The Complete Guide To: Festive getaways

Suddenly want to spend Yuletide anywhere but home? Whether you're dreaming of a white-sand beach or a snowy resort, let Harriet O'Brien be your little helper
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The Independent Travel

Can I still get away for Christmas and the New Year?

You could find yourself in a one-horse open sleigh on Christmas Day, or seeing in the New Year on a white-sand beach, but only if you work at it. Last year, Britain saw an exodus of three million or so at the height of the festive season. According to the travel association Abta, that figure is set to rise this year, largely due to the half-baked summer and the prevailing winter gloom. Abta says that the majority of travellers are seeking winter sun, although there is also a sizeable minority heading to destinations in Europe where they can enjoy Christmas with the trimmings of snow, log fires and more.

Give me sea and sunshine

If you want to go to the Caribbean, hold your nerve. "We've never seen such demand," says Paul Cleary of the specialist Caribtours. He says that flights and hotels are currently almost entirely booked, but adds that there are usually a few cancellations as December progresses. For Christmas in Barbados, Trailfinders (0845 050 5871; www.trailfinders.com) offers a Christmas possibility if you fly from Manchester on Virgin on 23 December. A week at the all-inclusive four-star Turtle Beach Resort, set on a white-sand beach in the south of the island, costs 1,999 per person (based on two sharing, as are all prices shown, unless otherwise stated). This, like all the suggestions here, was still available at the time of going to press, late on Thursday 28 November.

Caribtours (020-7751 0660; www.caribtours.co.uk) has some (very limited) availability for New Year. Fly out from Gatwick to Antigua on New Year's Eve, arriving in time for the evening festivities and to begin two weeks in a de-luxe room at the all-inclusive Curtain Bluff. This swish hotel is set on the southern tip of the island and overlooks two lovely white-sand beaches. The price reflects the high demand for festive escapes, and the limited supply: 5,675 per person, including flights on British Airways and transfers.

South African holidays are heavily booked, but Fleewinter (020-7112 0019; www.fleewinter.com) can still sort you out with a villa or apartment in Cape Town. The possibilities include Casa, a luxury one-bedroom apartment with shared use of a swimming pool, in the Camps Bay area, the haunt of models and rock stars. A two-week holiday here, departing 23 December and returning in the New Year, costs 1,200 per person, accommodation only. Meanwhile, the airline consolidator Travelocity (0870 273 3273; www.travelocity.co.uk) can still offer flights from Heathrow to Cape Town, departing on 23 December and returning 6 January 2008, from 1,375 per person.

What about skiing?

The early indications are for an excellent skiing season this winter. The online agent LastMinute.com says that this year, the main resorts in both Europe and North America are enjoying good conditions well ahead of the festive period. The company still has some special deals for the Christmas week, too. For example, a five-night break to Les Trois Valles in the French Alps from 349 per person, departing on 21 December. The price includes flights on British Airways from Heathrow to Lyons, transfers and accommodation (with breakfast) at the three-star Club Hotel Verseau in Brides-les-Bains, which is well placed for access to all the resorts in the Trois Valles.

Meriski (01285 648518; www.meriski.co.uk), specialist in luxury chalets in Mribel in the Trois Valles, still has a chalet available for the New Year. Chalet Virage has two bedrooms, hot tub, sauna, children's game room, and free Wi-Fi. Rooms cost 2,800 for two adults (2,200 for two children) for the week starting 30 December. At the time of going to press, British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) had some no-frills availability for 30 December, returning 6 January from Heathrow to Lyons, although expect to pay upwards of 100 each way.

In Austria, Thomson Ski (0870 606 1470; www.thomsonski.co.uk) offers a week departing 22 December in the resort of Scheffau at the Landhotel Alpin, which has an indoor pool and sauna. The price of 618 per person covers flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck on Thomsonfly, transfers and half-board accommodation, including complimentary wine with evening meals.

Other winter wonders?

Head for Finland, where Exodus (0845 863 9600; www.exodus.co.uk) offers a one-week family Winter Adventure in the wilderness of Lapland's Oulanka National Park. From the cosy pine Basecamp Oulanka hotel, children aged six and over can enjoy a range of activities such as cross-country skiing, sledging, snowshoeing and husky sledding. More restful options include reindeer sleigh rides, saunas and a hot tub. There is also the chance to meet the indigenous Sami people and watch a traditional ceremony with hot drinks around a fire. With a 23 December departure, the holiday costs 1,008 per person (855 per child), which covers charter flights from Gatwick to Kuusamo, transfers, half board accommodation and activities.

www.adventurecompany.co.ukIn Switzerland's Kander Valley, you can enjoy sleigh rides, as well as ice skating, a torchlit stroll, a fondue evening with musical entertainment, and a Christmas dinner, on a five-night festive trip with Inntravel (01653 617906; www.inntravel.co.uk). Half-board accommodation is in the atmospheric Hotel Victoria, in the chocolate box-pretty village of Kandersteg. The holiday costs 795 per person for departures on 21 December, including Heathrow-Zurich flights on Swiss and transfers.

For Christmas spirit?

Head to Rome and attend the Pope's Christmas Eve Midnight Mass in St Peter's Square at the Vatican. Every year the atmosphere in the square is sublime, with prayers broadcast in different languages. There's always an enormous Christmas tree and a larger-than-life Nativity scene, where eccentric gifts such as Italian football shirts are donated.

The Hotel d'Inghilterra, located right in the heart of Rome near the Spanish Steps (00 39 06 69981 204; www.royaldemeure.com), is a sumptuous property with 98 rooms furnished with antiques and swathed in silk The hotel has a Christmas package that covers two nights' accommodation with breakfast, transport to and from the Vatican on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day lunch. The price starts at €594 (424) per person, but flights (or trains) are extra.

Flights to Rome are currently still available with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com), with a service departing Stansted to Ciampino airport on 24 December and returning on 26 December for 187 return. British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) has a flight from Heathrow to Leonardo da Vinci airport on the same dates for 211 return.

Alternatively, you could make for the land of Good King Wenceslas. Chateau Mcely (00 420 325 600 000; www.chateaumcely.com) in the Bohemian forest of St George, near Prague, is straight out of a picture book. A 17th-century mansion, it is wonderfully furnished, with chandeliers and lots of gilt, as well as plasma TVs. The Chateau offers a two-night break with a candlelit gourmet dinner, carols and a present on Christmas Eve, and a spa treatment and evening concert in the hotel's Theatre Hall the next day. The package costs CK5,400 (142). Flights to Prague are extra, and are currently still available with easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) from airports across the UK.

How about an epicurean break at home?

For a superb gourmet Christmas, you can, if you act quickly, still book into Chewton Glen (01425 275 341; www.chewtonglen.com), in New Milton, Hampshire. The festive getaway at this luxurious country-house hotel and spa includes a champagne reception with carols on Christmas Eve; Christmas lunch with wines; and a buffet dinner, too; Boxing Day lunch and dinner; and a celebratory dinner on 27 December with musical entertainment. The package is from 24-28 December and costs from 2,056 per person, covering accommodation with breakfast and other meals.

In the historic Berkshire market town of Hungerford, you can spend Christmas in a 13th-century inn once owned by Henry VIII who gave it to successive wives, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Parr. The Bear Hotel (01488 682 512; www.thebearhotelhungerford.co.uk) presents an overnight festive package with a five-course Christmas lunch created by the award-winning chef Philip Wild (including turkey with all the trimmings, and Christmas pudding with cranberry sorbet). Accommodation is in one of 39 stylish bedrooms. The one-night stay with Christmas lunch and breakfast the next day costs from 155 per person.

A place of my own?

The South of England self-catering specialist, Classic Cottages (01326 555 555; www.classic.co.uk), still has some attractive options, including a property said to be the most westerly thatched cottage in mainland Britain. No Place is a picture-postcard, two-bedroom clifftop retreat above Sennen Cove in Cornwall, with stunning views. There is easy access to the Cornish Coast Path, while Mousehole, celebrated for its Christmas illuminations, is a short drive away. For festive cheer, you can ask the owner to put up a Christmas tree in the cottage. You can also join locals raising money for charity and take a traditional Christmas Day swim at 11am from the beach below the cottage (see tinyurl.com/2rsrc5 for details). A week from 21 December costs 822 for four sharing.

Hoseasons (01502 502588; www.hoseasons.co.uk) also has some availability across the country. For example, the Coach House, near Keswick in the Lake District, is a beautifully refurbished three-bedroom property set in the three-acre grounds of the 18th-century Ormathwaite Hall. With fireplaces, beams and a wood-burning stove in the sitting room, it offers both luxury and tradition. A week here starting 21 December costs 1,530.

New Year celebrations?

Last year, Madeira's spectacular New Year celebrations at Funchal were deemed the biggest firework show in the world by Guinness World Records. This year, this Portuguese island's capital will once again be illuminated by about 250,000 lights, and, as midnight chimes on 31 December, the sky will be filled with a pyrotechnic display from 45 different points. Join the party on a trip with Prestige Holidays (01425 480400; www. prestigeholidays.co.uk), which offers a 10-night holiday departing from Gatwick on 31 December in time for that evening's celebrations. The cost, from 1,199 per person, covers flights to Funchal; private transfers on the island; accommodation with breakfast at Quinta da Bela Vista, an 1844 manor-house hotel on the outskirts of Funchal; and New Year dinner. For details of Madeira's celebrations, visit www.madeiraislands.travel.

Or why not dance your way into the New Year in Rio? The Brazil specialist Jingando Holidays (020-8877 1630; www.jingandoholidays.com) offers a two-week "Dance and Community" break in Rio de Janeiro over the Christmas and New Year period. During the trip you receive dance lessons in the samba and forro, and become part of a local community project painting a shanty town, now something of a local art form. On New Year's Eve, you join a party on Copacabana Beach. With a 22 December departure, the holiday costs 2,200 per person,including flights from Heathrow and accommodation with breakfast at a guest house in the cobbled Santa Teresa area. Profits made by Jingando are donated to a Rio children's club.

Britain's biggest and most spectacular New Year street party takes place, weather permitting, in Edinburgh. Because of high winds, the Hogmanay celebrations were cancelled last year, but the end-of-December show this year promises to be better than ever. Edinburgh's Hogmanay is effectively a four-day festival. It begins on 29 December with a free torchlit procession, leaving Parliament Square at 6.30pm and making for Calton Hill. A free "Night Afore" ceilidh takes over George Street on 30 December, while the numerous entertainments on New Years Eve include a Hogmanay Street Party with live music around the city (5 tickets still available), and more live music in Princes Street Gardens (some 37 tickets still available). For more information, see www.edinburghshogmanay.com; box office 08700 404010.

Festive cheer right now?

Take a winter city break and visit a Christmas market, complete with traditional Yuletide celebrations. Kirker Holidays (020-7593 2288; www.kirkerholidays.com) has a new Christmas Markets brochure featuring 14 cities, from Helsinki to Budapest. Most atmospheric is Vienna, where the company offers three nights (with breakfast) at the chic, four-star Altstadt Hotel for 410 per person, including flights from Heathrow, transfers and Kirker's guide to the city. Or take the Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) to Brussels, where the Advent market starts on 6 December. Here you'll find hand-crafted gifts, toys, decorations and festive delicacies. VFB Holidays (01452 716831; www.vfbholidays.co.uk) can arrange Eurostar tickets from London's St Pancras station and three nights' accommodation (with breakfast) at the Jolly Hotel du Grand Sablon for 170.

On the home front, Britain offers an ever-expanding choice of Christmas markets, including at Lincoln (6-9 December), Bath (to 9 December) and York, where the Christkindlesmarkt, a German-style market, is held on Parliament Street from 6 to 22 December. In London, Bankside's Frost Fair, with stalls, music, street theatre and ice sculptures, takes place between Tate Modern and Shakespeare's Globe from 14 to 16 December.

Movable feasts

Transport is the main challenge for festive travellers, whether they are planning to travel by rail, air or sea. Prices for many destinations climb high for travel any time after mid-December. Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) is running trains from London St Pancras to Paris and Brussels every day except 25 December, and still has availability right through Christmas and New Year though the later you book the less likely you are to find the opening fare of 59 return. Connections on French Railways (SNCF) are becoming increasingly difficult. Indeed, if you turn up without advance reservations you may find the "complet" signs up at French railway stations.

The long-haul specialist Trailfinders (0845 050 5871; www.trailfinders.com) reports that flights to the most popular winter-sun destinations of Australia (left), New Zealand, South Africa and the Caribbean have sold out at the lower fares, although there is still capacity if you pay a premium rate (eg 2,000 return for a direct flight in economy fare from London to Sydney, travelling out just before Christmas, back early in January). A good way to keep costs down is to fly on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Boxing Day and return later in January; to Sydney, this can halve the peak fare. But at this stage in the year, availability on these dates is slim.

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