Day Four: Skate the world's biggest ice rink.
The Rideau Canal Skateway, Ottawa.
You can trust a Canadian to make the most out of winter and skating the Rideau Skateway is right up there among the best icy experiences. At 4.8 miles (7.8km) it is the biggest naturally frozen ice rink in the world. You will definitely gain kudos if you tell a Canadian you have skated its length - why not it's almost 10 miles there and back for goodness sake? It also happens to be great fun especially on a fine winter's day. I was lucky to visit when it was sunny and -4C. Perfect skating conditions slap-bang in the middle of the nation's capital - Ottawa.
I'm not a perfect skater however and embarrassed my friend by insisting she hold my hand at the beginning. At the first kilometre sign she warned she would be letting go - and the rest was up to me. Now if you haven't skated for a while I guarantee putting ten miles on your skates is excellent practice. I started off with a wobble and finished with a flourish and I swear my improvement was down to watching all those skating Canadians and trying to copy their style. (that and my mantra - bend your knees, lean forward). People were whizzing along on this, the city's winter playground, the size of 90 Olympic hockey rinks. (are you imagining that, you Brits?)
A snow sculptor perfects his work.
Although the skateway, which celebrates its 40th year this winter, is naturally frozen - a lot of work goes into making it a safe and smooth trip for skaters. In October the canal is partially drained so that stairs and chalets can be put in place ready for the freeze. Then another three feet of water is added and everyone waits for Mother Nature to do her work. It takes two weeks of continuous cold temperatures of -15C or colder for the rink to form. Special equipment is used to remove plugs of ice to check its thickness and quality (yes there are different types of ice and the one you want is clear ice, not white ice formed by snow). There needs to be at least 12 inches of good ice. Tests are done daily and green flags go up if skating is allowed.
This kid is in heaven.
Hopefully by New Year' s Day the canal has become a skateway (it's official winter name). It is flooded in the evenings and the freezing night temperatures make a good smooth surface for the next day's skating. Many of the one million skaters who visit the canal every winter are unaware that there could be up to 14 feet of water beneath them. On a busy weekend there can be up to 300,000 skaters on its 4.8 mile stretch. There is plenty to look at along its length. Snow and ice sculptors carve intricate pieces for skaters to admire, there are artworks hung under bridges and displays of Innuit culture. Before you know it you have reached the end.
A beaver tail pastry. An Ottawa speciality.
Winter means Winterlude in Ottawa (Feb 4-21 in 2011) - one of the many winter festivals in Eastern Canada (Montreal has the Highlights Festival and Quebec the Winter Carnival). This means tons of snowy and icy activities from giant slides to having a go at carving your own ice sculpture. All that hard work deserves some traditional winter fare. The Beaver Tail is a deep fried pastry created in Ottawa. I recommend it with sugar and lemon. Hot chocolate is available everywhere. It is a Canadian essential if you're going to be outdoors a lot in these temperatures.
Have you got the camera ready?
Global warming is no friend of the skateway and in recent years the number of skating days have been affected. The worst year was just cold enough for six days skating but the best meant the skateway was open for three months. The ever-positive Canadians know the average is 50 days of skating and they love their canal. It's fun to see people commuting to work on a weekday. You can see them in suits and briefcases making their way to the office on skates. Don't you just love Canadians for making the best of things?
The skateway in full flow.
You can rent your skates if you don't have your own and leave your boots in a locker. (You can see two skaters in the picture above who decided to carry theirs instead). Toddlers and older people can come along too as you can rent a contraption which is a cross between a bath chair and Santa's sleigh. It can easily be pushed by skaters and they are well used. I found the whole experience a real feel-good event. Winter activities like this have a childlike appeal. It's easy to get caught up in the atmosphere and skating the full distance must release some endorphins too.
Quick, take the picture before I fall over.
If you are treating yourself, one of the most impressive places to stay is the Chateau Laurier - one of the grand old hotels built for the railway and now owned by Fairmont. Its rooms were so often frequented by politicians from Parliament up the hill that it was nicknamed the second House of Commons. Afternoon tea here, with scones and jam (let's face it - I am British) got my seal of approval. Though when I explained to a Canadian he should cut his scone in half he did do it vertically and not horizontally. (much to learn)
Fireworks and light show.
There are plenty of B&Bs such as Auberge Un Pied a Terre in Old Hull while among the mid-range downtown hotels The Holiday Inn is next to the canal. At night there are many fun restaurants in the Byward Market and be sure to catch the downtown sound and light show with fireworks every night. Then if you really can't get enough of this Canadian winter business then why not pop on your skates for a final spin under the stars before bed? Read yesterday's winter adventure
Sounds fun but what does it cost?
Skate hire: $16.00 for first 2 hours
Chateau Laurier from $169 for winterlude package with hot chocolate and BeaverTails coupons.
B&B Auberge Un Pied a Terre from $90 for double room.
Holiday Inn from $156 for a double room.
When should I go? Winterlude is 4-21 February, 2011 but the Rideau Skateway could be frozen earlier. Check the National Capital Commission website.
Who do I speak to?
Sucrerie de la Montagne, Rigaud, Quebec
Day Five of 5 Crazy Things to do in a Canadian Winter (by someone who has done them). Tomorrow: Skiing between the Sugar Shacks.
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