Source: USA TODAY
There’s something impossibly charming about a mountain town in winter. Lantern-lit cobblestone streets, glowing cafes filled with friendly locals, and intimate family-run inns warm even the coldest, shortest of days. Add fresh mountain air, high-altitude views, snow sports, and steamy thermal springs, and you just might find yourself falling for winter. But don’t expect crowds: These charming little hamlets are, for now, relatively undiscovered. From Colorado to Japan, here are 10 off-the-beaten-path mountain towns that are especially enchanting during wintertime.
Sandpoint’s Lake Pend Oreille reflects the rugged Selkirk and Cabinet mountains, doubling their visual impact. It’s the perfect backdrop for a small town that’s big on local culture. From wineries and breweries to the arts—Sandpoint is home to major music and film festivals—this little township is a vibrant, happening haven in the wilds of northern Idaho.
What to do: Head to higher altitudes and go skiing at the nearby Schweitzer Mountain Resort, with 59 named trails and 2,500 acres of terrain. Or, when conditions are right, tie up some skates and join in a game of ice hockey on the frozen Lake Pend Oreille.
Where to stay: Talus Rock Retreat is a Tuscan-style, timber-framed lodge that offers water views and has plenty of porches. Though the property is quite large (30 acres), it features just six guest rooms and suites, so it feels quite intimate even when the place is booked.
Want to wake up to the gentle clink of cowbells high in the Swiss Alps? Ride the funicular to a ski resort comprised of two towns: Crans and Montana. This quintessentially Alpine destination offers low-key nightlife, a walkable town center, stunning mountain views, and skiing at altitudes of up to nearly 10,000 feet.
What to do: You’re in Switzerland. So eat some chocolate. Happily, this small resort just happens to be home to a national chocolate champion. Head to David L’Instant Chocolat, the local shop of Swiss Chocolate Masters’ 2013 winner David Pasquiet, where sumptuous Swiss confections—from chocolate-robed nougat to dark chocolate with berries and star anise—are expertly crafted by hand.
Where to stay: We can’t think of a more worthwhile activity in Switzerland than relaxing in a heated outdoor infinity pool with a view of the Alps. (Just the thought has us feeling relaxed.) At LeCrans Hotel & Spa, choose between indoor and outdoor pools, and enjoy balconies overlooking pine- and snow-covered peaks, rustic decor, and locally sourced wines in the on-site cellar.
You may not have heard of Fernie, British Columbia, a town located a few hours’ drive from Calgary. The destination’s relatively unsung status (for now) means that less-crowded trails and less-expensive hotel stays and lift tickets await savvy travelers. Plus, the place is downright gorgeous. The historical town center is surrounded by dramatic views of blue and white snowcapped mountain peaks.
What to do: Ski down 2,500 acres of terrain at Fernie Alpine Resort. Or try cat-skiing—essentially riding a heated snow-grooming vehicle to access deep powder and untracked terrain—via a provider such as Island Lake Catskiing.
Where to stay: Fernie’s budget-friendly Red Tree Lodge is as affordable as it is cozy and laid-back; rates start at $119 per night during peak winter season. Thaw out in the on-site sauna and hot tub after a long day on the slopes.
If Paris were a mountain town, it would be Megève. This chic ski resort, founded in the 1920s by Baroness Noémie de Rothschild, was known as the “21st arrondissement de Paris” in its heyday, when it functioned as a glamorous destination for the beau monde. Today, the town maintains a fashionable ambiance with upscale boutiques and Michelin-starred restaurants, but its horse-drawn carriages, cobblestone streets, and medieval architecture are distinctly Old World.
What to do: Sitting in the shadow of Mont Blanc, Megève is an ideal base for winter sporting on the highest mountain in the Alps. Moreover, the town is known for its luxurious spas. The much-loved spa at Les Fermes de Marie, which Conde Nast Traveler calls one of the best in the world, features treatments derived from mountain plants.
Where to stay: Rooms at Les Fermes de Marie are outfitted Swiss-chalet-style, with dark wood, wooly fur blankets, and rustic unworked materials. The surrounding Alpine views and the spa (as we mentioned) are unparalleled.
Escape to cowboy country in gritty Cody, the town founded by the eponymous Buffalo Bill (William F. Cody) himself. This special place is home to authentic emblems of the West: cattle ranches, rugged mountains, and wildlife. But expect some kitsch, too. With tourist-friendly shows, from gun-fight reenactments to rodeos, Cody continues to uphold the spectacular traditions of showman Buffalo Bill.
What to do: In warmer months, Cody is an excellent base for day trips to nearby Yellowstone National Park. During winter, play in the snow at Sleeping Giant Ski Area, dubbed the most affordable ski area in the state.
Where to stay: Buffalo Bill built the landmark Irma Hotel around the turn of the century. The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is even rumored to be haunted.
The predominant attraction in this quiet, mysterious village set at the base of Mount Hakusan is its collection of Gassho-style thatched-roof houses, the only buildings of their kind in Japan. The structures were built mostly in the 19th century and have remained intact largely because this hidden little village—now a World Heritage site—has stayed isolated from the rest of society. It’s simply magical.
What to do: Explore. Take pictures. Breathe in the clear, quiet mountain air. According to many travelers, the area is especially picturesque during winter, when it is covered with snow. It’s roughly a 45-minute bus ride from nearby Takayama to Shirakawa-go—an easy and worthwhile day trip.
Where to stay: In nearby Takayama, Oyado Yamakyu, a traditional Japanese inn known as a ryokan, offers an authentic local experience. The property has deep, communal Japanese mineral baths for guest use and customary local meals are served on-site.
Berkeley Springs, W.Va.
For those seeking an American mountain town not centered on downhill skiing, Berkeley Springs (officially named Bath) fits the bill. Say “spaah” in this peaceful resort destination with a bounty of public bathhouses. The warm mineral springs that flow naturally through the area feed the soothing pools and tubs in Berkeley Springs State Park and the many local spas.
What to do: Take a dip in therapeutic mineral waters in the heated Roman baths at Berkeley Springs State Park. You’re in good company: George Washington once bathed here.
Where to stay: A Second Empire-style mansard-roof home, the Victorian Manor Inn guarantees a unique historical experience with its antiques-filled rooms and generous home-cooked breakfasts.
The resort town of Ifrane in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains has, surprisingly, a markedly European appearance. Expect Continental architecture—without arabesque ornamentation—with sloped Alpine roofs and timber-framed houses. Some call the town Morocco’s “Little Switzerland.”
What to do: The town is surrounded by forests of cedar, oak, and pine, with a network of hiking trails, and there are downhill skiing opportunities—a rarity in Morocco—at the small resort of Michlifen.
Where to stay: Michlifen Ifrane Suites & Spa is a popular luxury resort in the Atlas Mountains. There’s a lot to do here, with an indoor heated pool, a bowling alley, a sports hall (with volleyball and basketball courts), several restaurants that serve Moroccan and European cuisine, and, naturally, a full-service spa. Guest rooms feature mountain-themed decor, in keeping with the property’s mountain-lodge ambiance.
Discover peaceful small-town charm just 45 minutes from Munich by car (or via a direct rail link) in the lakeside hamlet of Tegernsee. This Bavarian resort town is positioned along the rim of Lake Tegernsee, a shining pool circled by Baroque churches and timeworn houses with red roofs, and is a popular spot for boaters and cyclers in the summer and Alpine skiers during the winter season.
What to do: Visit Tegernsee Abbey, an imposing former Benedictine abbey built in the 8th century. Hop on a toboggan and zoom down the longest natural sledding run in Germany at Wallberg Mountain. (Visitors can ski and snowboard too.) Or relax at lakefront sauna Monte Mare, where you can get toasty in the steamy “sauna ship” moored on Lake Tegernsee—it bobs gently in the water and features panoramic views of the mountain scenery.
Where to stay: Spend the night in a unique historical inn, of course. Der Westerhof Hotel, set almost 600 feet above Lake Tegernsee, provides gorgeous views of the water and surrounding mountains, plus a dash of history. The property, which dates back to the 12th century and was originally home to a monastery, was renovated and reopened as a hotel in 2005.
This gorgeous historical town is set in a box canyon and surrounded by glacier-carved rock in the San Juan Mountains. With a major ice-climbing park, steaming pools of therapeutic hot springs, and the kind of charming Victorian architecture that looks picture-perfect when covered with snow, Ouray makes for an idyllic winter sanctuary.
What to do: Ice-climbing formations and hot springs are two of the main attractions in Ouray. Visit Ouray Ice Park to try your hand at the former, then soak away the winter chill at the Wiesbaden’s natural vapor cave when you need a rest. Another option for soaking tired muscles is the Ouray Hot Springs Pool, open year-round, which is filled with roughly one million gallons of the heated, healing waters that flow through the area.
Where to stay: The Wiesbaden offers accommodations as well as spa services and thermal baths. Spend the night and receive unlimited access to the on-site vapor cave.