Persnickety Travel Planning
January 19, 2012 10:55 PM   Subscribe

Birthday trip + picky girlfriend = need for all the advice metafilter can offer! I plan to take my girlfriend on vacation for her birthday, but am having trouble finding the perfect place that meets her characteristics for the perfect vacation. Persnickety details below...

While she normally is very accommodating and up for anything, because it's her birthday I'd like to give her a vacation designed around her. We'll be going away from February 10-15, and leaving from NYC. Ideally, wherever we go will only require one direct flight. This is what she's looking for:

Local, not touristy dancing and nightlife
Local, not touristy restaurants
Horseback riding (on the beach)
Small villages to walk around in and towns; real local feel; corner bread shops; local stores
If ruins/museums, keep them short and sweet
Local music (mariachi in mexico, salsa in colombia, etc.)
Wandering streets
Sat and read at cafe
Good people-watching
Good drinks
Ability to do something; not just sit around on beach
Swimming, ocean is fine, but only if just part of trip

Ideas that have sprung to mind are small town mexico near a major airport, like playa del carmen, or something like that. Or some other great place in central america or the carribean. She really does not want a pure beach, relaxing vacation. She wants local feel and character. And frankly I'm up for anything. It would be great if it's a 3-7 hour direct flight from NYC, but that's really my only criterion. Cold/hot, both are fine. Any suggestions you have I'd greatly appreciate!!
posted by slide to Travel & Transportation (34 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Just tossing an idea out there — Iceland? I haven't been there since '04 (before the whole funny-money boom/bust) but when I was there, it wasn't very touristy. Admittedly I was there in the off-season, though ... but so would you. We got a pretty decent flight/hotel package, too.

There wouldn't be any sitting on the beach, but you could swim/soak, get massages, ride (Icelandic) horses, etc. I'd recommend spending a few days in Reykjavik, exploring the city (it's small and walkable, if you are dressed appropriately), and then rent a vehicle (preferably a small 4WD; many of the secondary roads are not paved) and drive out to some of the small villages and generally explore the countryside. You can circumnavigate the entire island on the Ring Road if you want to have a goal to achieve.

Photos of basically that itinerary here, if you are interested.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:11 PM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Take a 5-6 hour flight from Newark to Edinburgh. Travel to central Edinburgh and then catch a train to Aberdour. You have some great, horse ridable beaches on your doorstep, the village itself is interesting and Edinburgh is a scenic half hour train ride away.
posted by rongorongo at 11:47 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Puerto Vallarta?
posted by easy, lucky, free at 11:58 PM on January 19, 2012

Admittedly I'm just throwing this out there, but what about Cuba?

I think there's little chance of Cuba having an Americanized/mass-touristy feel, and it sounds like it might well have that off-the-beaten-track local/ethnic flavor that you're looking for. While it seems to be easier to go legally now, obviously Americans have for the last 50 years always been going, albeit through a third country. Perhaps other MeFites who have been can comment further (I've never been yet, but it's somewhere I've always wanted to go)...
posted by UniversityNomad at 1:17 AM on January 20, 2012

If she rides (like actually regularly rides on a horse) then avoid the standard Mexican/ Caribbean horseback riding on the beach experience because at best it'll be boring at worst it'll be depressing.
posted by fshgrl at 1:31 AM on January 20, 2012

I also wanted to echo Kadin2048 with the Iceland idea, albeit with the caveat that it is extremely expensive!!! (or at least was when I was there in the summer of 2007, although I understand they went through a currency crash in the meantime so things may have changed on that front...). I was literally sleeping on a friend's floor, and I spent around $700 in less than a week there, eating mostly at food stands and taking buses. Five days in Iceland done properly, as a romantic getaway, could add up money-wise really quickly.

Nevertheless, if money is not an issue, I'd highly recommend Iceland. It didn't feel touristy at all (at least, there weren't many American tourists, although I ran into a bunch of European ones). And I believe it was only around a 4-5 hour flight from New York (I flew IcelandAir, so had a free stopover on my way to Europe proper). Iceland was a beautiful, quirky country, with unearthly, lunar landscapes. If you're only there for under a week, I wouldn't try the ring road idea. I would base yourself in Reykjavik, and spend a few days just walking around the city. It's a beautiful little toy town that feels very Scandinavian - a collection of brightly colored roofs, huddled together away from the North Atlantic. There are absolutely stunning places you can see on easy daytrips (e.g. Kerið, which is a jewel-like volcanic crater lake; or Geysir, which is the original geyser, and is located in a place with a whole bunch of geysers, where the earth shakes and smells of sulphur). The Blue Lagoon is sort of cheesy and in my opinion underwhelming, but really must be done anyway (it was greenish when I was there, so my opinion may be unfairly colored...). In any case, if cost is not an issue, Iceland would be a really interesting, local, off-the-beaten-track place for a 5-day romantic getaway, and I believe it satisfies most if not all of your requirements (perhaps someone else who's been to Iceland and had more money to spend can comment on the massages/horseback riding aspect etc.!)
posted by UniversityNomad at 2:02 AM on January 20, 2012

I instantly thought Cuba, but then thought: ah, you're probably American - poor you. It's a shame, because that pretty much describes my holiday there a few years ago.

There's loads to do, loads to see, and dancing and music is absolutely everywhere. Stay at a casa particular (B&B, basically) and you'll get some fantastic food (in restaurants, not so much).

It's pretty touristy in that there are a lot of tourists, but it's completely different. You'll get hassled by the locals a bit (for clothes, mainly it seemed), but that happens in every poor country visited by Westerners.

If you do go, don't go to one of those hideous all-inclusive resorts, obviously. You might as well be in Benidorm or Torremolinos or somewhere horrid like that.

If there's any way you can go there without getting into trouble, do it.
posted by ComfySofa at 2:17 AM on January 20, 2012

West coast of Ireland.
posted by cromagnon at 2:54 AM on January 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thirding Iceland! And from my initial research, the prices will be more reasonable than I thought. Of course Iceland Air has the monopoly on the 5.5 hour flights from North America, but you can really save on accommodation by using or rentals from Trip Advisor. I've found studio and 1BR apartments there for $90-150 night, which is about half what you'd pay in most of the hotels. (In August, that is. February is the low season, so hotels should change price accordingly.)
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 3:38 AM on January 20, 2012

Seconding west coast of Ireland, especially for the music and riding, and the Guinness! Dingle, Galway, and Kerry would all set you up with small towns, pubs, and horses. It will be cold though.

Mind you-- Iceland would provide northern lights, which are supposed to be spectacular this year.
posted by Erasmouse at 4:18 AM on January 20, 2012

Response by poster: What great recommendations - thanks so much. It's funny, I actually proposed Iceland but given that NYC is cold and Iceland is likely even colder this time of year, we thought that perhaps something south might be a better choice. But with all of these recommendations, I think I'm going to look into it again. Cost is not a major concern.

West coast of Ireland is a great suggestion, except that I was there quite recently. Absolutely beautiful and exactly what we'd be looking for, though I don't know what the weather is like in February. Scotland, same answer - we've both been there recently.

Cuba would be perfect. Oh so perfect. Sadly, we are American and my gf is the law abiding sort so that's out. It would be difficult to arrange a legal visit on such short notice, though I think I'll focus on making that happen at some point soon.

We considered Puerto Vallarta and there's actually a town about 25 minutes from there that looks perfect - unfortunately, I didn't see any direct flights from NYC and the flights with one stop required 11+ hours travel time. Am I missing some secret key to getting to western Mexico from NYC?

Thanks for the recommendations and keep them coming!
posted by slide at 4:57 AM on January 20, 2012

May I suggest Bethlehem, PA? I know, you will think I am absolutely insane, but there are fabulous little places to eat at, all sorts of Monrovia community things to learn about, everything is short and sweet and you can actually find some good jazz there. I am not sure there is horseback riding at this time of year and there is no beach. The only thing is, what do you for the next few days? Go to Reading?

If that is too boring, I would suggest Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico. The resorts have everything you want and there are tour buses who take small groups to different wonderful places in the area so that you will not have to arrange that yourself.

If you don't mind a 16 hour flight, go to Hong Kong. It's far away, but there will be so much to do that you will wonder where the time went.

Have a wonderful time and Happy Birthday to your lady!
posted by Yellow at 5:08 AM on January 20, 2012

Porto, Portugal - not far off the sea, old, beautiful architecture, awesome local seafood, fortified wines! good music, good climate, café culture, short drive from good beaches, not far off Coimbra, a beautiful and historic university town, and also not a million miles from Guimarães, the 2012 European capital of culture.
posted by The Discredited Ape at 5:35 AM on January 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

Iceland and Edinburgh are fine places to visit, but I am going to jump in with Northern Pourtug, flying into Lisbon or Porto.

Local, not touristy dancing and nightlife: We have found that outside the main cities and tourist traps like Caiscais that there are virtually no non-Portuguese tourists, so even tourist towns don't feel very touristy.

Local, not touristy restaurants: tonnes of them, all with local cuisine, though I might withdraw the whole suggestion if either of you is veggie. If you eat meat then the suckling pig is a must.

Horseback riding (on the beach): There are literally miles of beaches in places with nothing on them, all along the coast, I would think you would be able to hire horses near some of them.

Massages: Parts of Portugal have gone upmarket in the last decade, finding a spa should be doable, there's an old fashioned treatment spa at Luso which is very reasonable, it has a 4* hotel attached which we got good deals at a few summers ago and generally liked. There is a national forest nearby at Bucaco, with a stunning hotel-cum-palace at its centre.

Small villages to walk around in and towns; real local feel; corner bread shops; local stores
If ruins/museums, keep them short and sweet. Avoid the few tourist traps and it all feels pretty authentic.

Local music (mariachi in mexico, salsa in colombia, etc.): Fado!

Wandering streets: Porto, Lisbon, Sintra, Santarem, Coimbra and more.

Sat and read at cafe: Portugal has good cafes everywhere, and if you like custard tarts with your coffee it is the finest place in the world.

Good people-watching: Not just people watching but good-looking people watching. Actually, plenty of cafes to watch people go by, and plenty of characters.

Good drinks: The Portuguese learned cocktails straight from the Brazilians.

Ability to do something; not just sit around on beach: Lots of excellent water sports centres, surfing, windsurfing, boat hire and more. There are the great port houses of Porto, grand old churches, head inland for mountains, vineyards, nature reserves and more.

Swimming, ocean is fine, but only if just part of trip: Lots of great beaches but plenty to do besides.
posted by biffa at 5:56 AM on January 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

Northern Pourtug, ugh.

That's Northern Portugal to you.
posted by biffa at 5:57 AM on January 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've never been there, but I think a trip combining buenos Aires and patagonia would be good - all the European suggestions will be too cold in Feb.
posted by yarly at 6:11 AM on January 20, 2012

I've also been to Iceland, and I also had a great time (though I was staying with a friend). If you can go during the summer, they put on a gay pride parade which is apparently is one of the biggest festivals in the country. There are other festivals basically every weekend during the summer because its (kind of) warm and there is daylight at all hours. Lots of people seem to play music, and play it well.
posted by meows at 6:15 AM on January 20, 2012

We considered Puerto Vallarta and there's actually a town about 25 minutes from there that looks perfect - unfortunately, I didn't see any direct flights from NYC and the flights with one stop required 11+ hours travel time

Hey! I'm in that town right now! Are you talking about Sayulita, small surfing village? If you can manage, do it. I came here on Tuesday and am leaving to head home to NYC later today The flights aren't that bad if you catch the 6:30 or 7:30 am you'll be on the beach by mid afternoon (via That's with a connection in Houston, but they do have non-stops, too. Getting through PV airport only takes about 5 minutes.
You can grab a quick cab in the parking lot outside the airport and it's easy as pie and cheap as chips once you get here. Lots of fun between the awesome surfing beach and gazzillion little bars and restaurants (though the best food I've eaten so far has come from the makeshift stands and folding tables that people set up around town-great fish tacos and churros!)
It's hot here, mid 80's, and a great surf.
Be warned, however, that they are tearing up the main plaza right now, so not as charming as usual. Also, the majority of people here are either retired Canadians or total beach bum surfer types.
Mefi mail me if you want further details.

When I don't feel like traveling to the pacific coast, I go to this little town on the Atlantic side that I can't recommend highly enough. It's called Puerto Morales, it's 20 minutes in a cab from Cancun airport, and not overrun at all. Somehow, development mostly skipped it over and went straight down the coast to Playa. I like it much more than Tulum, too, though I haven't been there in several years since the developments started going in. Anyway, PM is a small fishing village that has fishing boat excursions, excellent fish tacos and ceviche, snorkeling, scuba and lessons, Kiteboarding, and easy excursions to any of the local sites/ruins.cenotes. etc. Very laid back, but at the same time, plenty to do if you feel restless. I've commented on it before, and actually found out about it here on Metafilter, so do a search for it here.
Again, take the early morning flight and you'll be on the beach by noon. Fits most of your criteria (though I don't think the horseback riding). The people watching if watching the kiteboarders do their thing counts...and on Sundays the mexican families take over the beach with extended families and cooking and whatnot.
Iceland is also really really worth it if you decide you can deal with the cold after all.
Have fun!
posted by newpotato at 6:19 AM on January 20, 2012 [6 favorites]

Manaus, Brazil. It has got everything you want. Really, it does.
posted by Pineapplicious at 6:22 AM on January 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, Cuba is totally not at all a big deal to go to, and it's pretty amazing from a cultural standpoint
You can prebook everything online, and it's super easy to do via the Cancun airport. As I read somewhere, no American has ever been thrown in jail (or even arrested,if I remember correctly) for going to Cuba.
It's pretty fascinating over there, and changing rapidly because of the influx of (I think) Chinese money rebuilding their infrastructure.
Over the summer in the Plaza Vieja there were these elegant facades on empty shells of buildings (most of which were in the midst of being rebuilt because of said influx of monay) and smack dab in the center of the it all was a brand new "Mango" store (this is an inexpensive massive chain clothing store)
Again, I can give you more info via mefimail if interested.
posted by newpotato at 7:05 AM on January 20, 2012

Ridiculously specific, but my friend and I had a fantastic week in Sutri a couple of years ago. It is a small town just outside Rome (about an hour and a half on the train) and it's ridiculously pretty. It's tiny enough that you never get tired walking around it, but not so tiny that there isn't a choice of pizza places, ice-cream parlours and coffee shops. There are ruins, but they are small, the kind you stroll down to and potter around. Mostly we just drank espressos and ate icecream and cheese. Accommodation was very cheap because it isn't a massive tourist destination.
posted by Acheman at 7:10 AM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

How about Panama? You can fly into Panama City and drive or fly to Bocas del Toro.
If you want to drive head to Boquete (lovely with coffee plantations, good places to eat) and then leave your vehicle at Almirante and ferry over to Bocas del Toro. Though somewhat touristy you can do day trips to surrounding islands. Panama City itself can be fun and the Panama Canal is pretty neat.
posted by Snazzy67 at 7:23 AM on January 20, 2012

Costa Rica is awesome and fits most of your criteria. You can rent a car and do some combination of volcano/waterfall (Poas or Arenal), cloud forest (Monteverdre) and/or beach, depending on what suits your interest. Plus, every bend in the road reveals what could be a picture from a tourism brochure. Yes, those areas are touristy, but it's really easy to venture out of your hotel and find a good soda instead of eating at the hotel restaurant. Also, I love to talk to people so I talked to a lot of the locals and I can tell you that, based on my experience, everyone who lives in Costa Rica is awesome and nice. It has all that plus horses, hot springs, rainbows, mermaids, coffee, really tiny orchids, people who really love frogs, butterflies, and toucans.
posted by amarynth at 7:29 AM on January 20, 2012

Okay, chiming in again because I disagree about staying in Reykjavik if you only have a week. If you ever do decide to go there, I suggest getting out of Reykjavik.
We only had five days, and for three of those days we had hired a guide to take us "off the beaten path" and it was the best part of the trip. It did cost us an extra $250 a day each(this was several years ago) but very much worth it.
We climbed on glaciers, and threw ourselves of the pillow fields (acres and acres of green puffy fields formed by decades of moss growing a couple of feet thick on top of lava rock-absolutely stunning), the nipple stacks (again acres of fields of giant breast like mounds complete with nipples from letting the volcanic steam escape), endless waterfalls and amazing rock formations and caves and black sand beaches, all on the way to the Iceberg lagoon, on the other end of the country from Reykjavik...It was perfect. It was the first time I had ever experienced man being completely overwhelmed by nature.
We ate, drank, and slept in a friend of the guides house halfway there, and on the third day he gave us his SUV and a hand drawn map of the back roads (all of them were back roads outside of the main highway) to tour ourselves because he had to tend to an emergency at home. It was pretty fun driving around on those dirt roads not quite sure where we were going.
I think that if you have a limited time in Iceland and money isn't an issue, this is definitely the way to do it, and avoid the Ring Road thing...but the Blue Lagoon is a must either way.
posted by newpotato at 7:34 AM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

With the exception of the beaches (I don't know how important riding horses on the beach is to her), you are describing Austin, TX. Also, Austin would be a superb city to visit in February when it's still cold in NYC.
posted by King Bee at 8:09 AM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

San Diego?
posted by bz at 8:27 AM on January 20, 2012

Going to second Costa Rica. The Caribbean side especially has some very cute, laid back villages with tasty food (although Costa Rican beer is a mixed bag for me). The volcano and rainforest are amazingly beautiful, and so are the beaches.
posted by saturngirl at 9:39 AM on January 20, 2012

San Francisco, if she's never been there before. It's winter, so it'll rain in the afternoon but be beautiful otherwise. There are beaches (don't know about horses because that's not my thing, but I wouldn't be surprised), there are parks with the best people watching in the country, there are lots and lots of interesting little shops and museums (and you can do things like go walk past the storefront that Craigslist is inside of). It also shouldn't be hard to get out of the city and go for an easy hike in Muir Woods or similar. I want to emphasize too that the climate there is completely different from in the northeast! Plus: none of the hassle of going abroad.
posted by bubukaba at 10:39 AM on January 20, 2012

American's have been fined for traveling to Cuba. The article is 10 years old so ...
posted by Carbolic at 11:20 AM on January 20, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone else who has chimed in. It's pretty remarkable how good the recommendations are when I provide such a detailed list of what I'm looking for. A lot of them are places we've actually discussed and are still considering - the thoughts and tips are definitely helping. And then there are the new ideas... regardless of where we end up going, this thread will provide great vacation ideas for years to come!

Bethlehem, PA... that's one that we hadn't considered. I think this time around we're looking for something a bit more exotic in flavor, but I love the recommendation and think it would be perfect for a long weekend. We'll have to give it a try sometime soon. I also tend against San Diego, San Francisco and Austin for the lack of exoticness reason. My girlfriend would love the latter two, though - just the sorts of places we're thinking. I just have a hankering for exotic!

Puerto Rico is defintely in the running, as are Costa Rica and Panama. We had discussed all of those, but the specific recs for all those places are very helpful.

Argentina... sigh. I definitely want to take a long trip to Beunos Aires and Patagonia soon, but I just don't think 5 days is enough time to get what I want out of Argentina so we'll probably delay that for another trip.

Manaus and Portugal are great suggestions. I hadn't considered Portugal at all despite hearing great things. We'll definitely look into that. Manaus I've never heard of - I'm guessing I'll conclude it's a bit too far for this particular trip, but maybe I can add it to my eventual Argentina trip... in any event, always fun to study new places. Biffa - thanks for the incredibly detailed checklist answer re Portugal - very helpful!

Iceland is still way up there now that I've spent some time looking into it. I'm somewhat worried it might be rainy in February - but other than that, the cold doesn't concern me. If we end up going, I'll be messaging you newpotato to get the name of your guide - sounds like he/she showed you a great time. And newpotato, the town 25 min from PV is in fact Sayulita! It looks perfect, just seemed too difficult to get to. But based on what you said I looked into flights and agree that it might just be doable in a reasonable amount of time. I still see no direct flights from NYC to PV the days we're traveling, but there are some decent 1-stop flights.

Finally, Cuba. Still the perfect option; and still entirely ruled out. Simply a nonstarter.
posted by slide at 11:45 AM on January 20, 2012

Seconding Portugal!! We went to Porto and Lisbon, between those and some of the smaller coastal towns (Coimbra or Obidos for example) you should be able to find everything you asked for (although I am not sure about the horseback riding). There's also the south - the Algarve or an island, like Madeira.

The Frugal Traveler is currently in Portugal, take a look at his posts for some tips.
posted by echo0720 at 2:03 PM on January 20, 2012

Some potential activities in Northern Portugal.

If you decide to go to Iceland, I read a few months ago about an initiative whereby you can sign up to spend time with local people who are each able to show you some element of Icelandic life. I probably saw it in the Guardian or Times, I can't find anything in the former and the latter is behind a paywall. Anyway it sounded really cool, so if anyone can exercise better googlosity than me...
posted by biffa at 4:51 PM on January 20, 2012

I love Isla Mujeres - it's a little island close to cancun - so you fly into cancun airport and take a 20 minute ferry to the island. there are touristy places there, but also lots of amazing local places. there's beaches, but also snorkelling and diving, a turtle sanctuary, a bird sanctuary on a nearby island you can make a day trip of. amazing seafood. a few big hotels, but also lots of little family run guest houses that are really inexpensive

the lst time I went was during their carnival, which was amazing - local dance groups performed all over town, so you'd be just walking down the street, and see a crowd gather, and then a bunch of people in fantastic costumes would break into a dance.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:07 PM on January 20, 2012

Portugal wise, I should also mention that a really good meal out, starter, very meaty main + wine tends to come out to less than $40 per head.
posted by biffa at 9:06 AM on January 21, 2012

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