Pack those bags
Jacqueline Tsang, Victoria Burrows, Graeme Nicolson
Christmas vacationers can generally be split into two groups - those who want a traditional white Christmas and those who go to the other extreme of sun, sand and sea. Whatever your climate preference, we have holiday suggestions that will take you to neighbouring countries or the farthest corners of the earth for an unforgettable Christmas abroad.
Singapore may not be the first destination that comes to mind when one thinks of a sun-and-sand Christmas getaway, but there is more to the small city-state than meets the eye.
For those looking for a quiet, romantic vacation this winter, the smallest nation in Southeast Asia is home to the island of Sentosa, a name that means 'peaceful' in Malay. In particular, couples looking for a quiet place to enjoy each other's company will find the tranquility and luxury they crave at Capella Singapore, a hotel that opened in March this year.
With lush rainforest surroundings and wild peacocks dotting the landscape, the hotel provides the perfect atmosphere for a romantic Christmas away from home.
'The Capella Singapore experience begins even as you drive up the winding path that leads to the hotel,' says hotel general manager Michael Luible. 'We want our guests to feel as if they're arriving at a destination where they may relax and hand over the reins to people who will take care of every detail for them.'
And relax they certainly can. Even the most basic rooms are fitted with a king-sized bed and a bedside touch-screen control panel for all the room's functions - from setting the room temperature to adjusting the blinds and curtains over the window that takes up the entire side of the suite. Guests may look out at the scenery from the sofa or enjoy the same view from the balcony or the jacuzzi in the open bathroom.
Boys who need their toys will enjoy the 46-inch flat screen LCD television with cable, and the iPod docking station, while those with a keen eye for aesthetics will appreciate the contemporary artwork and elegant decor in the suite.
Capella Singapore also offers a selection of villas and manors for their guests, and Luible recommends the villa for a couple on a romantic stay.
'The villa is nice and cosy - perfectly sized for two, while the manor is more suited to families,' he says. 'We will also be happy to provide special arrangements for guests to make their stay more memorable. This can be anything from setting up a moonlit dip in their private pool complete with champagne, to arranging for the hotel chef to come and cook a private meal just for them.'
When couples can bring themselves to leave the comfort of their abodes, the hotel has plenty to offer. The pool area allows guests to work on their tan among the leafy surroundings while lounging on pool beds, sized for two. The three tiers of sea-facing infinity pools are perfect for a lazy lap or two, but those who crave open waters may also take advantage of the three beaches on Sentosa Island.
For some vacation TLC, Auriga Spa offers treatments based on a special wellness philosophy. Spa director Elaine Shong says that the philosophy is based on the belief that the body is linked to the cycles of the moon. 'Treatments differ according to the status of the body at each moon phase,' she says. 'Each treatment is tailor-made to target problem areas during the time.'
Meanwhile, guests can choose between all-day dining restaurant The Knolls, Cassia (a Chinese restaurant designed by Hong Kong's very own Andre Fu) and Bob's Bar, which offers an outdoor area complete with lounging sofas and daybeds.
Capella Singapore is also well equipped for corporate meetings and events, with more than 24,500 sqft of indoor function space, and Luible says it is important for the hotel to focus on both the leisure and corporate elements.
'The hotel's philosophy is unique,' he says. 'We wanted to bridge the gap between big hotels with the expected infrastructure - a spa, ballroom, etc - and small boutique hotels with their memorable personal touches.'
Regarding these personal touches, Luible says the sky is the limit. 'Our goal is to do everything within our power to personalise your stay for you. If guests want to see Singapore, we'll take them out in style. If they want to stay in the hotel, we'll bring Singapore to them. At the end of the day, it's all about making memories.' Jacqueline Tsang
For antsy guests, here are a few suggestions for entertainment outside the hotel.
The Singapore Flyer offers an unparalleled 165-metre high panoramic view of Marina Bay and neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia. The 30-minute experience includes in-capsule commentary in English and Japanese. As the world's largest giant observation wheel, the Flyer is a must-see for tourists and locals alike.
If the weather isn't co-operating, take an indoor adventure at the Peranakan Museum, the first museum in the world devoted to Peranakan culture. 'Peranakan' refers to the descendants of Chinese immigrants who moved to Malacca and the coastal areas of Java and Sumatra dating back to the 14th century. The museum explores every aspect of the Peranakan way of life, from its origins and historical figures, to its wedding ceremonies and religious beliefs.
Singapore Airlines Hong Kong-Singapore round trip, economy class
Dec 10-22 - HK$2,500, Dec 23-28 - HK$2,900
Reservations 2520 2233
If romance does not blossom in Florence, it surely never will. So if there is a special someone you are looking to impress this festive season, a trip to this centuries-old city of red domes and Michelangelo's David is your best bet.
Florence was established by Julius Caesar in 59 BC, but the city particularly flourished during the Renaissance when art, culture and architecture, greatly supported by the Medici family, boomed. The city is now known as the Cradle of the Renaissance because of its historical monuments, churches and buildings.
No trip to Florence is complete without taking in a visit to the Duomo (the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore), which was begun in 1296 and completed structurally in 1436, the magnificent dome engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi. The Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), the much-photographed bridge that spans the River Arno in shades of warm yellows and cream, is another must-see, while the Boboli Gardens and Pitti Palace, which remain open throughout the year, make ideal places for starry-eyed couples to stroll hand in hand, or at this time of year, glove in glove.
For art-lovers, Florence is a dream. Standing in front of David for the first time, or seeing the detail in Botticelli's The Birth of Venus up close, are unforgettable moments. Primarily the Uffizi Gallery, but also numerous smaller galleries and private palaces, hold a wealth of artistic wonders that will keep the aesthetically interested occupied for days. The Piazza della Signoria, which is lined with cafes and restaurants perfect for soaking up the atmosphere of the city, contains another breathtaking masterpiece: Bartolomeo Ammanati's Fountain of Neptune, built between 1563 and 1565.
And for cosy evenings, visitors would be hard pressed to find another hotel that offers the same intimacy, sense of history and romance as Il Salviatino. This new hotel is a beautiful 15th century country villa that sits prettily on the treed hillside of Fiesola, 10 kilometres out of Florence. The view it offers from many of its rooms, particularly at sunset, is breathtaking, especially the sweeping vista of the spires of Florence. Fashionistas will also be impressed with the neighbours: the Ferragamo family villa.
Rooms at the hotel are individually sized and have been carefully designed to retain much of the aristocratic flavour of its original design and subsequent alterations in later centuries. Although steeped in history, the rooms have all the necessary mod cons such as plasma TVs and iPod docks. There are also greenhouse rooms and suites below the beautiful Italian gardens that have private, glass-covered porches and direct access to the villa's park.
The hotel has a Devarana spa on the property for warming up and soothing chilly extremities and legs tired from shopping and sightseeing. Meals at the hotel are another treat. Executive chef Saverio Sabaragli, who previously worked as chef de partie at three Michelin-starred Florentine restaurant Enoteca Pinchiorri, serves up a variety of dishes in the hotel's two restaurants: traditional Tuscan at La Terrazza which rests on a terrace in front of the hotel offering views over the city, and Italian with modern and European touches at Le Serre, in the secluded greenhouse area.
There are no direct flights between Hong Kong and Florence, but travellers can connect through many of Europe's major cities. For tourists wanting to extend their holiday, other parts of Tuscany, Italian cities further afield or other European cities can be accessed by car, bus, train or flight.
Until December 23, guests may take advantage of the 'Festive Magic of Florence' package, which consists of a one-night stay at Il Salviatino at the Salviati Suite Euro10,560++ (HK$121,800), Marcello Suite Euro5,660++, Ojetti Suite Euro4,960++ or the Affresco Suite Euro3,000++. Buffet breakfast is included.
For a one-night stay during Christmas, with buffet breakfast, the prices are as follows: Salviati Suite Euro12,060++, Marcello Suite Euro6,460++, Ojetti Suite Euro5,660++, Affresco Suite Euro3,000++. Victoria Burrows
COLD / NEAR
The kingdom of Bhutan is a paradise for travellers looking for a soulful escape from the grind of daily life. The only Vajrayana Buddhist nation in the world, it is a rippling land of towering, snow-capped mountains and green valleys dotted with villages and ancient temples.
This Himalayan kingdom, only a little bigger than Hainan Island, is bordered by the mainland to the north and India to the south, and is one of the most isolated nations on earth. Its pristine environment and peaceful people have earned it the name 'The Last Shangri-La'.
But while many tourists are drawn to the landscape, history and spirituality of Bhutan, it is also a modern democracy with a surprising list of world firsts, including the happiness barometer at the heart of governance - the Gross National Happiness indicator, which the government must take into account along with the Gross Domestic Product index when instituting any policies.
On television (which was introduced in 1999), international wrestling and MTV are banned, as are tobacco and plastic bags, as they were deemed to do little to promote happiness. The city council of Thimpu, the capital, also banned the advertising of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Bhutan is rated as a poor country in terms of average wages, but homeless people are non-existent and education and medical care are free for all citizens.
Strict environment laws that promote sustainability, and the preservation of cultural heritage, are high on the list of government priorities, which means tourists benefit from stunning, untouched scenery and well-kept temples awash with paintings and statues of deities in deep reds, blues, golds and greens. A highlight of any trip is a visit to the jaw-dropping 1,200-year-old Taktsang Lhakhang, or Tiger's Nest monastery, which hovers at an altitude of 3,000 metres against a cliff face.
Tourists are charged a minimum rate of US$250 a day for any visit to Bhutan (about US$100 goes to government taxes), and full itineraries need to be provided when applying for a visa. To take the hassle out of planning a trip to Bhutan, many of the upmarket resorts handle visa processing and offer a selection of organised trips and activities for guests.
Uma Paro, a serene and understated luxury resort nestled in the hills near Paro, offers a range of cultural, spiritual and wellness programmes, and more active trips that include guided walks and trekking, mountain biking, camping, and 4x4 tours, weather dependent. There are year-round yoga retreats that are led by visiting masters and supported by nutritional menus, and there is a spa specialising in Ayurvedic treatments.
The hotel can create special excursions to take in local festivals, come up with custom-made trips with private guides, and even arrange a marriage-blessing ceremony with monks at the nearby Kyichu Lhakhang, one of the oldest temples in Bhutan. This 7th century temple is surrounded by countless prayer wheels and has a magic orange tree that bears fruit all year round on its grounds.
Uma Paro guests have the choice of large, light-filled rooms, suites or villas which are all simply but elegantly kitted out in white, with touches of maroon, blue and charcoal, wooden floors and furniture. Villas come with woodburning stoves, a personal butler and private spa treatment areas.
Meals at the resort can be taken at Bukhari, which is housed in a circular pavilion set among tall pine trees and centred with a fireplace, or room service. New Zealander Jillene Slui cooks up a range of seasonal Indian, Bhutanese and Western meals, as well as dishes from the healthy COMO Shambhala menu.
For the festive period, Uma Paro is offering a five-night privately guided package, valid for stays from December 20 to 29, at rates that start from US$5,306 for two in a superior room.
There are no direct flights from Hong Kong to Paro, the only international airport in Bhutan, but flights with Druk Air leave from a variety of locations, primarily Kathmandu, Bangkok and Delhi. Winter is a good time to visit Bhutan as from November to February days are clear and the sky takes on an intense blue. But beware, the nights get cold. Victoria Burrows
The Cape of Storms transforms into the perfect place for a warm-weather Christmas vacation in summer. The first thing you notice as you fly into Cape Town is the flat-topped Table Mountain, with the city below nestled between the flanking hills of Lion's Head and Devil's Peak, and the Cape Peninsula stretching out into the dark-blue Atlantic Ocean.
Table Mountain at this time of year will be shrouded in the 'tablecloth', white cloud blown in by the south-easter, or 'Cape Doctor' as it is known for its ability to blow summer smog away. As an 18th century folk tale has it, the cloud is the result of a pipe-smoking competition between the Devil and a Dutchman named Jan van Hunks, whose prodigious smoking forced his wife to chase him out of the house to smoke on Devil's Peak, where he was challenged to a smoke-off by the cloven-hoofed one.
A trip up Table Mountain should be high on the list of things to do in Cape Town. The cable car with its revolving floor allows for magnificent views of Table Bay and Robben Island, the now defunct prison where former president Nelson Mandela was incarcerated as a political prisoner from 1964 to 1982. On a day when the mountain is not covered in its tablecloth, the summit is the ideal place to plan your adventures as it offers a panoramic view of the peninsula - all the way down to Cape Point on its southernmost tip, the Winelands to the east and north up the arid West Coast.
A trip to Robben Island is a sobering reminder of the country's turbulent past. Your guide is likely to be a former inmate of this desolate landmark, who will paint a vivid picture of what life was like in an apartheid-era political prison. A visit to Mandela's tiny, cold and bleak cell and the dazzling-white chalk quarry where he was forced to toil and which nearly blinded him, will leave one moved by his indomitable willpower and the great spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation he fostered upon regaining his freedom in 1990. On a less sobering note, a trip to the Winelands is a must for tasting and buying the fantastic selection of wine the Cape has to offer. Wine has been made in South Africa since 1659 and the first wine estate was established in the now-affluent suburb of Constantia on the south-east slopes of Table Mountain facing False Bay. There are four notable estates in the area - Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia, Buitenverwachting and Constantia Uitsig - where one can enjoy wines that are influenced by the cooling effect of the ocean breeze that contributes to a long, slow ripening period.
About 30 minutes drive from the city lie the major winemaking wards of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschhoek. A day trip to these picturesque historical towns can be a magical experience, best done by wine tasting in the morning followed by a picnic lunch under the oak trees on the wine estate lawn while enjoying a few glasses of your newfound favourite vintage.
This is an alfresco setting that would be perfect for a long, lazy Christmas lunch. Another option would be a seafood platter piled high with the freshest fish at a waterfront restaurant in Table Harbour's waterfront, or in the quaint fishing village of Kalk Bay. Or, yet again taking advantage of the dry-summer climate, try a picnic in Kirstenbosch Botanical gardens, or sip sundowners on Chapman's Peak Drive, which offers a magnificent view of the sun slowly setting into the sea.
Cape Town offers some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, a great place to spend New Year's Eve around a bonfire under the stars. For those who prefer a bit of nightclubbing to see the new year in, the City Centre, the Waterfront and Camps Bay will be 'jolling' (partying) all night.
Cape Town has a wide variety of accommodation: from backpacker hostels, a multitude of modestly priced bed-and-breakfast establishments, to luxury five-star hotels.
One of the best situated is the One&Only Cape Town. Touted as an 'urban chic waterfront resort with captivating views of Table Mountain and a private spa island', the One&Only lies in the heart of the dining and entertainment hub of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in the city's harbour. It features stunning views of Table Mountain, some of the best food in Africa served at two signature restaurants run by international celebrity chefs Nobuyuki Matsuhisa and Gordon Ramsay and an enormous three-story wine loft.
For an opportunity to sample some traditional fare and a taste of life in the huge and ever-growing informal settlements around the city, take a township tour with a stop-off for beer and braai (barbecue) at Mzoli's Place, an extremely popular meeting spot in Gugulethu, a 20-minutes drive from the city.
And of course, this Christmas, the city will be pulsating in anticipation of hosting next year's Soccer World Cup. If you are looking to party or just to unwind, Cape Town is the place to be this festive season. Graeme Nicolson