Feature: Winter Wonderlands

Embrace the season at these five European enclaves.

By Terry Ward

We’ve gathered some of the Continent’s most classic winter experiences, from skiing in the French Pyrenees to catching the northern lights in Finland, plus a few more that are off the radar but just as filled with the spirit of the season. So go ahead and dig out your sweaters and scarves—it’s time to cozy up with a mug of glühwein (mulled wine), twirl fondue in an Alpine hut or ride a wooden toboggan down a moonlit path.

The French Pyrenees

For an authentic French ski holiday without the crowds or steep prices of skiing in the Alps, make for the frosted peaks of the Pyrenees in southwest France, near the border with Spain. Here, there are hardly ever lines for the ski lifts or packs of people making their way down the slopes, and the relaxed atmosphere is well suited for families.

One of the largest ski areas in the region, Domaine du Tourmalet, can be reached from the village of La Mongie. Bundled-up skiers ride the town’s cable car (Rue Pierre Lamy de la Chapelle, La Mongie; 011-33-5-62-56-70-00; round-trip tickets, $45*; children 5–12, $27; children 3–5, free) to the observatory at the top of Pic du Midi Bigorre before skiing down. At 9,439 feet high, the area affords some of the best views of the Pyrenees stretching from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Or you can take the Bearnais chairlift just outside La Mongie and pause for lunch on high at L’Etape du Berger (Tourmalet, La Mongie; 011-33-5-62-91-95-44; restaurant-tourmalet.com, site in French; prix fixe three-course lunch, $29; transport, $15). Cowbells hang from the restaurant’s wood rafters, and local farm-raised beef and red wines from Gascony feature on its prix fixe menus.

To explore more ski runs, drive about 30 miles southeast to the quaint town of Saint-Lary-Soulan, whose chairlift grants access to more than 62 miles of slopes. For a change of pace, head west instead to the spa town of Cauterets. Travelers have come here to take the waters for centuries. Slip into the outdoor pool at Les Bains du Rocher (Ave. du Docteur Domer, Cauterets; 011-33-5-62-92-14-20; bains-rocher.fr, site in French; two-hour entries, $22; children 4–14, $11; children under 4, $3.50) to relax while falling snowflakes melt on your nose.

Switzerland

Blanketed in snow, the eastern mountain town of Bergün looks like a fairy tale come to life. Locals use sleds to move everything, from kids to groceries, around the tiny village, adding to its charm. For a few Swiss francs, you can rent an old-fashioned toboggan from Mark Sport (106 Veja Megstra, Bergün; 011-41-81-407-11-65; sled rentals, $8.50 a day). The Rhaetian Railway train (tickets, $10) carries soon-to-be sledders 25 minutes up a winding railway to the Albula Valley. Upon reaching the top, it’s a thrilling four miles downhill on the Preda–Bergün Run, a dedicated sledding course.

A 53-mile drive from Zürich, Toggenburg is one of the largest winter-sport destinations around. After carving up the mountains, you can warm up with Swiss fondue prepared using a secret family recipe at Gamplüt (Wildhaus; 011-41-71-999-28-28; gampluet.ch, site in German; fondue dinner for two, $48; transport, $15.50). A solar-powered cable car carries diners to the mountain hut, where the friendly owner Peter Koller greets them with his Alpine horn.

The village of Vals, south of Toggenburg, draws architecture buffs eager to see the stunning thermal spa designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Peter Zumthor. Built into a mountainside using 60,000 slabs of quartzite from the surrounding peaks, the baths at 7132 Therme (7132 Vals; 011-41-58-713-20-10; day passes, $82; children 16 and under, $54) are best admired as you make your way from one steaming pool to the next.

In Zermatt, you can gaze out at the Matterhorn, which straddles the border between Switzerland and Italy and is one of the most iconic mountains in the Alps. Don’t leave without visiting Igloo Village (Rotenboden, Zermatt; 011-41-41-612-27-28; fondue dinner for two with tour and train fare, $144), built anew from snow each winter and decorated with carvings by international artists. Consider signing up for the late-night fondue experience, which in addition to dinner includes an igloo tour, a welcome glass of mulled wine and round-trip train fare to the village.

Germany

Nobody does street parties like the Germans, whether it’s the atmospheric Christmas markets of December or a summertime village festival. In early February, Cologne hosts the biggest Karneval celebrations in the country. Imagine Mardi Gras—but with better beer and a German twist. “Munich has Oktoberfest, and Cologne has its carnival,” says Astrid Därr, a travel writer from Bavaria. “And when you live in the city, you either get into the spirit and enjoy it or you get out to escape the crowds.” The main event is the parade through central Cologne on the Monday before Ash Wednesday. And even if you don’t don a clown disguise (the most popular costume) to join the crowds vying for candies tossed from the floats, it’s a chance to sip glühwein with cheery locals and bite into a traditional Karneval krapfen, a billowy, yeasty doughnut that’s a favorite carnival treat.

In-the-know German and Dutch travelers looking for an affordable ski getaway flock to the Sauerland district, about a two-hour drive northeast of Cologne. “You’ll find friendly people, authentic German food and just enough slopes for everyone to have fun,” says Netherlander Hilde Kievit, who visits each year with her family of five. She recommends stopping in Schmallenberg for cake or apple pie at Cafe Backes (1 Lennenstr.; 011-49-2975-1065; cafe-backes.de, site in German; cake and coffee for two, $17). About six miles east, Winterberg, at an elevation of more than 1,500 feet, is the highest village in Sauerland and usually receives the most snowfall in the region. If you have kids learning to ski, you can enroll them in lessons at Skischule Altastenberg (7 Astenstr., Winterberg; 011-49-2981-1345; sport-wemhoff.de, site in German; three-hour English-language group ski lessons for children, $43).

Or travel to the northern reaches of the Black Forest, near the French border. The ancient Romans used to gather at Baden-Baden to take advantage of its thermal pools; some 200,000 gallons of natural mineral water flow into the town’s 23 hot springs every day. You can explore the spring-fed baths, grottoes and waterfalls for yourself at Caracalla Spa (1 Römerplatz, Baden-Baden; 011-49-7221-275-940; 1.5-hour sessions, $18).

Austria

No city in Europe brings mountain culture right to its front door like Innsbruck, where locals tote skis on the tram to reach the nearby slopes. The Hungerburg Funicular (round-trip tickets from Innsbruck to Hungerburg, $10) stops at several fantastical stations designed to resemble ice formations by Zaha Hadid, the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Connect to the Nordkette Cable Car (145 Höhenstr., Innsbruck; 011-43-512-293-344; round-trip tickets, $39) and ride to the final stop at Hafelekar for 360-degree views of Innsbruck and the surrounding Alps. Daredevils ski down from here on one of the steepest runs in Europe.

It’s less than an hour’s drive from Innsbruck to Kühtai, Austria’s highest Alpine village, set in the Stubai Alps at an altitude of 6,627 feet. Here the snow cover usually lasts well into May. You can tuck into modern interpretations of hearty Austrian dishes such as schnitzel and käsespätzle (pasta with cheese and onion) at the restaurant set inside the 800-year-old Jagdschloss Innsbruck-Kühtai (1 Kühtai; 011-43-5239-5201; dinner for two, $45), a former hunting castle owned by the Count of Stolberg-Stolberg. Burn off those calories nearby with a 50-minute gentle ascent to the top of Kühtai Taboggan Run, the area’s highest. The walk starts near the bottom of the Drei-Seen-Bahn cable car and is lit up at night, as is the toboggan run. Once at the top, you can warm up with a hot drink and rent a sled for $7 before coasting back down under a star-filled sky.

Finland

You’re bound to hear the Scandinavian adage “There’s no bad weather, just bad clothes” on repeat during a Finnish winter. Wear the right gear and the country is your glistening playground. Take Lake Saimaa, the country’s largest, which becomes a seasonal hub for ice-skating, snowshoeing and snowmobile excursions. You can rent equipment at the 17th-century Järvisydän Hotel & Spa, run by the same family for 11 generations. At the property’s Lake Spa (313 Porosalmentie, Rantasalmi; 011-358-20-729-1760; admission, $35), five saunas and six hot soaking pools are carved into the rocks that ring the shore. Consider following the lead of the Finns, who alternate between hot and cold plunges through a hole cut into the lake’s icy surface.

Farther north in the Vuokatti lakes region, travelers steer huskies through the wilderness and ski cross-country on illuminated trails. And up in the Lapland town of Kuusamo, it doesn’t get much more magical than riding a reindeer sled beneath the northern lights with Kuusamo Safaris (1 Kotatie, Rukatunturi; 011-358-400-326-690; three-hour reindeer safaris, $94; children 5–12, $47). Finally, consider making your way to the Lapland city of Rovaniemi for a treat the kids won’t soon forget: stepping over the line that marks the Arctic Circle at Santa Claus Village (Rovaniemi; 011-358-16-356-2096; admission, free), open year-round. At the post office, you can mail a personal letter with a special Arctic Circle postmark or commission a letter from Santa along with a Certificate of Niceness. And then there’s the highlight: meeting Santa himself. What could be a better end to your winter adventure than the chance to get in his good graces before the next holiday season?

STAY
RCI® affiliated resorts in Finland include:
Holiday Club Katinkulta 2247

Relax in the steam room, indoor/outdoor sauna or lounge area. 15 Katinkullantie, Vuokatti
Member Review: “Beautiful accommodations.”

Holiday Club Saimaa C642

Fun lies around practically every corner (there’s a bowling alley, ice rink, indoor water park and more). 1 Rauhanrinne, Rahua
Member Review: “Great nearby walking trails.”

Holiday Club Kuusamon Tropiikki 2591

Well-appointed and comfortable units, some with their own sauna. 5 Kylpyläntie, Kuusamo
Member Review: “Ideal location in Lapland.”

Holiday Club Salla 3939

Within walking distance of ski slopes, cross-country trails and snowmobiling tracks. 2 Revontulentie, Sallatunturi
Member Review: “Immaculate accommodations in a peaceful setting.”

RCI® Tip

Looking to get away this season? Consider a guided vacation tour to experience Europe in its winter glory. Visit RCITravelGuidedVacations.com** to book your next adventure!

For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Non-RCI affiliated resorts in the featured destinations include:
Astérides-Sacca Hôtel Cauterets

Balconied rooms with mountain views and shuttle service to thermal baths in the French Pyrenees. 11 Blvd. Latapie Flurin, Cauterets, France; 011-33-5-62-92-50-02; cauterets-asterides-sacca.com; doubles from $89 a night

Hotel Weisses Kreuz

Walk to the chairlift or train station from this 25-room hotel in the center of Bergün. 72 Platz Bergün, Bergün, Switzerland; 011-41-81-410-50-10; weisseskreuz-berguen.ch; doubles from $186 a night (price includes breakfast)

Hotel Liebesglück

Cozy sauna-equipped hotel just a stone’s throw from the restaurants and shops of Winterberg. 5 Nuhnestrasse, Winterberg, Germany; 011-49-2981-92230; hotel-liebesglueck.de; doubles from $151 a night

Jagdschloss Innsbruck-Kühtai

A former hunting lodge with 17th-century furniture in the Austrian Alps. 1 Kühtai, Austria; jagdschloss-innsbruck-kühtai.at; rooms from $235 per person, per night (price includes breakfast and dinner)

Järvisydän Resort

Ask for a room with a fireplace at this plush hotel on Finland’s Lake Saimaa. 313 Porosalmentie, Rantasalmi, Finland; 011-358-20-729-1760; jarvisydan.com; doubles from $152 a night

  • *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
  • **RCI Travel Guided Vacations is administered by International Cruise & Excursion Gallery, Inc. d/b/a/ Our Vacation Center and/or ICE, a Delaware Corporation, with its principal place of business at 7720 N. Dobson Rd., Scottsdale, Arizona under contract with RCI, LLC. RCI disclaims all responsibility in connection with any third-party travel services. For more information, go to www.RCITravelGuidedVacations.com.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Winter 2017