Autumn is the most overrated of seasons. It is a time when only the wildly optimistic find beauty in dying, decaying leaves. Autumn serves merely as the prologue to winter, a finer time when fires roar and you can wear a woollen sweater without opening the windows on the top deck of the bus. It is also a time of great beauty, when a country walk does wonders for your soul, not to mention your hangover. But if winter for you has less of the eerie beauty of Gloucestershire or the Hudson Valley at Christmas, and is more associated with slushy puddles and freezing city streets, check out the list that follows. MR PORTER has scoured the globe to find you the best winter escapes. Just remember to pack your thermals. —Words by Mr Simon Usborne
Deep inside the Ryōhaku mountain range, in sight of its highest peak, Mount Haku, lies a tiny village where thatching has been turned into an architectural wonder. The houses, or gassho-zukuri (praying hands), have steeply pitched roofs that rise above rice fields in the summer. They come into their own in winter, designed as they are to withstand the weight of some of the world’s heaviest snowfall. Time a visit right, and their golden lights twinkle under not so much blankets as luxuriant duvets of snow. A five-hour drive from Tokyo, a visit to this Unesco World Heritage site is possible in a day, but the seasoned traveller stays the night. Built between two and three centuries ago, most of the homes are run as family guesthouses where the specialty, hida beef, is roasted over irori, the traditional Japanese sunken hearth.
In late January, an egg-yolk sun skirts the horizon for just a few hours in Tromsø, one of the world’s northernmost cities. When darkness takes over, drapes of jade luminescence shimmer against the sky as solar winds strike the Earth’s magnetic field. A view of the aurora borealis is not guaranteed, so be smart and journey into the Norwegian Arctic Circle when other activities are taking place. None is better than the Northern Lights Festival. The week-long celebration of classical music, now in its 30th year, draws cultural heavyweights and a sophisticated Scandi crowd to a bewitching setting. The 2017 line-up has not yet been revealed, but previous players, who perform in venues scattered across Tromsø’s low-rise clapperboard streets, include the Mariinsky Opera and Ballet, and symphony orchestras from Gothenburg, St Petersburg and Oslo. Don’t forget your dinner jacket.
In the far north of China – further north even than Vladivostok in Russia – lies a city where the mercury routinely dips below minus 40ºC and the tundra rarely thaws. Harbin was once a global centre for trade and industry where, at the turn of the last century, concert halls and theatres played to a city filled with as many as 25,000 Russian Jews who had resettled across the border to escape persecution. The city is no warmer today, but while everything else has changed, an annual celebration of the cold has come to symbolise China’s entrepreneurial spirit in the modern era. The Harbin International Ice And Snow Sculpture Festival is the largest of its kind in the world. Every January and February, a city within a city emerges, built from blocks of ice and snow, and lit at night in a kaleidoscopic display that makes Disneyland look drab.
A festive jaunt to Lapland to commune with huskies, reindeer and Santa Claus may provoke in you feelings of deep dread, but get it right and you are onto a winner. It means travelling to the north of Finland, heart of Lapland and home of Joulupukki, the pagan yule goat in the Finnish tradition who evolved, with a heavy dose of Victorian and then American aesthetics, to become the Father Christmas of today. There are day trips from the UK that involve inhumanly early flights and precious little time on Santa’s knee. Better to go for a few days at least and combine Santa with Rudolph and his pals, who oblige children by offering sleigh rides through snow-laden forests before their airborne night shifts. Syöte National Park offers a range of activities for older visitors, too, including skiing and husky and snowmobile rides, so it won’t all be about the children.
Gondola rides to the island in the middle of Lake Bled have helped this natural wonder in Slovenia become the country’s biggest tourist draw. But if it looks like a fairytale palace when the sun is high and the surrounding hills are green, wait until the snow falls and the water mirrors the low winter sun. You can still reach the island, where steps rise from the water to the Church of the Assumption, but you won’t have to muscle through a forest of elbows to take in its majesty. Put on some winter boots for the hour-long stroll around the lake (more if you factor in time to take photos) and admire it and the surrounding mountains from the cliff-top Bled Castle. In Bled itself, just a 40-minute drive from the quaint capital Ljubljana, thermal baths, markets, floodlit night skiing and ice skating make for a destination so rich in romantic and scenic potential that visitors should consider a self-imposed social-media ban. Or making that proposal.
When young Austrian housewife Ms Anna Maria Mozart narrowly survived a difficult labour to give birth to a boy she named Mr Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, she unwittingly set her adopted city on a course of international celebrity that culminates each winter in an extravaganza of gingerbread and mulled wine. Salzburg’s Christkindlmarkt is one of the oldest and prettiest in the land and dates back to the 15th century. Amid the baroque splendour of Domplatz, or cathedral square, brass players create a soundtrack for festive consumption as a manageable 100 or so stalls do a roaring trade in crafts and sweet delicacies such as Vanillekipferl, a crescent-shaped biscuit. Musical performances and nativity scenes abound, and if the whiff of Sachertorte and nutmeg becomes overpowering, rise above it all to take in the view over the twinkling lights, churches and Mr Mozart’s birthplace at the hilltop Museum der Moderne.
Mr Ansel Adams is perhaps more responsible than any other man for the popularity of Yosemite, the impossibly spectacular wilderness of granite cliffs, towering waterfalls and raging rivers about 150 miles east of San Francisco. Four million people roll in each year, most of them choking its roads and hiking trails in the summer months, as they go in search of the vistas photographer Mr Adams captured in startling contrast. “The splendour of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious,” he wrote of his first visit, as a teenager, with his family in 1916. “One wonder after another descended upon us... A new era began for me.” He kept coming back, but many of his most famous photos, including those of the granite monolith Half Dome, were taken after a covering of snow had enhanced the scenery. Those who follow in his snowshoe steps – snowshoeing is the way to get around in winter – are rewarded with lighter crowds. Have dinner at Evergreen Lodge, where hearty fare is given a gourmet twist (elk meatloaf with rainbow chard, anyone?).
A cold wind can whip across the flatlands of Holland along the glassy canals of Amsterdam, but the city is arguably at its cosiest and chicest in the winter months, when long coats envelope bicycles and, for most of December and January, a light festival turns illumination into high art. Walk among the exhibits that banish the winter gloom throughout the city, or take a dedicated boat tour, before sipping a hot chocolate at Pompadour, a tiny chocolate shop with a grand baroque interior. If it snows, the city becomes impossibly pretty, and should it get cold enough for the canals to freeze over, expect the waterways to fill up with ice skaters. If not, head to Museumplein, where a vast ice rink is laid out in front of the newly renovated Rijksmuseum. The Dutch equivalent of Danish hygge is gezelligheid, an untranslatable expression of cosiness and human warmth. Nowhere is it more present than in the pubs and cafés of Amsterdam in winter.