Just because it's winter doesn't mean it's cold everywhere. Whether you ring in the New Year at the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, catch the beauty of the Northern Lights in Norway in January or head to The Rio Carnival in Rio De Janeiro in March, use our canny guide to see the best times to travel worldwide.
Weather in The Bahamas – not quite Caribbean, not quite North Atlantic – is nigh on perfect in December. It’s warm with a breeze, generally dry and generally sunny. The capital, Nassau, is on New Providence Island, and has plenty of attractions for when you’re bored of the beach. These include a pirate museum, cigar factory and some splendid old colonial buildings. But life’s better out on the water, and a wide range of powerboat trips, semi-submersible reef-viewing rides and day-long fishing charters are available for those with their sea legs on. The key dates to be there are either December 26 or January 1, when the Junkanoo carnival fills the streets with floats, elaborately costumed dancers and musicians who seem determined to break decibel level records.
The Rosewood Baha Mar hotel (rosewoodhotels.com) opened earlier this year. There’s a substantial on-site spa, four restaurants, private beach and two pools – one tiered and quiet, one lagoon-style. Prices start at US$692 (Dh2,541) a night. Emirates (emirates.com) flies from the UAE to Nassau via New York. Return fares start at Dh5,795.
As places to ring in the New Year go, the Pyramids of Giza is spectacular – especially when the fireworks start. But December is a fabulous month to explore elsewhere in Egypt, too – cooler weather makes a cruise along the Nile far more pleasant than in the height of summer. That's the best way to see some of the greatest monuments of ancient Egypt, such as the Royal Cemetery of 62 Pharaohs at the Valley of Kings, the dramatic temples at Karnak and Luxor, plus the quirky Temple of Sobek – dedicated to the crocodile god. There's also the chance to see the Abu Simbel temples, which were moved piece by piece when the Aswan High Dam created Lake Nasser in the 1960s. Memphis Tours (memphistours.com) offers a five-day, four-night package, cruising down the Nile on the five-star MS Mayfair for from $1,099 (Dh4,036) per person. This includes all excursions and admission fees.
For some, Europe’s Christmas markets are about the shopping opportunities – craft stalls take over streets and market squares. For others, it’s about the atmosphere, huddling around a warm drink and eating roasted chestnuts as musicians play and lights twinkle. Germany and Austria are the epicentres of such markets, with each city having a different feel. Dortmund, for example, goes for gimmickry with the world’s largest Christmas tree, while Nuremburg’s strength is nearly four centuries worth of tradition. Hopping between cities by rail, and detouring into the snow-covered mountains – especially in Bavaria and Austria – is a winning combination for independent travellers.
Artisans of Leisure (artisansofleisure.com) offers a nine-day private tour of Bavaria and Austria, staying in five-star accommodation in Munich, Salzburg and Vienna, with a day trip to Nuremburg. It costs US$11,650 (Dh42,784). Private day tours around all three cities are included within that price. Return flights from Munich to Dubai with Emirates cost from Dh2,761.
The usual cruising season in Norway is the northern hemisphere summer when the weather is kinder and the long daylight hours allow for more fjord exploration. Go in January, however, and there’s an excellent chance of seeing the Northern Lights brighten up the sky. Being on board a ship generally gives better viewing opportunities for the Aurora Borealis as there is less light pollution from buildings and street lights on land. And, in the rather limited daylight hours, excursions give the opportunity to go husky-sledding and check out the cute wooden buildings of Norway’s coastal cities. The fjords are still there, of course, and the waterfalls running down them are more impressive than they are in summer.
Viking Cruises (vikingcruises.com) runs a 13-day ‘In Search of the Northern Lights’ cruise that heads from London up the Norwegian coast, towards Tromso inside the Arctic Circle. Veranda suites cost from £3,480 (Dh16,577). British Airways (ba.com) Emirates (emirates.com) and Etihad (etihad.com) fly to London Heathrow from the UAE, with return fares costing from Dh2,403.
At the other end of the planet, it’s still cold, but January is as warm as Antarctica’s going to get. The longer days and calmer seas mean it’s peak cruise season for the great frozen continent. In practice, most cruises only get as far as the Antarctic Peninsula – the portion of land closest to anywhere else in the world, and the bit that’s considerably less inhospitable. Calving glaciers can be found here, and high, icy cliffs feel otherworldly. Several breeds of penguin inhabit the South Shetland Islands, and seals, whales and sea birds usually provide added bonuses for wildlife-inclined travellers.
Silversea (silversea.com) runs luxury cruises from Ushuaia in Argentina to the Antarctic Peninsula, with the 10day option aboard the Silver Cloud costing from £13,400 (Dh64,188). It’s an expedition ship, but with spacious suites, four restaurants and a swimming pool – plus Zodiac inflatable boats and kayaks for close-up exploration.
The height of the Australian summer means that Melbourne's usually changeable weather patterns are generally set to sunny in January. That makes it the perfect time to take a road trip down the Great Ocean Road, where swims can alternate between famous surf beaches and waterfall plunge pools in the koala-filled forests behind seaside towns such as Lorne and Apollo Bay. In Melbourne itself, it's time to flock to the beaches around Port Phillip Bay. Unless, that is, you're a world-class tennis player. In that case, you'll be battling it out at the Rod Laver Arena in an attempt to lift the year's first Grand Slam – the Australian Open (ausopen.com) runs from Monday January 14 to Sunday January 27. The newly opened United Places (unitedplaces.com.au) offers sprawling suites, fine dining and art-packed interiors on the edge of Melbourne's Botanic Gardens. Expect to pay A$650 (Dh1,718) a night. Oceania Tours (oceaniatours.com.au) offers a private luxury, full-day trip of the Great Ocean Road, including a helicopter flight back along the coast to Melbourne, costing from A$1,711 (Dh4,524).
The heart of Cambodia’s dry season is the best time to visit the astonishing ancient temple complexes of Angkor without worrying too much about getting drenched. The variety is a major part of the appeal here, with the giant carved faces of Bayon very different to the nature reclaiming its territory vibe at the tree root-invaded Ta Prohm. Elsewhere in Cambodia, there’s historical horror with the key Khmer Rouge sites around Phnom Penh, and the peaceful tranquillity of taking to the waters of the Tonle Sap lake. Cambodia specialist About Asia Travel (aboutasiatravel.com) offers a sevenday Ancient and Modern Capitals tour, with stays in Raffles hotels in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. The package costs from US$2,706 (Dh9,937), and includes private tours of the Angkor temples with crowd-avoidance strategies, a boat trip on Tonle Sap lake and a traditional cyclo ride through Phnom Penh.
The largest city on the northern island of Hokkaido, and the fifth-largest city overall in Japan, Sapporo is surrounded by mountains, and is the main hub of the Japanese ski industry. In February, the powder is usually at its finest, and between January 31 and February 11, the city hosts the Sapporo Snow Festival (www.snowfes.com/english). This goes all in for anything made from the cold stuff, with ice sculptures covering the 1.5kmlong Odori Park in the city centre, snow slides that can be whizzed down in rubber tubes and snow art contests. Alongside this are spectacular illuminations that light up the city long after you've returned from a day on the slopes.
The Maples Niseko (themaplesniseko.com), due to open in December 2018, offers apartment-style accommodation, with ski-in, ski-out access to the slopes at the Niseko resort. Expect cool, neutral decor and studios costing around 58,000 yen (Dh1,881) a night during ski season. Flying via Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) offers the quickest route from Dubai to Sapporo. Prices start at Dh4,755 return.
New Zealand’s South Island
February is a dry, sunny month for New Zealand, with water temperatures at their highest for swimmers and surfers. It’s a fine time for a self-drive adventure around the spectacular, mountainous South Island (see page 27 for more). Options that can be worked in include heli-hiking on the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, kayaking around icebergs on the Tasman Glacier lake in the shadow of Mount Cook, a boat cruise along the Otago Peninsula to penguin and albatross colonies, and The Lord of the Rings location tours around lakeside Queenstown. Then there’s Milford Sound, the fjord that has become the South Island’s tourism pearl. Cruising and kayaking along it is much more enjoyable when it’s not raining. Lightfoot Travel offers a nine-day, activity-focused trip around the South Island, which includes hiking along the Hollyford Track in Fiordland, and luxury or boutique accommodation. The itinerary also throws in hot air ballooning over the Canterbury Plains, a jet-boat ride on the Dart River and a helicopter flight over the Franz Josef Glacier.
Austin defies most images of Texas – it's the cool, liberal, tech-centred side to the state. It may still have world-class barbecue joints and shops that sell amazing collections of cowboy boots, but Austin sure knows how to throw a party, with its live music scene being the envy of most of the country. March, though, is when the Texan capital goes all-in. Over the years, the South by Southwest Festival (sxsw. com) has grown into an all-conquering behemoth. Pinning it down to one thing is a touch tricky – it's partly a tech conference, with meetings and talks happening in venues all over town. But it's also a music festival, and an opportunity for film screenings or video game launches. Top breaks from the madness include the Barton Springs Pool and watching hundreds of thousands of bats fly from the Congress Avenue Bridge at dusk. Fairmont Austin (fairmont.com/austin) opened earlier this year, and it's a mammoth 1,048-room skyscraper that looks hip and Instagrammable. Deluxe lake-view king rooms cost from US$381 (Dh1,399).
Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
Very few cities on earth can match Rio for natural beauty. The city contains sumptuous rainforest pockets, topdrawer beaches and the famed, photogenic, Sugarloaf Mountain. But come March, during the hot summer, man-made spectacle takes the front seat. The Rio Carnival is one of the loudest, brightest pageants on earth, as parades of increasingly flamboyant costumes strut through the streets to the tune of samba music played at deafening volume. The outfits are all-out displays of plumage, leaving very little to the imagination, and the dancing goes on way into the night. This year's carnival (riocarnaval.org) runs from March 1 to 9. The Belmond Copacabana Palace (belmond.com/copacabana) is an art deco jewel that has been one of Rio's top addresses since 1923. A 25-metre pool, rooftop tennis court and service on the Copacabana beach add to the glamour. Rooms cost from 1,555 reais (Dh1,538) per night.
Emirates (emirates.com) flies from Dubai to Rio with flights costing from Dh7,595.
With the weather cooler and drier, March is a good time to explore the hills and forests of otherwise swelteringly humid Northern Thailand. The regions around Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai offer something completely different to the laid-back islands of the country’s south, and are suited to those wanting an active holiday. Privately guided hill treks, taking in panoramic rice field views, are hugely popular. But so are visits to ornately decorated temples, elephant encounters, market tuk-tuk tours and boat trips down the slow, lugubrious Mekong River. It’s a good way to meet tea- and coffee-growers who live in the photogenic villages along the river – many tour operators incorporate this cultural element.
The Travel Attache (thetravelattache.com) offers a 14-night trip, with five nights in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, and luxury accommodation including the Four Seasons Tented Camp near Chiang Rai. It costs from Dh23,600, with Etihad (etihad.com) or Emirates (emirates.com) flights from the UAE to Bangkok, costing from Dh2,403.