WHY: The North Country doubles for the North Pole. Bonfires and Cognac at Mirror Lake. Ice-skating lessons with Olympic athletes. Santa arriving by snowmobile.
WHERE TO STAY: Holidays at the Point (Saranac Lake; 800/255-3530 or 518/891-5674; doubles from $1,000, three-night minimum) mean snowshoeing on private trails and 24-hour infusions of hot chocolate. A 15-foot balsam pine, hung with rough-hewn ornaments, dominates the lodge's Great Hall. Each of the 11 lavish rooms also has a decorated tree. Or snuggle under goose down in a rustic cottage at the equally divine Lake Placid Lodge (Whiteface Inn Rd., Lake Placid; 518/523-2700; doubles from $325, three-night minimum).
CHRISTMAS DINNER: Reserve a table in the birch-bark-walled wine cellar at Lake Placid Lodge and ask Celtic harpist Martha Gallagher to pluck holiday tunes as you dine on oyster "cappuccino," duck prosciutto, seared venison loin, and chocolate-pecan bourbon cake (prix fixe dinner for two $190).
PASSING THE TORCH: En route to Salt Lake City, the Olympic flame will pass through Lake Placid, on December 29. Stick around to watch the U.S. women's hockey team clash with Russia, as well as the annual New Year's 90-meter ski jump event.
IT'S ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE: Skip the horse-drawn-sleigh ride and rocket down Mount Van Hoevenberg on a half-mile bobsled run—with a professional driver and brakeman, of course—at speeds up to 60 mph (Olympic Regional Development Authority; 518/523-1655; $30).
STOCKING STUFFERS: Pick up miniature moose head and birch-bark canoe ornaments at the Adirondack Store (109 Saranac Ave., Lake Placid; 518/523-2646), which also sells swank beaver fur throws, sweet-smelling balsam pillows, and Tupper Lake artist Jean Armstrong's quirky birch boxes.
BEST LIGHTS: Forget sleep on a midnight clear—you never know when miracles can happen. The aurora borealis has been spotted shimmering above the High Peaks in early winter (cross your fingers for the rare convergence of a night with no snowfall and solar flare activity).
CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN: The Adirondack Mountain Club (518/668-4447; www.adk.org) sponsors guided hikes, backcountry-skiing workshops, and seminars on wilderness survival. Earn bragging rights, and the club's coveted Van Dyke Winter Peaks Award (a Boy Scout—style patch), by scaling five mountains, including Marcy or Algonquin, on skis or snowshoes before winter ends. —Shane Mitchell
WHY: Tenth-century Mayan ruins and turquoise waters. Exchanging the chaotic revelry in nearby Cancn for secluded coves and star-studded nights.
WHERE TO STAY: Tuck yourself into a hammock on a private porch fronting one of the 17 colorful rooms at Las Ranitas (Km 9, Tulum and Punta Allen Rds.; phone and fax 52-987/78554; email@example.com; doubles from $200, six-night minimum), and drift off to the lapping tide. Candles light late evenings at the eight thatched casitas of Cabañas La Conchita (Km 5, Tulum and Boca Paila Rds.; firstname.lastname@example.org; doubles from $107, seven-night minimum); electricity is generated between 6 and 10 p.m. only. Palm fronds are all that protect the palapas (beach huts) from the sea breezes at Cabañas Copal (Km 5, Tulum and Ruinas Rds.; email@example.com; doubles from $40)—which is exactly the point.
CHRISTMAS DINNER: Don Cafeto (64 Tulum Rd.; 52-987/12207; dinner for two $30) serves sopa sochil, a flavorful stew of chicken, avocado, and rice.
LOCAL TRADITIONS: Church bells ring through the plaza at midnight on Christmas Eve while children bat at piñatas bought from Pool Fruitera (Tulum Rd., next to L'Hotelito Hotel). Every morning, visitors pack into a large palapa at the Maya Tulum resort (Km 7, Tulum and Boca Paila Rds.; 888/515-4580; $90) to attend hour-long yoga sessions ($8).
BEST GIFT: Retablos, small paintings with religious themes ($40), from Mixik (Tulum Rd., across from the bus station; 52-987/12136).
BEST GIFT TO YOURSELF: A seaside deep-tissue massage at Maya Tulum.
BEST OUTING: Rent a bike from Punta Piedra (Km 5, Tulum and Ruinas Rds.; no phone; $8 per half-day) and pedal out of town to take a plunge in a sapphire cenote, or freshwater sinkhole.—Heidi Sherman
WHY: The freshest sushi, instead of roast turkey. Gift wrapping elevated to the highest level. An extraordinary light show on city streets (even though December 25 in Japan is business as usual).
WHERE TO STAY: It has to be the Park Hyatt Tokyo (3-7-1-2 Nishi-Shinjuku; 800/233-1234; doubles from $410). The view from the top, 52 stories up, is a spiderweb of lights. The Four Seasons Hotel (2-10-8 Sekiguchi; 800/332-3442; doubles from $390) caters to the traditional set with a Christmas choral show.
CHRISTMAS DINNER: The New York Grill (Park Hyatt Tokyo; 81-3/5322-1234; dinner for two $310) goes over the top with rich foie gras confit and New Zealand lobster. The Hara Museum of Contemporary Art (4-7-25 Kitashinagawa; 81-3/5423-1609; dinner for two $165), a Bauhaus-style private museum, opens its glass-walled garden café for a five-course meal that includes a bluefin tuna—and—scallop tartare with osetra caviar, and roast duck breast with fresh blueberry sauce. Sushi Q (5-16-52 Imperial Roppongi—Forum Bldg. B2; 81-3/3589-3133; dinner for two $165), an underground jewel box that seats only 12, has more than 30 different combos, such as the soft-shell scorpion roll and the Latino roll (tuna, tofu chips, and onions with sweet chili sauce).
BEST GIFTS: The latest gadgets for techie toddlers are at Hakuhinkan Toy Park, the F.A.O. Schwarz of Japan (8-8-11 Ginza; 81-3/3571-8008). Bingo-ya (10-6 Wakamatsu-cho; 81-3/3202-8778) bulges with classic Japanese wood toys and crafts, including spinning tops and kites. The thoughtful packaging alone is worth the trip for mame-gashi, savory crackers with nut and bean centers, at Mamegen (1-8-12 Azabu Juban; 81-3/3583-0962).
IT'S A WRAP: Tsutsumu Factory (37-15 Udagawacho; 81-3/5478-1330) specializes in washi papers, produced from bark fibers, in sublime hues from deep violet to intense scarlet. Do it yourself, or let the experts take charge.
SWEET TREATS: Since the eighth century, Toraya (7-8-6 Ginza; 81-3/3571-3679) has been producing wagashi, Japanese candies hand-molded from red bean paste and rice flour, that are too beautiful to eat.—Erika Lederman
The Swiss Riviera
WHY: Lake Geneva's palm-lined shore surrounded by snowcapped peaks. Lights sparkling on the 12th-century Château de Chillon. Three cities, each with its own flair—cosmopolitan Lausanne, bucolic Vevey, playful Montreux—plus tiny wine-producing villages in between.
WHERE TO STAY: Henry James's heroine Daisy Miller flew in the face of Victorian mores at the Hôtel des Trois Couronnes (49 Rue d'Italie, Vevey; 41-21/923-3200; doubles from $215). Holidays are traditional here, with a two-story tree in the alabaster-and-marble lobby and hot chocolate served on a terrace overlooking Lake Geneva. The Lausanne Palace (7—9 Rue du Grand-Chne, Lausanne; 41-21/331-3131; doubles from $215), an Edwardian landmark steps from the boutique-lined Rue de Bourg, makes last-minute shopping easy; recharge from the retail race at its new Aveda spa.
CHRISTMAS DINNER: Many heralded chefs call this region home, but most close up shop from Christmas through New Year's. Arrive a few days early for a festive warm-up at Le Pont de Brent (Rte. de Brent, Montreux; 41-21/964-5230; dinner for two $220). Chef Gérard Rabaey's cuisine du marché has earned his restaurant three Michelin stars. Celebrate the big day at the Auberge du Raisin (1 Place de l'Hôtel-de-Ville, Cully; 41-21/799-2131; dinner for two $310), with a luxe holiday meal of pastry stuffed with lobster and tarragon, spice-roasted guinea fowl, and, of course, bûche de Noël by the rotisserie spits of an open-hearth grill.
MIDNIGHT SERVICES: Locals flock to the Cathédrale de Notre Dame (Place de la Cathédrale, Lausanne; 41-21/316-7161), the finest Gothic church in Switzerland, high on one of the city's three main hills.
FESTIVE SPIRITS: As you cruise the roads that wind through the vineyards, stop at the lakeside 13th-century Château de Glerolles (St.-Saphorin, Lavaux; 41-21/946-2530), where you can tour the grounds and sample vintages from a cellar that was once the private reserve of the bishop of Lausanne.
BEST OUTING: Pack your new skis—if Santa was good to you—and schuss the slopes of Les Diablerets, less than an hour from Lake Geneva's east coast. —Kristine Ziwica
WHY: Xampanyeras (champagne bars) awash with cava, a delicious Spanish bubbly. Glorious Gaud buildings. Spain's ritziest, glitziest, and funkiest shops, many staying open late for the holiday rush.
WHERE TO STAY: The super-slick Hotel Arts (19—21 Marina St.; 800/241-3333 or 34-93/221-1000; doubles from $240), one of the first Ritz-Carltons in Europe, has peerless city views.
CHRISTMAS DINNER: Feast on saddle of venison or foie gras—stuffed partridge at La Dama (423 Avda. Diagonal; 34-93/202-0686; dinner for two $170), in a superb Art Nouveau building dating from 1915.
BEST LIGHTS: Follow that star—and those Christmas lights—along La Rambla, Barcelona's fabled thoroughfare, and up the Rambla de Catalunya and the Passeig de Gràcia, two of the city's finest shopping streets. best gifts: Vinçon (96 Passeig de Gràcia; 34-93/215-6050) has the finest in inventive Catalan design—gifts, housewares, furniture.
LAST-MINUTE SHOPPING: El Corte Inglés (14 Plaça Catalunya; 34-93/306-3800), a famous department store that sells everything from groceries to pianos, is open till 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
CRIB NOTES: Fira de Santa Llcia, the eye-popping market set up in front of La Seu, Barcelona's 14th-century Gothic cathedral, in the second week of December, has dozens of stalls selling mangers and all the figurines to populate a Nativity scene—including the caganer, a traditional Catalan depiction of a peasant going to the, er, bathroom. The market also sells Christmas trees and is open through December 24.
CRIB NOTES II: A life-sized crèche draws the crowds to the Plaça de Sant Jaume in the week before Christmas.
BEST OUTING: Drive out of town to the 11th-century Benedictine monastery on the mountain of Montserrat, and then head north, to the foothills of the snowcapped Pyrenees.—Jeremy Wayne
WHY: Piñon smoke perfuming the air like incense. A blend of Native American, Hispanic, and European cultures in the New Mexico mountains. Prime slopes for adventurous skiers.
WHERE TO STAY: Some 400 farolitos—votive candles set in brown paper bags weighted with sand—line the grounds of Casa de las Chimeneas (405 Cordoba Rd.; 877/758-4777 or 505/758-4777, fax 505/758-3976; doubles from $175, including breakfast and dinner). In the living room of this country inn stands a seven-foot evergreen, decked out with kachinas and clay models of local churches. On Christmas Eve, Santa leaves each guest a handcrafted object, such as a tiny Mexican crèche.
CHRISTMAS DINNER: Joseph's Table (4167 Paseo del Pueblo Sur, Ranchos de Taos; 505/751-4512; dinner for two $100) puts a French spin on contemporary American cuisine. Chef Joseph Wrede dishes up venison carpaccio with root vegetable slaw, charred kale with spiced pears, and roast squab with lettuce marmalade.
BEST DECORATIONS: Snap some photos of the huge tree at the historic Taos Inn, a funky adobe complex in the heart of town. In the lobby, you'll find an evergreen studded with 10,000 white lights and exquisite glass-bead snowflakes. Throughout the hotel, pine boughs are looped across balconies, and windows are filled with presents and dolls.
BEST LOCAL TRADITION: Christmas Eve vespers start at sundown in the tiny San Geronimo chapel (Pueblo Hwy., 2.5 miles north of Taos; 505/758-1028). Once night falls, bonfires made of ocote pine send up dramatic spirals of smoke and illuminate the sky.
BEST OUTING: Head to the base of Taos Ski Valley (end of State Rd. 150; 505/776-2291) at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve to watch a pack of resort employees holding flares as they glide down Snakedance trail, creating an undulating ribbon of red.
BEST ORNAMENTS: The Carson House Shop (117 Kit Carson Rd.; 505/758-0113) has a room devoted to Taos artisans. Look for storyteller dolls by Juanita Martinez, painted gourds from southern New Mexico, and red-chile Santas.
SWEET TREATS: Locals flock to the Dragonfly Café (402 Paseo del Pueblo Norte; 505/737-5859) for biscochitos, traditional aniseed cookies, and a heavenly Yule log.
LAST-MINUTE SHOPPING: Tony Reyna Indian Shop (Taos Pueblo Rd., a mile north of Taos; 505/758-3835) has one of the area's best collections of contemporary and antique Indian handicrafts, including the prized vases of Margaret Tafoya, a Santa Clara Pueblo Indian. In an old adobe structure that formerly housed a post office, with hand-carved Dutch doors, Twining Weavers & Contemporary Crafts (133 Kit Carson Rd.; 505/758-9000) sells gifts: baskets, fabrics, and quirky hand puppets, plus a great selection of children's books. —Janet O'Grady
WHY: Calypso bands playing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" at the airport. British humor, pubs, and customs. Pastel everything. Golf, golf, golf: there are more courses per capita on this 21-square-mile island than anywhere else in the world.
WHERE TO STAY: Not only does the Fairmont Southampton Princess have the most holiday decorations on the island—holly everywhere, 12-foot Christmas trees in the lobby—it also offers a veddy British afternoon tea (101 South Shore Rd.; 800/441-1414 or 441/238-8000, fax 441/239-6916; doubles from $219). Stay all 12 days of Christmas—December 25 through January 5—at the Reefs (56 South Shore Rd.; 800/742-2008 or 441/238-0222, fax 441/238-8372; doubles from $260, including breakfast and dinner) and you'll receive a different gift each morning.
CHRISTMAS DINNER: It's a traditional turkey meal with all the trimmings at the Waterlot Inn, a 375-year-old restaurant down the hill from the Fairmont Southampton Princess (800/441-1414 or 441/238-8000; dinner for two $120). Be sure to try cassava pie, an island side dish made with the yamlike cassava fruit, chicken, and pork.
CHRISTMAS SERVICES: Visit the imposing Anglican Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity, on Church Street in Hamilton, for its midnight mass, which begins at 11:30 p.m. History buffs will love St. Peter's on Duke of York Street in St. George. It's the oldest Anglican church in the Western Hemisphere, completed on Christmas Day in 1612.
BEST LIGHTS: Check out Hamilton City Hall (Church St.; 441/292-1234) for a 20-foot tree flown in every Christmas season. On the streets of St. George, strings of glittering lights weave from palm to palm.
STOCKING STUFFERS: Marks & Spencer (28 Reid St.; 441/295-0031) has both classic British Christmas crackers and island decorations such as angels made from banana leaves.
LOCAL TRADITIONS: Reserve early at the Pickled Onion (53 Front St.; 441/295-2263; dinner for two $60) on December 15 to watch the Boat Parade, a glittering row of decorated yachts circling the harbor. Best seats for the parade—and the fireworks afterward—are on the restaurant's second-floor balcony, above the Front Street crowds.
BEST POST-HOLIDAY CELEBRATION: December 26—Boxing Day—is big in both the United Kingdom and Bermuda. But only on this island will you see wildly colorful goombay dancers blend Native American, African, and Christian motifs as they march through the streets of Hamilton acting out Bible parables to the beat of a tribal drum. —Robert Maniaci
WHY: Fin de siècle glamour along the legendary Danube.
WHERE TO STAY: The spacious rooms at the elegant Art'otel Budapest (16—19 Bem St.; 36-1/487-9487, fax 36-1/487-9488; doubles from $130) are hung with canvases by contemporary painter Donald Sultan and have floor-to-ceiling views across the river to Pest.
CHRISTMAS DINNER: The big meal here is on December 24, and there's no better place for it than Bagolyvar (2 Allatkerti Rd.; 36-1/468-3110; midday dinner for two $25), housed in a 1913 Transylvanian-style farmhouse. The all-female kitchen staff serves fish soup, Transylvanian-style catfish with tarragon, and turkey with chestnut stuffing.
BEST LIGHTS: Stroll along the grand Andrassy Road to see gorgeous Art Nouveau lampposts.
BEST DECORATIONS: Two dozen windows above Gerbeaud (7 Vorosmarty Square; 36-1/429-9000), the city's swankiest café, are transformed into an Advent calendar of contemporary Hungarian art. Other original paintings are on view in a ground-floor gallery, where folk-music concerts are held each evening.
LOCAL TRADITION: In Hungary, St. Nicholas comes on December 6. Children leave a boot on the windowsill, and find it filled with small gifts of chocolate and fruit. Larger presents, wrapped in colorful paper, are exchanged on Christmas Eve.
SWEET TREATS: Buy a beigli, a dense roll filled with poppy seeds or walnut cream, at Gerbeaud (see above; $4). Midnight mass: Come early if you want a seat at Szent Istvan Bazilika, the national cathedral (33 Szent Istvan Square; 36-1/317-2859). Parishioners often sing classic Hungarian hymns such as "Mennybol az Angyal" (Angel from Heaven) and "Pasztorok, Pasztorok" (Shepherds, Shepherds). —Peter S. Green
WHY: Surfing on Christmas morning. Instead of reindeer, monkeys and lizards frolicking in palm trees. Ecologically sound lodging in acres of untouched rain forest.
WHERE TO STAY: Hotel S Como No (Quepos; 011-506/777-0777, fax 011-506/777-1093; doubles from $160, including breakfast), a set of private villas, combines high style with laid-back attitude. Each of the 60 bamboo—and—white tile rooms has a stunning view of forest or ocean from its veranda. There are no doors or windows on the main villa at Makanda by the Sea (Quepos; 011-506/777-0442, fax 011-506/777-1032; doubles from $285), so there's nothing between you and those Pacific breezes. Fabulous antiques—a conquistador's armor, ancient spears—are part of the colonial décor at the 80-room Hotel Parador (Quepos; 011-506/290-7931, fax 011-506/777-1437; doubles from $190).
CHRISTMAS DINNER: At S Como No, the holiday buffet recalls an old Dutch still life: scores of candles cast a romantic light over platters of pork, beef, and tamales (dinner for two $60).
BEST OUTING: Manuel Antonio National Park has two popular beaches—Playa Espadrilla Sur and Playa Manuel Antonio—where you can rent a surfboard and ride the warm, salty swells. Fork over a few dollars and enter the park itself, where you can catch a glimpse of rare birds like the fiery-billed aracaris and even rarer squirrel monkeys.
BEST LIGHTS: At Masquera Jiuberth's seafood restaurant, a quarter-mile north of Quepos (011-506/777-1292), hundreds of shimmering bulbs are strung across the walls and ceiling, draped on mounted fish and religious icons. —Heidi Posner
WHY: Snowcapped peaks. Towers of green glass. Squeaky-clean, big-city chic with Eurasian flair.
WHERE TO STAY: Joan Miró meets Barbarella at the retro-modern Pacific Palisades Hotel (1277 Robson St.; 800/663-1815 or 604/688-0461, fax 604/891-5141; doubles from $105), where you can rub elbows with on-location movie stars in the tangerine and yellow lobby.
CHRISTMAS DINNER: Head for the old-world elegance of 900 West (900 W. Georgia St.; 604/669-9378; dinner for two $130), the gem of the 62-year-old château-style Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. Feast on chef Shannon Walsh-Wrightson's four sumptuous courses, including lobster bisque with sautéed prawns and chive crème fraîche, and glazed roast turkey with mushroom-and-sage focaccia stuffing and cranberry-apple chutney.
BEST LIGHTS: An awesome 750,000 bulbs shine in Stanley Park (604/257-8531). Take a ride on the mini-train—kids, your parents can come, too—that weaves through the twinkling trees.
LAST-MINUTE SHOPPING: At Dream (311 W. Cordova St.; 604/683-7326), a boutique specializing in Vancouver designers, pick up a deconstructed recycled vintage sweater. Mod to Modern (3712 Main St.; 604/874-2144) sells scarlet puffed-vinyl bags, vintage shag rugs, and other seventies artifacts. For something rustic, check out the totem poles, ceremonial masks, and Inuit sculptures at Coastal Peoples Fine Arts Gallery (1024 Mainland St., Yaletown; 604/685-9298).
STOCKING STUFFERS: T (1568 W. Broadway; 604/730-8390) offers loose teas from around the globe; for a tasty Christmas Eve nightcap, pick up a bag of panettone tea, scented with orange, lemon, and vanilla—just like the cake.
SWEET TREATS: At Senses, pastry chef Thomas Haas's shop in the Crowne Plaza Hotel (801 Georgia St.; 604/633-0138), the handmade truffles and pralines will make you swoon.—Michelle Pentz
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