Travel shouldn't come to a standstill because winter has arrived. Indeed, there are many good reasons why we should all be embracing the cold. William Gray reveals the best in Asia, Europe and beyond...
The simien craze for hot-tubbing at Jigokudani – a hot spring (or onsen) in the foothills of the Japanese Alps near Nagano city – is thought to have started when a plucky female macaque dipped her toes in the 40°C water back in the early 1960s.
Now hundreds of so-called snow monkeys are at it. The best time to see the pink-faced primates soaking in the steaming waters is during winter when snowdrifts surround the geothermal pool. You can catch a train from Nagano to the Jigokudani trailhead, from where it’s a 45-minute hike to the monkey park.
These are wild animals, free to come and go as they please. Feeding or touching the monkeys is a no-no – and don’t even think of joining them for a dip.
Also see: As well as some 3,000 monkey-free onsens, other winter highlights in Japan include the flamboyant courtship dance of red-crowned cranes at Kushiro Marsh near Tsurui. Skiing is popular at several resorts in Hokkaido.
Endangered, elusive, exquisitely camouflaged… it’s small wonder snow leopards are so difficult to see in the wild. You can boost your chances, however, by joining a dedicated snow leopard tracking holiday in Hemis National Park, deep in the Indian Himalaya.
A stronghold for the silvery, solitary feline, this spectacular mountain wilderness is conveniently also inhabited by blue sheep – high on the big cats’ menu. During winter, predator and prey are both forced to descend to lower altitudes, increasing the chances of a sighting.
With luck, your local guides will find clues – maybe some scats and prints – confirming the big cats’ presence, but you will also spend long hours training telescopes on precipitous slopes of rock and ice, waiting, hoping, praying…
Also see: Ladakh is prime trekking country – even in the depths of winter when the River Zanskar freezes solid and becomes the setting for the demanding 90km, eight-day Chadar or Frozen River Trek.
Rucked up by the mighty Tian Shan mountains, Kyrgyzstan is a superb summer destination for horse trekking or hiking the high plains from yurt to yurt. Less well known are the country’s winter highlights – particularly ski touring.
With a growing reputation as the ‘Switzerland of Central Asia’, popular spots for powder skiing now include Ala Archa National Park, just 40km from the capital Bishkek and suitable for anyone with basic off-piste experience. A seven-hour drive from Bishkek, Karkara is a hub for more remote ski touring trips in the pine-stubbled Terskey Mountains.
Also see: Depending on the prevailing political situation, specialist operators such as Mountain Heaven offer skiing holidays in Iran, visiting the resorts of Dizin, Shemshak and Darbandsar.
Past creations at this sub-zero theme park of giant ice sculptures in northeast China have included castles, pagodas, giant Buddhas and even a Great Wall complete with an ice slide. Many of the sculptures are illuminated from within, transforming the festival into a dazzling night-time spectacle.
The 36th event is due to open on 5 January 2020 and last for a month or more, weather permitting. As well as elaborate ice sculptures and snow carvings, the festival features an ice lantern exhibition and swimming in the frigid Songhua River.
Also see: Other winter wonderland events include Japan’s Sapporo Snow Festival when creative teams from around the world compete to build the biggest, most intricate snow sculptures.
You need a lofty peak to sustain snow and ice in the tropics, but Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro – the world’s highest freestanding mountain – rises beautifully to the challenge. Straddling the equator, this dormant volcano has been glistening with glaciers for 12,000 years – but scientists predict these will be gone by 2030.
Trekking to the ‘Snows of Kilimanjaro’ could become a race against climate change. Part of the magic of scaling the heady heights of Uhuru Peak (Kili’s highest point at 5,895m) is trekking from thick, humid rainforest on the mountain’s lower flanks to frigid, ice-clad summit. In terms of climate zones, that’s like walking from the tropics to the Arctic, only you’re condensing a journey of several thousand kilometres into a week-long hike.
This is no walk in the park though. Altitude sickness is common, which is why responsible operators recommend six to eight days on the mountain to aid acclimatisation. Rongai and Lemosho are two of the less crowded routes.
Also see: Often dusted with snow, Mount Kenya (5,199m) also makes a challenging but rewarding trek. Allow five days to hike to Point Lenana and back. Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains lure intrepid trekkers through cloying bogs and giant bamboo to reach the glaciated peaks of Mount Stanley.
To witness the Aurora Borealis unveil its swirling curtains of luminescent green across a star-studded Arctic night is one of travel’s ultimate tingly moments – but combine the cosmic light show with an epic landscape and you have something truly unforgettable.
Pick the right spot in Norway and – with luck – you can watch the northern lights dance above a snowy, dragon-back mountain range looming above a green-washed ocean.
An hour’s boat ride south of the Arctic city of Tromsø, Senja’s aurora displays can be spellbinding – particularly when viewed from one of the island’s northern peninsulas, such as Okseneset. Renowned for the dark night skies (and low light pollution) that are so crucial for aurora hunting, Finnmark in the far north of Norway is another hot spot.
Also see: Notoriously fickle, the northern lights should always be viewed as a bonus. Fortunately, Norway has plenty of other winter activities, ranging from snowmobiling and ice climbing to walking with Sami reindeer herders.
Seething through the fjords of West Iceland’s Snæfellsnes Peninsula, vast shoals of overwintering herring don’t go unnoticed by local hungry orcas. During March and April, large pods make a beeline for this fishy feast, often accompanied by schools of white-beaked dolphin and plungediving gannets.
Sometimes you can watch the sporadic feeding frenzies from shore as the orca herd the herring into bays. Your best chance of an encounter, though, is to join a whale-watching boat trip in Grundarfjörður – the low winter sun glittering on the sea beneath a meringue-whip of iceclad mountains.
Also see: Iceland is also a great destination for other winter adventures. A trip to Gullfoss, a waterfall that drops 32m in two stages, looks all the more dramatic, and eerily atmospheric, when the water freezes into glistening ice.
When the waterways of Stockholm freeze over, it’s time to strap on your ice skates and go for a spin around the Swedish capital.
The most popular natural ice skating rink is in Kungsträdgården, but you don’t have to venture far from the city to find yourself in a wilder world of snow-clad forests and frozen lakes – ideal for multi-day ice skating adventures led by local experienced guides.
Also see: For the ultimate winter wildlife challenge, Wild Sweden offers lynx tracking holidays in Lapland where you also have the chance of spotting reindeer and moose.
Traditional sailing finishes in Estonia during October when boats are lifted out of the water before the Baltic Sea freezes over. But the vast expanses of smooth, flat ice in Haapsalu, Saaremaa and Pärnu are ideal for ice sailing.
Imagine a coffin-sized yacht on ice skates that’s capable of reaching speeds of more than 100kph… Ice sailing regattas are regular winter fixtures here; try it yourself at a local sailing club.
Also see: In the depths of winter, it’s possible to drive a car on Europe’s longest ice road, stretching 25km across the frozen Baltic Sea between the Estonian mainland and the island of Hiiumaa.
When winter bears down on the Scottish Cairngorms, this huge upland area – where 453 sq km lies above 800m – is transformed into an Arctic landscape with persistent snow, high winds and freezing temperatures.
No wonder the reindeer feel right at home. Currently numbering around 150 individuals, there’s been a free-roaming herd here since 1952.
At the reindeer centre in Glenmore you can hand-feed the creatures and stroke their velvety muzzles, but a guided hill walk (daily, except early January to early February) gives you a more authentic insight into their free-spirited lives.
Plunging to 1,637m, Siberia’s Lake Baikal is not only the world’s deepest lake, it’s also the most ancient (25 million years old) and the largest by volume (around one-fifth of the earth’s freshwater).
The lake freezes in January, but that doesn’t stop fearless divers descending into crystal-clear waters beneath the metre-thick frozen skin. Holding tethered safety ropes they enter a surreal world of ice grottoes and crevices created by upwelling currents.
A fleeting encounter with a rare, endemic Baikal seal is not unheard of. Divers must own an advanced open water certification.
Also see: Ice fishing through a hole on frozen Lake Baikal is an option too. Baikal omul is traditionally salted and smoked, then washed down with a warming swig of vodka.
Take a break from snowmobiling or husky sledding in Lapland and chances are your guide will suggest some fika beside an open fire. It’s stopping for coffee, but not as you know it.
Coarse ground grains are brought to the boil and then served with mozzarella-like cubes of coffee cheese or, for a shot of fatty energy, a slice of dried reindeer meat. Cinnamon buns also often accompany a fika ritual.
Also see: An annual gathering of the Sami for over 400 years, Swedish Lapland’s Jokkmokk Winter Market – in early February – is the place to sample local food and culture.
Far-flung in the Russian High Arctic, yet untouched by glaciation during the last Ice Age, Wrangel Island might well have been the last stand of the woolly mammoth – thought to have persisted here as late as 4,300 years ago.
By remaining ice-free for so long, the 7,608 sq km island has become a ‘hotspot’ for Arctic wildlife. Up to 100,000 Pacific walrus cram its beaches, grey whales feed offshore, while more than 100 species of migratory birds nest on its tundra. But Wrangel Island is most famous for polar bears. Between 300 and 350 maternity dens are scooped out of its snowy mountain slopes each year.
If a whale carcass washes ashore, it’s not uncommon for 200-plus polar bears to gather for the feast. ARCTIC Set sail for the North Pole Explorers have been trying to reach the North Pole since the early 1800s, using everything from sled dogs to airships.
Many expeditions ended in failure and tragedy as they attempted to cross the frozen sea. By contrast, modern-day explorers can voyage to 90°N in the safety and comfort of a nuclear-powered icebreaker ship.
The 128-passenger 50 Years of Victory can punch through ice up to two-and-a-half metres thick and carries a helicopter for aerial views of the Arctic Ocean.
Also see: Voyages to the North Pole are only possible in June and July when the ice is thinner, or in April if travelling via helicopter.
Few travel experiences are more culturally immersive than joining Siberia’s Nenets nomads on the windswept Yamal Peninsula.
Hardy reindeer herders, they’re constantly on the move, but the annual migration goes up a gear with an intense 60km dash across the frozen Gulf of Ob, culminating in the Reindeer Herding Festival at Yar Sale.
Travelling by reindeer-drawn and motorised sleds, you’ll wear hand-sewn furs and sleep in conical, reindeer-hide tents (known as chums). Siberia’s Arctic tundra is not for the fainthearted, but this is a rare opportunity to experience an authentic way of life – threatened by climate change and gas drilling.
Migrating across Arctic Canada about a thousand years ago, the Thule people arrived in Greenland well equipped to cope with life in a frozen wilderness. They invented the sea kayak, honed their seal hunting skills and brought with them powerful sled dogs.
Nowadays, you’re more likely to see Greenlanders manoeuvring snowmobiles than mushing huskies, but dog sledding still prevails in remote communities.
Also see: An exciting 40km dog sledding competition, called Avannaata Qimussersua, takes place every year in North Greenland.
If you’re a fan of Happy Feet and documentaries such as March of the Penguins and Dynasties melted your heart, voyage to the frozen Weddell Sea where Snow Hill hosts around 4,000 breeding pairs of emperor penguin.
It takes an icebreaker cruise to even stand a slim chance of getting within helicopter range of the colony, but with luck (and deep pockets) you’ll be rewarded with one of the world’s most extraordinary wildlife spectacles.
It’s the juxtaposition of concentrated, bustling life and vast, empty icescape that makes the emperors of Snow Hill so remarkable, but you can see penguins-on-ice at several more accessible locations in Antarctica.
A typical 10-day voyage from the port of Ushuaia to the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula, for example, will usually include shore landings at equally mesmerising rookeries of Adélie, chinstrap and gentoo penguins.
Also see: Sea kayaking (an activity available on many Antarctic cruises) can give you a riveting, sea-level perspective – not just of penguins and leopard seals, their stealthy predators who prowl the ice floes – but also of the intricate, sea-sculpted hulks of icebergs.
Threading through pristine, snowcovered boreal forest between Anchorage and Fairbanks, the Aurora Winter Train provides a spectacular window on Alaska’s backcountry.
Hauled by the brawny, blue and yellow locos of the Alaska Railroad, the train takes 12 hours to reach Fairbanks, crossing the steel arch bridge over Hurricane Gulch and skirting the eastern boundary of Denali National Park. On a clear day, you can see 6,190m-tall Denali crowning the Alaska Range.
Also see: Spend a night or two in Fairbanks before catching the train south again. Activities include northern lights tours, dog sledding, ice fishing and cross country skiing.
Perfect for winter riding, fat bikes have large squashy tyres, between 10 and 12cm wide, that allow you to ride over compacted snow, rather than plough through it. The best time to hit the trail is early morning when the snow is frozen solid and has better traction.
A year-round Mecca for mountain bikers, Utah has no shortage of fat bike destinations. Round Valley in Park City has well-maintained mixed-use trails for biking, skiing and snowshoeing, while American Fork Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains offers a range of forest and ridge trails suitable for beginners to experts.
A true ice wine is made from frozen grapes, plucked – hard as marbles – from the vine when the temperature is at least –8°C. The grapes are then pressed while still frozen and allowed to ferment for two to six months.
Niagara Falls has become famous for the super-sweet tipple (twice the sweetness of Coca Cola) and several wineries in the area (including Inniskillin, Jackson-Triggs, Peller, Reif and Strewn) offer vineyard tours and tastings. Visit the partially frozen falls (illuminated at night during winter), then treat yourself to a glass or two – best paired with cheese or creamy desserts.
Also see: Other winter highlights in Canada cover everything from trying to catch a glimpse of a polar bear on the shores of Hudson Bay to northern lights watching in the Yukon.
Following their reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s, wolves can now be seen throughout the year, but winter is the best time to glimpse these pack hunters on the prowl.
Their grizzled coats show up more clearly against snow-covered slopes and, with the help of a park ranger or one of the specialist wolf-tracking guides in the area, you might even spot their tracks or hear their howls – particularly in the Lamar Valley and Rose Creek – the original release sites for Yellowstone’s wolves.
Also see: Winter in Wyoming’s Yellowstone is not only good for wolf tracking, it’s also less crowded year-round than other popular US national parks. Hop on a snowmobile or snowcoach to witness bison gather in steaming herds beside the park’s hot springs
One of 356 glaciers in Argentina’s remarkable Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, Perito Moreno is the most accessible. You can walk to viewing balconies, take a boat trip or jump in a kayak to witness its 70m-high cliffs of blue ice from a range of perspectives.
Trekking on the glacier is also possible, donning crampons and using an ice axe to negotiate crevasses, ice caves and seracs. In the north of the park, El Chaltén is the base for spectacular hikes to glaciers and milky-blue lakes beneath the sawtooth spires of the Fitz Roy Range.
The day hiking is superb, but there’s also the option to set off on a multi-day trek and discover hidden valleys and the mighty South Patagonian Ice Cap.
Also see: Pumas can be found throughout Patagonia, but they are most readily seen in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park where they prey on the plentiful guanaco.
This is also one of the few places where dedicated puma tracking safaris are available. The chances of a sighting are good, particularly at dawn or dusk when the big cats are most active.
The ski season in Chile runs from mid-June to mid-October, with popular resorts including Valle Nevado and Portillo. However, daredevils in search of fire and ice should head south to the Araucaria region to ski some of the country’s biggest volcanoes.
Lonquimay, Llaima, Villarrica and Lanín offer thrilling backcountry descents of more than 10,000 vertical feet through virgin powder snow. Don’t expect any cable cars or lifts.
Ski touring (or randonee) often involves long days of hiking, skis strapped to your backpack, but the views from the top – and the adrenaline rush heading down – are more than worth it. Just keep an eye on the summit: skiers watched Nevados de Chillán blow its top in 2018
The long nights of winter are ideal for stargazing in New Zealand – the galactic core of the Milky Way is at its brightest during June and July, while the 4,367 sq km Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve on South Island ensures minimal light pollution.
Join an expert-guided tour at the foot of Mount Cook or Tekapo’s Mount John Observatory and you’ll soon be pinpointing planets, nebulas and Magellanic Clouds, and sorting one constellation from another. In Queenstown, you can ride the gondola into snowcapped mountains that offer winter activities by day and stargazing by night.
The southern half of South Island also offers the tantalising prospect of catching the Aurora Australis, or southern lights – look to the heavens on a clear winter’s night, close to a new moon in July or August. ❄
Also see: From June to October, New Zealand’s alpine resorts are buzzing with skiers and snowboarders. Snowshoeing and heli-skiing are also popular and Queenstown even offers heli-snowmobiling
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