I know not everyone loves winter or winter travel, but there are so many great winter activities! If you throw a little travel into the mix, you have got yourself one hell of a good time.
You may choose to travel to a particular destination specifically because it is winter and you want to experience their winter fun. Or you may find yourself in a cold-weather climate because it was the more affordable option. Or perhaps you just do not like beaches. Whatever brings you to a colder climate during the winter, you will find unique activities to make the most of your winter travel experience. Below are some suggestions you can (and should) try on your next adventure. In fact, some are an adventure all on their own! I also include some tips for winter fun while on the road.
If you have never downhill skied or snowboarded before, you are going to want to go somewhere that provides lessons. On the bright side, most ski hills provide lessons. For those of you lucky enough to already know what it feels like to swoop down the mountain (preach!), there are endless possibilities to the places you can visit. R and I are lucky enough to live in the western U.S. so finding a decent place to ski is very easy. In fact, we both own season passes to our local ski resort. However, that has not stopped us from enjoying a resort or two in other parts of the world. Vermont’s small, icy hills took us no time at all to get down. Whistler showed us what skiing in May looks like. And Zermatt, Switzerland, made my 30th birthday dreams come true.
Although not as difficult as downhill skiing, cross-country skiing does require some practice before you get the hang of it. (In fact, I am still not sure I have got the hang of it.) A lesson or two would not be remiss for the beginner. If you have done it before, then by all means, rent or bring your skis and hit the trails! I have only cross-country skied in Idaho and Utah, but I would love to cross-country ski in Norway one day. Note: this is a great workout. Be sure to wear layers and pack some water.
I have no desire to play myself, but I love to watch. In fact, it is my favorite sport to watch live. I especially enjoy attending games in smaller towns and communities. The local pride and atmosphere cannot be beat. If you are traveling anywhere in Canada or the northern U.S., check the hockey schedule and hit up a game.
Ice fishing is certainly something we do here in Idaho. However, it is not nearly the religious experience it is in places like Minnesota. If you are spending time there, do bundle up and find a local to take you out on the lake for an hour or two. Although it is not the most exciting of winter travel activities, it is unique and if you catch a fish or two, you may have yourself a tasty dinner.
If you have never cross-country skied, snowshoeing may be a better option. Actually, it is a nice option even if you do ski. The trails are often shared with skiers, so you get to go the same beautiful places, but it is not quite as difficult—there is a much smaller chance of falling. It is also a good work out, but it is a little more low key. I find it easier to focus on the scenery around me when I am snowshoeing as opposed to cross-country skiing. It is also easier to pack snowshoes. When my friend in New York mentioned the possibility of snowshoeing, I did not hesitate to pack mine.
I am not terribly good at ice skating. But I do well enough to get by and have a good time when it is presented to me. My favorite experience was in Vienna, Austria. A friend and I had just arrived in the city one February and were busy acquainting ourselves with what the city had to offer. We had not gone far when we stumbled upon the Vienna Ice World (they transform Vienna Rathausplatz into a huge ice rink with ice paths that wind through City Hall Park). Yes please! We immediately found a place to rent some skates and then spent the next couple of hours gliding around with locals and tourists alike. At one point, it started to snow a little. Magical is really the only word to describe that winter travel experience.
If you are not a skier or snowboarder, many resorts offer tubing or sledding hills. Usually, a machine drags you up the hill in your tube, and then you pick a trail to ride down. It is a lot of fun and because a machine does all of the uphill work, it is not too exhausting. Of course, you can always sled the old-fashioned way by hiking up a hill and then riding your sled or tube back down. You get a great workout doing it this way in addition to having a good time. If you want to find the best place to go sledding, be sure to ask a local.
This is not something I have had the opportunity to experience just yet. However, I am looking forward to checking it off my bucket list one day—preferably in Finland. Regardless of where you experience dog sledding, it will be an experience you will not soon forget. And it is one not many people can say they have tried.
In Idaho, for whatever reason, we call snowmobiling sledding (e.g. let’s take the sleds out, what kind of sled do you ride, my sled got stuck on a cornice, etc.). I also know some folks that call it snow machining. Regardless of the name you use for snowmobiling, it is fun. Like, a lot of fun. It is a lot like riding a jet ski, but with more power and without the risk of drowning (although you could hit a tree). Renting one is usually pretty easy. Or find some locals and see if they will let you tag along. Just do not try to high mark on your first voyage.
(Note: if you really want to try something fun and you have ridden snowmobiles before, rent a snowbike instead.)
Only once have I seen a curling competition. We arrived in our beloved Stanley, Idaho, one winter night and to our surprise, there was a curling competition going on. I will not lie, it was cold! And I had no idea what was going on. But it was a lot of fun and I would definitely go to another competition—especially if I was in Scotland. I also would not mind trying it myself, provided there were no people milling about that I might accidentally hit.
I have yet to attend a winter festival I did not like. I mentioned the Vienna Ice World earlier and soon R and I will be experiencing the Christmas markets in Belgium (so excited!). Some are more grand and some are more small town. Regardless, they make a lovely addition to winter travel. Here in Idaho, the McCall Winter Festival features snow sculptures, nighttime parades and snowbike races. It is a good time for all.
Hot Springs and Hot Tubs
My favorite time to sit in a hot springs or hot tub (known as a hot pot in Iceland), is when it is cold outside. I especially enjoy it if there is snow all around me. Yes, getting in and out is not much fun. But the actual soak is delightful and well worth the frantic time it takes to get in and out of the hot water. And nothing feels better after a day on the slopes than a nice soak in hot springs or hot tub.
There is a place in Stanley, Idaho, where guests can enjoy a natural hot springs with a view that is out of this world. You have to trek through the snow for a hundred yards or so, but the experience is so worth it. It is one of my favorite places in the whole world, especially during the winter.
Visiting hot springs and pools in other countries is especially fun winter travel. The Blue Lagoon in Iceland had been on my bucket list for years. When I finally got to experience it, it did not disappoint at all. One thing I found very entertaining was sitting in that warm blue water while the lifeguards walked around in parkas.
Tips for winter travel:
- Dress warm. There is no faster way to ruin a good time than being cold and wet. If you pack, borrow or rent the right clothes, you will not have to sacrifice a minute of your fun.
- Consider renting. In my experience, it has always been cheaper and more convenient to rent skis than to check my own onto the airplane. This may not be the case if you are planning on skiing every day of a two-week vacation. Snowshoes, skis, poles, even snow pants, can all usually be rented for a fee that makes it not worth carrying them around.
- Plan around your daylight hours. Winter means more than cold and snow, it also means shorter days. And although night skiing can be fun, if that was not part of your plan, you may be just a bit disappointed. Check your schedule and plan accordingly.
- Take breaks. Hot chocolate does wonders when it comes to increasing your core body temperature. Plus, visiting various cafes and lodges is fun!
Winter is a wonderful time to travel—especially to cold-weather climates. It usually requires a bit more gear and a lot more clothes, but the experiences are one of kind and something you will not soon forget.