Off-Peak, On Budget

St. Petersburg church interiorHow to hit the world’s great destinations when the crowds aren’t there

Contemplating an annual vacation but dreading the crowds of tourists packing every airport, piazza and esplanade?  Then take heart, for there is an alternative to overbooked hotels and long amusement-park queues.  It’s called low season.  The weatherman may not be able to promise perfection, but low season is the time of year when the crowds are thin, the experience is purely local and the price is right.  Forget Paris in the springtime, and check out these off-peak havens instead.

ST. PETERSBURG:  Russia’s cultural capital is arguably at its most romantic in the fall months of September and October, or in winter, which lasts until early March.  The turning of the leaves carpets the city in red and gold; the first drifts of snow evoke a scene straight out of Dr. Zhivago, complete with horse-drawn sleighs, ice skaters and illuminated spires.  Arrive at yuletide and you get two Christmas celebrations—Dec. 25 and the Russian Orthodox version on Jan. 7.  You can also congratulate yourself on having missed the excruciating queues, of a couple of hours or more, that mar a summertime visit to the famous State Hermitage Museum.

VAIL:  With its spectacular Alpine setting, ski runs and seemingly endless forests, the Colorado town of Vail is one of North America’s best winter resorts.  But here’s an insider tip: it’s sensational in summer too.  Low-season activities are snow-free but action-packed, and include biking, hiking, horseback riding and river rafting.  Enjoy a round of golf (balls fly 20% further on Vail’s high-altitude courses) or an evening of culture (dance and music festivals run through the summer).  There’s even pleasure to be had in totting up your bill: lodging is discounted by up to 60%, while some of Vail’s best eateries offer two-for-one deals.

ST.-TROPEZ:  When director Roger Vadim set the racy 1956 Brigitte Bardot movie Et Dieu Crea la Femme (And God Created Woman) in the coastal town of St.-Tropez, he helped transform the French fishing port into a magnet for the jet set.  These days, just about everyone else is drawn to “St. Trop” (around 100,000 visitors swarm the town each day in high summer)—but not during the fall, when hotels like the 19th century Chateau de la Messardiere offer palatial rooms at almost half the peak-season rate.  You’ll also enjoy crowd-free beaches, no-hassle dinner reservations and blowout boutique sales.

SYDNEY:  The relatively mild Australian winter lasts from June to August, with the mercury in Sydney rarely dipping below 8 degrees C.  That’s too cold for the city’s beaches, but perfect for hiking in the nearby Blue Mountains, sitting by the fire in a historic Rocks-district pub, and taking in a game of Australian Rules football—the traditional winter sport.  Or come in fall (March to May) for events like the popular Cracker Comedy Festival and the thrilling Hoopla Festival of acrobatics and street performance.