Travel: Fire and Ice
With so many outdoor activities to enjoy, Canada’s capital region is an ideal winter wonderland getaway.
Sure, Florida is at its best during the winter months, but many of us still crave a taste of our missing season. We long to cozy up by the fire with a blanket and a hot toddy, savoring that primal draw to the warmth and light of the flame. If you don’t ski—or don’t want to deal with gear, lessons and lift tickets—there are so many other ways to play in the snow. One destination that offers more frozen fun than you might think possible is a direct flight north, in the same time zone as Orlando, and where the U.S. dollar is worth an appealing 30 percent more.
We’re talking about Canada’s National Capital Region of Ottawa-Gatineau (kind of like our Washington, D.C.). Ottawa is in Ontario where folks speak English, and often French as well. Gatineau is across the river in Quebec, where it’s the other way around. For this adventurous getaway, make your home base in Quebec’s Outaouais (pronounced oot-a-way) region, which will put you at the center of an unforgettable winter playground (ou excuse-moi, aire de jeux d’hiver).
Sylvain Massie wants to take you dogsledding, or teach you how to drive your own sled and team (chiens-traîneaux.com). He asks a lot of questions in advance to calibrate the right trip not only for you and your group, but also for the dogs. Teams travel along trails cut through deep snow in the forest and the open plains. Most people, Massie says, opt for a two-hour excursion that also includes hilly terrain. An unexpected and delicious treat: hot chocolate or “caribou”—a boozy hot beverage favored by Quebecois. You’ll begin and end your outing in a toasty cabin, where Massie encourages you to linger by the fireplace and make yourself at home.
Massie also provides short rides to guests staying at Fairmont Le Château Montebello, about 20 minutes from where he runs his dogsledding trips. Afterward, you can return to the lobby of the world’s largest log cabin to warm up beside the monumental six-sided fireplace.
It’s worth learning to ice skate or getting in some practice at the RDV indoor rink in Maitland before a trip to Ottawa-Gatineau, where two truly unique experiences await.
At Patinage en Forêt (patinageenforet.com), you can ice skate through a forest where nearly two miles of trails are groomed daily. Torches light the trail during special night-skate sessions. Then, take the chill off while sitting around the outdoor fireplace or inside the chalet. Note: Cash is the only accepted form of payment here.
For a festive urban skate, head back to Ottawa where you can glide along the Rideau Canal Skateway in view of the iconic Parliament buildings. The Rideau Canal itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in winter it’s also the world’s largest outdoor natural skating rink, nearly five miles long and serving recreational skaters, athletes in training and even commuters. Ice maintenance, safety patrol and guest services are provided by the National Capital Commission. At designated rest areas you can refuel with poutine (french fries dressed in gravy and cheese curds) and beaver tails (fried flatbread, usually covered with cinnamon sugar) and your hot bevvy of choice.
At Nordik Spa-Nature (chelsea/lenordik.com), you can move through cycles of heat, cold and rest in a mostly outdoor setting. Regulars will tell you that winter is the most magical time for this multi-sensory experience. Imagine soaking in a thermal pool enshrouded in steam, surrounded by evergreens heavy with snow, and the air is crisp with a hint of wood smoke.
Nordik is arranged in three sections: Social, Whisper and Silent—you can probably guess where the bar is located. Each area has plenty of options so you can mix and match to suit your mood. Various saunas range from the very hot to meditatively warm, and embrace the customs of many cold-weather cultures, from Scandinavian to Russian; there’s even a Japanese onsen.
A gong signals the beginning of the Aufguss ritual held in the large capacity Finlandian sauna. An Aufguss master places snowballs infused with essential oils on hot coals and then directs the steam around the sauna by twirling a towel with mesmerizing dance movements set to music.
The goal of Nordik Spa-Nature is wellness; the experience is pure pleasure.
Plan Your Trip
You need a passport to visit Canada. Fly to Ottawa and rent a car to stay and play in Quebec’s Outaouais region. All activities described are within about an hour’s drive of Canada’s capital. tourismeoutaouais.com
Gatineau Park is the recreational heart of the region. The Visitor Centre is in Chelsea, where Nordik Spa-Nature is also located, as well as cabin rentals, B&Bs and cozy cafés such as Biscotti & Cie. Join a guided Snowshoe Under the Stars activity offered in both French and English (reserve through the park in advance). ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places/gatineau-park
Relais Plein Air
This nonprofit group is committed to accessible winter recreation and offers equipment for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and winter biking, as well as guides and lessons. Its heated chalet and lovely café are beside Gatineau Park and just 15 minutes from Gatineau’s waterfront. relaispleinair.ca
Historic Home Base
For a one-stop winter vacay, stay at the Fairmont Le Château Montebello, which is pet-friendly and offers babysitting, so you can bring the whole family. On site, you can ice-skate, snowshoe, cross-country ski, curl, go dogsledding, take a sleigh ride, go tube-sliding and snowmobiling. fairmont.com/montebello
In the spirit of simplifying a snow trip without having to buy a lot of gear, you can borrow everything you’ll need from toque to boots. Online rental company Kit Lender has children’s and adult’s sizes. If you’re new to dressing for the cold, wear layers and leave the cotton clothes in Florida. kitlender.com