Winter Wanderlust: 6 Unique Destinations for an Offbeat Escape

9 mins

If you’re looking for an end-of-year break or an interesting winter trip to kickstart 2024, here are a few ideas for your next offbeat escape

As 2023 draws to a close, you might be keen to take a winter break, especially if your year has been challenging or just plain hectic. For those who observe Christmas, there are festive options that go beyond the traditional gingerbread-scented markets of Europe. And for anyone who would just like to take some time out to recharge their batteries, there are some fascinating offbeat escapes that you may not have considered.

From watching Gelada monkeys in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains to camping in the wild winds of Masirah Island, Oman these offbeat escapes will have you booking your next winter trip in no time.

Our Favourite Offbeat Escapes

Spanish Sensations: Barcelona and Madrid

aerial view of barcelona

If you fancy a European end-of-year break, but you don’t necessarily want a freezing cold trip, Barcelona and Madrid are two easily accessible – and relatively mild – options. With average maximum temperatures for December around 15°C in Barcelona and 10°C in Madrid, you’ll still need a scarf and jacket, but the conditions are ideal for walking around and taking in the sights. 

If you celebrate Christmas, you can indulge in Christmas markets in Barcelona and Madrid. But these often-overpriced extravaganzas are easily avoided if you would rather mark the season with a carol service in an historic church or a festive dinner with family or friends. 

Christmas market in Madrid

Both cities are known for delicious local dishes, a vibrant art and culture scene and bucket list sights. Gaudi’s still-unfinished Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona is as spectacular in reality as it is in photographs. Make sure you book your tickets online in advance to beat the queues. A must-see in Madrid is the beautiful El Retiro Park. Here, the Palacio de Velázquez and the Palacio de Cristal, located by the pond, host art exhibitions all year round. The park comes alive on Sundays with musicians and puppet theatres, making it popular with families. Both the basilica and the park are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

● Emirates and Etihad offer direct flights to Barcelona and Madrid.

Masirah Island Road Trip

aerial view of a rugged island as idea for an offbeat escape

Intrepid road trippers should set aside around a week to make the most of a Masirah Island road trip. Located 19 km off the east coast of Oman, surrounded by the Indian Ocean, a two-day drive is the most civilised way to get there from the UAE, although it will still be an adventure. Break up the journey on this offbeat escape with a night in magnificent Muscat, before taking a deep breath and setting out for the big drive from Muscat to the port town of Shannah. Try to get an early start as it’s a 450-km trip.

Make sure you have good company, good tunes or both, as this drive involves about three hours on a flat, straight road with nothing but sand and mirages to see on either side of the road. At Shannah, the ferry will take you and your vehicle to Masirah Island. Just be aware that there is no strict timetable for this ferry, so if you just miss one, you might be in for a wait. The hour-long journey costs OMR 16 for passenger cars and OMR 20 for SUVs. 

Be aware that this island is very popular with windsurfers, so pitching a tent in a wild Masirah wind can test even the most robust relationship

Once you arrive on Masirah Island, you’ll find most of the estimated population 12,000 live in the town of Ra’s Hilf. There is a resort, a handful of hotels and plenty of spots to camp for free, albeit without facilities. Be aware that this island is very popular with windsurfers, so pitching a tent in a wild Masirah wind can test even the most robust relationship. The good news for campers is that peak windsurfing season is in the summer.

The rugged, hilly island isn’t exactly bustling, but it’s a great offbeat escape for hikers, cyclists, swimmers and off-road adventurers. Average December temperatures are around 29°C, dropping to around 25°C in January. In between exploring the island, Masirah is a fine place to master the art of relaxation, whether you book a hotel with a chilled-out pool or you simply recline by the ocean.

Tempted by Tunis

ruins with blue ocean in the background

Tunis is an underrated North African destination. While tourists are lured by the dazzling souqs of Marrakech or the history and chaos of Cairo, Tunis – around five hours from Dubai – is as accessible as it is fascinating. With winter daytime temperatures around 17°C, dropping to around 8°C at night, the climate will feel distinctly European. The French influence in architecture, food and language adds to the east-meets-west vibe.

Carthage, now a seaside suburb of the Tunisian capital, is rich in history and a perfect offbeat escape for culture hungry travellers. In Roman times, it became a wealthy and powerful trading hub, before being ravaged by the Punic wars between 264 and 146 BCE. Today, history lovers can experience a taste of what life would have been like when Carthage was at peak prosperity by exploring the ruins. The remains of villas, bath houses, theatres, tombs, streets, shops and public buildings form a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

To further your understanding of Tunisian history, the Bardo Museum covers the country’s journey from ancient times to the present day. The spectacular preserved mosaics are worth the 13 dinar admission price alone.

blue ocean, whitewashed walls and pink flowers in a town in Tunisia

Near Carthage, glorious Sidi Bou Said, built by Spanish Muslim settlers, is definitely worth a visit. Eminently Instagrammable, the white-washed buildings with blue doors and shutters are reminiscent of Santorini, especially when the bright pink bougainvillaea are in bloom. It’s a rambling maze of unique shops, cafes and restaurants, as well as Dar el Annabi, a historic house that is open to the public. 

● Emirates and Tunisair fly direct to Tunis from Dubai, while a range of airlines fly from Abu Dhabi to Tunis via one stop. 

In the Pink in Jaipur

pink fort at sunset in Jaipur

December and January are excellent months to visit Jaipur, with little to no rain and daytime temperatures hovering around a comfortable 23°C. It is known as the pink city after the buildings were painted a distinctive clay-pink shade by order of Maharaja Ram Singh in 1876 for a visit by Queen Victoria. It is known as the colour of hospitality in Jaipur and many buildings are still painted pink to this day.

The colour certainly reflects the warm welcome visitors receive in Jaipur, a more compact and less densely populated city compared to many others in India. This creates a relaxed atmosphere, perfect for wandering around the bazaars and shops. The old palace where the maharajas lived is only part of the history on offer for an offbeat escape. 

Fascinating forts and ornate temples abound, with Amber Fort, about 11 km from the centre of Jaipur, the jewel in the crown. Located atop a hill, it is an artistic vision of marble and sandstone with surrounding views as breathtaking as the fort itself. Just be sure to avoid the elephant rides.

For unique accommodation, Samode, 40 km north-west of Jaipur, is home to a palace that is now a hotel. It was built as a fort in the 16th Century and redesigned as a palace in the 19th Century. Alternatively, visitors can stay at Samode Bagh in luxury tents.

● Air Arabia flies direct from Sharjah to Jaipur.

Alternative Alps in Bulgaria

snow covered town in Bulgarian alps

While Switzerland, Austria and France are better known as ski holiday destinations, Bulgaria is worth considering by snow lovers for the amazing scenery, the warm welcome and a less commercialised experience. Direct flights to the capital, Sofia, take around five hours from the UAE. From there, the ski resorts of Bansko, Borovets, Chepelare, Pamporovo and Vitosha can be reached by road within a few hours.

Depending on what you’re looking for in a ski holiday, there’s plenty of variety among the Bulgarian resorts for an offbeat escape. Bansko retains the charm of a traditional village, is set amid a national park, and is a great choice for beginners and snowboarders. Borovets features high lifts, a 6 km-long run and a great entertainment scene. 

For those seeking a quieter ski holiday, Chepelare is a compact, intimate resort with two lifts.  Adventurous skiers and snowboarders should investigate Pamporovo, with The Wall, a 1km run, being its most notable challenge. 

Nature lovers will enjoy the gorgeous forest setting of Vitosha and keen skiers can take on a 5 km-long run. At Vitosha, Bistrishko Branishte is a UNESCO-declared biosphere reservation and the area’s biodiversity includes 148 endemic species, 300 rare species, 500 types of freshwater algae and 1,489 recognised plants.

● Emirates and FlyDubai fly direct to Sofia from Dubai, and Wizz Air flies direct from Abu Dhabi. 

Safari with a twist in Ethiopia

hippo yawning in Ethiopia

With half the travel time of a trip to South Africa, Ethiopia should not be ruled out as a safari destination for an offbeat escape. In winter, the temperatures hover around 22°C and rainfall is rare, it’s a perfect time to see the country’s incredible wildlife, as well as experiencing Ethiopian culture.

While it can be difficult to spot big cats, elephants or giraffes in Ethiopia, wildlife watchers can enjoy safari expeditions to see hippos and crocodiles at stunning Lake Tana, hyenas near the ancient site of Harar, Ethiopian wolves on the Sanetti Plateau in the Bale Mountains, and Gelada monkeys in the Simien Mountains, which are known for magnificent hair that looks like it has been styled in a salon. 

Serious adventurers will enjoy Gambela National Park, where the buffalo and antelope migrations and bountiful birdlife create photogenic spectacles. It is the one place in Ethiopia where you’re more likely to spot cheetahs, leopards, lions, elephants and giraffes. As it’s more remote than other Ethiopian safari destinations, Gambela can only be accessed by charter flight and the accommodation is in tented camps run by accredited operators.

tourist close up with a gelada monkey in ethiopia

Addis Ababa, the capital, is worth a visit as part of an off beat escape in Ethiopia. With plentiful museums, lively markets, beautiful religious buildings, intense coffee and bold cuisine, it is a city break with a difference. Just outside the capital, Menagesha Suba Forest Park and Mount Entoto are natural wonders that should also be added to the itinerary.

● Ethiopian Airlines,  FlyDubai and Flynas fly direct to Addis Ababa from Dubai.

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