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Want an exotic beach vacation without all the trouble of going abroad? You don’t just have Florida, California, Hawaii, and the Carolinas to choose from. You can escape to a tropical paradise without leaving the United States. No passport? No worries!
There are hidden spots in the U.S. Virgin Islands and high-end resorts in Puerto Rico.
1. San Juan, Puerto Rico
Even though Puerto Rico is only a three-and-a-half-hour flight from New York City, it feels like a world away. Fly to the coastal city of San Juan, which is the capital, and leave your bags at the O:Live Boutique Hotel (A Small Luxury Hotel of the World). The high-design property has stylish rooms and a beautiful lagoon setting. It’s close to great restaurants and shops, but once you check in, you’ll forget about the outside world. If you can’t get a room with a private jacuzzi, don’t worry. There’s one on the rooftop for hotel guests only, along with a plunge pool, bar, and amazing views of both the ocean and the city.
Step outside your oasis to see the colorful colonial buildings of Old San Juan or take a half-day trip to the El Yunque Rainforest to see waterfalls and beautiful views. San Juan has a great food scene. You’ll see a lot of comida criolla, which is Creole food with Spanish influences.
2. Saint John, U.S. Virgin Islands
Saint John doesn’t have an airport, so you have to take a ferry or private boat from nearby Saint Thomas to get there. This makes the 19.6-square-mile piece of paradise feel even more remote. Honeymoon Beach and Turtle Bay are in Virgin Islands National Park. They have white sand and clear water where you can swim, snorkel, or do nothing at all, which is a totally valid choice. Check out the hotels in Saint Thomas.
Want to do something? You could paddleboard, go scuba diving, or sail.
Cocina Abierta is a cool, open-plan Argentinian restaurant that serves experimental dishes. It’s only a short walk from the Olive.
3. American Samoa
American Samoa is in the South Pacific Ocean, 13 hours southwest of Los Angeles. It is farther away than Hawaii but not quite as far as Australia. It has a unique look and feel that is different from any other U.S. destination. It is made up of five lush, mountainous, volcanic islands, and its culture and history are rooted in Polynesia.
On the main island of Upolu Samoa, 45 minutes from the international airport (or a private transfer), you’ll find Sinalei Reef Resort and Spa. This is a collection of rustic-luxe villas set on 33 acres of lush vegetation and a beautiful beach. With Beach Front Villas just steps from the sand, Sinalei is one of those resorts where you could spend your whole stay without leaving the property, unless you choose to do things like island tours and fishing trips that take place off-site.
At Ava I Toga, the hotel’s very romantic overwater restaurant, you can eat South Pacific fusion food (like fresh seafood) under the light of lanterns and pair it with a wine from a world-class list.
If you don’t think American Samoa is far enough, you can always go to Guam, which is a four-hour flight east of the Philippines. The remote U.S. territory was important during World War II, but now it’s mostly used for vacations because of its beautiful beaches, clear waters that are great for snorkeling, and many shipwreck dive sites right off the coast (visibility is good as far down as 150 feet).
Guam’s culture is a mix of the island’s native people, its Asian neighbors, its time under Spanish and Japanese rule, and now American influence. This has led to the creation of a unique fusion cuisine. Long-haul flights to Guam aren’t cheap because it’s so far away, but resort prices are reasonable.
Dusit Beach Resort Guam, a world-class hotel on Tumon Beach, is our top choice.
Don’t miss the Navasana spa or the epic Japanese lunch buffet. It’s also only a 10-minute drive to Two Lovers Point, a lookout on the edge of a cliff that many people say is the best place on Guam to watch the beautiful sunsets.
5. Saint Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
Even though Saint Croix is the largest and most southern of the U.S. Virgin Islands, it’s only a three-hour flight from Miami. The island has beautiful beaches and a lot for nature lovers to do. There’s the 15-acre “Rain Forest,” a private property with trails to explore the lush vegetation and exotic birds; the Point Udall monument, which has an amazing view; and Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve, which has a bioluminescent bay where the water glows at night (see it on a kayaking tour).
A lot of the architecture from when Denmark ruled the island in the 18th century is still there, and the pink plantation-style design of The Buccaneer Beach & Golf Resort (Trademark St Croix USVI) just outside of Christiansted is a nod to that time. Since the main building is on top of a hill, each room has a clear view of Mermaid Beach.
If you want to see more of the island, you should rent a car, especially if you want to visit some of the best places to eat. When we want to eat Caribbean food with a twist in Christiansted, we go to Savant and Balter. It’s also worth driving the 30 minutes to Rowdy Joe’s North Shore Eatery, a local favorite that serves dishes like fish tacos and Cubano sandwiches that make you feel good.
6. Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
Saint Thomas is a little bigger than its sister island, Saint John, but it’s still only 31 square miles big. It has a lot of hidden coves and beaches.
Check into the laid-back Secret Harbour Beach Resort, which is tucked away in Nazareth Bay on a marine sanctuary. The area is very quiet, and every large, modern room has a balcony or patio that faces the beach. The main things to do are snorkeling, paddle boarding, and relaxing by the freshwater pool.
If you want to try something more exciting, you’re also close enough to Red Hook to see what’s going on there. You can go shopping and out to eat, or you can take a day trip to Saint John by ferry.
7. Isabela, Puerto Rico
If you drive west from San Juan to Isabela, which takes less than two hours, you’ll find beautiful beaches and a slower, more peaceful vibe. The Puerto Rican beach town is still a bit off the beaten path, but it has something for everyone: a historic town, surfing, reef snorkeling, golf, and hiking trails through the lush Guajataca Forest Reserve.
The Villa Montana Beach Resort is a private place on a long stretch of beach, so it won’t be hard to find a place to be alone.
You can go horseback riding, fishing, or scuba diving, but we wouldn’t blame you if you just wanted to stay in your Caribbean plantation-style accommodations (choose from a ground-floor room with a private terrace or cliffside digs with an ocean-facing balcony).
The award-winning Puerto Rican chef Luis Cosme runs the high-end restaurants Eclipse and O, where most of the dishes are made with seafood caught in the area.
8. South Padre Island, Texas
You might not think of Texas as a tropical vacation spot, but Padre Island, the world’s longest barrier island, is just off the coast. It goes along the coast for 115 miles and stops just short of the Rio Grande. A lot of Padre isn’t very well known, but there are quiet places all over the island where you can find unassuming B&Bs.
If you want a little more luxury, you can stay at Pearl South Padre, a beachfront resort where every room has its own balcony with a view of the ocean. Even though the decor is simple, you don’t go to South Padre to stay inside. You can eat fresh seafood from the Gulf of Mexico and a lot of Texan and Mexican food at the swim-up bar by the pool.
Don’t miss the pinks, purples, and oranges of a Texas sunset at night. Of course, this is best done with a cold drink in your hand.