You know the old routine: "Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother's house we go" -- but everybody needs a break from the ordinary sometimes. Where do we, the Frommer's editors, go to escape the holiday humdrum and day-old turkey sandwiches? Our favorite destinations include a little fun in the desert sun, a snow-blanketed city rich in history, the solitude of beaches sans all those cooler-toting day-trippers, the flashing neon of that nonstop party we call Vegas, and a wild-and-wonderful safari. Now it's up to you and Grams to just pick one.
Sun & Saguaros in the American Southwest
Looking to get away from the snow and cold this winter? Consider a trip to Tucson, Arizona, the Grand Canyon State's second-largest -- and most beautiful -- city. Striking mountain scenery and wide desert vistas are hallmarks of the Old Pueblo, the name by which Tucson is commonly known; and, with 340 days of sunshine per year, the sky is usually a brilliant shade of blue rarely seen outside of the Southwest. Indeed, if it's sunshine you're after, you won't find a better destination. There's a reason, after all, that this city so popular with snowbirds.
Tucson is surrounded by Hiking trails for virtually every fitness level and season. In winter, my favorite hikes are in the desert (as opposed to up in the mountains, where it's quite cold at that time of year). Try Saguaro National Park, (tel. 520/733-5153; www.nps.gov/sagu), on the west side of the city, which is generally more accessible than the national-park branch to the east. After a few hours ambling among the roadrunners, Harris' hawks, and prickly-pear and saguaro cactuses, you'll want to check out the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (tel. 520/883-2702; www.desertmuseum.org). It's really more of a zoo -- surely one of the best in the country. Expect to see mountain lions, tarantulas, javelinas, and just about anything else that makes its home in the Sonora Desert.
Tucson appeals primarily to outdoor enthusiasts -- hikers, bikers, and golfers -- but there are some excellent nightlife and cultural options here as well. For example, the University of Arizona Museum of Art is worth a visit (Park Ave. and Speedway Blvd.; tel. 520/621-7567; www.artmuseum.arizona.edu); works by Hopper, O'Keefe, and Pollack are on display along with exhibits featuring other notable artists. On the thrills-and-chills end of the cultural spectrum, Old Tucson Studios (201 S. Kinney Rd.; tel. 520/883-0100; www.oldtucson.com), is a popular tourist stop that's both movie set and theme park.
After a day of hiking or sightseeing, you'll want to find a spot to unwind. Check out Gentle Ben's Brewing Company (865 E. University Blvd.; tel. 520/624-4177; www.gentlebens.com), a stone's throw from the picturesque University of Arizona campus, and a popular hangout for U of A students; their copperhead pale ale is first-rate. For some live music, and a crowd that's a bit funkier, Club Congress (311 E. Congress St.; tel. 520/622-8848; www.hotelcongress.com) is a good choice. You can also find accommodations here, at the Hotel Congress, but don't expect to get much sleep on account of whatever band is playing. Visit the Convention and Visitors Bureau website (www.visittucson.org) for a complete list of lodging options. If you're looking for a splurge with the sort of southern Arizona charm you won't find anywhere else, you can't go wrong with the centrally located Arizona Inn (2200 E. Elm St.; tel. 800/933-1093; www.arizonainn.com). --Matthew Brown
Find Your Bliss: Romantic Cape Cod
Cape Cod is no longer only a summer destination. In recent years, the winter months have seen more and more people flock to the Cape for a quiet, relaxing escape. Whether strolling the pristine beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore (www.nps.gov/caco) on a moonlit night or going dreamily comatose on a massage table while listening to New-Age music, winter visitors to the Cape are in for a unique and peaceful getaway.
On the Lower Cape, which includes towns such as Orleans and Eastham, comb Nauset Beach or Coast Guard Beach for unusual shells or groups of seals. Or just swoon in admiration of the seemingly endless stretches of sand dunes or the starry nighttime sky that might make even the most neurotic city-slicker relax. In the late winter/early spring the leafless trees in the Fort Hill area provide a great opportunity for bird watching. And kayaking Nauset Marsh might appeal to the more robust winter traveler. If indoor recreation is more your thing, head to one of two locations of Willy's Gym (4730 State Highway 6 in Eastham, tel. 508/255-6370; 21 Old Colony Way in Orleans, tel. 508/255-6826; www.willysgym.com). Willy's offers complete workout facilities as well as a day spa. A wonderful bed and breakfast option in Eastham is the Fort Hill Bed & Breakfast, (75 Fort Hill Road, just off Rte. 6, tel. 508/240-2870; www.forthillbedandbreakfast.com). Though closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Days, the Fort Hill B&B offers champagne and chocolate specials for New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day in their spacious, well-appointed, and comfortable guest suites. Rates, which include a delicious homemade breakfast, run from around $200-$300 a night (including tax!) in the off-season. The charming innkeepers Jean and Gordon Avery are fantastic resources for additional wintertime activities.
Provincetown (www.provincetown.com), on the Outer Cape, has also become a winter destination. An easy commute from both Boston and New York, urbanites are escaping for romantic weekends and indulgent spa experiences. Herring Cove Beach and Race Point Beach are both great for stargazing on moonlight walks, but if you'd rather stay indoors you won't go wrong at the Crowne Pointe Inn (82 Bradford St.; (tel. 508/487-6767; www.crownepointe.com). This elegant, historic inn on a bluff overlooking P'town (as it is affectionately known) boasts a bevy of winter getaway packages. They include tasteful and spacious accommodations, spa treatments, appetizing breakfasts, and bistro meals at the in-house restaurant, which has an extensive wine list and was a 2006 recipient of the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. Packages range from $599Â?$799 for two nights for two people.
Though there are year-round residents on Cape Cod, most businesses are closed throughout the winter months. However, you'll likely find that the dearth of tourists only enhances the sense of tranquility on the Cape (think no traffic, for example). It's all the more reason to relax, have a glass of wine, sit by the fire, and experience this beautiful part of the country the way few others do. -- Cate Latting
A Kenyan Adventure
Kenya gets my emphatic vote for this year's don't-miss, over-the-top, unsurpassed winter holiday destination. No doubt about it, the flight is long, but if you have extra vacation or holiday time, take advantage of it and go. Exploring this Lion King incarnate is seductive and thrilling, and is truly a trip you'll remember forever. In fact, Frommer's recently named Kenyan Game Parks one of the Top 10 Up and Coming Destinations for 2006, and December or January's a great time to visit.
On my recent seven-day safari, plunging through Amboseli National Park and Masai Mara National Reserve in an open-air Land Cruiser, I saw elephants splashing themselves with mud (a natural sun block and bug repellant), a wildebeest hanging out among a gang of zebras, giraffes and ostriches prancing through tall grass like ballerinas, a lion and lioness spooning in the midday sun, warthogs mating, and herds of gazelles grazing. In Amboseli, I had clear views of Mt. Kilimanjaro; and near Masai Mara, we traversed vast, open plains spotted only with Baobob and Acadia trees. The locals were kind and welcoming, and the conversations we shared (often full of hand gestures and laughter as we tried to bridge the language barrier) truly touched my heart.
To plan your own safari, contact Gamewatchers Safaris. Stressing ecotourism -- in its careful management of resources and energy at the Porini tented camps, as well as through its close involvement with and employment of local Massai community members -- Gamewatchers provides expert guides, personal service, and comfortable accommodations in spectacularly romantic natural environments. For more information about visiting Kenya, check out the Kenya Tourist Board's official website at www.magicalkenya.com. -- Jenny Anmuth
What Holidays? Vegas 24/7
Unless Chanukah happens to coincide with Christmas and I'm using the extra days off to visit with family, I often find the winter vacation season something of a mixed blessing. I get time off, but my travel options are frequently narrower, as many places shut down for two days in December and killing time in a hotel room isn't my idea of a vacation. So when winter's chill arrives, and seemingly everywhere on the planet is playing carols, hanging tinsel, and stringing up lights, I like to head for the hum of Las Vegas (www.lasvegas24hours.com), where the neon flashes year-round, the daytime temps don't set my teeth chattering, and pretty much everything stays open, no matter who's celebrating what.
Sure a few headliners may be on hiatus, but by and large most productions and attractions are open. The best of the bunch are Cirque du Soleil (www.cirquedusoleil.com) whose productions are worth every pricey penny they charge; the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum (www.guggenheimlasvegas.org) in the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino, where the treasures of Russia's famous museum are often on display; and the Liberace Museum (www.liberace.org), a one-of-a-kind salute to excess that's, alas, closed on Christmas and New Year's but is nevertheless a must. And if the holiday spirit has you itching to tackle Lady Luck, the good news is that the casinos close for no one, not even Santa Claus (though on my last holiday trip, a very unusual blackout did shut down the casino for 5 hours). You can grab a massage at any of the major casino-hotels' spas, or dance the night away in nightclubs aimed at seemingly every age group and interest. Best of all, because late December (until a day or two before New Year's, when rates skyrocket higher than the Stratosphere) is a slow period in Vegas, hotel deals abound for holiday travelers, and crowds are pretty manageable.
Of course, if you want a place that gets into the Christmas spirit, you'll find plenty of that, too. The Fremont Street Experience's laser-light show (www.vegasexperience.com) and the famous dancing fountains at Bellagio (www.bellagio.com) all put on special and totally-worthwhile holiday performances. I've whiled away quite a number of hours over the years watching the fountain performances -- the best free show in Vegas. Many of the hotels also deck their halls with holiday decorations, and lots of the city's restaurants offer holiday feasts. And in the U.S., Vegas is second only to New York as the place for ringing in the New Year (and you likely won't freeze while partying on The Strip as you would in Times Square). They must be doing something right because the last couple of years I've seen more and more people spending the holidays in Sin City. -- Naomi Kraus
Wintry Mystique: Snow-Covered Prague
If you're looking for a new way to see a much-traveled destination this winter, set your sights on Prague. When the tour groups desert Prague for warmer climes, you'll find the snow and cold will actually make your trip much more personal and dynamic. You'll have the city practically to yourself, just you and the Czechs.
Prague's winters are all about contrasts. The snow contrasts against the dark stone, brightens the gold trim, and outlines the sharp spires that characterize Prague's dramatic architecture. The streetlamps and lighted monuments seem to shiver in the frozen air as their light reflects off the drifting snow -- you'll be stunned by the view of Old Town from the MalÃ¡ Strana on a frozen night.
But Prague is not a lonely place in the winter; the cold simply keeps everyone inside -- and why not? That's where the food, the beer, and the warmth are. After hours of wandering through Prague's tiny streets and hidden courtyards, ducking into a cafÃ© for chocolate fondue or a tea house for a pot of aromatic tea is the perfect way to revitalize. As for the nightlife, the clubs, bars and music venues are packed with Czech youth dancing, talking, and drinking the long, cold night away.
You'll find an undeniable aura of solitude and romance on Prague's snow-covered streets. While a seemingly paradoxical combination, this unlikely medley fits the architecture, history, and literature of this city best, like a snug ring on the hand of a moody lover. Of course, you can only experience this in the winter when the fair-weather tourists have all taken to their homes.
Take note: many of Prague's major attractions are closed during the winter. Be sure to see if what you're most interested in will be accessible in the winter. And if not, take my advice -- and go anyway. -- Melinda Quintero
Untrodden Ground: Cape May in the Off-Season
Personally, I don't like winter here in the Northeast. I like warm places, but they tend to be quite expensive in the winter, not to mention crowded. So, during the colder months, our habit is to head to places that are typically summer destinations. The advantage, along with off-season rates, is that you practically have the place to yourself (though if you're lucky, you'll actually get to meet some locals). While some establishments may be closed, there are still interesting things open; and, a lot of places, realizing there are people like me, put on events, exhibitions, and in general make a visitor feel welcome by providing lots more individual attention than you'd get, say, on Fourth of July weekend. And of course, there exists the off-chance of really hitting the jackpot and having your visit coincides with an unseasonably temperate weekend.
Our two most recent off-season vacations took us to the south Jersey shore, to the Victorian town of Cape May. Last November, we went down for the New Jersey State Film Festival (www.njstatefilmfestival.com), and had such a good time, we went down again in early spring for another off-season weekend. We had just missed the Cape May Jazz Festival (www.capemayjazz.com) last year, and were told we should come back for the Christmas-season tours of historic homes. We did the indoor things; but the weather was good, so we also hit the boardwalk (which is made of concrete) for the salt air and soundtrack of crashing waves. We were lured by the smell of nuts roasting and salt water taffy and fudge being handmade at Fudge Kitchens (www.fudgekitchens.com), which is open year-round; in addition to making oodles of salt water taffy every day, this treat shop also offers such hard-to-find goodies as molasses paddles, Irish potatoes, and carmellows. Needless to say, we now have a frequent buyer's card.
To work off some of the sweet stuff, we trekked out west of town to Cape May Point State Park (www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/capemay.html), which features an old lighthouse, a World War II-era bunker, hiking trails, and a platform for viewing the fall bird migration, which brings birders from all over. The number of raptors spotted is posted on a large board at the foot of the viewing platform. It's family lore that my parents spotted a bald eagle on Cape May in the early '60s. I never actually believed it until last November when all the birders whipped out their guidebooks and started yelling "Bald eagle! Bald eagle!" to each other.
Our off-season base (at least through November, and starting again in March) is the Montreal Inn (on the beach at Madison Avenue, www.montreal-inn.com). A beachfront property that's been welcoming visitors since 1966, the Montreal's rooms are simple, clean, and well-provided with useful amenities ranging from refrigerators to full kitchens (and most are available for well under $100 a night on weekdays from mid-October). The most important amenity is, of course, the ocean: most of the rooms face it, and many of them have full balconies. The Hirsch family has owned the inn since it opened, and current owner Larry Hirsch (son of the founder), has kept the place up well. (We also discovered we went to the same small state university, which immediately bonded us forever. Go, Retrievers!). There's a restaurant as well, though we usually wander over to the open-all-year Pilot House (142 Decatur St., tel. 609/884-3449) for affordable, laid-back American cuisine, with lots of fresh seafood.
Right now the Montreal Inn is offering a two-night "Jazz Festival Package". It includes two nights' accommodations, full breakfast and passes to all Jazz Festival events in Cape May. The package is priced at $373 for one, $544 for two, $731 for three and $918 for four people, plus taxes, based on accommodations in one room. For reservations call 800/525-7011 or visit www.montreal-inn.com.
Also open year 'round (Wednesday through Sunday) is the Cape May Winery (www.capemaywinery.com), one of the four wineries in town. We haven't taken the tour yet, but I imagine we'll do it one of these days. We prefer to have a tasting of wines we haven't tried before, and to pick up a few bottles to take home. We've had requests from friends for more bottles of their Cabernet Franc and Victorian Blush, and have developed a fondness for their Isaac Smith Port ourselves.
Not far from the winery is the Bay Springs Alpaca Farm (www.bayspringsalpacas.com), where we like to admire the pretty creatures, and pick up a few presents at the farm store (Clothing, as well as the soft, silky alpaca yarn, is available).
It's August now, but just writing this article has made me take a look at our calendar to start planning for that nippy day on an early winter weekend when we can head down the Garden State Parkway to Exit 0, where we can be sure of another warm welcome. "Down the Shore" is a state of mind, and it's just as refreshing in winter. -- Kathleen Warnock
Hungary's Thermal Lake Hévíz
Here's something I experienced in the summer but recommend for a winter visit: a swim in the Thermal Lake of Hévíz, Hungary (www.heviz.hu), a resort spa town along the eastern tip of Lake Balaton. The lake -- the largest of its kind in Europe -- is fed by a thermal spring, which keeps the water at a hot tub-worthy 85°F to 90°F (29°C-32°C) year round. Go for the timeless thrill of watching steam rise from your toasty body, and for the curative effects of the water: the lake has historically been used to treat various rheumatic, spinal, and skin conditions. (This may explain why senior citizens flock to the lake like a scene out of Cocoon -- without the supervision of Steve Guttenberg, unfortunately.)
The salubrious fun begins in a lodge by the lake, where you pay a small fee (900 Ft or $4.50 for 3 hours of swim time; the Day Pass, for 1600 Ft or $8 isn't available from November through March). A walk through a long glass corridor leads to the main building on the center of the lake, where you can enter the water comfortably through indoor wading areas. Then hit the steamy open lake and swim around with the Magyars (and lots of Germans). The lake has no shallow areas, but metal railings are nice spots to rest and contemplate the various cyano- and actino-bacteria working medicinal wonders on your body. Later, head inside to rinse off, get a massage, or join the old-timers reading by the windows.
You could conceivably visit the lake as a day-trip from Budapest (on a 3-hour express, or gyors, train ride from Budapest's Deli Station). But you'll want to stay overnight in Hévíz (or nearby Keszthely) for a glimpse of the spa resort experience -- stay at least a week if you want a serious health retreat. I stayed at the 261-room NaturMed Hotel Carbona, 8380 Heviz, Attila u. 1 (tel. 83/501-500; www.carbona.hu), where I was intrigued to find physicians' certificates hanging in the (slightly '70s-looking) lobby, plus a long treatment list that includes thermal baths, biosaunas, and "salt chambers." Less healthy are the deliciously creamy dishes and fried pork served to a full cafeteria (but they also offer a variety of healthy fare, including a "juice fast" program).
Also recommended is the Rogner Hotel & Spa Lotus Therme, Lótusvirág u. (tel. 83/501-700; www.lotustherme.com), a 230-room hotel with a similarly extensive list of treatments. Both hotels get 4 out of 5 stars from the Hotel Association of Hungary (www.hah.hu). Winter rates for doubles start at €112 ($140) for the Carbona and €71 ($90) for the Rogner; and both websites offer package deals for 1-week stays.
For more information on attractions and dining options in Hévíz and Keszthely, click here. -- Stephen Bassman
New England Christmas
Growing up in rural western Massachusetts, sandwiched between the Berkshire Mountains and the Litchfield hills, I often dreamed of escaping the quiet countryside for the buzz of Miami with its white sands and palm trees bedecked with Christmas lights. As I get older, however, I'm drawn back to my Yankee roots, to the simple pleasures of searching for Christmas trees in snow-covered fields and shopping quaint towns beneath balsam garlands. Some of my favorite places to do this lie in the heart of the Berkshires (www.berkshires.com), which are a northern extension of the Appalachian range.
In Stockbridge, visitors can walk a Normal RockwellÂ?esque downtown, and then visit his nearby museum (9 Glendale Rd., Route 183; tel. 413/298-4100; www.nrm.org), where downtown looks just as it was in 1967 -- the year he finished his painting Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas for McCall's. In nearby Northampton, visitors can enjoy a similarly quaintness, but take advantage of wonderful shopping throughout the compact downtown, or in Thorne's Marketplace (150 Main St.; www.thornesmarketplace.com), a collection of shops and cafes conveniently located under one roof.
Outdoor activities abound, from skiing small mountain resorts such as Butternut (www.skibutternut.com) to family-oriented cross country resorts such as Maple Corner Farm Cross Country Ski Area (794 Beach Hill Rd, Blandford, MA; tel. 413/357-8829) where guests can ski or snowshoe along miles of groomed trails. The largest ski and snowboard resort in the area, Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort (tel. 413/738-5500; www.jiminypeak.com) in Hancock, features skiing, tubing, and snowboarding, with high-speed lifts.
The area also has many country inns that lend themselves for a low-key holiday getaway, a favorite being the Red Lion Inn (www.redlioninn.com) in on Stockbridge's Main Street. For a completely different (and more indulgent experience), consider a stay at Lenox's Cranwell Resort, Spa, and Golf Club (55 Lee Rd.; www.cranwell.com). As its name implies, it has extensive spa and fitness facilities, beautiful grounds, and a private golf course. Views of the snow-covered Berkshires are complimentary. -- Marc Nadeau
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