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).
You'll need to organise your visa before you go (£50; ru.vfsglobal.co.uk).
The delightful Nevsky Prospect b&b is located right in the heart of the city; its five rooms have stoves and antique furnishings and the owners are incredibly helpful (from £63, shared bathroom; bnbrussia.com).
3. Sweden's reindeer migration
One of the world's greatest migrations takes place each year just over a thousand miles north of Britain. As snow thickens on every surface, lakes freeze over and the temperature drops below -25˚C, tens of thousands of reindeer make their way across northern Sweden. Descending from summer pastures in the mountains to the west, the herds travel east to spend the long winter foraging in the forests.
Accompanying them on a journey that can take ten days or more are their seminomadic Sami owners. While herding methods may have modernised over the centuries (snowmobiles - and even helicopters - have replaced snowshoes), reindeer husbandry is still a cornerstone of their culture. To fall in with the Sami and their herds is to be part of a heritage that stretches back millennia - one of days dictated by the pace of the reindeers' steady trot, and of nights sharing stories round the fire under a chill, star-filled sky.
Make it happen
Kiruna is a fine base from which to make forays into the Arctic wilderness. Fly there direct from Heathrow with SAS (from £100; flysas.com) or fly from Stockholm Arlanda (BA and SAS fly to Arlanda from Heathrow; SAS flies from Manchester; and Norwegian flies from Gatwick) to Gällivare with Next Jet (from £100; nextjet.se) or to Kiruna with Norwegian (from £100; norwegian.com). l
Nature Travels offers six-day reindeersled trips, staying the night in traditional tents and cabins and led by experienced Sami herders (£1,588, excluding flights; naturetravels.co.uk); Discover the World offers three-night hotel-based trips in Lapland, with daily excursions to learn about the Sami way of life and their reindeers (from £779, including flights; discover-the-world.co.uk).
4. Italy's sunken bell tower
Head to Italy's South Tyrol this winter and you're likely to come across one of Europe's most bizarre sights - an apparently amputated church spire poking out from the frozen waters of Lago di Resia. The 14th-century bell tower, pointing like an arrow to the blustery skies above, is a forlorn monument to an entire village drowned beneath the waters of an artificial lake created as part of a hydroelectricity project in the 1950s. Locals will tell you that the tolling of its church bell can still be heard on a cold night - even though the bell was removed when the valley was flooded. Tall tales may have sprung up around it, but the church and the lake are very much part of local life, particularly in winter. Snowkiters twirl across the ice, leaping high into the air as their kites catch a gust of wind, keeping an eye out for ice-skaters gliding around the lake's perimeter. Families slip and slide their way to the base of the tower, eager to slap their gloved hands on a piece of history that's out of reach most of the year.
Make it happen
The nearest airport is over the border in Innsbruck, Austria. EasyJet flies from Bristol, Gatwick and Manchester (from £50; easyjet.com) while BA flies from Gatwick (winter only; from £120; britishairways. com). The major car rental companies are represented at the airport (around £60 per day; innsbruck-airport.com).
Stay on a mountain farm a few miles from Graun. The Strohhaus has wonderfully warm, wood-clad apartments sleeping from two to six people; sleds are also provided (from £70 for two; fliri.net).
5. Yellowstone's boiling waters
There are few places as beguiling as Yellowstone National Park. It is a landscape created by grinding glaciers and volcanic eruptions, a place of fire and brimstone where the very earth breathes, belches and bubbles like a giant kettle on the boil. Here, in a land roamed by moose, bears and wolves, geysers and hot springs seethe and simmer and finally blow, capturing the imagination as they have done since the park's inception in 1872. It is America made wild and primaeval.
As the temperature drops and the snow piles high, the park takes on a special drama and grace. The tourist crowds thin, replaced by cross-country skiers silently swooshing along marked trails. Shaggy-coated bison pick their way through the deep snow to warm themselves in geyser basins, waiting for a waft of hot stream from shimmering thermal pools. They retreat a few paces as a hot spring suddenly erupts, sending an arc of boiling water high into the frigid air.
A little way off the main geyser trail and into the forest, the sense of quiet and isolation deepens. The only sound is the plink-plink of a frozen waterfall as it slowly melts onto the dark rocks below. A line of paw prints leads from the waterfall and disappears into the trees, their branches heavy under the weight of freshly fallen snow. A wolf or coyote, perhaps? Unnerved, you retreat to a fireside armchair at your lodge, lost in thoughts of the wild land beyond the frosted windowpane.
Make it happen
There are no direct flights to Jackson Hole airport, just over 50 miles from Yellowstone. American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta and United Airlines fly from London via various US cities, from £500.
Car rental companies operate from the airport, with daily prices starting at around £35 per day (jacksonholeairport.com).
Many hotels close for the winter months. The closest hotel to the geyser area that remains open is the Old Faithful Snow Lodge. It's decorated in pioneer style with elk and bear motifs; there's a restaurant on-site and the hotel can also arrange tours into the park (from £45; yellowstone nationalparklodges.com).
6. Korea's ice festivals
For much of the year, the sancheoneo - a species of trout - leads a blameless life in the rivers around Hwacheon, a town that lies in the mountains northeast of Seoul. When the cold, dry Korean winter arrives, the rivers freeze over and the sancheoneo disappear under 40cm of ice. And then the trouble starts.
Every January, the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival brings a sudden energy to this quiet corner of the country. Hundreds of thousands of thickly clad visitors swarm over every frozen surface to try their hand at ice-fishing. Barbecues come as naturally to Koreans as baguettes to the French, and the smell of charcoal fires wafts along the banks, ready for the latest catch. For a few visitors, dropping a line through a hole in the ice to catch their fish is just not enough of an experience. Dressed in T-shirts and shorts, they plunge into a pool of nearfreezing water and learn just what slippery customers trout can be.
Make it happen
Fly to Seoul from Heathrow with Korean Air and Asiana (from £750 return). A new train line should be complete in December 2010 between Seoul and Chuncheon - the nearest city to Hwacheon (korail.com). Otherwise take the bus to Chuncheon and change for another bus to Hwacheon (£8; see narafestival.com for details).
Chuncheon is handy for staying nearby. Most hotels do not have English websites, but there is a listing at en.gangwon.to. Sejong Hotel and IMT Hotel are good choices. In Seoul, the enchanting Tea Guesthouse gives you a rare chance to stay in a hanok - a traditional-style Korean house (£55; teaguesthouse.com).
7. Snowbound London
Ten o'clock on a Monday morning in central London. No buses steam down Piccadilly, belching passengers at every stop. There are no crowds jostling for space on the pavements of Oxford Street and the doors of its department stores remain locked. The tubes stand empty in their tunnels, planes are grounded at Heathrow. The few people who've made it into work in the City turn back when they find their offices closed. This is not the scene from an apocalyptic Day of the Triffids-style film, but the reality of life in the capital on the rare occasion it lies under a thick blanket of snow. The streets empty and all activity migrates to the parks. On Hampstead Heath, a running club has given up shuffling through the snow and is rolling a giant snowball down to the banks of the pond. In Richmond Park, the resident deer paw at the frozen earth, looking for twigs and shrubs. Far to the east in Greenwich, a borough's worth of schoolchildren celebrate their unexpected day off by tobogganing down from the Royal Observatory, the distant skyscrapers of Canary Wharf barely visible through the grey murk. Back in the centre, snow falls steadily on a deserted London, bestowing on anyone who ventures onto its streets the unimaginable magic of having a city all to themselves.
Make it happen
For train services to London from all over the UK, see thetrainline.com; for bus services, see nationalexpress.com. Expensive parking, gridlocked traffic and the congestion make driving in London an activity only for the foolhardy.
In Greenwich, stay at Number 16, a small guesthouse close to the Thames (from £75; st-alfeges.co.uk); in Hampstead, try eclectic and cluttered Hampstead Village Guesthouse (from £80; hampsteadguest house.com); and in Richmond, the Richmond Gate Hotel, on the hill with views of the river below, is a good option (from £126; akkeronhotels.com).
Written by Mara Vorhees, Bradley Mayhe W, Amanda Canning and Rory Goulding.
The article 'The seven wonders of winter' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.