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Forget everything you thought you knew about ice sculpture – you won’t find a dripping swan or a lazily chiselled love heart in sight at China’s incredible Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival.

1. Harbin, China

Instead, you’ll find glittering, light-flooded palaces, glowing Buddhas, intricately carved dragons and much more, all shaped out of ice cut from the nearby Songhua River’s frozen surface. 

The Harbinese have taken what is otherwise, let’s face it, a slightly tacky and dated form of expression and party decoration to a whole new level using high tech lasers, dramatic lighting and a hefty dose of outrageously brilliant and over the top creativity.

The exhibition is open from mid-December to February, but the 2013 festival formally launches on January 5.

The main draw for visitors is Ice and Snow World, where you can wander about or take a tram past replicas of iconic buildings from across the globe and other full-scale monuments.

Previous festivals have included sculptural tributes to London’s Tower Bridge, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and an icy version of Moscow’s Kremlin.

This is definitely a visit best paid after dark, when the snowy structures are illuminated by colourful lights.

The annual festival began in 1963, and was inspired by a fisherman from the 17th century who is said to have hollowed out ice blocks to protect his candles from Harbin’s fierce winds.

You can see some decorative examples in the festival’s Ice Lantern Park.

Given the romantic aesthetic of the setting, it was inevitable that the ice fest would become a popular wedding destination, and in recent years groups of couples have joined for ceremonies, donning heavy coats over their bridal finery to get hitched among the stunning sculptures.

Once you’ve snapped photos of your favourite works, you’ll need a steamy cup of hot green tea.

Temperatures drop to -30°C here during the winter, so plan your wardrobe carefully and limit your time outdoors – not even the giant frozen Sphinx is worth getting frostbite for. Fest tickets are £29.50.


2. Northern Lights, Sweden

Camp out in the snow, book a hotel room with an illuminated view, take a trek – do whatever you’ve gotta do to see aurora borealis this year, as the lights are expected to be the brightest and most intense in half a century.

Abisko has some of the clearest skies in the region and its Aurora Sky Station has a viewing platform, reachable by chairlift, that gives you the best chance of seeing this spectacularly coloured sky. It costs £62pp.


3. Lake Tahoe, Nevada

The cold, clear waters and snowy scenery of Lake Tahoe are appreciated best from Fannette Island, while nursing a Thermos of hot tea.

You can take a kayak from the south shore to this, the lake’s only island. A quiet, pristine destination, it’s the perfect place to roam forests, gaze at the snowy Sierra Nevada Mountains and breathe in the crisp clean winter air.


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