We’re pretty excited to have a really great contribution to our site from the Wandering Wagars. Living in Canada, they get to more easily experience life in the cold north than we do. They were kind enough to share their favorite winter activity with us and created a family guide to Winterlude in Ottawa: the ultimate winterfest in Canada’s Capital.
What you'll find...
- A Family Guide to Winterlude in Ottawa
- Top festival areas at Winterlude in Ottawa
- Should you go to Winterlude?
- What to Pack for Winterlude in Ottawa
A Family Guide to Winterlude in Ottawa
Winterlude has become a tradition in my family. Yearly, we take the kids for a four and a half hour journey from the Greater Toronto Area to experience the winter festival of art, snow and Canadian culture held in the first three weeks of February in Ottawa, Ontario and its twin city of Gatineau, Quebec. Check out what’s happening with Winterlude 2020!!
2020 Winterlude dates: January 31 – February 17, 2020
For Winterlude, Ottawa and Gatineau are transformed into a winter wonderland that features some of the world’s greatest snow and ice sculptors, concerts and performances by some of Canada’s most talented, and a massive playground of ice slides, tube rides and sled tracks. This is all topped off by having turned the beautiful Rideau Canal into the world’s longest skating rink at 5 miles. One of the best features of Winterlude is that, except for your accommodations, almost all of the activities are free!
Tip: Winterlude can be a busy place with over 600,000 people visiting the sites each year. So, if you are thinking of making the journey, booking a place to stay in advance will go a long way to ensuring that you have an amazing time.
Getting Around Ottawa during Winterlude
The Rideau Canal, which runs from the center of downtown Ottawa at the base of the Chateau Laurier is a great place to start your Winterlude experience. If you don’t have your own skates, there are plenty of shacks along the canal that offer rentals. If you’re an experienced skater, touring down the Rideau is a great way to quickly get between the sites, especially if you have a sled to pull your gear. Just step out at the sculpture garden, slip on your boots and explore!
If going by foot isn’t your bag, Winterlude offers a complimentary Sno-Bus that easily scoots people between the official sites of the festival. If you opt to drive, free parking is plentiful, but fills up fast and the road leading up to Jacques Carter Park (a prime site) is closed daily during the festivities. Winterlude in Ottawa draws a lot of people!
Experiencing Rideau Canal when it’s frozen
The ice in the central areas of the Rideau Canal is generally in poor shape. It usually only gets flooded a couple of times a day, and with hundreds of thousands of people using it, it doesn’t take long for it to get pretty choppy. Heading away from the crowds will let you avoid the cracks and snow and skate on some cleaner ice.
Best Canadian Treats to eat during Winterlude
When doing Winterlude in Ottawa, the Canal is the perfect place to indulge in some Canadian delicacies. Favorites treats include:
- Maple Taffy – maple sap that is boiled past the point of becoming maple syrup but not so long that it becomes maple butter) that is poured over ice and served up on a stick
- the pre-eminent Canadian festival treat of Beaver Tails – a deep fried pastry that is classically served layered in butter, sugar and cinnamon (although many more wild variations have been added over the years) **From 2TD: in Seattle we call these Elephant Ears – Check out our guide to Victoria BC with Kids for another Beaver Tails stop!
- …and of course no festival in Northern Ontario would be complete without a taste of Poutine – or French fries lathered in gravy and cheese curds. All are delicious just leave your calorie counters at home!
Top festival areas at Winterlude in Ottawa
Like with most festivals, the celebration is set up into a variety of areas/lands. Winterlude has so many activities and covers so much ground that you’ll want to be smart about your plan for experiencing Winterlude with kids.
Crystal Garden/Rink of Dreams
Just down from the Parliament buildings is Confederation Park where the Crystal Garden ice sculpture competition is held each year. This is where you can watch some of the world’s greatest ice sculptors work their magic. At night time the sculptures, like everything else in Winterlude, are beautifully illuminated by colorful lights that set a magical ambiance to the night. Across from Confederation Park is the Rink of Dreams which is home to many ice skating shows, DJ dance parties and interactive shows.
Snowflake Kingdom at Winterlude
A short trip across the river, in Gatineau, Quebec is where the magic really happens for children during Winterlude. In Gatineau, Quebec you can find the Snowflake Kingdom in Jacques-Cartier Park. The Snowflake Kingdom is one of, if not the world’s largest, snow playground. Each year the city builds massive ice slides for children of all ages to enjoy. The slides range in size from small to massive ones on which 6-8 people can easily link up and slide down together. There are tube slides for those who don’t mind spinning uncontrollably and there are even free downhill skiing lessons for those interested in giving that sport a try.
There are sites where you can learn about Native history and see fur tanning first-hand, explore tee-pees, race on stand-up sleds and enjoy some of the many free children’s shows and kid-friendly concerts. In 2013 the park began offering an X-treme zone, which offers zip-lines, pedal go-karts and mazes, although this part is offered at a nominal fee.
Tip from 2TDs: kids love to learn! Even if you think watching a demonstration or seeing some living history isn’t going to be a highlight, let yourself be surprised by how cool kids think it is. True, ice slides made trump tee-pees for excitement and wanting to do something over and over again.
Should you go to Winterlude?
Of course. We love Winterlude, and I expect that my family will continue to return each year. Embracing the adventure of winter is a nice change from the usual desire to hibernate or escape to somewhere warm. We have been there in the coldest temperatures and the warmest and it always ends up being a fantastic adventure with high-energy crowds and a seemingly limitless number of options for entertainment.
If you aren’t daunted by the thought of cold weather and you love the thought of spending a couple of days outdoors whizzing down ice slides, listening to incredible music and eating delicious food, then Winterlude is bar-none, the best winter festival in North America.
Tip from 2TDs: from the USA, the least expensive flights to Ottawa start on the East Coast, so why not tack on Lake Placid’s festival or a Vermont ski weekend if you’re already traveling??
What to Pack for Winterlude in Ottawa
Ottawa weather can vary drastically during February, so to be sure that you are ready for whatever Canada’s capital has to offer. Ensure that you pack warm clothing and that pieces can be layered. Daily averages are around 18⁰F (-8⁰C), but it isn’t rare for temperatures during the winter to rise well above freezing or to drop as low as -8⁰F, or -31⁰F with the wind chill. Don’t forget to bring lip-balm and sunscreen to help keep your skin protected.
Dressing in layers will help fend off the cold winter air, while bringing a good old fashioned Canadian toque (winter hat) and some warm water proof gloves will keep you toasty through all the fantastic activities.
One other thing that I can’t recommend enough is a pair of snow pants. Not only will snow pants help keep you warm, but most importantly they’ll keep you dry after spending the day sliding down ice slides and making snow angels. Always remember that you’ll never be too far from a nice cup of hot chocolate should you need something to warm you up. In fact, many of the sites offer complimentary hot chocolate at the camp fire warm-up stations.
Thank you Kevin and Christina! If this is the type of fun your family has, we’d be happy to go wandering with the Wagars any time!
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Rob Taylor is the founder of 2TravelDads, the original LGBT Family Travel blog. Focusing on ecotourism and education, 2TravelDads inspires LGBT families (and traditional families also) to go beyond their usual getaways and use travel to learn about and be part of a bigger world. “Traveling the globe and giving the kids a broad worldview.”