Five Great Summer Vacations That Don't Cost a Bundle

Looking for that amazing summer destination without spending too much? Santa Cruz is cheaper than Santa Barbara. Alabama is cheaper than Florida. Victoria's The Empress is less expensive than The Dorchester in London. Great Basin National Park is a bargain and Mexico is cheaper than Hawaii.

Should I be more specific? OK, here are my top five picks:

1. The Grand Hotel, Point Clear, Ala.

Not wild about big Florida resorts? I say skip them and go for a dose of Southern charm on Mobile Bay along the Alabama Gulf Coast. Recently reopened after a $50 million post-Katrina restoration, the one-time rehab facility for wounded Confederate soldiers is a great place for summer activities — or to relax.

Fish from the pier with already-baited bamboo poles, whack a croquet ball around on the large croquet field or borrow a bicycle and check out the Civil War cemetery. Or check out the Robert Trent Jones golf course across the street.

The Grand is especially suited for families with children. Kids will love the pool and large waterslide, and there's plenty of beach area. Now operated by Marriott Hotels, summertime rates at The Grand Hotel start at about $250/night.

2. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Here's another families-with-children pick. If you've never been to the classic surf town of Santa Cruz, Calif., this is the summer to go. The West Coast's oldest seaside amusement park, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, prepares to turn 100 years old in 2007 with plenty of festivities in the works.

Instead of high Disney-like fixed prices, there's no admission charge — you buy tickets the old fashioned way, with packages available online at a discount.

Free summertime concerts happen Friday nights on the beach through Labor Day with classic bands such as Herman's Hermits and Papa Doo Run Run. Rides, hot dogs and soda are discounted to 75 cents each on Monday and Tuesday nights.

The Casa Blanca Inn sits right on the beach a few minutes from the famed boardwalk attractions. Many rooms have ocean views and some even have fireplaces (coastal fog can make summer evenings chilly!) Summer rates start at $165 including a continental breakfast. This might sound high, but it's not bad for California and these surroundings.

3. The Empress Hotel, Victoria, British Columbia

If a stay at a posh hotel in London appeals more to your sense of style than your pocketbook, set out instead for the famed Empress Hotel in Canada. Now part of the Fairmont Hotels chain, the Empress was first opened in 1908 by the Canadian Pacific Railway and sits grandly at the edge of the boat harbor in Victoria, British Columbia. Rooms start at $239 Canadian per night.

Fairmont and American Express have a special giving a $50 food and beverage credit per night if you book two nights at a Fairmont Hotel before June 30 and pay with your Amex card. If you prefer something more French, don't forget the Fairmont's Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City.

4. Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Want to find an unspoiled, uncrowded national park, even at the height of the summer season? Want to feel like you're visiting a national park in the old days, before the masses took to auto travel? If you want to trade freeways, shopping malls or fast food joints for miles of empty two-lane roads and a 70-year time trip to another area, read on.

Founded in 1986, Great Basin National Park lies in a rugged and mountainous area at Nevada's eastern edge. Anchored by the 13,000 foot Wheeler Peak, the park has surprisingly pristine alpine meadows, forests and trails given its high desert location. The darkest night skies of any national park make for good stargazing and the limestone Lehman Caves provide an interesting diversion.

Park entrance is free. Camping ranges from free to $12 per night, and there are no reservations. Just like the old days. And nearby small motels run $65 to $75 per night.

5. Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Hawaii vacations are pricey indeed. According to AAA, the average daily cost for a family of four is $559. So, where else can you find a laid back beach this summer? Check out the Isla Mujeres, a short ferry ride across from Cancun in Mexico's Quintana Roo.

How laid-back? Everything's a short walk away and you won't find any fancy hotels. The beach is across the street from about everything. If you feel like snorkeling, just head to the beach and bargain with a fisherman to take you out to the reefs. And for that cold beer, just walk back across the street to one of the open-air bars.

Casa Sirena, a bed and breakfast run by an American ex-pat in a large restored colonial house, offers several rooms to island visitors. Prices range from $100 to $140 for the room, with a gourmet Mexican breakfast included, as well as a nightly Happy Hour.

"Summer is 'siesta season,' says owner Steve Broin. "We escape midday heat for long leisurely lunches and luxurious afternoon naps." You can also swim with docile, 30-foot-long whale sharks if that's what you like to do. A Casa Sirena summer special offers 30 percent off if you book more than three nights.

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