It’s minus 20°C, the sun beams through snow-covered evergreen trees and all is perfectly still and silent – but for the howls of beautiful, frenzied Siberian husky dogs. One of whom I’ve spent ten minutes trying to wrangle into a photo, getting just close enough to snap him, before he licks me square on the mouth. We’re in Canada, deep in the Haliburton Highlands, on the edge of south-eastern Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, and as we race across a glassy frozen lake it feels as close to idyllic, wintry wilderness as it’s possible to be.
The province of Ontario is not unchartered territory: it’s home to Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, and one of the country’s most popular destinations in Toronto. But journey further into the rural north of Ontario – often overlooked in favour of the mountains and turquoise lakes in Canada’s western provinces of Alberta and British Columbia – and people embrace a winter way of life from November to March that offers much for the outdoorsy, if not thrillseeking, traveller. Now, the province’s winter season provides the backdrop for BBC4’s crime drama, Cardinal.
Detective John Cardinal (Billy Campbell) and Detective Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse) in Cardinal
Husky rides, along with Anne of Green Gables, Joni Mitchell and maple syrup, fit perfectly with the cosy notion I had of Canada. Now I’m here, even before venturing beyond Hunts-ville’s Deerhurst Resort, I encounter open and engaging people, with dry humour – and a desperate desire for us to seize winter the way they do.
In the forest, “mushing” with the huskies (who we’re told to cuddle, pet and “get to know” before we set off on the three-hour trip) is exhilarating. We get the hang of starting and stopping the sleigh; concentration is required as you don’t want to take a foot off the brake and send your partner shooting into the woods without you.
For those who prefer a less rustic mode of transport, snowmobiling is second nature to Ontarians. The machines look intimidating, but once you’re astride, you feel an action-movie thrill as you zoom up and down snowy hills.
To get your heart racing – with a little less potential peril – Arrowhead Provincial Park offers tracks for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and, most peaceful and graceful of all (once you get your balance), there are miles of ice- skating trails through dense trees that twinkle with melting snow as the afternoon creeps in.
Commuters take the frozen Rideau Canal to work in Ottawa
Four hours away, the frozen Rideau Canal runs through the centre of Canada’s capital, Ottawa, where thousands of people skate to work during the winter months. Don’t dismiss Ottawa as an airport stopover – the neo-gothic towers of Parliament Hill loom over the city, which has easy charm, with neighbourhoods like Byward Market that cater for fans of quirky shops and diverse, fashionable restaurants.
It’s reinventing itself this year as the country’s cultural capital, with a year-long programme of celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation, including light shows, street theatre and Agri 150, a series of avant-garde foodie events. We catch one on our visit, Fire and Ice, a brilliantly innovative four-course dinner in a giant hydroponic greenhouse, devised by renowned Ottawan chef Marc Lepine, Canada’s answer to Heston Blumenthal. Elk osso bucco and Tonka bean sponge cake are highlights of the experimental menu.
Canadians embrace their multicultural heritage proudly: there are nods to the country’s British, native American and French legacies everywhere. The last is particularly prominent, as just across the Ottawa river and into the province of Quebec is Francophone sister city Gatineau. Everyone here is bilingual, and the cultures entwine in the city’s architecture, food, media and art.
One of Ottawa’s highlights is the National Gallery of Canada, a spectacular, futuristic building, housing works by Matisse, Klimt, Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Warhol, as well as an impressive collection of Inuit and native American art. One of its most breathtaking pieces is outside: Louise Bourgeois’s Maman, a 30-foot spider sculpture, now part-buried in snow, and so alarmingly lifelike it has me longing for the crystalline blue eyes of those huskies.
Radio Times Travel
The Rockies to Niagara Falls, 12 nights from £2,129pp. Discover the very best of Canada, from the stunning power of Niagara Falls, to Quebec City – one of North America’s oldest cities. Follow the Icefields Parkway to Lake Louise and Banff, in the heart of the majestic Rockies, and explore the delights of cosmopolitan Toronto and vibrant Vancouver. What’s included:
Glittering Vancouver – often cited as ‘the best place in the world to live’
Time in Jasper – Gem of the Canadian Rockies
Travel along the dramatic Icefields Parkway, to Banff
Visit sparkling Lake Louise, set against stunning Victoria Glacier
Explore Banff, the stunning capital of the Rockies
Olympic city Montreal, the French Canadian capital of style
UNESCO-listed Quebec City, Canada’s only walled city
Explore Victorian Ottawa, the elegant Canadian capital
Discover cosmopolitan Toronto on the shores of Lake Ontario
Gaze in awe at tumultuous Niagara Falls
12 nights’ room-only accommodation at a series of good-quality hotels in Vancouver (3 nights), Sun Peaks (1), Jasper (1), Banff (2), Montreal (2) and Toronto (3)
Return flights from your chosen airport to Vancouver, returning from Toronto