Great spring break getaways for every taste

Rosemary McClure
spring break
(Photo: iStockphoto)

Say “spring break,” and most people think of sun, sand, and girls-gone-wild throngs of college students. But for couples and families, there’s a wide world of options. You can find adventure, tranquility, or natural beauty.

Whatever your dream spring break is, the odds are good that you’ll be traveling this year – or at least wishing you could. Despite sky-high gas prices, Americans are planning to get out town for a few days. The most popular places are California, Hawaii and Florida, according to statistics compiled by American Express Travel.

“We’ve had a really great year so far,” says American Express Travel Insider Lesley Trudelle. “A lot of travelers are looking for really authentic and culturally rich experiences – from spending a week at a dude ranch to finding their inner historian in Colonial Williamsburg. Of course, sun and sand will also always be popular.”

Our favorite beaches range from Florida's barrier islands to Hawaii to Huntington Beach, a.k.a. Surf City USA. To that list, we've added some rock-climbing in California, culture in Washington, D.C., and a handful of other great destinations. If you want to avoid the crazy college crowds, shake off the winter doldrums with one of our ultimate spring break getaways.

Huntington Beach
Sun and surf

Grab a board this spring and hit the waves in Surf City, USA, where nearly 10 miles of sandy beaches draw pro and amateur surfers from around the world. Located 40 miles south Los Angeles, Huntington Beach is a year-round fun zone that offers world-class surf, extensive bicycle and pedestrian paths along the shore, volleyball courts and hundreds of beach fire rings, popular spots for evening bonfires and s'mores parties. Take a surfing lesson, walk the city's 1,583-foot pier--one of the longest in the world-- or play with your dog on a beach reserved for Fido and friends.

Kauai, Hawaii
Hollywood's back lot

Nicknamed Hawaii's Garden Isle, Kauai is a lush tropical paradise with picture-perfect landscapes that draw a steady stream of tourists and movie companies. Among the films shot here: "South Pacific," "Jurassic Park," "Pirates of the Caribbean," and most recently, "The Descendants," with George Clooney. The island is also popular with adventure seekers, who hike the challenging 11-mile Kalalau trail along the Napali Coast, soar on a zipline above 17,000 acres of plantation land, or hike Waimea Canyon, known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.

Washington, D.C.

Join in the "Nation's Greatest Springtime Celebration," in Washington, when the National Cherry Blossom Festival kicks off. The festival, which focuses on the blossoming of thousands of cherry trees on the Tidal Basin, is scheduled March 20 through April 14, but officials are always a little worried about the peak bloom date. But that hasn’t affected plans for a major celebration, including a parade on April 13, concerts, fireworks and a kite-flying festival.

And there’s much more to see and do in the capital: monuments, museums, the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian. One popular way to tackle the city is with a hop-on-hop-off trolley tour, which is flexible enough to give you time to see the things that mean the most to you. Another favorite is a nighttime tour of the city, which is stunning when lighted. And if your timing is right, there’s always the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, scheduled for April 1.

Joshua Tree National Park, Calif.
Be a rock star

Get a rush and rock out at a natural wonder of the world, surreal Joshua Tree National Park. This Mojave Desert park, 140 miles east of Los Angeles and 215 miles southwest of Las Vegas, draws rock climbers, hikers and wildflower fanciers in the spring when the climate is mild. Named after a twisted, spiky tree, Joshua Tree National Park is home to a fascinating variety of plants and animals that make their home in this land shaped by strong winds, unpredictable torrents of rain and climatic extremes. Dark night skies, a rich cultural history, and unusual geologic features add to the attraction of this place.

Aspen, Colo.
Snow and the Spring Jam

Take your last downhill runs of the ski season at Aspen, where snow can be seen on the mountains above town until early June, or make your way into the back country on the largest network of cross-country trails in the West. Looking for something more? Hit the annual Bud Light Spring Jam at Aspen/Snowmass, March 21 - 31, which brings two weekends of competitions, downtown concerts and parties. The area also offers ice skating at indoor and outdoor skating rinks, hot air ballooning and paragliding. If you're looking for deals, there's a special Kids Stay Free offer in April.

Tucson, Ariz.
Saddle up

Teaching your kids the word "Dude!" can have a different meaning by visiting one of the nation's dude ranches, where they can learn to ride, rope and commune with nature. As the original all-inclusive vacation, dude ranches offer a hassle-free, family-oriented spring break getaway. In springtime, Tucson's ranches offer warmer temperatures than some of the other 100 accredited members of the Dude Ranchers’ Association. At Tanque Verde Ranch, spring break activities include horseback riding, guided hiking and biking, swimming, dancing, fishing and exploring the desert mountains. Nearby White Stallion Ranch has been a favorite with Hollywood filmmakers and generations of visitors for more than 70 years.

Sanibel and Captiva islands, Fla.
Sand and shells

Florida is home to some of the nation’s rowdiest spring parties, but you can avoid the frenzy at Sanibel and Captiva islands, located off of Fort Myers on the state’s southwestern coast. Known as the Shell Capital of the World, these barrier islands win the award for peaceful, relaxed ambiance. They're so low-key and uncrowded that's there's not a stoplight in sight. Rich with wildlife and first-class amenities, Captiva and Sanibel have 15 miles of unspoiled beaches, 22 miles of bike paths, 50 species of fish, 230 types of birds and 250 types of shells.

Charleston, S.C.
Golf and gardens

Find charm, history and plenty of Southern hospitality in Charleston, where you can go beach-combing along 90 miles of scenic coastline, explore an antebellum mansion, or clip-clop over cobblestone streets in a horse-drawn carriage.

Charleston welcomes four million annual visitors and one of the best times to visit is in the spring, when flowers are in bloom and summer heat hasn't descended: Golfers can test their mettle at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort. Home decor fans can visit Historic Charleston Foundation’s 66th Annual Spring Festival of Houses & Gardens, scheduled for March 21 to April 20. Kids can learn about nature at the South Carolina Aquarium, which rescues injured sea turtles. Don't miss Ft. Sumter National Monument, where the Civil War began, Battery Park and White Gardens, on the shore of the Charleston Peninsula, and the recently renovated Old City Market, where you can find authentic handmade Lowcountry souvenirs.

Lake Powell,
Make a splash

An otherworldly landscape greets the families who flock to this enormous body of water. Located northeast of the Grand Canyon, Lake Powell draws 3 million visitors annually, many of them returning families, and is the centerpiece of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which extends across southern Utah and dips into Arizona. The lure is a lively houseboating scene, combined with sandy coves, great scenery and calm waters. Houseboating is popular on several southwestern lakes, including Lake Mead, outside Las Vegas, and Lake Mohave on the Colorado River near Laughlin, Nev. But fans say houseboating on Lake Powell is like striking the mother lode— offering a golden opportunity for groups and families to enjoy life on the water for a few days.

Red Mountain, Ala.
Take a hike

Get down and dirty this spring on a Volunteer Vacation with the American Hiking Society, which mobilizes thousands of volunteers each year to construct and maintain thousands of trail miles. The organization offers more than 50 trail-building vacations across the country, including several during the next six weeks. You can choose between programs in Alabama, Kentucky, California, Virginia and Louisiana.

“While the trips are working vacations, you can expect plenty of down time for hiking, local attractions, and campfire camaraderie,” says Gregory Miller, president of the society. “No special skills are required.”

The Alabama project, located at Red Mountain Park, is typical: volunteers will construct a new trail connecting the southern portion of the park to the northern portion. Once complete, Red Mountain Park will make Birmingham, Ala., have more green space per capita than any other city in the nation.