I’m all for honoring unions, but the name given to the long weekend in September that marks the end of summer and return to school-year craziness has always seemed like such a silly misnomer to me. After all, Labor Day weekend offers us one last chance to refresh our minds and bodies before gearing up for the fall onslaught. September will bring nothing but work; these three days should be nothing but escape.

When I was a child, my family always went camping over Labor Day weekend, and I simply cannot bring myself to bid adieu to summer without a last hurtle through crashing waves or night of listening to wind in the pines. This summer I’ve been so busy with travel assignments that I haven’t been able to plan many getaways with my own needs in mind. But because of all the research I’ve been doing, I have some great ideas to share for getaways that are deeply restorative, off-the-beaten-path, and offer good last-minute availability since they’re a bit off the radar as well.

Here are three last-minute Labor Day weekend getaways with no labor involved:

  1. Avila Beach. Never heard of it? Neither have many others, which is what makes this place seem such a magical find. Just north of better-known Pismo Beach and west of San Luis Obispo, Avila Beach was once the site of a gigantic Chevron refinery and the largest oil shipping port on the West Coast. Now the tank farm’s been dismantled, and largely cleaned up, which means Avila Beach has something very rare in California; miles and miles of prime beachfront property, including bluffs with some of the most spectacular sunset views on the coast. And the town, though still a bit funky and industrial around the edges, has a lot to offer, including a gorgeous, uncrowded beach, and natural hot springs that bubble up under the coastal mountains that rise dramatically from the sea. Avila Beach hot springs is a great spot for family fun, but my first choice for a real getaway is its sister property, Sycamore Springs, tucked deep into the wooded hills east of town. Still largely unknown, this resort is rarely crowded, and often offers deeply discounted rates for a stay that seems much more luxurious than what you’d pay twice as much for elsewhere. Where else can you stay where each room has its own hot tub on a deck outside?
  2. Jenner. Most folks want to go inland, away from the fog this time of year. But September is when the fog rolls out, and stays out. And Jenner, located where the Russian River enters the Pacific, is perfectly situated so you can have both sunset ocean view dinners and hot afternoons dipping in the river. I honestly have no idea why the best resort in town, River’s End, isn’t better known, but it deserves to be. Try this for a perfect day: wake up to sea lions barking at the river mouth, and take a long beach walk from Goat Rock out to the end of the spit to get a close-up view of the playful creatures. Head inland along River Road to Gold Coast Coffee and Bakery in Duncan’s Mills and indulge in the best bear claws you’ve ever while listening to locals exchange fishing tips on the vine-draped back patio. Spend the day lazing on the river at Casini Ranch campground, which offers day use privileges for their deep, clear-water swimming beach. (The $7 charge means you don’t have to fight the crowds.) Back to Jenner for oysters and wine at sunset. Nuff said.
  3. Big Sur. Yes, Big Sur for Labor Day weekend sounds crazy, but you’d be surprised. The bulk of the crowds will be north, in Monterey, or south, in Pismo Beach, and most of those just power through for the spectacular view from Highway 1, with perhaps a lunch stop and photo op at famous Nepenthe. No, you won’t get into Ventana or Post Ranch, but there are smaller family-run places like Fernwood Resort and Big Sur River Inn that sometimes have last-minute cancellations and private campgrounds that often have a few tent cabins left. Choose to stay, and you have the picture postcard-views to yourself once the sun begins to set and the highway gets treacherous.