Canadian Staycation: 7 Winter Getaways
Banff, Alberta, pictured above, is a picture perfect mountain town with turquoise glacial lakes. Photo: AlbertoLoyo
From gorgeous landscapes for skiing and dog sledding to romantic urban retreats and festivals, Canada offers a myriad of unique winter experiences. And who knows? You may even start loving the cold weather again.
1. Banff/Lake Louise
Even winter wusses like me enjoy snowy activities in Alberta. I had a marvellous dogsledding tour on Spray Lakes Reservoir with Mad Dogs Expeditions a few years ago. I also went snowshoeing on the hills above Lake Louise, knee-deep in powder and gloriously warm on a -15 C day given the sun and my “just right” winter clothing. You can’t go wrong with a visit to the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel, a historic, beautiful property with a warm, welcoming lobby and a truly fantastic spa. There’s great skiing at Lake Louise and also at Mt. Norquay, where you’re more likely to mix with locals than with visitors from the U.S. There’s terrific food in Banff, including fine steaks at Chuck’s Steakhouse.
If you’re looking for warmth without leaving the country, this is your best bet for a winter trip. Butchart Gardens is always a crowd-pleaser, and they’ve been serving tea at the Fairmont Empress hotel for what feels like centuries. But there’s much more to this city than gardens and fancy hotels. The craft beer scene is excellent, and you’ll find wonderful coffee shops, including Hey Happy and Shatterbox Coffee Company. Just a 20-minute walk northwest of downtown, Wheelies Motorcycles and Café is a place that only a local would know about. It’s a former car repair shop that’s been turned into a bar and restaurant/café. It’s an homage to motorcycle culture, with motorcycle movie posters on the wall and classic rock blaring from the speakers. Definitely not your grandmother’s Victoria.
3. St. John’s
One of Canada’s most beautiful cities rocks out in winter just as hard as it does in summer. The lively pubs on George Street pump out great local and Irish music pretty much every night, regardless of the weather. The Rooms is a tremendous museum that tells the story of Newfoundland and Labrador. Located in the beautiful Quidi Vidi area, Mallard Cottage serves fabulous food. Raymonds restaurant, overlooking the St. John’s harbour, often makes the list of Canada’s top dining places. If you’re looking for something more casual, try the fish and chips at Duke of Duckworth’s, a fave spot of Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy. Folks looking for a sleek, stylish hotel should check out the Alt on Water Street.
A city that definitely punches above its weight. The Remai Modern is a fantastic art gallery on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River. You’ll also find remarkable restaurants. Chef Dale MacKay, winner of the first season of Top Chef Canada in 2011, is part of a group that runs Ayden Kitchen and Bar, Little Grouse on the Prairie and the Asian-themed Sticks and Stones. I’ve dined in all three, and they’re sensational. Look for nice, independent boutique shopping in both the Broadway area and trendy Riversdale. Just a few minutes outside of town is Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a terrific attraction that chronicles the lives and stories of local Indigenous peoples.
There’s tons to do in Canada’s largest city during the winter months — which is often a prime time to find hotel deals and other discounts. Check out new hotels such as the King Blue, located in an historic building on King Street West and featuring a heavenly indoor swimming pool. A new W Hotel is set to open early in 2022 on the site of the former Marriott on Bloor St., just east of Yonge St. A new, trendy Ace Hotel also is slated to open soon. Down on the waterfront, Hotel X has lovely, spacious rooms, wonderful lake views and great food. It’s connected to a massive sports centre with indoor tennis courts. If you’re into watching sports rather than playing them, check out a Maple Leafs or Raptors game at Scotiabank Arena. Live theatre or musical shows at the newly restored Massey Hall also are a great winter option. To save on dining out, try mom and pop places in Scarborough or North York, where you’ll find amazing Malaysian, Iranian and other exotic cuisine.
6. Quebec City
It is, by most accounts, Canada’s most romantic city. And currently, planning is underway for the Quebec Winter Carnival, Feb. 4 to 13, one of the great events in all of Canada, and one I was able to visit a few years ago. We ate fantastic food, rode giant inner tubes down icy slopes, slapped high fives with the beloved mascot Bonhomme, and warmed our hands over an open fire. (Warning: don’t get too close or your mitts might turn to ash, like mine did. Noone ever said I was a genius.) Even if you miss Carnival, the sight of falling snow on those sloping, multi-coloured rooftops and the narrow alleyways will take your breath away. Splurge on a cocktail or a glass of port at the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac and stroll along the Dufferin Terrace, high above the (usually) frozen St. Lawrence River.
If you jaywalk in Toronto you’re likely headed to emergency. In Halifax, they actually slow down to let you cross a busy street and wave a cheery hello. It might be a little blustery for a walk along the harbour, but you can still enjoy fine, late-night entertainment at pubs such as the The Lower Deck. I love the feel and the food at Agricola Street Brasserie in the trendy north end. Dartmouth has a number of fine dining spots and local breweries, including New Scotland Brewing Co. The Muir Hotel offers true luxury and local art.