The seven wonders of winter
The northern lights can be seen across a great sweep of polar regions, including Alaska. (AP Photo/Bob Martinson)
As temperatures plummet, be inspired to enjoy the northern hemisphere’s greatest travel experiences.
1. The northern lights of Canada
It's the middle of night, in the middle of nowhere. It's so dark that you can hold your hand three inches from your face and not see it. The silence is so complete that the low thud of snow falling from a nearby tree makes you jump. Your eyelashes are close to frozen and it's a struggle to separate them when you blink. And yet you'd happily sit there all night, for many nights to come, for the chance to see nature's most mysterious sight: the northern lights.
With little light pollution, optimum weather conditions (very cold, with plenty of clear nights) and its position directly beneath the prime-viewing zone of the auroral oval, Churchill in Canada is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights. The Arctic tundra and boreal forest surrounding the town see over 300 nights of auroral activity each year. Displays might last hours, or be gone in a minute. Flashing neon pink, turquoise and green, the lights swirl across the sky in myriad imagined shapes (is that a walrus, a witch, a whale?) before whipping back on themselves and disappearing. In the presence of such a spectacle, it's easy to believe local Inuit myth that the aurora borealis are signals from the afterlife, particularly if you hear the sky crackle and swoosh as some claim. What is in no doubt during those moments when the lights whirl above your head is that you're part of the greatest show on earth.
Make it happen
January to April is the best time to see the northern lights; February often sees the highest incidence of clear nights in Churchill.
One of the most pleasurable ways to get to remote Churchill is on the overnight train from Winnipeg (from £250; viarail.ca); Air Canada flies from Heathrow to Winnipeg via Toronto (from £600; aircanada.com).
The Tundra Inn has viewing cabins three miles outside of Churchill. Their Aurora Domes have see-through roofs so you can lounge in comfort and warmth as the lights (hopefully) dance above you (£65 for four to five hours, including hotel pick-up). Rooms at the hotel cost from £145 (tundrainn.com).
The self-proclaimed 'Starman' runs five-day courses on the northern lights and northern astronomy from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (from £600; churchillscience.ca). Frontiers North runs week-long tours, starting in Winnipeg, with a focus on witnessing the lights (from £2,000; frontiersnorth.com).
Churchill is also the polar bear capital of the world. Lazy Bear Lodge runs three-day bear-watching tours (from £1,600, including accommodation; lazybearlodge.com).
Closer to home, Arctic Europe offers the best chance to witness the lights. The further north you travel, and the further away from towns, the better the odds. Discover the World runs aurora-watching holidays in Sweden, Iceland, Norway and Finland (from £320 for a three-day self-drive trip in Iceland; discover-the-world.co.uk).
2. Icebound St Petersburg
January in St Petersburg. The city's residents, long used to the cold, don fur hats and heavy coats to stand in line. Nowadays, they wait not for bread, but for art: frozen art. Every winter, sculptors transform blocks of ice into elaborate models of people, animals and objects. It's a tradition that dates back to 1740, when an entire ice palace was constructed to celebrate the birthday of the Empress Anna. Set against a backdrop of golden domes sparkling in the light of the low sun, the exhibit embodies the magic of St Petersburg in winter.
Locals bypass the city's bridges, slithering over the ice-covered rivers and canals to make their way across town. The Neva River is frozen solid, except for one large hole in front of the Peter Paul Fortress. This is the plunge pool for the Walrus Club, a group of swimmers who exhort the health benefits of a daily dip. When the cold finally seeps in, Petersburgers warm up with a vodka, served in an ice glass, from the ice bar. 'At least we can do something with all this ice other than slipping and falling on it!' observes one happy patron.
Make it happen
British Airways flies to St Petersburg from London Heathrow (from £266; britishairways.com).