The world's best places
to spend the holidays

The world's best places
to spend the holidays

What are the world’s best places to spend the holidays? Blue Wings writers share sneak peeks into their favourite destinations.

 

Captions of this article

Like a local in Helsinki
Sand & Santa in the Caribbean
Beam me to Berlin
A neon Noel in Hong Kong
Wild winter break in the Florida Keys
Vancouver’s multicultural charm
A Canterbury carol

Like a local in Helsinki

I have always spent Christmas in Helsinki – even when I lived abroad for nine years. The Finns are very good at bringing out the best of the tradition. Perhaps it’s because winters are long and the holidays offer a perfect excuse to celebrate.

Candles are lit at Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall.

For me the holidays are about overall cosiness, the waft of sweet spices and lit candles. It’s like a big warm hug when it’s dark and cold outside. The thing I like most about Christmas in the Finnish capital is that despite the familiarity there is always something new and unexpected. That’s why the city is such a great host for friends and families wanting to enjoy the peace and quiet but with an added twist.

Admission to the sauna at Senate Square is free.

Apart from old-style activities it’s worth trying something a bit out of the ordinary – like skinny-dipping by candlelight. Yes that’s right, the grand old Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall organises a serene swimming session every year. Another fun event is the popular Christmas Sauna at the Bock House courtyard near Senate Square. Entry is free and the pop-up sauna has towels for those who just drop by.

Helsinki’s Christmas Market brims with festive spirit.

There are lots of friendly little cafés and shops to pop into within walking distance from the city centre. Try Café Kokko on Kalevankatu for tasty raw cakes and other Christmas treats and be inspired by the selection of vintage furniture and homeware at the Roomage store next to it.

Gift ideas from LOKAL concept store.

For imaginative gift ideas, visit the LOKAL concept shop on Annankatu for art, photography and design or one of the city’s many creative Christmas markets. The biggest one is held at the Cable Factory, where more than 150 local artists sell their handcrafted jewellery, accessories and homeware – a perfect way to get into the festive mood and experience the local way of life.

Text and photos by Laura Iisalo.

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.


Sand & Santa in the Caribbean

With 280 beaches, tons of tropical rainforest and temperatures hovering around 30 degrees Celsius, the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe may not seem like the ideal place to get into the Christmas mood.

The quaint archipelago of Les Saintes is known to be one of the most beautiful parts of Guadeloupe, a French overseas territory.

Yet it is, as I noticed last year during my first Christmas in the Caribbean. The people of “Gwada” absolutely love this time of the year, and will do anything to create a bit of winter magic in the middle of their eternal summer.

Santa came to visit tourists and locals at Hôtel Fleur d’Epée.

Already in late November, residents start decorating their houses with twinkling lights and in December you’ll see Christmas choirs performing in churches and at street markets. A few days before Christmas Eve I even witnessed Santa Claus arriving on a jet ski to the beach to hand out candy to the kids.

Victoriu Gosse, a Guadeloupe native, told me that the locals don’t hold back on their enthusiasm when it comes to celebrating their favourite holiday.

“Christmas is respected here,” he says. And the man should know: he organises Christmas karaoke parties for companies.

The Chanté Nwel Christmas concerts range from small gatherings to those attracting 10,000 people.

Group singing is indeed very much a part of Christmas celebrations in Guadeloupe. From December 1−25 the island is full of musical parties, called Chanté Nwel in the local Creole language. This translates to “Christmas singing.”

In these gatherings you will hear bands playing classic songs like ‘Silent Night’, but with an unusually fast beat – something resembling a double-speed reggae rhythm, or carnival-style soca music. The audience sings along from a paper programme.

I loved the catchiness of the tunes from the first time I heard them at the Chanté Nwel concert held in the town of Jarry. It was like a rock festival!

All in all Guadeloupe has way more Christmas spirit than I ever thought possible. “It’s a great fête, a great celebration,” Gosse says, with obvious island pride in his voice.

Text and photos by Mirva Lempiäinen.

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.


Beam me to Berlin

Whenever I crave a shot of urban counterculture, I pack my duffel bag and hop on the first flight to Berlin. Our half-German family visits the laidback metropolis at least once a year – if only to keep up with how fast the city keeps changing.

With or without the kids, December is the ideal month for a Berlin weekend break. Starting from the end of November through to Boxing Day, there are at least 60 Christmas markets scattered across the city catering to every imaginable taste, age and budget.

The ‘Christmas Magic’ market on Gendarmenmarkt is open through to New Year’s Eve.

Nothing says ‘Frohe Weihnachten’ quite like a steaming mug of Feuerzangenbowle (rum-laced flaming punch) under the magical floodlights of Charlottenburg Palace or beneath the stately domes of the French and German cathedrals at the Weihnachts-Zauber Market in Gendarmenmarkt Square.

Bohos in trendy Prenzlauer Berg meanwhile congregate at the Scandinavian-themed Lucia Christmas Market in the courtyard of Kulturbrauerei, a former brewery now housing an arts centre. The kids can enjoy the rides while the grown-ups nibble on sugar-coated almonds washed down with spicy mulled wine (Glühwein). All markets serve hot beverages in tacky souvenir mugs you can take home for a modest deposit – which explains the atrocious array of yuletide kitsch hidden deep in my kitchen cupboards.

When cuteness overload threatens, make a U-turn and head for Holy Shit Shopping at Kraftwerk Berlin, a power station-turned-techno club (December 12–13). In this industrial party temple you can shop for funky fashion and cool one-off gifts while listening to DJs spinning vinyl.

Love Christmas or hate it, ever-unpredictable Berlin – with its iconic historical sights, great eats, village-like atmosphere and intense party scene – is the holiday destination that won’t leave anyone cold.

Text and photos by Silja Kudel.

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.


A neon Noel in Hong Kong

I’ve travelled to many countries, but Hong Kong was my first foray into Asia − and what an introduction! I think it is quite simply the most exciting city I’ve visited, with its almost sci-fi landscape of sleek, ultra-modern towers, fluorescent walkways and banks of neon.

If Hong Kong wasn’t already one of the most exhilarating cities on the planet, at Christmas it goes into overdrive.

If you’re looking for a change from the usual cosy concoction of compact Christmas trees with their twinkling little lights, a cacophony of festive songs, a predictable platter of turkey and the rest, then immerse yourself in a neon Noel in this dazzling city.

Hong Kong’s light show dazzles even more brightly at Christmas.

This island of bright lights of every hue amongst an army of towering skyscrapers is often named one of the top destinations in the world to spend Christmas. The combination of holiday festivals and celebrations alongside the over-the-top decorations and festive atmosphere is guaranteed to make even the biggest humbug excited for the big day.

WinterFest, a series of events sponsored by the Hong Kong Tourism Board, is ever popular with both tourists and locals alike, with its variety of special Christmas displays and events. No wonder the American CNN TV network named it one of the top ten places to spend Christmas. WinterFest kicks off in early December and runs up until the New Year’s countdown on January 1st.

If that wasn’t enough, Disneyland hosts Christmas-themed entertainment, the Hong Kong Ballet stages festive fixture The Nutcracker, the Hong Kong Philharmonic performs selections of classic Christmas pieces, and major hotels and restaurants present gourmet Christmas dinners.

Add year-round ingredients like the all-night food halls, bustling markets − probably my favourite past-time here − and endless stores and galleries to browse, the double-decker trams and bright red taxis, and you’re guaranteed to pause not a moment, and to return home with your head spinning a riotous blur of colours.

Text by Ben West. Photo by iStock.

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.


Wild winter break in the Florida Keys

Locals of the Florida Keys told me the sea is too cold for swimming in December and January – but for someone craving a break from the chilly north, air and water temps in the low 20s Celsius range sound just about right. You might occasionally want a light jacket in the evening, but unlike the rest of Florida there’s never been a frost recorded here.

Roughly equidistant from Cuba and the Bahamas, the Keys are hardly remote – we got there in a 55-minute hop from Miami. While they’re much easier to access than the Caribbean, these 1,700 coral islands offer comparable natural gorgeousness along with a slightly wacky culture all their own.

Bahia Honda State Park boasts one of the Keys’ few long, sandy beaches.

In and out of the water, you can do whatever floats your boat. Our group of three families rented a large house on Big Pine Key, and there was plenty for everyone to do – from sandcastle building to extreme sports, art galleries, bookshops and seedy portside bars to some of North America’s best Cuban cuisine and seafood.

We also hiked the nature preserves, watched outdoor nature films at night, and strolled along the old Seven Mile Bridge, which Ernest Hemingway fondly wrote about. His eccentric mansion in Key West at the island chain’s southernmost tip is definitely worth checking out. With its freaky-toed cats, first-of-its-kind pool and lush gardens, the Hemingway House sums up the bohemian, nature-loving lifestyle of the Keys.

Key West, which is still a haven for writers, artists and rainbow culture, boasts a New Year’s Eve celebration unlike any other, wrapping up a month of festivities. It’s best to avoid the last week of December when everything is booked up and crowded. Before or after this, even downtown Key West is easy to navigate – especially by bike.

Text by Wif Stenger. Photo by Sinimaria Kangas.

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.


Vancouver’s multicultural charm

I have spent dozens of Christmases on Canada’s West Coast in Vancouver, the city I grew up in. Although I’ve not lived there for many years, I’ve often returned home for the holidays to visit friends and family.

In recent years I’ve developed a better appreciation and understanding of the city’s Asian character – more than 40 per cent of the population is of Asian origin – a fact that I took for granted while growing up.

Though not all Asians celebrate Christmas, the festive spirit is alive and well in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown, especially in the lead up to Chinese New Year (February 8 in 2016), which is more widely celebrated by the Asian community.

Regardless of the time of year, stop into Bao Bei brasserie on Keefer Street in Chinatown for a scrumptious mix of Shanghai, Taiwan and Vietnamese cuisines – their pot stickers, mouth-watering dumplings stuffed with finely minced pork or vegetables, come highly recommended.

During the festive season the Bright Nights festival lights up Stanley Park, which provides impressive views of the sea, mountains and city. Other family-friendly seasonal musts include the Circle Craft Christmas Market on Granville Island, where local artisans sell their ceramics, arts and crafts, jewellery and other unique creations.

Whistler-Blackcomb, one of the world’s top ski resorts, is only 125 km north of Vancouver.

First-time visitors are often surprised that it’s possible to sail and ski in Vancouver in the same day. For skiers, the North Shore Mountains are a 45-minute drive from the downtown core, and about 125 kilometres north along the Sea to Sky Highway lies Whistler Blackcomb, one of the world’s top ski resorts.

Text by Katja Pantzar. Photo by iStock.

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.


A Canterbury carol

When I was a teenager in south-east England I wrote poems for the school magazine. Included in this adolescent anthology was a piece called Christmas in Canterbury, describing the seasonal atmosphere of this historic English city. Surprisingly, much hasn’t changed in the intervening 40-odd years.

Christmas markets add to the atmosphere in Canterbury.

My poem starts from the platform on one of the Cathedral towers, overlooking frosty rooftops, and describes the bustle of the Christmas shoppers in the streets, the sound of carols played by Salvation Army bands, the haze of coffee bars. Canterbury was, and still is, the nearest big city to my home town and first choice for Christmas shopping in south-east Kent.

Perhaps the main difference is that these days Christmas seems to start almost as soon as the last one has finished, whereas in those days it felt like there was a decent intervening pause.

The older parts of Canterbury, clustered around the dominant Cathedral, retain their authentic historic character. Stone churches and city walls, timber-beamed pubs, houses with crazily-angled ancient doors and windows, and Roman roads all survive. But the Cathedral is the focal point, especially at Christmas.

This magnificent Gothic edifice is saturated in English history and the stairs that lead up to the shrine are worn into shiny waves by the processions of pilgrims and visitors over the centuries.

Stained glass windows in Canterbury Cathedral.

Christmas carol services are held in the Cathedral almost daily in December, while Christmas trees and a nativity scene complete the festive seasonal ambience. There are few better places to enjoy the essence of the English Christmas.

Text by Tim Bird. Photos by Tim Bird and iStock.

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.