Brrrr. When Old Man Winter comes to town, it's easy to get down. But a visit to any of our favorite places to beat the winter blues will have you forgetting about the slush, snow boots, and dreary days of the long, dark season in no time. This year, why not pack your bags and head to top winter destinations like the slopes of Banff, the aquatic playgrounds of Belize and the Red Sea, the sands of Búzios, the quirky town of Key West, or even your own private villa on St. Barts? If it takes more than surf or snow to stimulate your senses, head out on a sophisticated city trip to Los Angeles or Melbourne, where sunny climes and attractive lifestyles beckon, or go even farther afield, on a trip of a lifetime to Rajasthan or Antarctica. Indeed, the icy waters at the bottom of the globe become passable only when the temperatures drop in the Northern Hemisphere, allowing adventuresome travelers seeking a rare annual opportunity to spot the season's coolest sights – penguins, icebergs, and glaciers. Get a sneak peak of these rejuvenating destinations with our Places to Beat the Winter Blues slideshow.
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An Antarctic winter is far from a tropical paradise – imagine a continent surrounded by densely packed ice, near-perpetual darkness, unpredictable blizzards, and temperatures that dip to about -60 degrees. With the seasons flipped, winter here in the Northern Hemisphere means that it’s as close to summer as it will ever be on the White Continent, and also the only time of year when voyaging to this last great travel frontier is possible, as the warmer climate serves to break up the ice barriers that otherwise prohibit access to this remote wilderness full of exotic wildlife and savage landscapes. More than 36,000 tourists now head towards the South Pole each year to witness its monumental glaciers and icebergs, comical penguins and seabirds, and majestic whales and marine creatures. Cruising to this top winter destination is the most popular way to attempt an Antarctic expedition; cruise lines like Holland America (www.hollandamerica.com), Silversea (www.silversea.com), and Hurtigruten (www.hurtigruten.com) operate sailings from South America. Antarctic sailings typically take place in November and December, but it’s always a good idea to book early as these cruises fill up fast (one of the November 2012 Hurtigruten itineraries is already sold out!).
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With its backdrop of waterfalls, caves, cliffs, canyons, and glaciers, it's no wonder Banff attracts visitors from around the globe. The famed mountain resort is centered on a spectacular stretch of land preserve, Banff National Park (www.pc.gc.ca), which is not only Canada’s oldest national park, but one of the nation’s most persevering tourist draws and winter destinations. Its snow-powdered Canadian Rocky Mountain peaks are its crowning glory, providing some of the world's best skiing and snowboarding conditions – any die-hard skier or nature-lover will tell you that the Rockies' pristine surroundings will take you to new heights – the only downfall might be the somewhat overwhelming crowds that hit the three main ski areas and nature trails. However, with the area’s two main towns – Banff and Lake Louise – providing a host of additional winter activities, museums, eateries, nightspots, and quaint accommodations, there’s a little haven for everybody to head back to after a long day spent gliding along glorious snow-covered terrain.
This Central American up-and-comer – about the size of Massachusetts – is packed with potential. The tiny English-speaking country fronts the Caribbean Sea and offers sunny, warm weather all winter long and loads of adventuresome travel opportunities. Case in point: The longest continuous barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere borders the coast of Belize, making the waters here outstanding for snorkeling and diving. Offshore atolls and sandy reef shelves are home to baby sharks, massive stingrays, skinny eels, and lots of colorful marine life. Inland, the Maya Mountains are swathed in thick rain forests with thousands of streams and rivers cascading down – ideal for jungle treks and nature tours. Also not far offshore are dozens of islands, called cayes, which make for great day trips or secluded stays; Ambergris Caye (also called La Isla Bonita) is among the most developed, boasting chic restaurants and resorts, while Caye Caulker remains more laid-back and remote. Nature buffs will also love the Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary – just a few miles east of Belize City – which protects over 9,000 acres of sea and mangrove; local guides bring visitors by boat to survey the abundant wildlife at one of the world's top winter destinations.
For a ritzy, St. Tropez-like escape in the dead of winter, you can’t beat Búzios – located at the tip of a long, beach-fringed peninsula about 100 miles north of Rio de Janeiro. Much beloved since the days Brigitte Bardot strolled the shores of the area's Ossos Beach, this former fishing village retains much of its old-world charm, but now boasts a slew of glitzy boutiques, restaurants, and beachfront mansions to complement its fantastic string of 20-plus beaches, rugged coastline, and darling town. December to March is the best time to visit this top winter destinations, since Brazil’s summer weather is just right for a dose of Brazilian pleasures. Beat the blahs this year by sunbathing to your heart’s content, sipping caipirinhas at beachside cafés, and, at night, hitting the happening Rua das Pedras – a popular street lined with galleries, restaurants, and bars.
Key West, Florida
For the perfect winter destination, set out to Key West and bask in its tropical-Victorian-fantasyland feel, Jimmy Buffett/Margaritaville vibe, and hedonistic laissez-faire attitude. Indeed, this southernmost bit of the continental United States has plenty to tempt visitors, whether you're interested in snorkeling – North America's only coral barrier reef is found here, and you can swim with dolphins or discover shipwrecks – or into history, culture, and art, which this quirky beach town has plenty of. You could easily while away an afternoon strolling through Bahama Village, a quaint neighborhood favored by Ernest Hemingway (when you're done, you can also visit his house, Ernest Hemingway Home; www.hemingwayhome.com); other worthy local highlights include the Harry S. Truman Little White House (www.trumanlittlewhitehouse.com) and the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum (www.melfisher.org). Come dusk, Mallory Square hosts nightly sunset celebrations, with musicians and street performers serving as backup for the magnificent sunset show that illuminates the Gulf of Mexico, while street cafés and open-air bars invite you to partake of the carefree atmosphere. However you spend your day, rest assured that local priorities are where they should be – fun comes first!
Where else can you drive with the top down all year round, rub elbows with celebrities at the supermarket, delight in glamorous escapades by night, and go for a morning surf in the Pacific? Only Los Angeles offers all of these sun-kissed splendors come winter. The incomparable weather mixed with the allure of Hollywood has been attracting visitors in search of a prime winter destination for decades, yet the second-largest U.S. city maintains its cool with a collection of inventive hotels, cutting-edge restaurants, and posh nightclubs. From celebrity spotting at sidewalk cafés to window-shopping on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, you’ll quickly become part of the scene and get a taste of Angelenos’ laid-back lifestyle. Stroll the Walk of Fame, hit the bars on Sunset Strip, tour Hollywood, explore the city’s museums, or join the perpetual traffic along the Pacific Coast Highway, where a sweet ocean-side drive will take you to the surf-swept beaches of Malibu and Venice; you won’t mind the trek with the wind in your hair, the radio blasting, and the sun shining when you think about the frigid weather you’re missing back home.
Australia’s second-largest city is quite arguably second to none, with in-the-know locals and avid Aussie visitors declaring Melbourne the more sophisticated, savvier sister of Sydney. A cosmopolitan melting pot, with more than a third of its residents born abroad – Melbourne (pronounced Mel-bun) is the cultural capital of the continent, with a magnificent array of eateries, boutiques, and nightlife options reflective of its fashionable and worldly patrons. Its vibrant riverfront attractions, fine European architecture, central squares, renowned zoo, botanic gardens, and galleries add to the allure of a visit to one of our top winter destinations – all augmented by the fact that while we’re mulling about in the dead of winter here, summer is in full swing Down Under.
The second-largest state in India derives its name from a term meaning "land of kings,” and today tourists can discover the very essence of a regal India, with its fairy-tale architecture, colorfully turbaned men and sari-covered women, rich folk traditions and religious festivals, and desert landscapes of sun-kissed plains and glimmering lake oases. An expansive and exotic region, loaded with forts, palaces, gardens, temples, and other monumental relics of the high-society aristocrats who have occupied Rajasthan over the centuries, demands no less than a week to sample its highlights, including the lovely lake city of Udaipur; the golden fort city of Jaisalmer; the “blue city” of Jodhpur, with its impressive fort and eye-catching blue houses of the Brahmin caste; or the Ranthambhore jungle, where opportunities to track wild tigers abound. Unusual hotels cater to the tourists that flock here during the temperate months of September through March, and guests can expect accommodations in converted havelis (private mansions), ancient forts, and picturesque palaces. Skilled artisans, meanwhile, dish out the ultimate retail therapy by peddling a magical array of jewelry, rugs, pottery, and more one-of-a-kind goods in one of our preferred winter destinations.
We’re all familiar with Egypt’s ancient wonders, pharaoh-filled history, vast pyramids, and boundless desert, but the world-class beach resorts lining the Red Sea are still somewhat unknown, even to savvy travelers. Yet, where the crystal-blue Red Sea laps the desert shore, you’ll find a truly beautiful and exotic winter destination with much to offer during the cold-weather months. Just offshore from Dahab, a small coastal town between the Israeli border and the tip of Sinai, is a fantastic dive site where sharks, mantas, turtles, and eels will take bread right from your hand; the sea and its deep reefs are a tapestry of brilliantly colorful fish, dazzling coral, and exotic creatures. Another popular resort town, busy Hurghada, itself also an international center for aquatic sports, boasts an array of fine resorts and restaurants – and a bustling nightlife scene much favored by Europeans. When you need a break from the underwater paradise, or to clear your head from a night out on the town, plan a day trip to the Red Sea Mountains via camel or jeep.
Stay up to date on safety in the region with the U.S. State Department’s Egypt travel alerts.
Ironic that a tiny, rocky Caribbean island ill-suited to agriculture and populated only by poor Norman and Breton fishermen should wind up luring Rockefellers and rock stars, real and reel royalty. But St. Barthélemy, affectionately known as St. Barts (or Barths – both are correct) with its exquisite coves, gingerbread-trimmed Creole cazes (small houses), and low stone walls tracing emerald hillsides became the bicontinental set’s playground, separating true chic from chicanery. On this special chunk of rock that ranks supreme among top winter destinations, located southeast of St. Martin in the northernmost arc of the Caribbean's Leeward Islands, the beautiful and wealthy play at anonymity, violate personal trainers’ and nutritionists’ advice, and indulge in the occasional vice away from the paparazzi’s popping bulbs. Despite the island’s stratospheric prices, gourmet eateries, and duty-free haute-couture boutiques, few visitors parade in Prada; sarongs and denim cut-offs (and often little else on the beaches and yachts) are more common, although the flip-flops are more likely to be branded Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik than Havaiana.