Lately, I find myself complaining about winter more than usual. After freezing and shivering in -20°C Berlin two winters in a row, fate brought me to the milder, yet wetter winter in Glasgow. But even though temperatures hardly drop below zero here, it’s still too cold most days. And if it’s not, it’s too warm for this time of the year. Or too windy. Or too wet – surprise, surprise.
Like most Travelettes, I fight my annual winter depression, which is mainly induced by the lack of sunlight, with online wanderlust and daydreaming of the sun. So far I have sketched out two holidays for summer 2014, and pinned at least 100 images to my travel inspiration Pinterest board – I’m almost ready to go. But all that aside, I also stumbled upon some breathtaking photographs of wintery places. In the end, there are few things as beautiful as snowcovered fields sparkling in the orange winter sun. This made me wonder: if I would be presented with the opportunity to experience “real winter” – not the kind of 3 week freeze of Berlin, eternal stretch of rain in Glasgow, or muddy snow patches in Vienna – but actual winter with endless white fields, constant low temperatures, loads of snow and ice, and all the clothes I could fit in my backpack, where would I want to go?
Since it’s my birthday in December, I have always felt a natural sympathy for the cold half of the year. I enjoy playing in the snow, wearing chunky knits and steamy cups of rum-fused tea. I have always been drawn to countries in the North and places like Norway, Iceland, Greenland and Alaska are on top of my bucket list. And as much as I love thinking about lying on the beach, strolling through a rainforest or tanning in the mountain sun, compiling a bucket list of my must-see “winter” destinations, was just as much fun.
1. Explore the End of the World in Antarctica
Antarctica – the Earth’s often forgotten seventh continent down South. A mysterious chunk if ice, populated by penguins, scientists and temporarily by a couple of crazy adventurers. Ever since I saw Cas and Jonesy’s insane expedition in Justin Jones’ “Crossing The Ice” at last year’s Banff Mountain Film Festival world tour, I have been doubting the probability of me ever reaching the South Pole. However, I am not giving up the idea of one day ferrying across the Southern Ocean, setting foot at the continent’s eternal ice and get a glimpse at impressive icebergs and adorable penguins.
2. Survival Training in Spitsbergen, Norway
Spitsbergen is not only home to my favourite city-name, Longyearbyen (named after American explorer John Munro Longyear), but also to one of the world’s largest populations of polar bears – the iconic symbol of the island. Even though the animals are protected, every visitor has to carry a rifle to shoot polar bears in self-defence, as a last resort. Expeditions, such as organised by Northern Exposure, include survival training, igloo building workshops, outdoor activities, like Nordic skiing and day walks, and fun adventures, like snowmobile rides and husky dog safaris.
3. Ice-skating on Lake Baikal, Siberia
I have never entirely understood the charm of artificial ice-skating rinks in cities. The idea of flying over the thick ice covering a lake, skating in the nature, was always more appealing to me. Lake Baikal in Northern Siberia, of course, is not just any lake. It is the world’s most voluminous freshwater lake and among its clearest and oldest. The lake is solidly frozen over from January until May, which leaves plenty of time to go on an expedition in the sunshine of early summer – if you are willing to accept maximum temperatures of 14°C. So, pack your warmest gloves and a shiny pair of skates and book a tour to walk and skate across the lake. Many travel agencies offer short excursions and longer trips with rental skates and sledges available!
4. Visit a Fire Festival at Shetland Islands
Shetland is a group of islands in the north-east of mainland Britain. Officially the islands belong to Scotland, but due to a long history of Scandinavian influence since the early Middle Ages, the Shetlanders – the people, not the ponies – keep up Scottish and Norse traditions. Late every January the main island hosts Europe’s largest fire festival Up Helly Aa, with light processions, performances and the burning of a galley. The festival is so popular and celebrations so intense, that the island declared the following day a public holiday to allow time for recovery.
5. Live with reindeer herders in Lapland
Ever since my anthropology professor made me read a field report about reindeer herding in Norway I wanted to visit Lapland – Sámi people call it Sápmi. There is something romantically mysterious about the idea of sharing your life with semi-wild animals and sleeping in impressive teepees (called lávvu). American photographer Erika Larsen spent three years with reindeer herders in Kautokeino, Norway, and came back with a beautiful photo diary, which can be seen here. As always with cultural tourism, respect and responsibility are key ingredients. Visit Sweden’s tour offer is a good place to make sure you get authenticity without intruding.
6. Mushing in Alaska, USA
A very similar occasion sparked my fascination for husky dogs in Alaska. Again, I read a book about a person spending over a year at his friend’s husky farm in the Denali National Park. I wish I had such friends… Frankie just spent a couple of days mushing Scandinavian husky dogs in Norway and introduces us to the basics of dog-handling; Katja had a similar adventure back in 2012. One day I hope to do the same in Alaska.
7. Mingle with the stars at Sundance Film Festival, Utah
Robert Redford’s alternative initiative to mainstream Hollywood film, Sundance Film Festival, takes place every January in Park City, Utah and has been on my list for long now. Not only would I like to see the wonderful films presented there every year and mingle with the established stars and fresh talents alike; skiing in the Rocky Mountains wouldn’t be too bad either. The current edition of the festival is just wrapping up it’s carpets and cords, but there is always a next year to plan!
8. Exploring Greenland by Boat
On my first encounter with the Norwegian cruise company Hurtigruten I reached the end of the European continent, the North Cape. The fleet ships have a maximum capacity of 1000 passengers, which assures a rather untypically intimate cruise holiday. Built in 2007 the MS Fram takes up to 276 passengers towards Greenland. Several expeditions are on offer, exploring the Southern fjords, the Arctic wilderness and the glaciers and icebergs. Some of the cruises combine Greenland with visits to Iceland and Spitsbergen (National Park Expedition), while other focus entirely on Greenland (Arctic Wilderness Adventure). Considering the vast wideness of the island and spectacular coastline, a boat if probably the best choice of transportation – if not a dog-sled…
9. Discover remote Canada
Montreal, Quebec, Toronto, the Rocky Mountains and Vancouver are on the to-do list of most Canada travellers – but what about the beautiful Nahanni National Park and Yellowknife in the Northwestern Territories or polar bear expeditions around Hudson Bay? There might be no bustling urban hotspots, or for that matter highspeed Wi-Fi hotspots around, but instead the north of Canada has plenty of nature and breathtaking to offer!
10. Northern Lights in Iceland
Last but not least, Iceland might be my favourite country in the world. Stunning scenery, endless summer days and cool hangouts in Reykjavik is what I like about it most. But the island also has its winter qualities! Never has sitting in a natural hot-tub been more cozy and warm than when surrounded by masses of snow in Northern Iceland. Not to mention the colourful spectacle of Northern Lights in the sky. The Icelandic days in winter are short, but nevertheless are they wonderful!
So, next time you fell winter depression creeping in on you, think about two things: it is always colder somewhere else, AND winter doesn’t look to bad after all!
pictures: title & Spitsbergen via Northern Exposure / Antarctiva via Polar Cruises / Lake Baikal via English Russia / Fire Festival via Up Helly Aa / Lapland via Erika Larsen / Mushing by Katja Hentschel / Sundance via & via / MS Fram via Hurtigruten / Polar Bear in Hudson Bay via Paul Souders / Northern Lights by Katja Hentschel