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Azul beach hotel/Karismahotels.com
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updated 11/1/2007 4:34:01 PM ET 2007-11-01T20:34:01

It's not too late to start planning for some great, warm winter getaways, but part of the planning should include embracing a contrarian view toward certain popular destinations. Here are some of my suggestions for affordable — and less crowded — warm winter getaways:

Salvador, Brazil
Instead of going to crowded Rio de Janeiro, visit Salvador. The weather will be great. During the months of December to February, the temperature ranges from the mid-70s to the mid-80s.

Renowned for its music, dance, 16th- and 17th-century architecture, and spirituality, Salvador is Brazil’s third-largest city, and it is one of the best places in the New World where African roots have been preserved.  It is located on a peninsula at the mouth of Baía de Todos os Santos.

Make sure to visit Museu Afro-Brasileiro. The building, built in 1808, is now a museum that follows the history of Afro-Brazilian culture, and it depicts Afro-Brazilian gods carved into wood.

The Spectacle of Lavagem do Bonfim is quite an impressive faith demonstration that occurs each year on the third Thursday of January on the N.S. do Bonfim steps. Although sacred to Catholics and Candomblés, this demonstration attracts travelers because hundreds of women dress in their Bahian outfits, consisting of hoop skirts, white turbans and lace blouses, and parade five miles to the N.S. de Bonfim. Along the way, Sons of Gandhi bloco sing to them. Vendors offer food and drink, and thousands of spectators gather to watch the festivities. Barefoot Baianas scrub the steps of the church, and after they are finished, a party occurs in the front of the church, complete with music, capoeira, and food and drink.

And the good, perhaps better news, is that it is not expensive.

Check out Village Novo. This 125-year-old heritage mansion is located across from the beach. One of the best rooms is Room No. 201, because it is the biggest room, with hardwood floors and a small veranda facing the beach. Beachfront rooms start at about $45 for double occupancy. 011 55 71 3267 4362.

Pousada do Pilar
This heritage building offers a rooftop patio overlooking Salvador's waterfront, and Pelourinho’s main square is about a 10-minute walk downhill. City-view rooms cost about $90 and ocean-view and veranda rooms cost about $100. 011 55 71 3241 2033.

Riviera Maya, Mexico
Instead of going to Cancun, which historically has been jam-packed with drunken college students, head for the Riviera Maya.

The average, year-round temperature is between 77 and 86 degrees F. The rainy season is from May to November. Winters are warm and pleasant.

Riviera Maya is just about one hour south of Cancun, and it has a variety of beautiful beaches. Playa Del Carmen, about 30 miles north, is an old fishing village transformed into a luxe Caribbean city with resorts, golf, international cuisine, shopping and beaches. It has a diverse culture mixed with traditional Mexican and European flavors. It also has a variety of busy shops, boutique hotels and all-inclusive resorts.

Tulum, 20 miles south, is a well-preserved Mayan city, which centers around a grand plaza, and it even has El Castillo — a castle. The town sits on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, and you can climb down stairs to get to the white beaches below.

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One word of caution: While the Riviera Maya is more expensive than Salvador, it’s also more upscale. They’ve really upgraded the accommodations.

Azul Beach Hotel by Karisma is an award-winning, boutique hotel in the Riviera Maya that offers family-friendly amenities, especially for the holidays. Guests staying at the hotel on December 24 get to attend a Christmas extravaganza. The day will begin with a traditional Mexican holiday party known as a Posada. Here, kids get to break open a piñata, have their picture taken with Santa Claus, and then you and the kids get to head off to a Cirque du Soleil-esque performance, which has acrobats and other circus acts, such as a Christmas-themed show. Then you can enjoy a holiday dinner at one of three Gourmet-Inclusive restaurants at the hotel. The hotel even has an in-suite nanny for the parents to have a break and hit the town. Rates for the holiday season begin at $353.50 per couple, per night. 1-866-KARISMA (527-4762).

Looking for more spartan accommodations? In Playa del Carmen, the Luna Blue Hotel and Garden is a five-minute walk from beach, and it offers use of their private beach club. Rates start at about $72 per night.

In Tulum the Maya Tulum is a beachfront resort and spa featuring private cabanas with individual bathrooms, Rates start at $125-145 per night.

Mendoza, Argentina
One of my favorite warm-weather winter destinations is in western Argentina. Specifically —Mendoza.

Instead of going to well-known Buenos Aires, try Mendoza. Argentina is the great bargain when it comes to the U.S. dollar. (1 USD = 3.15 Argentine pesos). Combine that with more than 880 wineries in Mendoza, and you're in for a treat.

Weather during December through February ranges from the high 80s to the high 50s and low 60s. December through February are generally Mendoza's warmest months,

Mendoza is renowned for its wineries. Achaval-Ferrer is an authentic Argentinean winery in Mendoza. The winery offers visits from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Saturdays. The visit features a tasting session, which is just $10 U.S. a person and includes samples from different Achaval-Ferrer vineyards. Book a tour online or contact Patricia Lambert at 011 54 9 261 5 53 5565.

If you are adventurous, whitewater rafting on the Rio Mendoza is a must. You can organize a tour through Ser O Outdoors, an outdoor-adventure tour company. Rafting excursions range from the short ones geared toward beginners to two-day excursions for the more adventurous and experienced. Each excursion features an experienced guide.

Accommodations:El Portal Suite Hotel is a suite-style hotel that overlooks Plaza Chile. Rates start at about $147 per night. Call 011 54 261 4382038.
                  
NH Cordillera is located in the center of the city, and rates start at about $106 per night. Call 011 54.26.14416464.

And there's an excellent Park Hyatt in Mendoza as well.

Looking for something closer to home?
Skip the theme-park chaos that is Orlando and visit St. Petersburg. From December to January, St. Petersburg, Florida, has warm days and cool nights. It’s dry with high temperatures, ranging from 68-78 degrees and lows from about 48-60 degrees.

As a city of the arts, St. Petersburg has several noted museums. One not to miss is The Salvador Dali Museum, which is considered to have the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Dali. The Michelin Guide awarded this museum three stars, and it is one of the highest-ranked museums in the entire South.

The Weedon Island Preserve chronicles the first inhabitants of Florida, who may have arrived as early as 14,000 years ago. At this preserve, you can fish for redfish, snook and spotted sea trout, walk along nature trails, and rent kayaks and glide through mangrove trails.

Accommodations:The Dickens House Bed & Breakfast
This hotel was once a home built in 1912. It has Craftsman-style architecture with five charming guest rooms: one room, called the Cottage Suite, resembles a Victorian-age beach cottage with white wicker, sea-grass carpet, roll-up awnings, and has shells resting on the nightstands. For New Year’s, the B&B is offering a four-night package that will include tickets to St. Petersburg’s 1st Night, which is considered to be one of the most successful 1st Nights in the nation, and nearly 20,000 attend. The package also includes two- to three-course breakfasts, and on New Year’s Day, the B&B will offer a special champagne breakfast. Rates start at $129 per night. For reservations call (800) 381 2022.

Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club
This resort is offering the “Perfect Foursome” package, which allows guests to play on any of the four championship golf courses, including the renowned Copperhead, which is home to the PGA Tour’s POD’S Championship each March, at no additional surcharge. The package includes: 18 holes of golf daily, including use of a golf cart and a bonus round on your day of arrival or departure, guest room accommodations, advance tee times, and unlimited use of the practice facilities, club storage and daily golf clinics. The package is $199 per person per night (double occupancy) through 1/16/08. For reservations call (800) 456-2000.

Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at PeterGreenberg.com. 

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