Wednesday 23 August 2017

Oh, Ontario! A winter break with a difference in Ottawa

Canadian holidays

Snowmobiles in Ottawa
Snowmobiles in Ottawa
Ottawa city skyline at sunrise

Isabel Conway

Snowmobiling, dogsledding and ice hockey are all on Isabel Conway's cool itinerary in wintry Ottawa

'Show aggression to this boy and he will act aggressively back," warns Bob Island. Giving the Beast a pat and clamping my helmet's visor shut, I soon drown his voice out with a terrifying roar of the 125hp snowmobile engine beneath my legs.

Previous experience of a docile moped is no training for this machine, capable of reaching up to 150kmph. Snowmobiling is as quintessentially Canadian as ice skating, dogsledding, snow-shoeing and ice hockey come winter. Here, among the frozen snowfields of eastern Ontario, two-and-a-half hours north of Toronto, I am immersing myself in Canada's favourite wintry experiences.

An ice hockey game in Ottawa and the inside track on making maple sugar (another favourite pastime) at Fulton's Pancake House and Sugar Bush in Pakenham (fultons.ca) beckon next.

The heaviest skiwear, driving licence and a signed waiver form are all prerequisites to snowmobile training. After a lot of jerky stop-starts and a panic attack when its skis hit a rock-hard layer of ice, at last we progress to an obstacle course testing our "smooth handling" of brake and throttle. Hurrah! We have the hang of it and soon some want to zoom off from the ritzy Deerhurst resort to the rugged beauty of neighbouring Muskoka.

Fast-forward a day, and Winterdance Dogsled Tours (winterdance.com) near Algonquin Park, a famous wilderness where wolves and elk roam, is our next stop.

Ottawa city skyline at sunrise
Ottawa city skyline at sunrise

It's all about dogsledding in these parts, as fast (our dogs could reach 40kmph in six strides) and even more thrilling than the big boys' snowmobile. "Make friends with your dogs, help them get up the hills by pushing the sled, but never let go of the rail you are holding as the dogs will keep on running," cries guide Ashleigh.

After a basic driving lesson on how to balance both feet on narrow runners behind the sled, I help to harness my team of five huskies yipping and howling to be off.

Stopping after 10km, the halfway mark, we change driver and rest the dogs briefly. By now, us humans are craving something stronger than the lukewarm hot chocolate doled out by guides. Dogsledding is physically demanding in temperatures of -20°C, after all.

Ice hockey is a national passion in Canada, so it was fascinating to watch national league team Ottawa Senators score a decisive victory over the New York Islanders in the company of thousands of fans. They demonstrate that Canadians, even when showing their sporting fervour, manage to be civilised and polite to each other.

Canada's capital Ottawa began life as a port settlement roamed by fur traders, timber loggers, ruffians and adventurers. Today, the city has it all - from an atmospheric old district dominated by the restaurant and nightlife scene of ByWard market district, to superb museums, architecture and the great outdoors on its doorstep.

The Rideau Canal, dug by Irish and Scottish labourers, runs through the heart of the city, and is the world's longest natural skating rink in winter. In Ottawa's sizzling summers, it flips to become a watersports Mecca.

Ottawa is the epicentre of this year's 150th anniversary celebrations, marking the creation of Canada, under the banner 'Ottawa Welcomes the World'. That may sound vague, but it matters, given Canada's multiculturalism.

Canada Day (July 1) is the stellar event, when Ottawa hosts what it claims will be the biggest party in history - inviting international gatecrashers to join the fun of free festivals, concerts and parades. The only thing missing is snowmobiles!

Get there

Isabel travelled as a guest of Ontario Tourism (ontariotravel.net) and Deerhurst Resort (deerhurstresort.com). Ottawa is the headquarters of Canada's 150th anniversary of confederation (see ottawatourism.ca and ottawa2017.ca).

Direct flights from Dublin to Toronto are available with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and seasonally with Air Canada Rouge (aircanada.com). There are also frequent domestic flights from Toronto to Ottawa, about one hour.

NB: Irish visitors need an Electronic Travel Authorisation (eTA) for travel to Canada. These cost CAN$7/€4.70, and approval is usually given within minutes online.

See canada.ca/eta.

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