It's the time to be merry

Festive Getaways

It's the time to be merry
Christmas and New Year are a special time of the year when old bonds are revived and cemented, and new ones forged. This is also the time to shed worldly cares and look ahead to a New Year brimming with hope and happy tidings.

And what better way to ring out the old and ring in the new than in a faraway land, with family and friends, where life can start afresh. Forget past disappointments and sorrows in the company of carol singers in Santa hats, catch snowflakes on your tongue or just gaze at a different landscape unscrolling outside your hotel window.

Across the world, the festive season signals parades, live music, carol concerts, festive menus in restaurants, buzzing nightlife and surprise visits by Santa on his sleigh. Whether you are happier clubbing, partying in the streets in an exhibition of joy, or prefer a chilled-out celebration, there are options galore... We give below a selection of the off-trail and iconic. So kick back and revel in the good life — eat, drink and be merry!

Double the fun in Taveuni, Fiji

If you would like to celebrate Xmas and New Year twice in the same year, head for the volcanic island of Taveuni in the Fijian archipelago. The minuscule outcrop in the South Pacific is one of the few land masses sliced by the 180 degree meridian and this is where the sun first rises on the planet. Yes, it is the first land mass to experience New Year across the world! Celebrate the event, then step across the line and you are back into 31st December and you get to bring in the New Year once more.

Technically, the International Date Line twists around the Fijian archipelago for convenience, though there was a time when the Date Line did not veer at all from the 180th Meridian and Taveuni experienced two days in one. Local lore has it that a Chinese store bestrode the date line and had two doors on each side. On Sundays, when Taveuni closed down, shoppers would be welcomed through the Saturday door!

 A deep channel in Millennium Park indicates where the date line runs through the island and that is where we, along with other tourists, posed for photographs for our footnote in history. But Taveuni is worth a visit, irrespective of its strategic location. The island is sparsely inhabited, moored on the edge of the archipelago in the north, and is a riot of tangled green, laced with tropical rainforests, highlands, coconut plantations and mangroves. It is encircled by some of the most glorious coral reefs in the world. The east coast is untamed and uninhabited, and much of it is a national park.

In Taveuni, and Fiji in general, Xmas and New Year are more than just about sedate waltzes in a luxury hotel or setting the dance floor afire in a night club. The serene notes of a Fijian choir waft on the cool breeze early Christmas morning while Santa arrives on a water sleigh. Xmas trees shimmer on swathes of white sand beaches...

New Year is generally ushered in with much fanfare by the locals and the handful of resorts with traditional Fijian dancing, bands, fireworks and the heady throb of local Lalli drums. It all ends with good-natured dunking in swimming pools as, for the Fijians, water is an integral part of New Year.

After the New Year celebrations are done, you can hoof up a mountain, stride through the steamy depths of a national park, gambol in a waterfall, snorkel, scuba dive... And then say “hello” to a new dawn with a tall drink at the water’s edge, watching the sun set on 2015 for the last time.

For more information, visit: www.fiji.travel & www.globaldestinations. in

Picturesque Paris

The world has been infatuated with Paris for centuries. Between Christmas and New Year, the city’s ineffably romantic air is intensified and infatuation turns to love as the city is at its photogenic best. Indeed Paris pulls out all the stops as though aware that its flamboyant beauty acquires an extra edge around Christmas and New Year.

The city’s majestic monuments are decked out in fairy lights, merry-go-rounds spin, skaters twirl on outdoor skating rinks and Christmas markets brim with joyous vitality as people mill around buying gifts, sipping mulled wine, and gorge on gastronomic goodies. Shop windows beckon with festive decorations and nativity scenes, and churches echo with melodious choirs and concerts.

New Year’s Eve in Paris can be glitzy and action-packed or as languorous as a hangover. As always, the very air is light and evanescent as a dream; the sky a delicate pastel blue, the sparkling facades of buildings and the spring in the step of chic Parisians reflect the city’s festive spirit. This is the time to embark on a dinner cruise on the Seine and gaze at the parade of lit monuments as they glide by even as you savour a gourmet meal. Or dine in one of the restaurants in the iconic Eiffel Tower, revelling in views of a city dressed to kill. Or book a table for two at a restaurant on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées and later join the heady countdown at the Arc de Triomphe even as fireworks stab the sky to welcome the New Year.

Some may like to top off New Year’s Eve with a multi-course dinner and cabaret show at the Lido, also located on the celebrated avenue, where the dazzling costumes, sets and energetic dancers set your pulse racing. Everywhere in Paris, nightlife is saucy with people kicking up their heels in anticipation of a New Year full of promise.

But for us, our favourite spot is by the Seine river which reflects the starry night sky, whispering to itself, timeless and all-knowing.

For more information, visit: www.rendezvousenfrance.com­­

Wow! Niagara Falls, Canada

The Niagara Falls may suffer from overkill, but when you actually see it, you can’t but exhale an ecstatic “wow!” Twelve million visitors head for the falls each year to feel the mist that trails across the gorge like plumes of smoke and hear the thunder as the magnificent cascade sprays you on its turbulent tumble into the gorge.

Niagara Falls is the name given to the three falls that straddle the international border between the US and Canada, foaming like an angry giant, frothing at the mouth. The American and the Bridal Veil Falls on the US side are the tallest while the vast wall of water that comprise the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side are awesome. We were on the Canadian side and hovered over the cataract in a chopper, and also did the Journey Behind the Falls, burrowing into the tunnels behind the thundering cascades. At night, when fireworks lit the skies in arabesques of light, we drifted past in a Hornblower Niagara Cruises boat!

But it is the falls’ winter avatar that even the most blasé will find irresistible. The mist and spray from the falls mingle with the cold drifting winds of winter and cloak ornamental walls, lampposts and trees while the edges of the cascades freeze into shimmering icicles as thin as a vampire’s fingers. The Winter Festival of Lights starts from early November and continues till end-January with tree and ground lights and 125 light displays illuminating the surrounding area like a surreal fairyland.

Fireworks, free outdoor events and live entertainment on New Year ring in the new and elbow out the old year with a festive bang.

For more information, visit: www.keepexploring.in

Holy Jerusalem, Israel

Christmas in Jerusalem, Israel, has a palpable air of magic. In this, perhaps one of the most sacred of world cities, the ancient stones seem to acquire tongues and speak to those who listen. The peals of church bells weave between the muezzin’s call to prayer from various mosques, and Orthodox Jews with swinging sidelocks stride around the city imparting to the scene the air of a period movie set.

Indeed Jerusalem is sacred to three world religions — Christianity, Judaism  and Islam — and so the city has, over the centuries, been loved and coveted, invaded and ravaged. It is thus steeped in a unique air of divinity which makes celebrating Christmas here a very special event.

It is believed that this is where Jesus Christ was crucified and entombed at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Millions of pilgrims bend and kiss the sacred slab of stone where He lay after He was brought down from the cross.

On Christmas, Jerusalem comes alive with carol concerts, Midnight Mass and moving church services. The giant Christmas tree that is set up close to the Old City’s New Gate blazes with light. Christians walk the Via Dolorosa, the route that Christ took on the way to the crucifixion, some bearing heavy crosses on their shoulders. The Mount of Olives (a 3,000-year-old Jewish cemetery), an hour’s drive away from the city, yields magnificent views of Jerusalem. Some devotees stop by Kidron Valley to pray at Virgin Mary’s tomb while the Garden of Gethsemane, at the foot of Mount of Olives, is where Jesus and his disciples gathered before his fateful crucifixion.

Bethlehem, in Palestine, where he was born, is not too far away, though not as easy to access as it once was. The Christmas Mass at Manger Square outside the Greek Orthodox Church is particularly moving as the air is taut with a vibrant sense of deep piety.

Looking for a break from religious fervour? There are bars in Jerusalem where you can party on both Christmas and New Year. The city has the air of a fantasy where visitors indulge in time travel and give their imagination free rein to fly back into a past perfect tense.

For more information, visit Tourism Israel at: www.goisrael.com

Lose yourself in Lucerne

The spirit of Christmas and the joy of welcoming the New Year sparkle in that most picturesque of Swiss cities — Lucerne in Central Switzerland.

The very Swiss city rises amidst a mystical landscape of mist and myth-wreathed mountains that cup a blue lake skimmed by boats and steamers that glide on the waters like giant swans. Medieval wood bridges hump over River Reuss and people-watching from sidewalk cafes is our favourite pastime.

Come December and the festive season, Lucerne’s ethereal good looks are further enhanced by fairy lights, giant Christmas trees, beautiful displays in show-offy stores and Christmas markets where the aroma of roasting chestnuts and mulled wine add to the sheer sensory overload. Near Lake Lucerne, an ice rink glistens where skaters spin and pirouette, revelling in views of the city and the cobalt-blue lake rimmed by snow-crusted mountains. Steam boats chug past, trailed by the sweet sound of carols that waft on the air like the soft breath of an angel.

And the event that kids wait for with bated breath is the Santa Claus Exodus when the genial Santa ho-hos out of the Hofkirche church bearing gifts and goodies for the little ones.

And there are 7-course Christmas and New Year dinners; champagne and morning-after breakfasts and live entertainment at the palace-hotels fronting Lucerne’s limpid lake.
For more information, visit: www.my-
switzerland.com

Costa Rica for fun in green

If celebrating Xmas and New Year in a green oasis of peace and plenty appeals to you, Costa Rica may just be the ticket. Mid-December to April is the best time to visit this sliver of a country bordered by the Pacific on one side and the Caribbean on the other. Wedged between Panama and Nicaragua, it is a glistening green swathe, more like an eco park than a modern 21st century country.

Foraying into a tangled rainforest, climbing wooded hills, standing on the brink of active volcanoes, chilling on pristine beaches are some of the highlights of a holiday in this nature’s ultimate domain.

Green is the dominant colour, we discovered, and it enfolded us wherever we went... in a cloud forest awash in the fragrance of wet earth. A cloud forest, we learnt, is a high altitude tropical forest in the mountains which has a perpetual cloud cover! So unspoilt and primeval is this country that it often sparks memories of Jurassic Park and of dinosaurs loping across rugged terrain. Indeed parts of Jurassic Park were shot in Costa Rica.

For those who like to have fun, Costa Rica does not disappoint. Beach resorts and towns rock as this is peak season and tourists like to party. However, if you would like solitude and the song of nature, rather than fireworks, head for some of the national parks, home to  the country’s unusual wildlife such as the magnificent harpy eagle, for instance, which can lift prey — weighing up to 22 kg, in its claws. We came across a family of raccoons, bandit mongoose-like rodents that resemble frowning old men, and heard the call of howler monkeys that is said to be louder than any machine or man-made sound.

Costa Rica throws up cameos of lush pastures where Jersey cows graze; wooded hills, fragrant coffee estates and flower farms that spray a bouquet of scents on the unpolluted air. The possibilities are endless in Costa Rica — gambol by a waterfall, stroll on a spun-sugar beach, sail into a mellow sunset... What a lovely way to welcome the New Year!

For more information, visit: www.graylinelatinamerica.com or www.visitcostarica.com

Go Goa

Goa may be the smallest state in India, but it is big on knowing how to have a good time. And celebrations start to peak as the countdown to Christmas and New Year begins. It’s a heady mix of tradition when families get together and stir in generous helpings of food, music, laughter and fun. The mood is contagious and it carries everyone, visitors included, in its wake.

Santa Claus with his white beard and red jumpsuit comes in all shapes and sizes and can be seen on almost every street corner... And more often than not, he has a good voice too, which he lends to guitar strumming carol singers who fill the air with notes of joy. Streets, shops, restaurants, bars, hotels and buildings are garlanded and draped with twinkling fairy lights. Stop to admire many Christmas trees and mangers that are all over the place.

Midnight mass celebrated in the quaint whitewashed churches that stud all the towns and villages across the state is a must. Just hum along and feel the good vibes if you don’t know the hymn the church choir is singing.

After the service, stop by a restaurant or at your hotel and join the revelry which carries on till the wee hours of the morning. Bite into a slice of fruit cake and sip a glass of wine as the locals do.

The roller-coaster ride stretches across the week and peaks on New Year’s Eve. It’s an event made to order for the party destination of the country. Street kids join in by burning effigies of the Old Man at midnight: symbolic of leaving the past behind and moving on to embrace the future.

The festive season officially ends on January 6, when three processions take place in three places across Goa in honour of the three wise men who had travelled to a simple manger in Bethlehem to pay their respects to Infant Jesus over 2,000 years ago.
For more information, vist www.goatourism.gov.in

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