The busiest travel day of the year in the US is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, although most of the journeying is done by car to gather with family. Visiting somewhere exciting and new isn’t usually the plan. In these charged social times, however, getting out of town — whether to discover a new city, relax on a beautiful beach, or catch some early-season skiing — is probably a better way to recharge than getting into a political discussion around a turkey. Or maybe you and the in-laws are getting along fine — so well, in fact, that you’re happy to bring them with you, but you just want to do it somewhere that isn’t the suburbs. Here are the best places to visit this Thanksgiving break.
1. Whistler, Canada
The mountain peaks of Whistler, British Columbia, are already snow-covered, and the resort is scheduled to open on Thanksgiving Day this year. Whistler Blackcomb, the biggest ski area in North America, is so expansive that even when there’s no snow in the lower elevations, gondolas will get you to mid-mountain from where you can access endless acres of incredible skiing in the upper portion of the Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains. Down in Whistler Village, the dining and drinking scene is so good that people actually day-trip up from Vancouver for it. Plus, round-trip airfare from most US cities is still under $500.
Canadians had their Thanksgiving in early October, so you won’t find Turkey Day menus in the restaurants. If you stay in a condo or rental with a kitchen, though, IGA or Nesters supermarkets will have all the ingredients you need to make an autumn feast at home. Or you can skip it and enjoy fondue at Basalt Wine and Salumeria or a steak a la Fiorentina at Il Caminetto. By day, non-skiers ice skate, work out, play squash, or swim at the Meadow Park Sports Centre; cycle through miles of valley trails; or contemplate art at the Audain Art Museum and a handful of galleries. Shoppers will also enjoy perusing the Whistler Village shops without the crush of Black Friday bargain hunters they’d face south of the border — but oftentimes with some of the same deals.
2. Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
This postcard-perfect village overlooking California’s Carmel Bay gets hardly any rain in November, so the days are cool and dry. Ocean Avenue — the tree-lined main street with its tiny shops, restaurants, and galleries — takes you down to the cliffs overlooking a lovely, tree-framed beach cove. You can walk down to the sand or stay up high to look out for the dolphins and, in November, humpback and blue whales.
To see more sea life up close, drive six miles north across the Monterey Peninsula to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the best of its kind in North America. You could also opt to drive around the peninsula on the famed 17 Mile Drive, a stunning trip past the Pebble Beach Golf Course, windswept beaches, stately homes, and the area’s graceful Monterey pines. Keep driving north and in under an hour you’re in Santa Cruz, home to some of the best surfing in the US and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Drive south and in the same amount of time you’ll reach the imposing cliffs of Big Sur where Highway 1 is finally open after a 14-month closure. You can hike in Big Sur or in the coastal hills behind Carmel. Alternatively, drive over those coastal hills and in twenty minutes you’ll be in warm and dry Carmel Valley — where you can sample award-winning Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs at some of the area’s dozen-plus wineries.
3. Nosara, Costa Rica
Late November is the start of Costa Rica’s dry season, and it’s also when restaurants and shops in Nosara reopen after a quiet spell. Nosara is on the Guanacaste Peninsula, one of the drier regions in Costa Rica, so even if the rains are continuing elsewhere in the country, sunshine is a good bet here. This town, pressed between lush mountains and a four-mile-long beach, is a perfect base for surf lessons, horse riding, zip-lining, fishing, and just enjoying the wildlife around town –- from the howler monkeys in the trees to the purple crabs crossing the path to the beach.
Just north of town, Ostional Beach is where Olive Ridley turtles come to lay their eggs a week before each new moon. The moon phase won’t line up for that this Thanksgiving break, but in the evening, you might catch the hatchlings from a previous laying scampering towards the sea. In fact, the nature reserve extends to the beach in front of Nosara, as well, so you’ll see no development right behind the sand — just trees. Surfers will appreciate the better fall surf conditions, and non-surfers will enjoy walking on the endless beach or sitting by the pool at the Harmony Hotel, should they opt to stay there. Nosara seems to have new restaurants every year, but with its dirt roads and jungle surroundings, the town is still an awesomely low-key getaway. Nosara has a sizeable expat US community, and restaurants like Marlin Bill’s and the Beach Dog Cafe cook up a hearty Thanksgiving dinner.
The Caribbean hurricane season tends to wrap up by the end of November, so chances are good that your island getaway will be sunny and dry. To up your chances, fly to an island outside the main hurricane zone. We suggest the tiny Dutch Caribbean island of Curação, just north of the South American continent, with its white-sand coves and colorful capital Willemstad, which looks exactly like you’d think Amsterdam would look like if you picked it up and moved it to the tropics.
Most locals speak the lyrical Portuguese creole language of Papiamento, but you’ll hear English and Dutch, as well. Blauwbaai, or Blue Bay, is the best place for diving and snorkelling. Other great spots include Directors Bay, a quiet beach so named for Shell Oil executives who once owned it for themselves. A must is the two-hour hike up to the top of the 1,230-foot Mount Christoffel. Bring lots of water or, better yet, a picnic and savor the panoramic vista. For dinner, be sure to try Curação’s incredible cuisine, which is some of the most interesting in the Caribbean as it combines Dutch, Indonesian, and African influences. Start dinner with a cocktail made with the island’s eponymous blue liquor.
5. The Big Island, Hawaii
If you’re on the West Coast, Hawaii is an easier holiday getaway than the Caribbean, but places like Kauai are pretty rainy in November. Fly to the Big Island and you’re almost guaranteed sunshine, especially on the west side near the Kona coast. Tourism on the island suffered a big slump with the Kilauea Volcano last spring, but the lava flow did not affect the areas you’re likely to be in. Bringing your tourism dollars to the Big Island this November would be a welcome show of Thanksgiving gratitude.
If you’re traveling with relatives in tow, they’ll appreciate the amenities and options — like golf, tennis, and fancy spas — at some of the beach resorts along the Kona-Kohala coast. If you’re traveling in a smaller group, you can explore other parts of the island, like the cowboy country area of Waimea, which is upcountry from the coast and has an excellent farmers market and several farm-to-table restaurants. You can also drive up to the 9,200-foot Visitor Center at Mauna Kea for its stargazing program (check the website to be sure it’s happening that night). Best yet, drive around the island to Hilo on the east side, one of the most authentically Hawaiian cities in all of the islands, and stop for some Hilo’s homemade ice cream (you’ll find it using Google Maps). After that, continue on to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, which reopened in September.
6. Austin, Texas
If you’re into live music, there aren’t many better ways to spend your Thanksgiving break than a few days in Austin. The town has more live music venues than pretty much anywhere else in North America. Plus, November is one a great time to visit. The summer heat is gone, yet high temperatures can still reach 70 degrees.
Although Austin houses the Texas Legislature, the state government of a red state, it’s also the home of the University of Texas’s largest campus and is one of the most liberal cities in the state. Here, people of both political stripes live side by side and make it work. That’s probably because life in this city surrounded by waterways is really nice. Besides killer live music and nightlife scenes, Austin’s outdoor activities are endless. You can take a paddle boat on Zilker Metropolitan Park, hike or mountain bike in the Barton Creek Greenbelt, or rock climb at the pink-hued Enchanted Rock.
With Austin’s excellent restaurants, you won’t have a problem finding a place to have the Thanksgiving feast itself. And we’re not sure if Thanksgiving brunch is a Texas thing — but pretty much every place starts serving it in the late morning. The Second Bar + Kitchen’s turkey dinner will start at 11:00 AM and offers up such southwestern flavors as jalapeño creamed corn and sweet potato biscuits.
7. Charlottesville, Virginia
Charlottesville is best known as the home of the University of Virginia, one of the nation’s most prestigious public universities and the only US school founded by a president, in this case Thomas Jefferson. UVA is also one of the country’s most beautiful college campuses. One highlight of a campus tour is seeing the much-coveted single rooms that ring the central campus lawn — including 13 West Range, preserved as it was when it housed Edgar Allen Poe. After UVA, drive out for a visit at Monticello, the plantation mansion owned by Jefferson himself. Both the plantation and UVA are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Monticello Wine Trail has nearly three dozen vineyards while the Brew Ridge Trail is the place to savor suds from the area’s excellent small-batch breweries. Back downtown in Charlottesville, Main Street is a brick-lined, pedestrian-only walking area with cool shops like Telegraph Art & Comics and Blue Whale Books. Less than an hour away you’ll find Shenandoah National Park where you can hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail.
8. Lisbon, Portugal
This hilly waterfront city is one of the warmest European capitals in November. Athens might be hotter, but Lisbon is the continent’s western edge, so it’s much closer for a quick jaunt. Plus, a handful of airlines are still offering under-$600 round-trip fares from New York over the T-giving break. Once in Lisbon, you could spend endless hours just walking its picturesque and often narrow lanes. Be sure to use trams when needed to ascend the incredibly steep streets.
Bairro Alto means tall neighborhood. There, the cobblestone streets and buildings dating to the early 1500s are the center for Portugal’s soulful fado singing, which you should definitely check out at night. Also up high is Alfama, another ancient area full of restaurants. At the top of the Alfama, the 11th-century Castle of St. George looks exactly like you’d expect a Medieval fortress to look and is the perfect place to gaze out onto this magical city and the water beyond. If you’re as impressed by the ornate tiles decorating Lisbon’s apartments and shops as you should be, stop by the National Azulejo Museum (azulejo means tile in Portuguese) where you’ll see amazing examples of this unique North African and Iberian art. Also, be sure to visit the Torre de Belem on the Tagus strait to get a feel for the waterfront. Or skip the Torre and drive out to the Cascais beach. In November, the waves will be pumping, and the area’s hardcore surfers will be fun to watch.
9. Boston, Massachusetts
The Thanksgiving escapes we’ve suggested are just that: escapes. We’ve told you where to find warmer weather and where to explore outside the country. But if you believe, as we do, that Thanksgiving is a really cool holiday, this might be the year you want to embrace everything it’s about. If so, head to Boston, which is right next to the birthplace of Thanksgiving. A 45-minute train ride south gets you to Plymouth, where the Pilgrims landed in 1620 and celebrated their first Thanksgiving a year later. It’s borderline cheesy, but you can get on a reproduction of the Mayflower and watch actors reenact the first Thanksgiving in a recreated settlement there.
Even if you skip Plymouth, Boston is just about as historic and quintessential a New England city as you can find — and the Thanksgiving weekend options are boundless. Beyond its handsome college campuses and world-class museums, like the Institute of Contemporary Art and the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Boston is full of exactly the kinds of activities you should be doing in late fall. The concert and theater season is on, and you can actually buy tickets to Hamilton for under $250 apiece. You can watch a game at TD Gardens, see the holiday lights at the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, or peruse the shops in Back Bay. And with over 75 restaurants open on Thanksgiving Day, you’ll have somewhere special to enjoy the main event itself.