San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Why: If you've only been to Mexico's coastal resorts you are missing out. This picturesque and colorful small colonial city sits about 6,200 feet above sea level in the heart of the country and offers a glimpse into the rich history and culture of Mexico. Perfect for travelers wanting more than beach lounging.
What to see/do: Wander through the city's jardins, markets and cobblestone streets without any particular destination in mind. San Miguel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, chosen for its cultural authenticity, integrity and degree of conservation. Check out the interesting doors and door knockers everywhere, and imagine the tranquil, leafy courtyards that lie behind them, away from the city's bustle. The whole town is a photographer's dream, with eye-catching scenes around every corner.
For those who like a plan, there are museums, galleries, shops and more than a hundred restaurants, many perched on rooftops with great sunset views framed by the town's cathedral spires and bell towers.
Also visit Fabrica La Aurora, a former textile mill that has been converted to an eclectic collection of boutiques, furniture stores, fine art galleries and cafes. One could spend a pleasant half day here.
For those who prefer more active outings, there is hiking in the nearby botanic reserve, and companies that offer horseback riding and mountain bike excursions. (For me, walking 20,000 steps a day at that altitude is exercise enough.)
Don't miss: The Tuesday and Sunday Tiangus market is a feast for the senses. Hundreds of vendors offer fresh fruit and vegetables, clothing, antiques and just about anything you can think of. A taxi from the Centro will run you about $5. Note: This is not a tourist market so don't expect crafts, souvenirs or much English spoken. (English is widely spoken in shops and restaurants.)
Tidbits: Nearest airports are Leon (BJX) and Queretaro (QRO), both about an hour and a half drive. BajioGo provides a comfortable and reliable shuttle service from each for about $30 per person. You absolutely do not need nor should you rent a car as almost everything is walkable and parking is sparse.
— Chris Polydoroff
Why: The iconic Southwestern landscape will make you feel like you just stepped into an old Western film, but Tucson offers all of the conveniences and culture of a big city as well as plenty of outdoor activities in the surrounding desert and mountains.
What to see and do: Explore Tucson's diverse neighborhoods, such as the Barrio Viejo/Historico's brightly colored adobe row houses south of downtown. Get a feel for more of the city's Spanish and Mexican history at the Presidio San Agustin del Tucson, a walled fortress dating to the 17th century, and the 1797 San Xavier del Bac Mission, the nation's best example of Spanish Baroque architecture (some parts may be closed for preservation work).
You can spend hours exploring and learning about desert life on 100 acres at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. On weekends, head to St. Philip's Plaza Farmers Market in the Catalina Foothills District for scrumptious picnic fare or artisan gifts. At night, sample some authentic Mexican food at many restaurants or see what's playing at the Fox Tucson Theatre, a Southwestern art deco gem.
Don't miss: Get up close to thousands of saguaro cacti — the ones that resemble big candelabras — at Saguaro National Park. The east and west sections, each about 15 miles from Tucson but about an hour's drive between the two, offer stunning desert views and wildlife from hiking trails or scenic loops you can drive or bicycle. For the biggest bang for your buck, head to the west section for gorgeous sunsets and hikes like the 2.2-mile King Canyon trail to see ancient rock art.
If you have time: Here's your chance to see a nuclear missile standing in its 104-foot silo and experience a simulated launch. The Titan Missile Museum about 20 miles south of Tucson is the only remaining former missile site of 54 that were on alert nationwide from 1963-87 during the Cold War.
— Sheryl Jean
Why: This gem of a city is one of the fastest-growing in the nation, becoming a mecca for arts and food experiences and serving as a good jumping-off point for outdoorsy day trips in gorgeous countryside.
What to see/do: Check out NoDa, short for North Davidson, the street that runs through this arts district. It's home to hip, fashion-forward twenty- and thirty-somethings who live in former textile mills converted to apartment buildings. Start the day at the Smelly Cat Coffeehouse and Roastery, where breakfast sandwiches arrive on baked-from-scratch biscuits that are filling but not heavy.
Stroll Davidson for shopping and mural spotting. The neighborhood is known for them, like the confetti stripes outside Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams or the bloom mural at Fu's Custom Tattoo. A trip to Optimist Hall for lunch means having to make hard choices from stalls selling everything from Indian to Italian, upscale grilled cheese to organic raw juice.
Walk off some calories by exploring McGill Rose Garden, with its 200-plus varieties of blooms. Known for weddings and proposals, the park is generally open to the public between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays and until 3 p.m. Saturdays (but check, because it closes for those private weddings). You can arrive earlier and stay later if you enter through Rosie's Coffee and Wine Garden. There's a distillery and several breweries in the neighborhood. We liked Petty Thieves Brewing, which sometimes has music and always a welcoming vibe.
Other attractions include the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, a 20th-century collection; the Mint Museum with its interactive exhibits, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Short drives take you to Lake Norman, where you can rent a pontoon, or the Carolina Raptor Center inside Latta Nature Preserve in Huntersville, where you can observe and learn about the hundreds of raptors brought in each year.
Don't miss: The U.S. National Whitewater Center is a stunning complex. You can whitewater raft easy Class II or wilder Class IV rapids. Or you can stay dry and still get a thrill by rock climbing or ziplining. Nearby woods outside the park have extensive trails for mountain biking and hiking. It's easily a day trip itself.
Tidbits: We tacked on a tour of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, a 2 ½-hour drive that required pre-purchased tickets. Plan well ahead; they sell out, especially for dates around the holidays when the house is grandly decorated.
— Sue Campbell
South Padre Island, Texas
Why: This spring-break mecca near the Mexico border is a quiet oasis the rest of the year, with 34 miles of sandy beaches, azure water and fun activities — from kiteboarding to snorkeling — for kids and adults.
What to see and do: Named for Padre Jose Nicolas Balli, who built a mission to Christianize the native Karankawa Indians in the early 1800s, today this barrier island offers some of the nation's best birding and fishing.
Stroll along the Laguna Madre Nature Trail boardwalk to wetlands harboring some of the more than 300 species of birds — from various herons to reddish egrets — that pass on their way to and from Mexico and Central America. Try your hand at deep-sea fishing or fish for free along the surf and jetties such as Pirate's Landing Fishing Pier, the longest one in Texas.
In an ode to the island's heritage, a giant statue of El Cristo de los Pescadores honors fishermen lost at sea at Isla Blanca Park, which also offers beautiful beaches, fishing and more. You may be surprised that Texas lets you drive on the sand — for about 30 miles — for a $12 fee.
The island also is known for its sea turtle habitat. You still may find sea turtles nesting on beaches through the end of September; if not, you can see between 35 and 70 of the rescued marine mammals and learn about them at the nonprofit Sea Turtle Inc. during other times of the year.
Don't miss: Follow Sandcastle Trail across the island to see some 30 sand creations sculpted by professional sand artists. Grab a map at the South Padre Island Visitors Center or download it to your smartphone or tablet.
Tidbits: If you still crave more sand and sea, it's worth the three-hour drive to Padre Island National Seashore, whose 70 miles of coastline make it the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island. It's separated from South Padre Island by a channel.
— Sheryl Jean
St. Augustine, Fla.
Why: This northern Florida coastal city is a treasure trove for history and architecture buffs who are also beach and nature lovers.
What to see and do: There's a reason why St. Augustine is dubbed the "Ancient City." It's the nation's oldest city (1565) and its star-shaped Castillo de San Marcos National Monument (1672) is the oldest masonry fort in the United States. As you walk through St. Augustine, it's hard to miss the flamboyant 19th-century architecture of the Gilded Age, including Casa Monica Resort & Spa, Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, Flagler College and Villa Zorayda Museum.
A guided tour inside Flagler College — a former hotel built by railroad magnate Henry M. Flagler that's considered one of the best Spanish Colonial Renaissance examples — lets you peek at opulent rooms with murals by George Willoughby Maynard and the nation's largest collection of still-in-use Tiffany stained glass windows.
Since the city sits on the Atlantic Ocean and along two rivers, there's plenty of water fun — from sandy beaches (check out St. Augustine Beach and Crescent Beach) to kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding.
Don't miss: Climb the 219 steps of the 1874 St. Augustine Lighthouse (tickets required) to an observation deck for panoramic views or test the rumor of ghosts by taking the "Dark of the Moon" tour ($25 per person) inside the lighthouse at night with only a glowstick.
Nearby: To get your nature fix, head about 10 miles north to the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve in Ponte Vedra Beach, one of only 29 such reserves nationwide. You can walk nearly 10 miles of trails on more than 76,000 acres or view the peregrine falcon migration during the first two weeks of October. Check the events site for free talks and walks led by docents.
— Sheryl Jean