Image: San Francisco, Calif.
Photo by Phil Coblentz
The Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf, world-class museums and restaurants are among the draws of this West Coast destination, which attracts more than 16 million visitors annually.
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updated 7/1/2009 2:00:56 PM ET 2009-07-01T18:00:56

It's not hard to find a common characteristic among Forbes Traveler's top 15 North American vacation spots: sun, sand and sea clearly dominate the leisure-destination favorites.

From the sprawling, desert-oasis swimming pools of Las Vegas to the golden sands of Maui, warmth and water rank high on the list of features sought after by vacationers in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.

We gathered data on flights, hotels, vacation packages and customer preferences from six major travel organizations and agencies (Travelocity.com, Expedia.com, Hotwire's Travel-Ticker.com, Vacation.com, the Carlson Wagonlit travel agency network, and Cruise Lines International Association, Inc.) to present a snapshot of the hottest vacation hangouts during the past year.

While tropical climes comprise the lion's share of our list, not all preferred vacation paradises are perpetually sun-soaked. Some sites, such as the famous sands of Oahu's Waikiki Beach or the theme-park mecca Orlando, Florida, were warm-weather shoo-ins. But others—like the decidedly un-tropical metropolises of New York or Chicago—appealed to travelers with their urban charms.  

The vacations division at Carlson Wagonlit Travel has seen a roughly 35 percent increase in clients booking vacations to North American cities this year, said Gerard Bellino, the company's Vice President of U.S. Leisure. New York, San Francisco, and Orlando top Carlson Wagonlit's best-seller list for 2009—and all three ranked highly on the lists of the other agencies we polled.

"Orlando has historically been a popular family vacation destination," said Bellino. "However, the increased popularity of New York and San Francisco is likely because hotel pricing is more affordable this year, making these normally pricey destinations much more attractive and affordable for vacationers."

Other travel experts echoed Bellino's findings about budget-conscious trends in recent travel. "A driving vacation or a regional vacation is looking more attractive this year than last," said Genevieve Brown, senior editor at Travelocity, who added that "value-added promotions are more plentiful this year. We're seeing an abundance of deals."

Travelocity's findings lined up with top-sellers at other agencies we polled—Las Vegas, Orlando, Los Angeles and New York City led the online travel agency's best-seller list. And Brown pointed out some of the top-selling vacation activities within those markets: "Blue Man Group", the multimedia theatrical performance, was the top Travelocity seller for Las Vegas and Chicago, while Broadway shows were the most popular activity for vacationers in New York City, and Disneyland drew tourists visiting Los Angeles.

Image: New York City, N.Y.
Alan Schein Photography  /  Corbis
Travel agencies unanimously reported that New York City was one of their best-selling vacation destinations during the past year. Leisure opportunities within the city are virtually endless.
The top destinations at Travel-Ticker (a division of Hotwire.com focused on "travelers looking for inspirational or leisure-focused travel") also revealed a mix of urban and tropical destinations. Las Vegas, Chicago and New York led the online agency's list of best-sellers for the past 12 months, but balmier destinations were well-represented: Among Travel-Tickers most popular vacation packages were waterfront San Diego resorts, four-star Orlando resorts near Disneyland, Big Island (Hawaii) and Waikiki condos, and resorts in the Bahamas.

Potomac River, US Capitol dome, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC
Jupiterimages/ Creatas / Alamy  /  Alamy
Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian Institution's 25-million-plus visits last year attest to the cultural drawing power of the nation's capital. D.C. is also a hotbed of performing arts and entertainment, second only to New York City, for example, in number of theater seats.
Overall, the Forbes Traveler list is distinctly ocean-colored, and the Caribbean was home to many vacationers' favorite stops. (We’re pushing the boundaries of “North America,” but we felt that much of the Caribbean belonged on the list because of north-of-the equator location and proximity to the U.S. and Mexico.) A 2008 Cruise Lines International Association survey found that the Caribbean/Eastern Mexico was the most popular cruise destination (43 percent of respondents listed it as the destination they were most likely to go to on their next cruise vacation).

The Caribbean and Eastern Mexico also figured prominently on several other agencies' top-seller lists. Cancun and the "Mayan Riviera," the stretch of coastline along the Caribbean side of the Yucatan Peninsula, made the top 15 on the travel web site Expedia. Sunbathing and water sports, such as snorkeling and scuba diving in the spectacular Great Maya Reef, fill up travelers' itineraries in the resort-lined beaches along the coast of the Mexican state Quintana Roo.

From golf to shopping to fine dining to cultural and historical riches, the vacation destinations on our list will appeal to a wide variety of travelers. Read the slideshow to see which destinations made the cut.

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