7 last-minute winter travel ideas from the UAE
From Ghana to Japan: add a final country to your hit-list this year by booking a break to one of these dreamy destinations
The end of the year is just around the corner, but there’s still time to add one more destination to 2018’s travel quota. Whether you’re seeking snowy vistas or want to see out the year in tropical sunshine, these destinations are an ideal pick for an end-of-year escape.
The undiscovered hideaway
While Hanoi is the capital and Ho Chi Minh City the southern belle, Vietnam’s Bay of Quy Nhon is a seaside retreat in the central region that’s just waiting to be discovered. Go while it’s still unscathed by tourists and you’ll find a city on the brink of change. Check out the hipster-cafe scene or explore by bike. Winter temperatures are near perfect, averaging around 24°C. Check in to the recently opened Anantara Quy Nhon Villas, and you’ll have the luxury of a private villa surrounded by more than seven kilometres of lush jungle – the perfect place to recharge your batteries away from any festive madness. Get an early start on New Year self-care goals at the cliff-side spa pavilions, visit nearby architectural relics from the Cham dynasty or just enjoy waking up to the sounds of the South China Sea spilling onto the bay.
Emirates operates a six-hour direct flight to Hanoi. Fares start at Dh3,420. The flight to Quy Nhon is 90-minutes. Fares start at Dh300
The Christmas pick
For a last-minute trip that’s all about Christmas, St Petersburg is calling. Just 500 kilometres from the Arctic Circle, expect deep winter flurries and candy-coloured buildings, but none of the crowds that you’d find any other time of the year. Check into the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, where you’ll be forgiven for thinking that you’ve landed on the pages of a Pushkin novel. The first five-star hotel in Russia, this old dame has lived her days as a haunt for artists, authors, musicians and high-society. Outside, take your pick from the many Christmas markets. If it’s winter romance you’re after, you’ll be hard-pressed to do better than a horse-drawn troika around Pavlovsk Palace, followed by ice-skating in the park. When you can’t take the cold any longer, the Hermitage is a welcome imperial wonder of respite; get your timing right and you can even see a Russian Orthodox service within it’s great halls.
Emirates operates a six-hour direct flight to St Petersburg. Fares start at Dh3,476
The road trip
Head to the Emerald Isle, but avoid the Atlantic-soaked coastlines and go inland across the country’s midlands. Land in Dublin, then get on the road, passing rivers, woodlands and frozen lakes as you head for the Shannon Estuary. The drive can be done in just over two hours, but this part of Ireland should be more about lingering over lunch, exploring tiny villages and meandering along a latticework of land and water trails. Should the weather take a turn for the worse, park up at one of the tiny guesthouses dotted along the heartlands, where you’re almost guaranteed a warm welcome. Track the callows of the River Shannon, eerily beautiful at this time of year, until you arrive in Limerick, where you’ll want to stay at Adare Manor. Beautifully restored and nestled on 840 acres of parkland, cosy up by massive fireplaces and enjoy some of the prettiest Christmas decorations you’ll ever see. If you want to explore the city, King John’s Castle is worthy of a visit, as are the countless traditional inns where Irish music sessions come as standard.
Emirates operates an eight-and-a-half-hour direct flight to Dublin. Fares start at Dh4,400
The island escape
Famed for its aqua-surrounded islets, a last-minute dash to the Maldives is a sure-fire way to end the year in style. But in a place that’s brimming with luxury resorts, how do you know where to go? Newcomer Joali in Raa Atoll opened in October so is a good pick if you’re after somewhere that has ironed out teething problems but still has that brand-new glow. Prepare to be impressed by the Zaha Hadid-inspired sculpture waiting to greet visitors on arrival and then settle in for an island stay that can be as luxury or as barefoot as you like. Children will love the treehouse, child-friendly spa, ice cream shop and junior cookery school, while a choice of four restaurants makes eating out relatively stress-free. With December temperatures averaging just under 30°C and sunshine-soaked waters as far as the eye can see, it’s a worthy winter-sun escape.
A number of airlines fly to Male from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, including Emirates and Etihad. Fares start at Dh3,600
The quick getaway
Get in early with a visit to the country that Lonely Planet has dubbed the best place to go in 2019. Just four hours from the UAE, Sri Lanka is ideal if you’ve only got a handful of days off. Head for Matara, one of Sri Lanka’s most-visited southern districts, but then keep going. Just 30 kilometres farther, some of the country’s most charming locations beckon. Visit the Wewurukannala Vihara in Dikwella, home to the largest Buddha statue in the country, or explore the Hummanaya blowhole, where seawater shoots 10 metres up in the air. Underneath the Mango Tree boutique hotel is a good pick for Ayurvedic-focused unwinding, complete with hammock-swaying relaxation and a beautifully wild coastline. Nearby, Hiriketiya Bay has been transformed from a scrappy beach village to a horseshoe-shaped haven that’s fast becoming a favourite with board-loving travellers, artists, potters and yogis.
The emerging destination
West Africa might not be a major travel hub yet, but Ghana, off the Gulf of Guinea, is plugged as a destination to watch, with perfect beaches, rich culture and abundant wildlife, making it one of Africa’s best-kept secrets. And with Christmas celebrations running from December 20 to the first week of January and coinciding with the start of the cocoa harvest season, now is the ideal time to visit. Expect fireworks, parties, colourful costumes and feasts of traditional food. In Accra, the capital, you’ll be wooed by lighthouses, crumbling colonial buildings and bustling marketplaces. Further south, Cape Coast is shaking off its dark history as a slave trade base and emerging as the country’s bohemian heart. Kakum National Park is home to giant bongo antelope, African elephants and old-world Diana monkeys and worth a visit. Accra’s Villa Monticello offers lodgings that feel more like a countryside manor than they do a capital-city hotel.
Emirates operates an eight-hour direct flight to Accra. Fares start at Dh2,477
The city break
Break with tradition and head east for Christmas: Japan in December makes sense. As well as fewer crowds and beautifully crisp days, there’s a plethora of festive events to explore, including illuminated winter gardens, Christmas markets and outdoor ice rinks. In the eye-watering blur of Tokyo, see geishas wearing stunning winter kimonos, warm up with a cup of amazake inside a wooden kominka one day, then party at a futuristic nightspot in one of the city’s skyscrapers the next. The Moxy Tokyo Kinshicho hotel in the old town is a good base that keeps up with the capital’s juxtapositions – fusing graphic Pop Art with traditional touches and offering lodgings where the price tag won’t detract too much from your Tokyo shopping budget. For a bit of mountain respite, head north by train to Niigata for peak-driven vistas and the annual Tsunan Yuki Matsuri, or lantern festival. Watch the night sky fill with glowing lights above a blanket of snow-clad mountains then wind down your visit with one final contrast – the hot water of an onsen against the cold winter air borders on supernatural.
Etihad operates a 10-hour direct flight to Tokyo. Fares start at Dh5,526
Updated: December 20, 2018 01:35 PM