Summer is vacation season — yet it can also be the most frustrating time to travel. Crowds are thick, prices skyrocket, hotels sell out and temperatures soar to uncomfortable heights. But given the reality of school schedules and the urge to get out of town, summer travel is inevitable.
If you’re dying to get out of town but can’t stand the crowds, the heat or the prices, what are your options? Here are a few suggestions — from the practical to the perverse — for summer vacations that go against the grain.
For those who hate the heat:
Head for winter! On their worst year, the Southern Hemisphere experiences a much milder winter than anything we’ve seen in New York lately. If your idea of a good time is incompatible with sunscreen and sweat, consider cities like Quito, Ecuador — a fresh, pleasant 68 degrees year-round, due to its Andean altitude — or Lima, Peru, where the perpetual mist and leaden skies do little to dampen a vibrant nightlife. Added bonuses: The flights aren’t cheap, but the countries themselves are, and jet lag is minimal compared to Europe or Asia. And both have small but historic Jewish communities that welcome visitors.
Northern Europe is also a safe bet for the heat-averse. Few have suffered heatstroke on the moody heaths of Scotland, where a nice midsummer day calls for a sweater and perhaps a trench as well. Since most Brits head to the Mediterranean, you have their castles and pubs to yourself, which is also rather nice.
You may notice that these places aren’t very sunny. If you insist on sun but don’t want heat, there’s always San Francisco. Remember Mark Twain’s legendary claim that the coldest winter he ever saw “was the summer I spent in San Francisco.”
For those on a budget:
The U.S. dollar is strong, so put it to work in places with favorable exchange rates.
I just got back from the Balkans, where I felt rich. Really rich. This region has always been cheap by European standards, but the weak euro — and local currencies pegged to the euro — combined with lingering recession have made Bulgaria, Albania, Macedonia and much of Greece incredibly cheap for Americans.
Depending on your location, you can stay in a really nice hotel by the sea or in the mountains for anywhere between $30 and $100; hike some of Europe’s best mountains, free of crowds; dine on fresh salads, fish and local wine for $5-$10 per person; and spend in a week what you’d spend in a day in Tuscany, all during peak summer weather.
Of course, with the weak euro, even Tuscany is cheaper than at any time since the early 2000s. The best European deals, however, may be up north in Scandinavia. Norway and Sweden aren’t exactly budget destinations, but for those who’ve been dreaming of the land of Ikea and lox, their relatively weak currencies — coupled with discounted flights and hotel rates — have finally made them accessible to many. (Scandinavia is also ideal for heat- and crowd-avoiders, and summer is the ideal time to visit.)
How about the tried-and-true winter spots? Costa Rica and Belize, hot destinations for winter getaways, slash rates for summer vacationers — but temperatures are only a few degrees higher in June than in January. This region is hot and humid in summer, but no more so than Manhattan is, plus the sea breezes (and the pool, and cold drinks) keep things pleasant. Odds of a hurricane are still pretty low on any given week.
Florida is another obvious yet overlooked summer destination, as are the resorts of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Costa Rica, Florida and the Yucatan are all thick with Jewish communities or kosher rentals; you may have to book a year in advance for your family in wintertime, but July is a far easier bet for that tropical escape.
For those who abhor crowds:
If cities beckon — and you don’t mind a little heat — summer can be an ideal time to explore vacant museums, or waltz into popular restaurants at 7:30 and sit right down.
The emptiest place I have ever been to was Madrid on an August weekend. Absolutely everybody with any ability to flee the city does so, leaving 100-degree days to those willing to make the tradeoff for pleasantly uncrowded museums, tranquil plazas, and an unbeatable negotiating position with the city’s hotels. French cities are a close second: everyone heads for the coasts. The caveat is that Paris can get pretty hot, and Madrid positively bakes.
Closer to home, Friday afternoon is an ideal time to head into a town while everyone else is in traffic en route to the shore. In Philadelphia, you can snag an outdoor café right on Rittenhouse Square, then have the park all to yourself on summer weekends. Boston’s Public Garden and riverside parks are at their summery best in July, while the college crowd’s away and locals are all on the Cape.
And California doesn’t really have seasons — so crowds aren’t noticeably thicker in summertime, and there’s always plenty of sand to go around. But by July, the Pacific is finally warm enough for swimming at the spectacular beaches of Southern California: Santa Barbara, Malibu, Venice, Laguna Beach and La Jolla.