When you mention, “not too touristy”, the first thing that comes to mind is San Juan, Puerto Rico. I’m not sure if you’ve been there already or not, but one great thing about it is that the “tourist” areas close to Old San Juan are filled more with apartments than with hotels, unlike Cancun, where it’s nothing but hotels and timeshares. I can highly recommend the Condado neighborhood, which does have some large hotels but is mostly apartments for expats and seasonal visitors. There is even a free bus that goes from there to the heart of Old San Juan, which is a gorgeous colonial town filled with great restaurants, bars, and interesting attractions.
Yes, I’ve been to all of the Nordic countries, but mostly during the summer months. However, I know that those Northern Lights tours are popular and well established. On one hand, you know you’ll be visiting areas where there is only a bit of sunlight in the middle of each day, so it won’t be great for general sightseeing. But the cold months are also the best Northern Lights months, and if you want to see them then it’s your best bet.
Overall, I’m declaring this vacation a great success! Not only did we have a wonderful time at the parks riding all the rides and enjoying the shows, I did not feel at all deprived or put upon food-wise, and not even once did I go hungry. All but one of our meals, including those at the hotel, were counter-service only establishments and I was able to find something filling and tasty for each meal. After this experience here are my recommendations for eating on vacation:
Another tip is to look for apartments. If you’re visiting a large city, chances are they have plenty of new apartment buildings that are looking to rent out. Many of the larger hotel booking sites will offer you apartments for rent – and they’re very affordable. Not to mention, they’re much roomier and more than likely updated. You usually get a full kitchen, washing amenities (for laundry), a dinner table to sit and eat at, and a good sized bathroom that doesn’t make you feel cramped.
A charming, historic city to visit any time of year, Edinburgh is especially festive during December. Walking through its cobblestone streets takes you back to medieval days when sheep, cattle, and grain were sold in what is now the center of the city. Today, the Royal Mile includes shops, cafes, and museums. Edinburgh Castle, a must for first-time visitors, dates to the 12th century, with its dramatic silhouette overlooking the city. For those seeking holiday celebrations, the Royal Botanic Garden is decorated with lights, music, and illuminated trees. European-style Christmas markets pop up at Princes Street Gardens and George Street, offering traditional crafts, gifts, food, and warming drinks, most welcome during chilly December. The annual Hogmanay celebration welcomes the New Year with fireworks, food, and festivities. Don’t miss the delicious and ubiquitous fish chowder called “Cullen skink,” and be sure to try haggis, served with “neeps and tatties” — mashed turnips and potatoes. Buttery shortbread and whisky from the country’s more than 100 distilleries are also Scottish specialties. A stay at the elegant and historic Balmoral Hotel will enhance any visit to Edinburgh, and while you’re there, you’ll notice that Scottish actor Sean Connery was a guest, as was J. K. Rowling who finished the last Harry Potter book in one of its suites.
The farther, and cheaper, option is Bangkok. A flight would cost more and you might end up having to change planes in Dubai on your way, but once you get there you can find nice hotels starting around US$25 per night, although paying more for a better place is probably worth it. The whole central area of Bangkok around what is called Siam Square is surrounded by about 15 or 20 large shopping malls, many of which focus on clothing. It’s mostly chain stores and prices are good, although it’s not like they are much different from Europe except taxes are a bit lower. You can get locally made clothes at local markets for much lower prices than the chain stores in the malls. Also, Bangkok is a really fun city with plenty to see and do. For what it’s worth, alcohol is much cheaper in Bangkok than in Dubai, and much easier to get as well. I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger
The fastest high-speed trains between those cities only take 2.5 hours, although most departures are closer to 3 hours. Definitely take the train and also buy the ticket as far in advance as possible for the lowest fare. Not only is it FAR quicker than flying (and of course the coach), but it’s far more comfortable and more enjoyable. This is a link to the official Spanish rail site. The scenery isn’t all that special, but it’s still interesting. Have a fantastic trip. -Roger
Since flights to Mexico City from the US and Canada are usually quite cheap this time of year as well, this could be a perfect short cultural holiday. This city has great shopping, dining, and nightlife, and the central historic and tourist districts are far safer than most people would expect. There are ruins just out of town as well, so a bit of everything is available.
If that doesn’t interest you I would point you towards the Playa del Carmen area, which is just south of Cancun and just across the strait from Cozumel. November is technically the last month of hurricane season and early in the month you’ll probably get at least a few quick rain storms, but actual hurricane in November are very rare. And at least Playa del Carmen is on the mainland and near a huge airport, so tourists would never be trapped there as they might on some small islands. Playa del Carmen is a fairly large touristy town with hundreds of little hotels, restaurants, bars, and things to do, so it’s good for a solo visit or with another person. Cancun proper, on the other hand, is mainly a long strip of beach hotels and time-share residences that are spread out and not well suited to solo visitors or small groups.
And as you mention, Bali could actually work for you. I’ve spent two Decembers in Bali, and December is quite a bit rainier on average. Still I had a great time and it was sunny most of the days. The rain in the tropics (and Bali is almost ON the equator) tends to come down in 30-minute bursts rather than drizzling all day, so it’s usually pretty easy to avoid. The best part of Bali is there are loads of things to see and do, and the nightlife is excellent. The Kuta Beach area is fun for at least a few days, but I wouldn’t spend too much time there. You should also spend a few days in Ubud, which is very touristy but also interesting. And you could spend some time in Lovina, which is along the northern coast and it has all of the charm of Bali from 20 years ago before most of it got overbuilt. With all the temples and other local attractions, there is always something interesting to do, which is not true of many other places with great beaches and nightlife. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger
Without knowing more about your interests, my top suggestion would be to focus on Sydney and Melbourne and the areas around both. The Blue Mountains near Sydney are also nice for a couple days or so. The main challenge you’d have in seeing a lot of Australia is that it’s all so spread out. You can hire a car for Melbourne and Sydney and that whole area, but it’s better to fly to get to Uluru (near Alice Springs) or Brisbane or Cairns/Great Barrier Reef or Perth. You’d be driving for days in between those places if you started from the southeast area where most people live.
From November through February there are literally no European cities that could qualify as having “great weather.” We list Tenerife below because it's technically in Europe, although not really much of a cultural destination. Antalya, Turkey (which technically isn't even in Europe), has the closest thing to a sunny climate with acceptable temperatures. So during the winter Europe is all about cultural tourism, and lower hotel prices make it especially appealing for those who like to stretch their travel budgets and avoid crowds at the same time.
The easiest meal of the day to eat out is by far breakfast. Many places offer eggs, omelets, sausage, bacon, or other type of high-fat foods that are easy to order without too much effort. Dive bars or café’s will usually be quick to serve and have some great tasting food. We had the pleasure of eating breakfast at a great place called The 5 Point Café, which featured a fantastic omelet with smoked salmon (pictured below) and hollandaise sauce.
More good news comes with the fact that there are two other great resort areas that are each about 90 minutes by shuttle from Montego Bay Airport, so you can almost as easily reach Ocho Rios or Negril, both of which have a different vibe that you might prefer. Bargain hunters will also find pretty amazing prices at the all-inclusive resorts, particularly those in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. If you prefer a quiet beach area lined with smaller hotels, restaurants, and bars, then head to Negril.
Traveling during the last ten days of December means crowds and exorbitant prices throughout much of the world, but the first two-thirds of the month—before holiday airfares and hotel rates go into effect—can be a serene, value-laden, and just plain lovely time to vacation. Europe is all decked out for the holidays—with locals generally friendly and in high spirits; in the Southern Hemisphere, spring is in bloom; and in the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Mexico, hurricane season is over, the weather is gorgeous, and there are free upgrades galore.