With National Day behind us, it's time to think about the festive season. While prices of flights to many cities can skyrocket in December due to seasonal demand, there are still destinations where you can bag a winter bargain. Perhaps you're keen to celebrate the festive season a little differently this year – in snow-covered Finland or with a little Zanzibarian sunshine? From off-the-beaten-path festive escapes to a trip spent discovering Uganda's mountain gorillas, here are some ideas.
Winter romance in Europe
Paris twinkles at this time of year, as millions of fairy lights illuminate the Champs-Elysees and Eiffel Tower. There are plenty of festive markets and ice-skating rinks and, if you can time your trip to be in town for New Year's Eve, you can gather with hundreds of others at the Arc de Triomphe to enjoy the city's famed midnight light show projection and fireworks display. Neighbouring Italy is also a festive delight, so why not do both this winter? Rome serves up authentic Italian Christmas dishes, decorated trees at the Colosseum and winter concerts in the Parco della Musica. The Holiday Factory Rome and Paris winter deal includes return flights from Dubai or Abu Dhabi to Paris, accommodation in a three-star hotel in the City of Lights and in a locale close to Rome's Vatican Museums, as well as a domestic flight from France to Italy.
Rates over the festive period start from Dh4,999 per person for four nights, www.holiday-factory.com/book/home
A magical winter in Finland
If you want to truly capture the magic of Christmas, then head to Finland. Rovaniemi is the official home of Santa Claus, so where better to spend the holidays? Enjoy husky trails, reindeer farms and traditional sports such as alpine skiing, snowboarding and snowshoe trekking. Cleartrip Holidays has a five-day package that includes return flights from Dubai, accommodation in a three-star hotel and plenty of winter activities. You'll head out on a snowmobile to hunt down the Northern Lights – chances of seeing them in Finland are high at this time of year. You'll also spend a day in the Arctic Circle village where you can meet Mr Claus himself, quite an honour given it's his busiest time of the year. A visit to the Arctic Snow Hotel is also on the agenda to explore ice sculptures, try out a snow sauna and tuck into a hearty dinner.
Rates start from Dh8,699 per person including flights, tours and accommodation; www.cleartripholidays.ae
Festive fling in Slovenia
Embrace all things Christmassy, but off the trodden festive trail, in Slovenia. As well as sampling traditional food, festive markets and Christmas trees galore, head to the capital to gaze at Ljubljana's beautiful curation of Christmas lights, which are designed every year by local artist Zmago Modic. Slovenia also has a thriving food scene – it's set to be covered by the Michelin Guide in the new year – so visit now before the reviewers do. If it's mountains you seek, head north to Kranjska Gora. This alpine resort near Triglav National Park offers amazing views of the Julian Alps, ice-skating on glacial lakes and excellent powder for skiing. Stay in the Ramada Resort by Wyndham Kranjska Gora, where there's a festive market set up every winter.
Rates at Ramada Resort by Wyndham start from £87 (Dh413) per night, based on two people sharing. Fly with Aeroflot from Dubai with fares starting from Dh2,612.
Kathmandu on a budget
Colourful and chaotic, Nepal's valley-set capital is a total immersion for the senses. It is noisy and congested, but it is also the home of delicious momos, stunning mountain peaks, unique market stalls and temples around almost every street corner. Kathmandu is likely to be snow-covered in December, so you'll need to wrap up to keep out the cold, but it's also one of the best times to visit, as there are fewer tourists and amazingly crisp winter panoramas. You can do the city on a budget – there are loads of quirky cafes, local restaurants and tiny bars dotted around town and you can easily find dinner for under Dh40. Take time to visit the Unesco-listed buildings in Durbar Square and Bhaktapur, and go see the monkeys cavorting around Swayambhunath temple.
A three-night package starts from Dh2,799, flying with Air Arabia and staying at the four-star Akama hotel, including breakfast; www.cleartrip.ae/holidays
Winter sports in Azerbaijan
A three-hour flight from Dubai, Azerbaijan offers snow-drenched mountains that are made for winter sports. Fly into Baku, where you'll find the city in full festive mode – expect huge light-covered trees and traditional festive markets. After a few nights in the city, head for Mount Shahdagh, close to the border with Russia. Here, perched atop the mountains of the Qusar region, is the Shahdag Mountain Resort and 17 kilometres of pistes, with runs for every level of skier. The Shahdag Hotel and Spa has a great location right beside the slopes. It also has an on-site ski school for anyone looking to learn. Non-skiers can try off-road adventure tours, cable-car rides, trekking and paragliding.
Rates at the Shadag Hotel and Spa start from $650 (Dh500) for two nights. Fly from Dubai with Azerbaijan Airlines; fares start from Dh1,166.
Winter sunshine in Zanzibar
December in Zanzibar means sunshine strewn days and epic diving opportunities off the island's southern reefs. While Christmas isn’t widely celebrated here, there’s a holiday vibe to be found as the short rains come to an end. Embrace Zanzibar's fusion of cultures in Stone Town where plenty museums await and there are great restaurants to be found. Wander the town's markets, piled high with ripe mangoes and dried cloves, and breathe in the ever-present scent of spices on the island breeze. On the coasts, the beaches are clearing up for sunbathers and dhow cruises, and the crystal-clear waters make for optimum snorkelling conditions. If you're craving a Christmas on the beach, you could do a lot worse.
Holidays by Flydubai has a four-night trip staying at the Bellvue Guesthouse in Bweju with prices from Dh4,472 for three nights and two people, including flights from Dubai. www.holidays.flydubai.com
Spot gorillas in Uganda
Known for its mountain gorillas, Uganda is also home to glistening lakes, lush savannahs and thick forest canopies filled with myriad birds and animals. You can visit year-round, but for mountain trekking and wildlife spotting, the dry season from December to February is one of the best. Adventure seekers can take a white-water rafting trip down the Victoria Nile, go waterfall chasing or head out on a four-wheel safari drive. Coffee connoisseurs will also be in their element here and can take a tour of the coffee fields, roast their own beans and learn more about the farming process for local brews. A three-day safari package with Marasa Africa hotels takes in Paraa Safari Lodge, Murchison Falls National Park, a boat cruise on the Nile and a trip to Devil's Cauldron, plus transfers to and from Entebbe International Airport.
Rates at Marasa Africa start from $620 (Dh2,277) per person sharing. Fly direct to Entebe with Flydubai; economy fares start from Dh1,610; www.flydubai.com
Family island vibes in Thailand
Escape to Thailand for a festive stay in Koh Samui. While Christmas is not officially celebrated in Thailand, there is plenty of festive spirit on the country’s largest island and you’ll see decorated trees made out of coconut shells, sparkling lights dotted around town and the occasional red-suited Santa Claus. December in Koh Samui also brings lovely sunny days, perfect for opening presents on the beach. Visit the big Buddha, go snorkelling or head out on a jungle safari. Families can opt to stay at Samujana, where luxury villa residences make everyone feel at home. If you really want to embrace the Christmas vibe, book the decoration package and the hotel will light up your villa with a huge tree complete with decorations, candy canes and large red stockings.
Fly with Emirates to Bangkok, with fares starting from Dh3,582. From there, it's a one-hour flight to the island. Festive rates at Samujana start from Dh5,875 per night in a three-bedroom villa.
A short getaway in Muscat
If you don't have a lot of holiday-time to play with, but still want to get away, hop across to Muscat, where you can enjoy mountains, oceans and a laid-back pace of life. Spend three nights at the Holiday Inn Muscat Al Seeb, where there's a great pool, staff are super-friendly and the hotel is well-placed for sightseeing activities. Spend your days unwinding and visiting some of the nearby attractions, such as the Museum of Illusions or the Natural History Museum.
Rates at Holiday Inn Muscat start from Dh1,591 for three-nights, including breakfast and return flights from Dubai; www.dnatatravel.com