Offbeat winter destinations: Explore lesser-known snowy paradises

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Who says winter has to be gray and gloomy? Winter has a beautiful side to it that is often overlooked due to runny noses and blocked ears! From witnessing the Northern Lights in Lapland to taking a boat tour in Ilulissat, where nights last for longer than 24 hours, this blog breaks away from the crowded ski resorts and brings to you hidden gems from across the globe.

Shirakawa-go, Japan

Japan, a winter destination? No way! I get why you’d think that. I used to think the same until social media showed me photos of Shirakawa-go in Japan, a true winter wonderland! Shirakawa-go, a former remote region in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture, is a World Cultural Heritage Site today, known for its traditional farmhouses called gassho-zukuri. Due to the heavy snowfall this region receives every year, the farmhouses have steep thatched roofs designed to withstand the heavy snowfall.

Why should I visit? When the snow falls, Shirakawa-go magically transports you to a fairy-tale setting with all lit-up huts in Ogimachi village (the largest village in Shirakawa-go), at night. In fact, the village organizes special illumination events on select weekends. Check out the schedule here.

Things to do: Plan your visit around the illumination event to explore the beautifully lit-up huts, go snowshoeing through the village, and indulge in some delicious local winter delicacies such as hot pots and sake.

Insider tips: Dress warmly and wear sturdy, waterproof boots.

Jibhi, India

Tucked away in Banjar Valley of Himachal Pradesh, on the banks of Tirthan river is Jibhi, a quaint hamlet with stunning snow-covered landscapes and pristine surroundings. Homes in Jibhi are constructed in the ancient Himalayan way where primary materials are wood and stone (earthquake-proof), with Apple orchards and Galgal trees adorning every backyard.

Why should I visit? Since winter weather in Jibhi is very cold, with unpredictable snowfalls, it is not for everyone! However, if snow, lesser crowds, and inexpensive accommodation reads like a good deal to you, head to Jibhi for a much-deserved winter vacation.

Things to do: Trekking, hiking, skiing, and snowboarding are fun experiences if you’re into adventure. For those who aren’t, Jibhi is a great location for trout fishing but you do require a fair amount of patience and skill to catch rainbow trout.

Insider tips: Fly-fishing at Jibhi requires a license which can be obtained from local authorities for a certain amount. Most homestay owners arrange for the license and fishing equipment for their guests. This apart, definitely indulge in some authentic Himachali dishes, especially trout fish, siddu (a bun with fillings), and kulluvi dham (traditional Himachali festive dish, similar to a vegetarian thali).

Lapland, Finland

Ho! Ho! Ho! This winter wonderland is Santa Claus’s home and if that’s where you are headed this winter, be assured of a magical experience. Picture this: frost-covered trees, festive lighting, and a ton of snow to play in. It’s the perfect Christmas postcard, isn’t it? Oh, I did forget to mention the disproportionate number of reindeer that are here (more than people, even). It is no wonder that Santa Claus decided to set up shop in Lapland.

Why should I visit? The inspirations to be here are many and here are a few - To watch the Northern Lights, to experience a real Arctic adventure by going on a sledding safari (with reindeer or huskies) or buzz through the forest on a snowmobile, and experience the traditional Finnish culture of sauna, sitting in a little hut heated by a wood-burning stove with temperatures in the range of 80-110℃ (176-230℉).

Things to do: If you’re an adventure junkie, hop onto a snowmobile and zip through the forest, on frozen lakes. If being up in Lapland fires up your Christmas festive spirits, head to the Santa Claus village (open all year-round) and meet Santa himself, Mrs. Claus, Rudolf, and the gift-making elves. If you’re looking to just “chill”, I’d suggest a visit/stay at the Arctic SnowHotel & Glass Igloos (which is rebuilt every year).

Insider tips: Saw the Northern Lights? Click pictures for proof and memories! It’s easy to forget to click photos when experiencing one of nature’s many magic tricks! When you visit the Santa Claus village, remember to post a postcard to a loved one from the Arctic Circle.

Hallstatt, Austria

Nestled in the lap of the Austrian Alps is the charming village of Hallstatt which is truly a winter wonderland. Pastel-colored homes overlooking picturesque lakes set against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains, Hallstatt is another postcard-perfect winter destination on my list!

Why should I visit? Winters in Hallstatt are cold, cold! But it’s especially a great time to visit if you’re an adventure junkie and/or a Christmas enthusiast.

Things to do: In addition to the obvious winter activities like ice skating, skiing, and snowshoeing, Hallstatt has a bunch of must-visit attractions such as the Hallstatt Salt Mine, one of the oldest salt mines in the world. Visit the Bone House at St Michael’s Church which contains an eerie collection of around 1200 human skulls. And lastly, get the ‘postcard’ shot. Here’s the link to what the shot looks like.

Insider tips: Carry cash on you because some cafes don’t accept cards. Visit the local Christmas market to shop for traditional handicrafts and indulge in festive treats like mulled wine, bratwurst sausages, and spicy smoked fish from Lake Hallstatt.

Jökulsárlón, Iceland

In Icelandic, Jökulsárlón means “glacial river lagoon”. One of the deepest lakes in Iceland with a depth of 260 meters, the lagoon of Jökulsárlón is filled with massive black/blue icebergs dancing on the water. For a country that receives snowfall for 8 months a year, activities and landmark attractions in Iceland are fully functional even during the winters (temperatures range between 1- -3℃).

Why should I visit? Yes, the winters in Jökulsárlón are cold but that being said, some of the magical experiences are only found in winter: the breathtaking spectacle of massive floating chunks of icebergs, spotting seals lounging on the icebergs (protective measures against predators), and to witness the reflection of the dancing sky (Northern Lights) on Jökulsárlón’s iceberg-covered water.

Things to do: Jökulsárlón promises photo ops galore so make the most of it. From icebergs of various colors and sizes and unique ice caves in shades of blue and black to the Northern Lights (no description does justice) and black volcanic beach covered in glistening, translucent blocks of ice. If you’re a wildlife enthusiast, look out for seals, big seagulls, and the occasional Eider duck.

Insider tips: Winter weather in Jökulsárlón can be unpredictable. So prepare yourself for possible road closures and limited access to areas. If you’re very serious about capturing the best photos at the right spots, consider hiring a local photographer or opting for a guided tour. I highly recommend getting local insights on any trip! It’s the best way to find hidden gems at any place.

Ilulissat, Greenland

Situated along the west coast of Greenland is Ilulissat, a picturesque town surrounded by massive icebergs and the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ilulissat Icefjord. Ilulissat is above the Arctic Circle, which means it experiences polar nights during the winter. Polar nights means that the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon at all! And at Ilulissat, this lasts almost two months.

Why should I visit? Though Ilulissat’s winter weather isn’t conducive for most people (temperatures range between -12 - -18℃), winter is a great season to visit because there are less tourists, mosquitoes, and tiny critters. The frozen sea also creates a stunning landscape, aiding activities such as boating and sledding.

Things to do: Yet another promising destination for photo ops galore, Ilulissat has some of the most stunning landscapes in the world. To discover these, I suggest you take a boat tour or multiple boat tours throughout your stay. Another must-do is to go dog sledding, which is not just a form of transport but also a journey through Greenland’s deep-rooted history. If you’re feeling adventurous, hire a snowmobile or go hiking to the old settlement location of Sermermiut, an area that dates back to 4500 years ago and offers an incredible view over the mouth of Icefjord.

Insider tips: Every time you step out, wear a balaclava over your face to protect it from frostbite. Pack and wear wool. If you can, invest in woolen insoles (with an insulation foil at the bottom) to shield your feet from the cold ground. In addition to the insoles, wear a plastic bag over your feet that’ll trap your sweat and keep your feet warm – a thin layer of socks, a plastic bag, and thick woolen socks will keep your feet toasty!