Christmas Travel

Traveling over the Christmas holiday has become a bit of a tradition for me and I thought it would be fun to reflect back on some of the places I’ve spent Christmas. It really started as a necessity, trying to squeeze as much out of my PTO as possible, and using holiday weekends certainly helps! Here are some of my favorite winter holiday destinations:

Redstone, Colorado

The first Christmas trip I can recall was when I lived in Seattle; my mom and sister were in Illinois and we decided to meet in the middle. We spent a couple nights at Glenwood Hot Springs and for Christmas Eve, checked into the Redstone Inn. I had no idea how wonderful Christmas could be when there are no dishes to wash at the end of the night! Not to mention hot tubbing in the snow, and a horse-drawn sleigh ride to a neighboring castle!

Christmas Eve sleigh ride at the Redstone Inn

Oahu, Hawaii

A few years later, before my mom retired, she treated us to a Christmas trip to Hawaii. This was my first tropical Christmas and I thought I might miss having a white Christmas, but I really didn’t! In the Midwest, there is plenty of winter before and after Christmas, so I didn’t miss the cold and snow at all. Hawaii is a great winter holiday destination, and you will be singing “mele kalikimaka” before you land!

12/22 - Hale Koa luau

Who wouldn’t want to snorkel with dolphins on Christmas Eve?! (In the wild, of course; not one of those places with poor captive dolphins – that’s disgusting! Thinking about doing it? Read this please.)

12/24 - Waianae Wildlife CruiseSnorkeling with Spinner Dolphins

St. Croix, USVI

My mom and I spend the winter holiday on St Croix in the US Virgin Islands, two years in a row. We returned on Christmas Eve, or left on Christmas day so we could still celebrate at home as well. I suppose if you’re really religious, or have a huge family, spending the actual holiday in an airport could be depressing, but not me! In fact crowds are a bit calmer on the actual holiday as most people don’t want to be in transit. Any of the Virgin Islands would make great winter holiday destinations.

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

In 2014, we traveled to the Galapagos Islands over Christmas. This was a 10 day trip, so traveling at Christmas really helped reduce the vacation days I used at work. We planned it more than a year in advance, and ended up celebrating Christmas at my house the day we flew back. Talk about a crazy day – starting in Quito, Ecuador and ending with pizza and guests in Chicago that night!

Group photo - Randy, Elayne, Leigh, Beryl, Mendel, Diane, Heather, Dieter, Lisa

Penguins

Panama City

Panama City is a great winter holiday destination as it’s a short flight from the States, and a warm, tropical climate. My mom and I spent a Thanksgiving holiday there one year after finding a great deal on Skyscanner.

Barefoot Panama City and Canal TourCasco Viejo

Baja, Mexico

In 2016, I flew to Baja, Mexico on Christmas Day. My present to myself was a first-class seat, which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially given the 5am departure time! (I paid with airline mileage, I could never part with real money like that!)

As you can probably  tell, I’m not much of a sentimental (or religious) person, so missing Christmas isn’t a big deal to me.  I do miss going to my hometown and getting together with my aunts, uncles and cousins at the holidays, but with everyone grown up, married and starting their own families, it was already becoming so difficult to coordinate that we just get together in the summer!  I don’t think my nephew will remember that we celebrated his first Christmas on the 29th instead of the 25th, and even if he does, I’m always going to be that aunt that misses big events because I’m traveling the globe, so they may as well get used to that while they’re young, right?! 🙂

Has you ever celebrated Christmas somewhere other than home? Any suggestions where I should consider for next Christmas?

Check out these great ideas for winter holiday travel! #travel #travelplanning #winterbreak Click To Tweet

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Christmas Travel

Phuket and Phang Nga Bay Kayaking

As my SouthEast Asia itinerary came together, I found myself with a few open days at the end of my trip.  As much as I would have loved to explore some of the more remote islands like Koh Tao or Koh Samui, I wanted an airport with easy access to Hong Kong for my flight home.  So I settled on Phuket, despite the reputation as a hard partying super touristy island.  I didn’t have much in the way of expectations, other than a few days at the spa/pool after 10 days of heavy touristing. While I originally planned to do nothing but relax in Phuket, that plan didn’t last long once I read about Viator’s Phang Nga Bay Sea Cave tour.  OK, one more long day of activities and then I’ll relax!

I chose the Westin Siray Bay for my visit.  I’m a big fan of Westin hotels, and found a great pre-paid rate of about $93 per night ($110 with taxes and fees…still a bargain!)  I flew to Phuket from Cambodia (via Bangkok) and landed around 8pm on a Wednesday night.  The hotel offered an airport car service, a bit pricey at $35 each way, but well worth it given my evening arrival and the 45 minute drive. Upon arrival, I was upgraded to a 2 room suite, complete with two balconies! (My favorite hotel feature is a balcony!)

Living room (and 2nd balcony) of my two room suite

The Phang Nga Bay tour started at noon, and included hotel pickup (a huge bonus as my resort was about an hour away from everything on the island!)  This gave me time to order up a fresh room service breakfast to enjoy on my balcony.  I already miss the orange juice in Thailand, which is apparently tangerine juice…so yummy!

Room service breakfast on the balcony

Upon arrival at the marina, we were funneled through a small shop for last minute purchases like soda, sunscreen or souvenirs.  We were then split into two groups of 50 and assigned to our boat.

Our vessel for the day

Lunch was served as we set sail, and each group was assigned a guide.  As a solo traveler, I was paired up with a solo woman from Australia, and our guide, Alex.  After lunch was served, we arrived at our first kayaking spot. Most of the kayaking would focus on islands with caves leading to interior lakes, or hongs. Upon paddling into a dark cave (sometimes having to lie down in the boat to avoid conking our heads) the walls would then open up to a beautiful oasis.

We saw plenty of monkeys on the shores as well, and unlike Cambodia, they did not want anything to do with us. I’m sure they are used to the traffic, but it was nice that they weren’t begging for food or water.

Macaque Monkeys

After a few kayak outings within the islands of Phang Nga Bay, we had some downtime while the crew prepared dinner.  Some of us swam, while others attempted a foot race on the slippery kayaks strung together.

While the crew prepared dinner, we had some free time for swimming and a kayak race.

After dinner, it was time to pair up again with our guide and make our krathong.  The krathong is a decorated basket or crown that is adorned with candles and set afloat while making a wish, typically during the Thai holiday of Loi Krathong in November.  The base of the krathong was formed by a banana stalk and then decorated with banana leaves and various flowers.  While I’m not usually big on arts and crafts, the ritual of floating them after dark was pretty special. It was also fun to hear and see the guides get competitive about the best looking krathong.  My new Aussie friend and I agreed, we had one of the best guides on the boat!

Our guide, Alex, with our krathong.  I thought this was the finished product, and was quite pleased!

As the sun set, we got our krathong ready and got back into the kayaks one more time.  We grouped up with two other boats in a nearby cave to light our krathong, make a wish and float them away. (In the normal ceremony, they do just float away, however with so many tourists partaking, it was necessary to re-collect our krathongs after a while)

After this, Alex took us to a more secluded area to see the bio-luminescent plankton and even a few glowing jellyfish.  Something I’d always wanted to see and something I’ll just have to keep in memory as it wasn’t possible to photograph it.  Finally, we had about an hour ride from Phang Nga Bay back to the marina, and then my car was waiting to take me back to the Westin.  It was a long day and a late night (for me!) but an unforgettable experience!

Finally, the next day, my last in Phuket, I would get my much anticipated down time.  I had no agenda, other than to explore the different pool areas of the Westin.  Sadly, I was so relaxed that I only made it to 2 of the 3 pools!

I spent most of the day at the Horizon pool, including a poolside lunch.

Westin Siray Bay Resort & SpaHorizon Pool

By the time I got to the beach, the tide had gone out, so I skipped on ahead to the Prego pool for the rest of the afternoon.

Westin Siray Bay Resort & SpaBeach at Low Tide

Westin Siray Bay Resort & SpaPrego Pool

My last night in Phuket was extremely chill – room service and reading.  I know, I’m a total nerd, but I can’t resist room service and a good book!

Westin Siray Bay Resort & SpaRoom Service Dinner

So, I can’t say I actually saw any of Phuket itself, but this was a great way to wind down from a very active vacation.  The Westin was great for this type of visit – if you wanted to do more activities, you might want to stay in a more populated area, but as far as resorts go, I loved it.  The one downside to Phuket that I noticed was a return to Western prices – even a crappy sandwich at the airport cost $18!

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Phang Nga Bay Kayak

 

For the rest my photos from Phuket, click here!

St. Croix, US Virgin Islands

After spending Christmas on Oahu in 2008, I knew how relaxing a tropical Christmas could be. In 2012, I decided to head off any holiday anxiety with a trip to St. Croix, US Virgin Islands.  My mom and I loved it so much, we came back the next year as well!   With a huge travel bucket list that I constantly obsess over, it’s not often that I’ll go back to the same place twice, especially not two years in a row!  (Other than Colorado, of course!)

Arrival in St. Croix is usually via a puddle jumper from San Juan, Puerto Rico.  There are also some connections through Miami.  The first year, we had an 8-hour layover in San Juan on the way home, so we were also able to explore a little bit of the Old Town, which was fun.  I recommend doing this, although we should have researched luggage storage as it was a pain lugging around our carry-ons!

We stayed at the Renaissance Carambola, a Marriott property at the northern end of St. Croix. Some of the online reviews had me a little nervous, but it was absolutely incredible!  Say what you want about chain hotels, but this is the only place I’ll ever stay on St Croix.  I love everything about this resort. Starting with the rum punch they have waiting for you upon arrival. The views and constant sound of crashing waves are pretty awesome, too! Almost all of the rooms are in a short walking distance to the beach – there are some rocky areas, but plenty of sandy spots and loungers along the beach.

My first day was spent at the spa.  I booked the “Beach Ready” package, which included a mani/pedi, facial and full body sugar scrub. It was all amazing, and included lunch from the bar delivered to the relaxation room.  I especially loved the sugar scrub after flying in from cold, dry Chicago!  However, I was there almost the whole day, so I wish I had done the mani/pedi back home and had more beach time that first day.

St Croix BeachWhile visiting St. Croix is all about relaxing, we have done a few excursions during our visits. The full day snorkel tour to Buck Island with Big Beard’s is a must. For less than $100, you get an all day cruise, two opportunities to snorkel near Buck Island, a beach cookout and all-you-can-drink rum punch.  And an amusing show by the island mongoose who gather for scraps at the lunch spot.

Another highlight of any visit is the Friday night Pirate Buffet at our hotel, which includes a performance by the Mocko Jumbies. Even if you aren’t staying at the Renaissance, I think this is worth the trip out.  The buffet has tons of delicious options, but everyone comes for the show.
St. Croix Mocko Jumbie

We also took a shuttle into Fredriksted one day, but found it was pretty quiet and didn’t offer much in the way of shopping or sightseeing.  Apparently, when cruise ships are in, there are more vendors along the beach, but we tried to avoid the cruise ship crowds.  I would recommend sticking to Christiansted if you are looking for anything to do.

Knowing that the towns on St Croix didn’t have much going on, we didn’t feel the need to explore them again on our 2nd trip. Instead, we booked a day of island hopping via seaplane.  After a short flight, we were on St. Thomas, which is the glitziest of the US Virgin Islands.  We quickly passed the yacht harbor with upscale shopping, and caught a taxi to the ferry dock at Red Hook. The ferry took us to St. John, the most pristine of the US Virgin Islands, where much of the island is designated a National Park.  We took a taxi to Cinnamon Bay, marveling at the postcard perfect beaches around every bend in the road.  St. John is truly magnificent! It’s a bit of planes, ferries and automobiles to get there, but totally worth it!

Boarding the Seaplane to St Thomas

Cinnamon Bay, St John

 All in all, St. Croix is a perfect island getaway!  (Did I mention no cell service?) If you are looking for a full plate of activities, getting back and forth to town from the Carambola can be expensive.  It’s easiest to stay on property and take advantage of the quiet location and sugar sand beach. Car rentals are available, but the cars are American, while the roads are British – driving on the left, but the steering wheel is also on the left!  Roads are narrow and windy, so I haven’t tried driving yet!

Both times that I’ve left St Croix, I’m immediately working numbers in my head to figure out when I can come back.  Carambola Beach has a special place in my heart and I hope I’m lucky enough to come back many more times in the future!

My full Yelp review of the Renaissance Carambola can be found here.

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St Croix