Smart Guide: Take a tropical vacation

How you can escape to the beach without breaking the bank

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Finding a perfect warm-weather getaway destination – one that is easy to get to and affordable – can be tricky. Websites such as site59.com and tripcentral.ca have loads of resorts on offer that are described in detail, with star ratings and specifics on what is and isn’t included. But these sites specialize in last-minute packages for travellers who are willing to go anywhere at the drop of a hat. If you aren’t interested in all-inclusive, spur-of-the moment trips, it’s best to go straight to the source.

Most hotels in the Caribbean and Mexico offer web specials, slashing their prices by 25 to 50 per cent after mid-April. Regardless of your travel style, when it comes to finding the best deal down south, timing is everything. Herewith, a list of some of our favourite haunts, where luxury might be the norm but great value isn’t impossible to find.

Bermuda

Due south of Nova Scotia and 1,000 kilometres east of the Carolina coast, Bermuda is more refined than your average sun and sea destination. It’s the type of place where bankers close deals wearing shorts and locals take afternoon tea in flip-flops. For visitors, the main draw is the pristine scenery. Bermuda’s pink-sand beaches and azure waters are crowd- and pollution-free. Air- and cruise-ship traffic to the island is restricted, rental cars and fast-food chains are strictly verboten, and the speed limit for scooters – the preferred mode of transport – is kept to 35 kilometres an hour. Visit bermudatourism.com.

Where the jet-setter stays

Built in 1908, Elbow Beach blends colonial (crystal chandeliers, Persian carpets and photos of a vacationing Princess Margaret) with five-star Zen. (A holistic spa features Ayurvedic treatments, bamboo floors and steam showers.) Recently renovated ocean- or garden-side cottages provide easy access to a half-mile-long private beach. Ultra-luxe accommodations from US$1,400 per night for a two-bedroom beachfront suite. Internet specials for a double room start at US$380 per night. Call 441/236-3535 or visit mandarinoriental.com for details.

The budget find

Bermuda’s most casual resort, 9 Beaches, is a cross between a luxury tent camp and a cottage colony. Eighty-four cabanas are made with aluminum frames and soft-sided sailing cloth-like material. Perched on stilts around a secluded peninsula, some even hover over the water, with clear panels in the floor that allow for tropical fish-gazing. Doubles from US$170 per night. Internet specials for a four-day, mid-week stay in an oceanview cabana, including a hot breakfast, start at US$769. 1/866/841-9009 or 9beaches.com.

St. Martin / Sint Maarten

The French and Dutch have shared St. Martin/ Sint Maarten – the smallest territory in the world to be under the jurisdiction of two countries – for more than 350 years. It’s no wonder, then, that the so-called “Friendly Island” has developed a split personality. Sint Maarten is a mini-Vegas: all-inclusive resorts, a bustling nightlife and crowded casinos. St. Martin, on the other hand, brings Paris to the West Indies. The French flag flies over the gendarmerie in St. Martin’s capital, Marigot, streets are called rues, and the bistros offer some of the best European cuisine in the Caribbean. Go to st-martin.org or st-maarten.com.

Where the jet-setter stays

Jackie O was a regular guest at the luxurious La Samanna resort. Originally built as a private villa, it’s situated on a 55-acre palm-studded estate in the exclusive Terres Basses region of St. Martin and comes complete with a gym, Pilates studio and a water sports cabana with windsurfing, snorkelling and kayaking equipment. From US$950 per night for a deluxe oceanview room; from US$375 if you stay between April 16 and August 31 or November 1 and December 19. Call 1/800/854-2252. or visit lasamanna.com.

The budget find

Go from poolside to poker table at the Sonesta Maho Beach Resort and Casino, a 534-room beachfront property. Amenities include outdoor pools, tennis courts and a promenade of duty-free boutiques and restaurants that are open until 10 p.m. Tempt lady luck at Casino Royale then take in a Vegas-style show at the adjacent Showroom Royale. Doubles from US$188 per night through expedia.ca or call 599/545-2115. Check their site at sonesta.com/stmaarten.

South Beach, Miami, Florida

Miami’s South Beach is a revolving door of Hollywood A-listers: Matthew McConnaughey and buddy Lance Armstrong go for dips in the ocean; J. Lo samples the sexier- than-thou nightlife; and Lindsay Lohan lounges poolside at the latest “it” hotel. But beneath its celebrity-studded, beach-blanket bacchanalia facade, South Beach is a quaint Cubano-influenced enclave with the largest concentration of candy-coated art deco architecture in the world. Bronzed joggers and power-walking grannies take to the seemingly endless boardwalk, which incidentally is at its most elegant and voyeuristic, from Lincoln Road to Collins Park, where the swank swimming pools of The Ritz-Carlton and the Shore Club are within sight. gmcvb.com.

Where the jet-setter stays

A gleaming 10-story, ivory oasis on the bustling Ocean Drive strip, The Tides is a 1930s art deco hotel with a quiet lobby and spacious guestrooms, each with an oceanview and 42-inch Plasma screen TV. A concierge will come to the rescue with any emergency including last-minute car rentals and hard-to-get restaurant reservations. Doubles from US$595 per night. 1/800/439-4095 or tidessouthbeach.com.

The budget find

The quirky style of New York-based owner Jonathan Morr, famed for conceiving The Delano Hotel’s Blue Door restaurant, translates into the attitude-free South Beach hotel, The Townhouse. Rooms are styled in stark white and red IKEA-chic. Hallways are equipped with exercise equipment, and a rooftop lounge is strewn with crimson king-size waterbeds and giant umbrellas. Doubles from US$255 per night in March. Call 305/534-3800 or visit townhousehotel.com.

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Adventure travellers and beachcombers flock to Puerto Vallarta to conquer the Sierra foothills on mountain bikes, dive with the giant manta rays in Banderas Bay and loaf in the hidden coves along its coastline. The region is blessed with more than 300 days of sunshine year-round with temperatures averaging 28C. Puerto Vallarta may have undergone a construction boom of late, but it hasn’t lost its charm. The old town’s cobblestoned streets and graceful cathedral are worth a visit. Check out visitmexico.com or visitpuertovallarta.com.

Where the jet-setter stays

The secluded Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita is a boutique property that sits 40 kilometres from Puerto Vallarta’s main tourist drag. The hotel’s Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course boasts a view of the surrounding Sierra Madre Mountains. From US$495 per night double occupancy (May to June). +52-329-291-6000. fourseasons.com.

The budget find

Situated 35 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta, Villa Amor’s 35 villas offer views of the Pacific, and some have a private plunge pool. The concierge can arrange surfing lessons, whale-watching expeditions and a horseback ride on the beach. From US$75 per night double occupancy. +52-329-291-3010 or villaamor.com.

Maui, Hawaii

For West Coast Canadians, Hawaii’s “Magic Isle” is only a few hours away by plane, and home to palm-fringed blue lagoons, lush rainforests and the 10,023-foot Haleakala, the largest dormant volcano crater in the world. And even though honeymooners abound, Maui is replete with family-friendly attractions. Consider trekking through bamboo forests for a lesson on tropical bird life or visit the giant 750,000-gallon Open Ocean Exhibit at the Maui Ocean Center. Many resorts offer special family rates that include free accommodations and meals for children under 12. Visit gohawaii.com.

Where the jet-setter stays

Celebrity guests such as Kate Hudson get their money’s worth at the all-suite luxury Fairmont Kea Lani Maui on Polo Beach. Each guest unit has a kitchenette with wet bar, a living room with entertainment centre and sofa bed, an oversized bathroom and a large outdoor lanai. Doubles from US$475 per night. 1/800/659-4100 or kealani.com.

The budget find

No-nonsense homespun chic prevails at Spyglass House, Maui’s most unique oceanfront hotel. Six rooms are divided between two houses, each with a common-area living room. Yoga fanatics can practice their downward dog a few blocks away, at the hotel’s yoga studio. The nearby town of Paia is packed with eclectic restaurants and boutiques. Doubles from US$120 per night, or US$90 for shared bath. Both include breakfast. Call 808/579-8608 or log onto spyglassmaui.com.

Choose your destination:
Bermuda St. Martin / Sint Maarten South Beach, Miami, Florida Puerto Vallarta, Mexico Maui, Hawaii