Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Playa del Carmen doesn't feel far outside the U.S., despite being hundreds of miles from the border, and the cozy Hotel Lunata may have Spanish-tiled floors, but the staff speaks perfect English. Unlike Cancun, which is 40 miles to the north, Playa del Carmen isn't a strip-mall party spot, so replace those images of messy tequila shots with visions of frosty beers and mixed drinks. To get a feel for the country, step off the main drag and into the generally welcoming Mexican community.
Visit the Mayan ruins of Tulum and Cobá, and sail to the island of Cozumel to dive one of the world's largest coral reefs. Then return to Playa del Carmen, grab a bite of Canadian fare cooked with Mexican spices at Media Luna, sink into the sand, and relax with a Piña Colada.
PAMPERED PET VS. SUPER SAVER
Rita and Louis, Raleigh, North Carolina
Rita's a girl, all the way. Every morning, she applies an impeccable layer of makeup and blows out her hair, a two-hour process. For a weekend trip, Rita packs all three of her floral-patterned suitcases. While she excels at her marketing job and believes in workplace equality, she still expects a man to open the door. She knows she's high maintenance, and her motto—"Why settle?"—also applies to vacations, which Rita likes to fill with spas, room service, and shopping.
Louis loves spoiling Rita, but fears the attached price tag. He'd rather save money for a house, or put it into his retirement plan. He especially can't understand expensive hotels—how much time do you really spend there anyway?
Although he doesn't consider himself cheap and will gladly pay a decent sum for something of value, Louis chooses buses over cabs, and believes that a bottle of cabernet with bread and cheese can taste as good—and be as romantic—as any meal in an upscale restaurant.
An Arizona spa Canyon Ranch would be Rita's dream, but steep discounts (for Louis) are available at Arizona's Boulder Resorts in the summer months,when most tourists avoid the desert's 100-plusdegree weather. Beat the heat at this Southwestern-style establishment near Scottsdale by starting the day early with golf, tennis, or horseback riding. By the time the sun blazes overhead, you'll be ready for a swim or indoor activities: the spa and beauty centers, the weight room, a yoga class. When evening comes, have the concierge arrange Jeep rides and nighttime hikes in the cooler air. The resort's informal Mexican restaurant, Cantina del Pedregal, is known for its fresh salsa and strong margaritas. But everyone needs to bust out of a resort at some point, and in nearby Sedona red rock formations in awe-inspiring shapes sit on the desert like sculptures. Native Americans consider Sedona a well of spiritual power, so tap into the energy.
The pristine beaches and soothing spas of this mellow Turkish city make for an opulent experience at a lower cost than in Greece or Southern France.
Lodge for less than $100 a night in the Hotel Patara Prince Resort, set on white stone cliffs on the bank of the turquoise Mediterranean, and loll under an umbrella on the undeveloped beaches,which are interrupted by Roman ruins jutting out of the dunes. Lounge by the hotel's infinity pool or visit the sauna, then dine on fish or mutton kebab at the romantic, nouvelle Turkish restaurant Korsan, next to the harbor. (Breakfast in Turkey may come as a surprise—tomatoes, cucumbers, and cheese with your bread.) Wander by the many shops in town, stopping at Sakir Antik Galery for Arab-influenced copper and bronze souvenirs. Most important, get a traditional massage in the hotel's Turkish bath.
URBAN SOPHISTICATE VS. LONE RANGER
Nick and Holly, Ann Harbor, Michigan
Nick grew up in New York City, and feels most comfortable in a throng of people, although he never considered the city crowded: As a kid, he visited his grandparents every summer in Mumbai, India, where the bazaars swarmed with life. He moved to Ann Arbor to attend university, and stayed because of Holly. When he has time off, Nick wants to visit a big city such as Los Angeles, explore the museums, hear the latest bands, and hit the newest clubs.
A fan of whole grains and bicycling to work, Holly likes to stay active, and her favorite pastimes include mountain climbing and canoeing. Ann Arbor may be a small city, but Holly often feels it's too populated, so she likes to hike into the woods, soaking in the silence. When it comes to vacation time, she packs her tent and heads straight for national parks like Yellowstone.
San Francisco Bay Area, California
The Casa Madrona Hotel, a converted historic mansion overlooking the water and surrounded by flowers, embodies the rugged allure of Sausalito. The hotel also hosts one of the area's best restaurants, Mikayla. Head to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—only a short drive away—and take in works by Henri Matisse and Gerhard Richter. Afterward, perk up with a cup of free-trade coffee and indulge in a scrumptious taco at the Mission district's La Taqueria.
Explore the hip neighborhood, checking out a few music shops and boutiques, and make sure to end the evening at Elbo Room, a club with dancing and a live band upstairs. On another day, take a relatively solitary hike at nearby Point Reyes National Park,where few tourists venture. Not to forget: Yosemite is only a fourhour drive away.
This Spanish city has the vitality of New York, coupled with the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
Check into the Hotel Claris, a postmodern place about a ten-minute walk from Barcelona's main drag, La Rambla. Stroll through the architecturally rich city, exploring Antoni Gaudí's bizarre designs in Park Güell. The Spanish take a siesta during the day, and start their evenings long after sunset, so make late dinner plans at Quatre Gats, a restaurant known as much for being a haven for local artists and writers as for its Catalan food and beer. After midnight, break it down at one of Barcelona's hottest dance clubs, Otto Zutz. Later in the week, take a side trip to breathtaking Montserrat, a village where pilgrims pay homage to its statue of the Virgin Mary. (Montserrat is also a destination for climbers seeking a dramatic rock face). Venture a few hours north, and you'll hit the rugged Pyrenees bordering France.
Amy Braunschweiger, a new-york based freelance writer, has been known to selfishly travel exactly where she wants to go—by herself.