After the challenges of the holiday season, I want a vacation.

A collection of bromeliads, tillandsias, and aroids at the Montreal Botanic Gardens conservatory.

After the challenges of the holiday season, I want a vacation. The wintery landscape outside my window has me dreaming of warm, sultry breezes, sand between my toes, and lush tropical plants. A trip to the tropics isn’t in the budget, but I’ve got some great alternatives to rejuvenate my spirit and refresh my perspective.

Quick vacations can take several forms, depending on where you live and how much time you have. My favorite one-day retreat is an easy 90-minute drive from Burlington, VT. The Montreal Botanic Garden features ten linked greenhouses, each offering a different climate or theme. The tropical conservatories are filled with orchids, ferns and towering palm trees. Water cascades into mossy pools and drips from bromeliads, exotic orchids, and leafy begonias. In another house, the southwestern desert is recreated, complete with sand dunes, barrel cactus and a landscaped hacienda. The botanic garden is also home to a world-class bonsai collection.

An unusual ginger from Borneo, Burbidgea schizocheila ‘Golden Brush’, brightens a dreary winter day.

Right across the street from the gardens, the Montreal Biodome houses four distinct habitats filled with plants and animals. In the tropical rain forest habitat, heat and humidity are balm for my itchy winter skin and static-filled hair. Macaws and hummingbirds fly among the vine-laden trees and golden lion tamarinds sit on branches eating fruit. Water runs under the boardwalk and tumbles down a cliff into a pool inhabited by a flock scarlet ibis and schools of tropical fish.

In another Biodome habitat, I can sit on a rock and stare into a tidal pool filled with anemones, starfish and scuttling crabs and listen to gentle waves on the shore. Overhead, terns and seagulls cry and circle. Beneath the surface (viewed from a comfortable amphitheater), sea turtles and fish swim lazily through seaweed along the rocky ocean floor.

I don’t always have time to take a whole day off. When I have only an hour or two to indulge my tropical vacation fantasy, I head to a local greenhouse. The University of Vermont has a nice conservatory and I enjoy looking at the plant science experiments, too. Garden center greenhouses aren’t very crowded at this time of year, either, and they have one advantage over public conservatories: I can buy the plants I like and take a bit of my vacation home.

To find a warm, leafy winter retreat near you, try the search tool at the American Public Gardens Association . For links to conservatories and public gardens in the U.S. and around the world, start your search at Gardening@Closerange.

-Ann Whitman
Horticulturist, Gardener’s Supply