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Ottawa's Winter Festival: Winterlude

I believe that every Canadian kid should at one time in his or her life visit our nation's capital, Ottawa. Our children know so much, mostly from the movies, about Big Ben in London, or the Eiffel Tower, or even the Washington Monument or Capital Building. My kids were ecstatic driving around the U.S. capital city pointing out the buildings they had witnessed in "Dave" for goodness sake, the film that has Kevin Kline goofily acting out the Presidency.

What about our own capital city? The "Wa" as we affectionately called it while I was growing up there, has wonderful architecture of its own-the Gothic Parliament Buildings with their pale green roofs, the National Art Gallery glimmering like a glass Cathedral, the fairy castle-like Chateau Laurier hotel, a museum that resembles a wavy space ship-and secrets within. How many kids know that a chapel honoring unknown soldiers is hidden away in the Parliament Buildings? Or that kids can see $ 1 million worth of solid gold at the Royal Canadian Mint? Or that the International Youth Hostel, a former jail, was the site of Canada's last hanging?

There is much for families to discover in our nation's capital and what better time than now, when the entire citizenry is about to erupt in a three-weekend winter festival called Winterlude. And Ottawans, who endure an annual snowfall of 90 inches in the second coldest capital city in the world (the coldest being Ulan Bator, Mongolia), know how to celebrate their snow and ice. For nine days in February, Feb. 6 to 8, 13 to 15 and 20 to 22, this dual-language capital straddling the Ottawa River provides the setting for more than 70 snow sculptures, ice carving competitions, polo on snow, hospital bed and waiter races, dogsled rides, figure skating shows, fireworks and skating on the longest skating rink in the world, the Rideau Canal. Last year some 650,000 people from around the world brought their skates to glide along the man-made wonder that has been operating as an ice rink since 1969. Especially fun for kids is North America's largest snowy playground at Jacques Cartier Park in Hull, Quebec. This year, kids time travel in a medieval snow castle and slide down futuristic space ships.

Just after Christmas, our family travelled to the capital region to test the winter hospitality. What a treat to emerge with our skates out onto the Rideau Canal ice in brilliant sunshine. A cold snap the previous night had allowed for a total flooding and quick freeze and though the conditions were not totally smooth, it was good enough for hundreds of families to be out on the ice. Those too young to skate were being bundled into painted rental sleighs under blankets and pulled along. Preschoolers in helmets were tentatively skidding out into the middle. Future figure skaters were trying out spins and twirls. Even family pooches were sliding along. It was a carnival atmosphere as a country singer regaled the skaters not with the Skater's Waltz but Waltzing Matilda and kids lined up at the BeaverTail shacks to order the deep fried pastries smothered in sugar and jam.

During Winterlude, many of the activities take place right on the canal and much of it is free. The Ice Hogs, the fuzzy bear-resembling mascots, liven up the party while the Skate Patrollers are a reassuring presence, especially if one of your kids decides, as my seven-year-old Willie once did, to take off by himself and speed up the 7.8 km- (4.5 mile) stretch of ice. The Canal is also equipped with heated huts, skate and sleigh rentals, boot checks, skate-sharpening services and food concessions.

We also tested the ski hills neaby. One of the beauties of Ottawa is that four different family resorts are within a half-hour's drive from downtown and rental prices are shockingly low. Or try snowshoeing, winter camping, cross-country skiing or dogsledding in nearby Gatineau Park (819-827-2020). If the weather is uncooperative, head for one of the city's many museums. Must-sees are the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull with its huge totems and excellent children's museum, the National Museum of Science and Technology with my crew's favorite "crazy" kitchen and huge collection of steam locomotives, and the Canadian Museum of Nature. The major attraction here when I was growing up was the tarantula in the glass case in the lobby. Today, the museum boasts one of the five arctic aquariums in the world and an exhibit where kids can follow caribou tracks, observe live sea lemmings and sleep over on weekends.

WHERE TO SLEEP AND EAT: Most hotels have Winterlude family packages. It's not unusual to see families with skates strolling the lobby at Canadian Pacific's historic Chateau Laurier (1-800-441-1414). That's because it's about as close as you can get to the Canal, right across the street. It's close to the museums and National Gallery and within walking distance of the funky Byward Market area too. During Winterlude, a games room with ping pong tables, large screen TV and a children's program (with play periods in the Art Deco pool) will be set up. The Delta Ottawa Hotel & Suites (1-800-268-1133) are popular with families for their kitchenettes, children's creative centre and water slide. The Albert at Bay (1-800-267-6644) offer two-bedroom suites from $89 per night.

The Byward market area is full of family eateries. Two restaurants we recommend are Zak's Diner with their funny 50's meatloaf slogans and Bagel Bagel with their pre-11 a.m. $2.99 special.

For a free booklet, "Shake your Winter Blues in Canada's Capital Region," call 1-800-465-1867 and then head north towards the Canal to join the family throngs. For ice conditions, call 613-239-5234.





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