Hot Spots to Escape the Winter Wonderland

They are the hot spots in December, where the winter-weary can catch some sun, sand, surf and escape the consumerist crush of the holidays.

Destinations can range from remote Indonesian islands to Caribbean resorts just a short flight away. The trick, according to seasoned holiday escapists, is to plan well in advance to miss the peak-season rates.

If you have not, however, spent the past few weeks planning your holiday escape, Don George, global travel editor at Lonely Planet publications, advises travelers not to shy away from walking into hotels and naming a price they're willing to pay for a room. You never know, you just may be lucky.

Here are some favored winter hotspots:

Hawaii: By far the most popular winter destination for Americans, especially for people on the West Coast. Hawaii's biggest draw is that there's something there for everyone. For those not interested in answering the call of the wild, Honolulu and Waikiki on the Oahu island have restaurants, bars and nightclubs — as well as long stretches of surf.

But for those looking for a retreat from the bustle, there's the aptly-named Secret Beach on Kauai, a less touristy island than Oahu, or the pristine hiking trails on the island of Lanai. The month of December could see some rain in parts of Hawaii, but the weather is always welcomingly warm.

Costa Rica: Sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica is high on George's list of recommended holiday destinations. With a commendable national conservation policy and great ecotourism adventures on offer, Costa Rica is still relatively cheap. The country offers beach stretches on the Pacific coast to the west and the Caribbean coast to the east, so there's plenty of shoreline to choose from.

While Costa Rica's Pacific beaches are especially popular, with numerous resorts, isolated coves and good surf, the Caribbean coast is less touristy and more vibrant with that particularly charming Caribbean combination of reggae, good Creole food, and plenty of cultural diversity.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines: This archipelago nation is the favored winter destination for the rich and famous. A set of tiny islands between St. Vincent and Grenada, the Grenadines offer perfect conditions for yachting, snorkeling and diving. But some of the beaches, such as Mustique and Palm Island, are exorbitantly expensive, with most of the island taken up by private mansions hidden behind towering walls.

Cuba: A destination for intrepid travelers seeking to avoid the commercialism of the Caribbean. While U.S. citizens are barred from visiting Cuba except for journalists, researchers and special groups — all of whom require the permission of the Treasury Department — some Americans have been able to circumvent the ban by taking "educational tours" or illegally flying to Havana from Mexico or Canada.

But the number of Americans heading to Cuba has been dropping in recent years, according to George. "The Bush administration policy has been not to renew licenses for educational tours, so it's harder for Americans to go," he says. "Of course people can still go illegally, but these days, I wouldn't recommend it."

America's loss is Europe and Canada's gain, and the winter sees numerous Europeans and Canadians head for the serene, unspoiled beaches of Cuba, many of them determined to experience the tranquil charms of the communist island before U.S. trade barriers fall and hordes of Americans head to Havana.

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