Glistening forests, sparkling lakes and the ground crunching underfoot ... The annual fantasy of a white Christmas has added plausibility this year, with the coldest winter for 50 years forecast. For many of us, however, all too probable will be dreary skies, biting wind and slushy roads. No wonder some four million of us travelled abroad last winter. Winter bookings are up again, according to Abta, the travel association, and there is a vast range of holidays available.
There's good news for winter sun seekers too, with sterling stronger against a wide range of currencies than it was a year ago (though not, sadly, the US dollar).
If you do fancy braving the British weather, a holiday cottage can cheer things up. From castles fit for a king to cosy hideaways for two, it's not too late to book a home away from home for the festive season.
SANTA, SKIING AND CHRISTMAS MARKETS
Lapland, where 200,000 reindeer roam snowy plateaux and trees wear white coats, is the quintessential festive landscape – not least thanks to its most famous resident. Go snowmobiling to find Father Christmas with family specialist Santa's Lapland in Saariselka, a resort deep in Finland's Sami territory. As well as a rendezvous with Santa, the three- or four-day breaks offer a reindeer-drawn sleigh ride and husky mushing. The travel company has added more “Santa Express” direct charter flights to Ivalo this year, with departures from 14 UK airports. The price including flights starts at £799 per adult, with one free child place available per family, subject to availability. Includes transfers, half-board and some activities. Departs on select dates from 27 November to 22 December (01483 345 574; santaslapland.com).
Non-believers will find authentic flair with Responsible Travel's Magical Christmas without Santa, in Finland's Northern Lights territory. Expect to warm up in the sauna at Hotel Korpikartano after finger-numbing activities such as snowshoeing, kick sledding and snowmobiling in and around the Menesjarvi reindeer herding community. And then by night, head out in search of the Aurora, which puts in an appearance here around 200 nights a year. The eight-day package departing 20 December costs from £1,695 per person including flights from Heathrow to Ivalo and returning from Kittila (both via Helsinki), full board, with cold weather clothing and guides (01273 823 700; responsibletravel.com).
Sweet stocking fillers
For last-minute shopping, try a Christmas market break. Christkindlemärkte originated in Germany in the 15th century, and are still done best here. The country's oldest, dating from 1434, is the Striezelmarkt in Dresden (26 November to 24 December; dresden.de). Its name derives from local Stollen (German Christmas cake), which is made in some 130 bakeries to different recipes and makes a welcome stocking filler. Fred Holidays has a three-night package from £409 per person for flights from Heathrow, transfers and B&B accommodation (0808 250 7545; fredholidays.co.uk).
France's self-proclaimed capital of Christmas is Strasbourg, whose Christmas market has just been named the Continent's best by the European Best Destinations organisation. The city's medieval old town is a picturesque backdrop for the 300 chalets selling hearty Alsatian cuisine such as sauerkraut or onion tart, gingerbread decorated with seasonal motifs and mulled wine (27 November to 31st December; noel.strasbourg.eu). Railbookers has a two-night break starting at £219 per person for return rail travel from London St Pancras and B&B hotel accommodation (020 3327 2440; railbookers.com).
You can more or less guarantee a white Christmas by heading to the slopes. Inghams has a Christmas offer for seven nights at Chalet Hotel Pinzgauerhof in Saalbach-Hinterglemm in Austria. The price, at £679pp, looks like a bit of a bargain, but don't expect to scrimp on the skiing: thanks to a new connection to Fieberbrunn, the resort is the country's largest lift-linked ski area, with 270km of pistes and 70 lifts. This price includes return flights from Gatwick on 19 December, plus catered accommodation and transfers. Regional departures are available for a supplement. Lift passes and equipment hire extra (01483 345 784; inghams.co.uk).
Less vertical snow sports – and a dose of post-Christmas R&R – come courtesy of Inntravel's new six-night Hindsaeter Highlands holiday to remote northern Norway. The jagged Jotunheimen National Park provides an ethereal backdrop for activities such as cross-country skiing, a dawn safari in search of elk and a walk through a frozen river canyon. It costs from £1,135 per person for return flights from Heathrow to Oslo (with weekly departures between 13 February and 5 March), transfers, six nights' full-board, activities and equipment hire (01653 617 000; inntravel.co.uk).
White (sand) Christmas
Not everybody dreams of a white Christmas. For festive dinners and Santa Claus combined with warm seas, clear skies and a tropical spa resort, try Heritage Le Telfair in southern Mauritius. December temperatures on the island average 25C, while the five-star resort has adjoining rooms for families and an activity programme that includes festive cooking for children and a Christmas Eve dinner. No one will blame you if you just want to lounge on the palm tree-lined beach, though. Turquoise Holidays has a package for seven nights taken between 23 December and 3 January at £2,999 per person including full board, return flights from Heathrow and transfers (01494 678 400; turquoiseholidays.co.uk).
Head for the hills
The peaceful Aravali Hills of Rajasthan in northern India are the antidote to the commercialised mania of Christmas on the high street; instead, you could be walking to remote villages, riding Marwari horses or practising yoga outside – temperatures can reach a pleasant 24C during the day in December. Wild Frontiers' new 15-day Alternative Christmas in India trip departs on 20 December and costs £2,975 per person for return flights from Heathrow, full board, tour guides and local transport (020 7736 3968; wildfrontierstravel.com).
Swapping winter grey for sunny skies is something of a luxury – yet it needn't cost a fortune. In South Africa, where the pound is about one-sixth stronger against the rand this year, Scott Dunn is tempting the sun-deprived with discounts on a Wilderness Safari to Rocktail Bay Beach Camp atop a dune in coastal KwaZulu Natal. From scuba diving offshore reefs to saltwater fly-fishing, the safari makes the most of the wild setting. The tailor-made package costs from £1,600 per person for five nights' full-board accommodation, indirect return flights from London to Durban departing in December, transfers and activities (020 8682 5070; scottdunn.com).
For the sedate traveller, brand new fly-and-flop winter heat comes courtesy of Alila Seminyak in Bali. The resort, which opened in October on the island's southwestern corner, is a curious tangle of sharp architecture, sleek interiors and rambling greenery. It has access to a stretch of white sand, as well as its own labyrinth of swimming pools, but equally tempting is reading a book behind one of the floor-to-ceiling windows. It may be Bali's rainy season, but downpours tend to be brief and temperatures in the high 20s. Doubles at Alila Seminyak from US$448 (£299) per night in December, excluding breakfast (00 62 361 3021 888; alilahotels.com).
Winter sun doesn't have to be accompanied by jetlag. Around four hours away, the Canary Islands offer accessible sun during the bleak British winter. HF Holidays' new self-guided walking tour of Lanzarote, which is available from January, proves that the island has shaken off its former “Lanza-grotty” reputation: you'll navigate the undulating ochre landscape of Timanfaya National Park, as well as sites influenced by renowned local artist Cesar Manrique. Available until March, the seven-day holiday costs from £749 per person including flights from Gatwick, Manchester or Birmingham, car hire and beach-view accommodation (0345 470 8558; hfholidays.co.uk).
COTTAGES FOR CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR
Scotland does Scandinavia
Nowhere does British winter wonderland better than the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland, which is home to the UK's only herd of reindeer and is one of the nation's best places to see the Northern Lights. Enjoy the scenery from Drumuillie Grange, an 18th-century farmhouse near Aviemore with views over the mountains. Don't be fooled by its formidable granite exterior: it has three log burners and a sauna, and is equipped with smart televisions and wi-fi. Sleeps 11. From £3,199 for seven nights from 21 December (01479 812266; drumuilliegrange.co.uk).
Room for two
Channel a Charles Dickens-style Christmas in a heritage property owned by the National Trust. The organisation has a slew of new rentals this year, including early 19th-century Treleddyd Fawr Cottage on the Pembrokeshire coast. This traditional tydyyn – or two up, two down crofters' cottage – has original features such as wonky walls, low-slung doorways and an inglenook fireplace. It is close to bustling St David's, which hosts a popular Midnight Mass in the 12th-century cathedral on Christmas Eve. Sleeps two. From £722 for a week from 21 December (0344 800 2075; nationaltrustholidays.org.uk).
With spacious log cabins across the country, Forest Holidays is a good option for families. At the Golden Oak Deerpark in Cornwall, modern cabins for up to six people come with nice touches such as environmentally-friendly toiletries and a hot tub. Huge windows give on to dense woodland, so you'll be able to pretend you're in deepest Scandinavia. Pet-friendly cabins also available. From £1,775 for seven nights from 21 December in a Golden Oak cabin for six (03330 110 495; forestholidays.co.uk).
King of the castle
At the grand end of the scale, The Landmark Trust has get-away-from-it-all New Year availability in restored lodgings fit for kings. All that remains of late medieval Cawood Castle in North Yorkshire are the gatehouse and domestic wing – but luxury has not been forsaken, with jacquard curtains, solid oak furniture and leaded windowpanes throughout. Upstairs, the roof terrace opens on to the Vale of York. It's safe to say you'll enjoy a more relaxing stay than Cardinal Wolsey, who was arrested here for treason. Sleeps four. From £887 for five nights from 30 December (01628 825925; landmarktrust.org.uk).
The Carriage House near the Royal Canal, in Dublin's leafy outskirts, is a comely retreat from the Irish capital's new year extravaganza (nyfdublin.com). While the three-day New Year Festival celebrates with 3D light shows and processions, the 18th-century property's exposed joists, wing back chairs and shelves of antique books offer a cosy counterpoint. Underfloor heating is a welcome touch, but you'll want to venture outdoors: Phoenix Park, home to some 500 fallow deer, is close by. There are regular trains into the city from Clonsilla Station nearby. Sleeps four. From £1,350 for seven nights from 27 December (00 353 87 991 1840; uniqueirishhomes.ie).
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