15 Ideas for Your Big Summer Vacation This Year

Make summer magic happen.

Taughannock Falls State Park
Taughannock Falls, New York | benedek/E+/Getty Images
Taughannock Falls, New York | benedek/E+/Getty Images
Note: We know COVID-19 is continuing to impact your travel plans. As of April 2021, official guidance from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention states that fully vaccinated people can travel at low risk. Should you need to travel, be sure to familiarize yourself with the CDC's latest guidance as well as local protocols for both your destination and home city upon your return.

Remember summer vacations? Considering we just had a whole ass year snatched from us by the plague-that-shall-not-be-named, we get that you might feel a little rusty when it comes to things like planning trips, packing suitcases, and ordering an amount of drinks at the airport bar that isn’t really inappropriate. No matter where you’re at with this whole return-to-society thing—whether you’re staying close to home or reading this mid-flight to Croatia—you’re doing great.

For us, vacation this year looks like big open spaces with plenty of soul-sweetening natural beauty to explore with our nearest and dearest. We want classic creature comforts like lighthouses, hammock naps, and blue claw crab cakes. Road trips to small towns and quirky corners less traveled. Hikes to thunderous waterfalls and gawkable vistas. Dunks into natural swimming holes and electric-blue oceans. We want the chance to encounter a tiger shark, or an alligator, or some good doggos to further complicate a tipsy game of cornhole. 

If that sounds good to you, too, here are 15 places that will inspire you to get out and make summer magic happen.

Papakōlea Beach
Papakōlea Beach | Praveen P.N/Moment/Getty Images

The Big Island, Hawaii

For an underrated way to explore paradise, make it a road trip
It’s hardly surprising that the Big Island makes this list. Every inch of its 4,000 square miles is the stuff of summertime dreams, and luckily, travel restrictions are easing up. But if you’re only in it for the beaches—understandable, since they’re all incredible—you’re missing out on a different kind of adventure: a Big Island road trip.

The coastline is only around 232 miles roundtrip—a car ride that'd usually take about five hours. But what’s the point in rushing when there’s so much inexhaustible beauty to see? On the loop, you’ll pass through 10 of the world’s 14 sub-climate zones, from desert and tropical rainforest to tundra (yes, really!). Visit King Kamehameha I’s birthplace of Hawi in the Pololū Valley, or zip through Kailua-Kona for local brews at Kona and next-level seafood at Umekes Fish Market. Get your sun, sand, and surf fix at Makalawena Beach and Kealakekua Bay, or delve into the lush jungle along the Pepe’ekeo scenic drive. And, if you really want to live on the edge, visit two of the world’s most active eruptors at the aptly-named Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. —Brad Japhe
Get up-to-date info on current Covid protocols here.

Moonlight Basin
Summer at Moonlight Basin | Moonlight Basin

Big Sky, Montana

A gateway to grandeur at the edge of Yellowstone
Big Sky is pure Montana; this unincorporated resort community even borrows its title from the state’s nickname. From just about any vantage point here in the broad Gallatin Basin, you’re afforded sweeping views of raging rivers, jagged canyons, and a literal ‘Lone Peak.’ 

As advertised, the sky is big. The crowds, on the other hand, are refreshingly small in the summer months. Most visitors are drawn by the world-class powder accumulating upon the region’s dual ski resorts: Big Sky and Moonlight Basin. But when winter abates, a bounty of beauty is accessed by more than two dozen hiking trails, the most popular of which is a 1.5 mile in-and-out to Ousel Falls. More ambitious trekkers make their way up to Summit Lake: pitch a tent at the water’s edge and you can split the 15.7 mile round trip excursion into two days of backcountry bliss.

If you prefer your lodging a bit more luxe, go with Lone Mountain Ranch; later this year they’ll open a speakeasy saloon stocking exclusive American whiskey. Also set to open in 2021 is the Montage Hotel, straddling 3,530 acres between the ski resort and stunning Spanish Peaks golf course. Best part, all of it’s about an hour’s drive from the entrance to Yellowstone. —Brad Japhe
Get up-to-date info on current Covid protocols here.

Waterfalls at Watkins Glen State Park | Photo by Katkami/Moment/Getty Images

The Finger Lakes, New York

The wine-and-nature getaway New Yorkers love
Is there anybody out there who’s still sleeping on the Finger Lakes? If so, there’s plenty of time to hop aboard the bandwagon. The area that surrounds these 11 long, spindly lakes is one the fastest-growing viticulture regions in the US, with over 100 wineries and a vibe that's refreshingly unpretentious. (Honestly, it’s hard to find a winery up here that doesn’t have dogs running around and an enticing cornhole setup.) The area is also lousy with cideries, breweries, and organic farms—so beer and cheese lovers can get their kicks.

But the region has allure beyond its wine trails. There are the lake towns like Skaneateles, where you can take a boat out onto the water and indulge in piping hot batter-dipped fish and honey curry dipping sauce at Doug’s; Corning, filled with boutiques and old-school eateries; Ithaca, long one of our favorite college towns with a roster of incredible farm-to-table restaurants. There are also mystical waterfalls aplenty: hike past 19 of them in Watkins Glen State Park, see the grand 215-foot stunner at Taughannock Falls; or plunge into natural swimming holes at Buttermilk Falls State Park. —Jessica Kelly
Get up-to-date info on current Covid protocols here.

Kennebunkport, Maine
Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport | Portland Press Herald/Getty Images

Kennebunkport, Maine

About as classic summer as you can get
Visiting Kennebunkport feels like stepping into an episode of Gilmore Girls or every Sarah Dessen novel ever—which is to say, it’s small, quaint, and incredibly charming. Just 90 minutes north of Boston, this is the place for airy summer days spent skipping stones and strolling along empty beaches, half-melted ice cream in hand. There’s blueberries. There’s lighthouses. And there’s more lobster-infused dishes than you can shake a stick at. It’s cliche, but it’s heaven.

For bedside fireplaces and views of passing ships, check into one of the town’s inns, like the Breakwater, the Grand, or the Waldo Emerson. Then, get out there and eat everything in sight: truffle mayo lobster rolls from Alisson’s, clam chowder from Mabel’s, haddock over mussels at Stripers. (In some cases, you could even sleep where you eat—at the Boathouse Waterfront Hotel, for example.) By the seaside, head to Goose Rocks Beach for gorgeous white sand and island views, and the Kennebunk Beaches for blazing sunsets and friendly pups. —Meaghan Agnew
Get up-to-date info on current Covid protocols here.

Colors of Nassau | GagliardiPhotography/Shutterstock

The Bahamas 

Float in electric-blue water for some free therapy 
The Bahamas are pretty much always a good idea (unless there’s a hurricane, or the greatest party that never happened happening). Just a three-hour flight from New York, these sublime isles are open to fully-vaxxed visitors. And the quicker you can get off dry land and into the water, the more magic that awaits.

If scuba diving is your thing, you’re in the right place. Tiger Beach, off Grand Bahama’s West End, is one of the best spots in the world to swim with tiger sharks. The Exumas, known for their neon-blue waters, offer the chance to swim with the legendary pigs of Staniel Cay and snorkel into the fish-filled maw of Thunderball Grotto. 

Look for ramshackle conch stands hawking the stiff Bahamian beverage called Sky Juice. Also called Gully Wash, it’s made from condensed milk, coconut water, and gin—basically a party in a glass. When it's time to sleep after too much Gully Wash, try the colorful cottages at Compass Point Beach Resort on Nassau. Or you can go big (you’ve earned it!) and charter your own yacht through the Exumas and Abacos (picture a floating water toy loaded with many more water toys. Can we come?) —Terry Ward
Get up-to-date info on current Covid protocols here.

The orchards of Hood River
The orchards of Hood River | Robert Crum/Shutterstock

Hood River, Oregon

A beery oasis for waterfall chasers on the Columbia River 
On a journey through the Columbia River Gorge, it may be tempting to stop at Multnomah Falls’ famous bridge, snap a few pics, and keep pushing. But then you’d be missing one of the greatest small towns in America, and we can't have that. An hour east of Portland, Hood River lies in the shadow of snow-capped Mt. Hood. Boats rock up against its quiet shores, which ascend into San Francisco-esque slopes lined with small shops, breweries, and restaurants. It’s almost as if an artsy, flannel-clad, lumberjack type transformed into a town—but in an endearing way, not a douchey, “I’ll bring my guitar to the campfire unsolicited” kind of way. 

In a top beer state, Hood River holds its own with joints like Full Sail, often credited for kicking off the town’s craft renaissance in the late 80s, and pFriem, considered one of the best breweries in Oregon (slash the country). Best of all, Hood River has no open container laws—meaning you can stroll tipsily by the shore. Don’t leave without driving the 35-mile scenic Fruit Loop, where you’ll spot endless berry farms and orchards, and of course, hike past the waterfalls and mountain streams you came to the Gorge to see. —Andy Kryza
Get up-to-date info on current Covid protocols here.

Superior views over Lake Superior | Edward Lee/EyeEm/Getty Images

Minnesota’s North Shore

Local brews and sunsets on Lake Superior
Well kids, they don’t call it Lake Superior for nothing: Of all Minnesota’s 12,000 lakes, this one really is the best of the bunch. The 150-mile stretch of land that comprises its northern shore is known as…the North Shore. And although it’s not as hyped as the PCH or as sung-about as Route 66, it is considered one of the best (albeit underrated) road trips in the US

Kick things off in Duluth, where you’ll find a smattering of breweries, distilleries, and world-famous Juicy Lucys… as well as, uh, murder mystery mansions. You may notice some Scandinavian vibes here; Minnesota is home to the largest Swedish and Norwegian populations in the US. Next, hit Gooseberry Falls State Park and the 133-foot-tall Split Rock Lighthouse before heading further north to Palisade Head, where you’ll climb 200 feet up for panoramic views across Lake Superior. Explore some incredible waterfalls in Temperance River State Park; forego cell service in Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness; and, finally, culminate your trip at Grand Portage, where you can gaze out across Hollow Rock, and visit High Falls to catch views at that stretch all the way to Canada. —Katy Spratte Joyce
Get up-to-date info on current Covid protocols here.

Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park | Andrelix/Shutterstock

Basically all of Utah

The state that’s essentially one giant national park
If there’s one place we downright refuse to shut up about, it’s our old buddy Utah. The nature is so good, we’d go so far as to argue that it’s one of, if not the, most beautiful states in the country. First and foremost, you've got the Big Five National Parks—Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands—every single one of which goes crazy with desert trails, scenic drives, canyon vistas, and more. 

Then there’s the quieter but no-less-stunning state parks and national monuments—like the recently-minted Utahraptor State Park, hoodoo-filled Goblin Valley, and 1,500 fossils-strong Dinosaur National Monument. You’ve also got some of the best stargazing in the nation. No matter where you prefer to camp, hike, or generally be wowed, you will find it here. —Tiana Attride
Get up-to-date info on current Covid protocols here.

Ocean Springs, Mississippi
Ocean Springs, Mississippi | Courtesy of LAURA GRIER

The Gulf Coast

Artsy towns and white sand beaches that exceed expectations in every way
People have opinions about the Gulf. And considering Floribama Shore is the area’s primary representation, we get it. But if the Jersey Shore can reclaim its identity as a fabulous summer vacation spot, then dammit, so can the Gulf! 

This is prime beach real estate you’re missing out on here, folks: stretching between Alabama and Texas you'll find endless blue waters, lush marshlands, and vastly underrated beach towns. In Gulf Shores, Alabama, check out the utter weirdness of the 50-foot-tall Lady in the Lake statue, then head to Gulf State Park for a day in the dunes. In Mississippi, feed alligators at the Gulf Coast Gator Ranch and bop around Ocean Springs, where seemingly every block has a funky bar with live music on a shady patio. And if you’d rather say eff it and succumb to the chaos, there’s always the boozy, beautiful mess that is Flora-Bama, a famous seaside honky tonk that’s been honky-tonkin’ since 1968. When in Rome! —Matt Meltzer
Get up-to-date info on current Covid protocols in Gulf Shores here, and Coastal Mississippi here.

Rincon Puerto Rico
Rincon, Puerto Rico | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Puerto Rico

Go beyond San Juan for tasty, tropical adventures
A hop, skip, and a jump from the East Coast, with no passport required, Puerto Rico scratches the “international trip” itch while still sticking close to home. It’s tempting to make a beeline for the ever-popular San Juan, there’s so much more to see on the Island of Enchantment.

Keen on sticking to sun, sand, and surf? PR is happy to oblige. If you want to knock something off your bucket list, the island’s got not one, but three bioluminescent bays. Meanwhile, the laid-back boho haven that is Rincón is a magnet for surfers both experienced and novice; it’s home to some of the best sunsets and waves in the Northern Hemisphere. Or you can delve into Puerto Rico’s rich coffee culture in the mountains of Utuado or San Sebastian, where you’ll get a farm-to-cup experience. Or (we could do this all day) go zip-lining, hike past waterfalls, and look out for the tiny coquí tree frog (about the size of a fingernail) in El Yunque rainforest. Consider renting a car and road-tripping around to get a taste of it all (plus, several detours for mouth-watering meals of fish, tripletas, mofongo, and rum). —Alisha Miranda
Get up-to-date info on current Covid protocols here.

Calaveras Big Tree State Park | Sam Spicer/Moment Open/Getty Images

California’s Gold Country

Just outside Yosemite lies a natural and historic wonderland
After a year of lockdown that’s sparked a renewed obsession with national parks, a reservation for Yosemite is as good as gold. While demand’s skyrocketed, entrance to the park has been limited. But worry not! The surrounding countryside is just as riveting. Welcome to Gold Country: Your alternative to America’s most sought-after national park. 

Not only can you glimpse some of Yosemite’s most iconic sights from a distance, you can also explore historic boom towns, crystal mountain lakes, enormous sequoias, and a hidden wine country worth writing home about. Spend a few days at The Pines Resort on the shores of Bass Lake, where you’ll have access to boat rentals and waterfall hikes. From here, you can also hit the near-secret Nelder Sequoia Grove to spot the iconic giants (or wait ‘til you get to Calaveras Big Trees State Park outside Murphys, the first place their existence was documented in writing). In the nearby town of Fish Camp, take a ride on the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad; and if you want to get your adrenaline pumping, skydive in Mariposa, where you’ll be able to see Yosemite’s glacial landscape from above, or take a long hike up Table Mountain near Jamestown for some insane views. And by the time you’ve finished touring the 25+ tasting rooms in Murphys, you’ll have forgotten all about that other little trip you had to delay. Half Dome, who? —Daisy Barringer
Get up-to-date info on current Covid protocols here.

Florida Keys, Islamorada | Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Islamorada, Florida

A snail-paced paradise where shirts and shoes really aren’t required
Barely 20 miles long, this Florida Keys village is surrounded by sparkling teal water. Its infamous Holiday Isle Tiki Bar inspired a Beach Boys song (“Kokomo,” obvi), while its best-kept secret (an 18-acre dreamland resort situated on a former coconut plantation) was home base for Emmy-nominated Netflix show, Bloodline

Islamorada embodies easy living. Take it all in with a glass-bottom boat ride, or swim with dolphins at an outdoor theater that’s been teaching awareness and conservation for 70-plus years. Snorkel near protected coral reefs with tropical angelfish and befriend sea cows (just don’t feed them!) before cruising on the bay through Toilet Seat Cut; people have been planting personalized toilet seats in the ocean here for decades. Or if you just came to relax, that’s cool too. Laidback luxury means drinking a cold one in a hammock by the ocean. And speaking of beer, there are plenty of places to get one (or a few). Hang with regulars at Florida Keys Brewing Company, a locally owned, dog-friendly business that features live music in a garden with brightly-colored furniture. —Allison Ramirez
Get up-to-date info on current Covid protocols here.

Pictured Rocks, Michigan | Posnov/Moment/Getty Images

The Upper Peninsula, Michigan 

Sail across the crystal blue waters of the Great Lakes
Driving white-knuckle over the five-mile Mackinac (pronounced Mack-in-awe) Bridge that connects Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsula—whipping winds from colliding Lake Michigan and Huron pushing your car around—sets the stage for what’s to come in the dramatic UP. The savage conditions of the Great Lakes carve gorgeous colored cliffs, churn up gemstones, and make shipwreck diving an actual sport here. Dodge moose on your way to the Tahquamenon State Park waterfalls (nothing says UP like a bar inside a state park, built by stipulation of the original land owners).

Then head to Whitefish Point or the Keweenaw Peninsula to search for “Yooperlite,” funky rocks speckled with sodalite that go back to the Ice Age but were “discovered” in 2017 when a local stumbled upon their secret lava-like phosphorescence as he wandered the beach with a blacklight.  

There are only three National Lakeshores in the US, and the Great Lakes has all of them: Hit up Pictured Rocks with its 200-foot sandstone cliffs dropping into Lake Superior. All Michigan State Parks and many of the recreation areas have an entrance fee, so rather than paying by the day, get the annual unlimited “Passport.” Stock up on goods and gas in Marquette and leave with a shirt that says “The Upper Peninsula: Social Distancing Since 1837.” —Cathy Brown
Get up-to-date info on current Covid protocols here.

Hilton Head views of the Atlantic | Rachid Dahnoun/Royalty-free/Getty Images

Hilton Head, South Carolina

Southern comforts with views of the Atlantic
About two hours from Charleston, Hilton Head Island is an old favorite for passing a few lazy summer days amongst the powdery sands and moss-draped oaks of the Carolina coast. You’ll spy a lot of families riding bikes, playing golf, and generally keeping things chill on Hilton Head’s dozens of miles of beaches, like high-energy Coligny. And around sunset, if you’re looking to chow down—whether that means seafood or Southern comforts or maybe skipping food entirely to imbibe in a seaside happy hour—you’ve come to the right place.

Off the beach, Hilton Head is a dream for foodies. Newcomer Lulu Kitchen will give you fresh seafood in a casual atmosphere, with standouts like the blue claw crab cake and a lobster mac n’ cheese that’s decadent without overdoing it. There are also island stalwarts like no-frills Hudson’s—a bit touristy, but worth it for irresistible hush puppies and views of Skull Creek. Just a short 15-minute drive away in artsy Bluffton, check out Burnt Church Distillery, replete with stained glass windows, whiskey, and moonshine, as well as Hilton Head Social Bakery, where you’ll find legit French pastries made by a chef from Normandy. You really can’t go wrong with chocolate raspberry croissants on the beach. —Lia Picard

Get up-to-date info on current Covid protocols here.

Baja vibes | Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

La Paz, Baja California Sur

Cabo’s laid-back cousin
The latest buzz in Baja California Sur is La Paz, the state’s more laid-back Cabo alternative, located north along a two-hour, cactus-lined drive through the desert. The luxury boutique Baja Club Hotel opened this spring on the Malecon (the seafront pedestrian walkway), with Sea of Cortez views and the sceniest rooftop in town. 

But in these parts, the main attraction plays out just offshore in the waters Jacques Cousteau famously called the world’s aquarium. Whale shark season, when you can snorkel with the gentle giants just minutes from La Paz’s marinas, doesn’t start back up again until October. But the summer months bring some of the best visibility and warmest waters for scuba diving. From June to September on diving trips with The Cortez Club, you can get in the water with sea lions and swim alongside giant Pacific manta rays.

A 40-minute boat ride north of La Paz on uninhabited Espiritu Santo island, the eco-glamping tents at Camp Cecil are staying open later than usual this summer (through June 30). Spend your days kayaking lonely coves and snorkeling colorful reefs, and your nights beneath a canopy of stars at the water’s edge. —Terry Ward
Get up-to-date info on current Covid protocols here.

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