Come winter time in Canada, storms sweep the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, snow blankets everything in between, and the heat gets turned up, way up, inside. All of which has given rise to a refreshing roster of distinctly Canadian cool-season escapes.
So if you’ve never been to Canada outside of summer, or have yet to visit, you just might find yourself packing for places north after reading this list of must-do wintertime getaways.
Kick it up on the slopes
Among the most exhilarating things to do in Canada during winter, skiing and boarding promise crisp fresh air, sparkling mountain vistas, and heaps of the country’s signature fresh powder snow. Resorts big and small dot the land (there’s even one on the prairies), serving up easy-to-epic runs, often with dining, après-ski and accommodations on the side.
British Columbia alone is home to thirteen major resorts. Carve through one of North America’s biggest snowfalls (36 feet annually) at Mt. Washington Alpine Resort, a 1.5-hour drive north of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island; make tracks down one or all of the eight winter playgrounds along Kootenay Rockies’ fabled Powder Highway; or dip into the Alpine Fondue & Starlight Descent at Sun Peaks Resort – this National Geographic Best Winter Trip 2019 is just an hour’s drive northeast of the riverside city of Kamloops.
Next door in the Rocky Mountain-bordered province of Alberta, one ticket lands you on the slopes at three ski and board destinations: Lake Louise Ski Resort with 4,200 acres of varied terrain, Banff Sunshine Village with its seven-month-long season, and Banff Norquay, home to Canada’s longest consecutively running annual ski race. A half-hour drive south of the laidback Alberta mountain town of Jasper, Marmot Basin boasts Canada’s highest elevation base (5,570 feet) and North America’s most affordable amenities.
Wind down at a spa or hot spring
In British Columbia, sink into a stone-lined mineral pool and soothing treatments at Parksville’s Grotto Spa at Tigh-Na-Mara, a two-hour-drive north of Victoria and number one on Spas of America’s Top 50 Canada Spas list. Soak in a natural horseshoe-shaped cave and outdoor pool at Ktunaxa Indigenous-owned Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort in the Kootenay Rockies. Or sit a spell at these other go-to B.C. hot springs.
Voted Best Spa in the annual Best of Calgary awards, the Riverside Spa along Alberta’s Bow River beckons with a eucalyptus steam room, Swiss raindrop showers and dimly lit fireside lounge. A six-hour-drive north, Miette Hot Springs in Jasper National Park gurgles with the hottest mineral springs in the Canadian Rockies – 129°F at its mountain source, the water cools to a comfortable 104°F in the pool.
Heading east, bob in Manitou Springs Resort and Mineral Spa’s famously buoyant waters in Manitou Beach, Saskatchewan; or indulge in Elkhorn Resort’s Solstice Spa treatments and pool in central Manitoba’s boreal forest– come back in late 2020 when the new Elkhorn Nordic Spa opens with a temperate pool, cold plunge, and relaxation pavilion. Can’t wait? Some 30 of Quebec’s 200-plus spas already offer Scandinavian-style amenities, including Spa Mathers’ hot-and-cold Thermal Circuit – complete with a snow cabin that recreates winter conditions like snowflakes and frigid temperatures – just an hour’s drive east of Montreal in Saint-Eustache.
Make it an offbeat adventure
Better known for its seafood and iceberg-spotting, Atlantic Canada also serves up a variety of novel winter activities. Gape at central Newfoundland and Labrador's snowdrift-laden landscape of Gaff Topsails on a Hodges Hill Snowmobile Tour, then tuck into an open-concept chalet with river view for the night. Give fat biking a go in New Brunswick’s Kouchibouguac National Park, where groomed trails wind through a mixed-wood Acadian forest. Meanwhile, snowshoeing, an infrared sauna for two, Qi Gong sessions and a cedar-scented Mongolian yurt are all part of the Snow Much Fun Package at Cabot Shores, at the start of Nova Scotia’s 185-mile Cabot Trail. While the whole clan can go tubing, outdoor skating or cross-country skiing at Prince Edward Island’s family-friendly Mill River resort, a 1.5-hour drive up island from the historic capital of Charlottetown.
Up north, hop aboard one of the most quintessential winter vacations in Canada: dogsledding. Make like a musher on Into the Wild Adventures’ multi-day dogsledding excursion, where you’ll drive your own sled dog team through a Yukon landscape of deep valleys, canyons and mountains. Or simply watch how it’s done by catching part of the legendary Yukon Quest International Dog Sled Race, running from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Whitehorse, Yukon, every February. Ease into the sport on Arctic Chalet Resort & Adventure Tours’ 2.5-hour Fabulous Fun Run in the Northwest Territories. Or cross snow-covered tundra or frozen ocean on Inukpak Outfitting’s half-, full- and multi-day dogsledding trips in Nunavut.
Chill in the city
Time your trip to coincide with a colorful cool-weather carnival or spirited event. Indeed, some of the best places to visit in Canada in winter are urban hubs home to long-standing annual celebrations.
Toasting its 10th year in 2019, the Vancouver Christmas Market hums with 80 huts housing Eastern European-inspired treasures and treats – browse handcrafted glass and wooden ornaments while putting back a Transylvanian chimney cake and steaming mug of Glühwein. Just steps away, the yuletide version of FlyOver Canada takes passengers on a simulated and suitably cheery ride to the North Pole. Also in British Columbia, the Vernon Winter Carnival salutes six decades of winter fun in 2020 with snow sculpting, a parade, the Suds N Cider showcase and other fan favorites.
In the Canadian capital of Ottawa, Ontario, take a deep dive into the season during February’s three-weekend Winterlude. Highlights include ByWard Market’s Crystal Garden ice sculptures, foodie tours, and SubZero Electro DJ Nights (think outdoor dancing), as well as the Ottawa Ice Dragon Boat Festival with its toque-topped teams racing blade-equipped vessels down the Rideau Canal Skateway.
Still, don’t miss the mother of all winter carnivals, the Carnaval de Quebec, held every February in Quebec's European-like capital of Quebec City. Considered the world’s largest celebration of its kind, the 10-day Carnaval delights with night parades, a 60-team canoe race over the frozen St. Lawrence River, plenty of Carnival Grog (a maple-syrup-forward cocktail), and the lively red-toque, arrow-sash-sporting snowman mascot called Bonhomme.
Set your sights on the Northern Lights
When it comes to classic winter vacations in Canada, viewing the aurora borealis is, well, up there. Also known as the Northern Lights, this natural phenomenon occurs when the sun’s electrically charged particles collide with gases upon entering the earth’s atmosphere. The resulting display of colorful dancing lights on clear, cold nights continues to draw travellers from around the world to Canada’s north.
As such, the aurora borealis’ constantly changing appearance is now matched by the many ways to see it. Spy the light show from the cozy comfort of a private glass chalet at Northern Lights Resort & Spa in the Yukon, or teepee village after a gourmet three-course meal via the Aurora Dining Experience in the Northwest Territories. Keep it simple with a secluded viewing spot just outside the Nunavut capital of Iqaluit on Arctic Kingdom’s Guided Northern Lights Getaway, or plexiglass bubble called an Aurora Dome 20 minutes away from the northern Manitoba town of Churchill.
Plan your winter escape to Canada with this list of top five getaway ideas.