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Winter Wonderlands

Catch the northern lights, a photo op with a penguin
and more on these snowy escapes

By Rebecca Matheson Ortiz

Vacations Magazine: Winter Wonderlands
Nick Dale/Fotolia
Lanterns sculpted from snow and dainty floating candles lend their glow to the canal coursing through Otaru, Japan, during February's Snow Light Path Festival. The town takes on a dreamy seasonal vibe, with icicles hanging from the eaves of nearby rooftops and the aroma of sweet desserts and savory noodles drifting through the air. This is real winter magic, and it's part of G Adventures' 13-day "Winter Festivals of Japan," which combines the best cultural experiences and celebrations to capture the imagination, even in daunting temperatures.

Continue reading for more about this tour as well as five other chilly getaways that harness a wintry spirit to warm your heart, whether you stroll Norwegian streets with a steaming cup of Scandinavian glogg, have a close encounter with a penguin in Antarctica or gallivant through an Alaskan forest with a reindeer at your side.

For more information or to book your trip, call the escorted tour specialists at Vacations To Go, (800) 680-2858, or follow the links provided to browse full itineraries.

Frosty fests
Aside from the main events, including merrymaking in Otaru and a second celebration of snow in nearby Sapporo, "Winter Festivals of Japan" includes lots of free time for navigating city scenes like iconic Tokyo and upscale Osaka. It also encourages you to delve into the country's heritage with a night spent in a traditional gassho-zukuri, a farmhouse built with a slanted, thatched roof; walks through former geisha and samurai districts in Kanazawa; and time for temple and museum exploration in Kyoto. Meanwhile, nature beckons to those looking for relaxation with four opportunities to bathe in an onsen, or natural hot spring.

But, before the trip comes to an end, you will get a few days in Sapporo and its surrounding cities to attend the Snow Light Path Festival and the Sapporo Snow Festival, an event where dazzling ice sculptures attract more than 2 million visitors each year. These creations come in all sizes, and many pay tribute to beloved characters like Goku and Vegeta from the popular "Dragon Ball" series. Attendees enjoy the art, ice skating, noshing on street fare from the Hokkaido Food Square and plowing down giant snow slides. At night, sidle up to the ice bar to see the sculptures all aglow.

This small-group itinerary departs Jan. 28, 2017. Prices start at $4,949.

Icy seas
Set sail on an adventure to Antarctica, plotting a course from Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina, through the infamous Drake Passage to test your mettle on a frozen frontier. Ten nights aboard Silversea Cruises' Silver Explorer, a 130-guest expedition ship, provides pioneers with a vista of icy shelves, frigid waters and the blubbery inhabitants that call this continent home.

As the Silver Explorer glides south, the waters take on an otherworldly aspect. Breaching whales, penguin rookeries, incredibly sculpted icebergs, deep blue glaciers and floes topped with basking seals await those with sharp eyes. Weather permitting, Zodiac landing craft provide daily opportunities for guests to reach remote locations for up-close views of wildlife and scientific research stations. These outings are led by a team of 11 to 13 experts who also host shipboard lectures and workshops to make sure you're informed throughout the cruise.

A journey to the lesser-known reaches of the globe may have you imagining that you'd be roughing it, but that's far from true. Family owned and operated, Silversea is known for white-glove service and high standards that aren't lessened by the rugged destination. Thanks to a nearly 1-to-1 ratio of guests to crew, you'll be pampered from the moment you step aboard, welcomed with fresh flowers and a flute of Champagne and escorted to your cabin to meet your butler for the voyage.

There's a fitness center for training on at-sea days, while a spa covers post-excursion rejuvenation with massages, wraps and facials after a day out on the ice. For an additional treat, the Connoisseur's Corner offers a wide selection of cognac and cigars to sample.

Six departures are available between December and February, with an
additional sailing set for Dec. 8, 2017. Prices start at $12,050.

Bright skies
The eight-day "Alaska Northern Lights" with Intrepid Travel begins with visits to Anchorage and the historic gold mining town of Talkeetna before veering into nature at the 6 million-acre Denali National Park and Preserve. It's home to the tallest peak in North America, now known as Denali. The former Mount McKinley, renamed in 2015 in a nod to its Alaska Native connections, reaches a whopping 20,310 feet.

In winter, the reserve's rivers and lakes ice over and the land is wrapped in a blanket of white, making it the perfect place for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Much of the usual wildlife is in hibernation, but caribou and wolves run free through the taiga forest and eagles soar over treetops. You can fly, too, on an optional plane ride for crisp views of Denali's peak.

On Day 5, the trip moves along to Chena Hot Springs Resort in Fairbanks, where you have the opportunity to steam away stiff muscles after national park treks in a warm natural bath and prepare for the big event: the aurora borealis. That night, you'll climb aboard a snowcat -- a tank-tread vehicle designed to move easily on snow -- and go hunting for the vibrant colors and patterns created by the sun's electrically charged particles colliding with gases in the atmosphere over Earth's magnetic poles. It's most likely that you'll see green, but if you're lucky you may catch waves of red, yellow or even blue.

Round out your Alaska tour with a winter experience that may have you thinking of Old St. Nick: During a visit to a family-run ranch, Intrepid guests traipse through the woods of Goldstream Valley with reindeer strolling alongside.

There are two departures on Feb. 8 and March 4, 2017. Prices start at $3,400.

Fjord cruises
Skim the Norwegian coastline on "The Classic Winter Voyage South" a six-day trip with Hurtigruten. You'll sail 1,491 miles from Kirkenes, on the far northeastern end of Norway, to Bergen, the country's second-largest city, and celebrate a crossing of the Arctic Circle before exploring southern fjords.

Hurtigruten ships are a lifeline in winter, ferrying passengers and supplies between once-remote destinations while offering a unique view of Scandinavian life for foreign tourists. On this voyage, your vessel will call on 34 ports -- some, only long enough to deliver mail and groceries to the locals, while others offer time for exploring sites like Trondheim's Nidaros Cathedral, where 10 Norwegian royals were crowned.

Between stops, guests gather on the observation deck, taking in glistening views of snow-dusted mountains, charming fishing villages and islands that inspire tales of trolls and magic. Another awe-inspiring view when cruising Norway in winter: the northern lights, a wonder best viewed in cold, clear skies.

For guests looking to extend their stay, and perhaps acclimate to both the time change and weather after arriving in the country, Hurtigruten suggests a pre-cruise booking at the Kirkenes Snowhotel, which is crafted anew each year from fresh flakes and ice. Sculptures and snow art adorn the suites, with mattresses made comfy by thermal insulation, and the country's largest ice bar serves up vodka in frozen tumblers. This attraction usually is available between December and April, though the 2017 season has been extended through May 10.

Near daily departures are offered through March 2017. Prices start at $1,368.

Snowy parks
Culturious itineraries from tour provider Tauck emphasize small-group travel, immersive experiences and expert presentations. On the eight-day "Wonderland: Yellowstone in Winter" guests also are treated to programming crafted by award-winning documentarian Ken Burns, complete with short films that delve into the history of America's first national park.

This enticing Western adventure begins outside Bozeman, MT, at Chico Hot Springs Resort and Day Spa, which opened its main lodge in 1900. Ease into one of two mineral pools for a taste of the area's many geothermal marvels, then take advantage of Tauck-hosted activities, including your choice of a leisurely carriage ride or snowshoe trek along winter-quiet nature trails.

The group heads south on Day 3, crossing the state line into Wyoming and entering Yellowstone National Park. Crowds are slim at this time of year, not counting herds of shaggy, frost-encrusted bison. The volcanic plateau steams in the chilly air, creating a peaceful, almost unearthly scene as white snow melds with puffs of mist rising from mud pots and hot springs. Three nights are spent at Old Faithful Snow Lodge inside the park, providing VIP views of the famed spout's eruptions, which happen every 60 to 110 minutes.

Other Tauck touches in the region include a snowshoe tour of local geysers with an expert guide, a snow coach ride to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone for photos of the spectacular 20-mile-long gorge and a jaunt to the National Elk Refuge, where you'll learn about conservation efforts and ride a horse-drawn sleigh through the herd. You'll wrap up your vacation in Jackson, WY, with a farewell dinner at the National Museum of Wildlife Art.

Spots on this tour sell quickly, but a departure on Jan. 25 is available from $4,590.

Wintry waterworks
Insight Vacations offers a new itinerary that packs ethereal beauty and unique culinary experiences into six days of sightseeing. Traveling round trip from Reykjavik, "Scenic Iceland and the Northern Lights" even features an outing to view those dancing colors in the sky on its first night, following a guest reception and welcome dinner with a spectacular aerial show.

Though daylight hours are limited in winter, you'll have the opportunity to see some of the island's most ravishing waterfalls, including Seljalandsfoss, where you can hike behind the cascade; the nearly 200-foot Skogafoss, with a local legend promising hidden Viking treasures; and Gullfoss, often called the Niagara Falls of Iceland because of its sheer size, spanning the width of the Hvita River with its 100-foot drop.

Two stops for tasty bites include a family-operated veggie farm, where Insight guests are invited to walk through a greenhouse and taste tomatoes fresh off the vine, and a geothermal bakery, with samples of buttered rye bread baked using the volcanic heat of the earth.

The tour concludes after a soak in the Blue Lagoon, a reservoir of roughly 100-degree seawater that sits in an 800-year-old lava field. Full of algae and silica, the latter lending its reflective properties to create the pool's signature color, this is a skin-enriching, steamy respite from blustery temperatures; relax and soak while viewing the serene and snowy terrain. For an added treat, book a spa package and indulge in a massage, mud mask and more.

Itineraries are available from November to March 2017. Prices start at $2,684.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in September/October 2016. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.

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