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Have an ice day! We're still awaiting signs of summer in Britain - but thoughts are already turning to winter holidays. CHRIS HENWOOD reports on one of the world's most spectacular free festivals.

Byline: CHRIS HENWOOD

WHO'D have thought blowtorches would feature among an ice sculptor's tools of the trade? The fearsome piece of kit seemed to give artwork at Canada's Winterlude Festival a glossy, clear finish.

Among the pieces that looked like they might have had the blowtorch treatment were birds depicted in flight, an octopus and a winged reindeer (don't ask).

There was also a predictably cold and rather uncomfortable - but nevertheless impressive - ice sofa, along with an actual bowl of fruit, inside one block that left the Ottawan crowds open-mouthed.

All the pieces sat proudly in Confederation Park's Crystal Garden along with a host of other intriguing winter-themed artworks, including a pack of life-sized Styrofoam wolves spray-painted neon pink, green, yellow and orange.

And how could anybody forget sculptures made of discarded ice hockey equipment such as shoulder guards, ice skates, sticks and even plastic crotch protectors? If some of the artwork seemed a little playful and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the festival's opening ceremony was nothing if not spectacular.

From the vantage point of the grounds of the Canadian Museum of Civilisation, on the north bank of the Ottawa River, the fireworks that signalled the opening of Winterlude left everyone speechless.

The Alexandra Bridge stretches out from the city of Gatineau, and the Quebec province, linking it to Ottawa, and the Ontario province, on the South East of the river. And it was central to the night-time pyrotechnics.

The bridge's huge steel trusses provided a magnificent backdrop from where the Catherine wheels and rockets roared into life to light up Parliament Hill on the other side of the river next to the stunning, Disney-like, 100-year-old French Gothic Chateau Laurier hotel.

Open-mouthed I may well already have been, but arguably the most stunning part of the fireworks ceremony was the white 'waterfall' that ignited, streaming off the side of every one of the bridge's 560 metres for minutes at a time.

It was an awe-inspiring sight that the festival, which is free and takes place in February weekends, did well to live up to.

It is billed as a celebration of all things winter and spills out of Confederation Park, and from the Alexandra Bridge fireworks, to in-fluence other events in the elegant Canadian capital city.

Ice skating on a five-mile stretch of Ottawa's Rideau Canal - Ontario's first UNESCO World Heritage site - is seen as a key activity of the festival with skate rental facilities dotted along the iceway, which boasts a surface area equal to 90 Olympic-sized rinks.

But be prepared to look on with envy as ice-skating toddlers whizz by without a care in the world while you're helped back to your feet by kindly locals.

Okay, so I can't ice skate and, yes, falling down was an experience to which I became all too accustomed.

The friendly, family fun feel is inescapable a couple of miles south of the city centre along the canal where an annual BED race takes place on the man-made Dow's Lake.

It's all very Bedknobs and Broomsticks as four-poster beds are first paraded and then raced by teams of hotel staff, barmen and women, chefs and an impressive range of other employee teams in themed outfits, including a brilliantly dark-humoured outfit from a local undertakers.

The canal and Confederation Park are just two of Winterlude's main sites. The last one is back across the Ottawa River in Gatineau's Parc Jacques-Cartier which becomes home to every child's dream in hosting the Snowflake Kingdom.

It's essentially a fantasy snow playground-made-real with giant snow slides, a snow maze, snow sculptures, obstacle course made of (you guessed it) snow, plus horse-drawn carriages and ski classes for kids on tiny snow hills complete with mini conveyor belt lifts.

Perhaps the best thing about the Snowflake Kingdom, though, is that it's not wasted on the children because nobody bats an eyelid when the adults have a go - although the kids' ski classes remained off-limits.

All the exertion of having so much fun can work up an appetite and there's a sweet snack that seems almost ever present at Winterlude - and once you've tried it you'll understand exactly why.

BeaverTail stalls are dotted all over the place selling the namesake whole wheat pastries. They're hard to describe, but try to imagine a thin, stretched, sweet naan bread and you won't be far wrong.

I tried one with hazelnut chocolate spread drizzled over the top and, but for having one eye on the clock, could far too easily have had one or two more. Other toppings are available but how could anyone not go for chocolate sauce?.

The Canadians also have a dish called poutine, which will be no stranger to students up and down the UK.

We're basically talking cheese and chips - actually, mine were skin-on fries and fresh cheese curds. It can come with a rich brown gravy and, just like my own student days munching on cheese and chips after a night out, I was a big fan.

And there was another food highlight in the shape of the Winterlude Stew Cook-off, held in the fashionable ByWard Market area.

Most of the numerous local restaurants and bars take part, concocting some hearty fare for the charity fund-raiser.

Punters, armed with a bowl and a spoon, queue at each of the stalls to be dished out a taster of the stew, before moving on to the next stall and eventually listing their top three stews for the people's choice award.

It all takes place almost directly in the shadow of Parliament Hill, where Canada's laws are passed.

Building work on its Gothic Revival architecture began in 1859 and today it still proves a stunning focal point of the local scenery, complemented by the magnificent Chateau Laurier hotel a few hundred metres away.

And even if you don't choose to stay in one of the hotel's 429 rooms, it's well worth a visit for afternoon tea and to look at the work of a former resident.

Renowned photographer Yousuf Karsh lived at Chateau Laurier with his wife, Estrellita, for 18 years from 1980, having operated his photographic studio from the hotel's sixth Fifteen of his portraits of 20th century icons, including a typically gloomy one of Winston Churchill, still hang in the Reading Lounge and the Karsh Suite (which is Karsh's old room, No 358).

But although Karsh's pieces are impressive, it'll take something really quite spectacular to beat the sight of a blowtorch letting rip on a delicately-crafted piece of ice!

FACTFILE Chris Henwood's trip to Canada was organised by the Ontario Tourism board, and his flights were courtesy of Air Canada.

For information on the province, visit their website at www.ontariotravel.net/uk or call 020 7644 6129.

Chris flew with Air Canada and return flights between Heathrow and Ottawa for late January and February can be booked for around pounds 600. Visit www.aircanada.com/uk/en/home.html for details.

He stayed at the Chateau Laurier hotel where a room during the Winterlude festival can currently be booked from pounds 200 a night.

Visit www.fairmont.com/laurier-ottawa/ for details. For more details on the festival, visit www. canadascapital.gc.ca/celebrate/winterlude or contact the Ontario Tourism board.

CAPTION(S):

DREAM MACHINE: Super Mario-themed team in the bed race FIRE AND ICE: A sculptor takes a blow torch to his creation ON THE SLIDE: At the Snowflake Kingdom TAKING FLIGHT: A winged reindeer ice sculture SKATES ON: Ottawa's Rideau Canal and the gothic Chateau Laurier hotel in the distance
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:Sep 2, 2012
Words:1254
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