Looking for a getaway to reward yourself after a year of hard work, but not sure where to head? We've found 7 best places to visit in December for that long-awaited vacation you so deserve.
As other tourists flock to the more famous Japanese winter destination of Hokkaido, make your way to Yamanouchi in Nagano prefecture for what could very well be the most unique experience you'll ever have.
Yamanouchi is home to the Jigokudani Yaen-koen conservation park, known worldwide as the only place on the planet where you can see monkeys bathing in hot springs. You can watch wild Japanese snow monkeys come down from the surrounding cliffs to languidly lounge in the steamy onsens, while you warm up with a cup of sake from your tasting tour.
If you fancy getting up close and personal with your new primate pals, you could even stay at the nearby Korakukan Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn that allows you to have a soak with the snow monkeys in its private outdoor onsen.
When you've had enough monkeying around, you can hit the powdery trails at Nagano's ski resorts, the most popular of which lie in Hakuba Valley. Take your pick from 10 resorts in the valley, which all boast skiing and snowboarding options for both beginners and black-trail experts. Hakuba's Happo-One resort even featured prominently in the Nagano Winter Olympics of 1998, and to date, has 23km of ski runs and pistes for you to explore.
Jigokudani Yaen-koen: 6845 Heion, Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun 381-0401, Nagano prefecture
Korakukan Ryokan: 6818 Hirao, Yamanouchi, Shimotakai-gun 381-0401, Nagano prefecture
Happo-One: Hokujo, Hakuba, Kitaazumi-gun 399-9301, Nagano prefecture
Jeju, South Korea
Even though it's just an hour's flight from Seoul, the island of Jeju is a world apart from the South Korean capital. Its gentler winters make it a perfect spot if you don't fancy being surrounded by snow all the time.
Unlike the renowned glitz and glam of Seoul, Jeju is perfect for outdoor lovers, with endless green trails and picturesque hikes. The Olle Trail is a coastal path made of up 24 sections that will take you on an unforgettable trek through forests, local villages and beaches. You obviously don't have to hike the entire 422km trail, but depending on which sections you choose, you'll get varied views of volcanoes, tea plantations, waterfalls, eco parks, rocky coastlines and many other stunning sights.
If you're really feeling adventurous (and fit), try climbing Hallasan, South Korea's highest peak at 1,950 metres, where you'll see some snow along the way. One of the must-sees on this volcano trek is Baengnokdam, a crater lake that can be up to 100 metres deep.
Jeju is also home to haenyeo, formidable female divers who return from their plunges with an abundance of abalone, oysters, seaweed and clams that you can consume fresh on the shore – or grilled, if your stomach isn't quite feeling up to the raw harvest.
Byron Bay, Australia
Is a winter holiday not your thing? Head Down Under to chase the sunshine instead! You'll probably have to fly into either the Brisbane or Gold Coast airport and then drive up to Byron Bay, but the long journey to get to this quaint hippie beach town is definitely worth it, especially if you're into water sports and hanging loose.
The Pass is one of Byron Bay's best beaches, and whether you're a pro surfer or just looking to get started on some lessons, the stretch is well known for its waves. You can even see dolphins and whales there, so sign up for a whale watching cruise or a kayaking tour if you want to get up close and personal with these majestic mammals.
Sunrises and sunsets are particularly memorable in these eastern coastal parts of Australia, so they definitely should not be missed. The best spot to watch the arrival of dawn and dusk is a local icon: the Cape Byron Lighthouse, which marks the easternmost point of Australia. The 23-metre tall building also hosts a small museum that shows what life was for lighthouse keepers back in the day, and you can climb the stairs to take in splendid 360-views of the cape.
Byron Bay also has tons of quirky stores and offerings you won't find in the big cities of Oz. Want to learn to play the didgeridoo? You can take lessons at The Arts Factory, and even learn how to make your own version of the traditional Aboriginal instrument. One of the coolest spots to explore is the vibrant Rainbow Temple that is, unsurprisingly, an Instagram hot spot. The building was constructed from raw materials from the local jungles and is open to anyone who wants to use it for meditation or yoga in the day. After spending a day at the temple, it's likely you'll leave with an eclectic bunch of new international friends.
Cape Byron Lighthouse: Cape Byron Walking Track, Byron Bay NSW 2481
The Arts Factory Lodge: 1 Skinners Shoot Road, Byron Bay, NSW 2481
Lake District, UK
We all know London and its cosmopolitan vibe, but if you're looking for something a little off the beaten path, then head 3 hours north by train from the capital to the UK's beautiful Lake District. Officially designated a Unesco World Heritage site, the Lake District boasts the UK's biggest national park and like its name suggests, its most noteworthy lakes.
Windermere lake is the largest natural lake, but it's not the only one worth visiting. Bassenthwaite, Grasmere and Ullswater are all worth a visit, offering you splendid reflections of the surrounding mountains off the tip of the water. And if an uphill trek is on the charts, you can head up to Scafell Peak, a 978-metre peak that marks the highest point in the Lake District.
Settle in for a few days in a rustic cottage by one of the beautiful lakes the area is named for. Ullswater is the quieter cousin of the more touristy Windermere, and the perfect spot for a holiday where your only focus is to unwind and explore the trails of nature that inspired tributes from literary greats like William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter. You can even take the 150-year-old Ullswater Steamer for a picturesque afternoon float down the water.
If you're around Grasmere lake, then don't miss the world-famous gingerbread at Sarah Nelson's The Grasmere Gingerbread Shop. The namesake of this shop invented her version of gingerbread in 1854, making the shop a must-visit for a bite of her iconic sweetly spicy concoctions.
The Grasmere Gingerbread Shop: Church Cottage, Grasmere, Ambleside LA22 9SW
Italy is a country jam-packed with amazing architecture and historical sites, but even among its cities, the grandeur of Florence, located in the Tuscany region, is hard to beat. For starters, the heart of Florence is the breathtaking Gothic-style Duomo di Firenze, where you can explore the cathedral to take in its beautiful mosaic floors, giant stained glass windows and stunning altar. Don't forget to also climb to the top of the bell tower for an unforgettable panoramic view of the city.
Just nearby, the Piazza della Signoria houses the Palazzo Vecchio, where the city's current government is based. Michelangelo's famous statue of David used to stand at the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio, but has since been moved indoors to the Accademia Gallery, an art museum that is truly worth an afternoon's visit to take in paintings and sculptures by famous Florentine artists. If you want more of the best of Italian art, head to the Uffizi Gallery, which houses masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michaelangelo.
Ending a day in Florence is best done on the Ponte Vecchio stone bridge, where you can watch the sun go down. The area around the bridge is bustling with lively art and jewellery stores, as well as many restaurants where you can have the city's signature Bistecca alla Fiorentina steak, a delicious thick-cut Porterhouse slab.
Duomo di Firenze: Piazza del Duomo, 50122 Firenze
Palazzo Vecchio: Piazza della Signoria, 50122 Firenze
Accademia Gallery: Via Ricasoli, 58, 50122 Firenze
Uffizi Gallery: Piazzale degli Uffizi, 6, 50122 Firenze
Ponte Vecchio, 50125 Firenze
Located in Turkey's Central Anatolia region, Cappadocia is well known for its unique rock formations and impressive panoramic landscapes. The Uchisar rock castle, which is Cappadocia's highest point, gives you sweeping views of the land, complete with its many whimsical "faery" caves. Carved into the caves are many landmarks that are worth a visit, such as the Goreme Open Air Museum, which houses a number of tiny Catholic churches. Monks Valley is another series of caves that make you feel like you're exploring life-size sandcastles, with their irregular interfaces being the exact hallmark of their beauty.
Even though you'll get amazing views as soon as you ascend to the top of some of these caves, it's tough to beat the view you'll get from inside a hot air balloon. A signature way to take in the magical scenery of Cappadocia, it's quite a sight to behold: hundreds of hot air balloons rising into the sky, weaving high over the mountains and valleys of the land.
There is also an old Greek village worth exploring in the town of Cavusin, which offers architecture fans plenty of ancient frescoes and pillars, some of which were built as early as in the 5th century. For the best spot to catch the sunset, take an easy hike from Cavusin through the Red and Rose Valleys, appropriately named for its gorgeous red and pink rocky formations. At the end of the 2-hour trek, you'll be rewarded with a splendid view of the sun setting over the rocky pink spires.
Goreme Open Air Museum: Merkez, Müze Cd., 50180 Göreme/Nevşehir Merkez/Nevşehir
For a truly frosty experience, make your way up north to the capital of China's Heilongjiang province to attend the world's largest winter festival. The Harbin Ice Festival showcases 4 parks of giant, intricately crafted ice sculptures illuminated by brightly colored lights, creating a winter wonderland that you can get absolutely lost in for hours on end. Some of these sculptures are recreations of famous global landmarks, such as Rome's Colosseum, Paris' Eiffel Tower, Beijing's Forbidden City and Athens' Acropolis.
Another must-see is the Harbin Siberian Tiger Park, where you can take a bus tour to visit the majestic creatures, as well as Bengal tigers, lions, pumas, leopards and other regal members of the feline family. A natural park for wild Siberian tigers, the park also includes a museum paying homage to them, a great resource for the whole family to learn more about the striped beauties.
Fun fact: Harbin's nickname is "Moscow of the Orient". So it's not surprising that you'll be able to warm up with some authentic Russian food there, while trying to spot the Russian-style baroque and Byzantine buildings left behind from days of old. Take a walk down the city's charming cobblestone Central Avenue, and pop into a Russian restaurant for a warm bowl of borscht and some blini (tiny pancakes with cream and caviar).
Harbin Ice Festival: West side of Sun Island (3 Jingbei Road, Harbin), Songbei district, Harbin
Harbin Siberian Tiger Park: 88 Songbei Road, Harbin
We hope some of these destinations make it to your year-end holiday list sooner rather than later! After all, there's so much to see in in this great big world that you can be sure any of these getaways will be a memorable one, no matter what you're looking for. But make sure your vacation is memorable for the right reasons, not for putting you in debt!
Vacation season can be stressful on your wallet and you'll find yourself spending more than you usually do. Whether it's additional funds you need to pay for those plane tickets and that ryokan stay in Nagano, or if you want to pay off your larger-than-normal credit card bill, HSBC Amanah Personal Financing-i can help take care of those extra expenses. You'll even be able to manage your finances in a more organised and stress-free way with its low flat annual rate starting from 10.5% and payment period of up to 7 years*, all while travelling the world and creating some unforgettable memories along the way.
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