Start the year in a winter wonderland

Start the year in a winter wonderland

Maxine Sheppard from vtravelled.com, Virgin Atlantic’s social travel site, picks a selection of the world’s best winter festivals

China: Harbin Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival

Up near the Russian border, the North Eastern city of Harbin has established itself as the centre for winter activities in China. Close to the country’s biggest ski resort at Yabuli, it endures bitterly cold winters perfect for the ice festival, which has been held since 1963.

Industrial-sized blocks of ice taken from the frozen surface of the Songhua River are used to create huge replica buildings, temples, pagodas, bridges and other monuments. These crystal-clear constructions are lit from within by advanced technology to give them a spectacular multi-hued glow. The use of computer-controlled LEDs creates rainbow-like displays of colour which can be viewed from one of the festival’s horse-drawn carriages or by wandering on foot.

Atmosphere is crowned by a number of slides to zip down – made of pure ice

China’s talented ice sculptors also turn their hand to smaller, more ornate sculptures of lanterns, animals, birds and mythical characters. And the whole fairytale atmosphere is crowned by a number of slides to zip down – made of pure ice.

The festival officially opened on 5 January and runs until the end of February.

Iceland: Reykjavik Winter Lights Festival

The people of Iceland have to deal with the long, dark winters of the far northern hemisphere. So the Winter Lights Festival was created to celebrate the arrival of longer days and bring some invigoration and sparkle to city life.

Centred around Laugardalur Park, the festival hosts a range of cultural and leisure events, from film screenings and puppet shows to art exhibitions, dance classes and choirs. The Friday night sees an ever-increasing number of museums and galleries opening their doors. Transport is also laid on to ferry visitors between different venues.

Last year’s festival saw the introduction of two new events: photo day and swimming pool night, which are set to continue this year. Photo day includes large-scale exhibitions in the city centre, guided tours of the Museum of Photography and neighbourhood photography walks.

On the Saturday, swimming pool night sees some of the largest thermal pools in Reykjavik staying open until midnight to host various festivities, like hip hop water gymnastics overseen by DJs and live bands.

You might be lucky and glimpse the Northern Lights

Remember to look skywards too. You might be lucky and glimpse the Northern Lights. The festival takes place from 7-10 February.

Japan: Sapporo Snow Festival

For seven days each February, around two million people visit the Japanese city of Sapporo to see it transformed into a glittering winter wonderland. The Sapporo Snow Festival is one of Japan’s largest, with giant ice carvings and snow sculptures on display in Odori Park and other venues. The majority represent famous people or buildings, though some depict recent news events. Most are illuminated at night.

In 1950, six snow statues made by local high school students went on display in Odori Park and the first Sapporo Snow Festival was born. From these humble beginnings, the festival expanded every year and is now an internationally-recognised annual event.

Many different countries compete to build ever more elaborate creations

The event received a valuable burst of publicity when Sapporo hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics. Two years later it incorporated an international snow sculpture contest and today many different countries compete to build ever more elaborate creations. Some of the keenest never even receive any snow.

The 64th annual festival will be held from 5-11 February, featuring some 400 sculptures across three different sites.

Canada: Montréal en Lumière

The Canadian city of Montréal certainly knows how to put on a festival. In recent years these have grown at an unprecedented rate. Every year, the city plays host to around 100 major events. Most of these take place during the short summer. But Montréalers certainly don’t let the long cold winters get between them and a good time.

Montréal en Lumière is one of the biggest winter festivals in the world. The annual 10-day extravaganza combines the finest global gastronomy with a diverse programme of arts events encompassing everything from music and dance to circus arts, street performance and theatre.

Combines the finest global gastronomy with a diverse programme of arts events

The downtown area’s entertainment district – the Quartier des spectacles – is where most of the family-oriented events take place. This free outdoor site is the ultimate destination for children, with plenty of kid-friendly open-air activities to choose from. Here, brilliant lighting displays are projected onto the sides of the surrounding architecture, and costumed characters walk the streets.

This year’s festival takes place from 23 February until 3 March, closing in style with the ‘Nuit Blanche’, or ‘sleepless night‘. Pace yourself well, because more than 200 installations, exhibitions, cultural activities and culinary events are featured. And the party finally winds up at around 6am…until next year.

The Netherlands: China Light Rotterdam

This year marks the first ever China Light festival in Rotterdam. Already in full swing, it is the largest Chinese light show in Europe.

Known around the world for their exquisite paper lanterns, a host of Chinese artists have transformed the city’s Euromast Park into a magical fantasy world full of dramatically-lit creatures and characters. Parades of super-sized dragons, pandas, flowers, tropical fish and insects are featured alongside amazing laser shows. Added special effects and video animations make for an unmissable nightly show.

Parades of super-sized dragons, pandas, flowers, tropical fish and insects are featured

Lantern festivals have been a celebrated Chinese tradition for centuries. The intricate creations were originally lit as a way of praying for a fruitful harvest, according to some local legends. But these days it’s more about brightening up the long dark winter days while marvelling at the wonders of lantern artistry. And of course, at the Rotterdam festival there’ll be plenty of tasty Chinese food and drink to sample too.

The 2013 festival continues until 13 February. The event is open from 4.30pm to 10pm every day, with lanterns lit at 5pm.

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