If you waited until now to make your holiday vacation plans, you will likely encounter a wall of sold-out hotels in the Caribbean, Costa Rica, the Rockies and many other famous winter getaways. But a little creativity goes a long way, and if you travel just a little off the beaten track, some amazing destinations await discovery.
Ambling through a festive Christmas market while sipping a mug of piping hot Glühwein (mulled wine) is one of the great joys of the season. Typically set up in a town’s main square in front of the cathedral, rows of charming wooden stalls overflow with handmade ornaments, local crafts and indulgent holiday treats. Nürnberg’s legendary Christkindlesmarkt is the largest and most crowded, but the markets in Dresden, Munich, Berlin and numerous other German cities are just as delightful, if not more so. You can also visit luminous Christmas markets in France’s Alsace region, Vienna, Budapest, Tallinn, Krakow and Copenhagen. Each of these is a wonderland, but one of our very favorites is in Prague. Set on the Old Town Square beneath the haunting spires of the Church of our Lady before Týn, this market has one of Europe’s most atmospheric settings, its stalls surrounded by baroque façades and illuminated by a giant Christmas tree. But Christmas markets aren’t Central Europe’s only attraction. Throughout the cities and regions mentioned above, cozy bars and restaurants serve rich seasonal dishes accompanied by plenty of Gemütlichkeit (good cheer). And blockbuster sights like the Prague Castle or Vienna’s Schonbrunn Palace tend to be far less crowded than during the summer.
Those in search of a snowy winter wonderland need look no farther than the Northeastern United States. Vermont can be busy, but the nearby Berkshires in Massachusetts make an excellent alternative. Cozy fireplaces warm two of Mr. Harper’s favorite hotels in the world — Blantyre and Wheatleigh — both of which have access to cross-country and downhill skiing, ice skating and snowshoeing, among other winter activities. Inside, grandly traditional decorations herald the season. In upstate New York, the Adirondacks hosted the Winter Olympics twice, and it’s easy to see why. The full panoply of winter activities is at your fingertips here, in gloriously scenic surroundings.
December weekends in New York City sell out months in advance, as people flock to the city’s shopping and world-famous window displays. But New York doesn’t have a monopoly on great shopping and festive decorations. Many hotels in Chicago go all-out with decorations, and organize fun activities such as gingerbread house decorating. The shopping scene offers a huge array of choices, from major names on Michigan Avenue such as Tiffany, Barneys and Nieman Marcus to top designers like Prada, Armani and Loro Piana to unique independent boutiques such as P.O.S.H. This wonderful downtown shop sells vintage silver, china, glassware and linens from long-gone hotels, restaurants, cruise ships and even airlines. In the Loop, the surprisingly authentic German Christmas Market sells traditional ornaments, toys and all-too-tempting sweets.
As delightful as New England and Chicago can be during the holidays, many of us would much rather soak up some sun rather than frolic in the snow. Finding space in the most obvious destinations will be well-nigh impossible by this point, but plenty of blissfully warm destinations still have availability. Consider one of the Andrew Harper Alliance resorts in the San Diego area, some of which boast excellent supervised children’s programs. The golf is world-class, irresistible attractions like Legoland and SeaWorld will delight the kids, and sandy beaches are a stone’s throw away. Many places in Mexico remain fantastic destinations. Harper Alliance resorts along the Riviera Maya, for example, have superb beaches, over-the-top spas and easy access to evocative Mayan ruins. On the Pacific Coast, alluring amphitheater-like bays shelter pristine beaches and exquisite hideaways, most of which have fewer than two dozen rooms.
The largest island in the Mediterranean maintains a deliciously mild climate in the winter, with temperatures rarely dipping below 50 degrees. Sicilians celebrate the holidays with great verve, and restaurant tables overflow with seasonal feasts. Best of all, magnificent sights are free of summer’s crowds. There is no better time to see the glimmering mosaics in Monreale’s cathedral, Taormina’s breathtaking Greco-Roman amphitheater and Syracuse’s well-preserved Greek ruins and baroque old quarter. Right now, Sicily ranks among Europe’s most exciting destinations.
Because the seasons are reversed, November through April is the best time to visit sensationally scenic New Zealand. Golfers and fly-fishermen should take particular note. New Zealand boasts some of the most spectacular golf anywhere in the world, and Mr. Harper notes that it is “arguably the world’s best place in which to fly-fish, with streams and lakes overflowing with magnificent brown and rainbow trout.” Top-quality food and wine will impress the most discerning gourmand, but perhaps most important, New Zealand feels blessedly detached from the world’s woes. That wonderful feeling of blissful remove alone is worth the journey.
This remarkable country also boasts fantastic fly-fishing, but there’s so much more to Chile than that. Mr. Harper recently made a return visit, and marveled at the “astonishing geographic and climatic diversity.” The summer solstice falls in December, stretching daylight well into the evening in spellbinding Torres del Paine National Park, located at the southern tip of South America. Seeing the granite monoliths of the Cordillera del Paine in the long twilight is simply unforgettable. The cafés of Santiago burst with life during this season, and luscious summer produce graces restaurants in the capital, as well as in the sophisticated wine country nearby.
Excerpted from Andrew Harper Traveler magazine.