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Vacationist: Charleston + London + Belize

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Dear Vacationist,

In our opinion the only thing better than daydreaming about escaping the winter doldrums this time of year, is actually planning a trip—and of course, shaking off cabin fever in an exciting new locale. Good thing this week's featured hotel destinations offer something for everyone—history and charm in Charleston, big city sophistication in London, and a tropical escape in Ambergris Caye, Belize. Read on for details.

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Contest Watch: Costa Rican Family Adventure, More!

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After Snowmagedon 2011 ravaged 49 of the 50 states this month, the time is right to live it up away from icy driveways and slushy sidewalks. Whether you’re in the mood for a seductive escape to Thailand, Las Vegas, or New York or an energetic romp in Costa Rica or Utah, this T+L Contest Watch has you covered.

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Best New E-Readers From CES 2011

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We all know about the iPad and Kindle. Whether on the TV, the side of a bus, or a billboard, you can hardly turn a corner nowadays without seeing an ad for the game-changing devices. They’re everywhere. And while I’m certainly not anti-iPad/Kindle (I absolutely love them), I think it’s important for any traveler to know about and consider all available options.

That being said, there were a truckload of tablets revealed at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (more than 80!), so I wanted to share a few that I’m most excited about:

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Chernobyl Opens to Tourists

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Was your New Year's resolution to live more dangerously? Book a flight to the Ukraine. Nearly 25 years after Chernobyl's Reactor No. 4 exploded, wreaking nuclear devastation upon the surrounding area, the Ukrainian government is allowing tourists to enter the exclusion zone set up after the accident on official tours starting this year.

Though it was previously possible to tour the disaster zone through private tour companies, 2011 brings the first official and legal tours authorized by the Ukrainian government.

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Four Seasons Giftcard Winners Announced!

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Congratulations to Patrick McClinchy of Gilbert, AZ, and Ann Ennis of Addison, TX, each winners of a $450 giftcard redeemable at any Four Seasons property in the world!

2011-b-fourseasonsjpgWhat did these two lucky travelers do to win? They simply logged into TravelandLeisure.com during the giveaway period and/or registered as members—and told us what type of trip they were planning for 2011: City, Domestic; Foreign; Beach/Island,Rainforest, Mountains, Other.

Check back in the coming months for more exciting giveaways.

Images courtesy of Four Seasons

Royal Treatment: Versailles to Be Luxury Hotel

201101-b-versailles-2jpgNPR |  If you've ever dreamed of spending the night at the Palace of Versailles, you might get your chance. A building at France's cherished cultural landmark will soon be turned into a luxury hotel.

Hundreds of shivering tourists line up across an immense cobbled courtyard to visit Versailles.

Home to the French monarchy since Louis XIV, Versailles is a monument to royal grandeur. Soon, the palace may also become known for its five-star hotel. (Photo by Lyndsey Matthews)

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Northern Lights and Mushing in Alaska

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You can have your lunar eclipse. For my money, the celestial event worth staying up late for is the Aurora Borealis. Throw in an up-close and personal Iditarod experience and you’d have the hottest ticket in Alaska.  AdventureSmith Explorations, a California-based outfitter, has created a mid-winter soft adventure trip that’ll rouse you from your long winter’s nap.

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Mt. Everest the Next Gay Marriage Hot Spot?

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Could Mount Everest be the next gay marriage hot spot? According to an intriguing report by Aaron Hicklin in the new issue of Out Traveler, Nepalese member of parliament Sunil Pant is commited to making gay travelers—and wedding parties—feel welcome in his country, telling Hicklin:

“If you want to do it in the Buddhist tradition, we can supply a lama to bless you, or there are shamans who can bless you in a very tantric way. Or you have a Hindu priest or even a Christian padre." He pauses. "Or you can do it in a conservation park with an elephant safari."

Luke Barr is the news director at Travel + Leisure.

Photo by iStock

Vacationist: Sonoma + Thailand + Mexico

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Truth be told, we’ve been obsessing over the Farmhouse Inn—in Sonoma, California’s Russian River Valley—since the property’s renovation in 2009. And now that Vacationist is offering rates of almost 30% off at the 18-room hotel, you may find us at tasting local wines with the property’s master sommelier, or perhaps unwinding after a treatment at the hotel’s rustic spa. Prefer exclusive beach villas to country charm? This week Vacationist brings you Cabo San Lucas and Phuket, as well.

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Lonely Planet Consoles Stranded Travelers with Free Apps

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No matter how miserable your shoveling chores were this morning, I bet you wouldn't trade places with a stranded traveler in a snowstorm. Flight delays typically mean another day or five stuck in a strange city without an itinerary.

—That is, unless John Boris can help it.

Over the past year, when severe weather or natural disaster has trapped tourists at the airports, Lonely Planet Americas’s executive vice president and managing director has been making his popular city-guide apps (iPhone, iPod; iPad) completely FREE for download at iTunes for 72 hours. (Normally, they sell for as much as $5.99!)

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Oh Joy: Fairmont Peace Hotel in Shanghai

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I am staying at the Fairmont Peace Hotel in Shanghai and it is possibly quite the most beautiful hotel I have ever seen. As you know, the Sassoons built it on the Bund in 1929 and it was the Cathay Hotel. Stuck in bed here the following year with flu, Noel Coward wrote Private Lives.

The restoration is exquisite. It is classic art deco using the finest marble, gilt, bronze. The rooms are gorgeous—both in decor and facility. The restaurants and bars and lounges are fabulous—and the Chinese government must have spent gazillions on it.

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World's First Ski In-Ski Out Distillery

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The sun crouches behind the snow-capped peaks as I prop my snowboard against a wall and step into the world’s only ski-in/ski-out gastro distillery. After an epic powder day, a bevy of snow shredders trickle in for après ski cocktails in what has to be the most unlikely destination for a whiskey brew shop on earth. Utah. Despite it’s rigid alcohol laws, bartenders were muddling mint leaves for mojitos laced with a Utah-distilled, award-winning whiskey. As Julian Rubinstein notes in Travel + Leisure’s January issue, Park City is a town in transition.

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Cool and Clever: Virgin Mobile's MiFi 2200

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I'm skeptical of mobile internet gadgets that promise anything more than a snail's-pace speed. But Virgin Mobile's MiFi 2200 Mobile Hotspot surprised me. In random places around New York City (er, that is, random bars in Brooklyn), the slim, tiny device kept me connected via its zippy 3G network.

It nearly made me regret buying the more expensive 3G-enabled iPad for my wife for Christmas. There's a compelling argument for buying the cheaper iPad and pairing it with a mobile WiFi hotspot (several are on the market). With Virgin's MiFi, up to five devices can connect to the same local WiFi network. Of course, that means five devices then compete for the already-modest signal.

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Epicurean Fantasy Weekend in NYC

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Michelin Food & Travel, a collaboration of Michelin and Roadtrips, create mouthwatering trips that are the stuff food lover’s dreams are made of: customizable itineraries that include private visits to olive oil producers, small-batch chocolatiers, winemakers, truffle experts, and behind-the-scene experiences at Michelin-starred restaurants throughout France and Italy.

In a departure from their more flexible European itineraries, Michelin Food & Travel has announced what they’re calling an ‘event’: a long, calorie-laden weekend in New York (April 7-10) with exclusive and impressive access to chefs, restaurants, and shops. Here's what's on the menu:

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The T+L 500 iPad Edition Launches Today!


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Want an in-depth look at the top 500 hotels around the world, as chosen by you, T+L readers? Then look no further than the App store now. Download the FREE T+L 500 digital edition for your iPad today!

Pinpoint where to stay around the globe, find insider tips, rooms to book, exclusive videos, and much more! It’s your favorite places plus T+L’s hotel expertise.

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Affordable Travel Photography

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Looking to travel, but don’t have any vacation time left after taking the holidays off? Check out the Mammoth Collection, an online art gallery that sells prints from as little as $20. Its strong collection of photographs will tame your wanderlust with a visual tour of the world.

The series includes high-quality, yet affordable prints from Nicholas McElroy, a photographer who spends his summers on a muskox domestication project in Alaska, to Wang Yuanling, a photojournalist based in Chongqing, China.

Most prints are available in a variation of sizes and prices, including 8" x 10" ($20), 11" x 14" ($50), 16" x 20" ($200), and 24" x 30" ($800). The company makes their prints in-house with archival pigment inks on heavyweight 100% cotton fibre archival paper.

Here are a few of my favorites below. Click on them to snag a copy. What are your favorites?

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A Delicious Find in Tel Aviv

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Today, my family and I experienced an unbelievable culinary adventure in the heart of Tel Aviv's financial district. Six of us went to the award-winning Chloélys restaurant, where we were overwhelmed by the sophistication and quality of the menu and the food. We had heard it was good, but we were unprepared for this level of a culinary experience.

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Vacationist: NYC, Caribbean, and Ireland!

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Vacationist: New York City, the Caribbean, Ireland

City, beach, and countryside—this week, Vacationist has it all. From a room in a Midtown Manhattan skyscraper for $165 a night (what a steal!) to 48% off rates at LaSource in Grenada, and even a week at an Irish estate for more than half off, we’ve got your “travel more” New Year’s resolution covered. Coming up soon: Hotel deals in Northern California, London, Miami Beach, and more.

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Delta, American Airlines Pull Fares Off Some Travel Sites

USA Today |  Travelers wanting to book a flight online will find fewer options now that two of the nation's biggest airlines have stripped their fares from some travel sites.

Those looking to fly on American can no longer book trips on Orbitz as of Dec. 21, while Delta stopped allowing three websites — CheapOAir.com, OneTravel.com, and BookIt.com — to list its flights after Dec. 17.

It's a move that more airlines may follow in an effort to cut costs, promote their brand and increase their ability to sell aspects of the travel experience that bolster the bottom line, some travel experts say. But some industry observers worry that the winnowing of booking outlets could ultimately make it harder for consumers to find the best deal.

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No Ghosts, but Plenty of Charm: Hitting the Haunts in Old Savannah

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They say Savannah is the most haunted city in America, and that may be true. But no matter how plentiful they are, those Southern ghosts sure are shy. Or, maybe bars weren't the best places to be looking for them.

I took my wife to Georgia's coolest city for her birthday. It was a short weekend trip, but the mild weather, laidback vibe, and friendly folks were exactly what we—angry, anxious New Yorkers—needed to forestall winter's icy lockdown. If you've never been to Savannah, I can't recommend it highly enough.

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The Train in Spain: Brand New Service Zips from Madrid to Valencia in Just 95 Minutes

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In a city like Madrid, where the passion for food and drink is met by a vast number of bars and restaurants that serve any regional specialty you care to sink your teeth into, it may seem slightly odd to say that the best place to go for a truly genuine paella Valenciana could be...the train station?

And yet, the brand new high-speed train link between Madrid and Valencia might just make this statement true. Inaugurated on December 18, it's the latest addition to the AVE network, which radiates from the capital to key destinations on the peninsula such as Barcelona (3 hours) and Seville (2.5 hours). Now, with 16 daily departures travelling at speeds in excess of 200mph, this smooth ride can get you to the Mediterranean coast in little more than one and a half hours.

That's probably less time than you will spend at the table. And since Valencia—already known for excellent produce, fresh fish and world-famous rice—just chalked up its thirteenth Michelin-starred restaurant, the table is without a doubt a good place to be.

Tomas Martin is a research assistant at Travel + Leisure.

Photo by Renfe-Operadora.

Vacationist: Mexico and California for the New Year

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What does Vacationist have in store for the holiday week? How about great hotel deals in Mexico, including 30% off a stay in an oceanfront villa 30 miles from Manzanillo, or discounts at an apartment-style property in Mexico City, near the Bosque de Chapultepec, the largest public park in South America? And because California is always appealing—yes, even in the rain—we’re offering deals at the 102-acre Terranea Resort, in Rancho Palos Verdes. Happy New Year from the Vacationist team.

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East Coast Snow Impacts Travel Nationwide

Here's hoping you got home before Sunday night, when the season's first blizzard blanketed the northeast under several feet of snow. AOL Travel has several stories of stranded passengers and snarled airports:

Some air passengers endured nightmare delays as a blizzard dropped up to 18 inches of snow on the Northeast and travelers tried to get home from the Christmas holiday break.

Airports shut down in Washington, Philadelphia and New York. But there were storm-caused delays and canceled flights elsewhere too as carriers moved planes around to avoid the storm.

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Pilot Posts Video Exposing Gaps in Airport Security

If you've ever wondered about the ground crew responsible for handling your baggage, refueling your plane, heck, even loading your meals onto the plane — you're not alone. An unidentified pilot recorded one airport's seemingly lax security on his cellphone, then posted it to YouTube. AOL Travel has the full story (and the video):

An anonymous 50-year-old airline pilot is in hot water with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) after posting on YouTube a behind-the-scenes tour of what he says are security flaws at San Francisco International Airport...

"Well, folks, I just wanted to give you an idea of what type of security for the ground personnel there is. This is their screening. As you can see, there's only a card slide and one door," the pilot says in the video. "And right here's a sign, 'Think security.' Well, I don't think there's much security here."

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Vacationist: New York, Vancouver, St. John, Sedona, and more

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Not all presents are found under the tree. Every week, Vacationist delivers swoon-worthy travel deals right to your inbox. What’s on sale now? Urban explorers will love New York and Vancouver for less than $200 a night, while beachgoers will gravitate toward private St. John cottages for up to 40% off. Plus, there’s Arizona’s Sedona Rouge Hotel & Spa, in case you’re looking for a relaxing spa getaway. Coming soon: Moorea and Mexico. Happy travels (and happy holidays!) from Vacationist.

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Locked and Loaded, the TSA Is Ready to Serve You This Weekend

Don't let the chaos in Europe get you down—it's god, not man, getting in the way of smooth travel. Stateside, the Transportation Security Administration is fully prepared for the holiday crush. At least that's what they told our friends at AOL:

"We have coordinated staffing and are committed to maintaining the flow of passenger traffic while properly screening travelers as they move through the security checkpoints," spokesman Nicholas Kimball tells AOL Travel News.

"As we always do during the holiday season, TSA will deploy additional risk-based security measures based on the latest intelligence and continue to work with our international, federal, state, local and private sector partners across the nation to protect the American people," he says.

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For Smart Travelers, New Year's Weekend Deals Await

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No one wants to travel during the holidays. Even outside of Europe, getting from point A to B can quickly turn nightmarish. How about this: Stay home until the Christmas surge has safely passed, then head against the traffic for a New Year's weekend. While your patdown- and scanner-weary pals are coming home, you'll enjoy shorter lines getting out of town.

To help your wintery scheme come to fruition, several hotels, resorts, and even entire islands have put together New Year's Eve packages. Below, a small sampling.

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Buenos Aires Is Hot for American-Style Frozen Yogurt

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As the sultry Buenos Aires summer kicks into high gear, porteños are dipping into a new frozen treat for the first time. Thanks to a pair of Penn grads who imported an American obsession to Argentina, low-calorie frozen yogurt is a hit with sweets-loving, image-obsessed Argentines who spill out the door of the soft-swirl shop in trendy Palermo Soho. The hipsters and fashionistas who sip Quilmes beer on restaurant patios and peruse the chic shops that pepper the treelined streets in this neighborhood have worked the frozen yogurt spot Top It into their daily routines. Owners Ilana Messing and Guillermo Marx see the same faces pop in all week.

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American Ballet Theatre Presents a New Nutcracker for New York

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When American Ballet Theatre’s new production of The Nutcracker premieres at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on December 22, audiences will encounter a vision of the holiday classic like no other. The staging—with choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, spectacular sets and costumes by Richard Hudson (well-known for The Lion King and his designs for opera and dance), and Jennifer Tipton’s evocative lighting—follows the ballet’s traditional outline, based on the story by E.T. A. Hoffmann, The Mouse King and the Nutcracker Prince. But it also bursts with fresh dramatic theatricality. Ratmansky creates ballets that are emotionally rich, kinetically responsive to music (and what music: a Tchaikovsky masterwork), full of wit and imagination.

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Oops: TSA Screeners Missed Loaded Gun (but Probably Found Those Nailclippers)

If this story is any indication, the TSA's airport screeners should spend less time looking out for attractive women and more time watching the x-ray screens. AOL Travel has the story of a loaded gun that flew the friendly skies:

A Houston businessman has a cautionary tale for Transportation Security Administration (TSA) authorities just in time for the busy holiday travel season. Iranian-American Farid Seif says last year he boarded a Continental Airlines flight with a loaded handgun in his carry-on.

Seif says he passed through security at Houston's Bust Intercontinental Airport during last year's holiday season without realizing he had forgotten to unpack the gun – a loaded snub nose Glock pistol – in his empty computer bag.

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