Positano on Italy’s Amalfi Coast
Positano on Italy’s Amalfi Coast

Where to find the best-value winter sun

From the Middle East to Hong Kong, there are bargains to be had, says Mark Jones

Mark Jones
Wednesday 15 January 2020 09:55
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It’s part of the travel writer’s lot. People can’t wait to tell you their travel woes. If you’re Simon Calder, you listen eagerly and come up with a ton of useful advice. If you’re me, you mutter something about being rather busy and move in the general direction of away.

Except when one subject is raised: winter sun. For some reason, that annual headache for the holidaying public brings out the travel evangelist and sympathetic counsellor in me.

This is high season for rip-off prices. Only this week, a colleague came up with a familiar tale. She, her husband and two kids are planning a half term trip to Tenerife. Flights: £2,300. Hotels: £3,500.

Did I have any alternative ideas? Sure I do. I’ll reveal how well they went down at the end.

The Middle East

Let’s forget for the moment that a place called Dubai exists: half term there will make my friend’s £6,000 quote look bargain basement.

As for the rest: this is one of those all-too-regular times when you mention the Arab world and you get that fine old English phrase, “not on your nelly”.

But if your nelly can be persuaded to be a bit more flexible and a lot less fearful, the region offers a golden combination of reliable warmth at low season prices. Even the ever-present political turmoil brings the prices down. The former holiday staple, the Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt, is coming back on stream. If you struggle to find direct flights, change at Cairo: it’s worth it for the eye-popping hotel bargains at your final destination.

The ancient city of Petra

If you can be lured from the pool, this is the ideal time to visit Luxor and Petra – or, if you are super intrepid and doing dry January, get one of Saudi Arabia’s superfast new tourist visas and head to Al Ula.

I’ve also just come back from Qatar. Hotels in Doha are still struggling with the effects of the Saudi/UAE boycott of 2017, so prices are keen. Warm days, cool nights: and even if the beaches aren’t top notch, there’s plenty of nice sand in the middle. It’s called “the desert”.

Spain and North Africa

Malaga at present is showing temperatures in the high teens and no rain forecast. You can be unlucky: sometimes a weather system funnels in from the Atlantic and gets stuck around Gibraltar. But having gone down to Andalucía virtually every winter of the past 20, drizzle and greyness are the exception rather than the rule.

You won’t be baring your belly in Marbella. But it’s a great time to avoid the usual crowds at the Alhambra and Cordoba or explore the mountainous hinterland – especially the white villages of the Axarquia. Almond blossom time is upon us: how this sublime annual phenomenon hasn’t come to rival Japan’s cherry trees and New England’s fall foliage is beyond me.

The Alhambra in Granada

And because Spain and Portugal are much further west as well as south, you get sunlight until 6.30ish. That’s a good cure for those dreary, miserly daylight-saving afternoons back home.

Head further south into Morocco and Tunisia and your chances of showing off your beautiful pale limbs – in a culturally sensitive manner, of course – are so much greater. You can get an all-inclusive week in Sousse or Marrakech for not much more than £200.

The Amalfi Coast

Cooler than southern Spain in more than one sense. But my weather app shows hardly a cloud for the next week: you’ll need your SPF30 with those keen winds and that brilliant sunlight.

You get to avoid the notorious traffic, find a beachside table in a Positano restaurant without any hassle and wander straight to the front to the queue at Pompeii. Only Capri feels a bit forlorn and out of season.

Positano in Italy (Getty/iStock)

California and Arizona

A while back I had a superb San Franciscan new year – clear skies, low 20s – and the locals assured me winter is more reliable than the foggy spring and early summer months. If you think that’s stretching meteorological credibility, head further south. LA has clearer skies these days and the winter days are the clearest of all. As for Arizona, the south of the State broils for much of the year: now’s the time to tick Scottsdale, Bisbee, Sedona and the Grand Canyon off your list.

Become a desert explorer near Scottsdale (Getty/iStock)

Hong Kong

What the hell – be a blatant opportunist. Hotel prices in poor, fractious Hong Kong have been hit for six. But your chances of getting caught up in the protests are between slim and non-existent. In the meantime, you get to enjoy the outlying islands and multiple hiking trails as well as the better-known food, drink and all-out hedonism scene. A warning if you’re planning an Airbnb, though: Hong Kong flats are not built for cold weather. It can get down to the low teens and if it does, you’ll find yourself living in a fridge.

So that was my advice. Was it taken? No. The Middle East and Egypt? “Not on your nelly.” The Med, California, North Africa? “I just need to lie on a beach”. So a patch of black grit in Tenerife it is, then. I’m sure it’ll be worth every penny.

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