Get ready to infuse the long winter months with color, carnivals, and adventure. Chosen by our editors, this year's best winter trips span the globe and transcend the season. Find your favorite, then share your winter trip plans with fellow travelers.
Harbin Ice Festival, China
Photograph by Andy Wong, AP
Hibernating is not an option in the frosted reaches of northeast China, where brisk Siberian winds keep the average winter temperatures in Harbin barely above zero degrees Fahrenheit. Hardy local artisans in the Russian-influenced "Ice City" celebrate the season by sculpting ice blocks chopped from the Songhua River into colossal crystalline pyramids and palaces, whimsical dragons and fairies, and frozen slides worthy of a water park. The monthlong Harbin Ice and Snow Festival (beginning January 5), showcases the frosty craftsmanship of local carvers and international teams and includes a Snow Sculpture Expo at Sun Island recreational area and the Ice Lantern Garden Party at Zhaolin Park. Daylight activities include figure skating, ice boxing competitions, and, for the daring, a polar plunge into an ice-free section of the frigid Songhua. After dark, bundle up to see the festival’s illuminated ice displays dazzle neon bright against the night sky. Harbin is accessible via train or plane from Beijing or Shanghai.
Mesoamerican Reef, Belize
Photograph by Bobby Haas, National Geographic
Central America’s Mesoamerican Reef system stretches more than 600 miles along the coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. It’s half the size of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef yet easier to access, with some sections of the underwater reef platform beginning within a few hundred yards of shore. Belize’s three coral atolls—Glover's Reef (36 miles from the mainland), Lighthouse Reef (home to the rare red-footed booby), and Turneffe Islands (the largest and closest at only 25 miles off the coast)—offer exceptional beginner-to-expert sea kayaking and snorkeling along shallow reefs, plus secluded white-sand beaches and unspoiled nature reserves. Belize: Reefs, Rain Forests, and Ruins, a National Geographic Adventures small-group expedition, includes safari-style beach camping on Lighthouse Reef atoll and snorkeling along the perimeter of the Great Blue Hole, the nearly thousand-foot-wide sinkhole first explored by Jacques Cousteau in the 1970s. Or book a private villa at all-inclusive and off-the-grid Turneffe Island Resort, a private island located at the southern tip of Turneffe Atoll.
Western Taiwan by Train
Photograph by Nicky Loh, Reuters
Hop a high-speed (186 miles an hour) bullet train in Taipei to zip across western Taiwan’s valleys, plains, and Central Mountain Range foothills. The Taiwan High Speed Rail western route winds through 48 tunnels and over 152 miles of elevated rail from Taipei south to Kaohsiung. The southernmost rail stop serves as the gateway to tropical Dapeng Bay National Scenic Area, Kenting National Park, and Maolin National Scenic Area, home to four indigenous groups—the Rukai, Paiwan, Bunun, and Tsou. A roundtrip western bullet train loop from Taipei and back is an easy day trip, getting travelers back in time to sample crispy salt and pepper chicken or mini soup dumplings at the city’s famous night markets. For a longer train tour, stay overnight at urban station stops like Banciao, Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Taichung, Chiayi, and Tainan. From February 23 to March 10, the neighborhood surrounding the Hsinchu High Speed Rail Station hosts the 2013 Taiwan Lantern Festival, pictured here. During each night of the festival, thousands of soaring and animated lanterns illuminate the night skies of northern Taiwan’s oldest city.
Ruaha National Park, Tanzania
Photograph by Pavan Aldo, SIME
Located southwest of Tanzania’s most famous safari destinations—the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater—7,809-square-mile Ruaha National Park is off the beaten adventure tour track, offering a quieter, wilder environment for exceptional game viewing and birding. The Great Rift Valley crosses the park, and the Great Ruaha River, a year-round lifeline for the park’s large mammals, forms the eastern border. In addition to having a high concentration of elephants (thought to be the largest of any East Africa park), as well as resident hippos and buffalo, Ruaha is also known as a birder’s paradise. January to April (the hot, short rainfall season) is considered the best time to view the park’s more than 570 species, including the Ruaha red-billed hornbill. Book one of the eight luxurious tents at secluded Jongomero safari camp to embark on ranger-guided game drives in open four-wheel-drive vehicles and small-group walking safaris and birding tours. The camp is just ten minutes from the nearest airstrip, facilitating a quicker civilization-to-safari transition from Dar es Salaam or Arusha.
Photograph by Peter Allinson, My Shot
Only an 80-minute direct flight from Miami, the Cayman Islands are close enough to the mainland U.S. for a winter weekend sand-and-snorkel escape. The self-governing British Overseas Territory encompasses three islands in the western Caribbean: 76-square-mile Grand Cayman (the largest and most commercialized), the Brac (12-mile-long Cayman Brac), and unspoiled Little Cayman, home to the must-dive Bloody Bay Wall—a dramatic drop-off plunging more than 5,000 feet. Arrange Bloody Bay Marine Park snorkeling or diving itineraries to match your skill level through Conch Club Divers at Paradise Villas. On Grand Cayman, stroll along coral-sand Seven Mile Beach and swim with yearling green sea turtles in the 1.3-million-gallon saltwater snorkel lagoon at Cayman Turtle Farm. Sign on with a local, licensed dive operator to view the aquatic life flourishing among the decks of the U.S.S. Kittiwake, a former submarine rescue vessel towed offshore and sunken in 2011 to create an artificial reef. For an all-in-one Cayman getaway, make family-owned Brac Reef Beach Resort home base for beachfront lodging, diving, snorkeling, kayaking, and birding.
Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
Photograph by David Turnley, Getty Images
Carnival in Brazil’s first capital (and former Portuguese colonial capital) is a cruising Afro-Brazilian dance party stretching mile after mile along center city and coastal circuits. Convoys of trio elétricos (souped-up semitrailer trucks carrying live bands and DJs) snake past the costumed crowds, pumping up the volume on homegrown Bahia samba-reggae and axé (ahh-shay) music, increasing the frenetic energy with each passing block. Salvador’s local blocos afros (community bands/social groups celebrating African heritage and dress) create this Carnival’s distinctive timbal (high-pitched hand drum) sound. Official Carnival runs from February 7 to February 13, but in Salvador, the partying continues through the morning of Ash Wednesday, when percussion-led processions pulsate along Avenida Oceanica toward Ondina Beach. Founded on Brazil’s northeast coast in 1549 as a strategic seaport and, soon after, a New World slave market capital, urban Salvador remains an amalgam of European, African, and American Indian culture. Walk past multicolored colonial mansions in the World Heritage site old city to tour MAFRO (Museu Afro-Brasileiro), the nation’s preeminent Afro-Brazilian cultural museum.
Chena River State Recreation Area, Alaska
Photograph courtesy James McClean, Chena Hot Springs Resort
The packed winter trails crisscrossing Chena State Recreation Area’s 397 square miles of forests and alpine tundra are open for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, snowmachining, and winter mountain biking (try the Colorado Creek Trail for a three- to four-hour ride). Located only 26 miles east of Fairbanks, Chena River puts Alaskan adventure within easy reach via scenic (and plowed) Chena Hot Springs Road. On February 16 the final leg of the thousand-mile Yukon Quest international sled dog race runs through the recreation area along portions of the old Chena Hot Springs Winter Trail. Cheer on the mushers and teams, then stay at nearby Chena Hot Springs Resort to soak in the Hot Springs Rock Lake (adults 18-plus only) and view the northern lights via the 13-passenger Snow Coach tour. There’s also a special aurora wake-up call service for instant alerts when the celestial light show is clearly visible, as well as a heated Aurorium log cabin (open 24/7 to guests) where you can hunker down with a mug of hot cocoa to watch the night sky through expansive, northeast-facing windows.
Photograph by Johannes Simon, Getty Images
With the city’s historic Christmas markets in full swing, church bells chiming in the crisp Bavarian Alpine air, and snow frosting baroque palace rooftops, Advent in Salzburg delivers a multisensory infusion of gingerbread-warm holiday spirit. Festivities begin in early December with informal and organized Krampusläufe or Krampus processions. According to legend, the shaggy, horned demon Krampus frightens naughty children, while his benevolent counterpart St. Nicholas rewards the nice ones. The Salzburg region (and the town of Grödig in particular) is known for its costumed Krampus parades, as well as for romantic holiday markets on Cathedral, Residence, and Mirabell Squares; at Hellbrunn Palace; and in the Sterngarten. Sip mulled wine, ice skate on the Mozartplatz, and ride Austria’s oldest funicular railway, Festungsbahn, to view the surrounding snow-dusted panorama from imposing Hohensalzburg Fortress. Beyond Christmas, the city’s celebratory energies focus on the International Mozarteum Foundation Mozart Week classical music festival (January 24 to February 3). Events include opera productions and chamber music, soloists, and orchestral concerts.
Yellowstone National Park, Montana
Photograph by Jehnichen, laif/Redux
Mid-December to early March, Yellowstone is a winter wonderland best explored on foot, cross-country skis, or snowshoes. The park stays open year-round, but in winter most roads are closed to wheeled vehicles. "Lodging and Learning" packages offered by Yellowstone National Park Lodges and the Yellowstone Association Institute make it easy to stay and play in the park. Enter through the North Entrance in Gardiner, Montana (closest airport is 85 miles away in Bozeman), and travel by snow coach to either the Old Faithful Snow Lodge or Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. Naturalist-guided winter programs offer wildlife expeditions (view bison, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, coyotes, and wolves), cross-country-ski day treks to Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon, and Winter Wolf Discovery, a firsthand look at the reintroduction of wolves to the park. Packages include lodging, in-park transportation, some meals, and unlimited ice skating. Stay safe (and warm) by wearing insulated boots and layered winter gear. Winter temperatures can range from 20 to 30 degrees below zero F to the balmy 30s, with heavy snows possible daily.
Photograph by Win Initiative, Getty Images
When temperatures dip below freezing, residents in Canada’s largest city head downtown and below ground to 17 miles of weatherproof walkways. Toronto’s extensive PATH network offers slush-, ice-, and snow-free pedestrian access to parking garages, stores, subway stops, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment venues. During the Winterlicious foodie festival (January 25 to February 7), nosh your way through Toronto’s diverse neighborhoods, including Little India, home to the Gerrard India Bazaar, North America’s largest South Asian marketplace. Winterlicious culinary events include affordable prix fixe menus at more than a hundred of the city’s top restaurants. Book online reservations early to snag a table at participating hot spots like Trevor Kitchen and Bar. Work up an appetite with an afternoon skate (rentals available) outside city hall at Nathan Phillips Square or at Natrel Rink at Harbourfront Centre. In 2013 Ontario’s provincial Family Day celebration coincides with Presidents' Day in the U.S. Spend the holiday weekend (February 15 to 18) at the new Four Seasons Hotel Toronto (opened October 2012) in fashionable Bloor-Yorkville to visit the nearby Royal Ontario Museum’s family-friendly, hands-on galleries.
I'm sure this is on a lot grander scale than the one in Winnipeg, Manitoba called Festival Du Voyageur in February each year.
This interesting. I have heard of it since I was born, never been that place though. Wish I could come back to China and see how this amazing festival would be like.
When I was reading about The Cayman Islands, it said something about a Turtle Farm. A few years ago, I went on a Carnival Cruise and went to a Turtle Farm, though I'm not sure it's the same one as on the Cayman Islands.
Caymen island looked exotic. Something I'd want to see for real. This winter I'd probably hit Goa in India. I have heard a lot about snorkelling but don't have courage to try it. It's going to be a carnival time in the month end. Just referring netgeo, mygola.com and http://www.joguru.com to get more info on it.
I have seen pictures from Alaska having Ice Festivals, but to see this wonderful Ice Festival In China is amazing!
I don't realize if some of the oriental countries have those kind of amazing festivals. Thank you for the recommendation! I also found out some interesting articles here aswell www.jakpost.travel :)
I can't believe you would continue to promote the Cayman Turtle Farm after they were just caught hiding evidence of severe animal mistreatment! And I notice you do not mention that the CTF slaughters this endangered species and sells them as meat. Nice standards, NatGeo.
Nat Geo - Kindly research your tourist spot recommendations: Cayman Turtle Farm is under investigation for gross negligence and cruelty to their hundreds of sea turtles before their miserable lives end in slaughter. This practice should not be supported by a magazine that is usually known for conservation. More info: http://stopseaturtlefarm.org/
Ms. Michaels & Mr. Budiansky, Thank you fot that deeply saddening bit of info I was surfing the tube one night & noticed a prodram titled "Wicked Tuna" on NatGeo. I didn't even check it out, with the fish being overfished then sold for millions. First impressions do make lasting impressions.
@Julia Michaels That's shocking !
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