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How about forgoing the Christmas TV and bad sherry for a rather more remarkable 25 December? Whether you fancy a snowy or a sunny getaway, a break with friends or a solo journey, we have a Christmas holiday idea for you. Be sure to double-check openings, events and government travel guidelines before booking. The multi-generational getaway 1. PUERTO VALLARTA, MEXICO Why: Mexico goes big on Christmas – elaborate nativity scenes, street processions, plazas decked with fairy lights, festive piñatas – so it’s ideal for a taste of tradition with a side of sunshine. Forgo the rowdy Caribbean coast for the more laid-back Pacific side, where family-friendly town Puerto Vallarta excels at ‘something for everyone’: snorkelling trips around the Marietas Islands’ ‘Hidden Beach’; a sunset boat ride to Las Caletas cove for a traditional dance show; wandering around botanical gardens and eating at torch-lit waterfront restaurants. Insider tip: The Malecón is Puerto Vallarta’s seafront promenade, the centre of community activity and a riot at Christmas, with craft markets, street-food vendors, palm trees hung with stockings and Santa-hat-wearing sand men. 2. ICELAND Why: Forget the 12 days of Christmas – the festive season in Iceland lasts a full 26. In fact, most Icelandic traditions at this time of year are bigger and more elaborate than those in the UK – including the 13 Santa Clauses who bring presents to children across the country. The chances of seeing the Northern Lights in December are also pretty good, and experiencing a white Christmas here is all but a given. In the capital Reykjavík, the frozen central pond of Tjörnin is a brilliant spot for ice skating on Christmas Day, while the big celebration is on Christmas Eve, with a supper of smoked lamb and langoustine. Insider tip: If you stay until New Year’s Eve, you can catch the city’s unique fireworks display – locals purchase their own and the sky is lit up with countless mini displays when midnight strikes. Sarah James 3. HAWAII Why: A tropical Christmas in Hawaii still feels festive. On Oahu, Honolulu City Hall is festooned with lights, and has a heavily decorated 50ft-tree out front; on Maui, Santa rocks up at Wailea Beach on Christmas Eve via outrigger canoe. Any one of these preternaturally gorgeous islands will appeal across the generations, with their mix of white-sand beaches, watersports, and family-friendly hijinks. Forget the busy mega-hotels and rent a sprawling dream home with Exotic Estates. Shoreside villas have a hotline to local concierge services, so you’ll never be stuck for something to do. Insider tip: On Oahu’s North Shore, the Polynesian Cultural Center hosts a Christmas marketplace; on certain days, real snow is brought in for making snowmen. Check out Hukilau Marketplace for updates. 4. WHISTLER, CANADA Why: Dreaming of a white Christmas? It doesn’t get much merrier than North America’s favourite ski resort, where snow is guaranteed, as are festively freezing temperatures. As well as a heap of family entertainment (the weekly Fire & Ice show sees skiers jumping through fiery hoops), there’s everything from ice skating to snowmobiling for the kids, and the slopes stay open on Christmas Day. Large, luxurious chalets are plentiful around Whistler Village: many with gorgeous views of Blackcomb Peak, patio heaters for outdoor evenings, and games rooms to keep all ages entertained. Insider tip: Canadians are more likely to feast on pumpkin pie than Christmas pud on 25 December. Save the hassle of making your own and pick one up at local favourite Peaked Pies – it’s actually an Aussie bakery, but Whistler’s hungry skiers love it. Find the our favourite Whistler restaurants and bars
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5. DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Why: This Middle Eastern playground can make every generation feel like a kid again – whether that’s riding the slides of its water parks, sledding down a ski slope in a shopping mall, or jumping around on its giant trampoline park, Bounce. And while Christmas isn’t a national holiday here, bling-bling Dubai can’t resist this twinkly time of year: the malls and hotels are all a-sparkle with lights and enormous trees. Add to that the weather (highs of 26˚C in December), plentiful beaches, and all-ages fun (such as ogling a giant dancing fountain or speeding up the world’s tallest building), and it’s not such an out-there idea. : Don’t miss the surreal experience of shopping centre Souk Madinat Jumeirah at Christmas, when there’s a German market, a snowball zone, and Santa riding a gondola-sleigh around the mall’s canals. Insider tip Dubai: 10 amazing things to do
10 amazing things to do in Dubai
Romantic Christmas 6. BALI, INDONESIA Why: You don’t have to look hard for the romance in Bali. Horseback rides on the beach? Check. Gripping each other tightly on a scooter, zipping past 50-shades-of-green rice fields? But, of course. Glamping in the jungle, with your own private saltwater pool? Well hello, Capella Ubud. And then, when you’re hankering for a festive fix, there’s the Canggu Xmas Bazaar: a unique blend of traditional wooden Balinese architecture, festive crafts and Indonesian street food. Kitschy, yes – but it’s Christmas, after all. Insider tip: Top off Christmas Day with a fireworks display: locals love setting them off once darkness falls, and if you head to the beach in Canggu you’ll catch one of Bali’s more fabulous sunsets, too.
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The best things to do in Ubud, Bali
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7. BRUGES, BELGIUM Why: The fairy-tale Christmas scene – snowy, gabled houses and twinkly cobblestone streets – doesn’t get much more quintessential than in Belgium’s prettiest city. The medieval centre is known for its Gothic architecture, and the squares are strung with fairy lights and dotted with market stalls selling crafts and waffles wrapped in paper. Blow away the cobwebs on Christmas morning with a bracing walk alongside the icy canals, followed by a stint in one of the cosy pubs. Insider tip: Belgian chocolatiers are famous for good reason – and Christmas is a great time to sample the wares of as many different stores as possible. We particularly like Spegelaere, a family-run chocolate shop just outside the city centre. Sarah James Things to do in Bruges, Belgium
27 brilliant things to do in Bruges
8. ST LUCIA, CARIBBEAN Why: Caribbean islands don’t come more romantic than St Lucia, with its dreamy views of the Pitons, incredible beaches and chocolate plantations (meaning you can expect chocolate-covered spa treatments, and couples’ chocolate-making classes). Thanks to a strong Catholic culture, Christmas is a big deal here, too: St Lucian twists include its traditional, deep-red sorrel drink (made with cinnamon, cloves and ginger), and black Christmas pudding (soaked in red wine). While roast turkey remains on the menu, expect sweet potatoes and plantains in place of parsnips and sprouts. Insider tip: The island’s most interesting restaurant for a romantic meal is undoubtedly The Rabot Hotel, at Hotel Chocolat’s cocoa-plantation-set boutique residence. Along with head-on views of Petit Piton, you’ll eat a cacao-infused menu, featuring dishes such as tuna-dorado tartare with cacao nibs and cacao beer pork tenderloin. Where to stay in St Lucia
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9. FINNISH LAPLAND Why: Christmas in Lapland needn’t just be for kids: throw over Santa and snowmen for cosy nights in glass igloos, and romantic husky-sled rides through forests glittering with frost. Head up to Ylläs and you can even get steamy in a sauna gondola: a cable car converted into a sauna, which takes guests on a 20-minute ride. An outdoor Jacuzzi session and traditional sauna are included in the (admittedly steep) price. Note that a typical Lappish Christmas dinner often involves reindeer, which seems like a truth only suitable for an adult. Insider tip: If you’re looking to work off all that Christmas food, Ylläs National Park opens up its snowshoe tracks to fatbikers, so you can pedal your way around this wintry wonderland and work up a real sweat. 10. NEW YORK CITY, USA Why: Sure, everyone knows Christmas in New York is special – but do they know it’s romantic, too? From ice-skating under the Rockefeller Center tree, to riding the gorgeously restored, vintage Jane’s Carousel on the East River-front, and strolling hand-in-hand across a twinkly Brooklyn Bridge, this is movie-grade amour. Insider tip: Cuddle up on a Christmassy date at Williamsburg’s Nitehawk Cinema. Even better, you can order food and cocktails right to your seat. These are the New York hotels you need to know about
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Solo Christmas 11. KILIMANJARO, TANZANIA Why: Christmas is one of the busiest times of year to climb the Roof of Africa. So, if you’re travelling solo, but fancy meeting new people, this is a great way to tap in to some group spirit while also ticking off a life goal – pack your Santa hat for commemorative pictures at the top. As Christianity is a major religion in Tanzania, the holiday is very much celebrated: though it’s more low-key than the West’s commercial circus, you’ll see enough trees and baubles to feel suitably full of good cheer. Forget the turkey, though: Tanzanian families tend to go all out and buy a goat or a cow for the big dinner. Insider tip: It’s practically mandatory that you follow up the Kili trek with a restorative break in Zanzibar. The new, village-style Zuri hotel made our 2019 Hot List: its 56 standalone bungalows are set amid dense bush and spice gardens, with Indian Ocean waves rolling just beyond your window. 12. DUDE RANCH, COLORADO Why: For a solo Christmas with just the right mix of adventure and home comforts, playing cowboy (or cowgirl) at a dude ranch in the Rocky Mountains could be ideal. You’ll spend your days getting active in that crisp mountain air – riding horses, learning to shoot and lasso – and evenings sharing hearty home-cooked meals, swapping stories around a campfire or square-dancing at the local saloon. Colorado’s little mountain towns come alive with holiday lights and festivities this time of year, and the region is stuffed with dude ranches offering seasonal packages, which typically include a snowy horseback ride and family-style feast on Christmas Day. Insider tip: Dude ranches come in all styles and sizes, so do your research on the vibe. Sundance Trail Guest Ranch, for example, is small and low-key, with a real focus on a homestay-style experience, while C Lazy U Ranch is more like a hotel and goes all-out with sleigh rides and Santa PAs. 13. VOLUNTEERING IN CUSCO, PERU Why: Christmas is a time for giving, so if you feel like doling out some good cheer, try a festive break with International Volunteer HQ. You could even combine it with a pilgrimage – in Cusco, for example, IVHQ volunteers wrap presents and prep Christmas decorations for underprivileged local children; why not independently tack on the Inca Trail trek to nearby Machu Picchu, too? Insider tip: Cusco’s Plaza de Armas is a brilliant spot for Christmas Eve, with its market and incense-filled churches. Stick around to see the whole city explode with fireworks at midnight. 14. SPIRITUAL RETREAT, ARIZONA Why: Alternatively, if you’re going to go it alone, you could just make it all about you. In New Age-y Sedona, luxurious Mii amo destination spa focuses on transformative journeys for individuals, with various experiences focusing on different nuances – do you want to explore your inner self, for example, or embark on a new stage of life? Surrounded by Sedona’s famously mystic red rocks, and offering spa rituals from massage and mindfulness to Native American-inspired therapies, this is a solo escape designed to help you focus exclusively on yourself. Insider tip: If all that health and wellness has you reaching for a glass of vino, you’re in luck. Unlikely as it may seem, Sedona is also home to a cluster of boutique wineries, gathered in a rare green belt around the village of Oak Creek. Avoid Christmas 15. DOUZ, TUNISIA Why: Where better to block out Christmas than the Sahara Desert’s desolate dunes? First, immerse yourself in Bedouin culture at Douz’s International Festival of the Sahara, which usually takes place in December (but is postponed for 2020). This sandy outpost – where palm trees are said to outnumber people 25 to one – celebrates traditions such as hair dances (expect sultry ladies), camel parades, drumming troupes and horseback acrobatics. All that, and not a shred of tinsel in sight. Then head into the desert proper for a Christmas-free camping expedition of camel rides, four-wheel-drive safaris and campfire dinners under starry skies. Insider tip: Douz has a bit of a forsaken feel about it in the daytime, but first impressions don’t always count: come nightfall, the pavement cafés around the souk spring to life, making for great people-watching over kebabs and couscous. 16. KYOTO, JAPAN Why: While Christmas isn’t an official holiday in Japan, many of the larger cities can’t resist getting festive; Tokyo in particular is a characteristically odd mix of German-style markets, glittering illuminations and robot Santas. If you’re determined to avoid all things merry, head instead for the country’s former imperial capital, Kyoto: though the halls of its malls are inevitably decked, you’re mostly safe in this cradle of classic Japanese culture. Wander the traditional architecture of Gion, gawp at meticulously preened temple gardens, and discover the giant, swaying stalks of Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. Insider tip: Given Christmas isn’t traditionally celebrated here, there’s no elaborate holiday meal. In fact, KFC is Japan’s favoured food on 25 December, thanks to a natty marketing strategy that dates back to the 1970s. If the idea of a Christmas Day bargain bucket is too anarchic, reserve seats at Gion’s Hiro for a life-changing steak dinner. 17. HIMALAYAN TREKKING, NEPAL Why: Sometimes, in order to escape Christmas, you need to escape the world entirely. Even in Kathmandu, a colourful clash of Hindu temples and Buddhist prayer flags, Christmas Day is a recognised holiday – with Santa hats, decorated trees and glittering lights to match. There’s never been a better time, then, to leapfrog the masses and head for the Roof of the World on an Annapurna trek. Though it can get cold up in the Himalayas this time of year, the trails are blissfully quiet. Even better, a proper trek should take at least a week, so if you head off on Christmas Eve, it’s all about New Year by the time you’re back – when Santa will be safely absent ’til next winter. Insider tip: December’s daytime temperatures and clear skies make ideal hiking weather, but come nightfall, the mercury will usually dip below freezing. Be sure to bring a down sleeping bag and plenty of layers.
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Chitwan National Park, Nepal
On safari in Nepal: Chitwan National Park
18. ATLAS MOUNTAINS, MOROCCO Why: Morocco isn’t exactly big on Christmas, though you’ll still find traces of it in big-city malls and hotels, and there are Catholic churches throughout the country (thanks to historic Spanish and French influences). Make a beeline for the remote Atlas Mountains just outside Marrakech. Handily, some smart retreats have sprung up in this rugged region, so you can go off-grid in style. Berber Lodge – village-like and set inside an olive grove – is low-key, glam and gorgeous. : If you’re set on scaling Mount Toubkal, be aware that this time of year requires serious skills, crampons and ice axes. Alternatively, stay below the snow line with treks through Ouirgane National Park and Azzaden Valley, which are excellent in their own right, but also have great views of Toubkal. Insider tip Party Christmas with friends 19. CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA Why: ‘Partying’ in Colombia might once have been synonymous with cocaine, but if there’s one place that really shows how the country has changed, it’s Caribbean seaside city Cartagena: no longer a best-kept secret, but a bona fide tourism big-hitter. Crowds come for the buzz of the picturesque Old Town, livelier than ever at Christmas: where festivities spill into cobblestoned streets, public squares shimmer with over-the-top trees and giant baubles and the colonial mansions’ famous flower-filled balconies are strung with lights. Insider tip: Formerly sketchy, now shabby-chic Getsemani isn’t just Cartagena’s hippest neighbourhood (with interactive pop-up dining and factories-turned-pizza-restaurants), it’s the best damn nightlife spot in the city, too. Bazurto Social Club is the place for sultry salsa dancing with locals, or touristy Café Havana – all retro 1930s style, Panama hats and lethal mojitos – pops five nights a week until 4am. 20. BERLIN, GERMANY Why: If you’re looking to combine Yuletide cheer with a breathless party scene, you won’t go far wrong with Berlin. The Germans practically invented Christmas (we have them to thank for embellishments including decorated trees, baubles and tinsel), and they’re the undisputed world champions of the Christmas market (find a toboggan run and ice rink at Potsdamer Platz; Alexanderplatz packs a Ferris wheel and Christmas ‘pyramid’ with more than 5,000 lights). The city’s club scene hardly closes down for Christmas, however; on the contrary, it often ramps up. Insider tip: Clubbing stints require planning: wear sturdy shoes and at least one T-shirt change. Dresses and heels aren’t simply impractical – they usually induce the bouncers to turn you away. These are our top things to do in Berlin, Germany
Things to do in Berlin
21. VAL D’ISERE, FRANCE Why: This St-Tropez-on-snow is the party ski resort, and a Christmas card-worthy delight this time of year, too. Here in the powder-swept Alps, there’s no shortage of festive markets, steaming vin chaud, or decadent Christmas menus paired with Champagne. On Christmas Day, ski lifts are open as usual and Dick’s Tea Bar, the party place-to-be, brings the après with resident DJs. Plus, Val has been outdoing itself with ultra-luxe chalets lately: seven-room Chalet Husky has a climbing wall, infinity waterfall and space for rifle shooting and archery; at Arctic Townhouse, you’ll find a sauna, indoor hot tub and screening room. Insider tip: Luxury travel specialist Scott Dunn tells us you can’t beat L’Atelier d’Edmond for a decadent Christmas dinner. This double-Michelin-starred stunner typically rustles up a tasting menu that forgoes turkey for the more refined flavours of Arctic char and deer. 22. SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA Why: This is where probably the world’s most famous Christmas Day beach party is held. On 25 December, Santa-hat-wearing crowds descend on Bondi’s beloved crescent for barbecues and frolics. Lifeguards even plant a fir tree in the sand and, in the absence of snow, many folk build festive sandmen. However, anyone planning a rowdy booze-fest will be disappointed: the entire beach is an alcohol-free zone. Christmas just not Christmas without grog? Nearby, The Bavarian Bondi Beach will be a beery riot, and even does a Christmas roast. Insider tip: For a less crowded experience, try Balmoral Beach, where the Bathers’ Pavilion usually puts on both a booze-included buffet and a three-course lunch. The restaurant’s wall of glass patio doors, which look out to sea, just might seal the deal. Chippendale, Sydney is the city’s coolest neighbourhood
Chippendale, Sydney’s coolest neighbourhood
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