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How You Can Still Make Spring Break Special This Year

By AFAR Staff

Feb 25, 2021

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Head to Sedona, Arizona, to reconnect with the outdoors.

Photo by Beth Ruggiero-York/Shutterstock

Head to Sedona, Arizona, to reconnect with the outdoors.

Whether you’re planning on staying a little closer to home this year (ahem, coronavirus), or want to venture a bit further with your brood (and if not this year, there’s always planning for next), these are the places AFAR editors love to visit this time of year.

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If spring break feels like a challenge this year, know that you’re not alone. A lot of us here at AFAR moonlight as parents, so we can definitely empathize with families grappling with what to do amid a confusing landscape of vaccine rollouts and constantly changing quarantine and COVID testing requirements for travelers. We recently turned to epidemiologists to help us answer some of our readers’ most pressing questions in the story Can I Travel After Getting Vaccinated?; it also addressed concerns as families grapple with how to reunite and travel together in the coming months.

The truth is we could all use a little break to spend quality time with our crew, detach, and, quite frankly, escape from our devices and a relentless news cycle. Spring break 2021 could be as simple as a staycation (have you checked out some of the lesser-known national parks in your area or nearby small towns worth exploring?), or it could be a classic American road trip

Whatever you’re comfortable with, we’re hoping this list of our favorite spring break destinations and socially distanced trip ideas can offer inspiration on places to go, whether for this year or future travels—to leave you feeling refreshed and reconnected with the people who matter most.

Lake Tahoe, California

Tahoe is fun in spring whether there’s ample snow or not.

I hate the bitter cold and I love skiing—so I’ve always loved spring skiing. But now that I have a baby and a toddler, the typically warmer temps and smaller crowds are a huge added draw to hitting the slopes this time of year. Spring skiing can be a bit of a gamble in terms of snowpack (I’m still hoping for a “Miracle March”), though the stakes are a bit lower if you’re skiing or snowboarding with a more novice crew. The trip can be as much about sledding, scenic views, and simply being cozy as it is about getting in those runs (and if it’s really warm, there’s always the option to hit the picturesque shores of the lake).

I’m a big fan of the Northstar ski resort, for its wide variety of trails that cater to different abilities—and the resort’s newer Constellation Residences, luxury lodgings with access to the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe amenities. The low-key Diamond Peak ski resort is another favorite of mine for families with younger kids. Head to the town of Truckee (15 minutes from Northstar and 30 from Diamond Peak) for good third-wave coffee at Coffeeshop, elevated burgers and sophisticated cocktails at Truckee Tavern and Grill, and some cute boutiques. Another scenic option is the lakefront Edgewood Tahoe Resort in South Lake Tahoe just across the state line in, well, Stateline, Nevada.  —Michelle Baran, travel news editor

St. Pete–Clearwater, Florida 

Florida’s Gulf Coast is a great place to rest and relax before or after a trip to Walt Disney World.

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I know what you’re thinking: “Florida, how original. Just me and tons of families on the same spring break schedule.” But what I love about this trip to St. Pete–Clearwater is that you can pair a beach vacation with a Disney trip—St. Pete Beach is only a three-hour drive from Orlando—or just head straight to the Gulf Coast. We fly directly to Tampa from New York (JetBlue currently has nonstop, three-hour flights from JFK), rent a car, and make a beeline for Postcard Inn on the Beach, a colorful, retro-surf-inspired hotel right on a stretch of pristine white sand, with a heated pool and beach bar; a low-key lobby restaurant with a killer barbecue bacon cheeseburger; and ping-pong, a pool table, and enough board games to keep older kids busy. Meanwhile, my absolute favorite Dalí museum—I even like it better than the Dalí museum outside Barcelona—is a 20-minute drive away.  It’s currently home to the immersive Van Gogh exhibit everyone’s raving about, through June 13. After you’ve eased into vacation mode, you can then head over to Disney World (all four theme parks have reopened, with restrictions) where Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge awaits. —Laura Dannen Redman, digital content director

Costa Rica

Oh, the animals you will see in Costa Rica’s Manuel Antonio National Park (like this here white-nosed coati).

Costa Rica is one of the more visitor-friendly destinations—and it is also only one of a handful of international destinations that U.S. travelers can currently travel to. (They will need to be armed with a negative COVID test result upon returning to the states.) The country takes care of its sloths, monkeys, and whales and their habitats, a welcoming spirit infuses the culture, and in recent years, improved roads have made family trips even easier. And the weather’s always good. You can’t see the whole country in a week, and you shouldn’t try, but pick a spot or two and no matter where you go, you’ll have a satisfying spring break. In 2019, we flew into San Jose, rented a car and drove to the Manuel Antonio area. Manuel Antonio National Park has gotten more crowded, which was a little disappointing, but from the pool at the Si Como No Resort, we watched a sloth hang out in the treetops.

Then we drove down to the Osa Peninsula, where the nature is wilder and the roads are bumpier. We saw howler monkeys, spider monkeys, sloths, dolphins, whales, frogs—and don’t get me started on the birds. A nature walk we took at our lodge, Bosque del Cabo, even got the whole family into ants. On a previous visit, my wife and I visited Arenal, Monteverde, and Manuel Antonio, another fun itinerary. —Jeremy Saum

Blue Ridge Mountains and Outer Banks, North Carolina

Hit the trails in North Carolina's gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains.
My husband is from North Carolina so we usually visit at least once a year. Spring is a great time because the summertime tourists haven’t descended in droves yet. Depending on your family’s interests you can do it all or zero in on a particular region. Avid hikers and nature lovers should head west toward the Blue Ridge Mountains and make the artsy hub of Asheville home base. Rest your heads at the Foundry Hotel, a historic steel factory re-envisioned as a chic boutique hotel, and fill up on Indian street food at Chai Pani or Carolina BBQ at Buxton Hall Barbecue (at press time the eateries were only doing takeout and delivery). If you want to get closer to the trails and trees, book one of these secluded mountain cabins.

For those driving across the state, as we often do, you’ll want to break up the trip somehow. Stop at the art deco gem Kimpton Cardinal Hotel in Winston-Salem and explore the old town or take a break in Durham. There, the Durham Hotel serves up midcentury-modern design beauty, Unscripted Durham is a fun and groovy hotel option (with a rooftop pool), and the 21c Museum Hotel Durham hits all the right notes for art lovers. Durham’s Museum of Life and Science is an outdoor, educational wonderland for the kiddos, and afterwards the crew can head to the Parlour for a scoop (or two) of ice cream.

If sand and ocean sunsets is what you seek, you can’t go wrong with the Outer Banks. Head toward Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk for a good mix of some secluded stretches of beach with easy access to great seafood restaurants and grocery stores where you can stock up if you are staying in a vacation rental (highly recommended for families). Read our guide on the best beaches in North Carolina for the full breakdown, and make sure to visit the tallest active sand dune in the eastern U.S., Jockey’s Ridge State Park.—M.B.

San Diego

San Diego is a vacation paradise for families.

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San Diego’s climate is almost embarrassingly perfect year-round (the temperatures average between the 60s and 70s much of the year, with almost no humidity), but springtime—when the Los Angeles region farther north can get a bit gray and overcast—is especially alluring. It’s one giant outdoor playground for families, with the world-class San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park, umpteen miles of sandy beaches (you can’t go wrong with La Jolla with its beautiful bluffs), and the calm waters of Mission Bay. While the Legoland theme park in neighboring Carlsbad is currently closed, the bricks-and-minifig-themed Legoland Resort Hotel and the Legoland Castle Hotel are open and guests have access to the pool, outdoor play structures, and the Miniland area within the park, featuring elaborate Lego structures. If you prefer to spread out in a beach house vacation rental, read our guide to our favorite San Diego Airbnbs. —Tim Chester, senior digital editor

Sedona, Arizona

Grab the kids and head to Sedona for hiking and cosmic encounters.

Spring is a great time to explore the desert before the temperatures get too high. Few desert landscapes are as scenic as the striking red rocks of Sedona. The combination of endless trails (that cater to a wide range of abilities) and the charming quirkiness of a destination thought to have cosmic energy makes this outdoor playground an ideal setting for travelers of all ages. Enchantment Resort is a stunning oasis set within a red rock canyon with rooms ranging from spacious casitas to one- and two-bedroom suites. In 2020, Enchantment opened its new outdoor adventure center, Trail House, where guests can plan hikes and mountain biking trips. For a forested outpost that feels like the luxury edition of summer camp, L’Auberge de Sedona offers families a restful retreat in cozy cottages (some of which have two bedrooms). If you like the idea of stylish rooms with killer views, make Sky Rock Inn of Sedona your family’s HQ. Fill up on delicious Mexican in an adorably low-key setting at Tamaliza Café, and get all the necessary carbs for hiking during breakfast at Creekside American Bistro.—M.B.

Ideas for spring break 2022 and beyond

These destinations are currently off limits to the majority of American travelers due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, but we are leaving them here for future inspiration and because we ourselves cannot wait to get back to them.

Iceland 

Get off of Iceland’s well-worn tourist trail and head north to less-visited sites such as the Dettifoss waterfall.

Most visitors to Iceland stick to Reykjavík and the 190-mile Golden Circle, which hits three of the country’s most popular attractions: Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss waterfall. The rest of Iceland is actually, mostly, blissfully quiet. For the past few years (prior to the pandemic), my husband and I have taken advantage of significantly cheaper flights and accommodations in Iceland ahead of the country’s peak season, summer, and traveled there during the spring.

The days are full of sun, the temps are in the 40s and 50s, and wildflowers are starting to return. Plus, you can do—and see—a lot in a long weekend or five days: I’m a big fan of driving the Diamond Circle in the country’s northeast, which comprises the four main attractions of Lake Mývatn, Dettifoss waterfall, the horseshoe-shaped Ásbyrgi canyon, and the picturesque town of Húsavík, known as Iceland’s “whale capital.” —Katherine LaGrave, digital features editor

Portugal

We challenge you to find a more family-welcoming place than Portugal.

I have never been to such a family-friendly place as Portugal. And it wasn’t just Lisbon or Porto that were accommodating—it was a universal welcome, from the airport queues just for families to our apartment rental (the Lisboans, with its extra-large rooms and breakfast delivered daily), our Uber drivers, and the waiter at a fancy restaurant who didn’t mind us arriving with a crying toddler in a stroller. Portugal even has dedicated parking spots for pregnant women.

I highly recommend a weeklong road trip from Porto to Lisbon, with an overnight in Obidos at Pestana Castelo do Obidos and a day trip to Sintra from Lisbon, to see Pena Palace. (Opt for the automatic car, so you don’t risk stalling out repeatedly on a steep cobbled hill in a medieval town like we did.)

You can eat out almost everywhere with kids (even wine bars in Porto) and explore the centuries-old attractions (our toddler loved running around the courtyard and hallways of Lisbon’s Jeronimos Monastery). And you’ll never be at a loss for an amazing park, wherever you go. —L.D.R.

>>Next: 18 Fantastic Worldwide Destinations for Families—and Where to Stay There

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