For Washington's raincoated masses, sunny and southerly are the twin mandates of a spring vacation. Problem is, there are two distinctly different versions of a spring getaway fantasy. The first, favored by thousands of college students from all over the country, is spring break, the Iron Man triathlon of blow-out parties. The idea is to find large crowds of similarly inclined people, pack as many into a hotel room as possible, cruise the beach all day, bar- and party-hop all night and commit mostly harmless misdemeanors whenever possible.
The second type of spring trip, preferred by just about everyone else, is better labeled a spring escape. It usually consists of avoiding as many spring breakers as possible, lazing and gathering sun far from the madding crowd.
No matter which type of spring you crave, the most important thing is not to stumble into the wrong one by mistake. Woe to the cooler-toting sorority gals who arrive at their hotel and find it creeping with families with toddlers. Woe to the romantic second-honeymooners who wind up next to a dozen guys who puke off the balcony all morning.
To avert such mismatches, we've compiled lists of hot destinations for both the "party time" and "down time" crowds. And we know whereof we speak. Last March, we spent 10 days in Florida researching a book on spring break. The book covers both domestic and international beach destinations, as well as skiing, hiking and the up-and-coming "alternative spring break" service-trip movement.
To round out the reporting of places less favored by the college crowd, we talked to a number of travel agents, large travel agencies and weary veterans of springtime travel. While we've covered mostly Eastern destinations, non-students heading west should also know to avoid South Padre Island, Tex.; Lake Havasu, Ariz.; and Oahu, Hawaii. They attract Midwestern and West Coast collegians.
PANAMA CITY BEACH, FLA.
When it comes to spring break, this Florida Panhandle town is now ground zero. The water may be nippy in March, but if you're a college student, Panama City Beach is where it's at. For the third year in a row, MTV will be in town (March 6-9), bringing with it the usual gang of veejays, bands, minor celebrities and various hangers-on. Beachfront superclubs Spinnaker and La Vela form the hub of spring break activity, sponsoring wet T-shirt and hot male body contests during the day and packing in breakers by the thousands at night. While spring break in Panama City isn't exactly sophisticated, it's cheap, easy and popular.
Accommodations: The Holiday Inn Sunspree (1-800-465-4329) runs about $249 per night, for up to five in a room. For more information, contact the Panama City Beach Chamber of Commerce, 850-234-3193, http://interoz.com/pcbch_chamber.
DAYTONA BEACH, FLA.
MTV's original spring break sweetheart, Daytona Beach began to reform the out-of-control booze- and flesh-fest when the network defected to San Diego in 1993. Today, students still come in droves to tan, cruise and scope, but it's not the bad behavior free-for-all it used to be. Corporate-sponsored activity venues like the Sports Illustrated Beach Club and the NBA Jam Van host sporting events and fun activities. There is even a casual-dress career fair, featuring such potential employers as AT&T, Arthur Andersen, Eddie Bauer and the Peace Corps. In mid-April, the Black College Reunion caps the spring break season, attracting 75,000 students from 115 historically black colleges and universities.
Accommodations: The low-end Days Inn Central (904-255-4492) runs about $92 per night, for up to five people in a room. For more information, contact the Daytona Beach and Halifax Area Chamber of Commerce, 904-255-0981, http://www.daytonachamber.com.
SOUTH BEACH, MIAMI
This upscale Miami Beach district is not your typical beer-and-nachos spring break destination. Nevertheless, it's gaining popularity among students who want their beach vacations with an haute couture twist. Smart art deco hotels dot the streets, along with dozens of trendy clubs. Not surprisingly, South Beach runs a little higher than other domestic spring break locations. By the same token, it escapes the inebriated turmoil that marks spring break strongholds like Panama City.
Accommodations: The mid-range South Beach Hotel (305-534-1511) runs about $175 per night for up to five in a room. For more information, contact the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, 305-672-1270, or the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-753-8448, http://www.miamiandbeaches.com.
Spring breakers can't help but love what is perhaps Key West's most illuminating nickname: Margaritaville. It speaks to the town's famously laid-back attitude and, of course, its favorite beverage. Among other Key West institutions are its Technicolor sunsets, the nightly entertainment that accompanies them on Mallory Docks and bustling Duval Street. The beaches are brief in Key West, but otherwise, it's got all the trappings of spring break. Also notable is Key West's warm welcome of gay students during spring break.
Accommodations: The mid-range Key Wester Resort Inn (305-296-5671) runs about $145 per night, for up to five people in a room. (There is a $200 cash deposit per room.) For more information, contact Key West Tourist Information, 1-800-527-8539.
Cancun is easily the most popular international spring break destination. This is, in no small part, because of its stunning white-sand beaches, which extend for miles along the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean. Granted, the place is a bit overdeveloped and predictable, but then students don't come for surprise and serendipity. They come for a sun-soaked week of good times at a price that won't compromise next semester's tuition payment. This year, MTV will be in town March 6-10.
Accommodations: The mid-range Holiday Inn Express Cancun Club de Golf (1-800-465-4329) runs about $98 a night for the first two adults, plus $15 for each additional adult, up to two. For more information, contact the Mexican Government Tourist Office, 1-800-446-3942, http://mexico-travel.com, or the Cancun Tourism Foundation, http://www.wotw.com/Cancun.
Once a sleepy fishing village, Negril is now a major tourist destination, not least of all during March when legions of students descend for a Jamaican-style spring break. In this capital of mellow, hallucinogenic mushrooms are omelet ingredients here (they are legal) and tan lines are a choice, not a matter of course. Besides its stunning coral reefs, which lend themselves to scuba diving and snorkeling, Negril is known for its fabulous raspberry-mango sunsets and its ear-splitting reggae music. MTV will be on location March 12-14.
Accommodations: The mid-range Coral Seas Beach Hotel (809- 957-3336) runs about $130 for up to four in a room. For more information, contact the Jamaica Tourist Board, 1-800-233-4582, http://www.jamaicatravel.com.
Just a puddle-jump from Miami, glitzy, cruise ship-packed Nassau represents an easy trip for spring breakers looking for an exotic, but not that exotic, Caribbean holiday. But there's more to Nassau than rum punch on the beach. Other highlights include Potters Cay, a local produce and seafood market, the famous straw market and the Bacardi Distillery a short drive south. At night, visitors can gamble at Nassau's snazzy casinos or dance to junkanoo, a signature Bahamian musical form, at one of Nassau's numerous bars and clubs.
Accommodations: The Best Western British Colonial (242-322-3301) runs about $139 a night for the first two adults, plus $15 for each additional adult, up to two. For more information, contact the Bahamas Tourist Office, 1-800-823-3136, http://www.interknowledge.com/bahamas.
Once the mightiest of spring break cities, Fort Lauderdale was sent to detox in 1985 by its mayor, who enacted laws prohibiting drinking outdoors and camping on the beach, and ordered strict enforcement of hotel and club occupancy laws. Today, the city is a sleek, family-focused beach spot, as saturated with boutiques and eateries as bars and T-shirt shops. Now, picnic tables, grills and hammocks dot the beach, and a wide pedestrian promenade alongside bustles with in-line skaters and cyclists. This year, the Baltimore Orioles have spring training games scheduled at Fort Lauderdale Stadium from Feb. 28 to March 29. Tickets range from $6 to $12; call 1-800-236-8908 for more information.
Accommodations: Nightly rates at the beachside Sheraton Yankee Clipper (1-800-958-5551) run about $179 per night double, during March. For more information, contact the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, 954-462-6000, http://www. ftlchamber.com.
Located on Florida's Gulf Coast, Sanibel Island is a shell-seeker's Heaven. Spring breakers, having bigger fish to fry, rarely tread here, leaving it a peaceful, conservation-minded resort. At the J.N. "Ding" Darling Natural Wildlife Refuge,, visitors can hike nature trails, catch crabs and gaze at the park's tropical birds. Sanibel's beaches are picture-perfect.
Accommodations: Nightly rates at the mid-range Sanibel Inn (1-800-237-1491) run about $265 per night double. For more information, contact the Sanibel-Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce, 941-472-1080, http://www.sanibel-captiva.org.
In an age where a handshake from Mickey and a spin on Space Mountain are practically childhood rites of passage, it's no wonder Disney World consistently tops the list of family vacation destinations. While Disney's annual spring break discounts attract a few fun-loving students, the parks are primarily loaded with kids and their wallet-toting parents. A four-day Value Pass is $142 for adults. The biggest downside to Disney is the ride lines: Though longest during the summer, they are formidable throughout the Easter vacation season.
Accommodations: On-property nightly rates range from $84 to $440 per night double. Off-property rates range from $89 to $199. For more information, contact the Disney Reservation Center, 407-934-7639, http://www.disney.com/DisneyWorld/ index2.html.
Aruba is neither Bahamas-close nor Cancun-cheap, but then that's exactly why college students go elsewhere. For those with the time and money, this small island off the coast of Venezuela makes for an elegant Caribbean vacation. Hot, dry and desertlike, it is famous for its spectacular fine-sand beaches and the stiff breezes that make it a wind surfer's paradise.
Accommodations: Rooms at the Aruba Sonesta Resort (1-800-766-3782) start at $215 double. For more information, contact the Aruba Tourism Authority, 1-800-862-7822, http://www. arubatourism.com.
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C.
While this manicured low-country resort is not exactly tropical during March and April, temperatures typically average in the sixties. With 30 public golf courses on the island, many visitors are happy to fritter away their hours on the green. But Hilton Head is not just a putter's paradise. Tennis buffs have hundreds of courts to choose from, while cyclists can sail along the hard-packed sand beaches as well as many miles of bike paths. The quintessential Southern cities of Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., make for easy day trips. There may be the odd gathering of students on Hilton Head during spring break season, but as a rule the island caters to families and adults.
Accommodations: Nightly rates at the Hilton Head Oceanfront Holiday Inn (1-800-465-4329) run about $170 a night double. For more information, contact the Hilton Head Island Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-523-3373, http:// www.hiltonheadisland.org.
This French-flavored island is known for its natural beauty and its friendly residents, not for its wild nightly bacchanals. This, together with its relative remoteness, have kept St. Lucia well off the spring break map. While the white sand beaches are certainly inviting, visitors will miss out if they don't explore the colorful market in Castries or visit the sulphur springs and the Pitons, a pair of peaks formed millions of years ago by volcanic eruptions. Ultimately, St. Lucia is a perfect place to slow down.
Accommodations: While many St. Lucian hotels are all-inclusive, the non-all-inclusive Windjammer Landing Villa Beach Resort (758-452-0913) runs about $240 per night double. For more information, contact the St. Lucia Tourist Board, 1-800-456-3984, http:// www.wwb.com/company/c006651 .html.
GRAND CAYMAN ISLAND
Grand Cayman is famous for its Seven Mile Beach and its clear aquamarine waters. It is a premier scuba-diving destination, and many hotels provide equipment and lessons. Because of its relative expense, Grand Cayman is largely free of spring breakers. Instead, the Cayman crowd consists largely of divers and other water-sport enthusiasts.
Accommodations: The Seven Mile Beach Holiday Inn (1-800-465-4329) runs about $250 per night double. For more information, contact the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, 1-800-346-3313, http: //www.caymans.com.
Ann Schimke is the author of "Great Escapes: The Spring Breaker's Guide to Beaches and Beyond" (Octameron Associates, $8).
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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