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Where to Go for the 2021 Holidays

by Brook Wilkinson | August 2, 2021

This year’s holiday season is shaping up to be an incredibly busy one: After a very long time with little to no travel, many people are looking to spend Christmas and New Year’s somewhere memorable. Here are the places that are already open to U.S. travelers and ideal for the holidays, from the tried-and-true warm-weather getaways to under-the-radar gems worth considering.

For even more ideas, we gathered WOW List travel fixers based around the globe to talk about your holiday options in a Zoom Q&A. Watch the video to learn more about the places that are already packed and tips for how to navigate that, plus under-the-radar gems to consider and predictions for January and February 2022. You deserve an end-of-year break after all this, so don’t get shut out!

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Hawaii - Kaneohe Bay, Oahu

Hawaii now allows travelers to skip quarantine if they arrive with a negative Covid test. Photo: Shutterstock

The Hawaiian islands currently welcome travelers who have registered with the Safe Travels program and have been fully vaccinated or recently tested. Once you’re in Hawaii, it’s all about enjoying the outdoors, from snorkeling to hiking to stand-up paddleboarding and ATV rides. Read Hawaii trip reviews.

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The U.S. Southwest

Arches National Park, Utah

Some of the southwest’s outdoor meccas, such as Arches National Park in Utah, make for fun winter adventures. Photo: NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank

Utah offers Moab, a year-round adventure mecca with 4×4 tours, canyoneering, and hiking in nearby Arches and Canyonlands national parks, plus spectacular resorts with your own private, standalone accommodations, such as Amangiri and Camp Sarika. Neighboring Arizona’s natural beauty and abundance of spread-out, five-star resorts appeal to many. Even the Andaz Scottsdale, just a short drive from the Phoenix airport, offers plenty of nearby opportunities for outdoor exploration, and the hotel’s contactless check-in lets you pull right up to your bungalow, with no stop in the lobby required. Neither state has any travel restrictions in effect right now.  Read Southwest trip reviews.

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The U.S. Southeast

covered gazebo dock stretching into lake in tennessee at Blackberry Farm resort

Blackberry Farm is in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, . Photo: Blackberry Farm

For east-coast travelers wanting to stay closer to home, there are a lot of drive-able, even pet-friendly, resorts in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee that have standalone cabins or cottages spread across considerable acreage. Just a few examples: The Montage Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton, South Carolina (near Hilton Head and Savannah), has cottages and multi-bedroom homes, along with a much-loved spa and miles of waterfront to explore. Blackberry Mountain in Walland, Tennessee, situates guests atop the Great Smoky Mountains, with adventure (bouldering, anyone?) awaiting you at the doorstep of your cabin. Greyfield Inn is the only place to stay on Georgia’s largely undeveloped Cumberland Island, and the inn’s naturalists lead socially distanced walks and kayaking trips for guests. The Cloister at Sea Island also has its own private island on the Georgia coast. At Virginia’s Salamander Resort, every room has a private patio or balcony, and their famed equestrian center is open.

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Skiing in the Rockies

Aspen Skiing, Rockie Mountains

Ski resorts are limiting capacity this travel season. Photo: Parker Olsen.

While specific protocols for ski resorts during the 2021/2022 season haven’t yet been announced, it’s likely that capacity will once again be limited. (This past winter, many resorts required advance reservations, and ski-in/ski-out hotel suites, condos, and private homes were in high demand.) If you’re thinking about a first-rate ski trip over the holidays, you’ll want to work with a specialist who will keep close tabs on all the guidelines as they are announced, and who can quickly make any necessary adjustments to your trip. Read ski trip reviews.

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Mexico’s Beaches

Beach villas and other private accommodations make it easier to social distance in Mexico. Photo: Cabo Villas

From private beachfront villas to small boutique inns with open-air common areas to colonial haciendas that you can reserve for just your family, you’ll find an array of options in Mexico that allow for easy social distancing—as these travelers did. Many airlines are operating between the U.S. and Mexico, with no Covid-testing requirements. For east coasters, a quick flight to Cancun gives you entrée to the Riviera Maya and Tulum; west coasters will find nonstops to Cabo San Lucas (where migrating whales and whale sharks pass by every winter) and Puerto Vallarta, the latter a gateway to the top-notch resorts and private villas on the Punta de Mita peninsula. Beyond the beach, the freestanding suites in the Mayan forest at Chablé Yucatán allow for complete privacy. Read Mexico trip reviews.

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Belize’s Coral Reefs

aerial shot of Belize ocean with sailboat

Charter your own boat in Belize for days of snorkeling, sunbathing, and plenty of distance from other travelers. Photo: Belize Sailing Vacations

Nonstop flights to Belize take off from several U.S. cities that are only about three hours away; travelers who arrive with proof of full vaccination or a negative Covid test will be fast-tracked through the airport, while all others will be screened and tested. Once you’re there you can explore world-class coral reefs, visit uncrowded Mayan ruins, learn to scuba dive (as Wendy’s son did), fish for 100-pound tarpon (which kept her husband busy), and laze beside sparkling Caribbean waters. Only accommodations that have earned the country’s new Gold Standard Certificate of Recognition are allowed to operate; options range from beach resorts with separate bungalows to remote jungle tree houses—or you can charter your own private yacht as I did, enjoying fabulous snorkeling, sunbathing, kayaking, and plenty of distance from everyone except your captain and first mate (who will be vaccinated or recently tested). Read Belize trip reviews.

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Costa Rica’s Beaches and Rainforest

Rio Celeste Waterfall photographed in Costa Rica

The weather in Costa Rica during the winter months is ideal. Photo: Shutterstock

Costa Rica’s jungle lodges and beach resorts are open to all U.S. residents with no testing required. The weather is ideal at this time of year too, with the skies clear over a landscape refreshed by recent rains in much of the country. Read Costa Rica trip reviews.

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The Galapagos Islands and Ecuador

blue footed booby galapagos islands ecuador

The ratio of guides to guests is likely to be much lower than usual this year in the Galapagos Islands. Photo: peterstuartmill/Pixabay

Ecuador is open to U.S. travelers, who need only bring proof of full vaccination, a recent negative test, or a past infection. The Galapagos have long been a favorite holiday destination for families, so cruises and hotels at that time of year sell out early. Some expedition-cruise ships are already operating there, along with smaller vessels that you can charter just for your family. If you’d like to extend your trip into the Amazon rainforest, consider Sacha Lodge, which is adjacent to one of the most biodiverse spots on earth; each group gets its own private guide, and the dining room is open-air. Read Galapagos trip reviews

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Tahiti, Bora Bora, and French Polynesia

overwater bungalows in French Polynesia at the Conrad Hilton Bora Bora

Picture yourself in an overwater bungalow in French Polynesia. Photo: Conrad Hilton Bora Bora

Where better to get away from it all than in the remote South Pacific, enjoying an endless horizon from the seclusion of your overwater bungalow and private plunge pool? The Tahitian islands were among the first tropical paradises to reopen to U.S. travelers, and our readers took advantage of it! Whether you’re looking for an adults-only haven or a place where the kids can frolic, the right trip planner can guide you to the resort most suitable to your specific needs, ensure that you meet the current entry requirements, and watch over your entire trip—leaving you to relax and enjoy the view. Read trip reviews from Tahiti, Bora Bora and French Polynesia.

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An Overwater Bungalow in the Maldives

Beach views from Gili Lankanfushi, Maldives

The Maldives require a negative Covid test taken within three days of the first leg of a traveler’s flight. Photo: Gili Lankanfushi

These idyllic islands in the Indian Ocean, many of which are home to just one resort, requite visitors to present proof of full vaccination or a recent negative Covid test; I spent a blissful five days there last October. It’s a breeze to socially distance at a private-island resort, where secluded beach villas and overwater bungalows are the norm. Restaurants are already open-air, toes-in-the-sand kinds of places, and the closest interaction you might have is with a manta ray while snorkeling. Read Maldives trip reviews.

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A Turquoise Reef in the Seychelles

beach and rocks at Anse Source d'Argent beach Seychelles

Chez Batista Villas, Seychelles. Image courtesy of Torsten Dickmann – STB

Think the Seychelles are just for honeymooners? Think again. There are resorts that cater to families, with multi-bedroom villas and kids’ clubs that will give parents a break. And since the majority of the population is Catholic, the locals get into the Christmas spirit too. There can be some rain in December, but that makes the vegetation even more lush—and a Seychelles expert can point you to the driest parts of the islands for your holiday escape.

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An African Safari

zebras drinking from a stream in the great migration of animals in Kenya

Safari camps usually book up years in advance, but for the 2020 holidays, the camps and the safari drives will see fewer people. Photo: Shutterstock

Here’s why I think 2021 is the year to go on safari. With bookings at camps and lodges picking up once again, you’ll need to act soon if you want to spend the holidays in one of the countries in East and Southern Africa that has opened to U.S. travelers. A savvy safari-planning specialist can lead you to the lodges that are limiting occupancy in game-drive vehicles, are testing staff, and have open-air dining areas and in-room air conditioning (the latter a necessity in some parts of southern Africa in December and January). Read African safari trip reviews.

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Morocco: Exotic Yet Just Across the Atlantic

The Grand Lobby of the Riad Fes in Fez. Photo by Tim Baker

Morocco is just a seven-hour flight away from New York, making it a smart option if you want something out of the ordinary but your time is limited. The holidays are the busiest time of year for the country, so you’ll want a savvy specialist on your side to help find space in those atmospheric riads and plan your itinerary to stay far from the crowds. If the desert figures into your Morocco plans, consider visiting at another time of year: Temperatures there plunge after dark in winter, and it can be tough to get a good night’s sleep.

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Egypt: Pyramids Without the Crowds

Egypt’s pyramids and other famous sites reopened in September at lowered capacity. Photo: Shutterstock

While Cairo’s bustling souks and narrow streets don’t lend themselves easily to social distancing, vaccinated travelers may want to take this opportunity to see the country’s pyramids and other archaeological wonders without the crowds: capacity at such sites is currently limited. (Or do as these travelers did and have an expert arrange for private, after-hours access.)  Read Egypt trip reviews.

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We’re here to help

Right now is a remarkable opportunity for global travelers who are vaccinated. When your friends say that travel is problematic as a result of the pandemic—rental cars aren’t available, service even at 5-star hotels is shoddy—the problem is they’re not planning their trips right! Travel can be spectacular now if you choose the right destination, know the savviest local fixers, and approach them the optimal way. Check out these recent trip reviews to see the difference that Wendy’s WOW approach to trip planning makes. And if you’re looking for a similarly carefree travel experience, contact us at Ask Wendy.

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