- Visit the real St. Nick's hometown in Anatolia, Turkey
- Trek the national parks of the Western United States
- Spend your Christmas holiday hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro
- Ring in the New Year at the Harbin Ice Festival in Northeast China
"It's the most wonderful time of the year."
That's what Andy Williams sang 50 years ago, and for some, the song rings true. For others, left cold by carols and gift wrap, urgings to "be of good cheer" can be devilishly hard to escape.
Hard, that is, if you stick to your holiday routine. But what if you leave it all behind? Plenty of small-group escorted tours are still taking bookings for December, and if you're a solo traveler it's especially easy to snap up an available spot.
Whether you're constitutionally immune to the holiday spirit, or just not feeling it this year, a few new faces and jingle-bell-free surroundings are bound to give you a boost.
Here's a sampling of tours with open spaces for 2013, as of this writing -- some with last-minute deals for travel in the coming weeks.
Around Turkey in 12 days
The real St. Nick hailed from Anatolia, the Asian portion of modern-day Turkey, which is nothing at all like the North Pole. The Christmas Turkey tou
r drops in on the saint's home town as well as some of the country's biggest draws, including the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the "fairy chimneys" of Cappadocia and the shores of Gallipoli. From $1,899, not including international airfare, visa, entrance fees, and tips. December 18-29; 1-866-377-6147.
Sand, Sea and Souks
Here, where the Sahara meets the Atlantic, you'll trade bargain-hunting in a crowded mall for haggling at a busy souk (marketplace). The Best of Morocco tour
visits the exotic cities of Fez and Marrakech, as well as Roman ruins at Volubilis. It will also have you trekking by camel to stay in a Berber desert camp and admiring the ocean in Essaouira. From $1,279, not including international airfare, visa, departure transfer, most lunches and dinners, and tips. December 23-January 6;1-855-444-9110.
Rivers and temples
Ready for a change of pace? You'll find it in more ways than one on the Laos & Cambodia Explorer tour
floating slowly down the Mekong River. Witness daily life in Laos' Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that blends traditional Lao and colonial French architecture; fly on to Cambodia to tour the legendary Angkor temples. $2,874 with promo code (given on website); does not include international flights, visa, meals other than breakfast, or tips. December 21-January 3; 1-800-663-5132.
This tour of the Yucatán Peninsula
starts and ends in Cancún, but its focus lies in culture, not cabanas. In addition to exploring Mayan ruins at Uxmal and Chichén Itzá, your agenda includes the museums of Mérida and a once-functioning hacienda. You'll also hit the beaches in Tulúm and Playa del Carmen. From $1,799; does not include international flights, dinners, some lunches, or tips. December 21-30; 1-888-800-4100.
Wonders of the West
The American West boasts majestic scenery and remarkable cities. Why choose between these experiences? Instead take a tour
that meanders from San Francisco's Coit Tower to the towering sequoias of Yosemite; from the bright lights of Las Vegas to the shimmering sunsets of the Grand Canyon. $2,999; does not include transport to California, most meals, or tips. December 21-January 4; 1-888-800-4100.
New Year's on ice
The Harbin Ice Festival in northeast China gives this tour
a dazzling, color-saturated twist. After taking in sights like the Great Wall, Beijing's Forbidden City and the terra-cotta warriors of Xi'an, you'll fly to Harbin and ring in 2014 with a view of the festival's gorgeous ice sculptures, illuminated with a rainbow of lights and traditional paper lanterns. The next day, try the ice luge or other amusements at Ice and Snow World, the festival's theme park. From $2,299, not including international airfare, visa, entrance fees and tips. December 23-January 2; 1-866-377-6147.
Ski the Tyrol
This Alpine ski and snowboarding getaway
run by Topdeck Travel, which specializes in tours for adults under 40, lets you learn some downhill skills or practice those you've got. Get cozy in the Austrian village of Kirchdorf, where the day's outdoor activities end with the tradition of après-ski, also known as nightlife. During Christmas week, day trips to the Christmas markets of Salzburg and Innsbruck are optional at additional cost. $749; does not include international airfare, transfers from airport, ski pass, equipment rental, or meals other than breakfast and two dinners. December 21-28 or December 28-January 4; 1-800-607-1399.
Costa Rica on the go
You might not need a New Year's gym membership after this active tropical getaway.
Hit the ground -- or rather, rapids -- running with a whitewater rafting trip, followed up by rainforest hikes and kayaking through mangroves. Then enjoy well-earned relaxation in hot springs and mud baths. $2098; does not include international airfare, some meals, or tips. December 28-January 4; 1-800-488-8483.
For a truly epic voyage, splurge on the Snows of Kilimanjaro tour
, an ascent of the highest peak in Africa. Your first day will be spent acclimatizing in Arusha National Park; from there it's four to six hours of hiking a day, with arrival at the summit timed for sunrise where possible. Though the climb is tough, groups have often included septuagenarians, and tour operators boast a 97% summit success rate. Plus you'll travel in relative comfort with private igloos and porters to carry all but your day pack. $6,495; does not include international flights, some tips or a sleeping bag, which is recommended. December 19-28; 1-800-554-7016.
Trekking in Patagonia
Snow-capped mountains, glaciers and sparkling lakes: Patagonia is a breathtaking wilderness at the southern tip of the world. And with some serious hiking involved, this trip may leave you breathless
in more ways than one -- it's recommended for the physically fit. Your outdoors time is bookended with stays in Santiago, Chile, and Buenos Aires, and the trip mixes basic camping with hotel stays. $3,863; does not include international airfare, some lunches and dinners, or tips. December 22-31; 1- 800-970-7299.
If you could go anywhere this December holiday season, where would you go and why? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.