There’s a lot to do in the snow in Eastern Canada. Anna Maria Espsäter explores the winter options in capital Ottawa and the Outaouais region, Québec Province.
Winter festival fun
Canadians love to celebrate winter and for three weekends every year, Winterlude Festival takes over capital Ottawa and nearby Gatineau, across the Ottawa River in the Outaouais Region, Québec. Most of the varied events and activities are free to enjoy – affordable fun for families with children of all ages. The 2019 festival included an international ice carving competition, with the finalists’ sculptures on display in the hip and happening ByWard Market area in central Ottawa, where you could also watch an ice-carver in action. Dow’s Lake, southern Ottawa, hosted the Ice Dragon Boat World Championships, an event that has to be seen to be believed. Traditional Chinese Dragon Boats were valiantly paddled on the frozen lake, with the aid of ski poles. Across the river in Gatineau, Snowflake Kingdom is great for kids of all ages; snow sculptures, snow slides, even a zipline for the bravest and tasty local nosh to sample as well.
Skates on – cityscape
If you can’t time a visit to coincide with Winterlude, there are still plenty of winter activities throughout the season. For 5-6 weeks from the end of January, Ottawa boasts the world’s largest, naturally frozen, skating rink – historic Rideau Canal, which runs right through the centre. Nearly 8 km of the canal can be skated, in fact some locals use it to commute to work and on sunny days, it gets particularly busy. Early-risers though (UK jetlag comes in handy here), pretty much get the canal to themselves at weekends, and skating the freshly prepared ice – it’s well-looked after overnight – is absolute bliss.
Skates on – countryside
For something less urban and more secluded, there’s the option of skating through a forest, in the Outaouais region. Up near Lac des Loups, on the outskirts of vast 361 km² Gatineau Park, a team of three, Dave, Monique and Micheline have created a 3-km forest skating trail. Now in its third season, Skating Through the Forest, attracts visitors from all over the world, who come to enjoy this unique experience. The trail is manmade, which makes the ice unusually pristine for the great outdoors. Non-skaters can try snowshoeing instead, or just hang out with a hot chocolate by the skate cabin’s cosy open fires.
Gatineau Park – winter sport hub
Established in 1938, Gatineau Park, also in Outaouais, is only 4 km from the capital and this is where many Ottawans spend their free-time. With a perimeter of nearly 180 km, you don’t have to jostle for space, there’s room for everyone. Cross-country skiing is the most popular winter sport, with 200 km of trails of varying degrees of difficulty to choose from, criss-crossing the park.
Relatively new, but gaining in popularity, is fat biking (also known as snow biking) – i.e. cycling on pre-prepared snow tracks. The tyres are far wider than your average bike’s, hence the name. Gatineau Park currently offers some 30 km of fat biking trails and that looks set to increase as the sport gathers more followers.
Down the slopes
Eastern Canada may not be that well-known for its downhill skiing internationally, but there is a surprising number of resorts here, several of which are located inside aforementioned Gatineau Park. Many of them are particularly well-suited to families and also offer great night skiing with brightly lit slopes open until 10pm. Resorts include Camp Fortune, Ski Vorlage and Sommet Edelweiss, among others.
Perhaps not the first thing that springs to mind when considering winter sports, Canada is a great place to try out curling. This, originally Scottish, sport is hugely popular and requires some muscle too – the stones weigh 38-44 pounds. A curling lesson, covering the basics is great fun, and again, can be enjoyed by all the family. If staying at the Fairmont in Montebello, Outaouais, a curling lesson, among many other activities, is included in the hotel fee.
Spotting the local wildlife
Not far from Montebello, Omega Park is home to year-round adventures of a different kind. It’s not strictly speaking a sporty destination, as the large park is best explored by car, but it’s still a must-see for anyone visiting the area. Home to some of Canada’s most spectacular wildlife, this is the place to view the animals in their natural habitat. It’s even possible to get within close proximity to three different types of wolf – grey, black and Arctic. In winter you can snowshoe in certain areas (not near the wolves, evidently), or take a horse-drawn sleigh ride, among many other experiences.
To rest those weary limbs and aching muscles, having skated, skied, biked, curled and snowshoed your way around the Ottawa-Outaouais region, there’s nowhere better than a spa. The tiny town of Chelsea happens to be home to North America’s largest spa with nine saunas, hot and cold pools, relaxation areas, restaurants and much more. Nothing beats chilling out in a hot pool surrounded by snow and ice – the perfect way to end a snow adventure in Canada.
Getting there: Air Canada (tel: 00 800 6699 2222, ) flies direct from London Heathrow to Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier Airport, 6 times a week in winter, daily in summer.
Getting around: Via Rail Canada
Gear: Flõa excellent base layers for active winter adventures.
All text and images copyright: Anna Maria Espsäter