The words “low-season travel” conjure up images of bitterly cold resorts in which hotels and restaurants are shuttered until the spring. In warmer climes, holidaymakers aquaplane around the lobby while staff sandbag doorways to keep the monsoon rains at bay. Instead of cultivating a golden tan we end up with foot rot. You don’t have to settle for unrelenting grey skies, though. It’s possible to get just as much out of some places once the peak season crowds have moved on.
1 LAKE BAIKAL
Booking a February trip to Siberia might bemuse your travel agent but Lake Baikal is a fascinating place to visit in the depths of winter. Temperatures hover around minus-20 degrees Celsius for so long that the ice can be two metres thick in some places and translucent turquoise waves hang in frosty suspension. The Pearl of Siberia is the world’s largest freshwater lake and besides walking and skating on the creaking, glassy surface, wilderness adventurers can sign up for husky dog sledding, cross-country skiing, ice fishing and jeep tours. There’s even a Lake Baikal Ice Marathon. And once you’ve finished pretending to be a polar explorer, soothe tired limbs in a banya, or Russian-style sauna. Every Siberian hotel and home has one.
2 SRI LANKA, EAST COAST
What Sri Lanka lacks in size, it makes up for in climate variety. Seasons are a fluid concept as weather patterns are highly localised. The palm-fringed beach resorts of the southwest are at their best from January to April but travellers to the up-and-coming east coast town of Trincomalee and surfing hot spot Arugam Bay will enjoy clear skies from May to July. This means it’s possible to swap low season for high season by simply jumping on a bus to another part of the island.
3 KENYAN SAFARI
Peak time for a Kenyan safari is between July and October. The school holidays have begun and the wildebeest migration is gathering steam. Alternatively, plan your visit for the “short rains” in November and December. Prices will be heavily discounted but the roads are still driveable and, with fewer vehicles about, you won’t be craning your neck to see the lions and leopards from behind a convoy of 4x4s. Although it’s easier to spot wildlife in the dry season, when the grass is shorter, there will still be plenty to see, including newborn animals and migratory birds. Expect showers but rarely are they heavy enough to spoil the safari.
4 EUROPE’S SOUTHERN CITIES
A low-season city break doesn’t have to mean days spent puddle hopping. Since you’ll be sightseeing rather than sunbathing, comfortable temperatures and clear skies are more important than baking heat. Google “sunniest cities, Europe” and you’ll be pointed in the direction of Athens, Lisbon and Valletta, the small but perfectly formed capital of Malta, which at the time of writing is a pleasant 16 degrees. The hotel pool might be closed for the winter but there are sure to be fewer tourists around and locals will be less frazzled and happy to chat.
5 AUSTRALIA, THE NORTHERN HALF
Some destinations are mistakenly perceived to be out of season when they’re not. Many “northerners” assume they should avoid the southern hemisphere winter. While Tasmania and parts of Victoria, in Australia, might be a little under the weather from May to October, it’s the perfect time to visit Queensland and the Northern Territories. Clear blue skies and comfortable humidity levels will greet visitors to Brisbane and all points north to Darwin; not forgetting the remote but magnificent Kimberley region, in Western Australia. Scuba divers and snorkellers at the Barrier Reef will appreciate the excellent visibility while stingers and other dangerous jellyfish are more of a summer hazard.
6 INDIAN HIMALAYAS
Similar confusion occurs in India, where tourists hurry to complete high-season holidays before the summer monsoon rains arrive. For those in the know, this is the time to head into the Himalayas. Snow has melted in the foothills by late spring and, by July, the roads to Kashmir and the lofty Ladakh region have been cleared. Rent a mountain cottage surrounded by apricot and apple orchards and wander amid sheep grazing in lush meadows with the warm sunshine on your back. Low season? What low season?
Iceland’s great outdoors is best visited in the summer months, right? Long light evenings when the sun barely sets mean you can fit in more sightseeing. Search for puffins, attend one of the many festivals and explore the otherworldly interior, which is open to vehicles only at this time. Winter, however, offers just as much to keep visitors busy. Soak in a superheated geothermal spa, try ice caving, clamber over frozen waterfalls and hunt for that bucket list favourite, the Northern Lights. Clear dark skies are essential if you want to witness the show, so fly to Reykjavik between November and February, when there will be about 20 hours of Aurora Borealis-friendly night time.
From South America’s mighty Iguaçu Falls to tumbling cascades nearer home, dry-season day trippers are unlikely to encounter waterfalls at their best. Don your waterproofs and visit the alliterative Huangguoshu waterfall, in Guizhou province, or Mae Ya, near Chiang Mai, in Thailand, or any other waterfall when skies are the colour of concrete and you can expect thundering cataracts rather than a pathetic trickle. When do you think postcard photos that depict gushing torrents are taken?
9 LAKE MARACAIBO
For the ultimate low-season experience, extreme-weather enthusiasts should head to Lake Maracaibo, in Venezuela, where optimum levels of heat and humidity combine with winds off the Andes to create an atmospheric phenomenon. The Everlasting Storm rages for up to 10 hours at a time, 160 nights a year and produces as many as 280 lightning strikes per hour, or 1.2 million a year. The bolts can be seen from great distances and were used as an ancient navigation aid by sailors. Who says lightning never strikes the same place twice?