IT’S not difficult to embrace winter when you’re chasing the sun across a frozen lake at 120kph, slip-sliding by husky sled through a forest or copping an eyeful of Ottawa’s speed skaters in Spandex while feasting on a maple-syrup coated ‘beaver tail’ on the world’s largest outdoor ice rink.
If anyone knows how to enjoy winter, it’s those Canucks. Whether it’s night skiing after work, speed-skating to work, or carving palaces and mazes out of packed snow, they certainly make the most of winter.
Canadians are obsessed by the weather. On a recent visit to Ontario for Ottawa’s annual Winterfest celebrations, my female guide was in a lather about the imminent arrival of Canadian TV sports and weather anchor Jeff Hutcheson. Each morning Jeff does breakfast in a different location, and it was Ottawa’s turn that day. He would eat pancakes cooked on the city’s frozen canal, attended by waiter-skaters from the venerable Chateau Laurier hotel.
The antique ice skates and Winter Carnival programmes, dating back to 1884, on display at Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Civilisation are testament to Canada’s passion for winter. Ontario’s frozen lakes, snow-mantled maple forests, provincial parks, mountains and an endless supply of snow make it the natural environment for endless winter fun.
As Canadian Tourism Commission UK managing director Maggie Davison points out, Canada is a true four-season destination.
“The winters are magical and the festivals that take place across the country mark Canadians’ commitment to the outdoors and the winter experience,” she said.
Committed, they certainly are: Ottawa has been Winterfesting for almost a century. Among the black-and-white photos on display at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier is one of a large wooden slide between the hotel and the canal locks during the city’s first winter carnival in 1922.
The 7.8km Rideau Canal Skateway, with its annual bed race, Victorian choirs and demonstrations of long-blade skating, is the main activity site and social hub for the Winterlude festival.
But visitors will find snow sculptures of epic proportions, giant snow slides, outdoor concerts, skiing and a whole host of attractions staged across four city sites. Gatineau Park is transformed into Snowflake Kingdom – a winter wonderland of ice and snow sculptures, snow slides, mazes and sleigh rides.
The canal-side Snowbowl stage is the setting for firework displays, concerts and dance performances. Most activities are free and a Sno-Bus transports visitors between the sites.
The first rule of any Canadian winter activity is to dress for the outdoors. But clients should pack sunscreen and shades along with their thermal underwear, ski pants, gloves and fur-lined boots. East coast Canadian winters are usually dry, crisp and sunny.
More than 500,000 visitors turn out to the Winterfest each year, in sub-zero temperatures, and I saw plenty of families enjoying the sunshine, along with more snow and ice than you would see in a lifetime of British winters.
With Canada hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics, Davison said the next four years will see a major push on Canadian winter product in the UK.
Paul Ainsworth, managing director of 1st Class Holidays, said: “Canada is highly accessible in winter. There is so much to do and the scenery is outstanding. If you prepare for the weather you can have some great experiences.”
Thomson North America can tailor-make a vast range of winter activities in its featured Canadian locations, including an Icewalk along the frozen floor of the Maligne Canyon in Jasper National Park, trips to the frozen Niagara Falls and packages to Montreal’s Piknic Electronik festival which features DJs in the snow.
Thomson America and Canada assistant product manager Jill McAleer said: “There is a wealth of product and nothing grinds to a halt in Canada.”
Pausing to sip hot chocolate. I had only to glance at the skating couples holding hands, kids in prams and elderly people being pushed on sleighs to see this was true.
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