- Written by: Maxine Clarke
Escaping to warmer climes is always a tempting option once December comes around. Our top 20 winter sun destinations 2016 will help you find a suitably toasty holiday for a very Merry Christmas, New Year and beyond.
1. Tenerife, Canary Islands
Photo credit: Mountain Leon
The 'Island of Eternal Spring' loses none of its spring during the winter months with temperatures in the 20's throughout the northern European winter. The Canaries have always been popular with British tourists whatever the time of year, and are well set-up for keeping us entertained. There are all the usual watersports, beach activities and water parks to enjoy, great restaurants serving up delicious fresh seafood, along with some genuine Canarian culture in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the island capital with an authentic Spanish feel, and characterful La Laguna. This volcanic island is home to Pico del Teide, the tallest mountain in Spain.
If you’re a bit of a night owl, Tenerife is the party capital of the Canary Islands, particularly in the large southern beach resorts. An added bonus is the island's proximity to Morocco, with its own sunny spots like Marrakech, Tangier and Casablanca.
2. Muscat, Oman
Muscat is one of the lesser known winter sun destinations but is fast becoming a popular alternative for a winter getaway. Unlike its more illustrious neighbours Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Muscat combines the authentic Middle Eastern experience with stunning architecture, and a unique location between rugged mountains and the welcoming waters of the Gulf of Oman.
The white low-slung buildings and the sparse architecture is refreshingly light; buildings like the Royal Opera House Muscat and the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque are aesthetic perfection; and when you're done taking in city sights, there are public beaches galore to enjoy.
3. Valletta, Malta
Malta is a Mediterranean archipelago set between Sicily and the North African coast with a mild winter, low rainfall and five or six hours of sunshine every day during the chilliest season.
The country has a turbulent and colourful history, ruled by a series of occupiers with the prehistoric remains, fortresses, temples, burial chambers and eclectic Mediterranean cuisine to prove it. The ancient city of Valletta - known by its nickname Superbissima (most proud) - is more than just another place to weather-out winter. Delve into the capital’s historic connection with the Knights of Malta who constructed the first building in the city - the Church Of Our Lady of Victories. Another church built by the Knights worth visiting is St John's Co-Cathedral, which houses the famous painting The Beheading of St John the Baptist - a Caravaggio original.
When you’re ready to relax in the sun, head for a sheltered bay with pristine water, a harbour-side eatery or perhaps a spot of snorkelling to uncover the hidden subterranean caves and wrecks.
4. Fernando de Noronha, Brazil
Fernando de Noronha, off the north-east coast of Brazil, is a volcanic archipelago still relatively unknown to most international travellers. The tropical climate, with a dry season falling nicely between August and January, makes it ideal for those in search of winter sun.
The islands are a protected marine park and UNESCO World Heritage Site with strict measures in place including an environmental tax and limiting visitor numbers to hundreds at a time. The lucky few can take advantage of excellent scuba diving and snorkelling, and may even get to frolic with sea turtles, rays, dolphins and reef sharks.
Regularly topping lists of Brazil's best beaches; Fernando de Noronha’s number one is Baia do Sancho (or Praia do Sancho), reached by a cliffside ladder. Now that’s an exclusive and adrenaline-fuelled holiday experience!
5. Cape Town, South Africa
Breathtakingly beautiful, Cape Town offers around 11 hours of sunshine every day during our winter, along with world class travel facilities and a big African adventure.
Cape Town itself is a cool cultural melting pot on the whole. Check out Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, Boulders Beach, the Cape of Good Hope, Table Mountain Aerial Cableway and National Park, and the top shopping and entertainment. Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years, is just a few kilometres from the Cape Town coast.
Thrill-seekers can throw themselves into anything from hiking, bungee jumping, scuba and shark diving to treetop canopy tours, surfing and mountain biking. You can even abseil off the mighty Table Mountain if the mood takes you. For some quieter activity, drive the dramatic Garden Route, indulge in wine tasting in Frranschoek or Stellenbosch, or see the big five in the comfort of their own homes.
6. Praia, Cape Verde
Praia means beach in Portuguese, which is great news when you’re looking for a top winter sun destination. The country’s capital, Praia, is on the island of Santiago - 300 miles off the coast of northwest Africa - ensuring a steady supply of heat, cloudless skies and sunshine. The temperature never drops below 19°C, with a Saharan breeze kindly cooling the air during the hottest seasons.
Cape Verde is a heady mix of Portuguese, Brazilian and African cultures, with Praia predominantly African in feel. Here the laid-back lifestyle and friendliness of the locals is genuine: morabeza or hospitality is a big thing. If it’s activity you want, there’s always a spectacular hiking trail to tackle, an awesome beach to visit and diving, surfing and kitesurfing in the windswept Atlantic waters.
The nearby town of Cidade Velha (a former capital and UNESCO Heritage Site) is a lovely way to pass an afternoon. The small town was once Portugal's wealthiest colonial possession during the slave trade; what remains now is almost completely frozen in time.
7. Miami, USA
This town is undoubtedly hot, with its tropical climate, A-list nightlife, Latin and Caribbean culture and super-stylish Art Deco architecture. It’s also got more than its fair share of top-notch hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and boutiques.
The party never stops on the sandy beaches of Miami and neither does the good weather. Party central is the famous South Beach and when the sun goes down, Washington Avenue is a hot spot - but be warned that Miami clubs are notoriously expensive and difficult to get into without some forward-planning. Have a word with a knowledgeable doorman or concierge for insider tips.
If you’re looking for more than a good night out and shopping on your winter sun holiday, get stuck into the wide-ranging sports available from snorkelling, scuba diving and sailing to deep-sea fishing and tennis. To venture out of the city, head for the Everglades and Florida Keys.
8. Saba, Caribbean
The Caribbean islands are a staple for sun-worshippers seeking out winter sun, but it has become increasingly difficult to find anything new or authentic in the area. Most of the islands have become highly-developed and polished tourist centres. Saba is one of the Caribbean's best kept secrets and will suit those looking for some adventure without the commercial gloss.
The island's infrastructure is sparse - it has only one road, appropriately named 'the road' - and the 1800's architecture is a welcome antidote to busy city life. Without a beach to boast of, the island is more renowned for its diving spots, eco-tourism and hiking trails. The geography of the island is mountainous, offering challenging trails and rewarding views. If you prefer the hilltop vista to beach-side lounging you will love this island.
9. Goa, India
Goa is the warmest place you'll find in the northern hemisphere during winter, with average daily temperatures of around 30°C. The bohemian beach paradise is unlike anything else on the subcontinent, having formerly been a Portuguese colony in contrast to the rest of India with its British colonial past. December is its busiest time with the feast of St. Francis Xavier featuring heavily; the event commemorates the Portuguese missionary who brought Catholicism to this part of the world.
The narrow streets of the Old Portuguese Quarter of Panaji (the small, relaxed capital of Goa state) are worth a day of sightseeing: don't miss Kala Academy - the home of Goan art and culture. Of course, the highlight of any Goan getaway is mile upon mile of glorious beach. Honeymooners love Mandrem, hedonists head for Baga, and Cavelossim suits those who want to avoid the crowds. With 103km of stunning coastline you’ll be spoilt for choice.
10. Fraser Island, Australia
A fantastic winter sun destination with a sub-tropical climate, Fraser Island is exceptionally beautiful. It’s World Heritage-listed and protected, due to a number of unique features and rare or endangered species. At 120km in length and positioned off the Queensland coast, this is the largest sand island on the planet.
It’s also the only place in the world where tall rainforests grow on sand dunes. The Cathedrals (cliffs with sculpted ribbons of coloured sand) are of ecological significance too. The Great Sandy Strait which separates the island from mainland Oz is a protected wetland area and home to mangrove colonies, sea-grass beds, thousands of migratory shorebirds and vulnerable creatures such as turtles and dugongs.
There are only a few places to stay on Fraser Island, including a purpose-built eco resort with a full range of luxury hotel facilities as well as a programme of eco-led activities. You may simply want to enjoy the panoramic, pure white sands and swimming at Lake McKenzie, Lake Wabby or one of the 100 other freshwater lakes on this paradise isle.
11. The Maldives
A classic winter sun holiday destination, the Maldives are made for pure relaxation. This collection of hundreds of islands and 26 coral atolls in the Indian Ocean couldn’t be more pristine, with perfect stretches of pure white sands and sapphire seas as far as the eye can see.
The capital is lively Malé with a bustling fish market, shops and restaurants, and the 17th-century coral Hukuru Miskiy (Old Friday Mosque).
Accommodation is generally luxurious, but in recent years has opened up more to independent travellers. Most visitors want to make the most of exploring the phenomenal blue lagoons and reefs, whether by boat, snorkel or scuba gear. Some get comfy in their resort and don’t move for two weeks. The choice is entirely yours.
12. Koh Samui, Thailand
Back in the day Ko Samui was backpacker-central, complete with bargain huts on the beach. These days, the idyllic Thai island attracts a much more upscale crowd, although budget travellers still come here and the nightlife remains raucous. If you dig a little, you can find authentic Samui life chugging along in the background too.
Ko Samui’s main draw as a winter sunshine destination is its palm-fringed beaches, luxury resorts, sumptuous spas and the very pleasant southeast Asian weather. Holidaymakers are also keen on the dense and mountainous rainforest, coconut groves and Big Buddha - an impressive 12m golden statue at Wat Phra Yai temple.
13. Baja California, Mexico
This lengthy Mexican peninsula begins at the edge of the US state of California and is home to legendary border party town, Tijuana. There’s more to Baja California than boozy border revelry though, with the Ruta del Vino in Northern Baja steadily becoming an award-winning wine region; a huge choice of pretty and individual Mexican towns to discover; and the awesome Pacific coast.
Winter sun lovers lap up the top rate beach resorts, many in Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo, and heavenly seafood. Here you can escape the dull British winter and take in the mountains, canyons, surf, soaring condors and big starry night sky.
14. Costa del Sol, Spain
Spain has always been one of the most attractive winter sun destinations for Northern Europeans. With its relatively short flight time, reasonable costs and pleasant climate, the Costa del Sol on the south coast has a lot to offer the off-season traveller.
There’s a never-ending choice of accommodation, from budget apartments to upmarket hotels and luxury villas. It’s a golfer’s heaven, providing top-rated courses on the coast and inland that can be played all year round. If the thought of Brits abroad playing golf fills you with horror, do not fear, authentic Spanish culture thrives in the region too. This is Andalusia, after all. Away from the tourist hangouts, there’s the tempting local food for starters.
You’ll find a programme of cultural events across the region’s concert halls, theatres, galleries and museums; and historic sites including the Roman Theatre in Malaga, the Tajo of Ronda and the Arab Castle of Vélez-Málaga.
15. Bora Bora
Mmmm, another paradise island! This one is tiny, a French Polynesian isle in the South Pacific. You know the drill: a turquoise lagoon, coral reef, rainforest-tipped peaks, luxury spa resorts and more quality snorkelling and scuba diving than you know what to do with. There’s also a large dormant volcano at the heart of Bora Bora.
This is a tranquil winter sun destination, so sit back and let the mesmerising views wash over you. The hiking and parasailing can wait.
16. Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was formerly known, is finally becoming the holiday destination it has always had the potential to be. An island nation south of India in the Indian Ocean, this is a sparkling little gem now ready to be discovered. And it’s still pretty affordable and unspoilt.
With more than 2,000 years of history, ancient sites nestle across the island from beautiful hidden temples to Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka's original capital.
The coast and lowlands are tropical, while hilly areas have a temperate climate - resulting in the island’s diverse landscapes: arid plains and rainforest, endless gorgeous beaches and high lands. Holidaymakers love the white sands, great surfing and diving, and the elephants. Don’t forget to have a nice cup of tea here too.
17. Costa Rica
As well as being a top winter sun destination, Costa Rica in Central America is a leading destination for sustainable nature-based tourism. Head here if you want to safari responsibly with monkeys, iguanas, toucans, caiman, sloths, turtles and diverse bird species.
Highlights include Cano Negro Wildlife Reserve, Manuel Antonio and Tortuguero national parks, Arenal Volcano and the Osa Peninsula. If you’re looking for more adrenaline-fuelled activities, there’s waterfall rappelling, canopy zip lining, sea kayaking, surfing and horse riding!
Cigars and rum, old American cars, Che Guevara and/or Fidel Castro...nowadays Cuba is also known as a unique and exhilarating Caribbean holiday destination. Its location means perfect conditions for a winter sun break; as do the dazzling white beaches, rugged mountains and colourful capital, Havana.
This is no bland, pristine paradise though. With a complex history and eclectic heritage, Cuban culture is a feast for the senses. Through the intoxicating music, food, architecture and people, you will experience flavours of Africa, Spain and the indigenous Taíno tribes of the Caribbean.
As well as enjoying all that the Caribbean coast has to offer, don’t miss exploring Cuba’s historic cities (like Camagüey, Trinidad, and Havana) and their faded colonial grandeur - all have been named UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Basking in 30°C heat during our winter, and a manageable six-hour flight from the UK means that Gambia is an ideal winter sun holiday destination.
Africa’s smallest mainland nation, the country is split crossways by the Gambia River. This waterway is home to a wealth of wildlife including an incredible array of bird species, most notably in Kiang West National Park and Bao Bolong Wetland Reserve. There are a growing number of eco-lodges and small wildlife parks popping up along the river.
Vast Atlantic beaches run south from Bakau to Kololi, and this is where you’ll find most of the large holiday resorts. The tiny capital, Banjul, is worth visiting for its market and harbour.
20. The Seychelles
One of the classic winter sun destinations, this Indian Ocean archipelago consists of 115 islands off the East African coast and promises sublime beaches, coral reefs, nature reserves, rare wildlife and a heart-warming tropical climate.
Our winter is the best time to visit for fishing, sailing and snorkelling, although anytime is a good time to visit the Seychelles. Mahé island is home to the capital Victoria, mountain rainforests of Morne Seychellois National Park and white-sand beaches including Beau Vallon and Anse Takamaka.
Seychellois culture is a blend of African, European and Asian influences, making for vibrant and appealing music, dance, food, art and architecture.
Once the preserve of luxury honeymooner-style luxury resorts, the Seychelles is increasingly offering a wider range of holiday accommodation, from affordable hotels and self-catering options to charming Creole guesthouses with an authentic Seychellois flavour.
Escaping to another part of the world during the colder months can be a welcome relief to a seemingly endless barrage of wind and rain in the UK. Don't let your holiday be dampened by any unforeseen events which can be covered by travel insurance. It's important not to forget to take out a comprehensive travel insurance policy that can cover you for cancellation of hotels and travel, as well as personal belongings and emergency medical cover.