Top Ten Things To Do in Ontario
(Cold Months – All 5 of them)
Winter temperatures start in November and run until March (sometimes April). But despite our grumbling, there are some benefits to the winter season. Ontarians have devised ingenious ways to make the best of our ungodly climate! Here, in no particularly order, are Ontario’s ten best things to do during the cold months and months and months…
Skating elsewhere entails endless circles, but not so in Ottawa. The Rideau canal (when frozen that is) is the world’s longest skating rink and is the hub of Ottawa’s winter activities. The 7.8 kilometre canal offers not only great skating, but also excellent people-watching. One will see impromptu hockey matches, Olympic figure skater "wannabes", and executives skating to work, briefcases in hand. On-ice kiosks sell the local specialty Beaver Tails (fried dough with a multitude of toppings, including my favourite, butter and maple syrup).
The Rideau Canal is also the site of Winterlude, Ottawa’s winter festival occurring this year from February 4th to 20th. Many communities in Ontario have kickass winter festivals, but Ottawa’s is the biggest and best. The festival includes outdoor concerts, amazing ice and snow sculpting contests, professional figure skaters, fireworks and more fun than you ever had on frozen water.
The Germans invented it, but according to one wine expert, "The Niagara region of Ontario, Canada is currently the most widely respected producer of ice wines". Leaving grapes on the vine until frozen makes the resulting wine much sweeter (though this is not true for people, when Ontarians freeze they become sour grapes). Icewine is sweet without being syrupy, an excellent dessert wine.
Invented in 1922 by a Canadian (Joseph Bombardier), snowmobiles are essential modes of transportation for those in Arctic climes, ie: not Toronto. For the rest of Canada it is the fastest growing winter recreational activity, generating over 3 billion dollars annually. Ontario has 49,000 kilometres of organized trails. This earns Ontario the title of the most snowmobile trails in the world.
Snowmobiling "whisks you way to a fascinating new world accessible only in winter. A mystical world of snow-laden evergreens, sparkling white vistas and crisp blue skies", says one promo. I’m not so sure about "mystical" – there’s no winter witchcraft at work, though the scenery may enchant you (God my copy is almost as bad!)
Why exert yourself hiking or skiing, when you can straddle $8,000 worth of steel and machinery and, like the demi-Canadian group Steppenwolf sings, be "Born to Be Wild". I do advise snowmobiling on designated trails and not on half-frozen lakes as seems to be the fad. Check out the weather report on trails to be sure.
There’s always a reason to go to Niagara Falls: it’s glorious technicolor fun!! Every winter from mid-November to mid-January Niagara Falls hosts their Festival of Lights. This year everybody’s favourite corporate sponsor, Disney, is helping out by plugging in the lights and plugging their merchandise.
The Falls and surrounding park land are beautiful surrounded by snow and ice. At night, both cities (Niagara Falls, Ontario and Niagara, New York) do a great job lighting up not only the Falls but the entire river. There’s also an exhibit of figures (eg Disney characters) animated by special lights.
The maple tree is so popular in Ontario (and Canada) that it’s our national symbol. In early Spring, we get the benefits of this omnipresent tree when the sap starts thawing. Sugaring-off is the act of going into the forest and tapping this sweet sap. Farms, conservation areas, and museums across the province let you participate in the old-fashioned way. First you got to find a ready (and consenting) tree and insert a metal spout. Then watch the sweet ooze pour out.
The sap from the tree tastes different from the bottled stuff – less intense, more like eating a tree. Boiling down the maple sugar makes the product found in grocery stores. Ample free samples and pancakes will traditionally follow. There are over 50 festivals across the province devoted to this enticing activity.
Every November, downtown Toronto hosts the biggest Santa Claus parade in the world! There’s over 20 "American-style" floats (ie. big and glitzy). Plus there are the requisite marching bands, Shriners, showgirls, costumed kiddies and Santa Claus in full regalia. The spectacle represents absurd commercialism at its best and its fun for the whole family. Seriously, its great!
7. Explore Ontario’s museums
When the cold weather gets unbearable, and it does, then that’s the best time to spend a day indoors at a museum or art gallery. The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the Royal Ontario Museum are the two best in the province and are world-class. Other cities have some good museums and galleries too, so explore away.
What’s more Canadian than hockey? All Ontarians have at least one person in their family who plays on a hockey team and has NHL aspirations. Every little hick village has at least one team, if not several. There are two NHL teams, the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs, plus there’s the Ontario hockey league, which is part of the Canadian Hockey league (the world’s largest hockey league). Then there are also countless junior, senior, farm teams, etc. Going to a hockey game or watching "Hockey Night in Canada" is the ultimate Canadian experience, bar none.
Winter is the prime season for theatre in Toronto, which by the way is the third biggest English-speaking theatre centre in the world behind only New York and London. From international productions like Lion King to our own blockbusters like Needfire, the big budget theatre scene is thriving. Our amateur theatre is also popular, with venues scattered throughout the city. Throw in the National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Company, and there’s always something exciting happening on-stage.
Their website puts it best, "Tim Horton’s chain is part of people’s lives and lifestyles. To our customers Tim Horton’s is their neighbourhood meeting place – a home away from home. It’s more than just a place to have a cup of premium coffee blend with a freshly baked donut…"
Every town that’s any town in Ontario has at least one Tim Horton’s. Granted, there are many other donut chains such as Coffee Time, Robin’s, Country Style, etc, but only Tim’s has transcended to cultural icon. In 1988, the face of Jesus appeared on the wall of a Tim’s in Nova Scotia, a definite testament to Tim’s everlasting power (I don’t make these things up). So grab a cup of joe and a Canadian maple or an apple fritter and observe the cross-section of Ontarians who frequent Timmy’s. I spent a good portion of my youth there and it helped shape me into the man I am (unfortunately that shape may be slightly bulbous).
The quintessential Ontario thing to do in winter, however, cannot go on my list. The most popular thing is escaping this hellish cold. They say that hell isn’t eternal fire but rather ice. You’ll believe it if you spend a winter in Ottawa, the second coldest capital city in the world. Florida reigns supreme for cold-fleeing Ontarians. But now upstart nations like Cuba are luring us away with their discounted "exotic" locales. One can only escape for so long, then it’s time to make the best of winter.
At 1,068sq. km, Ontario is Canada’s second largest province. Our northern tip is parallel to Sweden, while our southern tip is parallel to California.
Ontario is 1,600 km east to west, half the span of the United States. So needless to say, seeing all of the province can take a lifetime.
Northern Ontario comprises most of the province and is, for the most part, wilderness. In summer, this means some of the best camping in the world. In winter, I wouldn’t even think of going there.
Southern Ontario is where most people live. It’s the industrial and financial heartland of the province (and the country). Much of the cultural attractions are in this area.
Toronto, the provincial capital, is North America’s fourth largest city. With over 100 different ethnic groups, it is considered the world’s most multicultural city.
Ottawa is the national capital and as such is the centre of Canada’s political and cultural scene.
Here’s a sample of some of the festivals occurring soon:
Mackenzie House, the residence of the Upper Canada Rebellion leader, William Lyon Mackenzie, hosts two very Scottish events. Scotch tasting" explores the nature of that popular beverage, Scotch". (Jan. 21) And on Robbie Burns Day they host a traditional ceilidh with music, dancing and haggis! (Jan. 23)
Snow sculpting contest, motorcycle races on the bay, sleigh rides and turkey soup contest. (Jan. 20-23)
Icewine Festival at Hillebrand Winery. Culinary workshops, icewine chocolate making, wagon rides of the vineyard, ice sculpture displays and free samples! (Jan. 22 – 23)
In my first article for BootsnAll, I chronicled the death of Canada’s great white weather prognosticator, Wiarton Willie. Well, his wayward son has returned to fulfill his filial duties. I’m sure the folks at Wiarton breathe easier knowing their only claim to fame will continue this February 2!
Kuumba is Swahili for creativity and is a celebration of African Heritage Month at Harbourfront (Feb. 2 -27)
Snowsnake Tournament – Brantford is the site of the First Nations Reserve and as such they are hosting a tournament for the traditional Iroquois game snowsnake. Players toss a rod (snake) in a snow trough for distance. By the way, the First Nations also gave us ice hockey and lacrosse. (Feb. 5-6)
Winterfest is usually fun. Last year it had Olympic figure skaters and very cold Mauri dancers from New Zealand (they wore grass skirts and little else in -20° weather!) (Feb. 11-13)
"Amid the winter beauty of Queen Victoria park in Niagara Falls, Ontario, one thousand couples will gather to pledge their love to one another Valentine’s Day". It’s this kind of poignantly tacky thing that makes Niagara Falls so wonderful. (Feb. 14)
Ontarians obsess over the weather. Come share our obsession and find out the climate of places like Wawa and Moosonee.
I suffer from a fatal case of wanderlust. I currently live in Toronto, but I am from Guelph, ON. I have also lived in Ottawa, Key West, Florida, and Stuttgart, Germany.
I got married in October, find out the detales at my wedsite.
Special thanks to my wife, Jenn, for helping me out with this article in specific and life in general.
Check out my past articles for some further tips, such as dining, attractions, and continuing festivals.