Family Winter Fun in the Outaouais

Winter in the Outaouais is not simply a season, but rather a time when the extensive outdoor region is transformed into a snowy playground, a place enticing and thrilling for the whole family, a perfect close-to-home destination for Spring Break.  The Outaouais, (pronounced Oo-ta-way), is tucked between the Laurentian Mountains and the Canadian Shield and just across the Ottawa River from our nation’s capital.

For the Adults:  Located just minutes from downtown Ottawa, Gatineau Park has one of the largest networks of cross-country ski trails in North America with over 200 kilometres of groomed runs and 45 kilometres of back-country trails. There are day shelters with wood-burning stoves, and cabins and yurts for overnight stays.  We stayed in the cozy Muskrat cabin at Kenauk Nature, a private backcountry chalet on its own private lake, surrounded by 140 square kilometres of pristine wilderness.

Quebec 132 (1024x683)

For the Kids:  Visit Parc Oméga, a wild animal park. Sitting behind the wheel of your vehicle you can follow the 10 kilometre road around a 1,500 acre park, and observe bison, muskox, bear, moose, deer and fox.  Here you can slip on your snowshoes and go exploring among the elk and white-tailed deer, or stay overnight in one of the park’s new lodgings near the wolves’ enclosure: choose from a prospector tent, yurt or house on stilts. In the morning follow the Park guides as they feed the wild animals.

6. Zipline

Another fun stop is at the Arbraska Laflèche Aerial Park where the kids will love the tree-top trekking, ziplining and the 55 other challenging obstacles that will have you dangling high above the ground.  Once you have conquered the trees, your kids can experience life below the ground with a tour through the largest visited cave on the Canadian Shield.

For the Family:  Discover a wealth of Canada’s culture as you travel across 1,000 years of history at the Canadian Museum of History.  There is an imposing collection of totem poles as you discover the traditions and achievements of our nation’s First Peoples.  While you are there, don’t miss the IMAX Theatre.  When your family has worked up an appetite, then plan a trip around the world with the international cuisine of Buffet des Continents in Gatineau.  You can choose from over 150 dishes inspired by the traditions of such places as China, Italy, France, Spain, the Middles East, India, Asian and North America.

4. Snowshoe Kenauk

The Outaouais region boasts a network of hundreds of kilometres of cross country ski and snowshoe trails.  After a day out exploring, warm your toes at a trailside hut or rustic inn.  Then there are caves to explore, nature to experience, the thrill of adventure parks and the wonder of museums.  Your family has to experience this 30,000 square kilometre winter playground to believe it.

For more information:

www.outaouaistourism.com

www.parcomega.ca

www.arbraska.com/en/lafleche

www.kenauk.com

Quebec 290 (640x427)

Celebrating Icewine – One Very Cool Festival

The snow and chilly temperatures set a perfect winter scene in beautiful Niagara-on-the Lake, as my wife and I bundle ourselves in parkas, mitts and wool hats.  We set off from our Bed and Breakfast towards Queen Street, wandering past snow-draped vineyards, the region’s famous grapes seemingly asleep under a white shroud.  We trek into the town’s historic downtown.  Our plan is to sample the best offerings from the region’s 28 wineries, to enjoy the wine, food and live entertainment and to learn more about Niagara’s liquid gold.

It just seems a very Canadian thing to do, rather than going into hibernation through the icy months, we have found various ways to celebrate winter. There is hockey, of course, and skiing, curling, dog sledding, and snowshoeing – and, there is icewine.  Every January, when the temperatures drop, select Niagara winemakers gather their crews, and venture into the vineyards in the middle of the night to hand-pick the frozen grapes.  Then, to celebrate their good fortune, they welcome visitors from all around to sample the region’s unique winter wine, paired with the local cuisine.

2_Welcome-to-the-Icewine-Festival

Heading into its 20th year, the Annual Niagara Icewine Festival is a uniquely Canadian winter experience, an outdoor street festival with live music, gala dinners, ice sculptures, icewine marshmallows to roast over open fires and lots of icewine tastings to help warm you. We move around sampling the icewine offerings from area wineries, while enjoying delicious savoury and sweet treats from local restaurants.

Often touted as Canada’s greatest liquid luxury, icewine is made in only three countries, and undoubtedly made best here, which is why we have become the world’s leading producer.  More than any nation, we have the right climate. Our growing conditions combine warm summers with cold winters, allowing Canadian winemakers to reap the benefits of this special winter harvest.  The grapes for Icewine are picked at temperatures of at least -8˚C so that only the highly concentrated juice is pressed from the frozen berries, leaving behind the icy water crystals.  The result of these unique climatic conditions is a deliciously sweet wine, with intense flavours and aromas, and an exceptionally high concentration of sugars, acids and extracts from the grapes.

3-Collecting-Frozen-Grapes

Admission is free for the Niagara-on-the-Lake festival, where the town’s main street has been transformed into an icewine village.  Hundreds of people mingle, tasting icewines from the wineries and sampling edible delicacies from signature kitchens.  We stop to marvel at the ice sculptures.  There is a Flash & Panache Icewine Cocktail Competition where shaken, stirred, mixed and occasionally muddled concoctions are thrown together by local mixologists.  The only rule is that they include icewine in their cocktail repertoire.  The cocktails are sampled and scored, in a competition to win the Icewine Cup.  I volunteer to become an official judge, but my wife’s fingers and toes are beginning to freeze, so we pick up a festival discovery pass and venture inside the wineries to experience wine pairings in a warmer, cosier atmosphere.  The pass ($40) includes eight wine pairings, with a mocktail and food pass ($30) available for “designated” drivers.  Thank goodness, my wife and I had chosen to walk, helping to avoid a marital spate.

Visitors looking to learn more about icewine can sign up for a tasting class. I was treated to an enlightening pairing class at Reif Estate Winery, where I learned the proper technique for savouring every sip – let the wine linger on your tongue.  I try to resist the urge to gulp it down.  Weekend packages include the ‘Get Schooled in Cool’ tasting seminars and an icewine inspired dinner.

5-Icewine-Sampling-at-Reif-Estate-Winery

There is something very romantic about sipping icewine outside in a winter wonderland; with the snow falling, a bonfire crackling, and people bundled up in hats, gloves and winter boots, celebrating one of Niagara’s most unique products.  You haven’t really experienced winter’s rare gift until you have enjoyed it outdoors in sub-zero temperatures.  It’s just so Canadian.

If you Go …

Where to Stay – From five diamond hotel properties to charming inn and bed and breakfast homes, there are plenty of accommodation properties. Reservations can be arranged through the Chamber of Commerce Accommodation Booking Service. We stayed at the engaging and very comfortable Wine Country Bed and Breakfast. stay@winecountrybb.com

Dining – We escaped the cold for an exquisite meal at The Charles Inn by Chef William Brunyansky. Built in 1832, this white neo-Georgian house with the ambience of a colonial mansion is one of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s oldest buildings, and is recognized by Wine Spectator as one of the best dining experiences in town. www.charlesinn.ca

Visitor Information – Contact www.niagaraicewinefestival.com and www.wineriesofniagaraonthelake.com