You don’t always have to escape to the sun to enjoy winter: just as much fun can be had swapping the UK’s grey and rainy skies for cold-weather adventuring. From frozen lakes to ice sculpture workshops, here are 10 of the best ways to dive headfirst into a winter wonderland.
First things first. Surfing in Iceland is obviously rather different to riding the bath-warm waves of Bali or Hawaii. But that doesn’t mean conquering its breakers isn’t fun – and the best swells occur in winter. Iceland’s most popular surf spot is the Unesco-listed Reykjanes Peninsula (under an hour’s drive from Reykjavik), with its backdrop of glaciers and frozen lava. Sign up for a lesson with Adventure Vikings, a surf school founded by one of Iceland’s top surfers, to learn how to master the country’s chilly waves. Just leave the Bermuda shorts at home.
Dive under a frozen lake
We’ll start by admitting that this particular activity might not sound too appealing, but bear with us. Dive beneath the ice covering Tignes’ enormous lake (Lac de Tignes) in France and you’ll discover a beautiful underwater world. On cloud-free days, rays of sunshine create shimmering rainbows and aquamarine-tinged circles of light. There’s even a tiny cave to explore, and if you’re lucky you’ll spot some of the lake’s residents, which include trout. Make sure you take the time to watch the glittering bubbles of air glide slowly upwards, before they slide, alien-like, along the underside of the ice towards the nearest air gap. Don’t worry: ice divers are given dry suits to wear underneath full body scuba suits, meaning you stay surprisingly temperate throughout the experience.
Sail across the Antarctic
A growing number of cruise lines have created itineraries for those who fancy channelling their inner Ernest Shackleton but aren’t so keen on the hardships endured by the Antarctic explorer, who eventually ate his own sled dogs. Highlights of the best cruises include the Drake Passage (the 800km passage between Cape Horn and Livingston Island) and visits to the South Shetlands’ King George Island, where you can stop by scientific research bases. Almost all ships carry zodiacs, allowing land-based explorations of places like penguin-dotted Cuverville Island. Look for a cruise which offers kayaking excursions, too – nothing beats paddling around enormous icebergs.
Ditch skis for a cycle
Cycling and snow aren’t natural bedfellows, but add a pair of super-thick tyres into the mix and it’s a different story. The Swiss ski resort of Davos is one of the most popular places to try fatbiking, which involves speeding down powder-blanketed slopes on bikes kitted out with tyres up to 4.8 inches thick. The resort’s Davos Bike Academy offers two-hour introductory lessons, after which you’ll be let loose on a network of dedicated fatbike pistes threading through the resort’s Fluela valley area.
Spend the night in an “igloo”
Spending the night in an igloo sounds rather exciting – until hypothermia sets in and your nose turns black. Book a night in a beautiful dome tent next to a Finnish frozen lake and the only risk is not wanting to leave. You’ll sleep in a cosy double bed warmed by a wood-burning stove, and transparent sections of the tent make it easy to admire the Northern Lights. You can choose from two locations in northern Finland (Jeris or Torassieppi) and they’re both easily accessible from Rovaniemi airport.
Float over snow-capped fairy chimneys
Turkey’s Cappadocia region is often seen as a summer-only destination, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Visit during the colder months to explore a selfie stick-free winter wonderland, fuelled by steaming cups of salep (a drink made with the roots of wild orchids) and mercimek corbasi (a broth made with red lentils). The best way to experience it is with a balloon ride, either with one of the region’s many operators (most of which offer balloon rides year-round) or as part of a longer Turkey-based tour, such as Intrepid’s Turkey Winter Discovery trip. A particular highlight is spotting Turkey’s fairy chimneys – a geologic phenomenon that appears as mushroom-like rock formations that rise out of the ground.
Master your mushing skills
Husky rides are one of the most accessible winter-themed activities – you can even sign up for them in the UK, albeit in Gloucestershire, with a wheeled cart replacing the traditional sled. For a truly authentic experience, head to the wilds of northern Sweden, where dozens of operators go one step further, offering not only sled rides but the opportunity to learn how to drive your very own team of huskies. Book with Fjellborg Arctic Lodge and you’ll have a range of options, including everything from introductory lessons to multi-day experiences during which you’ll guide your husky-pulled sled from one remote lodge to the next.
Learn how to turn ice into art
If you were the kind of child who would dash outside at the first flake of snow, eager to start work on that year’s snowman, you’ll be blown away by the Sapporo Snow Festival, which takes place every year in February. During the event, which celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2020, two million people come to marvel at the snow and ice sculptures which fill Sapporo’s Odori Park. Some of them take four months to build, and the most complex sculptures are usually built by soldiers from the Japanese army. Once you’re all snow-sculptured out, there’s a beautiful ice rink and snowboard competition to check out, too.
Brave the bob
Got a need for speed? If you’ve ever fancied the thrill of a bobsled track, there’s only one place you should consider, and that’s Switzerland’s legendary St Moritz-Celerina Olympia bob run, the setting for two winter Olympic Games and numerous European and World Championships. And now members of the public can fly down the track, with an experienced bobsled pilot upfront and a brakeman in the back. Which means all you need to do is enjoy the 75 adrenaline-charged seconds it takes to speed down the track at 130kmph.
Learn how to ice climb
Mountain climbing becomes an Olympic sport for the first time in 2020, and growing numbers are choosing to scale walls of ice, as well as rock. One of the most popular ice-climbing destinations is Chamonix, thanks to its many waterfalls – most of which freeze between December and March. Many have clearly marked abseil descent routes and belays, and equipment (such as boots, ice axes and crampons) can be hired in the resort’s climbing stores. The Chamonix Experience is your best bet if you’re keen to learn the basics – this world-renowned winter sports school has 20 qualified mountain guides, including several professional ice climbers.