Over in the Americas, meanwhile, it’s all about downhill thrills. Mt Hood, an 11,250ft (3429m) stratovolcano in Oregon’s Cascade Range, has North America’s longest ski season, with good quality powder dumps arriving in earnest at the beginning of November (before the real ski crowds descend). Runs are split fairly evenly between grades, making it a great spot for skiers of all abilities. Those looking to really ramp up the thrill factor, however, should head south to Nicaragua, where volcano boarding – tobogganing down their slopes – provides a one-of-a-kind adrenaline rush.
Make like a Viking and soak those sore muscles in one of the many outdoor heated pools, some hidden away and others modern day gathering spots. The famed Blue Lagoon is Iceland’s best-known geothermal spa with temperatures of 98-104 degrees Fahrenheit. The lagoon’s waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulfur and are reputed to have healing powers for skin problems. There are saunas, lockers, showers, and towels available for a reasonable fee as well as restaurants and a lagoon side bar. Whale watching, though not prime season, is always an option in Iceland, as is dog sledding — on snow if available or dry land if not. Either way it is an amazing experience, and the meet and greet part allows you get up close to these beautiful dogs.  The younger crowd might enjoy the Iceland Airwaves Music Festival to be held in Reykjavik this Nov. 7-10 showcasing hundreds of acts, both famous and newcomers. Venues include bars, bookshops, theaters and concert halls.

One of the best things about Puerto Vallarta is that, unlike most of the Caribbean destinations, this is a real historic town rather than a purpose-built resort community. That means that there are small and authentic (and cheap) restaurants catering primarily to locals, so you get a much more authentic experience if you prefer one. The hotel zone close to the airport is modern and posh, but you are a short taxi ride away from the lovely center of town.
New Zealand is an excellent option in December, as it’s before the Christmas crowds and just before the summer holidays there. The best and most popular way to explore New Zealand is to rent a camper van or a car and drive from one “holiday park” to another. Auckland is a pretty generic city so it’s not worth spending more than 1 or maybe 2 days there. Just fly in, and rent a vehicle to leave the next morning, and drive south. The North Island has a lot to see, but the South Island is even more scenic and pleasant. You can take a ferry between the two with your vehicle.
Vietnam might fit the bill for what you are looking for. The most popular itineraries are to start in Hanoi and end up in Ho Chi Minh City, or the other way around. There is a nice train connecting them that is scenic in many places, and the best must-stop place in between them is Hoi An. You also don’t want to miss Halong Bay, which is just outside Hanoi. Vietnam mostly attracts cultural travelers rather than party people. The food is excellent (France used to run the place) and there is plenty of culture all around, in addition to some nice beaches in Nha Trang and Da Nang (next to Hoi An).
If you are referring to days trips and that sort of thing, it will be much cheaper if you book once you get there. In Vietnam in particular it’s amazing how cheap tours can be if you book them through your hotel. I once did a 6-hour bus tour to Mỹ Sơn, which is near Hoi An, and I think I paid about US$6. It even included a boat ride and a basic lunch. That same day tour online would probably cost US$30 because the booking company takes a share and there is very little competition.
Jamaica Montego Bay, Negril, Ocho Rios Martinique Martinique Netherlands Antilles Bonaire, Curaçao, St. Martin/Sint Maarten Puerto Rico Rincón, San Juan Saint Kitts and Nevis St Kitts Saint Lucia St. Lucia Trinidad and Tobago Trinidad and Tabago Turks and Caicos Islands Turks and Caicos Virgin Islands, British Tortola Virgin Islands, U.s. St. Croix, St. Thomas
If you are going to that region I suggest you visit a site called travelfish.org, which is by far the best website on SE Asia and it’s run by a friend of mine who lives in Bali. They have busy forums where you can ask questions and quickly get them answered by experts on every imaginable topic there. I’m happy to help more as you are planning, so let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger
Weirdly enough, Central America and South America aren’t really known as top “culture” destinations, as the colonial history has mostly wiped out the indigenous history in the larger places. There are Aztec, Maya, and Inca ruins and sights, but not really enough to build a whole trip around. I’d say the most interest of those would be the Inca culture of Peru, specifically around Machu Picchu and the valley around Cusco. Alternatively, visiting Argentina is pretty much like visiting Europe from a culture standpoint. It’s quite nice there and prices are low if you know about the blue market for currency, but otherwise it may not be what you are looking for. 

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.
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