LE Newsletter - January 19, 2012


  Top 10 Best Places To Spend Winter

Source: By Annette McLeod, MSN Travel

(January 15, 2012) When it comes to winter, we Canadians tend to fall into two camps: those who relish every snowflake, and those who hide like grizzly bears, trying to stay asleep until April. The former take their winter vacations in Banff or Mont Tremblant or Whistler, or some other perfectly gorgeous, snow-laden resort town where an affinity for hot chocolate is as easily indulged as a need for downhill speed. The latter take to the skies like Monarch butterflies, desperate to get to Punta Cana or Cuba or Bermuda as quickly as possible.

In either case, it's time to shake things up. Our winter-lovers tend to think a Canadian winter is the quintessential winter, so why go anywhere else? Our winter-haters need to be lured away to a snowy destination with an activity so unique and a place so worth seeing, not even they will want to stay in the house. Here are 10 great wintery winter holidays both tribes of Canadians will love.

1. Cruise the Norwegian fjords

There are a number of companies offering an array of Norwegian fjord winter cruises, but they all have one thing in common: stunning scenery. Norway's mountains, valleys, quaint villages and glaciers glide past like something out of a fairytale. Ports of call let you dip a toe into Russia, stay overnight in an ice hotel, join a dog-sledding or snowmobiling excursion or splash around in the icy Barents Sea. If you're really lucky, you may even find yourself cruising under the Northern Lights.

2. Break the ice in Moscow

Take a cruise down the Moscow River in an icebreaker, one of several thick-hulled boats that can navigate the icy water year-round. Glass-enclosed decks let you view the city sights, including the Kremlin, without getting frostbite. Sample some borscht or just tuck into the local vodka, an especially tempting pleasure at night when the city is illuminated as you sip to a symphony of cracking ice, both outside the boat in and inside your glass. Boats are clean and spacious, and you may even find a crew member who speaks English.

3. Camp out on an Icelandic glacier

Join an expedition leaving Reykjavik by 4x4; when you hit the edge of the glacier, your guides will let a little air out of the tires to prepare for the rough ride ahead. Pitch in setting up camp for an unforgettable night beneath arctic skies. Various tours include an overnight in a highland chalet en route or a visit to a hot spring. Or, if you think winter camping sounds intrepid, try lava caving in the Stora-Bollahraun lava field or winter snorkelling in the Silfra Fissure while you're at it.

4. Run away and see the circus in Budapest

The International Circus Festival comes to Budapest, Hungary, every second February to pit the best international and Hungarian acts against one another for awards and bragging rights. Acts for 2012 include banana-wielding American comedian Kirk Marsh (shown), Germany's Leonid Beljakov and his comedic dogs, a Colombian teeterboard troupe, Ukrainian living statues and a Russian foot-juggler. Canada represents with Becky Hoops and her hula hoops and Chilly & Fly with their standing cradle, whatever the heck that is.

5. Take a chilly dip in Helsinki

I must confess to not really understanding this one. Perhaps it's like hitting your head against a wall because it feels so good when you stop. But the Finns swear by it — Avantouinti or, literally, 'ice hole swimming.' You'll find clubs throughout Finland that offer a thoughtfully ladder-equipped hole in the thick Nordic ice, through which you can plunge your crazy Canadian patootie before high-tailing it into the nearest sauna. Then you do it again. And if your heart hasn't stopped yet, again. Try the Kuusijärvi Recreation Centre, Oittaa Recreation Centre or Rastila Camping.

6. Celebrate snow in Sapporo, Japan

Over seven days in February, the Sapporo Snow Festival (or Yuki Matsuri) brings two million people to the largest city on the island of Hokkaido to check out hundreds of snow and ice sculptures, some of which are the size of a duplex. The main festival site, Odori Park, which spans the width of the city, features concert stages with a variety of entertainment. The Tsudome site features snow slides and mazes. The Susukino site is home to the ice sculpture contest, as well as the reigning Ice Queen. Also be sure to try the region's renowned Sapporo beer.

7. Follow the light in Beijing

The Longqing Gorge Ice Lantern Festival happens about 90 km northwest of Beijing in a canyon well-travelled by rowers and hikers in summer. In winter, the area is transformed into a wonderland, with more than 400 sculptures carved out of the ice, glowing with the lights captured within. And of course, there's many a lantern to be admired. Or you can slide down the ice slide or bungee off a 48-metre-high platform.

8. Bundle up for Kiruna, Sweden

Kiruna's annual Snow Festival features snow sculpting (of course), as well as reindeer and dogsled races, skiing and skating competitions and a winter fair for a five-day stretch at the end of January, and all of it above the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland. The first of its kind and the world's largest, the Icehotel in nearby Jukkasjärvi offers indoor temperatures of between -5 C and -8 C, regardless of outside temperature, but the reindeer skins should keep you toasty. If you go in March, you can watch them harvest blocks of ice from the Torne River to store until next year.

9. Say goodbye to winter in the Ukraine

Maslenitsa, which takes place the week before Lent, is a great way to say so long to another winter by scarfing blini (traditional pancakes) and other Slavic goodies, like sausages and perogis. At Pirogovo, an open-air folk museum at the south end of Kiev, you can check out historic folk architecture, including windmills, churches and school houses, while enjoying the festivities. On Shrove Tuesday, the last day of the event, enjoy the burning of a straw man that symbolizes the past winter.

10. Go south for some wintery fun

Of course, you won't want to go too far south, or you'll miss all this great winteriness! Instead, visit our American cousins in Manhattan, where you can ice skate at Rockefeller Centre, take a horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park, go sledding at CiCo Park, take a boat tour on the Hudson — or pack it all in and do something cultural like visit a museum. Of course, you can always just have a hot chocolate and shop 'til you drop.

10 sunny escapes