Winter sucks. I’ve lived in Canada for most of my life and I still have been loudly unable to embrace the concept of living in a place where the air hurts my face for half the year. However, as the years have rolled by, I’ve started to find things to at least amuse myself and help pass the time until summer comes back (I’d much rather deal with the mosquitoes and the black flies that make up a Canadian summer). One of these things is Winterlude, an Ottawa winter festival smack in the middle of the height of the cold. Ottawa’s February this year was the coldest on record for the past 115 years. Trust me. It was cold.
Winterlude, or Bal de Neige in French, has been around for the past 35 or so years and is definitely something to which both tourists and locals tend to look forward. It runs for three week, typically the first three of February. There are normally four sites that one can visit – the primary ones are Confederation Park located in downtown Ottawa (on the Ontario side of the National Capital Region) and the other is Jacques-Cartier Park in Gatineau (the Quebec side of the National Capital Region).
If you can only go to one of the Winterlude sites, I suggest Confederation Park. Here is where you’ll find the ice sculpture competition. Food trucks, side events, and bigger crowds are on the weekends so if you just want to see the sculptures without the festival hoopla, go during the week. The ice sculptures are fantastic and people come from all over the world to show off their prowess with ice and a chain saw. The only downside is that this event heavily relies on weather and Ottawa is notorious for random weather. Some years, February is so warm that the ice sculptures do not make it through the whole festival. Other years, such as this year, we break cold weather records.
The other reason why I recommend Confederation Park is that it is located right next to the Rideau Canal Skateway, the world’s largest naturally frozen ice rink. Again, I suggest going during the week as the weekends, when the ice is good (weather dependent of course), there are thousands of people either gliding smoothly along or flailing wildly along. There are also food stalls, a skate rental place, and several skate changing shacks. For me, the most interesting thing is the food. I most particularly enjoy the Beaver Tail. Animal lovers, don’t worry – it’s pastry, not meat. You can get them either savory (cheese!) or sweet (cinnamon and sugar!) and I suggest getting both. If you want the uber traditional Canadian treat, though, look out for maple taffy on snow.
So, the typical Winterlude trip includes: -30C weather, walking outside to see ice in different shapes, walking or skating on more ice, crowds, and sugar. If that sounds weird to you, then you and I are in agreement. But I do have to admit, once you’ve defrosted indoors somewhere (vodka-spiked hot chocolate), you’ll realize that it is actually a lot of fun out there. As long as you don’t get frostbite…