Wintertime in Florida? Why, that’s so old school. Haven’t you heard that the hottest trend is off-season travel?
Make that the coldest trend. As yesterday’s summer resorts have morphed into year-round weekend destinations, beach towns from Cape Cod to Hilton Head have quietly developed a 12-month-long scene. Increasingly, people are willing to sacrifice an August dip in the ocean for a soulful, solitary beach in February — and a chance to spot wildlife that isn’t toting a keg.
Sure, you have more daylight and better veranda weather in July. But from Thanksgiving through Passover, you can make easy reservations, have the beach to yourself, park anywhere you fancy, and feel like a local as you stroll down a relaxed and friendly main street. Best of all, you can pay half what you’d spend in August.
While the crowd-free winter advantage has always existed, the year-round scene is something new. I first noticed it about a decade ago: people fleeing the dot-com crash put their money into second homes where they once rented for the summer. Since 9/11, that movement has quietly accelerated, helped along by a trend toward telecommuting.
The result is that in many towns that once boarded up for the winter, cheery light emits from frosty bistro windows, synagogues offer regular minyans, and farmer’s markets hum with relaxed locals catching up over coffee.
From Memorial Day well into the fall, it’s nearly impossible to obtain a reservation for your car on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, which limits your options to bikes, buses and taxis. But in January, you can drive across virtually any time you like, free to explore the island’s remote cliffs and tucked-away inns. What’s more, many of those windswept beaches are free to wander all winter — but in summer, you’ll need a pricey, hard-to-get resident’s permit and an early-morning parking spot.
This time of year, you can stay in grand New England style for the price of a roadside motel. At the Thorncroft Inn (www.thorncroft.com), lavishly appointed Victorian rooms with canopy beds and antique furniture are $50 off the standard rate with the “European Plan” special — which comes out well under $200 a night during the off-season, less than half the summer price. Check out the “Great Deals” section of the website www.mvy.com for more winter deals and coupons.
Locals pack the popular Offshore Ale House in downtown Oak Bluffs on Monday nights, when dinners are two-for-one, and on Tuesdays, when live jazz and blues are on tap along with the brewery’s signature ales. On winter weekends, the West Tisbury farmer’s market moves indoors to the Grange Hall, where homemade woolens and local jams are among the offerings.
Open sessions for communal activities bring neighbors and visitors together on Saturday mornings: chess and Scrabble fans gather at the Oak Bluffs Library, while knitters convene at the library in Vineyard Haven and crafts types bond over glue and refreshments in West Tisbury.
If snowy landscapes aren’t your thing, Hilton Head Island, the summer golf resort off the coast of South Carolina, averages balmy 60-degree afternoons this time of year — perfect for golf, tennis or biking along the island’s many trails.
At the Harbourside III villas, a Winter Wonderland Week of Golf package is designed for a family or two couples: a seven-day stay in a two-bedroom luxury villa and four rounds on the golf course cost just $69 per day per person, based on four-person occupancy, through mid-February. For a long weekend, the nearby Hampton Inn is offering a $49 third night with two nights’ booking, and other hotels have similar deals.
If you go in March, you can listen to some of the country’s top musicians compete at the Hilton Head International Piano Competition, hosted by the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra has monthly themed programs all winter, as well as a concerto competition with finals and a concert in February. A newer tradition is the Third Annual Restaurant Week, Jan. 15 through 22, when top eateries offer a bargain prix fixe to sample their cuisine.
Though crowds jam the fabled artist colony of Mendocino, Calif. in summertime, temperatures in winter aren’t much colder — but hotel prices drop considerably. A pretty four-hour drive north of San Francisco, Mendocino reverts back to its rustic, ’60s-ish vibe in the off-season, when only about 1,000 souls wander the clapboard lanes or pop into bookshops and galleries.
Even in August, the frigid Pacific won’t permit swimming by anyone but seals. So consider a getaway in the foggy, ethereal days of January, when dusky shadows mingle with the towering redwoods along a rocky shore — all yours on a winter’s afternoon. All that mist makes for great mushrooms, so consider joining a Monday mushroom walk led by a botanist at the Mendocino Botanical Garden.
The Mendocino Art Center, a haven for West Coast artists since the 1950s, is active year-round, with exhibitions always open to the public. In summer, it might be tough to get into the Center’s “open studios” for a spontaneous afternoon of watercolors, ceramics, or jewelry-making. Not so in winter, where you can drop by and pay a small fee to make art in a collegial setting. And on Saturday mornings, head to the Ukiah Farmer’s Market, which now runs year-round; it’s the perfect place to pick up locally produced greens, honey, meats, cheeses and fresh-brewed coffee while listening to live music.
By the time the crowds return to beaches from Maine to Monterrey, it will be April — and then you can think about Miami, just when the snowbirds head home.