Where to Go in January

Carriacou Harbour in the Grenadines, one of my suggestions for where to go in January

Carriacou Harbour, Grenadines

When it’s the middle of winter, we tend to have one of two objectives for our vacations: escaping winter, or embracing it. Whichever your approach, here are my suggestions for where to go in January.

Escaping winter

Costa Rica

This is where I traveled this past January. I tried my first zip-line and saw exotic birds, animals and foliage up close on a hanging bridges canopy tour. Relaxing in the hot springs at the base of Arenal Volcano was heavenly, and getting into the water on a kayak trip provided another perspective on the beautiful surroundings. There was plenty of time for relaxing on the beach too.

gusto beach club in playa samara costa ricaIn January, the rainforest was still green and the weather was dry. It made both the beach and rainforest experiences comfortable and enjoyable.

Sailing in the Caribbean: Grenada, St.Vincent & the Grenadines

The Windward Islands of the Caribbean have some of the most beautiful, uncrowded beaches in the world. They’re dream territory for sailors, and a sailing trip is one of the best ways to see them.

I sailed around the islands on a tall ship with Windjammer Barefoot Cruises. They’re now defunct, but a group of avid customers got together and resurrected a similar operation called Island Windjammers. These trips are a fun and relaxing way to get to even the smallest islands – the ones the big cruise ships can’t reach.

You’re literally in bare feet the whole time you’re on-board – no formal nights on these vessels. And instead of sharing the decks with thousands of passengers, you mix and mingle with 12 to 30 guests over the course of your sailing. Accommodations are modest and a bit on the cramped side, but clean and well equipped. Especially considering what little time you’ll actually spend in your cabin.

passengers help the crew in raising the sales on a Windjammer Barefoot cruise around St. Vincent and the Grenadines

If you want to help raise the sails or take a turn at the wheel, the crew will welcome another set of hands. Or, you can sit back and sip your rum punch while you watch them do the work. Each morning, you wake up at a different tropical isle. You can choose to go ashore to tour the sites or relax on the beach as the mood strikes you.

In January, temperatures are in the mid to high 20’s, and humidity is comfortably low since it’s dry season. Prices usually drop in this period too, after the Christmas holiday peak.

Tall ship sailing in the Grenadines, Caribbean

Dubai

When I visited Dubai in May, it was too hot for my tastes, but January would be a perfect time to go. It’s their coolest month, which is a lot like summer where I live. With maximum daily temperatures around 24 degrees celsius, you’ll actually be able to enjoy the outdoors comfortably.

Dubai has beaches that stretch for miles, incredible shopping, mesmerizing desert landscapes, and many of biggest, tallest, richest, fastest and craziest claims to fame. Like indoor ski hills and giant water slides in the middle of the desert, just to prove it can be done.

Dubai's Burj Khalifa tower at night

It’s also home to an incredibly rich melting pot of cultures. This means a vast variety of restaurants offering everything from traditional Emirati foods to exotic Sri Lankan dishes and savoury Filipino specialties. There are some wonderful historic and cultural sights in the Emirate too.

As far as the Middle East goes, Dubai is a relatively tolerant spot. With Emirati nationals now comprising only 20% of the population, it has to be open-minded to accommodate the expat majority. This makes it less intimidating to visit than many other parts of the Arab world.

Dubai is known as a playground for the rich and famous, but it’s quite possible for us ‘normal people’ to enjoy it as well. I was lucky enough to be hosted by a gracious expat friend when I visited, but there are plenty of hotel deals to be had. A recent search on booking.com turned up more than one well-located 5-star hotel with rooms around $150 CAD per night.

Thailand (west coast)

Thailand’s eastern coast and islands can be rainy in January, but on the west side, Phuket, Krabi and the nearby islands have their best weather. The country’s legendary beaches are well-know for a reason – they’re gorgeous.

I found my happy place on Railay Beach in the town of Ao Nang near Krabi. I remember floating in the sheltered cove with barely anyone else around, gazing up at the lush green vines cascading over a cliff. It’s the image I close my eyes and summon when I need to de-stress.

Thailand Hong Island boatsThailand has a well-oiled tourism infrastructure, making it easy for travelers to get around. And of course, Thai food is deliciously fresh, complex and diverse. You can eat and stay well in most of the beach areas for very little money. Beachside Thai massages and languorously paced kayak excursions on turquoise seas are affordable and easy to find too. It really is paradise.

Cambodia

Cambodia has a painful past, but so much beauty as well. The jungle-shrouded temples of Angkor are a must-see UNESCO World Heritage site. They stand in contrast to the opulent Grand Palace and bustle found in the capital of Phnom Penh. Motorcycles rule the road and saffron-robed monks regularly hitch rides with willing drivers.

Outside the cities, green rice paddies punctuated by palm trees stretch for miles. Water buffalo loll around in waterholes when they’re not hooked up to plows or carts. Cambodian food is surprisingly delicious, including sweet coconut milk stews, papaya salads and slurpy noodle soups.

Angkor Wat temple in the morning light just after sunrise

Angkor Wat

Our dollars go a long way in Cambodia, making it possible to travel comfortably on a budget at any time of year. It’s most pleasant to visit in the cool, dry winter months, when temperatures stay mostly below 30 degrees celsius during the day and rainfall is minimal.

Embracing winter

The Canadian Rockies – Jasper National Park

There’s no better place to celebrate snow and ice than the Rocky Mountains in my home province of Alberta. While Banff and Lake Louise get more visitors and media glory, Jasper is well worth the extra few hours of driving.

Jasper’s townsite is smaller and less developed, meaning it still feels more like a frontier mountain town than touristy Banff. There are just enough cozy cafes, small shops and intimate restaurants to meet any traveller’s needs without feeling too city-like. The railroad tracks run right along Main Street and evoke a charming ‘yesteryear’ atmosphere.

frozen waterfalls and icicles in Mailgne Canyon in the Rocky Mountains near Jasper, Alberta

There’s a word class ski hill at Marmot Basin, and trails for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and winter hiking. The spectacular Maligne Canyon Ice Walk takes you through a deep canyon full of icicles and frozen waterfalls. There are mountain-fringed frozen lakes for skating, and if you want to try dog-sledding, Jasper’s a great place for it.

Canada’s Royal Astronomical Society has designated Jasper National Park as an official Dark Sky Preserve – an area almost completely free of artificial light. This makes for amazing stargazing, and if conditions are right, the aurora borealis (northern lights) might put on a show too.

A beautiful one-hour drive from Jasper townsite is the new Glacier Skywalk. It’s a thrilling walk out to a glass platform suspended over glacier-formed valleys and waterfalls. Another 30 minutes down the Icefields Parkway is the Columbia Icefields Discovery Centre, where you witness an active glacier up close.

Italy

Although I enjoyed my summer trip to Italy, Venice, Florence and Rome are even more wondrous without the peak season crowds. Venice in particular is completely different without the throngs of visitors that swarm the bridges and canal-sides in summer.

If you go in early January, you’ll witness the festivities around Epiphany on the 6th. The holiday commemorates the 12th day of Christmas and celebrates the arrival of the magi (3 wise men) who came to pay tribute to Jesus bearing precious gifts. There is a special mass at the Vatican, and throughout the country you’ll find processions, concerts and re-enactments.

front facade of st marks basilica in venice

St. Mark’s Basilica

In some years, you might catch the beginning of Carnivale in Venice at the end of January, depending where Easter falls that year. This is a rare opportunity to see festival-goers actually wearing the beautiful carnival masks that are only seen in shops the rest of the year.

Italy has winter fun for skiers too. Most ski resorts in the Alps / Dolomites drop their lift ticket prices around the second week of January. If Nordic skiing is your thing, you can ski from lodge to lodge on a network of connected trails. You can even sign up for packages where your luggage is transported from lodge to lodge for you.

Russia

Here’s your chance to live out your Dr. Zhivago fantasies in one of the wintriest wonderlands anywhere. I visited St. Petersburg in early summer on a cruise around the Baltic, but it’s said to be much more magical in winter. The frozen canals and snow-covered streets create a fairy tale atmosphere and the long nights are illuminated with brilliant light displays.

Orthodox Christmas and Epiphany are both celebrated in January. Both holidays involve special elaborate masses and processions. The Russian ballet, theatre and classical seasons are in full swing during the winter, and it would be a treat to experience the amazing art at the Hermitage at a more relaxed off-season pace.

gilded pillars and crystal chandeliers in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia

Gilded columns and crystal chandeliers inside the Hermitage

Winter is also the perfect time to sample hearty Russian dishes like borscht and pirozhki, and to wash everything down with excellent vodka. Drinking vodka is serious business in Russia, and the good stuff should not be diluted with ice or any sort of mix.

During my St. Petersburg vodka tasting tour, our guide taught us the secret to enjoying it with minimal burn. Breathe in, drink your shot, breathe out through your nose, immediately eat a bit of food, and then, only then – breathe in again. It works like a charm!

Whether you escape winter or embrace it, enjoy your January.

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