There’s nothing like a quick getaway to wrap the year with a bang. Consider it a holiday gift to yourself. Canada is close, easily accessible by air from the world’s major hubs, friendly, and unexpectedly exotic, with pristine wilderness within easy reach of most cities. Not to mention it knows how to celebrate the winter cold with flair, fun, and panache. Here are some of the best options for short-yet-amazing mini-vacations to Canada during the holidays.
Ice skate on the frozen lake
Lake Louise, Alberta
If you need a little fairy tale in your revelry, it’s got to be iconic Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies, less than a two-hour drive from Calgary. The historic, postcard-perfect Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise constructs a “Frozen”-worthy ice castle on the lake each winter, which becomes a glacier-rimmed outdoor rink during the cooler months. Your playground is Banff National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for downhill and Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, and dogsledding. Or opt for something more relaxed like a horse-drawn sleigh ride and stargazing, followed by drinks by the fire.
Ski, then party in the Village
Whistler, British Columbia
A premier North American ski resort, Whistler rocks it on the slopes all day, then parties just as hard after sunset. The alpine Village at the base of the twin ski hills — European-style and designed just for pedestrians — is the hot spot. Less than a two-hour drive north of Vancouver, it’s stylish and lively, with sophisticated places to dine, unwind, and dance or chill by the fire pit. An action-packed long weekend here is so epic, you’ll feel like you’ve had a whole week’s vacation.
Celebrate winter on the canal
Winter in the nation’s capital, is quintessentially Canadian. There’s ice skating on the famed Rideau Canal, little huts selling hot apple cider and BeaverTails, nearly 100 miles of cross-country skiing trails around town, snowshoeing in Gatineau Park, and crowds of happy, rosy-cheek locals having fun outside. The Rideau Canal Skateway is actually the largest natural outdoor skating rink in the entire world, with nearly five miles to glide along — plus, it’s free. Warm up afterwards at the historic and trendy ByWard Market, with a year-round farmer’s market and the city’s most inventive restaurants, lounges, and nightclubs.
Dogsled and snow-bike in the wilderness
Near Whitehorse, Yukon
There’s no need to wait for summer to go biking in the Yukon, as Boréale Explorers knows. These outdoor adventure specialists can take you fat biking in the snow under the big Yukon sky, often filled with the aurora borealis’ dancing lights on cold, clear winter nights. Ditto for backcountry dogsledding excursions, too. Your cozy base is the luxe yurt village and lodge, known for its off-the-grid gourmet style — and relaxation is as big a priority as high-octane sports.
Celebrate the season in the holiday village
Quebec City, Quebec
Just try to find a more quaint and festive Old World setting outside Europe than Quebec City’s Old Quebec. Billed as A Christmas Carol-like holiday village, the snow-dusted cobblestone streets of this 400-year-old walled city are lined with little stands and shops offering hand-painted wooden toys, delicate ornaments, locally-crafted cheeses, fresh sausages, and mulled wine. The town is fully decked out with twinkle lights and yuletide decoration, too. Of course there are fireworks, outdoor concerts, and dance parties — magical is an understatement. No surprise, this spot is a CNN global top-10 destination for celebrating the holidays. If you decide to go post-holidays, don’t miss the raucous Carnaval de Québec, the world’s largest winter carnival.
Watch a Northern Lights show
Near Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
Catching the aurora borealis shimmering and zigzagging in the dark sky is a thrill. The Northwest Territories is the spot, where you can see the Lights some 240 nights a year, especially in winter. Aurora Village exists to watch this mysterious natural phenomenon unfold. It’s a teepee village outside the city lights with your choice of heated, reclining capsules or teepees with fur-lined sofas intentionally designed for Lights observation in toasty, rustic comfort. After that, try a little ice fishing and shore lunch adventure onto the enormous frozen Great Slave Lake. In town, shop for gorgeous First Nations artwork and moccasins and take a seat on a stool in a rowdy outpost-style tavern.
Cross-country ski and snowshoe
Saskatchewan is a wide-open prairie province with big sunny skies in winter that sparkle on freshly fallen snow. Cross-country ski or snowshoe, right in and around Saskatoon. There are 18 miles of groomed trails along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River, and through the city’s pretty parks and open spaces. There’s also outdoor skating, plus tobogganing, in the Meewasin Valley. If you want to swoosh along the best in beautiful solitude, drive two hours to scenic Prince Albert National Park, which boasts the province’s biggest network of nearly 100 miles of pretty trails, groomed and not, in a wilderness setting. Stay at Waskesiu’s Hawood Inn, where you can borrow skis and snowshoes.
Join the mummers
St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador
Around Christmas in rural Newfoundland, groups of friends and families go mummering: That is, they dress up in elaborate, flamboyant costumes and walk from house to house with disguised voices and identities, playing music, dancing, and making merry. The host’s role is to guess who’s who, and once that’s figured out, everyone takes off their masks and goes inside for drinks and fun. It’s an ancient tradition originating in Rome that spread to England in the Middle Ages and then Atlantic Canada, imported by British and Irish sailors. The tradition is also called “jennying” or “jannying.” Find out why it’s such a hoot at the St. John’s Mummer’s Festival, a beloved event that happens each year a few weeks before Christmas. The pre-workshops, forums, lectures, parade, and following hoopla is especially popular with the 20-somethings. Feel free to wear your undergarments on the outside Lady Gaga-style and join in on the tomfoolery.
No place does winter like Canada — and the festive holiday season is a lovely time to find out why.