‘Tis the season to stuff yourself silly – but why stick with tradition when it comes to taste? Find fiery flavours in Southeast Asia, fine dining in the Basque Country, classic cocktails in Cuba and – oh go on then – a selection of Christmassy treats in England.
Indulge in something a little different this December with our tantalising selection of gourmand-friendly destinations.
Sway to Cuba’s seductive heartbeat, cocktail in hand, in the coolest month
Depending on how you view it, Cuba’s capital is a grande dame, her proud good looks fading, or a callow youth rushing headlong into the 21st century. In truth, it’s both. Wander the crumbling, pastel-hued colonial masterpieces and turn-of-the-20th-century gems of Habana Vieja (Old Havana) or seafront Malecón, and you’ll catch a whiff of past glories, perhaps soundtracked by soulful son drifting from a balconied window. Yet after half a century of near international isolation, tourist numbers and development are booming since the entente with the US. Cool December is a fabulous time to roam the streets, sampling rum cocktails, mojitos and Cuba libres in old-time bars (Hemingway loved La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio), and soaking up son, poetic trova or the smooth sounds at Havana International Jazz Festival (mid-December).
- Trip plan: Spend a few days in Habana Vieja, Centro and Vedado districts, then roam Spanish colonial forts and peer into Hemingway’s house, then catch some rays on the beach at Playas del Este.
- Need to know: With the jazz and film festivals, December is a hugely popular month to visit – book transport and accommodation far in advance.
- Other months: Nov-Apr – cool, dry; May-Oct – hot, rainy; Jul-Aug & Dec – busiest, priciest.
Indulge in fine Basque cuisine in the beautiful coastal city of San Sebastián
Spain’s regional cuisines are astonishingly diverse: Valencia’s paella, fine hams in Andalucía, octopus in Galicia, wrinkly potatoes in Tenerife… Many, though, would say the finest is found in the Basque Country, with its pintxos (tapas), fish and spicy sauces. San Sebastián, culinary epicentre of northern Spain, has an astonishing number of Michelin-starred restaurants, thanks to chefs such as Andoni Luis Aduriz, Pedro Subijana, Martín Berasategui and the Arzak family. But whether your budget is five-star or five euros, there are countless opportunities to savour fine food in mild December, when low tourist numbers mean accommodation is great value, and snagging a reservation at a top restaurant is easier than in high summer (though some close for winter). Work up an appetite with a bracing walk along Playa de la Concha or up Monte Igueldo (you can cheat with the funicular) for views across this beautiful city on the bay.
- Trip plan: Bilbao and Biarritz are the two nearest airports to San Sebastián; journey time from the latter is about 45 minutes.
- Need to know: For discounts on transport, attractions, shops, restaurants and tours, buy a San Sebastián Card from the tourist office (sansebastianturismo.com).
- Other months: Jun-Sep – hot, busy; Oct-Nov – cooler, rainy; Dec-Feb – mild, snow on Pyrenees; Mar-May – spring.
Get into the Christmas spirit in the pretty city of Bath
With its glorious honey-hued Georgian architecture and famous Christmas market, the genteel city of Bath is a top pick for a festive break. The aromas of mulled wine and sizzling sausages waft among scores of stalls that spring up around the abbey and Roman baths, peddling artisan cheeses and chocolates, handicrafts and high-class hooch to locals and visitors alike. The appeal doesn’t end with shopping, though. The city is packed with museums and galleries, plus the steaming hot-spring waters of Thermae Bath Spa – soak in the rooftop pool while gazing down at the lights of the market below, graze on gastro fare and bed down in a boutique B&B or one of the upmarket hotels, such as the Royal Crescent.
- Trip planner: Hotels are dotted around the city, with B&Bs concentrated around Newbridge Rd and Pulteney Gardens; you can even stay in Jane Austen’s old house opposite the lovely Holburne Museum. Leaven city life with a wintry stroll on the Bath Skyline walk, providing sweeping city views.
- Need to know: The annual Christmas market runs from late November to mid-December. The abbey hosts carol concerts, advent processions and recitals of Handel’s Messiah this month.
- Other months: Year-round.
Feast on Malaysia’s diverse flavours and lounge on gorgeous beaches
Peninsular Malaysia is a melange of Malay, Chinese and Tamil Indian cultural and culinary influences. The result? A spicy blend of temples and tea plantations, trader mansions and hawker food stalls, sprinkled over a finger of land coated in emerald rainforest and adorned with sumptuous beaches. In December, the northwest coast is in peak condition, warm and dry. The Langkawi archipelago comprises nuggets of forested mountain and brochure-cover beaches; even the largest, Pulau Langkawi, retains a mostly traditional, low-key appeal. Penang, meanwhile, is the peninsula’s cultural and culinary hub; in George Town visit restored 19th-century mansions, shophouses and Chinese temples, and browse the countless restaurants and food stalls to discover the best of the five cuisines represented – our pick is Nonya (Peranakan), typified by spicy laksas (noodle soups). December also sees the streets buzzing with parades, dragon-boat races and music during the Pesta Pulau Pinang festival.
- Trip plan: Both Penang and Langkawi have easy connections through Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to international destinations. Regular flights (35 minutes) and ferries (2¾ hours) link the two destinations.
- Need to know: Look out for the inventive street art blossoming around George Town.
- Other months: Dec-Mar – northwest coast dry; Apr-Nov – northwest coast wet (Nov-Jan: east coast wettest).
Looking for more inspiration? Check out our book Where To Go When for 360 ultimate escapes from family-friendly adventures to animal encounters and relaxing retreats.