10 Unique Winter Break Destinations
Experience Macedonia's Pristine Powder
Skiers looking for perfect powder, that fluffy, untouched stuff of dreams and snow that's all but guaranteed love Popova Sapka in northwest Macedonia, which one reviewer called "the Balkans' St Moritz". Set at 1,700m up in the rounded peaks of the Dinaric Mountains, Popova is higher than most of its Eastern European competitors meaning good cover is pretty much a given from January to March (the town's simple, effective slogan is: 'We have snow'). No wonder, then that it's hosted both the European and Balkan Ski Championships along with the Sarplaninski Cup, which was launched at Popova in 1947. Wide, open runs combined with plenty of incredible off-piste terrai and great value accommodation mean Popova is one of Eastern Europe's best kept ski destinations.
Stay in shipping Containers
Remember when shipping containers were used simply for shipping? Not anymore. Today, they are repurposed as industrial-chic bars, theatres, hotels rooms, restaurants and in Gudauri, Georgia, it's an entire ski resort. Quadrum Ski and Yoga Resort was designed by architects Sandro Ramishvili and Irakli Eristavi to reflect the snowy Caucasus mountain range that it sits upon.
Located 2,200m above sea level, the glass-fronted boxes each serves as rooms that offer panoramic views over some 60km of slopes. The eco-friendly resort, a 300km drive from Kutaisi, was touted as the first boutique hotel in the Caucasus when it opened earlier in 2017, but it won't be the last. A growing number of winter sports enthusiasts are propelling this once off-the-radar region into one of the coolest spots to ski.
Watch Wales in the Arctic Circle
It's not just the Norwegian people who love to eat herring. Between October and February, several whale species, including the humpback, orca and fin, all head to the coastline surrounding the northern city of Tromso to feast on the national delicacy too. Join a Tromso Safari boat trip to tick a sighting of these magnificent mammals off your bucket list. The boats depart from the port in downtown Tromso, 320km inside the Arctic Circle, and over the course of around six hours, travel through some of the most spectacular scenery on earth to the area where the whales are most often found. "The surroundings of this city and the region are a dreamland for nature lovers", says Tromso spokesman. "The landscape is very rich in culture and we work closely with local communities to offer people the very best experience of this beautiful part of the world."
Stay in a Hotel Carved From Ice
With indoor temperatures of -2C, the Romanian Balea Lac Ice Hotel will almost certainly be the coolest place you'll every stay. Carved by local craftspeople, it appears every winter - as if by magic, on the edge of Balea Lake in the Fagaras mountains. Guest are transported there by cable car, past alpine peaks and dense forests, to stay in one of 12 rooms where even the beds are made of ice (the hotel insist they're actually very cosy, thanks to layers of reindeer furs and blankets). During the day, you can get to know the area on a snowmobile or sledge and then, when night falls, pile on the woollies for a nightcap at the sub-zero ice bar or sit down to dinner served on the ice table seated in frozen thrones.
See Bulgaria's Slopes from the Sky
The 10th century town of Bansko is widely considered to be Bulgaria's greatest ski resort. Set in the Pirin National Park, 160km from Sofia in the south-western part of the country, the town is a popular base for the many ski and snowboard slopes on Todorka Peak, including the tricky Tomba Run. Both hotels and ski passes are affordable, while the range of restaurants and mehanas (tranditional pubs) offer plenty of apres-ski options. For a truly unforgettable experience, though, book a tandem paragliding flight with one of Bansko Sports' qualified pilots to ski or snowboard vertically above the slopes. "Paragliding is the easiest way to fly," said a pilot. "Touch the sky, surf between the clouds and enjoy a cocktail of emotions." It's a sure way to hit new heights on the slopes.
Watch the World's best Dog Mushers
There can't be many places more frosty and festive than the spectacular, rugged landscapes of south-eastern France's Savoie Mont Blanc at the start of the World's biggest dog-sled race, Le Grande Odyssée. Every year, thousands of people gather at the start line to eat tartiflette (a dish made with potatoes, cheese and bacon), drink mulled wine and cheer on the competitors - both human and canine - taking part in a race known to be one of longest and most difficult of its kind. Over 11 days from 13-24 January, the world's best mushers lead a crew of 14 sled-pulling dogs - Huskies, Greenland, Malamute and Alaskan - over nearly 1,000km of snow and through 22 resorts in Savoie and Haute-Savoie. Spectators get an easier ride; stay in one of the towns the race passes through and you can watch the competitors fly past before retiring to a campfire or taking the kids to build igloos.
Watch the Northern Lights on Water
If you've always dreamt of seeing the night skies ablaze with the otherworldly glow of the aurora borealis, make it a reality this winter. There are various places where the Nothern LIghts can be spotted but one of the hippest is the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, where you can also see geysers blowing their tops, the famous Gullfoss waterfall and the unforgettable black lava formations of geothermal spa the Blue Lagoon.
Local company Elding is an expert in seeking the phenomenon out, and says one of the best ways to experience the lights is out in the North Atlantic, wrapped up warm and with a hot drink. Out there you will experience complete darkness, while watching the sky being on fire. The lights are truly magical to see; they vary in colour from green to purple and sometimes move around the sky like they're dancing.
Bathe Amid the Mountains
When it comes to location, few thermal spas can boast a better position than Aqua Dome, whose incredible modernist baths are tucked between Alpine mountains. A hop across the Austrian border from Memmingen Munich West, the spa hotel's architecture is just as impressive: a feat of steel, glass and stone that brings the mountain scenery inside, and is designed according to the laws of feng shui.
As for its thermal waters, they originate from sulphur spring some 1,865m beneath the earth's surface, feeding a total of 12 baths which range from 34-36C in temperature. They include the Ursprung indoor thermal dome, which is designed in the shape of a glass crystal, to the three Telfrische outdoor bowl pools, which appear to levitate amid the mountains - one even combines light effects with underwater music. Should you tire of the range of Therapeutic baths, there are also seven saunas, an ice grotto, steam rooms and all manner of other relaxing pastimes.
Sky Underneath Starry Skies
The experience of snaking down a ski run with the stars above you isn't one that's easily forgotten. At Slovakia's largest ski resort, Jasná, night skiing is offered on floodlit slopes every evening from 6-9pm.
Two cable cars carry night owls up into the Low Tatras mountains to hit wither the intermediate 750m race slope, No.1 Pretekárska Priehyba-Záhradky, or the easier 990m slope, No.13 Biela Púť.
Warm up afterwards with a hearty dinner of potato dumplings and goats cheese before making the most of some of the best value apres-ski drinking around in the nearby town of Liptovský Mikuláš.
Enter a Fairy Tale on Lake Bled
The winter months are ideal time to make a visit to this famed Slovenian beauty spot, when the lack of crowds allows for a more intimate appreciation of this ethereal atmosphere. Located a short journey northwest from the culture-rich capital Ljubljana, and nestled in the foothills of the Julian Alps, the sapphire-blue Lake Bled surrounds Slovenia's only island.
If the lake hasn't frozen over, take a traditional wooden Pletna boat - rowed by the same families for centuries - across the water to visit the Church of the Assumption, where ringing the bells is said to bring good luck. If you choose to stay on dry land, the area around the lake offers some 15 signposed hiking and biking trails, and it's well worth visiting Bled Castle, precariously sited on the edge of a cliff. Although it's a steep ascent, the view from the top will take your breath away.