Image credit: Crystal Ski
Canada's too cold to visit in winter, isn't it? Not so, says Katie McGonagle
Strap on your ski boots and dig out your winter woollies, Canada is calling.
While Britain struggles through dark, drizzly days and seizes up in fright at the first sign of a snowflake, some countries come into their own when the mercury dips below zero.
Think blankets of sparkling white snow making landscapes even more beautiful than before, skiing and snowboarding on virgin slopes, or partying like a pro at fun-filled midwinter festivals. If nothing else, knowing Canada’s resilient airports continue to function in conditions that would close Heathrow in a heartbeat should reassure holidaymakers who want to guarantee their winter wonderland escape.
Find out where to send them this winter with our look at a few of the chilliest choices from across the pond.
WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND
Frequently featured on lists of the best winter sports resorts in the world and one of the host venues for the 2010 Winter Olympics, Whistler has some serious street cred on the ski scene. Virgin Holidays’ product development manager Linda Burton says: “Whistler is considered one of the premier mountain destinations in the world, with the two mountains of Whistler and Blackcomb offering a huge ski area with a great combination of high open bowls and woodland trails. The resort offers something for everyone, with a lively pedestrian-only village at the base that has a huge selection of bars and restaurants.”
Ski widows and widowers need not fear. They can get just as much of an adrenaline rush on the 50mph 200ft-high zip wire between the two mountains.
Operating year-round, this adventure only gets better in winter, when the group size is limited to eight instead of 10, and the forest floor is covered in thick snow. The three-hour excursion costs from £98 per adult or £80 per child aged six to 14 when booked with Attraction World.
Not quite exciting enough? Crystal Ski offers a host of add-ons to its Whistler holidays for the most dedicated daredevils.
The spectacular heli-ski adventure is a serious bucket-list contender (from £550), but there’s also a thrilling 160ft bungee jump over the glacier-fed Cheakamus River (£80), or an exhilarating skeleton slide hurtling headfirst down an icy track at up to 60mph (£110).
The rest of the Rockies offer an unbeatable combination of stunning scenery and activities aplenty during the colder months.
There’s still ski to enjoy – Inghams has just added Jasper as its seventh Canadian ski resort this year, and is offering two-for-one lift passes – but the slopes aren’t the only way to get active.
From Lake Louise, visitors can follow in Kate and Will’s footsteps by taking a two-day trip to Skoki Lodge, the wilderness retreat where the royal couple stayed during their 2011 tour of Canada, and take a seven-mile snowshoe hike through spectacular scenery (from £149 with Inghams, including a guide, snowshoes and half-board accommodation).
Banff is also home to a good balance of skiing and other snowy activities: choose from husky dog-sledding, wildlife walks, an NHL ice hockey package to see the Calgary Flames in action, and exhilarating snowkiting on the Spray Lakes near Banff, bookable through Inghams.
Some of the Rockies’ best-known sights revolve around crystal-clear mountain lakes and waterfalls, but these are even more impressive when temperatures go below zero. Take a starlit sleigh ride across the frozen surface of Lake Louise, or walk past waterfalls frozen in mid-air as they tumble down the sides of Maligne Canyon. Both feature in escorted tours such as 1st Class Holidays’ seven-day Winter Delights tour, or Thomas Cook Tours’ 14-day Winter Wonderland.
The former adds snowshoeing at Marble Canyon in Banff National Park, staying at Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise (from £573 land-only); while the latter also visits Toronto and Vancouver, and includes stays at the famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, where the sleigh ride is an optional extra.
LET THE TRAIN TAKE THE STRAIN
Forget leaves on the line – Via Rail’s The Canadian runs twice-weekly during low season on a sublimely scenic journey through snow-covered terrain between Toronto and Vancouver.
Trafalgar’s Western Canada Winter Adventure is an 11-day escorted tour specially designed for the chillier months of the year, starting with ice curling in Vancouver, followed by an overnight train journey to Jasper National Park, stargazing tour of the Dark Sky Preserve, a gondola ride and dog-sledding in the mountains near Banff, then a visit to the sandy beaches of Okanagan Lake and a quick stop at the Butterfly Gardens in British Columbian capital Victoria. The tour costs from £3,925 including flights and VIP door-to-door transfers, with departures from November to February.
Also making the most of late winter snowfall, Great Rail Journeys features the full four-night route of The Canadian – from its starting point in Toronto through the icy expanse of the Canadian Shield, past Winnipeg and Jasper, to its finish in Vancouver. The Canadian in Winter tour has two departures in February and one in March, starting at £2,465.
DARE TO BEAR
Snow-seekers won’t be short of choice in a Canadian winter, but some places are snowier than others – and northern Manitoba is arguably the snowiest of them all, bringing with it some unique wildlife-watching opportunities.
About 300 polar bears pass through Churchill – known as the polar bear capital of the world – each October and November, which equates to a third of the city’s human population. Polar bear-spotting tours are typically fairly short – usually a couple of nights in Churchill with one night either side near gateway airport Winnipeg – but if that’s not long enough, some itineraries add in a few other activities. Thomas Cook Signature’s six-day itinerary includes a tour of Churchill, an evening outing to see the northern lights and a one-hour helicopter flight in between polar bear-tracking on special Tundra vehicles.
That will give guests time to discover a little more about Churchill, first visited by Europeans in 1619. It took more than 70 years to set up a thriving trading post for the Hudson Bay Company, which formed the foundations for the city. Today it welcomes more than 20,000 visitors a year to see its prized polar bears, migrating beluga whales in July and August, or hike its rugged terrain.
Northern province the Yukon also boasts a range of wintry activities: watch the 1,000-mile dog-sled race, which starts in Alaska and ends in Yukon capital Whitehorse, go hiking or mountain biking, or set out to spot wildlife – caribou outnumber people seven to one here.
Hiking boots? On holiday? If that sounds like too much effort, direct your clients towards one of Canada’s midwinter festivals. La fete des neiges de Montreal has a host of fun activities each weekend between January 15 and February 15 at Parc Jean-Drapeau – think ice sculptures, skating, outdoor shows, tube sliding and more.
Dance music fans can swap the park for the old port, where Igloofest in Montreal (January 16-February 8) combines dancing under the stars with a light show and bar serving mulled cider and warming cocktails of whisky and maple syrup.
Quebec City, meanwhile, lights up in the first two weeks of February with its historic winter carnival, a family event featuring a magnificent Ice Palace, the playful character Bonhomme, an inventive ice sculpture contest, plus fun and games at the Plains of Abraham, which are transformed into a snowy playground filled with sliding, dog-sled rides and an igloo dome.
Over in capital Ottawa, Winterlude (January 31-February 17) boasts the world's largest skating rink along the Rideau Canal, ice sculptures in Confederation Park, and the Snowflake Kingdom for snow-loving kids at Jacques-Cartier Park.
The winter trips released by Exodus for 2013-14 include a Canada Wilderness Adventure, starting with La fete des neiges in Montreal, before moving on to the Lac Simon region for snowshoeing, ice-fishing, cross-country skiing and skating on the four-mile Rideau Canal (departures from January 25).
Of course, there are still active options on hand: ski resort Mont Tremblant is celebrating its 75th anniversary next year, and there are fun excursions for those who don’t want to spend their entire time on the slopes. Crystal Ski suggests soaking up the warm waters and saunas in Scandinave Spa on the nearby Diable River, or spending a day with a trapper to have a go at fishing, learn about the native Athabascan wood bison, trail through the forest and then visit an Algonquin ancestors’ site.
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