The last month of the year brings with it plenty of travel opportunities, be they to visit family for the holiday season or eke out those last days of PTO. Plus, the ultimate travel consideration: Where will you ring in the New Year? On the shores of a far-flung beach in the southern hemisphere, where you’ll be able to catch some winter sun? Bundled up next to your sweetheart and a crackling fire at a lodge in Colorado? No matter what kind of travels you’re looking for, one of these picks is sure to hit the spot.
December is great for: devoted divers
December means the beginning of dry season in Belize (and also the beginning of high season, which lasts until April). Go early in the month to avoid the onslaught of crowds while also enjoying the pleasant weather, which is ideal for all the country’s water activities.
With countless islands and atolls along Belize’s Barrier Reef, there’s no limit to diving and snorkeling opportunities. From Belize City, Ambergris Caye is one of the closest and most popular destinations for both. It’s home to the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, a protected area with dive sites for all experience levels, including Shark Ray Alley, where visitors can get face-to-face with friendly nurse sharks (!) and stingrays.
Another iconic dive site is the famous Great Blue Hole. As the world’s largest underwater sinkhole, it’s an almost perfect circle with a fringing reef around its edges. Divers can explore the limestone formations inside the Blue Hole, occasionally spotting sharks in the deep water (while impressive and worth bragging rights, the hole doesn’t offer a lot of fish). Because the Great Blue Hole is far offshore, it requires a full-day boat trip that often includes dives at other reef sites around Lighthouse Atoll.
Hamanasi Resort, on the south coast, offers the best of both water and land, with tours featuring diving and snorkeling on the barrier reef, hiking in the jaguar preserve, and trips to the ruins of Xunantunich.
December is great for: shopping fiends
The splashiest of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, Dubai has awesome food, world-class nightlife, and unparalleled shopping. December is the perfect time of year to go: The weather is warm but not scorching (more in the 80-degree ballpark), and on December 2, the country celebrates National Day with fireworks and dance shows.
Perhaps more exciting, though, is the biannual shopping festival, which kicks off on December 26 and features huge sales, fashion shows, and raffles around the city. With its labyrinth of 1,200 stores, the Dubai Mall is the Smithsonian of shopping, and also counts a three-story aquarium with sharks and rays, a genuine dinosaur skeleton, and an Olympic-size ice rink among its attractions.
For a more unique shopping experience, head to the Ibn Battuta Mall, the world’s largest themed shopping emporium, and travel in the footsteps of its namesake 14th-century Arab explorer who traveled for 24 years in six different areas of the world. The mall represents each of the six regions, with lavishly decorated courts inspired by Egypt, Tunisia, China, India, Persia, and Andalusia.
And when you’ve gotten your fill of retail, indulge in some me-time at a day spa. The One&Only Spa at the Royal Mirage is justly famous for its traditional Oriental Hammam, and Six Senses Spa at the Renaissance Downtown Hotel is an intimate retreat with half a dozen treatment suites, each decorated and equipped with a particular sense in mind.
December is great for: snow bunnies
Ski season begins in earnest in December, but this month hotel prices aren’t as exorbitant as in January and February. Typically it’s best to book lodging a couple months in advance (so 2018 hotel availability might already be limited), but there are still plenty of Airbnbs up for grabs for December 2018. Note that the prices rise the closer to Christmas and New Year’s it gets. With 5,200 acres of terrain specifically developed for skiing and snowboarding, Vail is one of the largest ski resort areas in the United States (the 370 inches of snow a year helps, too). The area includes comfortable ski lift access to gentle and steep slopes, wide runs, and narrow chutes.
To explore Vail’s vast bowls, with their powdery snow and easy navigability, head over to the lift-access Mongolia Bowl or take the free snowcat access to Tucker Mountain at Copper Ski Resort. Steep and moderate slopes are found off of Vail’s Wildwood Express Lift or Beaver Creek’s Bird of Prey lift (where the 2015 Skiing World Championships were held). These runs are groomed to perfection for setting an edge and carving sweet turns.
All those runs are fine and dandy for the experienced skier or snowboarder, but what about beginners? Fret not, because Vail and other nearby ski areas like Beaver Creek and Copper Mountain have plenty of beginner terrain.
December is great for: art lovers, market mavens
Vienna is a city for time travelers—marvel at a palace from the Hapsburg Empire, explore Roman ruins, or walk out of a medieval church tucked in a back alley, and throughout December, Vienna’s famous Christmas markets populate the city’s streets.
Spittelberg has a Christmas market, but there are numerous other holiday markets in Vienna, including the Christmas Village on the grounds of the old hospital; Christkindlmarkt Rathausplatz, Vienna’s most popular holiday market; and the Christmas market at Schloss Schönbrunn, with the palace as its backdrop. All have decorations, caroling, roasted chestnuts, and stands selling warm mugs of mulled wine.
A fun shopping quest is to pick up a snow globe, which was invented in Austria. You can purchase one of more than 350 designs at the Snow Globe Museum (and learn about their history at the same time).
When you want to get inside, head to Vienna’s Museum Quarter. Start your explorations with the Museum of Art History, where the collection rivals anything in New York or Paris and art lovers can see masterworks like Brueghel’s Tower of Babel in person. KunstHausWien showcases the bright organic work of Austrian painter and architect Hundertwasser and his contemporaries—kids will enjoy his whimsical colors, shapes, and fantastical environments. Gustav Klimt’s iconic paintings hang at the Belvedere Museum and Palace, and for those who love functional design, the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) exhibits furniture, tableware, textiles, and printing.
December is great for: beach bums
December may be high season Down Under, but a trip to Sydney is worth the cost for two reasons: to see New Year’s Eve fireworks above the harbor and to soak up winter sunshine.
For Sydney beachgoers, to say you are spoiled for choice is a bit of an understatement. The city boasts more than 100 beaches within easy reach of the Central Business District (CBD), ranging from picturesque coves to pounding surf spots. Iconic Bondi Beach is one of the world’s best strands. Sure, it can get crowded, but its laid-back vibe and sapphire ocean are always appealing. There are family-friendly ocean pools at either end, or stay between the flags for the safest swimming.
The 10-mile clifftop Bondi to Coogee coastal walk will take you to some of Sydney’s other beaches. Starting at Bondi, you’ll pass beautiful Tamarama Beach, quiet and unpretentious Bronte Beach, tranquil Clovelly Beach, secluded Gordon’s Bay (great for snorkeling when the sea is calm), and, finally, Coogee Beach.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
December is great for: culture vultures
Another killer spot for December travel is Rio, which earns its nickname as “The Marvelous City.” Perched between the ocean and rain forest–cloaked mountains, it has been given UNESCO World Heritage status for its natural beauty, culture of outdoor living, and the inspiration it provides artists and musicians.
Don’t miss the Museu de Arte Contemporânea Niterói, nicknamed MAC Niterói, housing the nation’s second-largest collection of modern works. The best way to get there from Rio is by ferry. Designed by legendary Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, this swooping UFO-shaped structure occupies a sea cliff and frames panoramic views of Rio across Guanabara Bay.
Rio’s beaches offer a nice way to unwind from the urban sprawl. Kick back with a biscoito globo, a crunchy seaside snack, washed down with coconut water or iced maté. Manioc flour forms these airy, ring-shaped biscuits, which can be salty or sweet.
End the year at Copacabana Beach when two million people throng its sands to welcome new horizons at the celebration, dubbed Réveillon, complete with bands and fireworks. The next morning, celebrants wear white, charge into the ocean, and hop over seven waves to please the sea goddess at the lovely Festa de Iemanjá. They also send tributes and petitions sailing off in small ocean-going boats, hoping that they return as that means their prayers will be answered.
December is great for: design hounds, dance fiends
Perhaps the biggest reason to visit Miami in December is for Art Basel, the premier art show in the Americas, when the international art world descends upon the city to buy, sell, and party. This year it runs December 6–9 in Miami Beach.
But any visit to Miami isn’t complete without checking out the 800-plus Art Deco buildings in South Beach. Among the most famous to look for are the Colony Theatre on Lincoln Road, the 1936 Breakwater Hotel, and The Carlyle hotel, which adheres beautifully to the “rule of three,” one of Art Deco’s style principles, which stipulates repeating decorative elements in groups of three.
The city also has an Art Deco District Walk, which is a self-guided, four-mile, out-and-back trail that will take you past most of the highlights. For a more in-depth history of the movement and Miami’s important role in it, consider signing up for a guided walking tour of the area with Art Deco Tours.
Miami’s Cuban community also plays a huge role in the city’s culture. In Little Havana, murals decorate many of the side streets off the main drag, Calle Ocho, and music flows. Right along Calle Ocho in Little Havana, the city’s historic Cuban neighborhood, Hoy Como Ayer serves up straight-from-Havana musicians, flowing rum drinks, and a nonstop party vibe every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. Have a bite at El Exquisito or Ahi Sushi Miami to keep you fueled for your next salsa dance—or just another day at the beach.
December is great for: theater buffs, artisan admirers
December in London has a certain kind of magic—twinkle lights hang in the streets, a giant menorah and Christmas tree stand in Trafalgar Square, and carol singing wafts in the air. For music and theater lovers, a night out is a special way to spend a long winter evening. The West End is home to more than 40 theaters alone, and this season patrons can see the landmark A Christmas Carol, edgy comedy The Night Before Christmas, and Doctor Faustus onstage.
The English capital is a stellar place to finish holiday shopping, too. London has long been home to tailors, who began creating garments there in the 18th century, and a new class of artisans is bringing bespoke goods to the fore. For luxury, you can’t go wrong on posh Bond Street, renowned for exclusive brands and designer luxury labels, including the U.K.’s own Alexander McQueen. Meanwhile, Mayfair is chock-full of high-end shops: Vivienne Westwood’s Flagship Store is a top destination for her rebellious statement pieces.
For an extra wintery outing, head to some of the city’s Christmas markets or, better yet, go ice-skating at one of the many rinks throughout the city, in the shadow of places such as the Tower of London and the Museum of Natural History.
December is great for: foodies, the life of the party
In December, Sin City welcomes tons of travelers looking to start the New Year in style. Because after all, Vegas has almost anything you can dream of to usher out the last month of the year: world-renowned food, global superstar performers, and a dazzling fireworks spectacular on New Year’s Eve.
The famous neon lights of Las Vegas have drawn many of the world’s top chefs and bartenders to open outposts in the major casinos. Illustrious French chef Guy Savoy re-creates the cuisine of his eponymous Paris flagship restaurant in Caesars Palace. Picasso in the Bellagio surrounds diners with—what else?—Picasso paintings, and satisfies the palate with a fusion of Spanish and French dishes. This year, the NoMad opened its first Nevada restaurant location, and a 40,000-square-foot Eataly will open its doors on December 27 in the Park MGM.
As for entertainment options, Las Vegas has an array of unique shows and musical residencies you can’t see anywhere else. Yes, there are six permanent Cirque du Soleil shows to choose from, including O (in which the stage is partly a pool of water), Zumanity (Cirque’s adults-only show), and The Beatles tribute show Love. Concerts starring global sensations abound (case in point: Just in time for the New Year, Lady Gaga begins a residency at the Park MGM).
December is great for: seafood and snorkeling fans
Besides December beach time here, away from the shore you can amble among the formal plantings of the Queen Elizabeth Botanical Gardens, learn about the islands’ history at Pedro St. James—the oldest house in the Caymans—and explore the Crystal Caves, hidden deep in a lush forest. Romance blossoms against the white-sand beaches, while families bond over stingrays and water fun.
The Cayman Islands make a pretty solid claim on being the culinary capital of the Caribbean. Celebrity chefs helm top restaurants on the island. For example, Blue by Eric Ripert has a menu built around locally fished and responsibly sourced seafood, with a raw bar and six- and seven-course tasting menus. VIVO, located in the village of West Bay on Grand Cayman’s northwest coast, has made “eat them to beat them” a menu mission. Discover a variety of dishes featuring the invasive lionfish, a menace to the local reefs. Locals swear by the fried snapper escovitch sandwich at the Boggy Sand Caribbean Kitchen and the conch soup and fish fry at Heritage Kitchen by the Sea.
To spend some time in the waves, you don’t have to go far. Both Grand Cayman’s North Wall and Little Cayman’s Bloody Bay Wall plunge 6,000 feet into the deep, with eagle rays and sea turtles hanging out to greet the divers. The North Wall is also home to Stingray City and the Stingray City Sandbar, with the latter the better choice for snorkelers. The Bloody Bay Wall is a favorite with divers, with colorful sponges, sheer drop-offs, and plenty of gorgeous fish. Meanwhile, popular wreck dives include a former submarine rescue ship, the USS Kittiwake, which now rests permanently on the ocean floor, and the Captain Keith Tibbetts, a Russian frigate scuttled off Cayman Brac in 1996. Snorkelers can ogle the harmless southern stingrays at Stingray City, meander over the reefs of Cayman Brac, and swim among bonefish, queen conch, and parrot fish at Little Cayman’s tranquil Point of Sand.
>>Next: The 10 Best Places to Travel This Winter
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