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9 winter festivals in Northern New England

Ice sculptures are a mainstay at the Stowe Winter Carnival, and votes from visitors to select competition winners are encouraged. Photo courtesy Go Stowe

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1. Stowe Winter Carnival

Stowe, January 18–20

A few years ago, Country Living magazine ranked this weekend-long party among the 15 best winter festivals in the U.S. This event celebrates the glistening, fleeting beauty of ice. While the frozen stuff might be a nuisance on the slopes, in town it takes center stage in magnificent sculptures chiseled by more than a dozen master carvers. Stroll around and watch the artists create fantastic beasts and other stunning shapes.

Vote for your favorites: All are vying for prizes in the 22nd annual Ice Carving Competition. The festival’s ever-popular Snowvolleyball Tournament always delivers plenty of wacky, slippy-slidey fun. Cheer on the players or join the action with your own 6-person team.

Intrigued by the twinkling nighttime heavens? Special astronomy/stargazing sessions led by sky-watchers from nearby Grout Observatory unlock celestial mysteries. Also enjoy live music and plenty of good food and drink. Free; some events charge admission.

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2. Great Ice!

North Hero, February 16–18

Ever dreamed of driving a Zamboni? Here’s your chance to take a supervised spin on Lake Champlain behind the wheel of a 1974 grooming machine. Prefer being pulled by a team of Alaskan huskies? Jump into a sled with an experienced musher. You can also show off your mad snowman- or igloo-construction skills in the snow-building competition, enter the chili cook-off, or twirl on an illuminated, after-dark rink.

An Over ’n’ Back Trek across the frozen lake to Knight Island State Park welcomes walkers, skiers, skaters, and bikers on a 3.4-mile round trip. On opening day, local chefs, brewers, and winemakers share their creations in a food and wine village, old Christmas trees go up in a bonfire, and fireworks light up the evening sky. Free; sled-dog rides, $15.

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3. Winter Renaissance Faire

Essex Junction, February 3–4

Come out of the cold and into the past at this rousing Renaissance revival held inside the Champlain Valley Expo. The family-friendly celebration overflows with knights and knaves, ladies and wenches, acrobats, singers, dancers, musicians, wizards, pre-17th-century fight reenactors, and even a few woodland sprites.

Enjoy ongoing performances and buy a cloak or a flower crown, chain-mail jewelry, a wand, or a wooden sword. Food and liquid refreshments are on hand, too, including flagons of cider and mead. $20 for 1 day; $30 for 2 days.

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New Hampshire

4. New Hampshire Sanctioned & Jackson Invitational Snow Sculpting Competition

Jackson, January 26–28

Head to Great Glen Trails and the Mount Washington Auto Road properties to marvel at more than a dozen giant creatures as they evolve from 8-foot-tall, 4-foot-round cylinders of compacted snow. Watch sculptors work throughout the weekend and stay to see the finished pieces on Sunday.

Marking its 23rd year, the event features a welcome dinner and an awards banquet, both held at the Glen House Hotel, plus scavenger hunts and a firepit for roasting marshmallows. You can also enjoy snow-coach rides, cross-country skiing, and tubing; everyone who purchases tickets for those activities is entered for a prize drawing. Free; some events charge admission.

5. Alton Winter Carnival

Alton, February 18

A festivalgoer taking a swing at the youth hockey booth.

Take your best shot to support youth hockey at the Alton Winter Carnival in New Hampshire. Photo courtesy the Alton Business Association

Bob-houses, or ice-fishing shacks, dot the winter landscape in these parts. Why not have a contest for the one with the best decorations? It’s a can’t-miss event at the Alton Winter Carnival, held beside Lake Winnipesaukee.

There’ll also be horse-drawn carriage rides, a chowderfest, crazy hat contest, prince-and-princess parade, kids’ crafts, skating, and lots of food vendors. If conditions permit, there may also be a small-plane fly-in. Free; parking is limited.

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6. Newport Winter Carnival

Newport, February 7–11

An outdoor belly-flop contest in the middle of winter? Taking place in a portable pool that’s not outside long enough for the water to freeze, this zany competition is a highlight of the annual Newport Winter Carnival. Now in its 108th year, the 5-day event claims to be the country’s oldest continuously running town-sponsored winter carnival. With this year’s Woodstock theme, it’ll be rockin’ a 1960s vibe.

The schedule includes the crowning of the carnival queen, a festive dinner, pancake breakfast, parade, woodsman contest, mac-and-cheese cook-off, murder mystery dinner, line dancing, and lighted skating on the town common until midnight. Free; some events charge admission.

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7. Maine Lakes Winter Carnival

Bridgton, February 17

Skier doing a flip during the rail jam.

A skier navigates a rail jam during the Maine Lakes Winter Carnival in Bridgton. Photo courtesy Greater Bridgton Chamber of Commerce

This annual carnival overflows with entertaining ways to celebrate the season. It kicks off with the ice-queen pageant, brought back last year after a 50-year hiatus. Then come such family-friendly activities as a kids’ ice-fishing derby, chili contest, and all-day music and food.

Watch snowboarders and skiers shred in the rail jam or take a subdued ride in a horse-drawn carriage. Take an ever-so-chilly swim in Highland Lake and still get a warm feeling—the polar dip is a fundraiser for the local humane society. An ice bar and fireworks cap off the evening. Free; some events charge admission.

8. Camden Winterfest and U.S. Toboggan Championships

Camden, January 27 and February 2–4

Camden pumps up the wintry fun with 2 events on consecutive weekends. First comes Winterfest, a daylong celebration featuring everything from a doggie fashion show to a feel-good-while-freezing polar plunge to benefit a local kids’ outdoors organization. Find ice carvings, too, created by both amateur and professional sculptors. It all takes place in a picturesque amphitheater beside the harbor. Free.

The following weekend, the 33rd running of the only organized traditional wood toboggan race in the country—and perhaps the world—whooshes down the chute at the base of the Camden Snow Bowl ski area.

The name may suggest it’s a serious competition. But the racers’ crazy costumes and party-ready spirit immediately reveal it’s all about fast, furious fun. Enter your own team (registration fees required) and zip down the course, too, or join the lively crowd of spectators. Free admission; limited fee-based parking available or take the free shuttle from downtown.

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9. Belfast Ice Festival

Belfast, February 23–25

Edging Belfast’s broad harbor, an opening-night luminaria trail lends a magical aura to this 3-day event. The festival includes the Annual State of Maine Ice Carving Championship, which features ice sculptures displayed throughout town and masterful demos.

There’ll be horse-drawn carriage rides, too, plus poetry walks and sledding. At a special Taste of Belfast gathering, guests sample signature appetizers from downtown restaurants. Free; some events charge admission.

Mimi Bigelow Steadman regularly writes about New England for AAA’s publications.

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