From Botswana to Japan: unexpectedly good times to visit five destinations
A country might have a perceived travel window, but it often proves more versatile than you’d imagine, according to our specialists. Take Japan, known for its cherry blossom, but in bloom with plum blossom earlier in the year. Or, Patagonia, which offers a more contemplative time to hike ahead of its busier summer spell.
We’ve chosen five destinations that invite you to expand your horizons if your travel dates aren’t binding, with their own seasonal highlights to boot.
Okavango Delta, Botswana in January to April
If you want to see Botswana at its healthiest, safari between January and April. The rains, which typically begin to fall from November, have created a verdant oasis in the Okavango Delta, to the exultation of its wildlife (and photographers).
The abundance of food encourages mammals such as impala, tsessebe and lechwe to have their young. You can watch them teeter about on their skinny legs, suddenly kicking and bursting into leaps — practice for escaping the jaws of predators. Big cats, hyena and wild dog time their birthing season to coincide with that of their prey’s, whose young are easy targets for a family meal.
I love being in the bush with so much new life to discover. On one morning game drive, we were following lion tracks when my guide’s radio alerted us to something even more exciting: a lion cub had been sighted. Racing through the grassland, we arrived at a fallen tree trunk. The cub, less than a month old, was playing among the leaves, occasionally pausing to look at us cautiously.
Game drives are the best way to explore the bush at this time of year, though water levels could be high enough in some parts for a boat safari or mokoro (traditional canoe) ride.
Birdlife is abundant, with migratory species such as southern carmine bee-eaters and African skimmers boosting numbers. Malachite kingfishers cling to the reeds while pied kingfishers hover above the water before diving for a tiddler. Every so often, you hear the screech of a fish eagle or the snort of a hippo.
Brief storms are possible, but reward you with incredible sunrises and sunsets, along with the fresh scent of rain.
With your money going further, fewer visitors and more choice and availability of camps and lodges, I’d say these months are well worth considering for your Botswana safari.
Japan in February
Cherry blossom. The Japanese idolise it, and many of us want to see it. Japan’s feted flower unfurls first on the southern islands of Okinawa as early as January and the wave of blooming slowly journeys north, arriving in Kyoto in March. As the flowers open, thousands of extra visitors arrive into the city.
Skip back a few weeks, though, and you could be walking beneath clouds of white and pink star-shaped flowers in Kyoto, at a quieter time for the city, and in Japan at large. I’m not describing cherry trees, but plum trees, and, speaking as someone who lived in Japan, I can vouch that most people can’t tell the difference.
February is also a great time to see the country’s snow monkeys. The macaques unwind (research has shown the spa-like conditions soothe them) in their own purpose-made hot spring in Jigokudani Monkey Park. Although they’re so-called for living in cold climes, you can only see them in the snow for a few months a year.
The attraction draws many Japanese visitors, so this isn’t a quiet time, but I’d visit early in the day to beat the rush. What always strikes me about the monkeys, which commune to bathe in their hundreds, is the humanlike expression of satisfaction they derive from sinking into the thermal water — the same look of pleasure we get from soaking in a bath.
Kicking off in late January and running into February is the Sapporo Snow Festival. The event is deservedly popular, so plan it into your trip well ahead, but it’s worth the effort. Creation after creation of snow sculptures run for a mile along the city’s square, playing to particular themes — I still remember standing among a tableau of ballerinas, frozen in their movement.
New Zealand from May to September
Champagne Pool, Rotorua
If solitude is the ne plus ultra for you when hiking, you might find visiting New Zealand in its wintry months (May to September) more rewarding than at warmer times of year. You’ll also get first pick of places to stay — boutique hotels and B&Bs fill up fast in the summer — and enjoy good value for money.
The crux of experiencing New Zealand in its winter is to choose hubs from where you can take part in a raft of activities, rather than launch yourself on a road trip. Unpredictable winter snows and rainstorms can make roads in remoter parts of the country — especially the alpine areas of the South Island — unpassable. But, on the whole, if you’re able to adapt to temperamental weather, New Zealand is very much ready and waiting.
Rotorua, a lakeside town in the North Island, is one good place to base yourself. You can explore its celebrated geysers, fumaroles and mud pools to your heart’s content — they don’t have a seasonal downtime. You could also get a feel for Maori culture by taking a private guided tour with a Maori elder. They’ll take you into meeting houses and show you how to make poi balls (used in traditional dances). If the weather holds, you could get out on Lake Rotorua for an induction in how to paddle a waka, a traditional Maori canoe. There are numerous good wineries nearby, too, as well as hot springs and geothermal spas.
Rotorua’s surrounds are laced with well-marked walking trails, which receive dramatically less footfall in the winter. I really like the Redwoods Treewalk, which sees you weave among huge redwoods on suspension bridges. The walk is rightly popular in the summer months, but in winter you can have these sylvan giants virtually to yourself.
Patagonia in October
Torres del Paine National Park
Los Glaciares National Park
Patagonia is so wild, it’s always unpredictable. On any given day, the likelihood is you’ll encounter wind and rain, so my advice is don’t let the forecast bear down too much on when to go. Patagonia sees most footfall during the South American summer months of November to March, and October can be seen as the prelude to high season. But, the lodges start to reopen from the start of the month with plenty of availability, a particular boon in Patagonia’s remoter areas, where options can be few and far between.
It’s hard to define Patagonia succinctly. Covering a third of Argentina and Chile, its shape-shifting geography starts in open pampas and forests, and splinters into fjords and islands as the continent reaches its end. Southern Patagonia claims the star pairing of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and, across the border in Argentina, Los Glaciares National Park. You can see the three torres (towers) of the Paine Massif from almost any trail in Torres. Meanwhile, hiking routes in Los Glaciares skirt below Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, whose sharp peaks have sparked rivalries between generations of climbers.
Both parks are marked by prescribed routes, but as I found one October afternoon, treading these paths can still be a solitary pleasure at a quieter time of year. Some of the landmarks looked different — a lake that, a month later, would reflect the mountains was masked by snow. But, snow can aid wildlife spotting (such as condors, whose great black forms are thrown into relief by stark-white backgrounds). And, somehow I felt nature was more at hand, and I was privy to an advanced screening.
Andalusia, Spain, in January and February
A happy confluence of geography means that Andalusia is sunny year-round, with bright golden sunshine more than 300 days of the year, and warm even in late January and February. That time also coincides with almond-blossom season, when the countryside is awash in drifts of snow-white trees for as far as the eye can see. The few showers that do fall serve to brighten the sunbaked foliage, making it a sprightly green. All of this makes Spain’s winter one of the best times to visit Andalusia, in my opinion.
In fact, I find the winter weather is more pleasant than what you’ll find during the summer months of July and August, when the region practically sizzles in the blazing sun. Wintertime temperatures hover in the high 50s and low 60s during the day, and don’t usually drop below freezing at night unless you’re up in the mountains.
The crowds can be thinner, too, even at blockbuster sights like the Mezquita in Córdoba and the Alhambra in Granada. Do take a sweater to the Alhambra, though — the same architecture designed to cool the palace in the summer continues to work in the winter, making it significantly cooler than the ambient temperature.
Some excellent Andalusian cooking classes in Seville aren’t available during the summer months, giving you another reason to visit in winter. Here, you’ll learn to make the region’s signature dishes, sip local wine, let translucent slices of jamón ibérico melt slowly on your tongue and master the art of cooking briny sweet shrimp caught in nearby Huelva.