As winter chill starts to descend across large swaths of North America, many begin pondering a warm-weather getaway over the holiday period and beyond. But why not embrace the snow-and-sleigh-bells ambience of the season and set out on a holidays-themed trip or tour to icier climes? From the northern lights in Finland's Arctic (pictured) to the down-home country Christmas vibe of Branson, Missouri, CNBC takes a look at some intriguing options.
—By CNBC's Kenneth Kiesnoski
Posted 9 December 2014
Manhattan has been a major holiday shopping and sightseeing destination at least since the 1947 film "Miracle on 34th Street" first hit the silver screen. That classic movie engraved in the national consciousness the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which itself started being broadcast on network television the following year. From Macy's, the ice rink and towering Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center (pictured) to glittering Fifth Avenue department-store window displays, New York's most famous borough offers a wealth of iconic holiday sights, sounds and—thanks to all the roasting chestnuts—smells.
There are legion bus-tour options for taking in Gotham's holiday light displays, but consider hitting the highlights on foot; New York is, after all, nothing if not walkable. Donations-only walking-tour firm Free Tours By Foot will let you name your own price for its 2.5-hour New York Holiday Lights Tour. If Christmas is not your thing, Big Onion Walking Tours this year is offering two outings of its 24th annual two-hour Christmas Day Jewish Lower East Side tour on Dec. 25. Reach out to tourism board NYC & Company for general information.
The Christmas market—an outdoor seasonal jumble of vendor shacks, food stalls and decorations increasingly common across Europe and North America—originated in Germany and neighboring lands. The traditional homeland of these annual weeks-long fairs, known as Weihnachtsmarkten in German, may very well still do them best. Judge for yourself and grab a mug of glühwein (hot spiced wine) at the country's most famous holiday markets in cities such as Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Dresden, Munich and even hyper-modern Berlin (pictured).
For a break from Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa commercialism, head to where it all began with a trip to the Holy Land, spread across modern-day Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories. Security, access and cost remain—as always—concerns, but thousands of observant Westerners descend annually on the region's religious sites. Sites associated with Jesus Christ range from Bethlehem (pictured)—site of the first Christmas—to the banks of the Jordan River, where He was baptized (and which now divides Israel from Jordan). In nearby Jerusalem, Jews pray at the Western Wall, Muslims are called to the Dome of the Rock, and every stripe of Christian pays a near obligatory visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
If you can't beat it—"it" being snow and ice—build with it. That seems to be the spirit behind the spate of ice-hotel construction that's hit northern climes over the past two decades. From Quebec in Canada to Scandinavia and even Japan, snowbound sites are drawing adventurous winter travelers with temporary attractions and accommodations sculpted from frozen precipitation (the latter outfitted with beds, bathrooms, bars and such—but likely no hallway ice machines).
Shiver-inducing options include the Ice Village at Hoshino Resorts' Tomamu in Japan; SnowVillage in Lainio and SnowCastle of Kemi, both in Finland; the Icehotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden; and Norway's Kirkenes SnowHotel and Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel. Closer to home, Quebec City's Hotel de Glace (pictured) opens just north of the U.S. border this Jan. 5 for a 2.5-month run through March 22. The 44-room property, located a 10-minute drive outside the historical city's center, will celebrate more than 1 million visits over 15 years of operation in 2015. Overnight and nuptials packages are available from $399 per night per person; daily architectural, cocktail, lunch and behind-the-scenes tour packages are also on offer.
Lying just 6 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the small Finnish city of Rovaniemi, in Lapland, claims to be home to Santa Claus himself (never mind a rival claim from Drøbak, Norway, or the fact the North Pole actually lies 1,630 miles to the north). Theme park Santa Claus Village (pictured) offers visitors the chance to meet St. Nick himself—or a reasonable facsmile—shop for toys, mail a letter from Santa's "official" post office and more. Added bonus: the chance to espy the famed aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, during your stay.
You can reach Rovaniemi not by sleigh and reindeer but via connecting flights originating in New York, Los Angeles and on other U.S. air carriers, such as Finnair and Norwegian. For more on Finland, head to the Visit Finland website.
If far-flung foreign holiday destinations are absolutely out of the picture, there's always Branson, Missouri. Better known for promoting itself as the "Live Music Show Capital of the World," Branson is also home each winter to what it calls an Ozark Mountain Christmas. What comprises a country-style Noel in the Ozarks? For starters, there are the holiday-themed performances at many of the city's 50-plus theaters, including the "Andy Williams Christmas Show," starring the Osmonds and the Lennon Sisters, and the "Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede" dinner attraction.
Get bedazzled at two area holiday light attractions: the Branson Area Festival of Lights and the Trail of Lights at the Shepherd of the Hills Homestead. Vintage-themed family park Silver Dollar City (pictured) boasts its own 5-million-light display, as well as a new Holly Jolly Christmas Light Parade. And then there's always plenty of shopping, dining and other attractions, such as year-round zip-lining and the Branson Scenic Railway. For more, go to www.explorebranson.com.