When Hollywood tells a holiday story, it often involves snow, splendidly decorated trees and festive dinners at a loved one’s house. Rarely, if ever, does the script call for bathing suits, palm trees or passports. But with so many tropical locales and international cities getting into the Christmas spirit these days, traditional gatherings from the comfort of home are almost as outdated as that sweater you got last December 25. As an early gift to you, we’ve made a list of some of the best outside-the-wrapped-box destinations — and yes, we checked it twice — so you and your family can start new holiday customs, only this time they’ll be done with sand between your toes or at an unusual locale.
While Christmas isn’t widely celebrated in Tokyo, locals get into the spirit with dazzling illuminations. Starting in November, the city is blanketed with sparkling trees and elaborate LED displays (some favorites include those in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo Midtown and Tokyo Dome City). Admire the bright lights from Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, which resides in a 38-story tower. The Five-Star hotel’s three-night Luxury of Winter deal will give you a room upgrade, daily breakfast and an $82 dining or spa credit. Be sure to stay through January 2: The hotel’s Japanese New Year Package gives you three nights in a Mandarin Grand Room, dinner for two at Signature or Sense, a countdown party at Oriental Lounge, daily breakfast (including a traditional osechi, a special bento-box-like meal for New Year’s), a tour of the local Knadamyojin shrine with a private guide and more.
We’re not sure why this beautiful city at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains isn’t on more holiday radars. The cedar-filled hills and horse-prancing farms are backdrops right out of a feel-good, made-for-TV movie. And Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Keswick Hall and Golf Club, with its tastefully decorated grand mansion and grounds, makes for the perfect place for taking it all in. Get the mood started by cozying up to a fire in one of the festive public spaces, but truly make the holiday special with a gingerbread-house-building class (December 5), breakfast with Santa (December 19) and a three-course dinner at Four-Star Fossett’s Restaurant on Christmas Day.
NOLA is the obvious destination for Mardi Gras, but for family-friendly Christmas celebrations? You bet. There’s a cornucopia of festive holiday activities all over town, from Christmas Eve bonfires on the Mississippi River levees to caroling in Jackson Square to jazz-gospel concerts at St. Louis Cathedral. Book the Papa Noel package at the Four-Star Windsor Court Hotel in the city’s business district and you’ll get 10 to 20 percent off the best available rate, plus 10 percent off services at its lovely Four-Star spa. Then reserve a table at the hotel’s Four-Star The Grill Room for a traditional Creole-style Reveillon dinner.
We know that the beloved Bing Crosby song says that he’s “dreaming of a white Christmas,” but nowhere does it say that one draped in pink or aqua has to be any less fantastic. Sure, beachfront celebrations at the vibrant Elbow Beach Resort might consist of more conch and sun than they do sugar plums and stockings, but that’s not such a bad thing. Still need some semblance of tradition in December? The property’s Christmas Cheer Package presents you with a two-night stay, breakfast with Santa, a collector’s ornament and Christmas Day dinner. Consider the all-too-rare opportunity to enjoy eggnog after snorkeling as the bow on top of the island vacation.
Salt Spring Island, British Columbia
This unspoiled island filled with natural beauty is known as a haven for artists and foodies. But it also beckons those who want a quiet, peaceful holiday escape. Hastings Country House Hotel will provide the picture-perfect setting, as the charming Tudor-style hotel along the Ganges Harbour will be decked out in poinsettias, bows and lights. On Christmas Day, warm up at the Four-Star hotel’s bonfire with rum and eggnog and enjoy seasonal treats. Then at night prepare for a top-notch traditional feast that includes roasted free-range turkey, potato puree, stuffing, caramelized yams, Brussels sprouts, cranberries and pumpkin pie with Chantilly cream. Cap off the evening relaxing by the fireplace in your own luxe cottage or suite.
Tourists leave this island at summer’s end, only because they don’t know about its one-of-a-kind holiday celebration. During Nantucket’s Christmas Stroll weekend (December 4 to 6), head to the wharf to greet Santa, who arrives by Coast Guard boat. He’ll lead a parade down closed-off Main Street; join the elegantly dressed carolers as they walk along the cobblestone. Then visit the Whaling Museum’s Festival of Trees, which features 80 beautiful trees designed by local artists and merchants. Stay at The Loft at 32 Main Street, luxurious apartment-like accommodations that give you a full view of the parade from the second story of a historic brick building. Or opt for Four-Star White Elephant’s Christmas Stroll package, which includes three nights’ accommodations; Nantucket Vineyard’s Red Sangria with the recipe to make mulled wine; an autographed copy of local Nantucket author Nancy Thayer’s new novel, A Very Nantucket Christmas; fresh mistletoe; and a souvenir Christmas Stroll ornament.
Why not head to overseas for the holidays? And while London will be filled with lights and cheer, Four Seasons Hotel Hampshire, a quiet country escape in nearby Hampshire, has an allure all its own. The main house is an 18th-century Georgian gem with decidedly English-country décor (stately furnishings, floral accents), a knockout spa and tip-top dining. Come Christmastime, the hotel goes all out with a festive afternoon tea (mini mince pies!), a special Christmas Day lunch, gingerbread house decorating and mistletoe manicures.
Standing regally on the banks of Lake Geneva with the Alps just beyond, Le Richemond Genève, Dorchester Collection in Switzerland’s picturesque city just oozes holiday appeal. The grand old dame will be done up with tasteful, stately decorations and guests are said to mingle around the main Christmas tree sipping on warm mulled wine in the evening. The acclaimed restaurant, Le Jardin, will host a decadent five-course Christmas Eve dinner (think champagne, foie gras and venison). Geneva itself is a winter wonderland, flush with holiday markets, ice skating, trees decorated by international artists and slew of festivals, concerts and parades.
Imagine celebrating the holidays aboard a catamaran, cruising the Caribbean at sunset and sipping a glass of champagne; luxuriating in a cabana-style beach house while a butler serves you a rum punch; or partaking in a full slate of golf and tennis clinics. That’s how you can spend December at Four Seasons Resort Nevis. Of course, there are festive activities, too: On Christmas, Santa will visit the resort, as will local children’s choirs, who will set a festive mood with Nevisian carols. The hotel’s Coral Grill will serve a traditional Christmas Eve spread, but we’d happily give up the turkey and trimmings for Mango’s barbecue ribs, coconut coleslaw and addictive sweet potato jerk fries.
Bernardsville, New Jersey
Pastoral New Jersey never sounded so good. Bernardsville in Jersey’s Somerset Hills is a quaint little town with a turn-of-the-century train depot and historic The Bernards Inn. Somerset County comes alive during the holidays with charming small-town festivities like a production of Miracle on 34th Street at a local theater, a festival of holiday trees and more. The Forbes Travel Guide Recommended inn will host two elegant Christmas Eve dinners — one at its restaurant featuring a three-course prix fixe, and the other is bountiful buffet held in a stately ballroom. Stay overnight in one of the 22 individually decorated rooms.
Hear that? It’s the wilderness calling. And all you’ll need for an adventure-filled Montana Christmas is a 10-gallon hat and warm clothes. Make home base one of the luxurious-rustic ranch homes at The Resort at Paws Up in secluded Blackfoot Valley. For the holidays, you can take part in all the winter activities (ice skating, sleigh rides, cross-country skiing) plus get a visit from your family’s personal Santa, join in gingerbread house building and a Christmas Eve party for kids. The five-night Christmas Package includes an already-decorated Christmas tree in your home and a couple glutinous holiday feasts.
Santa Rosa Beach, Florida
When folks typically think about Florida’s Emerald Coast, it’s mostly during conversations about spring break or summer vacation. But leave it up to places like WaterColor Inn & Resort and it won’t be long before that corner of the Sunshine State becomes known as a winter wonderland. Just 30 minutes from the Northwest Florida International Airport, the Four-Star beauty doesn’t let a little thing like 65-degree December temperatures keep it from being in the yuletide spirit. On November 27, it’s planning a lavish breakfast with St. Nick at Four-Star Fish Out of Water. Then, on December 25, the restaurant will serve salmon gravlax, poached Maine lobster and other new holiday treats at a special dinner. Every other night, consider your amenity-stuffed room and a property aglow in new seasonal decorations as your early gift.