If there’s a single reason to travel to the Canadian capital of Ottawa in the middle of a cold winter, it can be summed up in two words: Rideau Canal. For several months each winter, the 7.8 kilometer 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 proper 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 I laced up. He had just finished his daily skate, a workout that is capable of keeping you in fighting trim.
For those not fortunate enough to be in Korea for the Winter Olympic Games, a trip to Ottawa is a far easier proposition.
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 I 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. I skated 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.
Fairmont Chateau Laurier
I especially liked the fact that I could walk to the canal in a few 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 classic railroad hotels by the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada a century ago, it is a massive turreted structure, a venerable castle that is remarkably spacious and warm inside and has long been one of my favorite hotels in the country.
Stay here in deep creature comfort and you’re a block from the shops and eateries of Byward Market and walking distance to the National Gallery of Canada and other museums, as well as to Parliament.
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, which had set up for a military dinner, was like being inside a Wedgwood bowl, all done in that singular Wedgwood blue.
I have long been a fan of the Fairmont Gold concept, the separate floor and separate lounge for Fairmont Gold rooms, a literal hotel within a hotel. Chateau Laurier just completed a multi-million dollar guestroom revitalization, which included the reimagining and renewing of the Fairmont Gold Lounge and expansion of Fairmont Gold rooms and suites.
If you’ve got especially deep pockets, opt for 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.
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 will run as long as temperatures allow. You can rent skates or bring your own. Admission to the canal itself is free. Have a good skate.
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