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News / Life / Lifestyles

Warm-weather escapes: Hot destinations to consider

By Star Tribune
Published: December 16, 2023, 6:00am
2 Photos
A street performer serenades diners in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico boasts colorful colonial architecture, and free-roaming dogs, horses and chickens lend the island an international feel.
A street performer serenades diners in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico boasts colorful colonial architecture, and free-roaming dogs, horses and chickens lend the island an international feel. (Mihai Coman/Dreamstime) Photo Gallery

MINNEAPOLIS — Amid gray skies, barren trees and plummeting mercury, it’s that time of year when vacationing northerners swap out the woodsy cabin for the trade-winds cabana.

Mercifully, airlines offer dozens of destinations where winter basically never happens — from the Caribbean to Mexico and Central America, and of course, Hawaii.

So we checked weather records and mapped out a surprising 18 destinations from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport where the average high temperature in January is at least a balmy 80. And these are all nonstop routes — meaning you could wake up at dawn, catch a five-hour flight and potentially be on a tropical beach in time for evening cocktails.

You could simply stick a finger on the map and try out a new paradise every year. But below are profiles of some of our tried and tested favorites. For the best deals, book your winter escape soon — wherever you fly from.

Los Cabos: Tacos, tequila and diving at tip of Baja

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, is more than great weather. What used to be a tiny fishing village is now a booming resort and vacation hotbed. On outings such as a three-hour downtown culinary walking tour from Viator, you can taste food from all over Mexico, from mole to tacos al pastor — and of course, all sorts of tequilas. Or take a yacht tour to the southernmost tip of the Baja Peninsula to see the iconic El Arco — an archway that rises out of the ocean — then stop at one of the hidden beaches (only accessible by water) on the way back. The area is also known for its spectacular diving scene, and you can get certified there, too.

Average high in January: 80.

Sample airfare (subject to change): $425 on Sun Country, Jan. 14-21.

San Juan: Rich Caribbean culture without a passport

Even with five-hour direct flights from MSP, San Juan, Puerto Rico, lies just outside most Minnesotans’ tourism radar. Despite the territory’s vulnerability to hurricanes and economic struggles, it has preserved a culture totally distinct from that of the mainland U.S. The dominance of Spanish, colorful colonial architecture, and free-roaming dogs, horses and chickens lend the island an international feel. Yet it’s convenient to visit — there’s no passport required, and most locals speak English. Beaches offer variations on a blissful theme: aquamarine waves, modest crowds. Plus, there are rainforests to hike, bioluminescent bays to paddle, and smaller islands just a ferry ride away.

Average high in January: 81.

Sample airfare: $449 on Delta, Feb. 20-27.

Hawaii: Stealthy deals with a layover

We’re emphasizing nonstop flights, but this year, the 50th state is the exception to all rules. Only months after announcing new Minneapolis-to-Maui service, Delta suspended it due to the cataclysmic fires in West Maui. Pricey nonstops to Honolulu remain (from $1,351), but this winter there’s serious value in connecting flights to all the major Hawaiian islands for a third of the cost (from $416-$510). On Maui, locals are split on whether tourists should stay away or stimulate the economy, but South Maui is fully open for business with its world-class beaches and snorkeling. If you do go, take the opportunity to travel gently and respectfully, and perhaps adjust your expectations — no “White Lotus” diva meltdowns, please. For the warmest temps and more affordable lodging, stick with the glamour and history of Oahu (via Honolulu) or the natural volcanic wonders of the Big Island (via Kona International Airport).

Average January high: 81 in Honolulu.

Sample airfare: $416 to Kahului, Maui, on American, Feb. 5-12 (one stop).

Cancun: The beach and beyond

We can’t ignore Cancun, which is easily Minnesotans’ top foreign warm-weather destination with a whopping 357,000 air passengers in 2022. And there’s nothing like the spectacle of the 14-mile barrier island known as the Hotel Zone, with its high-rise resorts, spring-break beaches, upscale shopping and wild nightlife. But don’t overlook a guided day trip or longer journey to other charms of the Yucatan. The town of Tulum, for instance, is a relatively more laid-back, relaxing, hip alternative — plus it has cenotes, sinkholes that can make for secluded swimming holes. The Mayan archeological capital of Chichen Itza features ancient architectural masterpieces in the heart of the peninsula, with some sacred cenotes of its own.

Average high in January: 82.

Sample airfare: $205 on Sun Country, Jan. 30-Feb. 6.

St. Martin: French and Dutch influences converge

A winter getaway to Saint-Martin or Sint Maarten allows you to visit two nations in one: France and the Netherlands on just one 13-square-mile isle. Enjoy rainforests and beaches within just a few miles of each other, ziplining and scuba diving on the same day. The European influence includes topless sunbathing and a few entirely nude beaches, so plan accordingly. The Dutch side is more Caribbean but is also more crowded with the airport and cruise port. On the French side, enjoy spectacular cuisine in the capital of Marigot and some very good art galleries. While the U.S. dollar is accepted all over, the Euro is more common on the French side.

Average high in January: 83.

Sample airfare: $867 on Sun Country, Feb. 3-10.

Belize: A bit of everything

Not sure if you want your vacation to be islands and beaches or jungles, ecolodges and pyramids? Scrappy, uncrowded, compact Belize offers a sampler platter: a Caribbean facade with a rugged backcountry. We can’t think of white-sand Ambergris Caye and San Pedro without singing Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita,” inspired by the place. And even Prince William and Kate Middleton (controversially) stopped by the off-the-grid Mayan city of Caracol. Tourism infrastructure is rough around the edges but improving, so Belize may be a better fit for independent travelers — or just leave all the tour planning to your resort. Bonus: English is the official language, and a Belizean dollar is conveniently 50 U.S. cents.

Average high in January: 83.

Sample airfare: $630 on Delta, Jan. 16-23.

Grand Cayman: Perfect sand and famous turtles

Best known for Seven Mile Beach, a magnificent stretch of perfect white sand, Grand Cayman is the largest of the three Cayman Islands. The British territory is renowned as a diving destination, but there’s plenty to do above water. Spend a day under the palm trees while dipping your toes in the western Caribbean at Rum Point. Traffic can be brutal around Georgetown on the days cruise ships arrive, so head to West Bay to the Cayman Turtle Centre to learn about the green sea turtle, a symbol of the islands. Immerse yourself in Cayman culture at Miss Lassie’s House, where a self-taught artist painted every inch of the historic home in religious symbols.

Average high in January: 84.

Sample airfare: $532 on Sun Country or $576 on Delta; Feb. 24-March 2.

Liberia: Two sides of Costa Rica

For tourists, the lively small city of Liberia is mainly a gateway to two very different styles of Costa Rican vacation: Pacific beaches vs. the jungle. The path of least resistance is an hour west of the airport, where busy beach-resort cities such as Tamarindo and Playa Flamingo offer all-inclusive comfort. The farther you go down Nicoya Peninsula, the more you’ll unplug; you can tune out completely in the rugged “expat” beach haven of Nosara, full of yoga retreats and superlative surfing strands. The other side of the colón is inland: the biodiverse Monteverde Cloud Forest; volcano-filled national parks like Arenal and Rincon de la Vieja; and the ecolodges and hot springs surrounding Lake Arenal.

Average high in January: 91!

Sample airfare: $548 on Delta, Feb. 5-11.