lifestyle - Winter Wonderland
Written by Brian Johnston
December in the northern hemisphere can be a delightful month for any adventurous traveller willing to brave the big chill. With the arrival of the first snow of the season, skiing awaits: beginners can have their first wobble on skis, while off-piste challenges and even heli-skiing will thrill the experts.
But if skiing doesn’t appeal, don’t be put off. There are plenty of other ways to get active in the snow, and even a walk can take you wildlife spotting or to alpine panoramas – and perhaps the terrace of a chalet for a restorative hot chocolate. So limber up, rug up, and head north. Here are some top ways to experience the winter wonderland this season.
Ski in Hakuba, Japan
Japan in winter is a magical place of warm teahouses, light-strung trees, and ancient temples slumped under snow. Hakuba lies in the magnificent ranges of the northern Japanese Alps near Nagano, and offers panoramic skiing and snowboarding on deep powder snow – not to mention the chance to see the renowned snow monkeys of nearby national parks. Hakuba also lures with the distinctive culture of Japan beyond the slopes, from snow festivals to hot springs. Sit up to your neck in warm water with a view of snow-capped mountains and relieve tired ski muscles. Bliss.
Snowshoe in Chicago, USA
Why not give snowshoeing a go: much easier than skiing, and easily learned. Snowshoes (‘webs’ in local parlance) let you float on the surface of the snow rather than sink into it. Feet go crunch, crunch. Occasionally there’s a whoosh as snow slides from a branch. Sun glitters on a landscape whittled down to green pines, red jackets, and blue sky. Head to the trails of Palos Forest Preserve, or simply to the city’s parks and lakeshore. This is a beautiful way to spend a winter’s day, and you’ll burn twice as many calories as by simply walking.
Track animals in Biebrza, Poland
Biebrza National Park, some two hours northeast of Warsaw, is Poland’s largest protected area and features marshes, peat bogs, and misty forest. That actually makes winter the best time to visit: not only is the ground frozen and mosquitoes banished, but this is also the best time of year for wildlife spotting. Beavers, foxes, lynxes, boars, elks, bison, and wolves are all out and about in the snowy landscape. Guided tours will take you there, tracking by four-wheel drive and on foot to see these creatures in their natural habitat.
Dog-sled in Jotunheimen, Norway
Head north from Oslo and into the heart of the Norwegian mountains and Jotunheimen, the country’s most popular national park. High peaks cluster, waterfalls are frozen, and an altitude above the timberline provides spectacular scenery. A husky tour is a fine way to experience the landscape. After instruction on how to handle the dogs (Norwegian huskies are small and dark), you’re off with a whoosh of runners and a frenzied barking that soon settles down to panting and the pattering of paws as you glide through a frozen landscape where icicles twinkle.
Heli-ski in Chamonix, France
A huge ski area awaits anyone brave (and expert) enough to take a helicopter into the back country of the French Alps for some superb powder snow, on terrain that varies from open alpine bowls to steep, adrenalin-inducing descents of peaks. Not only do you avoid busy slopes and lift queues, but you can even ski across borders into Italy or Switzerland. If you aren’t a skier, don’t despair: a scenic helicopter flight alone provides a magnificent spectacle of rearing peaks and glittering glaciers, with Chamonix town below as small as a model village.
Ice-fish in Stockholm, Sweden
Stockholm sits on 14 islands, surrounded by thousands more. Some are just little rocky outcrops, topped by pine trees and red or yellow cabins shut up tight for winter. Some can only be reached with a trek across ice, where water once flowed. Chip a hole in the surface and try your luck for the pike and perch that lurk beneath, using a special fishing rod angled for the ice. As you sail back to the city centre, the city unfolds its elegant Renaissance towers and snow-capped spires, backed by slender glass office towers. Simply beautiful.
Snow-kite in Neuchâtel, Switzerland
An hour northeast of Geneva, the canton of Neuchâtel is best known as Switzerland’s watchmaking centre. Now it’s gaining a reputation for snow-kiting too, especially around La Sagne, La Corbatière, and the Vallée de la Brévine, nicknamed the ‘Siberia of Switzerland’ for its frigid winds. Strap a snowboard to your feet, hoist a kite aloft and, rather like windsurfing, let the elements do the rest. It isn’t for the faint of heart: adepts can now travel at over 100kph. With ice crystals stinging your face and the landscape rushing by, it’s exhilarating.
Rocky Mountain high
Feel the need for an extra adrenalin rush? Travel to the Rocky Mountains, where you can try snowmobiling in Colorado, where nearly 5,000km of dedicated snowmobile trails crisscross the state. You can travel hut to hut and camp out overnight surrounded by stars and the frozen peaks. Or, in Canada’s Banff National Park, you can trial ice climbing on frozen waterfalls using ropes and crampons: head to Johnston Canyon, and watch out for moose and wolves. And in the Winter Olympic resort of Whistler, near Vancouver, the Sliding Centre offers a piloted four-person bobsleighing experience for those who really feel the need for speed.
All in the family
When Julie Andrews sang about her favourite things, sleigh bells, apple strudels, and snowflakes were on her list. The kids will certainly be happy to sing as they whizz down the slopes or build a snowman at Serfaus-Fiss-Ladis in the Austrian Alps. Though not as famous as nearby resorts, those in the know recognise it as Europe’s most family-friendly ski resort, with 140,000m2 of slopes dedicated to the little ones, and some outstanding kids’ clubs and ski schools. From tubing courses to mini-skidoo, bouncing castles to igloos, there’s no end of fun. The kids can follow the tracks of dinosaurs through the forest, and meet Murmli the Marmot. Kinderschneealm is a children’s kingdom for those up to the age of 15. Berta’s Kinderland is particularly good for younger kids learning to ski. Conveyor belts haul them to the top of the slopes, avoiding the perils of ski lifts. The mascot of Kinderland, an orange cow with blue horns, bounces through the snow, dusting kids off if they fall, then giving them hugs. Just give yourself plenty of time – it could be quite a while before you want to wave this delightful ski resort so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye.