In the midst of winter, many people dream of sandy beaches, tropical breezes and warm ocean waves. Unfortunately, so do thousands of others, which makes beaches a popular, crowded and expensive option in the cooler months. To avoid those crowds, consider a northern destination.

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There are plenty of fun, economical and adventurous places to consider for a fall or winter getaway. Remember, you must book some of these travel destinations, particularly hotels, well in advance to get the best deals. Here are five wild, wonderful and very different winter vacation destinations

Durango, Colorado
Durango in the winter is cold and snowy, but that just makes the Rocky Mountains more beautiful. For couples, Durango offers some "warm" romantic vacations. Book a gorgeous bed and breakfast in Durango, take a romantic sleigh ride, then linger for a few hours in a luxurious hot springs spa. Or, take the Durango/Silverton train through the snow covered Rockies, have a romantic dinner for two, and be back for an evening hot springs soak and couples massage. There are also all of the traditional winter vacation offerings like skiing, snowmobiling and cross-country winter hiking.

Looking for a winter family getaway, then Durango could still be your answer. The historic Durango and Silverton Railroad offers a truly magical holiday adventure called The Polar Express. Children are invited to come aboard wearing pajamas, passengers are warmed with hot chocolate, Christmas carols are sung and Chris Van Allsburg's children's classic, "The Polar Express" is read aloud. The train arrives at the "North Pole" blazing with holiday lights and visitors young and old will be treated to a visit by Santa Claus. (You might want to check out The Advantages Of Vacation Insurance.)

The Durango-Silverton Train operates year round. Summer is the high point of the tourist season and rates for train excursions begin at US$99 per person. The Polar Express Train is family- and budget-friendly with rates beginning in November at US$31 per person. Summer lodging rates in Durango average US$289 per night. In November and December, those rates drop significantly giving you the same accommodations for US$189 per night.

Ice Castles
Remember the snow forts you built as a kid and how you wanted to stay in them all night? Did you imagine a room filled with ice crystals and fairy dust or a magical place found only in Hollywood movies? This winter, take a trip back into your imagination and stay at an ice hotel.

The world's oldest ice hotel is named, appropriately, IceHotel in Jukkasjarvi, Sweden. They start building in December and as sections are complete, they rent rooms for around US$200 per night. The hotel does offers a wide variety of rooms in several prices ranges. You can have drinks at the Ice Bar, learn ice sculpting, go snowmobiling, go dog sledding, enjoy a warm drink and an awesome view of the Northern Lights, and you can even get married in the Ice Chapel.

For the very best deal if you want to stay at an ice hotel in Europe, you might want to consider staying in the summer. For the first time ever, IceHotel in Sweden will have a "mini" version of its renowned winter resort. Opening in June 2012, the summer ice hotel will be constructed indoor at the Ice Art Center where the temperatures will be maintained at -5 F. Winter rates here begin at US$225 and summer rates will begin at US$160. Summer also gives travelers those long days of the midnight sun.

Closer to home is the Ice Hotel Glace in Quebec City, Quebec. A newer ice hotel, it opened in 2000 and has already accommodated over 17,000 guests. The hotel boasts fine art on its cold walls, creative ice furniture design, an ice bar and 34 rooms. Accommodations here begin at CAD$179 per night.

Aurora Ice Museum in Chena Hot Springs, Alaska offers visitors ice everything including beds, chairs and dinnerware. Guests are given a parka, snow clothes and winter boots. They're also given access to a private room in the regular hotel - just in case. (Take precautions to avoid being taken advantage of on your vacation, check out Travel Tips For Keeping You And Your Money Safe.)

The museum is renowned for its life-size ice sculptures like whales and knights in shining armor. The sculptures change each season. The best thing about this ice hotel is that it located at Chena Hot Springs Resort. So, if the room gets a little too frosty, you can always warm up in the hot springs.

Hershey, Pa.
The "Sweetest Place on Earth" is a grand winter adventure. You can opt for the luxurious accommodations at Hotel Hershey that range from suites to charming cottages. The spa at Hotel Hershey is noted for its Whipped Cocoa Bath, Chocolate Bean Polish and the Chocolate Fondue Wrap. Massages, facials, steam rooms and saunas await you inside, as it snows outside. For families there is the less expensive, but very inviting Hershey Lodge. It offers beautifully appointed rooms and a range of dining options.

When you've had enough chocolate, the holiday season is right outside. Hershey becomes Hersheypark Christmas Candylane with rides, holiday decorations and over 2 million lights. You can't help but hum a few Christmas carols here. (Holiday expenses can drown you in debt. Find out how to avoid this festive spending hangover, read How To Reduce Holiday Debt.)

Prices for park accommodations, lodging and spa use can put a large dent in a family summer vacation. Winter is when the lights of Hershey come alive. Room rates average US$209 per night in November, US$189 per night in January versus the summer rate of US$219 per night. The drive through Christmas light display is US$20 per vehicle (2010 rate) and while there isn't a discount at the spa, you won't have to wait in line.

Wisconsin Dells
Still longing for a beach, but your budget won't take you to one? Try the Wisconsin Dells and its indoor waterpark. At the Kalahari, you can visit one of the largest water parks in the U.S. all year long. The water park boasts 125,000 square feet of indoor water thrills like the lazy river, indoor wave pool and an uphill water rollercoaster. You can stay at the hotel or stay elsewhere and purchase tickets for the water park. Don't overlook the Dells' other great water park resorts like Great Wolf Lodge and Chula Vista, both offer winter package rates and indoor water adventures all year.

Winter here is a great time to get more bang for your vacation buck. Summer prices for hotels in the area hover around the US$189 per night price range, with everything being an extra fee. In the winter months, you can find package deals from US$129 per night that include breakfast and tickets to the indoor water parks. Plus, you won't have to wait in long lines for the water features, and there are many couples weekend packages for nearly half the price of summer packages.

If you still yearn for a bit of snow, ski resorts Christmas Mountain and Cascade Mountain are nearby. You will also find snowboarding, zip line adventures and sleigh rides. Plus, you can enjoy amazing dining options, a wide variety of concert choices, dinner theater and movie theaters to round out a great winter getaway. (For some ideas on how you can save for your vacation, check out 5 Ways To Trick Yourself Into Saving Money.)

Napa Valley, Calif.
For those that just have to have some California sunshine in their winter, the Napa Valley can be a great economical and warmer choice. If you book early, you'll get the best airline deals to San Francisco. You can then rent a car and cruise into Napa. Winter vacations here offer travelers substantial discounts on lodging, dining, spas and tours. Hotels give significant discounts and their packages include mud baths, mineral baths and spa treatments. Napa Valley can be an expensive vacation destination. Winter months give the traveler many affordable options. Lodging in the Napa area during the summer averages US$300 and up per night. January rates for the same room are US$212 per night.

California celebrates restaurant month in January. Many fabulous restaurants are partnering with local hotels to give winter travel deals. Chefs at local restaurants prepare amazing meals and prices/tickets average $20 per person, an exceptional value.

The Bottom Line
If you want a great winter vacation for your family or a weekend getaway for just the two of you, think about going somewhere other than the beach. Shop the Internet, book early and keep your options open. You can find some great deals, remarkable adventures and enjoy a calmer, less crowded vacation. (To help you to save money here are 5 Hidden Fees To Watch For On Vacation.)

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