Iceland may be ultra fashionable, but it can be dark and cold on this lonely volcanic isle, so build your weekend around hot pools. The Blue Lagoon has almost two square miles of geothermal pools set in a lava landscape 40 minutes’ drive from Reykjavik (or 15 from the international airport). For a quieter dip, mix with a few locals at the Vesturbaejarlaug thermal swimming pool at Hofsvallagata (+354 411 5150), which comes with ‘hot pots’ (Jacuzzi-like pools), a sauna and steam room. Finally, Nauthólsvík Ylströnd is a small, man-made thermal beach developed around a stream of geothermal water running into the Atlantic Ocean. If you want to work up a sweat, take a hike among spectacular geysers at Geysir or hop on a number 140 bus from the harbour to Hafnarfjördur, just south of the city, where you can take a walk across the lava and ride a purebreed shaggy Icelandic horse.
Stay at the 101 Hotel (Hverfisgata 10, Reykjavik; +354 580 0101) which is modern, has great views and is perfectly situated for the old town. Doubles from £145.
Icelandair flies direct from Heathrow, from £197, and offers a range of packages including the Northern Lights City Break which includes flights, three nights’ hotel accommodation and a Northern Lights tour, from £299.
Snoeshowing is essentially going for a walk in the snow, but wearing proper snowshoes so you don’t get wet feet and totally knackered. And it’s made more exciting because you’re doing it on Mount Etna. Thanks to its lofty position as Europe’s highest active volcano, Etna sees deep snowfalls from its summit at 3,329 metres down to around 1,800 metres, and walking among its four craters in the snow makes for a great weekend. Exodus does a three-night weekend trip from £649, or you can go independently (with local guides) and base yourself in Catania.
Stay at BAD Catania (Via Cristoforo Colombo 24; +39 095 346 903), a fun hotel and mini apartment complex that has kitchens with proper coffee pots and an apartment with a huge terrace. Double rooms from €60.
EasyJet flies from Gatwick to Catania, returns from £60.
St Petersburg is where the serious skaters go, but if you’re not confident enough to glide down the Neva, there are plenty of lovely outdoor skating rinks. There are several dotted round the city – most winters, you’ll almost certainly find one at Palace Square, at Saltykova-Shchedrina Street and on the Fontanka River Embankment. Afterwards, check out the city’s only remaining wood-stoked banya (sauna) at Mytninskie Bani (Ulitsa Myatninskaya 17/19; +7 812 271 7119).
Stay in the affordable and chic Corinthia Hotel St Petersburg (57 Nevsky Prospekt; +7 812 380 2001) and have caviar for breakfast. Doubles from £155.
Fly to Inverness or take the night train to Aviemore to visit the Cairngorms where you can spend part of your weekend building a communal snowhole: expect around three hours of digging after four or five hours of strenuous walking. Just the thing to work up an appetite for haggis and a few drams. Bit too active? Andy and Rebecca at Mountain Innovations offer a range of packages in the Cairngorms – or you could hole up in front of their roaring fire at Fraoch Lodge with a big pile of books, taking the occasional self-guided stroll.
At Fraoch Lodge as part of an all-inclusive snowhole-building package that includes expedition and two nights’ stay for £382, or room only for £42 per person per night.
By train from Euston or King’s Cross to Aviemore, or plane from Heathrow to Inverness with Flybe, returns from £184, or Gatwick with EasyJet, from £87, then taxi or bus.
Don’t want your winter wonderland overrun by overexcited kids? As part of a dizzying array of cool breaks, Responsible Travel has an adults-only three-night weekend in an igloo village in Finnish Lapland from £1,025 (including flights from the UK), spending one night in a snow or glass-roofed igloo and two nights in a rather more cosy log cabin. You can add on a range of reindeer and husky safaris or even an ice-fishing trip.
Stay at the Kakslauttanen Igloo Village as part of a package; or book direct – double snow igloos €338, double ice igloos €342 per night.
Finnair flies from Heathrow to Ivalo via Helsinki, returns from £180.
Stay in bed at the Swedish Ice Hotel. It has been around for 22 years, but it still makes for one of the most romantic winter weekend breaks. The Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, is built as new each December and drips with ice art, design and sculpture. The hotel offers a range of suites and cool public spaces, including an ice bar and ice chapel – should the weekend of romance lead to something more permanent. To warm up, you can split your stay between ice/snow rooms and heated hotel rooms – and the activities that are on offer (if you can stir yourself from your cosy, fur-lined bed) include Northern Lights flights, horseriding, snowmobiling and ice-sculpting.
In a mix of hot and cold rooms as part of a three-night direct-flight package with Discover the World.
Discover the World’s direct flight package exclusively offers flights with SAS from Heathrow, from £1,093, and three-day packages via Stockholm, from £780.
It’s the colours that stand out as you fly over the fjords into Alesund, Norway – gorgeous turreted and spired buildings in bright blues, reds and yellows lining the docklands and canals. Largely constructed between 1904 and 1907, after a fire virtually razed the town, this concentration of art nouveau buildings is a romantic delight for architecture fans. Walk up the 418 steps to the top of Mount Aksla for a view of the town, and if that gives you a taste for more action, the Unesco-listed Geirangerfjord has some great outdoor activities, including hiking and, at Strandafjellet, a powder paradise with express lifts and a great view of the Geirangerfjord.
In the Hotel Brosundet (Apotekergata 5, 6004 Alesund; +47 70 11 45 00), where the wooden beams and natural motifs will emphasise the fairytale nature of the trip. Doubles from NOK 1,390 (£153).
Norwegian flies direct from Gatwick to Alesund; weekend returns from £180.
The Alps’ highest holiday region of Graubünden is a ski mecca, but we’re going for tobogganing – with a train ride through twisty tunnels and over lofty viaducts thrown in for good measure. At Bergün, you can hop on the wondrous Rhaetian Railway to the start of the Preda-Bergün toboggan run, Europe’s longest floodlit sledging run. With a day pass you can spend the whole day racing down the 6km-long course and taking the half-hourly train back up again, and when you’ve had enough of that there are 200 kilometres of walking trails to be covered in this most clichéd but gorgeous of winter wonderlands.
With EasyJet from Gatwick to Zurich, returns from £77, then train from there (book at www.sbb.ch).
The Northern Lights are expected to be unusually spectacular this winter. Distance and a lack of direct flights limits the range of weekend trips available, but Tromsø in northern Norway is a very good bet. The thoughtful Norwegians have built a tourist industry around the possibility of not seeing them that takes in mountain and glacier hikes, midnight sun tours, a film festival in January and a music festival in February, as well as a wealth of snow-associated activities, so you definitely won’t be short of things to do.
At the Clarion Hotel Bryggen (Sjogata 19-21; +47 77 78 11 00), if only for the rooftop hot tub with views out to sea. The smart rooms are nice too, though. Doubles from £97.
Norwegian flies from Gatwick to Tromsø via Oslo, returns from £180.
Skiing and swimming
Okay, we’re allowing one ski scene – but it is a bit special. The ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’ has five ski resorts, all within easy each reach of Beirut, and all wonderfully surreal – the sight of skiers in Speedos isn’t uncommon; you might catch the odd skier in a burkha. Passes and ski hire are cheap compared to their Alpine counterparts (just as well since Beirut is pretty expensive), and the five resorts offer a good variety of options: head for Cedars if you’re after natural beauty or Mzaar if you like company. See www.skileb.com for more info.
In a double room at the community-spirited Saifi Urban Gardens (Pastuer, Gemayze; +961 1 562 509) for just $45 (£28), or upgrade to a two-room suite for $80 (£50).