Should we go home to see family for the holidays? Should we go anywhere for the holidays? When it comes to these very real, personal questions about visiting loved ones, we’re struggling like everyone else to make a smart, careful decision. Everyone has different risk tolerances during the coronavirus pandemic and COVID contexts (for instance, I am in lockdown in London for the month of November, while family in Switzerland can travel more freely in Europe). Turns out, some people are still planning holiday getaways with responsible travel in mind.
According to travel advisors, they’re booking every kind of trip: solo travel, couples, families with young kids, and extended multigen holidays. Whether it’s a do-nothing beach holiday, a safari, or even leaning into over-the-top Christmas magic at a hotel, there’s something for every ready traveler here.
As with all trips right now, we suggest checking with your travel advisor, airline, and hotel about current COVID restrictions and requirements in the destinations you plan to visit. Consult the CDC guidelines for whether you should travel at this time.
FOR SUNSHINE AND BEACH HOLIDAYS
With today’s constantly changing travel restrictions and testing delays, Mexico is one of the easiest trip options for Americans. While flights are still somewhat limited, air travel has been ongoing throughout the pandemic, and visitors only face routine health screenings when entering the country, rather than negative-test or quarantine requirements.
Cabo is a great choice for the holidays because it offers such a huge variety of accommodation. Sandy Pappas, owner of Sandy Pappas Travel, recommends the luxury all-inclusive Grand Velas Los Cabos, which has an “over-the-top spa,” a Michelin-starred restaurant, and a big kid’s club with art projects, storytelling, board games, and more—open from morning to late evening. Its sister property, Casa Del Mar, is a lovely 17-suite boutique beachfront property closer to the center of Cabo San Lucas and more budget friendly with rooms from $250 a night, depending on the season.
At Viceroy Los Cabos, festive season begins at Thanksgiving and lasts through mid-January with more than 15 holiday programs for all ages, including Mexican Posada (the traditional Mexican Christmas celebration), pie-making classes, gingerbread decorating, and pumpkin painting. Families can stay in two- or three-bedroom casitas or four-bedroom villas for a spacious holiday celebration, including four-course Thanksgiving and Christmas menus.
At the northwest tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, Merida specifically is a quick flight from several U.S. cities (though now during COVID, most routes stop in Mexico City) but feels world’s away from home. Go to explore the colonial city and its surrounding Mayan sites, then venture farther afield to swim in cenotes and go birding in the jungle.
Base your stay at the stunning Chablé Yucatan, just 35 minutes inland from Merida. A former hacienda where tequila was made, the resort features original architectural elements like colorful arches and stone walls—one restaurant is even located in the old distillery building and the family home now serves as the main office and wine cellar. All of this creates an only-in-Mexico feel, and that’s before you even try the delicious food at Ixi’im (which also houses one of the largest tequila collections in the world) or take a yoga class overlooking the resort’s private cenote. Guests can also look forward to an award-winning spa, a brand-new golf course, traditional cooking classes, and tours of the resort’s organic gardens—plus freestanding casitas with private plunge pools and outdoor showers.
As of October 15, Hawaii has reopened its borders to Americans, and have we ever needed that aloha spirit more. Visitors can provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test results to avoid an otherwise mandatory 14-day quarantine; there is still a partial inter-island travel quarantine requirement.
Travel advisor Cari Gray, founder of Gray & Co., loves Hawaii for multigenerational family trips during the festive season. She calls the Montage Kapalua Bay the “only ultra high-end option on Maui” with all condos, surrounded by Namalu Bay on one side and a nature preserve on the other. For a similar multigen trip to ones she has planned based out of the Montage, Gray recommends zip lining and golf at Kapalua, surf lessons around Lahaina, and a private boat cruise and snorkeling via favorite company Hula Girl. “You’re walking distance from Merriman’s at the Montage, with amazing meals and cocktails at sunset, a short drive to Lahaina Grill [reopening February 2021]l, and a short walk to have lunch at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua beach bar. I also recommend heading to Pearl Harbor for an in-depth private history day, which you can do as a day trip from Maui. We can pull it all together for families to keep all ages and abilities happy and learning,” she says.
For more Hawaii inspiration, check out AFAR’s expert tips for where to go now in Hawaii.
The Jamaica Inn is one of those hotels that families return to year after year. And this year, that privacy and luxury (plus enhanced safety measures such as social distancing and increased sanitization) will allow families to get away together again this holiday season—choosing from spacious suites and secluded beach bungalows and cottages. A free hotel night is the perfect Christmas gift: If guests stay five nights from December 20-27, Christmas night is free. And book before December 2 to take advantage of a Black Friday special, receiving 40 percent off stays.
Puerto Rico continues to loosen COVID restrictions, and is open to travelers who show a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of arrival. For families, the Fairmont El San Juan Hotel offers a serious mix (you could very easily stay on property the entire time if you want to, while still enjoying San Juan culture and design), with 11 dining and nightlife options; if the kids want pizza or barbecue and you want Puerto Rican fare, all can be accommodated. There are also four pools and a large Well & Being Spa. The offer of a fourth night free when booking a three-night stay sweetens the deal for those wanting extended holiday stays.
The historic Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve set on three miles of private coast, took advantage of the temporary closure to refresh the public areas for an updated sense of the laid-back elegance it’s known for. A highlight for families or groups is the 8,000-square-foot, five-bedroom villa, “Su Casa,” built in 1928 and formerly owned by Laurence Rockefeller. After Hurricane Irma in 2017, it was redone by Champalimaud Design, with a focus on local artisans and decor.
FOR OUTDOOR ADVENTURE
Panama’s popularity beyond canal cruise tours has been steadily rising, and has enjoyed a reputation over the last few years among in-the-know travelers as a place to go before it feels more mainstream. Travel has now reopened to Americans with a negative COVID test.
Brooke Lavery, partner at Local Foreigner, has been planning the ultimate family holiday at Sweet Bocas, a private villa in Panama’s beautiful Bocas del Toro archipelago. The client rented Sweet Bocas for more than two weeks over the Christmas holidays, and they’re rotating their extended family in and out for a visit. “This is a spectacular, 20,000-square-foot teak villa built over the water,” she says. “The owner lives on property and serves as the manager, and as the entire staff has ‘quarantined’ there, they have a no-mask policy with proper testing in place. With private planes coming directly into the local airport, this is a tropical dream bubble for family reunions.”
The Galápagos, Ecuador
Yes, Ecuador is open to Americans (with a negative COVID test within ten days of arrival), and it is an incredibly special time to finally take that family holiday trip to the Galápagos islands, ideal for kids 10 and up. Unlike other sold-out years, there is last-minute availability for these trips. “There is a wildlife bonanza going on,” says Fernando Diez, marketing manager of Quasar Expeditions. “Many visitor sites look the way they did 20 years ago with animals nesting on the trails—the first travelers back will see things that no one else will.”
This time of year, and through the holidays, there’s mild, warm weather and clear underwater visibility. Quasar, a small ship cruise line focusing on meaningful adventure, has recently seen an uptick in bookings from American guests. While most travelers explore via boat, you can also travel through the islands on a land-based trip, staying at island hotels, and see the Galápagos in an entirely different way.
At AFAR, we’ve covered Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya as destinations welcoming Americans back—and the chance to experience them like never before. Luxury lodge leader Singita has welcomed many American guests already to their properties in Rwanda and Tanzania: “An African safari delivers a peaceful sanctuary, wide-open spaces, fresh air, healthy activities, and time for connection,” says Singita chief marketing officer Lindy Rousseau. “Now is the ideal time to travel to Rwanda or Tanzania as you could almost have our 350,000 acres of the western Serengeti—with abundant game—to yourself. We’ve enjoyed good rains in Tanzania, so it’s a wonderfully lush time of year with large herds on the plains.”
FOR SNOW, SKI, AND REMOTE ESCAPES
THE AMERICAN WEST
Ranch vacations have skyrocketed in popularity because of natural social distancing—and a reminder that the American West has some of the world’s most spectacular landscapes. In the winter, you feel cocooned within lodges, feet up in front of a fireplace with hot chocolate in hand, downtime earned by spending your days on outdoor adventures. Ranch expert and travel advisor Sandy Pappas considers the size of the ranch—some are smaller with 30 guests maximum, while others accommodate 100 or more—what activities are offered, such as skiing and wildlife viewing, and the type of accommodation, from lodge rooms to private rooms. “Keep in mind that some ranches are truly all-inclusive, and others are a hybrid where food—and sometimes alcohol—are included, but activities are à la carte,” she says.
For a private ski and snowboarding experience, Pappas recommends Brush Creek Ranch in Wyoming. They bought nearby Green Mountain last year, and the Brush Creek team drives you to the top of the mountain in a snowcat, serving lunch in a yurt on top of the mountain. With a maximum of 30 guests on the mountain, it’s an unforgettable experience. “It’s the closest I’ll ever get to heli-skiing since I’m not an expert skier,” Pappas says.
In Montana, the Ranch at Rock Creek is a Relais & Chateaux property with a big focus on food and wine. For outdoor adventurers, Pappas recommends snowmobiling in the Skalkaho pass, with a scenic ride up the mountain through snow-covered trees, calling it the “quintessential western experience.” Guests also have access to nearby Discovery ski resort, with terrain for all levels. And you can finish the day by the fire with a cocktail made by bartender extraordinaire Noah, or a hot chocolate made with local milk.
Pappas and her family are spending New Year’s at Vermejo Park Ranch, a Ted Turner reserve. If you want off-the-grid, this fits the bill: It’s a 45-minute drive from the resort gate to the main lodge. The 558,000-acre reserve is a “shining star in Turner’s conversation efforts.” Take a wildlife safari with one of the ranch’s expert guides to see bison, elk, bears, bighorn sheep, and if you’re lucky, mountain lions. Or ice fish on one of the many lakes and ponds enjoying views of the southern Rockies.
The Resort at Paws Up is spread over 37,000 acres, and many of their vacation homes come with a complimentary car to use on property. They expanded their winter activity offerings this season, and added blast mountain tubing and an ice skating park—and after that, you can decorate a gingerbread house with the pastry chef.
Triple Creek Ranch is already sold out for “festive” (usually, the high season during the holidays in the weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year’s), says Pappas, but they have other winter availability. “They have private guest cabins, all with wood-burning fireplaces, for the perfect post-adventure escape. There is also a new logging camp that offers activities like hatchet toss, fire-starting, and cross-cut sawing,” she says.
For a less expensive option, Pappas recommends the historic Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, Montana. Guests can ski at the Big Sky Resort for a day or go on a snow safari in Yellowstone National Park.
FOR A HOTEL THAT GOES ALL OUT
If you’re the person who starts watching Christmas movies in October, a stay at a Gaylord Hotel is the perfect holiday getaway for you because they go all out with Christmas magic, decor, and offerings.
This year, guests can walk through 13 fully-immersive scenes from five favorite Christmas movies—like the Polar Express and Elf—in the brand-new I Love Christmas Movies experience. And there is a big line-up of signature holiday activities for every age, like character brunches, ice skating, light shows, holiday storytelling, and snow tubing. Check out Gaylord locations across the U.S.: Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, TN; Gaylord Palms in Kissimmee, FL; Gaylord Rockies in Aurora, CO; or Gaylord Texan in Grapevine, TX.
Contact the advisors
Want more information about what you have read—or have any other questions? Reach out to the advisors mentioned in the story.
- Brooke Lavery, Local Foreigner: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Cari Gray, Gray & Co.: email@example.com
- Sandy Pappas, Sandy Pappas Travel: firstname.lastname@example.org