A girl on a donkey leads a candle-carrying procession past San Miguel de Allende‘s shops festooned with piñatas and poinsettias.When they stop before a Spanish-colonial building and break into song, you realise you’re witnessing the reenactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter that takes place in the days leading up to Christmas.
Whether your winter holiday trip enhances your yuletide nostalgia with traditions, sparkly lights, and nippy air or makes a radical break from it—by, say, taking you to warmer climes or a quiet, far-flung hideaway—breaking the habit of staying home will always reward you with a Christmas you’ll never forget.
With that goal in mind, we’ve rounded up diverse, exceptional places to get you in the spirit of taking off.
Quebec City is one of our favourite historic destinations for the holidays. The narrow cobble-stoned streets and stone architecture of the walled city, founded in 1608 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, make it as romantic and European as it gets on this side of the pond.
Add to that a proclivity for snowfall and an abundance of top-notch bars and restaurants, and you may wish the New Year could be postponed.
But the appeal of warming up over the holidays is undeniable, too. For the die-hard contrarian, Kaikoura, New Zealand, ought to do the trick. It’s the height of summer there at Christmas, a holiday most often celebrated outdoors with backyard barbecues.
But it’s also a great time to be hiking the rainforest of the Kaikoura mountain range or on the waters of Kaikoura Bay, one of the most biodiverse marine environments on the planet. It’s the summer home of sperm whales, fur seals, dusky dolphins, and pilot whales, and all it takes to commune with them is a boat and a bit of perseverance.
South America has weathered the global recession better than most regions, and it’s not hard to see why. Brazil in particular is peppered with off-the-beaten-track gems that offer a true escape, like the coastal Portuguese colonial town of Paraty, about 140 miles south of Rio.
Its friendly locals, cerulean waters, exceptional beaches, and exotic-bird-filled jungles may make you forget what holiday it is altogether. Like we said: unforgettable.
Check out these unforgettable Christmas destinations >
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Why Go: Charleston puts its own spin on the holidays--pecans roasting instead of chestnuts, eggnog spiked with bourbon, and choirs singing spirituals at Drayton Hall plantation.
Where to Stay: The 21-room Wentworth Mansion dresses in subdued Victorian finery for the holidays with magnolia wreaths, old-world Santas, and two grand Christmas trees in the foyer.
Every room has its own fireplace. On your pillow at turndown: chocolate truffles.
Holiday Dinner: At Peninsula Grill, chef Graham Dailey uses a fine selection of glazes and sauces, such as on his grilled peach glazed jumbo shrimp, and gives you the option of sinfully grilled steak and sauce.
Take your pick among blue cheese--balsamic glaze, red pepper béarnaise, foie gras--truffle butter, or brandy-peppercorn sauce.
Why Go: During winter, the coastal towns in Santa Barbara County combine New England--style comfort and old California elegance with outrageous holiday kitsch.
Where to Stay: In Montecito, the 500-acre San Ysidro Ranch could be a Vermont hunting lodge (rooms have wood-beamed ceilings and stone hearths), except that it's 20 minutes from world-class surfing at Rincon Beach.
Holiday Dinner: Go super casual at Stacky's Seaside, which stands out like a grounded trawler.
Fortify yourself with its fish and chips before hitting the Summerland Winery's tasting room for a wine that shouldn't work but does: a sparkling Zinfandel.
Why Go: A Provençal winter is always fairy tale--like: the villages gone silent at summer's end come back to life; music from medieval churches fills the cobble-stoned streets; women crowd around market stalls to sniff out the freshest foie gras.
But for a quintessential country escape, why not rent an old-but-renovated farmhouse with a cozy heart?
Why Go: New England's old-world ambiance and coziness make Boston a natural choice for the holidays.
Enjoy Beacon Hill's cobble-stoned streets dusted with snow, and celebrate the ghosts of Christmases past with the Christmas Revels at Harvard's Sanders Theatre.
Where to Stay: A gas fireplace warms every bedroom at the XV Beacon Hotel, which mixes classic details like an antique cage elevator with bold abstract paintings.
Just a few minutes away from Boston Common and Faneuil Hall.
Holiday Dinner: No. 9 Park serves over-the-top, shockingly good cuisine.
The menu showcases French- and Italian-influenced dishes such as signature prune-stuffed gnocchi with foie gras and Vin Santo sauce.
A selection of rich desserts and artisan cheeses rounds out the offerings.
Why Go: In this old-meets-new Swedish town, you can shop for Modernist designs while strolling through its 16th-century town square.
Locals leave a hearty dinner of aquavit and herring by the fireplace for Santa instead of milk and cookies.
Where to Stay: High-class and centrally located on Baltzarsgatan, the Grand Hotel Garden Malmö serves traditional Swedish Christmas dishes as part of an all-you-can-eat buffet on December 25th.
Holiday Dinner: If you are not a buffet buff, book to eat at Petri Pumpa's festive spread in the stately Elite Hotel Savoy.
The fish-and-meat-centered feast includes a dozen varieties of herring and salmon; ham with red, brown, and green cabbage; and köttbullar (Swedish meatballs).
Why Go: Christmastime may be damp and foggy, but with the hordes long gone, service is relaxed and friendly, and at night, you may have the moonlit Piazza San Marco all to yourself.
Where to Stay: The opulent Hotel Cipriani is available during the holidays, and the staff is sure to fuss over you.
For a more intimate experience, consider Ca' Pisani, a boutique hotel with a vaguely futuristic look.
Holiday Dinner: Italians have their big feast on the 24th.
At Do Forni, indulge in one of its signature dishes, such as risotto with shrimp and seasonal vegetables or baked branzino with potatoes, tomatoes, and oregano.
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