Winter Break

The seaside pool at Jordan's Kempinski Hotel Ishtar.Photo: Courtesy of Kempinski Hoteliers

Spend the morning at the gym, with sumos.

Hours From New York: 13
TYPE OF VACATION: Family Friendly

On your next trip to Tokyo, after you drop your bags at the excellently indulgent (and supremely well located) Four Seasons Marunouchi (from $500 per night; 800-819-5053 or, shop your way through architect Tadao Ando’s newest retail masterpiece, the vast, luxe, and almost entirely subterranean Omotesando Hills megamall in Harajuku. Then travel back through the winking lights of Ginza to dinner at Ippoh (81-3-3289-5011), for high-style tempura that’s brilliantly light and elegant. Shuffle home, sleep off the flight, and for once, be grateful when you wake up at 5 a.m.: In one of those rare jet-lag-is-a-boon situations, early morning is the perfect time for going to see sumo. Not the big matches—which can yawn on for hours and cost a fortune—but at the sumo “stables” themselves, where you’ll witness apprentice and master wrestlers thumping and heaving close up. Practice begins at about 7 a.m. at the famous Takasago Beya, and if you go during the week, you won’t just be the only Westerner there—you’ll likely be the only visitor. Make your way into the bland, sixties-era building and settle quietly onto one of the pillows on the floor; these are some of Japan’s most revered sports stars, so they won’t acknowledge your presence with more than a glance. You can easily pass the better part of the morning watching dozens of brief, incredibly intense mini-matches, in which one gargantuan, half-naked man heaves another one out of a dirt-floored ring. Just have the hotel call ahead (the entire team is sometimes off touring), don’t point your feet at the wrestlers (it’s a sign of disrespect), don’t talk loudly, and don’t use a camera flash.

Amman, Jordan
Float on a sea that’s below sea level.

Hours From New York: 11

Neighbors like Egypt have always gone after the luxury tourist, but it’s taken Jordan until now to play the ancient world–meets–Frette sheets game. This summer, it took a step in that direction with the opening of the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar (from about $200; 962-6-461-5922 or Set on the silent shores of the Dead Sea—1,300 feet below sea level and 75 minutes from Amman airport—the 114-room retreat is surrounded by the Jordan Valley’s sheer cliffs, and far removed from any hint of civilization except for the lights of Jerusalem flickering in the distance. Make it your base for a week of relaxing at the Earth’s lowest point. Float on the sea’s salt-rich waters; soak in the resort’s massive, beachfront Infinity-edge pool; and enjoy mineral scrubs in its new Anantara Spa. In between, hide out in your airy, seafront mod-Arabian-design room and eat in the alfresco restaurant. In case you get restless, Petra—Jordan’s ancient pink-sandstone pride and joy—is a three-hour drive south. Slightly farther on is Wadi Rum, a series of towering, multihued canyons made famous in Lawrence of Arabia and an equal to Petra’s better-known palaces. There are early-Christian pilgrimage sites like Mt. Nebo for the Bible scholars, and Greek and Roman ruins at Jerash for classicists. When you’re ready to experience population density again, spend a day in Amman. Start with the Corinthian columns of the Citadel atop Jebel al-Qala’a hill, with its abundance of Bronze Age ruins. Next, head for Jordan River Designs (962-6-461-3081), a Save the Children–sponsored boutique stocking stylish, locally made rugs, quilts, and leather goods. Have a late lunch at Abu Ahmed (962-6-464-1879): fresh salads, grilled meats, just-baked breads, all served in an old stone cottage. Expect noticeable security and metal detectors at all hotels and historical landmarks. Jordan may be relatively safe and calm, but considering its neighbors, you can never be too careful.

Ljubljana, Slovenia
Fly down a torchlit mountain.

Hours From New York: 10

Night sledding—or sledging, as the Slovenians call it—is a rush that makes snowboarding look dull. For 45 euros, Label, a snowboard shop in Ljubljana (, will hook you up with snowshoes, sleds, a head lamp, a guide, and a lift to Velika Planina ( You trek up to the empty ski trail on snowshoes, surrounded by looming, craggy mountains, past tiny houses heavy with snow. The temperature often dips to the teens, so belt down a warm blueberry brandy in the lodge before you jump on the sled, which screams down the mountain (like it or not, so will you). The only way to stop is by veering into a snowbank or dragging your feet, Fred Flintstone style. After a few runs, hang with the locals over a Union beer on tree-stump seats beneath the star-packed winter sky and think about how you’re going to recover tomorrow in the saunas and mineral-rich thermal baths at the Vitarium Spa of the Smarjeske Toplice Health Resort ( The next day, hike up to Ljubljana Castle for a great view and unexpectedly good contemporary art. Make sure to walk through Tivoli Park, where you’ll see some pretty hip graffiti. Stay at the Art Nouveau–style Grand Hotel Union (from $114; 01-308-1270 or, and don’t skip the hotel’s massive breakfast, especially the gibanica, an airy fruit-filled pastry.

Big Sur, California
Hang out with a llama at a time-warp retreat.

Hours From New York: 9

Driving the ribbon-candy coastline of California’s Highway 1 at sunset is something everybody should do at least once. The place to stay after negotiating the hairpin turns and breathtaking vistas is the bohemian, eccentric, time-warped Gorda Springs Resort (from $225; 805-927-3918), which feels very much like a place that hippies settled and never left. The sprawling complex is set into a mountainside; there are llamas, goats, and sheep wandering casually around the property; and all the rooms (which are decorated in early Salvation Army) face the Pacific. There are no telephones, televisions, or radios—and there is no cell-phone reception—but each has a Jacuzzi filled with mountain-spring water, and the baked goods at the Gorda Market have fans up and down the West Coast. Gas up somewhere else, though: Big Sur has some of the highest prices per gallon on the coast.

Quinta Maconda guest house, in Antigua, Guatemala.Photo: Courtesy of Quinta Maconda

Tepoztlán, Mexico
Hike up to heaven.

Hours From New York: 8.5
TYPE OF VACATION: Family Friendly

Wealthy Mexico City weekenders flock to Tepoztlán (elev. 6,000 feet) for the fresh air, mountain views, and spa treatments based on pre-Columbian rituals, so travel on weekdays to avoid heavy traffic. Book a car from the airport for the two-hour drive, and check in to the Posada del Tepozteco (from $180; 52-739-395-0010 or, where the rooms have stellar views of the mountains and the pre-Aztec pyramid perched 1,200 feet high up; you’ll be scaling it tomorrow. Start early, to beat the heat: Pack water, a snack, 35 pesos each for the entrance fee (and a little extra for souvenirs). Head out on Avenida del Tepozteco, which leads into a steep path, then to a steeper stone staircase, and finally a ladder up a cliff (there are no official guides, but plenty of local families do the hike regularly). In-shape walkers with appropriate footwear can do the climb in an hour or two, but allow four hours for resting and photo moments. From the top, you’ll get a view that stretches to the edge of the horizon and takes in the splendidly varied topography of central Mexico’s great plateau, from the plains to the steep mountains and sloping volcanoes. Recover over a huge plate of mole at Axitla (52-739-395-0519), a restaurant at the foot of the climb, in a sprawling tropical garden.

Antigua, Guatemala
Unwind with a hand- rolled Cuban.

Hours From New York: 6

With cruise ships docking in Belize and major hotel chains popping up all over Costa Rica, Central America seems less exotic than it did a decade ago. But a tiny four-room hotel in a house dating back to the 1550s in the historic center of Antigua, Guatemala, has managed to perpetuate a sense of the mystic ancient-Mayan culture. Laced with the refined taste of the Spanish Colonial explorers who settled the area in the sixteenth century, Quinta Maconda is tastefully decorated with hand-woven textiles, tribal masks and paintings, and pagan shrines from Central America and Southeast Asia. Chill out with a Zacapa rum and play backgammon or gin rummy while the staff practices old-school Guatemalan traditions such as burning incense, lighting votives along walkways, and wetting the stone courtyard each afternoon to cool the house. You can also shop for exotic-wood furniture and hand-rolled cigars in the artisan storefronts lining the cobblestoned streets of Antigua, or let the hotel’s well-connected owners arrange private excursions like helicopter safaris to explore volcanoes and four-by-four road trips to nineteenth-century coffee farms. Book the master bedroom if it’s available; it’s located atop a spiral staircase, and the private terrace has amazing views of the hotel’s tropical garden as well as the tile rooftops of Antigua. Breakfast is served in the garden, and lunch and dinner in the dining room, where a converted antique Guatemalan door serves as a tabletop ($675 per night for a two-bedroom; $1,100 to rent the entire house, including breakfast and laundry; 866-621-4032 or

Winter Break