Image: Cloud Gate
Håkan Ludwigson  /  Condé Nast Traveler
Summer is a great time to appreciate Chicago's outdoor art, such as the surreally reflective "Cloud Gate" sculpture in Millennium Park.
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updated 8/1/2008 10:27:26 AM ET 2008-08-01T14:27:26

Your employer gives you, what, 10 lousy vacation days a year? No wonder we find ourselves working so insanely hard to make those precious three-day weekends really count. When warm weather finally rolls around, that urge is tripled. (Sorry, Mom, we wanted to visit you on Memorial Day weekend, really. It's just that ...)

So, to help you make the absolute most out of summer Fridays (or Mondays), we've compiled a list of getaways that are close, quick and a cinch to plan. All are easily reached via hub airports with loads of nonstop flights; we've even included their codes to make it faster to search for fares.

Whatever your interests, and wherever you live, we promise you a fab mini-vacation.

1. The classic East Coast summer experience
Fly into: Logan International Airport, Boston (BOS)

Check out: Cape Cod, Massachusetts

The lure: Beaches lined with sand dunes, bike rides through Main Street towns, and clambakes on the shore — all within a two-hour drive of the city, even with summer traffic

The experience: Even if the ocean doesn't really warm up till late summer, all of the outdoor pools feel just right. The ice cream shops and seafood shacks are all open to much fanfare, and preppy locals clad in Nantucket Reds dive into the fried clam rolls and steamers they've been craving all winter. As the summer wears on, the place just gets better.

Where to stay? The Chatham Bars Inn on the Lower Cape (or CBI, as the Boston Brahmins who have summered here for decades call the resort), which has the charm of a beach hotel with many more comforts. Think oysters served on silver trays, a regulation croquet court, clay tennis courts and weekly clambakes.

Slideshow: Bustling 'Beantown' Oh, and: Don't go home until you've tried candlepin bowling and caught a Cape League baseball game. The Chatham Athletics play on a field just off Main Street, where you can lounge in the sun and slurp down a bowl of wicked clam chow-dah. (Trust us!)

Chatham Bars Inn
Tel: 800 527 4884
Doubles from $295

2. Gorge on barbecue and Tex-Mex
Fly into: Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)

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Check out: Dallas and, um, Fort Worth

The lure: Ribs, and brisket, and tamales, all Texas-size

The experience: The place to start chowing down is the same place you'll be staying: the new Ritz Carlton, Dallas. The in-house eponymous restaurant of chef Dean Fearing was voted 2007's Restaurant of the Year by Esquire magazine. Fearing's nouveau takes on local dishes like barbecued oysters and duck tamales must be tasted to be believed. You'll also want to sneak out to Sonny Bryan's, a local smokehouse that serves a classic Texas-style meat-fest of brisket and sausages. The next day, make for Fort Worth, less than an hour's drive away, for Angelo's, where the pork ribs are legendary and beef comes chopped or diced. And you've got to get some Tex-Mex, too. Joe T. Garcia's, also in Fort Worth, serves locally prized enchiladas in a lovely courtyard, best when washed down with a swirl (a tie-dyed–looking mixture of lime margarita and strawberry daiquiri that's sure to seduce). Just be warned: Joe T.'s doesn't take reservations, and it gets crowded.

Slideshow: Don’t mess with Texas

Oh, and: If you can spare the calories, savor chicken-fried steak at Ranchman's Steakhouse, 45 minutes north of Fort Worth. Chicken-fried steak is to Texans what pizza is to New Yorkers — a taste of home that's missed desperately when they leave town.

Ritz-Carlton, Dallas
Tel: 214 922 0200
Doubles from $329

Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse
Tel: 214 744 1610

Angelo's
Tel: 817 332 0357

Joe T. Garcia's
Tel: 817 626 4356

Ranchman's Steakhouse
Tel: 940 479 2221

3. Mexican beach time
Fly into: Cancún Airport International (CUN)

Check out: The Riviera Maya, Mexico

The lure: White sand beaches, Mayan ruins, and fish tacos paired with fresh coconut-milk piña coladas

Slideshow: Cancún caliente

The experience: Summer means that the spring breakers are gone, so you won't have to share paradise with college kids pounding yard-long beers. Fly into Cancún and staffers from the new Rosewood Mayakobá will pick you up for the 45-minute drive south along the coast. As soon as you arrive, make for the Sense Spa — it'll put your body on notice that it's on vacation, too. Get the aloe and agave cactus wrap, and then spend some time steaming in the local temezcal sweat lodge. Of course you've reserved a beachfront suite with a private plunge pool, just the place to enjoy an after-dinner marg. A beach day follows, with frequent visits to the Agava Azul bar for tequila and ceviche.

Oh, and: Rent a car for a half day to explore the coastline, where fish taco stands sit next to hammock shops. You can also drop in to the bustling town of Playa del Carmen further south, which fills up after dark with the sound of mariachi music, or make for the boho surfing hamlet of Tulum.

Rosewood Mayakobá
Tel: 52 984 875 8000
Doubles from $490

4. Relish nature's awakening
Fly into: Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport (MSP)

Check out: The region's many gorgeous lakes and green areas

The lure: Hiking, fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. You'll find a vast number of lakes, rivers, and waterfalls both inside and just outside the city

Slideshow: The Mini Apple

The experience: Locals are known for making the most of the Twin Cities' outdoor setting even in the worst of the winter months (think lots and lots of layers), but come June, natural delights warrant a visit by even us less hardy folks. Spirit out of town to Banning State Park (an hour and a half away) for the shooting rapids at Dragon's Tooth and Hell's Gate — again, less hardy folks can just watch. The area's Kettle River has tremendous hiking along explosively green riverbanks. If you want ultimate solitude, you can trek up to the Boundary Waters (pictured). It's a five-hour drive north, but well worth it. No need to flee town to get your fresh-air fix, though: The Grand Rounds Scenic Byway is a green space that wends through Minneapolis. Make for the Chain of Lakes, comprised of five city lakes along a 13-mile stretch, and join the in-line skaters, sunbathers, bikers, and canoeists taking advantage of the warm weather.

Oh, and: Make sure to consult the schedule of shows at the Guthrie Theater in downtown Minneapolis, famous for its innovative Shakespeare productions. At least stop by to take in the theater's whimsical new building, the first major U.S. project of Pritzker Prize–winning architect Jean Nouvel, with a 178-foot-long "endless bridge" extending into nothingness. Then check into the art-focused Chambers Hotel, another sign of the city's emergence as a hip cultural hub.

Chambers
Tel: 612 767 6900
Doubles from $305

Guthrie Theater
Tel: 612 377 2224

5. The spa and shopping extravaganza
Fly into: Miami International Airport (MIA)

Check out: Bal Harbour, Miami Beach

The lure: High-end designer shopping and lots and lots of spa time. This ritzy neighborhood on the north end of Miami Beach is home to gated luxury condos and a Beverly Hills-gone-east atmosphere

Slideshow: Super South Florida

The experience: The Regent Bal Harbour opened in March 2008, the first luxury hotel in this tony little beachside enclave. Bal Harbour has never cared to attract tourists, instead preferring to minister to the fussy needs of free-spending locals and snowbirds. It's perhaps best known for its glamorous open-air mall on Collins Avenue, home of heavyweights such as Chanel and Hermès as well as smaller boutiques like Agent Provocateur and Anne Fontaine. After exploring this year's summer trends (Lemon-yellow sundresses? Ballet flats? T-strap sandals?), work off that shopping stress with a day at the Regent's Guerlain Spa. Consider a decadent trio: A body polish to make your skin soft, a classic French facial to make your face glow, and an indulgent four-hand massage. The locals may rely heavily on plastic surgery for that youthful, fresh look, but it's amazing what a day at the spa can do for your appearance.

Oh, and: If you love the nightlife and simply must have one big night out in SoBe, book one at the Setai. It's also got a great spa, but it puts you closer to the see-and-be-seen scene.

Regent Bal Harbour
Tel: 305 455 5400
Doubles from $375

The Setai
Tel: 305 520 6000
Doubles from $520

6. Follow the artists

Fly into: JFK International Airport, New York (JFK)

Check out: The Hudson Valley

The lure: Art meets nature. Starting just a half-hour north of the city, you can admire the scenery that inspired the 19th-century Hudson River School of painters — and discover important contemporary artworks.

The experience: Manhattan empties out on summer weekends, when locals head to the Hamptons or Europe. Forgo the beach for the greenery (and scant crowds) of the Hudson Valley. Quite close to the city, the region has a number of quiet towns and art sites worth exploring. Drive north along the river, stopping at the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville with its 500-acre sculpture park (pictured), the Olana State Historic Site (Hudson River artist Frederick Church's mansion turned museum), the antique stores in the town of Hudson, and the über-modern installments at the Dia in Beacon — an art museum that stands in stark contrast to the bucolic landscapes of the Hudson River School. And staying at the Castle on the Hudson in Tarrytown (which, yes, looks like one) means you'll be close to the area's best restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, known for ingredients grown on its own farm.

Oh, and: Why not spend the last night in Manhattan? It'll be easier to fly out in the morning, and it's a chance to stay at a trendy spot like the Bryant Park Hotel — where the crowd and stylish decor will be a nice contrast to the down-to-earth attitudes you just experienced.

Castle on the Hudson
Tel: 800 616 4487
Doubles from $340

Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Tel: 914 366 9600

Bryant Park Hotel
Tel: 877 640 9300
Doubles from $365

7. The classic West Coast summer experience
Fly into: Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)

Check out: Los Angeles

The lure: California sunshine, city sophistication, and those lovely Pacific beaches

Slideshow: City of Angels

The experience: L.A. is best experienced in snack-sized bites — taking in a bit of beach and sun, a bit of Hollywood hoopla, and a dash of Angeleno "culture." L.A.'s rule is that everything takes a half hour to reach, so we suggest staying at the just-opened Hotel Palomar in Westwood; its central location will save you at least some driving. You can reasonably hit both Venice Beach for beach time and Santa Monica for people-watching in a single afternoon. And there's always window shopping (and gawking) on Rodeo Drive and at the Getty Center's masterpieces.

Oh, and: The Westwood neighborhood itself is home to many of the city's movie premieres, at theaters such as the Mann's Village Theatre and Bruin Theatre. Ask the concierge if there's anything going on while you're in town. Even if you can't score tickets, it's a treat to watch the red carpet roll out, the searchlights scan the sky, the limos line up. Often, bleachers are set up for the onlookers, and the stars will glad-hand with fans before ducking inside. Hooray for Hollywood, right?

Hotel Palomar Los Angeles-Westwood
Tel: 800 472 8556
Doubles from $229

8. Get into the mountains
Fly into: Denver International Airport (DIA)

Check out: The mountains just outside of town

The lure: Hiking, biking, and exploring the peaks and valleys, while basing yourself among the cosmopolitan comforts of Denver

Slideshow: High times in Denver

The experience: Ski season is over, which means lower rates. And the mountains are just as breathtaking when the white stuff melts off. The Mile-High City was founded during the Gold Rush, and the foothills of the Rockies are just to the west. Starting from the Colorado Trail or Mount Falcon Park, there are plenty of trails to explore by foot or bike. If you prefer a bigger adrenaline rush, there's rock climbing and rappelling at Rocky Mountain National Park, about 70 miles northwest of Denver. With 416 square miles of hard-core but beautiful backcountry and 60-some mountains higher than 12,000 feet, adventure is easy to find.

Oh, and: Don't miss Red Rocks Park, 15 miles west of Denver (you know, the place where U2 filmed the video for "Sunday Bloody Sunday"). This gorgeous maze of sandstone crags sits at the spot where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains. The terrain is rough, so you'll need those hiking boots. The enormous outdoor amphitheater will be hosting some great acts this summer, including R.E.M., the Cure, the Police, James Taylor, and Alison Krauss with Robert Plant. (Wait, what year is this, anyway?)

Hotel Teatro
Tel: 888 727 1200
Doubles from $269

Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre
Tel: 720 865 2474

9. Taste America's finest wine and food
Fly into: San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

Check out: Napa Valley

The lure: Well, wine of course. And good food with wine. But also that soothing pastoral landscape

Slideshow: San Francisco: City by the Bay

The experience: Summer marks the end of the rainy season, and everything brightens to a gorgeous shade of green. Leisure is your prime pursuit, so try to avoid the overcrowded main thoroughfares and spend some time simply touring the quiet rural two-lane byways such as Silverado Trail and Spring Mountain Road. That's where you'll really get an eyeful of an older (and slower) way of life. Summer is busy, no way around it, so head for the tasting rooms at Domaine Chandon (known for its sparkling wines), Nickel & Nickel (known for its single-vineyard cabernets), and Frog's Leap (known for its sauvignon blanc and merlots) earlier in the day rather than later. That will help induce a nap back in your room at the Auberge du Soleil. The Relais & Chateaux inn serves amazing food in a dining room overlooking an olive grove. But we're going to go ahead and say it: Everybody should eat at the French Laundry once in their lives. Thomas Keller's tiny restaurant isn't easy to get into, so start working for that reservation way in advance. Tip: We hear that faxing in a reservation request often yields better results than trying to get through to the oft-busy reservation line. Also, you might give OpenTable.com a shot.

Oh, and: Spend a morning at COPIA, an institute that's dedicated to all things food and wine. The center offers daily tastings as well as cooking classes and tours of its garden.

Auberge du Soleil
Tel: 800 348 5406
Doubles from $700

The French Laundry
Tel: 707 944 2380
Fax: 707 944 1974

10. Have a metropolitan weekend
Fly into: O'Hare International Airport, Chicago (ORD)

Check out: Chicago!

The lure: Culture high and low, from architecture to baseball.

Slideshow: Going for the gold

The experience: Let's face it: Chicago is a lovely city, but the weather isn't usually lovely at all. Except for in summer, when it becomes a really lovely place, and the locals head off to summer houses in Harbor Country or elsewhere on Lake Michigan. That leaves you free to walk all over the city, including the Gold Coast, the Loop, and the Magnificent Mile, window shopping or popping in to the Art Institute of Chicago, which has a great collection of American art, including "American Gothic" by Grant Wood and a number of works by Edward Hopper. Likewise, summer is the best time to appreciate Chicago's outdoor art, such as the surreally reflective "Cloud Gate" sculpture in Millennium Park. In the evening, catch a comedy show at the famed Second City, which launched the careers of icons like John Belushi and current A-listers like Tina Fey. Check into the James Hotel and order a martini at its swank JBar, which has fab DJs and a very metro clientele. Who says the Midwest ain't cool?

Oh, and: Summer means the Cubs are playing in Wrigley Field, which is fun whether the Cubbies win or lose. Nor can you miss a Chicago-style hot dog, loaded with toppings such as chopped tomatoes, onions, and peppers. If the game is sold out, which often happens when the rival Cardinals are in town, you can probably still snag tickets (at a premium) at StubHub.com.

James Hotel Chicago
Tel: 877 526 3755
Doubles from $279

Art Institute of Chicago
Tel: 312 443 3600

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