Warm(er) winter destinations beckon

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Victor Block

A horse-drawn carriage tours Savannah, Ga.’s historic district, which boasts more than 1,000 restored mansions and row houses.
 

The new year has begun with an outlook for weather that’s cold and peppered with that dreaded wintry mix. Basking in the sun on a Caribbean island is alluring.

But in case your time for a getaway and your travel budget are limited, here are some alternatives that combine a welcome respite from frigid temperatures with the warmth of both the sun’s rays and traditional Southern hospitality.

Great gardens of Charleston

Many people were surprised when a leading European guidebook listed Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon and Charleston’s Magnolia Gardens as the three most outstanding attractions in North America.

Anyone who appreciates floral beauty might agree. Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, S.C., is a fairyland of century-old camellias (in late winter) and azaleas (in spring) in a setting of unsurpassed beauty.

Visitors to nearby Cypress Gardens quickly come to understand why it often is described as mysterious and enchanting, as they float along eerie dark lagoons surrounded by brooding ancient cypress trees. The blaze of color provided by plantings along the banks is intensified by reflections in the dark water.

A more formal, yet no less magnificent, floral extravaganza greets visitors to the gardens at Middleton Place, America’s oldest landscaped floral display. Carefully manicured exotic shrubs and flora are set among terraced lawns, reflecting pools and a historic rice mill.

Color seems to explode around visitors like a fireworks display from masses of camellias and magnolias in January and February, as well as azalea bushes, wisteria vines and flowering peach and dogwood trees come March.

For more information, call 1-800-774-0006 or log onto www.explorecharleston.com.

Sun and shore in Sarasota

The choice of where to warm up in Florida can be daunting because there are so many inviting alternatives. One destination that combines much of what the Sunshine State has to offer is Sarasota.

Those seeking little more than a sun, sand and sea vacation find a selection of beaches to fit almost any preference. The stretch of beaches along the western shoreline of Siesta Key has been recognized by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute for having the finest, whitest sand in the world.

Lido Key is smaller in size but not variety, with three outstanding seashores that are open to the public. Longboat Key is a more private beachfront community geared primarily to people staying at its resort hotels.

But these only scratch the surface of attractions in the area, whose residents take pride in its self-proclaimed role as “Florida’s Cultural Coast.”

Just one example of the reason for that claim is the elegant mansion built in 1926 for John Ringling, which demonstrates that his cultural legacy matched his fame as a circus magnate.

The four-story, 32-room Italian-style residence awes visitors with its lavish architectural touches, elaborate decorations and rich furnishings. The adjacent John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art houses a world-class art collection with works by the likes of Rubens and Rembrandt — a legacy left to the people of Florida by the avid collectors.

Opportunities for encounters with Mother Nature also are close at hand. Myakka State Park offers narrated tours in what’s billed as the world’s largest airboat, along with miles of gentle hiking trails. Historic Spanish Point is home to more than 300 species of native plants, as well as resident birds and other wildlife.

The veritable symphony of bird songs, calls and whistles that greets visitors to Sarasota Jungle Gardens gives new meaning to the term “surround sound.”

Colorful cockatoos and multi-hued macaws vie with peacocks and pink flamingoes for preening honors. Venomous snakes and menacing-looking alligators add an ominous touch, while curious critters like hissing cockroaches and spiny hedgehogs provide a bit of humor.

For more information, call 1-800-348-7250 or log onto www.visitsarasota.org.

Georgia on your mind

Granted, most winter visitors to Savannah don’t want to try a swim in the ocean and aren’t likely to return home with a deep tan. But the Georgia sun warms the temperature this time of year into the pleasant 50s on most days.

That’s perfect weather for strolling through one of the loveliest cities in the world. Among a number of accolades it received during 2013 alone were being named “America’s most charming accent” (Travel & Leisure) and “A top 25 destination in the world” (Trip Advisor).

The 2-1/2 square mile historic district includes more than 1,000 restored mansions and row houses, many of them adorned with elaborate ironwork. Cobblestone streets, canopied by giant oak trees draped in Spanish moss, provide a lush backdrop for sightseeing, shopping or sitting in the warming sun.

Should your feet give out before your interest does, you can continue the outing by horse-drawn carriage.

For more information, call 1-877-728-2662 or log onto www.visitsavannah.com.

A different but equally inviting setting beckons from the Golden Isles that are strung out along Georgia’s coastline. Miles of soft sand beaches are just the beginning of their attractions. Outstanding golf, tennis, biking and fishing are among the many other diversions.

Jekyll Island and the exclusive Jekyll Island Club served as a winter retreat and playground for some of the richest Americans from the late 19th century until the outbreak of World War II. Most of the buildings from the Jekyll Island Club era still stand, serving as a reminder of the gracious lifestyle led by people who could afford it.

The original sprawling Queen Anne-style club house is now the Jekyll Island Club Hotel. It offers affordable accommodations to the traveling public.

The hotel is surrounded by 33 mansion-size “cottages” that were built by families with names such as Rockefeller, Gould and Morgan in an eclectic mix of styles, including French chateaux and Italian palazzo. Today, some of them offer additional lodgings, while others house museums, art galleries and shops.

More down-to-earth appeal may be found by meandering along oyster-shell pathways through low-lying woods and marshes. Deer, wild turkeys, armadillos and alligators are among residents that reluctantly share the island with human intruders.

For more information, call 1-877-453-5955 or log onto www.jeykllisland.com.

A Cajun vacation

Despite its many attributes, including midwinter high temperatures that usually hover in the 60s, New Orleans isn’t for everyone. A more laid-back warming experience awaits in Cajun Louisiana, centered in 22 of the state’s 64 “parishes.”

The Cajuns trace their roots back to French-speaking Canadians who, after being ousted from their homeland in the mid-18th century, eventually settled in Louisiana.

Since then they have clung proudly to their traditions and ways of life. They continue to speak French, savor spicy, palate-numbing cuisine, and translate a zest for life into a seemingly never-ending series of weekend festivals.

Various attractions offer glimpses of local life and culture. The Acadian Village at Lafayette is a realistic re-creation of a 19th century settlement.

The town of Martinsville is home to a museum that displays artifacts of early settlers, as well as the tomb of Emmilene Labiche — the subject of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s well-known poem “Evangeline,” which describes the uprooting and resettlement of the Acadians.

Also on the must-see list for visitors are any of the hundreds of bayous that crisscross the area. They served as water highways for early pioneers and settlers, and their sluggish waters still provide some of the fish, crayfish and rice that form the basis of much Cajun cooking.

For more information, call 1-800-346-1958 or log onto www.lafayettetravel.com.

South Padre Island

For those willing to travel a bit further, South Padre Island, perched on the Gulf Coast of Texas, is a favorite wintering destination for visitors from both northern areas of the Lone Star State and sun-seekers from elsewhere.

There are a number of reasons why the 34-mile-long barrier reef, which has only about 5,000 permanent inhabitants, attracts as many as 1 million visitors annually.

Many of them are retirees, called “winter Texans,” who seek a warm place to escape the cooler temperatures at their home further north. With its sub-tropical climate and an average winter temperature of 65 degrees, South Padre provides an appealing getaway destination.

For people seeking a bit of R and R, the casual, laid-back atmosphere that pervades the island provides an enticing setting. One example of the fun-loving environment is a “proclamation” that banishes the wearing of neck ties. It calls for first-time offenders to receive a written warning and a T-shirt, and for any scofflaws caught a second time to pay a fine equal to the price of a silk tie.

 

Active vacationers find a long list of choices. Boat trips range from eco-tours and close-up encounters with dolphin, to wildlife tours and sunset cruises. Fishermen may try to catch their dinner in bay and gulf waters. The island also is a birders’ paradise, with more than 300 species that add sound and color to the setting.

For more information, call 1-800-657-2373 or log onto www.sopadre.com.

Perhaps exploring the streets of Savannah or strolling through the magnificent gardens in and around Charleston is your idea of a dream winter escape. Maybe you’d prefer to immerse yourself in the culture of Cajun Louisiana, or find out why so many sun-seekers head for South Padre Island.

Whatever your choice, you’re sure to return home sufficiently refreshed to bear up under the onslaught o winter.