The holiday season doesn’t exactly scream adventure travel, but nowhere is it written that the cheeriest season of the year must always be spent indoors sipping eggnog. In fact, December is the best time to visit some of the world’s top adventure destinations, including these three gems.
Hawaii’s Big Island
The Big Island has been dubbed Hawaii’s “Island of Adventure,” and with good reason. With one of the most diverse ecological environments in the world, you can start your day with a snorkel, relax on a sunny beach at noon, hike through a rain forest in the afternoon, and be on a snowy mountaintop (for star-gazing) that evening.
Do: Visit Waipi’o Valley, a green gem set into 2,000-foot rock cliffs. Hike into the valley and see waterfalls that drop 1,200 feet from the Kohala Mountains, explore the streamside trails, and relax on a black-sand beach.
Head to the top of Mauna Kea, home to some 13 observatories and some of the best star-gazing on the planet. You can make the ascent yourself, in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, or take an organized tour.
Hiking Hawaii’s volcanoes is a don’t-miss experience. The Mauna Loa Summit Trail is a multiday backcountry adventure for experienced hikers. The Kilauea Iki trail is a four-mile hike through a rain forest into a crater and across old lava flows. Any one of Kilauea’s other summit trails makes for an excellent half-day hike. Check on the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park map for trail locations.
Stay: Kona Village Resort is a bit of old Hawaii on the luxe Kona coast, and a real back-to-nature experience. No phones, TVs, radios or alarm clocks sully your thatch-roof bungalow. Rates include all meals, a lu’au, tennis, sports activities, and rides in the resort’s glass-bottom boat. Indulge the senses with a massage at the Kona Village Resort Health Spa. Rooms start at $625 per night for two persons.
Four Seasons Resort Hualalai must be seen to be believed. The resort fronts the beach, there’s a secluded spa, an outstanding sports club, and a golf course. The ocean-view rooms are the best (photo, right). Rooms start at about $650 a night.
Dine: Imagine dinner for two, at twilight, just steps from the ocean at Brown’s Beach House, where the ambiance is casual and the food is seriously good. The Ahi poke (spicy raw fish), Keahole lobster, and three-way coconut desserts are terrific. About $50 a person.
“Pahu i ‘a” means aquarium, and this beachfront restaurant serves up some of the best seafood on the islands, often with a distinctive Asian flair. Breakfast is also a treat — think lemon ricotta pancakes and tropical fruit French toast, plus outstanding Kona coffee. About $50 a person for dinner, $25 for breakfast.
Costa Rica is paradise for travelers who’d rather zip-line through the trees than lounge on the beach.
Do: Rafters and kayakers from all over the world come to Costa Rica to ride the wild Rio Pacuare and the Rio Reventazon. Book a single or multiday trip with local outfitters (longer trips usually include jungle hikes). On the calmer stretches of the rivers you’ll paddle through an amazing landscape of tropical greenery and waterfalls, possibly spot rare birds and butterflies, and elsewhere on the river you’ll be battling the white water — expect to fall out, get wet, and have an exhilarating time. Prices range from about $70 to $100. Check with your hotel for outfitter recommendations.
Visit the Arenal Volcano, which has been actively spewing ash and lava since 1968. While you’re in the neighborhood you can explore the rain forest by clipping yourself onto a zip-line and sailing high above the tree tops. You might want to check into one of the local thermal spas/hotels for the day or the night — Eco Termales Hot Springs, Baldi Hot Springs, and Tabacon Hot Springs offer spa treatments and soaks in volcano-heated waters. Spa day passes are about $25. SkyTrek offers zip-line and bridge adventures for $50 a person.
Spend a day in Manuel Antonio National Park, where you can visit beaches, a rain forest, mangrove swamps, and coral reefs and see spider monkeys, sloths, agoutis, and 200 species of birds. You can hike, ride horses, or test your skills at waterfall rappelling (traveling down through a waterfall as you cling to a rope). Most activities in the park are free. Check out extreme canyon tours. Excursions start around $75 per person.
Stay: Club del Mar is a luxury hotel for active people — in addition to all the creature comforts, you can take part in crocodile safaris, white-water rafting, sport fishing, volcano and rain forest tours, and more. Skip the so-so rooms and rent an ocean-view condo (units Nos. 13-16 are nearer the sea). Las Sandalias serves some of the area’s finest dinners and breakfasts. One-bedroom condos from $213 a night.
Tiskita is a nature refuge as well as a hotel — the grounds include a fruit orchard with more than 100 varieties of trees that attract monkeys, coatis, birds, and other wildlife. Guests stay in comfortable wooden cabins on stilts surrounded by lush vegetation. The furniture is rustic but the bathrooms are quite modern. Trails through the property bring you through the jungle to a waterfall with freshwater pools. Meals are simple, the beach is beautiful, but getting to the waves requires a steep 15-minute walk. Many guests arrive by air taxi at the hotel’s private airstrip. Rates start at $735 (two nights) in the high season.
Dine: Spend an evening at Playa de los Artistas, where you can nibble on Italian-style seafood and pasta in a casual but super-romantic beachside setting. The menu is short but the food is terrific. About $25 per person.
Tin Jo fulfills Asian-food cravings with taste sensations like Thai shrimp and pineapple curry in coconut milk and exquisitely prepared sushi rolls. There’s also a full vegetarian menu. Banana tempura is the perfect dessert. About $30 a person.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Can cowboy culture survive an onslaught of commercialism? Not likely, but Jackson Hole manages to tread the line between grit and glitz amazingly well. Posh resorts dovetail with the wide-open west, exclusive restaurants coexist with down home attitudes, and even if there are more ski bums than steerhands these days, you still know you’re in Wyoming.
Do: If you’re an advanced skier with an adventurous spirit, try deep powder heli-skiing. A helicopter flies you into untouched mountain ranges south of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (the Snake River and Palisades Mountain Ranges, and portions of the Hoback, Teton and the Gros Ventre Mountain Ranges). A typical day consists of six runs on virtually empty and untracked slopes. HeliSki Jackson offers heli-ski packages for $850 a day, per person.
Want to feel wet powder on your face and a strong wind at your back? Rent a snowmobile and tour the trails of Togwotee Pass and the Granite Hot Springs. Outfitters can set you up with a guide who will take you on single or multi-day snowmobile tours. Check out the packages at www.snowmobiletours.net. The standard guided, one-day outing costs from $200 per person, including pickup and drop-off service, a continental breakfast, and lunch.
Stay: At luxurious Amangani, the aesthetic is elegant rustic, and the interior and exterior designs are excelled only by the spectacular views. When you need a break from your wilderness adventures, snooze under a cashmere throw in your room. Rooms from $750.
The staff at the Four Seasons Jackson Hole knows how to please. In winter, heated towels and robes and complimentary hot chocolate and s’mores are offered to guests by the heated pool, and the hotel offers ski-in/ski-out access to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Room decor is western with an urban twist, and all rooms have either balconies or fireplaces. The hotel’s “Base Camp,” an outdoor activity concierge, can arrange any outdoor adventure your heart desires. Rooms from $750.
Dine: At award-winning Snake River Grill, expect taste sensations like wild game Bolognese, Tuscan bean and duck confit soup, and potato pancakes with smoked salmon. There’s a special ($75) five-course meal for New Year’s eve. About $30 a person.
Or check out Burke’s Chop House for smoked ribs swabbed with Jack Daniels barbeque sauce or salmon oven-fired on an alder wood plank and basted with a chipotle sauce. You’ll swoon over the Chocolate Geyser Cake — a rich chocolate cake infused with Belgian chocolate sauce and served with creme anglais. About $50 a person.