What better way to kick off 2014 than swaying in the hammock on a tropical beach?
Here are the top 10 most affordable tropical destinations, the best places on earth to escape the cold right now.
Panama: Pick a coast, any coast. That's how it goes in Panama, a country blessed with two long coastlines, one Pacific, one Caribbean, of equal beauty and appeal, and many sand-fringed islands just offshore. In Panama, your beach options range from developed and comfortable to back-to-basics and off-the-grid.
Most fully-appointed beach options are on the country's Pacific coast about an hour-and-a-half outside Panama City, the stretch of beachfront that includes Gamboa and Coronado (also notable as it's home to a big and fast-growing community of foreign retirees). Your best low-key beach getaway choices include San Blas off the country's Caribbean coast and Pedasi, a charming little beach town on the coast of Panama's Azuero Peninsula.
Colombia: The walled colonial city of Cartagena on this country's Caribbean coast is one of the world's treasures. Its cobblestoned streets and many parks and plazas are lined with faithfully maintained Spanish-colonial structures with wrought-iron balconies overflowing with bright flowers. People come from all over the world to admire these historic structures and to enjoy the cheerful, festive atmosphere they create.
In addition, Cartagena boasts many small boutique hotels, including luxury lodgings, plus interesting shops, sidewalk cafes and loads of fine dining. As colonial cities go in the Americas, Cartagena is king.
But just over 100 miles up the coast from Cartagena is another colonial gem, the city of Santa Marta, the oldest in Colombia. Ignore guidebooks that tell you Cartagena's sister colonial city is dirty and dangerous (as most do). Colombia has been investing seriously in Santa Marta, and the good effects are impressive. The waterfront has been refurbished to include a seafront promenade, beautifully restored parks and a new array of sidewalk cafes from which to take it all in.
There's also a just-completed marina that can accept 256 boats, and the adjacent shoreline has sprouted its first handful of seaside condo buildings.
Mexico: Bahía de Navidad on Mexico's Pacific Costa Alegre (Happy Coast) is a beautiful, sweeping, crescent-shaped bay and beach with two main towns -- Barra de Navidad and Melaque. In many ways, this stretch of Mexico's coast is a small-town, inexpensive version of up-scale Puerto Vallarta four hours to the north. Melaque is a typical ocean-side Mexican village where fishing, agriculture, and tourism provide a relaxed and rustic lifestyle. Barra de Navidad is chic and picturesque, with good restaurants and jumping nightspots, anchored by the elegant Grand Bay Hotel on the southeast side.
Dominican Republic: The Dominican Republic has been gaining momentum as a hot-spot beach destination -- and for good reason. This island nation offers many sure-to-please options for those looking to jet-off to warm weather and white-sand beaches this New Year.
The sand-fringed towns of Sosua and neighboring Cabarete on the island's North coast in particular are beachfront utopias. There are no high-rise towers, no big crowds and no worries. Life here is all about enjoying what Mother Nature has created in this world-class coastal spot. Beaches are perfect for swimming, and inland are many trails for hiking and horse-back riding.
Ecuador: Ecuador's long coastline is peppered with appealing beach choices; however, Ecuador's best-kept beachfront secret is Samborondon. Other good options are Plaza Lagos for golfers, as well as Playas, Salinas and tranquil Lobster Bay. Ayunque, 30 minutes north of Salinas, is a sleepy spot, historically one of Ecuador's best budget beaches, where the locals come for getaways and $2.50 lunches.
Nicaragua: Warm weather and a beautiful Pacific coastline characterize Nicaragua. This country is also notable as one of the most affordable destinations in the Americas.
Nicaragua's most developed beach is at San Juan del Sur, once a jet-set stomping-grounds and making a comeback today. The small town that lines the crescent-shaped bay that shares its name is the definition of chill. Nothing much happens here... nothing much matters here... but the sun and the surf.
Thailand: Thailand offers sultry tropical weather and islands aplenty in the Gulf of Siam and the Andaman Sea and has a great deal to recommend it beyond its beaches -- its culture is rich and alive with color and character, the locals are friendly, the scenery is stunning and the cost of everything here can be an absolute bargain.
Where should you go in Thailand to ditch that winter chill? Take a look at Phuket, Koh Hae (Coral Island), Koh Lanta or Koh Phi Phi. These spots offer some of the world's best snorkeling, swimming and sightseeing. Thailand's Phuket Island, in particular, is an internationally famous beach destination and rightfully so. Beautiful sandy shores, separated by rocky headlands, grace the entire West coast of the island, the largest in Thailand.
Onshore Phuket is a welcoming place that can quickly begin to feel like home, and more than 100,000 foreign residents have chosen to make lives here. Foreigners from across the globe have integrated into the local community, transforming Phuket into a multicultural, international retirement destination. Expats make up more than 21 percent of the total permanent population of Phuket Province.
Vietnam: Tropical, culturally rich and diverse, Vietnam is a great outside-the-box place to escape winter. You can shop in vibrant markets, visit ancient temples, sample the healthy and unique cuisines, improve your golf swing at internationally acclaimed courses or while away the day on the shores of the lovely South China Sea.
Vietnam is graced with over 2,100 miles of coastline, and the northernmost stretch of it in particular is spectacular. The North's most famous attraction, Halong Bay, covers an area of 600 square miles studded with thousands of jagged limestone karsts rising like castles out of the ocean. There are dozens of caves, deserted beaches of fine, white sand and almost 2,000 islets extending far into the Gulf of Tonkin.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay is Vietnam's most popular tourist destination. Monkeys and other wildlife are the only inhabitants on most of the tiny islands. There are only two towns of any consequence on the larger islands, along with a few small floating villages where permanent residents farm fish and tend pearl-producing oyster beds, traveling by boat to visit neighbors.
Malaysia: Ideal spots for a tropical retreat in this country include Johor Bahru and Penang Island. There are 17 golf courses in Johor State, making it a golfer's haven, while Penang Island combines a city feel with a laid-back island vibe. Photographers and nature-lovers will be in their element. The national park is criss-crossed with hiking trails and offers some of the world's best bird (and monkey) watching. The island is home to some 200 species of birds.
Belize: Clear turquoise waters lapping gently against soft white sand. Palm trees rustling in the warm breeze. Fishing boats bobbing on the horizon. Birdsong and island tunes all around...
Ambergris Caye, Belize, is unadulterated, unpretentious Caribbean, the sea, sand and sunshine of the Caymans or the Virgin Islands without the price tag. San Pedro town, a former fishing village, is the center of activity and home to a growing expatriate community of North Americans and Europeans catered to now by dozens of restaurants, shops, art galleries and community organizations. You could settle in here quickly and easily, as the language (like everywhere in Belize) is English.
Life on Ambergris is relaxed and friendly, carefree and sunny; just offshore is the world's second-longest barrier reef and all the snorkeling, diving, fishing, boating and swimming a beach-loving wanderer could hope for.