W hen we hailed the cab at Barajas airport in early January, Madrid was shrouded in a cold drizzle and we weren’t looking forward to a dreary stretch of gray skies and bone-chilling temperatures. But the next morning the skies parted, the sun came out, and we had three sunny weeks in the Spanish capital with daytime highs around 60 degrees.
Several Madrileños told us it was their favorite season, and we could see why. The museums were less crowded, the restaurants less frenetic. We even came home with a bit of a tan from sitting in outdoor cafes. It reminded us that we have had some of our best experiences when we didn’t let ourselves be captive to the calendar.
That was true, too, of Montreal, a city we dearly love but shied away from during winter. It is, after all, home to the biting winter wind known as “the Montreal Express.’’
Then one February we went there for a winter festival. Neither of us has ever been as cold as when we stood outside in subzero temperatures watching fireworks. So we spent the next few days in the Underground City - a set of subterranean complexes in central Montreal woven around its Metro system. We shopped, ate, caught a concert, and even went ice skating without ever venturing to the streets above. Our hotel had a roaring fire in the lobby fireplace, and the Van Houtte coffee shop made delicious hot chocolate.
Venice in the winter is another one of those counterintuitive destinations. There is nothing quite like walking those stone sidewalks in the winter chill with twilight’s soft luminance deepening over the Grand Canal while, one by one, restaurant and trattoria windows begin to glow with a golden welcome.
In summer, Venice is wall-to-wall tourists and, on Piazza San Marco, pigeons, too. But in winter the Piazza stands open to the sweeping views memorialized by every 19th-century painter who wandered through town. More to the point, you can get a restaurant reservation without calling weeks in advance.
Traditional winter destinations usually mean ski country. But we’ve rarely had as much fun in Switzerland as we did in the offseason of spring, which as a time for travel is neither here nor there. We had signed up with Untour (www.untours.com), which handled the logistics of getting us a rental apartment and rail pass, and suggested itineraries.
In Switzerland, hiking paths begin at every corner and people twirl walking sticks while running errands. Before we knew it, we were hiking the Weisse Lütschine valley in the Bernese Oberland. It’s known as the Valley of the Waterfalls, and once we set out from Lauterbrunnen we could see why. As we ambled through dandelion meadows along a burbling river to Stechelberg, we passed several of Europe’s highest waterfalls, flowing full throttle from the melting alpine snows. The bucolic walk supposedly takes about two hours, but we could not help but dawdle, standing awestruck at the bridal veil Staubbach Falls, a sheer drop of nearly 1,000 feet.
Other ski areas are also great offseason, as Pat discovered when she and three friends visited Telluride, Colo., one June. Even avid skiers in this mining-town-turned-resort consider the lazier days of summer to be their favorite season. Everyone is out on hiking trails that can be accessed straight from town, and with the snow gone, four-wheel-drive expeditions bounce up old dirt roads to explore abandoned mine sites.
There are open stools at the New Sheridan Bar, an erstwhile watering hole of outlaw Butch Cassidy. To top if all off, Telluride celebrates summer with a range of festivals devoted to everything from bluegrass to wine to playwriting to yoga.
While most New Englanders think of the Caribbean as a winter escape, the weather in the islands is nearly the same in summer, and the beaches still long and sandy. What’s different are markedly lower prices and smaller crowds. On Grand Cayman, for example, we found little competition for the white sands of Seven Mile Beach, and the local folk were more relaxed. Even the blue iguanas at the Botanic Park seemed happy to see us.
Farther east in the Lesser Antilles, where summer temperatures average a comfortable 82 degrees, the vendors at the fruit and vegetable and crafts markets in Marigot on St. Martin have more time to chat, while the fishermen-cooks at neighboring Grand Case stand ready to throw a rock lobster on grills improvised from oil drums.
Conventional wisdom about the “best’’ time in any place sometimes depends on your interests. High season for visiting the Galapagos Islands - a destination on the bucket list for almost everyone we know - is typically March through August, when the seas are warm and the waves are small.
But we went in October, on an expedition by Ecoventura (www.ecoventura.com). The boat ride between the islands prompted us to break out the Dramamine, but we saw and did everything from wandering the highlands looking for grazing giant tortoises to hiking an extinct volcano to snorkeling.
The only downside was the Humboldt Current bringing cold water from the Antarctic, so we had to wear wet suits or risk turning blue. The sea lions didn’t mind the wet suits - it just made us look more like them. And besides, it was the busy courtship season - complete with silly dance - for those peculiar Galapagos sea birds, the blue-footed boobies.