Zanzibar is a beach destination ideal for summer. Picture: Pixabay.
Some are popular traveller favourites, some boast incredible weather, and others have appealing off-season benefits. These last-minute holidays make for a fantastic getaway any time in December or January, whether you’re looking for a hot pick with sunshine or a cool holiday in the snow up north. Plus, there’s still time to book, so get reading…

Cool pick: Estonia

It may be the smallest of the Baltic countries, but Estonia packs a punch. This little country’s neighbours are Latvia, Russia and north, across the Baltic Sea, Finland.  A recent Alternative Holiday survey ranked 31 European countries in order of appeal as alternative holiday destinations. Estonia was voted tops for its Instagrammability, friendly locals and great food.

Attractions include the UNESCO listed fairy-tale medieval capital, Tallinn, peppered with castles and cafes. The wild, beautiful and diverse landscapes are a bonus (count 1,500 islands and see pristine, age-old forests). 

“Brave the cold for a quintessential European winter experience in December or January,” said Teresa Richardson, Managing Director of The Travel Corporation in South Africa. “It is off-season, so there are fewer tourists, and you are pretty much guaranteed to have snow. 

Hot pick: Zanzibar

Are you looking for a great value-for-money island escape? A four-hour flight from Johannesburg, with sandy beaches, palm trees and warm-as-bathwater ocean, in every shade of blue you could imagine, Zanzibar has all the beach appeal you could want. More than that, the Spice Island has a unique and fascinating history and culture. 

The UNESCO listed Stone Town, famous for its winding alleyways and massive, intricately carved mahogany and teak doors, is worth leaving your poolside lounger to explore. Don’t miss a visit to the island’s spice farms, either. 

Resorts are plenty. Some popular ones include five-star Dream of Zanzibar resort on a private beach, and the Sea Cliff Resort and Spa.   Over December and January, the weather in Zanzibar is hot and dry. For diving enthusiasts, November to March is also the best time to dive off the island's south coast. 

Cool pick: Russia

If you are looking for a festive Northern hemisphere holiday that’s slightly off the beaten track, consider Russia. 

The destination is just as spectacular in winter as it is in summer, but for many different reasons. The Tsar's rather aptly-named Winter Palace, Catherine Palace and St Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, look even grander frosted with snow. A high-speed train ride to Moscow whisks travellers back into a more romantic era of travel, passing through snowy, isolated landscapes. 

It would be worth visiting in December just for Moscow's Christmas markets. The city is lit up with more than 400 lights for the annual Christmas Lights Festival and the markets brim with the smell of mulled wine and gingerbread. 

“This is a great place to buy some beautiful handcrafted gifts such as lacquer boxes or Matryoshka dolls,” said Richardson. 

Hot pick: Thailand

Based on Flight Centre’s booking records, Thailand is the most popular destination for South Africans based on room nights booked. It is not much of a surprise, as Thailand is rated one of if not the best value-for-money destinations. It's also visa-free, with a great mix of stunning beaches, food and cultural attractions.

Thailand has an extremely well-established tourist industry and a huge range of accommodation options to suit every type of traveller, so even last-minute bookers will find something over December and January. Weather-wise, there is little rain, and it’s hot and sunny. Ironically, December and January are considered the cool season, but expect daily temperatures of 26°C, unless you’re in the mountains up north, where temperatures tend to drop.

Hot pick: Mauritius

The second most popular destination for South Africans according to Flight Centre, Mauritius is one of the most accessible destinations for South Africans to travel to for a beach escape.

“If it is relaxing by the pool that you’re after, or going on an exciting voyage via catamaran to exotic islands, Mauritius is the place to go. If possible, make sure you go for an all-inclusive package (cocktails included) at your hotel that also includes airport transfers as taxis and food can be quite pricey,” recommends Ashleigh Eales, an Eastern Cape local who visited the island with friends in July.


Cool pick: Ireland

If you don’t mind the cold (clouds and some rain), December is still off-peak season in Ireland.

In a recent study conducted by The Travel Corporation, 63 percent of South Africans admitted they feel guilty when they don't see all the sights while travelling. Visiting Ireland in December brings no such overwhelming checklist.

“Enjoy leisurely lunches next to the fireplace in cosy pubs, wander the Wild Atlantic Way (maybe you’ll even have it to yourself) and take ample sightseeing breaks for hot chocolate or pints of Guinness,” recommends Angie Martin, a South African expat who lives in Dublin. 

She promises: “You'll be able to switch off and relax with family and friends while exploring a country that’s even more dramatic in the winter.”

Hot pick: South Africa

“South Africa is the third most popular destination booked in terms of room nights,” said Nicky Potgieter, the Leisure Marketing Leader at Flight Centre.

“Have a staycation in your city or hop on a local flight to explore the popular choices such as Cape Town or the Garden Route. You can also choose to head off the beaten track on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast (Coffee Bay is a favourite) or on the Cape West Coast to places such as Paternoster.” 

Why go in December or January? There’s no need for visas, expensive flights and the weather's great to boot!
After a long and busy year, the stretch of school and public holidays in December and January are tantalisingly just around the corner. There is no better way or time to treat yourself than with a relaxing and rejuvenating year-end break.