snow caves at Lake Erie

ice caves at Lake Erie, Ontario, Canada

I’ve traveled enough to Canada over the last few decades that I’ve seen various parts of it — mainly, the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia — in different seasons, mostly in summer and spring. This year in February, I finally experienced Canada during its historically coldest month — with my husband and our relatives. I had sworn I’d do it only once and was dreading the frigid temperatures before I even departed my much warmer hometown of Houston. (Highs were in the teens, and lows were just as far below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.) But because we were so very prepared with several layers of clothing from head to toe, plus hand warmers placed in strategic locations in our clothes, we fared much better than we had expected and are looking forward to more winter travel around the world to take advantage of the recreational activities and scenery only this season can offer.

Recreate our experience for an active, yet relaxing trip. (For a true vacation, don’t bring your work with you like I did.)

Ottawa

On our first full day in Canada’s capital, we watched some local figure skating champions skate on the Rink of Dreams in front of City Hall, then laced up our own ice skates on the crowded Rideau Canal Skateway in the middle of downtown. Ice skating was free, as it has been everywhere we’ve gone. Where they get you is the skate rental: $17 at Rideau Canal. Fortunately, I have my own skates; unfortunately, my husband doesn’t.

me skating Rideau Canal, Ottawa round-trip & more

me skating Rideau Canal, Ottawa round-trip & more

I skated back and forth on the canal, all the way to the dead end near downtown, while waiting for my husband to rent his skates. His two cousins were also with us. Then the four of us took off down the frozen canal — the world’s largest ice rink — heading toward the other end. A short distance later, the other three decided I should go on ahead because they were too slow. So I did. Skating the iced-over canal was the main reason I wanted to visit Ottawa in February. But I hadn’t planned to skate the entire canal, much less round trip! Before I knew it, I was so far along, I decided to tackle the 7.8-km route. Along the way, I saw kids being pulled on sleds, some people walking in regular shoes, and most people skating with proficiency. The route took me all the way around Dows Lake, then to the dead end at Carleton University, and back to the other end, for a 15.6-km round trip. Add to that the lengths I had skated at the beginning, and I skated a total of more than 18 km, or 12 miles in one afternoon. Long before the end, I was very hungry and without a dime to buy a snack at any of the booths along the way because I had left all my money with my husband. Breakfast was several hours earlier. By the end of my skate, I was exhausted and recharged with maple candy dipped in snow, then some poutine at Smoke’s Poutinerie.

We capped off the evening by viewing elaborate, award-winning ice sculptures after dark at Winterlude. Sitting around an outdoor fire pit, we had a dessert called beavertails — shaped like their namesake but made with flour and sprinkled with cinnamon. Several people brought their dogs out with them — the canines were cutely covered in their own winter jackets and boots.

We spent the next afternoon recovering in Monopolatte, a cafe in Chinatown that offers unlimited board game play all day long until an hour past midnight for a $5 cover charge. Food and drinks are sold separately.

We also bought a new pair of hockey skates for my husband at Canadian Tire — his first pair of ice skates and very affordable compared to U.S. prices.

Quebec City funicular

Quebec City funicular & shops

Monday morning, while adults were at work and kids were in school, my husband and I had two outdoor, natural ice rinks at Whalen Park all to ourselves. The previous night’s snowfall had left a layer of powder on the ice’s surface, making it rough. And trudging through slippery ice and snow surrounding the rinks was challenging. But skating in private was liberating and allowed me to try moves I had been hesitant to in public.

We ended the evening with sleigh rides (three of us taking turns pushing the others) between Dows Lake and Bronson on Rideau Canal. The heated chalet gave us a much-needed warm break with hot chocolate and another beavertail, this time covered with a chocolate-hazelnut spread.

Quebec City

We took the train VIA Rail Canada through Montreal to Quebec City. We had a room booked at the Hilton Quebec on the hill across from Parliament. Priceline.com gave us the ultra-cheap rate of $88/night — almost half price. For a Hilton! A beautiful, full-fledged, convention hotel. The third floor had an outdoor, heated pool, which was connected to the indoors, so people could swim in without getting out of the pool in the cold.

We headed out on foot to an arctic blast of air, as the temperature fell rapidly below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. There are only a few gates through which one can pass between the old city and new city, and we walked through one of them. Dinner was exquisite at Le Grand Cafe on Grande Alleé Est, where we had French onion soup, salmon tartar, and French-inspired entrees like roasted duck penne pasta. The street was decked out in Christmas lights and outdoor bars made of ice. We ended the night exploring the underground tunnels that led to other buildings around our hotel.

snow sculptures, Carnaval Quebec

snow sculptures, Carnaval Quebec

We spent the first half of the next day exploring the old town, stopping to gaze at the statue of the city’s founder, Samuel de Champlain. We had brunch at Cafe Buade, Quebec City’s oldest restaurant, then shopped the boutiques along that street, rue De Buade. We admired the elegant architecture of the buildings and the charming planters hanging from window sills that were covered in snow. We found ourselves on rue Sainte-Anne, a picturesque, cobblestone street with colorful bistros and shops. Every turn led us to another gorgeous view of the city. One of the more spectacular scenes was ice floating down the partially frozen St. Lawrence River. We skipped the funicular and instead took the Breakneck Staircase from the Chateau Frontenac to rue de Petit-Champlain, the oldest merchant street in North America. The cutest shops sold handcrafted wares, big-name bath & body brands like Cucina, and souvenirs with a heavy emphasis on all things Bonhomme, the clown-like snowman mascot of Carnaval Quebec. We stopped for afternoon dessert, tea, and coffee at La Maison Smith Boutique Gourmande in quartier Petit-Champlain.

We spent the late afternoon and evening at Carnaval Quebec, the annual winter carnival on the Plains of Abraham, across from our hotel. For $15/adult, you get admission to the carnival as many times as you want throughout the season — pretty good deal. Most of the rides and attractions are included: snow tubing, ice slide, tour of the ice palace, snow sculpture show, and beanbag toss game were all activities we participated in. We watched part of a youth ice hockey game and also took advantage of the refreshments tent and free chicken soup inside “Space D,” sponsored by the bank Desjardins to warm up. We had to pay an extra $10 for my husband to drive a dog sled of huskies once around the track, which took less than a couple of minutes.

my husband & me on ice slide, Carnaval Quebec

my husband & me on ice slide, Carnaval Quebec

We needed to defrost after about eight hours in the arctic air, so we opted for dinner at the hotel at Allegro, which served some local cuisine. We ordered two thin-crust pizzas: one with rose`e sauce, smoked salmon from Fumoir Grizzly in Saint-Augustin-De-Desmaures, and cream cheese; the other with creamy Paillot de che`vre goat cheese, prosciutto, rosemary, maple syrup, and pear.

Our final morning in Quebec City, we took a tour of Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel) — a small hotel made entirely (literally, entirely) of ice and snow, newly constructed every year for the 3-month winter season, then torn down. Intricate sculptures and furniture made of ice can be found throughout the hotel, from the chandelier in the lobby to the telephone at the front desk. Each of the few dozen rooms has its own unique ice and snow art on the walls, carved into the ice furniture, and freestanding. An ice bar serves drinks in ice glasses. We slid down the 2-story ice slide. Guests staying overnight are encouraged to dance at the discotheque and take a hot bath in the outdoor spa before wrapping themselves in the cocoon-like bedding to sleep in their frozen rooms on a bed of ice. The only comfort is a mattress and pillows not made of ice. But night stands and sofas are solid ice. About 25 weddings are held each year in the ice chapel, with only a thin blanket laid across each ice pew. About 100,000 people, like us, pay to tour the facilities each season; a few thousand of them are brave enough to stay the night, which requires a safety briefing and training session.

Toronto

frozen harbor, Toronto

frozen harbor, Toronto

We’ve been to Toronto many times. This time we again focused on spending time with family, dining at the numerous restaurants offering a diverse mix of global cuisines, and seeing some of the attractions we hadn’t before, specifically the winter ones. We helped my niece pick out her first pair of ice skates and broke them in that evening at the outdoor rink at Nathan Phillips Square outside City Hall. Another afternoon was spent ice skating outdoors at Natrel Rink at Harbourfront Centre, near CN Tower.

Niagara Falls

We’ve seen Niagara Falls many times too, but never in the dead of winter. It was a spectacular sight to see the falls frozen over in large, cascading sheets of ice. We took the Behind the Falls tour, which offered views from behind the falls — some completely iced over, some boasting large icicles. A stroll along the rim of the falls gave us frozen hair, frozen clothing, and frozen handbags, as the mist from the falls formed ice droplets all over us. We revisited The Keg Steakhouse + Bar for dinner overlooking Niagara Falls.

Ridgeway

Our final day in Canada was spent trying out my uncle’s snow blower to plow through the excessive amounts of snow in front of his house on expansive acreage. And for a finale of a Canadian adventure, my uncle sent us into a mini blizzard of blowing snow at the ice caves along Lake Erie!

A fun, memorable vacation that whetted our appetite for Antarctica…

frozen Niagara Falls, Canadian side

frozen Niagara Falls, Canadian side

Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel), Quebec City

Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel), Quebec City