From now through the end of April, college kids on spring break will hit the beaches and ski slopes, and party in Palm Springs, Las Vegas and Mexico’s Cabo. To avoid crowds, never mind boisterous parties, the trick is to go where they aren’t. Check out these vacation destinations geared toward families, couples and laid-back travelers.
Why here: Mother Nature meets the arts under the trees.
Wind-swept Monterey pines shade this tranquil coastal hamlet six miles south of Hearst Castle. Browse in galleries and antiques shops on Main Street; explore the tide pools at Moonstone Beach; amble along the ocean-bluff trails in Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. Animal lovers can play with the goats at Stepladder Creamery or ride a giant (but gentle) Clydesdale horse at Covell’s Ranch.
Cambria has plenty of cozy inns, B&Bs and vacation rentals, and family-run restaurants. Visitors planning to tour the Hearst Castle should buy online tickets in advance.
Info: Visit Cambria
Why here: Orchards and vineyards and redwoods, oh my!
Mendocino County’s hidden bucolic treasure hugs a 25-mile stretch of California 128 between U.S. 101 and the ocean.
In spring the apple orchards are ablaze with white and pink blossoms, and the vineyards are a playground for newborn lambs.
Enjoy wine tasting at more than two dozen wineries, including Scharffenberger Cellars and Roederer Estate, known for their elegant sparkling wines (a.k.a “sparklers”), and cheese tasting at Pennyroyal Farm.
Info: Visit Mendocino
Why here: Hit the beach where the U.S. Marines go for fun.
The San Diego County beach town that locals call “O’side” is best known as the home of Camp Pendleton, the largest military base in the U.S. But there is plenty for visitors to see and do. Watch the fishermen on historic Oceanside Pier; learn to sail or kayak in Oceanside Harbor. Mission San Luis Rey, California’s largest mission, gives docent-led tours.
Elsewhere, the walls of the Oceanside Arcade Tattoo display tattoo art from the early 1900s through the Vietnam era, when Camp Pendleton Marines got tatted here before shipping out.
If you’re in Oceanside on a Thursday, join locals, musicians and 200 vendors at the 5-9 p.m. weekly Sunset Market.
Info: Visit Oceanside
Why here: For families who love snow in the Sierra
Avoid Mammoth’s crowds at what’s billed as “California’s Family Mountain,” a Sierra ski resort where kids 12 and younger ski free. At 2 p.m. everyone gathers at Bucky’s Bonfire for cookies and cocoa with the resort’s Bucky the Deer mascot.
Stay in one of the budget-friendly lodges in June Lake Village, a five-minute drive from the slopes. Grownups can sample the beers brewed at June Lake Brewing and get down to live music at the new T-Bar Social Club. June Mountain’s ski season closes April 12.
Info: June Mountain
Why here: The scent of citrus, the taste of honey.
Spring is Ojai Pixie Tangerine season, when the air in this picturesque valley smells of citrus blossoms. Take a hike or a Jeep tour into the Santa Ynez mountains. Compare Santa Barbara Pinot Noir vintages at the Ojai Vineyard Tasting Room or visit the Ojai Olive Oil farm for a tasting.
Accommodations include funky motels, B&Bs and the Ojai Valley Inn, the valley’s premier golf resort since 1923. Even non-hotel guests can participate in culinary classes and activities at the inn’s new Farmhouse. For the “Beekeeping and Honey Tasting Experience,” students suit up for an up-close encounter with the resort’s busy bees. $150 per person.
Info: Ojai Visitors
Why here: Baja with wildlife instead of party animals
Take a flight to Cabo, but instead of doing tequila shots at Cabo Wabo Cantina, head north two hours to La Paz. This peaceful Baja California Sur town is the kick-off point for exploring the Gulf of California.
In spring three species of whales, including playful humpbacks, migrate to its calm turquoise waters.
Besides whale-watching, visitors can snorkel with sea lions at Espíritu Santo Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and swim with giant whale sharks. Wait… Swim with sharks? No worries. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, but they lack teeth.
La Paz accommodations range from no-frills hotels in the center of town such as Catedral ($75 and up a night) to beach-side resorts such as Costa Baja ($146 a night and up) that are far less expensive than beach resorts in Cabo.