December might be dark and chilly in much of north America and Europe, but it’s by no means a dull month to travel. There are world-class classical music events, a clutch of colourful festivals and oodles of southern-hemisphere sunshine. Here are our tips on the best places to visit in December:
DIVE THE BLUE HOLE IN BELIZE
Hurricane season has just come to an end in December, making it the perfect time to visit Belize before sun-seekers descend in their droves. Make a beeline for the country’s most popular islands, laidback Caye Caulker and upmarket Ambergeris Caye, from where you can take trips to the reef-fringed blue hole. Spanning 300m in diameter and over 100m deep, this peacock-blue abyss offers superb diving. Those without the necessary experience can snorkel at the nearby Hol Chan Marine Reserve, where nurse sharks might tickle your toes as they pass beneath.
MARKET TIME IN MUNICH
If you want to experience an old-fashioned European yuletide, the run up to Christmas doesn’t get much more traditional than in Munich, capital of Bavaria. The first Christkindlmarkt took place here in the fourteenth century; today there are at least a dozen individual markets centring on Marienplatz, where row-upon-row of wooden stalls appear at the start of the month. Christmas tree decorations, candles and lebkuchen abound, but the highlight of any shopping trip is a mug of glühwein, often fortified with a warming shot of brandy. Prost!
CHRISTMAS ON BONDI BEACH
Spending Christmas day on Bondi has become a backpacker tradition, with an international crowd congregating on the beach each year to celebrate (or commiserate) missing out on turkey and drizzle back home. Expect fur-trimmed bikinis and snowman sandcastles in place of Christmas trees and cake. The beach is now alcohol-free, but the Sunburnt Festival at The Pavillion provides barbecuing and boozing aplenty and certainly promises to be one of the best places to visit in December.
TAKE IN THE TENORS IN MILAN
Opera season kicks off in Milan on the 7th of December, St Ambrose’s Day, when the city’s most glamorous pack into the opulent La Scala. Opened in 1778, this opera house is where Verdi debuted his early compositions and the first night of the season remains a highlight on Debrett’s social calendar. If you’re not lucky enough to bag one of the elusive tickets, there’s plenty of Milanese atmosphere to soak up at this time of year. St Ambrose, or Sant’Ambrogio, is the city’s patron saint, and there are festive markets and special religious services in his honour around a public holiday on the 8th.
PARASOLS, POSADAS AND PIÑATAS IN MEXICO
December is a great time to visit the white-sand beaches of the so-called Mayan Riviera on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Temperatures hover around a balmy 25°C, and it’s several months before the spring-breakers launch their annual assault on Cancun. From the 16th of December you might also catch families taking part in posadas, processions re-enacting Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. Piñatas – papier-mâché or clay creations stuffed with sweets – make plenty of appearances.
GET A START OF SEASON DEAL IN COLORADO
The four resorts that make up Colorado‘s Aspen Snowmass are all open by the second week of December, and there are some good start of season ski deals available. Away from the slopes, Glenwood Springs, 30 miles north, provides the perfect respite after hitting the powder. The hot springs pools here are heated year-round by the geothermal Yampah spring, which pumps out over three million gallons of water a day at a toasty 51°C. Thankfully the therapy pool is kept at a slightly less scalding 40°C; the sight of the steam rising against the snow-capped peaks beyond is a glorious vista.
MINGLE WITH MOVIE STARS IN MARRAKESH
The chaos of Marrakesh’s souks is best experienced in a little less heat, and temperatures usually top out in the early twenties at this time of year. The first week of December also sees the city’s increasingly revered film festival come to town. Big screens pop up amid the snake charmers and henna artists in the Djemaa el Fna, and you might even catch the odd Hollywood star padding around the shady Majorelle Gardens or sipping cocktails in the Nouvelle Ville. Chillier days provide the perfect opportunity to take a cooking class or visit a hammam.
WATCH DERVISHES WHIRL IN KONYA
Turkey has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons this year, but remains a rewarding country to explore. December sees the intriguing whirling dervish festival come to the conservative city of Konya. A week-long feat of hypnotic whirling rituals known as sema, which the Mevlevi believe brings them closer to god, the festival leads up to the anniversary of the death of their founder, Rumi (or Mevlâna, the sainted one) on the 17th.
SEE IN THE NEW YEAR IN RIO
The easiest way to be sure of some winter sun is to head south, where summer is in full swing. From the Amazon to Iguaçu Falls, Brazil’s attractions could easily occupy a whole month, but make sure you end up in Rio for New Year’s eve: the city does a street party like no other. Several million people pack onto Copacabana beach each year for the celebrations, traditionally wearing white to bring luck in the New Year. If crowds aren’t your thing, take in the offshore firework display from a beachfront hotel.
MARVEL AT SWEDEN’S NORTHERN LIGHTS
According to NASA, 2013 will be the best year in a decade to catch nature’s spectacular light show, the northern lights, or aurora borealis. These soft, flickering wisps of colour are caused by solar particles hitting the earth’s atmosphere: each hue is produced by a different element. They’re best seen within the Arctic Circle, so think about taking a husky-sled tour of Swedish Lapland. It’s best to give yourself a week or two for a good chance of seeing them. Keep your fingers crossed (inside a good pair of mittens) for cloudless skies.