The winter chill has settled into your hometown, and your ice scraper is getting put to good use. Before long, you’ll be making snow angels after setting up your decorations and preparing to spend your holidays sipping hot cider. Or will you? It’s not too late to ditch your plans and abscond to a holidays in the tropics (or at least a very warm destination). Spend a week at the end of the year under the sun, and you’ll return home in January refreshed and dethawed. Here are our top picks for places to spend a 2016 holiday season in the tropics, and what to do when you get there.
Leave your long johns at home
San Juan, PR
American citizens don’t need a passport to travel to Puerto Rico, so it’s an easy island escape and one of the top spots for tropical holidays. Just grab your sunglasses and prepare to spend your paid time off beneath the palms in PR. The island nation is colorful, flavorful, and boasts breezes imbued with a sweet olio of salt and salsa music. You’ll fall in love, we promise. The holidays bring spectacular light displays in Puerto Rico, particularly in Old San Juan. You can spend an entire December evening walking through illuminated places like the Plaza de Armas. Take a tranquil trek through the El Yunque rainforest and forget about the fruit cakes piling up on your doorstep back home, or meander down San Francisco Street—you never know when an impromptu concert featuring holiday music will pop up.
The lapping turquoise waves of Hawaii always sound appealing, but when you start seeing your breath on the way to the mailbox, they seem to send out an especially loud siren song. Trade your annual Santa costume for a loud Hawaiian shirt and book a flight to Maui. You won’t be shoveling snow come the end of the year, you’ll be slurping down a shave ice as you have a holiday at the beach. Ah, bliss. You’re here at the right time to run in the Christmas 5K and Half Mile Santa’s Keiki Dash, which takes place a week before the holiday. It’s the perfect way to burn off some of the Spam and sticky rice you’ve been eating since you landed; it’s also a fundraiser for the Maui Foodbank, so bring a canned good. If you stick around until year’s end, a New Year’s Eve cocktail cruise is a wonderful way to bid adieu to 2016. Usher in 2017 near the Grand Wailea, where legendary fireworks light up the sky every year. As the sand massages your feet and the glisten of neon starbursts bounce off your eyes, you’ll exhale your final breath of the year in peace.
Punta Cana, DR
The Blue Flag beaches of Punta Cana will leave you feeling all shades of excited, but never blue. These environmentally protected patches of sand are the best place to put off your holiday thank you cards and soak up some much-needed vitamin D. With your body immersed in the water off Playa Juanillo, you’ll hardly have time to wonder if your pipes are freezing over back home. Forgo convention and spend your holiday on a Bavaro snorkel adventure instead of opening gifts or drinking eggnog. The mai tai waiting back on solid ground is so much better. While you’re bucking the norm, consider ringing in the new year with a thrilling trip down a zip line.
Viewfinder Tip:The official currency of Panama is the Balboa, but the U.S. dollar is regularly accepted.
Panama City, Panama
Panama sees its hottest weather in January and February, but you won’t need to layer up in December. It will be just toasty enough to take your mind off the winter temps back home and temperate enough to keep your brow dry. Panama is a popular cruise port of call, but many travelers don’t flock to the destination for a longer tropical holiday vacation. That just means there is more room for you on Coronado and Gorgona beaches, and fewer crowds to compete with on the unspoiled El Valle Mountains. Instead of spending your holidays baking cookies and buying new mittens, visit the Panama Canal and take some iconic photos of the Bridge of the Americas. Escape the city for a day with a Panama City jungle excursion, and then return to the capital to tour the galleries and restaurants in Casco Viejo, a colonial district with eye-catching architecture. Panama City becomes a technicolor wonderland in December, and the Christmas holiday is largely celebrated outdoors with nightly parades and bustling street fairs.
Santa Barbara, CA
This coastal city isn’t a tropical holiday destination per se—but it’s so stunning we had to include it. The climate never brings snow flurries, and the sweeping sea panoramas send you into a day dream. From atop a hill, the Santa Ynez Mountains loom in the distance, and red-tiled roofs give way to splashing waves and the tips of sailboats. Tour Old Mission Santa Barbara and have a picnic at Shoreline Park. State Street is buzzing with upscale shops and friendly bars, many of which serve regional wine. You can find out more about the epic winery scene in Santa Barbara County on a private sommelier-led tour. If you wake up the next day and need to feel refreshed, head west for a stand-up paddle board session or surf lesson. In the middle of December, Santa Barbara puts on the Annual Parade of Lights; stand on the waterfront and watch dozens of boats drive around the harbor, adorned with brightly colored lights and Christmas trees.