Ottawa, Canada’s capital, has a compact and walkable downtown. Both French and English are spoken in the city, whose many museums and ever-vibrant ByWard Market district help make it a year-round destination. Wintertime means opportunities to skate on a UNESCO World Heritage Site, see spectacular ice carvings created as part of the Winterlude festival, and attend the Canadian Culinary Championships.
Thick gloves cause my pocket to bulge, a colorful scarf is looped around my neck, and I carry a pompom-topped knitted wool hat that any Canadian would look at and call a toque. I’ll need warm clothing while exploring Ottawa today. Outside it’s bright and sunny but the clouds of condensation billowing from pedestrians’ mouths and noses indicate that the day is chilly.
“There’s no such thing as poor weather, only bad clothing,” joked a local yesterday as I browsed food stalls at the ByWard Market in the heart of the city. I popped by the popular market to purchase a bottle of the maple syrup made from sap harvested in springtime from trees in nearby Quebec. After buying my culinary souvenir I strolled across the Alexandra Bridge, which straddles the Ottawa River and the Ontario-Quebec provincial border. From the free-to-visit terrace by the Canadian Museum of History, I enjoyed a view of the honey-colored Peace Tower over on Parliament Hill, then stared in awe at totem poles ranged within the museum’s Grand Hall.
On my way back into central Ottawa I was tempted inside the National Gallery of Canada, unable to resist a chance to view artworks by the celebrated landscape painters known as the Group of Seven. Active from 1920 to 1933, the prolific group’s members spent time outdoors with their easels and the intention of capturing the soul of their nation on canvas. Impressed by the paintings and inspired by their philosophy, today I intend to spend much more of the day outside.
Average daytime temperatures make Ottawa the seventh coldest capital city on the planet. Canadians have learned to embrace winter. Rather than the traffic chaos, ice brings leisure opportunities. Zipping up my coat, I’m ready to seize them.
This winter is the 50th that the Rideau Canal has been transformed into the world’s biggest naturally frozen skating rink. At other times of the year the Rideau Canal is popular with boaters: no prior experience in a wheelhouse is required to steer leisure craft through the 45 locks along the waterway’s 202-kilometer route to Kingston. Like a giant staircase, eight of those locks form the Ottawa Lockstation that rises from the Ottawa River between the Fairmont Château Laurier hotel and Parliament Hill. The canal opened back in 1832 and since 2007 has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The Rideau Canal Skateway meanders 7.8 kilometers through downtown Ottawa to Hartwell Locks. I watch Ottawans transform their commute to work into a pleasurable outdoor exercise session, gracefully gliding along skate-scarred ice that shimmers golden in the low morning sun. Inspired, I pull on a pair of rental boots from Capital Skates, near the MacKenzie King Bridge, and totter onto the ice.
Ice hockey -known here simply as hockey- is Canada’s national winter sport. Concentrating hard, so as not to overbalance, I make my way uncertainly along the Skateway contemplating the high levels of skill, both on skates and with a stick, required of top players. The Ottawa Senators, of the National Hockey League’s Atlantic Division, play home games at the Canadian Tire Centre. The Ottawa 67s attract a loyal following to their Ontario Hockey League fixtures played at the TD Place Arena. I make a note to check if I can get hold of tickets for forthcoming matches.
The Sens Rink of Dreams, named in honor of the Senators, is located outside Ottawa City Hall. From December 1 into mid-March, skating on the artificially frozen rink is free. That’s also true of the Skating Court at Lansdowne, in Lansdowne Park. Rideau Hall, which doubles as the official home and place of work of Canada’s Governor General, has a rink offering free ice-skating on weekends and a handful of other days. The city has more than 250 outdoor ice rinks allowing people to ice-skate and play hockey.
On January 31, Ottawa’s 41st Winterlude festival gets underway, continuing until February 17. The Rideau Canal Skateway will host a triathlon in which participants ski and run as well as skate. On the weekend of February 8-9, the Skateway will be the venue of the spectacular Ottawa Ice Dragon Boat Festival, which sees teams propel vessels on blades with sticks rather than oars. The family-friendly festival also sees snow sculptures being created in the Jacques Cartier Park. An international ice carving competition is held at the ByWard Market, which is also the location of outdoor DJ nights with cutting-edge electro music.
Skating is making me hungry. I begin thinking of food and recall that on the same day that Winterlude begins, top chefs from across the country begin competing in the Canadian Culinary Championships in Ottawa. Participants from 12 different cities have won the right to participate in the competition’s final, which concludes on February 1.
To warm myself I head to the Canadian Museum of Nature and spend time viewing the Butterflies in Flight exhibition, for which I have a timed ticket. Live butterflies flutter around me in the humid room which is heated to feel like part of the tropics. I then stroll between dioramas displaying Canadian mammals including fearsome-looking grizzly bears, caribou, and bison.
Reinvigorated, I feel ready for a new physical challenge and make my way to the SJAM Winter Trail, which skirts the Ottawa River, alongside the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway, for 16 kilometers. Starting at the Canadian War Museum I cycle on a fat bike -named thus because of the width of the tires- along a snowy trail also utilized by people working out on snowshoes and cross-country skis.
To relax my well-worked muscles I take a cab over to Nordik Spa-Nature in Gatineau’s Chelsea district. The vast spa lays claims to being the continent’s largest, featuring 10 pools plus a series of Scandinavian-inspired cabins holding saunas and steam rooms. A member of staff explains that I should spend time in one of the heated rooms before cooling down then rest before repeating the cycle. To start with, I plunge into a heated pool and listen to the relaxing sound of water gushing from an artificial waterfall as dusk descends over the Canadian capital after a beautiful winter day.