By Everett Potter
If there’s a single reason to travel to the Canadian capital of Ottawa in the middle of a chilly winter, it can be summed up in two words: Rideau Canal. For several months each winter, the 7.8 km serpentine canal that runs through the heart of the city freezes up and becomes the world’s largest skating rink.
Except it isn’t a rink. It’s a wide canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a thoroughfare where families and couples and solo adults of all ages lace up and get their daily exercise. In a country synonymous with hockey, men of all ages wear the requisite black Bauer hockey skates and make like Wayne Gretzky. There are giggling teens in white figure skates and determined moms with speed skates on, pushing strollers that are outfitted with skates instead of wheels.
“Have a good skate,” said a gentlemen of a certain age as we laced up. He had just finished his daily skate, a workout that is capable of keeping you in fighting trim.
There are a couple of things that make the Rideau Canal experience even better. First, the ice is groomed almost every night. It’s “swept,” in the parlance, and frequently flooded with a thin coating of water that freezes into a fresh surface. Secondly, it’s pleasantly scenic. With the spires of the Fairmont Chateau Laurier and Parliament in site, you might be in some unnamed European capital.
As we skated, we discovered that every kilometer or so, there was a bank of fir trees set on the ice to mark bathrooms and refreshment stands selling Beaver Tails, the iconic fried dough pastries that keep the cold at bay. Day one we skated with kids, so we accomplished about 4km, achievement enough for them. On day two I did the entire length and back, about 10 miles, past the government buildings and office buildings, past the grand brick houses and onto Lake Dow, which is part of the skateway.
We especially liked the fact that we could walk to the ice in minutes from the lobby of the venerable Fairmont Chateau Laurier, which lies across the street from the start of the canal. Built as one of the grand railroad hotels by the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, it is a massive turreted structure that is remarkably spacious and warm inside. They don’t make hotels like this anymore, places with vast wide corridors, generous rooms with bay windows, and an Art Deco swimming pool with the original 1929 heat lamps still in use. One of the meeting rooms, set up for a military dinner, was like being inside a Wedgwood bowl, all done in that singular Wedgwood blue.
If you’ve got especially deep pockets, $2,800 CAN a night will get the Karsh Suite, where the legendary portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh lived for years with his wife. Several original prints adorn the comfortable suite, including iconic images of Hemingway and Shaw.
For mere mortals, the “OMG-Ottawa March Getaway Package” is for two adults and two kids in the same room and runs $159 CAN per night.
You’re a block from the shops and eateries of Byward Market and walking distance to the National Gallery of Canada and other museums.
Wilfrid’s Restaurant in the hotel offers a formal dining option but the favorite place for politicians and savvy guests is Zoe’s Lounge, a clubby space where afternoon tea can segue into cocktail hour.
The Rideau Canal season usually starts in January, depending on the temperatures, of course. You can rent skates or bring your own. Admission to the canal itself is free. Have a good skate.
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