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When you think of winter vacations, you think of skiing, snowboarding and cocoa by the fire in the lodge.
But there’s so much more than that! There are hot arctic springs, ice hotels, giant ice sculptures and — wait for it — snow monkeys!
So grab your parka and mittens — and a bathing suit, too (I’ll explain later) — because we’re about to take a tour of some of the world’s most exotic winter destinations!
By Cindy Perman
Posted 16 Dec 2010
Amid the lunar-like arctic terrain of Iceland, the Blue Lagoon is a surreal vision of serenity.
It’s a massive 10,000 square foot outdoor geothermal bath, surrounded by snow-capped lava rocks. Steam escapes off the milky blue seawater, which is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
The bath is known for its healing properties, particularly for those suffering with the skin disease psoriasis.
Nordic Visitor offers packages to Iceland that include the Blue Lagoon, boiling mud pots and, depending on the season, the Northern Lights (winter) or the Midnight Sun (summer).
Two words: Snow monkeys!
In a mountainous area, pretty much smack dab in the middle of Japan, is the Jigokudani Monkey Park.
The translation is something like “Hell’s Valley” because it looks like what you might expect hell to look like — steep, craggly cliffs, with a hot spring bubbling up in the middle. Though, unlike hell might be, snow covers the ground here for a third of the year.
The Japanese Macaque love to bathe in the water and tourists love to come and watch them. Japanican offers Snow Monkey Tours —either for one day or two days with an overnight stay in Nagano. (You might recall the snow monkeys stole the show at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.)
Consider yourself warned, though: The monkeys are super smart and aggressive. A colleague recalls a friend getting “mugged by a monkey” — the little critters sought out the food in his backpack and then abandoned the backpack and nonedibles.
Harbin is the capital of Heilongjiang Province in northeast China, near the Russian border. Temperatures can drop well below zero in the winter months, which makes it perfect for an ice festival.
It’s a monthlong festival held in January and features massive ice and snow sculptures of faces, musicians, dancers, animals and more. Plus, buildings made out of ice, lit up in all different colors. Many of them are so big, you can walk through them!
China Holiday offers several ice festival packages,including an eight-day tour where you travel to the festival via the Orient Express, with stops in Tiananmen Square, the Shenyang Imperial Palace and the Forbidden City, and the chance to go winter swimming in the Songhua River – if you’re brave!
The Harbin festival is one of the largest ice festivals in the world. There are also ice festivals in Japan, Canada and Norway.
People have been hiking on glaciers in Alaska and elsewhere for years but what makes the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers in New Zealand glaciers so unique is that they’re in a rain forest!
So, you hike up through the rain forest, add on some warm clothes and crampons for getting traction in the ice and voila! You’re hiking on a glacier. One tipoff that you may be getting close — a frozen waterfall! There are even some parts that involve hiking through an ice tunnel.
Most who’ve experienced it say hiking on a glacier isn’t as difficult as you’d think but still, there are helicopter tours up to the glacier for those who don’t want to make the trek. Franz Josef offers half day and full day trips that end with a dip in the Glacier Hot Pools to soak those weary bones.
“If you've ever wondered what it feels like to be a comet, this is the place to start,” Whiteface Mountain boasts on its web site.
The mountain, in Lake Placid, home of the 1980 Winter Olympics, offers bobsled rides with professional drivers and brakemen, beginning at the half-mile point on the track. And yes, it’s the same track used by the Olympic athletes! To get an idea of what you’re in for, watch this bobsled video,shot from the front seat of the bobsled!
To commemorate the experience – and your bravery – they give you a bobsled lapel pin, 4x6 commemorative photo, T-shirt and membership in the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation!
While you’re in Lake Placid, you can also try your hand at the skeleton (“your childhood sled on overdrive”), tour the ski jumps, go snow tubing and check out the Olympic Museum. If you go in February, the Saranac Lake Winter Carnivalis just a short drive to the west and any time of year, the kids will love going to North Pole, NY,an amusement-park village where elves toil and reindeer frolic. The park was among Walt Disney’s inspirations when he created Disneyland and Disney World. And yes, they have an actual, north pole made of ice that stays frozen year-round!
How about a winter cruise?
That’s the best way to see fjords, which are narrow inlets of water that were carved by glaciers and are surrounded by steep cliffs on either side. They’re commonly found in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand.
Fjord Traveland Scandinavian Traveloffer tours of the Norwegian fjords that start out chugging up the Mountain in the famous Flam Mountain Railroad, followed by a steam cruiser through the fjords. Some hotels, like the Storfjord Hotel,offer private jetty tours at the guest’s request.
Plus, if you go in late autumn through early spring and travel further north (the cities of Tromso and Finnmark, which are inside the Arctic Circle, are among tourists’ favorites), there are outstanding views of the Northern Lights. Snowmobile safari,anyone?!
More than a hotel, the IceHotel,is an art project. Everything is made of snow and ice – the entrance, the walls, lobby bar, the beds –- even the chandeliers! As soon as the snow begins to fall in November, a team of architects, designers and artists builds steel frames then starts spraying them with snow. A few days later, they remove the forms and voila! The IceHotel is born.
So how do you sleep there? The rooms are below freezing –- so the ice, and your bed, which is a slab of ice, don’t melt. Guests are given sleeping bags and mittens to stay warm through the night. Some of the rooms have different themes, like this year’s “Tron” inspired room, pictured left. They warm you up in the morning with a cup of hot lingonberry juice, presumably not in an ice mug!
It’s open from December through April, the darkest time of the year –- when the sun never reaches above the horizon. You may not see the sun, but it’s a good time and place for viewing the Northern Lights.
Ice hotels are actually starting to pop up in other popular winter destinations. There’s even one in Quebec, Canada.
If you’re not up for sleeping on a slab of ice, maybe just a stop at the Ice Bar in Seoul, South Korea.
Everything at the Ice Baris made of ice: the walls, the tables, the bar – even the glasses! They also hold an “Iceman” contest to see who can stay in the ice the longest. Admission is 15,000 won (roughly $15), which includes a rental coat and mittens and one free drink.
The great thing about Ice Bar is that it’s open year round, so maybe you don’t want to be a hero and go in winter, but go when it’s hot outside and you need to cool off!
There’s also an Ice Bar in Orlando, Fla. That one has a “fire lounge” as well, so you can toggle between cold and hot.
Mush! Alaska is winter wonderland of wilderness and glaciers as Sarah Palin has reminded us all in the past few years.
One of its most exciting events is the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which is over 1,000 miles long, from Anchorage to Nome, through some of the roughest terrain in North America.
So how do you watch such a race? Alaska Toursoffers 5- to 13-day packages that involve a combination of land and air travel to watch the race, as well as sightseeing at Mt. McKinley, a tour of the kennel and a chance to ride a dog sled. Or, you can head straight to the finish line in Nome,where they start partying a week before the race even begins!
The Trans-Siberian Railroad runs from Russia to China, through St. Petersburg, Moscow, Beijing and Mongolia. It’s the longest railroad in the world and has been called the world’s greatest railway journey.
There’s one main line that runs from west to east in Russia, with branches that shoot off in different directions, like the ones that shoot down into Mongolia and Beijing. Straight through from Moscow to Beijing takes about six days but tourscan last anywhere from nine days to a month, with stops for a picnic, dog sledding, mountain rafting, a trek in the Taiga Forest or jeep trek to Karakorum, the ancient campground of Genghis Khan! Some are even timed to stop in Harbin, China for the Ice Festival.
The “Way to Russia” guiderecommends taking trains between major cities and staying over for a few days in each to avoid spending too many days in the same train compartment. You’d also be wise to do your homework – a trip like this takes time and money, so set out a schedule and budget ahead of time. All aboard!
And for our final stop, skiing in the middle of the desert!
Dubai is like the Las Vegas of the Middle East — some say Vegas on steroids — and one of the coolest things, literally, is Ski Dubai,an indoor ski resort.
Located in the Mall of the Emirates,Ski Dubai is the world’s third largest indoor ski slope: It’s 74,000 square feet and uses 6,000 tons of snow! How do you make snow in the desert? They shoot water at high pressure into the atmosphere. There are five ski runs plus a “freestyle zone” for snowboarders.
At the adjoining Snow Park, there are sled and toboggan runs, an ice body slide, a snowball-shooting gallery, an ice cave and a snowman-making area. And, since most people aren’t used to wearing parkas in the desert, winter clothing, skis and other equipment are included in the price of admission!