Top things to do in Canada this winter

We know it’s tempting to curl up under the covers and not come out until spring, but humans don’t hibernate for the winter. We could complain about the season or try to escape it — but we prefer to embrace the activities and adventures winter has to offer.

Whether you want to travel across the country or stay close to home, here are some ideas to help you plan your winter to-do list.

Ride the rails

If you love snowy landscapes — but not winter driving — a train journey may be just the ticket. Venture across Canada for a look at snow-covered mountains and lakes, or take a weekend jaunt to your favourite city for a festival or special event.

Winter travel is a good time to find deals, especially if you want to redeem rewards points. Keep your eyes open for packages and discounts this season — especially if you’re travelling with children and students or you’re over age 60. (See How to get a deal on a train ticket for tips.

Visit the capital

While there’s no shortage of indoor activities to take advantage of — like touring the many museums and galleries or watching an Ottawa Senators game, for example — but there’s lots to do outdoors in Ottawa. Cross-country ski or snowshoe the nearly 200 kilometres of trails in Gatineau Park, or skate along the Rideau Canal.

Another must-do activity: Winterlude (weekends, February 3 – 20, 2012), which features family-friendly events of all kinds. For something a little more deluxe, come to town January 26 to February 20, 2012 for Taste of Winterlude when local restaurants offer up fine dining, wine tasting and prix-fixe menus. (For more information, visit the National Capital Commission website.)

Enjoy the festivities

Of course, Ottawa isn’t the only place to find a fun festival this winter. One of the best known events our country has to offer may just be the Carnival du Quebec (January 27 – February 12, 2012) with its iconic mascot, Bonhomme de Neige. With the arts, sports and winter fun, there are events to suit just about every budget and interest. Other festivals include:

Ice Magic Festival, Lake Louise, Alberta, January 20 – 29, 2012

Perth-Andover Winter Carnival, New Brunswick, February 8 – 19, 2012

Montreal Highlights Festival, Quebec, February 16 – 26, 2012

Saskatoon Blues Festival 2011, Saskatchewan, February 23 – 26, 2012

Snowking’s Annual Winter Festival, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, starting March 2, 2012

Pacific Rim Whale Watching Festival, Tofino and Ucluelet, British Columbia, March 17 – 25, 2012

SnoBreak, Labrador, Newfoundland, around the end of March

The Royal Manitoba Winter Fair, Brandon, Manitoba, March 26 – April 31, 2012

This list is just a handful of activities — for more events, look to local tourism websites and your area’s local events calendar.


Savour icewine

Even if you hate winter, you can still be thankful for ice — or rather, the cool treats it helps create. Frozen grapes harvested in December and January give this flavourful elixir its sweetness. Many wineries also launch their new vintages during the winter season, making this an ideal time for a tasting tour.

It’s also time to celebrate this delicacy — and some of Canada’s wine-growing regions get decked out for the occasion. Check out the Winter Okanagan Wine Festival (January 14 – 22, 2012), the Niagara Icewine Festival (January 13 – 29, 2012) or the Nova Scotia Winter Icewine Festival (2 – 12, 2012 ) for events like gourmet meals, wine pairings, seminars and other tempting events. (For more information, see A toast to Icewine.)

Indulge in a chocolate tasting tour

This Valentine’s Day, think outside the candy box and try a chocolate sampling event instead. They’re all about top quality goodies, and a chance to try new flavour combinations and recipes. (Chili, anyone?)

Of course, you don’t need a special occasion to indulge: chocolate events are a regular feature in many places. (For example, The Rimrock restaurant at the Fairmont Palliser in Calgary has a “Death by Chocolate dessert buffet every Monday evening.) Chocolate tasting tours are another popular trend with many tour companies offering excursions based on this theme (like Muddy York’s Chocolate Tour of Toronto). In addition, many chocolate factories offer self-guided tours and displays to learn about this treat — and don’t forget to hit the gift shop!

Another option: learn some sweet history at a chocolate museum — there are two in Quebec (in Quebec City and Bromont) and one in St. Stephen’s, New Brunswick. Another option: take a chocolate making class. If you’re willing to get your hands deliciously dirty, try a chocolate making course or workshop too. (See for ideas.)

Hit the slopes

When the snow flies, sports enthusiasts grab their gear. Donning skis or a snowboard and cruising down snow-covered slopes is undoubtedly a favourite winter pastime in many parts of the country. From Blue Mountain Resort in Ontario to Whistler Blackcomb — the largest resort in Canada and host to the 2010 Olympic events — there are many places in Canada for a ski getaway. (For a quick overview of Canadian resorts, check out Ski Canada — coast to coast.)

And no, you don’t have to be an expert. Many places have alternative offerings, like the chauffeured “Sno-limo” tour at Whistler.

If downhill skiing isn’t your style, try cross-country skiing or snowshoeing instead. Many parks have groomed trails and offer equipment rentals throughout the season. Need ideas? Check out Canada’s top cross-country ski spots.

Bask in the Aurora borealis

Just in case starry skies weren’t stunning enough, nature puts on a show with these extra hours of darkness. Wondering where to spy the Northern lights? Yellowknife is reportedly one of the best places to see this dazzling natural phenomenon. Head up to the Bush Pilot’s Monument for a full view, or take a tour to nearby Aurora Village. To keep the chill at bay, trips usually include hot drinks, a marshmallow roast and heated viewing seats. While you’re there, venture out on a tour by dogsled, snowmobile, or take a drive on the ice road.

Nunavut, the North West Territories and the Yukon also offer some prime spying spots. Watch for winter getaway packages departing from Calgary or Edmonton. In March, outdoor events are in full swing full, like the Caribou Carnival and Canadian Championship Dog Derby.

For more information see Spectacular Northwest Territories and Tourism Yukon.

Chill out in an ice hotel

Yes, Canada has one — the Hôtel de Glace in Sainte-Catherine-de-la-Jacques-Cartier, Quebec (about half an hour from Quebec City). Embrace winter fun with outdoor events like skiing and snowshoeing, then enjoy a gourmet meal and snuggle up in a sauna or hot tub beneath the stars. (Don’t worry — packages also include a room at the nearby Four Points by Sheraton Québec so you can stash your luggage and shower.)

The glittering and snowy architecture is cozier than you might expect: suites offer a warming fireplace, and one even has a hot tub. The beds consist of a block of ice covered with a thick foam mattress and a sleeping bag. If you’re curious, the hotel offers a Virtual Tour. (For more information, visit the Hôtel de Glace website.)

Relax at an inn or spa

If the thought of straying outdoors makes you shiver, there’s no better reason to curl up by the fire at an inn or spa. Get a full-body massage to work out the kinks of winter sports (or snow shoveling), and rejuvenate your weather-ravaged hair and skin. Whether you get away for a weekend or just for the day, spas are always a good choice for girls-getaways. And it’s not just for the ladies — most spas offer men’s treatments too. Side-by-side couples treatments may just be a relaxing way to spend a romantic February getaway.

For a “Canadian” experience, look for locations that offer some stunning scenery and some unique treatments made from local ingredients — like maple sugar scrubs or treatments made from Saskatchewan sea minerals.

Looking for places to go? Try’s list of Where to spa in Canada for a start.

Regardless of how you feel about the season, winter is going to be with us for quite some time. Add one of these ideas to your to-do list to help you make this season memorable.