The plan was to stay in Bangkok till March.
The beer was cold and cheap, the noodle soup plentiful. However, life had other plans for us. An email from Destination Canada drops into the inbox inviting us to experience winter in Ottawa in February. The first gut reaction was no. Both me and Sabrina are wimps when it comes to the cold. Sabrina asks me how cold it gets. I google. ‘Very cold’ I said bluntly. Ottawa apparently was the world’s coldest capital city in the world in January 2019 with temperatures slipping below those of capitals in Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
We shouldn’t have given the trip a second thought after that. Maybe it was a phone call soon after to my mum that made me rethink the idea. She told me I would be MAD to go to Canada in winter or maybe it was that dreaded inner voice, that voice in you that doesn’t listen to logic, or Mum, telling you otherwise. That inner voice that nudges you gently, urging you always to get out of your comfort zone. That same voice that pushed me to go skiing for the first time, even when my heart said no.
That’s one way of explaining how we ended up in Heathrow on Valentines Day, 14th February boarding an Air Canada flight to Ottawa. I was pretty sure we were not going to fall in love with Canada in winter but we were going to try. It would be like my experiment in skiing: a glorious failure.
There was another reason which made us both curious to visit Ottawa in winter. As part of the trip, we had the chance to take part in the legendary Winterman marathon. I’ve never been a keen runner or gym enthusiast unlike Sabrina but recently, I had been hitting the gym to desperately keep in shape. A life of travel, especially one which involves eating fabulous food and a few drinks, can be quite unforgiving to your body. Winterman would be a good motivation to start getting into shape and running more. We entered ourselves into the 5k category. The idea of running in well below sub zero would be literally a helluva experience. To be honest I wasn’t sure how it was going to all turn out.
Are winters to be endured and not to be enjoyed?
This was one of the questions inside my head as we stepped out from the cosy Ottawa International Airport. It was close to 5pm and we were enveloped by a cold thick blanket of darkness. With just the odd 20 too many layers, I looked like the Michelin Man. Temperature outside was around -8C. We took a big gulp of the icy cold air before stepping into the warmth of our stellar SUV transfer car. I think it was the first time in my life I had seen snow tires. The car slowly rolls smoothly out of the airport. I see stacks of snow piled high by the side of the motorway like monolithic structures from a forgotten era. A shiver passes down my spine. Just the day before there had been a pretty epic snowstorm that had dumped over 30 cms of snow across Ottawa. I guess my grinch-like mindset towards hating winter stems from my time in Britain. If there had been a fraction of this snowfall in Britain, it would have been quite simply the end of the world for most people. Schools, hospitals and shops would close. Cars would be abandoned, strewn across highways as if they has been uprooted by a passing tornado. City centres would feel like a ghost town. Snowapocalypse, Snowmageddon or Snowzilla-take your pick of the sensationalist tabloid headlines. However, in Canada, winter is a different story. No scare mongering. The wheels keep turning, the locals keep moving even when temperatures dip as low as -15C, -20C.
‘You can easily mope at home for 4-5 months in Canada. Winters here are long and sometimes pretty harsh. You can hibernate, drink umpteen cups of hot chocolate and pretty much cut yourself off from the world. Or you could embrace the outdoors. All that snow! I love that the slopes are just a 20 minute drive away from Ottawa where I can go skiing or snowboarding. Or I can go for long hikes in the forests. Plus there’s a ton of amazing festivals happening in Canada over winter. Once you embrace the winter mindset, it can be a lot of fun.’
These were the heartening words of Farid, our driver who has been living in Canada for almost 30 years now. He knows a thing or two about surviving Canadian winters. As someone who also has an Indian heritage, I was naturally curious. Even if I wasn’t born in India, like all Indians, I have a natural tendency to hate the cold. He was candid and very open about his experience of winter. When he first came to Canada 30 years ago, he hated it and found it very difficult. However, as he settled into life in Canada, he embraced the country and its weather. It was a reminder of the power of the human spirit and how we can adapt to change with the right mindset and attitude.
The following morning, we woke up groggily and pulled the hotel curtains aside to be greeted by a moody grey sky hovering over the most pristine pearly white skyline. I had slept barely a few hours and now the jet-lag was kicking our ass. 3 coffees later, still grumpy, we’re on our way to an unusual start to our day and trip-The Nordik Spa Nature.
I might have stated this on the blog in the past but I’ve never been much of a spa-relaxation kind of guy. A glass of wine in a field with a book is what I find relaxing. However, given that we had spent most of Valentines Day cooped up on a plane, today was our first chance of spending some time together and celebrating. Also, as per the theme of the trip, I was happy to try something different and get out of the comfort zone a bit.
Located just 20 minutes from downtown Ottawa, the Nordik Spa-Nature is a unique spa experience taking in the Scandinavian practice of going through the spa rituals of heat, cold and rest.
It is the largest spa in North America with 10 outdoor baths, 9 unique saunas, indoor and outdoor relaxation areas, restaurant, lounge and also a biërgarden with terrace. We arrive early just before the spa opens at 9am and pretty much have the whole spa to ourselves. I can imagine it being beautiful in the summer but in the winter, the place definitely has a very unique atmosphere. Our favourite part is the infinity pool at the back of the spa-we lie submerged in the comfort of the heated turquoise waters, enveloped in a cloud of mist while above we begin to feel the gentle spray of snow fall on our heads. I could have stayed there forever. All the stress and strains of our jet lag are released. We later try out the range of Saunas ranging from the extremely hot (95-100 degrees) Maa Sauna (where we lasted a few minutes) to the more tolerable Tuli Sauna (85 degrees). There are icy cold plunge pools to dip into after, which I briefly submerged myself, only to start wailing like a banshee and causing a few visitors considerable distress. Afterwards, I chill in one of the more sociable quiet rooms where people lounge on chairs, reading a book or dozing off into a cheeky snooze- I hear a few folk happily snoring. Whatever you wish to do, there’s a place for you to chill and enjoy in this spa. The highlight of the visit for me and most visitors is the Aufguss ‘Infusion’ Ritual in the Finlandia Spa. The spa employs a so-called sauna meister who performs a ritual which increases the effect of sweating (also known as an Aufguss ritual, which is German for “infusion”). The sound of the gong beckons crowds of people into the inner sanctum of the Finnish sauna. Everyone slowly sits down and then a bucket is brought in overflowing with snowballs so perfectly spherical, they looked like scoops of sorbet. Some Chicanesque new-age trance music starts reverberating through the speakers and the sauna meister starts dropping the large snowballs soaked in essential oils onto hot stones, all in time to the music. As steam sizzles off them, raising the humidity in the room he picks up a fresh white towel and starts spinning around, whirling the towel in the air in mesmeric patterns as if he was a whirling dervish, tossing pizza dough. Waves of hot air burn into our skin and nostrils, giving the feeling of entering into some supreme zen like state. Whole thing is intense and utterly mesmerising. For just $65 for a day pass, it is the perfect appetiser to kickstart your journey into the bitter cold heart of Canadian winter. If this is how Canadians enjoy winter, I’m all for this and spending at least a week here. However, Ottawa has a ton of things to offer and time is flying. We finish with their excellent 3 course lunch that includes cocktails and a delicious ravioli with spring greens.
I was kind of sad to leave the spa behind but that might have been partially due to the next activity I was absolutely terrified to be undertaking- ice skating!
I’m not a natural on ice, think the grace and elegance of Bambi on ice. I once went on a skiing date 15 years ago with my university crush and to say that it was a disaster would be an understatement. Bruised all over and a badly bruised ego. However, I couldn’t say no to trying ice skating in Ottawa. To come to Ottawa in winter and not skate is the equivalent of going to Egypt and not seeing the pyramids. To say that the ice skating rink here in Ottawa is pretty special would be an understatement – at 125 miles long, the Rideau Canal freezes over in winter to form the world’s longest ice rink. This is the mother of all ice skating rinks. When I told locals I was visiting Ottawa for the first time in Winter, the first thing everyone would ask me is ‘ Have you skated on the canal?’. Their eyes would be glowing like Swarovski diamonds. How could I say no. There are numerous points along the 7.8 kilometres (4.8 miles) skateway where you can enter and also hire ice skates. We hired our skates from Capital Skates who have an office just under Mackenzie King Bridge.
The moment I put on the skates and try to stand up I find myself inelegantly draping myself around Sabrina, like a starfish out of water trying to stand up. While in the queue I had just witnessed for the last 20 minutes an Indian guy slipping and sliding around miserably. Damn you my not-made-for-winter-Indian genes. I had been reasonably confident till I saw him. Everyone seemed to be gliding along the canal in the sparkling winter sunshine with the wonderful grace and poise of Torvill and Dean. I see a 4 year old kid saunter by, biggest smile on his face. If he can do it, so can I. In an attempt to balance myself, I started crouching forward like a toad and as a result seemed unable to move. When I leaned back, I started sliding forward in an ungainly fashion until I fall with a massive thud on my arse. I won’t describe my ordeal any further but just see the video below of our trip. Just look at the terror in this man’s eyes. I tried to console myself by remembering I had tried. Just when I thought I was getting into the swing of winter in Ottawa, I was back to ground zero with a thud.
Sabrina slowly nursing my bruised thighs and ego, suggests we sample the perfect antidote to possibly all the ills of winter in Ottawa, the most beloved of all Canadian treats-the sugary doughy delicious Beavertail pastry.
The Beavertail trucks are positioned all along the canal. The Beavertail is modelled after Canada’s largest rodent and symbolic mascot, the Beaver. Sorry, not making it sound very appetising am I?It’s like a doughnut but flattened, stretched out to an almost wiener schnitzel wafer thin consistency. Topped up with cinnamon, sugar and lemon its a wonderful calorific rush. I feel a dramatic sugar rush and lifting of my spirits after that. Bring on a few more beavertails while I quickly banish my ice skates to some dark corner of my memory.
I needed something to lift my mood a bit more after my epic fail at ice skating. Some beer would be amazing. Usually in the dead of winter in many parts of Britain people tend to stay in, watch movies and avoid dining out. Definitely, not in Ottawa. It could have been the Winterlude effect but the bars were packed and the beer was flowing everywhere. A good place to start your Ottawa bar crawl is Elgin Street in the heart of Ottawa’s magnificent food market, the Byward. From gelaterias to cafes to live music bars, Elgin Street is the heartbeat of Downtown Ottawa. We start off at the Clocktower Brewpub, Ottawa’s longest established full-service craft brewery.
Given that it was still Valentines Day weekend, we decided to choose their chocolate infused stout- ‘Beer my Valentine.’ I am not much of a stout lover but it’s pretty decent. We roll on further down Elgin Street to the intimate and boisterous El Camino. It has a cool industrial decor, people perched on high stools along the long bar counter where bartenders are preparing some of their popular tequila- and mescal-based cocktails. We’re hungry and tuck into their signature tacos-definitely some of the most delicious tacos I’ve tried. Also highly recommend their salt and pepper squid. We loved the relaxed vibe here and their old-school pinball machine is also a nice added touch of retro fun. Next stop for drinks is at the Copper Spirits & Sights at the Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market hotel. The tallest rooftop bar in the city, it was worth coming here just for the amazing views of the market.
Afterwards we troop off for the main event of the evening- Ottawa’s very own Winter Brewfest.
Gathered in the historic Victorian exhibition hall, the huge Aberdeen Pavilion (once home to the oldest iceskating rink in the world dating back to 1904) plays annually, host to over 100 independent microbreweries from Ontario and Quebec. I hadn’t quite associated Ottawa with great beer but it seems that the palettes of local beer drinkers are pretty sophisticated here. Recent years have seen an explosion of breweries, new beer styles and brands (There’s even an excellently curated experiential beer tour running all year round if you miss Brewfest). There’s a carnival atmosphere with everyone milling around the various producers sampling their craft beers. In the front – there’s lot of stomping and dancing going on in the front thanks to the DJ. We drink, dance till our feet drop.
Hangover day, the next day. Plus also the day before our race.
We hadn’t had much downtime to train before the race. It was sunny outside but pretty damn cold. We decide to head to the National Gallery of Canada – I find art galleries to be quite therapeutic places when nursing a hangover. We head to the beautiful glass and granite building of the National Gallery of Canada which houses the largest collection of Canadian art in the country. There’s also an impressive collection of modern art here including a few works by Andy Warhol. The other notable piece of art that strikes the eye is Louise Bourgeois’s Maman – sculpture of a giant spider right in front of the gallery entrance. Definitely also worth popping into the cafe of the gallery – they serve a very affordable range of healthy and delicious food – soups, salads, quiches plus wine/beer. The best part is the wonderful views of the parliament, glowing in the winter sunshine, from the floor to ceiling windows of the cafe.
For a taste of local living, we head to the hip and colourful historic neighbourhood of Glebe.
Packed with local businesses you can find everything from one of the city’s oldest movie theatres (The Mayfair– 85 years old) to retro arcade (House of Targ) that serves pirogies to the wonderful Octopus Books (116 Third Avenue) a community bookstore located just off Bank Street. Octopus was our first stop. Octopus has an extensive selection of political books, as well as books on class, race and globalization. As the shadows lengthen by late afternoon and it starts to feel pretty cold, we duck into the bright and inviting Little Victories cafe. Specialising in hand roasted ethically sourced coffee, it is a good place to warm up, catchup on your messages or emails over a nice cup of coffee.
We go back to the hotel and rest. We had a 6am start the following morning for the big one – the Winterman Marathon.
We struggled to sleep that night. It could have been the jetlag, the adrenaline or the nerves that grip you when you know you have a big challenge ahead of you. We pile on a few layers and hope we have dressed appropriately for the conditions. We grab a cab to the starting point of the race – the magnificent Canadian War Museum. We weren’t sure what to expect but by the time we arrived around 6.30am, a fair amount of participants had gathered in the cavernous reception area of the museum. The morning sky was breaking and the few rays of sparkling winter sun started filtering through the windows of the museum bathing the participants in a rich glow. I was nervously pacing up and down until I bumped into probably the oldest participant ‘Bob’ Volkert Bobeldijk who was turning 82 in April! Bob had started running only at the age of 68!
I asked him for some advice for the run ahead and his words were simple
‘Just keep moving!’
Those words would come back to me, later in the race.The start was a breeze. Was an easy jog downhill. Tightly huddled together, it was warmer than I had expected. Temperature around the start of the race was -15C but very sunny. It was only after a 1000 metres when the runners start spreading out that I could feel the intense cold air. Everytime I breathed, my nostril hairs froze! Weirdest and funniest thing ever. Soon the combination of overheating under the layers and my hat (was a bad idea) and a stiff cold wind blowing in my face started slowing me down. By the time the first turn came for the 3k mark, I was already feeling pretty envious of those turning back. Sabrina was struggling too but kept pushing me on. I kept waiting for the halfway mark turn for the 5k, my body starting to give way and my legs feeling like jelly. When the turn came, I felt a spike of energy but soon the exhaustion came back and part of me felt like I was close to breaking point. Bob’s words came back to me and I slowly jogged on as everyone stormed forward. We were going uphill at this point, the road slowly bending towards the Museum in the far distance. The distant silhouette of the museum gave me a lift. I must mention all the amazing volunteers lining the way with water for the runners and barking words of encouragement. The closer we came to the line, the more it felt better until the end when suddenly we both started feeling our legs going. However, something kept urging us on. It was that inner voice that makes us achieve the impossible, against all logic. Crossing that line together with Sabrina was a moment of happiness, elation that I will never forget.
So that was my winter in Canada experience. Looking back now almost 6 months later, I can safely say that winter in Canada and Ottawa, especially the Winterlude Festival is definitely a unique, ‘once in a lifetime’ kind of experience.
True, it is not for everyone. It does get bitterly cold. However, with the right clothing it doesn’t feel so bad. If you can get over that mental barrier of the cold weather, you will thrive. I remember my chat with Farid and how even with his not-made-for-winter indian genes, he adapted to winter in Canada and fell in love with the season and the country. The whole range of festivities on offer during Winterlude definitely makes Ottawa a great place to spend a short break – from live music, to the Brewfest, fabulous range of food and drinks choices, places to relax like the stunning Nordik Spa. Plus taking part in Winterman with Sabrina will be a memory that will stay with me for many years to come. In the end, winter in Ottawa and Canada was a glorious triumph of my indefatigable human spirit and not the glorious failure I had expected. Good things always happen when we step out of our comfort zone. We just have to say yes to the things we are scared to try and then let the magic take over, weave its spell on us.
All the views expressed here are entirely my own, unbiased and to help you decide, plan a trip to Ottawa in Winter. If you are planning a trip to Ottawa in Winter, please let me know in the comments below or by emailing me kash AT budgettraveller.org