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Weekend Breaks: Great Escapes

Grand Canyon National Park.Grand Canyon National Park. Image: AWL Images

From pure relaxation and beach time to cultural insights and hard partying, David Whitley offers up six of the best weekend getaways

AUSTIN

Go for: Live music, bar-hopping, barbecues and an energetic atmosphere.

Why: The fastest growing city in the US wears its liberalism and independent spirit on its sleeve, and this is manifested in a live music scene unlike any other. Virtually everywhere serving drinks has a band on, with the Red River District offering the most endearing mix of genres. Rainey Street has a distinctive bar-hopping scene, but there are lots of conventional sights and attractions, too.

The red stone Texas State Capitol and Bob Bullock State History Museum give fixes of power and the past, while the gigantic Barton Springs Pool offers arguably the greatest outdoor swim (and people-watching opportunity) in the US.

Casual and high-quality are the bywords when it comes to a feed. The lines outside the Franklin barbecue joint start hours before opening, while Lambert’s offers a classier downtown alternative.

When: The summer heat can be unbearable and accommodation prices go sky high during major festivals, such as South by Southwest in March.

Stay: The W Austin channels the city’s rock star vibe. Doubles from $330. whotelaustin.com

Where next: Nashville, Tennessee. The home of country music has undergone a resurgence of cool. Forget the stereotypes — all genres get an airing in the city’s live music venues.

LAS VEGAS

Go for: Gambling, gaudiness and good times.

Why: Boredom isn’t an option in Vegas. It’s an all-out attack on the senses, whether catching Cirque du Soleil shows, dancing to big name DJs or splashing out at pool parties.

The infamous Strip hosts numerous museums and exhibitions for those wanting something cultural — the Titanic exhibit at the Luxor is excellent and CSI: The Experience at the MGM Grand is great fun. But there’s just as much enjoyment to be had swapping the Strip for the more down-to-earth Downtown area.

If the intensity gets a little too much, then it’s easy to rent a car and head out for a half-day at the Hoover Dam; tours take you right inside it to straddle the Arizona/Nevada border. Another option involves getting up early for a helicopter ride with Sundance Helicopters into the Grand Canyon, a boat trip down the Colorado River and a chopper ride back along the Strip.

When: Ferocious heat makes summer cheaper but aim for October-April.

Stay: The Tropicana is a pleasantly affordable Strip option. Doubles from $129. troplv.com

Where next: The Canadian side of Niagara Falls has long gone for big and gaudy, but it offers the perfect opportunity to combine gambling, entertainment and natural beauty.

SANJUAN

Go for: Caribbean beaches, with the option of dipping into something more cultural or energetic if desired.

Why: One of the Puerto Rican capital’s key advantages is it’s a short journey between the airport and the beach. Many resorts line up along the beach at Isla Verde, which isn’t technically part of San Juan but may as well be.

Should something more than two days flopped on a sunlounger be called for, the short trip into Old San Juan should suffice. The surrounding fortifications are gloriously photogenic and the rum bars tucked into the atmospheric narrow streets can lead to long, entertaining evenings.

If a taste for adventure strikes, the island’s interior offers rainforest and the Camuy Caves — part of a large network of limestone caves — to explore, while the spectacularly sited Arecibo Observatory is worth a look, too. It’s the largest radio telescope on earth, and has somehow been built into the gaps between the hills.

When: It’s warm all year round, but humidity is lower between mid-November and late April.

Stay: A few minutes from San Juan airport and with great resort facilities, the InterContinental backs on to one of the island’s finest beaches. Doubles from $297. icsanjuanresort.com

Where next: If you want another fly-and-flop weekend, sleepy Tobago fits the bill. The town of Crown Point is close to the airport terminal.

QUEBEC CITY

Go for: Heritage looks and a European feel.

Why: Founded by the French in 1609, Quebec City is one of North America’s oldest cities and is remarkably well preserved. The Upper Town fortifications go back as far as 1620, while the twin-spired Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre has been a pilgrimage site for centuries.

If this sounds more like a European city than a North American one, that’s the general vibe. Quebec City is the best way of getting that Euro dose without crossing the Atlantic.

The Petit de Champlain district is particularly atmospheric — it’s crammed with restaurants, boutiques and art galleries, as well as hosting the Musee de la Civilisation, arguably the country’s best exploration of its indigenous cultures.

Nature-lovers are in luck, too. The whale watching cruises and ferry trips taking in the spectacular Montmorency Falls (higher than Niagara Falls) are good options for those not content landlubbing.

When: Aim for the summer months, from mid-May to late September, to enjoy the most appealing weather.

Stay: Dating back to the 19th century, the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac — a National Historic Site of Canada — is a genuine icon of the city, and a textbook example of a beautiful and relaxing urban resort. Doubles start at C$260 (US$284). fairmont.com/frontenac-quebec

Where next: St Augustine in Florida is the oldest European-established settlement in North America. Numerous sites, including Fort Matanzas and the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, still hark back to the Spanish era.

WASHINGTON DC

Go for: Inspiring education and culture.

Why: DC has, simply put, the greatest collection of museums in the world. But attempting to trudge through all the Smithsonians in one weekend will have you weeping through overkill, so pick a couple based on the topics you’re most interested in — although the National Air & Space Museum and National Museum of Natural History are justifiably popular with all-comers.

While many are free, don’t overlook museums with an entrance charge. The Newseum offers a fascinating look at how the media works and the International Spy Museum is a fun insight into Washington’s espionage industry.

When: If the heat isn’t an issue, summer weekends tend to have DC’s best hotel bargains. May is the peak season for school groups.

Stay: The Willard InterContinental is steeped in history — it’s where Martin Luther King Jr finished his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. Doubles from $339. washington.intercontinental.com

Where next: The Constitution Center and Independence Hall in Philadelphia check the history boxes, while the Barnes Foundation and Museum of Art feed the creative side.

ISLA MUJERES

Go for: A mellower, island-style take on the Mexican resort scene.

Why: A short ferry ride from the far more intense and party-hard Cancun, Isla Mujeres still has enough of a taste of village life about it. It hasn’t completely succumbed to its mainland neighbor’s Margaritaville and Senor Frog takeover yet.

Part of that shows in the somewhat ad-hoc tour industry. Visitors who want to go snorkeling or see the friendly, neighborhood whale sharks can haggle with boatmen at the wharf to take them out. Wildlife lovers will also enjoy the turtle farm, where turtle eggs are hatched and reared to give the youngsters a fighting chance when they return to the sea.

Meanwhile, the ruins at the Templo de Ixchel are at Mexico’s most easterly point, and make a good spot for watching the sun rise. You can catch the sun set over the water from Playa Norte, which makes for a fabulously sheltered beach experience the rest of the day.

When: Humidity levels are lowest between December and April, although whale sharks are best seen in August and September.

Stay: Two-bedroom condos at Nautibeach on Playa Norte from $160 a night. nautibeach.com

Where next: The Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras have that balance of lazy Caribbean life, Latin American spirit and a high enough standard of accommodation and activities.

PUBLISHED IN THE SUMMER 2014 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork

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