Workplace procrastination makes a subtle shift at this time of year. Email chains about beachside weekend picnics die away as we all stare longingly at online photos of the tropics, warming our hands on a steaming cuppa. Booking a hot place holiday is a guaranteed perker-upper if you're suffering a case of downpour despair. As you agonise to your boss about that overdue report, inwardly you're already lying beside the ocean, book in one hand and cocktail in the other, right?
I've been on three such holidays - to Thailand, the Greek Islands, and currently Mexico's Caribbean Coast - and while the locations couldn't be more different, it's their commonalities that make them memorable. So here's my formula for a top balmy getaway: great local food, value for money, gorgeous beaches, and sightseeing for when sand-lazing becomes too much.
In Thailand the beautiful Buddhist temples increase your inner peace levels (if that's possible in such a stunning place), it's difficult to find more heaving nightlife anywhere, and the thriving underwater world will keep you in the sea for hours.
Greek breakfasts of honeyed yoghurt and fruit are enough to entice me back to the cerulean waters of the Mediterranean. The breathtaking views at Oia, Santorini, Naxos' centuries-old city centre, ruins, ruins, ruins, the local paddle tennis obsession on the water's edge; oh take me back. Plus it is seriously cheap, and the cocktails flow all night.
Since I'm here, it'd be rude to leave out Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. I'm a sucker for a pina colada and the Mexicans do them goooood. South of Cancun it's possible to stay right on the beach for prices that won't bankrupt you, and the sound of the waves will lull you to sleep. The sand and the sea are travel brochure white and blue (designed for maximum envy impact), and Sian Ka'an, a protected palmtree-filled jungle, surrounds the area. A local tells me he's seen a jaguar stalking its outskirts and a boa constrictor reclining across a road so potholed it jars your teeth to drive it. I've seen nothing so exotic, but iguanas and other types of lizards are everywhere.
It's not all idyllic though. Tulum is so overrun by tourism that its natural attractions are fading. What was once a thriving reef just in front of our cabana (our host says 20 years ago he would walk out and spear his fill of crayfish) is now a wasteland. I attempted to snorkel but all I could see was dead brown coral, killed by a rise in sea temperature and hotel pollution.
But thanks to conservation efforts by locals, the cenotes are pristine. Deep pools (some hundreds of metres) of fresh, navy-coloured water, they're the product of an underground cave system spread throughout Quintana Roo (the province we're in). We visited one inside a majestic cavern where the cold was a pleasant shock next to the clinging humidity. Others bubble up into lakes or feed out to sea. Some are the homes of crocs, fish or manatees.
You can see the difference in colour between turquoise Laguna Bacalar and the deep blue cenote that feeds it. It's home to two angry alligators that once made a meal of a local man's arm - you don't swim there. The rest of the lagoon is fine to take a dip in though. We stop to rub the lake silt all over our bodies - apparently it's meant to be very exfoliating. I'm pretty sure the locals think we're loco. Cheapest spa treatment I've ever had!
The Mayan ruins are another spectacular attraction, but that's a post for a different time.
So tell me your favourite beach holiday destinations. Where have you been? Are you thinking of going on a midwinter break this year? And if circumstances don't allow it, what's your dream destination?
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