Tag Archive: switzerland

10 Amazing “Cold” Winter Vacation Destinations

Tromso, Norway Aurora Borealis

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

Harbin Ice and Snow Festival - China

Harbin Ice Festival / Wikipedia

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.

Sapporo Snow Festival – Japan
Québec Winter Carnival – Canada
World Ice Art Championships – Fairbanks, Alaska



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

Snow Monkeys Nagano, Japan

Snow Monkeys, Japan / Wikipedia

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

Antarctic Cruise

Antarctica Glacier and Sea Ice

Antarctica Glacier and Sea Ice

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

Apostle Island Ice Caves

Apostle Island Ice Caves / Sweet Alize

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

Tromso, Norway Aurora Borealis

Tromso, Norway – Aurora Borealis / Davide Gabino

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

Bald Eagle - Alaska

Bald Eagle – Alaska / Yathin S Krishnappa

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

Switzerland’s Most Scenic Castles

Castle Chillon - Montreux, Switzerland

Aigle Castle Find on Google Maps

Chateau Aigle, Vaud Canton -Switzerland

Chateau Aigle / Uwe Brodrech-Flickr

Aigle Castle is located in western Switzerland, in the Canton of Vaud. Montreux, the largest city nearby, lies on the shores of Lake Geneva. The castle was originally built by the Barons of Aigle, who along with the succeeding Counts of Savoy and Lords of Compey, enlarged and improved the castle over the centuries.

While the castle alone, in its pristine condition, deserves consideration on any history or architectural lovers itinerary, what sets this castle apart is the landscape around it. Vineyards surround the castle, and in the distance the snow capped Alps accent the scene beautifully.

Aigle is approximately one hour by train or car from Bern and Geneva.


Bellinzona Castles Google Map Link

Castelgrande - Bellinzona, Switzerland

Castelgrande – Bellinzona, Switzerland / Wikipedia

If castles are a top item on your European vacation list, but you only have one day to spend in Switzlerand, Bellinzona is the stop I would recommend. It boasts three castles in close proximity to each other.  The largest, known as Castelgrande, is located in the valley center on a hill. Its also the largest as its name suggests. Just above it, attached to the same city wall that greets visitors to Bellinzona, is Montebello. And finally up the hill from that is Sasso Corbaro

Castlegrande has been the site of man-made fortifications since Romans first occupied it in the 1st Century B.C. Much of the current castle was built between the 12th and 15th century while under the control of the House of Visconti  and the Dukes of Milan.

Montebello was built in the 13th century and expanded later by the House of Visconti, after taking control of this region of Switzerland.

Sasso Corbaro is the smallest and last of the castles to be built (1478). Its original purpose was to fill a hole in the city’s defensive parameter. The castle was expanded later on, but fell into disuse afterward.

Due to its nearly subtropical climate on the south-side of the Alps, the author found this to be a great place to escape the winter cold. Something to consider depending on your travel plans.

Zurich is the closest major Swiss city to Bellinzona, approximately 2 hours away. Bern will take you another hour.

Chillon Castle Google Map Link

Castle Chillon - Montreux, Switzerland

Castle Chillon / Wikipedia

Located on Lake Geneva outside Montreaux, Chillon (Château de Chillon) is one of the most visited castles in Switzerland and Europe. It’s an architectural gem, accented by its location along the shore, with the high mountain peaks of the Alps to the south. The castle, built by the dukes of Savoy, was made famous by Lord Byron’s poem The Prisoner Of Chillon, which chronicled their holding of François de Bonivard, a Genevois monk and politician for opposing their rule. Lord Byron left his named carved in a pillar of the castle’s dungeon following a visit to the castle.

Chillion is approximately one hour drive from either Bern or Geneva.

Valère Castle Google Map Link

Valere Castle - Sion -Valais - Switzerland

Valere Castle, Sion, Switzerland

Also known as Valère Basilica, this fortified church was built above the town of Sion beginning in the 11th century. The Basilica dominates one of two prominent hills above the city, the other occupied by the ruins of Château de Tourbillon, a castle built at the end of the 12th century. The Valere and Tourbillon Castles were constructed by the Prince-Bishops of Sion, who were given control over the Valais region by the last King of Upper Burgundy Rudolph III.

Sion is approximately an hour and half from Geneva by train or car. From Bern the train is faster and takes about the same amount of time as from Geneva.

Oberhofen Castle Google Map Link

Schloss Oberhofen - Switzerland

Schloss Oberhofen- Thunersee

Oberhofen Castle was built on the shores of Thun Lake (Thunersee), at the beginning of the 13th Century A.D. Over the years the castle has passed through many hands, from the Habsburgs who lost it after the Battle of Sempach, to a variety high ranking families within the Bern-controlled regions of the old Swiss Confederacy. In some ways the events that impacted Oberhofen over the centuries are a reflection of the most important events in Switzerland’s history. The Battle of Sempach for example, not only determined the future fate of this castle, but the expansion of the city/state of Bern, and eventual formation of the modern Swiss state.

The castle is just over a 30 minute drive south from Bern. If you are coming from Bern, a stop at Thun Castle which overlooks the town of Thun is worth a visit.

Switzerland’s Most Beautiful Vistas

Stellarium and Kulmhotel, Gornergrat

Of all the countries I have visited, Switzerland leads the pack, in the amount of natural beauty it manages to pack into such a small geographic area. And the Swiss with their trains, gondolas and tunnels carved into mountainsides make it so easy to explore. But even with this added benefit, a lifetime wouldn’t be long enough to find all the beautiful vistas this country has to offer.

The Matterhorn Region

The area around Zermatt is a landscape photographer’s dream. Tucked away in the upper reaches of the Matter Valley (Mattertal), Zermatt is the gateway to an alpine wilderness of rugged beauty. Like much of southern Switzerland, the region’s history is dominated by glacial activity, and a number of large glaciers remain here today. Then there is the Matterhorn, which dominates the horizon for miles around.

Here are a few suggestions to start your adventurers in this region.

Stellisee – This small mountain lake lies above the Matteral to the east of Zermatt, and can be reached via a 20-minute hike from the Blauherd Summit Gondola station.

Riffelsee – This is a small mountain lake west of Zermatt near the base of the Matterhorn. It is accessible via the Gornergrat Bahn cog railway. After you get off at the Rotenboden station it is a 10 minute walk.

Lago Goillet – This lake offers another beautiful vantage point of the Matterhorn from the Italian side. Its a bit of a journey from the Swiss side, via the Trockener Steg Mountain Station. The alternative is to come up from Breuil-Cervinia, Italy.

Kulmhotel Gornergrat / Gornergrat Rail Station – Both locations offer a beautiful view of the Gornergrat Glacier valley and the landscape around the Matterhorn above the Matteral. For those interested in extending their adventure further, I recommend investigating the trek across Gornergrat Glacier to the Monte Rosa haute.

Schwyz-Lucerne Region

Its between Schwyz and Lucerne that several mountain ranges and glacially carved lakes converge to create one of the most beautiful natural landscapes I have ever witnessed.  And its from the high peaks that dot the landscape that the views go from great to spectacular.

Grosser Mythen - Schwyz - Switzerland

Grosser Mythen – MM/Flickr

Hwy 8 Scenic Viewpoint

My first introduction to the Schwyz-Lucerne area was during a return trip to Switzerland from Germany and Austria via Hwy 8, which makes its way into the Schwyz canton from the north. There are several pullouts along this section of highway, with the last one (see above) before you drop into the village being the most breathtaking. It also gives you a sense of the amazing photographic potential of this area, especially given the inclination of the Swiss as I have come to know them, for making it relatively easy to visit many high points in the Swiss Alps.

Grosser Mythen

Grosser Mythen is a prominent mountain peak just to the north of Schwyz. From the village a hiking trail rises to Holzegg Pass, passing along the way, the monastery of St. Josef. From Holzegg the trail ascends steeply to the top of the mountain, which offers both a trekking haute, where overnight accommodations can be made, and an amazing panoramic view of the Swiss Alps, Schwyz, and the lakes of Lauerzersee and Lake Lucerne (Vierwaldstättersee).

Flickr: Photo Gallery 

Fronalpstock and Lake Lucerne

Fronalpstock – Roel Hemkes/Flickr

Stoos Ridge (Klingenstock to Fronalpstock)

Stoos Ridge bridges two prominent peaks south of Schwyz (Klingenstock and Fronalpstock) and offers breathtaking views of Lake Lucerne, and the surrounding glacial valleys. Reaching the ridge requires a series of trips via cable car and chair lift, starting in the valley below the car-free village of Stoos. Once in Stoos, chair lifts are available to both peaks, with many hikers starting at Klingenstock and hiking in a northwest arch toward Fronalpstock. The complete journey is approximately 5km unless one chooses to forgo the chair lifts and hike the complete loop.

And for those famished after their hike, Fronalpstock offers a restaurant, the highest one in Schwyz Canton.

Flickr: Photo Gallery 

Rigi Massif

Mount Pilatus

Mt. Pilatus - Lucerne - Switzerland

Mt. Pilatus – Paul Stocker/Flickr

Of the mountain views I discuss here, Mt. Pilatus, is much closer to Lucerne than Schwyz. Like the others, it offers a different view of the same intertwined lake and mountain system common to the area. It is also the most famous, probably because of how accessible it is. During much of the year, visitors can reach the top of the mountain via the village of Alpnachstad and the world’s steepest cogwheel railway, which has been in operation since 1889. Alternatively, gondolas and cable cars operate year-around from Kriens. And if you so desire there are trails to hike up to the top under your own power.

Both Kreins and Alpnachstad can be accessed by car and the Swiss Rail system.

Flickr: Photo Gallery
Official Website: http://www.pilatus.ch/en/

Aletsch Glacier

Aletsch Glacier in Valais, Switzerland

Aletsch Glacier – Wikipedia

As the largest glacier in the Alps, the Aletsch (Aletschgletscher) by default is a must see for landscape photographers, especially those who enjoy a wild landscape of rock and ice.   The most popular viewpoints are from the Bettmerhorn and Eggishorn, which can be accessed via cable cars. The Eggishorn viewpoint is the one most familiar to the author and can be reached starting in the village of Fiesch, where the Swiss Rail system has a station. Other access points include gondolas from the village of Morel and the Betten train station. These carry you to the top of the same ridge that overlooks the glacier.

If you want a glimpse of rural life in Valais, be sure to stroll through one of the three villages (Belalp, Riederalp and Bettmeralp) that lie between Eggishorn and Bettmerhorn.

On a clear day one can see the Matterhorn on the southern horizon.

Lauterbrunnen Valley

If time is the photographers overriding consideration when visiting Switzerland, the place I would probably recommend first is the Lauterbrunnen Valley, and its surrounding mountains, hillsides, and villages. Only a few hours from the Zurich airport, Lauterbrunnen is the epitome of the u-shaped glaciated valley. And centuries removed from the melting of the glacier that formed it, the valley and hills above have filled in with the beautiful colors of life.

The starting point for most is the ride into the valley, either by car or train, and this alone is worth the visit. But once you have stopped in the village of Lauterbrunnen, and admired the wonders of this valley from below, don’t forget to jump on a train or gondola and see it from above. Whether its the villages of Gimmelwald, Murren, or Wengen that cling to the slopes above the valley, all offer commanding vistas of this natural wonder of the Swiss Alps. But if you have enough time, another level of beautiful vistas awaits. There is the rotating restaurant on the peak of Schilthorn, made famous by the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, as well as the highest rail station in Europe at Jungfraujoch. From the train station at Kleine Scheidegg perched above the village of Grindelwald in the valley east Lauterbrunnen,  the railway winds makes it way up to a col between the mountain peaks of Jungfrau and the Mönch. On the journey the train passes through a tunnel carved through the Eiger and Monch, and offers an open air stop at Eigergletscher (Eiger Glacier).

Murren-Gimmelwald Via Ferrata (The valley at its most spectacular, but not for the faint of heart).

Kandersteg Valley

The Kandersteg, the valley immediately to the west of Lauterbrunnen, and south of Interlaken offers its own variety of alpine splendor, with the crown jewel being the glacially fed    or Lake Oeschinen. Its this glacier melt that gives the lake its distinctive turquoise color, and when the winds are calm and the lake turns to glass, the view becomes magical. The lake is a popular summer retreat accessible by gondola and hiking trail from the village Kandersteg. The best views of the lake are from the hiking trail that rises along its northern edge. For the adventurous, the trail rises high into the Bernese Alps to Blümlisalphütte (an alpine lodge), where those with prior reservations can spend the night.

Bluemlisalp Hut – http://www.bluemlisalphuette.com/
Oeschinen – http://www.oeschinensee.ch/en/

Trift Gorge 

The Trift Gorge carved out mostly from runoff by the upstream Trift Glacier (Triftgletscher) is located in the Urner Alps near Gadmen. Centered in the Grimselwelt region of the Bern Canton, the hike in offers a spectacular  view of the Triftsee, a lake that formed in 2002 as a result of global warming and the shrinking glacier. Before the glacier receded, hikers would cross the glacier to various mountain huts in the surrounding mountains, but the melting made that impossible to do. This led to the construction of a foot bridge, the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the Swiss Alps, in 2004. The bridge crossing and the view it offers is the reward for those willing to make the journey up the canyon.

Hikers have the choice of starting their hike in Gadmen, or taking a cable car part way. For those with extensive alpine experience, the trail continues onto the Trifthuette, where advanced reservations can be made. More family friendly accomodations are available at the Windegghutte, which is accessible via a side trail prior to reaching the Triftsee Bridge.

Windegghütte – http://www.windegghuette.ch/
Trifthuette http://www.trifthuette.ch/

Unteraar Glacier

Lauteraarhutte above Unteraargletscher

Lauteraarhutte / Wikipedia

The Unteraar Glacier located in the Grimselwelt region is by far the most remote area covered here, and is reminiscent of the experience you might expect in similar glacially covered landscapes like Alaska. Roads are few, and gondolas non-existent. Getting in requires a long hike, at least 8 hours round-trip. Unterraar offers a rugged, primal beauty, that forgoes the forested mountainsides and pastureland of other Swiss alpine valleys. But the reward at the end, near the Lauteraarhütte, is well worth the trip.


Further Reading Suggestions: