By Jim Ferri
Many of us take winter vacations to escape the cold. But there’s another side to this coin — seeking the cold for a unique vacation experience. I’m not referring to a ski or snowboard getaway to the mountains, or snowmobiling about a national park, but about an urban winter vacation where you can enjoy the cultural side of a city including great restaurants, museums and shopping.
You can, of course, experience this in many US cities — New York, Chicago, Boston and Minneapolis immediately come to mind — but to put some real panache on that winter getaway you’ve got to go where the temperature takes a real swan dive every January – Canada.
Sans skis and snowboards, most of the winter action in Canada takes place in Ottawa, Montréal and Québec City. Each has an unusual festival you’ll have a hard time experiencing anywhere else.
During Ottawa’s three-weekend-long Winterlude Festival (February 3 – 20, 2012), for example, you can go skating along the picturesque Rideau Canal through the city’s downtown. The canal is not only the largest outdoor skating rink in the world, according to the Guinness book of records, but also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The “rink” usually opens in mid-January and remains open every day/all day until the big thaw finally comes.
A large number of people attack the Rideau during Winterlude, many starting their skate at the top of the rink in front of the Parliament buildings, and then make their way down past the Château Laurier hotel and the city’s old town. The old town is filled with galleries, museums and restaurants so even if you’re not a skater you can still feel as though you’re part of the action while you wander about with your credit card in hand.
The festival includes such events as ice-sculpture competitions and other things you’d expect given the temperature, as well as the culinary Taste of Winterlude, which runs from late January through mid-February.
Further east in Montréal they party for 10 days during the Festival Montréal en Lumière, the city’s High Lights Festival, which brightens up the city during the darkest days of winter, in 2012 February 16 – 26. It’s an extravaganza of food, drinks, music, art and sports, some 200 or so events and exhibits spread out across the city, many free.
The week’s agenda includes everything from midnight yoga sessions to a masked ball, an after-midnight museum tour by a flashlight, and country line dancing at City Hall. Free shuttles let you move from zone to zone without too much of a hassle.
It certainly can get cold but one of the great things about Montréal is its famous underground city, a huge heated network of underground streets, the Metro and numerous shopping areas, which gets you out of the cold whether you’re going just a few blocks or its entire 20-mile length. I’ve entered it from my hotel and was able to comfortably go to lots of places without setting foot on the streets above. It’s a good solution for making winter less of a challenge.
Carnaval de Québec, the Québec Winter Carnival, is over-the-top in terms of winter events. This pre-Lenten bash is the biggest winter carnival in the world – think Mardi Gras on ice, to get a good sense of it. There are night parades, concerts, sleigh and dogsled rides, snow sculptures and many other activities, just about all of which are outdoors all over Old Québec.
With a little planning in advance there are some good ways to beat the cold. Spend some time in a museum, stroll about the beautiful and historic Château Frontenac (there are tours on weekends for fee) or go shopping. One good strategy is to make a dinner reservation at a restaurant along a parade route, although many of these reservations are taken well advance, sometimes months in advance.
If you want to get away from the cold and crowds in Québec City but still have a taste of the winter experience there’s another great option – le Massif de Charlevoix, a new train that will link Québec City with the province’s Charlevoix region. Much of the 87-mile route runs between the St. Lawrence River and the Laurentian Mountains, beautiful in any season.
The train’s six 1950s-era railcars have been totally refurbished and each carries less than 70 passengers. It’s the brainchild of one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil, and is being heralded as both a rail ride and a gastronomic experience.
The experience is overseen by the executive chef of the Fairmont Hotel in La Malbaie, the train’s destination, which itself is an architectural tribute to the glory days of the early 20th century. A one-day-getaway, referred to as a “rail cruise,” includes a three-course lunch outbound and a four-course gastronomic dinner on the return. The rail cruise departs Sundays only; cost is CAN$249 per adult.
If you go:
Obviously, when you’re out in sub-zero temperatures – especially on a windy night — you’ve got to dress appropriately. Layer up is the rule. And consider your footwear, as well. In Old Quebec, where the Québec Winter Carnival takes place, the streets are quite hilly and steep.
130 Albert Street, Suite 1800
Ottawa, Ontario K1P 5G4
Ministère du Tourisme Québec
P.O Box 979
Montréal (Québec) H3C 2W3
Québec City Tourism
Québec / Borough of La Cité-Limoilou
Tourist Information Bureau
835, avenue Wilfrid-Laurier
Québec, QC G1R 2L3
Canadian Tourism Commission
#1400-1055 Dunsmuir Street, Box 49230