Last Updated on September 7, 2021 by

BEST WINTER EXPERIENCES

10 Best Winter Experiences

While writing my previous post on polar travel, memories of my epic winter trips came flooding in. I recall the time I sat on the snow in Antarctica and watched one penguin after another waddle past me. That time I looked a polar bear in the eye when it was just a few meters from me. The night I saw the Northern Lights dance in the skies above Lapland…

Having grown up in the tropics, winter travel has always been exciting and exotic for me. The cold doesn’t bother me and anywhere that has white powdery snow gets me as hyper as a girl in a candy store. And that’s why I’ve made it a priority to travel to different corners of the world for the best winter experiences.

As part of a new series I’ve introduced to celebrate the milestone of visiting 100 countries, I’m sharing 10 of my favorite winter experiences here with you. Hopefully they’ll give you some inspiration on how and where to spend your next winter!

1. Frolicking with penguins in Antarctica

Out of all the winter experiences I’ve had, this is my absolute favorite.

Antarctica is like nowhere else in the world. It’s harsh, remote, and truly far beyond. One can really get a sense of being at the edge of the world here – there’s hardly any sign of humanity. I only saw one other ship during our 11-day expedition. Antarctica makes you feel like you’re the first person ever to have arrived, even on an expedition vessel with 120 other passengers.

Each day of our Antarctic expedition was better than the previous. From sailing into a playground of icebergs and glaciers at the start of the voyage, to watching Antarctica light up in bright vermilion at midnight the next, and cruising alongside playful whales towards the end of the trip. Through our cabin windows, I awoke to mammoth icebergs and jagged sharp peaks surrounding us.

My absolute favorite memory was sitting on the snow (on a warm day when the temperature rose above 0 degC) and suddenly seeing a group of penguins waddle past me – one by one – before diving into the water for a cooling dip. They weren’t bothered that I was there and came just a few inches from me.

2. Seeing polar bears up close in the Arctic

In 2011, I went on an Arctic cruise that circumnavigated the island of Svalbard in the Norwegian region of the Arctic — one of the best trips of my life. Seeing polar bears up close was the definitely highlight of the trip; On the 8-day cruise, we must have seen at least 30 polar bears — some as close as just two meters from our zodiac.

At one point, we found a group of 11 polar bears feeding savagely on a whale carcass that had drifted up to shore. We went out on a zodiac to see them from the water and they were SO close I felt like I could smell their breathes. Polar bears are solitary animals and rarely feed in a group, but once a dead whale gets washed up on shore, it’s a feast that lasts for weeks.

Another time, we were crossing the biggest ice field in Svalbard at midnight when someone spotted a white fur ball in the distance. As the expedition vessel inched closer, the polar bear stood up and approached us, leaping from one ice sheet to another with surprising agility. I watched its every move: its paws leaving a trail of footprints on ice. The animal was as curious about us as we were of him. It raised its nose in the air, sniffing out for signs of food. Lingering close to the bow of the ship, it stood just a few feet from where I was.

3. Catching the Northern Lights in Sweden

In Abisko, Alberto and I finally fulfilled our dreams of seeing the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis. Entrenched within the U-shaped Lapporten Valley of the Swedish Lapland, Abisko is one of the best spots in the world to see the Northern Lights. With its location 200km north of the Arctic Circle, this wilderness area lies close to the Aurora Oval, the hub for the formation of the Aurora Borealis. It was no wonder on our first few nights here, we were already seeing some of the strongest Northern Lights displays of the season.

On one particular night, swathes of green lights danced and shimmered across the sky, almost like electronic curtains flapping before us. Once we moved higher up into the mountain away from the lights of the city, the colors of the aurora became even clearer. Like a luminescent green flame, it moved and swayed in slow motion. It was such a magical experience, one that would stay with me for a long, long time.

4. Gliding Along Icebergs in Alaska

The first winter trip I ever did was an un-cruise experience in Alaska – back in 2010 – and it got me hooked to winter travel. I didn’t know what to expect, but this trip on a small-scale vessel deep into the inner fjords of Alaska blew my mind out of proportions and made me fall in love with this type of travel.

There were plenty of outstanding experiences on this trip: flying over the fjords, climbing on glaciers, seeing the Northern Lights for the first time, and more — but the one that really stood out for me was gliding by the aqua blue icebergs of Le Conte Fjord, the southernmost calving glacier in the Northern hemisphere.

Le Conte Fjord was like an art gallery of some sorts: naturally-sculpted icebergs resembling artistic masterpieces were on display. They were of different shapes and sizes: some as tall as our yacht, others small and shaped like a duck. Of course the icebergs here weren’t comparable to the massive ones in Antarctica and Arctic — but this experience was something special as it was my first time seeing an iceberg.

 

5. Husky and Reindeer Sledding in Lapland

Lapland is a Narnia-like winter fantasy world, where forests are blanketed in layers of fresh sparkling snow, and cosy wooden cabins dot the pristine white landscape. Santas and elves are just part of life here and reindeers act as Lapland’s angels.

Located close to the Arctic Circle, the region spans across fours countries – Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia – and is surprisingly easily accessible from the capital cities. There are SO many fun things to do in Lapland and the region is so accessible from other parts of Europe that it’s easy to visit on a weekend trip. Lapland is definitely one of the best winter destinations in Europe, and highly worth a visit if you love snow and Santa Claus!

During our month-long trip in Lapland, Alberto and I tried snowmobiling (and almost spinned out of control!) in Sweden, went ice fishing in Finland, put on snowshoes at night to go on a hike in Norway and so much more. Of them all, our favorite was husky sledding and riding on reindeer caravans.

On the husky sleigh, we watched as the huskies ran with all their might, winding through the snow trail and sprinting up and down slopes with much excitement in their eyes. We shivered in the chilly cold, but the huskies stood strong and continued to blaze their trail in the snow. I was thrilled to see the dogs enjoying themselves as much as we were. As our guide told us, huskies live to run; they have so much energy wound up within them that running is the best way for them to release it.

Reindeer sledding was quite the opposite. Being calm and laidback, they took their time as they pulled us along on a caravan, slushing through the white snow. In Lapland, there are actually more reindeers than people in Lapland (over 200,000 reindeers and 180,000 people). All of the reindeers here are semi-wild; they’re owned by someone but they are free to roam wherever they want.

6. Visiting Santa’s Home in Finland

Christmas 2012 was a truly special one as as we had the opportunity to meet Santa Claus in Rovaniemi (Finland), which happens to be his official hometown!

We even visited Santa’s main post office, where every single letter – whether posted to Lapland or simply Santa Claus – is delivered. When we were there, Santa’s elves were busy wrapping gifts and replying to letters from kids all over the world. I felt like a child all over again. We definitely want to bring Kaleya there someday.

If you’re keen on visiting Lapland, I recommend using Rovaniemi as your base as it’s the most affordable place to visit in Lapland, with prices lower than in neighboring Sweden and Norway. It’s a train ride away from the capital city of Helsinki, which is easily accessible from most parts of Europe.

7. Taking the Arctic Circle Express Train through Scandinavia

While planning our trip through Lapland, we decided to use the train as rail travel is the best way to explore the region especially since towns in Lapland are few and far between, and Scandinavia can be rather pricy.

Armed with some ultra-thick winter gear, we hopped on board the Arctic Circle train and weaved our way through the sugar-coated wonderland. During our journey, we experienced three different parts of Lapland and drank in the spectacular landscapes and pristine nature. Our voyage started in Rovaniemi, Finland, where we spent a week trying all sorts of winter adventure activities, before crossing the border into Abisko, Sweden for another week or so and then ending the journey in Narvik, a port city in Norway.

As our train worked its way around the edges of the mountains, we admired narrow fjords, steep mountain slopes, and random clusters of Nordic villages. The last part of the journey, from Abisko to Narvik, offered the most impressive views: narrow fjords ran alongside us, mammoth mountains loomed in the far distance, and frozen lakes stretched for miles beneath our feet. If you can only choose one section of the train route to take, this should be it.

Our experience on the Arctic Circle train was surely the most beautiful rail journeys we’ve done.

8. Flying Over a Glacier in New Zealand

Of all the glaciers I’ve seen – from Antarctica to Arctic – the Franz Josef Glacier surely has to be the most beautiful. But perhaps it’s because of the perspective from which I saw it. To get to the glacier, I actually flew there on a six-seat helicopter, swerving just a few feet above the imposing mountain of ice.

As we swooshed over the vast sea of blue, I could see the traversal crevasses running through the glacier like cracks on the Earth’s crust. The chunky blocks of ice looked almost like lego pieces jutting out from a frozen mountain that extended all the way from the top of the mountains to the valley beneath. The views were outrageously stunning and the kind that awe you to silence.

The glacier is located in Westland Tai Poutini National Park on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Together with the Fox Glacier, it is unique in descending from the Southern Alps to less than 300 metres (980 ft) above sea level. Amidst the greenery and lushness of a temperate rainforest. This heli-hiking experience also included a guided hike on the glacier with crampons and thick suit supplied by the tour operator.

9. Ice Climbing in Iceland

Our experience climbing up the Sólheimajökull Glacier in Southwestern Iceland was SO much fun! Truly an epic adventure — even though I was embarrassingly terrible at ice climbing.

Left, right, ice sticks in; left, right, feet up. Forceful arm strides followed by small, heavy steps. It sounded easy enough. But once I got on that vertiginous wall of ice, it was clearly not the case. My first attempt at ice climbing was a complete failure. At least I overcame the rush of pounding nerves and got myself mid-way up the wall. Thankfully we didn’t have to ice-climb to explore the glacier.

With crampons attached to our soles, Alberto and I hiked along the giant cauldrons, ridges, waterways and deep crevasses etched into the slopes of the glacier. The Sólheimajökull Glacier is fringed by coats of black volcanic sand, the bluish-white chunks of ice lie above Volcano Katla, which was formed thousands of years ago. The glacier was as grey and bleak as the rainy skies, but the artful assemblage looked all the more haunting under the dark clouds.

10. Sleeping in an Ice Hotel

On several of the winter trips I’ve mentioned, I was fortunate enough to visit and stay at several ice hotels: the original Ice Hotel in Sweden, the Igludorf in Switzerland, and Hotel of Ice in Romania.

Each of them is unique and has different features, but all of them have one thing in common: everything is made of ice. From the tables to the bar counters, even shot glasses and plates. The ice chambers have rock solid ice beds and frosty ice chairs, and ice chandeliers hang from the ice ceiling. Thankfully, despite the all-ice philosophy in all of these hotels, they provide specialty sleepings bags, thick blankets and reindeer skins to ensure a good night’s sleep.

Sleeping in an ice hotel is an experience on its own and I highly recommend it to anyone curious enough to try!

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