Ten magical Christmas adventures
It's the most wonderful time of the year. But some places make it even more so.
A Christmas spent in exquisite Paris, snowy Canada or traditional Germany is the stuff of storybooks - here is the white Christmas you've dreamed of. The sleigh ride you longed for. The romantic ice skating of the holiday movies you love.
Bethlehem and Rome offer a more meaningful Christmas, as significant sites of Christianity. They, too, are stunning destinations for the festive season.
For Santa, snow and all things reindeer, it's Scandinavia. For sun, surf and Santa, it's Hawaii.
Whatever the choice, now's the time to make it. Here are 10 suggestions for booking a truly magical Christmas.
CANADIAN ROCKIES For a guaranteed white Christmas
There are few sure things in this life - but December snow in Banff and Jasper national parks is one of them (almost).
Check in to a snow-surrounded lodge or hotel that goes all out with yuletide spirit, such as the historic Fairmont Banff Springs or Fairmont Jasper Lodge, each a uniquely stunning property and neither of which holds back on holiday trimmings.
Twinkly lights and big, lush, decorated trees, sumptuous traditional decorations in green, red and gold and that inherent Canadian good humour and warm welcome are in abundance at both.
With period-costumed carollers in the lobby (in Banff at least), fires throughout and even in some rooms, plus egg-nog, ice skating in the grounds, sleigh rides through the snow and Jack Frost seriously nipping at your nose, the Fairmonts are favourites for Christmas cheer Canadian style, so advance booking is a must.
Kids make snow angels. Adults sit in an outdoor hot tub watching snowflakes fall - or make snow angels themselves, then jump in the hot tub to warm up.
For a white Christmas to remember, the Canadian Rockies are just jolly good fun.
ROME For a Christian experienc
You don't need to be Catholic to bask in the beauty of Rome's Christmas celebration. But it is one of the most Christ-oriented in Europe, hardly surprising given that the Holy See is within its boundaries.
In St Peter's Square you'll find the "gargantuan presepe", a glorious, enormous nativity scene that attracts pilgrims and impious Christmas fans alike.
The square is also where the world's most spectacular Midnight Mass is held, officiated by the Pope. Forward planning is absolutely necessary and a request to take part needs to be lodged well in advance via the Vatican's website.
Piazza Navona, arguably the heart of this wonderful city, hosts just one of a huge number of Christmas markets in the Italian capital, selling Italian delicacies and traditional ornaments.
The markets are overlooked by the much-adored statues of Bernini that grace this perfectly proportioned space.
There are so many squares and churches in Rome, visitors will find more markets, nativity plays and processions per square metre than most places - as well as some seriously big and lovely Christmas trees.
Find a spectacular specimen, glowing with 15,000 lights, in Piazza Venezia. The tree at St Peter's is also pretty impressive as well.
Rome's winter is temperate, so snow is highly unlikely. But an exquisite atmosphere is assured.
MORE INFORMATION vatican.va.
NEW YORK CITY For Christmas like it is in the movies
From the classic Miracle on 34th Street to one of the all-time great comedies, Elf, New York City is more than a festive backdrop to many a holiday flick - it's a character in its own right.
And rightly so, as few cities frock up like the Big Apple for Christmas: amazing department store displays (Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys, Saks Fifth Avenue), fabulous seasonal shows (the Radio City Christmas Spectacular featuring the Rockettes, usually a performance or two of The Nutcracker somewhere) and a critical mass of eye-popping decorations on humungous trees arguably unrivalled anywhere in the world (Rockefeller Centre, Madison Square, Park Avenue, Bryant Park, Metropolitan Museum).
Throw in hotels doing big Christmas dinners, chestnut roasters and carollers on corners and, if you're lucky, some snow, and you have your very own heart-warming Christmas affair to remember.
Don't miss ice skating at the Rockefeller Centre under the twinkly glow of that famous tree, and some toy shopping at FAO Schwarz. In NYC, it really is the most wonderful time of the year.
Trafalgar has an 11-day Christmas in New York package. trafalgar.com.
GERMANY AND AUSTRIA For the source of tradition
Christmas river cruising is the best way to soak up the pretty perfection of the places in which Christmas trees, gingerbread houses and Saint Nick were popularised.
Not restricted to Germany and Austria, Christmas markets are the focus of these European winter cruises along the Danube and the Rhine, among other European rivers. A 700-year-old tradition, the markets are twinkly, happy, magical places.
Buy up glass ornaments, handmade and painted terracotta nativity figures and wooden toys, exquisite trinkets and more, while basking in the smell of fir trees and sizzling sausage snacks against the gorgeous backdrop of glowing lights and bright white snow.
Between the markets, cruise along sipping egg-nog, eating yule log and singing along to carols. You'll pass fairytale castles, deep-green forests and pretty villages frosted in snow. It's a great-value way for a family to experience a northern hemisphere Christmas.
There are many Christmas cruise operators: A-Rosa River Cruises is new to the market, with Christmas departures including overnights in Strasbourg (France), Cologne and Koblenz.
Tauck's Christmas Markets river cruise glides along the Danube from Nuremberg to Vienna.
Viking has an eight-day itinerary down the Danube also.
Scenic's Christmas markets cruise is a 15-day trip from Budapest to Amsterdam taking in Vienna, Nuremberg, Rudesheim and Cologne. scenictours.com.au.
LONDON For a storybook Christmas
"God bless us, every one," Charles Dickens' Tiny Tim says in the classic novel A Christmas Carol. It's a sentiment that's hard to resist when visiting the British capital in December.
Made into many movies (including a Blackadder send-up), the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge's discovery of the spirit of Christmas comes alive in London, as the streets he walked and the houses he visited are all still there in modern-day London and the essence of the season is embraced by all but the gloomiest residents. And even they will probably get their reindeer antlers and seasonal sweater on at the work Christmas party.
Regent Street, Covent Garden and Carnaby Street are just some of the atmospheric precincts that embrace the festive festoonery - the Regent Street lights are a traditional must-see and Covent Garden Market is taken over by carols, chestnut roasters and season-appropriate buskers.
Pubs are stuffed to the gills with decorations.
Fortnum & Mason's displays of jellies, glace fruits, chocolate Santas and plum puddings are a mouth-watering sight to behold, while the windows at department stores are eye-popping, none perhaps more than Harrods.
The hotels, big and small, get right into the spirit.
Red Carnation is a small chain of bespoke, boutique properties that dives in headlong with over-the-top decorations, festive dining (including Christmas lunch) and seasonal shopping vouchers.
This year, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park is offering a Harrods Christmas package that gives VIP access to the Harrods Christmas Parade and Christmas Grotto. Check for other gorgeous offerings from the city's many fine hotels.
ANTARCTICA For an alternative white Christmas
It's the polar opposite of the traditional white Christmas (literally, given it's the South Pole), but Antarctica is increasingly popular as a festive-season destination.
So much so that the luxury cruise line Seabourn is heading way down south this Christmas for the first time.
Aurora Expeditions traces the wonderland of glaciated mountains on the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, and visits the wildlife oasis of South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, with its ship Polar Pioneer taking just 54 passengers. The smaller size of the vessel also means going places the bigger ships cannot, and greater flexibility of itinerary.
Intrepid is offering a trip from Tierra del Fuego and through the Beagle Channel and Drake Passage to the South Shetland Islands to see the incredible landscapes created by the Antarctic climate. Expect penguins, whales and plentiful bird life.
HAWAII For a sunny Christmas
"'Mele kalikimaka' is the thing to say on a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day." Or so sang Bing Crosby to the sound of jingling bells and sliding ukuleles.
Christmas wasn't formally introduced to Hawaii until after 1820, by Protestant missionaries, but the lovely US island state has made up for lost time. Expect plenty of surfing Santa sightings and lots of goodwill to all. Perhaps spurred on by the fact that Christmas coincided with a period in which the often warring Hawaiians observed peace and goodwill, the islands sparkle that extra bit more and the welcome is even warmer at this time of year.
Honolulu City Lights is a holiday spectacle at Honolulu Hale featuring a big fresh Christmas tree, elaborate Christmas decorations, giant season-themed installations, lots of live entertainment and activities for kids.
Many hotels in Waikiki host a Christmas Eve dinner, Christmas dinner or Christmas lunch with traditional and local festive dishes. Choose from either lavish seasonally skewed buffets or fancy sit-down a la carte.
The Hilton Hawaiian Village puts on Christmas Eve fireworks and offers Christmas meals in all its restaurants. It even does a Christmas luau.
The famed "pink hotel", the Royal Hawaiian gets the lavish Christmas decoration treatment, while the beautiful Halekulani does Christmas in style.
If Hawaii's too far for a tropical beach Christmas, you can always head to the Gold Coast. This year, the Palazzo Versace is putting on a lavish seafood buffet.
BETHLEHEM For the true meaning
The birthplace of Christ attracts pilgrims from all over the world, despite the ongoing hostilities in the area between Palestine and Israel, difficult checkpoints and a surge of differing Christian affiliations.
Bethlehem is a Palestinian city eight kilometres south of Jerusalem. It's been a major pilgrimage point since the Church of the Nativity was built in the 4th century.
The Christmas celebrations in the ancient site of Bethlehem centre on Manger Square, where priests officiate mass, and long, pious processions celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, to Mary and Joseph in a humble manger.
Guidebooks and sites recommend visiting Christmas Eve or Boxing Day rather than December 25 due to the aforementioned difficulties. If that misses the point for you, check travel warnings, travel light and plan ahead.
There are fewer than 4000 hotel rooms in the West Bank city, and tens of thousands converge at this time. Most tourism into the area is operated out of Israel. Many day bus trips are offered. Do plenty of research and be prepared for delays and even cancellations.
MORE INFORMATION vicbethlehem.wordpress.com.
PARIS For a fairytale Christmas
The City of Lights is dazzling any time of year, but at Christmas, it glitters with unrivalled loveliness. Every quarter is in the spirit, patisseries burgeoning with pretty seasonal treats, markets stacked with Yuletide delights, squares filled with Christmas trees and decorations.
Outdoor ice-skating rinks pop up all over town (including on the Eiffel Tower) and Christmas markets abound: Saint-Sulpice and the boulevards Saint Germain and Champs-Elysees, and in Montparnasse, to name just some of them. You'll find handmade gifts and decorations from all over France.
There are big free concerts at Montparnasse and small orchestras perform carols throughout the city.
The Christmas windows at Galeries Lafayette, Printemps and Bon Marche are sights to behold, and beautiful displays pop up in public spaces everywhere.
The city's many five-star hotels offer special Christmas meals and packages. Stay for New Year's and watch the Eiffel Tower light up with fireworks and fun. If romance is in the air, there's no greater place, or time to pop the question.
MORE INFORMATION paris.fr/english.
LAPLAND For Rudolph and Santas
Finnish Lapland at Christmas is childhood dreams come true. Visit Santa's official home town in Rovaniemi and take your own reindeer sleigh ride.
Santa Claus Village features Santa's own post office, as well as Santa's grotto and a fun park, with rides and attractions.
Stay at the Hotel Kakslauttanen and Igloo Village, in heated glass igloos affording views of the amazing night sky.
If the conditions are right, you might catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights shimmering above. NASA has predicted that this coming European winter could be one of the best in a decade for viewing the northern lights and Finnish Lapland is one of the best places to see them.
You can even stay in a luxury cabin at a reindeer farm.
Bentours offers a five-day Christmas in Lapland package that departs from Rovaniemi, Santa's "official" residence in Finland, on December 23.
Sydney Morning Herald