‘Tis the season of snowy nights and short days, log fires and sleigh rides. It’s also the season of ice storms and slush piles and seasonal affective disorder—in other words, the perfect time to escape to somewhere else.
This year, National Geographic celebrated all Four Seasons of Travel with our book by the same name. Back in June, I listed 16 Summer Destinations I Love, and in September, I presented my 14 Favorite Fall Destinations. Now that it’s December, I give you these 12 Wonderful Winter Destinations, some with snow—some with sun:
West Yellowstone, Montana Nobody does winter as big and as beautiful as Montana, and nothing beats snowmobiling into Yellowstone National Park when it’s 40 below outside. If you dream of a white world with undisturbed nature and incredible skiing (Big Sky isn’t far), this is the place.
Antarctica Probably my favorite place on Earth, the elusive seventh continent is not as elusive as it once was. December to February marks the Antarctic summer, which still means plenty of blue icebergs and endless snowy landscapes, but it also means baby penguins, long hours of sunlight, and daytime temperatures as warm as the 40’s. Setting foot on the bottom of the world was life-changing for me, and now all I want to do is to go back.
Fairbanks, Alaska The greatest mistake travelers make is to write off Alaska in winter. Deep in the heart of the great north, Fairbanks is the place for dogsledding adventures and the amazing aurora borealis. Though everything depends on timing, conditions, and luck—the cold temperatures, clean air, and high latitude greatly increases one’s chance of capturing the celestial colors.
Friesland, Netherlands The Dutch still go ice skating on their many canals, should temperatures dip low enough and long enough for the ice to be thick enough (6 inches). The ultimate ice staking tour takes place on the northwest coast of Holland, with the Elfstedentocht (“Eleven Cities Tour”) that leads skaters along 120 miles of frozen canals and rivers. The last race was held in 1997, though last year, they came very close to running the contest after a 10-day cold spell.
Cartagena, Colombia The Caribbean’s most colorful city is not nestled upon some far-flung island, but spread along the northern coast of Colombia—a place of palm-fringed beaches, wild pirate histories, and wild nights. Out on the cobblestone streets of this colonial port, you’ll meet the vast array of faces and cultures that comprise this recently-reborn nation.
Mérida, Mexico Do yourself a favor—skip Cancun and head over to the other side of the Yucatan peninsula. Considered the “Safest city in Mexico” Mérida in winter is wonderfully warm and uncomplicated. Boutique hotels, one-of-a-kind cuisine, and superb shopping (and no tourist crowds) make Mérida a very pleasant alternative to the overwrought “Mayan Riviera.”
Lviv, Ukraine When it’s snowing, the architecturally-impressive city of Lviv looks like a fairy tale, with turrets and spires, palaces and theaters, and a splendid mass of restaurants and cafés. Oft-compared to Prague and Krakow, Lviv is far more unassuming and offers visitors a rich taste of Ukrainian culture and folklore.
Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia The call of the outback draws us city folk to the big red empty middle of Oz, where the sun never stops and people are just . . . different. Embrace the beauty and weirdness of the desert by staying longer than the others who just pass through, or ride the rails from south to north on The Ghan.
Eastern Cape, South Africa Having just driven across the province, I’m a little biased by the beauty of South Africa’s southern provinces, in particular this endless stretch of oversized coastline from Knysna to Port Elizabeth. Roaring surf, massive African forests, adventure sports, and long-held summer traditions make this part of the country particularly pleasant.
Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands With just 300 residents, this tropical green mountaintop in the sea is fringed with the kind of white sand beaches that get featured on computer screensavers. The reality is so much better—a laidback, no-fuss kind of island where shoes and watches are unwelcome. My fondest memories of Jost Van Dyke consist of doing absolutely nothing from sun up to sun down.
Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio I grew up camping in these hills during winter break, when heavy snow covered the strange sandstone cliffs and caves south of Columbus. Perhaps the most beautiful spot in the Buckeye State, I remember quite clearly hiking in these silent woods during a December snowfall and falling in love with the state.
Jerusalem, Israel The holiest city on Earth is also one of its most beautiful—Could there be any better place to celebrate the festival of lights or the birth of Christ than this? Cool and dry, the soft pink glow of these stone walls and square buildings sets the city apart from any other in the Middle East—nowhere else feels this timeless and so momentous.