The Complete Guide To: Christmas Getaways

It's six months to the big day, but many festive holidays have already been snapped up. Harriet O'Brien reports on the best deals that are still available
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The Independent Travel

AM I TOO EARLY TO BOOK?

AM I TOO EARLY TO BOOK?

Not at all. In fact for some parts of the world you'll find that you're almost too late. Christmas and New Year is the peak of peaks for the travel industry, when airlines and hotels confidently expect to make a mint. Everyone seems to be travelling - holidaymakers wanting to escape the midwinter weather in Britain are fighting for airline seats and hotel beds with millions of others, while the traditional return home for many expatriate workers means everything is stretched.

The better-value flights to the most popular destinations were snapped up long ago - most airlines start selling 50 weeks before departure. In some fashionable places - Barbados and Sydney for instance - many hotels are now fully booked between 19 December and 2 January. According to Trailfinders, by August and September Christmas-season flights to many long-haul destinations will be in the high-price bracket, notably for Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Caribbean.

HOW CAN I REACH THE CARIBBEAN?

Some seats are still available, but you'll need to have a very thick wallet, book soon and be flexible about dates. At the time of writing, BWIA West Indies Airways (0870 499 2942; www.bwee.com), for example, could offer economy-class flights to Antigua from London Heathrow departing 21 December and returning 4 January for £1,616. By contrast, the airline's September return fare from Heathrow to Antigua is currently available at around £600 and in very low season the price drops to about £450.

There is much more availability (and prices are far lower) if you plan a holiday with a departure in the first two weeks of December. You could book a package through a specialist agency such as Caribbean Islands Club (020-8232 9781; www.carib-club.com), which has a wide portfolio of private villas. Just off Non Such Bay on Antigua's east coast is Villa Dominique, a beautifully furnished house complete with swimming pool, tropical gardens, housekeeper and accommodation for eight people. At the time of writing, the villa was still available during December, when a one-week stay costs from £1,672 per person (based on eight sharing the house) inclusive of flights from London, transfers and villa rental. This price, however, is for travel before 15 December. Thereafter flight costs would cause the price of the holiday to spiral.

HOW ABOUT AUSTRALIA?

Ah, the winelands and gourmet living around Margaret River in the west; the watery delights of Sydney in the east; andmuch more in between. But don't expect much change out of £1,000 if you're booking flights now to spend Christmas in the Australian midsummer. Perth, gateway to Western Australia, is a touch cheaper to get to than many of the country's other international airports. Christmas-period fares are available from Travelocity (0870 111 7060; www.travelocity.co.uk) at around £1,185 for flights from London via Singapore on British Airways/Qantas. Meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com) flies to Sydney via Hong Kong for around £1,200 during this peak season - provided you book soon.

If you're prepared to forego the New Year festivities in Sydney, you can take advantage of an attractive package: Travelbag (0870 814 6545; www.travelbag.co.uk) is offering six nights in Sydney from £939 per person staying at the four-star Southern Cross Suites in Darling Harbour. The price includes flights with Malaysia Airlines from Heathrow to Sydney via Kuala Lumpur, and the offer is valid for travel between 10 and 31 December.

AND NEW ZEALAND?

Glacial mountains and long empty beaches, quiet lakes and hissing geysers - the scenery of this compact country is stunning, and stunningly varied. All of which makes it ideal for touring, particularly in the summer period. But, once again, getting here for Christmas is about double the price of other seasons. It might help to justify the expense if you stop off in the South Pacific on the way there or back. Air New Zealand, the only airline with direct flights between the UK and Auckland, allows passengers to break their journeys in Tahiti, Fiji or the Cook Islands at no extra cost.

For those looking to tour New Zealand in style, Carrier (01625 547000; www.carrier.co.uk) has a 10-night itinerary that takes in fine scenery and great places to stay that still have availability over Christmas. The trip comprises three nights on Waiheke Island at the boutique Boatshed hotel; a night at Rotorua, heartland of Maori culture, at the Kawaha Point Lodge; three nights in wine-producing Hawkes Bay at Greenhill the Lodge; and three nights at The Spire in the mountainous Queenstown area. The price per person is £3,870, including flights on Air New Zealand, accommodation with breakfast, car hire and internal flights.

SOME AFRICAN SUN?

With its winter sun, wildlife and spectacular landscape South Africa is a huge draw during December. Those wishing to spend Christmas in the Kruger National Park or the game reserves and winelands of the Western Cape can expect to pay at least £1,000 for flights booked now with South African Airways (0870 747 1111; www.flysaa.com).

Because you cross few time zones when travelling there from Europe, the effects of jet lag are minimal, making this a good destination for relatively short breaks. Kirker Holidays (0870 112 3333; www.kirkerholidays.com), for example, is offering a luxury four-night stay over Christmas at the Winchester Mansions Hotel, located in the Waterfront area of Cape Town. The price from £1,766 per person includes flights, transfers and accommodation with breakfast.

If finding flights to South Africa proves too elusive or expensive, try Namibia, which has some extraordinary deserts, seascapes and * * bush-walking opportunities. Next Saturday Air Namibia (020-7960 6016; www.airnamibia.com.na) starts direct flights between Gatwick and Windhoek - and at the moment there is still reasonable availability over the Christmas period, with seats costing in the region of £850. Roxton Bailey Robinson (01488 689 700; www.rbrww.com) is offering a 10-day Namibian safari holiday over Christmas. This luxury adventure trip includes four nights at Villa Mushara in the Etosha National Park and four nights at Wolwedans Dunes Lodge, hidden amid the red dunes of the NamibRand Nature Reserve. The price from £3,985 per person (based on two sharing a room) includes flights, transfers, all meals and accommodation and game viewing.

A LATIN AMERICAN CHRISTMAS?

December is one of the most pleasant times to visit Mexico - and there is not quite such a high demand for flights from the UK, so prices are at the moment relatively low. American Airlines (020-7365 0777; www.aa.com) is offering fares from Heathrow to Cancun via Dallas (and back via Miami) for around £1,000 during the Christmas period. Special offers for Christmas in Cancun include a deal from ebookers (0870 814 6016; www.ebookers.com): flights and seven nights at the Ambiance Villas Kin Ha for £1,279 per person for departures between 20 and 23 December, to be booked by 15 July.

Meanwhile the Latin America specialist Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk) still has some availability on its 12-night escorted Highlights of Mexico group tour departing on 16 December. The holiday costs £2,395 per person (based on two sharing) and visits Mexico City, Oaxaca, the colonial city of San Cristobal de Las Casas, the great Mayan pyramids of Palenque and the ancient remains of Chichen Itza. The same tour can be taken as a private journey at a cost of £3,095 per person, with departures any time from 16 to 31 December. The prices include British Airways flights from Heathrow to Mexico City, accommodation with breakfast in hotels and haciendas, some other meals, guided excursions and transfers.

IS IT TIME TO RETURN TO THE INDIAN OCEAN?

This Christmas will be a poignant time at many Indian Ocean destinations; the tsunami that killed more than quarter of a million people and devastated communities struck on 26 December 2004.

Hotels remained largely empty in many areas during the first six months of 2005, particularly in Sri Lanka and the Thai resort island of Phuket. But their fortunes are turning. The luxury holiday specialist Abercrombie and Kent (0845 070 0614; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) now reports much renewed interest in this part of the world. Christmas bookings are being almost as keenly made as in other years. In Sri Lanka this is in part because of stylish new hotels, notably Amanresorts' Amangalla in Galle and the beachside Amanwella at Tangalle; Per Aquum's Fortress Hotel at Koggala is due to open in November. Abercrombie and Kent is offering a week in Sri Lanka over Christmas from £1,379 per person including flights from Heathrow to Colombo and accommodation with breakfast. The "Spices and Serendipity" tour takes in Colombo; the cultural richness of the interior around Dambulla; the pretty city of Kandy and Koggala.

Scott Dunn (020-8682 5060; www.scottdunn.com) offers the exclusive new Trisara in Phuket. The hotel comprises just 33 villas, each with its own private pool, and is set by a white-sand beach backing on to tropical rainforest. Over the Christmas season, a 10-night holiday here costs from £4,440 per person including flights, room only accommodation and transfers. Further south in the Indian Ocean, the same company has a 10-night luxury Christmas break in Mauritius.

Expense, it seems, is not an object for many taking a holiday here in December: Scott Dunn reports that it can only offer economy seats on British Airways flights since the premium classes are fully booked. The price of £3,690 per person includes flights from Heathrow as well as half-board accommodation at the chic Residence hotel, with a gala dinner on Christmas Eve.

WHAT ABOUT SKIING?

Flights to European destinations are still fairly readily available at reasonable cost over the Christmas period. But you do need to book soon for skiing holidays in the most popular destinations. The Alpine skiing specialist Esprit (01252 618300; www.esprit-
holidays.co.uk
) reports a growing number of enquiries about chalets during the Christmas season but says that there is still fairly wide availability. However, the company recommends bookings should be made within the next two months. Bear in mind that prices for New Year ski trips are more expensive than for holidays over Christmas: Esprit offers a week at Courcheval departing on 23 December from £619 per person and from £899 per person departing on 30 December. The prices include flights to Geneva from Stansted and transfers to the resort.

For top-of-the-range ski accommodation, the luxury chalet operator Descent International (020-7384 3854; www.descent.co.uk) has some availability for the Christmas week (19-26 December). Septième Ciel in Verbier sleeps 12 people in six rooms - each with its own balcony, and bathroom. The property also boasts a private cinema and outdoor Jacuzzi. It costs £29,305 for the Christmas week (£2,442 per person based on full occupancy). Expensive, yes, but this package includes tea or coffee in bed, breakfast, a Veuve Clicquot reception, champagne and canapés, children's meals if required, gourmet dinners and selected wines, an open bar and in-resort chauffeur service. The only detail missing is the air travel. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) offers return flights from Heathrow to Geneva for £107.

A CHRISTMAS JOURNEY?

Flying out of the UK on Christmas Day can be a joy: uncrowded airports and planes, and fares that suddenly fall. And while public transport largely shuts down over Christmas in Britain, in Continental Europe the railways and buses carry on much as usual - so you could plan almost any itinerary, for example through Trainseurope (0871 700 7722; www.trainseurope.co.uk) which can handle bookings and ticketing.

Or celebrate Christmas in style on a trip with Great Rail Journeys (01904 521904; www.greatrail.com). "The Imperial Celebration" is an escorted 12-day holiday departing on 16 and 23 December to Vienna and Budapest. All travel is by train, starting with Eurostar from London Waterloo to Brussels and continuing via Cologne to Vienna and thence to Budapest.

The highlight of the trip is a three-day rail tour on the privately chartered Royal Hungarian Express, complete with historic dining cars and engines from the national collection. Book soon, since this annual tour sells quickly. The price per person is £1,990 for the 16 December departure and £2,150 for the trip a week later. The cost includes first-class rail travel on daytime trains; seven nights half-board hotel accommodation; two nights full-board on the Hungarian Express; two nights in two-berth sleepers on the return Cologne-Vienna journey, sightseeing and excursions and the services of a tour manager.

For a real flavour of Christmas in Italy, Gourmet on Tour (020-7396 5550; www.gourmetontour.com) is offering a special Christmas package at the Michelin-starred Il Falconiere, a sumptuous Relais & Châteaux hotel near Cortona in Tuscany. As well as the opportunity to attend local festivities, the holiday includes three cooking lessons at the hotel, wine tastings, Christmas lunch and some other meals as well as six nights accommodation. The price, from £1,990, excludes travel to Cortona for which the recommended international gateway is Pisa, 154km to the north: Ryanair's flights here from Stansted over Christmas have only just gone on sale and are likely to be available for around £200 return (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com). From Bristol, easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) has seats for around £250 return.

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