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10 sizzling south-of-the-equator winter trips

Our prescription for the winter blues? Swap hemispheres and seasons for a true summertime escape that adds something exotic to the equation.
Wanaka, on New Zealand’s South Island, offers plenty of sunshine, and outdoor pursuits are endless. The Whare Kea Lodge, set on farmlands and with views over Lake Wanaka, is the essence of Kiwi country-chic.
Wanaka, on New Zealand’s South Island, offers plenty of sunshine, and outdoor pursuits are endless. The Whare Kea Lodge, set on farmlands and with views over Lake Wanaka, is the essence of Kiwi country-chic.Whare Kea Lodge & Chalet
/ Source: Forbes

The Weather Channel’s recent barrage of wind chill warnings has been dire news for millions of people. Indeed, one Chicago office worker dreaming of sunnier pastures speaks for much of North America this particularly brutal winter when she says: “I’m about ready to hurl myself out of my 14th floor window at the office.”

Kate Weigle, a PR manager in the Windy City, recently said, “It seriously feels like we’re living inside a snow globe here. Today I was in the conference room, surrounded by windows, and the snow was blowing from the ground up. It was literally coming from every direction. It’s so depressing.”

Our prescription for the winter blues? Swap hemispheres and seasons for a true summertime escape that adds something exotic to the equation.

Before you even factor in the wind chill, there have been days in the far northern reaches of the U.S. that have seen the mercury barely limp above -10 degrees this winter. And Weigle, for one, is over it. “Whatever tax return I get this year, it’s all going toward a vacation someplace warm,” she said. “You can’t live like this, waking up to the same gray everyday — it does something to the psyche.”

For travel agents, at least, tax returns plus the wicked weather equal a reprieve from the current travel industry slump. “It’s very, very cold here. People are coming in and saying, ‘How soon can I leave, what can I get?’ ” said Alicia Kohs, a Travel Consultant with Travel Center Tours, a Chicago agency specializing in luxury corporate and personal travel planning.

Kohs said that package trips to Mexico and the Dominican Republic are generating the most interest among her clients who are looking for the best deals with immediate departures to warmer climes. But with daily nonstop flights to capital cities such as Buenos Aires, Santiago and Sao Paolo from most major American airports, South America is easy to reach from the continental United States.

For a beach experience so stylish and sexy it puts South Beach to shame, set your sights on Uruguay. Punta del Este (less than an hour by plane from Buenos Aires in nearby Argentina) has been called many things: the St. Tropez, the Hamptons and the Monte Carlo of South America. There are Brazilian and Argentinean supermodels galore during the peak summer months, December to February.

This is no backpacker retreat; money oozes from this place — not only in the flashy casino at the luxe Conrad Hotel, but in the beautiful harbor, too, where you can tap your toes to the rhythm of bobbing yachts while enjoying fresh seafood washed down with medio y medio, Uruguay’s national drink. “Punta is very seasonal. In the summer you have three times the people than in the off-season. It’s like everything explodes,” said Montevideo resident Franco Vidiella.

For more beauty on the beach, head a few hundred miles north of Punta del Este to the beaches of Florianopolis on the island of Santa Catarina in Southern Brazil. Floripa, as Brazilians call this California-esque coastal enclave, is as renowned throughout Latin America for its golden beaches as it is for the golden-haired bombshells that abound. Germans, Polish and Italians colonized the South of Brazil, explaining the Giselle Bündchen look-a-like phenomenon that’s unmissable on the beaches here.

“Floripa is recognized as a top-end beach place in Brazil,” says Sao Paolo tourism executive Francisco Costa Neto. “They have some great seafood there, too, so it’s really the best of both worlds.”

The eastern beaches, particularly Praia Mole, draw international surfers and gorgeous groupies for good waves in a strut-your-stuff atmosphere, while the southern beaches, popular with Santa Catarina locals, are emptier due to the colder water, rocky shoreline and more remote access (many require hiking in).

Ponta dos Ganchos, an hour north of Santa Catarina, features 20 oceanfront bungalows on an isolated peninsula. With private saunas and plunge pools, it's Floripa’s most high-end place to stay.

And another Brazilian beach destination that’s now even easier to access from North America is Salvador de Bahia, in the north of Brazil. In November 2008, American Airlines introduced daily nonstop flights from Miami to this samba capital on the pretty bay of Todos os Santos that’s home to a heady mix of fine colonial architecture and exotic African influences. For escapism like no other, check in to Praia do Forte EcoResort, an hour north of Salvador, set on a deserted beach fringed by coconut palms.

“It’s about people just wanting a new experience,” said Margaret Labar, manager of One Stop Travel in Orlando, Fla., about the appeal of southern hemisphere travel destinations during North America’s winter months. “People are looking to get away from the norm.”

And while a bit more transit time to the sunshine is required, there’s no time like the present to put Australia and New Zealand on your escape-from-winter itinerary. These days, the sunshine Down Under makes its way into your wallet, too.

“At the moment, what we’re seeing is a much lower New Zealand dollar, which translates very well for American travelers,” said Annie Dundas, North America Regional Manager for Tourism New Zealand, “And a number of the lowest airfares are out, too, for travel in February and March. Those two elements combined are making it a reasonable time to get to New Zealand at our best time of the year.”

Although Queenstown lures adrenalin addicts, nearby Wanaka is appealing for its lower key ambience. One of New Zealand’s finest properties The Whare Kea Lodge is set on 70 acres of quiet farmland overlooking placid Lake Wanaka. Book the four-person chalet for a private retreat with Mount Aspiring views out of every window.

Across the Tasman in Australia, pass up the touristy Gold Coast for Western Australia, where a Down Under aqua safari like no other awaits at Ningaloo Reef. Reopening on March 10, after renovations just in time to spot the migrating whale sharks, Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef dishes up the ultimate "glamping" experience.

An upscale eco-camp set in a national park with luxury wilderness tents as your home away from home, the Sal Salis good life means vast ocean views and Red Kangaroos for neighbors. And when you’re snorkeling on the fringing coral reefs and marveling at the majestic whale sharks, life inside your former snowglobe world will feel very distant, indeed.

The Southern Hemisphere is loaded with out-of-the-box haunts that offer all the luxuries of North American and European resorts. Whether you’re looking to luxuriate on a South American coast that’s a bonafide supermodel breeding ground, or go on a whale shark spotting safari in a luxurious Australian eco-camp, we’ve sourced the best southernly locales for slipping out of the cold and into something entirely more agreeable.