You'll soon need a passport to fly just about anywhere outside the U.S., but even if you haven't gotten around to getting one, there are still ways to enjoy a winter escape to a sunny tropical island. You just have to be a little selective.
What's the trick? Visit the State Department and look for "Traveling to the Caribbean, Bermuda, Panama, Mexico or Canada." Yes, it says that as of Jan. 23 you need a passport to go to those places. But if you look down the page you'll find that the requirement does not apply to U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Marianas.
Tropical enough for you? And, they all take U.S. dollars.
The intro to the Virgin Islands tourism agency welcomes you with the sound of gentle surf and a "Multimedia Gallery" full of photos, videos and panoramas. The three islands offer a little bit of everything, from beaches for swimming and reefs for diving, to music and great food. They're also a duty-free shoppers paradise. You can get there on a half-dozen airlines or on cruise ships; click on "Travel & Transportation" for details. And if you don't want to stay in the usual posh resorts, hotels, inns or guest houses, you can even go camping on St. John; look for information on Cinnamon Bay.
The USVI Hotel & Tourism Association offers more details on places to stay, plus guides to scuba diving, nightlife and spas. And click on "Shopping" for more information on places to spend your money without paying duty.
Puerto Rico is less than a 3-hour flight from Miami, or less than five hours from Chicago. Explore historic Old San Juan and the city's huge Fort San Felipe del Morro, or take in the lush tropical greenery of El Yunque Rainforest. Look under "Attractions" for details on these and other unique places, and for directions for your own walking tour of Old San Juan. Next, go to "Beaches & Activities" for descriptions of sunny shoreline spots including Luquillo on the eastern end of the island, or Flamenco on the nearby island of Culebra. Warm up your taste buds at Welcome to Puerto Rico by clicking on "Recipes." And consult the "Where to Stay" directory at Escape to Puerto Rico especially the category called paradores or country inns.
You might not have thought about the Northern Marianas but the diving is spectacular, with everything from coral reefs to World War II wrecks to explore. And you don't dive, there are acres of sandy beach to relax on and golf courses. Consult "Trip Essentials" for airlines to the islands, plus other essentials like the type of food available (more than 200 restaurants on the islands).
At the southern end of the Marianas chain, Guam also has a wide variety of diving spots, including coral reefs and shipwrecks from both world wars. Click on "Activities" for guides to local attractions, tours, water sports and "Boonie Stomps" or hikes.
The American Samoa visitors' Web site is up one day and "down for reconstruction" the next, but give it a try. An alternative is TravelMaxia for hotel information. Then glance at American Samoa Photography for a look at what you're missing. And see what there is to see and do at National Park of American Samoa including tropical jungles and coral reefs. The Park Service also has more photos.
Wait. Don't forget Hawaii a whole state full of islands where you can do everything from watching whales and surfers to exploring volcanoes, lush jungles and fabulous beaches.
And if you want to stay a little closer to home, remember that the Florida Keys are islands, too, with their own selection of diving, fishing, sailing and generally taking it easy. And unlike these other islands, you can drive to the Keys.