If you have a few days to devote to R&R this spring, consider a quick beginning-of-season beach getaway. Avoid summer crowds and inflated seasonal prices by choosing to travel to America’s most popular coastal communities in April, May or early June. While you may need a sweater for a stroll along the beach in places such as Rhode Island and Washington in April, the weather is warm enough for swimming and sunbathing in Florida and Texas. Don’t miss these 4 inexpensive options:
Orcas Island, Washington
The horseshoe-shaped Orcas Island may only be 57 square miles, but “the Emerald Isle” or “the Gem of the San Juan Islands” as locals call it has something to offer—from sea to mountain—for you and your entire family.
If you want to keep to the beach, Orcas Island has 77 miles of shoreline worth exploring on your own. Bring the kids along and join the environmental projects of the Orcas Island Youth Conservation Corps or the Indian Island Health Observatory’s efforts to survey marine life of Indian Island and Fishing Bay (check with local businesses or the observatory’s online calendar for the research schedule). You could also board a boat for whale watching tours courtesy of operators in Eastsound or Deer Harbor or join a kayak tour to find crabs, limpets, sea stars, barnacles, anemones and other marine invertebrates.
When you tire of the sea, hike, bike (bicycles can be rented from Wildlife Cycles at N. Beach Road) or drive up to Mount Constitution—the highest point in the San Juan Islands at 2,409 feet—and marvel at the views from the top: the Salish Sea dotted with forest-covered islands hugged by fog. You can also go horseback riding through Moran State Park's 5,252 acres, which includes Cascade Lake, Mountain Lake and 3 other freshwater lakes, or hike Turtleback Mountain and Obstruction Pass State Park while watching out for bald eagles, rabbits, wild deer, fox and more.
For those looking for more family-friendly activities and sites to visit, check out Orcas W.I.L.D. (Orcas Wildlife Institute for Learning and Discovery) and Orcas Island Historical Museum to learn about the island’s diverse ecosystem and history.
Ideally, your trip to Orcas Island should be at least a few days, but if you only have several hours to spare, head to the Orcas Island Scenic Byway. A 2- to 3-hour self-guided tour will ensure you visit the highlights and even some hidden gems in Orcas Island. If you visit the island on a Saturday, make sure to stop by the farmers market on the Village Green for fresh produce, sea glass jewelry and handmade soap.
Driving Distances: You need to take a ferry to get to the island | 1.5 hours from Anacortes, Washington | 2.5 hours from Bellingham, Washington | 3.5 to 4 hours from Seattle, Washington
South Padre Island, Texas
Located just north of the Mexican border, South Padre Island boasts miles of white sand beaches along the sparkling turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico, making it perfect for strolling or sunbathing.
The island offers a chance to get up close and personal with the local wildlife. A favorite spot is Sea Turtle, Inc., dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of sea turtles for release back into the wild. You can even meet Allison, the first sea turtle to be successfully outfitted with a prosthetic flipper.
Take to the water on a dolphin-watching cruise and see Atlantic bottlenose dolphins frolic. If you’re an angler, you can enjoy onshore, offshore or deep-sea fishing, and even have your catch cooked up at a local restaurant.
South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center offers excellent bird watching along its boardwalks, in one of its 5 bird blinds or by climbing a 5-story observation tower. White ibises, great blue herons and roseate spoonbills are some of the permanent residents.
You can get your own bird’s-eye view of South Padre Island from the Port Isabel Lighthouse State Historic Site, located just across Queen Isabella Causeway. Built in 1852, it’s the only one of the 16 lighthouses originally built along the Texas coast that’s open to the public.
Lesson-plan Resources: Obtain lesson plans on archery, aquatics and more from Texas Parks & Wildlife.
Resources to Plan Your Trip: City of South Padre Island Convention & Visitors Bureau | Travel Texas
Driving Distances: 45 minutes from Brownsville, Texas | 3 hours from Corpus Christi, Texas
Newport, Rhode Island
Bundle up a bit and get an introduction to the area by walking the 3.5-mile Cliff Walk. You’ll have stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean on one side and imposing Gilded Age mansions on the other. Stick to the northern part of the trail, which is paved. The southern half of Cliff Walk covers rough terrain, including rocky shoreline, and is best left to experienced hikers wearing appropriate footwear.
Afterward, head to one of the opulent mansions you’ve passed on your walk. Some mansions are only open part of the year, but the iconic Breakers, under the auspices of The Preservation Society of Newport County, welcomes visitors throughout the fall. Peek into the former summer “cottage” of the Vanderbilts. Completed in 1895, The Breakers is modeled after an Italian Renaissance palazzo. Thirty- to 90-minute self-guided audio tours are available at The Breakers, Marble House, The Elms and Rosecliff. Tours guided by a docent can be booked at other nearby mansions.
Additionally, tour Marble House, also built by the Vanderbilt family and designed by Richard Morris Hunt, which contains 500,000 cubic feet of opulent marble. Alva Vanderbilt later had a Chinese Tea House constructed on the cliffs and used it to host rallies in favor of women’s right to vote. Visitors can see this historic teahouse as part of the Marble House tour.
If you don’t want to be a landlubber, head out to sea with Classic Cruises of Newport on a sailboat or yacht. Enjoy a stunning view of the city while savoring a sunset cocktail.
Lesson-plan Resources: The Preservation Society of Newport County provides lessons plans about Newport’s historic homes.
Driving Distances: 45 minutes from Providence, Rhode Island | 90 minutes from Boston, Massachusetts | 2 hours from Hartford, Connecticut | 2.5 hours from Concord, New Hampshire | 3 hours from New York City and Portland, Maine
Amelia Island, Florida
This barrier island, located in the northeast corner of the state near Jacksonville, is the place to enjoy the great outdoors. Start your visit with a relaxing walk along unbroken miles of beaches—searching for shells and sharks’ teeth and sticking your toes in the Atlantic Ocean.
Next, explore the island’s waterways by kayak, or rent a bike and cycle along the many trails passing under century-old oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Or bring your clubs along and choose from an array of world-class golf courses on the island.
A child-friendly way to explore the island’s waters is with Amelia River Cruises’ shrimping eco tour. Get hands-on experience deploying and retrieving an Otter Trawl shrimp net during this 2-hour cruise. The creatures you catch will be identified and displayed in a shipboard aquarium before being released.
Journey back in time at Fort Clinch State Park, built in the mid-1800s. It was seized by Confederate troops at the start of the Civil War and used as a safe haven for blockade runners before being recaptured by Union forces. Historical re-enactors provide insight into what life was like at the fort in 1864, including demonstrating skills such as blacksmithing and cannon firing!
While you’re there, check out the historic small-town charms of Fernandina Beach on the north end of the island. This seaport village is chock-full of architecture from the Victorian era, and more than 400 buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Since 1562, island residents have lived under 8 flags—France, Spain (twice), Great Britain, the Patriots of Amelia Island, the Green Cross of Florida, Mexico, the Confederate States of America and the United States—so you’ll find a fascinating mix of colorful restaurants, shops and historic buildings.
Driving Distances: 30 minutes from Jacksonville, Florida | 2 hours from Savannah, Georgia and Gainesville, Florida | 3 hours from Orlando and Tallahassee, Florida