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Winter wonderland hotels 2005

There are many tough decisions in life: Hardtop or convertible? Red wine or white? Harvard or Yale? Cheddar or Swiss? Snow or sand?
Tschuggen Grand Hotel, Arosa, Switzerland
Tschuggen Grand Hotel, Arosa,
/ Source: Forbes

There are many tough decisions in life: Hardtop or convertible? Red wine or white? Harvard or Yale? Cheddar or Swiss? Snow or sand?

This time of year, especially as winter begins to flog our freezing nerve ends and dull our congested senses, the temptation for many is to escape somewhere between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. But whereas warm weather is in reach 365 days a year, there is a much narrower window on winter weather that offers proper snow and the feeling of the holidays waiting in the wings.

Now is the time to seek out those places, whether in the city or the country, where winter can be best savored. Where the skiing is superb, shop windows are filled with lights and brightly colored packages, fires crackle in the grate and white-jacketed waiters bustle around carrying trays full of hot cocoa, warming whiskeys and good things to eat.

And with Thanksgiving behind us, it is not too late to plan that winter holiday. But that also means making one more tough decision: city or country?

While winters in the city often conjure up images of slush-filled streets and unavailable taxicabs, it is also the time of year when cities buzz with cultural and commercial life. To escape the cold, people crowd into the operas, ballets, restaurants, shops and museums. There is no guilt about an extra helping of dessert, lazing around after lunch or hiding out all afternoon in a spa. (Hey, you're on vacation, after all.) Best of all, rates come down after the holidays, and everything from meals to tickets to the latest fashion becomes heavily discounted.

"For the winter, you can get absolutely incredible deals right now,” says Jack Gaffney, president and CEO of Witmor Travel Group, a New York City-based travel company. "Round-trip airline tickets to London and Rome go for about $250 in the winter.

"Where you're having the problem is taxes,” Gaffney continues. They can often double the price of the air ticket. "U.S. government taxes and fuel surcharges are huge," he says, "and those costs are being passed along to the consumer by financially strapped airlines, like Delta and Northwest, that can't afford to buy fuel in advance.”

But the countryside in winter is as good, if not better--and not necessarily cheaper. For many resorts in top winter destinations, winter is their high season. The snow weighs heavily on the fir boughs, and there is ice-skating, snowboarding and the comfort of sleeping under a warm duvet while the wind howls outside your window. In a luxury inn or resort nestled in the mountains or on a lake, winter never looks more beautiful.

Gaffney advises his leisure clients to book package deals, which combine airfare, car rental and hotel accommodations for savings as high as 50% on the overall trip. Of course, not every hotel includes itself in package deals, and rates may not apply during Christmas and New Year's, so plan accordingly. If you're dying to see Paris in the winter, plan to go after Jan. 2, when hotels are less likely to be charging top dollar and the city itself will be less crowded.

The same thing goes for domestic cities: The Palace Hotel in New York City charges rates of almost $700 per night in December. But come January, those same rooms are going for as little as $310 on the weekend.

Of course, if your heart is set on leaving home for Christmas, there are hidden properties where room rates don't rise dramatically during the holidays. For a rustic encounter with the great outdoors, rooms at the Auberge Hatley on the banks of Lake Massawippi, two and a half hours outside Quebec, cost just $240 per night November through January--including dinner and breakfast. And at the Resort at Paws Up in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, special winter rates start at $225.

So whether you opt for the sights and sounds of the city, or the beauty and activity of the countryside, whatever you decide will be right.