Skip the crowds and the hangover. These five trips will start 2012 off right.
New Year’s Eve is the most overhyped holiday on the calendar. We’ve all spent the night counting down the final hours at a packed bar or an overpriced dinner, downing drink after drink to get through the small talk. Then you wake to start the year feeling low and already spent. There’s a better way to celebrate. This year, take off on one of these five outdoor escapes. You’ll never dread December 31 again.
by Nicole Alper
Paddle under the stars — and fireworks — in San Francisco
Midnight fireworks take on a whole new significance when viewed from an expanse of pitch-black water. City Kayak owner Ted Choi has been leading a New Year’s Eve expedition in the San Francisco Bay for eight years. “The view is beyond anything you’d imagine,” Choi says. “The sheer size of the buildings, bridges, and fireworks overwhelm.” Choi’s group of about 30 kayakers paddles under the Bay Bridge and past the glowing art-deco Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill before resting for pyrotechnics and a midnight champagne toast back at the dock. Some kayaking experience is recommended — you’ll need to know how to unfurl a spray skirt, which keeps freezing water out of the boat, and have the strength to fight the tidal currents. [$104; citykayak.com]
Take a shot at your first biathlon in Greenough, MT
To truly kick off the new year with a bang, head to The Resort at Paws Up, a 37,000-acre working ranch, for its “Biathlon Blow-Out,” an ass-kicking combo of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. (“After seeing my results the first year, I reaffirmed that this was the year I’d get fit,” says Paws Up sales director John Romfo, 38.) Once you’ve finished sweating through the race, which includes two miles of skiing and four sets of targets, settle into a 3,300-square-foot estate — with a private deck and hot tub — for a restful night. The next day’s activities range from clay shooting to snowmobiling to sledding with Iditarod champion huskies through the Blackfoot Valley. [Starting at $1,155; pawsup.com]
Meditate in the Catskill Mountains
Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji is a Zen monastery set on 1,400 acres of farmland in the heart of New York’s Catskill Mountains. The property is part summer camp, part Buddhist temple — an ideal backdrop for a low-key, inward-looking celebration. Its New Year’s ceremony begins with a seated meditation session and a spiritual discussion. Before midnight, guests gather on a nearby hill as the temple gong is struck 108 times to cast off 108 delusions, including baseness and greed, according to an ancient Buddhist practice governing repentance. “I was there for the millennium,” says video artist Pawel Wojtasik, who has attended the service four times. “The forest was heavy with snow, lanterns all around us. It was an almost Dionysian experience.” One that’s many miles away from your typical bacchanal. [$250; daibosatsu.org]
Mingle with rhinos in Santa Rosa, CA
The typical wine-country safari includes an all-day drive in search of a private-reserve cabernet. Safari West, a 400-acre wildlife preserve in Sonoma, has honest-to-god giraffes, wildebeests, Cape buffalo, and 80 other species of exotic animals. (A few were imported from Africa when Safari West was founded in 1976, but most of the animals are now bred on the premises.) Walt Smith, a retired general, has spent three New Year’s Eves at Safari West. “My favorites are the white rhinos,” he says. “After gaining their trust, you can walk over and pet them behind the ears.” At night, feast outdoors on tenderloin steaks, then retire to a heated tent. In the morning, climb into a Korean War–era army surplus wagon, and hit the hills for more wildlife-watching [$500; safariwest.com]
Grab a front-row seat for Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park
There’s no better place to commune with nature than in the hushed silence of Yellowstone, surrounded by hot pools steaming over a carpet of snow. Wildlife science expert Steve Gehman and biologist Betsy Robinson lead a seven-day, six-night expedition that kicks off, after setting up shop at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, with a snowcoach ride into the park. You’ll explore the Lamar Valley, observing herds of elk and bison. On New Year’s Eve, you’ll travel 50 miles to Old Faithful, parking directly in front of the geyser at midnight to wait for the first gush of 2012. [$3,595; npca.org]
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 / January 2012 issue of Men’s Journal.