5 Under-the-Radar Vacation Alternatives to Tourist Favorites

Four Seasons Punta Mita

When you consider your vacation plans this year, think outside the box. These alternatives to tourist favorites offer experiences that are more affordable, less crowded, more intimate or less stressful. Sometimes all of the above.

For Mexican beaches, head to Riviera Nayarit instead of Cancun

Although its airport is the busiest in Mexico, Cancun has a reputation for wild partying and is so crowded that you can hardly find a spot to lay your beach towel. For privacy and pristine coastline, fly to Puerto Vallarta instead and explore Riviera Nayarit’s 200 miles of Pacific coast ranging from coastal surfing towns like Sayulita to luxurious resorts like the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita.

Four Seasons Punta Mita sea turtles

The Four Seasons is the most family-friendly resort in the area, with a fantastic kids club to allow mom and dad alone time. The whole family will enjoy the heart-warming ritual of releasing baby olive ridley sea turtles into the ocean at sunset. Strong swimmers can try catching their own lunch by spearfishing with Spearmex, then return to the resort and cook the fresh catch at beach restaurant Bahia — maybe an octopus ceviche or grilled red snapper. Sprinkle in complimentary nature walks and lectures on local culture and heritage — the xocoatl talk includes some unique chocolate tasting — in between sunning sessions.

Naef Cuisine
Naef Cuisine

Just outside the resort gates, in Punta de Mita, sit in the garden lounge at Naef Cuisine and enjoy a few scoops of gelato or sorbet. More than 50 flavors, including avocado chocolate chip, passion fruit, guanabana (soursop) and goat cheese almond are all made in small batches with free-range chicken eggs in an authentic Italian gelato maker. Further north, colorful Sayulita is fun to explore too. The fine beadwork at Galeria Tanana is all fair trade, handcrafted by Huichol women, and proceeds help preserve the indigenous Huichol culture. The gallery and center were founded by a Chicago anthropologist, Susana Valadez, more than 20 years ago. Stop at Sayulita Wine Shop to try Mexican wine and local spirits and El Rinconcito for great late-night tacos. 

Sayulita Wine Shop
Sayulita Wine Shop

For skiing, hit Telluride instead of Vail 

Vail may offer the alluring Epic season pass deal, but Telluride has less crowded slopes for skiers of all levels and enviable fluffy powder. Like Vail, Mountain Village was built around the ski resort, but downtown Telluride is just a 13-minute free gondola ride away and the old mining town’s history has more soul than any well-manicured fairytale land, and without an ounce of pretension. Instead of cafeteria-style lunch at Vail, mountain dining options are more intimate and elegant in Telluride. The ski resort has its own wine director and everyone should experience the fine food and sunset glow at Allred’s.

Stay at the Lumière Telluride in Mountain Village for easy access to the mountains. The 29-room hotel includes residences with up to five bedrooms, so you can bring the whole brood. Soak in the hot tub or relax in the patio deck sauna after a long day on the slopes and grab homemade snacks always available to hungry skiers in the lobby. For dining and drinking, you can’t beat There, a cocktail bar with flavorful small plates like elk lettuce cups. For a more languid, elegant meal, 221 South Oak is a gem. Everything from an extensive vegetarian menu to the Colorado lamb T-bones is killer. Take a break from skiing by exploring the lively arts district and popping into Telluride Truffle for a sweet treat. 

For Southern charm, try Durham instead of Charleston

With its high-profile restaurants and boutique accommodations, Charleston has established its reputation as the premier Southern travel destination. Enjoy the same Southern hospitality and an equally high concentration of great food in North Carolina with a visit to Durham. This rapidly growing city seems to be in a perpetual state of construction but now is the time to visit for a taste of small town charm before it gets any bigger.

Stay at 21c Museum Hotel Durham for a contemporary art museum housed in a hotel. Tasty eats begin at Counting House within the hotel with a wicked good grilled pimento cheese sandwich. American standards like burgers and pizza are elevated at restaurants like Bull City Burger and Brewery, Pompieri Pizza and Pizzeria Toro. At farm-owned restaurant Piedmont, an exciting young new chef serves contemporary twists on Southern flavors from fried chicken livers with buttermilk powder to goat’s milk custard with pepper jam and roasted okra.

Kids of all ages will enjoy exploring exhibits at the Museum of Life and Science before stopping for an afternoon ice cream treat at The Parlour. Within walking distance of 21c are a couple places for adults to have a nightcap — The Durham Hotel’s rooftop bar and Alley Twenty Six. Try a gin and tonic at the latter — they make their own tonic and serve it with local gin from Durham Distillery.

If you love Paris, visit Québec City

Quebec City

Québec City has been called the “Paris of North America” and for good reason. Old Québec is the only walled city within the Canada-U.S. boundary and its narrow, winding cobblestone streets are certainly reminiscent of Europe. The dollar-to-euro ratio right now may be favorable, but there’s still the transatlantic flight to get to Paris. Direct flights from Chicago to Québec City on United are just a touch over two hours. You’ll get the same opportunity to practice your French and dine very well without the pastry chef frowning at you if you mispronounce canelé or macaron.

This city loves a reason to throw a party. If you visit in summer, check out the New France Festival, which celebrates Québec’s days as the capital of New France. Summer is also a great time to tour the Île d’Orléans with its bounty of fresh produce and try the oldest cheese in North America. In February, the Winter Carnival is one of the world’s largest, complete with snow sculptures and ice canoe racing. Consider staying at Le Monastère des Augustines, formerly a cloistered monastery founded by the Augustinian sisters nearly four centuries ago. One of the newest hotels in the city, it now aspires to be a haven for peace and wellness.

For a European adventure, try Copenhagen instead of Amsterdam 

While “The Fault in Our Stars” put Amsterdam on the map as a must-visit destination for many teens and parents, Copenhagen is another European capital that is just as fun to explore and has similarly liberal political and social views. The canals aren’t as extensive, but you can visit Nyhavn, the historic waterfront and canal district, for an excellent canal tour.

Kelp Ice Cream at Noma

When it comes to dining, Copenhagen easily comes out on top. From the elaborate tasting menu at world-renowned Noma (the world’s best restaurant four of the past six years) to traditional Danish smørrebrød at Øl & Brød, there’s great food with local Nordic ingredients like sea buckthorn and mackerel around every corner. Noma’s influence is obvious when you taste the food in eclectic eateries like Relæ, Kødbyens Fiskebar and Hija de Sanchez, all opened by former Noma cooks. A sustainable and organic mindset prevails, with extensive availability of local and organic produce in supermarkets and hordes of cycling commuters on the city’s streets.

 Øl & Brød
Smoked Halibut at Øl & Brød

Cycling is the most efficient way to get around, so rent a bike and ride like a local across the Cykelslangen, or Cycle Snake, an elevated orange bike lane that runs over the harbor. Visit Tivoli, the oldest amusement park in the world and an inspiration for Disneyland, for nostalgic carnival games and rides, including a 100-year-old wooden roller coaster, and fireworks in the summer.

Want more food, family and philanthropy content delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for Make It Better’s bi-weekly e-newsletter, the Better Letter! 

  Who We Are       NFP Support       Magazine       Programs       Donate