It’s winter. The snow, ice and cold currently draping the Northern Hemisphere may be great for skiing vacations, but not for very many other travel experiences. Or so you would think. But winter does actually offer some unique opportunities that aren’t available at other times of the year. After all, northern lights, ice festivals and reindeer migrations are not exactly summertime favorites. Lonely Planet recently published an article of seven exceptional “winterland marvels” and there’s not a ski trail anywhere on the list. An excerpt:
The northern lights of Canada – It’s the middle of night, in the middle of nowhere. It’s so dark that you can hold your hand three inches from your face and not see it. The silence is so complete that the low thud of snow falling from a nearby tree makes you jump. Your eyelashes are close to frozen and it’s a struggle to separate them when you blink. And yet you’d happily sit there all night, for many nights to come, for the chance to see nature’s most mysterious sight: the northern lights.
With little light pollution, optimum weather conditions (very cold, with plenty of clear nights) and its position directly beneath the prime-viewing zone of the auroral oval, Churchill in Canada is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights. The Arctic tundra and boreal forest surrounding the town see over 300 nights of auroral activity each year. Displays might last hours, or be gone in a minute. Flashing neon pink, turquoise and green, the lights swirl across the sky in myriad imagined shapes (is that a walrus, a witch, a whale?) before whipping back on themselves and disappearing. In the presence of such a spectacle, it’s easy to believe local Inuit myth that the aurora borealis are signals from the afterlife, particularly if you hear the sky crackle and swoosh as some claim. What is in no doubt during those moments when the lights whirl above your head is that you’re part of the greatest show on earth.
Icebound St Petersburg – January in St Petersburg. The city’s residents, long used to the cold, don fur hats and heavy coats to stand in line. Nowadays, they wait not for bread, but for art: frozen art. Every winter, sculptors transform blocks of ice into elaborate models of people, animals and objects. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1740, when an entire ice palace was constructed to celebrate the birthday of the Empress Anna. Set against a backdrop of golden domes sparkling in the light of the low sun, the exhibit embodies the magic of St Petersburg in winter.
Locals bypass the city’s bridges, slithering over the ice-covered rivers and canals to make their way across town. The Neva River is frozen solid, except for one large hole in front of the Peter Paul Fortress. This is the plunge pool for the Walrus Club, a group of swimmers who exhort the health benefits of a daily dip. When the cold finally seeps in, Petersburgers warm up with a vodka, served in an ice glass, from the ice bar. ‘At least we can do something with all this ice other than slipping and falling on it!’ observes one happy patron.
Sweden’s reindeer migration – One of the world’s greatest migrations takes place each year just over a thousand miles north of Britain. As snow thickens on every surface, lakes freeze over and the temperature drops below -25?C, tens of thousands of reindeer make their way across northern Sweden. Descending from summer pastures in the mountains to the west, the herds travel east to spend the long winter foraging in the forests.
Accompanying them on a journey that can take ten days or more are their seminomadic Sami owners. While herding methods may have modernised over the centuries (snowmobiles – and even helicopters – have replaced snowshoes), reindeer husbandry is still a cornerstone of their culture. To fall in with the Sami and their herds is to be part of a heritage that stretches back millennia – one of days dictated by the pace of the reindeers’ steady trot, and of nights sharing stories round the fire under a chill, star-filled sky.
Check out the full article for four more wintry travel experiences.
Photo credit: Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons.