Escape for winter sun, budget classy style
The darkest, shortest days, are over, so are the end-of-the year festivities for us Europeans, and yet there is another three-odd months of cold and darkness to look forward to. A winter sun trip is the answer But our bank accounts might look a bit bare, too. So, what to do? Winter sun,. Usually, it can be expensive, if you want the full hog of 30C heat, sun, sea and a bunch of cocktails by the pool. Now if you are a regular reader of Holiday Golightly’s blog, where budget classy is the tag line.
I am my own best customer and will be heading to Aqaba in Jordan for a bit of diving and sightseeing shortly. So, what better way to start with this totally underrated resort, followed by some other destinations you may not find in the usual winter sun “best of” where you not only get your money’s worth but decent weather, culture and good food to boot!
Diving and the Desert: Aqaba, Jordan
It is not secret that I love Aqaba. When I visited in 2020, I spent a few very relaxed days there, walking along the long beach, eating excellent Middle Eastern food, indulged in a bit of Duty-Free Shopping (apparently that’s why gold jewellery is priced well there) , and, instead of a try dive, spent a day in Wadi Rum. It is also very well sited for Petra. And if you spend a few nights oin Jordan,the Petra entry fee does come down a fair bit.
So, my suggestion would be to arrive, relax on a beach, then take a bus to Petra, spend two days there, return via Wadi Rum and spend some more time in Aqaba, if you want to squeeze everything in, but Petra and Wadi Rum alone would warrant five days each. Or you can stay flexible and use Aqaba as a base. The excellent JETT operates regular buses to these touristic destinations as well as full tours , and in winter, it rarely gets busy, so you can easily buy tickets the day before.
If you are lucky with the weather, you will be able to swim in the Red Sea in January, and Aqaba has a warm, dry balmy climate. Bear in mind that both Wadi Rum and especially Petra are inland at a much higher elevation, so you may see snow and flash floods in Petra.
I am going to go diving this time, and there are probably 20 dive shops to choose from, usually PADI certified. I will report back.
Where to stay in Aqaba
I like to be near the centre of town, close to the bazaar and numerous restaurants. The city beach is not for the average Westerner, though, and if you are female and turn up in a Western swimsuit, you will get plenty of stares. However, for evening walks, bazaar and people watching I would always choose somewhere in the city centre, and then take a taxi to one of the beach clubs of South Beach, where you can swim, snorkel or just lounge.
If you want primarily the beach, I recommend staying in South Beach or Tala Bay about 10km from the town centre. The JETT bus even picks up from Tala Bay and South Beach.
Last time , I stayed at the lovely Amir Palace Hotel. However, they do seem to book through their own website now and while the hotel is nice, it is also fairly simple, and I am not sure close to 60 Euro is a good price without breakfast.
If you have a bigger budget, the Lacosta Hotel is not just close to the beach and some of the best restaurants in town, it is also lovely, friendly, with huge rooms but – no pool. Easy to be mixed up with the Laverda Hotel , which has a star less but sits like a Moorish Castle on steroids next to King Hussein Street and the city beach. Doesn’t have a pool eitehr but has some sustainability credentials. If you want a pool AND be in the centre, the Kempinski is probably the best choice – five-star, large pool, close to the city beach and all the pared-down elegant style you could wish for.
Diving til the camels come home: Safaga and Luxor, Egypt
Bit of a wild card, as I haven’t been to neither in winter. But I have been to Luxor in May and it was way too hot. And Sinai in January which was perfect. So, I have created the absolute Egypt dream trip for winter sun. You will be able to get relatively low cost or charter flights into Hurghada. Safaga is smaller, and, dare I say it, a bit classier. There is certainly no shortage of good diving sites in both, and both destinations do have tons of offer of dive safaris on liveaboard boats to reach the further out dive sites.
Being the careful fair weather diver that I am, I would probably feel much safer diving off the shore, knowing that a decompression chamber is just a stone’s throw away , and I rather stick to one of two dives a day, thanks very much. But even if you are not a diver – the reefs usually start a couple hundred metres from the beach, so if you just dip your head under water, you will be richly rewarded.
And then, take at least three days for Luxor, about 250km away in the Nile Valley. Yes, it’s a bit of a trip with a once-daily public bus, but club together with other travellers and find a taxi and see if you can visit the funerary temple of Sethos I in Abydos with its rich reliefs, about 100km north of Qena, as well. Sethos was a ruler of the 19th Dynasty around 1290 BCE, so the sites at Luxor predate the Temple of Sethos by roughly 200 years but the temple predates the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Everyone I have spoken to who’s been there was blown away.
Luxor in the Nile Valley is a balmy 20C in January, raising to 30C in March, with cool nights, so perfect for morning sightseeing and afternoons in the sun lounger. Any time after April it gets way too hot for anything, so it is much more fun in the European winter.
Where to stay in Safaga and Luxor
Safaga is quite stretched out, with many mega resorts lining the coastline. The Sharm El Naga Resort, about 5km from the centre, is a somewhat smaller operation with a house reef and a diving centre, offering unbeatable cheap full board board in tent accommodation for about 40 Euro for two, and tidy standard hotel rooms for about 50 Euro.
For me, the Old Winter Palace Hotel is THE place to stay in Luxor. One of the “Grand Tour” historic hotels full of Olde-Worlde charm, with period decor and OTT service. It is right by the Nile, has expensive gardens and a very good pool. However, although it is still a fair bit cheaper than the equally grand Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, if you want grandeur, here is a good place to indulge in it. But well, for half the price, less than 100 Euro for a double you could stay in the “Pavillion Winter Luxor” a nice inoffensive 1990s extension right in the Gardens of the historic Winter Palace, and use the great pool and gardens and restaurants at the Old Winter Palace. Being the eternal cheapskate, I stayed in a now pulled down Soviet extension which had certainly seen better days but was super cheap and clean.
But with that budget option no longer available, I would pick the atmospheric little Nefertiti Hotel vis-avis Luxor Temple and not far from the bazaar, at around 35Euro for two including great breakfast, done out nicely in traditional Egyptian style. If you want a pool on a budget, you need to look round the West Bank village of Gezirah for small guesthouses like The Nile Diana Luxor or the Gite Hotel Gezira, where 20-40 Euro will buy a double room with breakfast. An advantage for those sightseeers, as you will be on the correct side of the Nile for most temples and the Valley of the Kings.
Holladhihi and Alpine Scenery: Berchtesgaden, Germany
And now, we are back in Europe, in my native Germany, even. Of course, the Alps, especially in Austria, Switzerland and France, are famous for winter sports. But winter sun? At a budget??? Absolutely, yes, but you need to time it right. Around early March, when the snow melts and just a few persistent skiers scrape down the artificially snowed pistes, the Berchtesgadener Land is wonderful for walking, sightseeing and relaxation. Bad Reichenhall is a spa town with a decent large-scale spa, the Rupertustherme. Just down the road or half an hour by an incredibly beautiful local train journey, Berchtesgaden is the gateway to some of Germany’s most beautiful scenery, the Koenigssee, and an Alpine panorama dominated by the 2700m Watzmann Group.
You may not be able to do elaborate treks in winter and early spring, but the weather round February-March is often good, the skiers are leaving and the spring and summer crowds are not yet arriving. You can take a boat trip on the Koenigssee without queueing for it first, walk some easy trails, even including a glacier, weather allowing, and for bad weather days you can visit a working salt mine, including some wellness cave,more thermal spas or, if you have a strange fascination for Germany’s darker history, some summer retreat of the Bohemian corporal. And, should you be into German folk fashion, Berchtesgaden has a small number of really stylish shops where you can deck yourself out with quality gear for the next Octoberfest without looking too naff or wearing sweatshop polyester.
Salzburg is just a short bus trip away and for those who grew up with the Sound of Music, you must see it at least once! Somewhat mor e touristy than most towns in the region, but not overly so in winter. And even for this German who just bemusedly looks when American go gaga at Schloss Mirabell, Salzburg makes a nice, traditional city outing with good food and a touch of Austrian charm. And Mozart was born there.
Where to stay in Berchtesgaden and Salzburg
My favourite is the Pension Krennleiten in Schoenau am Koenigssee, halfway between Berchtesgaden and the Koenigssee. Situated in an old magnificent farmers house, this Bed and Breakfast is sustainable, vegetarian, and super friendly. There is,however, no WiFi, and there are no TVs except in the lounge. I did love it for the week I stayed there, but if you cannot live without Wifi then this might not be for you. I recommend you book directly, as the prices on the website are better than on booking sites.
Another nice place to stay, right next to train and bus station but only a short walk to the centre, is the Hotel Schwabenwirt. Midsized and solid, this might not give you the ultimate Alpine farmhouse experience, but it gets consisntetly good reviews and is super convenient for all public transport. If you don’t mind being a bit further away from the most scenic areas, Bad Reichenhall and Salzburg offer nice accommodation at 50-80 Euros per night. Bad Reichenhall is a very scenic half hour train ride away, Salzburg half an hour by bus. And although Salzburg is in Austria, there are no border controls. In SAlzburg, I really like the numa Mozart Rooms.. Comfortably under 100 Euro, but super stylish and in the somewhat less touristy but no less beautiful Neustadt. walking distance to everything.
So since I am not delivering some hearty Alpine crackers on a budget when it comes to hotels, go and eat at the Waldhauser Brau Restaurant. You won’t get more Bavarian, and the good thing is, it’s mostly locals and German tourists, so no OTT gimmicks here. In Salzburg, apart from the bleeding obvious Cafe Sacher, try the much more intimate Konditorei Schatz. It is down a small passage, not very obvious, and again, mostly locals. And buy your Mozartkugel chocolates from Cafe Fuerst. Pricey but the best gob stoppers I ever enjoyed.
Pasta and a chocolate: Siracusa and Val di Noto, Italy
Staying in Europe, just a cheap flight away to Catania or Palermo or wherever budget airlines choose to fly nowadays, Siracusa is a dream. Much more busy in summer, the island of Ortigia holds the old Siracusa town. You can easily spend a couple of days on the beautiful churches, enjoy the sea, walk around and eat amazing food. Hardly any one goes there in winter, so you miss all the seasonal crowds.
And then you can take a trip of one of two nights to one of the towns of the Val di Noto: Noto, Ragusa, Modica or Scicli. Noto is most easily reached by train frm Sircus, Ragusa perhaps the most famous, Scicli for insiders. And yet, I would always choose Modica because of its fantastic chocolate.
Like all historic towns in the Noto Valley, it is fine restaurant, although you do have to look for them. Much more accessible are some very nice chocolate makers lining its main street. Modican chocolate is very special as it is made from raw cocoa, water and sugar and spices. That makes it vegan and as far as sweets go, probably top scale for health benefits. Many of the chocolatiers also use organic and fairtrade ingredients on top of that, such as Il Modicano. In all these towns, you want to be in the old part of town – basically close to the train station. Noto and Scicli are much smaller than Ragusa and Modica, so it doesn’t matter so much there.
Where to stay in Siracusa and the Noto Valley
Modica has few hotels but an abundance of holiday apartments in the centre of town, so if you always wanted to stay in an authentic Southern Italian apartment, this might be the place to do it. Places like Stanze Barocce or Casa Bellizzi are suberbly situated at the bottom of the valley clsoe to cafes and restaurants and you will find accommodation for two or more people easily for under 100Euro. IN the 100Euro bracket, you can stay in a converted palace, the Palazzo Failla, in the historic quarter, but be prepared towalk up and down a few steps.
For Siracusa, you have the choice of holiday apartments and hotels as well. Its a lot more touristy on the whole. I stayed at the Arco Antico last time, which was perfect except for the beds. I would still recommend it, because it is perfectly located on Ortigia but in walking distance to the train station and excellent value for money – we paid about 60 Euro for a small apartment. For a hotel, I recommend Henry’s House– a small very classy hotel in an old Ortigian house, exquisitely decorated.
Artefacts and pastry almost in Syria
Last not least a true wild card, one you will guaranteed never find in a “Best of Winter Sun” escapes in any magazine. Add to that one of the best archaeological museums in the world, where artefacts actually say in the province they were excavated, one of the worlds oldest churches, some fine shopping and the best Middle Eastern desserts… and you never guess it, it’s Antakya, or Hatay as its called in modern Turkey. It was once part of the State of Aleppo, which tells you something how close it is to Syria, all of it having been part of the Ottoman Empire which crumbled down after World War I. It became an independent republic in the 1930’s and became part of the Republic of Turkey in 1939.
Although you can fly there quite easily from Istanbul, it does not appear on the radar of most travellers except young Turks who like to spend fun, traditional weekends in lovingly furnished boutique hotels in its old town. In winter, temperatures are a balmy 15-25C so if you wanted to, you could spend a few days in the very low-key resorts of Iskenderun, which is mainly a port city. I have been wondering whether it’s a German thing that you can fly there so easily, relatively cheap, and I noticed it is somewhat more expensive from London. However, if you find a good flight to Istanbul, consider spending a day or two there as a buffer then buy a domestic flight online, which is normally incredibly cheap.
Where to stay in Antakya and around
I stayed at the Kavinn Boutique Hotel. It is an old courtyard house with cave-like rooms run by a husband and wife, very lovely. Furnishings are simple and high quality, the courtyard is a great place to sit and dream. Saying that I did get some special deal back then so it is best to compare prices with the Liwan Boutique Hotel. This historic building is the home of the first president of Syria, and somewhat grander than the Kavinn and really oozes atmosphere. Not to be confused with the Liwan Deluxe Hotel closer to the bazaar, in another converted grand house, with somewhat ornate furnishings but not quote in the other Liwan’s true to period style.
Antakya really is the place to go for the traditional Konak guesthouse, all of which have been renovated in recent years, like Cankaya Konaklari Hotel , a lovely mansion decked out ornately, Turkish style, or the Yesil Ev, which marries traditional architecture with elegant timeless classic interiors.
For sun and sea, you need to travel about 30km to the city of Iskenderun, ancient Alexandretta, but the weather might not be reliable enough for swimming in the sea, and it doesn’t have many attractive hotels, but Samandag, a small town closer to the Syrian border has the interesting Simon Aqua Park Hotel, a “modern rustic” style building with a huge pool. Beaches round SAmandag are rather rustic, partially sandy, and you probably have them to yourself.
The Small Print
I have travelled to all places recommended except Safaga between 2001 and 2022, so yes, spread out over some time, but without hesitation, I would revisit each single one.
The majority of hotel links are affiliate links to Booking.com. I do use Booking.com myself to the extent that I am now at a Genius Level 3, which, unlike frequent flyer miles, is fairly easy to gain and to maintain, offering discounts, preferred customer service and some extras like free upgrades. I would say I have been 95% happy with Booking.com and would definitely recommend it over other booking engines. However for small guesthouses, I see if I can book dorectly first, becaue it has not escaped me that all that convenience usually comes at a price – for the hoteliers.