Winning tip: Dickens in Deventer, the Netherlands
The historic city of Deventer, a 1hr 20min train ride from Amsterdam, holds a two-day Dickens Festival every December (weekend of 14-15 this year, free entry, though be prepared to queue). Nearly 1,000 costumed Dickens characters, from gentry to urchins, play their parts with real enthusiasm in the spruce-tree decked streets. You might bump into Bob Cratchit, say hello to Miss Havisham or share a stuffed potato or bag of roasted chestnuts with Scrooge. The picturesque Bergkwartier with its pretty shops twinkles with lights. Orchestras and choirs fill the churches with seasonal music, in addition to the outdoor carol singers.
Wine bar with a sauna, Copenhagen
A little-known gem amid Copenhagen’s many harbours and waterways is on the outskirts east of the Christiania free state. La Banchina is a cosy natural wine bar, with a small but tasty evening menu specialising in seafood. The cafe faces west, with superb sunset views over water. The pièce de résistance is the garden with crackling bonfires and a sauna, which for only 50 krone (£5.70) can be used throughout the day and into the evening. Bring shorts and brave the icy Danish water by diving off one of the jetties before retreating to the sanctuary of the sauna. Reinvigorated, grab a wine or coffee after in the cafe.
We stayed in a little house in the woods in Äkäslompolo in Finnish Lapland, where there are lots of relatively cheap rental options with private saunas (cottages for two from about €400 for three nights at yllaslogcabins.com, for example). There were snowshoeing, winter biking and crosscountry skiing trails from our doorstep, with all equipment available to rent in the village (on a beautiful snow-covered lake) along with several restaurants. The trails led to magical cafes, often adorned with puppets, and there were trail-side fire pits where you could barbecue sausages and the like. We saw reindeer daily, and the northern lights. To get to Äkäslompolo, take the sleeper train to Ylläs from Helsinki, then a bus .
Snow holes in the Cairngorms
Deciding where to go for a winter trip with my son, I judged snow and reindeer were still the way forward, even though he’s way past Santa-loving age. So we headed up to Cairngorm for a three-day snow hole expedition led by Scot Mountain Holidays (£460 including all meals and transfers from Aviemore or Inverness) where we spent one of the nights in a communal snow hole we’d dug. Wrapped up in sleeping bags and taking a wee dram, we reflected on just how unbelievably cosy a room made of snow could be. While there, we were told that reindeers had been reintroduced to Scotland 60 years ago and now about 150 totter around nearby, so we took a 90-minute trip up into the dramatic hills run by Cairngorm Reindeer to see them: daily hill trips leave at 11am (£16/£10) but only once the herd has been found!
Brilliant bar-restaurant, Bruges
Bruges may seem too obvious, but it’s small, easily walkable and its food and drink are perfect for cold weather – the obvious hot chips and waffles, but also delicious waterzooi – a creamy chicken (sometimes fish) stew. Most of the restaurants and a lot of the bars have roaring fires in the cold weather and there is nothing finer than spending an afternoon working your way through an impressive beer menu while you toast yourself. Our favourite bar is ‘t Zwart Huis, in a tall merchant’s house built in 1482 which has a beautiful interior with wood sculptures and wonderful medieval windows. It’s just so cosy and atmospheric you never want to leave – and there’s often top- quality live music, too.
Walking in Andalucía
Winter is brilliant for long walks between whitewashed Andalucían villages, hidden from the world, through fields of chestnut trees and across crystal-clear streams, surrounded by the mysterious hills of the Alto Genal. Parauta is a delightful small town in Málaga province. There might be a dusting of snow on the ground, more snow on the peaks of the nearby Sierra de las Nieves, maybe the sighting of a vulture above. Night skies are so clear you’ll wish you’d packed Prof Brian Cox in your case. Relax in front of an open log fire at Casas de Parauta, and in the morning have a coffee on your patio before doing it all again.
• Two nights in cottage sleeping two from about €110, casasdeparauta.com
Coastal strolls, Norfolk
We’ve spent several weekends in Brancaster Staithe, at the beautiful White Horse Inn right on the coastal path, so perfect for long walks with your pooch, who is allowed in the bar, and catered for in the garden rooms that overlook waterways wending their way out to sea. Dalegate Market in Burnham Deepdale, a short walk away, has lots of independent retailers, and runs special events throughout the year, as does the White Horse, specifically mussel and oyster festivals. A visit to nearby Holkham beach is a must, so wrap up warm, then grab a much-deserved hot chocolate afterwards.
• Doubles from £120 B&B, whitehorsebrancaster.co.uk
Brilliant cafe, Scottish Borders
The welcoming, high-end patisserie, Cocoa Black, serves great coffee and hot chocolate and is a huge reward for a winter walk in and around Peebles. It’s run by Ruth Hinks, who has made the top five of the World Chocolate Masters competition and who teaches chocolate and pastry skills at the site. The town is a well worth a visit at any time of year but the shorter days of winter encourage bracing, atmospheric walks by the mighty Tweed, which runs though the town and in the easily manageable surrounding hills (which offer plenty of bang for your buck in terms of views).
Traditional feast, Vilnius
The Lithuania capital is a magical winter destination. Last year our family enjoyed tobogganing with locals down the city’s Tauras Hill; walking through Bernardine Gardens; admiring bare trees dressed in frosty filigree, with views of Gediminas Castle and the surrounding hills; and sampling the hearty local cuisine. Ertlio Namas’s six-course taster menu from down the centuries was particularly memorable, including a 15th-century dish of duck with gingerbread, celery porridge and dried apple sauce, and 18th-century quince sweets with poppies and cranberries. The bright building and cosy dining rooms were lovely too. We followed this with a 30-minute train trip to the historic town of Trakai to explore its hauntingly beautiful island castle and skate on the lake. And, possibly our favourite, a hot-air balloon ride, looking down on Vilnius’s snow-covered roofs and spires.
Snow biking, Austria
We decided to try snow biking as an alternative to skiing after suffering a few aches and pains on previous ski trips. The shock absorption in the bike means you glide more easily over the bumps and it’s a lot less strenuous. The delightful Austrian village of Obertauern, in the Salzkammergut, was our base. I must admit being rather hesitant, but it proved to be an exhilarating experience and incredibly easy to master. We went on a couple of taster sessions and even a midnight guided tour. It’s a great alternative to skiing for those of us less agile and something our kids loved too. We learned with the SchiSchule Kokh whose taster two-hour sessions are €79pp.
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