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Train for a marathon. Organize your closets. Drink green smoothies. Not putting a smile on your face just yet, is it? What’s great about travel resolutions is that they are so much more fun to keep because they involve traveling, and who doesn’t want to push that to the top of their goals for 2013.

Consider these 5 travel resolutions (we promise, you’ll be a happier person by year’s end):

1. Take Your Vacation Days

Hotwire’s 2012 American Travel Behavior Survey revealed that the majority of Americans will have an average of 9.2 unused paid vacations days leftover, and that’s 6.2 days up from 2011. There’s no reason to not take vacation days that you’ve earned, even if you use them for a staycation to explore places in your city that you haven’t had time to see (probably because you’ve been working too much).

2. Experience First, Share Later

On vacation, do you find yourself lost in capturing a moment versus living in the moment? Maybe you’re fiddling with your iPhone trying to focus on your cappuccino at a café in Italy or trying to tweet from the summit of Pikes Peak and end up missing the sunset. It seems as a culture we’re obsessed with documenting every aspect of our vacation … while it’s happening. Put the phone away. Leave it in the hotel room for a change. Stop and smell the roses … post a photo of them on Facebook later.

3. Go Your Own Way

Everyone’s dream vacation is different. Whether it’s ignoring your parents’ paranoia after deciding to travel to a “dangerous country” or realizing that you might never find someone who will share your dream of hiking a glacier or diving in the Red Sea … follow your own heart when it comes to travel. Maybe take a trip alone this year to cross off a bucket list destination (for some reason, you can’t understand why no one shares your passion to go to Yemen), or maybe just take an afternoon for yourself on your next family vacation to see a sight that only you want to see.

4. Leave Your Comfort Zone in 2012

One of the best things about travel is that it offers you the chance to be someone you’re not at home. Maybe it’s dining like Andrew Zimmern would … you know, a bite of cow placenta here and a taste of turtle testicles there. Perhaps it’s learning to surf, even though you live in the Midwest far from any water, or taking a camping trip in Alaska, even though you’re a bonafide city slicker most of the year.

5. Sign Up for Rewards Programs

Is your excuse why you don’t travel more always money? You’re not alone. But good news, there are now more ways to cash in on travel rewards programs than ever. Our travel rewards guru, Summer Hull aka MommyPoints, is passionate about points because they are what make inexpensive travel possible. Whether it’s a rewards credit card that gives you miles for every dollar you spend or racking up hotel points, take advantage of these offers so you can travel more on your dollar in 2013.

So put down the green smoothie and book that 2013 vacation already.

 

New Year's Day Plunge

Photography by Todd Bush Photography

Sometimes you need to make a statement — big and bold — in order to start the New Year off with a fresh, clean slate. And what better way to begin a new chapter than with a dip into a body of water — icy cold, at that!

I can personally vouch for it: Taking the plunge on New Year’s Day is something you won’t soon forget. Last New Year’s, on the heels of recovering from a lower back injury, I was feeling a little listless, like something had to change. Then one day, an ad popped up on my Facebook page — something about a Coney Island Polar Bear Club Plunge on New Year’s. Intrigued, I clicked on the ad.

Turns out, the Coney Island Polar Bear Club is the oldest swimming club of its kind in the United States, and every year since the early 1900s, this hardy group of men and women, now numbering in the hundreds, has taken a dip in the Atlantic Ocean off Coney Island on New Year’s Day. (They also take regular dips every Sunday from November through April, in case you can’t get enough.)

Hypothermia? Nah!

OK, OK, you’re probably thinking — I don’t know — “hypothermia” right about now. But as I found out last New Year’s, as I gathered with more than a thousand eager New Year’s plungers off the boardwalk at Coney Island’s Stillwell Avenue, you don’t have to be in super-primo-uno shape to take the plunge.

In fact, looking around at the sea of humanity ready to celebrate that New Year’s Day, I wasn’t exactly looking at a bunch of bodybuilders — and that’s putting it mildly. (As Bon Jovi music blasted from nearby speakers, yes, I did actually see grown men in every kind of sportive garb – including, you know, speedos and diapers — but hey, who am I to judge?)

Then came the moment …

At 1 p.m. sharp! –– a sea of people — my fellow brothers and sisters! — rushed toward the water, many yelping in what sounded like a primal seal sound: ah-oooh, ah-oooh

Feeling the growing excitement, I raced toward the water with them, and then it hit me, “Wow! This water is cold!” But then, what the heck, this was it, the moment — the New Year! — and soon, I dunked my whole body underwater, then rushed back toward the shore, feeling an exhilaration and joy I wouldn’t soon forget. I’m still talking about it a year later! (And a word to the ladies: A New Year’s plunge is a great date option — you’ll see how tough your fella really is!)

Eager to take the plunge yourself? Check out these New Year’s plunge options around the world! We’ve even included some warmer options, in case, you know, you don’t want to freeze to death. Go figure.

It was a big year. The Olympics took over London, and James Bond returned to the box office for the 23rd time. We took a tour of the Twilight destinations and even learned where Gangnam is. 2012 is definitely a year to remember, so let us jog your memory before we jump into 2013 … READ MORE

Whether you were waiting to see if the world ended first or you are just a procrastinator every year, don’t fret! There’s still time to get last-minute gifts for the traveler in your life — the best part, these 5 gift ideas don’t even require shipping.

1. Airline Miles or Gift Cards — Give the gift of travel and treat the jetsetter in your life to airline miles or a gift card toward their next flight. American Airlines and United Airlines offer incentives for giving miles with bonus miles for the gifter as well.

2. Travel-Inspiring Books — For all the book lovers on your list, there’s bound to be a book for every travel personality. Some of our favorite books this year were those that inspired wanderlust: Hike the Pacific Crest Trail with Cheryl Strayed in Wild; ride along with travel writer and former actor Andrew McCarthy in The Longest Way Home ; and choose what’s next on your bucket list with National Geographic’s World’s Best Travel Experiences: 400 Extraordinary Places.

3. Gift of Language — Have someone on your list who’s about to take a trip? Help them learn the language before they go. You can usually pick up Rosetta Stone language programs at airports. Also LiveMocha offers 38 courses you can buy online. You’ll be hearing merci, danke, grazie … in no time.

4. Edible Gifts — Help the foodie traveler on your list relive their favorite trip with gifts fit for consumption. Curry spices from Thailand, rooibos tea from South Africa, coffee from Costa Rica, malbec wine from Chile … pick a taste from around the world. World Market  is a great place to pick up international goods or even your local Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods is bound to carry a few things for those seeking worldly tastes

5. LivingSocial Escapes and Adventures — What do you give someone who has everything? You can never have enough travel experiences! LivingSocial’s Escapes offer travel getaways like a 5-day surf camp in Hawaii or a Flurry of Family Fun in Vermont . Or give your loved one a fun thing to try in their very own city, such as an introductory flight lesson or photography class.

Need more gift inspiration? Check out our Editors’ Picks: Holiday Wish List and the Lost Girls’ Gift Guide.

Happy shopping!

White Christmas Cities 2012

Photography by Getty Images

Are you dreaming of a “White Christmas”? For many, the holiday season isn’t the same without the sight of powdery white snow outside, enjoyed from the cozy comfort of a home complete with a fireplace and an abundant supply of gifts under the Christmas tree.

Sadly, Santa didn’t do much dashing through the snow last Christmas. In fact, winter 2011 was the 4th warmest on record since 1896. So will Christmas 2012 see a repeat performance?

We asked our friends at weathertrends360 which parts of the United States will see a white Christmas this year — and by “white,” we’re talking 1 inch of snow or greater.

Good news! Plenty of cities nationwide will see a white Christmas, says weathertrends360 meteorologist Krissy Klinger — and keep in mind weathertrends360’s snowfall forecast for cities is accurate about 80% of the time.

White Christmas: 25 Cities to Watch

Here’s weathertrend360’s list of cities nationwide slated to see a white Christmas — the list is based on records of solid snow cover, with temperatures projected not to fall below freezing through Christmas:

1. Salt Lake City
2. Cheyenne, WY
3. Denver
4. Erie, PA
5. Buffalo, NY
6. Syracuse NY
7. Watertown, NY
8. Rochester, NY
9. Burlington, VT
10. Minneapolis
11. Madison, WI
12. Green Bay, WI
13. Bismarck, ND
14. Grand Rapids, MI
15. Sault Ste Marie, MI
16. Spokane, WA
17. Lake Tahoe, CA
18. Glasgow, MT
19. Elko, NV
20. Ely, NV
21. Flagstaff, AZ
22. Duluth, MN
23. Saint Cloud, MN
24. Marquette, MI
25. Omaha, NE

We Want a White Christmas, Not a Blizzard!

The first winter storm of the season, which has been named Draco, slammed the Midwest and western Great Lakes on Thursday — and is now moving northeast. That’s good news if you’re heading out west; now that the storm has passed, and the temperatures will be cold through the weekend, the snow pack should keep in place through Christmas, says weathertrends360 meteorologist Krissy Klinger.

Any major weather concerns to watch out for?

“The only area we’d be concerned with having disruptive, blizzard-type weather would be across the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest,” says Klinger. “But it’s going to be a close call. Right now, the forecast has a storm in the Central US gathering strength on Christmas Day, so any slow-down in that strengthening could easily push the storm off until late Christmas night or the next day.”

Farther north and west of the area being impacted by the blizzard (Minneapolis; Duluth, MN; Saint Cloud, MN; and Bismarck, ND) temperatures will be frigid through Christmas Day, which will also ensure that the current snow pack, several inches deep, will stay in place for the holiday, adds Klinger.

As for the Northeast, winter storm Draco is likely to bring snow to interior sections of New England (Burlington, VT), and kick up a period of lake-effect snow for cities such as Erie, PA; Syracuse, NY; Watertown, NY; Rochester, NY; and Buffalo, NY, says weathertrends360’s Klinger. Throughout, stay abreast of pre-Christmas travel issues.

Finally, in the West, across the Rockies, a Pacific storm system is slated to spread snow across higher elevations through this weekend and into Christmas Eve, says Klinger.

Snowfall Updates — Where to Go

For a full look at cities and snowfall, check out National Climatic Data Center’s nifty map of White Christmas Cities.

Stay current on White Christmas City updates on weathertrends360′s Facebook page.

And check out Travel Channel’s tips on how to score deals on last-minute holiday travel deals.

Photo courtesy of Sandos Hotels & Resorts

Whether you believe the world is going to end tomorrow or not, you can’t deny that Mexico is doing it up Mayan-style. Even though the Mayans, themselves, are saying the world is not going to end (phew!), that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate like it might, and these attractions in Mexico are making the most of the “new era.”

Tulum, one of the last cities built by the Maya and a popular tourist spot in Mexico, is celebrating the end of the Mayan Calendar with the Pyramid of Positive Thinking, designed by artist Xavier Maria y Campos. The pyramid, designed to reflect Mayan culture, will be fleshed out with recycled plastic bottles containing positive thoughts written by residents and visitors to the area. It is expected to receive more than 700,000 thoughts from people around the world.

Photo courtesy of the Riviera Maya DMO

Considered to be the world’s largest natural aquarium, Cancun’s Xel-Ha is celebrating the beginning of a new era with a variety of renewal experiences. The aquarium is looking on the bright side of things with yoga by the sea on the closest Saturday to the 21st each month and a special purification and transformation experience at the mouth of the world’s longest underground river. They’ve also been inviting people to write positive messages on the leaves of the sacred Ceiba tree through January 6.

The famed eco-archeological park, Xcaret, is offering visitors a series of Maya experiences, including a special “Hand the Sun Over” ceremony with the flight of 104 macaws, mystical meditation guided nature journeys and, tomorrow, a Maya 2012 gala dinner with a contemporary dance presentation.

Sandos Caracol Eco Resort & Spa is bringing history back to life with actual Mayans sharing their traditions with guests. With a “Maya Market” offering authentic cuisine, Xtabentun Maya coffee demonstrations, Maya spa rituals and Maya warrior dog tours on the calendar of events, Sandos is going all out. The property even introduced a dedicated New Era website with all the event details and a trailer teasing the December 21st “End of the Maya Calendar” party that will wrap up the celebrations.

Thinking about a trip to Mexico? Get the lowdown with Oyster’s Spotlight on Cancun post!

 

Day 5 of our 12 Days of Sparkle comes from the Shops at Columbus Circle in New York City, thanks to Instagram user issamas. Send us your photos using the hashtag #TCHolidayLights if you’d like to be featured!

While it was snubbed from a Golden Globe nomination today, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey wins our award for the movie that inspired the most travel in 2012. Opening in theaters worldwide this weekend, this latest installment in filmmaker Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy is creating a surge of tourism in New Zealand, with fans from all over the world raring to see the filming locations.

Hobbit fever is sweeping New Zealand, where about 150 locations were used for Lord of the Rings films scenery. From their Hobbit-themed plane to their unexpected safety video featuring the epic’s mythical creatures, Air New Zealand is now dubbed the “airline of Middle-earth.” And Auckland’s Wellington Airport welcomes throngs of fans with a giant sculpture of Gollum and a sign that reads, “The Middle of Middle-earth.”

New Zealand is certainly embracing Hobbit mania and reveling in their otherworldly status. The mecca of all this mania is Hobbiton, the movie-set-turned-tourist-attraction. You can tour the 44 hobbit holes set in the picturesque rolling hills of Matamata’s countryside to see how the furry-footed creatures live. You can even drink like a hobbit at Green Dragon, a Hobbit-themed pub that recently opened in Hobbiton. We do wonder, however, if this bar skips the “no shirt, no shoes, no service” rule so barefoot “little folk” can join the party.

But it’s not only the man-made wonders that are getting fan traffic. New Zealand’s natural wonders that provided the dramatic backdrops in the films are also getting a spotlight. One of the most-visited geological marvels in New Zealand is the mystical Milford Sound, which Rudyard Kipling called the “8th wonder of the world”. This fjord on the South Island is part of the protected Fiordland National Park. Now it’s even more popular due to its cameos in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Can’t get enough of the enchanting haflings? See more locations from the films in our Follow the Hobbit trail slideshow.  And even if you’re not part of the fandom, don’t fear; there’s a lot more to New Zealand then Hobbit treks. Even without a Hobbit sighting, the natural beauty here is simply magical.

Warm, cold, cold, warm. Make up your mind already!

It’s safe to say that’s what a whole lot of people are thinking across the country, as they don fall jackets one day, winter coats the next. Winter, it seems, has become a little moody, and no one is feeling the brunt of its mood swings more than ski resorts.

“Rising Temperatures Threaten Fundamental Change for Ski Slopes,” reported yesterday’s New York Times. “Study Shows Warming’s Threat to Skiing,” said The Aspen Times, just a few days earlier. And this equally sobering take from Bloomberg: “Ski Areas Face $1 Billion Risk From Warming Climate, Groups Say.”

But Wait, There’s Hope!

Before you reach for your Xanax, take a deep breath and repeat: “There’s still hope for fun on the slopes this year.”

Sure, we’re all feeling a little nervous, especially with still-fresh memories of last year’s unseasonably warm winter — the fourth warmest on record since 1896 — that caused half of the nation’s ski areas to open late and nearly as many to close early. This year is seeing more unpredictable temperature shifts in areas from Mount Sunapee in Vermont, where warmer temps have turned some usually snow white trails dirt brown, to several ski resorts in Colorado that have been forced to push back their opening dates.

A Pro Colorado Skier’s Opinion

Lou Dawson — no, not a climate guy, but he is the first person to ski all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks — seems pretty optimistic about the whole thing. From what we can tell over at Lou’s popular Wild Snow blog, he’s got strong opinions on how ski resorts can withstand climate change.

Here’s what Lou’s saying: “If ski resorts want to deal with global warming and continue skiing as we know it, they need to figure out where we can ski as the climate warms, and build or extend ski areas into those zones.”

Snowiest Ski Resorts — Where Are They?

So where are those “zones”? Leave it to our friends over at weathertrends360 to gather the goods. Recently, these weather gurus compiled their list of the world’s snowiest ski resorts, with their selection based upon long-term weather trends forecasts.

And the slopes with the most guaranteed powder? Places such as Alta, UT, make weathertrends360’s list – and as the NYT confirmed this week, this famed ski area, now in its 75th year, is seeing trails with a base depth of 48 inches. (Translation: Anything above 15 inches is sufficient for skiing.)

What other ski resorts made the list? For the full forecast, check out the World’s Snowiest Ski Resorts.

This week, Walt Disney World officially opened the largest expansion in the history of the Magic Kingdom. New Fantasyland is an extension of regular Fantasyland (home of classic Disney rides and many, many strollers). When guests enter the Enchanted Forest, they arrive at Maurice’s Cottage — a cozy stone and shingle structure that houses Enchanted Tales With Belle. Here, a “tale as old as time” is told with the help of an impressively lifelike Lumiere, Belle herself and a few volunteers from the audience.

Just through the grove of shady trees and past the gurgling stream is a bridge that leads to the new Be Our Guest Restaurant, which is set inside Beast’s castle. The castle itself is an imposing structure situated in the nearby mountains – which are a testament to Disney’s Imagineers and their skill with forced perspective! By day, Be Our Guest is a quick-service lunch spot, while by night it transforms into a table-service dinner restaurant. Around the corner is Gaston’s Tavern — just look for the statue of the “Beauty and the Beast” villain. Here you can try a meaty pork shank, a gooey cinnamon roll or sip on some of LaFou’s Brew — a sweet concoction of frozen apple juice and toasted marshmallow topped with mango foam.

The Storybook Circus section of New Fantasyland hosts the Barnstormer roller coaster, the Casey Jr. Splash ‘N’ Soak Station, and Dumbo the Flying Elephant. There are now 2 of these soaring spinners, and time waiting for your flight into the big blue yonder can now be passed inside an air-conditioned circus tent. Parents are issued a pager that lets them know when it’s time to climb on board.

While these new additions are cause for celebration, the gem of New Fantasyland remains behind construction walls. The Seven Dwarves Mine Train — an innovative new coaster — is scheduled to open sometime next year. Sidle up to the walls and hear the clinking and clanging of the Dwarves hard at work on this new attraction.

- Bill Burke

Bill Burke is an award-winning humor columnist and writer with 20 years experience in the newspaper and magazine industry. He is the author ofMousejunkies (Travelers’ Tales 2009) and Mousejunkies: Second Edition (Travelers’ Tales 2011) –a humorous look at Walt Disney World addiction.

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