A girl on a donkey leads a candle-bearing procession through the shops of San Miguel de Allende adorned with piñatas and poinsettias. When they stop in front of a Spanish colonial building and sing, they realize that they are witnessing the recreation of José and María’s search for refuge in the days leading up to Christmas.
Whether your winter vacation trip increases your nostalgia for yuletide with traditions, bright lights and cold air or if you make a radical break with, for example, taking it to warmer climates or a quiet and distant hideaway, breaking the habit of staying at home will always reward you with a Christmas you will never forget. With that goal in mind, we have assembled several exceptional places so that you have the spirit to take off.
Quebec City is one of our favorite historical destinations for vacations. The narrow cobbled streets and stone architecture of the walled city, founded in 1608 by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, make it as romantic and European as it gets from this side of the pond. Add to that a propensity for snowfall and an abundance of upscale bars and restaurants, and you may want the New Year to be postponed.
But the appeal of warming during the holidays is also undeniable. For the recalcitrant contrarian, Kaikoura, New Zealand, should do the trick. It is the highlight of summer at Christmas, a holiday that is often held outdoors with barbecues in the backyard. But it is also a good time to go hiking in the rainforest of the Kaikoura mountain range or in the waters of Kaikoura Bay, one of the most biodiverse marine environments on the planet. It’s the summer home of sperm whales, sea lions, dark dolphins and pilot whales, and all it takes to communicate with them is a boat and a bit of perseverance.
South America has weathered the global recession better than most regions, and it is not hard to see why. Brazil in particular is dotted with unusual gems that offer a real escape, such as the Portuguese coastal city of Paraty, about 140 kilometers south of Rio. Its friendly locals, its crystal clear waters, its exceptional beaches and its jungles full of exotic birds can make you forget what a holiday is in total. As we said: unforgettable.
Why go: the island of the snowy city of Trømso offers unparalleled views of the northern lights (look for it between 6 p.m. and midnight) and an opportunity to say you’ve been to the North Pole, well, in the Circle Arctic polar, for Christmas. In addition, there are dog sledding, good food and a cable car at the top of the mountain. Here, “day” is only a couple of hours of twilight blue.
Where to stay: most of the hotels closed during the holidays, but not the Clarion Hotel Bryggen, right in the harbor. The views of Trømso Sound are best admired from the steamy jacuzzi on the roof.
Holiday dinner: stay at the Clarion for a traditional Norwegian Christmas dinner at their restaurant, Astro. It is known that the chef serves Nordic dishes such as fillet of catfish glazed with basil and whole roast pork fillet, and recommends one side of Rosewald potatoes cooked in French salt.
Why go: stroll along the historic Nerudova Street in Mala Strana to see the Gothic and Baroque architecture of the city, or take an opera or a ballet at the State Opera or the National Theater. Visit the holiday markets in the Old Town Square and the Wenceslas Square.
Where to stay: the 109-room Hotel Josef is equipped with Baleri armchairs, Philippe Starck bathroom accessories and fluffy comforters.
Do not miss: outstanding local beers; Take a pint of pilsner at the cozy U Pinkasů.
Why go: The desert The Urho Kekkonen National Park, a 90-minute flight from Helsinki, is a true winter wonderland: it crosses the frozen landscape through a sleigh pulled by reindeer or cross-country skiing on the Saariselkä trails.
Where to stay: some of the igloos of the Hotel Kakslauttanen are made of thermal glass, so that you stay warm looking at the northern lights.
Do not miss: a four-hour cruise on the Sampo, which served for 26 years as an icebreaker.
Why go: in this compact alpine city, a display of 12,000 crystal lights marks the season on November 21. Take a heissi schoggi (hot chocolate) and explore the galleries of Rämistrasse, watch the Conelli Christmas Circus or listen to a Christmas concert in the Grossmünster church in Romanesque style.
Where to stay: Located on the River Sihl, the Hotel Restaurant Helvetia has 16 rooms with Art Nouveau touches.
Do not miss: on the eve of December 19, the children put the candles afloat on the Limmat river near the Town Hall.
Why go ?: Charleston puts its own air on the festivities: roasted pecans instead of chestnuts, eggnog with bourbon and spiritual singing choirs on the Drayton Hall plantation.
Where to stay: the 21 rooms of the Wentworth mansion dress in subtle Victorian finery for parties with magnolia wreaths, old-world Santas and two large Christmas trees in the lobby. Each room has its own fireplace. On your pillow in the cover: chocolate truffles.
Holiday Dinner: At Peninsula Grill, chef Graham Dailey uses an excellent selection of glazes and sauces, such as in his grilled bourbon glazed jumbo prawns, and offers him the choice of grilled meat and sauce. Choose from blue cheese: balsamic glaze, red bearnese pepper, foie gras butter and truffle or brandy and pepper sauce.
Why go: in this otherworldly landscape, the light of day is a matter of four hours and the green-liquid aurora illuminates the night sky. The statues of the 12 Yule Lads (the Icelandic version of Santa Claus) look from every store and corner window.
Where to stay: to obtain desirable views of the Hallgrímskirkja Cathedral and reasonable room rates, register at the Hotel Leifur Eiríksson.
Holiday dinner: the Vid Tjörnina seafood restaurant attracts locals and visitors alike with its classic Icelandic cuisine. How about hot smoked puffin followed by Brennivin shots (eg, schnapps, or “fire water”)?
Santa Barbara, CA
Why go: during the winter, the coastal towns of Santa Barbara County combine New England-style comfort and California’s old elegance with outrageous kitsch vacations.
Where to stay: in Montecito, the 500-acre San Ysidro Ranch could be a Vermont hunting lodge (rooms have wood-beamed ceilings and stone homes), except that it’s 20 minutes from world-class surfing on the beach Corner.
Holiday dinner: go super casual at Stacky’s Seaside, which stands out as a trawler on land. Fortify yourself with fish and chips before going to the tasting room of the Summerland winery to get a wine that should not work, but that does: a sparkling Zinfandel.
Why go? The atmosphere and intimacy of the old world of New England make Boston a natural choice for holidays. Enjoy the snow-covered cobblestone streets of Beacon Hill and celebrate the ghosts of Christmas past with the Christmas celebrations at Harvard’s Sanders Theater.
Where to stay: a gas fireplace heats every room in the XV Beacon Hotel, mixing classic details like an old cage elevator with bold abstract paintings. Just minutes from Boston Common and Faneuil Hall.
Holiday dinner: No. 9 Park serves overly high and surprisingly good cuisine. The menu shows dishes of French and Italian influence, such as gnocchi stuffed with plum with foie gras and Vin Santo sauce. A selection of rich desserts and artisanal cheeses rounds off offerings.
Why go: in this Scottish jewel known for its widespread artistic and theatrical culture, a Christmas lights show includes fireworks that illuminate the sky from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The bagpipes that play “Amazing Grace” around the Sir Walter Scott Monument serve even better than Christmas carols.
Where to stay: the chimneys are continually revived in the Baron de Balmoral. The Caledonian Hilton Edinburgh is Scotland’s answer to the Plaza and equally opulent.
Holiday dinner: the sorceresses were burned at the stake near the gates of Edinburgh Castle in the sixteenth century, but nothing is burned in the Warlock next to the castle, which is on the site. The restaurant serves Loch Duart salmon and Gartmorn Farm duck, all cooked to perfection.
Why go: Nashville is the most extravagant ode of vacations east of the Mississippi; “O Tannenbaum” is sung with a tinkle while honky-tonks shares space with family values.
Where to stay: with almost 3,000 rooms of Gaylord Opryland and more than nine acres of enclosed gardens, it is no wonder that you make Christmas big. Two million lights shine in outdoor exhibitions, while large-scale tributes in the interior range from campy to impressive. If you prefer a quieter location, visit the 124-room Union Station, a restored train station with a large stained glass ceiling in the lobby.
Holiday Dinner: With many restaurants in Nashville closed in commemoration of Christmas Day, why not order gourmet food from Corner Market Catering Company? Choose between grilled crostini beef tenderloin with spicy mustard or tarragon crab salad in a choux paste. The mini meringues and butter bites are enough to satisfy the sweet tooth.
Why go: in this old Swedish city, with which it is located, you can buy modernist designs while walking through its square of the sixteenth century. The locals leave an abundant dinner of aquavit and herring by the fireplace for Santa instead of milk and cookies.
Where to stay: High class and centrally located in Baltzarsgatan, the Grand Hotel Garden Malmö serves traditional Swedish Christmas dishes as part of a free buffet on December 25.
Holiday dinner: if you are not a fan of the buffet, book to eat in the festive display of Petri Pumpa in the majestic Elite Hotel Savoy. The festival focused on fish and meat includes a dozen varieties of herring and salmon; ham with red, brown and green cabbage; and köttbullar (Swedish meatballs).
Why go: Christmas can be wet and cloudy, but with the hordes gone, the service is relaxed and friendly, and at night, you can have the Piazza San Marco illuminated by the moon for you alone.
Where to stay: the opulent Hotel Cipriani is available during the holidays, and the staff will surely get angry for you. For a more intimate experience, consider Ca ‘Pisani, a boutique hotel with a vaguely futuristic look.
Holiday dinner: the Italians have their big party on the 24th. At Do Forni, enjoy one of their exclusive dishes, such as the risotto with shrimp and seasonal vegetables or the baked branzino with potatoes, tomatoes and oregano. From Pisis at Hotel Bauer traditional food riffs: turbot fillet with glazed chestnuts, fondant pumpkin and smoked Tyrolean ham.
Why go: this mountain town serves an old-fashioned vacation without all that Aspen attitude. Explore Pueblo homes, take a quick walk on the slopes or just cuddle with a Todd rum in a true western lounge.
Where to stay: The Rochester Hotel pays homage to Durango’s cinematographic past: each of the 15 rooms recalls a locally produced film, from the Mexican-themed Viva Zapata suite to a European-style room called Around the World in Eighty Days. The beautifully restored Strater Hotel houses the Diamond Belle Saloon, Louis L’Amour’s favorite waterhole.
Holiday Dinner: Plan a Christmas Eve party at Ken and Sue’s, a casual restaurant. Try the pork loin medallions wrapped in smoked apple bacon with hot cider glazed cabbage in a sweet molasses sauce.
Why go: Instead of Christmas carols, listen to the restless sounds of gamelan gong for a change while admiring the Christmas Eve sunset at the island temple of Tanah Lot.
Where to stay: Incense floats through the high lobby, and crowns of rice plants, herbs and flowers hang on the doors of the 22 suites and villas in the small and affordable but remarkably elegant Hotel Tugu Bali.
Holiday dinner: the Four Seasons Resort Bali in Sayan entertains traditional food: choose from a variety of gourmet dishes, such as Ayung “Cocotte”, grilled yellowfin tuna, roasted lamb shanks and more.
Why go: the Portuguese influences on the Indian coast, the whitewashed Catholic churches, the firecrackers, the bells and the Christmas carols will make your holidays perfect like a scene from a Bollywood movie.
Where to stay: distributed on 88 acres, the Fort Aguada Beach Resort was built on the remains of a 16th century Portuguese fortress. The hotel’s holiday extravaganza includes jazz and Goan food.
Holiday dinner: Party at the sophisticated Portuguese House, in a converted villa with gardens and terraces a few steps from the Arabian Sea.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Why go: The Spanish colonial jewel and the cultural zone in the center of Mexico is electric at Christmas, with theatrical processions through the city, numerous recreations of posadas and fireworks, live music and dancing in the main square, El Jardín. Be sure to try punch, a kind of hot Mexican toddy made of fruits and brandy, and the sweet bread of kings.
Where to stay: Casa Sierra Nevada, managed by Orient-Express, stretches between six historic Spanish colonial mansions from the 16th to the 18th centuries, many of them with outdoor corridors, patios and small gardens. The rooms have tiled bathrooms, wood fireplaces, vaults (curved ceilings) and paintings by local artists.
Holiday dinner: with a shady patio and a restaurant, Cafe de la Parroquia is a quiet place to gather for a hearty meal that starts with a plate of Aztec soup.
Key West, FL
Why go: Good mood and warm temperatures are often the winning attributes of Key West, and Christmas is no exception. The palm trees, the historic inns and four blocks of boats adorned along the historic coast (the “Bight Before Christmas”) only amplify the joy of the city.
Where to stay: right next to the bustling Duval street, the Marquesa boutique hotel is an oasis of cold: three historic buildings and one that shares a leafy courtyard with two swimming pools. On Christmas morning, a buffet breakfast is served next to the pool.
Holiday dinner: located in a Victorian house from 1906, the Nine One Five holiday menu mixes tapas (dates wrapped in bacon, duck liver pate) with main dishes such as Soul Mama seafood soup and mushroom risotto.
Why go ?: The City of Winds welcomes the joy of the party to the fullest, with a million Christmas lights along the bustling Magnificent Mile; Christkindlmarket, a huge market of German outdoor crafts with beer and food like sausages to fan your fire; a soaring handmade Christmas tree; and Navy Pier’s Winter WonderFest, a Christmas-themed amusement park and an indoor skating rink.
Where to stay: Peppy, with tropical theme Hotel Monaco Chicago is a Kimpton boutique hotel with verve and sense of humor. His wild combination of lime and plum is dazzling, and has great value in The Loop.
Holiday dinner: The restaurant Cellar at Bin 36 is located in a cozy restaurant where wine is served and serves a creative menu of local origin on Christmas day. Mains such as applewood smoked bacon are followed by the likes of a cedar salmon with beluga lentils and pork schnitzel with pumpkin spaetzle. The combinations of expert wines are, of course, de rigueur.
Why go: An old-fashioned warmth wraps Vienna at Christmas, softening the hard edges of imperial architecture with sparkling decorations and three outdoor Christkindlmarkts. Vendors sell handicrafts and ornaments, while visitors feed their purchases with finger food and a glass of spiced wine, or glühwein. The Vienna Boys’ Choir concerts are legendary.
Where to stay: Located in the center of Kaerntner Ring, directly opposite the opera house, the Ring Hotel is the classic Vienna outside, but modern, artistic and decidedly fresh inside thanks to a top-down redesign.
Holiday Dinner: Eight, the acclaimed restaurant of the Ring, offers four and five course Christmas menus. The choices include options such as veal tenderloin with potato, shallot and spinach, liver game with pumpkin, cardamom and pomegranate.
The city of Quebec
Why go: Stoned streets, stone houses from the 16th and 17th centuries and lots of snow make the 400 year old walled city of Quebec an atmospheric and European place to be at Christmas. Local good humor and good food could make even a skeptical winter after all.
Where to stay: located in the old stone warehouse of the 19th century in Vieux-Port, Auberge St. Antoine stands out for the perfection with which the old and the new are juxtaposed. The high ceilings and the cast iron beams are complemented by amenities such as heated stone floors and artifacts unearthed during their renovation that are exhibited everywhere.
Holiday dinner: Serving traditional Quebecois cuisine based on 17th century French recipes, Aux Anciens Canadiens offers its main menu on Christmas day. Expect everything from a Neptune shell of giant shrimp and scallops au gratin to grilled pheasant breast.
Why go: Winter in the Bavarian capital means a hundred-foot-tall Christmas tree on Marienplatz, around two dozen Christmas markets (weekdays attract fewer crowds), mulled wine and gingerbread, served in a tram that crosses the old city.
Where to stay: The modern, 72-room Louis Hotel is a snow globe from the lively Viktualienmarkt and has a natural stone fireplace in the lobby.
Do not miss: every night at 5:30 on November 25 until Christmas Eve, there is live music on the balcony of the town hall.
Why go: It may not look very much like Christmas, but Paraty, a half-day from Rio, is a hidden gem of a city with strikingly well preserved Portuguese colonial architecture, a vibrant cultural scene and easy access to the jungle and some of the most perfect beaches in the world. It seems like a holiday for us.
Where to stay: about 20 minutes on foot from the city center, the Bambu Bamboo pousada is a lush refuge in itself, with a pool, a spa, beautiful gardens, two saunas and easy access to the rainforest and a group of some really impressive beaches. Breakfast is served on the river.
Holiday dinner: Considered by many to be the best restaurant in the city, the French restaurant Voilà Bistrot will serve foie gras and shitake mushroom patties as part of their Christmas dinner.
Why go: this remote village on a desert plain is especially magical at Christmas, thanks to its rich mix of cultural traditions. Do not miss: the historic Ledoux street was illuminated with luminaries (paper lanterns); the ceremonial recreations of the search for refuge of Mary and Joseph, called inns; and the dramatic celebration of Native American Christmas Eve that takes the main square in Taos Pueblo. In addition, you can ski all day on Christmas day at the Taos ski resort, 29 km away.
Where to stay: Near the town square, El Monte Sagrado Living Resort and Spa offers objects from all over the world in its elegant rooms. Reserve a room with a fireplace to raise the cozy factor.
Holiday dinner: in the twinkling Ledoux Street, the seven-table Byzantium hideaway offers a winter menu with dishes such as shrimp ceviche and grilled pork escalopines with apple, cabbage and mustard seed compote.
Why go: The legend of Santa Claus (or Sinterklaas) is strong in the Dutch capital, where the houses of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are lit with lights at the beginning of December. Consider delaying during New Year’s Eve for champagne and fireworks in Nieuwmarkt or Dam squares.
Where to stay: Three seventeenth-century merchant residences make up the Casa del Canal, located on the bustling Keizersgracht route.
Do not miss: join the locals as they exchange their bicycles for noren (long-bladed ice skates) and tour the city’s outdoor courts.
Why go: “Jingle Bells”, adjusted to a salsa rhythm, will make you dance and sing Christmas carols. Palm trees sunbathing in the sunlight and exotic flora in the tropical rainforest of El Yunque replace their typical snowy pines. Conclude your days in the Caribbean with an evening stroll through a 500-year-old Spanish colonial city in the Atlantic.
Where to stay: The El Convento hotel, a renovated Carmelite convent of 354 years old, has 72 rooms with colonial furniture. The Water Club boutique hotel has 78 ocean view rooms through floor-to-ceiling windows.
Holiday dinner: The Parrot Club offers new Latin cuisine, glazed salmon with tamarind, chicken in a mango barbecue sauce, accompanied by a jazz band.
Why go: a small English stone village dotted with brightly lit Christmas trees would be enough charm, but candlelight carols inside the caves seals the place of this southern city on a list of special travel destinations yuletide
Where to stay: Right at the end of the road at Hope, the Losehill House Hotel and Spa offers a Christmas package that includes three nights of accommodation (beginning Christmas Eve), meals (including a Christmas party) and a spa treatment. .
Holiday dinner: the multi-day dinner on Christmas day begins with a champagne reception in the afternoon. Later, in the evening, a cold and hot informal buffet is served for those who have any space left over.
Why go: A Provencal winter is always like a fairy tale: the villages that have become silent at the end of summer come back to life; the music of the medieval churches fills the cobbled streets; Women crowd into market stalls to sniff out the freshest foie gras.
Where to stay: the largest hotels in the region: Couvent des Minimes Hôtel & Spa; the Terre Blanche Resort: take out all the stops of the season. But for a getaway par excellence, why not rent an old but renovated country house with a cozy heart?
Holiday Dinner: Christmas Eve Dinner in Bistrot Mogador of the Château d’Estoublon is a traditional gros souper or “Great Dinner”.
Kaikoura, New Zealand
Why go: The Kaikoura peninsula may not have reindeer, but it is full of sperm whales, sea lions, dark dolphins, pilot whales and albatrosses in Kaikoura Bay. Since it will be summer when you visit, you can find almost everyone by boat or kayak, and then take some rays of yuletide on the beach.
Where to stay: Hapuku Lodge and Tree Houses is New Zealand’s newest ecotourism lodge: a complex of cedar-covered buildings and six tree huts overlooking the bay and the Kaikoura imperial mountain range. The high luxury design reigns inside and out.
Holiday dinner: the hotel’s decadent winter menu features handmade saffron tagliatelle entrees and lamb in crispy fried spinach. For the main courses, try the wild venison loin with cranberries and port reduction, or the fried Kaikoura blue cod with basil and chervil mayonnaise.