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Embracing Winter instead of fleeing it

BALMY waters, sandy beaches and relentless sun might be the most obvious features of a perfect winter getaway, but after a while it gets a little hackneyed to be just another slab of pale flesh nursing a midday daiquiri on the beach in Cancún. Instead, consider the more character-building charms of destinations that embrace the awesome power of winter: these aren't just cold versions of their summer selves -- they're spots where the planet reveals some of its most impressive natural phenomena.

ARCTIC LIGHTS

If you've decided the sun is overrated, why not go to the other extreme? In winter, much of North America is blanketed by long, dark nights where the breathtaking stars are overshadowed by something even more astounding: the northern lights.

Caused by energetic particles from the sun slipping past the planet's electromagnetic defenses and into the atmosphere near the pole, the aurora borealis is spellbinding. Undulating sheets of vivid green and pink light seem to crackle and dance across the black sky.

For more than a decade, Canada's north has been a favorite for Japanese visitors seeking a natural phenomenon no longer visible in their own country. They favor Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories, where you'll see them bundled up in the red snowsuits provided by the lodges. This surge in visitors has opened up the northern Canadian winter season, which also includes cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding, snowmobiling, ice fishing and wildlife viewing during the short but bright daylight hours -- in the middle of winter, the crisp, below-zero air means there are rarely any clouds.

Yukon Adventure Company (1114 First Avenue, Suite 25, Whitehorse, Yukon; 866-417-7365; www.yukonadventures.com). Four-day, three-night packages start at 449 Canadian dollars (about $380 at 1.18 Canadian dollars to the U.S. dollar) per person double occupancy, with viewing from a pair of cabins where guests can lounge in front of big windows angled northeast for best viewing. Others prefer to sit outside, protected only by a roaring campfire and a cup of hot chocolate.

STORM WATCHING

The Aleutian Low, the engine of West Coast winter weather, sits in the North Pacific all season, throwing storm after storm at North America. Sailing out into the middle of it would be a life-threatening exercise in misery, so it's fortunate there's the Wickaninnish Inn on the coast of British Columbia.

Built in 1996 near the booming summer resort town of Tofino, the Wickaninnish Inn was designed to show off the pounding winter surf here to best effect. Situated at the side of a massive point break, the inn provides the perfect vantage point on 20-foot-tall breakers roaring out of the open Pacific.

The waves even roll up underneath the inn's restaurant: on big days, you can feel the rumble through the building's pilings. Outdoor microphones bring the whole experience inside, ''but without the cold and wet,'' said CharlesMcDiarmid, the inn's managing director.

Rooms come equipped with rain slickers and boots, so you can walk in comfort before the thundering surf, or in the nearby coastal rainforest. A boat ride brings visitors to natural hot springs, where the waves roll right into the pools, alternating the hot flow with bracing saltwater.

''Here, you realize Mother Nature is still in charge,'' Mr. McDiarmid said. ''The weather does more than just ruin your hair -- but who cares?'' But that kind of bravado is not the only option at the Wickaninnish: rooms feature fireplaces and big double soaker tubs set before picture windows. You can relax in the warm water while watching some of the hardiest surfers on the planet challenge themselves against the ferocity of the Aleutian Low.

Wickaninnish Inn (Osprey Lane, Tofino, British Columbia; 800-333-4604; www.wickinn.com). A winter Storm Watchers' Package starts at 799 Canadian dollars. It includes two nights' accommodation for two and a guided nature walk. If you can, get one of the Premier rooms: they have views to both the south and west, and are perched on the rocks right above the breakers -- spray often hits the windows.

PROVINCETOWN

P-town is party central in the summer, but by midwinter it's a remote Cape Cod fishing village again. Briny winds howl over the dunes into town, where they push the smell of cozy wood fires through the narrow streets.

Though a few stalwart partygoers try to make a scene of it, P-town in winter is a place for introspection: for long walks on the deserted beaches. Hike the trail through the dunes at Snail Road, just outside town, to the open Atlantic. On the beach, your only companions will be Arctic seabirds and huge gray seals.

Stay at the Crowne Pointe Inn, which is open all year. Not only will you be able to shake the chill of the dunes in their steam room, sauna and soaking tub, but you can take things a step further in their Shui Spa, or back in your own room, many of which include fireplaces and whirlpool tubs.

During the winter, Provincetown's lively arts scene shrinks and grows more serious, but it's worth seeking out. The New Provincetown Players run a winter reading series at the Provincetown Theater, and a number of galleries feature winter shows.

And as the winter darkness sets in, and you're ready to warm up, head to Ciro & Sal's, where you sit near the fireplace and eat the hearty, unpretentious Italian food that has made the restaurant a Provincetown institution.

The Crowne Pointe Historic Inn & Spa (82 Bradford Street, Provincetown, Mass.; 508-487-6767; www.crownepointe.com). Winter packages start at $599.99 for two nights, double occupancy, and include two spa treatments, facials, massages, breakfast, wine and cheese and dinner.

The New Provincetown Players (238 Bradford Street, Provincetown; 508-487-7487; www.provincetowntheater.org).

Ciro & Sal's (Kiley Court, Provincetown; 508-487-6444; www.ciroandsals.com). Closed in January. Dinner for two around $60.

GREGORY DICUM

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