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Trade Snow Drifts for Sand Castles in Puerto Vallarta

This Mexican resort is a close-by option to escape wintry weather.

Puerto Vallarta, located along the Mexican Riviera on the Pacific Coast, is in the closest tropical area to the western U.S. -- which might sound appealing to any American currently suffering through wintry weather.

It's just a two-hour direct flight from Houston and San Diego, and about three hours from Los Angeles and San Francisco. The best time to visit is from October to May, when the temperature is usually in the 70s and 80s Fahrenheit and it isn't too rainy.

Where to Stay

There are several high-end places to stay in Puerto Vallarta, such as

Villa Verano, which overlooks the beaches of Conchas Chinas and has hosted such luminaries as the cast of the

Drew Carey Show

.

The property is near the airport, has 12 bedrooms and offers spa services. Each day, the meal menus (which guests can customize) are prepared by the executive chefs using food purchased at local markets.

But don't go unless you've got a big group, or a big budget to spend on extra rooms: Only one group rents out the entire property at a time. Guests must rent out at least eight of the bedrooms, which are $300 to $500 each.

Another luxurious place to stay is the

Westin ($150-$500) located in the Marina Vallarta area. The hotel, which overlooks the Banderas Bay, has nearly 300 rooms with ocean views and private balconies. It offers amenities such as a pool, whirlpool, a sauna, spa, private beach and a kid's club.

There's also the

Hacienda San Angel ($230 to $600), which is located in the heart of town. The villa's bedrooms are beautifully decorated with Mexican furnishings. Its restaurant, San Angel Gourmet, serves Mexican-infused international cuisine.

Après-beach

Of course you'll take advantage of Puerto Vallarta's beaches, but when you've had your fill of baking in the sun and sandy feet, there are a number of other things that can keep you occupied.

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For instance, you could browse around inside the art galleries, for which the town is well-known, such as Galleria Uno, Galleria Dante, Galleria des Artistes and Galleria Pacifico.

Then, if you want to do something a little more active, there are a lot of guided tours that can be arranged.

Options include jungle rides, parasailing, swimming with dolphins, tennis and windsurfing.

Once you've spent the day doing all those things, you'll probably be hungry. Fortunately, there are more than 250 restaurants to pick from. A few notable choices are

Trio, which serves Mediterranean cuisine; Citrus, which serves international food; and

Café Des Artistes, which boasts an innovative bistro menu.

Take a day out of your trip to enjoy a little boat ride to a cove of your choice, and wile away the time on the beach drinking margaritas and eating fresh seafood. Boats can be rented for as little as $4 to $6 each way.

If a dinner cruise is more your style, then there are plenty to pick from -- including

The Rhythms of the Night Tour, which includes a candlelit dinner, an open bar and the boat ride for $76.50 a person.

Puerto Vallarta also hosts a number of festivals during the year, including the

Golf Cup, the

Vallarta Film Festival and the

Puerto Vallarta Festival Gourmet International. If you're there at the right time, you could add some of those events to your itinerary -- but hotels are likely to fill up faster during special events, too, so book early.

If you're sick of ice and snow, Puerto Vallarta offers a perfect opportunity to escape to the warmth. The villas and beaches are calling...