Quebec City, Canada
Andre Jenny  /  Alamy
Quebec’s good cheer and great food could make you remember you love winter after all.
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updated 12/16/2009 9:23:47 AM ET 2009-12-16T14:23:47

A solemn group of candle-carrying figures has just been turned down entry to one of San Miguel de Allende’s Spanish colonial buildings right off El Jardín, the town’s main square. A girl on a donkey leads the way, past shops festooned with piñatas and poinsettias, and you can still see the glow of the town’s Christmas tree in the distance.

Undaunted, they move on to a door a couple streets away, only this time you hear the procession break into ethereal song as the portal opens and you realize this is one of the town’s posadas, the nightly reenactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter that takes place in the days leading up to Christmas. The posse will be let in to the last house they visit, where the night’s festivities include rounds of ponche, a hot spiced fruit drink, and piñatas.

Whether your winter holiday trip enhances your yuletide nostalgia with sparkly lights and nippy air or makes a radical break from it—by, say, taking you to warmer climes or a quiet, far-flung hideaway—breaking the habit of staying home will always reward you with a Christmas you’ll never forget. With that goal in mind, we’ve rounded up 10 diverse, exceptional places to get you in the spirit of taking off.

“Conditions appear to be stabilizing in the travel industry as signs of an economic recovery take hold,” says travel industry analyst Adam Weissenberg of Deloitte, referring to the results of the company’s holiday and winter travel survey. Of the 45 percent of respondents intending to travel this winter, nearly half are doing so in December. While the majority will stay put in the U.S. (70 percent) and visit family and friends (74 percent), two top winter-travel trends that emerged were trips to a historic site or national park (34 percent) and trips involving warm-weather activities (38 percent).

Sounds good to us. Quebec City, one of the oldest and most charming burgs in North America, is our top historic pick for the holidays. The narrow cobblestoned streets and stone architecture of the walled city, founded in 1608 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, make it as romantic and European as it gets on this side of the pond. Add to that a proclivity for snowfall and an abundance of top-notch bars and restaurants, and you may wish the New Year could be postponed.

But the appeal of warming up over the holidays is undeniable, too. For the die-hard contrarian, Kaikoura, New Zealand, ought to do the trick. It’s the height of summer there at Christmas, a holiday most often celebrated outdoors with backyard barbecues. But it’s also a great time to be hiking the rainforest of the Kaikoura mountain range or on the waters of Kaikoura Bay, one of the most biodiverse marine environments on the planet. It’s the summer home of sperm whales, fur seals, dusky dolphins, and pilot whales, and all it takes to commune with them is a boat and a bit of perseverance.

It turns out that South America has weathered the global recession better than all regions but Africa, according to the UN World Tourism Organization, and it’s not hard to see why. Brazil in particular is peppered with off-the-beaten-track gems that offer a true escape, like the coastal Portuguese colonial town of Paraty, about 140 miles south of Rio on the Atlantic. Its friendly locals, cerulean waters, exceptional beaches, and exotic-bird-filled jungles may make you forget what holiday it is altogether. Like we said: unforgettable.

Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation

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