The worst part of vacation is often the other vacationers. Crowded beaches, long lines, and noisy restaurants plague the country’s trendiest destinations. But every region of the country has that hidden-gem spot where the locals go to escape and unwind. They may take a little more legwork to get to, but once you arrive you’ll be happy you spent that extra few minutes planning. So breathe a long sigh of relief and check out our handy little guide to those out-of-the-way places you’ve been searching for.
Nestled in the serene Allegheny Mountains just an hour outside Pittsburgh, Nemacolin Woodlands Resort is an escape the whole family will love. Visit in the summer to work on your golf swing at the world-class Shepherd’s Rock course, or get away for the holidays for their epic Thanksgiving festivities, including a ballroom brunch and traditional dinner with local turkeys and vegetables prepared by the resident five-star chef. Winter activities include tubing, skeet shooting, dog sledding and more. With a variety of lodging options from rustic to royal and 2000 adventure-filled acres to explore, Nemacolin has something for everyone to enjoy.
Mackinac Island, MI
Michigan’s Mackinac Island is a tranquil floating time-capsule set snugly in the strait between the Great Lakes Michigan and Huron. A longtime stopover for lake travelers and an escape for world-weary Chicagoans, not much has changed about the island in the last hundred years, from its 19th century Grand Hotel to its carless roads—if you don’t feel like walking you’ll have to go by horse-drawn carriage. Most of the island is covered by Mackinac Island State Park, which preserves both its natural beauty and historical structures. Take the ferry from Mackinaw City, stroll among the Colonial homes, then rent a bike to tour the island’s forts, and stop for a dip at Arch Rock.
Southern Utah is known for gorgeous canyons, breathtaking stone monoliths, and arid deserts. And while you shouldn’t miss the awe-inspiring vistas of the Southwest’s national parks, Lake Powell delivers the same brand of natural beauty with the addition of limitless options for summer recreation. A man-made reservoir filling one of Southern Utah’s sandstone canyons, visitors flock to the lake every season for swimming, hiking, camping, and boating. The winding shores are lined with beaches and hotels where you can rent boats and jet-skis or charter a tour from an experienced guide, but for a truly unique experience you should gather the family or some friends and spend a few nights floating on a rented houseboat.
It might not be tropical, but that doesn’t stop Martha’s Vineyard from being one of the country’s greatest island escapes. Hop the ferry from Cape Cod to this idyllic New England retreat, where you’ll find picturesque whaling and fishing towns made up of shingle-sided cottages and working wharfs. The island’s west side is lined with secluded beaches, and visitors willing to do a bit of hiking will have cliffside vistas and views of Vineyard Sound all to themselves. Couple all that with a vibrant foodie scene and some of the best seafood int the world and you’ve got yourself an Atlantic vacation to remember.
Flathead Lake, MT
With 200 square miles for sailing, fishing, swimming, and boating, Montana’s Flathead Lake is the Tahoe of the upper Midwest (but bigger!). Just south of Glacier National Park, it’s a great and versatile base camp for all your National Park adventures. The lake is lined with dozens of resorts and State Parks for camping and marinas for kayak, sailboat, and powerboat rentals are plentiful. There are also a lot of great bars, restaurants, and breweries where you can regroup after a few days of hiking in Glacier. Flathead Lake Brewing Company is a great brewpub on the lake’s northeast corner with a gorgeous sunset view, and The Raven is a Caribbean-themed lakeside dive with great food, live music, and darts.
Offering the same aesthetics as the Grand Canyon with more amenities and shorter lines, Sedona, Arizona is a red-rock desert paradise known for its lively arts community and surprisingly mild climate. Spiritualists and sightseers flock there for the dramatic geological formations, with hiking trails leading from the town’s edge into Red Rock State Park. Take the kids and a picnic lunch a few miles north to Rock Slide State Park, where erosion has formed fun natural water slides in the sandstone. Rejuvenate yourself at one of the town’s many spas, then head for a local, sustainably-sourced Mexican dinner at Elote Cafe
San Juan Islands
Hawaii isn’t the only archipelago worth visiting in the US—the San Juan islands are home to a (temperate) rainforest climate, untamed wildlife, hiking, quaint towns, arts, and adventure spread over 172 islands in the Pacific Northwest. There are four main islands with ferry service from Anacortes, Washington (or take the San Juan Clipper from Seattle for a three-hour scenic boat ride), each with their own secrets to discover. You’ll sail into Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, the cultural center of the islands where you’ll find restaurants, bars, and art galleries. Orcas Island is the “gem of the San Juans,” with challenging hikes through verdant hills and private cabins available to rent right on the water. Stop in Eastsound for a taste of the local culture (and the coffee), then take a kayak tour and spot some killer whales splashing in the Sound. For a more relaxing vibe, head to Lopez Island, where you’ll get to know locals at the bookstores, cafes, and museums that speckle the island’s small permanent communities.
Owning a home in the Hamptons has long been a status symbol among New York’s elite. A swanky retreat at the tip of Long Island, The Hamptons offer a respite from sweltering Manhattan summers, but just because you can get there by helicopter (from Manhattan for just under $500, one-way) doesn’t mean you have to take out a second mortgage to enjoy the area’s beach communities and laid-back lifestyle. The Montauk Highway is lined with farmsteads and wineries, where you should stock up for your week at the beach. Montauk itself, at the end of the peninsula, is a chill surf town where you and the whole family can take in the best view on the water along with its best clambake at Duryea’s Lobster Deck.
When people picture southern California, it’s usually the big cities that get all the attention. But the coast is host to some cool beachside communities like Newport Beach that manage to fly a little under the radar. South of LA, Newport is known for its harbor brimming with boats, as well as a pair of piers jutting out from Balboa Peninsula where you can grab dinner with stellar views of the languid Pacific. Test your skills with a surf lesson at Corona Del Mar State Beach, or take the kids to the Balboa Fun Zone, where an ice cream atop the ferris wheel might offer the best sunset view in the whole state.
St. Augustine, FL
Florida vacations are typically known for bawdy beaches and long lines at Disney, but St. Augustine in the state’s northeast corner offers a more relaxing alternative. Settled by the Spanish in 1565, St. Augustine is the oldest city in the country, and the history is evident on every corner. Visit the Castillo de San Marcos for a stunning example of Spanish Colonial architecture overlooking the Atlantic, then tour the living museum at the Colonial Corner. It isn’t all history though; the city boasts world-class beaches, and tourists with 21st century tastes will appreciate upscale eateries like Ice Plant, a hundred-year-old converted ice factory which serves modern cocktails with house-made bitters and haute pub food.
Ryan Polhemus is a freelance writer based in Boston. When he's not scribbling about (or sampling) the local food and drink scene, he can likely be found on a cheap flight to a strange destination, where he will scribble about and sample somebody else's local food and drink scene.