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5 Affordable, Unlikely Destinations for the Winter: Montreal, Provincetown, Iceland, Portland and America’s National Parks

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Winter funConsidering that most of North America has been enveloped in perma-frost lately you’d think most winter vacations should involve beaches, sun and outdoor activities.

But contrarian travelers know better.

Forget the Caribbean, Florida and Hawaii in the winter; instead, think of destinations like Iceland, Provincetown or Montréal!

Trust us—even if you go in February you’ll still have fun, avoid the crowds and find great deals … just plan to hit the tanning booth instead of the beach.

MONTREAL

Despite February temperatures that range from 8 to 22 degrees Fahrenheit, Montréal is a first-rate winter vacation spot. That’s due in no small part to Quebec’s efforts to portray the province as a top winter destination—which is apparently working, because the city is hopping even when it’s freezing.

Old MontrealMontréal’s European fairytale quality comes alive in the winter months. The cobblestone streets, French street signs and Old World architecture can make you feel like you’re in Paris or Marseille, without having to pay the price of a trans-Atlantic airline ticket. Don’t worry, practically everyone is bilingual so you won’t have to worry about a language barrier.

Urban types will find no shortage of places to hang out—the city has an excellent selection of gourmet restaurants, casinos, boutique hotels, museums, theaters and street markets. Highlights include the Museum of Contemporary Art and a number of public markets that sell over 600 types of cheese alone.

The underground pedestrian network (they don’t like to call it the “underground city” anymore) encompasses 21 miles of passageways and links various landmarks such as the center for performing arts, the university, shopping malls, and various hotels. So if you’re averse to cold, just book a room in a hotel linked to the network, and you won’t even notice that it’s winter—you can literally get around without a coat or hat.

Ski runThose who want to indulge in more traditional winter outdoor activities will be pleased to learn that you can find skiing, tobogganing, snowshoeing and more within 10 minutes from the downtown area. Mont Royal Park, which was designed by Frederick Olmstead (the man behind New York’s Central Park), has cross-country trails, an ice-skating rink, and even horse-drawn sleigh rides.

Winter is also festival season in Montréal. The centerpiece is the two-week long Montréal Highlights festival, which starts February 21, a huge extravaganza that over one million people attend annually. It spotlights the city’s culture, food and wine and offers hundreds of dance and theater performances, a light festival and an ice slide, among other things. And on the night of February 28, more than 165 venues stay open all night!

Other festivals include the Fete des Neiges (Snow Fest), which takes place over several weekends in January and February, the International Festival of Film and Art in late March, and the musically oriented Igloo Festival which happens during three weekends in February.

To entice visitors, Tourisme Montréal is offering a winter “Sweet Deal” promotion, where you pay as little as $110 for the first night and get the second night of your stay for half price at any of 25 participating hotels. And don’t forget that Canada is at least 25 percent less expensive for Americans than it was last year due to recent currency fluctuations.

Link: Tourisme Montreal

PROVINCETOWN

ProvincetownThis famous summer escape spot on the tip of Cape Cod may slow down in winter, but it doesn’t go into hibernation entirely. During the off-season the more crassly commercial venues close up, allowing the real bohemian flavor of Provincetown to come through.

Art, music and theater are what bring most people to “P-town” in winter. The Provincetown Art Association and Museum is a popular stop on the P-town art trail, and they just added an entire new wing made of glass and brick, which opens to the street and displays a revolving selection of sculpture, painting and photography.

The Provincetown Theater offers not only full-production shows during winter, but they also have a winter “reading series” that takes place every Tuesday at 7 p.m. These informal script-in-hand play readings are sometimes classics, but more often than not are experimental works by up-and-coming playwrights eager to try out new material. Don’t miss the discussion period afterward.

Movie buffs will appreciate the free movie nights at Cape Inn, or the silent films offered every Thursday at WOMR-radio’s Schoolhouse Gallery. If reading’s your thing, why not just sit and have a good read in the town library? Formerly a Methodist Church, then an art museum, the building houses the world’s largest indoor model boat.

The beach even has its own unique charm in winter … and it’s free! The crisp but weak winter sunlight gives the shoreline a melancholy character, and the wind-whipped dunes and craggy piles of driftwood are starkly beautiful in their own way. Favorite spots include the crashing waves of Race Point, or the more protected Herring Cove Beach.

Those who want a more lively, raucous atmosphere should head over to open mike night at The Muse. Every Monday local talent hits the stage to try out new music and comedy acts. Or, check out the one-day winter jazz festival on March 14.

Winter accommodation will cost you less than half what it does in high season, and even more than that if you stay mid-week. Many hotels offer packages that bundle in massages, champagne and cheese, along with flowers and free breakfast.

Don’t forget that what’s true for Provincetown is also true for beach towns up and down the East Coast, from Kennebunkport, Maine to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Links: Provincetown Tourism Office, Provincetown Chamber of Commerce

ICELAND

Reykjavik IcelandOnly a five-hour flight from the east coast of the United States, this land of fire, ice and cosmopolitan culture is fun year-round. Yes, the temperature hovers below freezing during winter and most of the country is covered in ice—but hey, they don’t call it Iceland for nothing!

During the limited daylight hours minibus excursions can take you past ice sheets and mountain ranges to see stunning waterfalls and glaciers, or you can go trekking, skiing, sledding or even SCUBA diving. And don’t pass up the chance to take a ride on one of the country’s sturdy, shaggy Icelandic horses—just don’t call them ponies.

Or you could just stay in Reykjavik and spend endless nights bar-hopping with the locals until the sun comes up. With the newly favorable exchange rate it won’t cost you an arm and a leg like it used to. There is also a lively cultural scene to take in when you are tired of partying, which includes historical museums, modern art galleries, street markets, and live theater.

Ice Hiking in IcelandAnd the best part is that with Iceland being in an active geothermal zone, there are abundant opportunities to soak in naturally boiling hot mineral pools. From the legendary Blue Lagoon near Keflavik Airport to the “hot pots” dotted throughout every town, there is nothing more pleasantly paradoxical than sitting up to your neck in a cauldron of 103-degree water while snow falls all around you. These pools serve the same function as pubs do in London, so you’ll have the added bonus of making a friend while you prune up.

Iceland has been trying mightily to entice visitors since last summer’s financial meltdown, because more hard currency helps buoy their economy. They are really laying out the welcome mat with deals like Icelandair’s “Winter Wellness Getaway” package which includes airfare AND a three-night hotel stay from only $669 per person. (Book it by February 28, 2009 or you’ll miss out!)

Links: Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Reykjavik, Iceland, Iceland Tourist Board

PORTLAND, OREGON

Portland is justifiably popular year-round, but from January to late May Portland becomes a place for Oregonians. Without the summer crowds, you can more easily indulge your culinary desires, hear great music, challenge your brain in a world-class museum or explore the craggy coastline in the eco-conscious manner that Portlanders do.

Portland’s Lotus bar signMany of Portland’s attractions are located in and around the city center, which is compact enough that you don’t need a car. You can either take advantage of the mass transit system which encompasses streetcars, light rail, trains and buses—all of which are free in the downtown “Fareless Square” area—or make like a true Portlander and travel by bike.

True, winter can be a little gray and rainy, but even so don’t miss such highlights as the Portland Saturday Market (open Sundays too) which has the distinction of being the nation’s largest open-air crafts market. It’s covered, which makes it easy to escape the elements and peruse the huge array of locally-produced handmade art and artifacts.

If you really can’t stand the rain, check out one of Portland’s 150 museums and galleries. The Wells Fargo History Museum is a favorite of Old West buffs, and the 3-D Center of Art and Photography is a treat for more creative types. Or just hang out for a few hours at Powell’s Book Store, take a tour of a microbrewery, or stake out a seat in one of the numerous coffee shops and do some people-watching.

There are numerous winter festivals in Portland, such as the International Film Festival which runs from February 5-22, the Blue Note Jazz Festival from February 13-22, and even the kooky Urban Iditarod—a mock sled race that takes place on March 14 and involves teams of people pulling shopping carts through the “unrelenting and unforgiving dangers of Portland’s urban frontier.”

Oregon’s Mount HoodOn days when the weather is a little nicer, head to Mt. Hood—about an hour-and-a-half drive— for some skiing or snowboarding, or take a hike through Forest Park, which at over 5,000 acres is the largest urban forest park in the country.

If you want to venture a little further afield, take a drive out to the Oregon coast. In Tillamook spend a few hours sampling the goods at the Cheese Visitor Center, then explore the shore around Cape Mears and do some beachcombing before having a meal of Dungeness crab and wild salmon. On the way back to Portland take a drive through the Highway 99 wine country and make a few stops to sample some of Oregon’s famous vintages.

Links: Travel Portland, Fareless Square

AMERICA’S NATIONAL PARKS

Though many national parks close down winter and others cut back their services, some come alive with cold-weather activities geared toward the hardy and adventurous. Instead of summer pastimes such as hiking, biking and swimming, your winter choices range from skiing to ice fishing to wildlife-watching.

For example, Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming offers ranger-led snowshoe hikes, cross-country skiing, and numerous opportunities to photograph snow-capped peaks and free-roaming deer, moose and bison.

At Yellowstone, you can take a snow coach right to the edge of Old Faithful and get a great view due to the lack of crowds. Yellowstone also offers skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling, but make sure you check availability in advance if you plan to stay in the park overnight because only two of the park’s nine lodges are open in winter.

YosemiteIf you’re headed out west, check out Yosemite National Park. It’s beautiful in the warmer months, but becomes even more stunning when covered with a light dusting of snow. And the blistering heat in Death Valley is replaced by cool days and cold nights in winter, so it’s actually safe to go backpacking and explore the dunes and canyons.

Lastly, winter is actually the best time to visit Olympic National Park in Washington, because the rain transforms the Pacific Northwest forest from drab brownness into lush green brilliance.

Since winter can bring frigid temperatures and adverse weather conditions, be smart and plan your trip carefully. Carry a winter safety kit in your vehicle in case of emergency, check with the park ranger regarding road closures, and limit your time outdoors in order to avoid frostbite or hypothermia.

Link: America the Beautiful: Hidden National Parks, Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Yosemite National Park, National Parks Service

By Karen Elowitt for PeterGreenberg.com.

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