Palm Desert, California
airfare (Orlando to Palm Springs) from $551 (quote via expedia.com)
While we swelter in Florida's humidity, I'm always dreaming of the dry sands and big skies of California's Hi-Desert, the region including Twentynine Palms, Joshua Tree and Pioneertown. But December and January are high season there, and over the holidays Joshua Tree National Park gets crowded with tourists and my favorite place to stay, the 29 Palms Inn, is booked up by fashion people doing magazine shoots a year in advance. So while I plan my March or October vacation, this Christmas I'll just make my own desert oasis here at home.
Florida Cactus, Inc.
2542 Peterson Road, Apopka, 407-886-1833
A cluster of maybe a dozen huge greenhouses, stuffed with all the succulents your thorny heart could desire. Florida Cactus is set up as a wholesale operation, so don't expect much in the way of fawning customer service – just grab a tray and fill it up.
Ceramic planters by Hello Happy Plants
What to put your new succulents in? These hand-thrown and hand-painted ceramic planters by Orlando maker Kelsey Ryder are witty and irreverent. They take the sun-bleached trash you'd find in a desert gully – cigarette packs, chip bags – brighten them back up, and elevate them to keeper status.
High on Fire
6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 15, at the Social, 54 N. Orange Ave., 407-246-1419, thesocial.org, $20
Technically, they're from Oakland, not the desert, but High on Fire packs enough mescaline-and-Sabbath sludge into their stoner rock to hold their own in the scene begat by Kyuss.
Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock, by Bob Kealing
Parson was a guiding light of the desert scene in the early 1970s (even, sadly, choosing to end his life at the Joshua Tree Inn on Twentynine Palms Highway; those of a morbid slant can still rent his room, No. 8) but he was a Florida boy born and bred. Local author Kealing not only published this biography of the Grievous Angel, he was also instrumental in the Derry Down Project, which recently revived the Winter Haven youth center where Parsons first played in his teens.
Do It Yourself: 50 Projects by Designers and Artists edited by Thomas Bärnthaler (Phaidon, 224 pages)
One of my favorite things about this particular desert region is the high concentration of artists. Every other year, Andrea Zittel and a group of other local artists organize the High Desert Test Sites, an art festival of a sort that requires some serious driving and hiking – it's installed throughout the desert, in far-flung and often way-off-road locales. This new Phaidon book contains 50 DIY projects outlined by artists ranging from John Baldessari to Maurizio Cattelan, for a holiday break I can fill with small artistic undertakings.
Pins and patches from the VNM
Vanner enamel pin, $6, and Zero Fucks Given embroidered patch, $5, thevnm.com
Local badasses the VNM specialize in well-made accessories for discerning dirtbags; their pins and patches will finish that tattered jean jacket to perfection. – Jessica Bryce Young
airfare (Orlando to San Jose) from $339 (quote via expedia.com)
If you (or your intended gift recipient) would rather sleep swaying on a hammock by the beach than over the blankets in a stuffy Florida bedroom waiting for Santa, a trip to Costa Rica would shake the sheets on every snoozing holiday routine. Ziplining by day and beer-bombing Imperials in quaint surf towns like Jaco by night sounds like the stuff wish lists are made of. That sort of adventuring requires a certain budget, though, and while Florida may not have the mountain views, it is similarly temperate enough that you can squint into the sun and pretend you're sweating out the season like a true tico. Check out these spots where you can find a taste of Costa Rica right here in Central Florida to make the holidays a special time for the person on your list who'd rather sip natural juice made from frutas tipicas than the Kool-Aid being poured over every hot gift list trending this year.
$69; 4509 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Kissimmee; 407-808-4947; ziporlando.com; $69
Designed by a father and son team from similarly mountainous Hawaii, this Kissimmee zip line adventure has day and night options and touts a new tour that they say is the fastest, longest and highest zip lines in Florida.
$6-$10; East End Market, 3201 Corrine Drive; 407-960-2861; skyebird.com
Although you won't find deeply tropical fruits like carambola or maranon in Skyebird's offerings, their imaginative juices like the Tropical Kale or Tropical Turmeric could do the trick as a worthy substitute for green coconut beachside sipping.
AirBNB in Cocoa Beach
As groan-inducing as staycations are, Florida's beaches are best enjoyed in beachfront properties, so splurging on an AirBNB at Cocoa Beach inspires a similar pura vida vibe with less legwork.
Fat Cat Foods hot sauces
$6.99 various locations, fatcatfoods.com
While salsa lizano is the tabletop craving in Costa Rica, the inventive hot sauces Fat Cat cooks up occasionally hit some tropical notes, like their Papaya Pequin Passion, and will spice up your desayuno of rice and beans just as memorably. – Ashley Belanger
airfare (Orlando to Mumbai) starting at $1,786 (quote via expedia.com)
With a population of 1.2 billion people, 780 major languages and more than 2,000 different ethnic groups, India is a nation with a rapidly developing modern culture that's rooted firmly in its past. For a couple thousand bucks, you can book a flight and luxurious hotel in the country's capital, New Delhi, or Mumbai, the city formerly known as Bombay. Once you're out of Orlando, you get to be the annoying tourist you've always secretly wanted to be, and you can visit some of India's gems, like the Taj Mahal in Agra or Harmandir Sahib, also known as the Golden Temple, in Amritsar. Or ditch the historical landmarks and take a tour of Bollywood, the country's Hindi-language film industry, where you might get lucky and spot the King of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan. For a modern twist on traditional Indian cuisine, dine at New Delhi's Indian Accent, where Chef Manish Mehrotra leads one of the best restaurants in South Asia. There's nothing quite like the in-your-face explosion of sights and sounds in India, and this trip is worth every penny.
However, saving a few grand for a trip across the world probably isn't feasible when you're eating Ramen noodles every other night. If you can't afford to make your holiday-travel wishes come true with a trip to India, with a little creativity you can at least be there in spirit.
Watch Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge $8.99 Netflix subscription
This Indian classic centers on a young couple, Raj and Simran, who fall in love while traveling through Europe. The problem: Simran's already engaged to the son of her father's best friend.
Listen to Lata Mangeshkar's 2014 album The Nightingale of India Lata Mangeshkar, Best of Her Evergreen Bollywood Hit Songs, $9.99 on iTunes
With a career spanning more than five decades, Mangeshkar is India's most well-known and beloved playback singers.
Try the bagara baingan at Tamarind Indian Cuisine
$12, 501 N. Orlando Ave., Winter Park, 321-207-0760; tamarindfl.com
This delectable dish consists of baby eggplant cooked in sauce of sesame seeds, coconut, tamarind red chili and spices.
Tame those bushes around your eyes with threading
$10-12, Rashmi's Beauty and Boutique, 4734 S. Kirkman Road, 321-945-6476
Originally from Central Asia and India, threading is pretty easy to learn on your own from YouTube, but it's best you go with an expert. You'll get not only the results, but also the experience of this hair-removal art form.
Wander the aisles of Apna Bazar grocery store
9404 Orange Blossom Trail, 407-856-0238; 1155 W. State Route 434, Longwood; 407-260-2644; apnabazarcashandcarry.com
It's no Indian marketplace, but in Central Florida, it's the next best thing. Wander the aisles and dream you're in another land – or better yet, purchase some of your favorite Indian groceries and bring a little bit of South Asia home with you. – Monivette Cordeiro
airfare (Orlando to Shannon Airport) starting at $797 (quote via expedia.com)
There's no culture quite so fond of nostalgia and storytelling as the Irish. So if you've got Irish relatives, chances are you've spent many a holiday season regaled with tales of the good (or maybe even bad) old days back home. I've heard enough stories about the fickle Saint Nicholas and unforgettable Christmas puddings and feasts of Epiphany and Boxing Day celebrations that I often dream of traveling to Ireland some Christmas and get a taste of what the real-deal Irish holiday traditions are like firsthand – before they're all wiped out by an increasingly homogenous culture that seems to be creeping up on everything these days. Perhaps one of these days I'll make it, but it certainly won't be this year.
Orlando isn't such a hub for Irish culture as some other cities (Boston, New York), but if you look around a little, you can certainly improvise. Here are a few ways to bring a little bit more green (and white and gold) to this holiday season.
The Irish aren't really known for their culinary prowess, but there's something irresistible about the warm, homey food that populates the menu of any Irish pub worth its Guinness. In addition to the traditional offerings – cottage pies, Irish stews, fish and chips, bangers and mash – both of these local Irish eateries offer menu items that put a twist on the old standards. Bonus: Check the events calendar on Fiddler's Green's website to find out when traditional Irish music will be flowing along with the beer.
Check out a hurling match
The Orlando Gaelic Athletic Association is keeping the ancient Gaelic sport of hurling – something like field hockey – alive in Central Florida. Fall training at Blue Jacket Park in Winter Park just started last month, and it's free to watch. Better yet, you could join. Keep tabs on the league's activities at orlando.florida.gaa.ia.
Take Irish dancing lessons at Hendricks School of Irish Dancing
Turning Point Studio, the Springs Plaza, 145 Wekiva Springs Road, #145, Longwood, 407-620-8249, hendricksschool.com
Do you know how to dance a jig? How about a hornpipe or a ceili? Invest in some lessons from Hendricks, which teaches toddlers through adults, and you'll be ready to show off your moves at an Irish Feis in no time.
Read The Dead by James Joyce
This classic tale by Ireland's most confounding novelist centers on a dinner and dance held by a pair of elderly sisters in Dublin at Christmastime.
Pick up some real tea and sweets at the British Shoppe
809 N. Mills Ave., 407-898-1634, thebritishshoppe.com
Yeah, yeah, we know – it's British, not Irish. But the British Shoppe is a tiny storefront packed tight with all sorts of goodies available in Ireland and the UK. Pick up a box of PG Tips or Barry's teas for a good, strong cup (this is no "dishwater tea," as my Irish mom calls the American stuff), and while you're at it, indulge in some Cadbury Crunchie bars, Frys Turkish Delights and maybe some Jammie Dodgers. Yum. Staying home for the holidays is actually pretty delicious. – Erin Sullivan
airfare (Orlando to Pudong, Shanghai) starting at $1,809 (quote via expedia.com)
Despite a lifelong fascination with China, mostly fueled by movies like Chungking Express, Raise the Red Lantern and Lust, Caution, I’ve never been there. And between the state of my savings account and the current geopolitical climate, it seems unlikely that I will be anytime soon. But that doesn’t stop me from reading about it, nor can it stop me from creating my own Shanghai staycation. In the days of the treaty concessions, British, French and American settlers gave it an international flavor, but the ancient walled city remained; then the ’90s brought a global-trade-fueled building boom. I imagine Shanghai to still have a whiff of 1930s opium chic and swaths of century-old tenements mixed in among the neon high-rise jungle. Until I get there, I’ll have to make do with a Shanghai of the mind.
Cirque du Soleil: La Nouba
We don’t have anything that can compare to a stroll down the Bund; we don’t have a bar on the 87th floor of a glass skyscraper; we don’t have a traditional Chinese opera company. We do, however, have some of the world’s best acrobats here in Orlando, and some of them are even Chinese.
Redlight Redlight Beer Parlour
2810 Corrine Drive, 407-893-9832, redlightredlightbeerparlour.com
I was intrigued to read recently that Shanghai is in the midst of a craft beer boom. That’s definitely easy to re-create here, and Redlight Redlight, with its pointed exclusion of TV screens, is my local choice if I can't be at Shanghai’s Boxing Cat or Master Gao microbreweries.
6700 Conroy Road, 407-522-8688, magicwokonline.com
Since Chuan Lu Yuan stopped serving their Lanzhou beef noodle soup with hand-pulled noodles, we all have to go farther afield for traditional Shanghainese specialties. But Magic Wok’s stinky tofu and pork belly with fermented greens please even Chinese-born diners – or so I hear. Be sure to ask for the Shanghainese menu or you’ll be faced with basic American-Cantonese.
Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard; Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw; The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
Three books set in Shanghai past, present and future. Ballard’s memoir is worth reading even if you’ve seen the sappy movie – there’s much more hard information about pre-World War II Shanghai (as well as the prison camps and death marches), and much less sap. Five Star Billionaire careens from factory girl to washed-up pop idol to hard-bitten businesswoman to shady real estate magnate, mirroring the city’s meteoric rise. Stephenson’s futuristic fable posits an alternate universe in which the Victorian British retained their concession and their ruling status into the 21st century.