Winter is still here, and your thoughts may be turning to warm, sunny beach escapes. But if you crave something more—such as viewing wildlife in a rain forest or playing blackjack until dawn—here are six tropical destinations that offer the perfect combination of sun and fun.
For Sun & Adventure
Hapuna Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii: Sometimes the most satisfying way to unwind is with an adrenaline rush—whether it’s zip lining over lush treetops or mind-expanding stargazing from atop a 13,803-foot dormant volcano covered in snow. You can do both (and so much more) on the Big Island of Hawaii, while also taking time to relax with your toes in the sand. Hapuna Beach, located in the north on the island’s Kohala Coast, is your home away from home to enjoy a roster of land activities—horseback riding with paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys) in Waimea or Waipi’o Valley, mountain biking past waterfalls and hiking across lava fields in Volcanoes National Park—as well as the aforementioned zip lining at Skyline Eco-Adventures and star-gazing from atop the volcano Mauna Kea.
Where to stay: Choose a spot that is right on the beach at the 252-room Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, with its award-winning beach and golf course. Nightly rates: From $529.
Insider tip: Just around the point, the 249-room Westin Hapuna Prince Resort has nightly rates starting at $299, but be aware that construction noise from new condos is ongoing until early 2020.
For Sun & Nightlife
Palm Beach in Aruba: The problem with a lot of beach destinations is that they’re fun by day, but once the sun sets, all you hear is crickets (or tree frogs). If quiet nights bore you, check out Palm Beach—Palm Beach Aruba, that is. Not only is it one of Aruba’s top beaches—featuring two miles of white sand, clear turquoise water and calm surf—but most resorts located along it also have casinos. There’s even a seaside walkway linking a half-dozen properties so that you can easily test your luck at multiple venues. Dining and other entertainment options are nearby, as is the capital, Oranjestad, home to even more casinos.
Where to stay: The 357-room Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort Spa and Casino is fresh from a $21 million renovation in late 2018 and features a casino with 13 gaming tables, 221 slot machines and a bar that also offers hand-rolled cigars. Nightly rates: From $275.
Insider tip: Book your stay for some time in the first three weeks of December to avoid a high-season price spike from Christmas to Easter.
For Sun & Wildlife
Playa Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica: Beaches rank among nature’s most inviting creations, but add in a bunch of equally awesome creatures—from two- and three-toed sloths to prehistoric-looking iguanas—and your vacation is suddenly a whole lot more exciting. They reside in 4,900-acre Manuel Antonio National Park, located on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast and home to two beaches, including Playa Manuel Antonio. The park’s trails are inhabited by such curious species as howler monkeys (who live up to their their name), red-backed squirrel monkeys and white-nosed coatis (a member of the raccoon family known for their exceptionally long ringed tails). You can enjoy a guided morning walk followed by a refreshing ocean dip in the afternoon. In addition to day trips to other wildlife-viewing spots along the coast, you can try nature-based thrills, such as zip lining at El Santuario Canopy Adventure, located just outside the park.
Where to stay: The 38-room Arenas del Mar Beachfront & Rainforest Resort allows you to effortlessly enjoy eco-friendly amenities and indigenous wildlife on 11 beachfront acres within walking distance of the park. Nightly rates: From $330.
Insider tip: Book for early December or early May (dry season) for the lowest rates.
For Sun & Culture
Akumal Beach in Riviera Maya, Mexico: Once you start digging into the history of the ancient Mayans, you’ll want to know more. To do so, vacation along Riviera Maya, about an hour south of Cancún on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. This region is known for all-inclusive resorts set on beautiful beaches and three legendary Mayan cities dating back more than 1,000 years—Tulum, where city ruins overlook a photogenic beach…Cobá, where you can climb the Nohoch Mul pyramid for a panoramic jungle view…and Chichén Itzá, home to one of Mexico’s largest Mayan temples, Kukulkan.
Where to stay: The 420-room Luxury Bahia Principe Sian Ka’an or the 978-room Grand Bahia Principe Tulum. Located in the same 983-acre complex near Akumal, both offer great value, with adults-only Sian Ka’an tucked amid jungle foliage and family-friendly Tulum on the beach. All-inclusive nightly rates: From $186 and $150 per person, respectively.
Insider tip: Visit the beach from November to February to avoid the seasonal sargassum seaweed, which can spoil swimming.
For Sun & Rock Climbing
Railay Beach in Krabi, Thailand: Thailand is a top destination in Asia for amazing travel experiences—from visiting serene Buddhist temples and tasting tantalizing cuisine to diving amid vibrant corals and even jungle trekking atop an elephant—but it’s geologically stunning Krabi that is a global hot spot for rock climbing. There are more than 700 bolted climbing routes on the limestone cliffs near Railay Beach. Local outfitters offer full- and half-day tours (both private and groups) for every level of climber—even beginners.
Where to stay: The 240-room Dusit Thani Krabi Beach Resort is located about eight miles from Railay. Nightly rates: From $124.
Insider tip: The best time to visit is December to March, and it’s easy to combine a stay in Krabi with visits to stunning Ko Phi Phi Leh (where the Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach was filmed) and other islands in the Andaman Sea.
For Sun & Snorkeling/Diving
Seven Mile Beach in Grand Cayman: Whether you’re a beginner snorkeler or an expert diver eager to take your next plunge, the sparkling turquoise waters of the Cayman Islands’ largest island and most famous beach offer all kinds of adventure, from just-offshore coral reefs to intriguing wreck dives. Grand Cayman has more than 300 dive sites—notably Babylon, Devil’s Grotto and the wreck of the USS Kittiwake—while a small reef is accessible about 100 yards off Seven Mile Beach in the area known as Governor’s Beach. A great family outing is a catamaran sail to Stingray City, where the unintimidated can snorkel with playful southern stingrays that congregate here for food handouts. Seven Mile Beach (and yes, it is almost that long at 6.3 miles) offers a roster of water sports—wakeboarding, Waverunner safaris, kayak rentals and parasailing.
Where to stay: Book a room at the 285-room Margaritaville Beach Resort Grand Cayman for a laid-back vibe inspired by the music of Jimmy Buffett. Nightly rates: From $126.
Insider tip: This property has some of Grand Cayman’s lowest prices in high season.