Text and photos by Sabrina Sabbagh
Living in the Central Valley, we get off pretty easy when it comes to winter weather. You may feel the frost on the grass crunch under your feet in the morning, and if it’s been an extra cold night, there might even be some ice on your windshield just thick enough to require a scraper.
But let’s face it, none of us are shoveling snow and dreading outdoor activities like the rest of the country with the misfortune of not calling California home. I feel their pain, but I don’t want to live it. In fact, I encourage you to do as I do and take it a step further and skip our mild winter altogether.
Sure, it’s only really “cold” around here for a few weeks, but as a self-proclaimed sun worshiper and expert summer chaser, I say leave that ice scraper in the junk drawer and have yourself a sunny holiday season. I’ve had the pleasure of spending several winter holidays in tropical destinations, and if you’ve never seen a mall Santa at the beach in flip-flops, you’re truly missing out. I spent my first summer Christmas in Thailand back in 2014, and that’s when I fell in love with the idea of skipping winter. There is just something so satisfying about trading in eggnog and spiced wine for piña coladas and sangria.
Southeast Asia is for everyoneThe beauty of Southeast Asia is that it’s warm year-round, so even if you can’t make a late December or January trip happen, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines (to name some of my favorites) will be just as inviting come February and March. Southeast Asia is made up of 11 countries, and I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in almost all of them over the last few years. Based on accessibility, cost and a wide-reaching appeal across all demographics, Indonesia remains my No. 1 recommendation for pressing pause on winter.
Whether you’re planning to take a trip with friends, family, children or alone, the multiple islands that make up Indonesia have something for everyone. The most well-known and commonly visited is Bali, comprised of several sections catering to very diverse groups.
Kuta (the party zone): It’s centrally located and made up of resorts, bars and nightclubs targeting the 18- to 30-year-old crowd who want to party all night.
Seminyak (high end and chill): Located just above Kuta, it’s less crowded and offers a more low-key beach experience with high-end shops, bars and restaurants.
Canggu (surfing and expats): The up-and-coming surf spot is home to the majority of the island’s digital nomads, but also draws in families thanks to Splash Waterpark.
Nusa Dua (family friendly and all-inclusive): Known for its world-class luxury resorts, the area offers every water sport that you can imagine.
Ubud (romantic mountain paradise): More than an hour from the beach, Ubud is still one of the most visited parts of Bali and caters mostly to couples.
Pro tip: The size and stability of the boat always depends on the distance between islands, so waterproofing your luggage or downsizing to a backpack and leaving your valuables stored on the big island will make your trip much less stressful. Watching a slight framed man wading through chest-high ocean water with my laptop bag above his head is not an experience I would wish on anyone. Planning ahead is imperative!
Indonesia is high on my recommendation list because of how simple it is to island hop. From Bali, you can catch a boat to several other islands for a change of scenery. If you have time, I suggest checking out at least one of the following islands:
Nusa Lembongan (closest to Bali): Only a 30-minute speedboat ride from the east coast of Bali, it’s a must-see known for snorkeling, diving and chill beach vibes.
Gili Trawangan (a step back in time): After a few days in the city, escaping to an island where no mopeds or cars are allowed is just the way to decompress before heading back to the real world. Transportation is available via bicycle or horse-drawn carriage.
Pro tip: Take plenty of local currency with you to the islands. Some of the smaller islands don’t have any ATMs and the ones that do often run out of money or lose power.
Along with Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines are great warm-weather tropical destinations that are suitable for every travel type, from luxury to budget and solo to group trips. Here are my recommendations for each:
Even though Bali is incredibly affordable, Thailand caters even more to budget travelers. Bangkok is a must for your first trip to Thailand, but if you have time to branch out, I recommend doing some island hopping. Unlike the easy boat travel in Indonesia, traveling between islands in Thailand usually requires additional short flights.
Phuket (for explorers): There are dozens of deserted beaches and islands accessible only by speedboat.
Ko Samui (luxury rainforest): As one of the more expensive inter-island flights, Ko Samui caters to a high-end cosmopolitan crowd looking for a beach vacation with all of the comforts of home.
Koh Phangan (Full Moon Party): This is home of the infamous all-night Full Moon Party. If you want to avoid the party crowd, steer clear of Haad Rin.
With dozens of islands to visit, it’s impossible for me to recommend just one, but you can’t go wrong with looking into Boracay, the party island; Cebu, known for the famous Kawason Waterfall, the bright turquoise water you see on Instagram, and Oslob, where swimming with whale sharks has grown in popularity.
If long flights aren’t a deal breaker and you’re looking to do some adventuring, consider South Africa, Australia or New Zealand. Out of the three countries, I have a special love and appreciation for South Africa because I’ve spent the holidays there more than once and it’s just as incredible as the last, every time!
South African Safari. The No. 1 thing you absolutely have to do if you make it to South Africa is go on a safari. While the country’s cosmopolitan cities like Cape Town and Durban have a lot to offer, getting away from civilization and spending time in the bush is where the magic happens. Growing up learning about Africa from books and seeing big cats in captivity did not prepare me
for the first time a massive lion casually strolled past me as I was sitting in the back of a Jeep with no windows or roof. Seeing wild animals in their natural habitat is the kind of experience that stays with you forever.
South Africa offers several safari destinations, but the most famous for the big five (lion, leopard, black or white rhino, African elephant and Cape buffalo) is Kruger National Park and its surrounding territory. From Johannesburg, it’s just a short connecting flight to Nelspruit, gateway to the southern sector of Kruger Park.
I was so moved by my safari experiences that I began branching out to other nearby African countries to soak up as much wildlife as possible. While South Africa is the most popular safari destination,
I also had incredible excursions in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Pro tip: Not all big game preserves and exotic animal sanctuaries are created equal. Do some research on the tour company to make sure that it has a good track record for human safety
and animal treatment. This is especially important regarding elephant experiences.
If lions and tigers aren’t your thing, don’t forget about Australia and New Zealand, where December and January are the warmest months of the year.
Long flights not for you? No problem! For warm weather closer to home, Central and South America remain top of the list. Some of my favorite south-of-the-border warm weather spots are Panama and Costa Rica. Not only are they just a short flight away, they both offer a major bang for your buck when it comes to variety. Since both countries are long and narrow, you can easily spend time on the Pacific Ocean side and then drive across the country to experience the Caribbean side, which is a completely different vibe.
Pro tip: Rent a car and explore on your own. Costa Rica and Panama are small enough to cover a lot of ground in just a few days if you map your own route.
I traveled both places extensively on my own and never felt unsafe, even when I got lost and ended up in a tiny beach town that still isn’t on a map.