Friday, April 13, 2012

A Winter Vacation for a Change of Scenery...Snow Included!

When thinking of travel, I think of getting away from the mundane routine that is my life when I am not traveling. Not that I don’t like my life, I just like to escape it from time to time. For me, travel is seeing and learning about a new place and a new culture, relaxing on a beach, exploring off-the-beaten track locations that most people have never heard of and escaping the cold, blistery Canadian winters. The advantage that I have over most people though is that I have the opportunity to not only escape winter every March or April, I also have the opportunity to still experience what it is like to actually enjoy and travel within a winter destination outside of that one week that I spend on a beach down south. That’s right, enjoy.

Because I have lived in Canada my whole life and have spent every winter here, I am quite familiar with the routine that is winter. The snow starts falling in mid to late November, the snow shovels come out of hibernation, winter tires replace summer ones, the heat gets cranked up, the winter wear gets taken down from the attic, the camping gear and swimwear gets put away until next season and the smell of smoke emitting from wood stoves fills the crisp night air. This is winter in Canada. The ones that don’t particularly like it tend to hibernate through it and come out only when necessary and curse their way to work on icy and snowy roads in sub-zero temperatures or they just close up shop and do like the Canada Geese and head to Florida to wait out the storms. It takes a certain mind-frame to love winter and for the ones who already love it like me, we understand something that others have failed to even try to understand; the fact that winter is fun and there is just as much to do in winter as there is in any other season.

The majority of tourists that travel to Canada each year tend to do so between the months of June and October. This is when the temperatures are at their warmest, the days are at their longest and there is no snow in sight. While Canada is, no doubt about it, a great summer vacation destination, I think we Canucks need to promote our winter tourism a little more. A lot of people south of the border and from warmer climates abroad are missing out on something great and so are all the snowbirds who take off to Florida at the first sight of a snowflake. The first step in seeing the good in a Canadian winter is seeing snow in a more positive light. Snow is more than just frozen precipitation that clogs our driveways and hides the pretty green grass. Snow provides good, clean fun and it allows for all sorts of new things to do that can’t be done in summer.

As a born and bred Canadian, I can say that I sometimes dislike snow as much as the next Canadian who has spent countless hours of their life shoveling it, driving at a crawl through it and being house-bound because of it. The thing is, every time I begin thinking negatively about Canadian winters and cursing the cold, slushy mess that they can be, I end up thinking about all the positive things. Some of the most memorable times of my life happened in the winter and involved snow. Sleighing at the apple orchard, building massive snow forts with dad, clearing freshly fallen snow off the pond in preparation for skating, snowball fights behind the baseball field (girls against boys, of course!), downhill skiing at Ski Ben Eoin, jumping ice clampers and catching giant snowflakes on my tongue. I even had the recent opportunity to experience another Canadian cold weather activity; searching for icebergs in Newfoundland.

Potential visitors should not be afraid to travel to Canada during the winter months. Really, it’s not that cold and there's not that much snow. It’s not like when my grandmother was growing up and the snow was twenty feet deep and it was so cold that your eyes froze together. The snow is only ten feet deep and the ice particles don’t actually freeze your eyes together, they just rest on your eyelashes and make it hard to see. Seriously, all joking aside, winter in Canada is an experience that one will never forget. There is something about a cold, blistery Canadian night that brings people together for a game of cards and hot chocolate around a roaring fireplace while they wait for a raging blizzard to subside so Canadians can do what Canadians do best; play in the snow. Snow blowers come out of the shed with a roar, snowmobiles are brought out of hibernation, skis are waxed and skates are sharpened, the sound of hockey sticks hitting the ice signals to players and spectators alike that a competitive game of ice hockey is about to take place.

To this day, there are winter activities that I have not even had the chance to participate in. Some of these activities are at the top of my list and apparently they are at the top of many other travelers lists too because travel to the colder regions in the north are seeing an exceptional rise in tourism these past few years. They are coming to see the spectacular Northern Lights, the Polar Bears of Churchill, Manitoba, the frozen tundra of the far North, the vastness of the snow-covered prairies, the snow capped Rocky Mountains and the good ol’ hockey games that take place on the frozen lakes and ponds all over the country. They are coming to be subjected to experiences such as skiing the world class ski resorts at Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise, heli-skiing in the back country of the Alberta and British Columbia Rockies, dog sledding across the frozen landscape of the Northwest Territories, Skating on the world’s largest outdoor skating rink on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, glacier touring high in the icy mountains and snowmobiling on the many groomed and scenic trails that are a part of virtually every community across the country.

Just because the air is cold and the ground is white, doesn’t mean The Great White North is shut down for business. In fact, the towns and cities where most of the winter fun takes place stay in business all year round and business is booming. Take the quaint little resort villages of Banff and Jasper in the Alberta Rockies. A stroll down the main street in either one of these towns at the height of the winter season provides proof enough. The streets are packed with skiers looking for a relaxing lounge where they can warm up to a hot cup of hot chocolate or a cold beer. Hotels are booked solid, restaurants are packed and souvenir shops and other retail stores stay open late to accommodate the skiers who refuse to leave the slopes until the very last run of the day. On the East Coast, outfitters are constantly on the go. Their days are filled with ice fishing excursions, back-country expeditions and snowmobiling tours. The bars and lounges in the seaside communities are full to the brim with cold but content travelers looking for a good ol’ fashioned down east kitchen party to wind down to after a long day.

Canada is home to some interesting and one-of-a-kind accommodations that really let visitors experience the northern climate. Quebec City is home to an ice hotel. Yes, that’s right, an ice hotel or Hotel de Glace as it is known by locals. Apparently you get all the comforts of home but you are surrounded by ice. In more northern climates in The Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, visitors can stay in a real Igloo. Sometimes, they are already made and guests just crawl in and get cozy or they can build their own with the help of a professional Igloo builder. At Indian Brook, Cape Breton, NS, Cabot Shores, a year-round wilderness resort, offers guests the opportunity to participate in a number of outdoor winter activities including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and winter hiking. Various spa and wellness services are offered and the lodge and chalets offer comfortable and cozy accommodations where you can relax around a fire after a day spent outdoors.

Canadians love festivals and we have them at every opportunity possible including the dead of winter. Virtually every city, town and village in the country has its own winter festival. Every festival is different but some of the activities you can expect to see at one of them are outdoor skating and hockey tournaments, sleighing, various races, skiing and other snow sports. Fireworks and outdoor barbecues and cookouts are also common at these festivals. Probably the most famous winter festival in Canada is Ottawa’s Winterlude which takes place during the first three weeks in February. Participants enjoy a number of free activities including concerts and snow sculpture contests. Other popular winter festivals that take place across Canada are:
-Carnival du Quebec, Quebec City.
-Saskatoon Blues Festival, Saskatoon, SK.
-Ice Magic Festival, Lake Louise, AB.
-Snowking's Annual Winter Festival, Yellowknife, NWT
-Montreal Highlights Festival, Montreal, QC
-Winter Festival of Lights, Niagara Falls, ON
-Cavalcade of Lights, Toronto, ON
-Perth Andover Winter Carnival, NB
-The Royal Manitoba Winter Fair, Brandon, MB
-SnoBreak, Labrador, NL
-WinterCity, Toronto, ON
-Pacific Rim Whale Watching Festival, Tofino, BC
-Jack Frost Children’s Winterfest, PEI
-Nova Scotia Ice Wine Festival, NS

Canada is a huge country which means it can be hard to decide which area to visit because it is impossible to see it all in one trip. Or is it? Via Rail offers intercity and cross-country rail service to passengers throughout the year. You can start your journey in Truro, NS on the east coast and make your way to Vancouver, BC on the west coast or vice versa. You can also choose from a variety of other routes that take you across large areas of the country including:
-The Canadian which departs Toronto en route to Vancouver. Along the way, you pass through Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Jasper National Park and Kamloops.
-The Ocean departs Halifax en route to Bathurst.
-The Corridor departs Montreal en route to Windsor.
Via Rail services the entire country except for the island provinces of Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland but both of these provinces are easily accessible by ferries or the Confederation Bridge in the case of Prince Edward Island.

There is so much more I could say about traveling in Canada during the winter but I think I have gotten my point across! The point being winter in Canada can be just as fun as any beach resort down south. So next time you are considering making your yearly journey to an all-inclusive beach resort, maybe you should take some time to give a vacation of a different sort a chance and see what it is you are missing out on.

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