We are all sick of hearing about it – “Times are tough.” We get it already. But when economic troubles become too much to handle and we need to get away from everything, if only for a weekend, it helps to have some thrifty options. So, in the event that the daily grind gets you further down than usual and you need a break to take stock and recharge before putting your nose firmly back to the proverbial grindstone, remember that you don’t have to travel very far to experience the relaxation – or excitement – of the perfect getaway.

The first step in any vacation – even before packing – is gearing up. Rapp’s Luggage and Gifts (3250 Severn Ave., Metairie), recommend you stash your accoutrements in their new 22-inch, carry-on sized TITAN suitcase. This snazzy number boasts a stylish chrome finish and is secured with a TSA combination lock. Four 360-degree wheels make transit a breeze and a “no matter what” lifetime warranty puts your mind at ease. And don’t forget to cram that TITAN full of green, purple and gold this Mardi Gras season.

The closest stop on this season’s vacation hit list is right across the lake, and still a part of the greater New Orleans area. Covington proudly boasts dining, camping, hiking and biking, as well as music, art and everything else for which southeastern Louisiana is known – including a Mardi Gras parade and party.

Every Wednesday and Saturday, local growers hawk the fruits (no pun intended) of their labor at the Covington Farmers’ Market, held in good weather and bad on the side lawn of Covington City Hall. If, however, you feel like being waited on, visit Restaurant Amis for steak, lamb and duck – or have a “blue plate special” at the Blue Note Café, located inside Amis. If you feel like having a dining experience that hits a little closer to home, stop by Restaurant Dakota, another culinary gem from the proprietors of Restaurant Cuvée.

Once you have a full tank, steam on out to Fontainebleau State Park for camping, fishing and anything else besides. The park features rustic or luxurious campsites for visitors seeking any sort of camping experience, as well as “group camps” with dormitory-style accommodations, kitchens and a swimming pool. The lake side of the park features a sandy beach for sunbathing and goofing off, and the St. Tammany Trace – a well-kept secret among New Orleans bicyclists and runners craving a break from the Bill Keller Memorial Trail – runs through the park as well.

If you want to continue a little further north for your getaway, Natchez, Miss. is a leisurely drive away. This city is the oldest settlement along the Mississippi River, beating out New Orleans by two years, and served as the first capital of both the Mississippi Territory and of the State of Mississippi. As a nod to history, tourists can check out the Dunleith Plantation or the Longwood Antebellum Home. Visitors to Dunleith are encouraged to visit the Castle Restaurant and Pub, located in the plantation’s old carriage house. But if your stomach is rumbling for something closer to New Orleans cuisine, visit Biscuits & Blues for smoked chicken and ribs, gumbo and poor boys. As you digest, take a ride around town on one of Historic Natchez’s famous carriage tours.

Nature lovers prepare yourselves: 10 miles outside of Historic Natchez sprawls Natchez State Park. The park is perfect for any sportsman leaving his native paradise, with camping (tent or vehicular) year-round, deer and turkey hunting (depending on the season), boat launching and fishing. Cast a line, and maybe you’ll get lucky enough to catch some of the mammoth largemouth bass puttering around Natchez Lake. The park also hosts the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race on the third weekend of every October, during which hot air balloons compete for the enjoyment of onlookers who must endeavor not to get too distracted enjoying the peripheral food and music.
For those who don’t care to shoot or cast, the St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge lies just south of Natchez. The refuge was established to provide a habitat for migratory waterfowl, endangered species and diverse species of flora and fauna.

If you prefer to travel east rather than north, Mississippi’s Gulf Coast offers plenty of diversions within easy striking distance of New Orleans.

Hancock County offers the excitement of big-city casinos and the relaxation of backcountry recreation. The Hollywood and Silver Slipper Casinos in Bay St. Louis beckon gamblers to try their luck. If you happen to lose your shirt at the Silver Slipper, perhaps you will be consoled with a meal of seafood, steaks and chops at the Blue Bayou Bar and grill. Seafood lovers should also check out the Jourdan River Steamer, and adventurous palates will not be disappointed by Pzazz Restaurant and Lounge. More casual eateries abound, offering everything from Creole food to sushi.

Between meals, get outside and enjoy the great Gulf Coast outdoors. Hancock County boasts scores of acres for horseback riding, as well as the Hancock County Equine and Livestock Arena with seating for 2,800. Golf courses tailored to every level of play freckle the countryside, and for those who prefer wearing all white while working up a sweat, Tennis World beckons from the community of Diamondhead, offering lessons and game matching services. If biking or jogging are more up your alley, ride or run the beachfront walking and bike path from the Washington Avenue American Legion Pier in Bay St. Louis to the Garfield Ladner Pier in Waveland.
If the kids get bored, take then on a tour of Cat Island, or of the country’s largest rocket engine test complex and space artifact museum at the NASA John C. Stennis Center Visitor Center.

Further east, the town of Ocean Springs beckons to art buffs and beach bums alike. “Ocean Springs is an artistic community,” says Cynthia Dobbs of the Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce. “There are murals on Walmart, on the buildings downtown.” She recommends that visitors check out the Walter Andersson Museum of Art.

Downtown Ocean Springs is “a shopping, dining mecca,” says Dobbs. The downtown area features over 100 specialty stores and sixty restaurants – and all of this hedonism is located less than a mile from the beach. The town tries to put on at least one event a month; coming up are the Ocean Springs Mardi Gras Parade on February 7 and the Herb and Garden Festival – a 15-year-long tradition – in March.

If you want to get away from Ocean Springs’ metropolitan attractions, head on out to Davis Bayou in the Gulf Islands National Seashore Park, which plays host to bike clubs, fishermen, and curious explorers. Bikers and joggers can also traverse the Biloxi Bay Bridge – known to Ocean Springs locals simply as the “Bay Bridge” – safely ensconced in it walled-off walking and bicycling lane. If you want to get onto the water rather than over it, pay a visit to the Ocean Springs Yacht Club.

Of course, there is one more option for the ultimate subtle getaway – travel up rather than away. Consider a flying lesson or airborne tour with Gulf Coast Aviation, based out of the New Orleans Lakefront Airport. “People want to learn [to fly] for many different reasons,” says Bill Evans, an instructor for Gulf Coast. “Getting your pilot’s license allows you to travel to many destinations you can’t access via the airlines and are too time-consuming to drive to. It also gives people a great hobby and a sense of accomplishment.” So, you can kill time, get a thrill and maybe even figure out a more novel way to get to one of these fantastic vacation spots.

Gulf Coast Aviation offers different packages for different levels of certification, as well as a wealth of aerial tours. “Our most popular tour is a Champagne Flight over the city at Sundown,” says Evans. “This makes a great Valentine’s gift.”

So if you need to get away from it all, or just need to rise above it all, fear not – the vacation you need is right outside your front door.