How to Start Planning your Christmas Vacation in July

From California to the Caribbean, we've got your guide to planning NOW for a perfect Christmas getaway.
 

Editor’s note: This story was originally published July 2015 and updated July 2017. 

It might not be beginning to look a lot like Christmas in the middle of summer, but with less than six months to go, it’s never too early to start planning (and booking) that holiday escape—indeed, many popular places are booked six months to a year ahead. Here are a few hot destinations for when the weather turns cold.

Kauai, Hawaii 

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Holo Holo Charters

The holiday season is a perfect time to visit the northernmost Hawaiian island. Nicknamed the “garden isle,” Kauai is loved for its lush vegetation and numerous forest reserves. Greenery and waterfalls are at their best from December through March—watch for poinsettias blooming in yards and gardens. And, from December through April, humpback whale migration brings these massive mammals from Alaska to Hawaiian waters for mating season, a prime time for whale watching.

Where to stay: The 21-room Garden Island Inn in Lihue is just two miles from the airport and five minutes from sandy, calm Kalapaki Beach. Rooms are decorated with hand-painted art and include kitchenettes, high-speed WiFi and fresh-cut tropical flowers. Twenty-five minutes down the coast, the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa offers a plethora of amenities (among them an 18-hole golf course, saltwater lagoon and 150-foot waterslide) as well as a curve of white-sand beach perfect for sunbathing with your favourite cocktail.

Don’t miss: If you arrive early in the season, Lihue has an all-day Christmas craft fair that culminates with the evening Lights on Rice Street Parade. The annual Waimea Lighted Christmas Parade begins around 6 p.m., with floats and marching groups parading through town followed by a party with live music. And, on New Year’s Eve, Poipu Beach Park comes alive with live music, DJs, food trucks and celebratory fireworks to ring in the New Year. 

Where to eat: A warm-weather Christmas calls for new traditions. Swap shortbread for shave ice, turkey for roast pig and pecan pie for macadamia. And book way ahead for that one special meal, whether it’s lunch or dinner, à la carte or buffet. Top-rated restaurants include Gaylord’s in Lihue, known for its Sunday brunch buffet, and Merriman’s Fish House, which features locally caught, sustainable seafood. —Kat Tancock

Orange County, California

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Crystal Cove’s beachfront cottages, photo by Christopher Launi

If all you want for Christmas is balmy weather, idyllic beach towns and a large helping of festive fun, then Southern California’s Orange County will tick a ton off of your holiday wish list. Less than an hour south of L.A., “The O.C.” is home to 67 km of uninterrupted beaches, world-class surfing, shopping and theme parks. At Anaheim’s iconic Disneyland Resort, Christmas actually spans 60 days with festive parades, fireworks and spectacular attraction extras. 

Where to stay: Spend Christmas at the Grand Californian Hotel and Spa with walk-in, walk-out access to both Disney California Adventure Park and Christmas at Downtown Disney. Add a little holiday cheer with in-room Christmas tree and decoration packages and check the Extra Magic Hours schedule to see when resort guests can enter the parks before general admission or stay after it closes. Outside of the parks, tour The O.C.’s coastline with a stay at the ultra-modern Shorebreak Hotel in Huntington Beach (a.k.a. Surf City, USA), or enjoy an old-fashioned family Christmas at one of the 1930s beachfront cottages in the Crystal Cove State Park Historic District. (Note: December booking demand for cottages is fierce.)

Where to eat: Available on select dates until December 25, Disneyland’s handcrafted candy canes are a holiday tradition. Arrive at the Main Gate early to collect a limited-edition wristband, then book it to Candy Palace on Main Street USA or Trolley Treats on Buena Vista Street—production alternates between locations—to watch as your 15-lb. treat is red-and-green striped, rolled, cut and curled into a cane. For the ultimate festive feast, head to Balboa Bay Resort’s Waterline Newport Beach restaurant for a five-course meal—think seared duck or prime rib and a chocolate yule log dessert.

Don’t miss: Work off your holiday supper on Olaf’s Frozen Ice Rink in Downtown Disney’s Winter Village and be dazzled with parades, festive shows and magical displays that light up the make-believe snow-filled skies. From Dec. 13 to 17, don’t miss the 109th Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade with more than 100 yachts, boats, kayaks and canoes decked out with lights, dancers and more.  —Diane Bolt 

Nassau, Bahamas 

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Junkanoo celebrations

The inherent warmth and hospitality of Bahamian culture represents exactly how you want to feel at Christmastime. Just like at home, the holiday here is about the spirit of giving and community, where traditional food and drink is at the centre of it all. In the capital city, Nassau, the beaches are pristine and the town is alive with vibrant celebrations of music and dancing that honour history and culture. 

Where to stay: Atlantis, Paradise Island, transforms into a tropical wonderland over the holidays; the resort is filled with festive red poinsettia and palm trees lit up with twinkling white lights. Extra-special experiences include Santa in-room tuck-ins, where he reads holiday stories and shares sweets with the family. Be sure to book by end of summer at one of Atlantis’s six properties to secure your stay. For an ultra-luxe holiday, the 35-acre One&Only Ocean Club exudes glamour. Once a private residence, the resort offers everything from a personal butler to private garden villas. Guests book here up to a year in advance.  

Where to eat: Make sure you taste a few authentic holiday dishes at local eateries. Try the lobster salad or steamed grouper with peas at Bahamian Cookin’ Kitchen. For other local flavours, enjoy a traditional breakfast of stewed fish or conch on the balcony of the Cricket Club Restaurant & Pub, with cricket pitch and ocean views. While most independent restaurants are closed on Christmas Day, hotels offer flavourful Bahamian-inspired dinners with familiar holiday staples like mashed potatoes. At the One&Only Ocean Club’s Dune restaurant overlooking Cabbage Beach, skip the turkey and feast on fresh, lavishly plated seafood with local herbs.

Don’t miss: Christmas in Nassau is synonymous with Junkanoo, a historic celebration of freedom that’s now an elaborate parade on Bay Street. Listen to goombay drums while dancers compete in ornate costumes that can take an entire year to make. Celebrations take place on Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve (after midnight), and go into the wee hours. —Alyssa Quirico

Providenciales, Turks and Caicos 

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Photo courtesy Turks and Caicos Tourist Board

All year round, Providenciales (Provo, for short) in Turks and Caicos offers secluded, world-class beaches, accessible scuba diving and snorkelling in crystal-clear water, fresh seafood, a velvety-smooth golf course and plenty of luxury resorts. But a visit to Providenciales in December offers one more thing—the Maskanoo festival, a high-energy celebration of masquerades and parades, island food and live music. 

Where to stay: Beaches Turks and Caicos Resort Villages & Spa on Grace Bay is a sure thing for families. The popular resort on a 19-km beach offers a massive waterpark for the kids and luxury accommodations for mom and dad. Blue Haven Resort and Marina, located on the quieter Leeward Beach side of Provo, offers a different vibe. This boutique-style “adventure property” is located just minutes from a massive barrier reef and focuses on eco-adventure activities like paddle boarding through the mangroves or visits to an iguana sanctuary.

Where to eat: Forget the turkey this year and celebrate Christmas dinner with some local specialties. Catch-of-the-day seafood is a staple here, with conch reigning supreme on the menu. If you want to sample some traditional fare, look for peas and hominy. You can also toast the season with a cocktail rimmed with the island’s own salt—try the Lime Sea Salt on a margarita, or the Sundried Tomato Sea Salt on a Bloody Mary. Packages of these specialty flavours from Salt Cay Salt Works also make great stocking stuffers. 

Don’t miss: Watersports rule in Provo, from adrenaline-fuelled kiteboarding to world-class diving and snorkelling. The entire island sits on an underwater plateau, meaning it is literally surrounded by a barrier reef with coral-encrusted dive sites teeming with marine life. And then there are the beaches: the Grace Bay Beach area is the most densely populated with hotels and resorts. Taylor Bay and Sapodilla Bay beaches are known for being more tranquil and secluded.

The biggest, and most popular Christmas event in Provo is Maskanoo, held annually on Boxing Day. The festival, held along Grace Bay Road, is a celebration of Turks and Caicos’s history, fusing West African and Caribbean culture, the area’s salt mining history and colonial-style masquerade ball traditions. Expect live music, a party atmosphere and a masquerade ball parade. —Pam Fieber

Montego Bay, Jamaica 

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Secrets

If you’re looking for a Christmas vacation that feels familiar in its festivities, but with better weather and beautiful beaches, head to Montego Bay. Jamaica has many of the holiday celebrations we are used to at home, like massive feasts, Santa Claus and carols, but with a Caribbean flair—think reggae Christmas carol remixes and donkeys pulling Santa’s sleigh. Many of the resorts host their own version of Jonkanoo, a traditional Jamaican Christmas celebration complete with dancing and masked revellers in colourful costumes. 

Where to stay: Secrets Wild Orchid and its sister property, Secrets St. James, go all out at Christmas. These luxury, all-inclusive resorts feature Christmas parades and Jonkanoo celebrations that last into the evening. Santa Claus also makes a Christmas Day appearance, and guests are treated to a traditional Christmas meal. Book at these popular resorts by the end of September. If you’re looking for somewhere a little more low-key, head to the Hip Strip area for great boutique hotels. At the all-suites El Greco Resort, every room comes with a full kitchen, should you want to prepare your own holiday feast. 

Where to eat: Food is a main event during Christmastime in Jamaica. Don’t miss the fruitcake made with currants, brandy, rum, cherries and prunes, then wash it down with sorrel—Jamaica’s Christmas drink—made with the herb sorrel, cinnamon, cloves, orange peels and white rum, served over ice. A traditional feast includes roast chicken, stewed ox tail or curried goat and gungo peas with rice—gungo peas are a seasonal specialty, as they ripen in December

Don’t miss: On Christmas Eve, Sam Sharpe Square in downtown Montego Bay transforms into Grand Market, a festive community fair that features music, dancing and vendors selling toys, crafts, baked goods and other treats. —Sara Samson

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