If you wish for it, this could be the Christmas that finds you dancing the night away in the grand ballroom of an elegant resort. The air outside will be cold and crisp when you stop to catch your breath, but you can sit by a warm fire, sip hot chocolate, nibble cookies and join in the singing of Christmas carols.
Or, if you prefer, a balmier Christmas can be yours. Open your presents under a beautifully decorated tree, then put on a bathing suit and lie by a pool or stroll along a Caribbean beach.
A yuletide vacation offers all of the festivities and none of the hassles of a holiday at home. It just might be the perfect gift for Santa to pull out of his bag this year.
Families -- be they large or small -- can gather together on neutral territory where the Christmas cheer is plentiful and nobody gets stuck with the cleaning, the cooking or the dishes.
With the right destination, a vacation spot can become a home away from home for the holidays. Make your plans early.
If sunny skies and tropical breezes are your idea of a Christmas wonderland, how about some cruising and island-hopping in the Caribbean this year?
"The holiday season is a joyous, fun time to be away," says Rich Steck, spokesman for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line.
"Where else on Christmas Day can you lounge around the pool or sip a pina colada on a sun-swept, palm-fringed beach?" adds Larry Dessler, director of marketing for the Holland America Line. "Going on a cruise is the perfect venue for families to get together."
While the weather outside may be seem unseasonably warm, the inside of a cruise ship is true to the holiday season -- decorated from stem to stern with garlands, wreaths, seasonal floral arrangements and fabulous trees.
"There isn't a corner on board that you can turn to without seeing the spirit of the season," Mr. Dessler says.
Cruise ships, which are noted for their lavish meals, busy activity schedules and fabulous entertainment, are especially festive during the holidays. There are tree-decorating parties, holiday movies and dances, as well as seasonal music, children's activities, traditional holiday meals and religious observances.
The Holland America crew forms a choir, inviting passengers to join in a performance of international carols. Santa Claus arrives by lifeboat to give children their gifts.
Maizie Gibson and her husband, Leroy, took a two-week Holland America holiday cruise with friends a few years ago. The Gibsons, who are both retired from the Baltimore city public school system and live in the Village of Cross Keys, are veteran cruisers who have logged more than 40,000 miles at sea.
"It was fantastic," says Mrs. Gibson. "The atmosphere was just so uplifting. We were at sea on Christmas Day. We took presents to exchange and we also had presents in our cabin from family members. And on New Year's Eve there was a conga line that went around the whole ship. That was when we had the most fun. The biggest parties were that night . . . and there was lots of entertainment in the lounges."
The Cunningham family celebrated Christmas early at their Baltimore County home last year and then flew to Florida for a seven-day holiday voyage with Carnival Cruise Lines.
"It was a different Christmas," says Patricia Cunningham, who loved the warm holiday she spent with her husband, Jerry, and their 14-year-old son. They plan to go again this year.
"It's the one you'll always remember," she says. "On Christmas Day we landed on the island of Dominica and a steel band was playing calypso music. The day after Christmas I was putting on suntan lotion."
For information about holiday cruises, contact a travel agent or cruise lines such as:
* Holland America Line: seven-day cruises start at $1,830.
* Royal Caribbean Cruise Line: four-day cruises start at $725; seven-day cruises at $1,465.
* Carnival Cruise Lines: three-day cruises start at $654; seven-day cruises at $1,424.
, All prices include air fare.
Christmas at the Greenbrier
For a traditional and elegant Christmas, you may want to visit the Greenbrier, an exclusive resort surrounded by 6,500 acres of Allegheny Mountain woodland in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
During the 12 days of Christmas celebration at the Greenbrier, grand lobbies, ballrooms and dining areas are resplendent with thousands of poinsettias and dozens of formally decorated trees. Outside the front entrance, ice sculptures shimmer in the sunshine.
"It's absolutely breathtaking," says Susan Laubach of Baltimore, who spends the New Year's holiday at the Greenbrier with her husband each year. "It's one of the most beautiful places we've ever been. It's very luxurious but cozy. There's a huge fireplace and a big fire going all the time. People enjoy reading books and playing bridge in front of the fire."
Generations of families gather to enjoy the daily afternoon tea and seasonal concerts. There are holiday movies, puppet shows, hot chocolate and cookies by the fire nightly and talks on a variety of seasonal topics. Children make puppets, cookies and houses of gingerbread.
A yuletide madrigal feast in the Colonial Hall on Dec. 23 is a 16th century dinner graced with the company of a king, queen, strolling minstrel, theatrical jousters, musicians and vocalists.
"Santa Claus makes his big entrance on Christmas Eve," said Betsy Conte, director of social activities and special events at the Greenbrier. The jolly old elf arrives in a horse and carriage. A traditional yule log ceremony, wassail toast and caroling are held later in the evening. And on New Year's Eve, there are several gala celebrations to choose from.
When temperatures fall, there's ice skating at an outdoor rink. Year-round activities include indoor tennis, bowling, swimming, hiking, horseback riding and shopping, as well as relaxing soaks and massages in the resort's mineral spa and bath.
Christmas at the Greenbrier
Rates are $160-$187 per person, per day, double occupancy. Minimum stay of three nights. Additional $48 per person for New Year's Eve celebration. Call (800) 624-6070.
Christmas in Hershey
For loads of family fun, you could try a Christmas in Hershey, Pa., where the town celebrates the season in style and Hersheypark opens its gates for seven weeks of winter fun.
From Nov. 13 through Dec. 30, Hersheypark is transformed into a Christmas Candylane -- decorated with 300,000 sparkling lights, candy canes, peppermint drops, gingerbread men and gift boxes. There are charming shops, strolling carolers, kiddie rides, an antique carousel and horse-drawn carriage rides throughout the village.
The Hershey's Chocolate World visitors' center features an animated elves display along with free tours of the chocolate factory. The Hershey Museum offers holiday concerts and puppet shows.
A trip to Hershey can be a one-day excursion from Baltimore, or a leisurely weekend or midweek visit. There are lots of holiday happenings at the Hotel Hershey and the Hershey Lodge, which are beautifully decorated and offer package deals to guests. The Hershey Lodge features a live Nativity scene, Santa's workshop, breakfast with Santa and roving carolers.
On Christmas Eve, the Hotel Hershey entertains guests with music, storytelling, caroling and cookies and milk. Young children receive a stocking in their rooms on Christmas morning. The day is then filled with games, crafts, Christmas bingo, a pinata breaking and a traditional meal.
The Christmas Candylane is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays as well as Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.
This will be the fifth year that Lisa and Neil Brierley of Howard County and their five children have paid an early December weekend visit to Hershey for a bit of holiday cheer. They like to stay at the Hotel Hershey.
"It's great," Mrs. Brierley says. "There are hotel activities for the kids all day long. You'd never have to leave the hotel." Still, the family takes a break to visit Hershey's other attractions and take a trolley tour of the town.
"Every year there's something new and different," Mrs. Brierley said. "It's just super nice to be together as a family."
Christmas in Hershey
Call (800) HERSHEY for general information, (800) 533-3131 for lodging reservations.
The Hotel Hershey: Christmas and New Year's Eve packages from $59-$138 per person, per night, double occupancy.
The Hershey Lodge: Christmas and New Year's Eve packages from $44 to $104 per person, per night, double occupancy.