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Spring Break for grown-ups

No Jell-O shots! No thumping music! No Girls Gone Wild!
Image: Cozumel, Mexico
A visitor sits next to the ruins of Tulum in the Mexican state of Quintana RooEduardo Verdugo / AP

Who says college students get to have all the fun? Here are ten places to play in the sunshine—no earplugs required.

Del Mar, Calif.

This is California the way it used to be: a two-square-mile seaside village of single- and two-story buildings, many dating from the ’30s, when Jimmy Durante and his Hollywood buddies made regular summer pilgrimages to play the horses at Del Mar Racetrack. Just 30 minutes north of San Diego (and a two-hour drive south from L.A.), Del Mar has fine weather nearly year-round. It sits atop a modest-size bluff, is planted with scores of old-growth palms and towering eucalyptus trees, and has excellent open-air restaurants and coffeehouses. But the main activity is soaking up the sun. There are two wide beaches: At what locals call Dog Beach, mutts can run leashless; at Del Mar Beach, there’s ample surf and a view of the rocky cove leading to nearby La Jolla. Or go hiking in Torrey Pines State Reserve, a relatively undeveloped palisade with well-maintained trails.

Stay at the Stratford Inn, a Best Western on the bluff overlooking the Pacific (710 Camino Del Mar, 858/755-1501, www.stratfordinndelmar.com, doubles from $110, including continental breakfast). For lunch, try Americana, which serves soups and sandwiches alfresco, with a partial ocean view (1454 Camino Del Mar, 858/794-6838). And for dinner, there’s Bully’s North. It has dark-wood paneling, red-leather booths, and terrific burgers (1404 Camino Del Mar, 858/755-1660, burger, $8).

Tulúm, Mexico

An hour-and-a-half drive south from Cancún, Tulúm’s white beaches melt into a bay of turquoise. Besides the pretty scenery, Tulúm has several of the best-preserved ruins on the Yucatán Peninsula. Tourists at the big resort areas nearby hop on buses and in taxis bound for the cluster of temples and castles dating from the 13th century that are perched along the ocean’s edge. Most visitors click a few snapshots and return to their resorts in time for happy hour. But there are Mayan ruins that tourists tend to skip—for example, a pyramid-shaped castle that sits atop a rocky hill 15 miles south of Tulúm along Highway 307, in Muyil.

Tulúm doesn’t have any large resorts and, as a result, public transportation isn’t all that reliable (rent a car at the Cancún airport). A hotel called Zamas is ideally positioned between beach and jungle. Each of the thatched-roof bungalows has a hammock on the porch and a private bath—the latter is something of an anomaly in these parts (415/387-9806, www.zamas.com, rates from $80). Bring cash or traveler’s checks, since the hotel and most of the region’s restaurants don’t take credit cards. Pack a flashlight, too—there’s little outdoor lighting around the hotel.

Essaouira, Morocco

This ancient coastal town of whitewashed buildings and narrow streets—so slim that no cars are allowed—has been a trading post for nearly 3,000 years. The European influences in Essaouira are everywhere—most of the window shutters, for example, are painted delphinium blue and look very Provençal. Within the city is the old fortified town, behind walls and ramparts, with the original cannons. Craftspeople have set up shop by the sea, making inlaid furniture from thuja trees as well as exquisite pottery. There are also open-air markets selling spices in bulk, dried fruits, and fish. When you tire of history and shopping, there’s windsurfing—popular here, since gusts are nearly constant around the fort (go to any of the stands along the beach; boards rent for about $25 per hour). All that exercise get you hungry? Outdoor sheds on the quay serve grilled fish with bread and salad for just a few bucks.

Stay at Villa Maroc, originally four 18th-century riads (houses built around a central courtyard) later joined together. It’s in the middle of town and a 10-minute walk to the beach (011-212/4447-3147, www.villa-maroc.com, doubles from $93). Another worthy riad hotel, the Dar Loulema has seven charming rooms, all recently renovated. It’s just off the main town square, near the port and ramparts, and has a lovely rooftop terrace (011-212/4447-5346, www.darloulema.com, doubles from $90).

Cocoa Beach, Fla.

NASA has launched spacecraft from this barrier island town—wedged between the Atlantic Ocean and the Banana River Lagoon—since the Mercury missions began in 1961 and still sends up an occasional satellite. Stroll the beaches, past mid-century apartment buildings and shops, absorbing the space-age vibe. Walk the length of the Cocoa Beach Pier, and dine at the restaurant at the end, an open-air raw bar called Oh Shucks (321/783-4050). A shack on the pier rents bodyboards and beach chairs, and you can play volleyball at one of the dozens of nets strung up on the beach. Stay at the Inn at Cocoa Beach, right on the sand. Two thirds of the 50 rooms have oceanfront balconies (800/343-5307, www.theinnatcocoabeach.com, doubles from $135, including continental breakfast and sunset wine and cheese). Bernard’s Surf, family-run since 1948, specializes in reasonably priced seafood (2 S. Atlantic Ave., 321/783-2401, dozen oysters, $9.95).

Jacó, Costa Rica

Despite the abundance of hotels and souvenir shops crowding Jacó—many of which are less than attractive—the beach town still makes a good base for exploring Costa Rica. Scarlet macaws, crocodiles, river otters, and monkeys are a few of the creatures you might spot at reserves and national parks within an hour’s drive of town. A little farther away, the active Arenal volcano spews rocks and lava nearly nonstop. As for Jacó itself, surfers can’t get enough of the consistent wave break. It’s also one of the closest and most affordable beach escapes for those flying into capital city San José. A full-service, all-inclusive resort with air-conditioned suites and satellite TV, Barceló Amapola is a top value and close to tropical forests teeming with wildlife. Doubles from $94 per person, with all meals, drinks, and entertainment included (800/227-2358,www.barcelo.com).

Las Vegas

Las Vegasis all about the thrill of the new. Just off the Strip—around the corner from the Bellagio and Caesars Palace—you’ll find Vegas’s latest hotel, the Westin Casuarina. Most of the city’s premier resorts have 3,000 or more rooms; the 815-room Casuarina is a boutique property by comparison (160 E. Flamingo Rd., 866/837-4215, www.westin.com/lasvegas, doubles from $119). As for new restaurants, head over to Simon, in the always festive Hard Rock Hotel & Casino (4455 Paradise Rd., 702/693-4440). Having once worked for New York City’s culinary king, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Kerry Simon is now cooking affordable gourmet comfort food, like crisp calamari and zucchini chips ($10) and macaroni and cheese ($7).

Old-fashioned cheap thrills are still available. Hitch a ride—but maybe not right after dinner—on a roller coaster. The Manhattan Express at the New York–New York hotel goes for nearly a mile; it’s the town’s longest, and lasts nearly four minutes ($12). At the Sahara, Speed will make you feel like a human cannonball. Get shot through a tunnel and a loop, going from 0 to 70 mph in a hair-shedding four seconds ($10). And the Stratosphere Tower’s High Roller coaster starts 900 feet above the Strip and circles the tower’s outer edge. The combined coaster and tower entrance fee is $11. Go at night for a view of the dazzling lights.

Kauai, Hawaii

It’s known for megaresorts that make honeymooners swoon, but the truth is that only about 10 percent of Kauai is accessible by road, so it can be an ideal spot to leave the modern world behind. Explore the Kukui Trail, a five-mile hike (round trip) that descends 2,000 feet to a freshwater swimming hole. Or hit the Kalalau Trail, which leads to the Kalalau Valley, with views of the Na Pali Coast and Kee Beach (four miles round trip to Hanakapiai Falls). Or, for that matter, try any of the countless other trails. If hiking’s not your thing, go horseback riding with Kauai South Shore Adventures (808/742-7800, www.reddirttrails.com, one-and-a-half-hour sunset ride, $70). And for the best windsurfing on the south coast, try Poipu Beach, prized for its consistent winds. The south shore is also best for scuba diving, with visibility averaging approximately 50 feet.

Hotels tend to be expensive in spring. Rent a condo from Kauai Vacation Rentals, which has extensive listings from $595 a week (www.kauaivacationresorts.com).

Ojai, Calif.

The Chumash Indians lived in these hills, an hour-and-a-half drive north of L.A., before Spanish missionaries drove them out in the 18th century; they left behind scores of ancient cave paintings. Maybe that’s why contemporary artists are drawn here, as are others seeking small-town life: eccentric Zen practitioners, wealthy individualists, anyone tired of modern-day strip malls (the place is rich with Spanish mission–style architecture). Built in 1917, the town arcade is filled with art galleries and boutiques. Although the Emerald Iguana Inn is in the heart of Ojai, within easy walking distance of shops and restaurants, it feels private, owing to the lush plantings and cottages with private entrances. Some rooms have patios, many have fireplaces and hot tubs (805/646-5277, www.emeraldiguana.com, doubles from $139). For the best Mexican food, go to longtime local favorite Antonio’s, and sit outside (106 S. Montgomery St., 805/646-6353, dinner from $6.25). Or order burgers and shakes at that rare thing: an independent fast-food restaurant. The O-Hi Frostie has been around for 45 years (214 W. Ojai Ave., 805/646-1923).

For a romantic tour of the hills, drive along Creek Road, a country lane that passes streams and stands of ancient oaks and giant sycamore trees. Or spend an afternoon at Bart’s Books, an outdoor used-book shop built around a massive oak tree (302 W. Matilija St., 805/646-3755).

Santa Cruz De La Palma, Canary Islands

A wonderfully unique combination of trade winds and ocean currents, along with a location way off the northwest coast of Africa, gives the Canaries a sunny, warm climate year-round. Add sizzling beaches and a Spanish sensibility when it comes to food, drink, and nightlife (the islands are provinces of Spain), and it’s no surprise this is one of the most popular spots for Europeans to holiday in winter. But spring—March and April in particular—is relatively uncrowded.Of the seven inhabited Canary Islands, perhaps the most beautiful is La Palma. Shaped by volcanic activity millions of years ago, the lava flows and steep mountain slopes are now softened by exotic flora and pine forests. The main town, Santa Cruz, is a port with 18,000 people and beautifully preserved 17th- and 18th-century houses. Just outside town, on the Los Cancajos beach, is the Hacienda San Jorge, where you can lounge and order tapas all day by a large saltwater swimming pool. Each room has a kitchen and balcony (011-34/922-181-066, www.hsanjorge.com, doubles from $80).

Phoenix, Arizona

Golfers will want to check out one—or all—of the city’s public courses. Papago Golf Course (5595 E. Moreland St., 602/275-8428) is the least expensive, with greens fees starting at $20. Longbow Golf Club is a 25-minute drive out in the suburbs but has views of the McDowell mountains (5400 E. McDowell Rd., 480/807-5400). To really explore the Sonoran Desert, try a Wild West Jeep tour (480/922-0144, www.wildwestjeeptours.com, three-to-four-hour romp, $70 per person, including hotel pickup). For a more sedate expedition, visit the 50-acre Desert Botanical Garden (1201 N. Galvin Pkwy., 480/941-1225, $9). Among the red buttes of Papago Park, the garden has 139 plants on the U.S. threatened and endangered species list.

Stay downtown at the Hotel San Carlos, a National Trust property that once hosted Clark Gable, Ingrid Bergman, and Spencer Tracy. Built in 1927, it still has its original woodwork and Italian-marble floors. Some believe the place is haunted by a young woman who threw herself off the roof after a love affair went sour (202 N. Central Ave., 602/253-4121, www.hotelsancarlos.com, doubles $109 to $166).

At night, see a show at the Orpheum Theatre, celebrating its 75th anniversary. The Spanish baroque revival building features concerts, plays and Broadway musicals (203 West Adams Street, 602/262-7272)