Ontario winter festivals: the coolest days out

It’s not just Christmas that is the season to be jolly. In Ontario mid winter, with its lavish amounts of ice and snow, is a great excuse for a party. A short lull follows the new-year celebrations, and then Ontario’s winter carnival season kicks off with the Niagara Icewine Festival ( www.niagaraice winefestival.com) in the province’s great wine producing region set around the picturepostcard town of Niagaraon- the-Lake. Here carefully picked frozen grapes are destined to become Canada’s famously recherché dessert wine, and the harvest is celebrated in magical style. The 2008 festival takes place from 18-27 January, with outdoor icewine tastings, frozen art exhibitions, wine tours and more.

Meantime there are more epicurean festivities nearby in Toronto with the Wintercity festival ( www.toronto.ca ), a lively food and arts celebration that runs from 25 January to 7 February. Up in northern Ontario, Sault Ste Marie, or “The Soo” as the city is known locally, stages the Bon Soo Carnival ( www.bonsoo.on.ca). At this 10-day party, starting on 1 February, dog pulling competitions and crosscountry skiing take place along with big band and country music contests.

On Lake Simcoe in the pretty Muskoka region near Georgian Bay, Orillia hosts a Winter Carnival from 9 to 11 February ( www.orillia wintercarnival.ca) when chilly challenges include an ice fishing derby and a “polar bear dip” with hundreds of participants jumping into the freezing water in order to raise money for charity.

Other flamboyant festivals include the Dorset Snowball Winter Carnival ( www.dorset snowball.com) taking place south of Algonquin Park on 16 and 17 February.

But Ontario’s most spectacular winter celebration is Winterlude set over three weekends in and around Ottawa and taking place next year from 1 to 17 February ( www.winterlude.gc.ca). This will be the 30th such event for Canada’s capital, with activities including snowbowling, ice carving and snow sculpture competitions. Best of all are the skating events along the Rideau Canal, which is transformed into the world’s largest ice rink for the occasion.

GETTING THERE AND GETTING AROUND

There have never been more options for reaching this vast land from Britain. And, once you reach Canada, travelling around is both easy and fun.

GETTING THERE: The main gateway is Toronto, with connections from a wide range of UK airports on low-cost and full-service airlines. Most services operate to Lester B Pearson, Toronto’s main airport; some Montreal and Vancouver are next, both in terms of population and the number of flight options from Britain. The capital, Ottawa, also has regular non-stop flights, as does Halifax in Nova Scotia, and the Albertan twin cities of Calgary and Edmonton.

The two big new developments, however, are both from Canadian Affair (020-7616 9177; www.canadianaffair.com). First, the company has pioneered lowcost transatlantic flights from Heathrow, with a weekends-only link on Air Transat to Toronto. Next, summer 2008 sees the first non-stop flights from the UK to Fredericton in New Brunswick; Canadian Affair is selling a weekly departure from Gatwick. This small and pretty city (Fredericton, not Gatwick) provides an excellent alternative to Halifax as gateway to the Maritime provinces, and makes the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec much more accessible; Fredericton is closer even than Quebec City to this beautiful corner of Canada. “Early-bird” offers of £99 one-way are available until 30 September.

The other leading operators to Canada are Air Canada (0871 220 1111; www.aircanada.ca), British Airways (0870 950 8950; www.ba.com), Flyglobespan (0871 271 0415; www.flyglobespan.com), and Zoom (0870 240 0055; www.flyzoom.com).

GETTING AROUND:

Air: The two leading airlines for domestic flights are Air Canada and WestJet (001 403 444 2552; www.westjet.com). As in Europe, you can save cash by booking well in advance and selecting less popular flights.

Rail: The national rail operator is Via Rail (001 514 989 2626; www.viarail.ca), whose main transcontinental line extends from Halifax in Nova Scotia to Montreal, with onward connections to Toronto, and beyond there to Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver. In addition, some individual provinces have big and busy networks of trains, in particular Ontario and British Columbia. The best site for research is www.seat61.com. The Via Rail website is well organised, and makes booking individual trips a breeze – but if you prefer to work with a UK agent, contact 1st Rail (0845 644 3545; www.1strail.com).

Bus: Greyhound (001 800 661 8747; www.greyhound.ca), based in Calgary, is the main long-distance bus operator, and has a wide range of discounted fares if you choose to book ahead. In addition, every province has a network of local operators.

CLICK HERE to explore Canada further.

CLICK HERE for Simon Calder's Canada podcast.

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