Embracing winter in Ottawa
An ice sculpture in the Crystal Garden. (National Capital Commission)
Canadians learned long ago, if you cannot beat winter, join it. In Ottawa, they positively embrace it — with a smorgasbord of winter activities, including Winterlude, a three-week-long, outdoor extravaganza which celebrates life in the big chill.
Ottawa has long been overshadowed as a popular Canadian travel destination by its seemingly more glamorous neighbours, Toronto and Montreal. But recent figures from the Conference Board of Canada predict that Canada's capital city will outpace the competition in 2011. Winterlude - which attracts more than a million visitors a season - is one of Ottawa's biggest tourist draws.
The festivities kick off on 4 February with a lavish firework display outside the Canadian Museum of Civilization (www.civilization.ca/cmc/home), which also has stunning views of the Ottawa cityscape from the Quebec-side of the Ottawa River. The National Capital Commission's (NCC) Guy Laflamme, one of the festival's organizers, said the opening will be "bigger than ever" featuring "a huge cascade of pyrotechnical effects" pouring from the Alexandra Bridge into the icy river.
Post-fireworks, revellers will be able to warm up during a dance party at the museum. Too bone-chilling? The museum will offer hot chocolate, access to its exhibits, circus performances and the IMAX theatre - all for free. In fact, the museum will be offering fun-filled shelter during all of the Winterlude weekends: 4 to 6 February, 11 to 13 February and 18 to 20 February.
The beating heart of the festival, now in its 33rd year, is Ottawa's Rideau Canal, a Unesco World Heritage site which cuts an elegant swathe through the city. In winter, it freezes to become the world's largest skating rink, known as the Rideau Skateway - 8km/5 miles of unfettered, tree-lined, ice.
Getting started could not be easier. After renting skates from the Skateway kiosks (or buying second-hand ones cheaply from Ottawa sports shops), take advantage of the free skating lessons offered on the canal during Winterlude weekends.
Pierre Pierre Blais, code-named "Tin Tin", is one of a large First Aid contingent patrolling the ice. Any injuries, he said, tend to affect the wrists and the upper body, so he recommends helmets and wrist guards for those wobbly on their blades. It is answering people's questions about the Skateway - not injuries - which keeps him and his team busy, he happily added.
An army of snowploughs and maintenance engineers work 24 hours a day to ensure the ice is in tip top shape while the NCC's Ice Safety Committee monitors the ice on an hourly basis.
Once hunger strikes, festival-goers flock to booths selling Beaver Tails. And mischievous locals will try to convince you that you are about to tuck into the appendage of the large rodent with the notorious bucked-teeth.
"They'll carry the gag right up to the end!" said Grant Hooker, who has been serving Beaver Tails (www.beavertailsinc.com) at Winterlude for thirty years.
In reality, the treat is a cinnamon and sugar pastry stretched into the shape of a beaver's tail.
The bringing together of cold skaters and a tasty hot, buttered pastry was "a marriage made in heaven", Hooker said proudly.
The Beaver Tail even won the heart of United States President Barack Obama when he visited a "Beaver Hut", where he was served an aptly named "Obamatail".
Confederation Park, just opposite City Hall, will stage Winterlude's famous international ice carving competition in its "Crystal Garden". Stunning, intricate creations by world-class carvers include those from the ice city of Harbin, in China. On weekends, the park's ice-laden Rogers Crystal Lounge gives new meaning to "glittering nightlife" as it also hosts dance parties - including one that emphasises Canada's rich First Nations (aboriginal) heritage.
Back on the Quebec-side, at Jacques Cartier Park, the Snowflake Kingdom is North America's biggest snow playground, with giant snow slides, obstacle courses and horse-drawn sleigh rides.
If the festival has you thirsty for more cold weather activities, head over to Gatineau Park (Quebec-side), just 15 minutes from downtown Ottawa, which has more than 200 km of cross country ski trails - one of the biggest networks in North America. From 18 to 20 February, the park also stages the Gatineau Loppet, a three-day international cross-country ski race which plays host to 3,000 skiers from about 20 countries.