Gray days getaways: where to find the sun

Steps Triq Sant’Orsla, Valletta, Malta. - Glen Bowman/Flickr
Steps Triq Sant’Orsla, Valletta, Malta.
— image credit: Glen Bowman/Flickr

When it comes to winter getaways, the Mercer Island Reporter has you covered. My friend and fellow travel-lover, John Naye, a long-time Island resident, fills you in every ski season on all the classic and new snow destinations. Look for his articles if you love gravity.

Let me weigh in on sunny, warm-weather vacations, including a few that are off the beaten path. Here are my choices for inviting roads to roam that demand further exploration this winter.

Florida — both sides now

It has been too long since I have visited Florida, the Sunshine State, but this year my plans include the Gulf of Mexico side of the peninsula. While Orlando and Disney World clearly are draws, the quieter, more sedate Gulf side is less than a two-hour drive from the Orlando Airport. Our plan is to fly into Pensacola and explore the white sugar sands of the “Redneck Riviera” from Pensacola east along the big curve toward Tampa and St. Petersburg, Sarasota and upscale Naples. Highlights will include snorkeling with manatees, frolicking at Busch Gardens Amusement Center and seeing the art collections at St. Petersburg’s Salvatore Dali Museum, as well as the massive arts campus at Sarasota’s Ringling Museum.

The winter weather is superb along the Sunshine Coast. Sarasota and Tampa/St. Pete will average 75-80 degree highs from November to March, and the evening lows get down as low as a very tolerable 55 degrees. As for rain, the story is better yet. Over 85 percent of the rain experienced in this area occurs between May and October. Dry and warm winter days make this side of Florida a great choice.

The Southeast Atlantic Coast

Good American literature has been coming out of the Carolinas for years. Authors Pat Conroy (“Prince of Tides,” “The Great Santini”), Nicholas Sparks (“The Notebook,” “Message in a Bottle,” “A Walk to Remember”) and John Berendt (“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”) lead the list — drawing me to cities such as Savannah and Charleston, and the smaller coastal villages of St. Simons Island and Beaufort. Visit these Southern belles from November through April, when the weather is pleasant and the crowds are quiet.

Winter temperatures along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts find daytime highs in the 60s and evening lows as cool as the upper 30s up to 50 degrees. Take a sweater along and you will be very comfortable day and night. As for rainfall, that area’s least rainy months are November through April. While not as warm or as dry as Florida’s Gulf Coast, vacationers will like it a lot better than the Northern California, Oregon or Washington coast during the winter months; and the culture is pure Southern hospitality.

Art towns of Southern California

How many years have I watched the Rose Bowl on TV with rain or even snow falling outside my Lake Washington window, while the people along the Rose Parade or at the game are wearing polo shirts and shorts?

This year will be different. I am going to be the one at Pasadena in shorts. And along with Rose Bowl festivities, I will catch some world-class art and architecture at Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum and the Huntington Gardens and Art Museum, a couple of miles away in San Marino.

If you want more art with your fresh winter Southern California sunshine: Ojai in Ventura County is a jewel-box of an art town, with its historic blue- and white-tiled post office dome and al fresco shopping arcades. Ojai is a 90-minute drive northwest of downtown Los Angeles. An equal distance south from L.A. Central is the Orange County art town of Laguna Beach, which fairly boasts more art galleries per citizen than any town in California. Both towns rate very good dining as well.

A third pleasant getaway is 26 miles west of L.A.: Santa Catalina Island. Quiet Avalon is quite lazy and relaxed in the off-season. Its tiny bays and Mediterranean-inspired architecture coax the painter in all of us.

Laguna Beach, Pasadena and Ojai will average day-time highs from November to March in the upper 60s and lower 70s, and taking an umbrella is not out of the question. There are rains especially in January and February, but unlike our drizzle and gray, Southern California’s rains hit as winter storms, dropping a couple of inches in a 24-hour period. Then the winds clear the air, and the mountains are crystal-clear.

Arizona’s Tombstone Territory

Southeast of Tucson, the place names come at you from out of Zane Gray: Cochise, Tombstone, Chiricahua, Fort Huachuca, Apache, Patagonia, Tubac and Dragoon. The towns along Arizona’s SR-80 and 82, both east of I-19, the freeway between Tucson and Nogales, provided half of the TV westerns of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

In this area, you will find high desert hills with cactus out of Disneyland and vistas that go for 30 miles. You can bask in the sunny winter days and starlit nights. After touring this cowboy country for a few days, you can knock the dust off your jeans and boots with some golf and pool time at any of Tucson’s resorts or old boutique hotels such as the famous, classic Arizona Inn.

During the day, temperatures in this area between November and March will rise to the upper 60s and lower 70s. At night the lows get into the 30s, typical of the large swings found in high desert country. As for rain, the entire winter season gets less than five inches. If you enjoy hiking, this is the country and the time of year to visit. It is very fresh and particularly uncrowded. Native Americans sell their handmade weavings, paintings, jewelry and carvings, but have more time to chat and enjoy the clarity of the light and air at this time of year.

Further afield?

Patagonia: Is there a better time to explore and hike the Southern Andes than when our winter is their summer? The dollar buys a lot in Argentina. You can cross into Chile and fish in mountain lakes that have barely seen a rod. Another plan is to hire a boat and circle Cape Horn and Tierra de Fuego.

Southern Spain: I met a couple from Issaquah who head to Malaga, Granada and Seville every year on Christmas Day. They explained that the weather is always sunny, and they can go skiing in Spain’s coast-hugging Sierra Nevada Mountains and lay on the sandy beaches of Costa del Sol on the same day. Wherever they set up their winter condo, they take day trips to Cordoba or Gibraltar, Cartagena, or even take the ferry across to Morocco.

Malta: What a special, secret, romantic corner of the world! Halfway between Sicily and Tunisia, the Island of Malta is a place where English is spoken by everyone, dollars and pounds are the accepted coin of the realm, and sun always shines.

Malta is a popular setting for movies about the Middle East, yet its soul is right out of the Knights Templar and the De Vinci Code.

As for weather, expect winter temperatures to be in the 70s and low 80s, and the nights to be as starlit, pleasant and as exotic as any you might find around the planet.

Thai one on: Our son has enjoyed extended trips to Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam in the past six months, but he reports that those spots are not really ready for primetime yet. He still finds the smiles of Thailand to be more welcoming, the “thank you’s” more sincere and the resorts to be the best values. Whether your room is $10 a night or $200, Riley maintains that the values in Southeast Asia are best in Thailand.

If you travel cheap, you can find comfortable quarters in Ko Samui or Chiang Rai or any place in between. During the past 10 years, the large mega-resorts — Four Seasons, Royal Peninsulas and Sofitels — have created new jungle-inspired hotels in the distant corners of Thailand. The bottom line is that Thailand has all the creature comforts, whichever corner you might choose to visit.

And whether you want scuba lessons, kite surfing, yoga or lots of massages, the Thais seem to do it right. The best months to go are November through February.

Bill Morton can be reached at

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