Bocas Del Toro, Panama
Four nights + birds, bats, butterflies + sea trampoline = $522 for a long weekend.
A one-hour flight from Panama City gets you to Colón, the main island of the idyllic Bocas del Toro archipelago. Check into an air-conditioned balcony room at the Bocas Inn (from $88; anconexpeditions.com/lodges.html). Through the front desk, hire a guide and hash out a boat tour through the area’s 68 islands ($165 for two)—Isla de los Pájaros is best for birding, Isla Bastimentos for bats and butterflies. Get a taste of Colón’s no-holds-barred nightlife by hiring a water taxi ($5) to go out to Aqua Lounge (bocasaqualounge.com), a hostel-bar where you can sip Panamanian “cholos,” seco with milk ($3), and then launch yourself off a floating trampoline.
Baja California Sur, Mexico
Four nights + sea-lion encounters + deep-sea fishing = $391 for a long weekend.
With its $250 greens fees and $50 lunch entrées, Cabo San Lucas can empty your pockets pretty fast. But just 60 miles north, on the Sea of Cortez, there’s lush, rustic Cabo Pulmo. Check into a bungalow or casita at the Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort (from $69; cabopulmo.com). Guides from the resort’s dive center can take you scuba diving with a colony of sea lions or a school of manta rays in the National Marine Park ($55) or drop you off for a snorkel at Mermaid Beach. Fish for wahoo or marlin with local fishermen in pangas ($60 to $100 for four hours), or just order fish tacos at La Palapa (no phone), a short walk from the resort, while the blue-footed boobies swoop above.
Two nights + reggae royalty + roasted breadfruit = $900 for a two-nighter.
The Marley Resort & Spa isn’t just the only high-end property on the island actually owned by Caribbeans, it’s run by actual Marleys (from $450 before December 15, $650 after; marleyresort.com). Opened last July by Bob’s daughter (on what was once the family’s vacation property), the inn’s sixteen massive suites are decorated with elaborately carved wooden headboards, Bahamian and African textiles, and coral stone-tiled baths. Start the day with a breakfast of callaloo and roasted breadfruit on the sea-view terrace; then sunbathe on the slice of sugary beach, or back-float around the waterfall-fed swimming pool (where guess whose music wafts from hidden outdoor speakers). At night, various Marleys have been known to stop by for impromptu jam sessions at the Stir It Up bar.
Desert Hot Springs, California
Two nights + mineral baths + delicious coffee cake = $390 for a two-nighter.
Palm Springs might draw more sucked-in celebrity stomachs, but Desert Hot Springs, just 25 minutes north, is California’s real desert oasis. The Coachella Valley’s mineral-rich hot (120 to 180 degrees) and cold springs (fed by snow runoff) are put to use for both soaking and drinking at the minimalist, seven-room Sagewater Spa (from $195; sagewaterspa.com). After a morning soak, indulge in co-owner Rhoni Epstein’s Russian-Jewish- style coffee cake. After dark, take advantage of the valley’s new light-pollution ordinances by driving twenty minutes over to Joshua Tree National Park to spy the green-eyed coyotes and jumping cholla cacti.
San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua
Seven nights + private cook + sloop sailing = $1,580 for a week.
On the one hand, you have to survive a 2.5-hour drive from the Managua airport. On the other, you get a private (pretty much) beach, seven nights in a four-room villa, and your own cook, all for roughly $1,500. Go through the friendly, well-stocked, English-speaking Aurora Beachfront Realty (aurorabeachfront.com). Book a sailing trip on the Pelican Eyes resort’s 42-foot sloop ($80 per person; piedrasyolas.com), stopping at one of Nicaragua’s countless fantasy beaches. At night, do the swordfish-and-sangria thing at El Colibrí (located behind the church in the city center) for $30 a couple, or stuff yourself on fresh-caught lobster, about $2.50 a pound. Word of warning: If you’re here around New Year’s, pack a flashlight. A flood of upper-crust youth descends on their parents’ beach homes every year, literally sucking the energy out of the town. Expect frequent, although not entirely unromantic, blackouts.
Two nights + fish cakes + surf lesson = $500 for a two-nighter.
The 50-cent “World Famous Fish Cakes” at a Friday-night open-air fish fry in the town of Oistins are almost worth the four-plus-hour flight by themselves. And they’re not the only thing on the tiny, flat island that’s a bargain: If you book by November 22, the Crane resort (from $210; thecrane.com) is offering 30 percent off all rooms, plus a free breakfast. The steady breeze that blows across the island means constant wave action, and a troop of sunbaked dudes are available to teach surfing lessons starting at $80 for two hours (barbadossurf .com), or to give a guided surf tour of the island ($100). For something just as authentic but a lot less strenuous, try a tour of the Mount Gay Rum distillery (mountgay.com)—free samples included. The view from the terraced pool area over the bluff will make you feel like you’re in a glossy advertisement for paradise—provided you have a rum punch in your hand.