Beyond Ft. Lauderdale, Some Western Exposure


To do spring break right, you have to go a little wild. For some people, it’s partying all night on the beach or bouncing in a club. For others (me among them), it’s having chocolate before noon.

Spring break, of course, means different things to different people. It also means different things to our nation’s many colleges, which defined the general concept — a week off to relax in sunny weather — without defining which week, exactly.

Jewish schools, along with many other primary and secondary institutions, provide a clear-cut vacation over Passover, of course. But most colleges schedule spring break earlier.

That makes the entire month of March a booking minefield for travelers headed virtually anywhere warm within three hours of New York. The sooner you buy tickets, the better: Fares to Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean spike as the days get longer.

For youthful revelers, consider spring break with an open mind. There are lots of ways to do it, and the best is a getaway you’ll remember for the right reasons.

If crowds, parties and a little mayhem sound like fun, look to the classic spring break spots. (Everyone else: Here are the places to avoid.) They are generally no more than a four-hour flight from New York; most are warm and sunny, with a beach; and they offer abundant, cheap lodgings.

Many are in Florida, where beach zones fill with students come March. Panama City Beach, a Panhandle town, is a favorite; the East Coast is packed from Miami and Fort Lauderdale up to Daytona. (Stay a mile or two inland to avoid the ruckus.)

South Padre Island, a pretty spit of land off the Texas coast, is a kind of spring break Brigadoon, emerging from a peaceful winter slumber with the youthful arrivals. In the Caribbean, Cancún and the Dominican Republic are perennially popular.

If you’re headed to any of these places, be aware that drunken crowds are an easy target, while rates of car crashes and violence spike in spring break hotspots. To stay safe, travel in groups; make sure someone sober is on the lookout; and be extra careful around any vehicle, be it a recreational boat or a late-night ride.

Sunshine, unsurprisingly, is one of the biggest hazards. Every spring, doctors report an increase in dangerous sunburns and dehydration cases —  many involving drinkers who realized, too late, just how much sun (and alcohol) they got.

My most memorable spring break was a college glee club trip to Puerto Rico — and though a lifelong sunscreen obsessive, I was still taken aback by the brilliance of the Caribbean sun near equinox. To avoid blisters, pack a good hat and SPF 50, reapply often and seek out shade.

For a more sophisticated beach getaway, head west: Southern California has a more urbane, cosmopolitan coastal mix year-round.

I’d avoid Ocean County towns like Huntington and Newport in favor of resort cities like Santa Monica and Laguna Beach, which offer plenty of shopping, recreation and dining options within easy walking distance of the sand. In the lower-key villages of the South Bay — Redondo and Manhattan Beach — you can enjoy a lively, outdoorsy scene without the jello-shot ambiance.

And not everyone needs a beach; March water can be pretty cold, anyhow. Road tripping is an underrated spring-break alternative, offering freedom and adventure without the pitfalls of an overcrowded resort.

Consider the Texas Hill Country instead of Texas’ South Padre, or Virginia’s Skyline Drive and Shenandoah Valley instead of Virginia Beach. Or head south from Miami along the Florida Keys causeway, stopping for dips and bird-watching in the quiet marshes and lagoons.

How about the desert? There’s nothing that clears one’s head of exam stress quite like fresh air, and March is a wonderful time of year for the American Southwest. From Texas west to California, the deserts are in bloom, filling balmy afternoons with riots of color. Nights are still cool, but daytime highs in the 60s are ideal for hiking and camping.

In Arizona, Lake Havasu is a notorious spring break zone. But Sedona, an artsy retirement mecca, offers a sophisticated base for revelers whose idea of fun might be great coffee and gallery-hopping, followed by a bike ride or a hike through spectacular red-rock mountains.

Tucson is itself a college town, so March crowds are actually lighter. It’s an ideal time to stroll the lively downtown and visit the zoo, botanical garden and natural history exhibits at Arizona’s Desert Sonora Museum.