Best Not-So-White Christmases
We’ll leave it to Bing Crosby to dream about a White Christmas: our fantasies at this time of year tend to involve swaying palm trees and balmy beaches. But that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy all the fun and festivity of the holiday season while also getting a warm weather fix. Emma Sloley outlines a can’t-miss list of the world’s best sunny spots, from Christmas barbecues on the beach in South Africa to fireworks, caviar and champagne in the Caribbean
This Spanish Colonial gem on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is festival-crazy year-round, but never more so than during the holidays, when gatherings in the parks and plazas of the centro historico reach a fever pitch. Reserve some fancy digs at Mansion Merida on the Park, a restored 19th century mansion on Parque Hidalgo in downtown, then join the locals celebrating Los Posadas (nine days of candlelit processions and parties leading up to Christmas), Las Pastorelas with shepherd’s plays enacted around town, and Candlemas and Los Reyes Magos, religious rituals stretching into the new year that culminate in tamale parties on February 2. Added bonus: December and January are some of the best weather months on the peninsula, with balmy temperatures hitting highs in the 70s and 80s.
Jetlag be damned: the holiday season down under is a months-long celebration of sun, sand and sea that will make you rethink the concept of White Christmas for good. Celebrate the big day like a local with a picnic on one Sydney's more than 100 beaches. Next up is Boxing Day (December 26), when you can watch the start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, which sails down to Tasmania. Stay in Sydney through New Years, booking a suite at the Intercontinental Sydney for front row seats to the fireworks that light up Sydney Harbour every New Year’s Eve. An illuminated flotilla of over 40 boats is bookended by fireworks at both 9 pm and midnight (guests can reserve space on board the vessels).
It’s no surprise that this Latin-influenced party town goes all in for the holiday season, but it’s not just sun-seeking grown-ups that can take advantage of the city’s parties and festivities. The fun starts in November with the annual opening of Santa's Enchanted Forest, the largest holiday theme park in the world. Taste your way through the city's ethnic holiday fare, from coquito (Puerto Rico's answer to egg nog) to Cuban-style whole roasted pigs made on La Caja China. South Beach icon the Fontainebleau pulls out all the stops for the holidays with a non-stop roster of diversions at its Kids Camp, from carnival nights to gingerbread house decorating sessions. Parents can celebrate the traditional Dongzhi, or Winter Solstice Festival, at the hotel’s cult Chinese restaurant Hakkasan, which offers modern Chinese dishes like foie gras Shanghai dumplings and wok-baked lobster.
Spend the holidays in one of the world’s hottest emerging travel destinations and get a double dose of happiness, thanks to Granada’s fusion of laid-back lifestyle and cultural wealth. This charming Spanish Colonial city in the shadow of the imposing Mombacho Volcano offers highly Instagrammable streetscapes of cobblestoned lanes lined with pastel-colored homes and churches, along with splendid natural scenery thanks to the famed “Isletas” of Lake Nicaragua, close to the heart of downtown. Reserve one of nine luxury casitas at eco-lodge Jicaro Island, set on its own private island just a short boat ride from the city center. The resort can arrange day-long guided tours to the Masaya market, a popular open-air village marketplace where you can stock up on one-of-a-kind holiday gifts made by Nicaraguan artisans.
While award-winning hideaway Jade Mountain is best loved by honeymooners, it’s also a great base from which to explore the pinch-yourself beauty of this lush island. Each year locals go all out during the holidays, kicking off with the Festival of Lights and Renewal on December 12, when people bring hundreds of lanterns to The Derek Walcott Square in Castries. Then on Christmas Eve, St. Lucians get dressed up in their best finery to attend midnight mass, held at the many Roman Catholic churches around the island. On New Year’s Eve, head to the village of Rodney Bay, in the northwest of the island, to watch the fireworks and dance from the clubhouse of the St. Lucia Yacht Club, which hosts a party each year.
Turks & Caicos
This lively yet laid-back island nation gets taken over by high spirits during the festive season with a host of activities and events that blend New World traditions and West African heritage. On Boxing Day (December 26), islanders hold their annual Turks and Caicos “Maskanoo” or “Masquerade of the Masses,” a festival started by 19th century slaves as an answer to the traditional British costume balls: expect parades, music and revelry in the streets of the capital of Providenciales. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, the downtown erupts with the frenzy of “The Junkanoo,” a traditional parade–considered the Turks and Caicos equivalent of Mardi Gras—with masks, elaborate costumes, and instruments. Bed down after the celebrations at the famed Grace Bay Club, an 11-acre luxe retreat where you can make your resolutions over cocktails at the stunning “Infiniti Bar,” an al fresco lounging area whose sleek bar stretches onto the shores of Grace Bay.
Cape Town, South Africa
Christmas and New Year coincide with summer in Cape Town, so celebrate as South Africans do by hitting the beach and then attending a braai, or barbecue. The Belmond Mount Nelson offers an upscale version of the tradition, held just before Christmas on the lawns above the tennis courts. Guests can tuck into African delicacies like peri-peri chicken wings, braai’ing rib-eye steaks, spicy boerewors and Karoo lamb cutlets. Catch an outdoor Carols by Candlelight concert in the stunning Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in the shadow of Table Mountain. Or head down to the V&A Waterfront to watch an al fresco holiday flick.
Few islands get into the festive spirit in a more, well, spirited way than Jamaica. At iconic hideaway Round Hill Hotel and Villas there are a full two weeks of activities every year during the holidays, from Christmas caroling at the villas to Santa Claus arriving at the resort via boat on Christmas afternoon bearing gifts for the kids, then a New Year’s Eve ball with fireworks and dancing to the island’s premier show band. Other fun seasonal activities include chef cooking demonstrations and dining in the organic vegetable garden and a range of activities for mini-travelers including magic shows, karaoke and movie nights.
For those whose Caribbean tastes run more to caviar and fast cars, the soigné island of St. Barthélemy offers holiday diversions aplenty. At the Christopher Saint Barth, a family-friendly but totally stylin’ retreat in Point Milou on the island’s swanky northeast shore, both Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve are celebrated in a particularly Gallic way–that is, with lashings of champagne and foie gras. Join in the degustation fun, which is followed on the last day of the year by fireworks. Or if you’d prefer to party your way into the new year, join the pretty people at Nikki Beach, a Euro-fabulous beach club on the gorgeous sands of Saint Jean that hosts a legendary NYE dance party.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Forget Mardi Gras. We’re more partial to NOLA during the holidays, when the city comes alive with festive cheer. The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans gets thoroughly into the spirit of the season, decking the halls with giant wreaths, garlands and dozens of Christmas trees, including a 40-foot showstopper in the courtyard. The hotel hosts a cookie decorating “Papa Noel” holiday event, where aspiring chefs can also turn their hands to creating their own traditional gingerbread houses. Even the spa warms to the holiday theme, offering a “Holiday Apothecary Bar” showcasing warming and soothing seasonal treats. If you visit earlier in December, head out to Riverwalk’s Spanish Plaza for outdoor movie showings of seasonal favorites like The Polar Express and Elf, then admire over a million twinkling lights along Canal Street, lit every year in late November.
If really getting off the beaten track is your jam, you can’t beat South America for a muy caliente escape from winter’s chills. Hole up in Mendoza, Argentina’s postcard-perfect wine region, and experience the festive season with plenty of cheer – courtesy of the country’s famous grape variety Malbec. At the cozy-chic Entres Cielos Wine Resort guests can have a wine country adventure like no other, touring the wine region in a vintage Deux Cheveaux, enjoying a picnic among the vines then having a private wine tasting back at the lodge with the sommelier against the arresting backdrop of the snow-capped Andes. A White Christmas view with shorts-and-tee-shirts temps? Now that's a Christmas miracle.