Exploring Europe by Ice Skates

It's rare to see the waterlogged fields near Cambridge's Fens frozen solid. Last winter, global warming paused long enough for the members of the British speed-skating team to take to the ice for the first Fenland championship in 17 years. Before long, tourists in the know boarded the express train from London to witness the icy interlude. "It's beautiful," said Alex McGee, a South African visitor, pointing an antique Leica at the expanses of white ice flanked by snow-covered farmland and weeping-willow trees. "It's the most romantic ice rink I've seen. I never expected it in this country. This bitter winter has its upside."

Most Europeans make for the powdery thrills of the Alps for their mid-winter breaks. But ice skating is fast becoming an alternative to the ski slopes. Every year, some of Europe's most beautiful waterways morph into natural rinks and provide a sublime surface for the perfect vertigo-free winter adventure. From the frozen sea lakes of Scandinavia, which cover miles of icy wilderness, to the high-altitude flats of Austria, Europeans are taking to the ice as never before.

One reliable venue can be found at Austria's Weissensee, a lake in Carinthia where, come mid-December, the region's warm swimming spot turns into a rock-hard rink that spans nearly seven square kilometers. At 930 meters above sea level, the Weissensee's crisp, cold air and blue skies create perfect skating conditions in stunning surroundings. "There's a sense of freedom here; you can skate fast," says Jack Garvey, a British tourist midway through a speed-skating lesson with the Nature Ice Skating School, which teaches outdoor-ice techniques. "There are no barriers to crash into, so obviously you have to learn to stop before you do anything else. After this experience, a jam-packed inner-city rink will feel like a goldfish bowl."

Outdoor skating was a popular sport in Europe before global warming ushered in the warm winters of recent years. Professional speed skaters from as far away as the United States journeyed to Victorian England to compete in international tournaments. Today, Weissensee's reliable 55 kilometers of cross-country skating tracks serve as an adopted home for skating championships displaced by the big thaw. When their own icy thoroughfares melted more than 10 years ago, Dutch skating enthusiasts moved their Elfstedentocht (11-City Tour) here. Now, every year, 5,000 Dutch skaters hurtle across the vast expanse of ice at dazzling speeds.

A skating vacation needn't be a mad dash across the ice. In Sweden, skater-tourists can sign up for a long-distance four-day trek staying at cozy log cabins and chic hostels along the way. From Stockholm, expert guides take parties of up to a dozen skaters across frozen lakes and rivers, like the achingly beautiful Friluftsfrämjandet reserve in the archipelago. Gliding through the silent, untouched landscape is a peaceful and surprisingly easy way to travel. "We can cover up to 25 miles a day," says Bob Carter, who runs the Nature Travel tours from his London headquarters. "It's easier than you think to travel large distances on skates. It's intense exercise; we find guests are very grateful for their wood-fired sauna at the end of each day."

If it's cold enough this winter, natural ice rinks will spring up in urban areas, too. In stylish Stockholm, city slickers can be seen skating in the early-morning mist in front of City Hall, work satchels slung over their shoulders. Other popular spots, like the sea lake of Edsviken just outside the capital, provide polished tracks for tourists and Swedes to whiz around, free of charge. "A crisp, clear-blue winter's day with ice in February is just so amazingly beautiful," says Ann-Charlotte Jönsson, a Stockholm resident. "Swedes are used to handling ice, but if you're a tourist in Stockholm, it's best to be with a professional guide. The ice can break."

Indeed, skating has its thrills. "There's a real explorer feeling when we skate through the archipelago," says John Sa-velid, who leads tours outside Stockholm. "Skating on new, frozen, clear ice when you can see the bottom beneath feels like flying. It's about being in the wilderness, following the tracks of animals on the lake, counting eagles." Skaters are provided with an ice pick and a rope should the unthinkable happen. But the thin ice is the best bit, adds Savelid: "The little scary feeling, skating on ice that might break, makes you feel alive."