A girl on a donkey leads a candle-carrying procession past San Miguel de Allende’s shops festooned with piñatas and poinsettias. When they stop before a Spanish-colonial building and break into song, you realize you’re witnessing the reenactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter that takes place in the days leading up to Christmas.
Whether your winter holiday trip enhances your yuletide nostalgia with traditions, sparkly lights, and nippy air or makes a radical break from it—by, say, taking you to warmer climes or a quiet, far-flung hideaway—breaking the habit of staying home will always reward you with a Christmas you’ll never forget. With that goal in mind, we’ve rounded up diverse, exceptional places to get you in the spirit of taking off.
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Quebec City is one of our favorite historic destinations for the holidays. The narrow cobblestoned streets and stone architecture of the walled city, founded in 1608 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, make it as romantic and European as it gets on this side of the pond. Add to that a proclivity for snowfall and an abundance of top-notch bars and restaurants, and you may wish the New Year could be postponed.
But the appeal of warming up over the holidays is undeniable, too. For the die-hard contrarian, Kaikoura, New Zealand, ought to do the trick. It’s the height of summer there at Christmas, a holiday most often celebrated outdoors with backyard barbecues. But it’s also a great time to be hiking the rainforest of the Kaikoura mountain range or on the waters of Kaikoura Bay, one of the most biodiverse marine environments on the planet. It’s the summer home of sperm whales, fur seals, dusky dolphins, and pilot whales, and all it takes to commune with them is a boat and a bit of perseverance.
South America has weathered the global recession better than most regions, and it’s not hard to see why. Brazil in particular is peppered with off-the-beaten-track gems that offer a true escape, like the coastal Portuguese colonial town of Paraty, about 140 miles south of Rio. Its friendly locals, cerulean waters, exceptional beaches, and exotic-bird-filled jungles may make you forget what holiday it is altogether. Like we said: unforgettable.
• Trømso, Norway
• Lapland, Finland
• Zurich, Switzerland
• Charleston, SC
• Reykjavík, Iceland
• Santa Barbara, CA