SAN FRANCISCO The Christmas season might be famous for carols and colored lights where you're from, but it's also the perfect time to experience new destinations and check out their holiday customs as well. From the jazz music and Nativity parades of New Orleans, to the Santa hats and sandy beaches of Australia, there's no better opportunity than Christmas to try seeing the holiday season in a brand new light. Online travel adviser Hotwire.com (www.hotwire.com) has compiled a list of its Top 10 most festive destinations for this year's holiday season. Reuters has not endorsed this list:
1. San Juan, Puerto Rico
There are only twelve days of Christmas, right? Not in Puerto Rico. This U.S. commonwealth begins its celebrations the day after Thanksgiving and keeps the Yuletide spirit flowing until the feast of the three kings on January 6. During the six-week-long festivity, visitors can enjoy the Christmas decorations seen at homes, businesses and throughout the streets. While you're there, you should also witness one of Puerto Rico's famous holiday traditions - group caroling called parrandas. Visitors to this Caribbean locale can also experience unique holiday culinary customs like lechón asado - roast pig on a spit - a coconut pudding called Tembleque, or the sweet sap from a Chilean palm tree, coquito.
2. New York, New York
If there's anything more iconic than the New York City skyline, it's the New York City Christmas tradition. Every year, The Big Apple plays host to some of the most famous holiday traditions in the world, including the nationally televised lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and The Radio City Christmas Spectacular. But The Empire State has tons more up its sleeve when it comes to Christmas traditions. Travelers can go ice skating in Central Park, discover unique international gifts at The Pond at Bryant Park, experience the incredible toy selection of FAO Schwartz and enjoy the spectacle of Macy's annual Santaland display.
3. Bondi Beach, Australia
In Australia, summer starts on December 1st, so while the Northern Hemisphere is experiencing a white Christmas, our friends down under are busy surfing and sunbathing. Bondi Beach, just four miles outside of Sydney, is a famous beachgoer hotspot, so the unsuspecting traveler could very easily mistake Christmas Day for spring break. Every year on December 25th, the beach turns into one big Christmas party, with festive trees in the sand, surfers wearing Santa hats and suits, live music and more. It might seem unusual to spend a Christmas on the beach, but there's also no denying the appeal of a good beach party. At Bondi Beach, you can have both.
4. Santa Claus, Indiana
With a city like Santa Claus, Indiana, the name really does say it all. This small Midwestern destination fancies itself "America's Christmas Hometown," and offers three weekends of Santa Claus celebrations throughout the month of December that are perfect for Christmas lovers of all ages. Travelers can journey into Santa's Candy Castle and enjoy 25 different gourmet chocolates, chat with online elves and check to see if their name is on the naughty or nice list. Santa's visitors can also enjoy other holiday attractions such as the amazing lights down Mistletoe Drive, a wooden rollercoaster, a Santa Claus museum and even a Christmas-themed miniature golf course.
5. Nuremberg, Germany
In Nuremberg, Christmas is synonymous with Christkindlesmarkt, which means only one thing—holiday shopping. Germany's own Christmas mega-market is one of the most sought-after holiday destinations in the world, drawing two million visitors every year and occupying Nuremberg's central square area for the entirety of the Advent season. With its rich history dating back to the Middle Ages, a visit to the Christkindlesmarkt is like stepping back in time. Even the most jaded traveler may spring to life as the smell of fresh gingerbread and fruitcake fills the air. And with such a deep past, it's as easy to lose yourself in Nuremberg's Christmas tradition as it is to get lost in the stalls of the Christkindlesmarkt.
6. New Orleans
Those searching for a way to celebrate the holidays in a unique southern fashion need look no further than New Orleans, where the poinsettia gets as much love as the fleur de lis. In this French Creole town, Christmas events start in November, and they ring in the holiday spirit in ways you've never seen before. Take the Celebration in the Oaks, for example: a pop-up Christmas theme park that brings bright lights and carnival rides to New Orleans City Park, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Folks from colder areas will feel right at home on Fulton Street, where travelers will find spinning multicolored Christmas trees and might even find themselves caught in the (fake) snow, which comes drifting down four times every hour.
7. Tokyo, Japan
If you're looking to spend your Christmas somewhere really different, there's no better place to visit than Tokyo. Since Christians account for only one percent of the population, Christmas is not a national holiday, and employees don't get the day off. Despite that, Christmas is celebrated as a commercial holiday in Japan, and every year, the trees in Tokyo are lit up for the season and the Japanese, like their Western neighbors, still have shopping to take care of. Christmas Eve in Tokyo looks very different from Christmas Eve in North America and Europe, and bears a striking resemblance to Valentine's Day. Instead of spending Christmas with family members, the Japanese go on romantic dinner dates with their significant others, celebrating the holiday over a chicken dinner and some Christmas cake.
8. Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Amsterdam has not one, but two bearded gift-bearers that visit during the month of December: Sinterklaas and Santa Claus. Sinterklaas has been the richer holiday icon in Amsterdam, and gives the children most of their gifts on December 5th, marking the feast of St. Nicolas. Santa Claus, whose story is actually based on Sinterklaas', comes on December 25th and brings the children a couple of minor presents. Santa Claus also brings the beginning of the Dutch Christmas - a two-day celebration complete with food, warmth and family - which starts on December 25th and ends on December 26th. For potential visitors, the draw of Amsterdam‘s double-celebration is hard to compete with. Two feasts, two Santas and two days of gleeful Christmas parties. And when it comes to giving and receiving gifts, how much more Christmas could a traveler really ask for?
9. Aspen, Colorado
Whoever coined the term "Winter Wonderland" was probably imagining something very much like Aspen, Colorado at Christmastime. Peacefully nestled amid a trio of snowy mountains, Aspen is the perfect spot for travelers who like to celebrate their holidays in earmuffs and beanies. This snowy city hosts the 12 Days of Aspen, a holiday celebration from December 20th through New Year's Eve, which includes a variety of activities that are sure to put you in the Christmas spirit—from shopping and restaurant deals to concerts and ice-staking. And with its four world-class ski resorts, acres of white-powdered aspen trees and upscale shopping options, Aspen is a prime destination for travelers looking to release their inner snow lover.
10. Lapland, Finland
Lapland in Finland is the ideal destination for the nostalgic traveler in all of us. After all, who doesn't remember writing letters as a kid and addressing them to the North Pole? Now you can visit Santa at home. With the Arctic circle cutting right through its heart, Lapland is the closest you're likely to get to the North Pole you imagined as a kid, and that makes it one of Finland's busiest tourist destinations. Visitors of Lapland will want to get tickets to at least one of the area's Christmas theme parks: Santa Claus Village and Santa Park. These parks live out their themes to the fullest, complete with staff members in elf costumes and reindeer sled rides. But the real draw to these parks is Father Christmas himself, who will even meet privately with families who have made a reservation.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)