By Charlotte Thun-Hohenstein
Reykjavik, Iceland. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Going to the moon for the holidays isn’t possible; going to Iceland is. The country is famous for its breathtaking landscapes, often compared to the moon because of a near total absence of trees (the Vikings used them all up for fuel). Instead, Iceland has volcanoes (active), glaciers, thermal springs, and waterfalls. It’s worth going for the national parks alone (three of them, including the largest in Europe, Vatnajokull).
However, it’s the country’s culture that makes this place a wholly unique holiday destination. Hunker down in the capital for the most extraordinary fireworks display you will ever see. Head to the central Hallgrimskirkja, more reminiscent of a sci-fi cathedral than a Lutheran church, to watch the entire skyline of Reykjavik erupt in lights.
Locals have a practical reason for this tradition as well as holiday spirit: to scare away ‘hidden people’, who emerge on this night of to lure humans to their elvin realm. And yes, more Icelanders believe in the possibility of these ‘Huldufolk’ than a religious deity. History buffs can explore musems from Viking history to Cold War diplomacy; and everyone can enjoy the unearthly blue waters of Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa.
Animal lovers can even book an excursion group on ishestar, Iceland’s small but sturdy breed of horse. And for the cosmically oriented, Iceland is one of the best places in the world to watch the Northern Lights.
Continentals know Malta as a trusted beach and nightlife destination in the summer, but the fair weather during winter months—without peak season crowds or price—makes this island a great get-away option.
In the center of the Mediterranean, exquisite beaches are to be expected, however neighboring island Gozo, ‘the land that time forgot’, also offers beautiful cliff trails as well. Malta has thousands of years of history, dating back to ancient temples—the oldest free-standing buildings known to us. Adventurers can explore this wealth of archeological sites, including the famous Hypogeum, a labyrinthine underground complex. From more recent times, the Grandmaster’s Palace, headquarters for the Knights of Malta since the 16th century, and now the Maltese Parliament, is open to the public. So it’s no surprise that Valletta, Malta’s capital, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and now ‘European Capital of Culture’ for 2018.
Christmas time is particularly special for the Catholic locals, celebrated with carol concerts in the extraordinary Baroque St. John’s Co-Cathedral, as well as the annual pantomime at Manoel Theatre running through the twelve days of Christmas (this year: ‘The Curse of Snow White’).
Sun Valley, Idaho. Photo courtesy of Stephen Marks.
Sun Valley, Idaho
Skiers looking for a more original alternative to Aspen should head to Sun Valley, Idaho’s up-and-coming ski destination. The resort’s three mountains offer world-class slopes, and those more inclined to après-ski activities won’t be disappointed either: ice-skating, horse-drawn sleigh rides, and snowshoe hiking will keep you busy outdoors; within the village you can find performances from jazz bands to stand-up comedy as well as seventeen different types of hot cocoa at the local ‘a la mode’ café.
For those who want a European experience, but don’t want to cross the Atlantic, a road-trip to Quebec, Canada offers the perfect combination of affordability and foreign charm. The city itself is an urban fortress (“the only one north of Mexico!”), and boasts hundreds of years of French history and culture.
Don’t be alarmed by the French greetings, most people do speak English, though it’s best to ask first. (“Pardon, parlez-vous anglais?”). The architectural attractions, including the Cape Diamond Citadel, historic battlefields, and homeland of a ‘First Nations’ American Indian tribe all make this city a UNESCO treasure. And there’s no better way to warm up in the snowy weather than with Quebec’s unique spin on French haute cuisine. A warning: this is not vegetarian friendly food.
Budapest is a must-visit anytime of year, steeped in Mongol, imperial, and Soviet history. Locals point out that the capital of Hungary is technically two separate cities on either side of the Danube—hilly, wooded Buda on one side, and flat Pest on the other. However the holiday season offers a host of seasonal activities, in addition to ice-skating, and sledding in Buda’s hills. Check out the Szechenyi Bath—they look more like a Baroque palace than the largest public baths in Europe, and claim medicinal properties.
Either way, it’s worth braving the snow with the locals to relax in the steaming outdoor thermal pool. Travel around in fairylights on ‘Santa’s tram’ to visit the city’s many wine bars for traditional mulled wine, putting Hungary’s various wine regions to holiday use, or splurge on tickets to the Budapest Opera House, one of the best in the world.