You've got a free week at the start of spring, and you want a dose of fun in the sun... but what's that, you say? You don't want it to involve body shots and wet T-shirt contests? American high school and college students may descend on beaches en masse in March and April, but that doesn't mean there isn't a quieter stretch of sand for those who want a slightly more sedate spring break. Though it's worth noting that if you head to Mexico - as we recommend - Mexicans take spring break too, in Semana Santa (the week before Easter), usually camping on the beaches. This means more crowds - but fun crowds of large families.
Spring break: five alternatives to the party scene
Cancun is still the unofficial No. 1 party spot for spring-breakers, but just 30 minutes' drive south of that capital of debauchery lies the mellow town of Puerto Morelos, probably the best-kept secret on Mexico's Caribbean coast. PoMo, as regular visitors like to call it, still has a small working fishing trade and not a single hotel tower in sight on its broad main beach. The central plaza is the place for kids to play at night, and it's ringed with excellent restaurants, including the fishing co-operative's favourite La Petita, where you can dig into fried grouper and ice-cold beers at a plastic table on the sand.
Over on Mexico's west coast, the speakers may be thumping at Puerto Vallarta, but peace still reigns on the coast north of here. The main town in Nayarit, Sayulita, was a hippie favorite back in the day, and a surfers' spot starting in the early 1990s, but it now attracts a bohemian international crowd, some of whom never set foot on a surfboard. If you find its cobblestone streets just a bit too crowded for your tastes, make a mental note to return in the low season (it's quieter then) and head farther north to the towns of San Francisco and San Blas. The latter is especially good for mangrove tours.
Florida Keys, USA
Sure, Margaritaville is now more a plasticky chain restaurant than a state of being. But this fringey edge of Florida, an archipelago off the coast of Miami, is still a relatively quiet - and always oddball - destination. Stop in Key West to see chickens roaming the streets and men intoning with all seriousness, "It's always five o'clock somewhere." In the upper (northern) keys, Key Largo, the biggest island, has a slightly tacky veneer, but a heart of gold and lots of places to go fishing and snorkelling. Actual sandy beaches are in somewhat short supply - for that, head to Bahia Honda State Park, in the lower keys.
Outer Banks, North Carolina, USA
No need to go all the way to Florida for turquoise-green water and balmy temperatures. The barrier islands along the coast of North Carolina are sandy heaven for those with castaway fantasies. Developed resort towns like Kitty Hawk can get very lively (er, rowdy) during spring break, but the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a haven of peace. Bring your camping gear and enjoy 70 miles of sandy wilderness - but also bring a blanket, because spring can still bring cool breezes.
Los Angeles, California, USA
Skip San Diego, a major college vacation spot, and stick with Los Angeles. The metropolis is big enough to absorb all kinds of visitors, and you can still enjoy the beach in Venice, for instance, where there's a funky scene year-round, with open-air artists, body-builders and the occasional celeb. Or you can explore the massive acreage in Santa Monica, which boasts a famous pier. Outside of LA proper to the north are pretty (if pricey) enclaves like Huntington Beach. But if you don't stay long - the Pacific is chilly, after all - the rugged California coastline is worth a visit for the scenic drive alone.
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