It happens slowly and beautifully. The kids go back to school, the cool, crisp air soon seeps in and the leaves begin to change. Pumpkin spice everything makes a comeback. We don cozy sweaters and gather with friends and family for the holiday season. The cheer and excitement of Christmas keeps us going despite the decreasing temperature outside. But before we know it, the Christmas tree and lights are coming down, the holidays are over — and winter? Winter is here, and it’s here to stay for a while.
To make the best of it, we head off to our annual ski destination. To escape it, we head south in search of warm water and sandy beaches. But why not try something different this year: a family winter getaway that is both unusual and unexpected? If you are in search of something new, or if you just want to impress the kids, we have an enviable list of winter travel ideas and activities that will deliver a fresh set of adventures and memories.
Head to Hokkaido and hit the slopes in Niseko, a ski town dubbed the “St. Moritz of Japan.” This lesser-known ski area offers Champagne powder, authentic ramen joints and therapeutic hot springs. January is the most popular time to visit for high amounts of snow, with the month being referred to by many as “Japanuary.” In addition to fresh powder and stylish ski resorts, families can visit Lake Shikaribetu to experience an ice village that has everything from an ice bar to an open-air bath made of snow and an ice chapel (January-March). Plus, nearby Sapporo hosts a snow festival with towering ice sculptures and impressive ice carvings every February.
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Isn’t northern Norway cold during the winter? Yes, it is … but imagine the things you can see and do, and the people you can meet, at a time of year when other would-be visitors are eschewing the cold. Alta, one of the northernmost cities in the world and known as the “Northern Lights Capital,” offers a remote icy wilderness where you can take the family on a whole host of adventures: dogsledding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, skiing, ice fishing and, of course, catching a glimpse of the stunning Northern Lights. Holmen Husky Lodge offers families the opportunity to sleep in a tepee at a kennel with nearly 100 dogs as company, and guests can drive their own canine team through the forest for an exhilarating experience. Enlarge your children’s worldview (and your own) by spending time with a Sami reindeer herder, learning about his livelihood and visiting his home.
The northern hemisphere’s winter months are a beautiful time to visit Cape Town. Families can take in the sun and sea at one of the white sand beaches of Camps Bay, stroll along the Cape Town waterfront, hike up (or ride a cable car) to the top of Table Mountain, visit the botanical gardens of Kirstenbosch and explore the Cape Winelands. If you seek more adventure, consider pairing a trip to Cape Town with a safari in Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, South Africa’s largest private game reserve. Accessible via charter flight, the reserve offers a bit of everything: day and night game drives, horseback riding, star beds, rock paintings and art, and much more.
Do you want to wow the kids with something completely unexpected? How about a winter storm watching trip to Tofino, British Columbia? Between November and February, legendary winter storms rise out of the Pacific on this stretch of the Vancouver Island coastline, and you can have a front-row seat for the 20-foot swells that crash on the shore. Don waterproof outerwear (and work up your nerve) to venture out into the squall and watch Mother Nature at work. Named a Canadian Signature Experience by the Canadian Tourism Commission, storm watching is best done at the Wickaninnish Inn, which provides full rain gear and rubber boots in each guest room. Kids will also enjoy beachcombing along the wild shore after the storm.
The best time of year to visit Thailand is December through January, when the days are cooler and sightseeing can be done without the persistent heat and humidity that dominate the remaining 10 months. Spend a few days exploring bustling, vibrant Bangkok. Take a river cruise on the Chao Phraya, stop by the newly re-opened Wat Arun Temple and make your way to the Grand Palace. Pay a visit to the weekend market in Chatuchak and spectate a muay thai (Thai boxing) match. Once you’ve had enough of the big city, hop a flight down to Koh Samui or Phuket and spend several days basking in the tropical waters of the country’s southern islands.
Let’s talk Argentina! Bariloche, situated in the foothills of the Andes on the shores of Nahuel Huapi Lake, offers excellent activities for families who love the outdoors. Hiking, river rafting, horseback riding, kayaking, ziplining and mountain biking are just a few of the things to choose from in this land of glacier-fed lakes and rugged forests. Families should consider renting a car and driving the scenic Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Route of the Seven Lakes) in order to appreciate the scenery and discover some off-the-beaten-path beaches and vistas. Cerro Otto, the closest peak to Bariloche, can be reached via cable car and delivers great views over the town and its lakes. Bariloche’s chocolate shops are sure to be a hit with the whole family, and the Fenoglio Chocolate Museum offers a fun way to discover the history of chocolate and chocolate production, as well as sample delicious homemade treats.
In the winter, Reykjavik is awash with lights and festive decorations, making the city look like one giant Christmas card. Iceland becomes a total winter wonderland during the cold season, with ice fields as far as the eye can see to partially frozen waterfalls and blue ice caves. While not all roads are passable during this time, the Golden Circle, the south coast, Reykjanes peninsula, Snæfellsnes peninsula and Akureyri are accessible and can be done in a day tour from Reykjavik. Iceland’s most beloved waterfall, Gullfoss, is especially impressive during wintertime, surrounded by icicles and with thundering water bursting through thick layers of ice. Winter also allows visitors to experience Iceland’s natural ice caves, which form in the Vatnajokull glacier between November and March. Because the nights are long this time of year, you have a better chance of seeing the Northern Lights. And last but definitely not least, there are geothermal pools around nearly every corner if you crave a respite from the cold.
Prague is spellbindingly beautiful in the depths of winter. Its landmark Prague Castle is magical under the snow, and families will be able to enjoy the castle courtyards and surrounding area without the crowds. Don’t miss St. Vitus’ Cathedral within the castle complex — an impressive ode to Gothic architecture and artistry. Consider paying the small fee to climb the cathedral tower; the reward is a stunning view over the historic heart of the city. The medieval Charles Bridge, breathtaking in the snowfall, is another must-see. Christmas markets are a key part of enjoying the holiday season in Prague, where families can feast on barbecued sausages (klobasa) and hot sugar-coated pastries (trdelnik), and perhaps catch a glimpse of St. Nick, who roams the Old Market Square during this time. To catch a break from the cold, treat the kids to a marionette performance at one of the many theaters around town.
A trip to the Galapagos is the ultimate family adventure. December through May is the islands’ “warm season,” when ocean temperatures are comfortable for swimming and snorkeling. In order to fully experience and appreciate this exotic, remote wilderness, put your faith in Lindblad Expeditions, an award-winning ecotourism company, and board the National Geographic Endeavour for an action-packed week of exploration and discovery. Each day includes a visit to a new island, a snorkeling trip in deep water to observe marine wildlife, and a walk or hike with an educational component. Every sailing includes a fleet of professionals to enrich the guest experience, from National Geographic-certified photo instructors to trained naturalists with an average of 10 to 12 years of experience.
The best time to visit Dubai is November to March, when the city offers blue skies, primo beach weather and temperatures in the high 70s (be aware that is this also peak season). Experience the thrill of an SUV excursion to the Arabian Desert, twisting and turning up and down the rims of sand dunes. Try your hand at sandboarding or gather up the courage to ride a camel on the beautiful desert peaks. Visit the towering Burj Khalifa and take in a fascinating vantage point from the public observation deck on the 124th floor. Stroll through the impressive Dubai Mall, which holds an aquarium, an indoor ice rink, a cinema with more than 22 screens and 1,200 stores. And last but not least, don’t leave Dubai without seeing the old part of the city. Board an old-fashioned wooden boat, or abra, and cross the river to browse and bargain in the souks.
With this list, there is no excuse for a ho-hum family winter getaway this year. Move beyond your comfort zone and go for the unexpected. You will create wonderful family memories in new and exotic places, and even make more than one traditional traveler a bit jealous.
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