Like beauty, perfect weather depends on the outlook of the beholder. The winter mountaineer, for example, demands sub-zero temperatures of the kind experienced recently in Britain, while for the yachtsman or windsurfer a strong but even breeze is the key. Tornado chasers are never happier than when pursuing a whirl of air across the prairie, while skiers adore snow that falls, considerately, only at night.
However, most of us would settle for a gentle, balmy breeze over warm waters beneath reliably sunny skies – conditions that make destinations as far apart as Perth in Western Australia, the islands of Thailand and the Californian cities of San Diego and Santa Cruz candidates for "most perfect weather".
There are other factors at work, says Philip Eden, author of Great British Weather Disasters (Continuum Books): "Daylight is a key consideration. At this time of year we get about seven hours of daylight per day in the UK. Heading towards the Med you'll get eight hours, approaching the Canaries and North Africa you'll get nine hours, while over in the Caribbean you'll get 10 or so hours."
Temperature is also a major component. Eden points out that 30C or more may be one person's idea of heaven, but another's notion of hell. "You will, of course, find increasingly hot but humid conditions the closer you get to the equator," he says.
"If you prefer warmth and clear skies go to places within the sub-tropical high-pressure belts." In layman's terms that means countries around 30 degrees north of the Equator, such as parts of Egypt, Israel, and the US (southern California, for example), or around 30 degrees south such as parts of Chile, South Africa and Australia (South Australia and New South Wales, for instance).
Precipitation (the falling of moisture, whether that's rain, snow or hail) is an additional consideration. Very dry, hot conditions will result in aridity and little if any vegetation; very wet, warm conditions will contribute to a lush landscape.
What about climate change: how much can we rely on existing weather data to guide us as to where to go? Eden is wary of associating extreme conditions with climate change. "Unusual weather has always happened from time to time," he says. "Bear in mind that climate change is almost imperceptibly slow."
Traditonally, the best time for seeing animals in most parts of Africa is during the dry season – from about May to August – when vegetation is low and game congregates at water points, with attendant predators. But during the green season (which is at its height in December in many areas), the scenery is lush and spectacular, the animals have young – which not only look appealing but also attract predators – and the bird life is wonderful. It is low season, too, so prices are relatively low and crowds are thin.
Audley Travel (01993 838 500; audleytravel.com) recommends Botswana at this time of year. You are likely to get some rain, but this generally comes in short, dramatic downpours that clear the air leaving blue skies and sunshine, with temperatures around 30C. The company is offering a nine-day itinerary in the Okavango Delta where you can expect to see an impressive range of wildlife. The price, from £3,010 per person (based on two sharing, as are all prices given unless otherwise stated), includes flights from Heathrow to Johannesburg with onward light-aircraft transfers, all game-viewing activities, full-board accommodation and most drinks.
Expert Africa (020-8232 9777; expertafrica.com) suggests a five-night trip in Tanzania, taking in the Ngorongoro Crater and Conservation area, the grasslands of the Serengeti, and the floodplains of Lake Manyara National Park. Along the way you would be very unlucky not to see buffalo, giraffe, wildebeest and lion – and you could also catch sight of rhino and cheetah. The holiday costs from £2,530 per person, which covers flights from Heathrow to Dar es Salaam, all transfers in Africa, full-board accommodation and all game viewing.
Christmas on the beach
The Caribbean has become classic Christmas-break territory. Bear in mind, though, the inevitability of some rain here: that is an issue throughout the tropics. However, December and January are good months to visit, with highs around 28C. The heaviest downpours occur between May and November, while hurricanes are most frequent during August and September. In general the Leeward Islands – including Anguilla, Antigua and Montserrat – feel slightly hotter than the breezier Windward Islands, such as St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines.
If turquoise seas, striking landscape and seclusion are top priorities, make for Antigua. The south-east corner of the island offers Half Moon Bay, a national park five minutes' drive from Freetown. On the west side of the island is Galley Bay Resort and Spa, an adult-only resort set beside a stunning white-sand beach. The luxury travel company W&O Tropical Locations (0845 277 3310; wandotravel.com) is currently offering a one-week, all-inclusive Christmas holiday from £3,725 per person. The price includes British Airways flights from Gatwick.
Asian options include Goa in India where December and January are optimum times to visit, well before the sweltering May summer and the monsoon rains of June and July. In December, expect highs around 32C and lows at about 20C along with clear, sunny days interspersed by occasional periods of strong rain.
Goa might be the smallest state in India, but that still means a north-south extent of close on 100 miles, and an inward protrusion of 40 miles. This gives plenty of room for hyperactive market towns and strident scenery as well as laid-back beach life. First Choice (0871 200 7799; firstchoice.co.uk) has a range of packages to Goa with accommodation at resorts by the sea. A week's B&B at Zuri White Sands Resort at Varca Beach, for example, costs from £1,510 per person over Christmas including flights on Thomson Airways from Gatwick to Goa's Dabolim Airport.
With temperatures between 18 and 23C at this time of year, it's no wonder the Canary Islands are such a popular winter escape from Britain. Close to the north-west coast of Africa, the archipelago is affected by two weather systems – the trade winds from the high-pressure area of the Azores and warm airflow from the Sahara – which results in a particularly stable and sunny climate.
Head to Lanzarote, the northernmost island, for a stunning range of scenery, from volcanic landscapes of huge craters, black lava fields and crimson mountains to wide beaches of golden sand. White-washed villages and gently swaying palm trees complete the picture. The island offers a number of stylish small hotels such as the chic and rural Casona de Yaiza (00 34 928 836 262; casonadeyaiza.com; doubles from €90) and Caserío de Mazaga, a farmhouse-turned-hotel in the heart of the island (00 34 928 520 060; caseriodemozaga.com; doubles from €95).
Lanzarote's Arrecife airport is served by a number of airlines from across the UK including Thomson Airways (0871 231 4787; flights.thomson.co.uk); easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com); Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) and Monarch (08719 40 50 40; monarch.co.uk).
Ideal for snow sports
There have already been some exceptional snowfalls in Europe. However, the Ski Club of Great Britain (0845 458 0780; skiclub.co.uk) suggests that for a guarantee of snow cover this early in the winter it is best to head to high-altitude ski areas – the French purpose-built resorts, for instance. These may lack the charm of lower villages but offer great snow conditions in December and early January. The average December snow depth (measured over the last 13 years) at Tignes is about 45 inches on the upper slopes and 19 inches on the lower slopes, while Val Thorens has corresponding figures of 38 inches and 23 inches.
Go now for some of the best deals. Crystal Ski (0871 231 2256; crystalski.co.uk), for example, offers a week at Tignes for departures this Monday for £385 per person. The price includes flights from Gatwick or Manchester to Geneva with onward transfers and accommodation (including breakfast, evening meal, wine and soft drinks) at the three-star Chalet Glacier.
In the US, Colorado and Utah offer some of the world's best snow. You may get sunshine, too. Breckenridge in Colorado boasts "300 inches of snow and 300 days of blue skies a year". If you book by 15 December, Ski Safari (01273 224 060; skisafari.com) offers a week from £1,211 per person for departures in January, including flights from Heathrow to Denver and onward transfers, six-day lift pass, and a stay with breakfast at the Great Divide Lodge.
For brilliantly sunny days with barely a cloud in the sky make for desert regions. Phoenix and Las Vegas, in the deserts of Arizona and Nevada respectively, vie for the title of "sunniest cities in the world". But guaranteed sun is closer to hand.
Sharm El Sheikh on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula has been in the headlines recently as a result of a series of shark attacks on swimmers. However, as far as the weather is concerned December is one of the most pleasant times to take a break at this ritzy resort town – as Tony and Cherie Blair would attest. Temperatures range between 20C and 26C, with the sea a steady 24C. You'll get at least eight hours of sunshine every day, too. What's more, unless you're looking to travel over the Christmas period, you should get a reasonable deal from one of the host of airlines flying here from across the UK, easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) among them. Plenty of packages are also available.
Further south and east, you'll find fewer crowds and a more exotic ambience in Oman. There are slightly greater fluctuations of temperature here – the forecast now is for highs around 27C and lows about 18C. Close to both mountains and sea, Muscat, the capital, makes an appealing base. This is effectively three towns in one: old, walled Muscat, the ancient port where the Sultan's palace is set; the bustling, dhow-filled harbour of Muttrah, and the commercial district of Ruwi. Kirker Holidays (020-7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com) offers a five-night break here from £1,369 per person. The cost includes flights from Heathrow, transfers, and accommodation at the sleek InterContinental Hotel.
Best of British
Officially, the sunniest place in Britain is Jersey, which has an average of five hours 15 minutes of sunshine every day. The Channel Island is served by Condor Ferries (0845 609 1024; condorferries.co.uk) year-round from Weymouth and Portsmouth (and from Poole from spring to autumn) and by a number of airlines across the UK including Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com); Jet2 (0906 302 0660; jet2.com); bmibaby (0905 828 2828; bmibaby.com); easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com); and Aurigny (01481 822 886; aurigny.com).
Along with running its own administration Jersey also has its own Met Office, stationed at Jersey airport – its forecasts are on www.jerseymet.gov.je.
The benign climate makes this an island full of flowers – and even on a sunny day, the moon can help to create a remarkable experience. Thanks to lunar gravity, the difference between lowest and highest tides is 40 feet, or roughly three double-decker buses (the traditional measure of such things) stacked on top of each other. When the Channel is at its lowest, you can – with an expert guide such as Jersey Walk Adventures (01534 853138; jerseywalkadventures.co.uk) – walk for a mile or more across the exposed sea bed.