Missing the beach? Venture to these winter beach getaways

Most vacationers like to hit the beach at the height of summer, to enjoy the surf and sand. However, savvy travelers realize that when the mercury and the occupancy rates go down, the potential for fun in the sun stays high.

I was slow to learn this lesson. For years, I turned a deaf ear when my kids pleaded for a summer beach trip. My disdain for the crowds, parking and oppressive heat outweighed my enjoyment of the refreshing salt air, the laid-back atmosphere and the chance to people-watch.

A fall excursion during the weekend of Thanksgiving showed me the beach in a whole new light.

Such destinations as the Low Country of Georgia and the Carolinas, the Florida Coast and the Gulf Shores provide easy getaways for metro Atlantans, with cheaper prices during the off season.

Here are a few of those such affordable yet refreshing fall and winter getaways:

Tybee Island

A one-bedroom condo with an ocean view at Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Beach Resort and Spa is about $349 a night in November, compared to $464 a night in May.A two-bed, one-bath vacation home about 200 yards from the beach on Tybee Island is about $327 a night in November and $643 a night in May.

“The weather can range from nearly 80 to the low 50s in the fall,” says Amy Gaster, president of Tybee Vacation Rentals. “Once you start getting into winter, you may not want to get into the water, but the beauty and tranquility are year round.”

Her company rents out vacation homes, and she finds that there is a season for every taste. “Once school’s back in session, we see a lot of people who say it’s their favorite time of year,” she says.

Gaster has returning guests who appreciate a less crowded, almost private beach; excursions with deep discounts; and restaurants that aren’t rushed to turn tables. Tybee vacationers frequently ride bikes along the five-mile main street, jog along the beach and enjoy the 30 local bars and restaurants.

“I encourage people to come and live like a local,” she says.

Most venues remain open all year. “They may reduce their hours, but we have festivals and a lot of other draws to keep tourists coming all seasons,” Gaster says.

The beach can even make a memorable place to spend the holidays. It’ll require a change of expectations — substituting palm trees for Christmas firs, for instance — and you may want to arrange your schedule so you don’t have to add gift-wrapped presents to your luggage. But the trip itself can qualify as a thoughtful gift, and even in the winter months, destinations offer holiday activities — often free of charge.

Tybee Island offers many holiday events, including a Christmas tree lighting on Dec. 2, a Christmas parade on Dec. 3, New Year’s Eve fireworks on Dec. 31 and the Tybee Polar Plunge on Jan. 1. (Find more information at visittybee.com.)

Palm Beach

A little farther south, Palm Beach sees less fluctuation in temperatures, but still experiences a downturn in tourism.

“Just about every activity can be done year-round, even the water sports,” says Leigh Bennett, director of marketing for Visit Palm Beach.

Peanut Island

Peanut Island, a 79-acre island at the mouth of the Lake Worth Inlet, has a shallow lagoon and warm water even in the winter, Bennett says. “And if you’re a little sensitive to the cold, you can always wear a wet suit.”

Nature excursions usually yield more wildlife in the shoulder seasons (September to November, February and March) and low season (December and January), because the animals are more likely to turn out with fewer humans around. Dolphins, manatees and starfish stay close by all year, and migrating birds make winter homes there.

“You might need a sweater or shawl once the sun goes down, but most days are perfect weather for shorts and swimsuits,” Bennett says.

Visit Palm Beach manages the beachfront for the Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Beach Resort, where guests are encouraged to enjoy bonfires and movies on the beach November through February, outside turtle nesting season.

Events at Palm Beach include a food and wine festival from Dec. 8-11, the South Florida Fair from Jan. 13-29, a poetry festival from Jan. 16-21, and ArtPalmBeach from Jan. 18-22. (See PalmBeachFL.com.)

Those who only head east for coastal vacations should consider the Gulf of Mexico and such beaches as Gulf Shores, just six hours away.

“We were on our way back from Texas and a friend invited us to come hang out,” says Atlantan Veronica Johnson. She, her husband and two daughters fell in love with the community’s down-home vibe.

“I didn’t feel like I had to have a glamorous beach body or anything like that,” she says. “We got the opportunity to relax because it wasn’t so busy.”

Gulf Shores

Suzanne Borchert grew up in Birmingham, and her family often vacationed at Gulf Shores. When she moved to Atlanta, she spent more time in the A1A strip, the Florida road running from Amelia Island to Key West. But after her parents bought a vacation home in Gulf Shores, she harked back to sweet memories of childhood.

“I’m there about every six weeks, now” she says. “And my favorite time to be there is September through December. It’s my escape.”

Borchert says she has a high-stress job and can feel herself decompressing the minute she enters town.

“It’s much more low-key,” she says. “I don’t have to worry about dressing up and being seen.”

And although it’s low stress, that doesn’t mean the streets roll up at sunset — there’s live music almost every night.

“There’s a great mix of established artists and up-and-comers,” Borchert says. “And the style is more Americana — a mix of Southern rock, jazz and country.”

And like Tybee Island and Palm Beach, Gulf Shores is rich with outdoor activities, including a 20- to 30-mile bike trail winds through the back country with beautiful backdrop of oaks draped in Spanish moss.

“It’s not your typical scrubby pines,” Borchert says.

Holiday events at Gulf Shores include the Orange Beach Tree Lighting on Dec. 1, a Christmas boat parade on Dec. 10, the Flora-Bama Christmas Potluck on Dec. 25 and the Slip & Slide Polar Bear Dip on Jan. 1. (See GulfShores.com for details.)

Insider tip

When visiting the beach in winter, pack an extra blanket or a thick towel. Temperatures in the Palm Beaches, Tybee Island and Gulf Shores are comfortable, but it can get chilly in the late afternoon when the sun is less high in the sky. And don’t forget sunblock: You need SPF year round, as sand and water reflect UV rays.

Insider tip

“Winter birds” from the north start arriving at many of the tonier beach lodgings from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, but bargains can be found. Many properties offer resort credits for spa treatments, local coupons or two-for-one packages to encourage vacationers to stay longer.