By David Jackman
In the past 40+ years since being born in western New York state, I have resided in all four corners of the
U.S. There was a 15-year period of my life in which I moved eleven times – all within the lower 48
states. One of my favorite things to do when I arrive in a new locale is to get out and explore, and thus
far I’ve managed to visit 47 of the 50 United States (just a few tiny little East coast hamlets yet to tick
off). All of this is to say that I have seen and experienced A LOT of the U.S. and it’s given me a unique
perspective on places that I do – and don’t – want to return to.
Specifically for you, my neighbors to the north, I’ll focus on more southerly regions of the country for
this narrative. After all, if you want spectacular mountainscapes or powder-perfect ski runs, you’ve got
some of the best within your own borders. Invariably, whenever I speak to a Canadian about their
travels and future destinations, balmy weather is an essential part of the equation. With that in mind, I
give you my perspective on five popular, sunny US travel destinations and what I consider to be worthy
– if not superior – alternatives.
Instead of Charleston, South Carolina…
Despite having lived in Charleston many years ago, it was only recently that I visited Savannah. Perhaps
because I had heard them compared to one another for so long, I presumed that Savannah would be a
very similar experience to Charleston. What a faulty assumption that was!
Savannah will give you all of the Spanish moss-laden Southern charm to live out your Gone with the
Wind fantasy that Charleston can, but in a much less uptight atmosphere. Where Charleston has a very
compact – albeit lovely – historical downtown, Savannah spreads out its charm. You get a feel that the
shops, restaurants and businesses that fill its historic squares are all a part of one integrated city that
locals and visitors alike can enjoy, and don’t just exist for the pleasure of visitors.
If you want a party scene, the pedestrian mall along the riverfront provides it just as well as Nashville’s
famed Broadway does – and without those pesky open container laws! For those desiring a quieter,
more relaxed escape, there are myriad boutique hotels and short-term rentals in the squares and on the
boulevards adjacent to the downtown core. Here time seems to slow a bit, and you feel compelled to
linger over a meal at an outdoor café or browse in an art gallery that you would have rushed right past if
it were in Atlanta or Charlotte, or even dare I say Charleston.
Fancy a quick beach fix while you’re in town? Savannah solves for that in the form of Tybee Island – a
quaint little seaside town with a picturesque beach and boardwalk that begs to be savored on a sunny
afternoon. Unlike the Charleston-area seaside retreats of Folly Beach and Isle of Palms, Tybee Island still
feels slightly undiscovered in the best possible way. It’s the perfect place to unwind before heading
back into Savannah for a sumptuous evening meal – which is easy to find in the city’s thriving food
Instead of Phoenix…
Phoenix is another U.S. city which I once called home and although I still happily reside in Arizona, the
Valley of the Sun itself wasn’t to my liking. Perhaps it’s because Phoenix is so much of a sports hub, and
my taste in traditional team sports is tepid on a good day, but everything here seems to be transient.
Phoenix, more than any other city I’ve been to, somehow lacks any sort of cohesive identity. It seems to
be built on anonymity and air-conditioning, and everything else is an afterthought.
Tucson, by comparison, has a very clear and endearing identity. Even the town’s abbreviation – TUC –
has been co-opted into “The Underrated City”, something in which Tucsonans find both pride and
resolve. If you’re coming to Arizona for the golf, it’s as good here as it is in Phoenix, and often for far
less money. For authentic Mexican food, I will argue that Tucson beats Phoenix – perhaps not in
number of overall establishments, but certainly in quality and accessibility.
The presence of the University of Arizona can lend a ‘college town’ vibe to areas around campus, but
Tucson is much more than a place to party. Aside from the annual gemstone show in February, when
the city is overrun with visitors, Tucson can provide an array of experiences and accommodations in all
price ranges. If mid-century modern is your vibe, there are several upcycled motor lodges from the 50’s
and 60’s that have become some of the hippest hangouts in town. In early November, Tucson hosts the
largest Día de los Muertos celebration outside of Mexico. Unlike other parts of Arizona that seem to be
at odds with the influence of Mexican heritage, Tucson embraces it.
I would be remiss if I didn’t cite natural beauty as another compelling reason to consider Tucson. No, it
doesn’t have the proximity to Sedona that Phoenix has, but Tucson is flanked on two sides by Saguaro
National Park and sits in the shadow of Mount Lemmon, home of the southernmost ski resort in the
United States. Even in the hottest summer months, an early morning hike in and around the Santa
Catalinas can provide the most spectacular desert scenery and birdwatching in the entire American
Instead of New Orleans…
Okay, now this one is probably going to raise a few eyebrows, but hear me out. I’ve had a lot of fun in
New Orleans, don’t get me wrong. I’ve also gotten extremely tired of New Orleans extremely quickly. In
comparison, Mobile doesn’t do southern decadence as outrageously as New Orleans does, but it still
does it very well and without a lot of the tradeoffs you have to accept when visiting a town that’s
renowned for being a non-stop party.
Let’s start by getting the big one out of the way – Mardi Gras. While New Orleans is known for it,
Mobile actually lays claim to the original and oldest Mardi Gras celebration in the U.S. Having attended
it personally I can tell you that it is a very fun time to visit Mobile. While perhaps not as grand or all-
consuming as the NOLA version, the same laissez faire is very much at the core of Mobile’s Fat Tuesday
Aside from Mardi Gras, downtown Mobile is rife with old southern Gulf coastal charm. Dauphin Street
in particular is lined with bars and restaurants filled with echoes of the French Quarter, yet it’s also
distinctly modern in a way one doesn’t expect from a small city in Alabama. Rainbow flags are not an
uncommon site, and friends seldom believe me (but it’s true!) when I say some of the best sushi I’ve
ever had was from the OK Bicycle Shop in downtown Mobile.
Another advantage that Mobile enjoys over New Orleans is its proximity to beaches that you’d actually
want to visit. In about an hour by car, you can go from charming, historic downtown Mobile to the
sands of Gulf Shores or Orange Beach. Scantly more than 2 hours and you can be in Destin, Florida. In
just a few days you can have a party weekend in Mobile and then recover and relax on a pristine Gulf
coast strand. That’s my idea of a good time rolling and, in my opinion, worthy of foregoing beignets at
Café du Monde.
Instead of San Diego…
Santa Barbara, California
If you ask anyone who professes a love for San Diego why they’re so enamored by it, the phrase “perfect
weather” will inevitably pop up early in the conversation. Here’s the thing, though – most of coastal
southern California has ‘perfect weather’ year-round. So why has San Diego amassed such a cult
following? I honestly couldn’t tell you. Unless you’re a zoo devotee or someone who doesn’t have any
ethical qualms about giving your money to SeaWorld, San Diego doesn’t really offer much to set it apart
from other well-to-do parts of SoCal. The beaches are status quo, there aren’t any major theme parks,
and the food scene is adequate, but not a compelling reason to visit.
If you go north from LAX instead of south, in about the same amount of time it takes you to reach San
Diego (or less, traffic depending), you will find yourself in Santa Barbara – a town that most folks have
heard of, but surprisingly few have actually visited. The atmosphere here is similar to the upscale likes
of La Jolla and Dana Point, but the presence of UCSB lends it a more youthful energy. Where San Diego
touts its Gaslamp Quarter as funky, hip and historically significant, Santa Barbara seems to give you that
in its entirety, not just isolated to a single neighborhood.
Don’t expect to save any money choosing Santa Barbara over San Diego, but what you can expect is easy
accessibility to unique experiences in the surrounding area. Nip down to Ventura or Oxnard to catch a
boat out to Channel Islands National Park (advance planning and reservations strongly recommended) to
experience one of the least-visited but most impressive members of the US National Park system. While
the beaches and coastlines here are achingly beautiful, if you’re not feeling your sea legs, my
recommendation is to take an afternoon to skirt the Santa Ynez mountains and head inland to the
offbeat hamlet of Ojai. This small enclave in the foothills has embraced the arts and wellness scenes for
many years and has a reputation for funky inclusivity and creative license, making it the perfect day trip
from Santa Barbara.
Whether your activity tastes run the likes of museums, hiking, beach sports, boating, yoga, or American
West history, you’ll find something that speaks to you in Santa Barbara, and you can count on far fewer
crowds than you’ll find further down the coastline. And yes, there is even a zoo…if you absolutely must.
Instead of Hawaii…
Okay, now this one is a bit of a sweeping generalization, I’ll grant you that. Can I really be audacious
enough to suggest that you bypass visiting one of the most glorious, tropical states in our nation and
instead leapfrog to an isthmus in Central America? You bet I can – and let me tell you why!
First of all, you’re already getting on an airplane, and it’s not a short flight either. Second, most of the
things that you can do in Hawaii, you can do in Costa Rica for half the price. Surfing? Check. Horseback
riding? Yep. Snorkeling and diving in crystalline azure waters teeming with marine life? Check-check.
Swinging on vines above a swimming hole created by a natural waterfall? You betcha! Traversing a
tropical rainforest to ascend a volcanic caldera wreathed in clouds? That too! You get the idea – Costa
Rica has the same Pacific tropical feel as Hawaii with a few distinct advantages, the primary one being
cost. If you travel extremely high-end then I suppose you could pay the equivalent as you would on a
Hawaiian island, but you’d have to be actively trying to. For most mid-market and near-luxury
accommodations, restaurants and activities, saying it’s half the cost of Hawaii is not an exaggeration.
Another reason I prefer Costa Rica to Hawaii is how compact the nation is geographically. Island-
hopping can seem alluring and romantic on paper, but when the volcano is on one island, the best
national park on another, and the primo surfing spot is on yet another island, one can spend a lot of
time and money getting from one must-do activity to another. In Costa Rica the distances between
distinct attractions are much shorter and more easily accessible. Don’t be intimidated by the language
barrier, either. Although Spanish is the national tongue, I’ve found that English is spoken widely enough
that I could easily navigate situations with locals.
Oh, and if those weren’t compelling enough reasons to put Costa Rica at the top of your list, let’s talk
wildlife! Costa Rica has all the whales, dolphins, and sea turtles that Hawaii is famous for, plus monkeys
and sloths – it’s like Hawaii isn’t even trying! In all seriousness, I do love Hawaii and I will go back when
my bank account allows, but I’ll be returning to Costa Rica much, much sooner.
Some destinations have no rival. There’s only one Las Vegas (which is probably a good thing), only one
Hollywood, and nowhere in the lower 48 states can match the tropical Caribbean vibe of the Florida
keys. Other vacation hotspots, though, have been skating by on brand recognition for decades. The
world is bigger, and at the same time smaller, than it ever has been and today’s travelers have more
options and information at their fingertips than ever before. Use that to your advantage and you may
find that the road less travelled leads to even greater delights. Trust me, I’ve been there.