Tropical getaways are great, but we’ll take our Christmases white, with a dash of skiing and a warm sweater. That’s why we headed for the Great White North to explore how Canadians have turned winter into the coolest season of the year. From curling to dog-sledding, skiing to hockey, we found a nation whose character is defined by its sang-froid in the face of 30° Farenheit. Read on to discover some great Canadian hotspots — or perhaps we should say coldspots—that come alive in the depths of winter.
Festival du Voyageur, Winnipeg, Manitoba
Canadians complain about winter weather like anyone else. But they also know how to look winter in the eye and laugh. The annual Festival du Voyageur takes place in the French Quarter of Winnipeg, Manitoba – which some claim to be the coldest big city on earth — in the dead of winter, when temperatures can dip below -40• F. for weeks at a time. Over 100,000 people brave the elements for 10 days each February to soak up the warm spirit and joie de vivre as they celebrate the French Canadian fur traders, known as les voyageurs, and the Native Canadians who forged the history of the province. Come enjoy Canadian delicacies like bannock and poutine while taking in the jigging, fiddling, and beard-growing contests. Outside you’ll find spectacular ice sculptures, torchlight parades and music that will have you tapping your feet (if only to stay warm!).
Ottawa – Capital Skateway
Winter magic comes alive when the Rideau Canal freezes and the winding waterway becomes the world’s largest skating rink. Traveling all the way to Lake Ontario, the World Heritage canal begins its journey through the center of Canada’s capital, where the 7.8 km stretch is coined Rideau Canal Skateway and beckons legions of weekend recreational skaters. En route to Dows Lake, couples, friends, families and children glide under bridges past Parliament Buildings, winter scenery, food concessions and warming huts that offer crackling fires, hot chocolate and Canadian treats like Beavertails—a flat donut-like pastry with a choice of toppings. The Skateway usually opens in January and lasts through February, becoming a beehive of activity during the city’s annual Winterlude Festival (mid-February). To make the most of Winterlude events, get a cozy night’s rest at the charming Auberge King Edward B&B or the historic Chateau Laurier and start with a hearty breakfast before making your way to the canal. Rent skates (and push sleighs for kids) from canal-side vendors and skate to art exhibits, ice carvings, a winter triathlon and hockey tournament, skating demonstrations and even a bed race—part of the festivities for over 30 years. Watch beds of all variety (sans mattress) race across the frozen Dows Lake and marvel at the outdoor spirit of Canada. Then head out for an evening dessert or nightcap at the Canal Ritz, an Italian eatery boasting grand views of the Canal from its perch at the end of Fifth Avenue.
Photo Credit: freezelight
Whitehorse, YK – Mushing the Gold Rush Trail
As capital of the Yukon, Whitehorse is well versed in northern winter traditions, from cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hot springs and northern lights. But deep in the icy colds of February, the spirit of the Klondike Gold Rush (1897-1899) reemerges to foster the traditions of dogsledding. The sled dog has been part of Canadian lore and culture for centuries. Hauling explorers, supplies, firewood, medicine and mail in rugged Arctic outposts, dogsleds were also key to the fur trade of the late 18th century, transporting furs, goods and important news to isolated communities, and later to the Gold Rush. Since then, dogsledding has evolved into a sport made up of only the heartiest competitors willing to take on harsh Arctic winter conditions. First proposed in a Fairbanks’ saloon as a way to recapture the original vision of the now heavily commercial Iditarod, the annual Yukon Quest dogsled race follows the rugged northern mail and Gold Rush routes. The 1,000-mile race between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse lasts from 10 to 16 days and has been hailed the toughest race in the world, challenging the Iditarod in length and terrain but with heavier sleds, fewer dogs, no assistance from non-racers and less than half the checkpoints. With long stretches of isolated mushing in winter’s coldest month, endurance and self-sufficiency reign supreme.
Churchill, Manitoba – Northern Lights & Arctic Sights
Perched on the southwestern edge of Hudson Bay, the small town of Churchill becomes a stopover in late fall for polar bears waiting for the Bay to freeze. Hoping to catch a glimpse of these snowy giants, eager onlookers descend on the small community in October and November when the ice migration occurs. At this time, viewing options abound for the independent or tour traveler. Hop aboard the mobile Tundra Lodge, a rolling 32-room motel on wheels that offers multiple-day tours and wake up on the tundra with the bears. If you prefer more solid digs, stay in town at the rustic Lazy Bear Lodge and book a separate polar bear or dogsled expedition. Always keeping your eyes peeled for bears ambling through town, explore the small but excellent Eskimo Museum for a look at Inuit history and culture through the lens of art, tools and fascinating memorabilia made from loon feathers, walrus tusks, whale teeth and other items from local inhabitants.
Deeper in winter’s freeze (late January to early April), Churchill’s night skies become a pitch-black theater for the spectacular Aurora borealis. Set directly beneath the Northern Hemisphere’s Auroral Oval, Churchill is a prime place to watch the mysterious dancing light bands illuminate the crystal-clear northern sky. Take a spin on a Tundra Buggy, or hitch a ride to the Aurora Domes (observation containers built on a former missile range) three miles from town to watch the greatest lightshow on earth.
Photo Credit: Emmanuel Milou
Churchill, Manitoba – Studies at the Edge of an Arctic Frontier
About 23 miles east of the busy polar-bear crossing point of Churchill in northern Manitoba, the non-profit Churchill Northern Studies Centre quietly continues to do integral sub-arctic research and education. Located in the Cape Churchill Wilderness Management Area along Hudson Bay where three major ecosystems converge—marine, boreal forest and tundra—the active research station features a new state-of-the-art facility (opened August 2011) to better accommodate scientists, staff and visitors. Immerse yourself in Arctic exploration by joining one of their learning programs on polar bears, beluga whales, birding, wildlife, botany, northern lights, astronomy and winter survival. Excursions via tundra vehicles, helicopter and dog sled help visitors understand and observe conservation, the effects of climate change and the unique ecosystem of the Arctic. It’s a classroom experience you can actually look forward to!
British Columbia – Rocky Mountain Snowcat & Wilderness Skiing
The eastern ranges of British Columbia are handily tucked away from the easier accessible resorts of Banff and Whistler. But for ski aficionados, the area holds some of the world’s best skiing, on trail and off. Over 120 runs wait for downhill enthusiasts at the Kicking Horse Resort in Golden, a small town perfectly positioned between Yoho and Glacier National Parks in eastern B.C. (and only 1.5 hours from Banff—the Kicking Horse Powder Express provides shuttle service from both Banff and Lake Louise). Besides stellar skiing, visitors can catch the Golden Eagle Express Gondola for a 7,700-ft. climb to panoramic vistas of the Rockies and the Columbia River Wetlands. Fine dining at Eagle’s Eye on top affords grand views of the western Columbia Mountain ranges that beckon with even more skiing possibilities.
Blessed with options for untracked snow, the eastern B.C. region is the birthplace of heliskiing. Its defining company, CMH, began operations in 1959 through the efforts of Austrian immigrant and expert back country guide Hans Gmoser. Bugaboo Lodge, the first of its 11 heli-lodges, continues to provide first-rate wilderness adventure accessible only by helicopter. If flying isn’t your bag, virgin powder is also reachable by snowcat, a tough mountain climbing machine undeterred by inclement weather. Snowcat skiing continues to gain popularity through the efforts of the sport’s founders at Selkirk Wilderness, which provides breathtaking deep-powder forays from its lodge hideaway in the West Kootenay region of southeastern B.C. Boasting minimal winds and only 24 skiers per week on terrain larger than Vail and Whistler-Blackcomb combined, Selkirk defines pure skiing paradise.
Photo Credit: Dave Jacquin
Vancouver, BC – Snowshoe, Fondue & Christmas Magic
The milder winter weather of Canada’s west coast appeals to a large international population and plenty of domestic snowbirds relocating from the country’s frigid interior. Bustling Vancouver is further blessed with grand ocean and mountain vistas and clean, crisp air that attracts avid outdoor living. Just north of the city, two ski mountains color the horizon and offer locals easy access to all manner of winter activity. The Snowshoe Grind at Grouse Mountain is a popular workout activity, but vacationers may find the Snowshoe Fondue tour a little more enticing. Outfitted with snowshoes and headlamps, take the hour-long evening excursion with a guide through a winter wonderland of trails. Grand views, socializing and a delicious array of cheese, broth and chocolate fondues await hearty après-snowshoe appetites in the warm and cozy Altitudes Bistro, aptly located about 3,700 ft. above the lower mainland.
Back in town, make tracks to VanDusen’s Botanical Gardens in the center of the city for its December Festival of Lights. Stroll through the snow amidst fairy tale gardens festooned with thousands of lights, as carolers, musical light shows, hot chocolate and Christmas spirit warm the crisp winter air. Stop in at Shaughnessy Restaurant for dinner, lunch or weekend brunch. Its airy and elegant garden ambiance is enhanced by a multitude of windows and skylights that reflect garden vistas and twinkling lights for a romantic winter garden visit. Organic and local cuisine, including ingredients from the garden, flavors the West Coast menu.
Banff & Jasper National Parks, AB – Ice Walking and Hot Springs
Although it’s why many come, a winter trip to Banff doesn’t require hurtling down hills, taking up a biathlon or running a dogsled team. Walking will do just fine. Flanked by the majestic Rocky Mountains, Banff’s picturesque main street invites easy strolling past shops, galleries and eateries en route to the iconic Banff Springs Hotel, the Canadian Pacific Railway’s queen of the Rockies. Or take an easy hike around the white splendor of Lake Louise with its iconic Victoria Glacier backdrop, watching skaters from the perimeter or renting some skates for yourself.
For a little more of a walk into the wilds, try an ice walking tour with one of several outfitters that will take you to emerald lakes, frozen waterfalls and the snowy meadows and peaks of Banff and its adjoining parks. Professional guides lead walkers through canyons and ice caves, across frozen creeks, past fascinating rock formations and right up to glimmering icefalls. Walks to the Athabasca Glacier in neighboring Jasper National Park introduce visitors to the awesome geology of the great rivers of ice that shaped the landscape of the parks. Follow your outdoor wanderings with a dip into a hot spring. Banff, Jasper and Radium (in Kootenay Park) all have mineral hot springs. The large steaming pools are open to the public and offer changing rooms, lockers and towel rental. Take the chill out of winter and relieve tired muscles as you soak in the splendid surrounding scenery of the Rockies.
Photo Credit: Peggy2012CREATIVELENZ
Canmore, AB – Local Alternative to Banff
Just 10 minutes from the heavily touristy town of Banff, Canmore has the advantage of less notoriety, more local flavor and all the same access to gorgeous scenery and activities. The Rocky Mountain gateway along the Trans-Canada Highway is regularly bypassed or easily missed by visitors heading for Banff National Park. Locals from Calgary know otherwise and make Canmore a destination for weekend ski and hiking getaways, not to mention first-rate dining options. Ski at world-class resorts like Mt. Norquay, Sunshine Village, Lake Louise and Nakiska (site of the Calgary 1998 Olympic Alpine events), all within easy driving distance. Serving as the Nordic event complex during the ’98 Games, the Canmore Nordic Center is now a training site for Olympic athletes and open to the public, offering a fantastic starting point for cross-country skiers.
Following a day of skiing, ice walking, tobogganing or visiting a spa in Banff, return to an evening of leisurely dining at Muriettas. Its upstairs perch above Canmore’s charming Main Street features large corner windows and dark-wooded ambiance, inviting you to settle in by the fireplace and enjoy a drink while waiting to indulge in generous portions of excellent Canadian cuisine. Trough or Tapas on the Avenue of Champions, just one block west, offer equally refined dining and high-caliber cuisine. Modern and airy, the popular Crazy Weed caters to an upscale crowd with organic and whimsical creations, while local brewpubs like Grizzly Paw provide a casual alternative with home-brewed beers like Grumpy Bear Honey Wheat and Rutting Elk Red. The Iron Goat on the hillside north of the highway warms cold souls with a roaring fire, beer, cocktails, grill food and soaring views of the Three Sisters Mountains.
Banff National Park – Enchanting Cabin in the Woods
The Canadian Pacific Railway left an indelible mark when it laid the tracks for a coast-to-coast railway. Its grand urban and rural hotels and resorts along the route (including the Banff Springs and Chateau Lake Louise) become landmarks of mountain luxury. For those seeking a more unconventional vacation and immersion with the natural environment, CPR devised rustic Bungalow Camps fashioned of log chalets and cabins set within forests and near lakesides. Constructed in 1922, the Storm Mountain Bungalow Camp was positioned at the crest of Vermillion Pass (5624 ft.) to showcase the grand forest vistas of the magnificent parks. With a privileged position next to the Banff-Windermere Highway that opened in 1928, the camp served as the gateway to Kootenay National Park and what was referred to as the most spectacular motor trip on the continent. Renamed Storm Mountain Lodge, the camp was totally renovated and winterized in 2003 but retains the rustic décor and character of the 1928 structures—no phones, TVs or kitchens. The cabins and original log lodge remain, letting you reside in the warm, cozy ambiance of the past. Borrow snowshoes and poles from the lodge and take a magical foray into splendid scenery. Only 25 minutes from Banff and Lake Louise, Storm Mountain makes a great winter getaway. The Lodge also makes an excellent stopover for superb dining on the way to or from Radium Hot Springs or après ski. Dine in the lodge’s enclosed verandah with a crackling fire and mouthwatering bison and lamb accompanied by locally sourced vegetables and forest views.
Whistler, BC & Calgary, AB – Still Holding the Torch
Long after the Olympic flame has passed from a city, the memory of the Games lingers on in sporting history and in the hearts of athletes and locals who journeyed through the experience. Winter Olympic cities have a special connection to the ski jumps, luge tracks, ice halls and Nordic arenas left behind by champions to future athletes and visitors. For an illuminating tour of Olympic winter legacy, both Calgary and Whistler boast Olympic Parks worthy of a journey. Host of the 1988 Games, Calgary’s ski jumps tower over the city’s western hills and serve as the landmark for the accompanying Canada Olympic Park that lies on the way to Banff just off the Trans-Canada Highway (Rte. 1). Not just a high-performance training center for elite athletes, the venue hosts an Olympic array of recreational activities for the public in order to foster sport.
Photo Credit: Jon Wick
Besides skiing, cross-country and snowboarding terrain that includes halfpipe, the bobsled and luge tracks let visitors experience the sensation of hurtling into history. Climb into a sleigh with a professional driver and live the journey that the Jamaican Bobsled Team made famous in the film Cool Runnings. Fourteen twisting turns and 5 Gs of force accompany the 120 km/h (75 mph), 60-second trip. Luge riders receive an introduction and instruction from a credentialed athlete before hopping aboard a sled to try this unique sport. If high speeds aren’t your thing, take a trip to the top of the ski jump towers to see where infamous British athlete Eddie the Eagle careened to fame in 1988 and behold the entire city at your footstep. Hockey and skating programs and rinks are also available to the public. The new Olympic Hall of Fame & Museum houses Canada’s Olympic sports legacy with interactive hockey shoot-outs, bobsled and ski-jump simulators and Olympic torches to see and hold.
Besides public tours and bobsled rides, Whistler Olympic Park offers the Discover Biathlon program for participants to try cross-country skiing and shooting under the tutelage of elite athletes who provide ski tips, rifle safety lessons and insider stories. At either Olympic Park, it’s fairly well assured that even non-athletes will catch the spirit of the Games.
Canada Winter Travel Tips
Canadians have found a way to not only survive but thrive in -40° weather. Here are some tips and tricks for making the most of your winter trip to the Great White North.
Tim & Tails
As Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts are to Americans, Tim Hortons is to Canadians. Besides good coffee and donuts, the Canadian chain offers warming soups and sandwiches, drive-thrus and convenient locations. Stop in for some quick sustenance. A bit more elusive are the flat, elongated pastries known as Beaver Tails. Stretched to look like a beaver’s tail, these fried-dough delicacies are handmade to order and served piping hot with toppings like chocolate, whipped cream, fruit, jam, caramel or cinnamon. Look for them at winter festivals or at Beaver Tails’ stores, usually located in amusement parks or major tourist thoroughfares (on the main street of Banff, Old Town Quebec and Whistler).
A few tips for those heading to Winterlude and a skating spin on Ottawa’s famed frozen canal:
Outwitting the Cold
If you plan to spend some time outside in the Canadian winter:
Canadian Car Rental
Travelers who plan to drive between provinces should check their rental agreement to make sure they won’t incur additional fees—some companies charge on a per-kilometer basis. Call the local rental office to confirm information instead of inquiring from a national toll-free representative who may not know local branch specifics. Winter drivers should ask for snow tires, even for SUVS, and make sure to check them before driving off the lot. Snow tires are marked with a pictograph of a peaked mountain with a snowflake. Quebec province has made snow tires mandatory for taxis and passenger vehicles in winter (Dec. 15 – Mar. 15), and they may be required in the mountains and/or national parks.
Canadian Winter Road Travel
Major highways are well maintained in Canada during the winter, but it’s still necessary to take precautions when driving in snow and ice:
Low-Cost Passage to Canada
Westjet is Canada’s answer to Southwest Airlines and flies to key destinations throughout Canada. With the same friendly, no-frills approach, WestJet offers some of the best domestic deals within the country and to key points in the U.S. Winter fare specials for Canadian snowbirds to escape to sunny destinations in the U.S. may enhance your opportunities to travel north. Check their route map for destination points originating from the western, southern and northeast U.S. mainland.
Canada’s main cities are well equipped for winter weather. Underground pedestrian tunnels in Toronto (PATH system/17 miles long) and Montreal (RÉSO/20 miles long) are a maze of activity below ground connecting shopping malls, metro stations, theaters, hotels, museums and more. The Plus 15 elevated walkway network in Calgary lets shoppers get from one building to the next all the way through downtown. As the world’s largest elevated climate-controlled pedestrian system, it includes 59 raised passageways suspended 15 ft. above street level, linking 100 buildings on a 16 km. (9.9 miles) walking route. Walk past restaurants, shops, department stores, theaters and office towers without ever going outside.
French or English?
Although English is spoken throughout Canada, French serves as the second official language and must be designated on all official federal paperwork, street signage and products sold within Canada. Residents of Quebec use French as their sole official and primary language, and exterior signage is only posted in French. Some communities in the province hardly speak English at all, or only as a necessity. Travelers to Quebec would do well to brush up on some French, especially if traveling out of major tourist areas. Prepare to hear a strong Quebec dialect, known as Quebec French.