Eight epic destinations for last-minute winter sun

Open fires, hot chocolate and snowy walks paint a pretty picture, but let’s face it: sometimes, a sun-soaked change of scene is the only pick-me-up we really need during the cold winter months. Swap your scarves for your coolest shades as you make a break for these eight wonderful destinations, each offering a heady dose of last-minute winter sun near or far from home.

Madeira, Portugal. Image: iStock/aqualuso

Madeira, Portugal

An autonomous Portuguese archipelago off Africa’s northwest coast, Madeira is perhaps the ultimate away-from-it-all destination close to home, where cosmopolitan living, a vibrant nightlife, gorgeously dramatic greenery and endless sea views draw a more mature crowd. The island’s capital, Funchal, is home to the perfectly-landscaped Madeira Botanical Garden – visit here for a scenic stroll before swimming with dolphins or sailing out on a whale-watching expedition, which should help you work up an appetite for exotic papayas, bolo de caco breads and scabbardfish with bananas (all complemented, of course, with a glass of fine Madeira wine).

Chichén Itzá on the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Image: iStock/JoselgnacioSoto

Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico

Sea, sand and a heavy dose of sun are pretty much guaranteed during the winter months on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Here, head straight to the Riviera Maya, which is perhaps best known amongst water babies for its proximity to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef – the world’s second-largest and an exceptionally diverse natural attraction, home to over 500 fish species and 100 coral types. Tulum and Chichén Itzá’s impressive Mayan ruins make a classic contender for those with a thirst for history and archaeology, while the flooded caves of Sistemo Dos Ojos offer a thrilling and enigmatic experience in crystalline shades of blue.

Diamond Head and Honolulu, Hawaii. Image: iStock/Art Wager

Oahu, Hawaii, USA

Wonderfully warm year-round weather is a staple attraction in Hawaii, and the island of Oahu is your best bet for a crowd-pleasing getaway that mixes tropical beach idylls with historic colonial sites and rugged, heart-stopping landscapes. Hawaii’s capital Honolulu makes its home here, with the Diamond Head volcanic cone at its heart – work up a sweat on a hike along its popular trail, which leads up to a scenic viewpoint from where, on clear days, the panoramic vistas are unforgettable. History buffs can plan a sobering visit to the iconic USS Arizona Memorial, while surfers should trek to Haleiwa and Mokuleia on Oahu’s northern shores.

Seville, Spain. Image: iStock/spooh

Andalucia, Spain

For an active escape combining snow-capped mountains with warmer climes, take to the lush landscape of Andalucia in southern Spain, where the Sierra Nevada National Park and Los Alcornocales hold the region’s most magnificent walking trails – explore deep gorges and venture across hanging bridges on the Cahorros walk at the former, or birdwatch en route from Los Barrios to Facinas at the latter. Leisure travellers will find their slice of heaven in Seville, Andalucia’s picture-postcard capital where Plaza de España is a great example of grand neo-Moorish architecture, and the Real Alcázar palace appears straight out of a film set (you may even recognise it from 1960s classic, Lawrence of Arabia). Architecture aficionados should also make a beeline for Granada, where the Alhambra Palace quite clearly steals the show.

Phuket, Thailand. Image: iStock/Kapook2981

Phuket, Thailand

With a dry season running from December through to April, Phuket is a fail-safe destination for all sun-thirsting travellers – whether you’re an intrepid backpacker on the path of adventure, or an upscale and worry-free resort holidaymaker. As Thailand’s largest island, you’ll always find ways to keep on your feet here, whether you’re exploring Patong’s neon-lit nightlife, digging your toes into soft sands on one of more than 30 beaches, or getting your sea legs into motion with an excursion to the Phi Phi Islands.

Nafplio, Greece. Image: iStock/Starcevic

Peloponnese, Greece

As Greek island life settles down for the winter, set your sights on the Peloponnese, a peninsula on the mainland known for its rich archaeological heritage. The fortified Byzantine town of Mystras in Laconia is particularly enchanting, while the ancient Great Theatre of Epidaurus is an unmissable landmark of epic proportions, that perfectly showcases classical Greek architecture. Try the seaport town of Nafplio for coastal climes coupled with plenty of Venetian-style charm, or take a walk along Kalamata’s coastline to gaze out at a divine sky-meets-sea setting. Wherever you choose, prepare your taste buds for a feast of flavours that include southern Greek olive oil, lemon, lamb, fish and honey – goat stew is a popular and warming dish in the winter time, best sampled with a glass of wine in a cosy taverna.

Saint Lucia, Caribbean. Image: iStock/Wildroze

Saint Lucia, Caribbean

A far-flung destination of dreams, this Caribbean country offers the complete package – from its soaring peaks down to its volcanic beaches and colourful coral reefs adored by scuba divers. Edmund Forest Reserve is a must-visit for visitors seeking out exotic birdlife (you’ll likely spot the Saint Lucia parrot’s bright green plumage soar across the sky on your way), while the Toraille Falls in the Soufriere district offer a fantastic gushing display (you could even swap hiking gear for swimsuits here and take the plunge). For somewhere to kick back, Marigot Bay is a picturesque, TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence-awarded location known for lending a lush backdrop to many a Hollywood film.

Essaouira, Morocco. Image: iStock/numbeos

Essaouira, Morocco

Swap Morocco’s much-loved capital for a coastal retreat to Essaouira, an Atlantic Ocean-facing port city most notable for its seafront ramparts, which date back to the 18th century. The perfect destination for short-haul seekers, it puts a laid-back spin on a visit to this grand Kingdom, and serves up plenty of grilled fish, Game of Thrones-like settings and famous winter swells for surfers. If you’re after a spot of shopping, the hustle and bustle of the medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is never too far away – here, stock up on hand-painted ceramics, bright leather slippers, and shiny tajines to help you whip up a traditional seafood feast back home.

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