There is no shortage of breathtaking natural places in the world. The key is finding ones that you can get to reasonably easily and that aren’t so vast that you feel as if you’re missing most of them.
Red Rocks, Sedona, Ariz.
The red rock country of Sedona lives up to all its hype. The spires and plateaus and rock formations named Bell, Snoopy and Cathedral are especially enchanting because you can drive right up to them (rent a convertible) and see a slew of them close-up in under an hour. Add to your itinerary the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a marvel that emerges right out of the red rocks. One of my favorite things to do is pull into Slide Rock State Park, where you can sunbathe, slide and swim in water that looks turquoise against the rust-colored landscape.
Red Sand Beach, Hana, Maui
The length of the Hana Highway journey is typically overstated. I’d heard about the twists and turns and traffic. Well, the tropically lush route is twisty, but I’ve never encountered too many other cars along the two-hour-ish drive. Hana is remote enough and undeveloped enough to weed out the impatient (a group that includes most visitors to Maui). And most people make the mistake of a doing a round trip in a day, which is silly; there’s so much gorgeousness to see. Once you get to Hana, hole up and stay a few days. From there, it’s a shockingly short (10-15 minutes) hike around a cinder cone to this breathtaking red sand cove. I’ve seen campers, hippies and families all enjoying the protected green waters. Want more? Hana boasts waterfalls galore as well as a pristine coastal swimming hole called the Venus Pool.
La Jolla Cove, California
San Diego is nice enough, but less than 14 miles north is one of California’s true natural jewels, La Jolla. The dramatic coast, a block from the center of town, consists of scalloped coves bordered by a cliff-top walkway. It’s a naturally spectacular setting, where swimmers head to the buoys a half mile off La Jolla Cove and kayakers explore the sea caves. One easily accessible cove, Casa Beach, is occupied by pupping seals. It’s best just to watch and not try to join them on the sand. The nearby Lodge at Torrey Pines features meticulous craftsman-style architecture that gives you a sense of a SoCal before “Baywatch.”
Antelope Canyon, Arizona
The interplay of Navajo sandstone and sudden, powerful desert monsoons resulted in this magical and much-photographed geological site. Antelope Canyon is actually composed of two sites: Upper Antelope Canyon and Lower Antelope Canyon; Lower requires more climbing, but both boast beautiful striations of rust and rose and burnt orange (you can do either in 90 minutes or less). And it’s an ever-changing scene as the day wears on and beams of light come through the slots and cracks in the surface. Plan in advance; the canyons are in a Navajo tribal park and require a guide. Budget lodging options abound in nearby Page, Ariz.
Grand Tetons, Wyoming
Visitors to Jackson might be surprised to discover that when they land at Jackson Hole Airport, they’re still seven miles from town, but they’re already in Grand Teton National Park. This is the only airport in the country inside a national park, so take advantage of the location and delay driving to town. Instead, admire the stunning snowy peaks and alpine lakes—such as Jenny Lake, where you can book a rustic cabin at Jenny Lake Lodge (think log walls, horseback rides and handmade comforters). No disrespect to adjacent Yellowstone, but nothing beats staying right in Grand Teton National Park.
Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman
The seven-mile number sells. But even though Grand Cayman’s family- and dog-friendly (no leashes required) beach is a few miles shorter than its name promises, it’s an amazing strand for a few reasons. First, the easy access ranks with the most user-friendly beaches in the Caribbean. It’s just a 10-minute drive from the airport. Second, the sea is so calm that swimming parallel to the shore is the wet version of jogging. Third, the water clarity offers great snorkeling at the reefs that are so close to the sand. The Ritz-Carlton, finishing up its full-scale renovation, boasts a Japanese restaurant, Taikun, that serves some of the most inventive sushi anywhere, and the imaginatively designed Silver Rain Spa is the best place on the island to de-stress (indoors, that is).
Columbia Icefield, Alberta, Canada
If you’re heading to the Canadian Rockies, make Jasper your base and you’ll be just a 90-minute drive, on the ultra-scenic Icefields Parkway, from experiencing a spate of real glaciers. In an 80-minute Glacier Adventure tour, you can be driven in a specially designed bus to the Athabasca Glacier—and you’ll even get to walk onto it. On the drive to and from the glacier site, peel your eyes for lacey waterfalls and wildlife. I recommend the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, which is rustic/luxurious, low-rise, and full-service—like camp for discerning adults.