While many people choose to escape the cold of winter for exotic tropical locations like Bora Bora or Hawaii, others choose to embrace it, donning snowshoes, strapping on skis and grabbing snowboards to take advantage of snowcapped mountains and frosted forests. If you fall into this latter category, here are 7 gorgeous cold-weather travel destinations you need to visit this winter.
#1 Skaftafell Ice Caves (Iceland)
If you’re looking to experience something truly mesmerizing this winter, you’ll need to check out the ice caves that form in the wake of receding glacial rivers of Skaftafell, Iceland. The otherworldly blue hue seen on the ceilings of these majestic glacial caverns is due to the highly pressurized ice found within Iceland’s massive glaciers. While ice on the surface of a glacier appears a familiar white color, the immense pressure of the glacier’s mass squeezes the air bubbles out of the interior ice and making it crystal clear. Only the blue fraction of visible light is able to penetrate through the deeper depths of the glacier. Normally this type of ice would only be visible when a glacier happens to flip over in the ocean revealing a glassy blue underbelly. However rain and meltwater on the surface of the glacier carve channels and crevices creating temporary streams and rivers during the warmer months of the year. When these streams recede and dry up during the winter, majestic crystal caves are left behind for adventurous travelers to explore.
#2 Gaze at the Aurora Borealis (Lapland, Finland)
The holidays can be a busy time, especially if you live or work in the city. If you’re looking to for a winter escape from the hustle and bustle of urban life, there’s nothing quite as magical or rewarding as snowshoeing through isolated forests of Lapland, Finland, where there are more reindeer than people, and the aurora borealis can be seen shining overhead. Whether you choose to experience the Northern Lights from the warm comfort of one of Lapland’s signature glass igloos or cross-country skiing across Finland’s untamed backcountry, Lapland will help you fall in love with winter all over again.
#3 Neuschwanstein Castle (Bavaria, Germany)
Ever wish you could escape the mundane world of the 21st century to one of the fantastic castles found within Disney movies like Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty? Why not visit the source material that inspired the castles in Walt Disney’s classic animated films, the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany? Lodged between the foothills of the Alps bordering Austria and the hills of southern Bavaria, Neuschwanstein castle is as close as you can get to visiting a castle straight out of a fairytale. As an added bonus some tours in the area will even take you to the castle by horse-drawn carriage—a nice change of pace from your morning commute to work.
#4 Mammoth Mountain (California, USA)
With 11,053 ft of peak elevation and 3,500 acres of skiable terrain, those who desire both beauty and adrenaline should look no further than Mammoth Mountain in California. Located in the volcanic Long Valley Caldera within the Inyo National Forest, Mammoth Mountain Ski area allows you to experience the natural beauty of the Sierra Nevada mountain range while performing an air-to-fakie off of one of the resort’s signature half-pipes. If you love snowboarding, this is the resort to visit in North America—Mammoth Mountain is the only resort on the continent that offers three different sized half-pipe, one of the many reasons pros like olympic gold medalist Shaun White come there to practice.
#5 Whistler-Blackcomb (British Columbia)
One of the most beautiful ski resorts in the world, can be found in the Rockies in British Columbia’s legendary inner snow belt—Whistler-Blackcomb. The resort sports two iconic peaks, Whistler and Blackcomb both sporting vertical drops greater than 5,000 feet. The elevation coupled with its unique location make the twin peaks prone to microclimates—sometimes it can rain at the base of the mountain while it’s snowing at top, allowing skiers to literally ski above the clouds. What really brings the crowds to Whistler-Blackcomb every year, is the vast expanses of varied terrain—4757 acres in total, the skiable terrain on the twin peaks contains enough variety for skiers of all types. Whether you prefer cruising blues or exploring the woods, the scenic meandering runs of Whistler-Blackcomb, are sure to please.
#6 Niseko (Japan)
At first glance, the gentle slopes and mountainous terrain of Niseko United situated in Japan’s northern Hokkaido might not seem like much when compared with the extravagant views at Whistler-Blackcomb, but come in January, and you’ll be treated to what many skiers consider to be the best powdered snow on Earth. Niseko sees an average of 580 inches of snowfall each year, and a majority of it falls in the months of December and January. Dry supercooled air from Siberia absorbs moisture from the sea of Japan and deposits along Hokkaido’s northern peaks. Niseko is positioned perfectly to capture all that snow, all of it dry powdered and perfect for skiing or snowboarding. The only peak in North America that sees more snow is Mount Baker, at 652 inches, but that snow is dispersed throughout the entire year with varying quality. If you love snow and yearn to experience skier’s paradise, Niseko United will not disappoint.
#7 Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival (Helongjiang, China)
If you’re looking to visit a true winter wonderland this winter, look no further than the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival in China’s frigid Helongjiang province. Every January, Harbin plays host to the largest ice sculpture festival in the world. Carved from giant blocks of ice dredged from the Songhua River, the buildings, sculptures and megastructures are quite a sight to behold. They become especially dazzling at night, when they are backlit with multi-colored LEDs and become sophisticated color changing displays. The size of the ice and snow sculptures is not to be underestimated, last year a replica of the Great Wall of China spanned two football fields. Many structures contain ice slides that you can slide on. Ice sculpture artists from around the world gather every year to flaunt their biggest and greatest works. If there is one trip you make this winter, the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture will offer the experience of a lifetime.