Rideau Canal, Ottawa, ice skating, ontario, winterlude

Embracing the cold at Ottawa’s Winterlude

 Rideau Canal, Ottawa, ice skating, ontario, winterlude

The Rideau Canal is the world’s longest ice-skating rink — and one of the great pleasures of winter in Ottawa. (Ottawa Tourism photo)

OTTAWA — As the train slowed to a halt at the Ottawa Station, I physically and mentally prepared myself for the cold. Even though this year has seen unseasonably warm winter temperatures all over Ontario, I happened to arrive just in time for Ottawa’s mid-February freeze up. With the mercury due to drop as low as minus-20 Celsius, I b1undled up in scarves and mittens. I was getting excited. My weekend of Winterlude was spread out before me and anything could happen.

Since 1979, Winterlude has been Ottawa’s primary winter celebration, taking place every February. Since then, other festivities have emerged under the Winterlude canopy. This year, Ottawa is hosting its annual fashion week and its “Taste of Winterlude” (celebrating local chefs and producers) alongside the usual ice sculpting competitions and family skating events at the world’s largest skating rink, the Rideau Canal. The event, which runs until February 20, brings in visitors from all over Canada and the world.

As a winter destination, Ottawa offers a lot more than you might think. Parliament and government buildings compile most of the city’s well-known landmarks and the Rideau Canal snakes through the city, dividing it by east and west while to the north the Ottawa River divides Ontario from Quebec. During winter the canal is frozen solid and absolutely packed with locals and visitors honing their skating skills (although this year there was a mild patch in December and January that kept many skaters on the sidelines). While downtown Ottawa offers all the comforts of a major Canadian city, it doesn’t take much to find the countryside, and if you’re a skier you’ll find plenty of options for both downhill or cross country in the area.

Taking an afternoon stroll in sub-zero temperatures may sound idiotic, but that’s exactly how I wanted to start my Winterlude journey. The city itself is very walkable, with its downtown covering a mere 1.25 square kilometres, and even in the depths of winter the many historic buildings offer a beautiful sight. Everywhere you go, there are constant reminders that you are in Canada’s capital. War memorial statues, embassies from all over the world and even the Royal Canadian Mint make a simple walk a sightseeing treat.

I eventually stumbled across the Byward Market. This market area is one of the oldest in Canada (est. 1826) and although it looks a lot different than it probably did in the 1800s, you can still find fishmongers, butcher shops and fromageries that are family owned and passed down by generation.

"Obama" cookies, Le Moulin de Provence, Byward Market, Ottawa

“Obama” cookies at Le Moulin de Provence in Ottawa’s Byward Market. (Janine MacLean/Vacay.ca)

Le Moulin de Provence, which has been open for 14 years, is one of the more popular café/bakeries in the market and recently put themselves on the map for their famous “Obama” cookies. A simple shortbread cookie cut into a maple leaf and decorated with red and white royal icing, the cookie was presented to the United States president upon his first official visit to Canada. Since then, they have created other fad cookies such as the “Will and Kate” (more candy than cookie: made from caramel, white and milk chocolate and pistachios) and (why not?) even the “Winterlude” cookie.

“The last few years have been great for us, since we presented President Obama with our maple leaf cookie,” says Jorge Martinez, a member of Moulin’s staff, who are kept busy with long lines of patrons. During my visit, locals queued to buy special sweets for Valentine’s Day.

Just across the street from the Byward Market is the National Art Gallery of Canada. The gallery is a must-visit for anyone planning a trip to Ottawa, and especially during Winterlude. A special 24-hour screening of Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” will be playing this year until March 25. “The Clock” is a video installation combining clips taken from countless movies over the past century. I entered the theatre at 8:15 pm as a video clip of Vincent Price played. Price looked at his watch in the clip and announced that it was 8:15 pm. Immediately the clip moved over to another clip with a clock in the background reading 8:16 pm. I looked at my watch and, sure enough, the installation was moving with time. Completely mesmerizing but at the same time, comical, “The Clock” was a definite highlight.

Ice sculptures, Ottawa, Winterlude

Ice sculptures are an annual Winterlude highlight. (Janine MacLean/Vacay.ca)

The following morning, the sun was shining fiercely against the frozen canal and I couldn’t wait to get on the ice for a relaxing skate. First, though, I wanted to check out Confederation Park. Winterlude is famous for its ice-sculpting competition, and every year sculptors from all over the world put their art on display to be judged. The sculptures were impressive, as were the several other art installments set up around the vicinity. Local vendors, artists and food trucks gave the park a festive feel.

The canal was close to the park, so I walked across the ice and rented a pair of skates ($16 rental fee, but you have to leave a deposit of $50). Although it was a bit bumpy in places, skating the length of the canal (7.8 kilometres) was a great alternative way to tour the city, and it made me realize what a wonderful place Ottawa can be in the winter. I no longer felt the cold as I glided past families eating beavertails and drinking hot chocolate. I felt happy to be alive and thankful for sharp blades.

“Winterlude is such a great time for kids and grown ups, too,” said one Ottawa resident partaking in the activities with her daughter. “The city really comes together to pull off a fantastic show.”

On the other side of the Ottawa River (a fairly quick ride on the “Snow Bus,” which runs between all Winterlude locations, offering patrons a free way to get from site to site), Gatineau Park had a similar set up to Confederation Park. Here, sledding was the activity of choice as screaming children sped down steep hills of snow. Yet another great family activity and the perfect stepping stone to, in my opinion, the best museum in Canada — the Museum of Civilization.

Yes, if museums are your bag then Ottawa is the Canadian city for you. Between the Museum of Nature (where I wore a python like a necklace and let a tarantula crawl all over me), the architecturally awe-inspiring and informative Canadian War Museum and the super fun, kid-friendly Museum of Civilization you’ll feel like you won’t ever need another Canadian history lesson.

Winterlude is a fabulous way to embrace winter, explore our nation’s capital and eat copious amounts of fried dough (I’m currently experiencing beavertail withdrawal). The moral of the story? No one embraces winter like Canadians, but no city celebrates that fact like Ottawa. I, for one, can’t wait til next year. Bring on the sub-zero temperatures.

Winterlude Musts
• Le Moulin de Provence (55 Byward Market): If you fancy fresh baked pastries or, perhaps, an “Obama” cookie, this is the place to come!
• Saslove’s Meat Market (50 Byward Market Square): If you have access to a kitchen, go to this amazing butcher shop for an alluring array of homemade sausages. Our fav: Double Smoked Bacon and Maple Syrup (heaven). www.saslovesmeat.com
• The WORKS (326 Richmond Rd. plus other locations around Ottawa): For a great burger (and poutine … burp!) head out to this joint in Westboro Village; 62 options — take your time reading the menu! www.worksburger.com

• The National Art Gallery of Canada (380 Sussex Dr.): Come to the gallery and meet “Maman,” possibly the biggest spider sculpture ever made, and enjoy the largest collection of Canadian art in the world. www.gallery.ca
• The Canadian Museum of Civilization (100 Laurier St., Gatineau): Learn why Canadians are so awesome, and maybe catch an IMAX 3D film. www.civilization.ca
• The Canadian War Museum (1 Vimy Place): Every Canadian should visit this museum and take note of Canada’s past involvement in not only world wars, but peacekeeping and peacemaking ventures. The architecture is also really, really cool. www.warmuseum.ca

• Skate the Rideau Canal: There’s nothing like it! 7.8 km of solid ice, although bumpy in spots, makes for an incredible tour of Ottawa. www.canadascapital.gc.ca/skateway
• Window shop the trendy neighbourhoods of The Glebe, Parkdale or Westboro Village: From one-of-a-kind boutiques to major fashion outlets, you will find great shopping in these neighbourhoods as well as cutesy cafés, candy shops and bookstores. www.ottawatourism.ca
• Take your kids to visit the cats on Parliament Hill: In our experience, no trip to Ottawa is complete without a trip to the Cat Sanctuary — located just west of the Parliament buildings. The cats are well fed and cared for — a lesson in humanity. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_Parliamentary_Cats

• Chateau Laurier (1 Rideau St.): Centrally located, grand in every way and just plain beautiful. If you can afford it, you will not find better accommodation in Ottawa. It’s also celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2012. www.fairmont.com/laurier
• The Lord Elgin (100 Elgin St.): Also centrally located and gorgeous. Walk across the street and you’re smack dab in the middle of Winterlude! www.lordelginhotel.ca

Janine is Vacay.ca's Food Columnist. Growing up in a tiny farming community on Cape Breton Island, Janine knew at a young age that she was destined for travel and as a young girl would spend hours poring over her father’s outdated globe, dreaming of the places she would someday visit. Twenty-something years later, she is now based in Toronto where she works as a chef and writer, having travelled throughout Asia, Canada and Ireland (with more trips to come!).

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