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WOW Christmas Experiences: How Your Fellow Travelers Have Spent the Holiday Abroad

by Brook Wilkinson | May 26, 2023

Are you considering a holiday trip, but anxious about what Christmas Eve and Christmas Day might look like when you’re so far from home? Read on to see how some of our travelers spent those days in 2021 and 2022—enjoying festive meals, making new friends, and sharing in local traditions, all thanks to the insider connections of the folks on our WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts.

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Portugal: Lisbon and Sintra with a family of 14

Goncalo and Patricia planned an incredible Christmas Eve day and evening! We started our day with our loved tour guide Rita who took us to Sintra, her hometown! We toured Beister’s Palace and Gardens. It is a hidden gem! Rita showed us the perfect pastry shop to buy what she translated as ‘pillows!’ They were so good! She sent us on our way to the coastal small city of Azenhas do Mar for our Christmas Eve lunch. The view is stunning and the food so delicious. Christmas was a great celebration for us at our hotel, The Lumiares Hotel, in Lisbon. Most everything is closed, so Goncalo and Patricia made sure the hotel we were at had a very special Christmas dinner and set a time that would be enjoyable for our family of fourteen. We travelled with our four children, their spouses and four grandchildren ages 6, 3, 1 1/2 and 3 months. We loved it! It was beautifully decorated and festive with crackers on the table for everyone. The set menu was incredible. They were very flexible for the grandchildren. We loved eating foods we had never had before that were as beautiful to look at as good to eat! They provided a vegetarian option for our daughter to enjoy as well! It was a very Merry Christmas Eve!

Our family had a wonderful time traveling over Christmas! We had not exchanged gifts with each other in the States before leaving but shopped through our trip and exchanged gifts on New Year’s Day! It was so much fun! Each gift meaningful and thoughtful and from Portugal and/or Spain. Those gifts will be a great reminder of our incredible time together.” — Michelle Bodine

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Vienna: “key to making it feel like a family Christmas…”

“Christmas Eve we went to Midnight Mass at St Stephen’s Cathedral, as suggested by Gwen. It was lovely. Long and late, but great. For Christmas Day, Gwen had recommended the Christmas Brunch at the Grand Hotel just down the street. That was excellent. We hadn’t realized that it was a massive celebratory meal so didn’t budget the three hours that others seemed to be settling in for, but the food, room, service, etc. were great. As Vienna reopens early on the 25th, we went off to Schonbron Palace and then had a great dinner at Chez Bernard, at the Motto Hotel. We were a group of seven, so I had booked a suite for our stay at the Bristol to provide room for stockings and presents, and that was key to making it feel like a family Christmas.” —James Thomas

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Australia: “breathtaking” helicopter ride over the 12 Apostles

two women in a helicopter flying over the 12 apostles

WOW Moment: A helicopter ride over the 12 Apostles. Photo: Jennifer Mann

“We began our trip in Melbourne, where Liz picked us up at the airport and we were on our way to tour, hoping to see some of the city before things shut down for Christmas the following day. On Christmas Day, we drove the Great Ocean Road outside of the city and were completely surprised with a WOW Moment of a helicopter ride over the 12 Apostles. It was breathtaking!” — Jennifer Mann

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Morocco: private jet to the Sahara, ATVs, and a traditional Berber lunch

Lauren Schor and family on ATV's in the Sahara desert

Riding ATVs over sand dunes in the Sahara. Photo: Lauren Schor

“We do not celebrate Christmas but actually had our favorite, most memorable day of the trip to Morocco on Christmas! Christmas Eve was our last night in Fes and our riad had a special dinner, a Moroccan feast with all of the local dishes. They had a henna artist as well, which the moms and teen girls in our group did. Christmas morning we flew on a private jet to the Sahara Desert, where we were transferred to a secluded oasis for a traditional Berber lunch in the middle of the desert. After lunch, we drove through the desert for a couple of hours taking in the scenery until we arrived at a small group of tents where Berber nomadic families live. We were served traditional Moroccan mint tea by the matriarch of the family, her twenty-something-year-old daughter and her toddler granddaughter. Through our guide translating, we learned how they live (without running water or electricity), how they get food and the basic things they need and how they spend their days. We were able to ask them questions and spend time learning about their way of life. This was very eye-opening, especially for the teenagers in our family. We felt sad for them, but they seemed perfectly content with their lives.

After this very memorable experience, it was time for adventure! We suited up for riding ATV’s through the gorgeous sand dunes of the Sahara—it was both thrilling and terrifying at the same time. It felt like we were driving through the pages of National Geographic magazine—we couldn’t believe where we were. At the end of our drive we were dropped off to a group of camels who had been waiting for us. We rode the camels to the top of a sand dune to watch the most unbelievable sunset—there is nothing quite like a sunset in the Sahara, truly a magical experience and a dream come true. The camels then took us directly to our luxury tented camp, home for the evening. We were treated to a fabulous dinner, we still have no idea how they managed to cook such a feast in the middle of the desert. After dinner there was live Berber music around a campfire and the most unreal stargazing any of us had ever seen. And then we got to sleep in our luxury tents in the middle of the Sahara desert—it was most definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a Christmas to remember!” — Lauren Schor

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Chile: a solo adventure making new friends

A chef picking strawberries

Harvesting ingredients for a private cooking class at Viña Vik. Photo: Jeannie Mullen

“When it comes to the holidays, my family and friends have always thought that being away from home over Christmas and New Years, in a foreign country no less, is unusual, sad even. But I find it exactly the opposite. Holiday travel is my gift to myself. It’s also a great time to see how and when other cultures observe these same holidays (a great example is Russia, where Christmas is celebrated on January 7 on the Gregorian calendar). While I always look forward to learning about and experiencing these holidays, I also bring reminders from home (small, packable things like Christmas cards and small gifts) to open on Christmas morning.

In 2021 I spent Christmas at Viña Vik, a lovely vineyard property in the wine country south of Santiago. The staff organized a cocktail party with live music before dinner on Christmas Eve. I met the majority of the other hotel guests there, which was a lot of fun and easy to do. Everyone, including the staff, was in a festive holiday spirit and dressed accordingly. Among those that I met that night were members of a multigenerational Chilean family that sought me out the following morning at breakfast to officiate a family dispute about a Christmas gift.

On Christmas Day I took a private cooking class with a local chef. We toured Vik’s organic garden, harvesting the ingredients for lunch: strawberry, cucumber and tomato gazpacho, and sweet potato gnocchi, paired with Vik wines. It was a lovely experience with a truly delightful young man. Afterward I took a long hike in and around the Vik vineyards and the natural reserve.” — Jeannie Mullen

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Thailand honeymoon: longtail boat around Bangkok, local lunch, and visiting the Royal Palace

“On Christmas Eve, we had a fun street-eats tour of Bangkok, and on Christmas Day, we had a great time taking a traditional boat ride around Bangkok, a great local lunch, and capped off with us visiting the Royal Palace. Our hotel (the Kimpton Maa-Lai, a fantastic choice) was very in the Christmas spirit, so we had an amazing experience.” — Ryan Dierker

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Italy: ski resort with a strong holiday spirit

Philip Goldman and his family celebrating Christmas in Italy. Photo: Philip Goldman

Jennifer booked us at Le Massif Courmayeur, nestled on the Italian side of Mont Blanc. The location is stunning, and the town was bustling with holiday travelers taking advantage of the ski slopes, abundant dining options, and shops. I expect Courmayeur is the toy poodle capital of Europe! Le Massif has a lodge at the top of the ski lifts with a remarkable restaurant (try the seafood) and views that can’t be beat. We decided to take it easy and booked the Christmas Eve dinner (feast?) at the hotel and were not disappointed.” — Philip Goldman

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Chile: glaciers, hiking, & a Hannukah to remember

Boat ride on Lago Grey in Patagonia

Barbara Schoenfeld and her husband on Lago Grey in Patagonia on Christmas Eve. Photo: Barbara Schoenfeld

“On the day of Christmas Eve, we took a boat ride on Lago Grey in Patagonia to see the glacier. The boat pulled close enough to the shore that we were able to observe the deep blue fissures in the ice. A few of the crew disembarked onto the beach, hacked chunks of ice and hauled it up onto the boat on their shoulders. When on deck, they shattered it with picks and packed most of it up to transport to the hotel. They set aside a stash for the boat’s bartender to use for drinks during the return trip. I’m sure my pisco sour would have been delicious anyway, but it was super-special served over ancient glacier ice. I chose the pink one, flavored with the Rica-Rica herb that grows in the Atacama desert. At dinnertime back at the hotel that evening, the only decision we had to make was the meat menu or the vegetarian. I said no thank you to guanaco carpaccio and went with the veggies instead.

During the day on Christmas Day, my family split up among different excursions. On one extreme, my son and girlfriend did a 10-hour hike up a steep hill, while I chose a pretty flat hike in the morning followed by horseback riding in the afternoon. My hiking trail led me by the vista depicted on the 1000 peso note. The money shot!

We celebrate Hannukah, and our first night there was December 23. The hotel served a barbecue of roasted lamb in one of the outbuildings on the property. I had packed a small Hannukah menorah and perched it on the edge of our table. We lit the candles and recited the Hannukah blessings with the other family in the barbecue — turns out they were Jewish as well. Small world.” — Barbara Schoenfeld

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Cambodia: sunrise over Angkor Wat

Susan Bailey and family riding in an ox cart in Cambodia on Christmas Eve. Photo: Susan Bailey

“On Christmas Eve we had quite an exploration in the countryside. We were taught how to make some reed Christmas ornaments by a local family, took a hilarious ride in an ox cart and then enjoyed an outdoor dinner at sunset. We ended that event a little early because the hotel where we were staying (Jaya House River Park) had planned a surprise event. We arrived back to find a cocktail party in the restaurant, which had been transformed into a hanging ice-art exhibition surrounded by dry ice and a shallow moat. Quite an impressive feat!

Sunrise over Angkor Wat was on Christmas morning. It was a beautiful, peaceful way to celebrate the day. Our family does celebrate Christmas and we enjoyed doing it in a completely nontraditional way this year.” — Susan Bailey

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South Africa: Cape Town interlude between safari camps

Mike Modak and his family in Cape Town with a beautiful landscape in the background.

Mike Modak and his wife in Cape Town’s Cape Point Nature Reserve. Photo: Mike Modak

“We spent a relaxing Christmas at the Cape Town One & Only hotel. This was a welcome break between our visits to a number of safari camps. After a nice tour of the city on Christmas Eve, we returned to our room to find a ‘Christmas in Africa’ manger, as well as a nice selection of treats. On Christmas day, the already extravagant breakfast buffet went even further with wonderful Christmas cakes and pastries. But the real treat was the small choir singing Christmas carols from a staircase that overlooked the restaurant. After breakfast we had a walk to the waterfront shopping district, which featured a large Christmas tree decorated with drawings of the faces of local grade-school students. We ended the day with a wonderful dinner at Nobu in the hotel. This was a great rest before heading out the next day on the Rovos Rail to Pretoria.” — Mike Modak

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Argentina: “wonderful dinner, followed by desserts until well past midnight”

“We were at the Xelenia Hotel in El Calafate over Christmas and they had an entire program laid out. Fantastic hors d’oeuvres followed by a (very late) wonderful dinner, followed by desserts until well past midnight. They celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, so it was festive and the staff looked exhausted the next morning.” — Gigi Coe

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Ecuador: festive decorations and energy in Quito’s plazas

Robyn Smyers and family in Galapagos with a beautiful landscape in the background.

Robyn Smyers and family in the Galapagos on Christmas Day. Photo: Robyn Smyers

“On Christmas day, we traveled from Quito to the Galapagos, and had our first outing on one of the islands. It was a travel day with some wonderful highlights at the end. But it didn’t really have any special Christmas elements. As a general matter, we did enjoy the Christmas spirit in Ecuador. The energy in the public plazas in Quito were fun and there were lots of decorations. Also on San Cristobal Island.” — Robyn Smyers 

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