The Best Winter Experiences in Canada

Canadians don’t let snow, ice and freezing rain get in the way of a good adventure. Travelling to every province and territory to research our sister book, The Great Canadian Bucket List, I discovered exceptional winter experiences to add to the list of things to do in Canada – or anywhere else – before you die. Here’s my round-up of the best winter experiences in Canada:

Skoki Lodge, Alberta

Winter guests cross-country ski a challenging 11km to reach Western Canada’s oldest backcountry lodge. No roads, no 4×4’s – just a path through pristine wilderness inside the Lake Louise Ski Resort, located within Banff National Park. Awaiting you is the rustic wooden Skoki Lodge, built in 1931 and selected by early mountaineers for its remoteness, scenic beauty, and access to exceptional ski trails. No running water, no electricity, no bathrooms either – just a homely throwback to yesteryear, where friends and strangers explore the outdoor beauty of winter, indulge in fabulous meals, then gather round the fire with great stories and a cup of hot chocolate.

Polar Bear Safari, Manitoba

Each fall, the outpost town of Churchill receives unusual guests. Among them are scientists, researchers, and wildlife enthusiasts armed with cameras. Nearly one thousand visitors are polar bears, waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze in order to head north and feast after their long, summer fast. The world’s most southerly population of polar bears migrate around Churchill, which is why the town has closed-circuit cameras, bear traps, and a bear jail for bears that get a little too close. It also has tour operators like Frontiers North and Churchill Wild, with customized elevated tundra buggies that take you safely into the tundra to get up close and personal with the world’s largest carnivore. Having a polar bear fog up your camera lens with its hot breath is definitely one for the Bucket List.

Heli-Sking, British Columbia

When a helicopter becomes your own personal ski chair, dropping you on top of mountains with deep, virgin powder stretching in every direction, it’s hard to go back to your local hill. CMH Heli Skiing’s 11 lodges, operating in BC’s Columbia Mountains, attract eager clients from around the world. Joining a group of Americans, Brits and Australians, I quickly understood why. Averaging about 12 runs a day through terrain that freezes a grin to your face, powder skiing or riding is the closest activity I’ve experienced to flying – and I’ve paraglided on 4 continents. It takes a while to get the hang of deep powder, and strong winds and avalanches can ground both helicopters and skiers, so you’ll want to book at least three to five days to tick this one off your Bucket List. Admittedly your whirlybird ski-chair does not come cheap, but with a guaranteed amount of untracked vertical feet, the exhilaration is worth it.

Winter Carnival, Quebec

Shake your booty at Rio’s Carnaval, collect your beads in New Orleans, but whatever you do, don’t miss out on the world’s largest winter festival. For over half a century, Quebec City’s annual Winter Carnival has attracted millions of revellers to its celebration of snow, ice, and sub-zero temperatures. Festive parades, snow carving, slides, rides and competitions greet visitors to the city’s Battlefields Park, where locals and guests wear the traditional ceinture fléchée, a colourful French-Canadian sash. Stroll down Grande Allée and pull up to an ice-bar for some caribou – a hot mulled wine with whiskey. When the thermometer plummets below -15°C and crowds are still on the streets cheering acrobats on decorated floats, you can feel the chill of winter shrivel.

See the Northern Lights, Northwest Territories

In a UK poll that asked 22 million people what destinations or activities top their Bucket List, 27% (the second highest percentage) said they want to see the northern lights. One of the best places in the world to do this is in Yellowknife. The city lies beneath a halo-like ring known as the aurora oval, where lights flare in the sky with an increased intensity. With few geographical obstructions, and a high percentage of clear winter nights, the northern lights are particularly active from mid-November to mid-April. Experience aurora watching in comfort thanks to tour operators like Aurora Village and Yellowknife Outdoor Adventures, who provide heated viewing decks, hot drinks, and comfortable chairs in cabins removed from local light sources. Watching green, red and blue lights dance across a clear northern sky is a natural spectacle that belongs on Canada’s Bucket List too.

Go Dogsledding, Yukon

The huskies, labradors and tough-as-nails Yukon mutts found in Whitehorse’s Muktuk Kennels are the happiest dogs I’ve ever seen. Lovingly named, cared for and exercised, the kennel’s 125 dogs can’t wait to you pull you on a sled into the surrounding valley. You’ll quickly learn that dogsledding is all about teamwork. If the dogs are not happy, you’re not going anywhere. Fortunately, Muktuk’s friendly mushers are there to guide you. As for your team, they’ll reward you with licks, howls and even cuddles. Muktuk’s dogs make loyal, well-trained pets, and runs an adoption program for their retired dogs. It was -30°C the afternoon I spent sledding with eight delighted northern dogs, but some experiences will forever warm the soul.

Don’t be Cuy for Ecuador’s Tasty Pig

This chapter was cut for size from The Great Global Bucket List print edition. My editor and I decided it might not be, well, to everyone’s taste!

Across Ecuador’s four wholly distinct eco-systems, there are more animals and plants per square kilometre than anywhere else. It contains the world’s second largest number of endemic vertebrates, third largest number of amphibians, fourth for birds, fifth for butterflies. It has 10% percent of all vertebrate animals on the planet, all hiding in just 0.19% of the earth’s surface. Among them is the guinea pig, a furry little critter that has better reason to hide than, say, the striped hog-nosed skunk. For along with colonial Spanish towns, beach towns, mountain shamans and the bustle of Quito, Ecuadoreans have developed a fond taste for deep-fried guinea pig.

Guinea pigs, it should be noted, are neither from Guinea, nor a pig. It is a domesticated rodent that originates from the Andes, and has long been cultivated as a food source. Europeans brought them back as pets as early as the sixteenth century, and that’s when creatures known locally as cavy, cuy or cuyo took on the moniker of guinea pigs. Pigs, because someone at some point thought they looked like one, and Guinea, because in those days, any exotic creature in Europe simply had to come from the land of Guinea – as exotic a place as medieval idiots could imagine. At least that is one theory. Nobody truly knows why the rodent got its unusual name, but we do know they are effective as human substitutes in medical trials, and look much like a deep-fried rat when served with salad in the town of Cotachi.

Fried cuy remains a treat in Ecuador, enjoyed much like a Thanksgiving Day turkey, on special occasions, and at great expense. The furry entrée sometimes shares its abode with local villagers, who fatten them up for upcoming celebrations. In the village of Quiroga, I pop into a dark shack occupied by three old ladies with toothy grins and a hotel laundry of face wrinkles. Scurrying about are foot-length guinea pigs, oblivious to what will inevitably be an unfortunate end to their current, mutually beneficial relationship. I also check out a local cuy farm, where the production of guinea pigs is a tad more industrial.

Having never owned a pet guinea pig, I might have reacted a little differently if the cages were full of fox terriers or tabby cats. Regardless, any self-respecting Bucket List demands one get a taste of the exotic, to get under the skin of culture – in this case with a knife and fork. And so I head to La Hornilla, one of Cotachi’s air-conditioned cuy eateries, happy to escape the hot equatorial sun. I order fried chicken for hunger, and cuy for kicks. A World Cup qualifier between Ecuador and fierce rival Bolivia blares from a nearby television. Staff grudgingly trudge off to the kitchen to prepare my meal. Ecuador had scored three times by the time my gold-battered cuy arrives, deep-fried in three pots to seal in the flavour. Its tiny claws are gnarled, its sharp teeth blackened. Despite an instant wave of nausea, I remind myself that culture determines what is acceptably edible. My love for pickled herring and chopped liver might horrify a villager in Ecuador. Peeling away the rodent’s crispy skin, I’m disappointed to find there’s not much meat on the bone. What meat there is strings onto my fork like melted orthodontic elastics. I can’t stop thinking about my college pet hamster Harold, procured, named and abandoned by a German traveller named Jens I’d met on an Israeli kibbutz. Harold went missing in my car for two weeks before resurfacing, alive, on my dashboard. True story, but I digress.

Guinea pig tastes like chicken, as so many things do. This is because we are severely limited in the manner in which we compare food. If the meat is light on taste – like turtle, snake, rabbit, dog or crocodile – it could ably substitute for chicken in a chow mien. Rodent too, although seal and whale meat is best left for goulash. Cuy skin does however have a gamey sour tang.

Household pets are an acquired taste, and unlike cognac, brandy and cigars, it is a taste I have little intention to acquire in the future. The Great Global Bucket List however insists you sample local delicacies you would never put on the menu back home. This makes for an unforgettable experience, and a particularly delicious story to tell at dinner parties, I’d suggest waiting until after dessert.