Mush a husky team, track wolves or sleep on an ice-bound schooner – welcome to the greatest travel experiences below zero
Winter is not a time for hibernation: there’s too much to do out in all that powder. Austria is a great place for the indecisive to give multiple snow sports a try. There are plenty of pistes for traditional downhillers, but if you’re not into straightforward skiing (those slopes can get a little crowded) there are cross-country routes that will lead you off into the snowy wilderness. Snowshoeing is great for beginners, and for raising your body temperature in the chill air, while toboggan tracks provide thrills without the effort. Whatever you do, awesome views are guaranteed.
When to go: Departures 10 and 18 February, 3 March 2012
Getting started: Ramblers Worldwide Holidays’ seven-night Austrian Winter Sports Week, based near Achensee (Tirol’s largest lake), starts at £1,175 pp, including flights, transfers, half-board accommodation and a range of snow activities.
The Middle East might not seem the most obvious spot for winter activities, but come January the high slopes of Mount Lebanon – dotted with pine and the country’s famous cedars – are ideal for a yomp on snowshoes. It’s an easy skill to master, and after just a few minutes tuition you’ll be striding through the white stuff with confidence, taking in views over the Beqaa Valley and the glittering Mediterranean. It’s easy to warm up afterwards, too: dip down to lower altitudes for hikes around the Qadisha Valley and capital Beirut, where temperatures can rise to a balmy 18°C – the perfect winter sun and snow break.
When to go: Departures 26-30 January, 16-20 February 2012
Getting started: Explore’s five-day Snow-shoeing in Lebanon trip costs £1,012 pp including flights, hotel accommodation, transport and snowshoe hire.
The remote highways of the Yukon, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic Circle, have been well used over the years – by First Nations traders, Klondike gold-rushers, huge caribou herds and hunting wolves. Now, add yourself to the list. Intrepid overland tours take to these byways, which cross expansive tundra and cut through a succession of high peaks – the young Tombstones, the ancient Ogilvies, and various ‘pingos’ (mountains made of ice). En route you’ll find a wintry world of Wild West saloons and traditional Inuvialuit villages, plus exciting drives
on frozen rivers in regions the road just can’t reach.
When to go: Departures between 9 March and 13 April 2012
Getting started: Windows on the Wild’s seven-night Ice Road to Tuktoyaktuk trip costs £1,775 pp (based on two sharing), including local transport and accommodation; international flights and meals not included.
It’s like something out of a Boys’ Own adventure or a Hollywood film: an elegant, two-masted schooner locked into the ice in the middle of nowhere. Such is the annual fate of the Noorderlicht, which is deliberately frozen into Spitsbergen’s sparkling Tempelfjord each winter to become one of the world’s most dramatic hotels. The best way to reach this ship-stay is by husky-sled – skim across the snow behind a pack of dogs and watch as the boat appears on the horizon. Then cosy up in your cabin or head up on deck to scan the land for the local polar bears.
When to go: Departures between 22 February and 7 May 2012
Getting started: Activities Abroad’s four-night Husky Safari to the Ship Frozen in the Ice trip costs from £1,965 including accommodation (two nights on the Noorderlicht, two in a hotel), some meals, husky-sledding and guides; flights excluded.
Author of Footprint’s new worldwide guide to wildlife travel, William Gray tracks big game in the frozen wilderness of Poland’s Bieszczady Mountains
The forest was silent and pristine. Fresh snow, smooth as sugar, lay beneath the fir trees. We waded up to our thighs through softer areas, but much of the snow cover was compact enough to support our weight.
Almost immediately, we began finding prints. They were mostly the trails of hares, but in a small valley we stumbled into beaver territory. My guide, a local forester called Antoni Derwich, pointed out the stream, now frozen, that the beavers had dammed with a meshwork of branches. Nearby, a freshly trampled path led to a pile of chewed twigs. The exposed wood was vivid yellow and still wet with sap, but there was no sign of the beavers themselves.
Despite all the evidence of activity that we found imprinted in the snow, the forest appeared deserted. As light snow began fussing through the trees, a sombre, brooding presence seemed to pervade the forest – the firs rising tall and straight like columns in a hushed cathedral.
“People must think I’m crazy living out here,” Derwich told me earlier. “I have to drive 30 miles just to buy a loaf of bread.”
“But you must have seen lots of wildlife,” I said.
The forester shrugged. “Once I spent a week tracking a lynx and never saw it.”
I had planned my visit to Poland’s Bieszczady Mountains for late winter, the best time to track wildlife by following animal prints stamped in the snow. The severe cold also forces deer into the valleys where you are more likely to see them – and where the deer go, the wolves follow.
This remote south-eastern corner of Poland is one of the few parts of Europe where the ancient wildwood clings on, a primeval land that’s still roamed by the continent’s Big Five: wolf, bison, bear, lynx and red deer.
We might have turned back were it not for the buzzards. Without warning, the pair of raptors wheeled overhead, their plaintive cries briefly piercing the silence. We were transfixed, and it was only when we tried to follow them that Derwich discovered the bison trail – a churned path of hoof-prints and droppings.
“There are only a few thousand European bison in the wild,” he told me in a hushed voice. “Bieszczady National Park is one of their strongholds.”
We followed the trail to a low ridge where it disappeared into a dense beech stand. Derwich went on ahead, signalling for me to follow when he reached the cover of a large log.
At first my vision was scrambled by the tangle of trees. Then a sudden snort focused my attention on the 30-strong herd. Partly concealed by scrub, the bison were gathered in a shaggy, motionless group, less than 100 metres away. For a few tantalising moments, it was almost as if the branches of the trees framed a window to the past. It was a glimpse of the Bieszczady I had always imagined, wild and mysterious; thriving with creatures long vanquished from the rest of Europe.
But no sooner had we found them than the blizzard began, drawing a veil across
the resting herd. Derwich gently tugged my arm and we crept quietly away as the bison disappeared into the timeless snows.
When to go: Late winter (January and February)
Getting started: Wildlife & Wilderness operates trips to find wolf, bear, European bison and lynx in Poland’s Bieszczady Mountains.
An igloo made of glass might sound a little untraditional, but there are distinct advantages. The 20 domed hideaways at Kakslauttanen, deep in Finnish Lapland, are shaped like igloos but come heated and furnished. Plus their transparent ceilings allow you to lay in bed and – with luck – gaze up at the northern lights without leaving the warmth of your room. The magical forest site also offers log cabins, ice rooms and a range of winter activities: have a go at cross-country skiing, ice fishing or reindeer-sledding, too.
When to go: November 2011-April 2012
Getting started: Discover The World offers three-night Kakslauttanen trips from £948 pp including flights, half-board accommodation and transfers.
With the right guide and equipment, there’s nothing stopping you getting out into even the wilds of the Scottish Highlands in winter. And the Cairngorms and Creag Meagaidh Nature Reserve are pretty wild. Learn how to hike in crampons and use an ice axe while traversing little-visited valleys and ascending Munros; a snowy stroll across the plateau by Ben MacDui doesn’t once dip below 1,100m – the perfect high adventure close to home.
When to go: Departures 18 January, 15 February, 14 and 21 March 2012
Getting started: Wilderness Scotland’s five-day Winter Walking – The Cairngorms and Creag Meagaidh trip costs £575 pp including hotel, most meals and an experienced guide.
The Himalayas enjoy roughly the same ski season as the Alps, and what they lack in facilities compared with Courchevel, they make up for in charm. Gulmarg in Kashmir has long been a favourite winter sports haunt for Delhi-ites and more adventurous western skiers. There are no pistes and only one lift to the summit of Mount Apharwat, but that gondola is the highest ski lift in the world, rising to 3,979m. Grab a guide and find the powder, stopping for a curry lunch in one of two mountain restaurants. And though the long drive to Gulmarg from Kashmir’s troubled capital Srinigar is very Alpine, monkeys climbing the pines remind you: this is Asia.
When to go: Departures January-March
Getting started: Check FCO advice before travelling. A ten-day tailor-made ski trip to Kashmir trip costs £2,200, incl flights, with Wild Frontiers.
Every year the city of Harbin, shivering in north-east China, makes the most of its low temperatures to host the magical Ice & Snow Festival, a month-long freeze-fest of awe-inspiring ice sculptures and illuminations. A Guinness World Record-holding sculpture, 162m long, was carved here in 2008. Stay nearby in a local farmer’s guesthouse to see the artworks lit up at night, to explore the region’s Russian churches, and to make forays into the surrounding winter wonderland. It’s also a good time to visit Beijing and the Great Wall (see our feature on page 106 for inspiration), as there are few other visitors.
When to go: The Ice & Snow Festival runs 5 January-15 February 2012 (Bamboo Travel departure dates between January 5 & February 5)
Getting started: Bamboo Travel’s ten-night tailormade China’s Ice Sculptures and Landscapes trip starts from £2,795 pp, including flights, accommodation, most meals and an English-speaking guide.
The Arctic is the barometer of global climate change, its ice and snow providing vital insight into the environmental state of the planet as a whole. On a trip to Manitoba’s Hudson Bay with conservation charity Earthwatch, you can help with vital research: traveling by gamutik (sled) towed by snowmobiles, you will head out into the wilderness to classify ice crystals and take snowpack measurements that contribute to scientific studies. You’ll also get to experience the thrill of living at this icy extreme, learning how to sleep in igloos (snug even when it’s 40 below), glimpsing the aurora and, perhaps, spotting a polar bear or two.
When to go: Departures 14 and 22 February 2012
Getting started: Earthwatch’s 10-11-day Climate Change at the Arctic’s Edge volunteer expedition costs £1,695 pp, excluding flights.
Soaring over frozen lakes is a godlike sensation, says Jasper Winn
In the watery midday light of a Swedish winter it seemed fairly reckless to be more than a mile offshore on the waters of an immense lake. So immense that the far shore, even more miles away, was only a faint, black scribble of trees under snow-covered hills. It was very cold: -10°C? -15°C? Parky anyway.
But it was the cold that had helpfully frozen the waters into the friction-free thick skin of ice that was allowing me to swiftly slide across the surface of Ånnsjön. Rather than merely walking on water, I was actually flying above it. I’d become Mercury with his wingéd heels. Or that’s what it felt like. And it’s what Erika – experienced local skate-tourer and my guide – looked like as she swooped gracefully ahead of me.
I, on the other hand, might be speedy, but I was also stumbling and inelegant. I blamed the technology strapped to my feet. Archaeologists have discovered tie-on skate blades made of bone dating from four millennia ago. Not much has changed since then. The awkwardly long and high blades are metal now, but they still gave me the tottery sensation of running down a cobble-stoned street in fashion clogs.
I was further hampered by wearing a bulky, waterproof backpack filled with dry clothes, food and a length of rope. And carrying two titanium-tipped sticks like ski poles didn’t help. Twice I’d managed to swing one or other of these between my energetically scissoring legs, and both times I’d fallen flat on the frozen water at speed. Capsized, if you will. Though painfully rather than wetly.
Pratfalls, yes, but it was still exhilarating skate-touring out here a very long way from any indoorsy comforts. There was nobody else within miles of us. There was, though, a distant ‘pruk’ from a pair of ravens. And I knew that there were reindeer on the slopes above the lake because we’d seen them earlier.
On the smooth expanses it was easy to be lulled by the dreamy rhythm of my swaying push-and-slide gait. But this was not the kind of ice that you find on a rink – it was wild. There were rough patches of broken, re-frozen ice, like scattered unassembled jigsaw pieces, and there were fault-lines where the ice had crashed together like two tectonic plates and had to be stumbled across. At one point pressure had pushed water up through a crack and made a wide shallow puddle.
We had been through the rescue procedure: if you fall through the ice you must grab the ice-spikes hung round your neck and claw your way out of the water, then rapidly strip and change into dry clothes. Keen skate-tourers practise this kind of thing, in the way that kayakers practise their Eskimo rolls. We, though, had decided on caution, zigzagging to stay on ice we were totally confident of.
In mid-afternoon – sunset – we landed on a rocky islet wigged in birch trees and ate a late lunch. We sheltered out of the wind while eating salmon rolls and drinking strong Thermos coffee. Looking down at the shallowing lake bottom through the glassy ice I could imagine how this shoreline might be on a hot summer’s day. There was even the weak, reddened sun on our faces. But no heat. It was time to head back towards shore and the wooden jetty we launched from hours ago.
Our outward journey had been into the wind. Now, with the breeze at our backs we were soaring effortlessly across the lake’s surface, skates hissing across the ice. Our rush of speed across this immense wintry wilderness was tipsy-making. Briefly, I really was a Nordic Mercury flying along with steel wings on my heels. I might even have looked graceful. Though I doubt it.
When to go: January – March
Getting started: Nature Travels runs scheduled Ice Skating on Natural Ice tours in Sweden from £734, excluding flights; private trips (minimum four people) are available on other dates. Based near Stockholm and Nyköping, the four-day itineraries vary depending on the best lake ice available. Accommodation is in two-bed hostel rooms. Some skating experience is required (ice-rink or inline skating is fine); also, you must be able to swim. Skates, boots and safety kit are provided.
Après-skate pleasures include saunas and Scandinavian cuisine (but stock up on drink prior to arrival). If the timing is right, a trip highlight is skating by moonlight.
Is it a hotel? A work of art? A palace fit for Narnia’s White Witch? A bit of all of them, in truth. In 1990 a simple igloo was fashioned in Sweden’s frozen north; every year since, with the past winter’s ice-edifice melted away, a sleeping spot of ever-more spectacular scale and design has been sculpted to offer the ultimate in Arctic accommodation. This is a hotel constantly trying to out-cool itself.
A stay here is like no other: after quiet contemplation in the Ice Chapel how about a night-cap in the Ice Bar of a vodka from an ice glass? Ice rooms have ice beds, ice chairs and ice artworks; ice chandeliers hang from ice ceilings. However, you’ll be snug under reindeer skins and down sleeping-bags, plus there’s a sauna to warm chilled limbs. Outside are husky-sled adventures, moose safaris and a trip to Abisko Sky Station, one of the world’s best places to spot the northern lights.
When to go: The IceHotel is open between December 3 2011 and April 21 2012
Getting started: Ramblers Worldwide Holidays’ four-night The Northern Highlights trip costs from £1,799 pp, including flights, one night at the IceHotel, three nights in Abisko, all meals and guides. It departs 14 February 2012.
It’s thought that 20% of the planet’s fresh water is stored in Lake Baikal’s vast belly. Yet this liquid behemoth still freezes over each winter, creating a unique icy playground of epic proportions. Using snowmobiles, dogsleds, skis, ice hovercraft and your own two feet, you can explore its hardened waters. Skid over shimmering Siberia,spend time on the lake’s fascinating islands – such as Olkhon, summer home of the shamanistic Buryats – and warm up in saunas so you’re ready for the next day’s fun.
When to go: Departs 18 February and 10 March 2012
Getting started: KE Adventure’s ten-day Lake Baikal in Winter trip costs £2,515 including flights, transfers, accommodation, most meals and winter activities.
There are many excellent things about cross-country skiing: it gets you away from the crowds, you don’t need previous experience, and it burns a whopping 700-odd calories an hour. It also takes you through unspoilt wilderness such as Norway’s Highlands, a land of snow-heavy forests and secluded vales that inspired Ibsen to pen Peer Gynt. Explore the backcountry here, on a trail named after the dramatic poem. Glide amid pines and frozen lakes, and between traditional hotels: the cosy, 19th-century Fefor Hotel, nestled nearly 1,000m up in the hills, looks out onto the Jotunheimen Mountains and has ski trails snaking straight from its doors.
When to go: Departures between 3 January and 8 April 2012
Getting started: Inntravel’s seven-nightPeer Gynt Discovery costs from £998 pp based on two sharing including flights, full-board accommodation, transfers and ski hire.
Don’t just sleigh-ride, sleigh drive. In a week of winter fun you can pick up the skills needed to mush your own team of dogs across the icy expanses of Arctic Finland. Learn how to harness, feed and care for your huskies before embarking on a cabin-to-cabin self-drive dogsled expedition in Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park – five days of bracing pristine snowscapes viewed at high speed, and nights in cosy wood-stove-warmed huts with (hopefully) the northern lights twinkling moodily above.
When to go: Departures 22 and 29 January, 5 and 12 February 2012
Getting started: The Adventure Company’s seven-day Finnish Dogsledding Adventure costs from £1,999 pp including flights, transport, accommodation, all meals and
an experienced local leader.
Persecuted for centuries, the wolf has been eradicated from much of its original territory. Only recently, with greater tolerance from landowners and a more enlightened conservation policy, have these wonderful animals begun to reclaim their old haunts.
Nothing endows a wild place with more vivacity and spirit than a pack of free-roaming wolves, ancient forests echoing with their haunting cries and every other animal alert to their presence. Despite being created in 1872 (as the United States’ first national park) Yellowstone continued to lose its grey wolves; in 1926, its last one was shot.
A reintroduction programme began in 1995 and the park now supports around 100 wolves in 14 packs. Guided wolf-tracking tours, available from The Wild Side, feature springtime treks in the Lamar Valley where wolf hotspots include Hellroaring Creek. During winter, the trips are based at Buffalo Ranch, with snowshoe forays to Rose Creek – the original release site for Yellowstone’s wolves.
Winter and spring are generally the best times for tracking wolves, as you’re more likely to find their tracks in the snow. In Scandinavia, Wild Sweden offers three-day winter wolf-tracking trips in partnership with the Grimsö Wildlife Research Station, near Lindesberg. Wildlife & Wilderness operates trips to find wolves, bears, European bison and lynx in Poland’s Bieszczady Mountains. Biosphere Expeditions runs a wolf-tracking eco-volunteer project in the Carpathian Mountains of Slovakia.
Perhaps the most remarkable story of wolf revival in Europe in recent years is the species’ reclamation of the French Alps (spreading west from a relic population in Italy). The first official sightings of wolves in the Alpes-Maritimes were in the early 1990s and it is now thought that there are at least two packs – surviving, no doubt, on the region’s healthy numbers of chamois, mouflon, wild boar and deer. Undiscovered Alps provides a chance to track these canny predators in the company of a local mountain guide, sleeping in remote winter refuges deep in wolf territory.
When to go: November – May
Getting started: Winter is the best time for wolf tracking – they are easier to spot in the snow. Contact the companies mentioned above for dates and prices.