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(2011 - Winter Issue)

Writer: Katharine Fletcher

Ottawa nourishes my body and soul.        

First the city, now the adjacent Outaouais (West Québec) sector of the National Capital Region has been my home since 1974. I love Ottawa because Canada’s capital features spectacular, accessible natural scenery both inside and outside the city limits.

Also, Ottawa is a happening place boasting cultural activities galore. Some are found in world-class galleries and museums. Others are outside, in heritage venues such as Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s residence.

Moreover, winter is my favourite season: both inside and outside, there’s tons to do.

Outdoor Venues

Ottawa is famous for its 170 kilometres of urban bicycle trails, as well as almost 40 kilometres of nature trails in parks such as Shirley’s Bay, Stony Swamp and Mer Bleue. Come snowfall, they’re transformed into a cross-country skiers’ and snowshoers’ paradise.

For instance, skiing alongside the ice-bound Ottawa River recalls early days, when it was the first “Trans-Canada Highway” connecting the St. Lawrence River to the interior. Nowadays we ’shoe and ski where First Nations, explorers, then settlers ventured and traded westward into the Great Lakes and beyond; eastward to Montréal and Québec City.

A personal favourite in-city ski trail is at Mer Bleue, a wetland of significance because it’s a peat bog created as the last glaciers receded, some 10,000 years ago. Skiing the easy 6.7-kilometre circuit affords splendid views of this rare habitat.

Feeling competitive? Register for the 34th annual Gatineau Loppet, Canada’s largest cross-country ski event. From February 17 to 19, beginners to experts race along Gatineau Park’s woodland trails.

However, are you like me? I prefer more serene skiing amid Gatineau Park’s 200 kilometres of forested trails and 30 kilometres of parkways. What’s totally local? Cross-country skiing by moonlight. Plan your visit during the full moon, pack a dinner to heat on a wood stove in one of the Park’s rustic shelters, and reserve accommodation in a yurt or cabin beneath the canopy of stars.

Want to live like an Ottawan? Lace up your skates and glide along the 7.8-kilometre Rideau Canal Skateway. Guinness World Records declares it the world’s largest naturally frozen outdoor ice rink and, in 2007, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On weekdays, join residents skating to and from work on the groomed sector extending north from Carleton University to the Fairmont Château Laurier.

Naturally, capricious Mother Nature dictates ice conditions, but sometimes I’ve skated from the end of December to late February. Take a backpack for your boots or leave them at one of many on-ice changing cabins.

Even better, visit during Winterlude (February 3–20), the festival celebrated in Ottawa and Gatineau. This is one of my favourite outdoor festivals because it’s exhilarating to skate among 200,000-plus keeners of all ages and watch live bands on-ice.

Which reminds me: do you have youngsters? If so, tuck them into a jaunty scarlet push-sled at Dow’s Lake Pavilion—and treat everyone to a Beaver Tail pastry at a skateway kiosk when energy flags. Jump on a festival shuttle whisking you to Gatineau. Here Winterlude magic sparkles at Jacques-Cartier Park’s Snowflake Kingdom, where kids of all ages whoosh down immense ice slides. From this vantage point, view the iconic panorama of Ottawa, where Parliament Hill’s gothic spires pierce the sky.

However, Rideau Hall is my favourite spot to skate on weekends (noon to 5:00 p.m.), where Lord Dufferin opened a skating rink during his stint as Governor General (1872–78). The tradition continues, and when lamps illuminate the rink at twilight, romance is in the air . . . And, why not incorporate an inside experience here, with a 45-minute tour of the Governor General’s historic residence?

Insider Info

What’s the scoop on indoor winter activities? As a capital, Ottawa boasts superb museums and galleries.

Perhaps predictably, in keeping with my passion for the outdoors, the newly refurbished Canadian Museum of Nature is my favourite museum. New permanent exhibits include a stunning bird gallery and a refreshed dinosaur collection: both juxtaposed nicely with visiting shows. I’m eagerly anticipating Whales Tohor-a, the major New Zealand touring exhibition on whaling and the latest in cetacean research (March 2–September 3).

Many museums and galleries offer workshops, lectures and tours, some of which are brief, which can work well. Check the “Docent’s Choice” 10-minute tours at the National Gallery of Canada to augment your knowledge.

Ottawa hums with live entertainment, too. Discover diversity at the National Arts Centre where, early in 2012, the lineup includes the Blue Man Group, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and the exotic-sounding Akram Khan Company’s drums-and-dance production of Gnosis.

After being active inside and out, embracing tranquility appeals. Enter Brookstreet Hotel in the west end, where luxurious rooms and a relaxing spa await.

Prefer elegant tradition downtown? Fairmont Château Laurier is 100 years old in 2012 so why not celebrate in style? Swim in the newly-restored art deco pool, relax with a massage, then linger for afternoon tea. Want to pull out all the stops? For $2,500 a night, stay in the Karsh Suite, where famed photographer Yousuf Karsh lived and worked for 18 years.

Finally, hockey enthusiasts won’t want to miss the Senators 20th anniversary season. And did you know Ottawa is hosting the NHL All-Star Game (January 26–29) for the first time?

Inside and out, Ottawa invigorates mind, body and soul. Check it out for yourself and linger awhile.

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