“We don’t hibernate, we celebrate!“
An Ottawan taught me this mantra. She said the phrase was common in Canada’s capital. People in Ottawa love to make the most of the city’s extreme cold. And Winterlude, the capital’s festival buried deep in chilly February, is THE best way to celebrate this freezing-cold time of year.
Winterlude 2020 runs from 31st January to February 17th. For more information see the Ottawa Tourism website.
Winterlude: it sure is cold!
Temperatures of -15° are frequent, and winter 2018-19 saw the temperature plummet to -25°. But the weather doesn’t stop the city from turning into a hub of festive fun. When I arrived in mid-February 2019, there were still loads of Christmas decorations on display. Evergreens stood in the windows of houses, decked with baubles. Wreaths hung on doors, and twinkly lights sparkled in trees.
I travelled to Ottawa and the Outaouais Valley on a press trip*, which fell over weekend two of the 2019 celebrations. Despite the shock of coming from mild old London to a place where temperatures hit minus ten degrees and below, my trip to Ottawa during Winterlude was a thrilling way to see some of the highlights of Canadian culture. It may have been cold, but it was crisp, with brilliant sunshine. And, with the help of a Winterlude packing guide, I had all the right gear with me. I’ve passed on some of these tips in the ‘what to pack’ section at the bottom of this post.
What and when is Winterlude?
For the last 41 years, people in Ottawa have said ‘boo!’ to the chill by taking to the streets for Winterlude on the first three weekends of February. This celebration of winter features skating, ice slides, beautiful sculptures made from snow and ice, parties, an Ice Dragon Boat Race, good food and lashings of hot chocolate. Everyone wraps up in lots of layers, and there are kids everywhere, squealing and tramping their way along the frozen streets in brightly coloured snowboots.
2019’s Winterlude followed three broad themes. The first weekend focused on indigenous cultures, with a pow wow at the Canadian Museum of History. Weekend two was LGBTQ weekend, featuring Ottawa’s first Winter Pride, and a (rather chilly!) evening cabaret on Sparks Street. The third weekend was family weekend. The Winterlude Ice Hogs were out in force, giving youngsters warming hugs after they’d slid down ice slides at the Snowflake Kingdom, or braved the zip wire.
Things to do at Winterlude
Winterlude 2019 took place at six main sites in Ottawa, but there were plenty of activities across the entire Outaouais region. A free shuttle bus – the SnoBus – ferried people from a park-and-ride into the centre of town, and between Winterlude destinations. I found it enjoyable to walk my way around Winterlude. Some sites, like Sparks Street, the Rideau Canal and ByWard Market, were just a couple of minutes away from each other. For destinations that were a little further away (a twenty minute walk, or so), I enjoyed the opportunity to sightsee. But for kids and people less used to walking distances, the SnoBus would be handy.
Here are the highlights of Winterlude that I managed to fit into my four-day trip.
Visit ByWard Market
ByWard Market was an official Winterlude location for 2019. Dating back to 1826, it’s one of the oldest and largest farmers’ markets in Canada. It includes a covered market as well as a big trading area outside. The market’s first customers were the workers who built Ottawa in the days when it was known as Bytown. Back then it was a rough, loggers’ town. It only became known as Ottawa, Canada’s capital, under Queen Victoria’s decree in 1857.
ByWard Market’s open every single day except Christmas and New Year’s Day. It sells an eclectic range of staples and delicacies. I enjoyed browsing a shop crammed full of Canadian produce, like chutneys from Prince Edward Island, and locally sourced maple syrup. Wooden carvings of bears and elks, screen printings showing local scenes, and traditional indigenous clothing were all on sale. The market was also a warm place to nip into, to warm up from the cold.
See the marvellous ice sculptures in Winterlude’s Crystal Garden
York Street Plaza, just around the corner from the indoor part of ByWard Market, was the new home of Winterlude’s Crystal Garden. Along the wide street, giant ice sculptures lined up in a row. In the evening, bluey purple, pink and red lights shone through the glistening artworks, and atmospheric, floaty music played as part of a sonic installation. The sculptures had been chiseled, hacked and delicately carved for an International Carving Competition. My favourites were an Inuit girl with her dog, a wobbly Eiffel Tower, and Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian king made by a Canadian-Iraqi duo.
If I’d been in Ottawa at the beginning of the festival, I’d have caught some of the ice carvers at work, with chainsaws and blowtorches. It seemed hard to believe that such delicately beautiful pieces had been carved using these fierce tools.
The ice scupltures were close to one of the places I stayed in Ottawa, the Lord Elgin Hotel. I was drawn back to see them a few times while I was there. They were mesmerising.
Skate on the frozen Rideau Canal
Even for Canadians who skate all the time, skating the frozen Rideau Canal’s a bucket list item. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and at 7.8 km (4.8 miles), the Skateway’s the world’s largest naturally frozen ice rink. The ice needs to be more than 30cm thick for the Skateway to open. To test its depth, small circular holes are bored into the ice. In 2019, the canal was solid enough for people to skate on all three Winterlude weekends.
The pretty route along the canal begins within sight of Parliament Hill, and continues down past Landsdowne Park and onto Dow’s Lake. When I visited there was a real party atmosphere on the ice, with people chatting as they whizzed along, and stopping for hot chocolate, taffy or BeaverTail pastries at stalls on the edge of the Skateway. A few heated changing rooms along the route let people take off their boots, which they usually popped into rucksacks before skating off.
If it’s cold enough, the canal’s open 24 hours a day until the beginning of March. The best time to skate for a novice is in the morning, when the ice is freshly prepared and the canal’s quieter. The Rideau Canal Skateway website shows when it’s closed because of thin ice.
Skate on one of the other rinks around Ottawa and Gatineau
Ottawans seemed to be mad on skating. The streets were full of people walking round with skates slung over their shoulders. There was even a special area for skates inside my wardrobe in the Lord Elgin Hotel. So it followed that Rideau Canal skating wasn’t the only option available. The SENS Rink of Dreams next to Constitution Park, Landsdowne Park Skating Court and the refrigerated rink at Rideau Hall were all busy with kids and adults, enjoying themselves on the ice.
Watch an Ice Dragon Boat Race at Winterlude
Canadians didn’t stop at using skates to help them whizz along the ice. While I was there, the International Ice Dragon Boat Race saw teams skimming their way along the frozen Dow’s Lake. They travelled in boats on skis, using only poles with spikes on the end to propel themselves to the finish line.
We watched one of the women’s heats. It was -20°, but the teams of ten strong racers – with names like Paddle Like a Mother, Chicks with Sticks and the Wonder Broads – showed impressive strength as they punted along in the sunshine. You can see a clip of them here in action, near the beginning of my video:
Eat a BeaverTail
BeaverTails pastries are an Ottawan delicacy that were first sold in the 1970s in Killaloe Fair, a town in Ontario close to Ottawa. I sampled a couple of the hot, wholewheat treats on my trip. They’re sold with a range of different toppings, like chocolate and banana, maple syrup or cheese. I tried the ‘original’, sugar and cinnamon. It was a real winter warmer – crisp, sweet and chewy, a bit like a doughnut but less dense, and stretched flat into the shape of its namesake’s tail.
I saw BeaverTails stalls at ByWard Market, on the Rideau Canal and in Jacques Cartier Park for the Snowflake Kingdom. There are more places where you can buy BeaverTails in Ottawa, Ontario. You’ll find them in other places in Canada – and even across the world. The queues for BeaverTails were always long, but I didn’t have to wait for more than ten minutes. The cold made the warm melt-in-the-mouth pastry taste even more scrumptious.
Play at Rideau Hall’s Winter Celebration
Rideau Hall wasn’t an official Winterlude ‘destination’. But the home of Canada’s Governor General held its annual Winter celebration to coincide with the festival. After we’d toured the home of the UK monarch’s representative in Canada (which I’ve written about here – it was fascinating), we headed out into Rideau Hall’s 79 acres. The trees, lawns, and flower beds were all covered with thick snow. The area around the hall itself was busy. Stalls from the embassies of different countries from Sweden to Mongolia gave away cakes, biscuits, hot chocolate and soup. Some stalls were quiet, but the popular places had queues 20 deep.
As well as lining up for food, families played with the games dotted around the grounds, like giant jenga, and a snowy obstacle course for kids. The current Governor General, former astronaut Julie Payette, opened the Nordic games, which you can see in the video below. Do also look out for the Inuit throat singing. This was my favourite sight at the Winter Celebrations. If you haven’t heard it before, it’s when two people (traditionally women) face each other and sing a breathy duet with lots of grunts – and laughter at the end, when one woman outlasts the other.
Sample some great Canadian food and drink
BeaverTails weren’t the only tasty things I ate while I was in Ottawa. The breakfast menu at the Best Western Plus Gatineau-Ottawa Hotel, where I stayed for the first two nights, was superb. It featured pancakes heaped with fruit and maple syrup, perfectly cooked eggs with bechemel sauce and home fries (which were a bit like roast potatoes, but smaller, and fried), and poutine. Although I didn’t feel like this traditional Canadian dish of chips (fries), gravy and cheese curds for breakfast, diners around me were tucking into their poutine with relish. (You can read more about the Best Western Plus Gatineau-Ottawa Hotel here, in this feature on Ottawa Hotels)
ByWard Market Winterlude Stew Cook-Off
For 28 years, ByWard Market has hosted a Winterlude stew cook-off. Inside a bustling tent, over 20 restaurants and food banks were giving out samples of their best one-pot concoctions. I tried a fragrant marrakech hotpot, a moreish pork belly and sweet potato stew, and a warming pork and honey stew, with zingy red chilli broth. After sampling all the stews we could eat for $10, we voted for our favourites in a public ballot. There was a cheery atmosphere, and I’d recommend getting there early. The vegetarian stews had all been gobbled up by the time we arrived.
Afternoon tea, cocktails and nibbles in Zoe’s lounge bar at the Fairmont Château Laurier
Overlooking the Rideau Canal Skateway, Fairmont Château Laurier is a historic hotel that was founded in 1912 and played host to prestigious list of politicians, heads of state, royalty and entertainers. King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II and Winston Churchill all stayed there. The Fairmont Château Laurier is renowned for its afternoon teas, but I was invited there to sample cocktails in the newly renovated Zoe’s lounge bar. Surrounded by people dressed in casual winter jumpers and snow boots, we drank elegant cocktails beneath elaborate, heavy-looking chandeliers. My favourite was the Statesman. The whisky and maple syrup concoction arrived encased in a chamber of beech smoke.
To accompany our drinks, we ate an exciting platter of cured meats and Balderon cheddar that had been soaked in honey for 24 hours before being torched on a cedar plank. With nibbles this good, I would be keen to try some of the main meals on Zoe’s menu, like lobster cobb salad, cod and chips or stuffed quail. (You can read more about the Fairmont Château Laurier in this feature I wrote on Ottawa Hotels).
Dinner at Play Food and Wine
I dined one evening at Play Food and Wine, a laid-back, funky restaurant in the ByWard Market area. Play offered small plates, which would be great for sharing. Each menu item was paired with a wine suggestion. I chose a chickpea salad followed by a tender steak with chimichurri, frites and aioli, accompanied by a glass of Bergerac. The deep, heavy notes of the wine were perfect with the light, juicy red meat and the meal was topped off by an impeccable selection of cheeses made in neighbouring Québec.
Things to do at Winterlude for kids
Winterlude’s a great time for visiting Ottawa with kids. On the weekend of my visit, the streets were full of youngsters, hopping through the snow, gasping at the stunning ice sculptures dotted around, munching on BeaverTails, and taking their first steps onto the ice. Rideau Hall’s Winter Celebration, the Ice Dragon Boat Race and all the different ice rinks were great for families. The number one Winterlude destination for families, though, was Snowflake Kingdom.
Visit Snowflake Kingdom at Winterlude
Ottawa lies on the border between Ontario and Québec. in 2019 Winterlude’s Snowflake Kingdom was across the Ottawa River, on the Québec side, in Gatineau’s Jacques Cartier Park.
Mainly open at the weekends, Snowflake Kingdom’s merry riot of snow sculptures, indigenous music and enormous ice slides were teeming with families when I visited. A colourful dragon wandered around, and the Ice Hogs had moved on from the Ice Dragon Boat Race to take up residence in their natural Winterlude home.
A sculptor called Josh Dagg gave live demonstrations of his chainsaw wood carving. The scent of scorched timber wafted through the crisp, cold air as he cut through logs to make bears, eagles and strange little creatures that looked a little like trolls.
Despite rather long queues, the Chinook, Glacier and Iceberg slides looked like a lot of fun. People sat in large rubber rings to descend the slopes. It wasn’t just for kids: there seemed to be a lot of adults enjoying themselves on the slides. And both kids and adults whizzed down a zip line that ran from a super-high scaffolding almost as far as the river. The zip wire was $10 per go, or $20 for a day of rides.
Visit a museum
Although there were loads of child-friendly activities at each Winterlude destination I visited, a whole day outdoors might be a little hard going on youngsters unused to the cold. Ottawa’s world-class museums would be a good place to warm up. I’ve written about Ottawa’s child-friendly museums here. If you’re heading to the city, bookmark the Canadian Museum of History, the National Gallery of Canada and Ottawa Art Gallery, all of which had workshops and tours specially designed for kids. Hands-on sections let the children touch, feel and play with exhibits and artworks. The Canadian Museum of History even had its own Children’s Museum, with miniature towns including shops, double decker buses and a library.
Other things to do on your trip to Ottawa and the Outaouais Valley
If you’re visiting Ottawa for Winterlude, it would be worth checking out the other things to see and do in the surrounding areas of Ontario and Québec. I spent a magical morning in Parc Omega, a 2.2k-acre wildlife zone an hour’s drive from Ottawa, in the direction of Montréal. In the park I saw Arctic wolves, black and grey wolves, elk, deer and a moose, and even a bear, briefly out of its den during hibernation. I’ve written more about Parc Oméga (or Omega Park) here. It’s a must-see, especially if you’re visiting with kids.
Also nearby is the Diefenbunker, a former Cold War bunker 23 metres underground in Carp, a small town half an hour from Ottawa. It’s a quirky warren of a place, with a brooding atmosphere. I half expected to see James Bond lurking round a corner in one of the 1970s-style rooms. Read more about the Diefenbunker here.
At only fifteen minutes from the city, Gatineau Park lies even closer to Ottawa. Visitors can go swimming, hiking, biking, camping, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing in its 361km² of hills and forest. Sadly I didn’t have time to fit a trip to Gatineau Park into my four days in Ottawa and the Outaouais Valley, but it would be top of my list for next time.
Where to stay: Outaouais Valley and Ottawa Hotels
On my trip I stayed for two nights each in two hotels, both of which were in great locations for Winterlude. I’ve written more about these and other Ottawa hotels here.
Best Western Plus Gatineau-Ottawa Hotel
Address: 131 Laurier Street, Gatineau Québec J8X 3W3
For the first two nights I was in the Best Western Plus Gatineau-Ottawa Hotel, across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Québec. I was told that Ottawa looks at its most beautiful from Gatineau. The vision from my balcony the morning after I arrived made me believe this was true. The frozen river snaked like a white blanket past Parliament Hill and the Canadian Museum of History, which was just a five-minute walk away. Jacques Cartier Park was literally just across the road from the waterfront Best Western. It was an ideal hotel for families just wanting to crash after a day of playing at Snowflake Kingdom.
I’ve already mentioned the Best Western’s superb breakfasts, which I ate in the hotel restaurant and which could easily have fuelled me until teatime. The hotel also boasted a heated saltwater swimming pool.
Lord Elgin Hotel
Address: 100 Elgin Street, Ottawa Ontario K1P 5K8
My second hotel was the historic Lord Elgin Hotel, in downtown Ottawa. The large, elegant hotel was across the road from Confederation Park and the SENS Rink of Dreams. The Rideau Canal, Sparks Street, Parliament Hill and the ByWard Market were all less than a handful of minutes away.
Staff at the Lord Elgin Hotel went out of their way to make me feel welcome. The great service extended to the offer of a complementary bottle of water (“chilled, or room temperature?”) for my taxi journey to the airport. The hotel lobby was friendly and bustling. Guests could sit in the lounge area in front of a roaring log fire, eat in the Grill 41 restaurant, have a coffee in Starbucks, or nip into the gift shop for last-minute souvenirs and pharmacy items. The hotel’s swimming pool was on the first floor.
Fairmont Le Château Montebello
Address: 392 Notre-Dame Street, Montebello Québec J0V 1L0
If you wanted to see Ottawa and the Outaouais Valley but would rather stay in the countryside, Fairmont Le Château Montebello would be a good option. Based in the small town of Montebello, an hour from both Ottawa and Montréal and just a few minutes from Parc Oméga, the hotel is the largest log cabin in the world. Its distinguished visitors range from Bing Crosby to Margaret Thatcher. The cosy, genteel place lets guests explore the wilds of its grounds through activities like snowshoeing, dog sledding, cross-country skiing and ice skating. Guests can spend time in the spa or the elegant swimming pool, and eat delicious seasonal local produce in the hotel’s restaurant, Aux Chantignoles.
How to get to Ottawa
Ottawa International Airport is a 20 minute drive from the centre of town. I flew from London Heathrow courtesy of Air Canada, who offer more daily flights from the UK to Canada than other airline.
What to pack for Winterlude and a trip to Canada in winter
Here’s what I packed for this trip. I managed to stay nice and warm:
- lots of jumpers and fleeces. On the colder days, I wore five or six layers, including my thermal underclothes.
- long johns and thermal long-sleeved vests, in merino wool.
- handwarmers and footwarmers. These little sachets warmed up when you opened them. The sachets I slipped inside my boots were particularly useful. I never once suffered from cold toes.
- sturdy, warm boots with good treads. The lovely Outaouais PR also bought me a set of crampons (ice spikes, which sat over my boots), and these helped stop me from slipping when I walked on the Rideau Canal and Dow’s Lake. Even the well-salted streets became slippy at times.
- nice shoes to change into when I arrived at a restaurant.
- a rucksack, to carry my nice shoes, and my boots when skating on the ice.
- a water bottle, and lots of snacks for keeping my energy up in the cold.
- A ski jacket, or a very warm coat with a waterproof outer shell.
- salopettes/snow pants. It’s no fun sliding down ice slides in your jeans!
- at least two pairs of gloves, so you can double up. I wore woollen gloves under my ski gloves.
- ditto with warm woollen socks. I wore two pairs.
- and I doubled up on hats, too! I wore a beanie underneath a woollen bobble hat – or a Canadian toque, as they’re known over there.
- A scarf, as well as a snood or something to cover the lower part of your face when it’s really cold. I could feel my breath freezing inside my nose when I went out one morning without covering my mouth and nose.
Have you been to Winterlude Ottawa, or visited this part of Canada in the winter? What would be your top tips?
Check out the video showing highlights of my trip:
*this was a press trip and I didn’t pay for accommodation, flights, entrance to any of the museums or attractions, or most of the food I ate.
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