The price of becoming a temporary castaway needn’t break the bank. In fact, some of the world’s finest beach-lounging locales are pretty darn affordable. (And you better use up those miles before the airlines expire ’em all.) So join us with a cold drink and paperback — oh, what the heck: With all the money you’re saving, spring for a hardcover!
St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
Splurge on a pedicure — you’ll be mostly barefoot on St. John. Cove after perfect cove look as if they were carved by an ice-cream scoop, and the underwater snorkeling trails are as plentiful as the footpaths among crumbling sugar plantations. If the beaches seem familiar, it’s because they’re among the most photographed in the world, thanks to the condo-free shores and the sailboats bobbing in baby-blue waters. In the town of Coral Bay, buy bikinis from the “store” inside a VW bus, order cheeseburgers off an old windsurfing board, and fall asleep to crashing waves in a breezy beach cottage for as little as $70. (Another plus: These days St. John is one of the only Caribbean islands you can get to sans passport.) And while St. John may be best known for ritzy resorts such as Caneel Bay, it’s also home to Cinnamon Bay Campground, part of Virgin Islands National Park, which protects two thirds of the island. No tents required: You can rent one of the campground’s 15-by-15-foot cottages, each with four twin beds, a fan, picnic table, and grill.
When you hit Mile Marker 37 on the Overseas Highway, the sugar-soft sand and swaying silver palms might trick you into believing you’ve cruise-controlled all the way to the Caribbean. No, this is still Florida, specifically Bahia Honda Key, a 524-acre state park with a pristine stretch of coastline. In fact, it’s pretty much the best beach in the Keys—and its state-owned status means the cost to stay here is a fraction of what you’ll spend elsewhere along the island chain. Book one of the park’s six quiet Bayside Cabins: Each bungalow on stilts sleeps you and five friends, and has air-conditioning, heat (as if!), a kitchen and living room, plus a grill on a deck overlooking the lagoon. For those who need more action than just watching the waves, kayaks rentals are $10, and snorkeling trips inside the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary run less than $30 for three hours. Of the park’s three beaches, two-mile-long Sandspur is the longest and it’s ideal for swimming, with a gentle drop-off into the turquoise Caribbean, er, Atlantic Ocean.
Cat Island, Bahamas
On most tropical islands, “rake and scrape” is what you do in the bottom of your purse after you get hit by hotel surcharges and overpriced rum drinks. On Cat Island, it’s a type of Bahamian music you’ll hear among the beach bars, as accessible as the coral-colored sands that fringe the island. Among the few accommodations on 46-mile long, fishhook-shaped Cat is Sammy T’s resort, where seven redwood villas each have one or two bedrooms, air-conditioning, and a kitchenette.
Samaná Peninsula, Dominican Republic
Air carriers such as JetBlue are making the Dominican Republic a hot zone with so many cheap flights. But we suggest flying into Santiago and then making the three-hour drive to the Samaná Peninsula. From January to March, it is prime whale-watching territory. Smart guests unpack in one of the 23 garden villas at Las Palmas and begin toasting themselves at the eight-mile-long Las Terrenas beach across the street. After relaxing, they have the chance to explore the rest of the 500-square-mile waterfall- and sand-strewn Samaná Peninsula. Skip the $85 guided trip to Cayo Levantado—too touristy—and instead cough up $10 for the boat ride from the nearby town of Las Galeras to Playa Rincón. The eight-mile talcum-powder-soft beach belongs only to the coconut trees and the fish shacks, where two bucks buys you a fried seafood lunch.
Anegada, British Virgin Islands
More than 300 shipwrecks surround pancake-flat Anegada, but there’s no need to dive for their booty when staying on this nine-mile-long British Virgin Island. That’s because rooms at Neptune’s Treasure have rock-bottom rates of $95 in the low season (April to December) and a whopping $15 more in the winter months. The nine color-splashed rooms are just 150 feet from the beach—one of many that attract sailors and BVI aficionados to this island, along with beaches named Loblolly Bay, Cow Wreck Bay, and Flash of Beauty. While you’re busy visiting those, or snapping photos of the flamingos on a nearby pond, or just soaking in the sun, Neptune’s staff is out catching fresh fish for dinner served—where else?—on the beach.