Forget the swimsuit, and flip flops. To enjoy these winter destinations, you’ll need to grab a parka, and embrace your inner polar bear. While I think it’s a natural tendency to let the mind wander south when temperatures drop and the snow begins to fall, there is a lot of beauty that winter offers those who runs toward it, instead of away. The following are just a few of the possibilities out there waiting.
Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival
Every year, during the months of January and February, the Chinese put on the biggest ice and snow sculpture festival in the world. It’s a festival that’s taken place for more than 50 years, and features ice art multiple stories high, and covering acres in a virtual city of ice.
The best time to view and photograph the ice sculptures is at night, when lights embedded in and around the ice illuminate the sculptures in every imaginable color. The snow sculptures are at their best on a clear, sunny day.
Harbin, located in China’s Heilongjiang Province, is located a fair distance from Beijing, where most international travelers enter China. A separate flight to the city takes about 2 hours, while the train takes more than 11 hours.
If getting to Harbin is a bit of a stretch this winter, here are a few others that may be closer to home.
Churchill Polar Bear Watching – Manitoba, Canada
Dubbed by some as the polar bear capital of the world, Churchill offers unique access for wildlife photographers to a sizable polar bear population that converges along this section of Hudson Bay in October and November, waiting for the ice to thicken up on their feeding grounds in the Arctic Ocean.
A sizable tourist industry has developed around the annual event since the 1980’s, so numerous tour options are available to those interested in catching a view of one of the largest predators in the animal kingdom.
Given there are no roads into Churchill, the only options for reaching this outpost in the Subarctic, are by air and rail from Winnipeg. A flight takes about 2 hours, a train ride, nearly 2 days.
Jigokudani Monkey Park – Japan
If you’ve ever seen pictures of monkeys relaxing in a hot spring, heads covered in winter snow flakes, this is the place. This particular primate is known as the Japanese Macaque (ie snow monkeys), and resides in the park year-around. During the summer months they climb into the surrounding mountains to forging for fund, but during the 4 months when snow is common they return to the valley floor where the hot springs are located. Not surprisingly, Jigokudani (Hell valley) derives its name from the multitude of volcanic hot springs that fill the air throughout the area with steam. The park is located in Nagano Prefecture northwest of Tokyo. The prefecture is largely occupied by various mountain ranges, sometimes referred as the Japanese Alps. The Nagano area is also famous for the Winter Olypmics that was held there in 1998.
The nearest city to Jigokudani is Yamanouchi, which is approximately a 3 1/2 hour train ride from Tokyo. Once in Yamanouchi, visitors must hike into Jigokundani, to reach the springs where the macaque’s congregate.
And although your hike into the mountains is a relatively short one by most hiker’s standards, if you are absolutely exhausted when the day is done, Yamanouchi offers a number hot springs to soak your aching muscles in…with the occasional macaque coming by to see how the other half lives.
Official Website: http://www.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp/english/html/top_e.htm
The irony of this cold winter vacation idea is that you are actually venturing to Antarctic during its summer season (November – February), the only time of year when conditions are warm enough that ships can safely reach our southern most continent.
The best time to go depends entirely on what you want to see. If pristine sea ice and icebergs floating by are what you are looking for, the earlier in the season you go, the better. Otherwise the ice melts, breaks up and disperses into the southern ocean. The one downside of an early cruise is that certain destinations you wanted to see may still be iced up, and wildlife sightings are at a minimum. As you head into December the amount of sunlight peaks, increasing the chances of capturing beautiful winter landscapes against bright, deep blue skies. And toward the end of the Antarctic cruise season, wildlife sightings reach their maximum, particularly of whales.
Who you go with depends on your goals. If comfort and luxury are your priorities the big cruise ships are the best bet. If you want to experience Antarctica up close and personal, and capture that one in a million photograph, smaller cruises are you better choice.
Either direction you go, the cost to get there and back is pretty steep. Expect to pay $10k at a minimum, and if you want to do something completely wild, like trek to the South pole, you are looking at tens of thousands of dollars.
Glacier Express – Switzerland
The Glacier Express is a special train service that travels through the Swiss Alps between the mountain resorts Zermatt and St. Moritz. Operating year around it travels through some of this tiny country’s most spectacular scenery. The trip takes a little over 7.5 hours to completely, passing over hundreds of bridges (including the famous Landwasser Viaduct), and reaching elevations as high as 6,670 ft during the course of the journey.
Apostle Island Sea Caves – US
Part of the Apostle Island National Seashore in northwest Wisconsin, the sea caves are famous for the ice formations that build up over the winter, in and around the caves. Carved from centuries of wave action and the seasonal freeze and thaw cycle, each cave chamber offers a unique ice display that can change from day to day.
The accessibility of the ice caves varies from one winter to the next. A warm winter can significantly affect the ice thickness on Lake Superior, preventing hikers from reaching the cliffs where the caves are located. So it is advised visitors check with the National Park Service before planning a trip. The best time to visit the caves tends to run from January until mid-March.
The ice caves are located at the western end of the Mainland Unit of the park. From the trailhead at the end of Meyers Beach, visitors descend a stairway to the beach and walk across the shore ice to the caves. Meyers Road is 18 miles west of Bayfield, WI.
Winter Fjord and Glacier Cruise – Norway
During the winter several Norwegian cruise companies offer tours along Norway’s western coast. The largest and oldest of these, Hurtigruten, operates 11 ships that stop daily at 34 different cities from Bergen in the south, to Kirkenes near the northern border with Russia. One plus with Hurtigruten is that you can build your own itinerary and time table for moving along the coast. This allows you to plan extended excursions into Norway’s interior without worrying about the boat leaving you behind.
Norway’s rugged coast offers some of the greatest scenic beauty in Europe; from its glacially carved fjords, to the dramatic mountains and sheltered bays of the Lofoten Islands. Keep in mind that during the winter, cruise travel may be restricted in some of the fjords that might be on your list. However with proper planning alternative means to reach them maybe possible.
One of the pluses of visiting Norway in the winter is the strong possibility of seeing the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), particularly as you approach and pass north of the Arctic Circle, near Bodo.
Deciding what month of winter to visit Norway, depends a lot of your goals. The best time for landscape photography is in late October, and early March when the light is greatest. Coincidentally the aurora is more likely to occur in early and late winter. However, the long nights of December offer a greater chance of seeing the northern lights during normal waking hours.
Another dynamic one must keep in mind when planning trips around Arctic winter destinations is the dramatic difference in available light over relatively short distances. The amount of sunlight in Kirkenese may be as much as 4 hours different than in Bergen.
Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race – Alaska
Each year in February a thousand mile sled dog race, known as the Yukon Quest, is held between the city of Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory of Canada. The race course follows the path of the mail and transportation routes used during the Klondike Gold Rush. The race was also meant to offer a tougher experience for mushers, than its rival the Iditarod, with surviving the event being just as important as winning. The start of the race alternates from year to year between Fairbanks, and Whitehorse.
Unlike the Iditarod, the Yukon Quest is fairly accessible to the average traveler willing to pack the miles, and put their vehicles and their bodies through the harsh winter conditions. All of the official race checkpoints are accessible by car, except Eagle, on the Yukon River, in Alaska.
Yukon Quest: Official Website
Bald Eagle Festival – Alaska
Drawn by a late run of spawning Coho and Chum salmon, more than 4,000 Bald Eagles have been known to congregate in the late fall (October-January) at Council Grounds, the confluence of three rivers ( the Chilkat, Tsirku and Klehini) north of Haines, Alaska. In 1982, the State of Alaska, understanding the important natural value of the site, created the 48,000 acre Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Eagles are known to come from thousand of miles away, including from Washington State, the Northwest Territories of Canada, and the Alaska Peninsula.
To celebrate the annual congregation of eagles, a festival, is held each year in mid-November by the American Bald Eagle Foundation. Transportation and guided trips are offered to the preserve during the event, as well as photography workshops.
Bald Eagle Festival: Official Website