Time is running out to make plans for your end-of-year holiday travel. We’ve tapped the experts on Wendy’s WOW List—the well informed, on-the-ground trip planners who’ve been wowing our readers throughout this busy travel year—to find destinations that are still able to be booked for Christmas and New Year’s vacations. These are places where they can still find you availability of charming hotel rooms and savvy private guides and still put together a high-caliber trip.
To understand what makes a trip WOW, read these recent reviews from our travelers and these FAQs. And don’t miss the rest of our “Where to Go” series on the best destinations for every month of the year.
European Holiday Cheer
Italy, from cultural capitals to Sicily and Lake Como
Italy was terribly crowded and pricey this summer. To get a true taste of the culture, go in winter, when the weather is mild and the cities and countryside have a more local flavor. Ride a Vespa around Rome; learn how to make pasta in Venice; take in an opera at La Scala in Milan; gather with your family at a private villa on Sicily or Lake Como; or stroll holiday markets in the Dolomites.
France: Paris, Strasbourg’s holiday markets, even Provence
If you got shut out of France this summer because of sold-out hotels and exorbitant prices, now is your chance to book a December trip. The light in Provence in winter is why so many famous artists moved there, and this month is prime time for the region’s acclaimed truffles. Of course, Paris is fabulous for Christmas and New Year’s—the City of Lights gets even more dressed up for the holidays. France’s best Christmas markets are in Strasbourg and Colmar and run until December 24 and 29, respectively. If your trip dates include December 25 or 31, don’t worry that everything will be closed: The right expert can arrange a private cooking class on Christmas, or concert tickets on New Year’s Eve.
London for a festive Christmas
Enjoy a Dickensian Christmas in London, which puts on a display of spectacular lights and holiday markets. A knowledgeable local guide can make the city’s history come alive, whether via an after-hours tour of the Tower of London, an exploration of the city’s street-art scene, or a pub crawl to the best local watering holes.
A castle in the English countryside
Looking for a place to gather with extended family? Consider a stately home—even your very own castle—that suits a group of 16 or more in England. These houses are tastefully decorated throughout, tree and all, and come fully staffed, so you need not worry about cooking or cleaning over the holidays. Nearby you’ll often find Christmas markets to stroll, but you can just as easily stay on property and enjoy plenty of activities that bring your family together and put you in the Christmas spirit: wreath-making workshops, cocktail masterclasses, even a brass-band recital.
Central Europe’s Christmas markets
Many of Europe’s charming, illuminated Christmas markets close on December 24, but a growing number are staying open past the holiday. That’s true at many festive markets in Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Belgium. A savvy trip designer will work your itinerary to hit the markets that still have a truly local feel. If you’re near the Netherlands, don’t miss the Amsterdam Light Festival too; it runs until January 22.
Tropical Beaches and Seas
Belize, from coral reefs to jungle adventures
Nonstop flights to Belize take off from several U.S. cities that are only about three hours away. 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. Accommodations range from beach resorts to overwater bungalows to remote jungle tree houses. If you’re traveling the week leading up to Christmas, you can even charter your own private yacht to enjoy fabulous snorkeling, sunbathing, kayaking, and endless horizons.
Costa Rica, from cloud forests to volcanoes
From beach to cloud forest to volcanoes, Costa Rica packs a lot of highlights into a small country. The skies are generally dry in December, but the land is lush and green from the recent rainy season. If you’re having trouble finding hotel rooms for your family over the holidays, our experts can help: They’ve blocked rooms at their favorite properties expressly for you last-minute planners.
Panama for its marine life and prime surfing
Under-the-radar Panama has hotels and private villas on both the Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, which deserve to be better known for their diverse marine life and prime surfing spots. It also has verdant highland landscapes, VIP Panama Canal tours for would-be engineers, and coffee and chocolate fincas that will welcome you for tours and tastes.
Colombia for its vibrant cities and buzzing food and arts scenes
Colombia’s charms range from Bogota, sitting 8,000 feet up in the Andes, to Cartagena, with its charming walled Old City on the Caribbean coast. In between you’ll find boutique haciendas in the coffee regions, cable cars to scale the mountains around Medellin, and a rich diversity of wildlife. The interior cities are quieter over the holidays—a plus when it comes to exploring museums and navigating traffic—while places along the coast often demand multi-night stays. Not all of Cartagena’s beaches are alike; work with an expert to find the right strand for you.
Tahiti, Bora Bora, and the island paradise of French Polynesia
The islands usually book up early for the period between Christmas and New Year’s, but this year there is unexpected availability—even for New Year’s Eve at the Hotel Kia Ora on Rangiroa, which puts on one of the islands’ best celebrations with a fireworks show, dinner, and a band with Polynesian dancers. Rangiroa has the only vineyard and wine maker in French Polynesia, and the diving and snorkeling are spectacular.
The Maldives for private-island resorts
What better tropical getaway than jetting off to these idyllic islands in the Indian Ocean? Most are home to just a single resort, where you can spend your days snorkeling with manta rays, digging your toes into the sand at beachside restaurants, and relaxing in your private overwater bungalow. Pure bliss.
Canadian Rockies: Snowy Thrills
The Rockies are gorgeous when covered with snow, making them a winter wonderland for an active family: Think snowshoeing, sleigh rides, and ice canyons. You can go dogsledding near Lake Louise, cross-country skiing near Jasper, and snowmobiling outside Banff. Wind down your day in a cozy private cabin or a cushy resort with spa treatments to ease any sore spots from your adventures.
The Alps, from rustic huts to chic chalets
Wintertime Alpine fun comes in many flavors, from rustic huts on the Italian slopes to chic French ski towns to Zermatt’s après-ski scene. Whether you’re after a private guide to take you off-piste skiing, a hut-to-hut adventure, or a more civilized locale with options for non-skiiers, we can probably connect you with the right expert. Deciding between the Alps or a ski trip out west? You’ll pay more for the flights to Europe, but lift tickets there are considerably less expensive.
Norway: Northern lights, reindeer sledding, ice fishing
Consider a cozy adventure with your family in Norway: Ride a sled pulled by reindeer in search of the northern lights, go snowmobiling above the Arctic Circle, learn about the indigenous Sami culture, enjoy locally sourced meals inside your timber lodge or ice hotel, and warm up between outdoor pursuits in a wood-fired sauna. Here’s more on when and how to see the northern lights.
Antarctica cruises: penguins and a polar plunge
If seeing wildlife is your goal, the latter half of December is the very best time to cruise in Antarctica. By then, thousands of penguins, including their fluffy chicks, have made their home along the coastline, the sea ice has usually broken up enough to allow great access, and the weather is generally better than earlier or later in the season.
EXOTIC LANDS AND CULTURES
Thailand, for cultural and culinary adventure
Many of the finest properties and private guides in Southeast Asia are already booked for the holiday weeks. Since Thailand has the largest supply of both, that’s where you’re most likely to find last-minute availability. With a bit of flexibility, you can combine a few nights in Bangkok with cultural explorations up north in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, plus some beach time down south. (Fair warning: Many beach resorts require a five-night minimum stay.)
African safaris: Take advantage of “Green Season”
South Africa and Kenya are booked up, but there’s still availability in Botswana and Zimbabwe, where December falls during the “green season.” In return for the possibility of an afternoon or evening rain shower, you get lush vegetation (which makes for great photos), more prolific predators (because the grazing species are having their babies), and significantly lower rates at many camps and lodges.
Peru: Machu Picchu and beyond
Imagine spending the holidays at Machu Picchu, or riding the rails in luxury on the Andean Explorer train line from Cusco to Lake Titicaca to Arequipa. There can be afternoon showers in Peru at this time of year, but smart planning can focus your outdoor activities on the mornings. You can even hike the last few miles of the Inca Trail and arrive at Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate, which has a spectacular, panoramic view of the ruins.
Ecuador for hiking, horses, and hacienda life
Options are extremely limited in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands for the holiday weeks (availability is easier to come by at Galapagos hotels than for boat-based journeys), but mainland Ecuador is a good option, especially if you’re seeking affordability. December temperatures there are in the 70s. It’s easy to combine Quito’s Old Town with a historic hacienda in the nearby Andean highlands, where you can explore craft villages, hike in ecological reserves, and horseback ride on quilt-like pastures.
Mexico’s charming colonial cities (with award-winning cuisine)
Our southern neighbor is a perennial favorite for the winter holidays, but several corners of the country still have good availability in December. For gorgeous beaches and great dining options, head to the Riviera Nayarit, north of Puerto Vallarta, or to Los Cabos. For an urban experience without the crowds (because the locals are all at the beach), try Mexico City, where the springlike weather brings warm days and cool evenings. Southeast of the capital is Puebla, known for its colonial history, colorful architecture, and culinary and art scenes. And on the Yucatán Peninsula there’s Mérida, a hotspot during both the Mayan and colonial eras, today rich in history and culture.
Sri Lanka: safe, welcoming, fascinating
The political unrest is over, but Sri Lanka has yet to see tourism bounce back. That’s great news for intrepid travelers: Many hotels aren’t charging peak rates, and the dollar is very strong against the rupee. Combine the country’s cultural landmarks with a scenic train ride and incredible hikes through tea plantations in the hill country, then overnight in a tented “cocoon” near a national park that abuts the ocean and offers frequent leopard sightings.
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