Christmas Breaks in Europe

Ski in Style Gstaad, Switzerland
For the holidaymaker looking for discretion, nothing quite beats dining in a vault once used to stash Swiss wealth during the Second World War.  And that’s exactly what guests can do at the splendid Gstaad Palace, nestled in the Alps, just a short drive from the country’s capital city, Bern.

Perched on the side of a hill above the village of Gstaad, the grand hotel belonging to the Scherz family celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.  The building is steep in tradition, although one of the more recent additions to the hotel is the large spa complex, with a steam bath flotation pool.  Guest are encouraged to relax in robes in a warmly lit room, while looking out across the heated outdoor plunge pool to the slopes, where skiers and snowboards can enjoy 250km of pristine pistes.

And if you want to squeeze in some last minute Christmas shopping, visit the designer stores clustered in the centre of Gstaad.

See the Northern Lights on Lake Myvatn, Iceland
When it comes to fairy tales, there are few sugar-coated stories in Iceland.  According to Norse folklore, if a child misbehaves before Christmas, they risk being thrown into an evil troll’s cooking pot and served up for dinner.

Fortunately, the only trolls to be found into northern Lake Myvan region are cragy volcanic rock formations said to be the mythical creatures frozen in time.  They provide the perfect sitting to view the Northern Lights, which apparently appear here more frequently than any other part of Iceland.  Stay at the hotel Reynihlid, overlooking the lake, and you may even view them from the warmth of your own room.  Alternatively, relax in a hot tube surrounded by crater rims and lava fields, at the nearby Myvatn naturebaths – a far less touristy equivalent of the south’s famous Blue Lagoon.

But, according to local guide Siggi, the best sport is Dimmuborgir – endearingly referred to as the trolls’ home thanks to its jagged landscape. Lie on the ground, he advises, and look up at dancing lights, shooting stars or even a setting moom.

Spitsbergen, Arctic Circle
Syvalbard has already earned a reputation for being an adventurous summer destination, with opportunities to cruise through the archipelago and look for polar bears.  But during winter months, the Norwegian islands, 800 miles from the North Pole, present an even more attractive wilderness.
A former mining settlement, Longyearbyen, in the main island Spitsbergen, provides a base for visitors, with a couple of smart hotels, art galleries and even a small Champagne cellar.

Just outside town, Bolterdalen is a husky yard with more than 90 dogs, who can take tourists an exhilarating tour through snow-laden valleys.  Or step up a gear by switching to a motorised form of transport, with a snowmobile safari in the Arctic desert, ploughing through virgin snow, against a backdrop of soaring mountains.

Another advantage of the winter months is the opportunity to go ice caving beneath glaciers, exploring melt-water channels where ice crystals sparkle like diamonds.

The sun rises again in mid-February, but many locals describe the polar nights here as their favourite time of year.

Christmas markets, Vienna, Austria
Drinking gallons of mulled wine is permissible in the run-up to Christmas, but if you want to experiment with concoctions beyond red wine and cinnamon spend a weekend visiting some of Vienna’s excellent Christmas markets.

Welcoming huts have been erected in the city’s cultural epicentre, the Museumsquartier, serving drinks ranging from mango punch, to white mulled wine and even an alcohol-free kinder punch for children.

Stay at the quirky and vibrant 25hours hotel in the trendy Neubaugasse district, where rooms are decorated with murals of circus performers and a swing provides amusement in a communal lounge.  A constant stream of hip visitors to the hotel’s 1500 restaurant gives the space an upbeat feel, while at night revellers queue to hear DJs play in the rooftop bar.