook” experience. For the kids, Gulf Shores has countless amusement parks, zip line tours, miniature golf, dolphin cruises, a zoo and more.
Where to stay
85 percent of visitors to Gulf Shores take a vacation rental property, and Gulf Shores Vacation Rentals is among the best and most affordable. For those wanting more of that hotel experience, consider staying at The Shores Best Western Premier – and if it is solace you crave, consider a cabin or cottage rental in Gulf State Park.
Where to eat
The popular Flora-Bama Yacht Club has long been a staple to the area and is perhaps the most famous of the “Hook and Cook” restaurants. Here at this local high-energy watering hole located on the border of Alabama and Florida, local celebrity chef Chris Sherrill not only delivers a tremendous seafood menu, but prides himself on conservation of local waterways. Sherrill, co-founder of The Nuisance Group, specializes in taking invasive (and historically not-so-tasty) fish like the lionfish, which damage indigenous fish species and disrupt fragile ecosystems, and turning them into world-class dishes.
► Best Travel Apps
Nothing makes traveling easier than smart phones. There are the obvious apps such as Uber for rides, Airbnb and TripAdvisor for lodging and OpenTable for dining suggestions and recommendations – but there are plenty more apps out there that you can add to your smart phone to enhance your experience.
According to Vagabondish.com founder Mike Richard, there is no better travel app, though it is obvious, than Google Maps. “Google Maps is great,” says Richard, “specifically for its offline capability. Download the entire map for your destination before you leave. Throw your phone into Airplane Mode on arrival. Since the phone’s GPS works even in Airplane Mode, you always have directions without using any cell data.”
While Waze and Google Maps are good navigational devices, Rome2Rio is the best app to use when trying to navigate unfamiliar cities while saving money and time. With a starting point and a finishing point, this free app tells you how to get from A to B by any possible avenue. It’s a great way to get around a new city.
Hipmunk is an app for inspiration as much as it is for trip planning. This app offers suggestions based on your interests and the areas you want to explore. Whether you are interested in the beach, skiing or urban travel, it will make suggestions for places to go and will also help you find the best deals in the area.
When you are traveling, often you are left with various emails with confirmation codes, addresses and reservation numbers. With TripIt, you simply create an itinerary and when companies send you the various confirmations, email it to TripIt and it organizes all of the details of your trip, from flight information to hotel addresses, into one place.
If you are considering a National Park, don’t think about going without using the Just Ahead app. It connects to your phone’s GPS and as you make your way through the park, Just Ahead gently lets you know as you approach points of interest. If you stop where it tells you, Just Ahead will share information about the area’s geological and historical significance. It also offers important information such as trailheads, campgrounds and restroom locations.
Guides by Lonely Planet
Lonely Planet draws from locals and former locals, and has been publishing travel guides for decades … this brings their recommendations to your phone, for free. With big, downloadable maps and intuitive searching by categories, it’s great for getting a feel for a new place.
► Last-minute international? No problem!
Just because spring break is a month away doesn’t mean that you don’t have time to pull out the passport. There are numerous international destinations eager to host adventure-seeking Americans any time of year.
“Costa Rica is a wonderful international destination to consider for your next vacation,” suggests Carrie Hendricks of Journey House Travel/American Express Travel. “Last-minute, affordable packages are usually available with an easy, fewer-than-four-hour flight from Dallas Ft. Worth. This destination offers a variety of adventurous activities: zip-lining through the rain forests, volcanoes, hot springs, waterfalls, beaches and all-inclusive resorts.”
If you’re feeling more European, Julie Mills, AAA travel consultant, also has a tip to bear in mind: “There are tour companies that offer discounts for traveling to Paris, London and Spain in the winter and early spring. These packages are typically up to one-third less than summer travel. I had clients go anywhere from Ireland to Italy.”
Ask the Experts!
Traveling during peak travel times like spring break can be both costly and chaotic. Whether it is avoiding overpriced hotels, navigating local transportation or dealing with canceled flights, there are great ways to save money and make your experience a better one. We asked two Oklahoma travel agents, Carrie Hendricks with Journey House/American Express Travel and AAA’s travel consultant Julie Mills, about the best ways to save money traveling for spring break – and here’s what they had to say.
Find out what clientele your hotel caters to. “Two of the most popular international destinations for spring break travel are Los Cabos, Mexico, and Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic,” says Hendricks. Hendricks, whose office is located on Campus Corner in downtown Norman, books vacations for families, but also for college kids looking to cut loose. “When booking your trip, make sure to figure out what demographic the hotel caters to. A lot of times, families and couples will book vacations to these beautiful destinations and unknowingly get a room sandwiched between two groups of hard-partying fraternity guys who go to bed at the same time the family is waking up for a day of activities.”
Use Airbnb. “While there is something to be said for staying in a nice hotel, particularly when traveling with families, Airbnbs are almost always cheaper than a hotel,” says Mills. Airbnb is a peer-to-peer online marketplace and homestay network enabling people to list or rent short-term lodging in residential properties, with the cost of such accommodation set by the property owner.
Consider traveling on off days. “If you are wanting to fly, consider changing your travel dates,” suggests Mills. “Leaving on Sunday and returning on Friday, or a Thursday to a Wednesday, is going to be considerably cheaper than flying from a Saturday to a Saturday.”
Always use a travel agent. It might sound self-serving, but Mills points out that this is sound advice in the event of unexpected difficulties. “While booking trips online at first seems to be easier, when suddenly you miss a connecting flight and you have three screaming kids in an airport, it is good to know that you have a travel agent to fall back on to help find you a new flight or hotel,” she says. “Using a travel agent to book your trip doesn’t normally cost any more than doing it on the internet.”
Use trusted guide services. “There are so many false tour guides online,” Hendricks notes. “Try to use a travel agent or the hotel concierge to book local events. Go through the local visitor’s bureau or convention center, and make sure that the tour company is accredited.”