St. Bart's is a French island and a member of the European Union. First discovered by Columbus in 1493 and named after his brother Bartolomeo, St. Bart's has been populated through the years by native Arawaks, pirates, French colonists, Swedish settlers, and French citizens attracted by the island life. Owned for a time by Sweden before being returned to France, St. Bart's capital, Gustavia, was named for a Swedish king, and the language, along with French, is used for many street signs. In Gustavia, visitors interested in the island’s history can explore 17th-century forts, a lighthouse, and the small Wall House Museum. With 14 public beaches, there’s one for every taste and activity, including a swimsuit-optional spot. Boating, windsurfing, kayaking, sunbathing, shopping, people watching, and exploring the island’s shallow reefs are favorite pastimes. Last September’s Hurricane Irma caused significant damage to the island, but recovery has been swift. After closing a year for renovation, Le Barthelemy Hotel & Spa has just re-opened. Set on the Anse de Grand Cul de Sac, an ideal area for watersports, the eco-friendly hotel emphasizes wellness, with an expansive spa offering hydrotherapy, sauna, and beach yoga. This perfect December island escape is accessible by air or ferry from nearby St. Maarten.
My favorite part of Bali is now the area around Lovina along the north coast, which is still very mellow and mostly open spaces with light development. It’s really beautiful and there is plenty to do. You can get similar experiences by visiting the nearby Gili islands, which also feel like Bali used to be 20 years ago when it was much nicer. They are all really beautiful and relaxing islands with great scenery and very friendly people. You just need to steer clear of the places that are the most crowded.
In addition to the obvious perks of pleasant weather and fewer tourists, off-season rates at accommodations are abundant. Voted No. 1 continental U.S. island by Travel + Leisure readers for the third time in 2018, Hilton Head has much to offer visitors. One of the most popular activities, perfect with autumn temperatures, is biking on the more than 60 miles of pathways covering the island, including along 12 miles of beaches. Bird watchers will keep busy spotting egrets, sandpipers, wood storks, sea gulls, pelicans, and ospreys. Well known as a golfer’s paradise, the Hilton Head Island area boasts more than 33 courses.
If you are looking for a place to go abroad for a few months starting in early December, you are right on the money with Thailand as the best starting location. The weather is really nice that time of year, and it’s quite easy to keep things extremely cheap if you need to. Many of us in the travel writing community have spent months or years traveling around southeast Asia, and I’ve probably spent close to two years there myself. Bangkok is the obvious place to start and it’s an amazing city. After that you can either go north to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai and then over to Laos, or you can head south to one or more of the islands. Cambodia has a lot to offer, and especially in Siem Reap, and Vietnam can be entertaining for all three months of your first visa there.
Another option would be Cambodia and/or Vietnam. The town of Siem Reap, which is just next to the Angkor Wat Temples is the real highlight. Phnom Penh is worth a quick look, but not on a shorter trip. Vietnam itself is a wonderful and gorgeous country, and you can see a lot of the highlights in 10 days or so. It’s also very cheap, even around Christmas. You could fly into Hanoi and then go see Ha Long Bay, and then take a train down to Hoi An. After that you could go to Nha Trang for the best beach experience or the hilltown of Sapa. The city of Ho Chi Minh City is quite crowded and you might not like it for more than a day or two.
Thank you for the kind words. I know what you mean about the image of Thailand and Bali, particularly among Australians. On one hand you could go to either of those places and easily avoid the most notorious party neighborhoods, but it’s probably easier to head somewhere else since both of those places are so crowded that time of year anyway. I do have a few suggestions, which I’ll describe briefly and then if you want more details about any that appeal to you I can do that in a follow up comment.
If you are interested in a place that isn’t focused on beaches in that area then I’ll point you to some recent answers just above where I mention the charms of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, or Luang Prabang in Laos, and/or Siem Reap in Cambodia. All of those are wonderful places with temples and other sights, and they are quite affordable once you are there as well.
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.
As for Malaysia, you could book online and it might cost a bit more, but more things go by a fixed price in Malaysia so it might not be much different. Personally I’d probably book tours through my hotel once I got there, just as in Vietnam. But there is a BIG difference between the countries in that Malaysia is a much richer country and there are very few scams to worry about. Vietnam is still fairly poor and they were communist for so long that people got used to trying to scam people a bit as the only way of getting ahead. So the good news is that Vietnam is a gorgeous country with excellent food and very low prices on almost everything. But the bad news is that you have to be more careful in Vietnam because people will try to overcharge you if they can, even though it still might seem cheap to you. That’s one reason I like to book with hotels, because they put the reputation of the hotel on the line when they book something for you, and they can’t afford to get a string of bad reviews by charging an extra US$5 on a cut-rate tour. I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger
Unlike Bangkok, which has warm evenings and blazing hot days pretty much all year, Chiang Mai cools off nicely during December, at least in th evenings. This is an outdoor city with an emphasis on hiking and exploring temples so the cooler temperatures will be welcome for most people. It's still hot most days, and quite dry as well, so it balances nicely.
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.