Travel Tips

Seven Unexpected Holiday Travel Destinations

Locations in this article:  San Francisco, CA
Image Credit: Theophilos Papadopoulos

Image Credit: Theophilos Papadopoulos

Looking for some unique ways to celebrate Christmas this year? For this month’s Window Seat or Aisle Seat column, family travel expert Kerri Zane found seven holiday travel destinations with unique traditions in which the whole family can participate. 

A trip to grandmother’s house for Christmas is predictable. Taking the family on a bucket list journey for the holiday season is not. Here are seven of the most unique spots for you and your family to travel for some unexpected comfort and joy.

1. Ecuador

On December 24, Ecuador hosts the Pase del Niño in Cuenca. The whole family will be delighted by the many displays at the concurso de nacimientos (nativity scene contest) held at the San Francisco Convent. Check out how everyone dresses baby Jesus in different costumes.

Then stay for the Años Viejos New Years Eve celebration, which is not done anywhere else in Latin America. Locals make big dolls and burn them to welcome in the New Year (you generally burn someone you don’t like—politicians are very popular), and the widows mourn the old year (the doll you will burn) and beg money for the funeral service throughout the streets. The widows are actually men dressed as women and they do funny dances or little shows to get people’s attention.

There is also a parade on the 30th or 31st with huge celebrations on Amazonas Avenue. All these events are free and open to the public. In Quito, you can stay at the locally-owned Hotel Sebastian or the JW Marriott. In Cuenca I’d recommend Hotel Oro Verde or Posada del Angel. JW Marriott, Oro Verde and Sebastian have connecting rooms, great to keep your entire family connected 24/7.

2. Vietnam

Christmas in Vietnam is truly a unique experience. You will find the streets lined with decorations, good local holiday cuisine, and will enjoy ideal daytime temperatures. On Christmas Eve, the entire city comes alive with fireworks, live music, and confetti, while the residents drive around on motorbikes with children dressed up in Santa suits.

For a midnight mass beyond compare, visit the Notre Dame Cathedral in Saigon. As long as you’ve brought grandma and grandpa along for the trip, let them babysit one evening and take a nighttime Vespa tour. You’ll be treated to a glimpse of local culture in bustling Saigon after dark, and dinner is included.

You can visit the wholesale market and Buddhist Pagodas with coiled incense. Take in a bit of history and visit the Mekong Delta or the Cu Chi Tunnels to see how the Viet Minh won the war.

3. Greece

Image Credit: Rodohori Komnini Cultural Association

Image Credit: Rodohori Komnini Cultural Association

A truly unusual Dionysian celebration held during Christmas, which is still alive and well in Greece today, is the Momogeri. The Momogeri is a custom celebrated in Eastern Macedonia, and dates back to ancient times. Throughout the 12 days from Christmas to the Epiphany, men dress up in a variety of costumes and rove through the town performing.

Drama, the city that hosts this celebration, also has an event known as Dream City  or Oniroupoli. You and your family can participate in a variety of activities such as face painting in the elves’ workshop, lessons in baking traditional Greek Christmas cookies like honey-dipped melomakarouna, taking a ride on a miniature train, visiting Santa Claus at his very own house, and much more.

This year, Dream City festivities will run from December 4, 2014 through January 4, 2015. There are a couple of hotel options for you to explore, including the Hotel Grand Chalet in the village of Granitis (32km from the city of Drama), the Philippeio Hotel in the town of Krinides (19km from the city of Drama), and the Egnatia Hotel & Spa in Kavala (30.6km from Drama). Or, without a doubt, the most spectacular of all is the Imaret hotel (32km from Drama).

4. Spain

You can still have your traditional Christmas at Grandma’s and then travel to Spain for a unique holiday experience. In the medieval village of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, Christmas gift giving occurs on January 6 (the Epiphany) when the three kings of orient visited the manger in Bethlehem bearing gifts. On the night of January 5, the village turns into an outdoor living theater with reenactments of various scenes culminating in the three kings of orient arriving on camelback. The characters are played by locals, including baby Jesus, who is a live baby born the previous year in the village. The village is lit with torches, and families come to watch the whole event. Afterward, children visit the three kings in the hopes of receiving gifts the next morning as well.

Explore the notion of staying in one of the hotels in Spain’s historic hotel network. There is the four-star Parador de Santallana Gil Blas located in a 15th century mansion right on the main town square where the celebration culminates. The other, called Parador de Santillana, is a three-star establishment built in a traditional style. You could try Hotel Altamira or the Posada La Solana, which overlooks the village.

5. Bali

On December 24, the fun for your family begins with cupcake and gingerbread men decorating at the Uma Hotel by COMO, Ubud, in Bali. In contrast to the frosty comings and goings of a traditional Christmas, you and your family can explore the lush countryside on bikes, trekking, or with a guided walk. Certified surfing instructors will teach you how to surf, and you can go river rafting in the Ayung River.

Since Bali is located inside the famous Coral Triangle, you can partake in a SCUBA diving excursion. Additionally, Ubud is big on healing and spirituality, so you can enjoy daily yoga classes, or take a trip to one of the many temples.

If you choose to stay for New Year’s Eve, there is a six-course gala dinner, followed by a White Party at three different venues within the hotel. There are cocktails or mocktails for the whole family, plus live music and kite decorating.

6. Bhutan

For a true counter-culture experience, take your family to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. There are two all-villa resorts hosting holiday events, the Uma Hotel by COMO, Paro and the Uma Hotel by COMO, Punakha. There you can learn how to make authentic Bhutanese cuisine, decorate Christmas cookies, roast marshmallows by the fire, and hike through the country’s forests.

Additionally, there are many outdoor activities for your family to enjoy, including rafting, archery, fishing, golfing, horseback riding, and mountain biking. Plus Bhutan is a cultural and historic mecca with many museums, monasteries, temples, and dzongs to explore.

7. Mexico

Tlalpujahua is one of the eight Magic Towns in the state of Michoacan. In this tiny enclave, thousands of glass-blown Christmas ornaments are produced throughout the year. From October to December, the municipal auditorium holds the Christmas Ball Fair, which displays Christmas decorations of all shapes, colors, and designs.

Your next stop should be La Casa de Santa Claus, (Santa Claus’s House), which is a shop with more Christmas decorations. On the third floor of the same building is the La Terraza Restaurant, where you can scan the whole city. You can also tour the old mine, Mina Las Dos Estrellas, and see mining factories which were once the hub of business for the town.

Then, take a horseback ride, quad, or boat trip at Brockman Dam. Stay at the Hotel Mansion San Antonio, which is fairly new and centrally located to all activities.

For more holiday events and activities, check out:

By Kerri Zane for Kerri Zane is a family travel expert and author of It Takes All 5: A Single Mom’s Guide to Finding the REAL One, on sale now. For more advice on health, parenting or Kerri’s exclusive MomEscapes, visit her at