Snow capped mountains, ice covered lakes and grey skylines may present a typical cold winter scenario but for many, such vistas hold promise as they embark on winter vacations. While skiing, snowboarding, ice hockey and trekking are for the active winter sporting enthusiasts, there are gentler options for those who wish to soak in the cold, enjoying the warm romantic glow of a fire and experiencing the landscape around them change its colours. This can indeed be a time to emerge out of the shadows of winter doldrums and overcome the season blues. Here is a roll call of ten destinations that embrace winter in its many contours.
Art and aesthetics are the hallmark of this country where even nature paints a canvas of colour in different seasons of the year. Taking artistic endeavours to the next level is the Sapporo Snow festival that takes place every year for a week in February in the three main sites of Odori Park, Tsudome and Susukino.
The festival is all about snow and ice sculptures. The main venue is Odori Park where figures are as tall as 15 meters and 25 meters in width. The second largest venue is Tsudome Site which includes a variety of snowy activities, snow slides, snow rafting and family games. Although Susukino Site is the smallest, it displays about 100 ice sculptures and is the location of the Ice Sculpture Contest.
Attracting over two million people to Sapporo every year, the festival began in the early 1950’s with school students participating and showcasing their snow exhibits. Initially a local festival, its popularity has established this event at international level.
First time visitors are usually stumped seeing the snow and ice sculptures that run for 1.5 km between 1-chome and 12-chome with some of the statues lit up with fairy lights, neons and twinkling sparkles. There is no cost to enter the venue and the environment is festive with contest announcements, ice bars, toboggan runs and food stalls. Combine the Sapporo festival with other attractions in Japan such as hot onsen natural springs, cuisines, famous shrines, vibrant countryside, sumo matches and watching fascinating Kimono clad Japanese women.
If there is any place that can successfully make freezing winter warm and attractive, it is the quaint and fairy tale setting of Quebec. Starting in early December, Old Québec gets transformed into a real Christmas village, resplendent with lights, decorations and snow.
Stroll around Old Québec, visit art exhibitions, attend Christmas concerts, usher the kids gently into the snow areas and participate in a plethora of activities planned especially for families. From January 27 to February 12, the Grande Allée! winter carnival, one of the largest festivals of the world takes centre stage. Highlights of this festival are a specially erected amusement park which is rife with exciting attractions, skiing, snow rafting, ice sculptures and snow sled slides, all under expert supervision and guidance.
This paves the way for not just professionals and seasoned winter sports enthusiasts but also amateurs and first timers who feel tempted to participate in one of the many outdoor activities available here. Steeped in tradition, it gives the first-time visitor an ample vibe of Quebec. Amateur and professional teams race canoes on the icy surface of St. Lawrence River and artists from all around the world compete in an eye-catching snow sculpture competition. Fresh air and all the frosted views are without charge and unsurprisingly local breweries do good business selling all kinds of beers. Winter camping is another option with le Parc national, barely 30 kms from downtown. De la Jacques- Cartier is home to beautiful glacial valleys in the province and it hosts authorised winter campgrounds with fully-equipped cabins for those less willing to brace the cold.
When nearby Shanghai, there is absolutely no way you should skip a visit to Hangzhou. An hour run by the bullet train brings you a completely different tune of China. Exquisite lakes and verdant gardens are the soul of the city.
Plenty of silk manufacturing takes place here and not surprisingly the city hosts some of the country’s wealthiest entrepreneurs. For those wanting to experience the local life, there is the new Hidden House, a rustic little cocoon, generously endowed with giant outdoor hot tubs, traditional home-style cooking, and elegant stone pathways that lead up to the adjoining bamboo forests. Watch traditional Chinese opera in one of the majestic theatres of the city and participate in any of the festivals that take place during winters, from the lantern festival to the flower shows and food extravaganzas.
Colourful blossoms along the West Lake provide ample opportunity to walk and immerse in thought, finding answers perhaps to some of life’s most quintessential questions. Anytime during January to March is good for the Daming Mountain Skiing festival. Located at an altitude of 1200 metres, Daming Mountain ski resort is the highest and largest ski resort in East China. The resort is equipped with high-end snow pressing machines imported from Switzerland with snowmakers from Italy and Germany. Winters are more enjoyable in Hangzhou as it is not as cold as the other northern cities of China.
This Italian cultural capital is a beautiful destination all year round. January happens to be a time when the Christmas crowd thins out and one can quite literally, have Florence all to oneself during this time! There are good deals to be had as well in well positioned hotels with mesmerising views.
Florence’s renowned museums see a smattering of genuine art and history lovers in the month of December, allowing you to soak in the quiet and the regalia of the renaissance masterpieces without navigating long queues. Holiday concerts and Italian Operas are held every other day with most restaurants selling tickets and passes. They will even recommend which ones to attend and the reasons for their popularity. Almost all restaurants serve the most delicious hot chocolate and those wanting to sample a sumptuous meal can go for a typical Italian salad accompanied with spaghetti with beef and veal ragout and ofcourse a pizza! For a break from museums, a quick trip to Siena is highly recommended. It’s an easy hour drive from Florence and allows travellers to explore the city’s stark, winding and mostly deserted side streets. For an indulgence in winter sports, there is skiing, ice skating and snow-tubing at the Firenze Winter Park which remains open till mid-February.
Heading out to Fez, Morocco might be a sizable idea this winter. December and January are perfect months when the souks and cities are buzzing with energy. Exploring the Sahara during this time of the year is perfect with cool nights accompanied by warm, sunny mornings.
Hiking in the Rif, especially the coastal national parks around Al Hoceima will open up a part of Morocco you are unlikely to see elsewhere. Make sure to leave enough time for a leisurely hamman that is bound to leave you scrubbed and shiny. This former capital of Morocco has a spiritual and cultural side to it that is most alluring. As the oldest of the imperial cities, it has managed to retain its labyrinthine heart, guiding curious visitors to find their way through the fascinating maze of streets, souks, monuments and traditional dye pits. Within this historical and cultural melee is the old medina that also has palaces, mosques and madrasas, each with stories to tell.
Check into Dar Seffarine, a laid-back and sociable guesthouse that has been restored in a 600-year-old building with a sprawling roof terrace which provides some of the best views of the city. The earthy scent of saffron, kaleidoscope of coloured carpets, sprawling palaces, mosques, friendly markets with the breath taking Middle Atlas Mountains makes Fez a fascinating place to be. Indeed, winter is a preferred time for this cosy desert adventure.
Northern Circuit, Tanzania
Can a piece on any sort of destination list be complete without including Africa? The spectacular northern circuit encompasses the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater. It is also home to Zanzibar’s idyllic beach hideaways such as andBeyond Mnemba Island and Fundu Lagoon. This makes Tanzania a hot place to visit this winter.
The climate is mostly tropical on the coast, on the islands and in Selous. It is temperate in other parts though temperatures on Mount Kilimanjaro and Meru does drop to below freezing. June, July and August can be very cold on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater although Mnemba Island is lovely at this time of year with cool evenings and warm daytime temperatures. You could try timing your visit in February to coincide with the Kilimanjaro Marathon that gives one a chance to choose between the full deal (42.2km), a thoroughly challenging half marathon (21.1km), or a Fun Run (5km). The race is done in view of Mount Kilimanjaro, a beautiful backdrop.
It can be difficult to figure the best times to visit Tanzania’s national parks because each time of the year offers something different to visitors. In January and February, wildebeest are calving, which gives tourists a chance to observe the savannahs full of mothers with their young. Then there are locations where you can see sea turtles hatching. It is a tough, rewarding choice.
Amsterdam may be the most visited and well known city of the Netherlands but Rotterdam is fast gaining on popularity ratings with its architectural innovations, active night life and weather. This second largest city in the Netherlands was once a famous port. Today, it is visited more for its undiscovered qualities, edgy harbour and an international feel that makes visitors feel right at home.
Come December and the city centre is awash with activities for all age groups. It is also a time for many winter festivals, musicals, Christmas carols and national fireworks. Many Christmas markets start sprouting from November onwards when shopping is at its highest. The biggest fireworks show of The Netherlands takes place on 31st December at the Erasmus bridge. All through winter, right up till March, Rotterdam continues to show its big and futuristic side with ample doses of hospitality. Cosy pubs, architecture, plenty of events and activities make the city a perfect setting in snow. The latest attraction is the MVRDV-designed Markthal. This is an igloo-like horseshoe that accommodates nearly 100 stalls selling a wide range of Dutch cheese along with local favourites. It also has Holland’s largest artwork that will leave you gasping in wonder. The trippy nimbus of mammoth, tumbling fruits and vegetables arches across the market ceiling on nearly 5,000 aluminium panels. There are many such local discoveries to make in this Dutch city.
W hen looking for warmer climes with a therapeutic touch, Kochi, formerly known as Cochin, is essentially your next destination. With a frozen in time quality, this old trading port has captivating beaches and glistening backwaters that tempt you to take a dip or a boat ride, never mind if it is December or January. In this part of the world there is an abundance of nice, warm sunshine and pleasant breeze that allows for a soak in the spa facilities and relaxing traditional massages that Kerala is so famous for. Indulge in fresh sea food served by simple local fishing folk, adding an element of serenity to your time in Kerala. Explore Cochin with visits to Fort Kochi, an exquisite Jewish synagogue and if keen, take short trips to neighbouring Wayanad and Munnar. This winter will see the city host the 3rd Kochi-Muziris Biennale, one of the country’s most influential contemporary art exhibition that runs from December until March 2017.
For cultural aficionados, there is the traditional Kathakali dance that demonstrates a range of emotions through facial expressions and fascinating costumes. For many, Kochi holds special attraction as they enrol for healing sessions, yoga training and meditation. Indeed, it is a place where many come to find tranquillity, experiencing the ‘less is more’ philosophy in totality.
Wasatch Mountains, Utah
Utah has some amazing activities to indulge in this winter. As the mother of all skiing and snowboarding destinations, the Wastach Mountains have awesome mountain ranges that run through the nation state. With over five mighty national parks, it has umpteen hiking trails, camping sites and serious trekking options. On an average, Utah weather is quite temperate. Being a semiarid state with dry, high country air and plenty of sunshine, it is important to stay hydrated with ample sun block and be able to manage altitude sickness. The Wasatch Mountain State Park can be enjoyed all through the year with activities such as camping in the Pine Creek Campground, reserving a tee time at one of the four popular 18-hole golf courses or hiking, biking and horseback riding on miles of unspoilt mountain trails.
In winter months, ski, snowboards and snowmobiles can be seen racing across alpine terrain. The new year brings in plenty of new restaurants and eateries, high-speed chairs and lifts, including one that connects Canyons to Park City Mountain Resort, making it the largest ski resort in the U.S. Undoubtedly, the backcountry in the Wasatch is an incredible place to explore what is often called the “greatest snow on Earth”. The facilities are world class more so since the time Utah hosted the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
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