In this round-up we take to the land, sea and sky to bring you the top spots to discover wildlife and nature in February.
For land-lovers, snow leopards and huge vistas of ice await in India; underwater explorers can swim with whale sharks in the balmy waters of the Philippines; and there’s a special treat for spotters who can bear witness, not only to spectacular birdlife in Japan, but to the spectacle of millions of monarch butterflies taking flight in Mexico.
Head to Ladakh, India, for snow leopards and ice trekking
It’s not warm in the Himalayan heights of northwest India right now (days around 21°F; -6°C). But it’s worth braving the cold for a couple of very special experiences. Wildlife fans should head for Hemis National Park, home to a 400-year-old monastery, and one of the few places on the planet where the elusive snow leopard isn’t quite so elusive. During winter mating season – which peaks in February – the high-dwelling big cats descend to the valleys here to find mates, making them easier to spot.
Alternatively, trekkers can check out the Chadar. This challenging winter hike starts near Leh, and uses the frozen Zanskar River as its path – walking on this icy meander is the only way to access the highland villages at this time. February is when the ice is at its most stable; the temperature is biting, but the snow-cloaked mountains spectacular.
Trip plan: Fly to Leh. Hemis is 6 miles (10 km) south, where guided treks in the Tarbuns Valley may yield leopards. The Chadar hike starts in Chilling, 40 miles (65 km) from Leh, and takes six days.
Need to know: Leh is at 11,483ft (3500m) so stay well-hydrated to help altitude acclimatisation.
Other months: Nov-Mar – cold, snowy (Jan-Feb: Chadar possible); Apr-May & Oct – quiet, cool; Jun-Sep – best for regular trekking.
Watch millions of monarch butterflies take flight in Mexico
Visit Michoacán’s forests on a sunny February morning and you’ll witness an astonishing spectacle: hundreds of millions of orange-black wings flexing then fluttering as vast clouds of monarch butterflies take to the air. Each winter up to a billion of these incredible insects migrate thousands of miles from northeastern North America to the warmer climes of Mexico, specifically, Michoacán Province’s Oyamel fir forests, some of which are now protected as the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve; head to the El Rosario or Sierra Chincua sections. Here the monarchs breed before returning to their summer grounds far, far to the north.
Trip plan: The butterfly reserves can be visited on a day trip from Mexico City or Morelia, but better to stay nearby, perhaps in Angangueo or Zitácuaro. Another option is a clockwise circuit from Mexico City, taking in the butterflies, the colonial charm of Morelia, artsy San Miguel de Allende and the Toltec/ Aztec pyramid site of Tula.
Need to know: Wildlife fans travelling now could combine butterflies with whales – either humpbacks off Puerto Vallarta (Pacific Coast) or grey whales off Baja California.
Other months: Oct-Apr – butterflies present; May-Sep – wetter season, hot.
Swim with big fish in beautiful weather in the Philippines
Whale sharks are the world’s biggest fish, growing up to 13m long. Snorkelling alongside one is more like finning with a slow-moving train than a living creature. Simply, it’s up there with the greatest travel experiences. Donsol, a coastal village at the bottom of Luzon island, is one of the world’s best places to do it. During whaleshark season, which runs November to June (peaking February to May), there might be more than 10 whale sharks in the water at a time. Plenty of eco-operators run boat trips that allow you to snorkel with the fish in a sensitive fashion. Being the middle of the dry season, this is also a good time to explore further – the Philippines has over 7000 islands to choose from!
Trip plan: Fly from Manila to Legazpi, near Donsol, for whale sharks. Then fly south for cultural Cebu, the ‘Chocolate Hills’ and wildlife of Bohol, and the dazzling beaches of Panglao.
Need to know: Before embarking on a whale-shark trip, you must attend a briefing on how to behave around them.
Other months: Nov-Apr – dry; May-Oct – wet.
Visit Hokkaido for perfect powder, bird love and a whiskey or two
Hokkaido is Japan, but different. The northernmost of the country’s main islands is a wild, mountainous region with spectacular wildlife and a reputation for some of the finest powder snow on the planet. Snowstorms from Siberia sweep across and dust the west of the island – head to Niseko in February for world-class powder, with three large ski areas and plenty of backcountry to explore, with ski, board or snowshoe. Naturally there are steaming onsens in which to soak those weary bones after a hard day on the slopes – and plenty of spots to sip the local Nikka whisky.
Winter is also the time for two of Japan’s most spectacular wildlife encounters. Head east across Hokkaido to Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary to witness the extraordinary courtship dance of the 5ft-high (1.5m) red-crowned crane and to the small town of Rausu to see hordes of white-tailed and Steller’s sea eagle – with a wingspan of up to 8ft (2.5m), arguably the world’s largest. Trip plan: Fly to Sapporo for a few days on the slopes before crossing the island to explore the wilder reaches of the east.
Need to know: Refuel with Hokkaido cheeses or Ishikari nabe – salmon hotpot.
Other months:Dec-Mar – snow; Apr-May – spring, blossoms; Jun-Aug – warmest; Sep-Nov – fall colours.
This article was first published on www.lonelyplanet.com