Thousands of skiers from Florida take their vacations at the Winter Park resort in Colorado this time of year. But last month Joan Christensen, an employee of Winter Park, headed for the Florida Keys with her husband, Dan, for a weeklong vacation.
"People from Florida are coming here for a snow fix," Joan Christensen said, "and we're going there for a beach fix."While an escape from the mid-winter blues has long been a favorite American pastime, travelers are getting away in record numbers this winter. And that includes many places that might have never gotten a second look until recently.
A survey last fall by the nonprofit Travel Industry Association of America, which has been tracking American travel habits since 1992, found that nearly 153 million Americans planned to spend at least one night 100 miles or more from home this winter - a 5 percent increase over last year.
"This is the highest volume of increased travel intentions ever measured," the association said. And with the end of winter now in sight, that early optimism does not appear misplaced - thanks to a healthy economy, buoyant consumer confidence and low gasoline prices. Even higher leisure airline fares within the United States have not curbed the wanderlust.
Warm weather is still the prime lure. "We've had a strong winter season because the U.S. economy is so strong," said John Bell, the president of the Caribbean Hotel Association in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Similarly, Greater Miami appears on track for its fourth consecutive record-breaking season, despite almost a week of gusty winds and heavy rain in early February.
And while generally mild winter weather has apparently not slowed travel to such traditional winter hideouts as Arizona, Texas, Southern California and Florida, it has also encouraged more people to take spur-of-the moment visits to vacation spots closer to home.
For example, Martinsburg, Shepherdstown, Berkeley Springs and other towns in West Virginia's eastern panhandle are benefiting from record visits by weekenders and day trippers from out of state, especially from Washington and Baltimore.
"This is the best year for visitors in the five years since we've been keeping data," said David Blythe, executive director of the Martinsburg, W. Va., convention and visitors bureau. To enhance their tourist appeal, those West Virginia communities created a mix of artist colonies, attractive shops and inns, combined with the inevitable outlet centers.
"Visitors would come to Harpers Ferry in the winter," Blythe said, "but you wouldn't find many of them coming and browsing around here, even though we're only 15 miles away."
A growing winter destination for sun lovers is St. George, Utah, a warm weather anomaly tucked into the southwestern corner of a state famous for its snow. The city's slogan, "Utah's Dixie," is emblazoned on the cover of its visitor's guide.
"We're just loving it here," Marge Leonard said. She and her husband, Paul, recently left their Idaho Falls home in snow and rain, lured by a four-day golf package offered by the Ramada Inn St. George. "My husband's an avid golfer," she said in a telephone interview, "and I'm an avid black belt shopper. Here I can walk to the factory outlet stores just outside the hotel door."
H. Paul Harker, the owner of that hotel, said guests came from many surrounding states and as far away as Alberta, many for golf and many to visit Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, 40 and 120 miles away, respectively. "February and March are our busiest time of the year," Harker said, "and so far this winter we're up about 6 percent over last year."
Winter tourism is also increasing in summer resorts that used to pull down the shutters by Halloween.
"After Labor Day you could look out and you wouldn't see a soul," said Diane Wieland, director of tourism for Cape May County, N.J. "But today you have to work at tourism because you can't operate just three months."
Newport, R.I., is another winter success story, attracting about one- third of the 3.5 million tourists who descend on the long-established resort town every year.
"Winter's important to us, because that's where we still have room for growth," said Evan Smith of the Newport County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Like many resorts known mostly for summer tourism, the city sponsors a 10-day Winter Festival that features ice sculpturing and 100 other events as the centerpiece of a series of special weekly promotions.
The importance of winter tourism is underscored in much of the nation's frost belt, where cities that lack ski resorts are cashing in on the popularity of snowmobiles.
"The entire Upper Peninsula is exploding, mostly because of snowmobiles," said Richard Czuba, Michigan's director of tourism.
"Snowmobiles are responsible for an incredible evolution in many small towns in this part of the country," said Paul Nevanen, director of the Minnesota Cold Weather Resource Center in International Falls.
Even International Falls, the self-styled "icebox of the nation" markets its snowmobile trails to tourists - as well as its midwinter Icebox Days Festival, complete with softball on frozen Rainy Lake and a Freeze Yer Gizzard Blizzard 10-kilometer race.