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Ride the rails, see the lights, and go extreme

Seven reasons to get out and enjoy winter’s wonder

By Hilary Nangle
Globe Correspondent / November 6, 2011

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This winter, experience the chills, thrills, snow, and ice from a different perspective. Savor the possibilities of a culinary snowsports tour in Italy. Conquer any fear of steep and deep with a specialty ski or snowboard program. View the frozen winterscape from the warmth of an excursion train. Be dazzled by the brilliance of the Northern Lights. Splurge on handmade ski boots. Careen down a snow-packed track or a sled, bobsled, or skeleton or glide across Olympic ice.

Ride the rails and slide the trails in Quebec City

Enjoy a winter immersion without getting chilled aboard the new Charlevoix Excursion Train (877-536-2774; www.lemassif.com/en/train). The scenic rail tour begins winter operation in February, with 19 scheduled round trips between Montmorency Falls and La Malbaie. Panoramic windows allow passengers to view the frozen wilderness, remote villages, and small towns, as the train edges the ice-choked St. Lawrence River. Eleven trips (Feb. 3, 4, 10, 11, and 25; March 10, 17, 24, and 31; and April 6 and 7) are designated as ski trains. These stop at the base of Le Massif de Charlevoix at 9:30 a.m. and depart at 5 p.m.; the $225 fare includes a lift ticket, a hot breakfast served en route in the morning, and a tapas selection on the return. While at the alpine resort, ratchet up the adventure level by trying rodeling, a European-style, 7.5-kilometer, family-oriented sled ride down Le Massif’s Mont a Ligouori. The 1.5-hour tour ($29) includes transportation to the departure point by snow machine; the 2.5-hour tour ($34) includes a guided snowshoe trek to the start. For those who prefer to simply enjoy the winter scenery without skiing or snowboarding, other train options include a Saturday overnight in La Malbaie and a gourmet Sunday rail cruise with lunch and four-course dinner. All rates are per person.

Eat, drink, and ski merry in the Dolomites

This winter, ItaliaOutdoors (978-270-5774; www.italiaoutdoorsfoodandwine.com) is offering small-group and family tours that blend winter sports and city culture with the pleasures of the table in Italy’s Trentino Alto-Adige region. Options for outdoor play include alpine or cross-country skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and even winter climbing. Come in from the cold to learn about regional wines, through guided wine tastings, and local cuisine with dinners in a region that’s home to more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other in Italy. Leading the adventures are ItaliaOutdoors partners Vernon McClure, a ski, snowboard, and mountaineering guide, and Kathy Bechtel, a certified ski instructor and chef. The custom-designed itineraries can include cooking classes and visiting local sights. The programs, which include everything but airfare, can be customized to any skiing ability and can range from five days to two weeks. Prices for a weeklong experience begin around $2,800 per person.

Get the boot in Austria

Ski boots hurt? The luxury of custom-crafted ski boots can be yours - for a price. The “If the Boot Fits’’ package, at the exclusive Kristiania Lech boutique hotel (011-5583-25610; www.kristiania.at/en/13/default.aspx), includes a pair of custom-fit, made-to-order Strolz ski boots. The seven-night package ($1,334 per night) also includes a six-day ski pass to the Lech-Zurs area, two massages, daily breakfast and dinner, and a personal shopping consultation with a fashion specialist from Strolz. Lech is at the heart of skiing’s heritage. It was home to Hannes Schneider, who introduced the Arlberg technique to America, and to four Olympic downhill champions, including Othmar Schneider, who built the hotel that his daughter now runs. Othmar Schneider won Olympic gold and silver in the 1952 games, and his medals and trophies are on display. When he’s in town, he enjoys sharing tales about his skiing life with guests.

Alps transport made easy

The easiest way to move around Europe is via rail, and that includes accessing ski resorts in the Alps. For the ultimate Alpine experience, book Switzerland’s Glacier Express, a daylong journey through the Swiss Alps linking the resort towns of St. Moritz and Zermatt. En route are 91 tunnels, 291 bridges, and the 6,670-foot-high Oberalp pass. One-way rates are $203 second class, $308 first class, but for those who will be traveling by rail on other days, a Swiss Pass might be a better deal (from $221 for three-day flexi pass). Visiting London? Add a day or week in the French Alps by taking the Eurostar Ski Train. The nonstop, high-speed train departs London’s St. Pancras station on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, for the eight-hour journey to Bourg St. Maurice, France, and returns on Fridays and Saturdays. The humongous Les Arcs lift-and-trail system is here; nearby resorts accessible by shuttle include Courchevel, La Plagne, and Val Thorens. One-way rates are $210 second class, $360 first class. (800-622-8600, www.raileurope.com).

Northern lights show

Solar forecasters predict that in 2012-13, the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, will put on some of the best shows of it current 11-year cycle, and statistically March is one of the best months for seeing this natural cirque du soleil. Frontiers North (800-663-9832, www.northernlightswinternights.com) offers its small-group tours to Churchill, Manitoba, an outpost of civilization on Hudson Bay, Feb. 21-28 and March 22-29, 2012. The program covers everything from the science behind the phenomenon to Aboriginal arts and lifestyles, professional advice about shooting the lights to tips about driving a dogsled. The tour, which begins and ends in Winnipeg, includes three nights of lights viewing via tundra buggy, a purpose-designed vehicle that transports guests across the frozen Churchill River to the inky darkness of the tundra wilderness. On clear nights, there’s nothing to interrupt nature’s fireworks: streaks of green, rose, and white swirling and waltzing against a starlit canvas. The $3,943 tour includes three nights in Winnipeg, four nights in Churchill, all meals, museum admissions, activities, and round-trip air between Winnipeg and Churchill.

Break out of the rut

Frustrated advanced skiers and snowboarders can break through to a new level by participating in programs geared to specific levels or disciplines. Jackson Hole (800-450-0477, www.jacksonhole.com) hosts four-day Steep & Deep, Women’s, Backcountry, and Telemark camps that are designed to push participants beyond their comfort levels. All camps include activities both on and off the hill. Rates are $1,175 including lift ticket or $975 without, and include coaching, video analysis, daily lunch, dinner parties, and other activities. CMH Heli-Skiing (800-661-0252, www.cmhski.com) is debuting five new Powder U specialty courses in 2012: Intro Girl’s School (March 8-12, from $4,575); Backcountry Skills (Feb. 23-28, from $5,460); Big Trees (March 3-10; from $9,908); Film School, combining heli-skiing with filmmaking (March 22-26, from $3,758); and Steep Shots and Pillow Drops (Feb. 18-23 and March 26-31, from $4,698. Rates include lodging, skis and poles (but not boots), meals and snacks, and certified guides. Most programs also include round-trip shuttle transportation from Calgary International Airport.

Be an Olympian

Celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Utah Olympic Games. Anyone can take a self-guided tour of the Utah Olympic Park (435-658-4200, www.olparks.com) in Park City, home to the Nordic jumps and bobsled, skeleton, and luge runs. Self-guided tours are free and include access to the Alf Engen Ski Museum and 2002 Eccles Olympic Museum; guided tours, which provide close-up views of the track and bring visitors to the top of the K120 Olympic Nordic Ski Jump, are $7. Up for a thrill? Fly down the Comet Bobsled run with a trained driver and reach speeds of speeds of up to 80 miles per hour and experience up to 5 Gs ($200, minimum age 16) or ride a skeleton head-first down the track at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour ($50, minimum age 14); advance reservations recommended. Other opportunities to experience Olympic venues include gliding across the “fastest ice in the world,’’ at the Olympic Oval, in Kearns, where 10 Olympic and eight world records were set (801-968-6825, www.olyparks.com; public skating sessions $4, skate rentals $2); skiing the men’s and women’s downhill runs at Snowbasin (888-437-5488, www.snowbasin.com, $72 adult); making quick turns or bashing the bumps at Deer Valley (800-424-DEER, www.deervalley.com, $96), site of the slalom, mogul, and aerial freestyle events; or schussing the slopes of Park City Mountain Resort (800-222-7275, www.parkcitymountain.com, $96.), home to the giant slalom and all snowboarding events. Nordic skiers can skate the trails of Soldier Hollow in Midway (435-654-2002, www.soldierhollow.com, $18 adult). Better yet, plan a trip to coincide with the 2012 FIS Freestyle World Cup event at Deer Valley, Feb. 1-4.

Hilary Nangle can be reached at hilarynangle.com.