Are you graduating this winter? If so, now might be the time to consider where you want to go on your graduation trip. Escape the bitter chill of winter and celebrate your hard work in style under the never-ending summer sun at these stunning U.S. destinations.
There are many beautiful destinations in the Hawaiian islands but Kauai stands above the rest for its abundant natural resources and recreational activities and also because it's the least touristy island in the archipelago. If you find yourself cringing at the number of people crowding the once pristine beaches, mega-resorts clouding the natural beauty of the landscape, and tourist traps hogging space where local shops once ruled, then Kauai is for you.
Some of the most gorgeous natural wonders of Hawaii are located on Kauai like Waimea Canyon, the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, with its glorious cliff walls draped in red and green foliage. The Coconut Coast is yet another stunning attraction with its groves of coconut trees, historic plantations, and homes, and along which you can find Nounou Mountain, Opaekaa Falls, as well as the Fern Grotto. Kauai has it all from sophisticated shopping to the most beautiful beaches in Hawaii but the island really takes the cake for its recreational opportunities and natural wonders.
Key West, Florida
The United States' southernmost state finds itself closer to Cuba than Miami, showing its colorful personality in the pastel-hued buildings and equally colorful natural landscape. The island once played host to famous individuals like Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Tennessee Williams, and Jimmy Buffett who adored the endless summer sun, warm Caribbean Sea, and pristine sugar-white beaches.
There's no limit to what you can do at Key West from touring Dry Tortugas National Park to swimming with wild dolphins, visiting Ernest Hemingway's home, or shopping in Mallory Square which, incidentally, happens to be one of the most popular destinations to catch a sunset. Some of the most incredible diving spots in the U.S. are located off the shores of Key West like the Vandenberg Wreck or those in Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park.
Sanibel Island, Florida
With a population of fewer than 7,000 souls, Sanibel Island is Florida's own small-town island off the southwest coast of Florida. Although the landmass is only 17 square miles, Sanibel Island has gained popular attention for its shelling beaches, spectacular crystal clear turquoise water, and few enough tourists to make the island feel like your own private resort.
More than half of the island is made up of wildlife refuges including the J.N. Darling National Wildlife Refuge, established to protect one of the largest mangrove ecosystems in the U.S. The abundance of wildlife grants you the lovely chance to witness flamingos, exotic birds, and dolphins just outside your hotel window or along your hiking path. Sanibel Island welcomes you to relax on the beach, collect shells along the shore, dive in the calm waves, and much more.
San Diego, California
Sunny San Diego calls you into SoCal for a graduation trip cast in saffron-colored sunlight and Spanish history. Like Los Angeles on a smaller scale, San Diego boasts incredible and exciting attractions from the San Diego Zoo, perhaps the best zoo in the country.
Unlike many other sunny destinations, however, San Diego was founded in 1769 and maintains its history through beautifully preserved mission churches and more. Balboa Park is a gorgeous starting place and is San Diego's most concentrated public park where you can find the zoo, a number of museums, Sefton Plaza, over a dozen landscaped gardens, and much more. For the beachgoers and resort hoppers in your group, check out Coronado, a historic example of a wooden Victorian beach resort, one of the last few remaining. Be sure not to miss La Jolla Cove and the Channel Islands on your trip to SoCal!
While it doesn't have the glitz, glamour, and beaches of the other destinations, Yuma is the sunniest city in the United States from December to February. Located in southwest Arizona, Yuma gained its ground as a major supplier to outlying forts in the latter half of the 19th century, going as far as Colorado and New Mexico. While you can still visit the Yuma Quartermaster Depot, now a state historic park, the city captures the best of tourists with its unending warm climate - too hot for some in the summer - and historic sites.
If you enjoy touring history and culture, Yuma might be a wonderful alternative destination. Visit the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park, a late 19th-century prison that is famously preserved, as well as the Castle Dome Mines Museum and Ghost Town, and the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area. Blow off some steam at Waylon's Water World, go tubing or rafting down the river, or swim for free in Mittry Lake as you observe the area's wildlife protected in the lake's refuge.
A stunning city on California's central coast, Monterey is set in the rugged rocks hugging the Atlantic in-between San Francisco and Los Angeles. With a population less than 30,000, Monterey boasts a higher population of marine animals than humans. Because of the city's focus on wildlife, you absolutely do not want to miss out on the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the best in the nation, where you can find northern elephant seals, orcas, and you can even see blue whales from the aquarium's observation deck over the ocean.
Monterey is also the famed centerpiece of John Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row, now the area's premier shopping, dining, and entertainment open-air venue of the same name along the rugged coast. Look off the shore and see all the wildlife you can imagine in the open ocean as you explore Garrapata State Park and 17-Mile Drive. Mission San Carlos Borromeo del río Carmelo is Monterey's own historical Spanish mission church founded in 1793, standing as a beautifully preserved institution of early California.