December Wanderlust

This year, I'm daydreaming about the perfect alternative to the North Pole-and-reindeer, shopping-mall Santa theme for the holidays. If you have the chance to go away over Christmas with someone special, try out one of my dream destinations and let me know how it goes!

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 

Rio is one place that's definitely calling my name - in December's gray sleet, I'm ready to pack a suitcase with my flip-flops and skimpiest bikini and head straight to the airport. Rio goes in for Christmas in a big way, brightening up the world's largest floating Christmas tree with over 3 million lights. After sunset, you can rent a swan boat and paddle it in the lagoon where the Christmas tree floats and listen to carolers while you sip cold caipirinhas (a Brazilian specialty, made with cachaça, sugar and lime). Christmas Day, everyone grabs their towels and sun lotion and heads to the brilliant Copacabana or Ipanema beaches to sleep off the night's festivities and celebrate the yuletide Brazilian style.

Salzburg, Austria

I have to admit that I'm still charmed by the snowflake-filled sparkle of a traditional northern Christmas. That's when I start looking at pictures of Salzburg, which reminds me of a perfect little fairyland inside a glass snow globe. Nestled between peaks of the northern Alps, this gorgeous medieval city comes alive with one of Europe's most famous outdoor Christmas markets.

Here, snowflakes drift down through the early evening as you stroll the market booths through a wonderland of twinkling lights. Choral singers on the cathedral steps and strolling musicians add to the magic. Curl your hands around a mug of Glühwein (hot spiced wine) while you browse through amazing handmade artisan gifts, ornaments and mouthwatering local street foods. (Gingerbread, waffles, sausages, sweet chestnuts... yum!) Afterwards, back at your hotel, stretch out beside a crackling fire, and let all your holiday dreams come alive.

Oaxaca, Mexico

The Night of the Radishes - who could resist that? In the arts-centered city of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, December 23rd finds master sculptors at work on the central square, carving giant radishes into complex Christmas scenes. That night, there's a contest to judge the very best creation, along with pageants, parades and posadas (a bit like family trick-or-treating) all throughout the city. Bursting with brilliant colors and lit with candle lanterns, Christmas in Oaxaca is a feast for every sense.

You'll find one-of-a-kind gifts if you take a tour out to a nearby craft village, where potters, weavers and wood carvers let you watch as they work in their studios. Explore the ancient ruins of the Zapotec culture at nearby Monte Alban, or take a cooking class and learn to make the traditional "mole" sauce, a savory mixture of over 20 ingredients, including peppers and bitter chocolate.

Taos, New Mexico, U.S.A.

So, I had to add an American city into the mix, because we have some pretty incredible holiday destinations right here. Taos combines its natural high desert beauty with a multicultural heritage to create an incredibly rich holiday experience. Picture a sprinkling of snow in the dry, clear mountain air (ski slopes are only a 20-minute drive away), and the fragrance of piñon pine from bonfires that line the central streets. Block parties and outdoor markets feature warm green chile posole, while the Jewish Festival of Lights starts everything off with hot chocolate and music.

The native residents of Taos Pueblo invite visitors to witness their sacred Deer Dance on Christmas Day, a complex tradition with ancient cultural roots. Meanwhile, Christmas processions take over the lantern-lit city streets, and the sound of singing is punctuated by ritual rifle fire and the thumping of drums.

Now I can't wait for the holidays; I've already got so many stars in my eyes that I can hardly concentrate on what's right in front of me today!

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