Winter holidays don’t have to be all about skiing and snowboarding, as journalist and novelist Anna Maria Espsäter found out on an active break to the Ottawa-Outaouais region, in the easy to access southeast part of Canada.
She takes us through her wintery journey one step at a time.
Ottawa Winter Capital
Winter fun in a big city? Surely not, was my first thought, but Ottawa proved me wrong. Canadians know how to celebrate winter, and just as well, given how long it lasts here. One of the main attractions is Winterlude, the annual winter festival, with fun and events for the whole family on three consecutive weekends in late January and early February. During my Winterlude visit, I caught the ice dragon boat race – think Chinese dragon boats on a frozen lake, paddled using ski poles – the international ice carving competition, outdoor fun at Snowflake Kingdom complete with ice slides and snow sculptures, the city’s first Winter Pride and the exceedingly tasty stew cook-off, featuring some of the best local restaurants.
Get your skates on
“We don’t say ice-skates,” my guide tells me, “we say ‘skates’ – there’s only one kind.” Too true and skating is big in Canada. Ottawa boasts the world’s largest naturally frozen skating rink, the Rideau Canal Skateway, nearly five miles long and usually open late Jan-early March. I got my skates on early morning and glided through the city centre which felt quite magical – now there’s a way to commute to work – and there are snack stops and benches for changing into your skates along the way. For a different skating adventure, across the province border in Québec, it’s possible to skate through a lovely, forested area – a wonderful and unusual experience.
On your bike
After a few days of sampling the capital’s winter delights, I head across the Ottawa River into Gatineau Park in Québec Province. Feeling adventurous, I opt for a sport that’s new to me, but steadily increasing in popularity; so-called fat, or snow, biking. Kitted out with a helmet and a very sturdy-looking bike, I set off across the prepared snow tracks with my guide, Jacques and on the flat all goes well. When we get into the forest, however, I realise it might have been easier had I been an avid mountain biker. As it is, the path feels too narrow, the trees too close and I wuss out after half an hour – not my finest moment, but fun to have tried it just the same.
Glide along the tracks
Having failed at fat biking, I have better luck with cross-country skiing. Gatineau Park has over 50 trails of varying difficulty and all equipment can be rented onsite. During my stay the temperature varies widely from a high of +2C to a low of -20C. Layers are the way forward and with the exception of one particularly freezing day, staying warm isn’t really an issue. Cross-country skiing is surprisingly energetic exercise and I’m also glad I’ve brought sunscreen, easy to forget in colder climes. I pick a trail on the flat, after the ups and downs of fat biking in the forest. No point wearing myself out completely, when there are more adventures to be had.
Stones on ice
I confess, I know next to nothing about curling before my first lesson in Montebello, Québec and despite my teacher’s best efforts, I may still have missed some of this sport’s finer points. Originally Scottish, curling involves sliding 42-pound granite stones along an ice sheet, and it’s a very popular winter sport in Canada. Truth be told, I fail almost as well at curling, as I did at fat biking and exercise muscles I sincerely doubt I had in the first place, but the beginner’s lesson, complete with instructor, fellow team members and many heavy stones, is good fun.
Although not as well-known as Mont Tremblant, southern Québec offers a number of options for the downhill ski enthusiast, including Sommet Edelweiss, Camp Fortune (opened in 1920 and one of the oldest in Canada), Mont Cascades, Vorlage and Mont Ste-Marie. They are easy to reach from Ottawa, offer good value for money, family-friendly skiing, and plenty of floodlit night skiing.
My week-long, Canadian winter adventure is coming to an end. I feel some spa time is well-deserved and where better than at North America’s largest spa? Nordik Spa-Nature in Chelsea, a small village inside Gatineau Park, covers a vast area divided into three spa sections – silent, whispering and social – where you can relax to your heart’s content. Most of the pools are outdoors and at -15C it’s a bit nippy, but nothing beats sitting in a hot tub surrounded by snow and icicles. With no less than nine different saunas, four cold pools, numerous hot pools and relaxation areas to choose from, three hours are barely enough, but there’s one final adventure in store for me after a good night’s sleep.
Call of the wild
Next morning, I find it’s been snowing heavily all night, making my visit to Oméga Park even more gorgeous with the pristine, white, fluffy stuff. Oméga is a park where Canadian wildlife can be viewed in its natural environment and it’s a fascinating place. It’s best explored by car due to sheer size and, of course, the wild animals, although some areas can be enjoyed on foot. The bears are all in hibernation, as we drive through, but the wolves, deer, bison, caribou and many others, are out in full force. Spending time in such close proximity to grey, black and Arctic wolves, is an unforgettable experience during a trip full of highlights. This region is my kind of place.
Anna Maria Espsäter is a UK-based, multi-lingual writer, whose career and travels have taken her to 95 countries to date. She has worked on 20+ travel books and also writes fiction under the pen name AM Hellberg Moberg. annamariaespsater.co.uk
Air Canada (tel: 00 800 6699 2222) flies direct from London Heathrow to Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier Airport, six times a week in winter, daily in summer.
Via Rail Canada
Flõa, excellent base layers for active winter adventures.
Where to stay:
Westin, a 4-star hotel, right next to the Rideau Canal with easy access to Ottawa’s downtown and vibrant ByWard Market areas. Even has a skating concierge.
Fairmont Château Laurier, a historic hotel which opened in 1912. Excellent cocktail bar, Zoé’s, on the premises.
The British Hotel and Pub, Gatineau (Aylmer sector), Québec, has been welcoming guests since 1834. Friendly, unpretentious and pleasant.
Wakefield Mill Hotel and Spa, a converted mill on the edges of Gatineau Park. Spa, fine dining.
Fairmont Le Château Montebello, world’s largest log cabin hotel. Multiple winter activities included in the hotel fee, e.g. cross-country skiing, ice-skating, snowshoeing and curling lesson.
Oméga Park wildlife park includes several accommodation options, including the Wolf Cabin, where you sleep in the heart of the forest, surrounded by wolves.
Photography Copyright © Anna Maria Espsäter