These tropical destinations deliver natural beauty, creature comforts, and quality beach time.
The gentle lapping of waves on sand. The perfume of night-blooming flowers. The spectacle of a school of lustrous fish and the sun dappling on clear, warm water. A trip to the tropics is a feast for the senses and a balm for body and soul.
For many West Coasters, a tropical vacation means Hawaii. But there are plenty of warm-weather alternatives, and they're more accessible and affordable than ever. Here are four of the most alluring tropical getaways outside the United States, each with its own unique version of paradise.
With the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Caribbean Sea to the east, and mist-shrouded volcanoes and jungle in between, Costa Rica ranks among the world’s top destinations for ecotourism. A half-million species of plants and animals—from toucans, scarlet macaws, and fluttering blue morpho butterflies to more than 1,300 kinds of orchids—thrive here. Although this Central American nation (roughly six hours by air from Los Angeles) is smaller than West Virginia, about one-quarter of that land is protected as parks and preserves.
The best way to experience Costa Rica’s wild wonders is in the company of a naturalist on one of the hundreds of guided trips available. Excursions into Manuel Antonio National Park’s riot of vegetation are especially popular, with up close views of monkeys and sloths. Nighttime boat tours of Tortuguero National Park, on the Caribbean coast, stop at beaches just as turtles emerge from the sea to lay their eggs. Hikes around 5,479-foot Arenal Volcano might include sightings of parrots, tapirs, and brilliant-colored bromeliads, plus a soak in a natural hot spring. In the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, treetop catwalks bring you eye-to-eye with quetzals, coppery-headed emeralds, and other exotic birds.
Costa Rica also provides plenty of opportunities for a break at the beach. The more developed Pacific coast is dotted with chilled-out towns such as Tamarindo, Nosara, and Samara, where the accommodations run from funky bungalow to fancy villa, and you're never far from a surf school or yoga studio. Dinner could be a banana-leaf-wrapped tamal at a beachside shack or locally caught corvina crusted with macadamias at an upscale white-tablecloth place. But even there, you can hear Costa Rica's call of the wild.
The artist Paul Gauguin couldn't resist its limpid waters, cooling trade winds, and lush peaks and valleys. Nor could the mutineers of the HMS Bounty. Tahiti, more than any other place on earth, has long embodied the fantasy of escaping to a tropical island.
Tahiti is just one of 118 islands comprising French Polynesia—a largely autonomous territory scattered across the South Pacific—but it's the most developed and most populous. It's home to Papeete, the capital, where baguettes are as ubiquitous as e'ia ota (marinated fish). From the West Coast, the flight to Papeete is a couple of hours shorter than the one to Paris.
While the island of Tahiti itself has plenty of natural and cultural attractions, including the ebony sands of Papenoo Beach, it's also the jumping-off spot for other points in French Polynesia. From Papeete's harbor, a 30-minute ferry ride takes you to slower-paced Moorea, with its reasonably priced resorts, white-sand beaches, and coral gardens submerged in a lagoon that's perfect for snorkeling.
Farther afield, but easily accessed by short flights, are the Leeward Islands. They include Bora-Bora, home to scores of luxury resorts as well as craggy green mountains that plunge into a sapphire lagoon, and Huahine, nearly as seductive as Moorea or Bora-Bora but less touched by tourism. The ideal way to explore the Leewards is by sea, perhaps on a multiday catamaran cruise. As your boat stops at a deserted motu (sandy islet), all those tropical island fantasies become real.
With the screeches of jungle monkeys echoing off Maya ruins and squadrons of stingrays silently cruising the world's second-largest barrier reef, Belize can at times feel like the setting for an Indiana Jones adventure. Once off your flight from the United States—Houston is 2 1/2 hours away—you'll take single-prop Cessnas to get around this English-speaking country tucked alongside Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula. Mega-resorts are rare; lodging runs mostly to smaller retreats—including several new luxury properties—or to simple hotels and bungalows facing turquoise Caribbean waters.
While much of Belize's coastline is cloaked in an extensive mangrove ecosystem, the slender, 16-mile-long Placencia Peninsula is fringed with golden sand, and hundreds of its islands are lined with beaches. Ambergris Caye and its funky town, San Pedro, lie close to the mainland and offer excellent access to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Shark Ray Alley, the Blue Hole, and other spots that draw snorkelers and divers from around the world.
In the country's densely forested interior, a trove of impressive Maya ruins include easy-to-reach pyramid temples, such as those at Altun Ha and Xunantunich, as well as more remote sites. Caracol, once a major player in the region's pre- Columbian politics, is now a little-touristed complex reached by a bumpy drive in a 4x4 (ideally driven by a local, licensed guide). Its main building, towering 143 feet high, is still the tallest manmade structure in Belize. Some 50 miles northeast, the intrepid can swim into the ceremonial cave at Actun Tunichil Muknal to view ancient pottery shards. Even Indy would be awed.
Even first-time visitors to Fiji quickly sense why this English-speaking South Pacific nation of 333 islands regularly lands on lists of the world's happiest countries. From the moment you arrive (after an 11-hour flight from San Francisco or Los Angeles), people will greet you with a smile and a bula (hello) everywhere—whether you're at a beachside coconut stand, in a stadium filled with passionate rugby fans, or at a busy produce market in the capital of Suva.
Don't be surprised if a Fijian invites you to share a bowl of kava, the mildly narcotic drink that's made from a powdered root, or to attend a Sunday service and experience the nation's proud tradition of church choirs. In restaurants, delicious Indo-Fijian curries marry local ingredients such as cassava with spices from the subcontinent—a legacy of the Indians who migrated here to work sugarcane fields and whose descendants now constitute more than a third of the country's population.
On a trip to Fiji, you might focus on Viti Levu, one of two main islands, taking in Suva's British colonial architecture and ethnographic museum, visiting mountain villages of thatched bures (traditional huts), rafting the Navua River, and snorkeling and beachcombing along the Coral Coast. But air and ferry connections also allow you to sample the diversity of other isles, whether you opt for the brilliant white-sand beaches of the Mamanucas or the orchids and waterfalls Eden of Taveuni. Whatever you do, you'll leave Fiji a happier person.
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