Underrated Summer Destinations
Disneyland, Yellowstone and that all-inclusive beach resort in Mexico are certainly worthy of your hard-earned vacation dollars. But if you’ve already been there, done that, and you have the refrigerator magnets to prove it, you might be ready to scout out some new summertime vacation destinations.
Thankfully, the world is a big place, and it’s filled with plenty of under-the-radar destinations bidding for your attention. Best yet, at these hidden gems, you don’t have to waste your precious time waiting in lines or looking for a spot to unfurl your beach towel.
From a little-known African oasis brimming with wildlife to a remote Caribbean island that will take you from 0 to zen in no time, we’ve rounded up some of the best underrated vacation spots to explore this summer.
Port de Soller, Spain: Watching Sunsets on the Beach
A little-known gem in Spain, Port de Soller is located at the foot of the Serra de Tramuntana, a mountain range on the Spanish island of Mallorca. The seaside destination was tough to access prior to the debut of the Soller tunnel in the 1990s, which means Port de Soller wasn’t subject to overdevelopment in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Hugged by mountains, this postcard-perfect village has a walkable beach promenade with cafes, restaurants and shops. A trolley adds to the charm, and thanks to its location on the west coast of the island, the sunsets here are stunners.
Mallorca is covered with citrus fruit groves, and Soller is best known for its oranges and lemons. The hotel can arrange an orange field experience for guests who want to tour a famed orchard and sample fruits.
For accommodations, stay at Jumeirah Port Soller Hotel & Spa, a super-luxe hotel built on a cliff that overlooks the village.
Malawi, Africa: Spotting Wildlife on a Safari
Malawi may not get as much attention as Tanzania or South Africa, but the landlocked and lesser-traveled African country is an ideal safari destination.
A Bush and Beach Safari with Robin Pope Safaris means travelers can get the ultimate geological sampling. The itinerary includes time in the Majete Wildlife Reserve, which is made up of woodlands, hills, valleys and forests and is home to lions, buffalo, zebras, black rhinos and hippos.
The safari also allows for ample time to be spent on Lake Malawi at the Pumulani lodge, which features 10 private villas, an infinity pool and access to the lake. Guests can go kayaking, dive among the brightly colored cichlid fish, or take sunset cruises.
Canon City, Colorado: Whitewater Rafting Through a Canyon
Roughly 5.5 million people visit the Grand Canyon each year to be awed by its geological wonder. But there’s a lesser-known canyon in nearby Colorado that’s well worth a visit, too.
Royal Gorge Bridge and Park in Canon City has a knack for pushing adrenal glands into overdrive. The Cloudscraper, a zipline that bills itself as the highest in the country, dares you to dangle your legs 1,200 feet above the Arkansas River. The Royal Rush Skycoaster sweeps three people at a time through the air in a daring free fall. And walking the Royal Gorge Bridge provides a dazzling way to take in the views from up high.
Rounding out an adventurous itinerary, the Royal Gorge is known as a top-notch whitewater rafting destination that’s filled with wild rapids. Thrill-seekers are well taken care of by Echo Canyon River Expeditions. The company requires its raft guides to be in training far longer than the state requires. Plus, GoPro cameras are affixed to the rafts, so guides can snap candid shots of rafters paddling through Class IV whitewater, making for the ultimate souvenir.
After a day of adventure, relax in true Colorado fashion by booking a luxury cabin with Royal Gorge Cabins...hammocks and mountain views included.
Bhutan: Making a Spiritual Getaway
Bhutan likely won’t become overrun by tourism anytime soon — and that’s by design. All tourists must pay a “minimum daily package rate” ($240 a day for a solo traveler in the summer months) prior to arriving in the Himalayan kingdom. The rate covers a three-star accommodation (you pay a premium for four- or five-star lodging), transport in Bhutan, a guide, food and entry fees.
Consider the money well spent.
This Himalayan kingdom is beautiful year-round, but the summer is extra special, thanks to verdant valleys covered in weeping willows and flowers in full bloom. High on the list for most visitors is a trip to Taktsang Palphug, known as the “Tiger’s Nest.” The 325-year-old cliffside monastery is one of the kingdom’s most sacred religious sites, overlooking the rice fields of Paro.
A stronghold of Vajrayana Buddhism, Bhutan has established itself as a top-notch spiritual and wellness destination. Most hotels have yoga classes and meditation spaces. As an example, the Gangtey Lodge offers several spiritual rituals, including morning and evening prayers, Buddhism meditation classes, prayer-flag hoisting ceremonies and butter-lamp lighting ceremonies.
Vernal, Utah: Adventuring Through the Land of Dinosaurs
“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is roaring through theaters this summer, and we can’t blame you if it’s stirring some dino-inspired wanderlust. If so, point your GPS to Vernal, in the northeast section of Utah. The city has earned itself the moniker “Dinosaurland” thanks to the tracks left behind by the behemoth creatures that once roamed here.
Dinosaur National Monument straddles Colorado and Utah, but the prehistoric boneyard is mostly on the Utah side. More than 1,500 dinosaur bones as old as 149 million years are exposed on rock cliff faces in the Quarry Exhibit Hall. Preserved bones, some of which you can touch, include those of the Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus and Stegosaurus.
Tack on a camping adventure by slumbering in Red Fleet State Park, where you can jump from crimson-colored cliffs into the water and paddleboard or kayak around bends. An added park amenity? Some of those famed dino footprints, which are especially visible on sunny days.
Puerto Escondido, Mexico: Enjoying Totally Rad Surfing
Summer is too short to be wasting time in crowded surf lineups. Skip the busy beaches and head instead to Puerto Escondido, which translated means “Hidden Port.”
This coastal destination in Oaxaca is at the end of the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range, overlooking the Pacific Ocean and hugged by craggy cliffs. Surf like a pro at Playa Zicatela, where the main draw is the “Mexican Pipeline,” akin to the famous Pipeline on Oahu’s North Shore. The beach hosts worldwide surfing and bodyboarding competitions and is a gathering place for surfers ranging from amateur to pro.
Nearby Vivo Resorts offers a luxury experience without being pretentious. The resort is about 10 minutes from downtown Puerto Escondido and five minutes from Laguna Manialtepec, where nature lovers can go kayaking and birdwatching and even witness bioluminescence, a glow-in-the-dark phenomenon that we can thank phosphorescent plankton for.
Saguenay Lac Saint Jean Region, Canada: Taking a National Park Adventure
National parks in the United States have finished celebrating their 100th birthday, and the centenarians enjoyed plenty of fanfare. But once you’ve checked the major U.S. parks off your list, you’d be wise to head north to Canada to enjoy some of its equally stunning parks.
One worthy of the “must-see” list is Saguenay Fjord National Park. During the summer months, intrepid types can test their rock climbing and hiking skills on the cliffs of Baie Eternité by taking a guided tour on a via ferrata, a protected climbing route that includes iron rungs and cables. The route shows off panoramic views of the Saguenay Fjord’s bay.
Looking to commune with nature? The park is part of the Saguney Lac Saint Jean region, located about 120 miles north of Quebec City, which boasts several family-friendly wildlife adventures, including camping with caribou, black bear observation and whale-watching.
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin: Gawking at Amazing Architecture
Lake Geneva is deserving of a spot on any list of architecturally cool destinations. While it doesn’t have ruins like Rome or skyscrapers like Dubai, this Wisconsin retreat does have storied lakefront mansions that were built by industry giants. There is no better time to gape than in the summer months, when Wisconsin's weather is famously sunny and temperate.
A 21-mile shore path loops around Geneva Lake, and, by law, is open to the public. That means those walking along the path can gawk at the mansions (but can’t trespass on the lawns). Some of the notable mansions include the Wrigley Estate, Schwinn Estate and Stone Manor. Visitors can download a GPS-based companion app that tells the stories of these and other marvels.
Walking the path in its entirety would take eight to nine hours. Those who want to walk just a portion can hop on a U.S. Mailboat Tour. “Mailhoppers” jump off and on the moving boat to deliver mail to dockside mailboxes. It’s such a coveted job (and requires such serious athletic talent) that tryouts are held each summer. The tours aren’t all about the mail; they also delve into the fascinating history of the mansions.
Slo Cal: Imbibing in an Emerging Wine Region
Smack dab in between Los Angeles and San Francisco sits San Luis Obispo County, which boasts all of California’s best amenities — including beaches, avocados, wineries and farmer’s markets. Plus it exudes a laid-back vibe (it’s dubbed SloCal, after all), and offers some signature California quirk. Take, for instance, the Madonna Inn, a fabulous splashy pink roadside motel where every room has a unique and over-the-top theme.
For a lesser-known wine region, make your way to Paso Robles, a small town in the county with a big wine scene. The central coast’s microclimates, paired with mountain and ocean breezes, give way to a wide variety of grapes. Paso Robles has more than 200 wineries and several events dedicated to wine, including many during the summer months.
Pair your wine with some fun by ziplining over a Paso Robles vineyard with Margarita Adventures or enjoying a horseback ride through the vines.
Ayrshire, Scotland: Exploring History in the Lowlands
No doubt, castles are having a moment, thanks in part to the blockbuster success of “Game of Thrones." If you're feeling the pull to explore castle life, slip away to the lowlands of Scotland and live it up in Glenapp Castle, a 17-room, five-star luxury resort. History buffs will love exploring the grounds, as well as the more than three dozen castles that are located throughout Ayrshire.
Summer is the ideal time for guests to mountain bike through the estate, play croquet on the grounds and take a boat ride to Ailsa Craig to explore the ruins of a 15th century castle. It’s also a great season for spotting guillemots, puffins and minke whales.
Continue the majestic theme with a nighttime trip to nearby Galloway Forest Park. The park has earned the esteemed “dark sky park” designation; the inky blue, star-studded sky is one of the best (if not the best) canvases for stargazers. You might even see a shooting star.
Transylvania County, North Carolina: Exploring Magnificent Waterfalls
Forget what TLC crooned in the ‘90s and do chase waterfalls in Transylvania County, home to more than 250 waterfalls and an epic water slide crafted by Mother Nature.
Sliding Rock in Pisgah National Forest is a 60-foot natural rock slide with 11,000 gallons of water rushing over it every minute. The “slide” empties out into a cool, 50- to 60-degree pool. A lifeguard is on duty during the summer season and entry is just $3.
DuPont State Recreational Forest is also worthy of a visit, as some of its waterfalls have starred in movies like “The Hunger Games” and “Last of the Mohicans.” Whitewater Falls near Cashiers plunges 411 feet, making it the highest waterfall in the eastern United States, and there are nearby picnic tables so tourists can enjoy the view while they have lunch.
Mustique: Relaxing in a Remote Enclave
Even if your passport has more ink than a tattoo parlor, you may have never heard of Mustique. The under-the-radar Caribbean destination is a posh playground for celebs like Mick Jagger and Bryan Adams, as well as a holiday destination for Prince William and Kate Middleton. But it’s not as glitzy, or as popular, as many of its Caribbean neighbors.
To get you acquainted, Mustique is a private oasis that sits among the Grenadines Islands chain. A serene alternative to the more commercialized Caribbean resort destinations, it’s just three miles long island and a mile wide. But within that small sliver of land, it packs in diverse beaches, including the surfer-friendly Simplicity and Endeavor Bay, where calmer waters are ideal for snorkeling and paddleboarding.
To get the most out of this Caribbean escape, book a stay at The Cotton House hotel, a converted cotton warehouse where garden-set rooms come with private plunge pools. The Great Room Bar has an extensive selection of cigars and native rums, plus a sommelier on hand to make expert recommendations.
South Walton, Florida: Checking out Underwater Art
Scuba divers who have already snapped selfies with tropical fish and explored underwater shipwrecks should set their goggles on South Walton as their next dive spot. In July 2018, the beach community along Florida’s Gulf Coast is debuting a new Underwater Museum of Art, the country’s first permanent underwater sculpture museum.
Seven original sculptures made out of limestone, concrete and aluminum are planted 50 to 60 feet underwater off Grayton Beach State Park. Among the sculptures? A large, stainless steel pineapple for little fish to dart about in; spheres made out of a special concrete that has a chemical makeup imitating oyster shells; and an 8-foot-tall skull with eye sockets shaped like Southern Stingrays.
Cartagena, Colombia: Doing Good in the Caribbean
Perched on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Cartagena is bracing for a tourism boom (hint, hint: Get there now).
Conrad Cartagena, a hotel that’s equal parts modern and luxe, recently opened up in an up-and-coming district called Serena Del Mar. The hotel has its own beach club, and gets bragging rights for having the first and only TPC (Tournament Players Club) golf course in South America, designed by Jack Nicklaus. Plus, the hotel curates cool experiences for guests — including a dinner at Interno, a restaurant inside the San Diego Women’s Prison.
At this non-profit dining establishment, the food is prepped by inmates, who are trained by some of the country’s top chefs and hired as paid employees. The program is designed to help with social reintegration, while generating income for the inmates’ families and helping them gain workplace skills. Tropical floral murals adorn the restaurant and pop music plays, lending an upbeat vibe, and the fish ceviche is superb.
After dinner, take some salsa-dancing lessons in a studio and try out your moves on the street, where live music plays in popular squares.
Providence, Rhode Island: Communing with Fire and Light
Forget the turkey legs, fried Oreos and carnival rides. For a more elevated summer experience, sync up your travel plans to coincide with WaterFire in Providence, Rhode Island, an event that takes place every couple of weeks throughout the summer.
Three rivers wind through Providence’s historic New England downtown, and during WaterFire, dozens of braziers planted in the rivers are lit on fire, casting a warm glow prettier than any Instagram filter. Opera music plays, harmoniously melding with the crackle of flames; mimes perform; and event-goers can book romantic gondola rides down the river as they’re serenaded with Italian love songs.
WaterFire is also meant to be a live, interactive art experience. For a fee, you can hang a glowing blueish-purple star on a tree in an exhibit inspired by Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Not surprisingly, this is a popular spot for engagements.
While in town, head to Federal Hill for some authentic Italian food.