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Five exotic getaways for the holidays

If you're like plenty of people these days, instead of Santa Claus and shopping and tinsel for Christmas, you would rather get away from the hoopla of holidays - maybe far, far away. Here are a few suggestions for a seasonal sojourn, one domestic, others exotic, and a couple just plain over-the-top.

Timbuktu, anyone?

Yes, the fabled city does exist, in the country of Mali, which is in North Africa, which is mostly Sahara Desert. And yes, you can get from here to Timbuktu, but it ain't easy.

From the United States, the most direct way to get there is to get to an Air France gateway city like New York, Atlanta, or Boston (there are more than a dozen), then fly to Paris. From Paris, Air France will whisk you to Bamako, the capitol of Mali. From Bamako, well, you might need some luck because this is where it can get complicated.

You can take a ferry from Bamako up the Niger River to Timbuktu, which is about 250 miles, but only if there's enough water in the river. This is the droughty, bone-dry Sahara, after all.

You also can fly on regional air carriers, which are tricky at best. I spent nearly three hours researching by telephone and Internet trying to find out whether or not Mali's national airline, Air Mali was either in or out of business with no definitive answer. With that in mind, perhaps a bus, four-wheel drive rental, or a ride hitched on a truck or a camel would be a more viable alternative.

What's in Timbuktu when you get there? Although this is Africa, there are no Big Five safaris here. But it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the 12th century. Timbuktu, also known as the "mysterious city," has three great ancient and beautiful mosques (Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia) created entirely from mud, pink sandstone villages chiseled into cliffs, nomads, camels (lots of them), Saharan sand (lots of it), and more Saharan sand (lots more of it).

After Timbuktu and northern Africa, zip down to southern Africa and Zambia, a landlocked, remote country bordered by Tanzania, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Zambia is just different from the rest of the countries surrounding it. Relatively uninhabited by African standards - just 10 million people in a country half the size of Europe - Zambia is peaceful and unpretentious and is often described as "the real Africa" because of its unspoiled and pristine beauty. The country is home to some of the finest wildlife sanctuaries and game reserves - that means the Big Five are here - and some of the largest concentrations of bird life on the entire Dark Continent.

The legendary Victoria Falls is here, spilling from the mighty Zambezi in a melange of rainbows, gorges, rain forests, mists, cliffs, and thundering water, and so is ancient Lake Tanganyika, the longest freshwater lake in the world that is actually a part of the Rift Valley. Amidst all the beauty of Zambia, you can take walking, birding, open vehicle, canoeing, and photographic safaris.

Closer to home, Rosemary Beach, a carefully planned beach town in the Florida Panhandle, beckons for the holidays. Surrounded by the iridescent sea-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico and sand as soft and white as confectioner's sugar, Rosemary Beach is situated on a stretch of the Gulf Coast that sometimes gets overlooked.

But that's a good thing. It's very quiet here in this 107-acre neighborhood, where accommodations of pastel-hued cottages and carriage houses built in Pan-Caribbean architectural style number fewer than 200, and everything - shopping, tennis, spas, galleries, restaurants, and naturally, the beach - is within a five-minute walk. Rosemary Beach, named for native rosemary herb, was constructed with small-town, pedestrian-friendly walkways, paths, lanes, and boardwalks for optimum relaxation.

If the adage that one picture is worth a thousand words, then look no farther than Canouan Island in the Grenadines. An aerial snapshot of the tiny island gives you the impression that it's some sort of enormous emerald sitting atop a sea of sapphires. On closer inspection, Canouan Island is a multicolored melange of jewel-like rainforests, mountains, and beach that is the perfect antidote to a stressful holiday season.

The island rests in the southern Antilles, right in the heart of the Grenadines. This uncrowded, picturesque place tantalizes with not only with its vibrancy but also a range of island activities including golf, scuba, and windsailing.

One last place to consider for a unique holiday getaway is to drive the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia. The 171-mile-long road officially starts at Torquay and ends at Allansford, where it joins the Princess Highway near Warrnambool.

Along the way of the Great Ocean Road, completed in 1932, you see distinctly coastal Australian sites such as the giant rock stacks of the Twelve Apostles (along with an occasional penguin or two), historic towns like Camperdown and Queenscliff, wonderful lighthouses, a shipwreck or two, dramatically cascading waterfalls, and if you're very fortunate, a menagerie of wildlife, including koalas, kangaroos, whales, dolphins, and bird life galore.

The Great Ocean Road, with its sibling of the Great Ocean Walk, is fantastic for viewing the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere in skies undimmed by city lights.

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