Winning tip: A zen Christmas with disco karaoke, Japan
One Christmas, I went to a zen meditation retreat in Oita, on the southernmost Kyushu island, because I was feeling very burned out. The meditation retreat, as you would imagine, was pretty relaxed and the resident monk and I got along very well. Oita is famous for its fugu – the poisonous puffer fish – and for Christmas dinner, I took the only other person at the retreat and the monk into the city for a fugu feast. After a visit to a karaoke bar where we sang I Will Survive, the three of us rounded our Christmas off at a whisky bar before riding the train back to the temple to meditate before bed. Best Christmas ever!
Festive fireworks on the beach, Bangkok
In Bangkok over Christmas, we decided to head to the island of Ko Chang. A five-hour drive was livened up by the karaoke machine in the back of the taxi. Our hotel’s attempt at roast turkey – served beachside – was not a great success. Fireworks and dancing at the Sabay Bar on White Sand beach that night were more like it. And splashing out on a speedboat back to the mainland on Boxing Day was a fun end to the trip.
The belénes of Granada, Spain
Arriving late by bus, still wearing ski gear, we trundled our cabin bags over the cobbles in search of our rented apartment in the heart of medieval Granada. It was Christmas Eve. Everyone was out: drinking cava, sharing tapas or queuing to see the belénes, the nativity scenes set up in all the plazas. We went to midnight mass in the Cathedral, and on Christmas morning, climbed up to the viewpoint at the Albaicín, the old Moorish quarter. From there, the Alhambra looked sublime against its backdrop of snow-capped peaks, the same mountains we had skied down just the day before.
Romance on the 102nd floor, New York
New York, 2009. Baggage handlers kindly mislaid our luggage, making our engagement more problematic than I’d have liked, but the snow and the scenery and the gasp of “really?” when I popped the question atop the Empire State Building on Christmas morning, followed by a Christmas dinner of burgers in the Diamond District, more than made up for it. There really is no other place like it, certainly not at Christmas. Visiting the Plaza, Radio City Music Hall, taking a horse ride through Central Park – they all sound like cliches but were simply magical moments we’d recommend everyone experience. We spent a lot on phone calls to the airline, but who cares?
A bushveld feast, South Africa
We had a family holiday at Shimuweni, a remote bushveld camp down a small dirt track in the Kruger national park, self-catering. After a day of drizzle we spent an hour trying to extract ourselves from the mud before sundown. No Christmas dinner has ever been quite such fun as a spatchcocked chicken masquerading as a turkey, green peppers (the only greens in the camp shop) as sprouts, baked potatoes cooked direct in the embers and some barbecued pineapple for pudding. Having hidden tinsel and a few tiny gifts in our hand luggage the whole trip, pulling them out to my parents’ utter surprise was entirely worth it.
Retreading the missionary path, India
For Christmas in 2016, my family and I went on a trip to southern India to see where my mum spent six years of her childhood in the 60s when her dad was a missionary. It was a fascinating trip and surprisingly Christmassy in a weird and wonderful way – a whole cooked turkey with the head and neck still on, anyone? At the Christmas Day church service Mum bumped into a friend who she used to play with when she was a child, and we swam in the sea at Kovalam beach just as she did with her family all those years ago.
A wondrous walk, Jordan
Our twist on Christmas was set in Jordan and began with a sleepless night on Christmas Eve in a wind-battered tent – although “tent” was a loose term for the patchy tarpaulins we used for shelter, and a structural collapse occurred at 3am. Despite the mishaps, Christmas morning began in style with a sip of prosecco and a bite of Mum’s homemade Christmas cake for all. Once clad in festive antlers, we set off on a walk through the mountains to the majestic monastery in Petra. Festive greetings from home and an unusual Christmas dinner, consisting of a cucumber, an orange and flatbread, rounded off a brilliant Christmas Day in one of the wonders of the world.
An alternative white Christmas, Bolivia
My most unusual Christmas Day was on the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia – white, but salt, not snow. We visited the Salt Hotel, then drove over packed salt to walk on a island with weird cactuses everywhere. Then it was on to a very basic hostel – no electricity (cold showers) and unisex dorms with cast-iron bunk beds – for a dinner of spag bol reheated over a gas cylinder burner and carols by candlelight. After a short night, Boxing Day saw us visiting the amazing Sol de Mañana geysers before heading to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, which was like a wild west film set.
Viennese whirlwind, Austria
With no plans on Christmas morning we searched for an impromptu mini-break and chose three nights in Vienna, departing Stansted at 8pm. No traffic, no queues, last train into the city, and a taxi around the Ringstrasse – illuminated golden bright on a silent night – for chocolate in bed as the clock struck midnight. Cafe Hawelka, Wiener wurst, Christmas markets, ice skating, Belvedere Museum Klimts, the ferris wheel at Prater, feeling giggly after gluhwein, looking for the Third Man aboard a clanking tram … Vienna simply dazzles at Christmas. Sometimes the unexpected presents are the best.
Mastering the haka, New Zealand
Taking part in a local haka contest – and winning it – on Christmas Day on a New Zealand beach was the last thing I expected to do during my backpacking trip around the world. While sunbathing on Piha beach near Lion Rock, just outside Auckland, I was invited to learn the ceremonial dance so decided to go for it along with several other tourists. My terrific trainer, Ari (whose name apparently means Lion of God), should take all the credit for my prize – a large live sheep and a Māori tattoo on my shoulder. Strictly Come Dancing it certainly wasn’t, but a Christmas with a difference it sure was.