February on Hokkaido means a chance to spy the courtship dances of the tancho (red-crowned crane). These elegant birds perform a slow-boil ballet of Edwardian bows, gushing leaps and dandyish flourishes set against the frozen marshlands of Kushiro. It’s a thrilling sight. Early-morning stakeouts in the forests around Tsurui can yield glimpses in the wild, but an easier way is to visit the Akan International Crane Centre at feeding time. Afterwards, head north to Shiretoko for cruises (Jan-Mar) among the drift ice and up-close views of white-tailed and Steller’s sea eagles hunting among the broken floes.
What about… Japan’s snow monkeys? These hot-tubbing macaques can be seen year-round in Jigokudani, near Nagano City, but in winter the snow-backed onsen prove more tempting to these chilly monkeys.
To find a predator, first look for its prey. In winter, huge shoals of herring gather around Iceland’s coast, off the northern side of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Where they go, the orca that hunt in these waters year-round are not usually far off. Come December and January, spotting tours launch from Grundarfjordur, in the shadow of the looming Kirkjufell mountain, where sightings are common and, sometimes, you can spy the pods herding the fish into balls before ruthlessly darting in to strike.
What about… the penguins of the sub-Antarctic islands? Cruises to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands reward with visits to Salisbury Plain, where you can spy 200,000 king penguins shuffling flipper to flipper. Early winter is when the season’s first chicks hatch.
True, your chances of spotting a snow leopard aren’t great. Fewer than 8,000 live in the wild, yet the big cats of Ladakh’s Hemis NP, deep in the Indian Himalaya, are never closer than in winter. It’s then that they descend to altitudes of just a few thousand metres to hunt the mountains’ blue sheep, which drop lower to forage. Guides valiantly hunt for signs as you lie in wait on cold, jagged rock, juggling a long lens in frozen fingers. The trekking in the mountainsides can be treacherous but spectacular, and even just a brief flash of that silvery fur is worth it.
What about… Southern Spain’s Iberian lynx? Europe may lack big cats, but it is home to one of the world’s rarest felines. Barely 400 Iberian lynx survive, mostly in the highlands of Andalucía’s Sierra de Andújar where winter tours find them at their most active during daylight hours.
Visiting Yellowstone NP in winter might seem odd given many of its facilities are shut. But January and February offer a unique opportunity when it comes to tracking the park’s wolves, because their mottled grey coats are just easier to spot against the white snow. Winter tours in Wyoming’s Lamar Valley and Rose Creek, where these predators were reintroduced in the early 1990s, reward with the life-and-death dramas of the pack as well as sightings of elk, bison and bighorn sheep.
What about… France’s wolf packs? It’s not just Yellowstone where wolves are bouncing back. Half of France’s grey wolves are now concentrated in the Southern Alps after being driven out by hunters in the 1930s. Tracking tours add a frisson to any Alpine hiking trip.
The UK offers plenty of winter encounters. In Scotland’s Cairngorms, walkers can meet Britain’s only free-roaming reindeer herd on guided hill trips, with the snow adds extra atmosphere. Over in Northern Ireland, birders welcome the arrival of 90% of the world’s light-bellied Brent geese to the inland sea of Strangford Lough. Or head to the east coast of England where winter means seal pupping. Between late December and February, Norfolk’s Horsey Gap and Blakeney Point are good spots to spy wriggling newborns at a respectful distance.
South Greenland’s island of Uunartoq is as remote as it gets. No one lives there, there are no roads, and you’ll need to take a boat from Qaqortoq or Nanortalik to reach it. But therein lies its appeal. The island’s hot spring lies in the middle of a soft, mossy field, near an abandoned nunnery and overlooking the shore. There’s a small hut to change in (the only facilities on the island), but your main concern is the 40ºC waters melting your bones as you watch drift ice float by.
What about… Colorado’s mountain hot springs? The rocky US state has plenty of dramatic soaks. Ouray’s Wiesbaden Hot Springs is nestled at the foot of the San Juan Mountains and has its own cave springs, while the rustic Strawberry Park, outside Steamboat Springs, is wrapped by wilderness.
How about a night on the ice? In winter, Transylvania’s glacial Lake Balea, smuggled high in the Southern Carpathians, freezes solid and is transformed into the striking Balea Ice Hotel (Dec–Apr). But the setting is the real star here, as views from the local cable car reveals. There’s 14km of ski slopes, ice-climbing on the frozen Balea waterfall and heli-skiiing among the furthest reaches of the Fagaras Mountains. Also, pay a visit to the gothic spires and cobbles of nearby Brasov and the 14th-century Bran Castle, on which the author Bram Stoker based his ideas for Dracula’s home.
What about… North America’s only ice hotel? Every winter, Canada’s Quebec City rebuilds Hôtel de Glace (Jan-Mar). Created using 500 tonnes of ice, it’s unabashedly palatial, with 40 rooms, an ice bar, grand hall, chapel and an enormous natural slide.
Asia has plenty of frozen festivals. They’re mostly outdoor installations of giant snow sculptures ranging from anime heroes to political figures. They get grander each year, but few feel as locally relevant as South Korea’s Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival (Jan-Feb). Here, the focus is as much on ‘fishing’ as art. Yes, there’s ice sculpting, skating and a huge sledding hill, but that’s background noise to the locals perched by ice holes with baited lines or wading into freezing fish-filled pools to catch the prized sancheoneo (masou salmon) by bare-hand.
What about… Harbin Snow & Ice Festival? In January, some 220,000 cubic metres of ice bricks are hefted from the Songhua River to create the centrepiece of China’s biggest ice festival: a huge frozen palace. Mass weddings and polar plunges only add to the fun.
The Norsemen saw a bridge to the gods; the Sami spied the ghosts of their ancestors. As you stand beneath great ribbons of green coursing across an obsidian Arctic sky, you can understand why. The aurora borealis (Oct-Apr) is especially dazzling in northern Norway due to the high latitude. But even here, where there’s so little light pollution, the ocean is still the best vantage point. Cruises along the Norwegian coast combine orca-spotting in the fjords by day with late evenings under rippling skies while providing experts to explain the science and mythology. Some cruises even offer free trips if you don’t see anything.
What about… Alaska’s Aurora Winter Train? This grand journey through the backcountry and boreal forest of the USA between Anchorage and Fairbanks reveals dark skies galore as you pit stop in the frozen north.
The UK is northerly enough for aurora sightings, especially in deep winter. To improve your chances, International Dark Sky Parks offer viewpoints far from light pollution. In Northern Ireland, County Tyrone’s Davagh Forest earned its Dark Sky status and opened a new observatory in late 2020. Meanwhile, England’s Kielder Forest (Northumberland), and Galloway Forest Park in northern Scotland are both vast, remote sites perfect for sky gazing. But before heading out, check the evening’s Kp scale, which measures the intensity of aurora activity. Anything over Kp5 could yield local sightings.
The December solstice marks the year’s shortest day and the true start of winter. To the pagans it was a moment of contemplation; even today, people still gather at stone circles to feel this link to the past. But little matches the experience at Ireland’s Newgrange site. This 5,200-year-old tumulus makes up a trio of UNESCO-listed Neolithic tombs in County Meath. It also holds a surprise. On its roof is an opening, engineered to flood the chamber with sunlight on the morning of the solstice. This phenomenon was only discovered in the 1960s; now a yearly lottery decides the lucky few who may squeeze inside to see it live.
What about… Yalda? It’s not all stone circles. In Iran, Yalda Festival marks the solstice, as families gather over huge meals to eat and read poetry. Some tours even allow you to join a local home for the evening.
For 400 years, Lapland’s Sami have gathered in the tiny town of Jokkmokk for February’s winter market. It’s a bustling, snowy affair that evokes the Sami’s reindeer-herding origins, but it has grown into a three-day cultural festival. Tours often combine visits with dog-sledding trips into the deep forests, where giant Sarek moose roam and the northern lights stream overhead. But the real joy lies in sampling local produce and crafts, listening to traditional stories and learning more about a culture that’s still within touching distance of its nomadic past.
What about… the reindeer herders of Siberia? December sees the Yar-Sale Nenet of Russia’s Yamal Peninsula begin migrating with their reindeers for winter. It’s an big cultural encounter, but only for the hardy: temperatures can hit -45ºC and herds number in the thousands.
Europe is filled with unusual winter folk festivals. February in the wine country of north-east Slovenia sees the arrival of the kurent: locals dressed in shaggy ram-skin costumes and masks (some costing up to £1,300) who dance through the medieval streets of Ptuj and its surrounding villages. The aim of the Kurentovanje festival is to scare away winter, and it culminates in a carnival held in the city on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Here, locals keep warm with cups of schnapps and fresh krofi doughnuts oozing apricot jam, and watch on as dancing kurent and kurenti (devils with horns) jiggle and prance alongside folk musicians.
What about… Japan’s Yamayaki Festival? Every January, the entire hillside of Mount Wakakusa, near Nara, is set ablaze, killing off the dead winter grass to make room for spring shoots.
You can’t stop Brits burning things. In Scotland’s Shetland Islands, the last Tuesday of January sees Lerwick erupt in a fiery mardi gras, as Up Helly Aa channels the island’s Viking spirit with the burning of a galley ship and drinking. Lots of drinking. In England, Northumberland’s 160-year-old Tar Bar’l Festival is no less flammable, as locals in Allendale totter under flaming barrels of tar, then hurl them onto a New Year’s Eve bonfire. Or head to Whittlesea’s Straw Bear Festival (14-16 Jan 2022) in Cambridgeshire, where a straw-covered local is prodded through the streets before their costumes are thrown on a bonfire in a tradition dating from the early 1900s.
In the early 1800s, tensions between the British colonies of Upper Canada and the USA saw the Brits build a canal linking the Ottawa and Rideau rivers, creating a supply line to the Great Lakes. Around it, the future capital grew. Now, when the canal freezes (Jan–Mar), Ottawa is ringside for the world’s longest natural skateway. Joining locals to slide its 7.8km of ice offers a magnificent whistle-stop tour of the city, from downtown to Dows Lake. And when you long for more nature, north of the river lies Gatineau Park and 200km of ski touring trails set amid endless pine forests bowing with fresh snowfall.
What about… St Petersburg? The ‘Venice of the North’ is magical during winter. Snow dusts its baroque cathedrals white, ice fishermen and river-walkers venture onto the frozen Neva (Feb-Mar) and balletic skaters take to huge open-air rinks in the parks.
While winter smothers the Northern Hemisphere, it’s summer down south. As the sea ice around Antarctica begins to thaw, cruises from Chile and Argentina set out to explore the west of the continent (Nov-Apr). By January, the days are warmer, longer (20+ hours of sunlight) and penguin chicks have started hatching, taking their first tottering steps. It’s also the last chance for flights and treks to the South Pole. Come February, humpback whales gather en masse in Wilhelmina Bay and the minimal sea ice means that it’s the best time for cruises beyond the Polar Circle, where the midnight sun lights up the peninsula.
What about… the East Antarctic? Cruises start later in the east, where month-long trips ford the tempestuous Ross Sea from New Zealand and Australia in January and February, yielding the chance to trek to the remote huts of legendary explorers Shackleton and Scott.
Winter in Arctic Canada sees the return of ice roads, connecting remote First Nations communities in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. They are often vital links, with some 4,000km of routes maintained each year, making for thrilling road trips. Most are drivable from late January until April, when the ocean and lakes freeze, but only tour companies typically rent cars to do so. Driving the Mackenzie Delta up to the remote hamlet of Aklavik rewards with the barren sweep of the ice beneath your wheels and a unique taste of remote Arctic living.
What about… Europe’s longest ice road? As well as ‘ice sailing’ (sledding with sails) on the frozen Baltic coast, you can drive Estonia’s ice roads.
The 26km-long route from the mainland to Hiiumaa island opens between late January and March, if you’re brave enough.
In winter, Switzerland’s railways steer a path through some of the highest snow-smothered passes in Europe. The narrow gauge Glacier Express (Zermatt-St Moritz) is perhaps best known. Its lofty rails spiral up the Oberalp Pass and crawl the towering Landwasser Viaduct as passengers sit glued to its panoramic windows. Or instead hop on the GoldenPass Line (Lucerne-Montreux), a journey split over three different trains that runs deep into the Swiss Alps. The highlight is climbing to the highest station in Europe on the Jungfrau Railway, as you step out at 3,454m.
What about… the world’s highest railway? The Qinghai-Tibet route across Tanggula Pass (5,068m) to Lhasa sees you enter a wonderland of snow-backed peaks. It’s so high that the carriages are pumped with oxygen. Going in winter also means the Tibetan capital is less crowded.
Multi-day dog-sled trips make you realise this is more than transport: it’s a way of life. Learning to harness the huskies, take care of them and control them is part of the joy, as you barrel across snowbound boreal forests and frozen lakes, travelling up to 40km a day. In Finnish Lapland, winter sledding trips across Pallas-Yllastunturi NP hop between wilderness cabins while you ford fells and icy taiga forests, before retiring under the rippling northern lights overhead.
What about… a snowmobile safari? In the remote Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, multi-day snowmobile trips explore old Russian settlements and the ghost town of Pyramiden to discover life on the frozen edge of Europe.
There’s plenty of UK winter rail adventures. Wake up to the snowy highlands of Scotland on the overnight Caledonian Sleeper from London, then continue on the West Highland Line from Glasgow to the fishing port of Mallaig, crossing miles of snow-swept moorland and the stately Glenfinnan Viaduct. For a plusher retro vibe, the 1920s-styled Belmond British Pullman has a number of winter day trips from London, with past routes visiting Christmas markets and carol services in Canterbury. Or steam into the frozen Yorkshire countryside on the traditional North York Moors Railway from Whitby to Pickering, which operates over winter for the first time this year.
In Italy’s Lombardy region, snowshoe treks take on a convivial air. Hikes are often evening affairs, combining a star-lit walk with tastings and gastronomic blow-outs. There is even an annual event held in February where over 4,000 snowshoe trekkers gather around Vezza D’Oglio for a 10km night hike. By day, greater challenges lie in Stelvio NP, where treks beneath 3,000m-high alpine summits navigate forests bounding with chamois and deer and finish in cosy mountain refuges.
What about… the French Alps? To the north, busy Chamonix is a chance to snowshoe bite-size sections of its Tour du Mont Blanc (170km). For quieter hikes, head
south to Mercantour NP where the trails of Vésubie valley let you explore in peace.
A spine of mountainous islets creeps north of Norway’s Bodo, arcing into the sea to form the Lofoten archipelago. When late winter hits, they burst to life as shoals of cod migrate to its waters and the islands’ iconic red-and-white rorbu fisherman cabins are draped in lines of drying fish, hung in the breeze like laundry. It’s a unique time to visit on slow kayak tours of the sheltered waters of Reinefjord and the inner coast. Drop in on bustling villages and lonely shores as the pale winter sun paints the island’s lush peaks a golden hue.
What about… paddling Canada’s LaHave archipelago? In winter, tours splash past colourful lobster pots and wintering birds to a private island off Nova Scotia’s south-west coast, where you can warm up in a sauna then leap into the freezing waters.
In might be summer in Patagonia between December and February but this is when most glacier treks take place. Los Glaciares NP is home to Perito Moreno, the largest of its 356 glaciers and a staggering 30km across. Paddle impossibly blue waters below towering ice cliffs, then grab an axe and crampons to inch across its frozen surface on guided tours, peering into caves and crevasses. Hardier hikers might fancy multi-day treks to the world’s largest non-polar ice cap, descending into snow-blasted valleys amid spires of gnarled granite.
What about… heli-hiking the Tasman glacier? Helicopter tours are the only way to reach the heights of New Zealand’s largest glacier. From there, a 5km trek squeezes canyons, moulins (shafts) and caves to discover an ice world 1,400m above sea level.
The snowy Tian Shan mountains rumple the borders of China and four of the five ’Stans. It’s forbidding country, but in the foothills of northern Kyrgyzstan – the ‘Switzerland of Central Asia’ – you can get your wild skiing fix from December onwards. Travellers typically arrive in Bishkek before being ferried off to the untouched snows in the valleys around Issyk-Kul, the deep gorges of Irdyk and the slopes of Karakol. Explore mountain villages, Kyrgyz culture and make your base in a remote yurt camp in a location that’s about as off-piste as it gets.
What about… heli-skiing in the Himalaya? If you want to go where no one else is, helicopter tours (Jan-Mar) in India’s Himachal Pradesh region drop you off at altitudes of 5,000m, as you ski virgin slopes surrounded by peaks that soar even higher.
Even in the UK you can still find snowy challenges. In North Wales, winter hikes among the (usually) white-tipped summits of Snowdonia are best done with a guide, such is the risk, but are worth the chill. Similarly, winter needn’t stop you bagging Munros. Multi-day guided treks scale Scottish peaks in Glencoe and Kintail and even offer a chance to test your mountain skills overnighting in a snow hole in the Cairngorms (scotmountainholidays.com). And if the weather obliges, snow-shoe walks in England’s North Pennines and the fells of the Lake District (edenoutdooradventures.co.uk) show this rugged northern hill country in a whole new light.
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