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Winter Vacations Without the Skis

Skiing, the standard outdoor winter vacation, isn’t for everyone — especially if your last trip to the slopes ended in a wild siege on a group of innocent trees. If skiing isn’t your cup of hot chocolate, don’t sell your mittens on eBay just yet. Whether you harbor sour memories of past winter sports gone awry or think that freezing temperatures and the outdoors just don’t mix, our collection of fun, offbeat winter getaways might change your mind! Picture waddling penguins, huskies bounding through the snow, relaxing hot springs — and not a ski pole in sight.

Bathe in an Icelandic Hot Spring

Hot springs, also known as geothermal springs or thermal springs, are natural reserves of groundwater heated by magma within the earth’s crust. Iceland, which sits on a geothermal hot spot, is renowned for its steamy hot springs. The Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s most famous geothermal pools, and it’s not just a glorified swimming pool. At the Blue Lagoon, you can soak your chilled bones in natural, mineral-rich 100-degree water, swim through caves and arches, and smear your body with Icelandic silt, which is said to benefit the skin. Stick your head out of the water and feel snowflakes fall on your face as your hair freezes solid, then dunk back under for an invigorating thermal thaw.

Plan Your Trip: The Blue Lagoon is located in Grindavik, Iceland, about a 40-minute drive outside of Reykjavik. Icelandair offers a variety of affordable vacation packages to Iceland.

Go Dog Sledding in Alaska

Before snowmobiles and SUV’s carted people over frozen roads, dog sledding was the original method of transportation in Arctic regions. Today, dog sledding has become a popular recreational activity — it’s the official sport of Alaska — and mushing competitions like the famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race have inspired travelers to try their own hands at driving a pooch-pulled sled. Book a dogsled excursion and you’ll be amazed by the power and intelligence of trained Alaskan sled dogs, especially if you can’t get your own mutt to stop peeing on the Christmas tree. Mushing is a learning experience in addition to an adventure. Don’t know what “swing dog” and “snow hook” mean? You’ll find out. You’ll also learn which commands will steer the dogs in the right direction (“Mush!” means “Let’s go!”) and how the handlers train their animals. Dog sledding trips let travelers spot Alaskan wildlife like seals, wolves and eagles, or even catch a glimpse of the northern lights while cruising through remote winter landscapes.

Plan Your Trip: Austin’s Alaska Adventures ( sells packages that take travelers over frozen oceans and ancient Eskimo trails. Alaska’s vast wilderness and history of dog sledding make it an ideal destination for a dogsled tour, but you’ll find recreational dog sledding in places like the Rockies (see A Hair-Raising Dog Sledding Adventure) and Canada too.

Watch Wildlife in Antarctica

The White Continent is often called the world’s last frontier, and it’s the ultimate destination for travelers who wish to trade typical tourist traps for wilderness and wildlife. The best way to explore Antarctica is by cruise ship — there are no hotels on this remote continent. Most cruises sail to the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, where travelers can spot penguins, whales, seals and other fauna. Sparkling white glaciers towering against a turquoise sky will take your breath away as thoughts of traffic, television and the everyday troubles of civilization slip from your memory. Antarctica is a prime cold-weather destination because our summer is their winter; when it’s cold and snowy in North America, it’s, well, cold and snowy at the South Pole, but temperatures are mildest during Antarctica’s summer.

Plan Your Trip: A variety of small-ship cruise lines sail to Antarctica. One of our favorites is Lindblad Expeditions, which offers no-frills cruises focused on adventure travel; the line regularly sails with National Geographic photographers onboard. Read more about Antarctica cruises on our sister site, Cruise Critic.

Track the Northern Lights in Tromso, Norway

Travel north to witness the aurora borealis, the most spectacular natural light show on earth. The celestial illumination that shines in the night skies of regions near the North Pole is produced by charged particles that travel through space via solar wind and get trapped in the earth’s magnetic field, creating glowing arcs of neon color. Tromso, Norway, known as the capital of the Arctic, is one of the best places to spot the northern lights because the city is located less than 1,500 miles from the North Pole. The historic Scandinavian city hosts an annual Northern Lights Festival each winter.

Plan Your Trip: The prime time to see the lights in Tromso is from October through March, around 10 p.m. (the lights may appear in the sky as early as 4 p.m.). There are numerous northern lights excursions provided by various tour companies.

Go Polar Swimming in Vancouver

“Seinfeld” fans may be familiar with the episode in which Cosmo Kramer plunged into the Hudson after joining a polar bear club. Although Kramer’s mental abilities may be questionable, multitudes of perfectly sane people enjoy polar swimming, or ice swimming — the act of submerging oneself in near-freezing waters. Polar swimming is rumored to have certain health benefits, including improved circulation, resistance to illness and the alleviation of arthritis symptoms. We can’t validate these claims, but we can assure you that the annual Polar Bear Swim in Vancouver is a fine way to test the waters if you’re interested in ice swimming. Each year in the afternoon on New Year’s Day, thousands of brave souls line the shore of the English Bay and then rush into the numbing seawater. The Polar Bear Swim has been happening since 1920, when Peter Pantages organized the original Polar Bear Swim Club in Vancouver. The first swim involved a mere 10 participants. In recent years Polar Bear Swim Club members have numbered in the thousands.

Plan Your Trip: Interested parties must register as club members in order to participate; you can sign up at the English Bay Bathhouse on the day of the swim.

Snowshoe in Quebec

Snowshoes are wide, flat shoes that distribute your weight over a larger area so that you don’t sink into the snow. It’s like hiking, but better — you’ll feel as weightless as a snowflake when you plod on the fluffy white power without sinking. Snowshoeing is an excellent cardiovascular workout, as well as a wonderful way to get an up-close look at winter scenery. Crunch through icy trails on snowshoes and appreciate the quiet serenity and brilliant blue skies of forests blanketed with snow. The sport first gained popularity as a recreational winter activity in Quebec in the 19th century, and today, Quebec is still a great place to strap on some snowshoes and hit the snow!

Plan Your Trip: Head to one of Quebec’s many national parks and enjoy dozens of beautiful snowshoeing trails that wind past crystal waterfalls, frosted cliffs and ancient birch trees.

Ice Climb in the Canadian Rockies

Have you ever climbed a waterfall? Ice climbing, the frigid sister of rock climbing, is a thrilling way to reach the summits of frozen falls and icy mountains. Ice climbers use tools like ice axes, ropes and crampons (boots with spikes) to safely ascend the sides of steep, and sometimes even vertical, frozen slopes. This sport is not for the fearful or feeble, as dangers like avalanches and falls are significant. So why put your life at risk in order to scramble up a sheet of ice? Many ice climbers describe the experience as “addictive,” citing bird’s-eye mountain views and a euphoric feeling of accomplishment as motivation.

Plan Your Trip: Do your research and book a trip with an experienced and reputable guide in order to minimize any risk of injury. Banff Adventures Unlimited offers ice climbing lessons, plus full- and half-day tours (equipment rental included) in Banff National Park, Alberta.

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