European destinations beckon to Christmastime callers

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NEW YORK--London and Paris draw hordes of visitors over the holidays, but other European cities offer lights and festivities as well, each with its own twist.

The following are samples of some of the lesser-known European holiday destinations.

  • Decorative lighting is a hallmark of Christmas on Malta, where towns and villages compete with one another to put up the most impressive illuminated decorations.
  • Visitors to this Mediterranean nation will see thousands of colored lights in the shapes of stars, angels and bells strung through city streets and in shopping areas. Although the Christmas tree has worked its way into Maltese homes, the Christmas crib is still the most important holiday decoration. During December, a collection of cribs--made from wood, clay, wax, papier-mache or bread--as well as figurines are exhibited at St. Frances Hall.

    Creche scenes that often are elaborate--with motorized figures, miniature gardens and real waterfalls--decorate other public squares.

    Additionally, there are band marches, processions depicting Mary and Joseph on a donkey, and candlelight caroling. From now through the holiday season, Ulysses Tours offers a six-night package that includes six nights in Valletta with buffet breakfast daily; sightseeing in the capital and around the island and on Gozo, plus airport transfers.

    From Dec. 22 to 29, the land cost at a Lapsi Balluta Bay Hotel is priced at $599 per person, double occupancy; at the deluxe Holiday Inn Crown Plaza, the cost is $818.
    Ulysses Tours
    Phone: (800) 431-1424 or (212) 371-7646

  • Portugal's Hotel Quinta do Lago, Loule, will put the accent on golf for guests spending the holidays on the Algarve at the 141-room resort, owned and operated by Orient-Express Hotels.
  • Offering a choice of three on-site championship golf courses, the hotel has designed vacation packages that also utilize Quinta do Lago's two golf schools, which incorporate lessons and a full-week golf academy for all levels of play, staffed by PGA-certified instructors.

    All packages include seaview accommodations; daily American buffet breakfast; nightly golf club cleaning and storage; a golfer's gift pack and complimentary airport and golf course transfers. All prices are per person, based on double occupancy. The seven-night Golf Academy package for the complete or near-beginner includes two hours of daily personal instruction, 12 hours of lessons on the driving range and one round of nine holes with a golf professional on the final day. The cost per person is $334.

    For intermediates, the Golfer Improvement program offers one hour per day of driving range lessons and 12 hours of playing in foursomes; the cost is $432. Advanced golfers (minimum handicap of 28 for men, 36 for women) pay $319 for a four-night Birdie package that includes three rounds of golf at the guest's choice of courses, advanced reservations for tee times and dinner at the hotel's Ca D'Oro restaurant.

    For seven nights on the Eagle Stay program, features are five rounds of golf and one dinner at both the Navegadores and Ca D'Oro restaurants. The Non-Golfers package includes health club massages, a facial, a manicure and a tennis lesson plus a one-day, chauffeured shopping trip to Faro and two hotel restaurant dinners.

    All programs will be available through the winter months. For reservations, call Orient-Express Hotels, which also owns the Reids Hotel in Madeira and the newly acquired Hotel Da Lapa in Lisbon.

  • Canary Islands packages during the holiday season are available from Spanish Heritage Tours.
  • All packages, priced per person, double occupancy, include the cost of transatlantic air with Air Europa, with departures from New York (Kennedy) on Mondays and Tuesdays, returning from Tenerife on Sundays and Mondays.

    In addition to air fare, the program features five nights in Tenerife and one night in Madrid; buffet breakfast; free daily entrance to the casino; transfers and all taxes and service charges. All rates are per person, based on double occupancy.

    Clients can add a five-dinner option, priced from $50. Christmas dinner supplements range from $99 to $165 per person, and a New Year's gala evenings range from $139 to $239.

    The operator's six-night Winter Escape program, priced from $819 for those traveling before the holidays (Nov. 1 through Dec. 15), costs $1,165 for the Top Value category up to $1,769 in Grand Luxe from Dec. 16 through Dec. 24. The package is priced from $1,129 to $1,899 from Dec. 25 through Jan. 2, and other winter rates are available through March 31. Other vacation packages featuring superior and deluxe accommodations are available to Puerto de la Cruz; the lead cost is $1,049.
    Spanish Heritage Tours
    Phone (800) 456-5050, (718) 544-2752

  • Reminders of coming Christmas cheer come early to the Netherlands, when St. Nicholas rides through the center of Amsterdam on his gray horse to address the children on the Leidse Plein square.
  • Bright lights come on shortly thereafter all over the country. Amsterdam's hotels, canal houses, trees, bridges and boats light up for the holidays for two months, starting on Nov. 1.

    On Dec. 15, you have the start of Gouda by Candlelight, with its market decorated with hundreds of candles as the tree is lit by the mayor, who reads the Christmas gospel, followed by communal caroling; in Utrecht, the traditional Christmas Eve carillon is part of a musical celebration in and around the Dom Tower.

    Clients heading for their holidays in Holland will find extra Christmas cheer in Winter, the Amsterdam Way hotel packages, loaded with special offers and discounts. Depending on the hotel -and there is a choice of 26 tourist-to-deluxe properties-- prices for a two-night stay range from $70 to $190 per person, based on double occupancy, including breakfast.
    Netherlands Board of Tourism
    Web: www.goholland.com

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