Get away from it all this Christmas

If you're looking for a festive break, now's the time to start planning your trip. Simon Calder and the travel team bring you the best deals around the world

Goodness, only three months and I'll be another year older. Unless you are one in 365 of the population, you will not know the extra dimension that a Christmas birthday brings to 25 December. We Christmas Capricorns - who number about 160,000 in the UK - have a tricky annual quest: to find somewhere exceptional to mark the day chosen to celebrate the birth of Christ, and our own arrival in the world.

Goodness, only three months and I'll be another year older. Unless you are one in 365 of the population, you will not know the extra dimension that a Christmas birthday brings to 25 December. We Christmas Capricorns - who number about 160,000 in the UK - have a tricky annual quest: to find somewhere exceptional to mark the day chosen to celebrate the birth of Christ, and our own arrival in the world.

Happily, the options get wider each year. The 25 destinations for 25 December picked out in this survey give just a glimpse of the range of possibilities.

From experience, I commend Cuba - where Christmas was recently legalised, but has yet to be commercialised - and Krabi in Thailand, where the locals celebrate 25 December with an exuberance unusual among Buddhists. Flying west has plenty of advantages for those who want to make the most of Christmas Day, because you can stretch 25 December to 32 hours by boarding a flight to Los Angeles or San Francisco. But choose the "wrong" trans-Pacific flight, leaving California on 24 December bound for Australasia, and you lose Christmas Day - and skip a year of age. Some of my less-successful festive trips were to The Gambia (the six-hour flight on Christmas Eve meant that I spent 25 December asleep), and a flight to South Africa that involved a cheerless stopover at Zürich airport and curtailed my birthday by a few hours.

To avoid festive disappointment, check out our Christmas options. Prices quoted apply per person based on two sharing, except where stated, and all were available on 21 September. Oh, and happy Michaelmas (29 September).

MEDITERRANEAN HIDEAWAYS

WHERE? Fuengirola

WHY? It's one of the liveliest resorts on the Costa del Sol, near Marbella and Malaga.

WHAT? Walk along the beach, although it will be too cold to swim. Or enjoy the entertainment, which includes live music and competitions, laid on at the hotel. Possible destinations for excursions include Gibraltar Granada, or Tangier.

HOW? Airtours (0870 238 7788; www.airtours.co.uk) has stays at the three-star Fuengirola Park - which has good facilities and is near the beach.

HOW MUCH? Seven nights' half-board with flights from Manchester to Malaga departing on 19 December, and a gala Christmas dinner, cost £418; departures from Gatwick are £408.

WHERE? Hammamet, Tunisia

WHY? Winters are mild in Tunisia - although the sea is cold. Lower temperatures make it a better time than summer for exploring nearby attractions like Kairouan, whose Great Mosque is one of the most important in the Muslim world, and Monastir, worth a visit for its market.

WHAT? Hammamet's vast, sandy beach stretches along part of the Cap Bon peninsula. Inland are lots of attractive buildings, colourful gardens and a lively kasbah.

HOW? Cadogan Holidays (023 808 28300; www.cadoganholidays.com) offers packages to this and many other Tunisian resorts.

HOW MUCH? A week's bed and breakfast, with flights from Gatwick departing on 22 December, costs £602. A gala Christmas Eve dinner with a show can be booked for an extra £36.

WHERE? Cyprus

WHY? To stay in the Anassa Hotel at the resort of Polis, and be indulged.

WHAT? Enjoy the hotel's facilities: panoramic views from every room, four restaurants, and a spa offering a great range of treatments. Nearby are the unspoilt Akamas peninsula and the Baths of Aphrodite.

HOW? Elegant Resorts (01244 897 777; www.elegantresorts.co.uk) can arrange flights to Paphos or Larnaca, transfers and accommodation.

HOW MUCH? Seven nights' bed and breakfast over Christmas, including flights with BA from Heathrow to Larnaca, costs £1,395.

WHERE? Nice

WHY? The Cote d'Azur's main city has some unusual Christmas traditions, such as a crib with live baby in the Place Rossetti, and a 25 December swim in the Med.

WHAT? Walk along the Promenade des Anglais and visit the old town. If you're feeling energetic, you can even nip up to Isola 2000, only 60 miles inland, for skiing or snowboarding.

HOW? Book a room at the elegant Hotel Negresco on the seafront at 37 Promenade des Anglais (00 33 4 93 16 64 00; www.hotel-negresco-nice.com).

HOW MUCH? Double rooms start at €235 (£160) a night, without breakfast. At the moment there is plenty of availability over Christmas. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) operates direct flights to Nice from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester. A departure from Manchester on 23 December, returning on 28 December, costs £162.80.

Cathy Packe

FESTIVE CITIES

WHERE? New York

WHY? Manhattan loves to party, and the city will be in Christmas mood as soon as Thanksgiving is over.

WHAT? Try skating in Rockefeller Plaza (001 212 332 7654). Sleigh rides through Central Park leave from 59th Street; rides cost $34 (£19) for 20 minutes. There are performances of The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center on Boxing Day (001 212 870 5570; www.lincolncenter.org), or join those New Yorkers who spend Christmas at the movies. Films due to open on Christmas Day include Hotel Rwanda, based on the life of a hotel manager who saved thousands of Tutsis during the civil war, and Bride and Prejudice, a Bollywood version of the Jane Austen classic.

HOW? Book flights through Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com) or British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), and accommodation through the New York City Visitors' Bureau ( www.nycvisit.com). Virgin Holidays (0870 220 2468; www.virginholidays.co.uk) offers three-night breaks with flights from Heathrow or Gatwick.

HOW MUCH? Flights with British Airways from Manchester, departing on 23 December, cost £529.50. A double room for three nights, without breakfast, at the two-star Quality Hotel on Broadway costs $416 (£233). Virgin has three nights, room only, at the two-star Gershwin Hotel off 5th Avenue for £769, departing from Heathrow on the same day.

WHERE? Moscow

WHY? You can almost guarantee a white Christmas. And if you stay on until the Russian Orthodox festivities on 7 January, you can have two parties for the price of one.

WHAT? Starting on (our) Christmas Day is the Winter Festival in Ismailovo Park. It continues until 5 January and includes appearances by traditional Russian winter characters like the Snow Maiden and Father Frost. Other highlights include the Kremlin (open 10am-5pm daily except 31 December) and Red Square.

HOW? Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711; www.regent-holidays.co.uk) is well used to dealing with Russia's tricky bureaucracy.

HOW MUCH? £465 for three nights' bed and breakfast at the four-star Sretenskaya Hotel, close to Sukharevskaya metro station. Extra nights cost £65 per person; transfers are another £20 each way for two people. This includes a choice of several BA flights to the Russian capital, departing from Heathrow on 23 December. Regent Holidays will provide visa advice and application forms; visas cost £57.

WHERE? Montreal

WHY? The celebrations combine North American and European traditions. And the French restaurants mean you won't go without a good Christmas dinner.

WHAT? Explore the carefully restored Old Montreal district; when the temperature drops there are plenty of underground walkways to protect you from the cold. Within 90 minutes you can reach the superb Mont Tremblant ski area in the Laurentians.

HOW? British Airways Holidays (0870 24 33 407; www.baholidays.com) can tailor-make city breaks in Montreal with a choice of four- and five-star hotels.

HOW MUCH? Flying from Heathrow on 22 December and staying for six nights at the four-star Crowne Plaza in the city centre costs £931.50, with breakfast.

WHERE? Krakow

WHY? Poland's cultural centre, like many Eastern European cities, knows how to celebrate Christmas. There are several open-air markets and elaborate Nativity scenes, some with real animal and human participants, in many of the churches and city squares. The big celebration is on Christmas Eve when a 12-course meat-free meal is eaten.

WHAT? Explore the huge Market Square, covering ten acres and for centuries the focus of city life, and Wawel Hill, site of the Royal Palace and cathedral. Although the palace exhibitions are closed on Christmas Day, the complex will be open from 6am-5pm.

HOW? Put together your own package with an easyJet flight to Krakow from Luton and a city centre hotel, or try Kirker Holidays (020-7231 3333; www.kirkerholidays.com) if you prefer your holidays tailor-made.

HOW MUCH? With Kirker Holidays, departing on 23 December, you will pay £475 for bed and breakfast for three nights at the Pod Roza, a superior four-star hotel at 14 Ul Florianska (00 48 12 424 33 00; www.hotel.com.pl/podroza) near Krakow's main square. The price includes flights from Gatwick with British Airways or the Polish airline, LOT. Using easyJet for the same dates, and staying in the same hotel, the total cost will be £277.98 (flight £145.98, room 560 zlotys (£88) per night).

WHERE? Venice

WHY? Venice (top) is magical in winter, when the mist rises from the canals.

WHAT? Enjoy the churches, galleries and canal-side walks, and, if you arrive by Christmas Eve, don't miss the Christmas Village in Piazza San Stefano.

HOW? For pre-packaged trips, Magic of Italy (0870 888 0222; www.magictravelgroup.co.uk) offers a variety of holidays all over Italy. Or put together a trip of your own: Jet2 (0870 737 82 82; www.jet2.com) flies from Leeds-Bradford to Venice's Marco Polo airport; easyJet (0871 750 0100, www.easyjet.com) flies from various airports; Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) flies to Treviso, 20 miles away.

HOW MUCH? £775 for bed and breakfast for three nights, from 23 December, at the luxurious Danieli Hotel, close to St Mark's Square. This can be booked through Magic of Italy, and includes direct flights from Gatwick with British Airways. The easyJet fare from East Midlands, departing on 23 December, returning on 26 December, is £55.98. Accommodation booked direct (00 39 041 522 6480; www.danieli.hotelinvenice.com) starts at €415 (£282.50) per night for a double room. CP

FAR-FLUNG BEACHES

WHERE? Christmas Island

WHY? To put the "X" in Xmas: your luggage tag will show the code XCH. And because Australia's Indian Ocean island is like nowhere else on earth: 400 Chinese, Malay and European people co-exist on the peak of a submerged mountain, which they share with 100 million red crabs. The island is 200 miles away from Java, but officially part of Australia, 1,000 miles distant. It was named for the day it was discovered in 1643.

WHAT? You can snorkel among the coral reefs, dive deep with scuba gear, take a 4x4 trip through the jungle - or play golf, on the island's own nine-hole course.

HOW? Spending Christmas at Christmas is not easy. First, fly to Bali, for example from Heathrow via Singapore on 16 December, connecting with the Saturday-only flight on Austasia Airlines to Christmas Island.

HOW MUCH? A flight to Bali, returning early in January, costs £818 through Opodo (0870 241 7051, www.opodo.co.uk). The 100-minute hop to Christmas Island costs A$850 (£338) return. A fortnight in a double room at the Christmas Island Resort (00 61 8 9164 8888) costs A$1,980 (£787).

WHERE? Fiji

WHY? Christmas is a big event in this South Sea archipelago - half the population is Christian. Fiji issues special Christmas stamps, which you can stick on postcards to annoy your pals.

WHAT? Languish in a hammock under swaying palm trees sipping a Christmas cocktail.

HOW? Talpacific Holidays (020-8288 8400; www.talpacific.com) offers flights with Air New Zealand departing on 17 December from Heathrow via Los Angeles, transfers, nine nights at the Treasure Island Resort and three at the Sonaisali Island Resort, breakfast included.

HOW MUCH? £2,395

WHERE? Mauritius

WHY? To swim in the Indian Ocean, sharing a three-bedroom Moroccan-style villa.

WHAT? Relax on the villa's rooftop terrace, watch the sunset and unwind from the rigours of another day lazing in the garden. The elegant villa is in a quiet residential area 25 minutes from Grand Bay.

HOW? Book through Villas de Maitre (01296 334138; www.villasdemaitre.com).

HOW MUCH? The three-bedroom villa costs £539 per night over Christmas. Flights on Air France via Paris (out 17 December, back 31 December) through ebookers (0870 814 0000; www.ebookers.com) cost £1,090.

WHERE? Barbados

WHY? There's no need to leave Christmas behind on the Caribbean island known as "Little England".

WHAT? Celebrations - such as the Christmas Eve Gala Dinner - are a tradition at resorts on the island. There are plenty of extra activities: at the Amaryllis Beach Resort on the south coast of Barbados you can also snorkel in the resort's natural sea aquarium or relax in the expansive tropical gardens.

HOW? For departures any day 13-17 December, Virgin Holidays (0871 222 0304; ww.virgin.com/holidays) offers flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick to Barbados, 14 nights' room only at the Amaryllis Beach Resort, gala dinner and transfers.

HOW MUCH? From £1,485.

WHERE? Goa

WHY? Package holiday bargain-seekers have taken over from backpackers. Before the "longhairs" arrived, the Portuguese ran Goa as a colony. Even though it was annexed by India in 1962, Goa has a big Christian community.

WHAT? Visit Old Goa for the best old churches, Panaji (Panjim) for a curious mix of Portuguese and Indian architecture, and the beaches for the Indian Ocean.

HOW? For departures from Gatwick on 17 December, Gateway Holidays (0871 222 8379; www.gatewayholidays.co.uk) offers 14 nights at the Nizmar Resort, Calangute, including breakfast. The company can also arrange flights from Manchester on 16 December.

HOW MUCH? From Gatwick flights cost £1,069 including transfers; from Manchester, £1,089, both on Excel Airways. To fly Premium Economy add £199 from Gatwick, £249 from Manchester.

David Orkin

FIVE ADVENTURES

WHERE? New Zealand

WHY? Work up an appetite for a festive roast lamb dinner by getting the adrenalin flowing among New Zealand's stunning mountain scenery.

WHAT? Make sure you visit Queenstown, the country's adventure capital. On any day of the year - except 25 December - you can take a jet-boat ride down the Shotover River, brave a 134-metre bungy jump, take a helicopter flight and do some white-water rafting.

HOW? Plenty of Australasia specialists will fix you up with a bespoke trip.

HOW MUCH? Five nights at Rydges Lakeland Resort and the "Awesome Foursome" package costs from £367 per person through Quest Travel (0870 442 3513; www.questtravel.com). On top of this, you will need to buy the flight. Quest offer flights to New Zealand on various airlines: the best fare at present is £1,439 return on Cathay Pacific from Heathrow via Hong Kong, leaving on 16 December, back on 4 January.

WHERE? Whistler

WHY? There's no gamble on whether it will be a white Christmas at one of the world's top winter sports resorts in British Columbia.

WHAT? There may be vast amounts of skiable terrain on two mountains rising a vertical mile above the valley, but we're not just talking excellent downhill, heli, cat and cross-country skiing and boarding. You can also go snowmobiling, dogsledding, snowshoeing, flight-seeing and zip-trekking (gliding along steel cables suspended high above the ground). Then soothe the muscles with a soak in a Jacuzzi or a visit to a spa.

HOW? Frontier Ski (020-8776 8709; www.frontier-ski.co.uk) offers a week at the Glaciers Reach in Whistler Village North.

HOW MUCH? From £1,193 including scheduled flights between Heathrow and Vancouver on Air Canada and transfers, departing on 23 December.

WHERE? Kenya and Tanzania

WHY? Christmas is - or should be - all about families. Here's an opportunity to take the kids to see family life in the animal kingdom.

WHAT? A 15-night Nairobi to Dar Es Salaam safari, available only to families. The mix of accommodation - from camping in game parks to the comfort of good hotels - is tailored to those travelling with children. Christmas Eve is spent camping overnight in the Serengeti, and Christmas Day in the Ngorongoro Crater National Park. The trip concludes with a three-night stay on the nearby spice island of Zanzibar.

HOW? Book through Dragoman (01728 862 229; www.dragoman.co.uk).

HOW MUCH? The trip leaves from Nairobi on 18 December and costs £745 for adults, £633 for children aged eight to 15 years, plus a kitty of £295. This includes expedition transport, accommodation, all camp meals and national park entry fees. Flights are not included but are available through Dragoman; KLM flies from Heathrow via Amsterdam on 15 December for £745.

WHERE? Jordan

WHY? See spectacular marine life and strong New Testament connections above ground.

WHAT? Learn to dive at the Red Sea resort of Aqaba and then dry out by exploring the desert scenery of Wadi Rum. Excursions can be arranged to biblical sites such as Bethany-Beyond-Jordan, John the Baptist's settlement.

HOW? Aquatours (020-8398 0505; www.aquatours.com) can arrange diving and tailor-made packages in Jordan.

HOW MUCH? Flights on Royal Jordanian from Heathrow on 21 or 23 December, seven nights at the Alcazar Hotel (including breakfast), Christmas dinner, a PADI Open Water course for beginners and full-day Wadi Rum excursion by 4x4 and camel costs £1,021.

WHERE? Morocco

WHY? Work off the excesses of the holiday season with a walk and then do some Christmas shopping in one of the great bazaars of the world. I cannot promise three wise men but you may well meet nomads grazing their flocks in winter pastures.

WHAT? Get fit hiking in the little-visited mountains of Jebel Sahro in eastern Morocco on a 15-day hiking holiday departing on 17 December. Mules take your baggage. The tour starts and finishes in Marrakech.

HOW? Book through Walks Worldwide (01524 242 000; www.walksworldwide.com)

HOW MUCH? £875, including flights from Heathrow to Marrakech on Royal Air Maroc. This covers accommodation (hotels, village houses and camping) and all trek meals.

DO

DO THEY KNOW IT'S CHRISTMAS?

WHERE? Pyongyang

WHY? Since Albania went soft on Stalinism, this has been the hardcore Yuletide refusenik's ideal destination. Whether you hate Christmas for being too religious or too commercial, North Korea offers the best of neither world. You can be sure that the shops won't overflow with consumer clutter in September. Or December. Or ever.

WHAT? Highlights include Kim Il-Sung Square, Pyongyang Metro and the Schoolchildren's Palace.

HOW? Leave from Beijing on 24 December, reaching Pyongyang the next day for three nights.

HOW MUCH? Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711; www.regent-holidays.co.uk) charges £610 (sharing) or £960 (individuals). Add £420 for London-Beijing flights.

WHERE? Ethiopia

WHY? Ethiopia's Copts celebrate their Christmas on 7 January. This is one place you can diet in December, joining the traditional 40-day fast.

WHAT? Ethiopia is one of the world's oldest Christian countries, with spectacular medieval churches in Lilibela. Other attractions include the 12th-century castles of Gonder.

HOW? British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Ethiopian Airways (020-8987 9086; www.flyethiopian.com) fly from Heathrow to Addis Ababa. The Ras Amba Hotel (00 251 123 3219) has fine city views.

HOW MUCH? Flights cost from £410 return.

WHERE? Maldives

WHY? Where better for festivity abstainers than a country that bans Christmas? All citizens must be Muslim and publicly practising any other religion is illegal.

WHAT? Laze under the sun on some of the world's best beaches, or scuba dive. Unlike some Muslim countries, alcohol is available for those beach cocktails (though not in the capital, Male).

HOW? The Holiday Place (020-7644 1770; www.theholidayplace.co.uk) has 10 days half-board at a villa in the Filtheyo resort, departing on 21 December.

HOW MUCH? £1,879.

WHERE? Bhutan

WHY? It's hard to imagine anywhere less commercialised than this remote Buddhist kingdom. Tourists are kept to a quota and life ticks to an altogether medieval beat.

WHAT? Stunning Himalayan views, ancient fortified monasteries.

HOW? An 18-day walking expedition to Bhutan, departing on 18 December, with Himalayan Kingdoms (01453 844400; www.himalayankingdoms.com). Spend Christmas Day trekking from the capital Thimphu to the winter capital Punakha.

HOW MUCH? £3,295.

WHERE? Libya

WHY? Libya has a tiny Christian minority, but Christmas celebrations are virtually unknown in the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya; 25 December is just another day.

WHAT? The Roman cities of Sabratha and Leptis Magna, the Greek settlements of Cyrene and Apollonia, and 4x4 driving to the Sahara.

HOW? Caravanserai Tours (020-8855 6373; www.caravanserai-tours.com) arranges visits for groups of four or more. Its 15-day Classical Cities tour takes in Libya's Greek and Roman sites and the Ghadamis oasis. British Airways flies to Tripoli from Heathrow. Afriqiyah Airways (0870 242 2267; www.afriqiyah.aero) flies from Gatwick.

HOW MUCH? £1,105 full-board; flights £284 return with Afriqiyah Airlines or £407 with BA.

David St Vincent

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