Vietnam is a stark contrast to winter white but just as much a wonderland

Whether you’re sunbathing in the Caribbean, dog sledding above the Arctic Circle, or feasting on the foods, sights and sounds of European cultural festivals, there’s something magical about going on holiday in December.

Best December holidays for… beaches

Short haul: Malaga

Top December 2011 destinations - MalagaSee local musicians and dancers perform at the colourful Verdiales Festival
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Humidity and the sun are high in Malaga during the warm off season, making December the perfect time to explore the miles of beach along Andalusia’s Costa del Sol. La Malagueta, the dark-sand beach closest to the city centre, is popular with locals and great for relaxing or sports. Nearby restaurants and bars serve up a playful atmosphere and fresh pescaíto frito, a local specialty of fried fish, from the harbour. If you prefer privacy, head further east along the stretches of sand that make up the many smaller, quieter beaches on the coast.

Sunbathing in Malaga is juxtaposed with Christmas nativity scenes and festivities such as concerts and markets. Stroll under the light displays that tower up and across the main streets leading up to the massive tree in Plaza de la Constitucion, or take a break from the beach with a short drive from Malaga to Almogia for the colourful Verdiales Festival (28 December). Groups of local musicians and dancers called ‘pandas’ wearing traditional garb perform for judges in a blended style of folk and flamenco, capping off an authentically festive beach break.

Long haul: Cayman Islands

Top December 2011 destinations - Cayman IslandsSeven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman
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If true tropical sun is your goal for this holiday, escape to the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean, where hurricane season is over and the weather is dry and hot. The islands are famous for white-sand, azure-water shores like Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman, the largest and most populated. Divers can navigate reefs and sunken shipwrecks alongside unusual fish, and snorkel amongst stingrays in the sandbars at Stingray City in the North Sound.

The smaller sister islands, about 120km (75 miles) east of Grand Cayman, are equally beautiful for their palm tree-lined beaches and underwater treasures. Cayman Brac derives its name from its large limestone bluff jutting out over the sea, part of the ragged terrain that draws ambitious climbers and spelunkers to the island. Little Cayman, at just 16km (10 miles) long and 2km (1.2 miles) across, offers some of the best scuba-diving sites in the world.

Best December holidays for… cities

Short haul: Lyon

Top December 2011 destinations - LyonLyon’s annual Festival of Lights is not to be missed
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For a few days in December, another French city rivals Paris for the title of ‘City of Light’. Lyon’s annual Festival of Lights (8-11 December) sees the city illuminated by candles from locals’ windows, a tradition that gained popularity in 1852 in honour of a statue of the Virgin Mary. Interactive, animated and light installations are displayed at various venues, the buildings themselves proudly glowing with Lyon’s skilful use of light in urban planning.

As much as the holidays are about family and friends, they’re also about food, and France is a sweet place to get your fix. Lyon is host to its first Salon du Chocolat this year (9-11 December), where visitors can attend cooking demonstrations, tastings and nightly chocolate fashion shows. You can also feast your eyes and mind on an equally satisfying spread at the Biennial Contemporary Art Festival, hosting the work of about 60 international artists at four exhibition sites until 31 December.

Long haul: Rio de Janeiro

Top December 2011 destinations - RioRing in the New Year on Brazil's Copacabana Beach
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The summer season’s increasing temperatures match the celebratory fervour in Rio de Janeiro. The city’s famed Carnival in February might be one of South America’s biggest tourist attractions, but December promises a similarly festive visit with Rio’s second biggest party, Reveillon, happening on New Year’s Eve on Copacabana Beach. Cariocas, Rio’s residents, celebrate the New Year with champagne, outdoor concerts and a spectacular fireworks display. Copacabana is also a popular daytime destination for its gorgeous beach and beachgoers.

Rio de Janeiro will host the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. It’s the first time the games are to be held in South America and the government hopes to show visitors a renewed, tourist-friendly Brazil. Updates to airports and infrastructure have already begun, so holidaymakers can easily get around to all the lively bars, clubs and beaches that give Rio its ‘cidade maravilhosa’, or ‘marvelous city’, nickname.

Best December holidays for… outdoors

Short haul: Finland

Top December 2011 destinations - FinlandSnowmobile, ice kart or ski through Finland's dense woods
Visit Finland
Finland is a quintessentially wintry destination for a December break. Glowing towns and cities host markets with locally made goods and activities, such as Helsinki’s Seurasaari Christmas Path, aimed to show children commercial-free, Finnish holiday traditions. Finland is also a prime location to witness that other vibrant display, the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. This winter will see record-topping solar activity, visible from Finnish Lapland where the lights streak the skies 200 nights a year.

Almost three quarters of the country are covered by forest, and tour operators offer countless outdoor excursions and activities for adventurous and chilled-out powder lovers alike. You can snowmobile, ice kart and ski through dense woods, catch dinner on an ice-fishing trip, or explore the wilds serenely on snowshoe. Icebreaker cruises begin in mid-December and give passengers a glimpse of frozen, otherworldly waters, while dog sled and reindeer safaris through snowy hills expose a side of Finland less traversed.

Long haul: Vietnam

Top December 2011 destinations - VietnamHalong Bay's mystical landscape of limestone islets
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Vietnam is a stark contrast to winter white but just as much a wonderland. The north and south of the country are no longer affected by the monsoon season in December. The climate is tropical and dry, providing opportunity to trek the mountainous highlands and see the country’s rare species in nature parks and reserves. Zipping over rugged terrain or undisturbed dirt roads on a motorbike is a thrilling way to get close to the country’s tranquil beauty.

The variety of land to discover is limitless, from limestone islets in Halong Bay to the resort beaches of Nha Trang and Vũng Tàu. The Mekong Delta’s rural towns, green rice paddies and floating markets invite visitors to appreciate local customs at a leisurely pace. A new local tourism programme called ‘Fansipan: Explore and Conquer’, which starts in mid-December and includes a two-day trek up and down Fansipan Mountain, allows active travellers to witness the lush country from its highest point.

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