Summer in Santa Fe can be chaotic, the locals kept cautioning us, describing downtown’s sidewalks crammed with visitors.
Hard to picture New Mexico’s capital that way on a crisp and sunny day in early December, as my wife and I leisurely strolled past the art galleries on near-empty Canyon Road. That morning, a neighborhood teahouse owner had stopped to chat and sample teas with us, much as we had unhurriedly discussed chocolate and coffee with another place’s owner the previous evening before returning to our luxurious yet affordable hotel.
My wife and I had lucked into Santa Fe’s “shoulder season,” that travel-planning sweet spot. Generally in spring and fall, shoulder season comes between a destination’s prime-weather high season and its lousy-conditions low season.
“Shoulder season is the best time to travel,” said travel expert John E. DiScala. “Not just because you save money, but because you don’t have to deal with the crowds.”
To help navigate the when and where of shoulder-season travel planning, I enlisted help from DiScala, the online travel pioneer behind JohnnyJet.com who logs more than 100,000 air miles annually, and guidebook author Cameron Hewitt, who has visited more than 40 European countries as content manager of Rick Steves’ Europe Inc.
“I believe and our company believes that shoulder season is the perfect time because you can beat the heat, it’s somewhat less expensive and everyone is open for business,” Hewitt said.
DiScala recommends scouting hotel and airfare prices online, then triangulating with weather patterns at weatherbase.com to find the spot where more affordable rates overlap with pleasant, if not perfect, conditions. Investing that time upfront, he said, pays off when it counts: on your vacation. Who wants to wait two hours for a Nantucket restaurant seating in July or rise at 6 a.m. to stake claim to a Maui poolside chair over spring break?
With that in mind, here are 10 shoulder-season destinations and the ideal months for visiting, starting with some fresh New Mexico memories:
Santa Fe (early December, mid-January to early March): “The reason people come here is for the food,” chef Michelle Chavez told a group of us at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. We found it hard to argue on 45-degree days that started with a bevy of teas and scones at the Teahouse, progressed to chocolates and coffees at the Art of Chocolate/Cacao Santa Fe and ended with green chile stew at Coyote Cantina. In between, we explored churches and art galleries (one favorite: Alexandra Stevens) and loaded up on handmade silver and beadwork from the Native American vendors in the Plaza. Rates at the highly regarded Eldorado Hotel & Spa in January run about half off summer peaks.
Hawaii (mid-April to May, September to mid-December): The islands present an anomaly in that low season and shoulder season are virtually interchangeable given the near-constant weather. (Honolulu’s average temperature is in the high 80s in summer and low 80s in winter, which is November to March.) Post-Thanksgiving is a fantastic time to visit Oahu, as airfares and hotel rates tend to dip until mid-December, and you can catch the incomparable Vans Triple Crown of Surfing on the North Shore, held from Nov. 12 to Dec. 20. Similarly, provided you can find dates outside spring break and Easter weeks, early spring usually allows affordable opportunities to catch humpback whales between Maui and Lanai as they ready for the long swim to Alaska. Snorkel with manta rays in Big Island waters or discover a remote waterfall after kayaking Kauai’s Wailua River.
Quebec City (October to early November):
As the leaves start to turn and the crowds thin, this former French outpost in eastern Canada shines brightly on a 65-degree fall afternoon. Stroll the cobblestone streets in postcard-perfect Quartier Petit-Champlain or sample fresh fruits and apple cider at the farm stands on Ile d’Orleans, across the St. Lawrence River. About 2½ hours north of the city, cycle the scenic perimeter of Lake St.-Jean along the 154-mile-long Blueberry Trail or explore the Saguenay Fjord by kayak. Keep this in mind, though: The farther you drive from the city, the more you will wish you had paid closer attention in your high school French class.
Iceland (early May, October): Tourism has exploded in Iceland over the past decade — so much so that the natives have grown somewhat resentful, especially in summer. But Hewitt visited in fall for three days and found it much less crowded and easier to navigate than in summer months. A caveat: The weather is unpredictable and can be cold and blustery as the days turn shorter. Temperatures can dip well below freezing at night. But if the conditions conspire in the right way, you might find yourself, as Hewitt did in early October, going for an evening walk and discovering the northern lights painting the night sky.
Pacific coast, by cruise (April, May, September, October): Every late spring and early fall, behemoth cruise ships make their way between the Caribbean and Alaska. For a few days before and after the summer Alaska cruise season, travelers have their pick of brief itineraries ranging between California ports and Vancouver, B.C. The shortest of all are one- and two-night itineraries between Seattle and Vancouver, for as little as $99 per person. This is the full cruise experience — spa, casino, wine tasting — but provides the perfect budget opportunity to determine whether a few days on a ship means paradise or purgatory for you. We took the coastal route most recently in May, cruising between Los Angeles and Vancouver aboard the Emerald Princess. Victoria’s very British Inner Harbour makes for fun exploration, and the colorful Butchart Gardens await a half-hour drive away. Bustling Vancouver, with its vibrant Chinatown, shopping at Granville Island Public Market and totem-packed Stanley Park, is simply smashing.
Tuscany, Italy (March, November): Hewitt spent a glorious farm-stay week around Thanksgiving in the Val d’Orcia region near Montepulciano, following a truffle-sniffing dog through the forest and sampling seasonal dishes. Think of olive harvests and uncrowded wine tastings. “We felt like we had it all to ourselves,” Hewitt said. Pack a jacket or sweater for spring and late fall weather: The highs are likely to be in the high 50s.
Panama City (April, November): Rainy season in Central America runs from late April through October, so try to catch the beginning or end of dry season to explore the scenic old town, known as Casco Viejo, which dates to 1673. Temperatures are fairly constant: highs in the mid-80s to low 90s year-round. A daytime excursion into the rain forest brings you close to howler monkeys, sloths and snail kites. For the ultimate souvenir (it arrives a few weeks later), stand patiently to be measured for a custom suit at La Fortuna, where espionage author John le Carré drew inspiration for “The Tailor of Panama.”
Virginia’s Williamsburg and Monticello (April, May, October): Colonial Williamsburg, the full-scale historical village eternally locked in the 1700s, can be sweltering and packed on summer break. Better to enjoy spring flowers or fall colors and temperatures in the 70s here and at Monticello, two hours away by car. There, you can appreciate the genius of Thomas Jefferson as well as his imperfections, embodied in a frank guided talk about slavery and the country’s third president.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (April to early June): Getting outside high season can save a bundle — 30 to 40 percent — at the resorts lining Banderas Bay and points north. For example, the same all-inclusive junior suite at Hotel Riu Palace Pacifico that runs $350 a night in mid-February drops to $250 by May. The trade-off is that the average temperature kicks up every month after February, to 77 degrees by May. So what? You still arrive before the sweltering rainy season hits in mid-June but face lesser crowds for snorkeling the Marietas Islands or Los Arcos.
Yosemite National Park (April, May, October): Nearly 60 percent of all Yosemite visitors make the trip between June and September, so timing is critical to avoid frustrating valley traffic jams. Not only are the crowds missing just outside high season, but the weather is pleasant, with highs in the high 60s or low 70s. Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall were gushing water when my best pal and I made a May 2017 visit, and by picking a weekday we were able to secure a hard-to-get tent cabin in Half Dome Village. Autumn colors are abundant, but the majestic waterfalls will probably have slowed to a trickle. For my money, naturalist John Muir nailed it when he wrote that “my first journeys would be into the inner substance of flowers, and among the folds and mazes of Yosemite’s falls.”
Pulaski is a writer based in Portland, Ore.
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