There is something inspiring, even exciting, about seeing lots of people walking along city streets with ice skates or cross-country skis slung over their shoulders.
These Canadians are a hearty breed. Life is what you make it, and they're not going to let months of freezing weather spoil their fun. Yeah, I know, you can't stroll down a Florida beach in winter without bumping into a Canadian. But when their vacations are over, they go home and celebrate winter, throwing some of the best outdoor parties anywhere.
The festivals embrace the inevitable, reminding us of the potential joys that lie atop piles of snow and sheets of ice. People in cold places all over the world, including Japan, Sweden and the United States, create festivals of winter fun. But for the closest, biggest parties, you'll have to head to Canada.
Quebec City's Winter Carnival is Canada's largest and most celebrated winter festival -- in fact, it's the world's largest Mardi Gras in a frigid setting, and draws more than a million visitors a year.
But when planning where to face down the demons of cold last February, I chose the country's second-largest winter festival -- Ottawa's Winterlude, or as French-speaking Canadians call it, Bal de Neige.
My reasoning: Quebec City is a wonderland all winter, even without a festival, so why go with the crowds when prices are inflated? Ottawa isn't nearly as crowded or as expensive during its winter festival, which each year begins on the first weekend of February and continues for three weeks. And besides, festival organizers make great use of the frozen canal that runs through the city. Nearly five miles of the 126-mile canal is shoveled and repeatedly flooded to keep it more or less smooth for both hockey and figure skaters. In July, Guinness World Records recognized the groomed portion of the canal as the world's largest naturally frozen ice rink. During Winterlude, it is lined with warming huts, hot chocolate stands, stunning ice sculptures and demonstrations in everything from dog sledding to cooking.
The outdoor Snowbowl amphitheater steps from the canal features musicians and hockey and figure skating stars in free performances. The festival spreads to the neighboring city of Gatineau, where snow carvers from all over Canada compete to make the most elaborate houses, and both kids and adults sluice through giant slides in Snowflake Kingdom.
Ottawa's canal represents to me a chance to live out one of my favorite childhood fantasies: to glide through life on silver skates, like Hans Brinker. I want to embrace and celebrate a real winter with people who rush outdoors when it snows, rather than closing everything down when a hint of flurries is forecast.
Of course I wouldn't want to live in one of these frozen tundras. I, too, am sick of even our wimpy winters by about mid-December. But it's different to visit a place where snow is practically guaranteed and everyone owns underwear long and warm enough to allow them to enjoy the weather. For a good long weekend of winter fun -- count me in.
An Icy Start
The Ottawa portion of Winterlude festivities is concentrated on and along the downtown portion of the canal, but attractions stretch all the way to Dows Lake, about five miles south. I'm thinking my daughter and I should start by surveying, on ice skates, the entire five-mile stretch. We decide to start at Dows Lake and skate downtown, rather than the other way around, so that we'll be skating toward a warm goal -- our hotel.
The concierge at the downtown Westin tells us that he skates from his home near Dows Lake to work nearly every day, and it takes him about half an hour. He's no doubt a better skater, but even if it were to take us twice as long, I figure, the trip sounds doable. My 12-year-old daughter has moved through the ranks of figure skating all the way to Freestyle II. Although my dreams of learning to twirl and jump died about 20 years and 30 pounds ago, I do manage to hold up during the two-hour skate sessions at Cabin John Ice Rink in Rockville.
So we drive from the hotel to the lake, lacing up in a warm tent. There are lockers, but since we're planning to meet up with my husband downtown at the end of our one-way journey, I give him our boots and my purse.
I've gone about 100 yards when I realize that skating with the wind in your face on a naturally frozen and somewhat bumpy body of water is not at all like circling around a warmish indoor rink freshly scraped by a Zamboni. I then belatedly remember how many rests and snack bar breaks we take during our Cabin John sessions. That Hans was one tough little kid.
I'm going to stick it out for my child's sake, but then she mentions she already has worn blisters on her heels from her brand-new skates. "Maybe Daddy hasn't left yet?" she says.
We turn and skate like the wind back to our starting point. I'm confident he won't be standing in line for the moon bounce or taking a sleigh ride, but maybe he has stopped to eat in the ice cafe or to watch a hockey game.
He's nowhere. I unlace my skates and run to the parking lot in my stocking feet. He's truly gone. There is a bus to town, but it stops several blocks from our meeting place. The driver points out a cab stand a couple of blocks away, but I don't fancy walking there in stocking feet, even if I had cab fare in my pocket, which I don't.
Luckily we're in Canada, where people are really nice. A security guard who overhears us offers a ride to our hotel. After changing socks and applying bandages to blisters, we head again, with skates, to the ice just outside our door.
On Ottawa's Parliament Hill, government buildings with copper-topped roofs are dead ringers for London's houses of Parliament, complete with Big Ben. Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as Canada's capital in 1857, and just after World War II, it received a major makeover by Paris city planner Jacques Greber.
After taking in both city and festival sights from the ice, we skate to a refreshment stand. I don't know which is better: the taste of hot chocolate in your mouth on a cold day or the feel of the steam rising to frozen cheeks. We spoil our plans for an early dinner with beaver tails -- hot fried dough that starts out as something like a French beignet but is doused with cinnamon and sugar or maple syrup.
Once we meet up with my husband, we walk just steps from the canal to view dozens of giant ice sculptures by world-renowned carvers. A Russian has taken first prize for his fairy-tale carving of swans encircling a huge yet delicate princess. Second place: a Japanese artist's rendition of a two-story-high horse rearing, a Samurai warrior on his back.
They are works of art even more ephemeral than the wrappings done by Christo, and to my mind just as beautiful. The huge but delicate carvings shimmer in rays of sunlight.
A few minutes' drive across the river is Ottawa's adjoining city, which until 2002 was named Hull, but since then has won a more appealing French name: Gatineau. The change came when three municipalities, including Hull, decided to incorporate and held a referendum to select a new name for the town that sits at the junction of the Ottawa and Gatineau rivers. All three municipalities are in Quebec Province, a bastion of French culture that is three times the size of France.
By the time we've parked the car and walked a couple of blocks toward the snow sculptures and slides in Gatineau's Snowflake Kingdom, the Canadian Museum of Civilization is looking mighty good. We dash in to get warm but end up spending hours wandering through the exhibits, which range from archaeological finds from just after the Ice Age to the art of modern-day Canadians. Like our own capital city, Ottawa has way more than its fair share of museums, including the country's preeminent National Gallery and museums of technology, science, nature, aviation, children and war.
My daughter is more taken with Snowflake Kingdom in Jacques-Cartier Park. Festival organizers have bulldozed mountains of snow and hefted tons of block ice to create gently sloping slides for little kids and steep, lugelike runs for the more adventurous. Our favorite is the largest: Steps are cut into blocks of snow that rise over two stories, ending at two side-by-side chutes that shoot down the mountain of snow for about 100 feet. It takes several minutes to walk to the top and what seems like a split-second to get down.
Every Canadian province sends teams to Winterlude to compete in snow sculpture contests, and the results of their labors are scattered around Snowflake Kingdom. The sculptures are at least two stories high and intricately carved.
As darkness falls, we head for dinner at a cozy Indian restaurant downtown in Ottawa's ByWard Market -- a lively area built around a market that opened in 1840, with boutiques, gourmet cheese shops, bakeries, restaurants and pubs.
I head alone through gently falling snow for a concert in the Snowbowl to hear La Bottine Souriante, a jazzy, 10-piece French Canadian folk band. People sway and dance in place to the music of the award-winning band that tours internationally. It is now below freezing. (Ottawa's temperatures in February range from an average high of 22 to an average low of zero.) I'm energized by the combination of hot music, warm clothes and freezing cheeks. My family, on the other hand, finds repulsive the whole idea of an outdoor concert on a freezing night, but seeing as how the Westin is attached to a three-story shopping mall, my daughter will soon find plenty to do.
It's All Downhill
Parks and forests surround Ottawa. You can cross-country ski within minutes of the city's main shopping mall downtown and drive about 15 miles to one of two downhill ski resorts in Gatineau Hills.
We head in that direction our second morning in town for a free snowshoe tour of the woods with a nature interpreter, but get lost on the drive. We stumble instead upon a French bistro in the woods. There is no way we'll find the snowshoeing crowd now, but once I've ordered a beef stew with crisp, warm bread, I no longer care.
The sun is shining, sparkling off mounds of compacted snow. While we haven't planned to ski, we can't resist when we happen to cross the entrance to Camp Fortune, a family ski and snowboard center. Fortune has 20 runs. We're forced to share the slopes with snowboarders, and since the trails lack fresh powder on this particular day, they're icy and fast. But with a half-day pass costing about $25, we feel we've gotten our money's worth in a couple hours, and use the remainder of the daylight to visit Rideau Hall.
Most people probably come here to see the stately buildings on 79 acres of grounds, which in 1867 became the home of Canada's governor general. The grounds and buildings are open to the public, even though the nation's current governor general -- Michaelle Jean, a Haitian immigrant -- lives there with her husband and 6-year-old daughter. The residence also was once the home of the Dutch royal family, who took refuge in Ottawa during World War II. The Dutch have never forgotten: Just after the war they sent a gift of 100,000 tulip bulbs and every year supplement that with another 20,000 to brighten up Ottawa's annual spring tulip festival.
We stop at Rideau Hall because it has Canada's oldest outdoor skating rink. Rideau Hall is where foreign heads of state are received during visits to Canada, and tradition calls for them to plant a tree. Thus the grounds have trees with plaques showing that they were planted by Diana, Princess of Wales, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Queen Elizabeth II, to name a few, none of which I'm betting got their hands dirty in the process. The rink is a throwback -- to 1872 to be exact -- and is guarded by skaters in period costumes. But the surface of the ice is just as bumpy as the canal. After a few turns, we conclude we're Zamboni-dependent, not Hans Brinker material after all.
But we've done our share of healthy, bracing outdoor activities. We still need to take a late-night stroll past the ice sculptures. After that, we're ready for a night of theater and take in the drama "Proof" at Ottawa Little Theatre, Canada's oldest continuous theater. Its production is better than the recently released Hollywood movie version, in my opinion.
It is snowing by the time the play is over. What a perfect night to rush down the street, settle into a window seat in a warm cafe and watch the winter blow by.
Details, Page P7.
Cindy Loose will be online to discuss this story at 2 p.m. Monday during the Travel section's weekly online chat at www.washingtonpost.com. For a photo gallery with additional images of winter festivals, go to www.washington post.com/travel.