December: Holiday Lights
Celebrate the magic of the season and the serenity of a snowy landscape
in Quebec, Munich, southern Texas or even Antarctica
By the Vacations Staff
Jean-Francois Bergeron-Enviro Foto/Quebec City Tourism
(Scroll down to see a slide show.)A storybook season
Opt for Old World charm and enduring holiday traditions in Quebec City. At the heart of this French Canadian capital is a 405-year-old historic district, Old Quebec, where costumed guides lead heritage tours down snow-dusted, stone-paved streets lined with holly boughs and twinkle lights. Check names off your gift list in specialty shops dedicated to hand-knit winter wear, Inuit art or even maple syrup. Christmas markets glow throughout the city, too, offering handicrafts, cinnamon-spiced pastries and free concerts. And, should you need a break from the winter chill, you and your sweetie can snuggle up under a blanket on a horse-drawn carriage ride around the city. With four centuries of experience hosting unexpected visitors -- French and British colonials and, at one point, American revolutionaries have invaded and squabbled over this region since its 1608 settlement -- Quebec City offers an array of hotels. But few are as grand as the 618-room Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, built on a hilltop in 1893 for sweeping views of the St. Lawrence River.
Shop the Christmas markets
A holiday visit to Europe isn't complete without a mug of hot mulled wine and a stroll through a Christmas market. The outdoor displays of lights and stalls selling crafts and goodies in the weeks before Christmas are a grand tradition; in some cities these bazaars date to the Middle Ages. You'll find some of the best in Germany and Austria. In Munich, shoppers are serenaded by a Bavarian choir on the town hall balcony, and costumed revelers dash across the marketplace during the Krampus Run, a centuries-old tradition. Sample grilled sausages and gingerbread in Nuremberg, home to nearly 180 wooden stalls, or wander through a Regensburg market circling the 500-year-old Neupfarr Church. Christmas markets abound in Vienna, from the city hall square known as the Rathausplatz -- filled with elaborately decorated holiday trees -- to the historic quarter of Spittelberg, where vendors sell crafts along cobblestoned paths. Many river cruises along the Danube and Rhine include stops at these festive gatherings, such as the "Classic Christmas Markets" departures from Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection.
Victorian England in Texas
Have the best of times on a trip back to 19th-century London during the annual Dickens on the Strand celebration in Galveston, TX, traditionally held on the first full weekend of December. The island city about an hour south of Houston transforms the Strand, its National Historic Landmark District, into the bustling Victorian cityscape of Charles Dickens' day. Wander the main thoroughfare surrounded by carolers, minstrels and costumed vendors hawking wares from street stalls and carts loaded with crafts and treats of the era. Take tea and scones with Queen Victoria at the city's elegant Menard Hall or gather for a stately dinner honoring the master wordsmith who dreamed up Scrooge, the Cratchits and Tiny Tim. Get an up-close look at the historic architecture during a walking tour, then bump up the holiday spirit with a serenade from a handbell choir performing classic Christmas songs. Galveston has become a popular embarkation port for seagoing vacations to the Caribbean and Bahamas. Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International all have ships based here in December.
To the bottom of the Earth
Experience the winter wonderland of the least-visited continent in the world: Antarctica. Covered almost entirely with ice and isolated in frigid waters more than 600 miles below South America's nearest landmass, Antarctica has remained largely a region of scientists and explorers -- like Sir Ernest Shackleton and his Endurance crew -- since the first landing by a Norwegian whaling ship in 1895. Amateur adventurers can discover this mysterious and wintry landscape on itineraries with several lines from November through early March. Marine biology, history and geology experts provide insight at onboard lectures and during shore excursions. Zodiac landings allow for up-close views of wildlife, such as the penguins and elephant seals of South Georgia Island, and historic sites like the former whaling station at Deception Island. Spotting humpback and southern right whales and hiking glaciers are other highlights. Options include trips on intimate vessels from Silversea Cruises and Quark Expeditions; Antarctic sailings typically depart from Argentina and travel through the Drake Passage.
Winter in Yellowstone
Many have memories of summer excursions with the family in Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872 as America's first such protected preserve, but fewer folks have glimpsed the magic of this landscape in the off-season. Join Trafalgar on the eight-day "Yellowstone Winter Adventure" departing Dec. 19 and traveling from Bozeman, MT, where guests view the largest T. rex skull at the Museum of the Rockies, to Jackson, WY, for a two-night stay. In between, there's a horse-drawn wagon ride and a soak in Chico Hot Springs surrounded by the mountains of Montana; wolf viewing in remote Lamar Valley; a visit to Lower Yellowstone Falls, cascading almost twice the height of Niagara Falls; and a sleigh ride in the National Elk Refuge through a herd numbering in the thousands. Free time is offered to explore Old Faithful, which erupts in boiling spurts about every 90 minutes, and for winter activities like snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.
New Year's at Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls has provided an impressive backdrop for countless weddings and other celebrations. Among the revelries is the annual New Year's Eve celebration opposite the falls at Queen Victoria Park in Ontario, where nearly 40,000 onlookers will ring in 2014 with not one, but two spectacular firework displays at 8:45 p.m. and midnight. But even before the pyrotechnics shower over the towering surges, there will be plenty to do. Three distinct cascades -- Canada's Horseshoe Falls and the United States' American and Bridal Veil falls -- make up these magnificent sheets of water, located about 20 miles from Buffalo, NY, and roughly 90 minutes from Toronto. Most activities and attractions launch from the Canadian side, including a nine-minute helicopter ride and Journey Behind the Falls, where elevators descend 150 feet to the observation decks at the foot of Horseshoe Falls. A rain poncho is a must to protect clothes from the mist.
--Jennifer Davoren, Kimberly Garza, Alexis Loyd and Van Sheridan
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in January/February 2013. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.